Salon Archive

Issue: 107

Forthcoming meetings

13 January: Raising the Dead: rescuing redundant chapels in the twenty-first century, by Jennifer Freeman. Dr Freeman is the Director of the Historic Chapels Trust, which was established in 1993 to take into ownership redundant chapels and other places of worship in England that are of outstanding architectural and historic interest. Her paper will be concerned with the Trust’s work in securing their preservation, repair and maintenance for the public benefit, including their contents, burial grounds and ancillary buildings.

20 January: Life and Death in the Medieval Village of Wharram Percy, by Simon Mays. As part of the archaeological investigations at the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, nearly seven hundred skeletons were excavated from the church and churchyard. These provide an unparalleled opportunity for investigating lifestyle in a medieval rural settlement. Since 1990, a programme of multi-disciplinary analysis has been carried out on these skeletal remains. This has included biomolecular analyses, as well as more traditional methods based on gross examination, measurement and radiography of the remains. The lecture will attempt to summarise some of the more important findings (see also the story below called ‘Human and bovine tuberculosis at Wharram Percy’).

27 January: Ballot

News of Fellows

The Society extends its congratulations to the following Fellows who were awarded honours in the New Year 2005 Honours List: Claude Blair, who was appointed a CVO for services to the Royal Collection; Roger James Mercer, lately Secretary, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, who was awarded an OBE for services to archaeology; Margaret Ann Richardson, lately Curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, who was awarded an OBE for services to museums.

Our Fellow Kate Tiller has been appointed as one of six new Deputy Lord Lieutenants for the county of Oxfordshire. Dr Tiller is described as ‘an historian who was Reader in Local History at the University of Oxford from 1999 to 2004, (now Reader Emerita), now a Fellow of Kellogg College … Chairman of the Victoria History of Oxfordshire Trust … author and editor of numerous books and articles on the history of Oxfordshire [and] a member of the Committee of Oxford University Rugby Football Club’. Appointment as a Deputy Lieutenant is a mark of appreciation for people who have served their county well, often through work with voluntary organisations.

It is good to know that some of the vacancies advertised in Salon are occasionally filled by Fellows. One such is the recent appointment of our Fellow Steph Mastoris (formerly Head of Collections with Leicestershire Museums Service) as the Head of the new National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. The National Waterfront Museum is the latest branch of the National Museums & Galleries of Wales and will open in the summer of 2005. It will be concerned with the impact of industry on Welsh society and the role of industrial Wales within the world over the last two centuries. Steph’s new email address is Steph.Mastoris@nmgw.ac.uk.

Obituaries

The Times carried an obituary for our late Fellow Janet Backhouse on 29 December 2004, from which the following edited extracts have been taken.

Janet Backhouse joined the Department of Manuscripts, then a part of the British Museum in September 1962, and remained until her retirement in 1998 — by when she had established an international reputation as one of the foremost scholars in the field of manuscript studies.

Within the department her closest working relationship was with the distinguished liturgist D H Turner with whom she worked on The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art 966—1066, an exhibition mounted jointly with the British Museum in 1984 to mark the millennium of the death of St Aethelwold. After Turner’s untimely death in 1985, she took over his special responsibility for the department’s illuminated manuscripts and their display, and it was she who carried forward his idea for a prequel to the 1984 exhibition. The result was The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600—900, again mounted jointly with the museum, in 1991.

Aware of the need for well-illustrated and well-written volumes at affordable prices to cater for the growing public interest in medieval books, she published The Illuminated Manuscript in 1979 and her very successful The Lindisfarne Gospels in 1981.

Her retirement from the British Library was marked by a festschrift in her honour, Illuminating the Book: makers and interpreters, and the roll call of its eminent contributors is a testament to the regard in which she was held by her peers. Many years of productive work seemed to lie ahead, when a fatal illness was diagnosed. Its rapid progress means that, sadly, she did not live to see either the result of her latest work on the French illuminator Jean Bourdichon, an early love — her first article on him appeared in 1973 — or the publication next month of her last book, Illumination from Books of Hours. Janet Backhouse died on 3 November 2004, aged 66.

The Times also carried an obituary for our late Fellow Linda Murray on 19 November 2004, from which the following extracts have been taken.

Linda Murray, art historian, died on 12 November, 2004, aged 91. Linda Murray was unrivalled in her ability to explain art history to the general reader. She enjoyed a long and successful literary partnership with her husband Peter, and they collaborated on the writing of such enduringly popular works as the Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (1959), still in print and in its seventh edition, and The Art of the Renaissance (1963), in Thames and Hudson’s World of Art Library.

She and Peter, whom she married in 1947, had no children and much of her creative energy went into writing and teaching, in London University’s department of extramural studies, from 1949 to 1979. Her tours of Gothic cathedrals were legendary. Typically, when a colleague was immobilised by an attack of vertigo on a particularly tricky crossing, high above the floor of a cathedral nave, it was Murray who coaxed him to safety on hands and knees.

It is above all as a Renaissance scholar that she will be remembered. Her Michelangelo: His Life, Work and Times appeared in 1984, and she contributed further volumes to the Thames and Hudson series: The High Renaissance (1967), The Late Renaissance and Mannerism (1967) and Michelangelo (1980).

After Peter’s sudden death in 1992, she soldiered on with their last joint book, The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture (1996). In the preface they explained the need for such a book. One of them, standing in front of Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, overheard someone ask his companion: What’s the pigeon for? The other capped it with the English couple in front of Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan who agreed that they didn’t understand the painting, but that the figures ‘seemed to be having some sort of a meal’.

Having moved to Woodstock and completed the Companion, Linda Murray established the Murray Bequest to Birkbeck College, where Peter had been Professor of Art History. It pleased her that their books, including a fine collection on the Renaissance, were housed in Birkbeck’s library.

Submissions sought by parliamentary Maritime Heritage and Historic Ships committee

2005 is the Year of the Sea, so it is appropriate that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee has agreed to establish a sub-committee (consisting of Labour MPs Derek Wyatt (Chairman) and Chris Bryant and Conservative MP Nick Hawkins) on the preservation of Britain’s historic vessels and maritime heritage. The sub-committee will examine the strategy, administration and resources aimed at implementing the Government’s policy of preserving ‘the best of the … maritime heritage’. Written submissions are being invited from interested organisations or individuals by the end of January 2005. Further information is on the UK parliamentary website.

Last week also saw Heritage Minister Andrew McIntosh announce measures under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 to designate and protect the site of a prototype submarine built at the turn of the twentieth century and containing one of the world’s first periscopes. The Holland No 5 submarine was built by the Holland Torpedo Boat Company and was the last of five Holland submarines to be built following a decision by the British Admiralty during the 1890s to evaluate the submarine’s potential as a weapon. The Holland No 5 was launched in May 1902 and foundered off the coast of East Sussex on 8 August 1912.

In a press release announcing the protection order, Andrew McIntosh said: ‘The Holland No 5 played a short but significant role in the evolution of the British submarine and the survival of this boat gives a unique opportunity to study the technology of the time including the possible prototype of the submarine periscope. Only two of the Holland submarines survive today [Holland No 1 was salvaged in 1982 and is now displayed at the RN Submarine Museum at Gosport in Hampshire]. The Holland No 5 is thought to be intact and in good condition. I am pleased that this Order will preserve the wreck site allowing proper study of the vessel and preventing any vandalism by trophy hunters.’

Portable Antiquities Scheme future assured

Good news often seems to take a while to trickle out when bad news hogs the headlines. Roger Bland, FSA, has written to add an important footnote to the report in Salon 106 about the sharing out of funds for the heritage under the Government’s Spending Review. Buried deep within the detail of the settlement for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) was confirmation that the Government would fully fund the Portable Antiquities Scheme once the current lottery-funded terms ends in March 2006. ‘This means,’ says Roger, ‘that the Government has now accepted that it has to fund the project in full with a network of 46 posts which is a breakthrough and will provide a secure basis on which to go forward and develop it over the years ahead’.

A press release put out by the MLA says that the funding announcement ‘guarantees the future of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the nation’s largest community archaeology programme, which helps the public to record and find out about the hundreds of hidden treasures they unearth every year.’ Commenting on the settlement, Mark Wood, MLA Chairman, said: ‘We are pleased to have secured the future of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which has been an enormous success and has helped put countless priceless objects into the country’s museums. The scheme enjoys huge popular support and provides a vital link between amateur archaeologists and metal detecting enthusiasts and the museums community.’

Marconi Collection saved

And another piece of very good news has been drawn to Fellows’ attention by Jim Bennett, FSA, Director of the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. Jim writes to say that the historic Marconi Collection, whose future has been precarious since it was nearly auctioned off in 1997 but withdrawn from the arrangement with Christie’s after widespread protests, has been given to the University of Oxford.

Dating from 1895, the Marconi Collection consists of artefacts, apparatus and printed material formerly owned by the Marconi Corporation plc, much of which relates to the history of early wireless communication. This includes apparatus used in the first transatlantic wireless transmission of 1901; a wealth of historical documents, including telegrams sent during the Titanic disaster of 1912, whose subsequent Board of Enquiry endorsed the recommendations of Guglielmo Marconi, fundamentally improving safety at sea and saving countless lives; and items relating to the birth of broadcasting, such as the microphone used by the Australian diva, Dame Nellie Melba, to broadcast the world's first live recital in 1920.

The Museum of the History of Science will display some of the 250-plus artefacts from the Collection, while the Bodleian Library will house the thousands of papers, letters and other printed material going back to 1895. Through the generosity of the Wireless Preservation Society a full-time archivist will be appointed to catalogue the Collection over the next three years. The BAFTA award-winning website , based on the Marconi Collection, is also to be transferred to the University.

Oxford is already planning a major exhibition of items from the collection in spring 2006. The University will also work together with the Essex Record Office and the Museums Service in Chelmsford to display a representative set of historic items from the Collection in the town, the original home of the Marconi Company from 1898 and the acknowledged ‘Birthplace of Radio’.

Respect the past to learn for the future says Simon Jenkins, FSA

Simon Jenkins, our recently elected Fellow and former editor of The Times and the Evening Standard, told The Independent in an interview on 2 January 2005 that the greatest threat to our civilisation was ‘our inability to understand, preserve and learn from the past. I am a real antiquarian’, he said, ‘If you can’t respect the past you can’t learn for the future’. He also revealed that anger was the deadly sin to which he was most prone, speculating that this trait was inherited from his preacher father who would frequently lose his temper in the pulpit. ‘I get cross when I write’, he said. But Simon aims to make other people angry as well ‘because that’s what a journalist should do. I hope I have reassured people in questioning authority. I’ve save lots of buildings from being demolished that way’.

The nefarious trade in architectural salvage

A suitable target for Simon Jenkins’s righteous wrath can be found on BBC2 this week in the form of a TV programme to be aired on Thursday 13 January called ‘The Reclaimers’. Advance publicity says: ‘The architectural salvage business is worth £1 billion a year, as new use is found for old furniture, fixtures and fittings. This new series shadows a trio of salvage hunters, beginning with John Rawlinson, who has been given three days by owners of a swish new hotel in the West Country to track down five giant limestone tubs for their front drive. To that end, Rawlinson hires a light aircraft and heads for Provence.’

One might ask why license fee money is being spent on glorifying the activities of Rawlinson and his ilk; and who exactly is paying for that light aircraft? But Rawlinson’s activities are (one assumes) at least legal, even if they are destructive. Saturday’s Daily Telegraph estimates that at least 30 per cent of the architectural salvage trade is wholly illegal. It reports that gangs of art thieves scour Britain’s city centres looking for empty houses from which to take period fireplaces, panelled doors and door furniture, balustrades, iron railings and gates, staddle stones, stone paving and roof slates and even porcelain lavatories and kitchen sinks. One dealer was quoted as saying: ‘Anyone living in a pre-war house has something nickable’.

Legislation exists to crack down on this trade: the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act makes it illegal to buy or sell tainted objects, but Richard Allen, the Liberal Democrat MP whose private member’s bill led to the Act, now says that lack of police interest in liaising with dealers and the absence of a national database of stolen artefacts means that ‘realistically I am not expecting the new legislation to produce many prosecutions’. Instead Richard now hopes that the Act will ‘encourage dealers to conform to best practice and at least ask a few questions’.

South Suffolk risks losing its unlisted jewels

Simon Jenkins’s colleague at The Times, Architecture Correspondent Marcus Binney, FSA, was also on fine polemical form just before the New Year when he contributed an article asking why large numbers of fourteenth- fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century timber-framed houses in Suffolk do not enjoy listed status. Babergh District Council, which includes some of the finest small historic towns in England — including Hadleigh, Lavenham, Long Melford, Nayland and Sudbury — as well as numerous delightful villages such as Bures, suffers from inadequate and out-of-date lists with the result that magnificent medieval hall houses and former chantries are being altered without consent.

Richard Ward, Director of the Suffolk Preservation Society, says the reason is that ‘the lists are based on a quick trawl in 1955, cursorily revised in the early 1970s’. Listing was done in a hurry and no appointments were made to inspect interiors. Many early timber-framed buildings, particularly those which had been refronted, were overlooked. The problem is compounded by the fact that neither the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England, nor the Victoria County History, has covered this area. Thomas Cocke, FSA, who worked for the Royal Commission, says: ‘The area is so rich that all heritage organisations have fought shy of it because they’d simply get lost there.’

Marcus Binney’s article ends by quoting Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, who recently spoke lyrically of ancient towns in Italy: ‘The smells of olive groves and beautiful landscapes at Assisi … the faded ochres, pinks and creams of the houses; and the tiled roofs falling away with olive groves.’ ‘What wonders’, Marcus asks, ‘might result if she took a week to explore the Constable country west of Ipswich?’

Museum entrance charges: good or bad?

A stormy political debate brewed up over the Christmas and New Year break over the merits or otherwise of free admissions to national museums. The trigger for the debate was the Government’s publication of annual visitor figures, which, according to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, showed ‘another big increase in visitors since admission charges were scrapped in 2001 … in 2004, six million more people passed through their doors, an increase of 75 per cent since 2001’. Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, called the figures ‘incredible’, and promised that free admission would continue to be a cornerstone of government policy. Ms Jowell said: ‘Our decision to invest in free admission was a success from day one. Now, three years on, I am delighted that visitor numbers continue to grow. This gives the lie to the idea that ordinary people have no appetite for 'serious' culture — sweep away the obstacles and they come in their millions.’

This immediately sparked a range of ripostes. Newspaper correspondents claimed that the main beneficiaries of free admission were not ‘ordinary people’ but Japanese and American tourists who only wanted to take a snap of the Rosetta Stone. The Conservative party pledged that a future Tory government would allow museums to charge if they wanted to. Shadow arts minister, Hugo Swire, said: ‘The government has not adequately compensated museums for either the loss of revenue caused by forbidding entrance charges or the increased costs of coping with the extra visitors’. He added: ‘There is also an anomaly — it seems ludicrous that foreign visitors are not charged to see our collections when British people travelling abroad, to the Louvre, for example, are charged to see theirs.’

The National Art Collections Fund called the increase ‘a hollow victory’ because our national museums are struggling with rising visitor numbers but falling funding and inadequate acquisition budgets, forcing them to lay off curators, close galleries and stop collecting. The charity’s director, David Barrie, said: ‘The figures from the latest spending review raise doubts about the government's willingness to pay the price of the free admission policy.’

Only £42,186 now needed to save Macclesfield Psalter

The campaign to raise the funds to purchase the Macclesfield Psalter is now only ‘six pages’ short of its target, with five weeks still to go before the government export ban expires on 10 February 2005. The Psalter contains 252 pages, and the £1,675,149 already raised represents the equivalent of 252 of the manuscript pages: the remaining six pages require further donations of £42,186 to reach the target of £1,717,335.

Though known as the Macclesfield Psalter, because it was discovered in the private library of the earls of Macclesfield, the richly and imaginatively illustrated book of psalms and canticles is the work of an East Anglian scriptorium. David Starkey, FSA, a prominent supporter of the campaign to save the Psalter, says that: ‘While I do not automatically support campaigns to keep works of art in England, for the Macclesfield Psalter the case is open and shut: the Psalter was created in East Anglia and it will lose half its meaning if it is torn from its native roots.’

Further information and details of how to make a donation can be found on the Art Fund’s website.

Human and bovine tuberculosis at Wharram Percy

Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist with English Heritage, says that previous thinking assumed that fresh air protected people from the transmission of TB, and that the lung disease was only found in unhygienic, closely populated towns (passed by coughing). Therefore it was assumed that TB sufferers in the countryside must have caught the variant bovine strain as a result of living with their animals in the same house. The examination of human remains from Wharram Percy churchyard, however, has disproved this theory: TB-infected individuals from the deserted village turn out to have the human form. This suggests, Simon Mays concludes, that ‘TB was as common in the countryside as the towns. It was pretty much universal.’

Dr Mays has been studying the historic incidence of TB for several years. In 2002, he diagnosed the disease in an Iron Age man buried around 300 BC in the village of Tarrant Hinton, near Blandford Forum, Dorset. Previously, it was argued that the Romans brought TB to the British Isles. The disease probably still came over from the Continent, but perhaps through trading links, rather than with an invading army.

Women soldiers in the Roman army

The January/February issue of British Archaeology reports that the remains of two female warriors serving with the Roman army in Britain had been discovered in a cemetery at Brougham in Cumbria. The women are thought to have come from the Danube region of wastern Europe and to have died some time between AD 220 and 300. Their bodies were burnt on pyres along with their horses and military equipment.

The soldiers are believed to have been part of the numerii, a Roman irregular unit originating from the Danubian provinces of Noricum, Pannonia and Ilyria, which now form parts of Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia. Our Fellow Hilary Cool, the director of Barbican Research Associates, which specialises in post-excavation archaeological analysis, said that the remains were the most intriguing aspects of a site that is changing our understanding of Roman burial rites. The remains were uncovered in the 1960s but full-scale analysis and identification has been possible only since 2000 with technological advances that enable archaeologists to determine the ages and gender of the dead and to build up a detailed picture of Roman funerals in Brougham.

One of the sets of women warriors’ remains were found with the burnt remnants of bone veneer, used to decorate boxes, alongside evidence of a sword scabbard. The other woman was buried with a silver bowl, a sword scabbard, bone veneer and ivory.

More on the Nebra astronomical disk

Our Fellow Euan MacKie, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, has written to respond to the report in Salon 106 based on a letter published in British Archaeology magazine suggesting that the arc-shaped gold symbol on the bronze and gold disc from near Nebra, in Germany, could be a rainbow rather than a boat, and that the circular gold spots could be raindrops rather than stars.

‘If correct,’ Euan says, ‘this interpretation would of course remove the disc from being one of the most convincing items among the accumulating evidence supporting the hypothesis of systematic study of the north European sky in Neolithic and Early Bronze Age times. Such a “mythological” interpretation of the disc — while it will have definite appeal for those sceptical about all aspects of prehistoric astronomy — is by its nature incapable of being tested. Have we any other evidence from prehistoric Europe pointing to the use of rainbows and stars as symbols? Any astronomical interpretations of the disc can, by contrast, be tested against existing archaeological evidence deemed to support systematic sky watching in ancient times.

‘Advocates of the rainbow hypothesis must also take account of the fact that Harald Meller has already published a detailed study of the “boat” on the disc, comparing it with many other, much more clearly boat-like images on Bronze Age metalwork and prehistoric rock carvings from northern Europe (Meller, H 2002. ‘Die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra — ein frühbronzezeitlicher Fund von außerge wöhnlicher Bedeutung’, Archäeologie in Sachsen-Anhalt, 1/02, 7—20). The resemblances are very striking, particularly the numerous tiny, slanting parallel lines projecting from the top and bottom of the gold arc. Many of these images also have the same longitudinal parallel lines, interpreted by some as symbolising the colours of the rainbow, but which must surely represent the planks of the boat.

‘One problem for those of us in Britain who wish to understand the Nebra disc is that the German team studying it have not yet published a full account in a British journal. However I understand that that is to happen in the not-too-distant future. Another problem is that not even the German team has yet attempted to test the design of the disc against the only detailed set of hypotheses about prehistoric astronomy and geometry to have been developed in modern times — those of Alexander Thom. When a systematic account of the disc does appear in a British journal I hope to follow it up with an analysis of how this unique artefact could — despite the uncertainties surrounding its find spot − be providing a truly remarkable vindication of Thom's ideas. Indeed to my mind no forger is likely to have had the insight into Thom's work which would allow him or her to design such an artefact.’

More on the Downing Street door

Frank Salmon, FSA, posed the question in the last issue of Salon whether the true original door to No 10 Downing Street lay in London or in Downing College, Cambridge. Although no Fellow has come forward yet to throw light on the question, London’s new Churchill Museum, which claimed last November to have ‘rediscovered’ the original Downing Street door, has now modified its claims, and is instead referring to its door as ‘the wartime door of No 10 Downing Street through which Churchill used to pass’, which it now say was salvaged, with government support, from the Treasury buildings that lie above the museum.

The new museum, which the Queen will officially open next month, is housed in 850 square metres of new galleries next to the Cabinet War Rooms. As well as the Downing Street door, the exhibits will include Churchill's ivory rattle and christening gown, his copy of the 1883 Boys Own Manual, a gun he used during the Boer War when he escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp, the red budget box which Churchill used when he held the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, the engraved silver-covered volume he was given when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and several of his paintings.

British Library website one of Britain’s ten best

‘Turning the Pages’ (www.bl.uk/collections/treasures/digitisation.html), the section of the British Library’s website that allows users to leaf through electronic facsimiles of the Lindisfarne Gospels or Luttrell Psalter, has been voted one of Britain’s Ten Best Websites by a panel of independent experts, headed by Salim Mithas, Director of the Yahoo search engine.

The Library site was chosen from literally millions of sites and features in an eclectic list of best websites featuring traditional British caffs, Britain’s ugliest cars, a comprehensive guide to the human brain, and a site entirely devoted to revealing the poetic beauty of derelict houses in London (www.derelictlondon.com).

British Library exhibition focuses on historic and symbolic gardens

Still with the British Library, don’t miss the chance to see some wonderful manuscripts, plans, drawings and other materials inspired by real and imaginary gardens in the exhibition in the Pearson Gallery on the theme of The Writer in the Garden that runs to 10 April 2005 (admission free).

Using the work of poets, novelists and dramatists as well as the ideas of essayists, philosophers, designers, scientists and professional garden writers, the exhibition explores the rich history of ideas associated with the garden from the Middle Ages to the present day — the garden as a place for romance and passion, its role as a setting in which to consider grace lost and recovered, as a space in which to experiment with ideas of art and beauty, as fertile territory for political and social debate, and a place for seeking consolation in the face of doubt or loss.

Specific gardens are at the root of many of these themes: John Evelyn’s experimental garden ‘lab’ at Sayes Court, for example, John Keats’ suburban plot in Hampstead, Alexander Pope’s Thames-side arbours and grottos at Twickenham, Gilbert White’s Selbourne garden and Philip Larkin’s carefully tended northern lawn. Highlights include illuminated manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose, John Evelyn’s Elysium Brittanicum, and manuscripts by Repton, Paxton, Loudon and Robinson.

British Museum's crystal skull is a fake

Our Fellow, Professor Ian Freestone of the University of Wales at Cardiff, formerly Head of the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum, has declared one of the museum’s prize exhibits, a near life-size sculpture of a skull, to be a fake (Independent, 7 Jan 2005). A detailed analysis of the skull's surface has revealed, however, that it was cut and polished with a rotating wheel of a kind that was commonly used in the jewellery houses of nineteenth-century Europe but absent in pre-Columbian America. British Museum scientists now believe that the skull was cut from a piece of Brazilian rock crystal by a lapidary in Europe, possibly Germany, and then sold to collectors as a relic from the ancient Aztec civilisation of Mexico.

‘We are not at all sure that there is a rock source in Mexico that would produce a rock crystal of this size. There is strong circumstantial evidence that it comes from Brazil,’ Professor Freestone said. ‘When you look at known, genuine Aztec rock crystals, they have a much gentler polish. This has the harsh, polished look you get with modern equipment,’ he said.

Further work by an archivist, Jane Walsh of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, points the finger of suspicion at Eugene Boban, a nineteenth-century collector of pre-Columbian artefacts who appears to have been instrumental in selling at least two crystal skulls purporting to be ancient. Documents unearthed by Dr Walsh reveal that it was Boban who had acquired the skull that was eventually sold in 1897 by Tiffany's, the New York jeweller, to the British Museum. She also found that it was Boban who some years earlier had tried to sell the same skull to the Smithsonian. And it was Boban who sold a similar crystal skull to a collector who later donated it to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, where it still is today.

Biblical artefacts could also be fakes

Two years ago Salon reported the discovery of an ossuary whose inscription claimed that it contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus — and whilst Christians all over the world devoutly wished the inscription to be genuine, instinct suggested that the artefact was just to good to be true. Not only has the ossuary subsequently been proven to be a fake, investigators now believe that the four men behind the forgery might have been responsible for forging hundreds of other biblical artefacts now on display in museums all over the world (The Guardian, 31 December 2004).

The four men indicted for forgery are Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv collector, owner of the James ossuary, Robert Deutsch, an inscriptions expert who teaches at Haifa University, Shlomo Cohen, a collector, and Faiz al-Amaleh, an antiquities dealer. All four deny the allegations, but Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the forgery ring had been operating for more than twenty years and had been exploiting the deep emotional need of Jews and Christians to find physical evidence to reinforce their faith. Typically the forgers would start with a commonplace but authentic artefact and add an inscription, greatly enhancing its significance and value. Officials of the Israel Antiquities Authority say that every artefact not uncovered in an authorised excavation in Israel must now be regarded as of doubtful authenticity. Many of them are owned by private collectors and museums in Israel and abroad.

Roman-style boy racers in Essex

The discovery of a chariot-racing course in Colchester, hailed as one of the biggest Roman racetracks in the world, was a gift to newspaper headline writers over the Christmas period, none of whom could resist claiming Essex as the birthplace of ‘boy racers driving in circles as fast as they can’.

The track was discovered during the excavation of the former garrison in the town, which was sold off by the Ministry of Defence to developers, who plan to build 2,500 homes and a business park on the site. Greg Luton, English Heritage Regional Director for the East of England, called it an ‘extremely significant find’, and possibly ‘the largest chariot-racing circuit outside of Italy.’

Philip Wise, of Colchester Museums Service, said that if the find was verified, it could stop the housing development plans. He added: ‘I would hope we would be able to work something out with the developers so it could still go ahead.’

Erotic art from Tuscany to Turner

The field of antiquarian study includes all manifestations of human thought and activity from the past, so Salon makes no apologies for reporting two stories from last week’s press that concern genitalia. The first concerned the publication of an article by George Ferzoco, Director of the Centre for Tuscan Studies at the University of Leicester, arguing that a thirteenth-century fresco discovered four years ago at Massa Marittima is not intended to be an erotic or fertility wall painting, but rather ‘the earliest surviving representation of witchcraft in Christian Europe’.

Dr Ferzoco believes the fresco was intended as a warning by supporters of the papacy of the anarchy and licentiousness that would engulf the town if it fell into the hands of their political rivals. The richly coloured painting — seven metres high — was discovered under layers of subsequent over-painting next to a fountain in the centre of Massa Marittima. It shows two groups of women standing below a tall, spreading tree. Sprouting from the branches are twenty-five phalluses. These are explained, says Dr Ferzoco, by a passage from the Malleus Maleficarum, a manual written in 1486 to help witch-hunters identify their quarry, in which witches are accused of robbing men of their genitals and hiding them in birds’ nests.

The second report comes from The Guardian, where Maev Kennedy reported (29 December 2004) that the famous bonfire of Turner's erotic sketches never actually took place. It was the notoriously prudish John Ruskin who, as executor to Turner's tangled estate, claimed to have burned a mass of erotic drawings and paintings in order to protect the artist’s reputation, sparing only a bundle wrapped in brown paper and neatly labelled ‘kept as evidence of a failure of mind only’. The critic described the destroyed works of art as ‘painting after painting of Turner's of the most shameful sort — the pudenda of women — utterly inexcusable and to me inexplicable’.

But Ian Warrell, a Turner expert at the Tate, has now catalogued all of Turner drawings and paintings, matching the surviving works to original inventories and records, and has concluded that Ruskin could not bring himself to destroy any of Turner’s work, so he hid them by means of a tortuous cataloguing system and then devised the bonfire story as a false trail. The evidence for the bonfire comes from a letter that Ruskin wrote to the National Gallery director Ralph Warnum: ‘I am satisfied that you had no other course than to burn them, both for the sake of Turner's reputation (they having been assuredly drawn under a certain condition of insanity) and for your own peace. And I am glad to be able to bear witness to their destruction and I hereby declare that the parcel of them was undone by me, and all the obscene drawings it contained burnt in my presence in the month of December 1858.’ But Ian Warrell can find no evidence in Warnum's diaries for December 1858 to suggest that he and Ruskin met on the dates when the bonfire was alleged to have taken place.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that Ruskin was not acting out of prurience at all, but made the story up to prevent the destruction of the images: in his essay on the subject in the British Art Journal (Volume IV, No 1), Ian Warrell reminds us that the introduction of the first Obscene Publications Act of 1857 was a cause of considerable concern to curators who feared prosecution for works in their collections. So perhaps Ruskin’s ‘horror’ at Turner’s ‘madness’ was in reality a brave and successful feint to keep Turner’s entire oeuvre intact.

Conferences

Morris in the Twenty-first Century: The Fiftieth Anniversary Conference of the William Morris Society will take place on 7 to 10 July 2005, at Digby Stuart College, London. Papers are invited on any aspect of William Morris’s life, work, circle and influence in Britain and elsewhere. Send a 300-word abstract by 31 January 2005 to: Morris in the Twenty-first Century, The William Morris Society, Kelmscott House, 26 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, London, W6 9TA, or email R.Miles@wlv.ac.uk.

The Aesthetic Interior: Neo-Gothic, Aesthetic, Arts and Crafts: the organisers of a two-day conference to be held on 28 to 29 October 2005 at the University of London Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, are calling for papers that consider the character of interiors in later nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland which have been broadly identified as ‘Aesthetic’, including the Anglo-Irish neo-Gothic interiors developed by figures such as Pugin, Ruskin, Burgess and Harry Clarke; the self-proclaimed Aesthetic interiors promoted by writers such as Mrs Haweis and devised by figures including Whistler, Wilde and Frederic Leighton; Symbolist interiors of the kind described by J K Huysmans and W B Yeats, or designed by Mary Watts; and Arts and Crafts interiors inhabited by and extolling the virtues of figures such as William Morris and Walter Crane.

The conference will ask what are the characteristics of these spaces? How might we approach the interior as a subject of visual and historical analysis? And what problems and opportunities do interiors as a genre present to art historians? Red House and Kelmscott Manor are among the interiors likely to be discussed and analysed. Submissions can be sent by email to: je7@york.ac.uk or imogenjfhart@hotmail.com; further information can be found on the conference website.

Fellows as tour guides

Although Salon has been declared an advert-free zone, the editor can surely be forgiven for drawing Fellows’ attention to a small independent travel company that was founded by two archaeologists (Annabel Lawson and Denise Allen). Andante offers unusual itineraries for ‘intelligent interested people, based entirely on the archaeology of the area to be visited. Staff are proud to claim that the academic integrity of their programmes is second to none, as they should be given that a large number of the sixty or so specialist guide-lecturers who lead Andante tours are Fellows of this Society. Prices range from £100 to £175 a day, so the Andante website is well worth a look if you fancy an inexpensive holiday exploring the Boyne Valley with our Fellow George Eogan, the ruins of ancient Nicopolis ad Istrum (Bulgaria) in the company of the excavator of the site, our Fellow Andrew Poulter, or prehistoric cave sites in the Pyrenees with our Fellow Paul Bahn.

Vacancy

Victoria History of the Counties of England, Director (four-year secondment)
Salary £45,000 plus £2,134 London Weighting; closing date 16 February 2005

The Victoria County History (VCH) is seeking to second a professional and highly motivated individual to fill this key position in English local history. He/she will be responsible for the overall management and strategic development of the VCH, maintaining its financial integrity and raising its academic profile. This post will suit an academic with a reputation for high quality research, experience in records, museum and/or heritage management, or with experience in publishing.

Working with members of the VCH Management Team, the Director will provide strong vision and leadership to the VCH as a whole, will liaise with all those involved in VCH activities (including the Project Board managing a new five-year HLF-funded project, ‘England’s Past for Everyone’, which aims to bring VCH resources to a wider audience) and will manage and develop the wide range of issues concerned with academic research and writing, editing and publishing, finance and fundraising.

Experienced at dealing with key figures in a wide range of organisations, the Director needs to have demonstrable communication and interpersonal skills, along with previous experience of authorship and editorship. In addition, he/she will possess the capability to manage change, whilst sustaining both the traditions of an organisation with a history of decades of excellence, and the involvement of individual funding bodies, as well as sourcing new funding and developing research proposals.

To apply you must first obtain an application pack as the VCH has specific requirements with regard to the method and content of applications. Packs can be obtained by sending an email to: ulrecruit@lon.ac.uk quoting reference 01/05−IHR or they can be downloaded from this website.

Informal enquiries regarding this post may be made to Professor David Bates, FSA, Director, Institute of Historical Research, tel: 020 7862 8756 or email: david.bates@sas.ac.uk.