History News: 3000 Skeletons Unearthed Near Liverpool St. Station

Discovery News reports that construction crews working at the site of a new London Tube station have uncovered thousands of skeletons and more than 10,000 artifacts during excavations. The building site is located within the precincts of the infamous Bedlam “Madhouse”,  where the city’s first municipal cemetery was located and used from the 1560’s to 1738. Among the interments are Great Plague victims, and archaeologists are interested in  studying the bones to learn more about the evolution of the strain that repeatedly struck London. It is expected to take at least a month to complete the disinterments, and plans are to rebury the bones at a cemetery outside city. It is anticipated that a Roman road will also be brought to light. The results of this investigation, once analyzed, promise to provide a fascinating look at life in one of London’s oldest neighborhoods.

Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Now I must search out the perfect gnome for my own garden.

Nonfiction Worth Reading: For Adam’s Sake, by Allegra di Bonaventura

Adam Jackson, for whom this book was titled, was a black slave who spent his life working in 17th-early 18th century New London, CT. But Adam’s own story does not begin until the book’s second half. The title’s second part, A Family Saga, is a more apt description of what this book is all about, though the word saga suggests much more drama than can be found here. Allegra Di Bonaventura, a scholar with a legal background, wrote a doctoral dissertation based upon the 47 year long Diary of Joshua Hempstead, an almanac-like account of his daily life in 17th/18th century Connecticut. For more than 30 of those years,Hempstead was Adam’s owner.

As a scholarly study, For Adam’s Sake is outstanding. The research is impeccable, much of it painstakingly extracted and interpreted from New London County Court records. There is a wealth of detail about the families whose activities shaped town development during its first century, with detailed information about the Rogerenes, a religious sect that engendered sharp conflict in the region, the Winthrops, of the ruling class, the Jackson family, part free and part slave, and of course, the Hempsteads. It is the chronicle of the way these factions interacted that forms the focus of most of the narrative. When Adam steps onto the scene midway through, most of the evidence concerning his own experiences is conjectural, based largely upon some 50 or so terse diary entries. Throughout the book, the narrative voice is dispassionate, as befits a study of this sort. Readers in search of a “saga” will not find it here; although there are some rather dry sections, there are also many interesting stories to be found within its pages.

History News: “Demon Traps” and King James I

How interesting!

A number of 17th century demon traps, the so-called “witchmarks” intended to keep evil spirits away from a member of royalty, have been discovered at Knole House, Sevenoaks, Kent.

Knole House – now located in a medieval deer-park – originally was an Archbishop’s palace, the house passed through royal hands to the Sackville family – Knole’s inhabitants from 1603 to today.

The marks were found under the floorboards and surrounding the fireplace of a room which was built for King James I, in anticipation of his planned visit to Sevenoaks.

The etchings, also known as apotropaic marks, are described to be interlocking, chequered and v-shaped.

They have been hidden for centuries and are believed to be linked to the  plot in which some Catholics, most famously Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up James I, the first of the Stuart kings of England.

 

“A few months before the marks were engraved, the infamous plot caused mass hysteria to sweep across the county. Accusations of demonic forces and witches at work were rife.

The etchings, also known as apotropaic marks, are described to be interlocking, chequered and v-shaped.

They were thought to form a ‘demon trap’, warding off demonic possessions and have been dated back to 1606 by archaeologists who used tree ring dating methods,” according to Kent Online.

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Experts from the National Trust believe the markings were carved by craftsmen working for the owner of Knole house, Thomas Sackville, in anticipation of a visit from the King – a visit he never made.

These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.

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“King James I had a keen interest in witchcraft and passed a witchcraft law, making it an offence punishable by death and even wrote a book on the topic entitled Daemonologie,” said James Wright, an archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).“These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.

“To have precisely dated these apotropaic marks so closely to the time of the Gunpowder Plot, with the anticipated visit from the King, makes this a rare if not unique discovery.

“Using archaeology to better understand the latent fears of the common man that were heightened by the Plot is extremely exciting and adds huge significance to our research about Knole and what was happening at that time.”

 

Excerpts from MessageToEagle.com

 

Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.

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.