Arts and Sciences

Unravelling the mystery of the Chimney Map

History Blog - Sun, 2017-06-11 23:33

When the National Library of Scotland acquired the balled up bundle of rags that turned out to be an extremely rare example of a 17th century world map by Dutch cartographer Gerald Valck, their first priority was rescuing what was left of it. It was in terrible condition, with large sections decayed beyond recovery and some of the surviving sections reduced to a shower of confetti on the table. Paper conservator Claire Thomson wasn’t even sure the map could be saved.

It took six months, but the conservation team accomplished the impossible, removed the canvas backing, cleaned the paper and put the cartographic Humpty Dumpty back together again. The restored map went on public display for the first time at the National Library in Edinburgh earlier this year. Due to its fragile condition, it was only exhibited for a month (March 13-April 16).

“Maps were largely symbols of power at this time,” said Paula Williams, map curator at the National Library. “They were very expensive to make and even more expensive, relatively, for people to buy. Whoever owned this map wanted to display their own power.”

As the map is Dutch, it represents a world view as seen from Amsterdam, complete with colonial ambitions. Australia, for example, appears as New Holland and the rivalry with their old enemy Spain is represented by a depiction of atrocities committed by Spanish invaders in South America.

Dr Esther Mijers, a lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh said: “This map throws up more questions than it can answer. It would be wonderful if people wanted to do more research on the map and its story.”

Thankfully, a lot of people do. With the map, of just three known in the world, salvaged, researching its mysterious origin took on new prominence. When the map was first given to the National Library, it was believed to have been stuffed up the chimney of a house in Aberdeen. The story was it was discovered during the renovation of the house, rescued from the trash and delivered to the library.

It promptly became known as the Chimney Map because of its purported discovery spot, but that now appears to be a misconception. It seems to have been found under a floorboard during renovations in the 1980s. The house was formerly part of the Castle Fraser estate and since the castle is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, their researchers are in full Nancy Drew mode hoping to discover more about the history of this exceptional map and how it wound up in that house outside of Aberdeen.

The National Library is on the investigation too, and they got a hot lead thanks to their YouTube video of the conservation of the Chimney Map. Les Yule, the original finder of the map 15 years ago, and Aberdeen schoolteacher Brian Crossan, the person who gave it to the National Library in 2016, got in touch with NLS researchers. Because they’re awesome and they show their work to public in the most thorough way possible, National Library of Scotland staff starting filming Les and Brian as they look for the house, its owner and find spot. Their first meeting with conservator Claire Thomson was captured on video, as was their collaboration in sniffing out the real history of this remarkable map whose checkered, obscure past has fired the imagination of so many.

That video has now been uploaded to YouTube and it’s worth every minute of the 14:45 running time.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Human tooth found inside H.L. Hunley

History Blog - Sat, 2017-06-10 23:31

Conservators at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center spent years removing the thick concretion layer coating the exterior of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley using a weak solution of of sodium hydroxide to soften the rock-hard mixture of sand, rust, marine shells and sediment. Sixteen years after it was raised from Charleston Harbor, the exterior of the iron submarine was finally liberated from its concretion prison, its original skin revealed, and the conservation team moved on to the interior.

They’ve made a great deal of progress there too. The crank shaft used to power the submarine is now clean. Researchers found textile fragments and loose metal sleeves at several of the positions where crew members turned the crank by hand to keep the vessel moving and keep themselves alive. The team believes the cloth and sleeves were protective bindings that helped provent blisters and chafing.

While cleaning the crank shaft, conservators made an unexpected find: a human tooth embedded in the the concretion at crank handle position Number 3. According to lead archaeologist Michael Scafuri, the tooth was lost after death. It fell out of the jaw when the body decayed and became stuck to the corroding iron of the crank handle. Thus human remains became part of the rich tapestry of assorted debris that made up the concretion layer.

Historical research indicates that Frank Collins sat at position Number 3. The teeth that were found with his remains showed that unlike most of his comrades, he was a non-smoker as he had no pipe notches. He did have “tailor notches,” indentations left by repeated use of metal needles like tailors would have used. Census information only refers to him as a “day labourer” before the war, and there’s very little in the documentary record about what kind of jobs he held, but was classified as a seaman when he enlisted in the Confederate Navy, he probably worked at sea at some point before then.

Collins was more than six feet tall and the crew compartment of the Hunley is less than four feet in diameter, so he must have folded himself up like origami to fit inside that tiny iron cigar. It’s a testament to his bravery that he volunteered for the position which was the most dangerous in the submarine because it was in the middle, the farthest away from both the forward and aft escape hatches. His height would have made scrambling out of there even more difficult for him than for a smaller man.

The remains of Frank Collins and the other seven crewmen who operated that handcranked death trap of a submarine and delivered the first successful sub-to-ship torpedo at the cost of their lives were buried at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery on April 17th, 2004, next to the bodies of the 13 men who had died on the Hunley‘s early test missions. We don’t know yet what will happen to the tooth, but it seems unlikely that the grave will be opened just so the one tooth can be added.

Conservation continues at a deliberate, painstaking pace. There is no deadline; it’ll be done when it’s done. The submarine is almost free of concretions now, with only a few patches remaining on the upper level of the interior. So far the cleaning process has not added any new information to explain how and why the Hunley sank.

“To be honest and upfront about it, we will always have an element of uncertainty because until we invent a time machine we’re never going to know exactly what happened,” Scafuri said.

It could be a series of complicated events, ranging from human error to “something obvious” or something not considered yet, he said.

“Everything is on the table within reason,” Scafuri said.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Slough hill found to be rare Anglo-Saxon mound

History Blog - Fri, 2017-06-09 23:33


Archaeologists have discovered that a hill in Slough long believed to be a rare Norman castle motte is in fact a much older and rarer Anglo-Saxon mound. Researchers with the Round Mounds Project took two core samples from Montem Mound, a technique that allows archaeologists to examine the guts of a mound without destructive excavation. The samples revealed that the mound was artificially built from a combination of sand and gravel.

The team found charred plant material from the base of the mound and halfway up it in the core samples. Radiocarbon dating of the plant remains narrowed down the mound’s construction to some time after the mid-5th century, probably in the 6th or 7th century A.D. That makes it roughly contemporaneous with the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo, famous for the incredibly wealth of artifacts discovered in the tumulus, and the Anglo-Saxon burial mound of Tæppa at Taplow, a village neighboring Slough, which also contained high status artifacts.

Very few Anglo-Saxon mounds are known, and this one is already getting dubbed the “Sutton Hoo of Slough” even though no remains or grave goods have been discovered.

Dr Jim Leary added: “We tested material from all through the mound, so we are confident that it dates to the Saxon period. Given the dates of the mound, its size and dimensions, and the proximity to the known richly-furnished Saxon barrow at Taplow, it seems most likely that Montem Mound is a prestigious Saxon burial mound.”

Slough, a town 20 miles west of London best known to TV audiences as the home of the branch of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company run by David Brent (aka Ricky Gervais), is a thriving economic center with a growing population and high employment. As the city has grown, office buildings and parking lots have mushroomed up around Montem Mound, but thankfully the mound itself is protected from development thanks to its designation as a Scheduled Ancient Monument of national importance.

The designation was based primarily on the belief that the hill was a Norman motte. This was not confirmed by excavation. It was deduced from the mound’s form — its circular shape about 92 feet in diameter and 20 feet high at its peak — even though it appears to have been significantly altered over the centuries. The shape, size and location overlooking a river suggested it was a small castle motte built by the Normans to control that stretch of the river, perhaps a fording point.

Notwithstanding all these unknowns, Montem Mound still qualified for listed status because Norman mottes are extremely rare. Most surviving Norman castles are motte-and-bailey designs (a central mound surrounded by outbuildings enclosed in a defensive embankment). Very few motte castles with just the central mound surrounded by a palisade and tower have survived in any form at all, even shaved down and modified.

Also, this one had the additional claim to historical fame of being the locus of Eton College’s famously offbeat “Ad Montem” celebration, observed regularly from 1561 to 1846, including by many generations of reigning monarchs. Its beginnings were an initiation ritual for Eton students during which they were sprinkled with salt. (Montem Mound was known as Salt Hill for centuries because of this association.) It evolved into an increasingly elaborate pageant wherein attendees gave money in exchange for pinches of salt and people flocked for miles to watch the students and faculties parade up the hill in wacky outfits.

Here’s a description of it from Knight’s Quarterly Magazine in 1823:

We have at length reached the foot of the mount — a very respectable barrow, which never dreamt in its Druidical age, of the interest which it now excites, and the honours which now await it. Its sides are clothed with mechanics in their holiday clothes, and happy dairy-maids in their Sunday gear; — at its base sit Peeresses in their barouches, and Earls in all the honours of four-in-hand. The flag is again waved; the scarlet coats and the crimson plumes again float amongst us– “the boys carry it away Hercules and his load too,” and the whole earth seems made for the enjoyment of one universal holiday. […]

“And I say, out upon your eternal hunting for causes and reasons. I love the no meaning of Montem. I love to be asked for ‘Salt,’ by a pretty boy in silk stockings and satin doublet, though the custom has been called ‘something between begging and robbing.’ I love the apologetical ‘Mos pro Lege,’ which defies the police and the Mendicity Society. I love the absurdity of a Captain taking precedence of a Marshal; and a Marshal bearing a gilt baton, at an angle of forty-five degrees from his right hip; and an Ensign flourishing a flag with the grace of a tight-rope dancer; and Sergeants paged by fair-skinned Indians and beardless Turks; and Corporals in sashes and gorgets, guarded by innocent Polemen in blue jackets and white trowsers. I love the mixture of real and mock dignity; — the Provost, in his cassock, clearing the way for the Duchess of Leinster to see the Ensign make his bow; or the Head Master gravely dispensing his leave till nine, to Counts of the Holy Roman Empire and Grand Signiors. I love the crush in the cloisters and the mob on the Mount — I love the clatter of carriages and the plunging of horsemen — I love the universal gaiety, from the peer who smiles and sighs that he is no longer an Eton boy, to the country-girl who marvels that such little gentlemen have cocked hats and real swords.

The Montem ceremony was abolished in 1846 by Eton headmaster Dr. Hawtrey as it had gotten so top-heavy that it no longer raised enough money to pay for the expense of the spectacle.

It’s interesting that in the 19th century Salt Hill was assumed to be “druidical” and therefore long predating the Norman conquest. It’s not, but the traditional association of the mound with pagan antiquity may be a holdover, distorted by a generations-long game of telephone, of its real Anglo-Saxon origin.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New fossils push back origin of modern humans 100,000 years

History Blog - Thu, 2017-06-08 23:59


New fossils of Homo sapiens discovered at the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco are the oldest remains of modern humans ever found, pushing back our origins 100,000 years. An international team of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage in Morocco unearthed fossilized Homo sapiens bones and flint blades at Jebel Irhoud, a site that has been known for its Middle Stone Age remains and artifacts since the first fragments were discovered by miners in 1961. The team discovered pieces of the skulls, teeth and the long bones of at least five people.

Dating previous Jebel Irhoud finds has been problematic, because they were not professionally excavated and dating techniques were crude and approximate. The discovery of fossils in situ, morphologically identifiable as Homo sapiens, and worked flint tools in the same sedimentary layer allowed the researchers to absolutely date the finds since all the people died around the same time as the tools were discarded. The flints had been burned, probably by cooking fires built above them. To get an exact date, researchers used the thermoluminescence technique on the flints which revealed they were burned approximately 300,000 years ago.

“Well dated sites of this age are exceptionally rare in Africa, but we were fortunate that so many of the Jebel Irhoud flint artefacts had been heated in the past,” says geochronology expert Daniel Richter of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig (Germany), now with Freiberg Instruments GmbH. Richter explains: “This allowed us to apply thermoluminescence dating methods on the flint artefacts and establish a consistent chronology for the new hominin fossils and the layers above them.” In addition, the team was able to recalculate a direct age of the Jebel Irhoud 3 mandible found in the 1960s. This mandible had been previously dated to 160 thousand years ago by a special electron spin resonance dating method. Using new measures of the radioactivity of the Jebel Irhoud sediments and as a result of methodological improvements in the method, this fossil’s newly calculated age is in agreement with the thermoluminescence ages and much older than previously realised. “We employed state of the art dating methods and adopted the most conservative approaches to accurately determine the age of Irhoud”, adds Richter.

The crania of modern humans living today are characterized by a combination of features that distinguish us from our fossil relatives and ancestors: a small and gracile face, and globular braincase. The fossils from Jebel Irhoud display a modern-looking face and teeth, and a large but more archaic-looking braincase. Hublin and his team used state-of-the-art micro computed tomographic scans and statistical shape analysis based on hundreds of 3D measurements to show that the facial shape of the Jebel Irhoud fossils is almost indistinguishable from that of modern humans living today. In contrast to their modern facial morphology, however, the Jebel Irhoud crania retain a rather elongated archaic shape of the braincase. “The inner shape of the braincase reflects the shape of the brain,” explains palaeoanthropologist Philipp Gunz from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “Our findings suggest that modern human facial morphology was established early on in the history of our species, and that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage,” says Philipp Gunz.

Before this discovery, the oldest securely dated Homo sapiens fossils were 195,000 years old and were discovered at the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia. Because the fossil record this far back is sparse and the few finds that have been made were centered in Ethiopia, researchers thought Homo sapiens may have evolved in East Africa, dubbed the cradle of mankind, and spread out over the continent from there. The Moroccan fossils are evidence that modern humans evolved elsewhere on the African continent as well, not just in Ethiopia and environs.

A wealth of animal bones were also discovered that bore evidence of having been hunted. Gazelle bones were the most numerous, but these early Homo sapiens supped on a remarkable variety of species including wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, porcupines, hares, tortoises, freshwater mollusks, snakes and a smattering of small game. They were hunted with high quality flint tools — the flint was imported from a site 20 miles south of Jebel Irhoud, an indication of how capable this Homo sapiens group was of securing the best resources over long distances — and signs of butchering are evidence that people broke the long bones open to eat the marrow.

The first study of the Jebel Irhoud finds has been published in the journal Nature. A second publication also in Nature focuses on the dating. They are both behind the subscription firewall, alas, but can be rented for a few bucks.

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has made two very cool 3D composite reconstructions of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils using CT scans of the finds. You can see in the first video the different shape of the early Homo sapiens brain by the imprint of it in the blue-tinted braincase. The second video starts with a CT scan of a child’s mandible who was about eight years old at time of death. It then delves further into the skull and brain of the 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

3,000-year-old copper mask found in Argentina

History Blog - Wed, 2017-06-07 23:14

The Peruvian Andes have long been believed to be the origin of metallurgy in pre-Hispanic America, but an ancient copper mask discovered in what is today northwest Argentina indicates that copper metalwork was developing in the southern Andes even earlier than in the central Andes. The mask was discovered in April of 2005 in the village of La Quebrada in the Cajón Valley. The villagers found it poking out of the ground after the rainy season and notified an archaeological team that had been working in the area since the year before. Human skeletal remains near the mask were also exposed by the rains.

Thanks to the diligence and responsible actions of the villagers, archaeologists were afforded the rare opportunity to excavate the find in its original context. They found that it was a burial, as the human bones might suggest, located on a high point of the landscape near the archaeological site of Bordo Marcial. (Bordo Marcial is an important early agricultural settlement from the Formative period dating to around 1800 – 1900 years before the present.) At least 14 people were buried in this funerary context, adult men and women and children of different ages. There were no intact articulated skeletons; the bones were mixed up together.

The mask was found placed on top of the bones at the northern corner of the burial. The copper had stained several of the bones green, which confirmed the mask and at least some of the remains were buried together. The west side of the tomb is bordered by a stone wall. On the other side of a second stone wall next to it, the remains of a child between eight and 12 years old at time of death were found with a small copper pendant.

Radiocarbon dating found that the green bones from the corner of the burial date to 1377–1010 B.C. The bones of the child date to 1414–1087 B.C., so the group burial and the child burial date to the same time. This was an important transitional period in the region, when the population, still spread out in small groups, shifted from the hunter-gatherers constantly on the move to early farming settlements.

The mask is seven inches high, six inches wide and just one millimeter thick. Holes representing eyes, a nose and a mouth were punched through from the back of a mask and nine small circular holes were made on each side, at the top corners and in the middle, bottom and top margins. Archaeologists believe strings may have been tied through these small holes so the mask could be worn, of they may have connected it to a larger, multi-part artifact the rest of which has decayed over time.

A layer of corrosion covers the mask, which for its own preservation was not removed by the archaeological team. Analysis of the metal found that it was made of pure copper, with no arsenic or tin present that would indicate the intentional creation of bronze. Microscopic examination identified recrystallisation grains and annealing twins, typical features of copper worked by a technique that alternates cold hammering and reheating. The corrosion layer made it impossible to determined anything else about the metallurgic process used to create the mask.

Even though there is extensive archaeological evidence of early metalwork developing in the Peruvian Andes and spreading to other areas of Central and South America from there, there is very little evidence of early copper work in the Central Andean region, only slag associated with copper smelting and a few fragments of laminated copper. These are roughly contemporaneous with the Bordo Macial mask. None of those copper traces are evidence of the use of copper in the creation of an actual artifact. The mask bears that distinction.

This mask is the oldest intentionally shaped copper object recovered from the Andes, with an associated radiocarbon date that suggests that metalworking technology did indeed originate in more than one region of the Andes.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of lost temple found in Chengdu after 1,000 years

History Blog - Tue, 2017-06-06 21:50

Archaeologists have rediscovered the remains an ancient temple in Chengdu, in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, that has been lost for 1,000 years. The Fugan Temple was built in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 A.D.) and was in use through the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.) when it became a casualty of the period’s wars and political instability. After years of neglect and decline, the temple fell to ruin and whatever was left of it was buried under subsequent construction. Eventually even its location was forgotten.

Buddhist temple construction flourished in the Eastern Jin, with almost 2,000 of them known to have been built during the dynasty. The Fugan Temple reached its zenith of importance during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.) when it was extensively renovated and expanded. Tang-dynasty poet Liu Yuxi (772–842 A.D.) wrote a poem about the renovated temple which described its “heavenly appearance” and its great importance as a religious and cultural center. Tang Dynasty monk Daoxuan (596-667 A.D.), who recorded the biographies of prominent monks, traditions and information about temples and other sacred sites, wrote about how the temple got its name. When Chengdu was suffering from a years-long drought, an official prayer rite was held in front of the temple to pray for rain and lo and behold, the heavens opened and Chengdu was delivered. The temple was named Fugan, meaning “to feel the blessing” in honor of this miracle.

From then on, Fugan Temple was associated with rain and drought relief and became a center for people praying for water. Its decline in importance was gradual, beginning at the end of the Tang Dynasty when constant wars took a toll on the number of pilgrims visiting the temple. Fugan never really recovered from the attendant loss of prosperity, and within a couple of hundred years, it had disappeared off the map. Literally.

Archaeologists have now put it back on the map: specifically, Fugan Temple is under Shiye Street in Chengdu. Thus far they have unearthed the main temple’s foundations, the remains of other buildings in the complex, wells, roads and ditches in an area of 11,000 square meters. This was just a small section of the Fugan Temple at its largest after the Tang renovation and expansion, but it’s more than enough to give archaeologists a unique view into the temple’s architecture.

The team has also discovered a large number of artifacts attesting to the temple’s rich cultural offerings. The most stunning of them are more than 1,000 fragments of stone tablets inscribed in an elegant script with verses from Buddhist scripture including the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Sutra of the Whole-Body Relic Treasure Chest Seal Dharani. Even after more than a thousand years of destruction and ruin, there are still traces of gold powder on some of the inscriptions, a hint of the awe and reverence in which these tablets were held.

In addition to the tablets, archaeologists found more than 500 pieces of stone statues, the largest of which are more than 15 feet high. They are representations of various Bodhisattvas and of the Buddha in a wide variety of forms, each of them drawn from scripture, each of them different — zaftig Buddha, slender Buddha, solemn Buddha, peaceful Buddha, Buddha holding a lotus blossom. Archaeologists believe they were carved by different monks as a form of devotion and therefore no two of them are alike.

The dig has also revealed a wealth of remains and artifacts long pre- and post-dating the temple itself.

During the excavation, archaeologists found some 80 ancient tombs scattered near the temple, dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-256 B.C.). In the temple’s surroundings, they have unearthed large amounts of household tools, utensils and building materials dating back to various periods from the Song to the Ming dynasties.

Chengdu became an economic and cultural center in western China during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The temple’s discovery could greatly contribute to the study of the spread of Buddhism in China during that time, said Wang Yi, director of the Chengdu Cultural Relic Research Institute.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

3,500-year-old polychrome reliefs found in Lima temple

History Blog - Mon, 2017-06-05 23:50

The ancient pre-Inca archaeological site of Garagay in the San Martín de Porres neighborhood of northern Lima was first unearthed in 1959. The stone and mud brick temple’s striking high relief polychrome friezes of mythical beasts appeared stylistically linked to the Chavin culture, and archaeologists believed the Chavin art inspired the Garagay reliefs. The U-shape of the temple complex with a central pyramid 100 feet high and rectangular buildings on the sides was also reminiscent of Chavin structures.

The finds were not documented or photographed at the time, and although they were reburied for their own protection, looters and illegal construction got to them anyway, destroying the spectacular reliefs. Fifteen years would pass before funding was secured to excavate Garagay again. The 1974 excavation discovered more polychrome reliefs, thousands of ceramic artifacts, and rare surviving textiles. It also determined the age of the site. Radiocarbon dating found that the Garagay complex was built around 1800 B.C., was added to and rebuilt multiple times and remained in use until around 800 B.C. That means the early temples and their reliefs predate the Chavin culture, so if there was any influence, it was the other way around.

This time the unearthed temples were not reburied. A fence was erected around the site to keep vandals and looters out, but it didn’t work. Treasure hunters trashed the site looking for gold and easily saleable antiquities. Illegal home construction — some as high as five stories — mushroomed up between the fence and the temple in the mid-1980s. A factory was built in the main square of the complex and workers used the soil and clay from one of the arms of the U to make the bricks for the factory walls.

As if that weren’t bad enough, a high voltage tower erected at the high point of the pyramid in 1963 (the year before laws protecting archaeological sites to prevent this kind of abuse were passed) became a target of the Shining Path terrorists. They tried to blow it up with dynamite three times in the 1980s to cut off the electricity to the city. Because mud bricks are tough as hell and the ancient Peruvians were worth 20 million of those Shining Path brutes, the Garagay complex withstood the explosives, but it took heavy damage.

The site was neglected for four decades, but excavations have finally begun again. The site is currently being excavated by Lima municipal archaeologists who have added information panels to emphasize the complex’s immense archaeological significance as the largest temple complex of its kind in the Rimac Valley and the best example of architecture from Lima’s Formative Period. Because only an estimated 3% of the compound has been unearthed, archaeologists are hopeful that despite all the losses, the site has many wonders left to discover which would make it a draw for tourists (and their cash) and increase the neighborhood’s understanding of and investment in the great treasure in their midst.

This January, the team discovered a zoomorphic jaguar-like frieze in the atrium of the main pyramid. In May lead archaeologist Hector Walde announced the team unearthed new high relief polychrome friezes carved on a pilaster in the temple complex’s ceremonial entrance. They are in an excellent state of conservation, with the colors of one of them still brilliant. The figures are large anthropomorphic faces with feline characteristics. Archaeologists have also discovered access stairways connected to the main courtyard of the complex have been discovered as well.

The excavation is scheduled to continue for five years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

British Museum conserves Dürer’s Triumphal Arch

History Blog - Sun, 2017-06-04 23:40

In 2014, conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK) began an extensive program of restoration of one of their two complete sets of The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I, a monumental print designed by Albrecht Dürer in 1515 to glorify the family, good deeds and many victories of the Holy Roman Emperor. This was no rhinoceros print, as great as that is. Dürer’s workshop carved 195 wood blocks which were printed on 36 large sheets of paper which together depicted an enormous triumphal arch crammed full of details. When displayed as a single piece, the print is a massive 9′ 10″ by 11′ 6″, the largest woodcut produced during the Renaissance and still today one of the largest in the world.

Denmark’s Royal Collection of Graphic Art two sets were initially acquired and maintained in loose-leaf form. One was only affixed to a backing in the 1860s so it could be displayed in all its propagandistic glory as Dürer had intended. Decades later, the paper backing was badly discolored and the ink faded from exposure to sun. It was placed in storage for its own protection until conservators could figure out how to address its many problems. With the 500th anniversary of the print coming up in 2015 and a new exhibition, Might and Glory: Dürer in the Emperor’s Service, in which to display it, SMK conservators painstakingly peeled the original paper off the 19th century backing and restored the massive print.

When I wrote about this story in 2015, the available photographs were deeply unsatisfactory. The print is so huge and so busy, it screams for giant pics, but there were none to be found. The only saving grace was a zoomable image of the restored Triumphal Arch on the SMK website. That image is no longer accessible (or at least it hasn’t been the last few times I’ve tried). Nor were there any decent photos of the restoration work. The British Museum has now filled the void left in me two years ago.

The BM has a first edition of the print as well. It was exhibited in autumn of 2014 and 70,000 visitors went to see it in the three months it was on display. When the show was over and the exhibition dismantled, British Museum conservators were able to study and treat the print thanks to funding from private donors. They blogged about the process for years, starting with the move to the display gallery and continuing through the conservation work, blog entries that include a passel of pictures (albeit rather small for my taste).

One night at the Museum: moving Dürer’s paper triumph
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: a moving experience
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: photography and imaging
Spring cleaning with Dürer: conserving the Triumphal Arch
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: coming apart at the seams
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: it’ll all come out in the wash
Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: Getting the big picture

That’s nearly three years of documentation of the conservation of the Arch, a labour as oversized and impressive as the print itself. The British Museum’s website has a zoomable image of the print which is a) functional, and b) complete with annotations on highlighted sections. There are also two YouTube videos of the conservation. The first from 2016 is a time-lapse recording of conservators removing the linen backing from the paper sheets:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/X_DvVp6sOvU&w=430]

The second was uploaded just a couple of weeks ago and is by far the best view I’ve seen so far of the full print. It’s the only capture I’ve seen that truly conveys the massive proportions of the Triumphal Arch, and it features some excellent commentary from conservators on the challenges of dealing with such a huge print.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/cEK26P6r6xo&w=430]

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gold coins found in Netherlands from last days of Roman Empire

History Blog - Sat, 2017-06-03 23:12

Last summer, De Vrije University asked that people who had made archaeological discoveries under the Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands (PAN) scheme report their finds to university researchers as part of a new study of such finds. One of the reports came from metal detectorist Mark Volleberg who in 2016 unearthed 23 Roman gold coins in an orchard in the village of Lienden on the outskirts of Buren in the central Dutch province of Gelderland. Metal detectorists Dik van Ommeren and Cees-Jan van de Pol reported that they had discovered eight gold coins in the same place in 2012 when the field was cleared to make way for the planting of the orchard.

Researchers sought out more information about this exceptionally productive property. Archival research revealed that the field has been parturient (and you thought “ensorceled” was a good one) with Roman gold since the 19th century. At least twice in the 1840s gold coins had been found on the field in Lienden which then belonged to Baron van Brakell, and more were found in 1905 and 1916. While the whereabouts of the coins from the 19th century are no longer known, extant records mention three gold solidi of Valentinianus, three of Constantine, two of Honorius and one of Majorianus.

Not counting the long-lost ones that can’t be tracked down anymore, the study found a total of 42 pieces unearthed from the orchard site over the years. They are all solidi, a pure gold coin issued in the late Roman Empire, first by Constantine and then by subsequent emperors. The coins found in Leinden were minted over the course of more than 80 years. Most of them, 29 of the solidi, date to the late 4th, early 5th century: five of Valentinian II; 10 of Honorius; 13 of Constantine III and one of Jovinus. A group from the mid-5th century consists of eight solidi of Valentinian III, one of the usurper Johannes and the most recent of them all, a solidus of Majorianus.

The variety of time periods and emperors is not unusual for late Roman solidus hoards. These coins were so valuable, they weren’t in common circulation. They were worth years of pay for most people, and were collected and hoarded for years, even generations. It’s almost certain that they were buried in a single hoard in the very last years of the Western Roman Empire.

These coins, scattered as they are in multiple finds over centuries, are of great historical significance. For one thing, taken all together, they constitute the largest solidus hoard ever found in the Netherlands. They also include the last known Roman coin tax from the Netherlands and environs: the one solidus minted by Emperor Majorianus (r. 457-461). Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried around 460 A.D., a mere 16 years before Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus marking the conventional end date of the Western Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

With the discovery of the 23 gold coins in 2016, Dik van Ommeren and Cees-Jan van de Pol, who up until then had kept their 2012 discovery of gold coins secret, alerted researchers to their 2012 finds. When the archives confirmed the field’s long history of producing Roman solidi,
archaeologists Stijn Heeren and Nico Roymans of the Free University and the National Service for Cultural Heritage determined that the site must be professionally excavated. It was a small excavation, just three trenches, and no new coins were unearthed. The team had also hoped to find remnants of a container — a pouch or box or jar or any other vessel used to hold the hoard when it was still intact — but there was no joy there either. The last item on the agenda was determining the larger context of the hoard. Was it buried in a house or settlement? Maybe a temple or in a grave? Mark Volleberg said he’d seen what looked like human bone fragments where he found the gold coins in 2016. He didn’t touch or disturb them, so archaeologists were hopeful they might be able to find those bones.

They did indeed discover human skeletal remains. Testing determined they belonged to four individuals, three inhumation burials and one cremation grave in an urn. Radiocarbon dating results dashed any hopes that they might be connected to the solidus hoard. The inhumation burials date to around 1800 B.C., the Middle Bronze Age, so way earlier than the coins. The cremains probably date to the Iron Age, but can’t be pinned down with any more precision.

While the burials don’t appear to have a direct link to the hoard, archaeologists suspect the Middle Bronze Age tomb, perhaps on what was then a hill, was used in the 5th century as a handy place marker for the hoard. It would have been a recognizable spot on the landscape, the kind of place you’d pick to bury a treasure you had every intention to come back for when the coast was clear. The hill was likely flattened in the 1840s so it could be used as farmland. That’s when the coins started turning up.

A notable number of late Roman gold coin hoards have been found in the Netherlands and Low Countries, 27 of them, to be precise, most of which date to the beginning of the 5th century. This timing is not a coincidence. Usurper Constantine III’s was fighting against Emperor Honorius while Germanic incursions crossed the Rhine into Gaul, inflicting a blow against the empire’s border defenses from which it never recovered. Desperate for aid from the Franks, who were powerful, centered in Germany and already had an established history of serving as mercenaries in the Roman army, Constantine and Honorius tried to buy them some Frankish troops. Because solidi were pure gold and not subject to the vagaries of debasement, when assorted Roman emperors, rebels and usurpers had cash transactions to make, they used solidi. This was an official payment from government to government. Roman officials would give the Frank leaders piles of gold coins and they would then distribute them as they saw fit.

The Lienden hoard doesn’t quite fit this pattern, however, because it was buried more than 50 years later than most of the other gold coin hoards. Until now, the hoard evidence suggested Rome’s last spate of interest in the Low Countries was the early 5th century, but the new discoveries suggest there was one last injection of Roman gold in the area during the reign of Emperor Majorianus. Archaeologists think the gold payoffs were likely sent by General Aegidius, Majorianus’ man in Gaul, who in the late 450s was desperate to get the Frankish kings to send him soldiers to help him fend off the increasingly successful Germanic invasions of Gaul.

It worked (for a while). With Frankish support, Majorianus and Aegidius reconquered much of Gaul, booting out the Visigoths and Burgundians. When his trusted general Ricimer betrayed and killed Majorianus in 461, Aegidius established his own independent kingdomlet in northern Gaul. Again the Franks were integral to his military success. Frankish leader Childeric and his men fought by Aegidius’ side against the Visigoths at the Battle of Orléans in 463, ensuring his victory. It was short-lived, as was Aegidius. He was poisoned in 464, leaving Childeric ideally positioned to found the Merovingian dynasty that would rule France for three centuries. It’s purely speculative, of course, but given the dates, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the Lienden solidi were payment dispensed by Childeric to one of his Frankish followers.

The modern finders of the gold coins and the landowner have given the solidi on permanent loan to the Museum Valkhof in Nijmegen, which contains the largest collection of Roman finds in the Netherlands, where they are now on display, together again for the first time in decades, maybe even centuries.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dutch teacher spends the night watched by The Night Watch

History Blog - Fri, 2017-06-02 23:20

School teacher Stefan Kasper was just one of thousands of people to buy his ticket to visit the Rijksmuseum on Thursday. Kasper was leading a group of his high school students from the Montessori College in Aerdenhout on a field trip to the museum when his ticket was scanned and museum staff descended upon him with celebratory enthusiasm. It turns out Kasper was the 10 millionth visitor since the Rijksmuseum’s grand reopening four years ago, as such he was granted the unique opportunity to sleep securely under the supervision of Frans Banninck Cocq, Willem van Ruytenburch, the girl with the chickens and the rest of the motley crew from Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch.

This is the first time anyone has been allowed to spend the night in the Rijksmuseum, and Stefan Kasper, still in something of a daze from being suddenly surrounded by the museum’s General Director and a camera crew, accepted the offer on the spot. His bed was already set up in the Night Watch gallery and a gourmet dinner would be provided by chef Joris Bijdendijk of the Rijksmuseum’s Michelin star-awarded in-house restaurant, RIJKS.

It was a revelatory experience for Kasper.

“I’ve slept two metres (6.5 feet) from the Night Watch. It’s magic, I still can’t believe it,” said Stefan Kasper on Friday, a Dutch school teacher and artist who bought the lucky ticket. [...]

The star-struck Kaspers told AFP he was completely left alone for the night and that the museum rolled out the red carpet for him.

“There were no guards, or they were very well hidden,” he added.

Kasper said he used the opportunity to “take some selfies and walk around in pants and socks in completely empty rooms,” before enjoying a gazpacho soup and a cheek of beef, prepared by top chef Joris Bijdendijk of the Michelin-star RIJKS restaurant.

Kasper — who said he was not in particular a fan of Rembrandt’s works — admitted he had looked at the painting “with new eyes.”

“I discovered characters that I have never seen before. They came to life in front of me. It’s an experience that is forever etched in my memory,” he said.

His opinions on Rembrandt aside, he had the good judgement to use the opportunity to slide in his besocked feet on the beautifully renovated floors of the museum (albeit with his trousers still on and no Old Time Rock and Roll playing in the background). He even got to cross the impassable boundary of the velvet rope to get up close to the art. You can see him enjoy his Night at the Rijksmuseum to the fullest in this video.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Large-scale portraits of Elizabeth I, ambassador attributed to miniaturist Hilliard

History Blog - Thu, 2017-06-01 23:15

Two large-scale portraits in the Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor have been attributed to Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619), the premiere miniature portraitist of the Tudor court. The portraits, one of Queen Elizabeth I and the other of her ambassador to France Sir Amias Paulet, were painted from life in oil on wood panels. There are references in archival documents to Hilliard having painted full-size portraits, “in greate,” they were called, and several portraits of Queen Elizabeth have been proposed as possible Hilliard works. Those attributions are based solely on stylistic comparisons with Hilliard’s miniatures, however, and it’s a tricky thing to compare features painted in watercolor-on-vellum miniatures to ones on large-scale oil paintings.

The Rothschild portraits also share features characteristic of Hilliard’s conclusively attributed miniatures, particularly the treatment of the hair, lace, faces and jewels (Hilliard trained as a goldsmith and had an exceptionally keen eye for depicting jewelry in the most minute detail), but they have something the other candidates don’t have: hard evidence tying them to a specific period, location and context that dramatically increases the likelihood that they were painted by Nicholas Hilliard.

It was conservators at the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute who made the discovery while restoring the portraits.

Removal of old, discoloured varnishes revealed the brilliant red of the original background and allows the original painting technique to be fully appreciated. More exciting still was that scientific analysis carried by the Hamilton Kerr Institute showed that the paintings were made on panels constructed of French Oak rather than the Baltic oak typically used by English painters of the period.

Paulet was Elizabeth’s ambassador to France from 1576 until 1579. During that period the Queen was considering marrying François, Duke of Anjou, the son of Henry II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. When his older brother ascended the throne as Henry III in 1574, François became the next in line to the French throne. He was made Duke of Anjou an Alençon in 1576 and boldly sought the hand of Queen Elizabeth in marriage. She was in her mid-40s and decidedly Protestant; he was in his early 20s and Catholic, and not just any Catholic, but the son of the “Jezebel” who was believed to have orchestrated the slaughter of Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

In the end, Anjou went the same way as all the rest of Elizabeth’s suitors, but for a while during years when Paulet was ambassador Anjou’s suit looked like it had a real chance. Paulet played an important diplomatic role in the negotiations. From 1576 to 1578, almost his entire ambassadorship, Hilliard was in France with Paulet, often following him as part of his retinue. He traveled the country with Paulet, painting royalty and courtiers. Hilliard even painted a miniature of Anjou himself in 1577.

Both portraits have French elements in the depictions. Sir Amias Paulet wears the medallion of the Order of Saint Michel, a French order of chivalry symbolized by the Archangel Michael drawing his sword. The pelican jewel on Elizabeth’s chest features a fleur-de-lys. To top it off, not only are the portraits both painted on French oak panels; the panels of both paintings were cut from the same tree. Perhaps Paulet commissioned Hilliard to make the portraits to hang in the ambassador’s residence in Paris? It would explain why an ambassador would be the counterpart of his Queen in a pair of portraits.

Attribution is always a challenge, and experts can and do engage in heated debate over these questions, but this is pretty much as good as it gets. As the Waddesdon Manor curator puts it:

The stylistic affinities with other works by the artist, together with the evidence that links these paintings with Hilliard’s time in France, allows scholars to attribute these splendid paintings to Hilliard with unprecedented confidence.

The newly attributed portraits will be on public display for the first time at Waddesdon Manor from June 7th through October 29th in a new exhibition, Power and Portraiture: painting at the court of Elizabeth I, which explores how Elizabeth and the members of her court used portraits to carefully curate their public presentation and self-image.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Restored frescoes in Domitilla catacomb unveiled

History Blog - Wed, 2017-05-31 23:50

The catacombs of Santa Domitilla, the oldest network of early Christian burials, covers 7.4 miles and goes down four levels and 200 feet with 26,250 individual tombs. Flavia Domitilla was the niece of the emperor Vespasian who was exiled by her cousin Domitian for religious irregularities (ancient Roman sources say she was convicted of Atheism, the Talmud says she was a convert to Judaism, Eusebius and Jerome say she was condemned as a Christian). She was not buried in the catacomb that bears her name, but it was her property — a farm outside the city — and she permitted its use as a cemetery for Christians, first members of her household, then whoever. The burials in the catacombs date from the 2nd to the 5th centuries.

Because of its great size and complexity and extremely high moisture levels (it’s 90-100% humidity at all times down there), the Domitilla catacomb has long been a conservation challenge. Traditional restoration methods aren’t effective in this environment, but moss, algae, mold, smoke, dirt and calcium carbonate concretions thrive, so much so that they completely obscured the frescoes beneath. In 2009, lasers came into the mix when the entire rabbit warren was 3D scanned and mapped down to the smallest detail for the first time.

Three years ago, lasers rode to the rescue again, only this time they were used to clean the dirt and contaminants from the blackened frescoes on the ceilings and walls of unrestored chambers. This week, the Vatican unveiled to the press the first laser-restored spaces in the catacombs of Santa Domitilla.

“The walls and ceilings were covered in algae, smoke residue and calcium from the damp,” said Barbara Mazzei, who led the team. “We knew there were frescoes­ under there, and the lasers­ let us get to them.”

Ms Mazzei said developments in laser technology had allowed the frescoes to be exposed without the risk of damage that ­removing the grime manually might have caused.

The frequency of the 2mm laser beams can be adjusted to eliminate certain colours — in this case the black of the hard residue. “We worked millimetre by millimetre to lift the grime off,” Ms Mazzei said.

Working in two tombs, they found stunning biblical images, including Jesus feeding the 5000 with bread and fish, as well as a baker with a grain measure and a cycle of frescoes showing grain arriving by ship in Rome from Egypt and bread being sold in the city. “These were rich bakers who had real prestige in Rome because the emperor guaranteed bread, as well as circuses, to the people,” Ms Mazzei said.

Two areas have been fully restored. The first is a 3rd century chamber decorated with frescoes that include multiple pagan motifs. Cupids are popular in this space, mainly in smaller tombs that were probably used to inter children. This area also shows the scars of medieval looters. Frescoes were stripped from the walls by tomb raiders who made a pretty penny cutting the art off the walls and selling them or keeping them as personal trophies.

The second restored space is the cubicle of the bakers (“dei fornai”). Christ and the Apostles decorate the walls alongside scenes of bakers. As well as glorifying the profession and their sponsors, the frescoes also have great symbolic significance because bread loomed large in Christian iconography (loaves and fishes, Last Supper, etc.).

Also looming large on the frescoes in this cubicle is a name written in all caps in black charcoal: BOSIO. This was not left in antiquity. It’s the name of the man who rediscovered the catacomb almost a thousand years after it had fallen into disuse and been forgotten.

Antonio Bosio was the illegitimate son of Giovanni Ottone Bosio, a Knight of Malta who fought in and assiduously documented the Great Siege of Malta when the Ottoman Empire tried and failed to invade the island in 1565. When he wasn’t defending against far superior forces in months-long sieges, Giovanni Ottone busied himself having sex with a servants and murdering a fellow knight from an opposing political faction in St. Peter’s Square. He eventually got amnesty for the latter activity; he got a son from the former.

Antonio was born in 1575 and was raised by his uncle Giacomo in Rome. Giacomo adopted the boy and saw to it he received a thorough education in the humanities. This was a seminal time in the history of paleochristian archaeology. The catacomb of the Giordani was discovered in 1578, a major find during a period when only a handful of early Christian underground burial galleries were known. The Giordani Catacomb, a great labyrinthine structure replete with frescoes and inscriptions in Greek and Latin, was larger and more complex than any of them.

He was just a child when Antonio first learned about the vast cities of the dead underneath his feet from his teachers and friends of his uncle’s. His fascination with these places was sealed then and only increased over time. Antonio Bosio left his name on the catacomb wall on December 10th, 1593, when he was just 17 years old. At the time he thought this network was part of the large complex of the catacombs of Saint Calixtus. It wouldn’t be recognized as the Domitilla catacomb until the 19th century, thanks to the efforts of archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi.

Bosio’s foray into Domitilla’s realm was also his first brush with death in the catacombs. Young Antonio, antiquary Pompeo Ugonio and a small group of other foolhardy explorers went too deep into the tunnels and couldn’t make out their return path. Then their lights went out because they’d been down there longer than they planned. Bosio would later say about this experience: “I began to fear that I should defile by my vile corpse the sepulchres of the martyrs.”

They made it out alive in the end, and Antonio spent the next 36 years studying the catacombs and all the relevant literature he could read, including all the lives of saints, histories of the church, patristic writings in Greek and Latin. Whenever he encountered a reference in the ancient sources to a possible site of a catacomb, he would explore the area over and over, looking for possible entry sites. If he heard of an accidental archaeological find during construction of a basement or foundations, he dropped everything to check it out, taking enormous personal risks to crawl through structurally unsound, collapsed structures.

Even if the roof didn’t fall in on him, exploring the catacombs could still be fatal because the warrens of corridors, chambers and niches are so complex it’s far easier to get lost in them than it is to find your way out. His graffiti had the practical purpose of marking his path should he lose his way. Perhaps his giant John Hancock in the cubicle of the Bakers helped save his life.

Bosio was a true pioneer in this field of study, so even though his methods bear no relevance to archaeology as we know it today, and he had an unfortunate habit of writing his name all over ancient frescoes, he earned the appellation he is still known by today, the Christopher Columbus of the Subterranean New World, fair and square.

The upgrades to the Domitilla catacombs include a new, small but well-appointed museum in the catacomb. It features artifacts like sarcophagus fragments, busts and inscriptions discovered during the excavations and restoration, and underscores the overlap between the art of early Christianity and Roman polytheism. The museum isn’t ready for the public yet. The hope is it will be open by the end of June. The newly restored areas of the catacombs won’t be open to visitors for months.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History