Archaeology News: UMass search for the Original Village at Plymouth

Many visitors to  Plymouth Plantation do not realize that this recreation of the pilgrims’ first village lies about three miles from its actual site in what is now downtown Plymouth. An archaeology team from UMass Boston is currently searching for evidence of the wooden palisade that surrounded the fort and the houses that surrounded it. Although most of the evidence unearthed so far dates from the 19th century, the hope is that some 17th century artifacts will turn up. But the main goal is to find the remnants of  the first houses and of the post holes the supported the walls built around them to protect the settlers. According to the article in the June 21 issue of the Boston Globe, the dig is part of a multi-year site survey and excavation leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. The map posted here is from the same article, which can be found in its entirety here .

History News: Two New Portraits of Shakespeare

Discovery News writer Rosella Lorenzi has posted an exciting article about the two portraits shown above. According to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a professor of English at Mainz University, Germany, the one on the left shows Shakespeare as he was experiencing his first successes on the London stage, around 1594. The one on the right depicts him around the age of 50,  relaxing at home in Stratford. These two newly authenticated discoveries increase the number of known likenesses of the Bard to six. For more information, see the original article here, where you can also find images of the other known portraits.


Historical Fiction: Prophecy, by S.J. Parris

Prophecy (Giordano Bruno, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1583 is the year of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, prophesied to be the moment of Queen Elizabeth’s downfall. Now in London following his perilous adventure in Oxford (Heresy), Giordano Bruno is residing in the household of the French ambassador, planted there by Walsingham to learn information about attempts to restore Mary Stuart to the throne, and Catholicism to England, via intervention from the Duke de Guise of France. There is much apocalyptic angst among the populace, stirred up by the many pamphleteers hawking mystical versions of what is to come. When two Maids of Honor are viciously murdered, with strange signs carved into their flesh, the court is thrown into great consternation and dread. Bruno is charged with discovering who might be behind these crimes, which are considered treasonous. Soon he is himself in great danger, knowing not how to distinguish friend from foe, and he fears that Elizabeth herself is indeed the target.

Prophecy unfolds at a very stately pace, with Bruno spending much time contemplating and concocting theories. During this too-lengthy sequence, Parris does a creditable job of evoking the spirit and conflicts of the times and the maze that was London. It is not until the final quarter of the novel that the real action begins, and when it finally arrives, the conclusion is rapid, almost forced. The true culprits emerge as something of a surprise, and there are enough ends left untied to merit a sequel. Heresy, book 1 in this series, served as a fine intro to the engaging, down to earth, sometimes hapless character, Bruno, and his exploits; let’s hope the third one moves along at as brisk a pace as the first.

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History News: Slave Quarters in Massachusetts. Who Knew?!

The Royall House (above left) and Slave Quarters (rear) in Medford, was built by Isaac Royall, a trader in rum, sugar, and slaves.

This evening I came across a fascinating article about the Royall family estate in Medford, MA, right near Tufts University. While there are many 18th century house museums in New England, I do not know of any, other than the Royall mansion, that has actual slave quarters. Since we teach a slavery program at the Webb-Deane-Stevens museum in CT, my attention was immediately snagged by this article. Slave quarters in New England? It was customary for  owners here to house their slaves – generally between 1 and 5, since there were few large “plantation” type properties – within their own homes, usually in the cellar or attic. Building separate “slave quarters” was simply not economically practical.

I can’t wait to visit Royall House and Slave Quarters. Find the detailed article about this important site here.

Historical Fiction: The Bones of Avalon, by Phil Rickman

The Bones of Avalon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few Elizabethan figures more infamous and mysterious than John Dee, the Virgin Queen’s personal astrologer. Author Phil Rickman imagines a young John Dee, and sends him to Glastonbury, reputed resting place of King Arthur, on a secret quest. Rickman ups the ante by making Dee’s cohort none other than Robert Dudley, the queen’s favorite suitor. It isn’t long before a kidnapping, a gruesome murder, and a blossoming love affair make this quest a perilous one.

Any novel set among the ruins of a famous abbey and Glastonbury Tor would promise intrigue, magic, and mystery, but throw in solid historical research, brilliantly drawn characters, skillful plotting and evocative period detail, and you’ve got a winner. Not since Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett) have I encountered as dastardly a villain as the one who holds dominion here, and the touches of the paranormal, never over the top, add to the aura of eeriness. Phil Rickman never fails to deliver, and The Bones of Avalon is one of his best.

Recommended for fans of first rate historical fiction, first rate mystery, and first rate writing.

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History News: Abigail Adams’s Birthplace Reopens

Abigail Smith Adams, one of our most famous first ladies,  was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1744, to the Reverend William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy. The house in which she grew up and married has also had quite a history. Originally built on the corner of North and East Streets in 1685, it was enlarged in 1762, sold in 1788, torn down in 1838, and relocated and reconstructed twice. Today it stands again on North Street, close to its original location. Owned and operated by the Abigail Adams Historical Society, the building’s current restoration, and two year endeavor, is complete, and is set to reopen with a ribbon cutting on  June 29th. It will open to the public the following day from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Unusually for a house museum, this Birthplace is fully heated and air conditioned, which helps enormously with artifact preservation, and enables year-round programming.

For more information, visit the historical society’s newly designed website. 

Historical Fiction: New York, by Edward Rutherfurd

New York: The Novel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“I’m gonna make a brand new start of it, New York, New York”, sang Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli in what has become the city’s anthem. As he did for England, Ireland, and Russia, Edward Rutherfurd has undertaken to relate the history of New York City in novel form. My favorite of all his works is Sarum, told the story of the evolution of Salisbury Cathedral, though his other titles are also well worth reading. From Manhattan’s earliest years to the decade following 9/11, Rutherfurd traces the experiences of the fictional Master family as New York grows in size, prominence, and status. Along the way, he deftly weaves in the stories and contributions of slaves, Dutch and English settlers, Native Americans, and members of the various immigration groups, all of whom have played such important roles in the making of one of the world’s greatest cities.

If the novel conveys a theme, it would be that of the ongoing effort to build a socially just community. The first third of the book, covering the period from the settling of New Amsterdam to the War for Independence, is perhaps the most compelling section, and the most detailed. From then on, the author is forced by the vast scope of his topic to skipping entire decades and eras in order to focus on what he views as the city’s most formative events, including the draft riots during the Civil War, the prejudices and struggles affecting each immigrant group as they attempt to assimilate, the Great Depression, and second half of the 20th century. His characters are well drawn, though in my view, the later Master descendants lack the depth and vitality of the earliest ones. Particularly vivid are the portrayals of Quash, one of the family’s slaves, and his family. And Rutherfurd successfully depicts that vibrant ambience of this crowded and multicultural place, only fourteen miles long and two wide, and surrounded by water and smaller islands.

Read the book and you’ll “want to be a part of” New York too.