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Researchers to seek DNA in USS Houston trumpet

Fri, 2016-02-05 23:39

The USS Houston, a heavy cruiser that was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite ship, was the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet not once but twice. FDR visited it no fewer than four times, logging thousands of miles of travel on board. It was even retrofitted with special elevators and handrails for the President’s disability. The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast, as the USS Houston was known, saw its last action in a battle against a Japanese invasion fleet of 12 ships the night of February 28th, early morning March 1st, 1942. It was already hobbled from a previous action and was heading to safety in Australia alongside the HMAS Perth when it stumbled on the Japanese ships in the Sunda Strait, which separates the islands of Java and Sumatra and the Java Sea from the Indian Ocean.

The Japanese fleet was in the process of landing troops on Java’s Banten Bay when the Houston and Perth walked in on them. Hopelessly outgunned and outmanned, the Perth went down first in the wee hours of March 1st. Then the Japanese ships trained all their firepower on the Houston. Finally three torpedoes struck it at once and the cruiser sank taking 650 sailors and Marines down with her, among them 11 members of its 18-man swing band. Its 368 survivors were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

The wreck of the Houston is now 100 feet underwater just off the west coast of Jakarta. The Perth lies about three miles away. Both wrecks are official military graves and interfering with them in any way is illegal. Authorities do allow non-intrusive sport diving of the wrecks, however. They even encourage it because recreational divers are often the first to notice when something is wrong or missing. In 2013, 68-year-old Australian diver Frank Craven was diving the wrecks with a group when he noticed an incongruous trumpet amidst the piles of shell casings. With some vague notion that he might return it to the United States, Craven violated the sanctity of the site and illegally removed the trumpet and brought it to the surface.

A week later, the trumpet drying and corroding in dangerous non-conservation conditions, Craven contacted John K. Schwarz, head of the USS Houston‘s Survivors’ Association, and offered to give the trumpet to the association. Schwarz explained that removing anything from the wreck is illegal and they could not accept the object. He suggested Craven fess up to the Navy which Schwarz did right away, apologizing for his ill-conceived act. He arranged the return of the trumpet through a US Naval Attaché in Canberra, Australia.

In December of 2013, the trumpet and a ceramic cup and saucer Craven had also removed arrived at the Naval History & Heritage Command Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) in Washington, DC. After several months out of the salt water that had preserved it for seven decades, the trumpet needed immediate treatment to keep it from further corrosion. It was placed in a customized alkaline solution of deionized water to leach out the corrosive salts causing the oxidization of the trumpet’s copper and steel body. When the water became saturated with salts from the trumpet, it was replaced with fresh solution, an ongoing process that will continue until there are no salts left to leach out.

Three years later, the trumpet still spends most of its time in the bath, but its condition has stabilized enough that conservators can take it out to perform additional conservation tasks like removing patches of oxidization with a scalpel. Here is video of Navy conservator Shanna Daniel performing that task on the trumpet from the USS Houston:

Also part of the UAB’s brief is documenting and researching the instrument. They have discovered the trumpet’s serial number which allowed them to track its manufacturer: the C.G. Conn company of Elkhart, Indiana. Researchers hope to go further than that and maybe identify which sailor once played this trumpet. One of the 11 members of the band to lose their lives the night of the Battle of the Sunda Strait was trumpet player Severyn “Steve” Dymanowski of Gary, Indiana. Three other trumpet players — George Galyean, Albert “Hap” Kelley and Walter Schneck — who survived the sinking of the Houston were taken prisoner. They all survived the war but passed away in the 60s and 70s, alas. The trumpet could have belonged to any one of them, although the mother of pearl buttons suggest this was the expensive private instrument of a professional musician rather than Navy-issue equipment, which would make bandleader George Galyean and Hap Kelley the likeliest candidates.

The only way to narrow it down further is a very long shot.

There is “the possibility of examining the interior of the [trumpet's] valves and potentially locating some DNA remains of the individual who played the trumpet,” [Navy senior conservator Kate] Morrand said in a recent interview at the Navy Yard.

It’s a long shot, but the theory is that the owner may have left his DNA when he took it apart to clean it. And, sealed in when he reassembled it and then by seven decades of marine encrustation, the DNA may still be there, Morrand said.

“If we could recover DNA, and if there are descendants that we could match with … [we could] identify who the owner of the trumpet was,” [UAB head Robert S.] Neyland said. “It kind of pushes the technology and pushes the science … but it would be pretty exciting.”

It pushes it to the breaking point, I’d think, but hey, who’d have thought they’d find Richard III under a parking lot.

Once the trumpet is fully stabilized and no longer needs to live in its bath, it will go on display in the National Museum of the U.S. Navy‘s exhibit dedicated to the USS Houston.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

UK wants to keep Lawrence of Arabia’s robes and dagger

Thu, 2016-02-04 23:02

A magnificent presentation dagger and set of silk robes that belonged to T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, have been placed under a temporary export bar by UK Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. The silver-gilt dagger was a gift from Sherif Nasir, cousin of Emir Faisal, given to T.E. Lawrence in 1917 after the victory of Arab Revolt at the Battle of Aqaba in Jordan. There’s a fictionalized version of the capture of Aqaba and the presentation the dagger in David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia.

The robes are a champagne silk zebun with a matching waistcoat meant to be worn under the full-length abayeh. The zebun is lined with white cotton and has cotton ties at the waist. The vest has a delicately embroidered brocade button trims. They were made in Mecca or Medina before 1919. Lawrence is depicted wearing the robes in a 1919 oil on canvas portrait by Augustus John.

He wore both the garments and the dagger when he posed for Lady Kathleen Scott, sculptor and widow of Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, for a statuette she entitled Blonde Bedouin. Lawrence was a national hero after World War I, a dashing figure who sat for many artists. Lady Scott was the first and last woman among them. She noted in her diary that she wrote asking him to pose for her and he replied on February 2nd, 1921, that he’d be glad to even though he’d been subject to the scrutiny of so many artists he wasn’t sure there was anything left for her to capture.

“Seriously if you want an object, I’ll agree with pleasure: only it won’t be a good speculation: it won’t sell afterwards: and my face isn’t so-to-speak virgin. [...] [R]eally the features are quite worn away with so much study of them.

If you do do it, please hold me as a model, and not as ‘the most romantic figure of the war’ (American film-artist). I’m tired of the lime light, and am really not stagy at all, and not ever going to be a public figure again. It was a war effort, imposed, involuntary. Don’t do me as Colonel Lawrence (he died Nov. 11. 1918) but because my shaped head suits your whim.”

A week later, Lawrence was posing in his Arabic clothing in Lady Scott’s drawing room. He sat for her a total of three times, which was enough to utterly charm the artist. She described him in her diary as “an entrancing child” and declared herself to be suffering from an “acute attack of Lawrencitis.” She became friends with his siblings and even lived with his mother Sarah for a short time.

T.E. Lawrence left the robes and dagger with Lady Scott after his departure for the Cairo Conference on February 28th so she could use them to finish the statuette. He didn’t mean for her to keep them forever. On August 28th, 1922, he wrote a letter gently nudging to her return the gear. “There’s a little artist wants to do an Arab picture, & has asked me for kit … Do you think you could provide me some from your store?” If she responded there’s no record of it, and by 1929 Lawrence was yearning at least to get the dagger back. He wrote in a letter to Lionel Curtis dated February 22nd, 1929, that he was “daggerless and near naked” because he had lost two of his three prized daggers and sold the third. He told Curtis: “I will try and see Lady Hilton Young [Lady Scott married Edward Hilton Young, the future 1st Baron Kennet, in 1922] and ask tactfully if she thinks the silver one is hers or not.”

Tact may not have been the approach to take, since it definitely didn’t work in 1922. Whether he contacted her or not, the robes and dagger remained with Kathleen Scott and her descendants until 2015. The family lent the objects out twice: once for a National Portrait Gallery exhibition on T.E. Lawrence, once for an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. They were only put up for auction last summer after the death of Elizabeth Young, 2nd Lady Kennet, in 2014. The dagger sold for $191,713 and the robes for $19,563 at the same Christie’s auction last July.

The buyer asked for an export license, but with this being the only Lawrence dagger left in private hands and with the artistic prominence of the artifacts, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended export be barred to give British institutions the chance to raise the money and keep the robes and dagger in the UK.

RCEWA Chairman Sir Hayden Phillips said:

“Although the depiction, in the film Lawrence of Arabia, of Lawrence leading a sweeping camel charge across the desert into Aqaba in 1917 is probably a romantic exaggeration – stunning though it is – the taking of Aqaba from the landward side, with the help of Auda Abu Tayi, leader of the northern Howeitat, was an extraordinary feat and marked a crucial turning point in the campaign.

“The dagger was presented to Lawrence by Sherif Nasir in gratitude for Lawrence’s leadership and as a spontaneous mark of respect. The robes and dagger together form a crucial part of the images of Lawrence in painting, sculpture and photographs; and they are therefore an integral part of his life and our history.”

Anyone who wants to keep the set in Britain has until April 1st, 2016, to raise £13,000 for the robes and £127,000 for the dagger (prices include VAT), or at least to show a serious effort in that direction. If it looks like they have a chance of raising the money, the Culture Minister can extend the deadline to July 1st, 2016. After that, the license will likely be issued and the dagger and robes will leave the country.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Van Gogh Museum’s exceptional French print collection online

Wed, 2016-02-03 23:55

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam first got into the French turn-of-the-century prints when it bought 800 exceptional examples from a German private collection in 2000. Since then the museum has made a point of acquiring more outstanding pieces. There are just under 1,800 French prints from 1890-1905 in the Van Gogh Museum now, but they are almost never displayed because light exposure is so dangerous to them. As of today, 1,739 French fin de siècle prints from the Van Gogh Museum’s collection have been uploaded to a dedicated website where we can see them but light cannot harm them.

The reason the Van Gogh Museum has made a point of collecting French prints is that they’re very relevant to Vincent Van Gogh’s aesthetic, artistic interests and the milieu in which his art evolved. Printmaking really took off in France in the second half of the 19th century. Before then, prints were copies of well-known artworks, an inexpensive way to for the general public to have a faithful rendition of the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo in their homes. Printmaking evolved into a valid artistic medium in its own right when French artists explored the possibilities of the form in a creative and engaging way. The Japonisme trend played a significant role in this shift, because the Japanese had such a rich tradition of artistic woodblock printing as evinced in the work of masters like Hokusai and Suzuki Harunobu.

Many of the greatest artists of the second half of the 19th century had print collections and experimented with lithography and printmaking in their own work. Prints appeared in the public and private spaces of Paris as posters, magazines covers, menus, theater programs, sheet music and books. The medium allowed artists to get their work out there on a large scale, to cross-pollinate with other art forms and even to control the supply and demand of their own output by deliberately creating limited editions coveted by the buying public.

Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, so most of the prints in the collection were made after his death when the rage for printmaking in France reached its apex, but he and his brother Theo followed closely the explosion of printmaking in the fin de siècle. Both collected prints from their friends and contemporaries. The Van Gogh Museum’s print collection begins where Vincent’s collection began and then moves forward connecting the next generation of artists to those who influenced them.

Those connections are at the core of the Van Gogh Museum’s new online exhibition of the print collection. The French Printmaking homepage opens with a group of thumbnails. Click on one and take the plunge, or if you click on “Discover the prints” on the left side to get to a larger assembly of tiled prints. Those tiles of print thumbnails hover behind any individual print you chose to click on as well. Once you’ve clicked on one print, four themes appear at each corner that connect this print to others in the collection. Themes include the publisher, medium, technique, salient features of the print, subject, pattern, and on and on. The Van Gogh staff have assigned an astonishing 1,300 themes to the print collection, which makes it a browser’s paradise.

This approach gives a unique glimpse into the richness of the printmaking community of fin de siècle Paris. You can get an instant understanding of how artists shared the same printers, influenced each other in everything from the paper used to the visual motifs. When click on a print, you can see it’s stats, but there is no detailed paragraph or two explaining the setting, author, etc. that you might expect to find. Instead, the print and its contents are described by keywords, each of them hotlinks to more works in the collection that can also be described by those keywords.

I like me some words, so I was glad to see more than a group of descriptors when I clicked on individual themes. They’re full of information, links to more information, even a list of resources for further reading on your own. It’s a marvelously flexible and user-friendly system and so very highly conducive to lost weekending. And oh, the resolution. The beautiful, perfect, gloriously high resolution. It makes me feel kinda funny, like when we used to climb the rope in gym class.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient First Nations’ clay may kill drug-resistant bacteria

Tue, 2016-02-02 23:45

History steps in again to help fight the terrifying scourge of a post-antibiotic world in which even the smallest infection can cause death and entire fields of medical technology — organ transplants, device transplants, cosmetic surgery — are left undefended against the onslaught of pathogens. Last year there was the very promising study of a salve from the 10th century Anglo-Saxon home health remedies volume Bald’s Leechbook which was found to slaughter Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Now researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have found a glimmer of hope in the antimicrobial properties of a local clay from Kisameet Bay, British Columbia.

The 400,000 ton clay deposit developed in the bay about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. The people of the Heiltsuk First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Kisameet Bay, have used the clay for medicinal purposes for centuries. They take it internally for illnesses like ulcerative colitis and duodenal ulcers, and externally for problems like burns and phlebitis.

Studies from the 1940s onwards have found that Kisameet clay is different from your garden variety kaolinite or bentonite clays. It has a low mineral content in which the mica-like mineral biotite dominates. There’s also a flourishing community of up to 3,000 different taxa of microbes living in the deposit, among them Actinobacteria which may have an antimicrobial effect on non-local microbes.

The UBC research team wanted to see how the Kisameet Bay clay would deal with a panel of the scariest pathogens, the ESKAPE strains of bacteria.

The so-called ESKAPE pathogens — Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacter species — cause the majority of U.S. hospital infections and effectively ‘escape’ the effects of antibacterial drugs.

“Infections caused by ESKAPE bacteria are essentially untreatable and contribute to increasing mortality in hospitals,” said UBC microbiologist Julian Davies, co-author of the paper published today in the American Society for Microbiology’s mBio journal.

The collected samples of 16 ESKAPE strains from hospitals and a wastewater treatment plant in Vancouver. Each sample was grown in vitro and each exhibited multidrug resistance. The resistant cells were then suspended either in plain water or in a solution including desiccated Kisameet clay particles. The team tested the samples at regular time intervals — 0, 5 and 24 hours — to see if the clay was reducing the number of detectable pathogens and how long it took to do so. The results were pretty bloody amazing.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the effect of Kisameet clay on six of the pathogens in the study. The y-axis is the concentration of pathogens in the sample. The x-axis is time. The ^ next to the bars is an indicator that zero viable cells could be recovered.

The study also found the clay has antifungal properties and shows the same antibacterial properties even when no actual mineral particles are extracted. An aqueous extract works as well, which means the active ingredients that are doing such a fine job of beating up resistant bacteria could be removed from the clay and used in medical preparations.

This research is funded in part by a corporation with a dog in the hunt: cosmetics concern Kisameet Glacial Clay which plans to market the clay’s healing properties. The good news is the UBC researchers won’t have to beg for spare change to staff their project like the University of Nottingham study of Bald’s eye salve was forced to do, but I’ll be very curious to see their results repeated by third parties with no connection to clay sellers. Also in vivo tests are essential.

Read the full study here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Swiss return 2 sarcophaguses, 45 boxes of Etruscan art to Italy

Mon, 2016-02-01 23:03

The Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva returned two priceless earthenware sarcophaguses and 45 boxes of exceptional Etruscan artworks to Italy last month. They were found where tens of thousands of looted ancient artifacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are usually found: in a giant warehouse at the Geneva Free Ports. They had been there for 15 years, stashed in the time of man’s innocency when looters, smugglers, middlemen and their brothers and sisters in the high-end antiquities market could do whatever the hell they wanted in Switzerland and nobody would question them.

Oh, if the walls of those warehouses could talk, what tales they would tell! Unique treasures fresh from the illegal dig, mud and salts still caked on the surface, files and Polaroids of even more unique treasures, many of them already in the hands of major museums, “Swiss private collection” ownership histories so blatantly fake they would make a seven-year-old forging a sick note from his mother stare in awed wonder at the sheer brazenness of it.

This particular smuggler’s cove was discovered after Italian authorities asked the Swiss to look for an Etruscan sarcophagus illegally excavated and thought to have been smuggled out of the country into Switzerland. The request, made in March of 2014, launched a search of the warehouse. The sarcophagus they were looking for wasn’t there, but a lot more was.

A search led by prosecutor Claudio Mascotto, from the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva, at the Geneva Free Ports revealed an unexpected treasure. Two rare sarcophaguses of Etruscan origin – their lid representing a man and a woman lying – were found in a warehouse, as well as many other invaluable archaeological remains. The antiques had been stored there for more than 15 years, registered under the name of an offshore company.

The prosecutor ordered the seizure of the sarcophaguses first, then extended the decision to all items, considering their suspected illegal provenance. Among these are bas-reliefs, vases and fragments of decorated vases, frescos, heads, busts, and several other votive or religious pieces.

An expert examined the artifacts and determined they were likely looted from the central Italian regions of Umbria and Lazio which were Etruscan territory in the first millennium B.C. Investigators from the Carabinieri Art Squad were able to establish a connection between some of the artifacts and the tomb robbers whose shenanigans had sparked the initial investigation.

The legal machinery of Italy and Switzerland agreed that the objects should be returned to Italy, but the repatriation process was delayed by an appeal from the warehouse owner who wanted to keep the goods until he got paid for 15 years worth of storage. Why he had been so saintly as to allow a decade and a half of unpaid bills is unclear.

The press release from the Geneva Prosecutor’s Office didn’t name the person who filled the warehouse with ancient treasure, referring to him only as a “former high-profile British art dealer, whose name has been linked in the past to the trading of several looted antiquities throughout the world.” That’s Robin Symes. Here’s a quick summary of the Symes saga I wrote ages ago, but to make a brief overview of a long story even shorter, for many decades Symes was the antiquities dealer to the rich and famous and the biggest museums in the world. The champagne lifestyle of chauffeured Bentley and homes in London, New York, Athens and the Cyclades islands came to an abrupt end when his business parter and long-time companion, Christo Michaelides, died in an accidental fall in 1999. The subsequent lawsuit from the deep-pocketed Michaelides family drove Symes into bankruptcy and, thanks to his inability to stop perjuring himself for one second, jail.

While the lawsuit was ongoing, Symes lived in Geneva where he could stuff untold ancient artifacts into Free Port warehouses. Some of the key lies he told on the stand, in fact, were about his warehouse activities. He told the court that he had five warehouses in Geneva holding his inventory when in reality he had 29 of them spread throughout London, New York and Geneva.

Symes, whose current whereabouts are unknown, cannot be prosecuted in Italy because the statute of limitations has expired, but this repatriation could have a chain reaction that puts pressure on the UK to return more than 700 disputed artifacts being held by the Symes’ liquidator. Objects in dispute have turned up on auction catalogues and in 2010 the Home Office instructed the liquidator to sell 1,000 pieces from Symes’ estate to settle his exorbitant tax bill. Italy complained vociferously and the sales were withdrawn, but the question of what to do with Symes’ stolen lucre is still unsettled. If Switzerland, which only ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 2003 and was the pivot point for this illegal traffic for decades, can send Symes’ loot back to Italy, the UK should certainly feel the heat.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa restored

Sun, 2016-01-31 23:48

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, has received a thorough cleaning and restoration, the first cleaning in 20 years. There were water stains from a leaking window and layers of black grime from dust accumulation, smog and other airborne pollutants. Now the bright white Carrara marble shines like it did when Bernini first polished it in 1652. Restorers also found something previous interventions overlooked: stucco and paint added to part of the travertine base to make it blend into the background of the chapel walls. Those additions have been removed, restoring to the base, which is not the usual geometric pediment but carved to look like a rising swirl of clouds, its original balance.

The statue of Christian saint and mystic Teresa of Ávila captured at the moment of religious ecstasy brought on by an angel in the course of repeatedly piercing her heart with an arrow is considered one of the great masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque. It was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro of the patrician Venice family who had chosen Santa Maria della Vittoria as his burial site and wanted it significantly gussied up. He hired Bernini to design the entire chapel with the Saint Teresa group as the centerpiece because Santa Maria della Vittoria belonged to the Discalced Carmelites which was also Saint Teresa’s order.

Bernini, the leading sculptor of the age and internationally famous years at this point, was taking smaller private commissions from noblemen like Cornaro because he was between papal patrons. Pope Urban VIII, an avid art collector and a major patron of Bernini’s who gave him the most important public jobs like the construction of St. Peter’s Square, had died in 1644 and the new Pope Innocent X, wasn’t a fan. Bernini only got one public job under Innocent, the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. He got back in the papal graces with the election of Pope Alexander VII in 1655. The creation of Teresa and the chapel took up a good chunk of the interregnum, from 1647 to 1652.

Saint Teresa was still a fresh face on the saint scene, having died in 1582 and been canonized in 1622, but she had been renown and revered in life thanks to her mystical writings. Bernini’s sculpture depicts a famous episode from her life, an ecstatic vision of the exquisite pain of God’s love. We have Teresa’s own description of this ecstatic vision in Chapter 29 of her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus:

I saw close to me toward my left side an angel in bodily form. I don’t usually see angels in bodily form except on rare occasions; although many times angels appear to me, but without my seeing them, as in the intellectual vision I spoke about before. This time, though, the Lord desired that I see the vision in the following way: the angel was not large but small; he was very beautiful, and his face was so aflame that he seemed to be one of those very sublime angels that appear to be all afire. They must belong to those they call the cherubim, for they didn’t tell me their names. But I see clearly that in heaven there is so much difference between some angels and others and between these latter and still others that I wouldn’t know how to explain it. I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away; nor is the soul content with less than God.

Bernini followed her description very closely, sculpting the beautiful young cherub with the arrow poised to thrust into Teresa’s welcoming chest. Teresa’s face is the very picture of bliss, a sensual, erotic, lip-parted expression that has been copied and sketched by artists ever since. Bernini carved the whole sculpture out of a single piece of marble, playing with texture and thickness to give the draping of the clothes a natural softness. The areas where the marble is thinnest are almost translucent. The cloud base serves as Teresa’s fainting couch and symbolizes the support of the divine granting her this vision. On the walls of the chapel are two trompe l’oeil theater boxes in which the most illustrious members of the Cornaro family, including Cardinal Federico Cornaro and Doge Giovanni I Cornaro, watch and discuss Teresa’s ecstasy like so many pervie Statlers and Waldorfs.

Behind the sculpture are rays of gilded stucco which glow in the light of a hidden round window Bernini cleverly installed behind the aedicule (the architectural pediment that tops the sculpture). It acts like a natural spotlight, and the yellow stained glass elements are like gels that warm up the color of the light. It was this window, also known as the oculus, that was leaking, letting in the rainwater with its large sampling of the city’s particles. Restorers resealed it so it’s again watertight.

The restored chapel was officially presented to the public on November 26th, 2015.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Early Christian church with unique frescoes found in Turkey

Sat, 2016-01-30 23:07

Archaeologists excavating the vast networks of rock-cut caves underneath the massive Byzantine-era castle in the town of Nevşehir, Central Anatolia Region, Turkey, have discovered an ancient church with unique frescoes depicting Biblical scenes not seen before in other churches of the period. Preliminary estimates suggest the church dates to the 5th century and the frescoes that have been revealed so far — on the ceiling and very tops of the walls — are still in brilliant color. There are scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Ascension, saints and Old Testament prophets including Moses and Elijah.

Nevşehir Mayor Hasan Ünver said the frescoes in the church showed the rise of Jesus the Christ into the sky and the killing of the bad souls.

“We know that such frescoes have so far never been seen in any other church,” Ünver said[....]

“It is reported that some of the frescoes here are unique. There are exciting depictions like fish falling from the hand of Jesus Christ, him rising up into the sky, and the bad souls being killed.”

That reference to bad souls being killed is not clear to me. It could be the Last Judgement, I suppose, but the souls of the wicked are damned, not killed. They wish they were killed! That’s kind of the whole point of Hell. I wonder if it’s a reference to the Harrowing of Hell derived from 1 Peter 3:19-20 that refers to Jesus preaching to evil souls/spirits (ie, Luciferian demons, rather than the souls of dead people) imprisoned in Limbo/Hell/Hades. It was a popular theme in Orthodox art. In fact, it first appears in Orthodox art significantly earlier than in Catholic art. The Western tradition appears to have only begun to borrow it from the Orthodox in the 8th century.

The underground city of Nevşehir was first unearthed in 2014 and while several other towns in the region, most famously Göreme, are known for their ancient rock-cut tunnel systems, the one in Nevşehir is believed to be the largest covering an area of ​​360,000 square meters with some tunnels more than four miles long. People have been beehiving under this place for an estimated 5,000 years. They cut out everything from water conduits to private dwellings to hermit cells and Christian churches. Nevşehir Castle Urban Transformation Project has been excavating the tunnels underneath the castle and 11 neighborhoods in the old town center. They’re excited at the prospect that the discovery of such early frescoes with unique iconography could make Nevşehir a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians.

Nevşehir was in what had once been the kingdom of Cappadocia, absorbed into the Roman Empire by Tiberius in 17 A.D. The tunnels were used as catacombs during the thornier years of Christian persecution, but the practice of cutting whole churches out of the rock grew out of the 4th century anchorite tradition. Cappadocia was an important center of Church thought in the 4th century, known particularly for the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great (bishop and saint), Gregory of Nyssa (bishop and saint) and Gregory of Nazianzus (archbishop and saint), who sought to introduce the Greek philosophical rigor to Christian theology. It was Saint Basil who encouraged the development of nascent anchorite communities where people who wished to withdraw from the world could dedicate the rest of their lives to penance and prayer. In the Nevşehir area, the anchorites made cells for themselves by digging them out of the soft rock. Over time the underground monastic communities carved themselves out increasingly large and elaborate churches.

Right now excavation has been halted because of excessive humidity which is deadly to ancient frescoed walls. The space must be dried gradually to ensure there is no paint loss or fading. From what has already been exposed, archaeologists can see that whole sections of the frescoed walls have collapsed inward, likely due to rain and snow. They hope the fragments may be recoverable in the fill, but won’t be back until the weather warms up this spring and all the moisture has evaporated. At that point they will continue removing the earth, hopefully discovering restorable pieces of the wall paintings or, in the best case scenario, sections of intact side walls as they dig down.

Once the church is fully excavated, we’ll know its dimensions — right now we can’t even tell how high it is — and get a glimpse of what may prove to be very significant early and transitional iconographic elements in the history of Byzantine art.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Getty buys Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë for record $30.5 million

Fri, 2016-01-29 23:54


The J. Paul Getty Museum blew through the record for Baroque artist Orazio Gentileschi when it bought his Danaë at a Sotheby’s auction Thursday for $30.5 million. That’s more than seven times greater than the previous record of $4,117,803 set in 2007 with the sale of a Madonna and Child. The entire sale of 61 lots took in a comparatively meager total of $53,473,500. If she were a film, Danaë would be a summer tentpole.

The work was part of a series of three paintings commissioned by Giovanni Antonio Sauli, a wealthy nobleman from Genoa, in 1621. Sauli encountered Gentileschi that year when he was in Rome with an ambassadorial delegation to honor the newly elected Pope Gregory XV. Orazio’s brother had already done some work for Sauli, and with Orazio’s reputation as fine artist well-established in Rome, Sauli asked him to come home with him and make some paintings for his palazzo. Orazio accepted the job, which also entailed curating Sauli’s art purchases, and lived in Genoa for three years until he left for France in 1624 to work for Marie de Medici, Regent of France, a pretty dramatic upgrade as patrons go which can be in significant part attributed to the success of the Sauli series.

The three works he painted for Sauli are Danaë, Penitent Magdalene and
Lot and his Daughters. Drawn from different religious traditions — Greek mythology, the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures — the three subjects shared a thematic connection of the human connection to the divine and a stylistic connection of being something on the naughty side. They were very popular and immediately well-known, boosting Gentileschi’s fame and triggering a number of commissions from other local noblemen, the Duke of Savoy, and finally the gig with the ruler of France. The Danaë is generally considered by art historians from the 18th century to the present to be the greatest of the three.

For centuries Danaë remained with Sauli’s descendants, only reemerging in 1975. It was bought by New York art dealer and collector Richard Feigen in 1977, although he had to fight the notoriously prickly California collector and museum founder Norton Simon for it. It’s been in the Feigen family trust since 1998, when prices for Orazio Gentileschi paintings were closer to the $100,000 range than the tens of millions.

While Penitent Magdalene is in a New York private collection, this purchase now reunites the remaining two works in the series. The Getty acquired Lot and His Daughters in 1998. Just a few years later, the museum brought all three of the Sauli commissions together again for a 2002 exhibition. In preparation for the exhibition, a copy of Danaë now in this Cleveland Museum of Art was compared side by side with the Getty’s new baby and was confirmed to be a later duplicate made from a tracing. For many years since it first emerged after centuries of being lost, the Cleveland work was thought to be the rediscovered original, but the original has pentimenti that the copy does not have, and it’s painted in the more rigid, formal manner of a copy. Gentileschi made multiple copies of the other works in the series as well. It was common for artists to make replicas of their most successful and sought-after pieces.

The Getty is, of course, thrilled with its new acquisition.

“The sensuality and splendor of Danaë, which is part of a trio of masterpieces that Gentileschi completed at the apogee of his career, draw together the Caravaggesque naturalism prevalent in Italian art in the early 17th century with the refinement of color which marks the mature style of Orazio, one of the most elegant and individual figures of the Italian Baroque,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “During his lifetime Gentileschi was probably the most internationally successful of all the artists associated with Caravaggio.”

Once it arrives at the Getty, Danaë will be displayed in the Museum’s East Pavilion, along with Lot and His Daughters. The timing will be announced.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Browse 18,000 historic menus in the New York Public Library

Thu, 2016-01-28 23:22

The New York Public Library has a collection of more than 45,000 historical restaurant menus from the 1840s to the present. It’s one of the largest menu collections in the world and it’s still growing, with Culinary Collections librarian (such a great job title) Rebecca Federman at the helm. She is the latest in a line descending from a formidable visionary named Miss Frank E. Buttolph who began collecting every menu she could get her hands on, mainly by writing with unstinting dedication to restaurants, palaces, banquet halls, whoever had the goods all over the world.

It wasn’t a hobby or even about the food for her. Miss Buttolph dedicated her life to collecting menus because she believed they had genuine historical value. She made a point of seeking out menus used by notable personages or that were on the table when momentous events took place around them. Events include the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria, the Prussian Siege of Paris in 1870, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo where President McKinley was assassinated and a banquet thrown by Emperor of Japan for William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, during the 1905 Taft–Katsura discussion.

An article published in the June 3rd, 1906, issue of the New York Times (pdf) acknowledged the drive for historic preservation underpinning her collection in amusing terms.

Miss Buttolph is making history for the year 2,000 which, should our present carnivorous natures by that time merge into a diet mild and milky, will hold this generation up as an example of brute force that should annihilate all our virtues and leave us in the eyes of our descendants a race of horror and greed, a pack of flesh-eating outcasts remarkable only for our gastronomic endurance.

While there are certainly a great many more calves heads, tongues, mutton and brain aspic than one commonly sees on menus today, there are also a surprising number of plain raw vegetable appetizers like celery or radishes. Just like a plate of celery. Coffee and tea appear the most frequently in the collection. Celery takes third place. The real stand-out to me, now that the year 2,000 has come and gone, is how lacking in variety so many of these menus are. Basically, if it’s fine dining, it has to be French or French-adjacent. There is little distinction between an 1843 breakfast menu in New York and a dinner menu from 1857 in Mobile, Alabama. It’s a lot of meat with French-like preparations, although at least the Battle House in Mobile had very respectable pie options. It’s all nuts and fruit in New York. Even the menu from the Streets of Mexico Restaurant at the Pan-American Exposition had far more ragout of beef, boiled trout with hollandaise and roast lamb with mint sauce than food remotely related to Mexico. The tamales and enchiladas (25 cents apiece), chili con carne, salsa and frijoles (15 cents apiece) at the very top of the menu were forced to carry the full burden of Mexicanness.

In 1899 Miss Frank E. Buttolph offered her collection of menus, already in the thousands, to the New York Public Library and offered to continue adding to the collection. NYPL director Dr. John Shaw Billings accepted both generous offers and Miss Frank collected menus for the library the next 25 years until her death in 1924. The Buttolph Collection of Menus had 25,000 menus in it at the time of her death.

Now it’s 20,000 items larger and close to 19,000 bills of fare have been digitized and are available to peruse online in the New York Public Library’s extensive digital collections. The digitization project is ongoing, but it’s not an easy job. Some of the menus are in very delicate condition and require conservation before they can be scanned. Meanwhile, the collection is only searchable at a very basic level. Information that was in the catalogue description — location, date range, name of hostelry — is the only data that can be searched digitally. The menu items themselves are not.

To remedy this, the NYPL started an open transcription project where volunteers can hand-enter all the details on the menu from food to wine list to prices. The power of the crowd is more effective in this case than OCR scanning because a lot of the menus have condition issues that make the letters less clear, crooked layouts or handwritten entries. A person would have to edit every OCRd page anyway, so best to cut the middleman.

It seems like the project is just about caught up right now. Every decade I clicked on showed the menu transcriptions as done, but bookmark this page and check it out once in a while for a new influx of digitized menus. There are a lot of treasures mentioned in several turn-of-the-century NYT articles that have yet to be digitized. I’d love to catch one of those fresh off the presses.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

2,500-year-old footprints of people, dogs found in Arizona

Wed, 2016-01-27 23:23

I don’t quite have it in me yet to do a research-intensive post but I can’t stand to be out for three days in a row, especially since you have all been so incredibly solicitous of my health. Thank you so much for your wonderfully supportive comments, good wishes, wise advice and even recipes.

Archaeologists excavating the site of a new highway to be built along Interstate 10 outside Tucson, Arizona, have discovered footprints left by a Native American farming community 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. The prints of men, women, children and dogs were left in the mud during a wet day. The mud dried into a solid crust and then a few days later a flash flood inundated the area with a layer of sandy silt that preserved the prints in perpetuity.

The prints are so extensive and clear that it’s possible to trace people’s movements during the course of the day. The imprints of irrigation ditches have also survived, and the business of the print groupings suggest the adults were working assiduously to manage the irrigation system during heavy rain or a rise in the nearby Santa Cruz River. They walked from one irrigation gate to another, building or flattening earthwork dams to direct the extra water to their maize plants. There are prints of an adult walking next to a child and marks left when the adult picked up the child before putting him or her back down. There are prints of adults walking to the irrigation canals while children and a dog follow them.

While far older footprints have been found in North America (ca. 13,000 years old), these are likely the oldest ever discovered north of Mexico in the Southwest, and they are the earliest evidence of formal farming in the US Southwest.

The ancient civilization that lived here represents what archaeologists call the early agricultural period, a time even before people in the region had developed ceramics.

“It’s a transition era from a lifestyle defined by hunter-gatherers to a settling down,” said Jerome Hesse, with SWCA Environmental Consultants.

Exactly how the people here lived their lives or organized their society is unknown, but Hesse said they likely lived at least part of the year at this and other sites in the region, cultivating crops in irrigated fields.

So far 4,300 square feet of the site have been exposed, and there’s likely more to be found, but time is not on archaeology’s side. The construction project will not be delayed or moved and it will destroy this unique discovery. In order to preserve what they can of this treasure, archaeologists have taken latex and epoxy molds of specific footprints, and the site is being documented virtually with high-resolution 3D models.

Here are a few of the models for you to explore. Keep an eye on the Southwest Archaeology blog for more to come.

Sunset Mesa Footprints
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Sunset Mesa Footprint
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Sunset Mesa Footprints
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

A Portrait of the Blogger as a Sick Puppy

Tue, 2016-01-26 22:43

With profuse apologies to James Joyce.

When you sweat the bed first it is warm and then it gets cold. Claaammy, Claaaaamy, Clammy’s in love. Kick them off! Kick them off! Ah, air. No no too cold. Covers. Covers and hot water bottle. Hug hot water bottle. Mmmmm warm… Why do my ribs hurt? I think I smell weird. Yeah, I definitely smell weird. Sweat. Gross. Fluids, fluids, fluids, bed rest. The water’s too cold. The tea is too hot. Oh god not sweat again. I ALREADY SMELL WEIRD.

Warm nourishing broth. I would like it to stay inside this time please. Ohh that’s why my ribs hurt. Sleep, sleep, fitful sleep. Sit up. Turn to side. The other side. Stomach? Nope nope nope nope definitely not stomach. Curled up in fetal. With trusty hot water bottle.

Through swimming eyes, 50 comments. Kind, thoughtful, funny. sweet. Warmer than a hot water bottle. I am suffused with gratitude.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Calling in sick

Mon, 2016-01-25 22:52

I am in the merciless grip of a stomach bug so the first time that I can recall, I’m going to have to take a sick day. Try not to miss me too much.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Uncharted WWI U-boat found off English coast

Sun, 2016-01-24 23:04

Windfarm developers scanning the southern North Sea floor off the coast of Norfolk for future offshore windfarm projects have discovered the remains of an uncharted German U-boat missing in action since 1915. ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) and Vattenfall scanned the seabed with advanced sonar technology for two years. They covered more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,317 square miles) and discovered more than 60 wrecks in the process, most of them were known. The submarine came as a surprise.

When it was first discovered at a depth of 98 feet about 55 miles east of the Norfolk coast, experts couldn’t be sure which wreck it was. The find was reported to the Receiver of Wreck in the UK, but the scanning company, Dutch contractors Fugro, suggested they contact the Royal Netherlands Navy in case the wreck was of a Dutch submarine from World War II the Dutch Navy has been looking for: military submarine HNLMS O13, last seen in June 1940 while on a mission to patrol the sea between Denmark and Norway. It is The Netherlands’ last unaccounted for missing World War II submarine.

A team of Dutch Navy divers explored the wreck and filmed it in the hopes of getting enough information to conclusively identify the submarine. They found the wreck was 57.6 meters (189 feet) long, 4.1 meters (13.5 feet) wide and 4.6 meters (15 feet) high. Some damage at the bow and stern may have trimmed off some length. Debris found around the wreck suggests it was originally more than 60 meters (197 feet) long. The footage of the submarine captured the conning tower and deck which marked it as a German vessel. Researchers were able to match it to the Type U-31 German World War I U-boat, the first in a series of eleven sequentially numbered submarines built between 1912 and 1915. Only U-31 and U-34 were known to have been in the area before their disappearance.

The wreck was found in September of 2012. It has taken more than three years to finally identify it as U-31.

Mark Dunkley, marine archaeologist at Historic England adds: “SM U-31 was commissioned into the Imperial German Navy in September 1914. On 13th January 1915, the U-31 slipped its mooring and sailed north-west from Wilhelmshaven for a routine patrol and disappeared. It is thought that U-31 had struck a mine off England’s east coast and sank with the loss of its entire complement of 4 officers, 31 men.” [...]

“The discovery and identification of SM U-31 by ScottishPower Renewables and Vattenfall, lying some 91km east of Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk, is a significant achievement. After being on the seabed for over a century, the submarine appears to be in a remarkable condition with the conning tower present and the bows partially buried.

“Relatives and descendants of those lost in the U-31 may now take some comfort in knowing the final resting place of the crew and the discovery serves as a poignant reminder of all those lost at sea, on land and in the air during the First World War.”

Because it is an official military maritime grave, the wreck will not be excavated or disturbed. Any future windfarms built in the area will be done without interference with the grave site.

Here’s some wonderful raw footage of the dive by Lamlash North Sea Diving. It’s some of the best underwater exploration footage I’ve seen. You get to see the divers at work in the environment, the light adjustments, the changes in visibility; it’s not just still-worthy shots of the U-boat spliced together. Also the crabs rule there now. That blue crab at the end is clearly claiming the vessel as his own.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Reviewing the Dare Stone, clue to Lost Colony of Roanoke

Sat, 2016-01-23 23:33

The first Dare Stone was found by a California grocer named Louis E. Hammond who claimed to have discovered it while looking for hickory nuts in a swamp on the east bank of the Chowan River near Edenton, North Carolina, in September of 1937. He couldn’t read the inscription which appeared to be in an unknown foreign language. Two months later he showed the stone to historians at Emory University in Atlanta, among them Dr. Haywood Pearce, Jr., hoping to get the inscription translated. They determined that it was English and made out the names “Ananias Dare & Virginia” on the front of the stone.

Those names rang a very loud bell. The daughter of Ananias and Eleanor White Dare, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in North America. She and her parents were part of a group of English settlers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to settle his land claim in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia. Eleanor’s father John White dropped the 118 people off on Roanoke Island in July of 1587 and went back to England for supplies a couple of weeks later. His return was delayed by a little contretemps with the Spanish Armada. When he finally reached the shores of Roanoke again three years had passed and the only sign of his daughter, granddaughter and the rest of the colonists was the word “CROATOAN” carved on a wooden post. Neither White nor anyone else that we know of saw any of the Roanoke colonists again.

The full inscription appeared to be a note from Eleanor White Dare to her father. The front read: “Ananias Dare &/ Virginia Went Hence/ Unto Heaven 1591/ Anye Englishman Shew/ John White Govr Via.” On the back was carved:

“Father Soone After You/ Goe for England Wee Cam/ Hither. Onlie Misarie & Warre/ Tow Yeere. Above Halfe Deade ere Tow/ Yeere More From Sickenes Beine Foure & Twentie./ Salvage with Message of Shipp Unto Us. Smal/ Space of Time they Affrite of Revenge Rann/ Al Awaye. Wee Bleeve it Nott You. Soone After/ Ye Salvages Faine Spirits Angrie. Suddaine/ Murther Al Save Seaven. Mine Childe. Ananais to Slaine wth Much Misarie./ Burie Al Neere Foure Myles Easte This River/ Uppon Small Hil. Names Writ Al Ther/ On Rocke. Putt This Ther Alsoe. Salvage/ Shew This Unto You & Hither Wee/ Promise You to Give Greate/ Plentie Presents. EWD”

History.com has an excellent zoomable viewer that allows you to vew the stone and its inscription in great detail. Here’s the front. Here’s the back.

Excited at the prospect of having found a remarkably full account of one of the great mysteries of American history, Pearce decided to follow up on the stone. Emory wasn’t interested in pursuing it, so Pearce, who was vice president of Brenau College (today Brenau University) in Gainesville, Georgia, where his father, Haywood Pearce, Sr., was president, recommended the college acquire the stone. It did, for $1,000. Shortly thereafter, Pearce Jr. went with Hammond to the purported find site. Pearce thought it might be a grave marker and hoped to discover the grave of Ananias and Virginia Dare. They found nothing that first time and found nothing the four more times they explored the swamps over the next year and a half, but the locals reported all kinds of stories of having seen other stones, even the mast of a ship, in the swamp.

Pearce was tantalized by the possibility that there might be more markers with information on the Lost Colony and recklessly offered a $500 reward for any stones connected to the Roanoke colonists. Not surprisingly, inscribed stones suddenly started popping up like weeds. Brenau University wound up with close to 50 of these stones, most of them “discovered” by a stonecutter from Fulton County, Georgia, named Bill Eberhardt. Three other people who claimed to have found inscribed stones were later found to be connected to Eberhardt.

A 1940 preliminary report by a team of 34 historians commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution and headed by Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard found no evidence the stones were fake and declared that a “preponderance of evidence points to the authenticity of the stones.” The Dare Stones made big headlines, putting Brenau on the map. Cecil B. DeMille expressed interest in doing a movie about Roanoke based on the stones.

The good press came to an end on April 26th, 1941, when an article by Boyden Sparkes in the Saturday Evening Post exposed the stones as frauds, possibly made in collusion with the Pearces who had received much benefit in prestige and attention. The spelling was too consistent to be Elizabethan, Sparkes’ research concluded, and words like “primeval” and “reconnoiter” in the inscriptions weren’t used in English until a century after the time they were meant to have been carved in stone. Hammond was a shadowy figure that not even the Pinkerton Detective Agency could pin down. The stones were found as far south as the Chattahoochee River just outside Atlanta, an implausible distance for this trail of stone bread crumbs to travel.

Just like that, the Dare Stones fell into ignomy and obscurity. They were kept in the Brenau University basement boiler room and only rarely received attention from scholars and documentarians. They made an appearance in a 1977 episode of the In Search of… series hosted by Leonard Nimoy dedicated to the Lost Colony. (Watch the full episode here.) A book published in 1991, A Witness for Eleanor Dare, by Robert W. White, rebutted Sparkes’ article and weighed in on the side of authenticity. In 2013, the History Channel documentary Mystery of Roanoke touched on the stones. Last October, the History Channel dedicated a new special to the Dare Stones. Roanoke: Search for the Lost Colony found new linguistic evidence suggesting that the first stone might be authentic.

Now Brenau University is taking a fresh look at the first Dare Stone, the only one that has even a chance of being real.

[Brenau President Ed] Schrader has begun to assemble a team of experts in various disciplines—archaeology, geology, history and the study of Elizabethan writing—to re-examine the quartz stone. Sometime in this year or next, he wants to launch an expedition to the Chowan River near Edenton, N.C., where the first rock is believed to have been found, to search for more evidence.

“If it is real, it is the most important pre-colonial artifact by Europeans in the Americas,” the 64-year-old says, softly placing is fingers on the stone. “The speculation’s gone on long enough.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Harihara head and body reunited after 130 years

Fri, 2016-01-22 23:44

France has returned the head of a 7th century statue of the Hindu god Harihara to Cambodia more than 130 years after it was removed. The head was taken from the Phnom Da temple in Cambodia’s southern Takeo province in 1882 or 1883 by French linguist and archaeologist Étienne Aymonier who was the first to fully explore and document Khmer ruins in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in the late 19th century. Cambodia was a protectorate of France at that time, part of the colony of French Indochina, and Aymonier was the colonial administrator. From 1874 through 1882 or 1883, Aymonier surveyed ancient temples and monasteries in southern Cambodia and helped himself to a large number of artifacts which he brought back to France with him. Aymonier’s collection of Khmer treasures went on display at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. The next year they were joined to the Asian collection of the Guimet Museum in Paris.

Harihara is a syncretic deity that blends elements of Vishnu and Shiva, the deities of creation and destruction. The iconography of the statue head is typical of Harihara: the elaborate hairstyle of braids bound together in a multilayer bun on one side of the top of the head, a cylindrical mitre on the other side, a third eye on the forehead and a crescent moon in the middle of the hair.

While the head was in the museum in France, in 1913 French archaeologist Henri Parmentier found the headless body of a statue in Phnom Da. In 1944 the body was moved to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Just over a decade later in 1955, Cambodian archaeology expert Pierre Dupont posited that the head in the Guimet and the body in the Phnom Penh museum belonged together.

Dupont’s hypothesis was recently proved correct when the restoration workshop of the National Museum made a mold of the upper body and sent it to France. It matched the head perfectly. The head and other artifacts collected by Aymonier now at the Guimet were legally exported, so there was no question of a lawsuit or court case. Aymonier had the permission of King Norodom to export the works to France where they would be exhibited to show the West the importance and beauty of Khmer art. The Guimet and the National Museum made a deal to exchange the head for the recently excavated pedestal of a 10th century that matches a statue in the Guimet collection. Both pieces are on permanent loan, so there’s no official change in legal ownership.

On January 21st, conservators reattached the head of Harihara to the body at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The ceremony was attended by 200 people, including government and museum officials, diplomats, foreign dignitaries.

“After it was separated 130 years ago, we are welcoming the reunification of the head and the torso of Harihara,” Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said at the ceremony. “According to our Khmer culture, the reunion is symbolic of prosperity.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

15th c. Theodelinda Chapel fresco restored

Thu, 2016-01-21 23:27

The Duomo of Monza has antecedants dating to the 6th century when the Lombards ruled swaths of Italy. Monza, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, was the summer residence of the Lombard Queen Theodelinda (c. 570-628). In 595 she had a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist built next to her royal palace in Monza. In the 13th century a new church was built on the remains of Theodelinda’s chapel. It was rebuilt again in the early 14th century and expanded significantly at the end of the century. Two chapels were added in the expansion, one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and another across from it on the north side of the cathedral transept dedicated to Queen Theodelinda. She got such high billing because she converted her first husband King Authari to Catholic Christianity and after his death, she converted her second husband King Agilulf first to Christianity and then to Catholicism. Arianism was predominant among Lombards at the time, so Theodelinda was instrumental in establishing a foundation of Nicene Christianity among the Lombards.

The vault of the Theodelinda Chapel was painted with figures of saints and evangelists in the 1430s. In 1441, the Zavattari family of Milan were commissioned to decorate the chapel walls with a series of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of the Lombard queen. Pater familias Franceschino, who worked for decades on the stained glass windows of the Duomo of Milan, and his sons Giovanni and Gregorio painted 45 scenes on five levels from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. They used a variety of media — egg tempera, oil tempera, dry painting, fresco, stucco relief, gilding — showcasing the Zavattari’s workshop experience in diverse art forms.

The result was a massive masterpiece covering 5,400 square feet of wall space. It is considered by many to be the greatest example of the International Gothic style espoused by artists like Carlo Crivelli. Also like Crivelli, the Zavattari used gesso decorative elements to create dimension and relief and then gilded them. In fact there is gold everywhere. The skies aren’t blue; they’re gold. The crowns, the jewels, the hair, the helmets, the clothes, the musical instruments, the tables, the goblets, the spurs, the scepters, the reliquaries, the crosses, the candelabra, the candles, the horses’ manes, architectural elements are all gilded. Little wonder that it’s been nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of the North.”

The scenes of Theodelinda’s life story were taken from 8th century monk Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards (the parts about Theodelinda start here) and from 13th century historian Bonincontro Morigia’s Chronicle of Monza. The first 23 cover the meeting and marriage of Theodelinda and Authari. Scenes 24 to 30 depict her second marriage to Agilulf. In scenes 31 to 41 are the founding of the church, the death of Agilulf and of Theodelinda. The last scenes depict Byzantine Emperor Constans II’s failed attack on the Lombards of southern Italy and his return to Byzantium with his tail between his legs.

In keeping with the standard practice of the time, the style of dress is typical of the courts of 15th century northern Italy. The frescoes are replete with scenes of courtly life — hunts, banquets, balls, parties — and provide a uniquely rich window into the attire, hairstyles, weapons and armour of the 15th century Milanese court. There are no fewer than 28 scenes dedicated to weddings or preparation for weddings. This is thought to be a symbolic reference to the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, legitimized natural daughter and sole heir of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, to Francesco Sforza. Theodelinda had chosen her second husband thereby making him king. Bianca’s marriage to Francesco ultimately transferred the dukedom of Milan from the Visconti to the Sforza family after her father’s death. They were married in 1441, the same year the Zavattari were commissioned to paint the chapel, probably by Filippo Maria Visconti.

The chapel frescoes were repeatedly restored between the 17th and 19th centuries. During World War II, the walls were protected from bomb damage using sandbags, which had the unfortunate unintended consequence of increasing the moisture and salt levels inside the chapel. Those earlier restorations became increasingly unstable and the paint and stucco cracked and flaked. By 2007, the condition of the masterpiece was dire. Paint was lifting off and significant areas had suffered permanent losses.

The World Monuments Fund, the Region of Lombardy, the Fondazione Gaiani (the organization in charge of preserving the Duomo of Milan) and other private foundations, began a three million euro restoration project in 2008. The latest technology — lasers, nanotech, imaging — combined with traditional arts to revive details lost for centuries, like a delicate damask pattern that had morphed into a dark block and reflections of red wine on the inside of a gold chalice. Areas of loss were filled in using organic paints without acrylic that can easily be removed with a wet sponge. “A favor for future restorers,” as project leader Anna Lucchini put it. A new lighting system was also installed to make the frescoes more easily seen by visitors on the ground. The restoration took seven years.

The newly refreshed frescoes were officially reopened to the public in a ceremony on October 16th, 2015.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

17th c. Indian textile 30 feet long goes on display

Wed, 2016-01-20 23:42


A 17th century devotional textile 30 feet long is going on display at the British Museum as the centerpiece of an exhibition about cultural history of the northeastern Indian state of Assam where it was made. Made around 1680, it’s a type of devotional textile known as the Vrindavani Vastra. This is example is the largest surviving Assamese devotional textile. It is composed of 12 strips of colored silk made using the lampas technique of weaving that were later stitched together to form a huge devotional wall hanging.

According to the 10th-century Hindu scripture the Bhagavata Purana, Vrindavan, a town in Utter Pradesh, was the god Krishna’s childhood home and as such is considered a holy site to pilgrims today. Vrindavani Vastra means “the cloth of Vrindavan.” It is woven with scenes from Krishna’s youth in the Vrindavan forest. Krishna is depicted in repeated motifs fighting the bird demon Bakasura, dancing on the serpent Kaliya, swallowing the forest fire and other elements of Krishna worship that were significant to the 16th century Assamese scholar, mystic and saint Sankaradeva who wrote about them in his devotional dramas. A verse from one of Sankaradeva’s dramas is woven into the textile.

Assam is famous for its weaving, especially in silk and cotton. The lampas technique used to create this textile involved weaving on a a wooden draw-loom with two sets of warp and two sets of weft threads. It was famed for the vibrant and detailed textiles it could produce, and you can see in the Vrindavani Vastra what a wide range of figures, colors, designs, even text, could be made with this technique. Unfortunately despite its extensive use from the 16th through the 18th centuries, the technique is now lost.

The 12 strips of woven silk are each different but related. Experts believe they may have been used to wrap copies of the Bhagawad Purana or to decorate altars. At some point between their creation in the late 17th century and the early 20th century, the 12 strips made their way from Assam, which is just south of the eastern Himalayas, to Tibet where they were stitched together. Four horizontal strips of Chinese brocade and metal suspension loops were added to the top at that time so the now-huge textile could be hung on the wall of the monastery.

It was hanging on the wall of the Gobshi Temple near Gyantse in southern Tibet when Perceval Landon, correspondent for The Times came across it during the British expedition to Tibet, aka the Younghusband Expedition, in 1903-04. He acquired the piece and donated it to the British Museum in 1905.

The textile has rarely been exhibited in its entirety. The new exhibition is the first to explore the vibrant cultural history of Assam.

In the exhibition, the Vrindavani Vastra will be displayed alongside other Assamese objects from the British Museum and several important loans, including another magnificent example of one of these Krishna textiles on loan from Chepstow Museum. This survives as the lining of a remarkable item of 18th-century Anglo-Indian costume. Manuscript leaves from the British Library, masks (the making and acquisition of which have been funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation) and modern textiles will help reveal this intriguing period in Indian history.

Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The Cultural Context of an Indian textile runs from January 21st through August 15th.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New technology finds York gladiators’ homelands

Tue, 2016-01-19 23:35

The latest and greatest DNA technology has revealed the origins of some of the 80 men buried in a Roman-era cemetery in York. The burials have intrigued and mystified archaeologists since they were first discovered under the garden of an 18th century mansion on Driffield Terrace in 2004. Of the 80 individuals, 48 of them, 60% of the total and 79% of the 61 skeletons with surviving crania and cervical vertebrae, had been decapitated from behind with a very sharp, very fine blade. Their heads were buried with them but not in anatomically correct or even consistent positions. Skulls were placed on the chest, between the legs and at their feet.

Decapitated remains have been found in Roman cemeteries before, but very few. One study tallied 98 decapitations making up 6% of the inhumation burials in cemeteries where decapitations were found. The York burials were so unique because of the unprecedented high proportion of decapitated individuals in the cemetery, four times higher than the proportion found in any other Romano-British cemetery. The second highest number of decapitations is 15 out of 94 burials (16%) unearthed from a Roman cemetery in Cassington, Oxfordshire.

Another unique feature of the Driffield Terrace burials is that they were all men. Decapitated individuals found in all the other Roman burial grounds had the usual demographic spread you’d expect of an attritional cemetery. There were men, women, young, old, adult, child. The York burials were also all under the age of 45 and taller than average. Five of them had other wounds inflicted by a blade besides the cuts to the neck, jaw, clavicle and scapula associated with decapitation. Two were stabbed in the abdomen; one was cut through the thigh muscles to the femur; two were parrying fractures to the forearm and hand, likely incurred trying to deflect a blow to the head. Sixteen individuals had perimortem blunt force trauma to the cranium. Evidence of healed trauma was rife, including cranial, facial, dental and metacarpal fractures that were likely incurred by violence. One skeleton’s pelvis showed signs of what may have been bite marks from a lion or bear.

Osteological evidence indicates they were trained to fight from a young age. Their right arms were consistently longer than their left, which means they’d been using weapons regularly since before they’d finished growing. Most them also showed signs of inadequate nutrition in childhood which they overcame to become healthy, strapping young men.

The single-sex grouping, young age, height and extensive evidence of violence indicated these were fighting men, but just what kind was unclear. The cemetery was southwest of the city walls of Roman Eboracum along the main road to Tadcaster just across the river from the legionary fortress. Legionaries had an age limit and height requirement. Gladiators or criminals sentenced to death were the other possibilities.

The placement of the cemetery atop a promontory on the main road makes it unlikely that they were criminals or outcasts. It’s too sweet a spot to leave it to executed criminals. The date of the burials — from the 2nd to the 4th century A.D. — was an important time for York. Roman emperor Septimius Severus actually lived in Eboracum off and on during the early 3rd century when it was the capital of the Britannia.

To determine the place of original of the individuals, a team from Trinity College Dublin used cutting-edge genomic analysis. DNA was extracted from the dense inner ear bones of seven of the Driffield Terrace burials and subjected to whole genome analysis.

The nearest modern descendants of the Roman British men sampled live not in Yorkshire, but in Wales. A man from a Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the village of Norton, Teesside, has genes more closely aligned to modern East Anglia and Dutch individuals and highlights the impact of later migrations upon the genetic makeup of the earlier Roman British inhabitants.

However, one of the decapitated Romans had a very different story, of Middle Eastern origin he grew up in the region of modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria before migrating to this region and meeting his death in York.

This is the first genomic analysis of ancient Britons, but given the precision of the results it’s certainly not the last.

Rui Martiniano who undertook the analysis said: “This is the first refined genomic evidence for far-reaching ancient mobility and also the first snapshot of British genomes in the early centuries AD, indicating continuity with an Iron Age sample before the migrations of the Anglo-Saxon period.”

You can read the full genomic study in this month’s Nature Communications.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

1910 slaughter of African Americans gets historical marker

Mon, 2016-01-18 23:24

The village of Slocum in Anderson County, east Texas, was a relatively well-off farming community founded by emancipated slaves after the Civil War. It was small but well-appointed, with a school, two churches, a store and a post office, all black owned and operated. On July 29th, 1910, that all came to an end when a mob of hundreds of white men descended on the town and gunned down every resident they could find. While the official list of the dead is eight people, those are only the ones who can be confirmed today. The real tally will likely never be known. Whoever wasn’t killed ran for their lives to other towns in Texas or up North (hopefully not to Tulsa or East St. Louis or Chicago), forced to leave their property behind to be stolen by the murderers.

Information on the events as they unfolded over the two ensuing days of mayhem was chaotic and confused. Slocum was an isolated town and the mob had cut many of the phone lines before the attack to ensure their targets were as helpless as possible. The stories that were able to make it into the press came from the perpetrators. They claimed a white farmer had shot a black man who owed him money, spurring the black population of Slocum to take up arms and go full Nat Turner on the white people in surrounding communities. Nothing gets a good white mob going better than rumors of a black insurrection, and it doesn’t have to be true to work. Other stories circulating involved an unpaid debt that resulted in the black debtor insulting the white creditor, and a lynching in a nearby town fomenting revolt among the black people of Slocum.

The source of much of this deadly chatter was likely a prominent white man named Jim Spurger who was angry when African American Abe Wilson was put in charge of a road improvement project that Spurger wanted for himself. A witness would later tell a grand jury that Spurger claimed he’d been “threatened and outraged until it had become unbearable”. Whatever the cause, the white avengers assembled and started shooting.

Even within a single article there were vastly differing reports, see this story in the July 31st The Abilene Daily Reporter so charmingly subtitled “Whites Gathered Arms and Went Coon Hunting.” The headline declares “23 Negroes, 4 Whites Dead,” but in the very first paragraph the figures change to “two white men and fifteen negroes have already been killed,” and when the story continues on page six, the numbers change again, dropping to zero in the case of white fatalities.

According to official statements made here tonight 18 negroes are known to be dead as a result of the race riots which occurred during the day and the number will likely be increased to 25, and a dozen more injured. It is not known definitely that any white men have been killed, but several have been injured.

No white men were killed. It wasn’t a “battle” or “race riot.” It was a premeditated massacre. Here’s how Anderson County Sheriff William Black, who was on the scene, described what was going on as quoted in an August 1st, 1910, New York Times article (pdf):

“Men were going about killing negroes as fast as they could find them, and so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause. These negroes have done no wrong that I could discover. There was just a hot-headed gang hunting them down and killing them. I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but I think there must have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut the telephone wires. They hunted the negroes down like sheep.”

Texas Rangers and state militia were deployed to restore order. District Judge B.H. Gardner ordered all area saloons closed (the mob was very thoroughly liquored up, to nobody’s surprise) and prohibited the sale of firearms or ammunition. By then most of the black residents were hiding in the swamps or safely out of town, so there weren’t many targets left. At the end of the first week in August, 16 white men, including James Spurger, and six black men were held in jail without bail. At least one of those black men was Jack Holley who had fled to Palestine, the county seat, when the violence engulfed Slocum killing one son and wounding another and asked to be jailed for his own protection.

Gardner convened a grand jury and gave them these extraordinary instructions:

“All of you are white men, and all of you are Southern men, and it is your duty now to investigate the killing and murder of a large number of Negroes, say at least eight and possibly 10 or 12 or more, who have been killed in the southeastern part of your county by men of your color. I regard this affair as the most damaging that could happen in this county: That it is a disgrace, not only to the county, but to the state, and it is up to this jury to do its full duty.”

He subpoenaed virtually the entire town of Slocum. When some of the so-called leading white citizens refused to testify, Gardner had them arrested. Some black witnesses returned to town to give testimony only to mysteriously disappear again before they could take the stand. On August 17th, seven men, Jim Spurger among them, were indicted on 22 counts of murder. The cases were moved to Harris County for trial and that’s when things fell into the usual Jim Crow template: the defendants were released on bail and nobody was ever tried. Gardner and Black were voted out of office in the next elections.

Black residents never returned to Slocum. Their property was confiscated by various “legal” means (liens, sale of abandoned property for non-payment of taxes) and extralegal (just taking it) and people like Jack Holley, who had owned a store, a dairy and 300 acres of prime farmland, moved to Palestine without a dime and died a pauper. His family changed the spelling of their name to Hollie out of fear of reprisals, a perfectly reasonable fear when you consider that Gardner who was a) white and b) a judge, was violently assaulted by Spurger six years later.

The history of the massacre was covered up, ignored in text books and by the local historical society. People told the old stories in private, however. For years one of Jack Holley’s descendants, Constance Hollie-Ramirez, worked with other descendants of the victims to pull this ugly history out of the shadows into the light. Her father and uncle had tried to get a historical marker in the 1980s, but the chairman of the Anderson County historical commission, Jimmy Ray Odom, rejected their petition saying that “It was mislabeled a massacre. A massacre is when you kill hundreds of people.”

Hollie-Ramirez picked up where her parents left off and in 2011 the Texas Legislature passed a resolution (pdf) officially acknowledging the Slocum Massacre. Prospects for a historical marker picked up steam in 2014 with the publication of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas by Fort Worth journalist E. R. Bills. Hollie-Ramirez and Bills applied to the county for a roadside historical marker to commemorate the victims of the massacre. They were rejected. Anderson County Commissioner Greg Chapin wrote: “Without further evidence of legal documentation, or the facts of guilty parties taken (sic) responsibility for the incident, Anderson County cannot support the marker.”

So they went over the county’s head and applied directly to the Texas State Historical Association in Austin. Again the county historical commissioned was in opposition. Apparently not clear on how historical markers work, Odom wrote to state officials, “The citizens of Slocum today had absolutely nothing to do with what happened over a hundred years ago. This is a nice, quiet community with a wonderful school system. It would be a shame to mark them as racist from now until the end of time.” A wonderful school system with some painfully glaring omissions in their history texts, that is, and evidently by design.

The application for a marker was approved last January after getting an exceptionally high rating of 98 out a possible 100 points. On Saturday, January 16th, 2015, Constance Hollie-Ramirez joined other descendants of the victims, author E. R. Bills and even Jimmy Ray Odom at the unveiling of the roadside marker commemorating the Slocum Massacre.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Breitner’s Girl in a Kimono series together for the first time

Sun, 2016-01-17 23:51

After the reopening of Japan to foreign trade in the 1850s and 1860s, European artists like Claude Monet, James McNeill Whistler and Vincent van Gogh were influenced by Japanese fine and decorative arts. One of Van Gogh’s friends and compatriots, George Hendrik Breitner, was inspired by the Japonisme trend to create a series of 13 paintings of a young girl wearing a kimono.

Breitner was born in Rotterdam in 1857. For the decade between 1876 and 1886 he studied and worked in The Hague where he explored working class areas of the city, sketching the people and places he encountered. He embraced the social realism movement and considered himself le peintre du peuple, the painter of the people. He moved to Amsterdam in 1886 where he was soon able to add photography to drawing and painting. Breitner took pictures of street life, people at work and going about their business in the city, some of the photographs reminiscent of the kind of work Jacob Riis was doing in the crowded and scary tenements of New York City at the same time.

Breitner was one of the first artists to use photos as studies for specific paintings, not just of street scenes but in the studio as well. He integrated his social realist perspective in his studio portraits, making a point of employing models from the working class. One of them was a milliner’s shopgirl named Geesje Kwak who, along with her sister Anna, posed for Breitner in around 1893-1895 when she was 16-18 years old. It was Geesje Kwak who would be immortalized as the girl in a kimono.

Japonisme had intrigued Breitner since he’d traveled to Paris in 1884. He collected Japanese woodcuts and in 1892 visited an exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague. The show was his immediate inspiration for the kimono series. He acquired several Japanese kimonos and a pair of folding screens that he set up in his studio on the Lauriergracht canal. Geesje Kwak posed in the kimonos — one red, one white, one blue — against the backdrop of the folding screens on a bed draped in oriental rugs. She was paid for her time and there was no hanky panky going on; all strictly professional. Breitner kept meticulous records of which models posed for him when, for how long and at what rate.

Breitner’s work with Geesje Kwak ended when she emigrated to South Africa with her younger sister Niesje in 1895. Geesje died of tuberculosis in Pretoria in 1899, just shy of her 22nd birthday. The Girl in a Kimono series was not a success with critics initially, but today they are considered the pinnacle of the Dutch expression of Japonisme in the fine arts. The Rijksmuseum will celebrate the series with an unprecedented exhibition that brings together all of the Girl in a Kimono paintings, including a previously unpublished one from a private collection, plus the preliminary photographs, sketches and drawings Breitner used as studies for the paintings.

There have been exhibitions in the past devoted to this beloved theme of Breitner’s, but the paintings of Girl in a Kimono have never been displayed all together. Displaying all the Girl in a Kimono works together, combined with the preliminary studies in the form of drawings, sketches and photographs, as well as Breitner’s easel and paint box, gives the exhibition above all an impression of the way in which the painter went about his work in his studio on the Lauriergracht in Amsterdam. [...]

In total there are 20 paintings on display, including 13 Girl in Kimono works and one nude. Furthermore, 15 drawings and 15 photographs will be displayed, plus Japanese prints. Moreover, there are two beautiful kimonos from the same period as the ones worn in the paintings.

Breitner: Girl in Kimono opens on February 20th and runs through May 22nd at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History