12th c. triple toilet seat goes on display

Move over, Vindolanda with your single-ass toilet seat. Medieval London is giving you three times the run for your money. A unique three-seater wooden toilet seat from the 12th century is going on display at the Museum of London Docklands. The rough hewn oak plank was preserved for centuries in the waterlogged environment of the Fleet River, one of the tributaries of the Thames that were “lost” to the development of the London sewage system in the Victorian era. It was unearthed in excavations near Ludgate Hill in the 1980s but the discovery wasn’t announced before because the money ran out before the thousands of artifacts from what was then the largest archaeological dig in London history could be published. (Besides, even experts didn’t appreciate scatological archaeology three decades ago as much as we do now.)

The communal toilet seat was once perched over a cesspit that emptied into the Fleet. It served the needs of people who lived and worked in on what was then a small island. Archaeologists even know its name, amazingly enough.

Remarkably, archaeologists have even been able to identify the owners of the building, which was known at the time as Helle: a capmaker called John de Flete and his wife, Cassandra. “So what I love about this is that we know the names of the people whose bottoms probably sat on it,” said Kate Sumnall, the curator of archaeology for the exhibition.

They would probably have shared the facilities with shopkeepers and potentially other families who lived and worked in the modest tenement block, she said. “This is a really rare survival. We don’t have many of these in existence at all.”

The toilet seat will be part of an exhibition dedicated to London’s lost rivers: Effra, Fleet, Neckinger, Lea, Wandle, Tyburn, Walbrook and Westbourne. Remains preserved in the loving embrace of the city’s rivers will go on display alongside the seat exemplifying how said rivers were used by Londoners as open sewers before they were diverted into culverts to be used as closed ones today. Bronze Age weapons deposited in the Thames as ritual offerings, a dog collar, animal skulls, discarded porcelain will represent the archaeology of the rivers while photographs, paintings, poems and film represent its history. Secret Rivers runs from May 24th through October 27th. Admittance is free, and just in case seeing the toilet seat isn’t worth the ticket price, a plastic replica will be available for visitors to perch upon. That’s a group selfie opportunity not to be missed.

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Restorative deboning at iconic Czech bone chapel

The Sedlec Abbey ossuary in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic, is known worldwide for its extravagant towers, massive central chandelier and decorative flourishes constructed of human bone. The Sedlec Ossuary is one of the greatest tourist draws in the Czech Republic, attracting a half million visitors a year.

The church was originally built around 1400 after the monastery’s cemetery became a major regional draw due to its having been sprinkled with soil from Golgotha in the 13th century. Death’s rich harvest during the Bubonic Plague of the mid-14th century and the Hussite Wars 50 years later gave the cemetery more business than it could handle, and the church included an ossuary on the lower level so bones could be stored to make room for new graves.

For hundreds of years monks collected bones in stacks in the ossuary, but the artistic bone structures as they exist today were created by woodcarver Frantisek Rint in 1870. (He signed his work, yes, in bone.) It’s estimated that the skeletons of 40,000-70,000 individuals, 60,000 or so skulls and 450,000 long bones, were used to create four large pyramidal mounds in each corner of the chapel and the other decorations in the nave and on the walls.

Now those famous pyramids are being dismantled as part of a major restoration project to repair structural issues of the mounds and of the church building itself. Without dismantling the pyramids, it’s not possible to repair plaster walls, floors and windows and dehumidify the space.

Restorers began to dismantle the first of the four pyramids in November. The bones are being placed in paper boxes one at a time and removed to a conservation laboratory where each bone will be surface cleaned, soaked in a weak lime solution and dried. They won’t be scoured or even cleaned as thoroughly as restorers cleaned the hanging elements like the chandelier and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms

The biggest concern is that over time the pyramids have suffered damage at the base. The deformation of the lower layers poses a danger to the entire structure and the deconstruction will hopefully help identify the root cause of the problem. It could largely be a matter of weight, the towers being too massive for the bones on the bottom to bear. Endemic mold and moisture also play a part.

It’s already clear that some of the bones have been irreparably damaged by moisture and will have to be replaced. What material will be used is undetermined at this juncture. Bones from a neighboring church with a small ossuary could be borrowed, or copies could be made out of mineral materials.

In order to rebuild the pyramids so they look exactly the same as they used to, experts will have to replace and shore up damaged parts in ways that do not alter the original design. The firm Nase Historie has been engaged to scan the bone towers using photogrammetry, thousands of high-resolution images mapped and stitched together to create an extremely accurate 3D model.

Conservators estimate that it will take at least four months to dismantle each tower, but that’s speculative at this point. Nobody really knows what’s in these pyramids, the real number of bones, whether there is any debris or osseous material shoring up the intact bones. Being able to count precisely how many bones were used to create these towers is another unique opportunity afforded by the restoration project.

As restorers work on the towers, visitors continue to be allowed access to the chapel. A dust-proof barrier separates the pyramids and chapel, but there are windows in it to give people a chance to see the reconstruction.

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Unique deviant burial found in Sicily

The remains of an adult male were discovered in 2013 in Piazza Armerina, a medieval village in central Sicily that was built over the ruins of a Roman latifundia, one of the immense agricultural estates that Sicily was largely divided into by the 2nd century. The body was isolated, not part of a cemetery or burial ground. As a matter of fact, the remains weren’t even in or near a settlement as they date to the between the first and second half of the 11th century, a time when the area was still unpopulated. The village’s first appearance on the historical record dates to 1122.

The skeleton was buried face down in a shallow grave in a southwest to northeast orientation. The right arm was extended along the side of the body. The left arm was extended over the back; the ulna was found resting on the left pelvis. The feet were so close together that it’s highly likely they were tied. There were no funerary objects found in the pit.

The isolation, orientation and position of the body mark it as a deviant or atypical burial that it not in concert with Christian, Jewish or Muslim funerary practices. The skeleton is almost complete and in excellent condition, allowing researchers to study this unique burial in detail using a combination of osteoarchaeological analysis, forensic anthropology techniques and technology to study the remains.

They identified six stab wounds on the sternum with the shape of the blade tip impressed on the bone. The weapon appears to have been a single-edged knife or dagger, a close-combat blade that nonetheless managed to pierce the thorax and penetrate the posterior sternum from entry points on the victim’s back. A large bone fragment on the right side of the sternum was dislodged when the blade was twisted with significant force.

To get an accurate picture of the dynamics of this fatal stabbing, researchers used 3D modeling technology. They created a virtual model of the chest, the entry points and angles of penetration. They were steep, indicating the assailant was standing behind the kneeling victim. As the blade went through the thorax into the breastbone, it probably punctured his lung and heart, killing him quickly.

The injury pattern is unique. There is nothing like it known in the archaeological record. It is not the result of hand-to-hand combat. There is no evidence of contact anywhere else on the victim’s chest, which almost certainly would have been present during the chaos of a fight.

There was no evidence of other injuries on the man’s vertebrae or ribs that would suggest that the man was involved in some kind of “uncontrolled” fight, said lead author Roberto Miccichè, an archaeologist at the University of Palermo in Italy.

The goal of the man’s killer, it seems, was to attack the victim in a “very effective and rapid way,” Miccichè said; in addition, the assailant likely knew human anatomy “very well.” In fact, the cuts were so clean and smooth, that the man may have been immobilized, perhaps with binding, Miccichè said.

The clear, deep stab wounds, the lack of defensive, uncontrolled action, the evidence of binding, particularly in the closeness of the feet, and the relative positions of aggressor and victim indicate this was an execution.

It is also the first thoroughly documented, archaeologically excavated deviant burial found in Sicily. A number of atypical burials have been recorded by archaeologists on the Italian mainland, but only one appears in the scientific literature for Sicily and it was not well-documented. Atypical burials are believed to have been employed for religious or magical reasons — like to prevent the dead from rising to harm the living — or as a form of post-mortem ostracism, a reflection of the deceased’s marginal position in the social order.

Researchers believe this death occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of Sicily in 1061. It was a period of turmoil, of social and political realignment as the island transitioned from Islamic to Norman rule.

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A Kidnapped Boy Becomes a Patron Saint

by Philip Jett

“My name is Patrick… I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen… I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others,” Saint Patrick revealed in two letters written in the fifth century called Saint Patrick’s Confessio.

Did you know that Saint Patrick was born outside Ireland with a name other than Patrick, and he professed to be an atheist in his youth? What’s more, he likely would not have become a saint nor have a day for us to celebrate if he had not been kidnapped.

My maternal grandmother was a McQueen (Irish) and my paternal grandfather was a Jett (English), thus explaining my lifelong internal conflict. Notwithstanding my Irish blood, I must confess that my only thoughts of Saint Patrick have come while drinking green beer during March Madness. I do not believe I am alone in this ritual. After all, I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and although it is often called the “Protestant Vatican” and the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” it isn’t due to the citizenry’s collective knowledge of the Catholic saints, I can assure you.

I can state with confidence, however, that St. Patrick’s Day is the only cultural and religious holiday where folks drink barrels of green beer, display shamrocks and dancing leprechauns, and adorn themselves in bright green attire and plastic jewelry. Actually, light blue was once the holiday’s color until green replaced it during the eighteenth century. Tradition has it that green makes a person invisible to mischievous pinching leprechauns, and the shamrock derives from the belief that Saint Patrick taught the Holy Trinity using a three-leafed clover.

St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most celebrated days in the world, even observed in countries with little if any Irish heritage, though nowhere more than in the United States whose Irish-descended population is seven times greater than that of Ireland. The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the Americas took place in Boston in 1737, and the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world took place in 1762 in New York City (Ireland didn’t have a parade until 1903). General George Washington granted his troops the day off for St. Patrick’s Day in 1780. And the tradition and celebrations still continue, where cities like Boston, New York, Savannah, and Chicago with its green river have ostentatious parades embraced by hundreds of thousands of participants. Simply staggering . . . the scope of the parades, that is.

So, who is Saint Patrick? He was born Maewyn Succat around 385 A.D. in what is believed to be modern-day Wales or Scotland to Roman parents (Calpurnius and Conchessa) of some nobility. Maewyn, a self-described atheist, frolicked about unstrained by Christianity during his youth. Just before his sixteenth birthday, Irish pirates, who frequently trolled and raided villages along the western coast of Roman Britannia (Wales and England), took Maewyn captive. They sold him to Meliuc, a sheep owner in what is now County Antrim, Northern Ireland. For six years, Maewyn tended his master’s sheep on Slemish Mountain as a slave. During this time of suffering, Maewyn recalled later that he prayed to God one hundred times each day and then again each night until, around the age of twenty-two, he believed he heard a voice interrupting the night’s bleating: “It is well that you fast; soon you will go to your own country… See, your ship is ready.”

Since peyote is not indigenous to the pastures of Slemish Mountain, Maewyn believed the voice could only be divine and so he humbly obeyed. Energized by his new-born Christian faith, he trekked two hundred miles across Ireland to Wexford where he boarded a ship bound for Britannia. There, he was reunited with his parents. After much feasting, Maewyn’s spirit moved him to travel to Roman Gallia (in France) where he studied and became a priest. He was thereafter known as Patricius (Latin for Patrick). Patrick said he soon experienced a vision of a man named Victoricus beckoning him back to Ireland to preach the gospel: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” Once again, Patrick’s parents lost him to Ireland, except this time as a missionary and later a bishop.

While some Christians already lived in Gaelic Ireland, Patrick is credited with converting thousands and making Christianity the predominant religion in Ireland. Many years after Patrick’s death, purportedly on March 17, 461 A.D, Patrick was bestowed the moniker, “Saint Patrick,” even though he wasn’t officially canonized by a pope at that time, a process that didn’t come until the twelfth century. He is believed to be buried at Hill of Down, in what is now Down Cathedral, in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.

Young Maewyn endured much suffering during his captivity, as it is with most kidnappings. Yet, his suffering and resulting faith provided him the strength as Patrick to inspire the Irish people and become their patron saint. For the rest of us, we received one heck of a crazy holiday.

PHILIP JETT is a former corporate attorney who has represented multinational corporations, CEOs, and celebrities from the music, television, and sports industries. He is the author of The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty. Jett now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Getting to the Moon: How Science Fiction Became Reality

by Brian Clegg

Getting to the Moon

As soon as it was realized that the Moon was more than a light in the sky, the idea of journeying to it became appealing, though early narratives of lunar travel now seem quaint in the extreme. Writers had no idea of the kind of distances involved. For that matter, they had no reason to think that air would not be readily available.

The earliest known example of a trip to the Moon stretches back 1900 years to Lucian of Samosata, a Roman living in Syria. His aim seems to have been to take a sneaky satirical poke at the Odyssey and other works of fantasy, presented as a kind of reality at the time. Lucian’s book True History was the equivalent of the Harvard Lampoon Tolkien parody, Bored of the Rings. Despite this, True History contains many features that would become prime themes of science fiction. After the first part of their journey, Lucian and his companions are lifted into the sky by a whirlwind which carries them to the surface of the Moon. Once there, the adventurers are caught up in a war between the kings of the Moon and the Sun over who should have the right to colonize Venus.

Getting to the Moon

“Fliegende Wandersmann 1659” by Unknown (Life time: Unknown) – Original publication: Wolfenbuttel, GermanyImmediate source: Francis Godwin, Der Fliegende Wandersmann nach dem Mond: Faksimiledruck der ersten Deutsche Ubersetzung Wolfenbuttel 1659.
Image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.com/

True History is unusual in surviving literature for the next 1500 years. But a whole list of fantastical journeys were made to the Moon in fiction from the seventeenth century onward. One of the first to write such a book was English bishop Francis Godwin who penned The Man in the Moone in the 1620s, though it wasn’t published until after his death in 1638. This was when Galileo was getting into trouble over his support for putting the Sun at the center of the universe. While Galileo was facing the Inquisition, Godwin wrote a story that went against the Aristotelian cosmology of the day. His Moon was very different from Aristotle’s perfect sphere: an inhabited world not unlike the Earth, with seas in the dark areas that we still give the name “mare” (sea in Latin). Godwin put the transport in the hand of gansas, an imaginary breed of swan that migrated to the Moon each year. On the other hand, he did describe the way his hero lost weight as he flew away from the Earth.

Getting to the Moon; Ten Billion Tomorrows

“Kopernikus, Gilbert, Galilee, Kepler” by various, see abovemontage by JBarta – Derived from:File:Nikolaus Kopernikus.jpg – Author:unknown – License:PDFile:William Gilbert.jpg – Author:Granger – License:PDFile:Galilee.jpg – Author:Ottavio Leoni – License:PDFile:Johannes Kepler 1610.jpg – Author:unknown – License:PD.
Image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.com/

If hitching a ride with a flock of migrating birds seems unlikely, it is as nothing compared with Somnium, written by astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1634. In this, Kepler has his fictional hero cross a bridge of darkness, used by lunar demons to make the journey to Earth during eclipses. Despite this, Kepler too threw in some interesting thinking about the experience of being on the Moon. He realized that when looking back at the Earth he would see it in the lunar sky like a huge, dramatic moon. And, aware of the thinning of the atmosphere at high altitudes, he noted that the space travelers needed to have damp sponges pushed into their nostrils to breathe.

Surprisingly, though, the most scientific means of transport used to reach the Moon in this period came from Cyrano de Bergerac. We think of Cyrano as a fictional character because of the eponymous play from the end of the nineteenth century by French writer Edmond Rostand, but de Bergerac was a real seventeenth century playwright.

Getting to the Moon; Ten Billion TOmorrows

“Houghton STC 11943.5 – The Man in the Moone, title” by Francis Godwin (author) –  Houghton Library, Harvard University Houghton Library at Harvard.
Image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.com/

In his first person novel L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (The Other World: or the States and Empires of the Moon), Cyrano’s initial attempt at getting off the Earth involved flawed scientific thinking. He noted that the Sun made dew disappear, “drawing the fluid” off the surface. So, he surmised, a collection of bottles containing dew, attached to the astronaut with strings, should lift him into space. When the bottles didn’t work, a group of soldiers attached fireworks to Cyrano’s contraption, blasting him off using rocket power. Admittedly by luck, Cyrano had hit on the first vaguely realistic technological approach.

Plenty of other stories written over the next couple of centuries made use of the Moon as a backdrop to play with the possibilities of new social orders (or to mock existing ones), but the turning point from fantasy to science fiction was the arrival of the twin titans Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Neither made use of realistic science in their respective books – but they brought the theme into the front rank of popular fiction. Within another 30 years, the science in space travel fiction was converging on reality.

Since our first true voyage to the Moon it has become a less popular destination in fiction. Yet that’s a shame. Every moonlit night we are presented with a reminder that we still haven’t truly conquered our nearest neighbor. The Moon has allure still as a destination for fiction and reality alike.

BRIAN CLEGG is the author of Ten Billion Tomorrows: How Science Fiction Technology Became Reality and Shapes the Future. He holds a physics degree from Cambridge and has written regular columns, features, and reviews for numerous magazines. He lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and two children.

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A Passion for Paris: Alexandre Dumas and the Ghosts of Romantic Fiction

by David Downie

Romantic-era novelist Alexandre Dumas may well have created the world’s first fiction factory in Paris in the mid-1800s, a factory populated by ghosts. How many of Dumas’ hundreds of millions of readers realize that the plots and treatments for some of his mega-bestselling novels were written by others, one man in particular, a man sometimes known as the “fourth musketeer?”

I had heard vaguely about such allegations before I set out to spend time with Dumas while researching my latest book on Paris, Romanticism and romance. Then a curious thing happened.

While visiting the “Romantic corner” at my favorite graveyard anywhere—Père-Lachaise Cemetery—I stood wondering whether instead of being in the Panthéon across town Alexandre Dumas would not have been happier here. After all here were his friends novelists Honoré de Balzac and Gérard de Nerval, painter Eugène Delacroix and scores of other Great Romantics.

pere lachaise cemetery in the 20th arrondissement division
Maquet’s tomb at Père Lachaise in Paris. This image is in the public domain via Paris Cemetaries.

When I wandered downhill from Balzac’s handsome tomb (it’s topped with a bronze sculpture of the perennial, prolific writer) perhaps 50 yards south in Division 52 I stopped to admire another fine tomb I’d never noticed before.

It turned out to be the resting place of fellow Romantic and prolific writer Auguste Maquet. Who was he? Adorned with a low-relief effigy of Maquet the tomb was also carved with the titles of books Maquet had written—or had supposedly written. I read the titles and read them again.

Mustachioed and topped with a head of flowing locks, had Maquet really written or perhaps co-written The Count of Montecristo and The Three Musketeers? Surely those were the masterpieces of Alexandre Dumas?

Alexander Dumas
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). This image is in the public domain via Wikipaedia.

What I soon learned is Maquet and Dumas actually began writing novels together, but Maquet’s name never appeared on these books. Their de facto partnership evolved into a complex ghosting relationship, with Maquet writing plots, treatments and first drafts, and Dumas filling out, polishing and improving their books—though sometimes he only changed a few lines or words. The pair collaborated on nearly 20 books and a number of successful plays.

The more successful the Dumas-Maquet team became, the more ghosts were needed. Maquet was not the only writer flanking Dumas. There were many other ghosts. The difference between the lesser phantoms and Maquet was fundamental: Maquet and Dumas had begun on an equal footing. It was their publisher’s decision to use Dumas’ and not Maquet’s name that determined their fates.

At the time many in the publishing business knew Maquet did much of the writing for Dumas. That is why, after many years of working together, Maquet demanded to be paid a share of royalties and also wanted credit: he demanded his name be put on the cover of their books. Dumas refused. Maquet sued Dumas three times and finally won a lawsuit. The settlement ensured Maquet would be comfortably off: he received royalties and back payments. But his name was kept off the book covers. Why?

The answer is simple: branding. Publishing was a sophisticated business in Paris even in the early and mid-1800s. Once an author’s brand had been established it was in everyone’s commercial interest to continue with it.

Maquet was no slouch. A thoroughgoing Romantic with a capital “R” he was a poet, playwright and well-known party boy in his day. He published 13 novels and 7 plays in his own name. Handsome, rakish and always well-turned-out in the style of a Paris dandy, Maquet was a regular at the literary salon where Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval hung out among other wild, spirited Romantics. Maquet knew the greatest Romantic of them all, Victor Hugo.

Curiously, Auguste Maquet’s many novels written under his own name—all of them very much like those he wrote with or for Alexandre Dumas—were not as successful as those of his flamboyant partner.

Is that why Maquet disappeared from the radar screens? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps Dumas’ wit, humor and insouciant flair were the essential ingredient in their co-written works. Dumas had a way with people and publicity. He was charismatic and unstoppable.

Even when everyone knew the secret truth about his relationship with Dumas, Maquet never enjoyed the popularity or fame of his rival but he became well-off and lived comfortably. He died unknown and is only now being rediscovered: a street in Paris is named for him, and a movie about him came out in 2010.

Dumas, instead, was famous, beloved and revered but wound up ruined and bankrupt. Dumas died a pauper. Maquet thrived but disappeared. Dumas like Victor Hugo and the nation’s great and good is buried in the Panthéon. No other French writer has sold as many books as Dumas—and they continue to sell. He has a cult following but who remembers the roller-coaster of his life?

David Downie, a native San Franciscan, lived in New York, Providence, Rome and Milan before moving to Paris in the mid-1980s. He divides his time between France and Italy. His travel, food and arts features have appeared in print publications worldwide. Downie author of A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light,is co-owner with his wife Alison Harris of Paris, Paris Tours custom walking tours of Paris, Burgundy, Rome & the Italian Riviera. He is the author of other critically acclaimed work such as Paris, Paris, and the bestselling Paris to the Pyrenees.

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