Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Detours with Faeries

I am accustomed to some rustic lanes in England, but roads in Cornwall are amazing.  Steep rock walls covered with greenery.  More like tunnels really.

Today when weather threatened I proposed a short cut.  There was some kind of marked and gated path leading inland from the Coastal Path.  My wife was skeptical, or if you prefer realistic on the basis of previous misadventures.

But we slogged our way along its muddy course and actually did come out in the right place.

After nearly losing a shoe in this glop my wife was less than pleased to note the sign at the exit said "Bridle Path".  Pointed comparisons between that and Bridal Path were made.

Me, I think it was suitably spooky and ancient.  Cornwall is one of those areas where tales of elves and pixies flourish.  Understandably....can't you just imagine meeting one here?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cornwall - Dancing on the Crumbling Edge !

Welcome to Cornwall, UK.  We are walking the Southwest Coast Path, a place of shocking beauty.  We are strolling along atop the sea side cliffs with exotic flowers all about, and the roar of the breakers down below.  Way, way down below.

Cornwall had a very hard winter with wind and rain.  Large chunks of land just fell into the sea.  So you keep coming across signs like this:

How long do you wait to hear from that Engineer before assuming the worst?

They kind of mean it.  One of our hosts told us that in season there is about one fatality a week from people falling off cliffs.  Mostly inebriated teens, sure, but the casualty rate among sober middle aged folks is probably not zero.

Maybe it was the bright, sunny day that gave me high spirits.  In one particulary dodgy area
I noted that horses had just gone down the path, so those sinister cracks would probably not open up and dump us 100 feet down into the English Channel.

But then we came to a realization.  I was wearing a Red Shirt!

So my wife said "Just step back from that edge, Ensign."

Happy to report that we made it safely to the B&B.  The pub is just another mile down the road, and with no cliffs.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

St. Mawes - A Device Fort

Henry VIII never did anything on a small scale.  Even his domestic problems had large consequences.

In our times, if a man and wife are fighting we expect there will be a few concerned phone calls; maybe the police will show up at the door.  But for Henry, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the subsequent feud with Rome prompted his Catholic neighbors to actively threaten invasion.

In response Henry built a series of "Device Forts" along England's southern coastline.  Although designated as such, these were not castles in the classical sense, they were masonry forts mounting artillery designed to sink approaching ships.  Most of them remained in service clear into the 20th Century having stood guard against the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler.

On our walking tour one of our stops is at St. Mawes near Falmouth.  A stroll down the road is one of Henry's forts, built in the 1540s.  A few photos:

I searched high and low looking for graffiti.  I was hoping to somewhere see a subtle T.E.Lawrence.   It seems that he ran away from home in 1905 and served a few weeks as a 17 year old soldier in the Royal Garrison Artillery stationed at St. Mawes Castle.

Alas, arriving just after closing time I could not tour the interior.  And atypically for such sites English Heritage had the place effectively fortified against casual strollers looking to wander about outside the walls.  So if "Lawrence of Arabia" left his signature here somewhere I never came close to it.

For more on Device Forts wikipedia always comes in handy:  St. Mawes and others

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Looking for The Owlman

Welcome to Mawnan Smith.  Its a quaint little village near Falmouth, Cornwall, UK.  Nice place to shake off jet lag.

Mawnan Smith Church....

Its not famous for much.  The name reflects the earlier presence of several blacksmith shops but that was a long time ago in an industrial age.  Now...well, there is always The Owlman.

Who?  Or if you prefer Woooooo?

The local legend is that back in the 1970s there were several sightings of a manlike figure with the features of an owl.  It had red glowing eyes and menacing claws.

These manifestations appeared to have some common features.

1. They occurred near the church in Mawnan Smith.
2. They were reported by adolescent females.
3. The reports were publicized by a fellow who was something of a local "character", a certain Tony "Doc" Shiels.

Paranormal researchers have come up with the usual blather about prehistoric mounds and so forth. Flat out hoaxing is certainly a possibility.

It is also possible that the excitable witnesses actually saw an "Eagle Owl", a rather sizable owl that while not native to the area does wander through occasionally to get the birders excited.  They do look formidable.

With the obvious exception of "Nessie", the UK does not have a lot of large mysterious critters clumping about. Just not a big enough country one supposes.  So Owlman has caught on a bit.  He features in a 2013 Scottish horror film:

And The Owlman of Mawnan Smith is a "point and click" video game something along the lines of Myst!

Our wanderings about did not result in any sightings of avian/human hybrid monsters, and one would think that with the time zone disruption we were experiencing this would be the ideal moment for The Owlman to make a cameo appearance!

This is the closest we came:

Friday, April 25, 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tin and Tintagel

For a person interested in the interaction between Britain and the Ancient World (i.e. Greek and Roman civilizations) Cornwall is a very peculiar place.  For most of the Roman era it was a backwater.  Very few Roman remains are to be found there.  The Romans being practical folk took greater interest in the better farmlands of southeast and central Britannia.  They also had no choice but to pay attention to the areas now known as Wales and Scotland because conglomerations of unwashed and unpleasant barbarians were generally festering in such places.

But Cornwall?  Not much reason to go there.  It was regarded as being at the Ends of the Earth, a place beyond which was only hostile ocean.  The farthest extremity of Cornwall is still known as Land's End.

But most peculiarly, of all areas of the modern UK, Cornwall shows the most evidence of Mediterranean contact in those shadowy, poorly documented time periods just before and just after the Roman era.

It is a story of Tin and Tintagel.

In ancient times sea travel was not particularly safe; you needed a good reason to put your life in the hands of Poseidon/Neptune.  But Cornwall had tin, a necessary component of bronze.  So the Carthaginians and perhaps even their predecessors the Phoenicians knew of and visited Cornwall.

But our first solid bit of history actually comes from a Greek fellow named Pytheas of Massalia.  This resident of modern day Marseilles made one of history's great voyages of exploration circa 300 BC. He sailed from his home port in southern France and, not content to just drop in at Cornwall,  then went on to circumnavigate Britain, and perhaps take a peek at "Thule", a chilly place that could have been anywhere from Norway to Iceland.

Pytheas gets credit for some place names still in use.  He seems in fact to have been the first to use the word "Britain".  The northern point of Britain was "Orcus", the modern Orkney Islands.  The southeast point was "Kantion", still recalled as Kent.  Of the Cornwall peninsula his name - Belerion - did not stick.  But his favorable opinion of the place has been preserved by later writers even though his original work is sadly lost to history.

The inhabitants of Belerion were said to be friendly and relatively civilized from their frequent contact with foreign merchants.  Tin was collected from river beds and formed into ingots shaped like "knuckles".

Oddly during the Roman era there was no great surge in tin mining.  There were more productive mines in Spain, where the Romans literally moved mountains in pursuit of gold and other metals.

Roman Britain collapsed in the early 5th century.  A lot of factors came into play, but one of the biggest seems to have been the ill advised policy of hiring barbarian mercenaries to help defend the province. Of course they soon were running the show.  And badly at that, material culture quickly slipping into the Dark Ages.

This was the supposed time of King Arthur, "last of the Romans".  He is said to have fought a series of battles against the barbaric Saxons, keeping a tenuous peace for the dwindling civilized inhabitants of Britain.  And he was supposed to have come from Cornwall.

These are the ruins of Tintagel Castle, purported birth place of King Arthur.  In the cliff below is "Merlin's Cave".

A bunch of nonsense of course.  The tale of Arthur being born there was just another concoction of Geoffery of Monmouth who cobbled together most of what has become Arthurian Legend in the 12th century.  He used Gildas and Nennius and unspecified Welch traditions.  He likely tossed in a few tales he heard at closing time down at the pub.  As history it is all, ahem, rather dodgy.

But still, there was something going on at this site in the supposed time of Arthur.....

When the Roman era ended in Britain much was forgotten.  Even the basic know how involved in making pottery.  Post Roman sites have few pottery shards, and they are all worn down specimens, decades old when somebody finally dropped the sad family heirloom and folks had to make do with crude wooden bowls.

Actual pottery from the 5th and 6th centuries is rare in England, and would have to have come from more civilized places closer to the old core of the Empire.

Oddly, the isolated site of Tintagel has more pottery remnants of this era than the rest of England and Ireland combined.  Something was going on here, some reason that ships from the Mediterranean were still arriving to trade.  Amphorae from as far away as Byzantium were brought here to be traded for.....what?

The logical commodity of course would be tin.  But to date excavations at Tintagel have not unearthed ingots or other evidence of trade in this metal.

On a somewhat twisty side path into etymology and history, there seems to be no connection between the name Tintagel and the metal tin.  In ancient times the latter was called plumbum candidum which means white lead.  Somewhere in the late Roman era it began being called stanum from which we get its chemical symbol Sn.

Tintagel seems to be a variant of the Cornish Dintagel, meaning "fort of constriction".  This refers to it being on a very narrow peninsula.

So if not an emporium where amphorae of wine were swapped for knuckle bone shaped ingots, just what was going on at "Dintagel" in the supposed time of King Arthur.  Well, one popular theory is that a very late Roman site became a part time Official Residence for the King of Dumnonia, the successor Celtic/British entity that coalesced after the 410 AD Roman implosion.  Sure, it was not the most convenient place for traders to put in, but it was a safe harbor and far from those vile Saxons who were making a hash of the more appealing parts of the former province.

And if you can't face the harsh realities of life without a romantic belief in King Arthur....recent excavations at Tintagel will throw you a rather small bone.

This is a fascinating bit of stone, probably Roman but re-used in a 6th century stratum.  The A X E(?) are felt to be Roman, the scribbled looking stuff, post Roman.  It seems to read:


This does not tell us as much as you would like, only that names beginning with ART were known in early Medieval times.  For a much more detailed discussion with alternate readings I suggest Faces of Arthur

Monday, April 21, 2014

Treasure City - Still Cheesy after All These Years

In an antique shoppe in Indiana we ran across this postcard:

Ha!  A very vivid childhood memory popped up.

I was a smallish lad back in the 1960s.  Our family was driving the old U.S. 10 Highway on our way to the "up North cabin". About half way there, when the refrains of "are we there yet?" were just starting up, there was a series of road side signs announcing the marvels to be seen at Treasure City in Royalton Minnesota.  The best, the most tantalizing come on was the "Two Hundred Pound Man Eating Clam!!!".

Usually my brothers and I had been naughty and no frivolous treats were forthcoming, but once or twice we did get to stop.  The Clam was a bit of a disappointment.  I guess it could eat you if you stuck your head into it and gave it enough time....

image from Roadside America
The rest of the store was full of classic tourist trap merch.  Shells (non man eating), flags, snow globes, plaques, t-shirts.  There was kind of a pirate theme to much of it.

Fast forward a generation.  About twenty years ago I went up to the old lake place with my three young boys.  Treasure City was still there.  And the merchandise was still tacky beyond belief.  The "Man Eating Clam" was inside (as above).  He used to be mounted on the front of the building.

And guess what, it is 2014 and Treasure City is STILL THERE!.  They have added a few new lines like fireworks. Ah, what a dream that would have been to my younger self.....

Evidently nothing, not the construction of I-94 that diverted much of the traffic; not the ups and downs of the economy; not the simple fact that nothing they sell is really necessary...none of it matters. Treasure City is a Minnesota institution that seemingly will exist as long as antsy kids get hauled to the lakes of Northern Minnesota.

But the real surprise in my antique store find was on the reverse:

According to this circa 1964 artifact, Treasure City was a multi location enterprise.  The Suamico Wisconsin branch has vanished but the Manistique Michican location is still going strong, if apparently on a much less "kitchy" basis than their Minnesota affiliate.

I wonder what the connection between the three sites was?  They were all positioned in places likely to catch vacationers.  They all had similar merchandise.  Perhaps a single family ran them all?  It seems implausible that they would be a franchise operation in the modern sense, this was 1964 after all.

My efforts to find other similar stores called "Treasure City" have not been fruitful.  There seems to be an extinct ghost town in Nevada, a defunct chain of department stores and an extant group of thrift stores that all use the same moniker.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Clan of the Cheeseheads

Recently in conversation with one of my UK acquaintances I made reference to “cow tipping”.  Shockingly she had never heard of this rural American pastime and inquired as to whether it was a real thing or not.  Actually, it happens to be the rural equivalent of an Urban Legend, but the simple fact that my ‘cross the pond pals were unaware of it made me wonder how many other aspects of life in rustic Wisconsin were alien to them. 

So on the basis of my decades long study of this distinctive culture I present:


I should probably start with the basic subject of self-identifying names.

Wisconsinites can be referred to as Badgers.  This dates back to the earliest settlement of the state at a time when lead mining was a huge industry in the southwest corner of the state.  Folks came from all over.  They dug holes.  Some used their excavations as crude shelters to winter over.  They were called Badgers.  Other folks, mostly from Illinois,  would come up the river in the spring and go back down in the fall.  As this mimicked the behavior of a similarly named fish they were referred to as Suckers.  The term has since evolved to specifically refer to any citizens of Illinois who still trust their State Government.

The Badger is also the mascot of the University of Wisconsin.  His nick name is “Bucky” but it has no special significance.  They held a contest to name him.

There are heated rivalries between Illinois and Wisconsin in both college and professional sports.  Chicago fans – not a gentle bunch – used the derisive term “Cheeseheads” to refer to fans of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.  It became a badge of honor and fans started wearing home made foam rubber hats shaped like a wedge of cheese.  The prototype is said to have come from a discarded sofa.

The Cheeseheads gained additional attention when a private pilot on his way home from a game had to make a crash landing.  Alertly donning his foam rubber hat he averted serious injury.

The Cheesehead is one of three Ceremonial Attires found in Wisconsin.  The second is blaze orange hunting garb.  It has become somewhat less common in recent years but traditionally schools were let out of session and factories shut down for the duration of the fall deer hunting season.  The odds of the local newspaper displaying on their front page pictures of large defunct deer exceeds the probability of the sun rising in the east.

The Third Ceremonial Attire is team merchandise of The Green Bay Packers.  This is an American style football team that is the subject of adulation seldom accorded to mortal man.  Confusingly to the scientific observer, Packers football games can involve the wearing of all three styles of ritual garb….or if beer intake has been sufficient, of almost no clothing whatsoever regardless of the winter conditions.

Traditional foods in Wisconsin trend towards the carnivorous.  In the far southwest a hint of Cornwall is recalled in the ongoing popularity of the pasty.  In the northwest areas a Friday night “fish fry” is a grease laden carry over from the days when Catholic citizens were expected to skip meat that day.  The large German population has made the bratwurst a staple food item.  Larger meat markets sometimes have dozens of variations.  And if while traveling in the back country of the state you encounter a “hot beef” don’t be concerned that you are becoming enmeshed in a local disagreement.  The term refers to a sandwich prepared with sliced roast beef and onions.  It seems to be a requirement that they be served at all graduation parties.

Of course modern times have changed Wisconsin a little.  Now when you drive through the small farming communities that typify the state you find some of them much reduced in size as smaller farms are being replaced by larger operations.  Some of the little hamlets have in fact contracted down to the smallest possible unit of Wisconsin society: A post office.  A park with a war memorial cannon.  Two churches, one Catholic, one Protestant. And a tavern, where both faiths join hands to worship the Green Bay Packers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

History's First Memo to the I.T. Department

In my last post I had a little fun with the notion of what I would bring back in time to the Roman age in order to guarantee myself a life of relative ease.  You know, daily trips to the baths, slave girls feeding me grapes and so forth.  Planning for a return trip to the future seems even less plausible.  I mean, what would you bring back that would not be immediately challenged as fake?  Those mint, uncirculated rare denarii would only get you in trouble.

So a one way trip it shall be.  But it did get me thinking....could I send some gift from ancient Rome to modern times?  I think so. After accumulating my enormous fortune I would just have to compose the first memo in history to the "I.T. Department".

To: Chief Librarian, Museum of Alexandria
From: Badgericus Magnus, Merchant in Silks and Spices


Forgive the imperfect language of this message.  I have seen more years than you can imagine and as time runs short for me I find myself reverting to the subjects of my younger days.

By separate courier you will shortly receive my Last Will and Testament naming your Library the beneficiary of my considerable fortune.  Even after making provisions for the ongoing maintenance of numerous slave girls I think the sum will please you.  I ask that you use it to attend to the following issues.

1. Data Storage Media.  Dude, seriously, papyrus?  It has not been so very many years since the unfortunate fire associated with Julius Caesar.  Although that gossip Plutarch overstated it shamelessly it nevertheless was a warning that should not be ignored. Much wisdom can be destroyed by a single violent man with a torch.  And let me assure you, the past and the future contain many violent men. Also careless ones.  Can you be certain that Demetrius the Simple will not drop a lamp at any moment?

You should commission the local metalworkers to hammer out sheets of metal and inscribe upon them the thousand or so most important works in your collection.  And repeat the process every decade.  You could use lead, no doubt you are familiar with it from the use by the superstitious of "Curse Tablets". If the weight of this substance proves cumbersome consider using copper. The restless subjects of Judea have done some interesting work along these lines already.

Of course all this effort would be wasted if these durable mementos are not stored carefully.  Pick a number of places, ideally in the remote desert.  Inside the Great Pyramid would be a nice touch.  But most importantly place copies in as many spots as you can. You need only refer to Gaius Plinius Secundus' Naturalis Historia to understand the innate wisdom and nobility of the Squirrel.  (Modern readers take note, in exchange for my very excellent advice in AD 79 - "You do NOT want to get on that boat to check out the Vesuvius eruption" - Pliny the Elder will have allowed me to add to his Natural History no fewer than eight chapters on the Wonders of Squirrels!)

2. Physical Plant Security.  Hey, great bit of beachfront real estate you got there.  But you have noticed that you are along the waterfront.  Taverns, drunken sailors, and we are not even talking yet about how the native Alexandrians are so riot prone.  You could build some nice walls, even hire a cohort of Library Police.  But I suggest you relocate to a nice solid, easily defended hill outside of town.  Why?  I suggest on the next clear still day you go out in a boat right off your patio.  Look down. Notice anything?

Gee, look at all the big stuff that slid into the bay after earthquakes.  What are the odds that will happen again.  And again.  And again.

3. Future Information Technology Needs.  You are no doubt aware of the marvelous calculating machines invented by Archimedes and his followers.  I have had the opportunity to view the remains of one that was sadly shipwrecked on a sea voyage.

When intact this Device could rapidly determine the positions of Celestial Bodies, and the dates of intermittent events such as eclipses and the Olympic Games.  I suggest you seek out, finance and encourage the makers of such wondrous machines.  They are clever fellows and much future good will come from their further efforts.

But beware.  One day the cleverest of these fellows will come to you.  He will announce that a Terrible Event called "The Y One K" will be upon you in a few short centuries.  He will further state that he can solve all of your problems with something he describes as an "Operating System".  He will proudly name it "Fenestrae" (Windows).

Have him executed on the spot.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Time Travelers Back Pack

Only a couple of weeks now until I can forget the modern world.  Yes, the annual archaeological trek to be a volunteer excavator at the Roman site of Vindolanda.

Originally it was a solo trip, but of late an add on week has lured the Spouse along.  This is a better thing overall, but I do have one lingering bit of pique about it.  I have to use decent luggage.

My wife despises the disreputable Norwegian Army surplus backpack that is my preferred option. Comfortable to tote, more or less legal carry on size (takes a bit of scrunching on some planes but is fine on the Airbus overhead), I have managed to fit two weeks worth of stuff in it with ease.  And that is allowing for rain gear and sufficient changes of clothes for Northumberland weather quirks.

So as I pack for my "trip back in time" I set the back pack aside wistfully.  But not without a bit of musing.

If I were literally going back to Roman times, what could I fit in my back pack that would ensure me a comfortable life?  Oh, not slave girls feeding me grapes kind of comfort, but a few cups of wine a day and a nice visit to the baths on a regular basis.  It is a tricky question.

I would prefer not to bring back blueprints for muskets and the formula for gunpowder.  In science fiction stories this rarely turns out well.  You either get condemned for sorcery or more likely get blank stares as the blacksmiths try to comprehend bridging the gap from hammering bog iron up to running a precision lathe.  So if we leave aside the items that are pure Harry Turtledove and perhaps skip the things that would monstrously damage the time line, what's left?

I suppose you could start with about 40 pounds of this:

Pepper.  Widely used and greatly appreciated.  It was a big part of why the Romans bothered trading with India and lands beyond.  It is also one of the few precious commodities on which we have something of a price quote.  Pliny the Elder comments on the stuff.  Evidently the Romans knew of "long pepper" which went for 15 denarii a pound, white pepper that went for 7, and black pepper for 4.

I would have thought the prices would be higher.  After all the stuff got hauled by sea from Indonesia. But economies of scale one supposes.  I presume Pliny was quoting the price in Rome, perhaps for my friskier Cayenne pepper I could get a premium price out in Londinium.  But still, what I could conveniently carry would only get me around 600 denarii.  That's not bad, but really is less than three years wages for the average Legionary grunt in Pliny's early Empire.  You could do a little better with cloves and ginger perhaps, but Pliny is quite vague on this stuff.  One wonders if he had any specific information on where some of it came from and just what it was.

Oh, I bet I could do better if I kept a few side pockets free for:

I have a pleasing vision of myself as a gentleman spice farmer in southern Gaul....

If you have a darker side, and were very concerned about packing light, I suppose you could bring along a few grams of Polonium.  It has become the preferred undetectable poison for Eastern Bloc assassins and conspiracy kooks. If you believe the "I, Claudius" version of history you might find Empress Livia to be a reliable customer.  But watch your back, there would likely be a dagger aimed at it from every dark corner.

Nah, I have no interest in toppling dynasties.  Too risky anyway.  I want to make money.  And not piddling denarii either.  Lets go for the aureii!  Here's the contents of my Time Traveler's Backpack:

Bulk silkworm eggs.  $19.99 for 2000 or so.  Plenty of room left over for:

This is 10 pounds of powdered "Silk Worm Chow".  That ought to keep the little beggars happy until my first crop of mulberry seeds starts to sprout!

I am totally not kidding about this scheme.  The amount of money flowing from Rome to China for silk was supposedly high enough that the Senate tried to abolish the trade as damaging to the Roman economy.  And just how much was silk worth?

The best measure is probably from the  Edict of Diocletian.  This bit of desperate wage and price control legislation was circa 301 AD, when inflation had nearly wrecked the Roman economy.  So prices are both much higher than in the early Empire and are anachronistically listed in denarii, a fine silver coinage long since debased and out of circulation.  By way of reference our hypothetical Legion soldier now made 1,800 denarii per year.

And a pound of white silk from my industrious little fellow time travelers?  12,000 denarii.  Ah, bring on the grapes.

Note:  I can't claim any originality in my scheme.  The Byzantine Emperor Justinian pulled this off back in the 6th Century AD.  Some speculate that the economic boon from breaking the Chinese silk monopoly helped sustain Constantinople through its long difficult centuries in an increasingly hostile world.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


It had been a rough three days of shifts.  12 hours on, 12 off.  And seldom had I ever seen such a stretch of woe and morbidity. A lot of it was self induced.  It is almost as if the long winter had finally depleted the last reserves of alcohol and meth and heroin in the area, and the ambulances were running like mad hauling in folks with the stormy tremors of withdrawal or the odoriferous, languid zen state that comes when your liver finally surrenders.

I needed something to cheer me up.

So I stopped by the local Store that Sells Everything.  Because I knew that way in the back I would find:

Lean over the side with me.

Ahh.  Feel better yet?

Despite being exactly the same shade of yellow as the end stage cirrhosis patients they are pretty darn cute, and such a bargain!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tree Shaped Tombstones - J.J. Lundy, Independence Iowa

To finish off a week where I have tried to pay homage to the few craftsmen I have been able to associate with "Tree Shaped Tombstones", I present the marvelous cabins of J.J. Lundy from Independence Iowa.

And here is his rather understated signature on one of the above:

Stone cutting seems to have been one of the niches in American society in which immigrants dominated.  Lots came from Italy. John J. Lundy on the other hand, came from England.  He was born in Otley, Yorkshire in 1869 and came over with his family when he was 13 years old.  He moved to Independence, Iowa and never left.  He learned the stone carvers trade from an uncle and set himself up in business in the early 1890s.  He was the usual solid citizen of his day, member of multiple fraternal organizations and such.  On his death in 1921 the byline read:


But if you go beyond the basics of his life it does sound as if there was a lot of sadness there as well. He married, but their only child died at age three "..this being a crushing blow to the parents."And his health was not good.  Mention is made of him having to retire from business for a time due to poor health.  And his death at the fairly young age of 52 occurred when he contracted ptomaine poisoning, ironically on a trip to Pueblo Colorado where he had gone "..on account of ill health."

I am just speculating today, but I wonder if perhaps he suffered from silicosis.  This is a nasty chronic lung disease caused by exposure to stone dust.  Miners, stone cutters and tomb stone makers were all plagued by this until better understanding of occupational exposures and wider use of respirators made it, in the modern era, an uncommon disease.

Next trip through I shall look up the monuments of the Lundy family.  I suspect J.J. has a swell one, his company continued on after his death.  And I fear there will be a smaller, sadder one for his infant son somewhere nearby.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tree Shaped Tombstones - Goshen Indiana

So we were in a cemetery in Goshen Indiana.  The story is complicated and peripherally involves a gas leak and explosion, but never mind all that.

A stately specimen, notable for this small script on the "scroll"

Marks identifying the carvers of these masterpieces are frustratingly rare.  I have a policy of not scrubbing at these things so my best guess is C.D.S. GOSHEN.  Nice fake square nail next to it.

Time has been a little hard on this one.  The "scroll" has partially broken away.  And I wonder if the round area just above the COBBUM inscription used to hold some sort of metal inset? Next up is a nice one.  This is a size I have not seen before, rather slender.

And what a great flower basket.  Local variations when you go from one region to another keep the hunt interesting.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tree Shaped Tombstones - A. Ambrosini

Having spent several years now looking for "Tree Shaped Tombstones" I can report that the vast majority leave us with no clue as to the artisans who created them.  I have in fact to date found a grand total of three specimens that are signed with the name of the man who carved them.  One was a magnificent specimen I encountered in New Ulm, Minnesota that had a discrete "A. Ambrosini" hidden on it.

Anthony Ambrosini was from Cercino, Italy.  This was not far from Cararra, a place famous for stone cutting since ancient times.  It is reasonable to assume he grew up in the trade.  He turns up in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1883 working as a stone cutter.  Earlier he had found similar employ in Chicago.

He spent a few years working in partnership with a man named Peterson, but most of the 1880s he worked for others, probably more on building projects than on artistic concerns.

In 1890 he struck out on his own, his new location at 941 Jackson Street being on the grounds of Oakland Cemetery it is reasonable to assume that monuments and headstones were now his main product line.  An ad from this era runs:

Granite and Marble Worker
dealer in
of all descriptions
Delivered to any cemetery in the Northwest

The ad also mentions that he has a branch office "Opposite Calvary Cemetery on Front Street".

Three years later he moved his operation to the newly opened Forest (now Forest Lawn) Cemetery on the north side of St. Paul.  It seems likely that the abundant "trees" and "benches" I encountered there are products of his workshop. Forest Lawn 1Forest Lawn 2Forest Lawn 3.

As best I can tell, none of his stone carving shops has survived.  One would have thought with his background that they would have been substantial, durable stone buildings.  But perhaps less expensive wooden buildings were a more practical option for a humble if talented artisan.

At some point Anthony handed the business down to his son John before moving to California, probably after his wife Augusta passed away in 1917.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Winter War, April 2014

Robins have arrived.  Baseball season has started.  We have been getting seed company catalogs for months now.  So, have a look at April 4th 2014.

This is not regular snow.  It is the heavy, late season stuff.  Tree branches are dropping all over town. Most likely this has something to do with the fact that our power has been off most of the day.  The local schools are all closed.  Looking at the prospect of keeping the little urchins cooped up until mid June I am sure they are regretting their lack of spine earlier in the year when snow days were announced on much lesser justification.

Winter has been not so much a season this year as a prolonged occupation by a particularly thuggish invading army.  Sensing the advance columns of Liberating Forces to the south triggered this last, spiteful round of callous cruelty.  Thus far the populace has been long suffering and well behaved but those folks down at the local ski shop are looking more and more like Quislings and Collaborators, so they'd better be hoping for sunshine and warmth pronto.

Well, at least it did give me an opportunity to enjoy one of the few forms of Happiness that money actually can buy....

Friday, April 4, 2014

Mystery Coins - Critters

Two well worn bronze coins:

The specimen on the left is not obvious.  But what it shows are two colonists, or perhaps priests, behind a team of oxen.  The process of plowing a perimeter to a Roman colony was a ceremonial occasion.  And probably a message to the displaced natives. OURS!  By the way, the process of surveying and dividing land in the Roman fashion, perhaps before giving it away to retired Legionaries, was called Centuriation.  One supposes that any former landowners who expressed dissent were told to just "take it up with the Centurion"!

On the right is a puzzler.  How about a closer look:

Is it a man on a horse?  Or a mythological being like a Griffin?  The pinched in waist does not look like a horse to me, and the supposed rider is way up on the neck.

Usually the fronts of coins help you out.  Today, not so much.  Our "colonists coin" first:

Just AUG.  But it is in Latin not Greek, which does help a little.  It is probably a beat up and off center strike of this:

The AUG stands for Augustus, the Emperor from whom all others borrowed the title.  It is listed as being from Philippi in Macedonia, and dates between 27 BC and 17 AD.  The Apostle Paul visited there in AD 49 or 50, hence the Book of Philippians. Given the durability of ancient coins, and the wear on this one, I like to imagine Paul getting this as change!

And our "griffin?" coin?

Well that's sure not Latin or Greek.  I am assuming it is Arabic and that this is an Islamic coin.  Their general aversion towards human portraiture did not extend to animals, and while griffins and centaurs would be unlikely, Islamic coins depicting horses are well known.  Many come from modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India.  Beyond that I confess to being out of my depth.  The world of coins holds many mysteries for me.