New Clues To The Sinking Of A Confederate Submarine

The Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley may have been sunk by its own torpedo, researchers say.

The cause of the Hunley’s sinking has been a mystery since it sank the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864, and then the Hunley itself mysteriously sank shortly thereafter. This submarine, which had a hand-cranked propeller and a torpedo set at the end of a 16-foot pole, was a desperate attempt by the Confederacy to destroy the Union blockade on Southern harbors that was strangling the economy.

A press release by the Friends of the Hunley, the organization that raised and is conserving the Civil War sub, says that archaeologists have discovered part of the torpedo still attached to the end of the pole. The jagged metal shows that the torpedo exploded its charge of 135 pounds of gunpowder as planned.

Historians used to think the plan was to ram the torpedo into the ship’s side, and then pull away, detaching the torpedo from the pole and then pulling a rope trigger that would explode the torpedo from a safe distance.

Now we can see this didn’t happen. The question remains whether the release mechanism was faulty or if the plan was much cruder – simply ramming the torpedo into the side of the ship and hoping for the best.

It remains unclear if this explosion is what actually sank the Hunley. The submarine’s hull is encased in hardened rock, sand, and silt that the archaeologists are still removing. Only when their job is done will they get a clear idea of how the brave crew of the Hunley met their end.

You can visit the lab where this historic sub is being studied; the Warren Lasch Conservation Center is located in North Charleston, SC. You can also see a different Confederate submarine at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge.

[Top photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Bottom photo showing the sub being raised courtesy Barbara Voulgaris, Naval Historical Center]

Is the Colosseum crumbling?

Economic instability, a change of government, and now this.

It looks like Italy’s most famous landmark, the Colosseum, may be crumbling. The Culture Ministry has launched an investigation after eyewitnesses spotted bits of stone falling off the Roman ruin on two different occasions in recent days.

An Italian shoe company has promised to restore the Colosseum with an ambitious 25 million euro ($34 million) project, but work won’t start until March.

If the reports are true, the Colosseum isn’t the only monument in trouble. Pompeii has suffered a series of collapses that has raised questions about the site’s management and has escalated into a major scandal. With Italian government deeply in debt and struggling with unpopular austerity measures, it’s doubtful if the glorious legacy of ancient Rome will receive much official funding in the coming fiscal year.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Bergmann.

Egypt to close Tutankhamun’s tomb

The Valley of the Kings is one of the highlights of any trip to Egypt. In this hot, dusty ravine are some of the most remarkable tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. Paintings adorn their walls, showing the soul’s journey through the afterlife and the gods and goddesses described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Now the most popular of those tombs is going to close. Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has announced he will close Tutankhamun’s tomb by the end of the year. Two others will also close. The brilliant paintings that make the tombs so attractive were preserved because the tombs were sealed. With thousands of people passing through every day, the tombs have become hotter and more humid. Paint is flaking off and mold is growing in some parts, as you can see from the above photo. It’s sad, but to save the tombs they have to be shut from public view.

Dr. Hawass has commissioned an exact replica of King Tut’s tomb so that visitors will get an idea what the original looked like.

[Photo courtesy user Hajor via Wikimedia Commons]

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Scandal as hundreds of historic treasures go missing

An audit of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission has revealed that more than 1,800 historic artifacts can’t be found. Officials aren’t sure what happened to them but assume many have been stolen and others misfiled.

Missing treasures include a Kentucky rifle like those pictured above, an Ottoman ring that’s almost 800 years old, one-of-a-kind paintings and photographs, and other irreplaceable objects.

Officials hope most are simply lost in the system, which has been added to for almost a century with various filing systems being in vogue at different times, making for much confusion and sometimes leaving an artifact with more than one accession number, or the same number being used for more than one object. Anyone who has worked with historic archives will be familiar with this annoying phenomenon. Archives and museums rarely have enough funding to do a complete overhaul of the system and therefore problems get compounded over the years. The Pennsylvania commission has been especially hard hit by budget cuts, seeing its funding reduced from $58 million to $26 million in the past four years.

Another problem is theft. Artifacts such as Civil War memorabilia or an image of Daniel Boone (another MIA) can attract big money in the illegal antiquities trade. This encourages thefts from Paris to Baghdad. I conduct research at Madrid’s Biblioteca Nacional and security there was upped a couple of years ago after they caught a guy cutting out 17th century maps from old atlases and selling them on the black market. This sort of selfishness is great for private collectors who don’t mind breaking the law, but bad for the general public who have their nation’s legacy taken from them.

[Photo courtesy Antique Military Rifles]

Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival: Living the High Life

In two weekends when I’m off having my solo, small, spontaneous adventure in Los Angeles, there is another event at the opposite side of the U.S. This one looks like it would make for a perfect, spontaneous trip as well. Newport, Rhode Island was once the playground of the over the top, filthy rich during the Guilded Age. This is when fortunes were being made in steel, coal, railroad expansion, silver–all the stuff that made a few folks gobs and gobs of money– folks that had a real knack for building gorgeous, palace-like domiciles to show off their high culture tastes.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Vanderbilts–(The most famous family member these days is perhaps Anderson Cooper who is the son of Gloria Vanderbilt) The two Vanderbilt mansions in Newport are now part of the Preservation Society of Newport County. The society also operates the nine other Newport Mansions that date from the Colonial Period through the Guilded Age (250 years). The properties, including former Vanderbilt holdings, are open to tours.

At the Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival, you can attend the Grand Tasting on the lawn of Marble House, go to a wine gala celebration at Rosecliff and dine at a restaurant that is part of this wine event. Chef Jacques Pepin is part of the occasion and there are a variety of options depending on your time and your budget. By the way, Marble House was built by Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt between 1888 and 1892.