Tuesday, February 22, 2022

A Buried Book

Archaeologist Alan Hardy describes a find that emerged during the excavation of a long barrow in the Berkshire Downs:
A book was found within deposit 3001, located immediately south of the southern ditch section, and approximately 0.23 m below the present ground. The book was a buckram bound copy of Demonology and Witchcraft by Walter Scott, published in 1831 (Plate 4.5). The inside front cover was daubed with red ink and crudely inscribed with the words 'Demon de Uffing'. Some decay was evident to the cover and the edges of the pages although it was generally in very good condition. Its state of preservation may well have been due to the surrounding matrix of chalk and soil, which maintained a dry environment. The excavator was confident that the ground around the location of the book's burial had not been recently disturbed, and therefore a pre-excavation joke by persons unknown was ruled out. In theory the book could have been deposited during the 19th-century excavations, but it is more likely that its burial is related to one of the more recent revivals in the mystical aspects of the White Horse and its surroundings.

D. Miles et al., Uffington White Horse and Its Landscape: Investigations at White Horse Hill, Uffington, 1989-95, and Tower Hill, Ashbury, 1993-4
Related posts:
Up in the Downs
The Lay of the Hunted Pig

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Lost Altar

This double-view postcard of scenes from Orkney was issued by J. M. Stevenson, a longtime stationer in Kirkwall and Stromness. It also bears the initials of V. & S. Ltd., that is, Valentine & Sons of Dundee, the actual printer. There's no writing on the back of the card, but I'm guessing that it dates from around 1910. "The Holms" are two small islets just across the water from Stromness.

The central "altar" or "dolmen" shown in the view of the neolithic Standing Stones of Stennis (or Stenness) was a "reconstruction" from 1907, possibly inspired by Sir Walter Scott's interpretation of the site. It was dismantled under murky circumstances in 1972 and only the uprights were put back in place. A century earlier a landowner had vandalized the site extensively, resulting in the loss of much of the surrounding circle of stones.

There's more information on the circle and the supposed "altar" at Orkneyjar.com, and even more on the website of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

Despite its barren northern location, Orkney has some of the most extraordinary neolithic monuments in Britain. I haven't been there (my wife and daughter have), but perhaps someday I will.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

A Stock of Curios

W. Jeffrey Bolster:
Able-bodied seamen versed in “the Mariner’s art” were admittedly a minority among black seamen; but men like Daniel Watson, who made five foreign voyages from Providence between 1803 and 1810, cultivated professional identities as seamen. As sailors, they wove together worldliness, skill, and class. Watson, and men such as the African-born David O’Kee, an ex-slave who made at least eight voyages from Providence during the 1830s, were fully socialized to the world of the ship, and probably more at home there than ashore. A blind sixty-year-old black Philadelphian introduced himself to the census marshall in 1850 as a “Seaman,” though his voyaging days were over. The pride black men felt in being identified as seamen is evident in the possessions left by Henry Robinson, a black laborer who died in Boston in 1849. Robinson owned the clothing, chairs, and stove that one would expect, but he also lived among a stock of curios that seem to have been collected at sea. Cases of “sea shells of several kinds,” “two coral baskets,” “one statue,” “one toy ship,” a series of pictures, and “two african swords and arrows” perpetuated images of a life considerably more exotic than the one that ended in a down-at-the heels Boston tenement house.

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail

Friday, February 11, 2022

Bookseller's Nightmare

A prim middle-aged woman steps up to the counter and asks if we have any books by the novelist Catherine Cookson. I say I don't think so but I agree to check the shelf and the stockroom. No Catherine Cookson. She would like to order some. I reach for Books in Print, but the volumes we have on our reference shelf are decades old and the authors volume is missing anyway. I switch on the microfiche reader. The information that is displayed on the screen has nothing to do with books. Instead, there are a series of street-level views of a city, and I can't even find the intersection I'm looking for. In the meantime, someone has set down a plateful of very appetizing-looking chocolates next to the microfiche reader, but who knows when I'll have a chance to try one.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Curiosity Cabinet

This volume of stories, texts, and illustrations was published by Profile Books in 2003. For a while it seemed to have become scarce, but it's relatively easy to find now.

The Wellcome Collection is (or was) a vast assemblage of objects related to the history and anthropology of medicine. As one might expect, many of the objects are gruesome or bizarre. Henry Wellcome, who amassed the objects, died in 1936, and after his death much of the collection was apparently dispersed, though some of its holdings became accessible to the public in 2007. The editors explain the concept:
This book forms a companion volume to the catalogue of an exhibition on Henry Wellcome's collection held at the British Museum in the summer of 2003. The aim of the exhibition was to reunite a fraction of the collection back in one place. The exhibition catalog endeavours to present the facts of the collection, exploring its objects through documents and physical evidence. Here, in The Phantom Museum, the objects are investigated using a different method, that of the sympathetic imagination.
Each of the six pieces in the volume is inspired by one or more of the Wellcome's objects. A. S. Byatt is the most familiar name among the writers. Peter Blegvad contributes an unclassifiable piece, but my favorite is a deft short story entitled "The Venus Time of Year," which follows two women, one modern and one in Roman Britain, who both have recourse to votive offerings in the form of a fertility figurine. Admirably, it doesn't try to do too much or look too far ahead in the women's lives. Of the author, the back flap notes, "Helen Cleary lived in Singapore, Wales and East Anglia before moving to London. She is working on her second novel and writes non-fiction for the BBC History website."

Oddly, I've found no evidence that either of the two Helen Cleary novels mentioned was ever published, nor any indication that she has published any additional fiction. She didn't disappear; she apparently has contributed to several documentaries and reference books.

In conjunction with the British Museum show, the Quay Brothers released an eccentric short documentary about the collection, which is also entitled The Phantom Museum.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Time Capsule

Above, a page of ads from Barney Rosset's Evergreen Review, Vol. 2. No. 7 (Winter 1959). This was a themed issue devoted to Mexico, but it also included a long essay on Thelonious Monk, so these particular advertisements were presumably chosen with that in mind. Bongos are more usually associated with Cuba, but these "pre-tuned Mexican bongos" would have been the perfect accessories for beatniks, or at least for the Hollywood version of them. Other ads in this issue included one for the Living Theatre and for the Circle in the Square production of Brendan Behan's Quare Fellow, directed by José Quintero.

Sadly, the Gotham Book Mart is no more, but as of this writing at least one of the contributors, the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, is still with us after sixty-odd years.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Jason Epstein (1928-2022)

Publishing pioneer Jason Epstein has died. At 93, he managed to outlive his obituarist, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who died in 2018.

Epstein worked with a long list of authors and founded or co-founded Anchor Books, The New York Review of Books, and the Library of America. I confess to a fetishism for the early Anchor paperbacks, including those published after Epstein left the company in 1958. I have a dozen or so in the house and often re-read some of them. Many have wonderfully dotty covers by Edward Gorey. Today Anchor Books and many of its erstwhile competitors and imitators in the paperback market, including Vintage, Penguin, Signet, Ballantine, Bantam, and Dell, are all subsumed under the same corporate umbrella.