Tag Archives: Archeology

Time Capsules

Greater Boston has been all abuzz this week about the opening of what has been called “the nation’s oldest time capsule”, a brass box deposited by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795. The box was opened by a conservator from the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, in the company of the Executive Director of the Commonwealth’s Archives and before flashing cameras. Inside were items that our founding fathers wanted us (or someone in the future) to see: a silver plaque engraved by Revere, a copper medal depicting George Washington, two dozen coins dating from 1652 (before the colonists were allowed to coin their own money), and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. The box was not a big surprise: it had been discovered in 1855, and a few items (mainly newspapers) from that time had been placed within–so we have two generations from the past communicating to us through objects that they chose to represent their times.



Photographs of the Revere plaque by Jessica Rinaldi @ Boston Globe and conservator Pam Hatchfield by Brian Snyder @ Reuters.

As I read the various accounts of the Boston time capsule’s contents and saw the face of the very excited conservator’s face (above) on television, several thoughts ran through my mind. The first was empathy: every historian (at least historians who work on periods before the twentieth century) has felt that feeling of sheer excitement as they see and touch (through gloves!) crusty old documents from their period for the very first time–or again and again. Working with manuscripts is often difficult but always intimate–much more so than with printed matter. But obviously there’s a difference between an archive of documents and a time capsule: the former is not a “composition”, in that the historian is crafting the interpretation and presentation rather than the historical subjects. And this (rather obvious) realization led me to my second thought, which I’m still considering:  the difference between “accidental” time capsules like Pompeii and Herculaneum and very intentional ones, like the “Crypt of Civilization” in Atlanta, sealed in 1940 and scheduled to be opened in the year 8113. Actually, according to the reigning time capsule expert, William E. Jarvis (author of the 2002 book Time Capsules: A Cultural History and one of the founders of the International Time Capsule Society), the Boston box is not really a time capsule, which much have a specified opening date like the Crypt of Civilization, but rather a “foundation deposit”, a practice that goes way, way back—to Mesopotamia. So I guess there are three forms of object messaging from the past to the present: the intentional time capsule, which Jarvis credits as an innovation of the nineteenth century, the foundation deposit–which is still an attempt on the part of contemporaries to shape the future’s perception of their era–and accidental entities like Pompeii, the uncovered Anglo-Saxon ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo, or the abandoned Antarctic buildings of Carsten Borchgrevink and Ernest Shackleton. Which, I wonder, is more revealing about these past people?

dedication-of-crypt-door 1938

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle BM


The dedication of the “Crypt of Civilization” door in Atlanta, 1938, Oglethorpe University Archives; a royal belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial ship, British Museum; Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, Antarctica, ©Nigel McCall for the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

The Apian Emperor

In honor of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French (not Emperor of France, an important distinction and consequence of the French Revolution) on this day in 1804 I thought I would explore his adoption of bee symbolism in greater detail than my first attempt a few years ago. Napoleon had to pay tribute to tradition in order to legitimize what was essentially a military coup d’etat–and bees go way back, not as far back as the Roman laurels and eagles which he also adopted, but way back in French history. In my previous post, I identified Charlemagne as the source of Napoleon’s bees, but actually it was Childeric, a Frankish king who was the father of Clovis, who converted to Christianity and unified all the Frankish tribes under his sacred kingship after 496, the first of the Merovingian line. Childeric’s grave was accidentally discovered in Tournai in 1653, and inside his tomb was a treasure of coins, jewelry, iron, and 300 bees (sometimes referred to as “fleurons” or cicadas but they look like bees to me, and apparently also to Napoleon). The governor of the Spanish Netherlands commissioned his personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, to catalog and study the finds, which were published in one of the first archeological works in European history, Anastasis Childerici I Francorum regis, sive thesaurus sepulchralis Tornaci Neviorum effossus et commentario illustratus (1655). One hundred and fifty years later, when Napoleon was looking for a “French” symbol that was not a Bourbon Fleur-de-lis, the bee seemed to fit the bill, and it was lavishly utilized in his coronation–and after–essentially becoming the “Napoleonic bee”.

Napoleon and Childeric

Napoleon Bee Childerics Tomb

Napoleon Bee detail

Napoleon Tapestry Portrait

Napoleon Tapestry detail bees

Bonaparte Sisters

Napoleonic Plate Sevres

King Childeric in British Library MS. Royal 16 G VI f. 9; Childeric’s bees in Chifflet (1655); a Napoleonic bee from his 1804 coronation robe; tapestry portrait and detail of the coronation robe after a painting by Baron François Gérard, 1805, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Napoleon’s half-American nieces, “The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte”, sitting on a bee-upholstered couch, Jacques-Louis David, 1821, Getty Museum; the full Napoleonic regalia, bees and all, Sèvres plate, 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum.


Skating on Thick Ice

I have been collecting skating images from the sixteenth century onwards for some time, but one thing was eluding me:  a picture of a pair of animalbone skates, which were commonly used in the medieval and early modern eras. I finally found one (along with a nice little blog post) at a great source for the material culture images: the Museum of London. These are from the 11th century, but the practice of strapping the lower-limb bones of horses or cattle to one’s feet during the skating season lasted for centuries.


I couldn’t find an image from the era of these skates, but after the appearance of printing they become far more plentiful, beginning with the wonderful images from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus of Olaus Magnus, which was first printed in Rome in 1555. Scandinavia is depicted as a winter wonderland, with people (and animals) cavorting about on skis, sleds, snowshoes, and skates. Magnus’s skaters navigate the ice with long poles, making them resemble paddleboarders.

PicMonkey Collage

Skating scenes become more common in southern Europe in the sixteenth century as well, most especially in the printing and paintings of Flanders and the Netherlands, where it was embraced in both reality and imagery:  the Dutch seemed to have lived on the ice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, celebrating it more than merely tolerating it–and their blades appear to be evolved from bone to iron by this time.

Skating Malines MFA

Skating Winter Avercamp

Pieter van der Borcht, The Large Skating Festival at Malines, 1559; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, 1608; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Different climate, different skating culture: for the most part, with the exception of those wondrous winters in the later 17th and 18th centuries when the Thames froze over and “frost fairs” ensued, ice skating appears as more of a sideline/ background activity for the English, symbolizing the seasons or the months on their periodical prints and providing lots of opportunities for caricatures in the early nineteenth century:  they satirized the Dutch, and were in turn mocked by the French for their “Skating Dandies”.

Skating Frost Fair 1684 BLSkating January

Skating Caricature BM

Skating Caricature 2

“A Wonderful Fair or a Fair of Wonders”, 1684, British Library; Robert Dighton, “January” watercolour, c. 1785, British Library; Thomas Heath, “Dutch Steamers on the Frozen Zuyder Zee”, c. 1822-40 & “Les patineurs Anglais”, published by Paul André Basset, c. 1814-18, both © British Museum.

Just around this time what is generally acknowledged to be the first entire manual devoted to figure skating was published: Le Vrai Patineur (The True Skater) by Jean Garcin, which features eight engraved plates as well as detailed instructions for what would soon become standardized movements (you can read more about it here). While this text might mark skating’s transformation from pastime to sport, the majority of images for the rest of that century and well into the next depict the activity in a more leisurely and social manner. I particularly like the  “skating chairs” that I spotted in several 19th century images; they seem to have disappeared by 1900.

Skating Les Plaisirs

Skating Sled MFA

A page from Le Vrai Patineur, 1813; Johann Adam Klein, “Woman in Sled with an Officer on Skates (Der Eisschlitten), 1824, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Poison Vessels

News of the discovery of a late medieval poison ring in eastern Europe has intrigued me; I know that “poison rings” (alternatively called “pillbox rings” with built-in receptacles) were popular in the Renaissance and after, but very few of them actually served to contain or convey poison–more likely the held articles of remembrance. But this Bulgarian bronze ring, with its little channel, looks like the real thing! It instantly reminded me of one of my favorite (also late medieval) woodcut illustrations of a woman poisoning her husband–through a much larger pipeline–and set me off on a hunt for more man-made vessels for poison, besides the proverbial poison arrow.



Poison 1481

Book of Wisdom of the Ancient Sages, 1481; The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 83, German Book Illustration before 1500: Anonymous Artists, 14811482.

Well of course the most obvious vessel is a cup:  whether medieval depictions of Socrates drinking his hemlock or later prints of supposed royal assassinations, the poison is generally conveyed in a cup, or, more seriously, a chalice, as in Shakespeare’s This evenhanded justice Commends thingredients of our poisoned chalice (Macbeth). Somehow a chalice is more reverent, and at the same time menacing, than a mere cup. John Foxe’s Protestant martyrology, Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church (1563) shows King John being poisoned by English monks offering his majesty a chalice of wassail, of all things. The chalice and the mortar and pestle become the two most “medieval” vessels associated with poison, as in the line from Danny Kaye’s Court Jester (1955): the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!

Poison Cup Socrates

Poison Cup BM

Poison Cup MET

National Library of the Netherlands MS RMMW, 10 A 11 (c. 1475), John Foxe, Acts and Monuments  (1563); NYPL Digital Gallery.

Another English monarch who was threatened with assassination by poison (and other means) was Elizabeth I: a Jesuit-inspired French plot involving a poisoned saddle is illustrated in George Carleton’s Thankful Remembrance (1627). This might or might not be the basis of the purely fictional poisoned dress scene in the 1998 film Elizabeth. In any case, it was foiled.

Poison Saddle BM

George Carleton, A Thankful Remembrance of God’s Mercy, 1627.

Things seem to get more straightforward in the modern age, when poison was contained in boldly labeled and brightly colored apothecary bottles, dispensed collectively in war and from planes, self-induced through various addictive substances, and trivialized by mid-century modern “name your poison” bar sets. But obviously the most effective poisons would have no vessel at all.

Poison Sign

Name Your Poison Glasses Etsy

Rest for Richard

Now that it has been confirmed that the skeletal remains found underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England are indeed those of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, at last he can be laid to rest in a place and manner befitting a king. His advocates, the Riccardians, have been uncharacteristically divided in the past few months over the burial:  should Richard have a grand state funeral and be laid to rest in Westminster Cathedral, or remain in Leicester, or be interred at York Minster, which he himself might have desired?  I took note of more than one newspaper British headline that read Bones of Contention, but in the end Leicester won out, so Richard’s bones will not have to travel very far.

I’ve already posted about Richard and the discovery of his bones, so today I have some rather random thoughts about reactions to their verification. My first thought upon hearing the news was for Josephine Tey, who wrote the 1951 historical detective novel (one of the first of its genre?) Daughter of Time about a twentieth-century detective’s efforts to untangle the Tudor mythology of Richard’s life and death. This little book definitely sparked my own interest in history when I first read it in my teens, and I’ve seen it have the same effect on countless students and friends. Though the recovery of Richard’s remains sheds little light on his life deeds and misdeeds, he is forever linked with historical curiosity for me.

Richard Daughter of Time

The cover of the first edition of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, 1951.

And that really is the key point. Curiosity, and engagement, are fostered by uncertainty about the past more so than any presentation of supposedly well-established “facts”.  It’s been so exciting to see historians, scientists, and the general public engage with each other over the discovery of the remains of a long-dead king, and a short-lived and unpopular one at that. This engagement might not be palpable here in the United States (where I heard a succession of broadcasters take great pains to point out that this was Richard III, not Richard the Lionheart) but it sure was coming over loud and clear on my Twitter feed (along with a lot of bad jokes:  a hearse, a hearse, my kingdom for a hearse!).

The other thing I have noticed (watching from afar) is the very personal, even intimate, nature of this entire revealing. The Riccardians have always taken Richard’s demonization very personally, so that is no surprise, but the sight of his curved spine (but no withered arm!) and cleaved skull is a verification not only of his existence, but his suffering. On the other hand, I found the images of the facial reconstruction released yesterday a little off-putting, though it’s interesting to read comments of how handsome he was:  not a monster, after all.

Richard Buckley and Richard III

Richards Skeleton and Jo Appleby Bioarcheology

Richards Spine

Richard III facial reconstruction

NPG 148; King Richard III by Unknown artist

Scenes from the big reveal:  University of Leicester archeologists Richard Buckley and Jo Appleby discussing the archeological and DNA evidence, Richard’s curved spine, the results of scoliosis, the facial reconstruction, and a late 16th century portrait of Richard III, Getty Images & the National Portrait Gallery London.

And so now Richard will be laid to rest (again).  I’m sure there will be a lot more discussion about the ceremony for his re-interment (will the Royal Family attend?), but it sounds like David Monteith, the Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral, has already given this a great deal of thought:  he announced that an ecumenical service of remembrance is being planned for our time, as the King had most certainly received a proper Christian burial in his.

Leicester Cathedral

Cathedral and Guildhall, Leicester.

Digging up the Past

All good historians, especially those who focus on the pre-modern era, know that much of history is behind a closed door which we cannot crack.  But occasionally someone comes along, usually a nice archivist or archeologist, who opens it up for us.  This week two stories which demonstrate this occurrence very well caught my attention–actually one has been holding it for a while.  So it is time to report.

King Richards Body:

The Battle of Bosworth (1485) marked the end of the life and reign of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet dynasty as well as the last English king to be killed in battle. At his death, Richard’s reputation was already tarnished, but it would become even more so due to the energetic efforts of a sophisticated Tudor propaganda campaign, which employed the able pens of Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare, among others.  Richard’s vanquisher and successor, Henry VII, did not want to create a shrine for Richard but he also made plans to give him an appropriate, though quiet, royal funeral. Richard’s body was taken to Leicester and put on public display after Bosworth, and then buried rather secretly in the church of Grey Friars Friary, which was destroyed a half-century later during the forcible dissolution of England’s monasteries by Henry VIII.  The burial site of the last Plantagenet was forgotten over the ensuing centuries, until just last week when a team of University of Leicester archeologists dug up the corpse of fifteenth-century man who suffered battle blows similar to Richard’s experience, and who possessed a slightly-curved spine (there were gasps when this was announced) but was clearly not the “crookback” or hunchback of Tudor narratives. If the DNA testing proves conclusive, the royal body was enshrined beneath a city centre parking lot.

King Richard III and Queen Anne during their brief reign; the great 18th century actor David Garrick in the big scene from Shakespeare’s Richard III, c. 1800 (courtesy British Museum) the excavation site in Leicester, and the press conference announcing the discovery of the skeleton, just last week (courtesy University of Leicester).

The Plague Ship:

The last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in the west occurred in Marseilles, France in 1720, when the epidemic was brought to Europe by a merchant ship named the Grand SaintAntoine on its return journey from the infected and infectious Middle East. Its passengers were allowed to disembark before authorities ordered its burning, and the process took several days, during which the disease spread to the city and its environs, eventually killing over 120,000 people. Just last week, and just as the possible skeleton of a king was being raised to the light, the ship was raised from its watery grave.

1720 print of the Plague of Marseilles by Jacques Rigaud (courtesy British Museum); a plague doctor in Marseilles (1721 engraving by Johann Melchior Füssli,Wellcome Images); and the raised anchor of the Grand Saint-Antoine last week (BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images).

So nice to see crowds observing the raised anchor in this last picture: there were crowds looking at the trenches in Leicester last week as well.  That’s the thing about archeology:  objects (and bones!) generally capture the public’s historical interest far more often than dry dusty texts.  For me, there is just nothing better than seeing people in the present captivated by people in the past.

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