Friday, 27 February 2009

Sequel to Sale of Gandhi’s Spectacles

by Kathryn Hadley
The auction of Gandhi’s glasses, pocket watch and sandals, as well as a bowl and plate, by Antiquorum Auctioneers in New York on March 4th and 5th was announced a couple of weeks ago. The sale of the personal belongings of a man renowned for his ascetic lifestyle and life philosophy sparked, however, considerable controversy. The announcement fuelled opposition in India, where some of Gandhi’s followers have requested that the buyer put the objects in the public domain and a group of MPs have demanded their return to India. One minister suggested that the government should enter the auction and buy the items arguing that they formed part of India’s heritage.

Tushar Gandhi, a great-grandson of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, has, however, recently launched a ‘people’s initiative’, a popular appeal to Indians to raise the necessary funds to buy the objects in order to thereafter preserve them in a museum. He has argued, on similar grounds to some Indian ministers and followers of Gandhi, that the objects constitute part of Indian heritage and should not be sold to wealthy collectors.

‘These objects are very close identities of someone we call the 'Father of the
Nation' […] We have to bring them back’.

The director of the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, Varsha Das, further agued:
‘[Gandhi] was never in favor of this kind of commercialism...and I think if we
become so possessive about Mahatma Gandhi he would only be pained’.

It is expected that Gandhi’s glasses alone will fetch £30,000 (approximately $43,000) and the winning bid may well be higher. Tushar Gandhi has so far raised $3,010, just over £2,000, a mere fifteenth of the expected sale price, and has expressed his disappointment with the response from the government and corporate sector. Although he believes that the government can finance the purchase, he wishes the money to come primarily from popular initiative, in keeping with the ‘Gandhian spirit’.

‘The government can easily do it but if we were to do this through a people's
initiative it would be a much more Gandhian thing to do’.

Also in keeping with his great-grandfather’s attitude, Tushar Gandhi, believes that he may still be able to raise the necessary funds:
‘I'm an incurable optimist. Miracles happen’.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

We Need Your History-Themed Songs!

by Derry Nairn

I attended a local open-mic gig last night. Nothing strange about that, you might say. But as I sat there, soaking up a brilliantly silly psychedelic-folk musings of an open-mic singer on the life of 18th century English poet William Blake, it struck me that history must have inspired countless thousands of pop songs. And so, here, in no particular order of importance, are the HT blog's selection of the best of the best. Or, at least, what our addled brains could come up with late on a Thursday evening...

First up, Boney M's ra-ra-Rasputin, probably the most infectious beat that 19th century Tsarist history has ever, or will ever, know. Check out the YouTube video above for footage of disco's finest hitting Red Square, sometime circa 1976.

Civil rights struggles have inspired much music on both sides of the Atlantic. Here is one of the most powerful and poetic treatments of the subject, Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit ("blood on the leaves"), an allegorical account of a lynching in the deep south.

Another portrayal of American 20th century now, though a decidedly more upbeat one. Arlo Guthrie's 18 minute comic epic Alice's Restaurant deals with the ordeals of a hapless narrator who is unwittingly conscripted into the US Army for service in the Vietnam war. Very funny, if you can last until the end!

Next up, Don McLean's American Pie. If the internet is anything to go by, this is probably the most cited pop song about history out there. As the singer's official website says, the song deals with

the transition from light (the innocence of childhood) to the darker realities of adulthood... started with the death of Buddy Holly and culminated with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and the start of a more difficult time for America.

I'll confess, being from Ireland has shaded this list somewhat with a touch of green. But I can't ignore songs as powerful as this, the Cranberries' Zombie, an acutely aware piece of pop music, both historically and politically. The songs' lyrics refer to the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the event that established southern Irish independence. The video, meanwhile, directly links that important historical event to the Northern Irish Troubles.

Now I don't want to over colour this list with too many Irish historical references, but some mention too must be made of that most ubiquitous of Irish bands, U2. There are more than a couple Bono & Edge-penned songs that would qualify here: the Mothers of the Disappeared was influenced by Bono's experience of central American dictatorships and the name of the Joshua Tree album has biblical connotations.

Sunday Bloody Sunday gets our vote, however, because of the dual historical references at work. Not only did U2 release it less than ten years after the events in Derry / Londonderry, but much of the lyrics could also be applied to the other infamous Bloody Sunday of history, in Russia in 1905.

OK, OK, Irish again, I know, but I promise this is the last reference to my homeland. And this is one for the art historians out there. In 1991, A House released Endless Art, surely one of the strangest songs to grace the pop charts anywhere. The lyrics largely consist of the lead singer reading out the names, birth and death dates of around 120 famous singers and artists. A House don't just sing in chronological or thematic order either. A typical line reads: "Beethoven / Bach / Brahms / Elvis Presley...". Brilliant!

And that's it. We would love to hear of any songs that we have missed. Or perhaps you disagree with our selection? Either way, drop us a line.

And in the meantime, don't forget to read Richard Welch's excellent Rock'n'Roll and Social Change from our 1990 archive.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Flight of the Ostriches!

by Kathryn Hadley

Two 285-year-old life size sculptures of ostriches have been taken for restoration from Myddelton House in the Lee Valley Regional Park as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project. The ostriches were originally commissioned by Captain Gough MP and director of the East India Company for his home at Gough Park, Enfield in 1724. They arrived at Myddelton House in 1899 after the Bowles family bought Gough Park. They have been displayed in many locations during their time at Myddelton House and Brigadier Andrew Parker-Bowles has recalled fond memories of playing with them in the garden of his great uncle. In the 1960s, however, they were pushed into a river by vandals and suffered considerable damage when they were subsequently retrieved. The Victorian Kitchen Gardens created by E. A. Bowles are also being restored as part of the project and a visitor centre is being created in the stable block, where the ostriches and other artefacts will be displayed upon their return.

In the words of Paul Roper, the Special Projects Officer for the Lee Valley Regional Park, who is overseeing the two year project:

‘you have to see these fantastic statues to believe them, they have tremendous
character and are a much loved part of Myddelton House and we are all looking
forward to their return’.

Myddelton House was home to one of the twentieth century’s greatest gardeners, E. A. Bowles, who devoted much of his life to the creation of the garden. Bowles was born at Myddelton House in 1865. He studied for the priesthood at Cambridge, where he joined the Cambridge Entomological Society. Following the death of his sister and brother of consumption in 1887, however, he returned to his parents at Myddelton House and abandoned professional priesthood. He devoted himself to charitable work, helping the local church and to the creation of a garden at Myddelton House. In 1897, he joined the Royal Horticultural Society, of which he was vice-president from 1926 to 1954, and in 1916 he was awarded the highest honour the RHS can bestow, the Victoria Medal of Honour. Bowles published numerous articles and papers about various plants as well as three books about his garden. He died in 1954, just week before his eighty-ninth birthday.

The E. A. Bowles of Myddelton House Society was founded to further interest in the life and work of E. A. Bowles and the conservation of his garden at Myddelton House. Further information about the society and Bowles himself is available on

For more information on Myddelton House Gardens, visit

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Is France still haunted by its past?

This file is in the public domain, because it is a photograph taken by en:Heinrich Hoffmann; these photographs were seized by the United States government, and are public domain owing to their status as seized Nazi property.<br />

by Kathryn Hadley

Both the French and the British media reported positively on the ruling of the French council of state, last Monday, which recognised the responsibility of the French Vichy state in the deportation of Jews during the German occupation. The French newspaper Le Figaro notably quoted Serge Klarsfeld, the president of the association Fils et filles des déportés juifs de France and the vice-president of the Fondation pour la Memoire de la Shoah, who claimed that he was satisfied with the ruling and deemed that compensation was sufficient.

‘La France montre maintenant qu'elle est à l'avant-garde des pays qui assument
leur passé, ce n'était pas le cas jusque dans les années 90’.

Klarsfeld went so far as to state that France was in the vanguard in terms of acknowledging and having come to terms with some of the more shameful aspects of its past.

Such positive reactions to the ruling were, however, not unanimous. Have the victims of the deportations and their families really been granted adequate compensation? Is the ruling not instead evidence of an attempt by the Conseil d’Etat to distance itself from this shameful episode of French history?

Shortly after last Monday’s ruling, an article was published on, in which the author accused the council of state of historical revisionism and argued that compensation was far from sufficient. The author, Stephanie Hare, is currently researching the career of Maurice Papon, the French civil servant, who was secretary general for police of the Prefecture of Bordeaux during the Second World War and accused, in 1998, of crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of 1,560 Jews. According to Hare, the statement released by the council of state is:

‘full of historical revisionism, minimising its language and making a pitiful
attempt to claim that compensation has been delivered’

After the liberation, the Gaullist consensus on the Vichy government was that it was some sort of a ‘blip’, a ‘parenthesis’, and marked a break with French republican history. By its very name, the Vichy Regime, or the ‘French State’, was not part of the continuity of French republican history; it was an interlude between the Third Republic (1870-1940) and the Fourth Republic, founded in 1946. The argument that the Vichy government was illegal and illegitimate was both convenient and necessary in order to justify the legitimacy of the Gaullist regime. The French republic had been kept alive by de Gaulle and his followers in London and the French empire. Recognition of the legitimacy of the Vichy government implied an assumption of collective responsibility for policies of deportation and collaboration, but also recognition of the enduring impact of the regime in postwar France. After the liberation, the focus of the Gaullist government was thus on postwar reconstruction, regeneration and dynamism.

According to Hare, the council of state’s ruling falls straight into this revisionist interpretation of the occupation by claiming that the

‘persecutions [of Jews], in total rupture with the values and principles […] as
consecrated by the declaration of the Rights of Man and by republican values,
provoked exceptional damages and an extreme gravity’.

However, revisionist interpretations are now out of date. In the second half of the twentieth century, historiography moved beyond the Gaullist myth of French heroism and resistance during the occupation to highlight the continuities between the Third Republic and the Vichy regime, in particular with regard to discrimination and internment. Hare notably quotes the French historian Gerard Noiriel and Robert Paxton, author of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, who remained one of the main authorities on the Vichy regime for a considerable time. The latest research now points towards more mitigated views of the occupation, which represented neither a total break with French republicanism, nor merely continuity. The period should instead be viewed in shades of grey, in which the lines between collaboration and resistance were often blurred and difficult to define.

Hare’s second criticism of the ruling is that it does not offer adequate compensation – indeed the council of state ruled that the government’s measures for compensation were sufficient. The statement defines the actions of the Vichy regime as ‘fautes’, mistakes or errors. From Hare’s point of view, however, the state’s participation in the deportations should be defined as a ‘crime’, partly because the term ‘fautes’ is not in line with French law, in which the Vichy’s treatment of Jews is defined as a crime against humanity. In 1998, Maurice Papon was thus convicted of crimes against humanity and referring to the Jewish persecution as ‘fautes’ is, in Hare’s view, an attempt to claim that France’s Jewish victims have been compensated enough. Her study of the Papon trial revealed, however, that, in the end, he was only found guilty of the illegal arrest of 37 people and the arbitrary detainment of 53 others – ‘compensation, in the form of official recognition, for the suffering of 90 people, or 0.12% of the 75,721 Jews deported from France’.

Nevertheless, the issue of how much compensation should, and can in practice, be offered remains. To how many generations should the government issue compensation? Which, and how, ‘victim’ groups of French history should be given compensation? Almost in contradiction with her argument, Hare herself highlights a considerable obstacle to issuing compensation to all the victims of Vichy policies: one of the reasons why such a small proportion of Papon’s victims were granted compensation is because lawyers were simply unable to locate the relatives of the other victims. It appears, however, that if Jewish victims and their relatives were that unhappy with the compensation that they had, or had not, received, would they not have taken advantage of Papon’s trial, which was given considerable coverage in the media, to put themselves forward and ensure that they were found and heard?

Quote of the Day: Peter the Great's Hairy Decree

Hence forth, in accordance with this, His Majesty's decree, all court attendants... provincial service men, government officials of all ranks, military men, all the members of the wholesale merchants' guild and members of the guilds purveying of our household must shave their beards and moustaches.

Tsar Peter the Great. Although this brought Peter and many of his court into conflict with Orthodox teaching on the wearing of facial hair the decree, dated 16th January 1705, was largely adhered to.

Read more about the historical significance of hairstyles in our article Scissors or Sword: The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut

Monday, 23 February 2009

Controversial Reopening of Iraq’s National Museum

by Kathryn Hadley

The Iraq Museum in Baghdad reopened today, almost six years after it was pillaged in May 2003, in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. At the time, approximately 15,000 artefacts were looted; only 6,000 of which have currently been recovered. Coalition forces did not receive orders to intervene and allegedly stood by as Iraq’s heritage was pillaged. The recovered treasures went on display, today, in a special wing of the museum. The museum was symbolically reopened in July 2003 in an effort to show that some of its riches remained, but has been closed ever since.

The museum’s collections, which include treasures dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, are a source of national pride. At the opening ceremony, after thanking the countries involved in the campaign to recover the museum’s artefacts, such as Syria and Iran, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki explained:

‘We want to make our museum a place which will be at the forefront of
international museums. There's a long road ahead of us.’

Artefacts from the museum have notably been found in South America and Washington has provided $13 million to help restore the museum. Only eight of the museum’s twenty wings are, however, currently open and Al-Maliki explained that a large-scale international campaign would still be necessary in order to recover many of the museum’s lost treasures.

The museum’s director Amira Eidan explained:

‘We are going to inaugurate the Iraqi museum now, but don't expect it to be what
it was before when 26 wings told the story of Iraq through the ages […]. We have
focused in particular on exhibiting the antiquities looted in 2003 but which
have been recovered.’

Over the past six years, the museum has gradually recovered some of its treasures, which include sculptures, gold jewellery, decorative silverware and ceramic bowls. In November 2003, more than 800 looted artefacts were returned to the museum, including a 2300 B.C. copper Bassetki statue and about 820 other smaller objects from different periods. At the time, the ministry of culture issued an amnesty for all citizens who returned looted artefacts. In 2005, the FBI listed the recovery of missing artefacts from Iraq’s National Museum as one of the ‘Top Ten Art Crimes’ that it sought to solve. Last December, Iraqi soldiers seized 228 allegedly stolen antiquities and arrested seven members of a gang suspected of trafficking such items. In two other raids in southern Iraq’s Basra province, soldiers discovered a further 168 artefacts and arrested five people and also seized sixty other artefacts, detaining two people.

There is still considerable work to be done and the current situation rests on two main fault lines. If renewed violence erupts, the collection could, first of all, be endangered once again. Moreover, today’s opening was subject to fierce dispute between Iraqi government departments. On the one hand, the department of tourism and antiquities desired a ceremonious opening as a symbol of Iraq’s recovery from years of sectarian violence and to show that it could secure its people as well as its cultural artefacts and tourists. The ministry of culture, however, argued that it was too early, that the political situation remained too precarious and that the collections were not properly catalogued or displayed and were not up to modern standards. The date for the reopening of the museum was still being debated at the beginning of last week and today’s ceremony almost did not happen. Iraq’s minister of state for tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Jibouri, explained:

‘Some factions tried to politicise the inauguration of the museum, while others
underestimated Iraqi abilities in archaeology. Still others tried to delay the
opening on the pretext of security and potential hazards.’

Reuters notably published an article on Wednesday about the dispute between the ministry of culture and the department of tourism and antiquities.
The Iraq Museum was founded in 1923 when it occupied a small space in Al-Qushla building. As the museum's collections expanded, it was transferred to a building in the Al-Salhiya district of Bagdad, which it still occupies today. It was inaugurated in November 1966. For more information on the museum, visit its website

For background information of the US invasion of Iraq, read our article Coming as Liberators

For information on the unexpected consequences of US participation in military conflict, notably in Iraq, read our article The US and the Unintended Consequences of War

Friday, 20 February 2009

French Recognition of Responsibility in Deportation of Jews

by Kathryn Hadley

The French council of state, the Conseil d’Etat, recognised, on Monday, the responsibility of the French Vichy government in the deportation of Jews during the German occupation. The ruling is due to be published in the Journal Officiel de la Republique Francaise, the official gazette of the French Republic, thus establishing, for the first time, a legal recognition of France’s role in the deportations.

The council of state recognised the responsibility of the French state in the arrests, internments and transit of Jews and admitted that it had acted independently, and not simply under pressure and force by the German authorities. Between 1942 and 1944, over 75,000 Jews were deported, including 11,000 children; only 3,000 ever returned.

‘Le Conseil d’Etat reconnaît la faute et la responsabilité de l’Etat en raison
des dommages causés par les agissements qui, ne résultant pas d’une contrainte
directe de l’occupant, ont permis ou facilité la déportation à partir de la
France de personnes victimes de persécutions antisémites […] Ces persécutions,
en rupture absolue avec les valeurs et principes, notamment de dignité de la
personne humaine, consacrés par la Déclaration des droits de l’homme et par la
tradition républicaine, ont provoqué des dommages exceptionnels et d’une gravité

The ruling was prompted by a request for compensation to a local Paris tribunal, by the daughter of a deportee for the conditions in which her father died in Auschwitz and for her personal suffering during and after the occupation. The Paris court then referred to the council of state for advice over the liability of the state.

The Conseil d’Etat concluded that decisions regarding individual requests for compensation, which currently represent almost 400 cases, lay with the junior courts. Following a review of the various measures and laws issued since the liberation, it ruled, however, that on a national level the French government’s measures designed for the compensation of the victims of the deportations, both morally and materially, were sufficient. It argued that the state respected European norms for compensation and that no further measures would be issued.

The ruling was allegedly well-accepted by Jewish groups in France. Serge Klarsfeld, a top French lawyer, the president of the association Les fils et les filles des déportes juifs de France and the vice president of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, claimed that the ruling was satisfactory and that existing mesures to compensate for the victims of the deportations were also sufficient.

Chirac was the first French president to recognise, in 1995, forty years after the events, the responsibility of the French state in the deportation of Jews in France during the occupation. His statement marked an important stage in the history of French official recognition of some of the darker aspects of its past and sparked other groups, which had also been the victims of various episodes of French history, to issue similar demands for recognition and compensation. For example, the demand for official recognition by the harkis, Algerian nationals who fought on the French side during the Algerian War of Independence, was notably prompted by Chirac’s move, in 1995.

Recognition of some of the past errors of the French state raises, however, a number of issues. Firstly, it has, to a degree sparked a trend towards a ‘victimisation’ of history, which is written by the 'victims' of history, rather than by the victors and 'great' historical figures. Moreover, once such a trend has started it is difficult to then know how to, and be able to, draw the line. Once one 'victim' group has been granted recognition, how does one then justify turning down another group's call for recognition? By arguing that they were not victim enough? Lastly, from a material point of view, demands for recognition often go hand in hand with demands for pecuniary compensation and malheureusement the resources of the French state, or any state, are not endless.

For the full text of the ruling by the Conseil d’Etat, visit their website

For more information on Vichy France, read our article Sins of the Fathers
For more information on the harkis and their fight for recognition, read our article Orphans of History

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Chinese Treasures on Loan to Taiwan: a Sino-Taiwanese Rapprochement?

by Kathryn Hadley

Just before Christmas, China sent Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, two giant pandas, as a gift to Taiwan. The move was widely reported as sign of improving relations between the two countries. The name of the pandas, meaning ‘reunion’, angered Taiwanese separatists, however, thus questioning the success of Chinese ‘panda diplomacy’. Nevertheless, Sino-Taiwanese relations may still be improving...

On Sunday, following the first ever formal and high-level visit by a delegation from Taipei’s National Palace Museum to its counterpart from Beijing’s Palace Museum, China agreed to lend 29 of its national treasures to Taiwan. It is the first such cultural exchange in 60 years, since the end of the Chinese civil war. The artefacts, dating from the Qing Dynasty which ruled China from 1616 to 1911, are planned to be displayed for three months in a joint exhibition at the National Palace Museum in Taipei at the end of the year. The exhibition will focus on Emperor Yongzheng, who ruled China from 1722 to 1735, and will feature portraits of the emperor and his concubines from Beijing’s Museum.

Between them the museums are believed to hold the world’s most precious collection of Chinese relics. The collection in Taiwan was formed for the most part when the nationalist party retreated to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war. Seven other agreements were also signed last weekend, notably regarding personnel exchange and cooperation in academic research, exhibits and publishing. Chou Kung-shin, the director of Taipei's National Palace Museum, then travelled to Shanghai to discuss the possibility of holding a joint exhibition for the 2010 World Expo.

Nevertheless, despite the Chinese loan, Taiwan remains reluctant to lend pieces from its own collections to Beijing for fear that they may never be returned. Chou Kung-shin argued that the main obstacles to displaying relics from Taipei on the mainland were legal because the Chinese law does not contain a ‘free of capture and seizure’ clause. Taipei National Palace Museum allegedly has very strict rules on antiques. In 1996, however, it lent artefacts to the United States on a ‘free of capture and seizure’ condition and later did the same to France, Germany and Austria.

Are the obstacles merely legal, or are there further limits to the Sino-Taiwanese rapprochement over the last few months?

The visit was notably reported on by China Daily on Monday.

For more information on the relationship between Taiwan and China, in particular the Taiwan rebellion of February 28th, 1947, read our article Taiwan Confronts Its Past

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Life of Meresamun

by Kathryn Hadley
The exhibition ‘The Life of Meresamun’ opened last week at the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago. Meresamun is believed to have been a singer priestess in 800BC at a temple in Thebes. Her remains are preserved in an unopened casket bearing an inscription of her name that was bought in Egypt in 1920 by the founder of the Oriental Institute, James Henry Breasted. In preparation for the exhibition, the casket was recently examined by CT scans to reveal its contents and over the past week, the Egyptian mummy consequently made the front pages of many newspapers.

Previous attempts to scan the contents of the casket in 1989 and 1991 were disappointing, only producing fuzzy images. The latest scans, however, revealed exceptionally clear and detailed images of the mummy, still wrapped in linen bandages. Scientists were notably able to view her remaining organs and what appear to be stones or pottery placed in her eye sockets. She was approximately five foot five inches tall and was in her late 20s or early 30s when she died. Her body showed no signs of childbearing and although her teeth were worn down, she appeared to be fit and healthy.

The American radiologist Professor Michael Vannier, who led the scanner team, described the results of the scans:
‘The pictures of the mummy are breathtaking, we could see subtle things - wear
patterns on the teeth, a clear view of the embalming incision, precise
indications of her age - that were not apparent before.’

‘The Life of Meresamun’ provides an insight into what her life would have been like both inside and outside the temple. The display includes objects that she would have used in the temple, such as a sistrum, an ivory clapper, a harp and cult vessels. The second part of the exhibition, which considers her life outside the temple and the social and legal rights of women in ancient Egypt, includes a display of dishes, jewellery and cosmetic vessels that may have been in her home, as well as objects related to religious rituals and cults. The exhibition includes a video reporting on the examination of the mummy and offers a virtual unwrapping and as well as 3D reconstructions of her face and body.

Above, are some of the objects on display in the exhibtion: the casket, a sistrum and a harp, similar to those that may have been used in the temple.

Neanderthals Part 3: Reconstruction of the Neanderthal Genome

by Kathryn Hadley

Do modern human beings descend from the Neanderthals? The question is subject to fierce debate and the Neanderthal is either categorised as a subspecies of humans (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) or as a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis). Because Homo sapiens and Neanderthals coexisted for thousands of years, there has been speculation that they possibly interbred and that modern humans consequently inherited Neanderthal DNA in their genome. Results of the latest scientific studies of the DNA of the Neanderthals (notably explained in an article published by BBC News) have revealed, however, that they never interbred with the ancestors of modern human beings.

The latest research is led by Professor Svante Paabo from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who has sought to reconstruct a complete Neanderthal genome. He announced the first draft of the genome at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Chicago from February 12th - 16th. The reconstructed genome was based on genetic information uncovered from fossils of the bones of a Neanderthal man who died approximately 38,000 years ago, discovered in Vindija Cave in Croatia. A second team led by Edward Rubin of the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has also been working on the same samples using different technological strategies in an attempt to define the genome.

Paabo’s team has sequenced three billion ‘letters’, which are believed to cover almost 63% of the Neanderthal genome. Recent research has focused on the FOXP2 gene, which is associated with speech and language in modern human beings. Studies of the Neanderthal genome have confirmed that Neanderthals had the FOXP2 gene. Chimpanzees also have the FOXP2 gene, which differs from the human version of the gene at two key points, and the preliminary results of Paabo’s research appear to reveal that the FOXP2 gene in Neanderthals had the same variations. There are, however, too many different genes to conclude from these similarities that Neanderthals could not speak at all.

Above all, the reconstruction of the Neanderthal genome will provide a basis upon which to carry out further comparative studies with the human genome. In Paabo’s words, it will provide clues about the genetic regions that make us ‘uniquely human’.

‘Now that we have the Neanderthal genome, we can look for areas in the human
genome where a change seems to have swept rapidly through us since we separated
from Neanderthals. There, something special may have happened in us. The cool
thing is, now that we have the whole genome, we can look for these changes
without bias.’

Paabo confessed that he did not expect, however, to find any clues in the genome to help solve the mystery of their extinction:
‘I don't think they became extinct due to something in their genome. It was
clearly something in their interaction with the environment or with modern
humans that caused them to be extinct. That will not be something you can see
from their DNA sequence.’

An article about Paabo’s address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is available on their website
A presentation of the Draft Version of the Neanderthal Genome as well as a video of the press conference in which Paabo first announced the results of his research, in Leipzig on February 12th, is available on the website of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
A comprehensive article about the project is available on the site Archaeology

The current topicality of the Neanderthals is particularly timely in the light of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species, this year. For more information on the conflict between supporters of Darwin’s theory of evolution and creationists, read our article latest America's Difficulty with Darwin.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

News of the Neanderthals

by Kathryn Hadley

The Neanderthals, who became extinct approximately 28,000 years ago, seem to be back in fashion! They have made the news at least three times over the past week. On Sunday February 7th, a recreation of their music was staged for the first time at the National Museum Cardiff. Results of recent research about their DNA and the cause of their extinction have been published over the last week: the Neanderthals may have been the victims of climate change and modern humans did not interbreed with the Neanderthals. We may not descend from them after all!

Last Friday, BBC News published an article reporting on the results of the latest research into the cause of the extinction of the Neanderthals, led by Professor Clive Finlayson, the director of the Gibraltar Museum, which suggested that climate change may have partly caused the death of the Neanderthals. In 2006, evidence from radiocarbon dates obtained from Neanderthal campfires in Gorham’s Cave, a natural shelter cut into the rock of Gibraltar, revealed that a small population of Neanderthals had survived, longer than was previously believed, in Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar. The discovery sparked further research and, according to Professor Finlayson’s latest conclusions, they may have lived until 24,000 years ago, almost 1,000 years later than previous estimates.

Nevertheless, even this small surviving population eventually became extinct. How and why? Previous research assigned a key role to the arrival of the Homo sapiens in the death of the Neanderthals. In the game of natural selection they were allegedly better equipped because they were more intelligent, had better technology and were more able to adapt. The latest research suggests, however, that the disappearance of the Neanderthals was an altogether more complex process which cannot be explained by one sole factor.

In his book The Humans Who Went Extinct, Finlayson notably explains how they disappeared at a time when sea surface temperatures were the coldest they had been for the previous 250,000 years. The phenomenon, known as the Heinrich Event 2, may have caused drought in Iberia, affecting supplies of food and water. The Heinrich Event 2 was part of a series of other Heinrich Events which may have affected the survival of Neanderthals in other parts of Europe.

In the words of Professor Chris Stringer, of London's Natural History Museum:
‘For many years, people assumed that it was an overall superiority of modern
humans: that modern humans were more intelligent, that they had better
technology, or had more effective adaptations. They thought that when they came
into Neanderthal regions, the Neanderthals very quickly disappeared, because
they were out-competed. What we've learnt recently, is that the story was much
more complicated. There probably wasn't a single cause of the Neanderthal
extinction. They may have died out in different places for different

Finlayson’s conclusions are, however, not unanimous. Chronis Tzedakis, a professor at the University of Leeds, has notably argued against Finlayson that the Neanderthals survived climate change. His research has sought to put archaeological evidence for the survival of the Neanderthals in its climatic context. Results have revealed, however, that radiocarbon dates and calendar dates do not always match up, leading to discrepancies that can be thousands of years apart. He notably discovered that evidence from Gorham’s Cave followed the Heinrich Events, thus suggesting that the Neanderthals must have survived the Heinrich Event 2.

In Tzedakis words:
‘What we have managed to show is, in a sense to simplify the equation, and I
think we can be reasonably certain it was not the effects of abrupt,
catastrophic climate change and Heinrich Events that were responsible. Now, that
does not mean that climate was not involved at all. It is entirely possible that
you had a combination of factors, perhaps competition from modern humans at a
time of limited resources. Because climate is deteriorating at that time - we
are moving into the glacial maximum. So resources are scarce; but, on the other
hand, climate alone is not the most parsimonious explanation. So I think the
jury is still out on the factors that may have been involved.’

Although, both scientists agree that the Heinrich Event 2 took place, whether or not it caused the death of the Neanderthals is still open to debate and remains an unsolved mystery. Finlayson’s last words seem, however, particularly appropriate: over focusing on the cause of their extinction, risks causing us to overlook the fact that the Neanderthals nevertheless survived for three or four thousand years.
‘As far as I see it, they are intelligent human beings. Different, but when has
difference meant superiority or inferiority? That's the take-home message I
would have about our understanding of the Neanderthals today. A parallel form of
being human. "It is quite sobering that at one point in the history of the
planet, there were different types of us of which one - possibly by chance -
survived. In other words, we might be the Neanderthals discussing this today.’

Part 3 of the Neanderthal story will follow tomorrow, with the latest results of genetic research! What evidence is there that modern human beings descend from the Neanderthals?

Monday, 16 February 2009

Gandhi’s Glasses For Sale

by Kathryn Hadley

Mahatma Gandhi’s iconic round spectacles are to be sold at auction in New York by Antiquorum Auctioneers on March 4th and 5th. Gandhi’s sandals and pocket watch as well as a bowl and plate are also up for sale. It is expected that his glasses will fetch £30,000, although the winning bid may well be higher. All the possessions are owned by an unnamed collector and have letters of authenticity.

Gandhi gave his spectacles to the Indian army Colonel H A Shiri Diwan Nawabin in the 1930s following his request for Gandhi’s advice, allegedly saying that they ‘gave [him] the vision to free India’. According to the auctioneers, the glasses were passed down through the colonel’s family and have a letter of provenance from his grandson. Gandhi is believed to have given his sandals to a British army officer in 1931 before talks in London about Indian self-rule to thank the officer for taking some photos of him. His Zenith pocket watch made in about 1910, his bowl and plate were all gifts to Gandhi’s grand-niece Abha Gandhi, who was his assistant for six years and in whose arms he died after he was shot.

Particular attention has been drawn to the auction because Gandhi had so few possessions. In an interview for The Telegraph Michelle Halpern from Antiquorum Auctioneers explained:

‘He didn't have much, so anything of his that comes up for sale is worth that
much more […] He's a hero not just in India but across the world for his
peaceful methods and the changes he made [...] The items were put together by a
collector who is now selling them and there has already been a great deal of
interest. I am sure the items will sell for more than the estimate.’

In October, the auction house, which specialises in timepieces, notably sold Albert Einstein’s Longines wristwatch for almost £352,000, twenty times the expected price.

In India, however, the sale has sparked considerable controversy. Some of Gandhi’s followers have requested that the buyer put the objects in the public domain and a group of MP’s have called for their return to India. One minister claimed Gandhi’s possessions were part of India’s heritage and suggested that the government should enter the auction and buy the items.

Ramachandra Rahi, secretary of the Gandhi Memorial Foundation in Delhi, told the Indo-Asian News Service:

‘All of Gandhi's things should be ideally placed in a museum or place where the
public has access to it. It should be available to future generations to see and
draw inspiration from.’

Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer told the Times of India:
‘It would be a pity if these items were to pass into private hands abroad and
leave India bereft of an important part of his legacy.’

The public auction of Gandhi’s few possessions appears ironically out of line with his modest lifestyle and almost disrespectful of his beliefs and ascetic philosophy. It is unlikely that Gandhi would have approved of the sale. There is still hope, however, that the objects may be withdrawn from sale. In 2007, Indian authorities notably successfully persuaded auctioneers to cancel the sale of a manuscript of an article written by Gandhi.

For more information on Gandhi’s legacy, read our article Makers of the Twentieth Century: M. K. Gandhi
For more information on Gandhi and Nehru’s visions of India at the time of independence, read our article Gandhi and Nehru - Frustrated Visionaries?

Friday, 13 February 2009

Queen launches new website

by Kathryn Hadley
A reception was organised, yesterday, at Buckingham Palace for the launch of a new version of the royal site, a website dedicated to the royal family and its history. The Queen presided over the event in the company of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web. The website is the third version of the initial site that was made live in 1997, which has been updated with new historical documents and video and audio footage.

New features include extracts from Queen Victoria’s journal, in which she notably describes, on January 14th, 1878, first using the newly invented telephone following a conversation with Alexander Graham Bell. ‘Professor Bell explained the whole process which is most extraordinary [...] It is rather faint and one must hold the tube close to one's ear.’

Queen Elizabeth’s first public speech, aged 14, a three minute recording on BBC radio broadcast on October 31st 1940, and addressed to the tens of thousands of children who had been evacuated during the Second World War, is also featured.

‘Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated
from your fathers and mothers. My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for
you as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love. We
would like to thank the kind people who have welcomed you to their homes. All of
us children who are still at home think continually of our friends and relations
who have gone overseas who have travelled thousands of miles to find a wartime
home and a kindly welcome in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and
the United States. I want on behalf of all the children at home to send you our
love and best wishes to you and to your kind hosts as well. I can truthfully say
to you all, that we children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage. We
are trying to do all we can to help our gallant airmen, soldiers and sailors and
we are trying to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war. We know
everyone of us, that in the end, all will be well. For god will care for us and
give us victory and peace. And when peace comes remember it will be for us the
children of today to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place. My
sister is by my side and we are both going to say goodnight to you and good luck
to you all.’

Other new interactive features include a Google map displaying the royal family’s past and future engagements, a virtual visit of Windsor Castle, videos of the Queen's latest speeches, a timeline of the history of the monarchy and picture galleries.
Approximately 250,000 people around the world visit the website each week. In the first year of its launch, the site recorded more than 100 million visits and in the week of Princess Diana’s funeral the site received around 35 million visits.

In the words of Sir Berners-Lee, the website:

‘celebrates a really important part of the British cultural tradition - the
monarchy - and is a great resource for the people within Britain, so it deepens
that culture. But at the same time it's there for anybody to see it from other
countries, where they really don't understand how the monarchy works - what it
does do, what it doesn't do - so now they can go and look.’

For more information on the role of the monarchy and its relationship with its subjects, read our articles:
>> Britain's Enchanted Monarchy: Tom Nairn considers the role of monarchy and its impact on British national identity
>> London and the Modern Monarchy: Penelope Corfield explores the interdependent relationship between crown and capital from the 17th century onwards

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Mass grave in Mexico from the colonial era

by Kathryn Hadley

A mass grave from the time of the Spanish conquest has recently been discovered in Mexico City raising new questions about the fate of the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan, and its inhabitants following its conquest led by Hernan Cortes in 1521. The discovery was announced on Tuesday. The four-by-10-metre burial site was discovered by archaeologists initially searching for a palace complex in the Tlatelolco area, to the North of the city. It contains 49 skeletons laid out in neat lines all lying face-up with their arms crossed. The skeletons are mostly those of young men, but also include those of two children, one teenager and an elderly person wearing a ring. Several skeletons showed broken bones that had mended suggesting that they may be the bodies of warriors.

Salvador Guilliem, the leader of the excavations for Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, described the discovery as completely unexpected:

"We were completely taken by surprise. We didn't expect to find this massive
funeral complex".

Tlatelolco was a city-state on the northern part of an island on Lake Texcoco. It is believed to have been founded in 1337, fifteen years after the foundation of Tenochtitlan (to the South of the island), as an independent city-state. The two city-states maintained close trading links, however, and at the end of the 15th century Tlatelolco became subject to Tenochtitlan. The Aztec empire was formally founded by Itzcoatl in 1428. By 1500, the Aztecs had conquered most of central Mexico and the empire reached its height under Moctezuma II, who ruled from 1502 to 1520. When Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan on November 8th, 1519, accounts by Spanish conquistadores described the city as one of the largest in the world on a par with Paris, Constantinople and Venice (ref. Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s account of the conquest Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva EspanaThe Conquest of New Spain). Tenochtitlan was eventually conquered on August 31st, 1521. The area where the burial was found is believed to be the site of the last Indian resistance to the Spanish during the month long battle for the city. Relatively little is known, however, about the period immediately after the fall of the city, when Cortes allegedly razed most pyramids and temples and abandoned the city. He fled to the outskirts of the city before returning some time later to build a Spanish style city on the ruins of the Aztec capital.

According to Guilliem, the indigenous population buried in the grave either died in battle against the invading Spanish army or from diseases that killed large parts of the native population in 1545 and 1576. Millions notably perished in a four-year epidemic of hemorrhagic fever that broke out in 1545 killing 80% of the indigenous population. The discovery has also raised many questions that have yet to be answered.

The burial is particularly unusual because the positioning of the bodies suggests that they were buried following Christian traditions. It differs from previously discovered conquest-era graves, where the remains of Indians who died from epidemics were haphazardly thrown in pits, regardless of gender or age. The corpses were, however, buried with pre-Hispanic artefacts, such as copper necklaces and bone buttons, and some appear to have been wrapped in large cactus leaves rather than placed in European-style coffins. The graves also revealed evidence of Aztec style rituals in which incense or animals were burnt in an incense burner.

Guilliem has suggested that the burials may have been ordered by the Spanish but carried out by the indigenous population. Susan Gillespie, an archaeologist from the University of Florida, did not participate in the excavations, but questioned why the Spanish would have bothered with the careful burial of Aztec warriors. Moreover, if the burial was carried out by the indigenous population, the Indians would have been more likely to cremate any honored dead. Guilliem suggested that the Aztecs may have returned to bury their dead during the interim period, between the conquest of Tenochtitlan and its later reconstruction. Alternatively, the victims may have been held captive by the Spanish for some time before being killed later, as was the leader of the Aztec resistance, emperor Cuauhtémoc. It is also possible the bodies were those of disease victims or rebellious Indians from after 1521.

Guilliem explained that more research was needed and the skeletons analysed in order to determine the cause of their death. Scientists expect to uncover at least 50 more bodies as excavations continue at the site.

For more information, read our articles:
>> Aztec Warfare - Ross Hassig offers a reinterpretation of the culture of Aztec warfare, which may have been distorted by Spanish accounts in an attempt to justify the Spanish conquest
>> If Columbus Had Not Called – Brian Fagan reviews the state of the Aztec empire on the eve of the Spanish conquest questioning what would have happened if the conquistadores had not arrived. (The article includes a quote of Bernal Diaz’s description of Tenochtitlan).
>> Aztecs: A New Perspective – John M.D. Pohl reviews recent scholarship about the Aztec empire.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Stone

by Kathryn Hadley

Three families; three generations; one house; one stone. To mark the anniversary of the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949, Marius von Mayenburg’s latest play, The Stone, currently on show at the Royal Court Theatre, explores sixty years of German history through the story of the changing ownership of a house in Dresden. The play retraces the lives of three different families over three generations, from 1935 to 1993, providing glimpses of key episodes of German history, including the Nazi accession to power, wartime Germany, the aftermath of the German defeat and the division of Germany, and the fall of the Soviet bloc and subsequent German reunification.

The staging is minimalist and the play is performed by just six actors, who age or go back in time, to play their characters at different times in their lives and through the different eras of German history. The scenery does not change from one period to another, nor do the characters’ costumes or make-up, leaving the audience captivated in a desperate attempt to situate the play in time. More than a device for creating suspense, the unchanging scenery is also symbolic of Germany’s enduring past and the reverberations of Germany’s wartime and postwar history to the present day. The characters are unable to escape their pasts and they are also unable to escape from one another; their different stories are all interlinked by a common national history and by their successive ownership of the same house.

The house is initially owned by a Jewish couple, Mieze Schwarzmann and her husband, who are forced to leave and sell their house in 1935, following the arrival of the Nazis in power. Witha and her husband Wolfgang buy the house and Wolfgang, who is involved in the German resistance movement, allegedly helps the Schwarzmann’s to flee the country. Their house is, however, frequently attacked by Nazi sympathizers in the belief that it is still inhabited by Jews. The stone, which is one day thrown through the window hitting Wolfgang, recurs throughout the play and becomes a symbol for the tragedy of Jewish persecution under the Nazi regime.

From 1935, the play moves to 1945 and to the wartime bombing of Dresden. There are allusions to the Soviet liberation when Witha recalls how her husband was killed accidentally by a Soviet celebratory shot, on the day of the liberation of Dresden. In 1953, in the context of the onset of the Cold War, Witha and her daughter Heidrun flee to the West, leaving the stone buried in the garden. The audience is thereafter given a glimpse of daily life in eastern Germany when, in 1978, Heidrun and Witha return to the East on a day trip to visit their house, which is in ruins and occupied by three families. Heidrun also bribes Stefanie, a young girl who is living in the house with her grandfather following her parents’ flight to the West, with chocolate from the West.

In 1993, Heidrun moves back to the house with her mother and daughter, Hannah, when they receive a visit from Stephanie, fifteen years after their initial meeting in 1978, to reclaim the chocolate that she never received and haunt them with memories of the past history of the house. Witha is the only surviving character of these sixty years of German history. She provides thread which connects the successive generations and each of their stories and, in 1993, as an elderly woman, the sixty years of German history are frequently tied back together as she has flashbacks to Mieze Schwarzmann and to her wartime experiences.

The play is part of the 'Off The Wall' season of new plays about Germany staged at the Royal Court Theatre in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As part of the series, the Royal Court Theatre will also stage the premiere of Over There by Mark Ravenhill (February 25th - March 21st). The play tells the story of two twin brothers who are separated when their mother escapes to the West with one of her sons, leaving the other one on the other side of the wall. 25 years later, Karl crosses the border in search of his other half, revealing their difficulties to reconnect when the two Germanys meet again.

The Stone
Until February 28th
Royal Court Theatre
Sloane Square
London SW1W 8AS
Telephone: 020 7565 5000

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Discovery of 30 Egyptian Mummies

by Kathryn Hadley

Yesterday, the Egyptian government announced the discovery (reported by The Associated Press and Reuters) of approximately 30 Egyptian mummies inside a 2,600-year-old tomb at the necropolis of Saqqara, to the south of Cairo. The tomb was discovered at the bottom of a 36-foot deep shaft and the mummies were placed in niches along the tomb’s walls. Eight sarcophagi were also found, one of which contained another mummy. The other seven have yet to be opened, but it is believed that they also contain mummies. The tomb was described by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s top archeologist, as a ‘storeroom for mummies’, which dates back to 640 BC at the time of the 26th Egyptian Dynasty, the last native dynasty to rule the Egyptian kingdom before it was overthrown by the Persians in 525 BC. The tomb is, however, situated at an older site, from the period of the Old Kingdom, approximately 4,300 years ago. Abdel Hakim Karar, an assistant to Hawass, dated the tomb to the Old Kingdom, possibly the Fifth Dynasty, which ruled from approximately 2,494 bc to 2,345 bc.

The majority of the mummies are poorly preserved and archaeologists have yet to identify the bodies and to explain why so many were placed in one room. The name Badi N Huri was engraved in the opened sarcophagus, but the wooden coffin inside did not bear a title for the mummy. According to archaeologists, it is unusual for mummies to be buried in niches as late as the 26th Dynasty. It is also rare to find preserved burials in well-known necropolises such as Saqqara, which served the nearby city of Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt, because the tombs were often raided by thieves in ancient times. In the words of Abdel Hakim Karar:

"Niches were known in the very early dynasties, so to find one for the 26th
Dynasty is something rare".

Excavations at Saqqara began 150 years ago and have since uncovered a necropolis of pyramids as well as tombs, mostly from the Old Kingdom. Excavations have primarily focused on just one side of the two main pyramids, the Step Pyramid of King Djoser, one of the largest ancient stone structures in the world dating from about 2,650BC, and the pyramid of Unas, the last king of the Fifth Dynasty. In December, two rock-cut tombs were notably found in the Saqqara necropolis, 400 metres south of the Step Pyramid, near the current discovery site. The tombs were both those of high officials: the first was that of Iya-Maat, who bore the title ‘supervisor of the king’s property’ and was responsible to King Unas for bringing stones from the quarries for the construction of the nearby tombs; the second tomb belonged to Thinh, a Fifth Dynasty singer and, in the words of the engraving at the front of the tomb, the ‘supervisor of all singers’ who was in charge of providing entertainers for the pharaohs.

The area where the current tomb was found, to the southwest of the main pyramids, remains relatively unexplored. According to Hawass, only 30% of Egypt’s pyramids have been uncovered.

For information on ‘mummy making’, read our article The Making of a Modern Mummy

Further information on the discoveries and excavations led by Hawass is available on the official website of Dr Zahi Hawass

The website of the Friends of Saqqara Foundation also provides information on Dutch excavations at Saqqara. It is regularly updated with news of the latest discoveries and provides a useful history of the site of Saqqara

Monday, 9 February 2009

Prehistoric Music

by Kathryn Hadley

Yesterday, the premiere of ‘Sounds of the Neanderthals’, a recreation of prehistoric music by Jazz composer Simon Thorne, was staged at the National Museum Cardiff. Thorne was commissioned by the National Museum Wales to create a musical backdrop to the Paleolithic section of its new exhibition ‘Origins: In Search of Early Wales’, which opened last December, and spent the last year researching the way in which Neanderthals created language through sound rather than words. He was introduced to brain experts, studied fossil remains from the museum’s collection and visited Pontnewydd cave in Denbighshire, where excavations between 1978 and 1995 revealed the earliest human presence in Wales dated to around 230,000 years ago. The exhibition notably includes teeth discovered at Pontnewydd cave as well as a Neanderthal hand axe. Thorne’s 75-minute composition was also inspired by Professor Stephen Mithen’s book The Singing Neanderthals and David Lewis Williams’s The Mind in the Cave. The event was follwed by a talk by Stephen Mithen from Reading University.

In April last year, a team of scientists led by Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University, reconstructed, for the first time, Neanderthal voices using 50,000-year-old fossils from France and a computer synthesizer (notably reported by Reuters). Stephen Mithen’s book notably argues that the Neanderthal language was more musical than modern human language and predated the separation of language and music into two different forms of cognition. Recent research has suggested that Neanderthals were more innovative and resourceful than was previously believed and that they may have created the first forms of music.

Thorne explained:
"It's a ridiculous notion to suggest we could ever know the precise role that
music played in the lives of the Neanderthals, but imagining it has been a
fascinating experience [...] Given that Neanderthal's man brain was about
the same size as ours, and much of our brain is given over to language, then you
can assume they probably had language too [...] We can't not be - we have to
invent things and who's to say Neanderthal man did not invent the beginnings of
music? [...] We use language for words, to communicate. But how do we learn
language? If you look at babies and the noise they make, they learn to make
singing noises before they learn to speak."

The Neanderthal man evolved from the late Homo erectus in West Eurasia and the middle-east about 230,000–150,000 years ago. The classification of the Neanderthal is subject to debate - he is either classified as a subspecies of humans (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) or as a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis). The Neanderthal was a cold-adapted species and they were the first humans to express aesthetic qualities and religious beliefs in the form of burials. They became extinct approximately 28,000 years ago as more numerous and versatile populations of Homo sapiens sapiens colonized their territories.

‘Sounds of the Neanderthals’ is due to go on a separate live tour in Wales, with four singers, stone instruments and a video project, at the end of March.

For more general information on the prehistoric period, visit our prehistory focus page
For information on the discoveries at Pontnewydd cave, visit the blog of the National Museum Wales

Friday, 6 February 2009

Abandoned GDR era flat in Leipzig

by Kathryn Hadley

Last week, the daily Berliner Morgenpost newspaper reported the discovery of an abandoned flat in Leipzig which had been preserved and left untouched since the end of the GDR era. The 40-square-metre flat on Crottendorfer Strasse in the Reudnizt district of Leipzig was discovered by the architect Mark Aretz whilst working on the refurbishment of an East German apartment block. The two-bedroom flat, left completely intact, appears to have been abandoned in a hurry towards the end of 1989.

The calendar on the wall reads ‘August 1988’ and the furniture, fittings, groceries and personal objects provide a fascinating insight into everyday life in East Germany twenty years ago. The shelves were stacked with East German brands such as ‘Vita’ cola, ‘Marella’ margarine, ‘Juwel’ cigarettes and ‘Kristall’ vodka and stale bread rolls, dirty plates and left-over food were found in the kitchen. A zinc bath was found against one of the walls and the flat was not equipped with a toilet. The only western product in the flat was a bottle of ‘Henkel’ deodorant, which was most likely smuggled over from West Germany.

It is a mystery, however, why the flat, built at the end of the 19th century, had not been renovated like the others in the building. The German news agency DDP also reported the Leipzig city water provider’s confirmation that the water bills for the flat had been paid up to 1992, explaining that they had most likely been taken over by the building’s owner.

The story of the occupier of the flat also remains a mystery. Documents found in the flat suggest that the occupier was a 24-year-old man who was in trouble with the East German police. The most recent document was a police search warrant for a caravan dating from May 1989. The occupier had also served a one-year prison sentence and evidence revealed that the East German police had searched his car and confiscated a magnetic tape recorder.

Aretz described to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper how:

When we opened the door we felt like Howard Carter when he found the grave of Tutankhamen […] Everything was a mess but it was like a historic treasure trove, a portal into an age long gone

The architect has refurbished over one thousand apartments in East Germany since 1990 and has frequently come across abandoned buildings, as many East Germans fled to the West when the government of the GDR began to crumble at the end of 1989. The discovery of the flat, perfectly preserved for the past twenty years, is however, unique as a testimony to life in the GDR. It has also unearthed intriguing clues about the mysterious fate of its occupier. Why was the flat not discovered before? Why did the water bills continue to be paid for three years? Who paid them and, if the owner of the building made the payments, did he not enquire into the disappearance of his tenant?
There are, however, no plans to preserve the apartment and renovation work is due to continue.

In the lead up to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 8th, this year, the discovery is particularly timely. Protests against the government of the GDR began in Leipzig at the beginning of September 1989. They took place every Monday evening and eventually became known as the Monday demonstrations. The protests gradually spread to other East German cities and, throughout October 1989, ever growing numbers of protesters put increased pressure on the East German government. The Berlin Wall eventually ‘fell’ on November 9th. During the following weeks, border crossings were gradually opened up, including the Brandenburg Gate on December 22nd, 1989. The official dismantling of the wall by the East German military began on June 30th, 1990. On July 1st, all border controls ceased and East Germany adopted the West German currency. The formal reunification of Germany was concluded on October 3rd 1990.

For an overview of the history of the construction of the Berlin Wall, read our article Berlin: The Flash-Point of the Cold War, 1948-1989
For more information on the Western powers’ response to the wall, read our article The Berlin Wall: A Secret History

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Che: Part One

by Kathryn Hadley

There are just a couple of weeks left to see Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part One, about the first three years of the Cuban Revolution, before the sequel, Che: Part Two, is released on February 20th. Based on Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s memoirs ‘Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War’, the film provides a captivating insight into the initial guerrilla warfare stage and Guevara’s role in the revolution, from 1956 to January 1959, as a group of rebels marched through Cuba from the southwest coast to Havana. ‘Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War’ was first published in 1963 as a series of articles and was then translated into English in 1968.

The opening scene features Argentine Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Fidel Castro’s first meeting in Mexico City in 1955. Following their release from prison, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul Castro Ruz had fled to Mexico earlier in the year with other exiles to prepare a revolution to overthrow the US-sympathetic Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Cuban Revolution is typically known to have begun on July 26th 1953 when a group of rebels, including Fidel and Raul Castro, attacked the Moncanda military barracks in Santiago and in Bayamo. The attack failed, however, and the two brothers were captured and put on trial. Fidel was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment and Raul received a thirteen-year sentence. In 1955, however, the Batista regime freed all political prisoners including the Moncanda rebels.

As a result of their meeting, Guevara agreed to join the band of Cuban rebels led by Fidel Castro on their journey to Cuba. They left Mexico in November 1956, arriving in Cuba on December 2nd 1956. The film is centred on their two-year journey and guerilla warfare battles through Cuba to Havana, as they gain increasing popular support and finally successfully topple the government of Batista in January 1959. On January 1st 1959, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. Guevara and his troops entered Havana on January 2nd and Fidel Castro arrived on January 8th. The film is interspersed with flashbacks to Guevara’s speech as the head of the Cuban delegation at the United Nations conference in New York in 1964 and extracts from an interview with an American journalist, in which the ‘Che’ recalls the initial years of the revolution.

Guevara, in an excellent performance by Benicio del Toro, appears as a loveable father-like figure to which the audience immediately warms and his ideals and strong moral values of equality and justice, for both the Cuban people and the entire population of Latin American, are immensely inspiring. The film does also, however, raise a number of questions. Is this depiction, based on Guevara’s own writings, not possibly over-idealised? Did Guevara’s tragic death not also cause him to be remembered as a hero, overlooking possible faults and flaws in his leadership and ideals? Will the second part of the film be consistent with this view or will he be portrayed in a somewhat more shaded light? With the rebels now in Havana and Batista in the Dominican Republic, how will the revolution be implemented?

Patience and Che: Part Two will hopefully tell…

For more information on Fidel Castro, his depiction as a revolutionary guerilla leader and the practical achievements and structural changes that he brought to Cuba, read our article Makers of the Twentieth Century: Castro
For a review of Cuba in April 2008, when Castro handed over the reins of power after 49 years, read our article Which Way Cuba?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Power of Public Speaking

by Kathryn Hadley

The Sound and the Fury: The Power of Public Speaking opened yesterday at the British Library, providing a taster of the library’s extensive sound archive collections. It is an interactive exhibition which charts the history and power of public speaking through a varied selection of famous speeches in world history from the last 150 years: from William Ewart Gladstone’s transatlantic greeting to Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, in 1888, to Obama’s inauguration speech last January.

The phonograph was first invented in 1877. Few eminent individuals were, however, initially captured on sound partly as a result of the rarity of recording equipment. Two exceptions were the recordings of Gladstone, the first British Prime Minister ever to be recorded, and Florence Nightingale, both of which feature in the exhibition. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that sound recordings became increasingly used as an effective and affordable means of mass communication. With the start of radio broadcasting by the BBC in 1922, the production of spoken word material increased significantly; however, it was only in the 1930s that this material began to be selected for preservation in the archives.

The British Library’s Sound Archive is home to over 3 million recordings drawn from BBC broadcasts, commercially issued recordings and private recordings. Visitors to the exhibition sit down to a computer and can sample some of the wealth of the archive by listening to recordings from all over the world, in English and foreign languages, and from a wide range of genres, from politicians, to royalty, actors and sportsmen.

Extracts include the only known recording of Gandhi in English discussing his religious views on October 17th 1931, after the Second Round Table Conference on the reform of the Indian Constitution, as well as Pandit Nehru’s ‘A tryst with destiny’ speech, which he gave to the Indian Constituent Assembly in Delhi in the minutes leading up to independence on the night of August 14th, 1947. The British Library also holds over 400 recordings from the Cambridge University Union debates between 1963 and 1999. The exhibition notably features Syd Dernley, who was assistant executioner between 1949 and 1954, arguing in favour of capital punishment at the Cambridge Union in April 1991.

Royal recordings include the first royal broadcast from 1923, Edward VIII’s abdication speech and Earl Spencer’s tribute to Diana at her funeral in 1997; wartime speeches feature the BBC recording of De Gaulle’s appeal of June 18th. Other lesser known speeches include: the acceptance speech by Richard Attenborough when he received his award for Gandhi; Ernest Hemingway's response to receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954; as well as speeches by prominent sportsmen such as Roger Bannister, reflecting on his 4 minute mile record.

Recording in the House of Commons began properly at the beginning of April 1978. One of the recordings featured in the exhibition is Ramsay MacDonald’s election speech on April 11th 1929 in which he addresses issues of world peace and unemployment. By 1929, to a backdrop of world economic depression, unemployment in Britain had risen to over two million. Today MacDonald’s speech (which you can listen to above) appears particularly timely:-
‘Great highways built, transport organised as a national service, a bold policy of housing restored […] By our treatment of the unemployed problem we shall stand or fall’.

For more information on the political career of Ramsay MacDonald, read our article written by John Shepherd for the 70th anniversay of his death in November 2007 The Lad from Lossiemouth

The Sound and the Fury: The Power of Public Speaking
February 3rd- September 30th
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Telephone: 019 3754 6060

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

New Online Resources Round-up

by Kathryn Hadley

Over the past month, a considerable number of databases of online resources have been launched. Here is a small selection…

The "Peninsula Roll Call" went live last month. The project was led by the Napoleon Series in conjunction with the Royal United Services Institute. The “Peninsula Roll Call” is the work of Captain Lionel S. Challis who spent 30 years researching British officers who served in the Peninsula War between 1808 and 1814. It consists of biographical data on over 9,600 officers, including information about the wounds they received, the battles they fought in and the medals that they received.
It is available online at

The 1911 census is now available online at The census was taken on the night of Sunday 2nd April, 1911, and recorded 36 million people. It covered England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It also recorded those on board Royal Navy and Merchant ships at sea and in foreign ports and, for the first time in a British census, it provided details of British army personnel and their families in military establishments overseas. The 1911 census was also the first to ask questions relating to fertility in marriage, such as how long women had been married and how many children they had born from that marriage. The database includes original handwritten census returns and contains details about the lives of important British historical figures such as David Lloyd George, the contemporary Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and Virginia Woolf. The project was developed by the UK-based family history website in association with the National Archives.

Palladio and Britain is a new online resource launched by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) at the end of last week. It is designed as a complement to the exhibition Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy which opened on Saturday at the Royal Academy of Arts, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Palladio’s birth. The website enables users to explore the RIBA’s unparalleled collection of Palladio’s books and drawings and provides an insight into Palladio’s influence on British architects from the 16th century to the present day. Visit

There is more to come…

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) has recently announced that over 3,000 searchable postal records will go online on the BPMA website on March 2nd. The records include listings of the covers of Penny Posts, Mileage Marks and Missent Marks held in the philatelic collection of the BPMA. The BPMA is also planning to make further listings available online over the course of the year, including Shipped Letters, London Markings and Railway Letters. The records will be available at
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