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Meissen cup and saucer: one of a pair

National Museum of American History
TITLE: Meissen pair of chinoiserie cups and saucers

MAKER: Meissen Manufactory

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)

MEASUREMENTS: Cups: H.3⅛" 8cm; Saucers: D.5⅜" 13.7cm

OBJECT NAME: Pair of cups and saucers

PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany

DATE MADE: 1723-1725


Domestic Furnishing

Industry and Manufacturing

CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection

ID NUMBER: 1981.0702.15Aa,b;Ba,b



(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)

MARKS: “13”in gold (gold painter’s mark).

PURCHASED FROM: Hans E. Backer, London, England, 1947. Ex. Coll. E.L. Paget

This pair of cups and saucers is from the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychiatry and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in the German States, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

The chinoiserie style belongs to the distinctive period in Meissen’s history that began in 1720 with the arrival from Vienna of Johann Gregor Höroldt (1696-1775). Höroldt brought with him superior skills in enamel painting on porcelain, and his highly significant contribution to Meissen was to develop a palette of very fine bright enamel colors that had so far eluded the team of metallurgists at the manufactory, and that were new to onglaze enamel colors on faience and porcelain in general. Application of the term chinoiserie to this class of Meissen porcelains is problematic, however, because Johann Gregor Höroldt developed his ideas from a variety of sources and referred to the “chinoiseries” as “Japanese” (Japonische) figures, an early modern generic term for exotic artifacts and images imported from the East.

The beaker-shaped cups and saucers have enamel painted chinoiseries framed by gold, purple luster, and two shades of iron-red scrollwork. Gold scrollwork runs in a band on the interior rims of the cups and saucers. Chinoiserie figures sit, stand or kneel on a dais while birds and large insects flutter above their heads.

Chinoiserie is from the French Chinois (Chinese) and refers to ornamentation that is Chinese-like. The style evolved in Europe as Chinese luxury products began to arrive in the West in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries through the major European trading companies. Artisans were quick to incorporate motifs from these products into their work and to imitate their material qualities, especially the Chinese lacquers, embroidered silks, and porcelains, but their imitation was not informed by first-hand knowledge of China or an understanding of Chinese conventions in two-dimensional representation, and instead a fanciful European vision emerged to become an ornamental style employed in garden and interior design, in cabinet making, faience and porcelain manufacture, and in textiles. Illustrated books began to appear in the second half of the seventeenth century that describe the topography of China, its peoples and their customs, and these sources were copied and used by designers, artists, printmakers, and artisans including Johann Gregor Höroldt at Meissen.

Meissen tea and coffee services of this early period were often sent as gifts to members of European royalty favored by the Saxon and Polish courts. They served as tokens of loyalty and affection to relatives in other royal houses with family connections to the Saxon House of Wettin.

On Johann Gregor Höroldt see Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp. 17-25.

On chinoiserie see Impey, O., 1997, Chinoiserie: the Impact of Oriental Styles on Western Art and Decoration; on the porcelain trade and European exposure to the Chinese product see the exhibition catalog by Emerson, J., Chen, J., Gardner Gates, M., 2000, Porcelain Stories: from China to Europe.

On gift-giving see Cassidy-Geiger, M., 2008, Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts 1710-1763.

Jefferson Miller II, J., Rückert, R., Syz, H., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 68-69.

Why Milo's Sunrises Are a Symphony of Color in The Phantom Tollbooth

Smithsonian Magazine

Despite having 12 books under his belt, including children’s fantasy classic The Phantom Tollbooth, 86-year-old Norton Juster feels writing is “an enormous ordeal.”

“I find it very scary, and I have to fight my way through every bit of it,” says the acclaimed author and architect whose omnipresent beard once drew comparisons to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but now evokes a jolly, old elf. Juster will be speaking at the Smithsonian later this month at a screening of the Washington, D.C. premier of the documentary film The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations.

Tollbooth, Juster’s first book, was published in 1961 and came about accidentally, through procrastination and boredom. He had been awarded a Ford Foundation grant to write a textbook on urban planning for school kids, but instead found himself scribbling notes and doodles about his childhood. He started creating a fantastical world based on wordplay and puns and his friend, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, agreed to illustrate it.

“Between the two of us, we just blundered through absolutely everything, and it somehow managed to work,” he says in a faint Brooklyn accent.

The book tells the story of Milo, a disengaged 10-year-old who doesn’t understand school or grownups. A phantom tollbooth appears in his room and transports him to the Lands Beyond where he encounters strange places and people, fights demons and rescues the princess sisters of Rhyme and Reason.

Since his first haphazard writing experience with Tollbooth, Juster has refined his writing process, but he is amazed that the act of writing has not gotten easier through the years.

At the beginning of each new writing project Juster hand writes his text using different colored pencils, pens and paper.

“I draw pictures, diagrams and maps.  There are arrows going all over the place, connecting things in different ways. They are virtually unreadable,” he explains.

Then he places the notes in manila envelopes and puts them away to “germinate” or “fester.” Several weeks later, he pulls them out and rereads them to see if the words still resonate.

Jeanne, his gracious wife of more than 50 years, once offered to type up his notes so they would be easier to read. But, when he revisited them weeks later, he was lost.

“I couldn’t understand what they were because everything that I had put into them—the pictures and the diagrams—was part of the thought process and that was gone,” he says.

So he went back to his old system and has not deviated since. When writing The Hello Goodbye Window, a Caldecott award-winning picture book illustrated by Chris Raschka and published in 2005, Juster tried to capture his 4-year-old granddaughter’s voice.  

Beginning with The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster has tried to show kids how to maneuver out of the Doldrums, a place where there is nothing to do and nothing gets done. (Still from the documentary, The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations)

“I thought I was doing so terrific. A couple of weeks later I took it out again, and I went through it, and I thought, no, it is not her, it’s me,” he says. He promptly crumpled up his work and started over.

“The first draft was a necessary process to clear all the cobwebs out of my head,” he explains.

Although Juster has a regimented writing process that he admits is tough work, he can point to several influences that made it easier for him to develop his unique writing style.

He believes his career as an architect and professor of environmental design had a major impact on his writing. “When you work in a field that is primarily visual, it changes you,” he says. It forced him to look at problems from several different vantage points. As a result, he now has “lots of different telescopes in his head,” which help him create disparate characters and their individual voices.

Another boon to his writing, says Juster, is the fact that he was born with synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that causes multiple senses to get activated at the same time. Synesthetes often feel as if they are hearing colors, touching sounds or tasting shapes. Scientists believe it is as if wires are getting crossed in the brain. Juster did not realize he had this syndrome until well into adulthood, but he recognizes that The Phantom Tollbooth is littered with sensory transpositions. One of the most memorable passages demonstrating this rich, metaphorical writing is a series of sunrises that Milo creates by conducting hundreds of musicians in a symphony of color that lights up the morning sky.

“It is so liberating as a way of thinking. It is a sort of projector into new ways to understand. It is the kind of handicap that is an absolute positive in your life,” says the author of his sensory perceptions.

Juster also credits his father, who emigrated from Romania at the age of 6, with passing on a love of puns and wordplay that have become a hallmark of his books. According to the author, his father injected humorous, linguistic twists into everything he said. Juster found it annoying for the longest time. ‘Then after a while, I realized, hey, I understand this now and I can do it,” he says.

Juster’s writing has delighted generations of fans from all over the world as The Phantom Tollbooth has been translated into nearly 30 languages. He is always humbled and thrilled when readers tell him that his books have changed their lives.  One of his goals has always been to give his readers a “wider world to occupy.”

“People tell me how they can now do things that they couldn’t do, or think about things that they couldn’t think about in a way before,” he adds.

Juster understands from personal experience that childhood can be lonely and frightening and that “boredom can be damaging if you let it get the best of you.” Beginning with The Phantom Tollbooth, the author has tried to show kids how to maneuver out of the Doldrums, a place where there is nothing to do and nothing gets done. 

“I was trying to get kids to understand how creatively, and how imaginatively they can look at things and the difference it would make in their lives,” he explains. For many grateful readers over the last five decades, Norton Juster has succeeded in banishing boredom, and in so doing, widening their worlds.

Author and architect Juster Norton spoke July 12 at a Smithsonian Associate program in Washington, D.C. highlighting the enduring legacy of his children’s fantasy classic, The Phantom Tollbooth.  The program featured the documentary film, The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, which explores the longtime friendship between Juster and the book’s illustrator Jules Feiffer and chronicles how the iconic tale was created. Grammy-winning singer-storyteller Bill Harley, who wrote “Milo’s Tune” inspired by the main character in the book, also appeared.

Postwar potluck: Grilling out, convenience cooking, and other 1950s food trends

National Museum of American History

For the third installment of our Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project potluck series, we embraced 1950s cooking. We found recipes influenced by the end of World War II rationing, an ongoing interest in convenience, and the growing peacetime prosperity and leisure that many, though not all, Americans enjoyed. Here are just a few of the trends we noticed:

White shirt with a print of watermelon, pickles, skewers of meat, and grilling tools

In many parts of the country, summer is synonymous with backyard barbecues, a practice that began in the 1950s as many Americans celebrated their newfound leisure time through casual outdoor dinners. After the frugality of wartime living, postwar home cooks invested in grills and other accessories for their suburban backyards.

Left: Bologna with grill marks. Right: Deli meats in different shapes, on a platter.

As many Americans enjoyed greater prosperity after World War II, meat took center stage on the plate. At the same time, men assumed a new role in many households: grill masters. While cuts of fresh beef were prized, many of the recipes we found in 1950s recipes from the Product Cookbooks Collection called for more affordable or convenient canned deli meats. Nanci, our brave team member who volunteered to make Barbecued Bologna, had a memorable experience asking for a three-pound loaf of unsliced bologna from her local grocery store. But once she had it in hand, she glazed it with a mixture of currant jelly and mustand, studded it with whole cloves, and grilled it over hot coals.

Left: Ad showing a mother and daughter wearing crowns in front of a refrigerator. Right: Gelatin salad on a bed of lettuce.

While men socialized and tended to the grill, women still had domain over the indoors. In well-equipped, increasingly all-electric kitchens, they prepared salads and sides to accompany an outdoor meal.

Cover of a cookbook with a blue checkered background and pink cake and silver cake server

One cookbook we looked to for our 1950s potluck is titled Let's Get Acquainted with Your Hotpoint Electric Range. Not just a recipe book, it also serves as an instruction manual for the Hotpoint oven and stove. Furthermore, dishes are organized into entire menus for ease of cooking. The "budget oven meal" includes four dishes that all cook at the same temperature in the oven (including the Crown Roast of Wieners that we boldly taste-tested). The menu, which provides "dinner for eight," even gives instructions on how to situate the oven racks and where to place each dish.

Three silver TV dinner trays with separated sections for different dishes.

Swanson debuted frozen TV dinners during the 1950s, and the tagline "Just heat and serve!" became a hallmark of convenience. As more women worked outside the home—but were still assumed responsible for cooking—they turned to TV dinners that required little effort to prepare and serve.

The 1950s also saw the beginning of ethnic foods going mainstream in America, fueled in part by returning soldiers' exposure to foods from other countries. Frozen ethnic foods, though Americanized, offered not only convenience, but also variety. (We hope to explore America's take on cuisine from other countries in greater depth when we reach the 1960s in our decade-by-decade potluck series!)

Cover of a cookbook showing a well-dressed woman pouring a can into a pot on the stove.

Of course, canned foods were the "original" convenience food and they continued to play a role in 1950s cooking. While selecting recipes for our 1950s potluck, we noticed that some of the dishes were made by simply combining two types of canned soup, or even a can of carrots with a can of pineapple.

Left: Cookbook with a serving bowl full of red soup, with a yellow rose next to it. Right: Slightly orange cake with white frosting.

In recipes designed as much to sell canned soup as to result in tasty meals, canned tomato soup found its way into a cake, and condensed milk was used in a smoothie-like beverage called Carnation Fruit Flip. The Steak Stroganoff wouldn't have been complete without a can of condensed mushroom soup, and the base of a mock Hollandaise sauce was condensed cream of chicken soup.

Some closing 1950s observations from the Taylor Foundation Object Project team? "The recipes are steadily getting better!" "Dessert is still the best." And, in stark contrast to the 1930s, "There’s nary a radish rose in sight."

Check out other photos and recipes from our 1950s potluck:


1950s Object Project Potluck


Caitlin Kearney is a new media assistant for the Taylor Foundation Object Project. Previously, she has blogged about mid-century cooking and Tupperware parties.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 09:00
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Could Noah’s Ark Float? In Theory, Yes

Smithsonian Magazine

Noah has a lot going for him, in the biblical tale and in the recent Hollywood adaptation. Divine help would be a pretty useful tool in a quest to round up two of every species on the planet and build a gigantic ark to survive an apocalyptic flood. But, is the story rooted in truth or is it merely fable?

Scholars and passionate internet commenters have long debated that question. There are quite a few holes in Noah’s story. Geological evidence of epic flooding exists, but tying it to mythical flood stories is tricky. It doesn't help that archaeologists have made multiple false claims of discovering the ark on top of mountains across the Middle East.

However, the Bible is clear on one thing: Noah got specific instructions for the ark’s dimensions (300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high) and material (“gopher wood”). Gopher wood may refer to pine, cedar, or cypress wood.

So, if one could hypothetically build an ark to the specifications outlined in the Bible, and actually cram two of every species on the boat, would it float or would Noah have found himself in a Titanic-like scenario? That’s what four physics graduate students at the University of Leicester wondered. As part of a special course that encourages the students to apply basic physics principles to more general questions, the team did the math and found that an ark full of animals in those dimensions could theoretically float. They recently published their research in a peer-reviewed, student-run publication, the Journal of Physics Special Topics.

“You don’t think of the Bible necessarily as a scientifically accurate source of information, so I guess we were quite surprised when we discovered it would work,” said Thomas Morris, one of the students who worked on the project, in a statement.

To float, a boat has to exert the same amount of force on the ocean as the weight of the water it displaces. This buoyancy force is essentially the biggest weight the ark could hold and not sink. To put it another way, an object with a density greater than water will sink. So if the Bible gives an approximate volume of the ark, and after factoring in the mass of the wood used to build it, one could figure out how much mass the system could take before it becomes more dense than water and sinks.

Now that we've defined the constraints on the system...what in the world is a cubit? Ancients defined a cubit as the distance from a person's elbow to tip of their middle finger. In modern units, this can typically range from 45.5 centimeters to 52.3 centimeters.

In their study, students decided on an average length for their calculations: 48.2 centimeters. This means that, by their approximations, the ark would have been 144.6 meters long, 24.1 meters wide, and 14.46 meters tall—the size of a very small cargo ship. They went with cypress wood, though pine and cedar wood have similar densities. Using the density of cypress, they calculated the weight of this hypothetical ark: 1,200,000 kilograms (by comparison the Titanic weighed about 53,000,000 kilograms). Based on the density of sea water, they figured out that an empty box-shaped ark would float with it's hull only dipping 0.34 meters into the water.

But what about an ark filled with human and animal cargo? Working backwards they assumed that the maximum weight would put the waterline right just below the top of the ark—if the ark is immersed beyond it's full height, water would spill into the vessel and the ark would capsize.

Forcing the bulk of the ark down into the water while still keeping it afloat would displace about 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of sea water. Knowing the volume of displaced sea water, and knowing that an object in water displaces its own weight, they crunched the numbers and found the total mass needed to displace that water. They subtracted the mass of an empty ark and found that the ark could hold 50,540,000 kg. For some perspective: the average sheep is about 23.47 kilograms, so the biblical boat could have held about 2.15 million sheep.

Fitting two of each of all the world's animals in the ark is an entirely different matter, and scientists question how many species Noah would have needed to save to produce the modern populations of species that inhabit our planet today. Scientists have characterized about 1.7 million species to date, so the students argue that, if the average mass of species represented on the ark was the average mass of sheep, the ark would theoretically have been able to accommodate them all without capsizing. However, some estimates put the total number of discovered and undiscovered species on Earth closer to 8.7 million, which would make for a lot of wet proxy sheep.

Could Noah's ark really have handled 8.7 million species? It seems unlikely, but biblical scholars and creationists have a workaround, arguing that the number of animals needed on the ark could be reduced to "kinds" instead of species and then suggesting that God introduced the possibility of endless hereditary variety into the genetic material of passengers and animals on the ark. Their estimates put Noah's cargo from around 2,000 to 50,000 animals. Marine life, of course, could stay in the ocean—two blue whales on deck would not only die but capsize any ship.

Even if one could fit all the needed animals on the boat, and if those animals could survive the cramped cruise (the study made no estimates regarding the weight of the food or freshwater needed to sustain the ark population), building a seaworthy vessel is another factor.

A boat sunk to its max in the water while still staying afloat could easily take on water from any breaching waves. And according to Euler-Bernoulli beam theory, the strength of a wooden beam decreases with its size, so because when things get bigger they break more easily, the beams that held this huge ark together might have been extremely fragile. Else the beams were short, which would also introduce structural weaknesses due to the higher number of seams between wood planks.

The students are quite clear about the fact that their study does not settle debate over the veracity of Noah’s story. “We’re not proving that it’s true, but the concept would definitely work,” said Morris.

Regardless, given the growing threat of climate change, it’s comforting to know that that should rising sea levels engulf coastal cities, 2.15 million sheep can, in theory, float on a cypress wood ark the size of a small cargo ship.

The Artist, The Collector, and Quality Correspondence in midst of the Digital Era

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Rachel Guardiola, Intern, Digital Services Division

Letter from (Sandy) Alexander Calder to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn, July 13, 1966. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

As a young artist entering the contemporary art world, the opportunity to speak with an art collector or museum director is few and far between.  An art collector like Joseph H. Hirshhorn has always played a crucial role in the development of artist careers, bridging the gap between the maker and the public institution. I am currently a graduate Master of Fine Arts student at the Maryland Institute College of Art participating in a Smithsonian Institution Archives Summer Internship Program to further my thesis investigation into different multimedia based technologies, and the means in which the apparatus shapes the way we create systems of documentation.

Letter to Willem de Kooning from Joseph Hirshhorn, November 15, 1967. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

While digitizing the correspondence between Joseph H. Hirshhorn and many coveted artists during the 1960s and 1970s, it is made evident through the preservation of these paper documents that bonding relationships formed.  Artists including Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, and Willem de Kooning share words with members of the Hirshhorn family that extend far beyond business relationships, and move towards a closeness to that of a friend or family member. These materials affirm a physical record over the years as both Hirshhorn and his disciples share all, from their daily dealings, to their most intimate and reflective thoughts, to their major life events. The ongoing conversations reveal Hirshhorn’s utmost reverence for  artists and their lives.

Letter to Joseph Hirshhorn from Lisa de Kooning, January 25, 1966. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

During the digitization process there were numerous letters, postcards, and telegrams all filled with warm salutations, advice, and admiration for various art works.  I came across a few unique letters and photographs to share with you. It seems Hirshhorn had a close bond specifically with Willem de Kooning as he notes in the letter on November 15, 1967 after an exhibition reception, “I guess it wasn’t enough for the reporter to hear me shout all over the place that you and Picasso are the greatest painters alive—.”  Hirshhorn also shares correspondence with de Kooning’s only daughter Lisa de Kooning. Found above is a letter in child’s handwriting where Lisa thanks Hirshhorn for his gifts that encourage her love of animals. In the letter she draws a portrait, shown adjacent to a photograph of her pet horse Freddy. They later reunite their exchange as Lisa writes to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn on December 7, 1978 to include them in her organization of ASPCA Animals and Art benefit.  Sifting through, I also came across a series of Kodak color still photographs from 1965 documenting the installation of Alexander Calder’s outdoor sculpture Two Discs, which is amongst the permanent collections at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Calder exchanges multiple letters with Joseph and Olga about travel plans filled with invitations to his home in Saché, France. Lastly, included is a brief letter between Marc Chagall and Hirshhorn about his inquiry for artworks. Hirshhorn was also a frequent guest in the Chagall home, as this snapshot of Chagall and German shepherd was captured during a leisurely afternoon with the Hirshhorn's and friends.

Letter to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn from Lisa de Kooning, December 7, 1978. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

After exploring these artifacts, I began to ask myself if these close affinities could exist today.  In the midst of the current art market environment saturated by digital content, concrete communication is often abstract and fleeting.  It can take weeks to get an answer to a telephone call, and for email sometimes never as mailboxes fill up with thousands of messages that can prove overwhelming to answer.  Digital correspondence is so immediate that it can often lack the nuance that adds to the character or intent of a conversation. The current generation communicates primarily through digital outlets. Email, text messaging, and social media definitely have their place, however do these electronic versions have the same meaning and impact as the hardcopies they replace? Can these modes of communication suffice in establishing gallery or museum representation to prolong a future in a fine art field? It is a pleasure to go back and read the development of these special relationships, the impact Hirshhorn had on the lives of the artists he supported, and at the same time allow contemporary artists to consider the importance of the means in which relationships are built within the current art world.

Letter from Joseph Hirshhorn to Marc Chagall, September 27, 1967. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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The Site of the Salem Witch Trial Hangings Finally Has a Memorial

Smithsonian Magazine

Eight years ago, when they bought their house overlooking a wooded ledge in Salem, Massachusetts, Erin O’Connor and her husband, Darren Benedict, had no idea why that parcel stood empty. The scrubby lot lay tucked between houses on Pope Street, within sight of a large Walgreen’s—nothing much to look at. So when people began to stop by and take pictures of the empty site last winter, they wondered why.

If they’d been there in 1692, they would have known. That’s when the rocky ledge on the parcel next door turned into a site of mass execution—and when the bodies of people hanged as witches were dumped into a low spot beneath the ledge known as “the crevice.” In the night, when the hangings were over, locals heard the sounds of grieving families who snuck over to gather up their dead and secretly bury them elsewhere.

But for much of history, the site sat quietly obscured by woods and buildings. A leather tannery and railroad operated nearby, and in recent years, houses surrounded it. And for O’Connor, Benedict and much of Salem, that history has faded despite the town’s outsized reputation.

Now, it will finally be commemorated when Salem mayor Kimberley Driscoll dedicates a memorial below Proctor’s Ledge on July 19. The date coincides with the first of three mass executions there. On the same day in 1692, five women—Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes—were hanged from a tree on the ledge, and their bodies fell into a “crevice,” where the memorial now marks their names.

Later victims included wealthy landowner John Proctor, killed in August. He had publicly condemned the witch trials and had punished his female servants for claiming to be possessed by witches’ spirits in the hysteria of the day. Proctor’s Ledge is named for his grandson, who bought the land knowing its history.

The Salem witch trials were “the largest and most lethal witch hunt in American history,” wrote historian Emerson “Tad” Baker, a professor at Salem State University in his 2015 book A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. In a June symposium about the trials, Baker spoke about the volatile political and social climate in Salem in the 1790s.

At the time, an interim colonial government was in charge and Sir William Phips, the new governor, was considered weak. In response, says Baker, people felt a spiritual decline. “Puritans thought God was telling them something,” he says. Add to this the extreme weather of the “Little Ice Age”—hot dry summers and lethally cold winters—famine, economic failures and frontier wars with the French and Native Americans, and it became a scenario ripe for disaster.

Finger-pointing and mass hysteria ensued. During a series of trials, young women accused “witches” of making them contort, writhe and shriek. The accusations were “neighbor on neighbor,” says University of Connecticut geographer Ken Foote. It was an anxious time.

In the 325 years since 19 of the falsely accused were hanged as witches in Salem, the coastal town has never forgotten what happened. (Most of the trial activity took place in Salem. Some of the young accusers lived in Salem Village, later renamed Danvers.) Somehow, the site of the hangings had until now faded from memory, replaced by an obsession with the “witches” themselves that borders on kitsch.

Witch tourism gave Salem the moniker “Witch City,” a major economic driver that local officials have long said they value. (Even the police department’s logo includes a witch.) Every Halloween, as many as 250,000 visit for the event called Haunted Happenings. Revelers dress as zombies and witches. Families take “ghost tours,” and wander around a psychic fair, costume balls, and film festivals—all run by a public-private partnership called Destination Salem.

The kinder, gentler form of witch interest dates to the television situation comedy “Bewitched,” which filmed several episodes in town in the 1970s. A statue of the actress Elizabeth Montgomery (who played the witch Samantha Stevens) stands downtown. Other popular sites include the Witch House, the home of trials judge Jonathan Corwin, and the Old Burying Point Cemetery, where tourists visit the grave of the other judge, John Hathorne (ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne).

Adding to its rich history, Salem has become a center for thousands of practitioners of the Wiccan faith, which has no relation to the satanic imaginations of 1692. It’s hard to know where the dark history fades and the spiritual or lighthearted steps in.

Though tourists often ask where the hangings took place, they were directed to the wrong place for years. Taxi drivers and, famously, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s limousine driver, would take them to the top of the place named Gallows Hill because for years townspeople thought that was the hanging site. Only last year did a group of historians, including Baker, verify that the hangings took place below Gallows Hill, on Proctor’s Ledge, underscoring the earlier conclusion of historian Sidney Perley, who identified the ledge in the early 1900s.

Location of the memorial, pre-construction in December 2016 (Martha Lyon)

The new memorial, the first of its kind to be built at the execution site, was funded by a community grant and donations from some of the descendants of Salem’s “witches.” (Many descendants belong to a group called the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches.) It incorporates a granite wall and memorial stones with the 19 killed innocents’ names set in a semicircle around a single oak tree, a dominant tree in the colonial landscape (the hangings above were probably from an oak).  In 1992, the Salem Award Foundation erected the Salem Witch Trials Memorial adjacent to the Old Burying Ground, a cemetery in town where one of the judges and some other notables are interred. Visitors leave notes and flowers on commemorative benches, “and I think some of them must think it is just a park,” Baker, the historian, says.

Mayor Driscoll said in a release that the new memorial site “presents an opportunity for us to come together as a community, recognize the injustice and tragedy perpetrated against those innocents in 1692, and recommit ourselves to the values of inclusivity and justice.”

Baker believes that the memorial could turn Americans toward greater understanding of what a witch hunt truly means in today’s world full of fear of terrorism. “Americans today gaze back at the people of 1692 as a foolish, superstitious, and intolerant lot,” Baker wrote in A Storm of Witchcraft. “Yet that is to dismiss the figure in the mirror.”

But not everyone feels unbridled relief at this new awareness. Neighbors of Proctor’s Ledge didn’t know they lived near the exact site of the hangings until last winter, when the city held public hearings to discuss the memorial site. They understood that the site (owned by the city since 1936) “would never be built on because the city owns it,” says O’Connor. “We were a little bummed because they cut down all our trees.” And the Halloween reveling “can be a little crazy,” she says. “My neighbor last year was working at home and people started having a loud séance in her back yard.”

Centuries ago, the site of the hangings had been out of the way, if not quiet. The once marshy area lay on the outskirts of town and could be seen from a distance, says Marilynne Roach, a Watertown, Massachusetts, researcher and author of the book Six Women of Salem. In 1692, she says, the ledge overlooked the North River, which at the time made an L-shaped bend heading from the town of Peabody and toward the Atlantic Ocean. By the 19th century, the neighborhood surrounded tanneries (known as “blubber hill”) and other industry. Today, one can drive from there to the Salem town center in about five minutes.

The choice of that particular spot for the hangings likely served a strategic purpose 325 years ago that sounds pretty ghoulish today: It was public enough so people could watch the executions, Roach says, “but you don’t want it in someone’s backyard. It is a bit out of the way and it is public land. I get the impression that everybody in town who could get away from work would come out and watch these.” Roach credits documented accounts of nearby residents who once stood near the ledge as providing the historic proof that this was the place.

Now, the site will once again attract the public—not gawkers this time, but visitors commemorating the witch trials’ innocent victims.

Robin Eddy, whose backyard abuts the hanging site, said a neighbor told her as she moved in 21 years ago, "You know, you're living on the site where they threw the witches' bodies after they hung them." She added, "And I'm like, 'Ha ha ha.'"

Eddy said that unlike some of her neighbors, "I think it's pretty cool. I think it's amazing. To me, the memorial is…like a hallowed ground. It represents kind of where the human race was at a certain point in history. It makes me think about that and how we never want to go that way again. We need to practice tolerance."

The mayor will stand respectfully as she dedicates the memorial below Proctor’s Ledge on the 325th anniversary of five of the hangings. And in a few months, Halloween will come again to Salem. “That’s fun,” Roach says, “but mixing up strolling zombies with the memorial in the middle of town and the burial ground, it confuses the public and it leads to crowds that can damage the real thing. And [it’s] a pain in the neck for people who live in Salem. I kind of avoid Salem in October for the most part."

Model of Brookhaven 80" Hydrogen Bubble Chamber (rear half)

National Museum of American History
Model of Brookhaven 80-inch hydrogen bubble chamber, made of wood and plastic, in two halves, front and rear, on plexiglass bases. Represented are the chamber proper and its window in the rear half (object 1994.3075.01.1), and the magnet yoke and copper coils in the front half (object 1994.3075.01.2).

Basic Principles of Bubble Chambers

Devices for detecting subatomic particles are of two types: “counters” and “chambers.” Counters merely indicate that a particle has passed through (from which signal the energy or velocity of the particle can often also be obtained using two or more such counters separated by a known distance). “Chambers,” however, do not merely signal a transiting particle, but trace its path and—most important—the paths of any other charged particles emerging from collisions which it may undergo with matter filling the chamber.

The first detector of the “chamber” type was the cloud chamber, devised in 1911 by C.T.R. Wilson at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, England. The tracks of charged particles are rendered visible by the condensation of water vapor about the ionized air molecules (nitrogen and oxygen) produced along the paths of fast-moving charged particles. For an example of a cloud chamber, see object EM.N-08016, Replica of Wilson Cloud Chamber.

Next came the bubble chamber, one of the earliest and most successful imaging detectors. Donald Glaser invented it in the early 1950’s to track particles in high-energy particle collisions. (See object 1980.0356.01, Replica of Glaser’s Six -inch Bubble Chamber.) In April 1953 Berkeley physicist Luis Alvarez met Donald Glaser and learned of his idea and his rudimentary, small, all-glass device. Alvarez was excited by the prospect of a nearly ideal detector for use with the Bevatron particle accelerator, then nearing completion at Berkeley. He immediately turned his assistants and technicians to the problem of developing a liquid-hydrogen bubble chamber. The Berkeley group was the first to demonstrate particle tracks in liquid hydrogen, and then to succeed with a metal-and-glass chamber. The possibility of larger chambers was thus established. (See, for example, objects 1989.0171.04 and 1978.2302.08, Berkeley 4” and 15” Hydrogen Bubble Chambers, respectively.)

The bubble chamber is particularly useful for studying high-energy particles that would pass through a cloud chamber too quickly to leave a detailed enough track, but which pass more slowly through the bubble chamber because of the greater density of the liquid. A typical chamber consists of a sealed container filled with a liquefied gas; and it is designed such that pressure inside can be quickly changed. The idea is to momentarily superheat the fluid when the particles are expected to pass through it. This is accomplished by suddenly lowering the pressure, thereby decreasing the boiling point of the liquefied gas, thus converting it into a superheated liquid. When particles pass through this fluid, they produce dense tracks of localized electron–ion pairs. The energy delivered to the liquid during this process produces tiny bubbles along the particles’ tracks. The tracks of the charged particles can be used to identify the particles, determine their properties, and analyze complex events in which they may be involved.

If an external magnetic field is applied over the volume of the chamber, the tracks of the charged particles will be curved, positively charged particles curving in one direction and negatively charged ones curving in the opposite direction. The degree of curvature depends on the strength of the magnetic field and the particle mass, speed, and charge. Neutral particles (which leave no tracks) can be detected indirectly by applying various conservation laws to the events recorded in the bubble chamber or by observing their decay into pairs of oppositely charged particles. Liquid hydrogen and helium are commonly used in bubble chambers, with cryogenic equipment needed to maintain these gases in their liquid state. For experiments requiring very dense liquids, a variety of organic compounds may be used. Track data are obtained when the chamber is illuminated and photographed by a high-definition camera. The resulting images are then analyzed offline for particle identification and measurement.

Object EM.N-10118, Brookhaven 80-inch bubble chamber, 1963

Objects 1994.3075.01.1 & .01.2, Rear and front parts of model of Brookhaven 80-inch bubble chamber

By the time Berkeley’s 72-inch bubble chamber was completed in 1959, half a dozen other laboratories around the world were planning liquid-hydrogen chambers of that same scale. Among these was Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, New York, whose 30-billion electron-volt Alternating-Gradient Synchrotron (AGS) was to start up in 1960. The 80-inch chamber is surmounted by its expansion cylinder. (Only the ten-ton heart of the original 450-ton apparatus forms object EM.N-10118; the magnet, which accounted for the greatest part of the weight, is not included. The magnet yoke is represented in Objects 1994.3075.01.1 & .01.2, Rear and front parts of model of Brookhaven 80-inch bubble chamber.)

The bubble chamber is made of a non-magnetic stainless steel. A piston in the cylinder above expanded and compressed the liquid hydrogen once per second; it was cycled, and photographed, more than ten million times in the decade it was in operation. The wide thin neck between chamber and cylinder allowed space for the current-carrying copper coils that produced a strong magnetic field throughout the chamber. The stainless steel tubes spraying up on either side served in part to inflate gaskets to seal window to the chamber, but chiefly to pump off any hydrogen that leaked through the seals. The flat glass window, 6 inches thick and weighing 1500 pounds, was, when made, the largest piece of optical quality glass. Behind it the rear inner surface of the chamber is coated with a specially prepared “Scotchlite” material that returns light to within a degree of the direction from which it comes, so as to make the particle tracks clearly visible. The light source and cameras were mounted at the end of a truncated oblong cone (not preserved) that bolted over, and sealed in, the window. Fifty physicists, engineers, and technicians kept the chamber operating 24 hours a day.

The most significant discovery made with Brookhaven’s 80-inch chamber came in the first few months of its operation: the detection of the Ω⁻ particle, whose existence had been predicted by theoretical physicist Murray Gell-Mann. (This finding supported the first attempt by physicists to organize the increasingly long list of subatomic particles into an orderly pattern, similar to that used to arrange elements in the periodic table.) Beams of K⁻ meson particles, commonly used in studies of the production and interactions of “strange” particles—and particularly in the discovery of the Ω⁻---were obtained by sending the accelerated protons from the AGS crashing into a tungsten target. From the resulting spray of all possible types of particles, a K⁻ beam was formed by eliminating every other particle type with trains of magnets and electrostatic deflectors (“separators”). The beam was directed at the chamber, resulting in collisions between K⁻ mesons and protons. The Ω⁻ particle was detected among the collision particles

These six- and seven-foot bubble chambers of the early 1960s, containing some 200 gallons of liquid hydrogen, were succeeded towards the end of the decade by a generation of 3,000 to 10,000-gallon, barrel-shaped chambers. Of these there were only four; one each at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, at Brookhaven National Laboratory, at CERN in Switzerland, and at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, also near Chicago. Their leading role in elementary particle physics later passed to complex electronic detectors; see for example object 1977.0708.02, Charpak multiwire proportional chamber.

Why We Need to Start Building Monuments to Groundbreaking Women

Smithsonian Magazine

A few years ago, residents of a Washington, D.C., neighborhood decided to spruce up the old wrought-iron fire-department call boxes that dotted their sidewalks, part of a city-wide effort to beautify and restore these elegant (if no longer used) curiosities. They painted the poles a deep blue with gold trim, then commissioned local artists to add scenes to the call boxes, depicting the area's past. Residents knew their sector of the city harbored a proud secret, one that I write about in my recent book Code Girls: During World War II, some 4,000 women codebreakers toiled in a top-secret compound on the grounds of a former girls’ school, breaking codes and ciphers used by deadly Nazi U-boats and the Japanese Navy. To honor these women, the neighbors arranged for the portrait of a female code breaker to be painted on one call-box cabinet—for a model, they chose Alvina Schwab Pettigrew of South Dakota--and put a small plaque on the other side explaining what she and her colleagues did.

The call box has a homespun quality and remains easy to miss, located on a busy avenue, near a bus stop. But to date it represents the only public effort to honor the 11,000 women whose collective work helped win World War II.

Now, 75 years later, it’s time for them to get more than a call box. Historians today accept that code breaking shortened the war by at least a year, and saved thousands of lives on battlegrounds and at sea. In the United States—which had an even larger code-breaking operation than Britain’s famous Bletchley Park—more than half of the code-breakers were women. In addition to the thousands of women at the D.C. facility, which was run by the Navy, another 7,000 broke codes at an Army compound across the river in Arlington, Virginia. 

The penalty for talking about their work was death. The women were told they’d be shot if they blabbed. If anybody asked what they did, they were to say they were secretaries, sharpening pencils and emptying trash cans. Because they were women, people readily believed the work they did must be unimportant. Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that these women helped build the modern intelligence community, pioneering the field of cyber-intelligence, and ran code-breaking machines that were forerunners of modern computers.

March is Women's History Month. This year it comes at a time when the twin forces of the debate over Confederate memorials and the #metoo movement have created an upswing in public interest about how and who we memorialize. Changes are being made. In New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University removed the name of white supremacist John C. Calhoun from a residential college and replaced it with that of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, the brilliant Vassar math professor who helped develop the Navy’s early computers and pioneered the first programming language.

In Salt Lake City, an elementary school named for President Andrew Jackson has been re-named for Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer. In Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Maggie L. Walker, an African-American businesswoman and the first U.S. woman to charter a bank, provides a much-needed counterpoint to the statues of Confederate generals lining Monument Avenue. In New York, officials have agreed to relocate the Central Park statue depicting J. Marion Sims, a white doctor who performed experimental gynecological surgery on black slave women without true consent or anesthesia, and to add plaques explaining just what his legacy entailed. Also in Central Park, where historically there have been no statues representing real historical women (fictional figures, like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, have statues), advocates have succeeded in winning a monument to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other suffragettes. =
But it’s extraordinary, the extent to which our public art still over-tells the story of men’s contributions at the expense of women’s. In all of Washington, D.C.—a city where it would seem that no male military officer or government leader has been denied a spot in some square or traffic circle—there are only a handful of statues depicting historical women: Joan of Arc, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, among a few others. The other 50-odd female (or female-ish) statues mostly depict abstract concepts like grief or freedom, or else they are anonymous forms arrayed in worshipful poses around men, fulfilling the hallowed female role of gazing adoringly upon men and encouraging homage to them, all the while remaining, themselves, unnamed. 
Too often public art still does to women what history has done; it minimizes their achievements and denies their full humanity. When researching my book, I was astonished at how many histories and memoirs of the code-breaking triumphs of World War II—the breaking of the Nazi Enigma cipher, the ingenious code-breaking that led to Pacific victories such as the Battle of Midway—overlooked the major role that women played.

It took a declassified history by the National Security Agency to provide the initial inkling of the full story, which then led me to the hundreds of files about code-breaking efforts at the National Archives that contained rosters of women’s names and records of what they did, declassified and available for decades. The evidence was there, in records sifted through by many historians, who, it seems, had not thought the women worthy of much mention.

The nation’s capital has long been a magnet for female talent. The Civil War and every conflict thereafter drew women seeking jobs with the growing federal government at a time when men were unavailable to fill those roles. In World War II, tens of thousands of women boarded trains to come work for agencies such as the FBI, the Office of Strategic Services, and the Pentagon. The women code-breakers were mostly young college graduates and ex-schoolteachers, adept in math and languages, who found themselves working ‘round the clock shifts, breaking complex enemy systems. Known as government girls, or g-girls, they changed the city’s landscape; many apartments were built to house them, and a number still exist. And yet there is little, apart from that call box, to celebrate what they did. 
Apart from the everyday women who broke new ground in the field of cryptanalysis, there are a few women whose absence from our nation’s historical memory is even more egregious. During the 1920s and 1930s, a former Texas schoolteacher and mathematical genius, Agnes Meyer Driscoll, labored in obscurity in the small (at the time) codebreaking bureau of the US Navy, where she, as a civilian, diagnosed how the Japanese Navy enciphered its fleet code. She taught the male naval officers who broke enemy codes that led to victory in the Battle of Midway--and her name should be emblazoned on a building, a battleship, or both. To date, pretty much all she has gotten is a roadside marker near her childhood home in Ohio.

Elizebeth Friedman, a former schoolteacher, decoded the messages of rum-runners, as well as other smugglers, during and after Prohibition. There is an auditorium dedicated to Friedman in the headquarters of the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—just as, inside NSA headquarters, the director’s conference room is named for Ann Caracristi, a World War II code breaker who rose to become the agency’s first female deputy director. Such spaces are well-earned tributes, but the public still knows little about these women.

At Arlington Hall, the Army’s wartime codebreaking compound, now used as a training center for foreign service officers, there is little, if anything, to herald the 7,000 women who labored there during the war. The National Cryptologic Museum, adjacent to the NSA headquarters in Maryland has an exhibit on cryptanalytic women, but it's off the beaten path.

There are many reasons to commemorate these women. For one thing, they should be thanked for their service. Their descendants—many of whom work in intelligence—deserve a place to visit and meditate on what their mothers, aunts and grandmothers did. And as modern women fight, even today, for full inclusion in sectors like technology and military service, it’s essential to fill out the historical record and show that women have been in those sectors all along; that women helped pioneer them.
The idea is not to topple extant statues. It’s to augment them with monuments that tell the full story of American history. And even though its also rare to find a statue of a male cryptanalyst, there are plenty of World War II soldiers valorized for their bravery with a monument. A proper memorial for the “Code Girls” might show the women working at tables surrounded by towering stacks of Japanese messages; or standing at huge machines cracking German U-boat ciphers, keeping Allied convoys safe as they crossed the Atlantic.

Recently, I was fortunate to be on a panel with Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, the book (and movie) that tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians who powered the space race. She pointed out that there have been always been women shaping American history, but it’s as though they were laboring in darkened rooms. Now, the light switches are being flipped and we can see that women have been there, in surprising numbers, all along. Their achievements only need to be illuminated to be seen.

How Red Is Dragon’s Blood?

Smithsonian Magazine

Attached to an actuator on the shoulder of NASA’s Curiosity Rover exploring Mars right now is a set of panels that looks like an eye shadow compact. It has six pigmented silicone panels—in red, green, blue, 40-percent gray, 60-percent gray, and one with a fluorescent pigment that glows red under ultraviolet light. This is the color calibration target for Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager, a camera that takes landscape portraits and close-up shots of rocks on Mars (and also selfies). Geologists want some way to know what color these Martian rocks would be on Earth since Earth rocks are all that we’ve been able to study directly with the human eye—and color helps guide theories about a rock’s composition or history.

On Mars, and here on Earth, color matters. Without it, the red Toyota in the parking lot might be indistinguishable from the black one. You want to know if that pear in the market is juicy yellow or hard, inedible green. And let’s not even think for too long about the color of the meat in your fridge, and your assessment of whether it should be dinner, or destined for the trash. Plants and animals use color to protect themselves—a recent New York Times article described how the cuttlefish can cloak itself to near invisibility at very high speed.

Color can be subjective, but for scientists, distinctions between the colors have always been critical. They can indicate when a plant or animal is a different species or a subspecies from an otherwise identical one; in the 19th century, the use of color to differentiate species was important for what it said about evolution and how species changed over time and from region to region. Then and now, naturalists and other scientists use a visual language to identify with great precision what something actually looks like. For over a century, reference works known as color dictionaries have been the central tool used in these matters of perception and identification.

I learned about color dictionaries through my interest in bird books, which I discovered while driving Alaska’s Dalton Highway to the Arctic Ocean in 1992 with my martial arts instructor. We came to a gas station with a small, attached bookshop. I somewhat idly opened up a field guide to the birds of North America, and the heavens opened up: I realized that I could quantify and identify birds and tell them apart—birds we’d been seeing on that very trip.

I took up birdwatching as a hobby, and then, since I’m a historian, I became interested in historic figures who studied birds. Many of those figures were interested in color matters. I decided to write a biography of Robert Ridgway, who was the Smithsonian’s first curator of birds. Though obscure by the 21st century, he was one of America’s best-known scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries—a giant in the fields of taxonomics and color study. To aid in his studies, he created the most important and painstaking color dictionary, Color Standards and Color Nomenclature, which he self-published in 1912

Ridgway’s wasn’t the first color dictionary—they first came into use in the first third of the nineteenth century, around the same time that Noah Webster created the first standardized dictionaries of American words.  Charles Darwin took Abraham Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1821)—one of the first English-language color dictionaries—on the 1831 voyage of the HMS Beagle. He used it to catalogue the flora and fauna that later inspired his theory of natural selection.

A page from Abraham Werner's Nomenclature of Colors outlines different shades of green for scientists to use when describing new species. (Abraham Werner, Nomenclature of Colors, 1821)

Color dictionaries were designed to give people around the world a common vocabulary to describe the colors of everything from rocks and flowers to stars, birds, and postage stamps. They afforded scientists and naturalists a means of descriptive biological precision that could be easily shared—so naturalists in Kalamazoo and Germany could communicate effectively about a family of birds found in both places in related (but different) forms. They typically consisted of a set of color swatches, each assigned a name (usually rendered in several languages, to facilitate international use), an identifying number, and an often-lyrical description of the color (“the color of the blood of a freshly killed rabbit,” or “mummy brown.”)

Other important color dictionaries were published at the start of the 20th century when Ridgway published his work—some of them strange and wonderful. The French Society of Chrysanthemists, for instance, created a two-volume set of swatches and names in 1905 for their own botanical uses. Holly Green was described as “the ordinary color of the foliage of the common holly, viewed from 1 to 2 meters away, and without considering reflections.” And despite the fact that the work was meant for international consumption, its soul remained French. “Sky Blue,” for example, was described as “The color reminiscent of pure sky, in summer (in the climate of Paris).”

But Ridgway’s work stood out. Shy, retiring, and nerdy in the extreme, he was an astonishingly talented identifier and user of colors. This gift was key in a field where distinguishing among subspecies of birds with slight color variations was essential to understanding the mechanisms of evolution, speciation, and other scientific aspects of the natural world. Ridgway wrote a short color dictionary in 1886, just as he finished work on a groundbreaking set of rules and guidelines for naming birds. He worked quietly on his color project for decades, until 1912, when he self-published a work with 1,115 named colors: Color Standards and Color Nomenclature.

The book is filled with color swatches with names like “Dragons-blood Red,” which makes me think of blood dripping from a sword; or “Light Paris Green,” which seems like a holiday; or  “Light Squill Blue,” which somehow sounds like a cross between “squash” and “quill” and “thrill,” though a squill is in fact a coastal Mediterranean plant.

Plate I from Robert Ridgeway's Color Standards and Color Nomenclature displays red hues. (MIT Libraries/Robert Ridgeway, Color Standards and Color Nomenclature, 1912)

Like many color dictionary authors, Ridgway buried within the names shout-outs to famous (or obscure) color theorists and painters. He was influenced by the work of Ogden Rood, a physicist and artist who worked up a new theory of contrasting colors, included him in four color names: Rood’s Blue, Rood’s Violet, Rood’s Brown, and Rood’s Lavender. Board game maven Milton Bradley, who also sold apparatuses for mixing colors, appears in Bradley’s Blue and Bradley’s Violet. Chapman’s Blue is certainly a nod to his friend Frank Chapman, who was the first to group birds by color, rather than shape, in his 20th century field guides.

These color dictionaries have a deep, personal and complicated history—even though they emerged from a strong desire to quantify the world, as taxonomic publications tried to do in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Colors are slippery, and they say something about the personal prejudices and interests of the namers, at least as much as they speak to the qualities of colors themselves. We don’t use them anymore because in book form they would be impossibly unwieldy: There are now more named colors than you can shake a dragon at—far more than would fit into a single volume. But Ridgway’s legacy lives on—his book evolved into the Pantone color chart relied upon by graphic designers, house paint creators, interior designers, fashion mavens, flag makers, and anyone looking to identify colors. As the Curiosity rover shows, scientists still use analog charts to identify and compare colors (as well as to discuss them by their numerically expressed wavelengths).

In fact, each year, the New Jersey-based Pantone Inc., tries to forecast the zeitgeist of the year ahead by choosing a Color of the Year. The color selected for 2014 was Radiant Orchid—a purple shade described as a “complex, interesting, attracting kind of color.” Seen in sneakers and the striping of shirts, this purple was chosen because it radiated a kind of “confidence in your creativity” at a time when innovation is greatly admired. I would have preferred a more subversive, subtler, or more counterintuitive descriptor, like “Subterranean Orchid,” but I suppose colors shouldn’t sound like obscure punk rock bands. Still, unless you’re in a cranky mood, it’s hard not to smile at the name “Radiant Orchid.” The names are a form of public relations, really, for colors—and why not? Like babies, there really are no ugly colors. But we need to be told that sometimes, and their names are a huge part of their appeal.

Daniel Lewis is the Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology and the chief curator of manuscripts at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. He is the author of The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds (Yale University Press, 2012). He originally wrote this article for Zocalo Public Square. 

Skulls With 'Surfer's Ear' Suggest Ancient Pearl Divers in Panama

Smithsonian Magazine

The first time anthropologist Nicole Smith-Guzmán noticed a nob of bone protruding from the ear canal of an ancient skull in Panama, she didn’t know what to make of it. “I never expected to find this sort of bony growth because we’re taught this is a cold-water thing.” And the isthmus of Panama is nothing if not tropical.

The little spur Smith-Guzmán identified had created a slight mound in the skull’s ear canal—an annoying impediment for the person who once had to deal with it. Known as external auditory exostoses, or EAE, the bony masses can be globular or shaped like teardrops. Depending on their severity, these growths, commonly called “surfer’s ear” today, can cause repeat ear infections and even deafness.

Scientists still don’t understand the precise mechanisms behind the formation of EAE. For a time, the growths were thought to be caused by some genetic anomaly. Further research, however, pointed to a different source: repeated exposure to and submersion in cold water. Just how cold the water has to be and how often people have to swim in it remains up for debate. But for such ear canal growths to be found in human remains in a place like Panama was unexpected and perplexing.

Maybe, Smith-Guzmán thought, the first EAE she saw in 2015 was an anomaly. But she kept an eye out for more while continuing her work as a research collaborator at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Smith-Guzmán had been tasked to review the skeletons excavated by Richard Cooke in the 1970s. As she worked, more skulls afflicted by EAE appeared. And then came another surprise.

“At Cerro Juan Díaz [archaeological site], three skeletons within the same burial unit had this bony growth,” Smith-Guzmán says. “At this point, you start thinking these are people who know each other during life and might be doing the same sort of activities together.” And those activities might well have included diving deep into the waters of Parita Bay to retrieve oysters, shells and even pearls.

Now, after three years of work, Cooke and Smith-Guzmán have published their results in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Of the 125 skulls they examined from sites across Panama, they saw EAE in seven men and one woman, revealing that, in the right conditions, even the balmy tropics can become chilly enough for the ear canal to react.

Skulls showing surfer’s ear were found at sites near the Gulf of Panama where seasonal winds pump cold water to the surface. This map shows where many of the skulls in the study were found, the percentage that had EAE, and the dates of the remains. ( Nicole Smith-Guzmán)

“Analyzing 125 individuals from 10 sites dated to about 2500 to 500 years before present at first seems a bit complicated,” Sabine Eggers says in an email. A curator and staff scientist at the Natural History Museum of Vienna, Eggers has also conducted research on EAE found in pre-Hispanic skulls from coastal Brazil. She says that the similarities between the groups and across time provided compelling evidence for the Smithsonian researchers’ conclusion that activities such as diving and fishing were dominated by men and were practiced in different parts of Panama over a long period of time.

“Since [all the individuals in Smith-Guzmán’s study] seem to have subsisted at least in part on aquatic resources, lived in different environments in a relatively small region, and possibly were genetically comparable, the frequency and distribution of the EAE show a clear pattern,” Eggers says.

That pattern is the frequent development of EAE among communities that relied heavily on fishing, diving and other activities that repeatedly brought them in contact with the water. For numerous groups in Panama, daily life included diving for thorny oysters, giant conch and pearl oysters. The shells were then used to produce ornamentation for burials.

Smith-Guzmán’s paper adds to a growing body of evidence that our coastal ancestors showed no hesitation when it came to getting wet. Skulls with EAE have been found as far south as the subpolar environment of Tierra de Fuego and in hominin populations dating back to 430,000 years ago. One group of researchers studied a pair of massive EAE growths in an old male Neanderthal who lived 50,000 years ago. The condition appeared in both the individual’s left and right ears, meaning he would’ve been largely deaf and therefore reliant on the individuals around him.

Given how far back the growths occur, some scientists have suggested they provide evidence for humankind’s ongoing relationship with water. “It is highly likely that the presence of these growths constituted a selective survival advantage for early hominids during evolution,” write Rhys Evans and M. Cameron in a paper for the Royal College of Surgeons. They suggest that if early hominids spent extended periods of time in the water, perhaps the development of these bone spurs protected the more vulnerable structures of the ear, like the ear drum—though today the growths are generally considered a nuisance. “Their development… as a physiological modification rather than a pathological entity may have provided an evolutionary advantage for early hominids in a marine or semiaquatic environment.”

Human's passion for the water has continued to this day. The occurrence of EAE hasn’t declined, despite fewer people relying on fishing for subsistence. Researchers studying 307 modern surfers found that 82.4 percent of those who had surfed for more than 10 years had severe EAE. While some surfers and divers use earplugs to prevent the bone growths, others have to rely on surgery for their removal.

Comparing ancient and modern examples of EAE is up next on Smith-Guzman’s agenda. She hopes to look at archaeological sites in Costa Rica, Venezuela and Colombia, and talk to doctors around Panama City to get an idea of the modern prevalence of “surfer’s ear.”

There’s also the matter of Panamanian skeletons to finish sorting through. Over 300 human remains still need to be examined, and with them come more questions. Did EAE occurrence change after European contact? Could Columbus’ arrival have spelled a decline in diving for shells? It’s impossible to say at this point, but for Smith-Guzmán, the mystery is part of what keeps her searching for more clues about pre-Hispanic life in Panama.

Only a Handful of People Can Enter the Chauvet Cave Each Year. Our Reporter Was One of Them.

Smithsonian Magazine

The entry into the depths of the Chauvet Cave, the world’s greatest repository of Palaeolithic art, begins with a dramatic ascent. A steep switchback trail through a forest brings one to the foot of a limestone cliff. From here a wood-plank walkway leads to a steel door. Behind it, sealed from outsiders by four secure locks- including a biometric lock accessible by only four conservators - lies a time capsule that remained hidden from the world for 35,000 years.

Ever since three amateur spelunkers, led by Jean-Marie Chauvet, crawled into the cave on December 18, 1994, and stumbled upon its remarkable trove of drawings and engravings, the government has sharply restricted access in order to preserve its fragile ecosystem. I had been as far as this entrance four months earlier, while researching a cover story about Chauvet for Smithsonian. Back then, I had to settle for entering the Caverne Pont D’Arc, a $60 million facsimile then under construction in a nearby concrete shed. But in April, in advance of the facsimile’s opening to the public, France’s Ministry of Culture invited me and three other journalists on a rare guided tour of the real Chauvet.

Marie Bardisa, Chauvet’s chief custodian, opened the steel door and we entered a cramped antechamber. Each of us slipped into the obligatory protective gear, including rubber shoes, a blue jumpsuit, a helmet mounted with a miner’s lamp, and rope harness fitted with two caribiners. Feelings of claustrophobia began to take hold of me as I crawled through a narrow rock passageway that ascended, curved, then descended, and finally stopped just before an abyss: a 50-foot drop to the grotto floor. A permanent ladder is now in place here. Bardisa’s assistant clipped our caribiners to a fixed line and we descended, one by one, into the darkness. 

All these precautions are in place to protect the cave itself and avoid repeating what happened to the famous Lescaux caves, where bacteria and decay have ruined the cave art. As I wrote in my Smithsonian feature:

The cave’s undoing came after the French Ministry of Culture opened it to the public in 1948: Visitors by the thousands rushed in, destroying the fragile atmospheric equilibrium. A green slime of bacteria, fungi and algae formed on the walls; white-crystal deposits coated the frescoes. In 1963 alarmed officials sealed the cave and limited entry to scientists and other experts. But an irreversible cycle of decay had begun. Spreading fungus lesions—which cannot be removed without causing further damage—now cover many of the paintings. Moisture has washed away pigments and turned the white calcite walls a dull gray. In 2010, when then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, toured the site on the 70th anniversary of its discovery, Laurence Léauté-Beasley, president of a committee that campaigns for the cave’s preservation, called the visit a “funeral service for Lascaux.”

At Chauvet, however, Just 200 scientific researchers and conservators are permitted inside each year. Bardisa says that as long as they stringently restrict access and closely monitor the cave, it can continue in its present state for the foreseeable future.

Because I had already toured the facsimile in December, I thought I would have some idea of what to expect. But nothing could have prepared me for Chauvet’s vastness and variety. (The Caverne Pont d’Arc has been shrunk to one third of the real cave’s 8,500 square meters.) The lamp on my miner’s helmet, along with a seepage of natural light, illuminated a cathedral-like gallery that soared at least six stories high. As we trod along a stainless-steel walkway that retraced the original explorers’ path – warned by Bardisa not to touch anything and remain on the walkway at all times - I stared at an extraordinary panoply of colors, shapes and textures.

White, purple, blue, and pink calcite deposits –formed over eons by water seeping through the limestone - suspended from the sloping ceiling like dripping candle wax. Multi-armed stalagmites rose from the floor like saguro cacti. Others poked up like sprouting phalluses. There were bulbous formations as elaborate as frosted, multi-tiered wedding cakes, clusters of dagger-like stalactites that seemed ready to drop off and impale at us any moment.

Some limestone walls were dull and matted, while others shone and glinted with what seemed like mica. The floors alternated between calcified stone and soft sand, embedded with the paw prints of prehistoric bears, ibexes and other animals. The prints in the soft ground, frozen in place for 35,000 years, could be destroyed by a simple touch, Bardisa warned. And everywhere lay remnants of the beasts that had shared this cave with human beings: bear and ibex skulls, little white islands of bear bones, the droppings of a wolf.

The natural concretions were splendid, but it was, of course, the drawings that we had come to see. The presence of Palaeolithic man revealed itself slowly, as if these ancient cave artists had an intuitive sense of drama and pacing. In a corner of the first gallery, Bardisa pointed out the tableau that had mesmerized the French cave-art expert Jean Clottes when he entered here in late December 1994 to authenticate the discovery:  a grid of red dots covering a wall, created, as Clottes would determine, by an artist dabbing his palms in ocher then pressing them against the limestone. Clottes developed a theory that these early cave artists were prehistoric shamans, who attempted to communicate with the animal spirits by drawing them out of the rock with their touch.

We continued along the metal walkway, slightly elevated off the soft ground, following a sloping course through the second room, containing another large panel covered with palm prints and, here and there, small, crude drawings of woolly mammoths, easily missed. Indeed, Eliette Brunel, the first to enter the cave, had noticed none of these paintings on her first walk through. It was in a passageway between the second and third galleries that Brunel had caught sight of a small, smudged pair of ocher lines drawn on the wall to her right at eye level.

“They have been here,” she cried out to her companions. Over the next few hours, she, Chauvet and Hillaire moved from gallery to gallery, as we were doing now, staring in amazement as the representations of ice age beasts became more numerous and more sophisticated.

Kneeling down in the third chamber, I set eyes on a long panel of rhinoceroses at waist level. Then came a panel of white engravings – the first artwork we had seen that was not created using ocher paint.  Made by tracing the fingers over the soft limestone, or by using crude tools, the etchings included a profile of a horse that seemed almost Picasso-esque in its swirling abstraction.  “You can see it springing. It’s magnificent,” Bardisa told us. I had to agree.

A final passageway, hemmed in by sloping walls, brought us to the End Chamber.

The prehistoric artists, creeping into the cave’s hidden recesses with their torches, had obviously deemed this gallery the heart of the spirit world. Many visitors, including the filmmaker Werner Herzog, the director of the Chauvet documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, had marveled at the paintings contained in this last gallery – perhaps the fullest realization of Paleolithic man’s imagination. Here, the artists had changed their palette from ocher to charcoal, and the simply outlined drawings had evolved into richly shaded, torqued, three-dimensional creatures, marvels of action and perspective. Across one 12-foot slab of limestone, lions captured in individualized profile stalked their prey –a menagerie of bisons, rhinos, antelopes, mammoths, all drawn with immeasurable skill and confidence.

After admiring this crowded canvas, we retraced our steps through the cave.  I hadn’t been able to take photographs and had found it too awkward to scribble my thoughts in a notebook, but I retained a vivid memory of every moment of the two hours that I had been permitted to explore Chauvet. I climbed back up the ladder and removed my protective gear, punched the exit button and stepped into the bright sunlight.  

As I made my way down the pathway to a parking lot far below, my mind still reeled with the images that had sprung dreamlike out of the darkness- as vibrant and beautiful as they had been when our distant ancestors first painted them on Chauvet’s limestone walls.

How to Make (and Where to Eat) the Best Dim Sum

Smithsonian Magazine


Crab leg and imperial fungus dim sum. Photo courtesy of Peninsula Hong Kong.

One of my favorite pastimes is joining the Sunday morning hordes outside San Francisco’s Ton Kiang, a popular dim sum restaurant in the city’s Outer Richmond neighborhood. So when the opportunity recently arose to visit Hong Kong and not only dine on the bite-size delicacies but actually learn how to make them, I jumped at the chance.

Hong Kong is dim sum’s cultural epicenter and here, the cuisine is king. The name dim sum, which means ‘to touch the heart,’ derives from its roots as a simple snack food offered with tea to the weary travelers of Asia’s Silk Road. Even today, dim sum and tea go hand in hand, and going for dim sum in Hong Kong is known as going for yum cha, which translates to ‘drink tea.’

Cantonese immigrants first introduced dim sum to the U.S. during the mid-1800s, and the cuisine’s varied selection and small, convenient portions eventually caught the attention of Westerners. Still, although there have been about 2,000 types of dim sum since its inception, most dim sum eateries in the States stick to several dozen offerings that appeal mostly to westernized palates and incorporate easy-to-find ingredients, such as sui mai (pork dumplings), wah tip (pot stickers), and ha yeung (crispy shrimp balls). In Hong Kong, however, chefs have the advantage of utilizing a larger variety of tropical vegetables from nearby Asian countries, as well as catering to a clientele that’s grown up on dim sum and tend to be more adventurous in their tastes. This means exotic treats like Sun Tung Lok’s baked sea conch shells, or steamed hairy crab roe with pork dumpling at the InterContinental Hong Kong’s Yan Toh Heen.

For over a decade, Peninsula Hong Kong has been offering weekday workshops in dim sum making as part as their larger Peninsula Academy, a series of location-specific workshops that range from paper mache and Chinese puppet mastery to insights into the region’s contemporary art scene. The hour-and-a-half-long course takes participants behind the scenes of the luxury hotel’s 1920s Shanghai-inspired Spring Moon restaurant and into its industrial kitchen to learn the art of crafting both shrimp and vegetable dumplings. Henry Fong, Peninsula’s dedicated dim sum chef, has been working in the culinary world for nearly 20 years. He is also the workshop’s teacher and will be leading our group of six in our efforts to mix, roll and wrap restaurant-style cuisine.

With so many dim sum eateries across Hong Kong, it takes an extra something to stand out. To keep his clientele happy—and his creative juices flowing—Fong hits up local farmers markets and specialty stories like the region’s popular City’s Super on weekends, searching out fresh, new ingredients to incorporate into his menu. He says it’s the endless variety that makes dim sum more interesting to him then other types of cuisine. Though well-versed in creating traditional dim sum favorites like wah tip (pot stickers) and lo mai gai (sticky rice and meats wrapped in lotus leaves), Fong also likes coming up with innovative creations by mixing the conventional with the unusual, such as drumstick-shaped steamed dumplings filled with carrots, spider crab leg and pumpkin; steamed vegetarian dumplings packed with locally grown imperial fungus and topped with gold leaf; and baked crispy buns filled with minced Wagyu beef, onions and black pepper.

A baked Wagyu beef bun. Photo courtesy of Peninsula Hong Kong.

As the workshop begins, Fong provides us each with an apron and invites us to gather around a large stainless steel table. He then begins mixing what will be the translucent skin for shrimp dumplings. First, he measures out equal portions of corn starch and high protein powder and pours them into a bowl together, and then adds some boiling water and a small bit of vegetable oil. Next he begins working the mixture with his hands. As he presses, scoops, and turns the mix repetitively it becomes thick and doughy, almost like marzipan. Fong then offers each of us a try.

Once the dough cools, Fong rolls it into a long, thin, rope-like stretch and slices off half-inch pieces, using a blunt stainless steel Chinese cleaver to flatten them each into paper-thin circles. When it’s my turn, Fong shows me how to press down on the flat side of the cleaver with the palm of my hand, turning it as I go. My first attempt at creating a dumpling skin is nearly perfect, though my excitement is short-lived. As it happens, wrapping a shrimp dumpling is not so easy. Fong demonstrates, topping the skin with a teaspoon-size portion of dumpling filler—a blend of finely minced prawn meat, shredded bamboo shoots, and chicken power with some salt, sugar, and vegetable oil—and using two fingers, quickly creates a dozen uniform folds across its top, almost akin to a fan.

A (professionally done) imperial fungus dumpling, topped with gold leaf. Photo courtesy of Peninsula Hong Kong.

“The trick,” he explains through a translator, “is to not let the two sides touch in the middle.”  When through my creation looks more like a shrimp-nado than dumpling, though it’s still perfectly edible (and delicious), which I find out soon enough. Someone then asks Fong if there are any natural dim sum makers. “Not too many,” he says, laughing. “If there were I’d be out of a job.”

For the next 45 minutes we continue honing our shrimp dumpling skills, and also give vegetable dumplings (easier to fold because they require less dexterity) a go. Once we’re through, Fong steams them all on a stove top. After five minutes, they’re ready to eat. Along with our own creations, Fong also treats us to plates of roast pork buns, custard balls, and—for the group’s vegetarians—mushroom dumplings. He then offers each of us a cup of jasmine tea.

We are weary travelers, after all.

Where to get delicious dim sum in the States? Fong offers his recommendations for a range of price levels:

Less expensive: “The food is good quality and comparable to dim sum in Asia,” says Fong.

Koi Palace 

365 Gellert Blvd

Daly City, CA

Moderately expensive: “There is a great variety of dim sum,” says Fong, “and the choices are the same as what we offer in most restaurants in Hong Kong.”

Oriental Garden

14 Elizabeth Street

New York City, NY


Most expensive: “Every dim sum dish is hand-made with the finest seasonal ingredients and the taste is authentic,” says Fong. “Also, the food presentation is outstanding.”


529 Hudson Street

New York City, NY


Snapshot: Paris Underground

Smithsonian Magazine

An extensive network of abandoned quarries, sewers and subway lines twists beneath modern Paris. Read about this netherworld below then click on the main picture to view a photo gallery.

Origins: About 45 million years ago, Paris was part of a vast shallow sea whose shifting waters left sediment layers that over time compressed into massive stores of limestone and gypsum. The Parisii, the area's early tribal inhabitants, made little use of the resource. When the stone-loving Romans arrived in the first century B.C., they began a legacy of quarrying. By 1813, the year digging beneath Paris was banned to prevent further destabilization of the ground, some 170 miles of labyrinthine tunnels had been carved far below the city proper. In 1786, to stanch the spread of disease from overcrowded cemeteries, a portion of these old quarries were consecrated as burial grounds, and human remains were transferred there. Burials in the newly anointed "catacombs," both direct and as cemetery transfers, continued until 1860.

Napoléon Bonaparte ordered the creation of the underground sewer system, now some 300 miles long, in the early 19th century. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman, the urban planner who shaped modern Paris, expanded the network, and it was finally completed in 1894 under Napoleon III.

Launched in 1900, the Paris Metro was not the first underground rail in Europe—London's Tube holds that honor—but it's one of the largest and most convenient. Almost every address in Paris is within a third of a mile of a Metro station.

The appeal: We love what makes us scream or squirm. In the catacombs, visitors descend more than 60 feet to a stone entrance bearing the warning (in French), "Stop! This is the Empire of Death." Beyond that welcome, the bones of six million people line the dim tunnels. Across town, tourists can channel the hero of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, by exploring the city's sewer system. Those able to stomach the full tour pass through exhibits illustrating sewage technology to reach gangplanks that hover alongside a gently flowing river of water and human waste, sometimes even glimpsing a fat rat or two (toy versions of which are available in the gift shop).

Image by Click image for more photos / Bettman / Corbis. Small, chapel-like niches punctuate the catacombs' narrow passageways. Dimly lit by electric lights today, the passages and niches were once pitch-black, illuminated only by visitors' torches. A thick black line runs along the ceiling of the tunnels, originally drawn to help tourists stay on the correct path and out of the many dark, winding side passages that branch off into dead ends. (original image)

Image by Stefano Bianchetti / Corbis. The construction of Paris's modern sewers symbolized innovation, wealth and the power to sculpt the urban landscape—just as the Cloaca Maxima, or Great Sewer, did for ancient Rome. Perhaps more importantly, the underground sewage system helped keep Paris relatively clean and disease-free compared with most European cities. This illustration from 1858 depicts General Espinasse's visit to the main sewer below what is now the Gare de l'Est, or Eastern Train Station. The first dignitary to tour the sewers ranked even higher: Pedro V, King of Portugal, visited not long after the sewer tours began in 1855. (original image)

Image by Fred de Noyelle / Godong / Corbis. Before being interred in the catacombs, many of the remains originally were buried in traditional cemeteries. This sign indicates that the surrounding bones came from the ancient Madeleine Cemetery, were moved to the Western Ossuary in 1844 and were transferred to the catacombs in September of 1859. The first remains transferred were from the Cemetery of the Innocents, in the neighborhood of Les Halles. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Almost everyone who visits Paris goes underground for transportation. The Metro, the city's storied subway, has some 380 stations and is the densest underground rail system in the world. If you know where to look while riding, you can spot abandoned stations including the Croix-Rouge and Champ de Mars on the 8 line. Both have been closed for decades, and graffiti now covers their walls. (original image)

Image by Siobhan Roth. Ancient Rome's imperial glamour was not lost on Napoleon. Rome's famous catacombs drew tourists and inspired legends; so too, then, should the Paris catacombs. In 1809, Napoleon's prefect of the Seine, Count Frochot, and the Inspector General of the Quarries, Hériart de Thury, had the bones arranged in decorative patterns to impress visitors. A new tourist destination was born. (original image)

Interesting historical facts: In 1783, a porter named Philibert Aspairt got lost in the pitch-black quarry tunnels. His body wasn't found until 1804, just a few feet from an exit passage. During World War II, both the French Resistance and the Nazi forces used the ancient quarries as operational bases. Legend has it that they observed an unofficial ceasefire while underground. Until recently, farmers cultivated mushrooms, les champignons de Paris, in portions of the old quarry tunnels.

Famous sons and daughters: Many of the players in the French Revolution found their final resting places in the catacombs. Elizabeth of France, sister of King Louis the XVI, as well as the revolutionaries Robespierre and Georges Danton, all of whom were guillotined during the war, were buried in the catacombs—as was, perhaps, Madame de Pompadour, and the actor Scaramouche were among those transferred to the catacombs from the overcrowded cemeteries.

Then & Now: At the turn of the 19th century, the city was scandalized and titillated by the news of a secret concert held in the catacombs. On the program that night: Frédéric Chopin's Funeral March, Camille Saint-Saën's Danse Macabre and Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica. Today, urban cavers, or cataphiles, throw parties, carve sculptures out of the limestone and decorate the walls with everything from basic graffiti tagging to minor masterpieces. Just a few years ago, police discovered in one of the tunnels a fully functional movie theater, some 4,300 square feet, powered by pirated electricity.

Who goes there?: Public tours of the catacombs commenced in 1810, and tours of the sewers began in 1867. From the start, crowds thronged at each. The king of Portugal was the first of many dignitaries to tour the sewers. Today, the Paris Sewer Museum and the Catacombs of Paris, on-site museums run by the city, draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. To explore all three sets of tunnels in one day, start with the sewers on the Left Bank of the Seine, then zip over to the catacombs by Metro.

Siobhan Roth, based in Washington, D.C., last wrote about a third-generation French perfumer for

The history of getting the gay out

National Museum of American History
Workbook on yellow paper. In large text “Welcome Garrard!” In smaller text, “‘I finally admitted all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide them. I said to myself, I will confess them to the Lord; and you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.’ Psalm 32:5-6Title page to Garrard Conley's workbook from the gay-conversion camp Love in Action

It is dangerous to be different, and certain kinds of difference are especially risky. Race, disability, and sexuality are among the many ways people are socially marked that can make them vulnerable. The museum recently collected materials to document gay-conversion therapy (also called "reparative therapy")—and these objects allow curators like myself to explore how real people experience these risks. With the help of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., Garrard Conley gave us the workbook he used in 2004 at a now defunct religious gay-conversion camp in Tennessee, called "Love in Action." We also received materials from John Smid, who was camp director. Conley's memoir of his time there, Boy Erased, chronicles how the camp's conversion therapy followed the idea that being gay was an addiction that could be treated with methods similar to those for abating drug, alcohol, gambling, and other addictions. While there, Conley spiraled into depression and suicidal thoughts. Conley eventually escaped. Smid eventually left Love in Action and married a man.

In the United States, responses to gay, homosexual, queer, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and gender non-conforming identities have fluctuated from "Yes!" and "Who cares?" to legal sanctions, medical treatment, violence, and murder. When and why being LGBTQ+ became something that needed "fixing" has a checkered history. In the late 1800s attempts intensified to prevent, cure, or punish erotic and sexual desires that were not female-male. Non-conforming behavior underwent a dramatic shift as the word "homosexuality" (coined in 1869)—a counter to heterosexuality—became popular. The main objections to non-binary orientations were based in physiology and psychology, religion, and beliefs about morality and politics.

Photo of three different paper workbooks or handouts from Love in Action. One says “residential program, 3 months” and “empowering men and women to live sexually and relationally pure lives through Jesus Christ!” Another shows a cartoon drawing of a tanglLove in Action curriculum materials, including "A Tangled 'Ball' of Emotions" ("panic," "despair," "loneliness," and "loss" among them, with "denial" in the center

When non-conforming identities were considered a medical disease, psychiatrists used medical treatments, such as electroconvulsive shock, lobotomy, drugs, and psychoanalysis to cure or prevent "deviancy." Psychologists in the 1960s and 1970s described being LGBTQ+ as an attachment disorder—that people were attached to inappropriate erotic or sexual desires. They believed that using aversions (such as electrical shock stimuli) could modify behavior and lead to heterosexuality and "cure." It did not work.

In a black storage case with silver buttons, two silvery metal knives with pointed ends. The non-pointed ends are arch-shaped.Lobotomy knives of the sort used to "treat" homosexuality in the 1950s–1970s

Homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder until 1973, when it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It returned to later editions under other names, downgraded to maladjustment. After science got out of the bedroom, the law removed itself as well in 2003 with the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision that invalidated sodomy laws. For the last 20 years or so, conversion therapy has been discredited scientifically and is no longer medically approved as effective or appropriate.

Reddish wooden storage box, quite tall, with lid, which is open. Inside, a control panel with knobs and dials. Outside the box, tubing with electrical-looking plugs, a leather belt, and other items.Electromagnetic shock device used in the late 1900s

Just as religious conviction and faith are part of some addiction programs, religious beliefs about sexuality and gender form the only remaining justifications for "gay conversion." Religion justifies conversion, frames the therapy, and is called upon as strength for an individual's "cure." Although outlawed in several states, religion-based seminars, camps, and individual sessions continue. Attempts to "save" a person through reforming or curing a desire deemed sinful often have damaging effects. For example, bullying of and discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth contribute to high rates of suicide, addiction, and depression.

Being different can be dangerous.

Katherine Ott is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. She has also blogged about objects she collected from the parents of Matthew Shepard and collecting LGBTQ+ objects of the past.

Posted Date: 
Thursday, November 15, 2018 - 08:00
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Find the Beer! A California Trail of Ales

Smithsonian Magazine

A treasure! This beer lies hidden in the woods, six inches under, in Shasta County, CA. Can you find it? Photo by Alastair Bland.

The world is no one’s oyster. If it were, it would be full of pearls. But it is stashed with hidden beers. In the past, I have left a number of bottles stashed in rock holes in random locations in southern France. (So have a few readers of Food and Think.) Now, the game called “Find the Beer” comes to America. I’ve left a trail of ales behind me in Northern California, and in this post are directions to each treasure. Please play the game right and leave a beer of your own choice if you take one of the stashed bottles. Just be sure to replace your find with a beer in a bottle–not a can, which may deteriorate and corrode under harsh conditions–and notify us via the comment box below of your contribution. Game on!

1. Big River Bridge on Highway 1, near Mendocino, CA; Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout. At the south end of the bridge just south of the town of Mendocino, a beer awaits in the east side guardrail. The brew is a velvety smooth oatmeal stout from Anderson Valley that tastes vaguely like cream, sour caramel and woodsmoke. Sounds bad but it’s great–one of my very favorites, in fact. The beer is only 5.8% alcohol and not one suitable to long periods of aging, but the Mendocino County coast is cool all year, and this beer should hold up just fine until you get there.

A bottle of Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout dwells within the guardrail directly beneath the author’s bike helmet on this Highway 1 bridge in Mendocino County. Photo by Alastair Bland.

2. Near Napa, on the Trinity-Oakville grade section of Dry Creek Road; Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale. A friend of mine once said that beer is the perfect athlete’s food. “It has water, calories and painkiller,” he explained. And so I hope that a cyclist on a long and arduous ride finds this next beer. It is sweet, fragrant, hoppy and strong. At 9.6% alcohol by volume and with some heavy sugar content, the 12-ounce bottle contains at least 250 calories (alcohol contains 7 calories per gram) and probably about 80 percent water.  Bring it home, chill it, and make it your recovery meal. Where is it exactly? In a hole in a tree trunk on the south side of the highway about 100 yards west of the Mount Veeder Road turnoff.

See the helmet? There lies the beer, in a large cavity in this tree trunk about six feet off the ground. The tree stands on the south side of Dry Creek Road, just 100 yards west (uphill toward Sonoma) from the Mount Veeder Road turnoff. Photo by Alastair Bland.

3. Muir Woods Road, Marin County; Belgian-style homebrew. A long, long time ago, I brewed a batch of brown Belgian-style beer. Then I forgot that I ever did–until early in 2013, when I found a box in my basement containing 30 bottles dated July of 2007. The lost stash! The beers remain good, if possibly past their peak, and I’ve decided to donate a bottle to the game. I left it in an old Eucalyptus log by the side of the road, smack at an intersection that local cyclists call “Four Corners.” Precisely, the beer is hiding at the southwest corner, several feet down a gravelly bank, in a rotted-out cavity in the log. Use a stick to pull out the beer (or be on spider alert)–and let me know how you like the beer. Just be nice; it was one of my first homebrews.

See the bike helmet at the lower left of the photo? A Belgian-style brown ale brewed by the author six years ago dwells just underneath, in the hollowed out log. Photo by Alastair Bland.

4. Bicycle/Hiking Trail (Old Highway 1) in Pacifica, CA; Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Brown Shugga’. This beer, made with a liberal addition of brown sugar on top of the standard barley malt, is good when fresh. Keep it around a year, and it gets better. Fast forward two more years, and a Brown Shugga’, bitter and sweet and vibrant when it first hits retail shelves, is like liquid candy–chewy, sticky, and fudgy. So it goes for the two-and-a-half-year-old bottle that now dwells in Pacifica, on the well-known bicycle-hiking path (I like to call it John Steinbeck’s Highway 1, since he surely drove it when this was the main coastal route) that ascends inland and upward from Pacifica to Moss Beach, over Montara Mountain. The bottle is buried deep in the pine duff behind a large Monterey pine tree beside the semi-paved trail. See the photo below for details.

Hiking or cycling southward on the abandoned Highway 1 that cuts across Montara Mountain from Pacifica to Moss Beach, you will pass this pine tree. Behind it, deep in the pine needles, is an aged bottle of Lagunitas Brown Shugga’. The helmet marks the spot. Photo by Alastair Bland.

5. Shasta Lake, CA, under a fig tree beside Turntable Bay Road, off of Interstate 5; Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. The temperature was 105 degrees Fahrenheit (in the sun, but nonetheless) when I buried this beer in six inches of dirt, gravel and pine needles and placed two hand-sized rocks on top. But within the canopy of the fig tree, it was a cool 80. Thus, this strong IPA from Dogfish Head should be in good shape even through the fiercest heat wave. How to find it? If you’re driving north on Interstate 5 and arrive at Lake Shasta, take the exit to Turntable Bay Road. This paved downhill through the forest quickly turns to dirt. After several switchbacks and a quarter mile from the freeway, you will see the fig tree on the right as the road turns sharply left. Pull over, and scramble into the gully and start digging beside the trunk. There are burrs, spider webs and dust–but for a Dogfish Head IPA it’s worth the sweat and blood. See the accompanying photo for the exact location.

There’s the beer–Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA–standing in the exact spot where a moment later the author buried it. If you’re in the neighborhood, this brew’s an easy find. Photo by Alastair Bland.

Elsewhere in the World:  Those readers who have been following along know that Find the Beer had its roots in France, where the game began one year ago. Currently, a handful of beers remain stashed in cobblestone rock holes (the French love to build things with cobblestones–perfect infrastructure for treasure hunts). A number of these bottles dwell along roadways that are about to be swarmed by cyclists and fans of the 100th Tour de France. On such high mountain passes as Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque, and on the road to Col de Jau–at these locations and others, beers have been patiently waiting for months. Refer to this post from May to find your way to them. In particular, the beer on Tourmalet is a high-alcohol giant that, after one year of aging at high altitude, should be a real treasure. Go find the beer.

Meissen tea bowl and saucer

National Museum of American History
TITLE: Meissen drinking bowl and saucer

MAKER: Meissen Manufactory

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)

MEASUREMENTS: Bowl: H. 2½" 6.3cm; Saucer: D. 5¼" 13.3cm

OBJECT NAME: Tea bowl and saucer

PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany

DATE MADE: 1730-1735


Domestic Furnishing

Industry and Manufacturing

CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection

ID NUMBER: 1983.0565.08ab



(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)

MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue on bowl and overglaze blue on saucer; “//” incised on saucer.

PURCHASED FROM: Hans E. Backer, London, England, 1947.

This drinking bowl and saucer is from the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychiatry and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in the German States, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

Thirty-eight of these fluted drinking bowls and saucers are recorded in the 1779 inventory of the royal collection in the Japanese Palace in Dresden, although these particular items do not have an inventory number to link them to the collection. The fluted form comes from a Japanese prototype that represents the stylized shape of the chrysanthemum flower.

Copied at Meissen from an original Japanese bowl and saucer in the royal collection this item was made initially for the Parisian merchant Rudolphe Lemaire. At his own request and later through the Saxon ambassador to France and director of the Meissen Manufactory, Carl Heinrich Count Hoym (1694-1731), Lemaire obtained Meissen porcelain decorated in the Kakiemon style for sale in Paris where Japanese porcelain was highly prized and more expensive than Meissen. Lemaire arranged matters so that the underglaze blue crossed swords mark was either omitted altogether, obscured by a gold pattern, or painted over the glaze in enamel and therefore removable; on the saucer the crossed swords mark is applied in overglaze blue. This fraudulent activity began in 1729 and when it was discovered in 1731 Lemaire was arrested and expelled from Saxony, but his deception undoubtedly demonstrated the success of Meissen’s imitations of Japanese Kakiemon porcelain and may have alerted Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland to the merits of continuing production of a Japanese porcelain style that he himself admired. Augustus recovered most of the remaining items made at Meissen for Lemaire, many of which were in the possession of the disgraced Count Hoym, and placed them in the Japanese Palace in Dresden.

Painted in the Japanese Kakiemon style the bowl and saucer have the same motif of two boys, one seated on the ground wearing the garments of a priest and with a fan in his hand, while the other boy carries a basket of foliage on his back, on the saucer two birds fly above the pair. Figurative subjects, influenced by the Chinese Wan-li porcelains and the Japanese Tosa school of painting, are not common in Arita porcelains produced in the Kakiemon style,

For a full account of the Hoym-Lemaire affair see Weber, J., 2013, Meissener Porzellane mit Dekoren nach ostasiatischen Vorbildern: Stiftung Ernst Schneider in Schloss Lustheim, Band I, and on this pattern see Band II, S. 141-143.

On the Hoym-Lemaire affair see also Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp.24-25, p.260. For further examples of this pattern see Pietsch, U., 2011, Early Meissen Porcelain: the Wark Collectionfrom the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, p.291, p.295. On the Kakiemon style see Shono, M., 1973, Japanisches Aritaporzellan im sogenannten „Kakiemonstil” als Vorbild für die Meissener Porzellanmanufaktur.

Jefferson Miller II, J., Rückert, R., Syz, H., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 140-141.

The beat goes on: New acquisitions once stomped out the soundtrack of Los Angeles

National Museum of American History

As the Museum gears up to open new exhibitions in 2015, 2016, and 2017, our curators have combed the country, looking for the richest objects to tell the most resonant and expansive stories. On one recent trip to Los Angeles, Curator Margaret Salazar-Porzio sat down with Martha Gonzalez of the band Quetzal, hoping to come away with one such object.

It is 9 a.m. on a Monday morning in April in sunny downtown Los Angeles. I'm sitting at Homegirl Cafe waiting for Martha Gonzalez, singer and songwriter from the Grammy Award-winning band Quetzal. Coincidentally, Quetzal's music streams over the speakers as the sun filters through the windows of the café. A few other patrons in the place are scooping up their chilaquiles on fresh tortilla chips as I hum along to "Dreamers, Schemers"—one of my favorites. The song brings me back to growing up in Los Angeles. Lalo Guerrero, Ritchie Valens, Thee Midniters, Los Lobos, Ozomatli, and Quetzal provided a rich and complex soundtrack for Los Angeles. Quetzal in particular mixes the traditional son jarocho of Veracruz, Mexico, with R&B, salsa, Cuban charanga, Brazilian pandeiro, and other sounds into what can only be described as contemporary Chicana/o rock. Their music is emotional and intellectual at the same time. And it is distinctly L.A.

Now, as a curator at the museum, I sit in Homegirl Cafe in my home town, listening to music that changed my life forever, and waiting to meet Martha Gonzalez, a Latina woman with a voice that can make you dance and strive for social justice at the same time. Just as the song ends in one, long, fading note, Martha walks in and sits down at the table. We order coffees and breakfast, and we chat about her new position as a professor at Scripps College. She is down to earth and interested in material culture (objects, architecture, clothing, and the like) and the work of the Smithsonian. I tell her how excited I am to meet her. I'm a fan. And I tell her about how my most recent project through the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Latino Center is to document how Latinas have impacted and changed the cultural landscape of communities in Los Angeles.

When I put on my "curator cap," I'm looking for artifacts from everyday life that can tell important stories with national resonance. Martha's story is perfect for this. Her life and performances cross racial categories and allow for representation of home, community, culture, and politics. She fuses Chicana/o (already a mixture of histories, identities, and cultures) and African traditions in her music, demonstrating how our communities exist in complex intersection. Her musical performances show that identities are constantly emerging and shaped by axes of power and history. In particular, I am interested in how museums can present these kinds of cross-racial representations and stories.

Martha and I talk in depth about this. She is trying to do similar things through her music. After a little while, she says she has the perfect artifacts for the museum: her tarima (a five-sided stomp box with roots in African and Mexican musical traditions and used like a drum) and her zapateado black leather heels used in a form of Spanish traditional dancing. I've seen them in action in her performances. The box—about 3 ft. square, 8 inches off the ground and smaller than most tarimas—has a hole in one side so that it resonates each beat as Martha stomps out percussive rhythms in shoes with tire-tread soles and tiny nails hammered painstakingly into the heel and toe to produce thumps with different pitches. The box has stickers on it, some partially peeled off and some still intact from Quetzal's concerts, friends, other bands, and national and international travel through airports. There are inscriptions in Spanish and English in permanent marker and the top of the wooden rectangle is scuffed, cracked, and well-used. Each song carved a little more wear out of the planks, creating an archive of movement and musical energy. Martha is right: it is perfect.

There comes a moment in every curator's life when you realize you are making history, when you know that the artifact you are preserving and intending to present to the world in the museum space is something unique and innovative. This was one of those moments. The best part about this collecting process was that it is collaborative. The objects came out of a budding friendship and a conversation between two women interested in how to present complex cultural stories on the national stage.  

I hope to display Martha’s stomp box and shoes in an upcoming exhibition called Many Voices, One Nation. Set to open in 2016, the exhibition will cover 500 years of American cultural identity through the lens of immigration and migration. The tarima and zapateado shoes will represent the complex and dynamic transnational musical culture in California alongside other important musical instruments from Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. 

Margaret Salazar-Porzio is a curator in the Division of Home and Community Life. These objects were collected as part of the collecting initiative "The Worlds We Make: Latinas at the Intersection of Food, Family, and Festivals in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, California." Learn more about Quetzal's musical journey on our What It Means to Be American project site. 

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Meissen tea bowl and saucer

National Museum of American History
TITLE: Meissen tea bowl and saucer

MAKER: Meissen Manufactory

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)

MEASUREMENTS: Bowl: H. 2⅝" 6.7cm; Saucer: D. 5¾" 14.6cm

OBJECT NAME: Tea bowl and saucer

PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany

DATE MADE: 1730-1739.


Domestic Furnishing

Industry and Manufacturing

CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection

ID NUMBER: 1981.0702.01 ab



(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)

MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue “//” incised.

PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1941.

This tea bowl and saucer is from the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychiatry and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in the German States, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

The tea bowl and saucer, fluted to resemble the lotus flower, bear the so-called “red and yellow squirrel” or “flying fox” pattern painted in onglaze enamels from a Japanese Kakiemon prototype made for export to Europe.

The “red and yellow squirrel” pattern, also known as the “flying fox” pattern due to the somewhat ambiguous characteristics of the animals, was reproduced late into the eighteenth century at Meissen.The grapevine was a popular motif in Chinese painting of the T’ang dynasty (618-906) when Chinese influence on the culture of Japan was especially potent during the Nara period (710-784). The grapevine and squirrel motif was adopted by the Japanese possibly from Korea, and in both China and Korea the grapevine symbolizes fertility and the wish for many children. In China the squirrel, like the rat, with their persistent foraging for food symbolize the virtues of hard work and prosperity.The doubt about the identity of the “squirrels” has led to the idea that the creature hurtling through the air is a fox (Japan does have an indigenous giant flying squirrel [musasabi] that inhabits the island of Kyushu), but in the early Edo period there was an inclination among artisans to depart from nature and stylize decorative motifs, allowing for playful invention rather than faithful representation, and this latitude is evident in the illustrated books and encyclopedias published during the later seventeenth century. In Japanese folklore the fox is especially significant as a shape-shifting animal with many tails and powers that interfere with human life, usually but not always mischievous or malevolent, and the kitsune like the tanuki (Japanese wild dog) remain very much alive in Japanese popular culture today.

On the tea bowl and saucer the animals inhabit a garden landscape where flowering and fruiting vines are held in check by rice straw fences. There are in existence many Meissen works with this pattern on a wide range of vessels.

Kakiemon is the name given to very white (nigoshida meaning milky-white) finely potted Japanese porcelain made in the Nangawara Valley near the town of Arita in the North-West of the island of Kyushu. The porcelain bears a characteristic style of enamel painting using a palette of translucent colors painted with refined assymetric designs attributed to a family of painters with the name Kakiemon. In the 1650s, when Chinese porcelain was in short supply due to civil unrest following the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Manchu in 1644, Arita porcelain was at first exported to Europe through the Dutch East India Company’s base on the island of Dejima in the Bay of Nagasaki. The Japanese traded Arita porcelain only with Chinese, Korean, and Dutch merchants and the Chinese also resold Japanese porcelain to the Dutch in Batavia (present day Jakarta), to the English and French at the port of Canton (present day Guangzhou) and Amoy (present day Xiamen). Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, obtained Japanese porcelain through his agents operating in Amsterdam who purchased items from Dutch merchants, and from a Dutch dealer in Dresden, Elizabeth Bassetouche.

On the Japanese Kakiemon style and its European imitators see Ayers, J., Impey, O., Mallet, J.V.G., 1990, Porcelain for Palaces: the fashion for Japan in Europe 1650-1750, and Impey, O., Jörg, J. A., Mason, C., 2009, Dragons, Tigers and Bamboo: Japanese Porcelain and its Impact in Europe, the Macdonald Collection. For more examples of the “squirrel” pattern see Pietsch, U., 2011, Early Meissen Porcelain: the Wark Collection from the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, pp.268-270.

For further examples and details about this pattern see Weber, J., 2013, Meissener Porzellane mit Dekoren nach ostasiatischen Vorbildern: Stiftung Ernst Schneider in Schloss Lustheim, Band II, S. 297-309. Julia Weber suggests that the Parisian dealer Rodolphe Lemaire provided the Japanese prototype for this pattern in about 1730 as no example has yet been traced in the royal collections in Dresden.

For an example of the early Edo Period encyclopedias see Kashiragaki zōho kinmō zui taisei by Nakamura Tekisai (1629-1702) on

On the Japanese spirit world see Michael Dylan Foster (2008), Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai.

Jefferson Miller II, J., Rückert, R., Syz, H., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 134-135.

Lincoln-Standard H.S. (Modified Standard J-1)

National Air and Space Museum
Single-engine, two-seat biplane trainer and sport aircraft; 150-horsepower Wright-Martin (licensed-built Hispano-Suiza) engine. White finish overall.

Upon entry into the First World War, the U.S. Army Air Service ordered a large quantity of the highly successful Curtiss JN-4D primary trainer. To ensure that their needs would be met, the Air Service also placed an order with the Standard Aircraft Company for their J-1 trainer. Approximately 1,600 J-1s were built before production was curtailed when the Curtiss JN-4D became available in adequate numbers.

After the war, Standard J-1s and Curtiss JN-4Ds became available in great numbers at low prices. Along with several other manufacturers, the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation of Lincoln, Nebraska, acquired a number of surplus Standard J-1s. They powered them with a 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine, and offered them for sale as the Lincoln-Standard H.S. In 1921, they expanded the line to include four other models of the J-1, with varying seating capacity of up to four passengers and pilot. The NASM aircraft is believed to be one of the three-seat models sold during the early 1920s.

Upon entry into the First World War, the U.S. Army Air Service ordered a large quantity of the highly successful Curtiss JN-4D primary training aircraft. Although Curtiss was able to produce JN-4D airframes at an acceptable rate, the supply of the Curtiss OX-5 engine, which powered the airplane, lagged behind. To ensure that their needs would be met, the Air Service also ordered a large quantity of the Standard J-1 two-seat, primary training aircraft to supplement its requisition of the Curtiss JN-4D trainer. The J-1 was designed and manufactured by the Standard Aircraft Corporation of Elizabeth, N. J., which also had a factory in Plainfield, N.J. (This was formerly the Standard Aero Corporation of New York with manufacturing facilities in Plainfield.) Approximately 1,600 J-1s were built before production was curtailed when the OX-5 engine shortage was resolved and the Curtiss JN-4D became available in adequate numbers. The J-1's fire-prone 90-horsepower Hall-Scott A-7 engine also contributed to the Air Service's decision to drop the J-1 as a primary trainer.

Standard Aircraft revised the J-1 with changes in the shape of the wings and tail surfaces, and by replacing the Hall-Scott with the more powerful and reliable 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine. (The Hispano-Suiza engines typically used in these aircraft were a license-built version of the Hispano-Suiza, manufactured in the United States by the Simplex Division of the Wright-Martin Company, and later by Wright Aeronautical Corporation.) This version of the J-1 was designated the JR-1B, but few of these reworked airplanes were sold.

After the war, Standard J-1s and Curtiss JN-4Ds became available in great numbers at an inexpensive price to civilian pilots. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company purchased more than 1,000 war surplus Standard J-1s, equipped them with its own 90-horsepower OX-5 engine, and designated them the Standard-Curtiss J-1. The Cox Klemin Aircraft Corporation of College Point, N.Y., also acquired surplus Standard J-1s, and fitted them with a 160-horsepower Mercedes engine that offered enhanced performance. These aircraft sold for approximately $3,500.

Similarly, the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation of Lincoln, Nebraska, acquired a number of surplus Standard J-1s, powered them with the 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine, and offered them as the Lincoln-Standard H.S. The following year, 1921, Nebraska Aircraft expanded its line to include four other models of the J-1, with varying seating capacity of up to four passengers and pilot. They were the Tourabout and the Speedster, both powered by the 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine, and the Raceabout and the Cruiser, equipped with a 220-horsepower Hispano-Suiza. The three-seat Tourabout, which provided space for two passengers in the front cockpit who were secured by a single safety belt, initially sold for $3,985. This modification of the Standard J-1 was approximately 200 pounds heavier than the original 90-horsepower Hall-Scott-powered design, but it flew 20 mph faster, had a ceiling 3,000 feet higher, and a greater rate of climb. By 1922, with the civilian market now saturated, prices of these war surplus aircraft were reduced drastically. The Nebraska Aircraft Corporation, reorganized that year as the Lincoln-Standard Corporation, offered the airplane for only $1,995.

The Curtiss Jennies and the Standards, as these aircraft were generically referred to, were popular with barnstormers and exhibition pilots of the 1920s. They were also employed in more productive roles such as aerial mapping and photography, ranch and forest patrolling, and passenger transport.

The Lincoln-Standard in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum collection was purchased from the Robertson Aircraft Company of St. Louis, Missouri, by the Hunter brothers of Sparta, Ilinois, in June 1924. Robertson sent Harlan A. “Bud” Gurney, friend and barnstorming partner of Charles Lindbergh, to Sparta to teach the four Hunter brothers how to fly the airplane. Gurney also taught the Hunters to perform stunts in the airplane, and joined them in their Hunter Flying Circus. The Hunter Brothers called the airplane “Old Hisso," after the nickname for the Hispano Suiza-engine. After acquiring further aircraft, “Old Hisso” was sold by the Hunters.

Ken Hunter and his brother John set a world flight endurance record of 553 hours, 41 minutes, 30 seconds flying a Stinson Detroiter on July 4, 1930, at Sky Harbor Airport at Northbrook, Illinois. The aircraft was refueled by another Stinson Detroiter flown by Albert and Walter Hunter, brothers of Ken and John Hunter.

Ken Hunter later re-purchased the Lincoln-Standard "Old Hisso" and restored it to flying condition. In 1964, Ken Hunter, then chief pilot of Kerr-McGee Oil Industries, arranged the donation of the airplane by Kerr-McGee to the National Air and Space Museum. This aircraft is a three-seat version of the Lincoln-Standard, believed to be one of the Tourabout or Speedster models sold during the early 1920s. It was powered by a 150-horsepower Wright-Martin license-built Hispano-Suiza.

Steve McCurry's New Photography Book on India Has Been Decades in the Making

Smithsonian Magazine

Last month, we published the first part of our interview with esteemed photographer Steve McCurry, whose work appears in two major book releases this fall. His photographs of the American South appeared in travel writer Paul Theroux’s new book, Deep South. (An early dispatch of this trip from Theroux, and featuring McCurry’s photography, appeared in Smithsonian in the July/August 2014 issue.) You can read our interview about his photographs for that project here.

This week, Phaidon releases a selection of McCurry’s images from India. It’s the culmination of decades of his photographs from the country, and opens with an introduction from writer and historian William Dalrymple, “Steve McCurry has been coming to India for more than 30 years, knows it intimately, understands its charms, and has seen it change,” Dalrymple writes. “This collection is a testament to a long-standing love of India, and a commitment to recording its wondrous diversity. It represents a genuine panorama of the country.”



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McCurry spoke with about both projects in a two-part Q&A. An edited and condensed version of the second part, on India, is below.

Let’s start with the timing for this collection: Why now?

I wanted to do a book on India sometime between now and the end of my life, before I die, so this seemed like as good a time as any. There are a lot of things in life that we want to do and there are other places I want to travel to and experience apart from India. I don’t know when I’ll be back in India, so I thought this a good time to reflect on my 35 years of work in India, and let’s see what I could do with that material. I was at the point where I thought I had enough for a book.

That’s an interesting line, that you felt that you had enough for a book. What does it take for you to reach that point?

I think you have to put your work on the table. Put a hundred pictures down and see how they work together, see what kind of shape it makes, see that there’s a flow to the pictures, and see if it says what you feel and want to say about a particular place. I think that’s when you can look at the work and say, “This pretty much tells the story I want to tell.”

Not to ask you to oversimplify it, but what is the story you want to tell, not just about India, but also about your relationship to the country, photographing the country?

I think it’s a personal journey, a diary. It’s a look back at places and situations and people that touched me in a profound way.  Being a book of pictures – I think that pretty much sums it up. That’s the essence of the thing. Every photography book is about a photographer taking on a project and wanting to say something with those pictures and it’s not so terribly complicated.

Were there any particular people or places that stuck with you? Or images that have interesting stories behind it?

The cover is one of my favorite pictures from India. It is these women trying to protect themselves from this swirling dust storm in the desert and it’s so poetic how they’re huddled together. They’re all trying to protect themselves from this wind and driving sand, it’s always been one of my favorites.

Are there any others from this book that stuck with you?

The man with the orange beard, he’s a very kind of elegant, dignified old man with this kind of really bright, orange beard. He was a magician, so there’s an element of the showman in this fellow. And he has this really kind of strong face, which I think tells an amazing story about his life and who he was and how he presented himself.

Another is the mother and child at the car window. They’re out in the traffic in the heat, the rain, the exhaust, the pollution, the heavy traffic, it’s a bit dangerous, and they’re out there looking for some money. And then I’m in this sort of air-conditioned car on my way to my hotel. It was an interesting juxtaposition between my world and theirs, the poverty of having to go out and beg on the street in the rain, in the middle of traffic..

There seems to be a theme of highlighting women’s stories, the way women all around the world have to work to raise their children, or take care of their families, or just survive. Do you see this theme? If not, are there other themes you do see?

Over a 40-year career, you end up with a large collection of children playing, women working, men doing this, men doing that, so if you have 800 pictures of women working, that becomes a significant body of work. Did I plan that when I stepped out the door on my first day as a photographer? Probably not. Could I do a book tomorrow on women working? Absolutely.

Is there a certain way you prefer to photograph people, to disarm them or earn their trust?

It depends on the situation. You may approach somebody sleeping on a park bench slightly differently than if you saw somebody walking down the street and you wanted to photograph them.

Is there a kind of scenario you find easiest or most challenging in an interesting way?

I don’t think there’s any secret or any particular skill, I think it’s just putting one foot in front of the other, and then moving your mouth to say, “Can I take your picture?” and try and do it so you don’t freak someone out. Unfortunately, it’s that simple. I think people generally can’t muster the energy or the courage to do that, that’s all it really takes.

See 19th-Century London Through the Eyes of James McNeill Whistler, One of America's Greatest Painters

Smithsonian Magazine

In the 1872-1873 artwork Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge, a boat slips across a glass-still Thames River, manned by a ghostly passenger. Behind the watercraft looms a tall, wooden overpass. Its silhouette is dark against the deep blue sky; a spray of golden rockets fizz on the horizon. Shadowy figures huddle on top of the bridge, perhaps to watch the fiery spectacle. The subject matter is decidedly Western. Its composition, however, evokes comparisons to Japanese woodblock prints.

Created by the iconic James McNeill Whistler, the painting is famous for its role in one of the 19th century’s most infamous libel suits. (Whistler sued art critic James Ruskin after the latter wrote a disparaging review, denouncing the artist as having flung "a pot of paint in the public's face." Nocturne: Blue and Gold served as the trial's evidence.) But the scene also encapsulates Whistler’s artistic evolution in London, a process fueled by his fascination with the bustling Thames and later refined by close study of Far Eastern art.

The Nocturne is one of more than 90 works featured in “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” currently on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. It is the first show devoted to the American-born Whistler’s early years in England—the sights, structures and aesthetics that shaped his singular portrayal of Europe’s busiest port. It’s also the Smithsonian’s only exhibition of art by Whistler to include paintings on loan from other museums, and the largest display in the United States in nearly 20 years to feature the master painter’s work.

“An American in London” began a three-city tour at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, followed by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachusetts. Now that the traveling show has arrived for its final curtain call at the Sackler, its objects—borrowed from museums in Europe and around the U.S.—have been combined with nearly 50 Whistler paintings, etchings and other such masterpieces from the adjacent Freer Gallery. Viewers have the rare opportunity to see these artworks displayed together for the very first time, allowing them to trace the painter’s gradual journey from realism to Japanese aestheticism.

Whistler, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, arrived in England during the late 1850s; a period in which his newly adopted country still reeled from the Industrial Revolution. There, Whistler gleaned inspiration from his shifting surroundings.

The River Thames, in particular, coursed with the vestiges of modernization and pollution. Barges filled with cargo and workmen traversed its murky waters, and factories lining its shores belched smog into the air. And taking in the landscape from his first-floor studio window was Whistler, whose home overlooked the waterway.

“The Thames was a gritty, dirty river at this time,” says Patricia de Montfort, an art history lecturer at the University of Glasgow and one of the exhibition’s co-curators. “It was a time of change; it was a time when the river was a major shipping way. This is what Whistler was observing obsessively every day for nearly 40 years of his career.” 

One of the first paintings shown in the exhibit—Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1859–1863)—was also one of Whistler’s first London works. The picture shows an old timber bridge, which once spanned the water between Chelsea and Battersea and was later replaced by a newer crossway. London’s art establishment praised its “English grey and damp” and its “palpable and delightful truth of tone.”

“The realism of his Thames depiction was quite plain,” says Lee Glazer, the Sackler’s associate curator of American Art. “He earned an early reputation as a young artist for his accurate—but still evocative—depiction of these scenes.”

As the river transformed, so did Whistler’s paintings and etchings. He moved upstream—and up market—from the East End of London to Chelsea. There, he still painted the Thames, but his scenes became more poeticized. 

The exhibit’s paintings, etchings, drawings and other works are organized to trace Whistler’s footsteps from the Thames’ northern bank to Chelsea. (Two maps—including an interactive, zoomable one—also detail Whistler’s numerous vantage points.) But the show, after taking visitors on a tour of the Victoria-era Thames, takes an international turn, leaping across the globe to mid-19th century Japan. 

As Whistler’s London adapted to modernity, Japan was also in transition. In 1854, a mere five years prior to Whistler's arrival in England, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy pressured Japan into lifting its embargo on foreign shipping. Japanese prints and art flooded into Europe, and were prominently exhibited in Paris and London. 

By 1867 Whistler had moved to Chelsea, and to a fresh perspective from which to paint Battersea. There, he befriended a neighbor, the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The two shared an admiration for Japanese woodblock prints by artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige; Whistler especially loved their composition and colors. 

Whistler was already incorporating Asian art and clothing into his paintings, including the 1864 Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen and Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl. He also collected woodblock prints, and often borrowed props from Rossetti. In the exhibition, a series of such woodblock prints and fans by Hokusai and Hiroshige hang adjacent to Whistler’s Japan-inspired oils. The imported art is decorated with curved bridges and flowing rivers—Eastern doppelgängers of Whistler's beloved Thames and Battersea.

By 1871, Whistler’s influences—the Thames and Japanese art—merged together in his Nocturnes. The hazy evening scenes feature delicate lines and translucent washes of paint; named for a pensive musical term, they are considered by many to be his masterpieces. 

The show concludes with a host of other Nocturnes, including the one from the Ruskin trial. The ethereal, almost abstract depiction of Whistler’s favorite bridge is bathed in a deep blue twilight. The structure is covered in textured mist, and its abbreviated lines and asymmetrical composition are a far cry from the realism of Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge. Instead, they're unmistakenly reminiscent of a Hiroshige work.

Like the lyrical melody it’s named for, the painting’s notes come together to form a singular vision—a new view of London that was prompted by the Thames, molded by Japanese art, but was nevertheless entirely Whistler’s own. 

Forget Y2K!

Smithsonian Magazine

This issue carries the first of several stories linked to the millennium. Among other purposes, they aim to provide relief from the pervasive and pesky "Y2K" syndrome, that myopic angst about how the world's computers will feel when they wake up this coming January 1. Will they think we are back in January 1, 1900? Or will everybody's paycheck still be OK?

That is no small matter. But the arrival of A.D. 2000 probably ought to put us in mind of somewhat broader perspectives, including some long-lens looks into the far past, or leaps of the imagination back and forth in human history, 1,000 years at a time. What was going on a thousand years ago? Or, apart from the major event that gave rise to the terms "B.C." and "A.D." in our dating system, two thousand years ago?

If the editors of Time had been around to do their Man of the Year search near the time of the birth of Christ, their choice would not have fallen on the babe in the manger, but on Caesar Augustus, all-powerful in an empire that stretched the rule of Roman law from Britain across Europe and into Asia Minor. Augustus himself was about to be declared a god. One millennium ago Time would have picked Leif Eriksson; in the year 1000, navigating in a Viking longship, he sailed west to the New World and called it Vinland.

Because time flies, and keeping precise track of it, not merely in thousand-year units, but in days, months and years, as well as seconds, minutes and hours, is a human preoccupation, two of our millennium stories deal directly with time. The first article in the series, "Calendar," adapted from a remarkable new book by David Ewing Duncan, describes the long search for an accurate calendar and how, over tortuous centuries, science and religion poked and pinched into existence the one we still use. (For hundreds of years a major motive that drove calendar searchers was the pious compulsion to determine exactly when Easter ought to fall.) The second story concerns chronometers, and especially how their evolving degree of accuracy influenced — and continues to influence — trade, exploration and war.

Clocks and calendars, being human inventions, are relatively recent. Another recent — and arguably human — invention is the Devil himself. An upcoming story suggests that if the Devil didn't exist, it might have been necessary to invent him (or her), and tries to get a fix on how the Devil is making out today, in an age widely held to be shameless. Lashed to the dailiness of life, most people reckon a generation (at four to a century) as a considerable amount of time. Even the "threescore years and ten" biblically allotted to one man's lifetime can seem interminable. The three to four thousand years of history that go back to include the flowering of ancient Greece are regarded as vast stretches of time, in part because so much history has been crammed into them. Other civilizations started earlier, but it is only in the past three millennia that most of the events and human inventions that we think of as adding up to Western Civilization appeared. During this span there arose, in the arts and government, in religion and philosophy, above all in science, technology and medicine, the works of humankind that we point to most often as proof that we are making some kind of progress: the printing press, the steam engine, barbed wire, the telephone, electricity, the "painless" air drill that dentists now use, penicillin and the cappuccino machine, not to mention such mixed blessings as the internal combustion engine, television, and atomic power.

In that time, the Western world, at least, has also seen astonishing variations in religion, starting with polytheism, its most dramatic example being a dysfunctional family of deities on Mount Olympus. The father had a penchant for pursuing pretty mortals; his wife was vindictively jealous; the kids feuded back and forth. How to propitiate them all became a complex and risky business.

In most ways monotheism was an immense improvement — a radiant vision of the whole creation unified, alive with moral purpose, with a single power keeping score in this world and the next. Whether divinely inspired or not, it is surely one of the great and enduring inventions of man. Two hundred years ago, however, a more secular vision began to take hold, not based on the existence of a divine being but on high hopes for the perfectibility of human nature. The Marquis de Condorcet, an Enlightenment philosopher, put it clearly in 1793 when he wrote, "The total mass of the human species, through alternating periods of calm and agitation, good and evil, forever marches, albeit at a slow pace, towards a greater perfection." With continued help from science and a serious misreading of evolution as progress, that idea has become a secular religion of the modern world.

The change in attitude is easily summed up by a pair of diametrically opposed quotations. One, from Psalm 8, asks a rhetorical question: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" The other comes from the Greek Sophist Protagoras: "Man is the measure of all things." As the end of the second millennium A.D. approaches, the two resounding assertions may be worth putting in perspective, perhaps even on New Year's Eve of 1999, as a reminder not only of the breathtakingly brief time during which human beings have inhabited the planet, but of the breathtakingly long history of life on earth before we ever appeared. There is some measure of encouragement, perhaps, in considering just what latecomers we are.

Celebrated biologist H. J. Muller once asked the readers of one of his essays to imagine the history of all life-forms on earth as a rope composed of evolving cells and genes stretching several hundred miles from New England to New York City, and ending at the center of a desk in the Wall Street office of J. P. Morgan. The line represents three or four billion years, starting as far away as Boston with the appearance of the first minute signs of life on earth, primeval protoplasm. Blind chemical forces go to work. Genes mysteriously multiply and differentiate. Mutate, or don't. Trial and error in numbers beyond computing. Beyond imagination, even. Following along the line, Muller notes, will seem boring at first, because "there will be no actual 'beasts' as we ordinarily think of them (four-footed land animals) until we are well within the limits of New York City."

It is not until the line reaches Harlem that the first mammals and birds appear, coexisting with huge dinosaurs who do not drop out entirely until the lifeline crosses 42nd Street. Monkeys first arrive a bit south of there, somewhere around Macy's, but nothing more complex than an ape shows up until the line has reached a spot directly in front of the House of Morgan. Inside the building, 15 feet from the desk, stands the first Neanderthal. Homo sapiens, "'man the wise,'" as Muller notes with some irony, "leaves his first remains within the private office, only seven and a half feet from the desk." The earliest known "civilization" (not more than 14,000 years ago) leaves its crockery only "a yard and a half from the desk." Muller concludes: "On the desk, one foot from the center, stands old King Tut. Five and a half inches from the center we mark the Fall of Rome and the beginning of the Dark Ages. Only one and a half inches from the present end of the cord [New England-to-New York lifeline] come the discovery of America and the promulgation of the Copernican theory — through which man opens his eyes for the first time to the vastness of the world in which he lives and his own relative insignificance." Half an inch from the end "start the first faint reverberations of the Industrial Revolution.... A quarter of an inch from the end Darwin speaks, and man awakes to the transitory character of his shape and his institutions."

A few of the proportions have changed minutely since the piece was written more than a half-century ago. But anyone wanting to put the "Y2K" dilemma in perspective can safely turn to Muller.

Plague Was Infecting Humans 3,300 Years Earlier Than Thought

Smithsonian Magazine

The plague is one of history's most notorious killers—but it appears we've underestimated its terrible toll. DNA evidence suggests that plague-causing bacteria infected humans thousands of years earlier than previously believed and likely caused countless more deaths.

The genome study also reveals much about how the plague evolved from a relatively benign bacterium to an efficient killer that would wreak havoc across the globe.

Three devastating outbreaks have previously been linked to the plague by historical records and DNA studies. The First Pandemic began with the Plague of Justinian around A.D. 541 and killed up to 100 million people. The Second Pandemic included the 14th-century Black Death, responsible for killing some 30 to 50 percent of Europeans. And the Third Pandemic, which arose in China during the 1850s, lasted until the mid-20th century.

But when researchers sequenced DNA from the teeth of Bronze Age humans from Eurasia, they found genetic signs of the bacterium that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, in 7 out of 101 individuals tested. That means the plague was infecting people at least 4,800 years ago—some 3,300 years earlier than is known from the historical record.

Notably, the team also found that during those early centuries, the bacterium hadn't yet acquired tiny but key genetic mutations that gave rise to legendary scourges.

“The plague bacterium is very similar to its ancestor, the bacterium Y. pseudotuberculosis,” explains co-author Simon Rasmussen, of the Technical University of Denmark. “But that ancestor isn't so harmful. If you eat it, you'll feel bad, but you don't die from it. So how could a bacterium that's harmful but not deadly evolve into one of the most deadly that's ever existed for humans?” 

Historic plague pandemics like the Black Death were mostly spread when humans shared close quarters with rats carrying infected fleas. When a flea drinks an infected animal's blood, the plague bacteria enter the flea's gut, where they not only grow but also block the gut so that the flea becomes extremely hungry. This encourages the flea to reach out and bite more hosts—and thus deliver more plague bacteria.

Plague victims as far back as the Iron Age were infected with Y. pestis bacteria that have the gene Yersinia murine toxin, or ymt, which is required for the pest to survive within a flea's gut. But the new gene analysis, appearing this week in Cell, shows that Bronze Age bacteria lacked this mutation, helping to pinpoint a vital evolutionary moment.

“Here we're able to directly identify when this happened, when this bacteria went from not being able to live in fleas to this very important part of its lifestyle. That tells us a lot about how a pathogenic bacteria evolves into becoming even more dangerous,” Rasmussen says.

A scanning electron micrograph image of a flea. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The more ancient bacteria were also missing a mutation that enabled the infection to spread from the lungs to other tissues like the lymph nodes, Rasmussen notes.   

“So at that time we have a kind of intermediate plague,” he says. “These Bronze Age strains couldn't cause bubonic plague, but they caused septicemic plague in the blood and pneumonic plague in the lungs, which you can transmit through the air whenever you sneeze or cough.” 

Earlier this year, Wyndham Lathem, a microbiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and his colleagues published a study showing how not-so-deadly bacteria might have become the plague. They used mouse models of Y. pestis infection to show that it was possible the bacterium initially caused the respiratory form of the disease before it acquired the mutations that created bubonic plague and transmission by fleas.

“So what I got excited about reading this study is that we now have evidence that supports that hypothesis,” says Lathem. “If these Bronze Age strains can't be transmitted by fleas, but yet are infecting humans, what's the likely disease that they would be getting? I think it's very likely it would be pneumonic plague.”

That's not to say the Bronze Age version of the disease was less dangerous, Rasmussen adds. “When you get pneumonic plague, it's almost 100 percent fatal. Even today you have to treated within like 24 hours or it's just goodbye. Back then, of course, it was just as deadly and people didn't even know that they had caught a disease or where it came from. It must have been really terrifying”

Still, airborne transmission was likely unable to produce the kind of mass plagues that history later witnessed, perhaps killing on a scale of villages rather than across continents, suggests David Wagner of Northern Arizona University, who recently worked on sequencing the Y. pestis genome from the sixth-century Plague of Justinian.

“When I think of plague, I think of it as a disease of rodents and fleas,” he says. “But what did the fact that it didn't have flea-borne transmission mean for human disease events? It probably meant that it was less common, and I think it says something about the importance of flea transmission during the great pandemics."

Seen this past March, an archaeologist works at a mass gravesite found under a Paris supermarket that may contain victims of the Black Death. (PHILIPPE WOJAZER/Reuters/Corbis)

Rasmussen and his colleagues also used their data to trace the plague to its genetic roots. According to their calculations, the common ancestor of all known Y. pestis strains was part of human history 5,783 years ago.

“That age really coincides with the time when people start living in cities," Rasmussen notes. "It's a kind of melting pot environment with lots of humans and animals in houses, and very poor hygiene. People have been thinking for a long time that this environment might have kind of helped to kick off the evolution of many of these very infectious human diseases.”

Further tracing the timeline of plague evolution may reveal whether the disease was involved in historic human migrations. For instance, a recent population genomics study of Bronze Age Eurasians by many of these same authors revealed a dynamic period of large-scale migrations that helped shape the current demographics in both Europe and Asia.

“Did an influx of people maybe bring disease in? Or did people flee from disease?" asks Rasmussen. "We of course can't prove anything about this at the moment, but we can put forth a theory that the plague was involved in these migrations.”

And because disease evolution is ongoing, this type of research is of interest beyond historic events, Lathem adds.

“We continue to learn that small genetic changes can have huge impact on human health and disease,” he says. “We have here a bacteria that was able to infect humans much earlier than we thought, but it was missing a couple of key factors that might have restricted its spread to smaller populations. But then it just picks up one gene and a couple of mutations and suddenly we've gone from small local outbreaks to global pandemic infections.”

For Lathem, that's the really important takeaway message: "It may be that some disease, Ebola for example, could acquire a new gene or piece of DNA and then be spread through the air rather than just through bodily fluids. In that kind of example, we'd then have a much bigger problem on our hands.”

DNA From 12,000-Year-Old Skeleton Helps Answer the Question: Who Were the First Americans?

Smithsonian Magazine

Some 12,000 years ago, a teenage girl took a walk in what’s now the Yucatan Peninsula and fell 190 feet into a deep pit, breaking her pelvis and likely killing her instantly. Over time, the pit—part of an elaborate limestone cave system—became a watery grave as the most recent ice age ended, glaciers melted and sea levels rose.

In 2007, cave divers happened upon her remarkably preserved remains, which form the oldest, most complete and genetically intact human skeleton in the New World. Her bones, according to new research published in Science, hold the key to a question that has long plagued scientists: Who were the first Americans?

Prevailing ideas point to all Native Americans descending from ancient Siberians who moved across the Beringia land bridge between Asia and North America between 26,000 and 18,000 years ago. As time wore on, the thinking goes, these people spread southward and gave rise to the Native American populations encountered by European settlers centuries ago.

The skull of Naia on the floor of Hoyo Negro, as it appeared in December 2011, having rolled into a near-upright position. (Photo by Roberto Chavez Arce)

But therein lies a puzzle: "Modern Native Americans closely resemble people of China, Korea, and Japan… but the oldest American skeletons do not," says archaeologist and paleontologist James Chatters, lead author on the study and the owner of Applied Paleoscience, a research consulting service based in Bothell, Washington.

The small number of early American specimens discovered so far have smaller and shorter faces and longer and narrower skulls than later Native Americans, more closely resembling the modern people of Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific. "This has led to speculation that perhaps the first Americans and Native Americans came from different homelands," Chatters continues, "or migrated from Asia at different stages in their evolution."

The newly discovered skeleton—named Naia by the divers who discovered her, after the Greek for water—should help to settle this speculation. Though her skull is shaped like those of other early Americans, she shares a DNA sequence with some modern Native Americans. In other words, she’s likely a genetic great-aunt to indigenous people currently found in the Americas.

New genetic evidence supports the hypothesis that the first people in the Americas all came from northeast Asia by crossing a land bridge known as Beringia. When sea levels rose after the last ice age the land bridge disappeared. (Julie McMahon)

To reach these findings, scientists had to first conclusively determine Naia’s age.

It helped that the cave she was found in—a submerged chamber called “Hoyo Negro” (Spanish for “black hole”) of the Sac Atun cave system, accessible only by divers climbing down a 30-foot ladder in a nearby sinkhole, swimming along a 200-foot tunnel, then making a final 100-foot drop—was littered with fossils of saber-toothed tigers, giant ground sloths, cave bears and even an elephant-like creature called a gomphothere. These creatures last walked on Earth thousands of years ago during the last ice age.

But the researchers needed to get more specific than that. So they took a close look at regional sea-level data to get a minimum age at which the cave filled with seawater. Their analysis showed that the site, which is now 130 feet below sea-level, would have been become submerged between 9,700 and 10,200 years ago. Thus, Naia had to have fallen into the cave before then.

Unlike previous skeletons of early Americans, Naia’s included her teeth. Led by co-author Douglas Kennett, a professor of environmental archaeology at the Pennsylvania State University, researchers radiocarbon-dated her tooth enamel to 12,900 years ago.

But Naia’s exposure to seawater within the limestone caves, however, had mineralized her bones. "Unfortunately, we can't rule out that the tooth enamel is contaminated with secondary carbonates from the cave system,” Kennett explains.

Tooth enamel also contains trace amounts of uranium and thorium, radioactive minerals that decay at known rates. But results from those analyses, while they indicated that the remains were at least 12,000 years old, were also inconclusive.

However the scientists noticed something interesting about the bones themselves: they were spotted with rosette-looking mineral deposits. Before the cave was submerged, water dripping from the cave’s roof created a mineral mist that dried on the bones in floret patterns.

"Because the florets grew on the human bones, we knew that dating them would give us a minimum age for the bones," explains Victor Polyak, a research scientist at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "And again, given that Hoyo Negro pit was dry when Naia made her way to the bottom, the florets had to have grown between the time of her death and 10,000 years ago when the bottom of the pit became submerged by brackish water because of rising sea level. Therefore, the oldest pieces of florets provided the oldest minimum age."

Analysis of these florets agreed with other readings—Naia fell into cave no earlier than 12,000 years ago.

The upper right third molar of Naia, which was used for both radiocarbon dating and DNA extraction. The tooth is held by ancient genetics expert Brian Kemp of Washington State University, who led the genetic research on the skeleton. (Photo by James Chatters)

Naia’s teeth had another role to play: With her age established, scientists then sought to extract her DNA from her molars.  "We tried a DNA extraction on the outside chance some fragments might remain," says Chatters. "I was shocked when we actually got intact DNA."

The researchers focused on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is used by geneticists to examine how populations are related. mtDNA is more abundant than DNA found in a cell’s nucleus, so it’s easier to study. Researchers focused especially on haplotypes, which are sequences of genes that mutate more slowly than the rest of the mtDNA.

Their analysis showed that Naia’s mtDNA contains a haplotype that occurs in modern Native Americans and only is found in the Americas; scientists believe it evolved in Beringia.

“We were able to identify her genetic lineage with high certainty," says Ripan Malhi, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois. Malhi’s lab was one of three that analyzed Naia’s mtDNA; all three analyses yielded the same results. "This shows that living Native Americans and these ancient remains of the girl we analyzed all came from the same source population during the initial peopling of the Americas."

Naia proves that migrations from Beringia made it to southern Mexico. As for why Naia’s skull is so different from modern Native Americans, co- author Deborah Bolnick, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin has an explanation: “The physical differences between Paleoamericans and Native Americans today are more likely due to changes that occurred in Beringia and the Americas over the last 9,000 years.” Bolnick’s lab was one of the three to confirm the mtDNA findings.

Studies of Naia—namely the fact that she’s a genetic forerunner to modern Native Americans—ironically raises some interesting questions about whether scientists will be able to get access and extract the remains of early Americans yet to be uncovered.

For example, Chatters—who discovered the scientific importance of the ~9000-year-old Kennewick Man in 1996—could not further analyze those remains due to local tribes claiming the body as an ancestor under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990. However, in 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a previous decision that ruled that the remains could not be defined as “Native American” under NAGPRA law, and studies of the body resumed.

Naia’s discovery may open the door to more legal struggles in the future. But Chatters dismisses this idea, noting that in the current study, “We’re not looking at an ancestor-descendent relationship here necessarily. We’re simply looking at a common heritage.”

Meanwhile, dive into Hoyo Negro with the project’s cave explorers, courtesy of Mexican government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and supported by the National Geographic Society:

Watch this video in the original article

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