THE OLDEST KNOWN KITE
I remain hopeful that one day, a midden somewhere in South East Asia will reveal datable remnants of a leaf kite that will push the known origin of kites back beyond 10,000 years. Pretty good proof would be a piece of Locoloco leaf spine with line tied around it at an appropriate bridle point.
Maybe such a piece has already been found- but has remained unrecognised because the discoverers, lacking kite knowledge, are unaware of its significance.
Early kite history is severely handicapped by indigenous kites having been, necessarily, made from bio-degradable materials. Except in unusual environments- and there are no kites amongst the vast array of every-day items in Pharaoh's tombs, almost certainly because kites were unknown to the early Egyptians- kites degrade to unrecognizability in a matter of years even in dry stable environments. I've already had to dump various silk, paper and bamboo kites that collected in the 1970's and '80s because the silk disintegrated, the paper turned into holes, while the bamboo split and warped. With very careful curating some older Asian kites have survived in recognisable (though faded) form for a little more than 100 years, but not much more that I'm aware of, from the collections and specialist kite museums I'm familiar with. There are a few kites in national museums elsewhere that are older than this, one being in the British Museum. This is a Maori 'manu aute' birdman kite from the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, collected in 1843 and probably dating from not much earlier than this: Image Link Below.
It is in such fragile condition that it cannot now be taken out of the museum, and hasn't been exhibited since 1998.
One kite that is older than this is known. It's of the style called a "French Peartop" and has writing on it: "RB and TB 1773".
It was found by a carpenter when he lifted the attic floor during the renovation of a building at 127 Breestraat, Leiden (Netherlands) in 1985.
When I first saw this kite, it was in a case on the wall at Vlieger Op (a kite shop then owned by Gerard van der Loo) in den Haag in the late 1980s, and I was able to purchase it from Vlieger Op about 10 years ago.
It then went to Drachen Foundation in Seattle, where Thom Shanken, a forensic coroner from New York with an avid interest in history, investigated its provenance.
One of Thom's first questions was its provenance from 1985 to 2007- wanting to assure himself that what we have now is the same kite that was found in Leiden in 1985.
Personally, I had no doubts about this as I'd had a good look at it back when I first saw it, and can attest to it's being the same kite now- with the same decorations, initials and date. Nor, for this kite from this place, did there seem to be any of the agendas that motivate the forgers of fraudulent maps, for example. But then again, I'm not a particularly suspicious person.
In any event, this concern was allayed as detailed study established that the kite we have now, whatever happened to it between 1985 and 2007, was indeed very likely first made and flown in the late 18th century.
The first step in this was to consider whether the materials used in its construction 'were consistent with the claimed age'. This was established by examination of the paper, string, dating of the book pages used for the tail, the type of glue and many other details.
But what if some clever forger had constructed it more recently from late 18th century materials?
With this and the weight of other evidence, his conclusion is that it's likely to be genuine- and was probably made by 2 young boys.
I'm not sure about the 2 young boys bit- the standard of construction and decoration seems high. By the age of 12, while being a prolific kite builder, I doubt I could have produced something of this standard- though children back then were maybe a lot better at this sort of stuff.
But I also believe it to be a genuine and original 18th century kite- except that it does look to me like someone since 1985 may have pencilled over the original date to make it more readable. This 1773 date, although probable, does not definitely indicate that the kite was built in exactly that year in any case.
930mm along the spine, 630mm wide, amazingly, it's in flyable condition- the paper covering is pliable, the sticks (I've been told they're Hazel, corylus avellane?) are sound. The spine is roundwood- straight from the nut tree. The covering is patched and there's been skilled repair or strengthening of the bow (which is whittled), suggesting the kite had been flown, damaged, repaired and flown again.
A well-used and well-loved kite I would say.
A feature is that the bridle (we used to call them belly bands when I was a kid) is quite tight to the surface of the kite and the line attachment point is a long way to the rear. In my experience, this suggests that it would require quite strong wind to fly - which is why I will never try it.
The tail is of the traditional bow-tie type, in this case the ripped-out pages of an 18th century book (Latin).
But what do we know about RB and TB? Who's kite was it? Alas, it's conjectural, but I imagine that these are the initials of two children (most likely from the same family), who made the kite, or for whom it was made (more likely I think). Property records for Leiden from this period still exist (but are expensive to access), and having the address, one day it may be possible to know more about who they were.
Two days ago, it finally arrived in Ashburton and will be displayed in the Lynn Historical Woodworking Museum at the Plains Heritage Village here.
Or it will be when we have established that difficult balance between making it viewable while preserving it in as good condition for the next 244 years. Controlling temperature and humidity - and shutting out uv light- are considerations, about which I will need to get expert advice.
This museum was my father's life's work, and I am pleased to be able to make a second contribution to its attractions. The other is the German reciprocating antique sawmill, ex Hoberg, which has featured in earlier Newsletters, that has now found a home there.
Thankyou Thom for your careful investigation.
And thanks to Drachen Foundation, Scott, Ali, and staff, for their professional curating of this kite- and for packing it so carefully for shipment to here.
Now there's yet another reason for visiting us!
PETER LYNN, ASHBURTON, JULY 1 '17