Quotulatiousness

February 2, 2013

Hidden under Britain’s defence HQ: Henry VIII’s wine cellar

Filed under: Britain, History, Military, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:44

It’s not open to the general public — and given what’s built on top of it, that’s probably no surprise:

Like the Pentagon, its better-known counterpart in the United States, Britain’s Ministry of Defence building is a fairly mundane, if gigantic, office block camouflaging a much more exciting subterranean realm of secret tunnels, bunkers, and — at least in the MoD’s case — a perfectly preserved Tudor wine cellar.

IMAGE: Henry VIII’s wine cellar, photograph by Nicola Twilley. The cellar is apparently occasionally used to host Ministry of Defence dinners and receptions, but is otherwise off-limits to the public other than by special request.

IMAGE: Henry VIII’s wine cellar, photograph by Nicola Twilley. The cellar is apparently occasionally used to host Ministry of Defence dinners and receptions, but is otherwise off-limits to the public other than by special request.

This stone-ribbed, brick-vaulted undercroft was built in the early 1500s by Cardinal Wolsey, as part of a suite of lavish improvements to York Place, the Westminster residence of the archbishops of York since the thirteenth century. The additions, which also included a gallery, presence chamber, and armoury, were intended to make York Place into a palace splendid enough to host the King. They succeeded well beyond Wolsey’s intentions: when Wolsey fell from favour, due to his inability to secure the papal annulment Henry VIII needed in order to marry Anne Boleyn, the King decided to move in.

[. . .]

York Place became the Palace of Whitehall, the principal residence of the English monarchy in London for nearly two hundred years, and Wolsey’s expansive cellar (he apparently received the first delivery of Champagne ever exported to England) became King Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar, the name by which it is still known today.

In Tudor times, the wine was stored in barrels, which presented a certain problem for service: “The barrels are historical reconstructions to represent how wine was stored in Tudor times. Henry VIII’s court consumed something like 300 barrels of wine each year, mostly exported from France and delivered to the palace by river. Interestingly, the wine was drunk very young by today’s standards — an August harvest might be on the table by November — and it was carefully blended with water, honey, and spices to mask its increasing sourness, as half-drunk casks allowed air into contact with the wine, which gradually oxidised into vinegar.”

January 31, 2013

The “clean” side of archaeology

Filed under: History, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:11

BBC News has an interesting segment on how digital technology is changing the field of archaeology:

Archaeologists may not need to get their hands so dirty any more, thanks to the kind of digital technology being pioneered at Southampton University.

Its ‘µ-VIS Centre for Computed Tomography’ possesses the largest, high energy scanner of its kind in Europe: a ‘micro-CT’ machine manufactured by Nikon.

Capable of resolutions better than 0.1mm — the diameter of a human hair — it allows archaeologists to carefully examine material while still encased in soil.

Using visualisation software, archaeologists can then analyse their finds in 3D. This keeps the material in its original form, and postpones any commitment to the painstaking process of excavation by hand.

Video of the machine in operation at the BBC News site.

January 29, 2013

Economic analysis of Imperial Rome

Filed under: Economics, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:43

A post by Jasmine Pui at History Today discusses a new online tool for economic analysis of the Roman Empire:

Sea routes in July AD 200

A recently launched online interactive research source, ORBIS, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, has made it possible to analyse data about the Roman Empire in new ways that reveal the fragility of Roman communication and freight systems. Conventional maps are often unable to capture the environmental constraints that govern the flows of people, goods and information. Museum and ancient sites usually include titbits of information about the wide-ranging origins of artefacts, hinting at the relative cost of goods and labour in the Roman era, but factors such as sailing times and inland routes for freight cannot be precisely revealed through archaeological finds, Roman coins, taxation records or riot reports.

The first resource of its kind, ORBIS offers comprehensive graphic tools to portray the transport and communication infrastructure that underpinned the Roman Empire’s existence. By typing in a starting point, destination, an imagined weight of goods to transport and the time of year, the site shows whether such a movement would have been feasible and at what cost. Studying movement during the course of the empire’s existence suggests it was far more difficult to hold an empire together than to expand one. There are few scenarios where marching and conquering is not easier and less costly than moving goods and slaves between regions. Cost, rather than distance, was the principal determinant of connectivity in the Roman world.

ORBIS is based on a simplified version of the giant network of cities, roads, rivers and sea lanes that framed movement across the Roman Empire. The Stanford team has relied on data such as historical tide and weather information, size and grade of road surfaces and an average walking distance of 30 kilometres per day. Hundreds of cities, ports and routes, vehicle speeds for ships, ox carts and horses, as well as the variable cost of transport have been logged. The data mainly focuses on the period around AD 200, when Septimius Severus expanded control of Africa and Roman power was at one of its peaks.

January 22, 2013

The obscure, unremembered — but bloodiest — battle in England

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:42

Unless you paid very close attention to British history, you may not even have heard of the bloodiest battle in England:

Consider, for example, Towton — the bloodiest battle on English soil, in which most of our nobility and their retainers took part and in which 28,000 people are said to have died. Since the population of the time was not much more than three million, that’s the equivalent of a battle today costing the lives of half a million.

If you were on the wrong side, that was it: curtains. Even if you survived the fighting you faced the greater horror of being ‘attainted’. This meant being hanged, drawn and quartered, while your goods were confiscated and your heirs disinherited in perpetuity. Such was the fate of 60 Lancastrian knights and gentlemen (including 25 MPs — so it wasn’t all bad…) after Towton.

As with the Norman Conquest and the first world war, the war’s victims numbered disproportionately among the English upper classes. ‘Out of 70 adult peers during this period, over 50 are known to have fought in battles they had to win if they wanted to stay alive,’ notes Desmond Seward, in his superb The Wars Of The Roses. Entire noble families were exterminated. In one campaign alone — 1460 to 1461 — 12 noblemen were killed and six beheaded, over a third of the English peerage.

And there was no way of opting out. If you were one of the 50 or 60 great families, you were too prominent politically and socially, and your private army was too valuable, to permit your remaining neutral. This, in turn, meant that your myriad kinsmen, retainers, and hangers-on had to follow you into battle, whether they liked it or not. As a government spokesman told the House of Commons in 1475, ‘None [of us] hath escaped.’

Update: Colby Cosh sent along a link to this Economist article from 2010:

Towton is a nondescript village in northern England, between the cities of York and Leeds. Many Britons have never heard of it: school history tends to skip the 400-or-so years between 1066 and the start of the Tudor era. Visitors have to look hard to spot the small roadside cross that marks the site of perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought in England. Yet the clash was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses. And, almost 550 years later, the site is changing our understanding of medieval battle.

In Shakespeare’s cycle of eight plays, the story of the Wars of the Roses is told as an epic drama. In reality it was a messy series of civil wars — an on-again, off-again conflict pitting supporters of the ruling Lancastrian monarchy against backers of the house of York. According to Helen Castor, a historian at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the wars arose from the slow breakdown of English government under Henry VI, a man who was prone to bouts of mental illness and “curiously incapable” even when well. As decision-making under Henry drifted, factions formed and enmities deepened. These spiralling conflicts eventually drove Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, to assert his own claim to the throne. York was named Henry’s heir, but he was killed in December 1460. His 18-year-old son, Edward, proclaimed himself king just before the battle of Towton.

That set the stage for a vicious fight. Edward had his father and brother to avenge. After killing him, Lancastrian forces had impaled York’s head on a lance and adorned it with a paper crown. Following years of skirmishes others had scores to settle, too. In previous encounters, efforts had been made to spare rank-and-file soldiers. At Towton, orders went out that no quarter be given. This was to be winner-takes-all, a brutal fight to the death.

The result was a crushing victory for the Yorkists and for the young king. Edward IV went on to rule, with a brief interruption, until his death 22 years later — a death that triggered the final stage of the conflict and the rise of a new dynasty under Henry Tudor. The recorded death toll at Towton may well have been inflated to burnish the legend of Edward’s ascent to the crown. Yet there can be little doubt it was an unusually large confrontation.

The archaeological details of the battlefield excavations are quite interesting. Gruesome, but interesting.

November 26, 2012

“[W]e must rewrite the history distorted by that, ahem, writer from Stratford”

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:24

More on the project to determine if the remains discovered in Leicester are those of Richard III:

Whether the bones prove to be Richard’s or not, the discovery in September has already set academic journals, websites, university lecture circuits and the mainstream media abuzz across Britain, sparking intense and occasionally impolite exchanges. On the floor of the House of Commons, members of Parliament are eloquently clashing, with representatives from York — for whom Richard was the last hope against rival Lancastrians in the War of the Roses — demanding the restoration of his tarnished image. One organization of die-hard Richard III supporters (there are at least two) is running a national ad campaign to clear the king’s name.

There are even calls for a state funeral, giving the medieval king a send-off steeped in the pomp and circumstance of contemporary Britain.

“I suppose we won’t dash off to the Folger Library in Washington and destroy the First Folio, but we must rewrite the history distorted by that, ahem, writer from Stratford,” Hugh Bayley, a member of Parliament from York, said with tongue only partly planted in cheek. “The fact that a Mr. Shakespeare decided to write some play about a hunchback shouldn’t blacken the name of a fine, upstanding defender of country.”

Yet if the remains are indeed those of the long-lost sovereign — something archaeologists call extremely likely — it also raises a conundrum: Where to bury one of England’s most demonized characters?

Under Church of England protocol, the bones, should they prove to be Richard’s, appear destined to end up in the cathedral at Leicester, the city where the remains were found. But many insist they should instead go to the Anglican cathedral in York, the city where history suggests that he wanted to rest. Still others question whether burial should be in an Anglican cathedral at all, as he died a Roman Catholic, reigning by the grace of God and the pope.

November 9, 2012

Tomb discoveries cast light on Thracian culture

Filed under: Europe, History, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:16

A recent discovery in Bulgaria promises to tell us more about the culture of the Getae, a powerful tribe in Thrace:

Archaeologists in Bulgaria are chuffed today to announce that golden treasures and artifacts produced by the ancient Thracians have been discovered in a subterranean tomb complex in the north of the country.

The treasures include snake-headed bracelets, a golden crown or tiara type affair, a golden horse head and piles of smaller solid gold items including rings, statuettes and buttons. They’re thought to date from the third century BC and to have been produced by the Getae, a tribe among the ancient Thracians.

[. . .]

Thracian warriors played prominent parts in many of the wars of antiquity. The peltast javelineer style of fighting was said to have originated in Thrace, gradually superseding the armoured hoplite warrior: an entire phalanx of the formidable Spartans was crushed by peltasts fighting for Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and the lightly armoured Greek/Thracian warriors are also said to have inflicted severe damage on heavy Persian cavalry.

Alexander the Great — from the neighbouring area of Macedonia — is also said to have used Thracian mercenaries in his world-spanning campaigns, and later on Thracian warriors were prominent in the armies of Rome and then the Eastern empire. In particular, the famous gladiator and rebel Spartacus had originally been a Roman auxiliary soldier from Thrace. Later on — after the fall of Rome, when the Empire was ruled from Constantinople — both the emperor Justinian and the great general Belisarius are said to have been Thracians.

October 22, 2012

Want to learn a new language? How about proto-Elamite?

Filed under: History, Middle East, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:10

If you have the ability to decode the world’s oldest undeciphered texts, you can be our first proto-Elamite scholar:

“I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough,” says Jacob Dahl, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster.

Dr Dahl’s secret weapon is being able to see this writing more clearly than ever before.

In a room high up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, above the Egyptian mummies and fragments of early civilisations, a big black dome is clicking away and flashing out light.

This device, part sci-fi, part-DIY, is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken of these elusive symbols cut into clay tablets. This is Indiana Jones with software.

It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200BC and 2900BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran.

And the Oxford team think that they could be on the brink of understanding this last great remaining cache of undeciphered texts from the ancient world.

September 20, 2012

Over-hyping the importance of the Richard III archaeological dig

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:50

At the History Today blog, Linda Porter points out that some of the breathless claims about the historical significance of the Leicester archaeological dig are rather overblown:

Major finds don’t come along very often and this would certainly be one of the most significant in the last hundred years. But the huge claims being made for it are not the sort that sit well with most historians. Assertions that, if DNA tests prove positive, this discovery ‘has the potential to rewrite history’ and is of ‘global importance’ make me sigh.

Historians have long known that the Tudor narratives on Richard III are propaganda. Shakespeare’s compelling villain may still resonate with the man on the street but has nothing to do with a measured analysis of the past and anyone with even a general interest in the late fifteenth century will be aware of this. And ‘global significance’? Cross the Channel and I’d be surprised if you found anyone outside the academic world who knew about Richard III and the saga of the Princes in the Tower. Those involved in the project, which appears to have been rigorously conducted from the archaeological perspective, clearly want headlines. As someone who has worked in public relations herself I congratulate them on a successful communications campaign — it has to be acknowledged that the Richard III Society is very good at this kind of thing — but wearing my historian’s hat extravagant claims make me uncomfortable.

September 15, 2012

The Richard III debate moves to “where should we bury him this time”

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:33

In the Telegraph, Dan Hodges calls for giving Richard III “a last, glorious summer”:

It’s a brilliant idea. Seriously. Think of where Richard stands. At the centre of our history, our art, our education, our national identity. What a staggering opportunity this represents.

Let’s give him a full, no-holds-barred state funeral. Everyone’s been banging on about preserving the Olympic spirit; well here — DNA tests permitting — is our chance. This is a once in a generation opportunity. In fact, it’s a once in about 20 generations opportunity. Let’s bring our history alive.

Just imagine the crowds that would gather for the chance of watching a 21st century ceremonial to a Plantagenet king. And not just an English king, but thanks to Shakespeare, a global monarch.

Picture the moment. A silent Mall. A slow drum beat. An honor guard, heads bowed in tribute to their leader who fell 500 years before. Richard, making his last journey, laid upon a ceremonial gun carriage, draped in the flag of the kingdom he died fighting for. And ahead of him walks a riderless horse. The horse that in his last moments, he would have swapped that kingdom for.

Bloody hell, I’d miss an episode of Strictly for that. And I bet a few million others would as well.

Okay, there’s the slightly unfortunate business of the Princes and the Tower. But we’ve all made the odd mistake. Plus, if you read Josephine Tay’s the Daughter of Time, it was a fit up anyway.

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past couple of months it’s that — to borrow a phrase from another high profile if much maligned senior statesman — we are at our best when at our boldest. Or more accurately, when we say “damn it, let’s do it”.

Now is one of those moments. Damn it. Let’s give Richard III one last, glorious summer.

September 12, 2012

Richard III’s remains may have been found in Leicester

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

Fascinating announcement today from the dig site:

11.12: He says one skeleton and other human remains have been found and a barbed metal arrowhead was found between vertebrae of the skeleton’s upper back. The arrow was near the spine, but not embedded in the bones.

11.15: Mr Taylor says that an articulated skeleton has been found that is of significant interest to us. Scientists have also found a set of “disarticulated human remains” but because they are female and therefore not Richard III.

The skeleton shows signs of “near death trauma” that “appears to be consistent with injury from battle”. Scientists now hope to extract DNA from the bones.

He added:

“It also has spinal abnormalities and an individual form of spinal curvature, which makes his right shoulder visibly higher than his left shoulder. We believe the individual would have had severe scoliosis. The skeleton was not a hunchback.”

It is consistent with other accounts of Richard III.”

It is now at an undisclosed laboratory where it is going through “rigorous” testing.

August 31, 2012

The search for the burial place of Richard III

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:40

Elizabeth sent me another link on the ongoing archaeological search for the burial place of King Richard III:

A high-profile search for the gravesite of the 15th-century monarch King Richard III — begun Saturday beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester — has a remarkable connection to a Canadian family whose members hold the genetic key to solving one of British history’s most enduring mysteries: Where is Richard III’s body?

The London, Ont.-based Ibsen family, recently proven to be descended from King Richard’s maternal line, has provided DNA samples aimed at confirming the regal identity of any human remains found during the unprecedented dig, which continues this week at the former site of a medieval church where — 527 years ago — the violently overthrown monarch was buried.

The University of Leicester-led archeological project was launched after the discovery that the maternal bloodline of the last Plantagenet king — killed in 1485 in the climactic battle of the War of the Roses — survived into the 21st century through Joy Ibsen, a British-born woman who immigrated to Canada after the Second World War and raised a family in southwestern Ontario.

If nothing else, the media coverage of this dig may generate lots of new members for the Richard III Society (Canadian branch, American branch).

August 24, 2012

Digging up a municipal car park … to find the body of a king

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:51

An interesting story on the search for the lost burial place of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England:

Archaeologists are hoping to find the lost grave of a medieval monarch in a dig that is due to get underway today.

In what is believed to be the first-ever archaeological search for the lost grave of an anointed King of England, experts from the University of Leicester are set to begin their quest to find the site of a church where it is believed King Richard III was buried in the city more than 500 years ago.

It is thought the site of the church may be on land currently being used as a car park for council offices in the city.

King Richard III, the last Plantagenet, ruled England from 1483 until he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The most famous battle of the War of the Roses was fought on August 22, 1485, and famously saw the death of Richard III.

The battle ended decades of civil war and was won by the Lancastrians.

It paved the way for Henry Tudor to become the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

The battle also inspired the scene from Shakespeare’s play Richard III when the defeated hunchback king declares: ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’.

H/T to Elizabeth for the link.

April 10, 2012

In praise of Britain’s National Trust

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:37

When we used to travel more frequently to the UK, we were members of the National Trust. It was a great investment for anyone interested in historic properties, and quite a bargain at the time. We let our membership lapse because we were no longer able to visit on a regular basis. Kelvin Browne discusses the great things the National Trust is doing and wonders why there’s no Canadian equivalent:

The Trust has lofty ambitions, but it’s not elitist: They know that without wide enthusiasm for the organization, it won’t survive.

Founded in 1895 to save Britain’s architectural heritage and open spaces, the organization’s initial purpose hasn’t changed much. In fact, many of its goals relate to today’s pressing issues, including stewardship of the environment and concern for the preservation of small communities.

The Trust protects and opens to the public more than 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments. They also look after forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, downs, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, castles, nature reserves and villages “for ever, for everyone.”

Its operating model addresses many of our own concerns related to preserving pieces of Canadian history. However, unlike our system, Britain’s is completely independent of government. the Trust relies on income from membership fees, donations and legacies and revenue raised from its commercial ventures such as cafés, event rentals, the sale of produce from its gardens and farm properties and from leasing a number of its smaller properties to individual tenants.

In other words, no additional taxes are raised to save heritage properties and no meddling bureaucrats inefficiently telling the Brits about their history.

As he points out, the reasons for Canada not having a direct equivalent are two-fold: we are a far younger country and therefore have far fewer truly historical buildings, and we default to expecting the government to take care of preservation of what little we have.

March 5, 2012

New TV shows to “glamourize” archaeology

Filed under: History, Media, Science, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:26

This sounds particularly dire, on multiple levels:

On 20 March, Spike TV will premiere a new show called American Digger, while a show called Diggers on the National Geographic Channel made its debut 28 February. Both shows “promote and glorify the looting and destruction of archaeological sites,” Society for American Archaeology (SAA) President William F. Limp wrote in a message posted earlier this week to the SAA listserv.

The premise of American Digger, which is being hosted by a former professional wrestler, was laid out in a recent announcement by Spike TV. A team of “diggers” will “scour target-rich areas, such as battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history.” Similar locales are featured in National Geographic’s Diggers. In the second episode, set in South Carolina, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 buttons, bullets, and coins were recovered at a former plantation.

After viewing the first two episodes of Diggers, Iowa’s State archaeologist John Doershuk posted a review to the American Cultural Resources Association listserv, in which he lamented: “The most damaging thing, I think, about this show is that no effort was made to document where anything came from or discussion of associations — each discovered item was handled piece-meal.”

H/T to A Blog About History for the link.

February 26, 2012

Who is destroying the archaeological remains of Saudi Arabia?

Filed under: Government, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:17

The Saudi government:

News that David Kennedy, an Australian scholar, has succeeded in identifying almost 2,000 unexplored archaeological sites using Google Earth has focused attention on the wages of that battle: the destruction of Saudi Arabia’s own heritage More than 90 per cent of the archaeological treasures of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, experts estimate, have been demolished to make way for hotels, apartment blocks and parking facilities.

The $13 billion project that led to a wave of demolitions in the middle of the last decade was part of an effort to modernise infrastructure in the ancient cities, where millions of pilgrims gather for the Hajj each year.

Sami Angawi, an expert on Arabian architecture, lamented that history had been ” bulldozed for a parking lot”. “We are witnessing now the last few moments of the history of Mecca,”, he said.

The Kingdom’s ultraconservative clerics believe that the veneration of ancient sites associated with the Prophet Mohammad and his family is heretical, and want potential shrines obliterated.

In October last year, a Saudi clerical body was reported to have renewed long-standing calls for the demolition of several historic Islamic sites — including the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the grave of his mother.

H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link and the embedded video.

I’m reminded of a post at the old blog from February, 2006:

This is a cool part-time job

Elizabeth’s cousin Ross emailed her the other day to describe a new part-time job he’s taken on:

    I have got myself another part-time flying job. It is flying a 1968 Cessna 172 (old single engine piston) for English Heritage. The job is aerial photography of ancient earth works/listed buildings/standing stones etc. etc. How good is that for a job?

    I was up last Friday afternoon and the dude was photographing an iron age settlement in one of the villages less than 5 miles from ours. We have been shoeing in the village for years and had no idea. [After leaving the army, Ross became a farrier.] In fact one of the old farms that we have shod in has been demolished ready for development and the developers have allowed an archaeological dig to go in before they build.

    From the air, with the low sun, you could easily see the outlines of the old settlement and ridge and furrow ploughing. I believe we will even go as far as Carlisle and Hadrian’s Wall. It is only where and when the weather is right and they have a target to shoot, but having done one flight for them I am looking forward to my next, whenever that may be.

    The drill is, you fly to the target, circle it until the dude works out the best angle for the shot. He then opens the window while you bank the aircraft and hangs out and shoots.

It certainly sounds like a much more interesting job than being a flying truck driver!

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