History Blog

Syndicate content
Updated: 27 min 32 sec ago

Trouvelot’s astronomical drawings to go on display

Fri, 2018-01-19 19:42

When last we saw Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, the gifted astronomical observer, artist and accidental destroyer of worlds via his injudicious introduction of the gypsy moth to the US, the 15 impeccably detailed astronomy drawings he chose for publication in 1881 using the new color printing technology of chromolithography had just been digitized by the New York Public Library. Now one of the rare surviving complete sets of Trouvelot chromolithographs is going on public display at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. The exhibition, Radiant Beauty: E.L. Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings, opens April 28th of this year and runs through July 30th in The Huntington Library’s West Hall.

The set of 15 chromolithographs was the crowning achievement of Trouvelot’s career, said curator Krystle Satrum, assistant curator of the Jay T. Last Collection at The Huntington. “He was both an extraordinarily talented artist and a scientist, producing more than 7,000 astronomical illustrations and some 50 scientific articles during his working life.”

In vivid color and meticulous detail, the works depict a range of astronomical phenomena. “The high quality of both the artwork and the scientific observation demonstrates his uncanny capacity to combine art and science in such a way as to make substantial contributions to both fields,” Satrum said.

The pas-de-deux between art and science is still producing magic today. Images from high-powered telescope cameras, satellites and probes that have so mesmerized the public since the Hubble first started working right don’t look anything like the swirling marvels of color when they are transmitted. They’re black and white, infrared, ultra-violet, etc., thick with data but not so much visual impact for our limited optic range. It’s the artists who translate that data into something approximating what we’d see if we could.

Trouvelot was a master of converting telescopic information into beautifully colored artworks long before the Hubble was a twinkle in NASA’s eye. The chromolithographs wound up being a bit of a last hurrah for the field. By the turn of the century, drawings were rapidly being superseded by photographs as cameras became more powerful and precise. Of the estimated 300 luxury portfolios published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1882, only a few still survive intact today. Most of them were bought by institutions and observatories as references for their astronomers, but once photography starting edging out the old school artistic rendering, the Trouvelot chromolithographs were sold off or thrown away.

The Huntington’s set was acquired by physicist and Silicon Valley co-founder Jay T. Last as part of his extensive collection of graphic arts, particularly lithographs, from the 19th and early 20th century. He donated more than 200,000 printed works from more than 500 companies, high-end astronomical chromolithograph sets to orange crate labels to the museum. Highlights from the Jay T. Last of Graphic Arts and Social History can be browsed on The Huntington’s website.

Speaking of online collections of historic lithographs, the NYPL didn’t have high resolution versions of Trouvelot’s drawings in the online gallery when it debuted, much to my chagrin, but they are available now for download in tiff format. Click “All download options” and select “High Res tiff” from the list to get them. They’re not as gloriously huge as The Huntington Library’s images which they so kindly allowed me to use in this here post. They are in great condition, however, and I got a kick out of comparing the two sets.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The Two Brothers are in fact brothers

Thu, 2018-01-18 23:50

Groundbreaking analysis of ancient DNA has answered a century-old question: are a pair of Egyptian mummies from the 12th Dynasty dubbed the Two Brothers actually brothers? One hundred and eleven years after their discovery, we now know the answer is yes. They are half-brothers, same mother, different fathers. This overturns the results from the original 1908 study that indicated no familial relationship between the two men.

The mummies of Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh were discovered by renown archaeologist Flinders Petrie in a stone-cut tomb near the village of Deir Rifeh in 1907. Their exquisitely painted coffins were placed next to each other and inscriptions on their sarcophagi identified them as brothers, sons of a local governor (an unnamed “hatia-prince”) and a woman (or women) named Khnum-aa. The richness of the funerary furnishings in the tomb confirmed their high status as the sons of an elite functionary. The style of the tomb dated it to around 1,800 B.C.

Flinders Petrie wrote to the Manchester Museum that his team had discovered a small 12th Dynasty tomb in Rifeh packed tightly with two polychrome painted sarcophagi complete with mummies, two funerary boats with servant figurines, a painted chest with a full set of four canopic jars, five statuettes placed in the coffins and two pottery vessels. All the human remains were intact and the craftsmanship of the artifacts of the highest quality. Petrie, keen to ensure the core funerary group would stay together, offered it to the museum for a £500 contribution to his next excavation. The Museum Committee accepted with alacrity and raised £570 19s in a few weeks thanks to the donations of boosters. The extra £70 19s went to the writing and production of a The Tomb of Two Brothers, a publication about the museum’s research into the find.

This pamphlet makes fascinating reading, touching on the transition from archaeology as an amateur treasure hunt to archaeology as a science, the complicity of antiquities collectors in systemic looting of tombs, and how the sausage of the examination of the remains was made in the Edwardian era. Hint: it ain’t pretty. Cringeworthy in an age when mummies are never unwrapped precisely because of the damage described in the publication: soft tissues disappearing into clouds of dust and moisture causing long-preserved flesh to rapidly decay.

It’s of particular interest in the light of the recent DNA analysis that upends the conclusion drawn from the initial study. The introduction opens with a broadside to those who would castigate archaeologists as desecrators of the dead, pointing the finger back at accusers who “would not hesitate to wear a scarab-ring taken off a dead man’s hand” and who “will handle without a qualm the amulets that were found actually inside a body.” This hypocrisy, the authors note, has real consequences on the treatment of human remains because it creates a market for looters to tear apart dead bodies for saleable trinkets.

They go on to explain why the examination of dead bodies is important.

Archaeology has been raised to the rank of a science within one generation: before that it was merely the pastime of the dilettante and the amateur who amused himself by adding beautiful specimens to his collection of ancient art. Then came the period of the enthusiast in languages, to whom inscriptions the joy of life. And now there has arisen a new school to whom archaeology is a science, a science which embraces the whole field of human activity. Archaeology, in other words, is the history of the human race. It is a science which contains within itself all other sciences. The new sciences of psychology and comparative religion owe their being to archaeology, and history itself is merely archaeology in a narrow form.

Four sciences are listed as examples of disciplines that rely on information derived from material culture of the past: psychology, comparative religion, ethnology and comparative anatomy.

Archaeology can assist these four great sciences only by opening and examining graves and their contents. It is only by a knowledge of the objects placed with the dead, and by the methods of burial, that we the ideas of early races as to a future life; by studying these graves in chronological order we trace the growth of ideas and the evolution of religion and of the philosophy of life. By an examination of the bodies, the knowledge of the ethnologist and the anatomist is immensely increased.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, the fervent belief that their morphological analyses form the scientific backbone of numerous academic disciplines vs. the DNA testing that proved the inaccuracy of said analyses. One of the sciences listed, ethnology, which at the time was emphatically focused on the putative anatomical differences between races and genders of humans, appears to have been the grounding for the erroneous conclusion.

Led by Dr. Margaret Murray, archaeological pioneer and the UK’s first woman Egyptologist, the Manchester Museum team examined the mummified remains in 1908. The team’s anatomist, Dr. John Cameron, compared their skulls and declare the differences between them “so pronounced that it is almost impossible to convince oneself that they belong to the same race, far less to the same family.” He thought the older brother, Nakht-ankh, might be a woman because the evidence of muscular attachment was so faint. When the pelvis established he was male despite the “female character” of the skull, Cameron looked for another explanation:

The question of the skeleton being that of a eunuch next suggested itself; but unfortunately, the state of preservation of the external genitals (see page 44) does not permit one to make a definitive pronouncement on this question. If this could have been proved definitely then we should have been provided with a distinctly rare opportunity of comparing the skeletons of two brothers, one of whom was virile, and the other a eunuch.

(Page 44 is where an extensive discussion of the man’s mummified penis and missing scrotum begins. There was no evidence of the scrotum having been surgically removed, btw.)

The virile brother has sub-Saharan African ancestry, Cameron concludes, but not exclusively. He was biracial, according to the skull feature studies prevalent at the time. Between that and the eunuch thing, the anatomist cannot accept that they are brothers, but he does explore later on the chapter the possibility that they could be half-brothers with the same mother. Their mother is titled Nebt Per, (“Lady of a House”) in the inscription, which means she had inherited an estate. A moneyed, propertied woman could easily have had children from two different husbands during a lifetime. Alternatively, one or both of them may have been adopted.

Either way, they were still brothers, as the contemporary inscription emphasized, and the exquisitely painted sarcophagi became the museum’s most famous icons. They have been on display almost continuously since 1908 and have been known as the Two Brothers just as long, blood relations or no. There have been multiple attempts to extract a viable DNA sample to determine the brothers’ brotherness but all of the results were inconclusive. The technology has improved greatly in recent years, however, so in 2015 scientists tried again.

[T]he DNA was extracted from the teeth and, following hybridization capture of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome fractions, sequenced by a next generation method. Analysis showed that both Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship. The Y chromosome sequences were less complete but showed variations between the two mummies, indicating that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had different fathers, and were thus very likely to have been half-brothers.

Dr Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester who conducted the DNA sequencing, said: “It was a long and exhausting journey to the results but we are finally here. I am very grateful we were able to add a small but very important piece to the big history puzzle and I am sure the brothers would be very proud of us. These moments are what make us believe in ancient DNA.”

The study, which is being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies.

The new study is available online free of charge so you can read the original publication and the latest one for a one-shot comparative history of science. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. who in turn was paraphrasing Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, the arc of the scientific method is long, but it bends towards accuracy.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

5.6 metric ton coin hoard found in China

Wed, 2018-01-17 22:40

On October 13th, 2017, a massive cache of an estimated 300,000 copper coins for a total weight of 5.6 metric tons were discovered during construction work on the foundations of an old house in Chalian Village, near Jingdezhen in East China’s Jiangxi province. They are wén coins from the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Archaeologists from the Ceramics Archaeology Institute excavated the site starting October 22nd.

The property is 100 square meters in area and is surrounded by village houses. After the coins were discovered, word of the find spread like wildfire. There was intense interest from the locals who wanted to dig up some buried treasure even though experts noted the coppers have little monetary value. Their worth is not in conversion to modern currency via black market sales, but rather in their historical significance.

It is known that the coins date from the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279). The dynasty relocated its capital to Lin’an (Hangzhou today) after the city of Kaifeng was lost to the Jurchen Jin in 1127. Lin’an is near where the coins were found. The problem is that there is no local source of copper, which quickly led what was then the Southern Song dynasty to produce lower quality coins than those issued by the Northern Song dynasty. This also led to the emergence of paper money as copper cash coins became scarce. Iron coins were issued, but due to corrosion and manufacturing problems were never popular. Some numismatists have referred to this as the Qian Huang or “currency famine” for the Southern Song dynasty.

The southern government cut military wages in half by 1161 due to a shortage of wen coins. In 1170 Huizi paper money became a permanent fixture since it was mandated half of all taxes be paid with this form of currency. This resulted in increased demand for the notes as well as for the increasingly scarce bronze coinage. Inflation eventually led to the use of small coin tallies called Qian Pai.

Nonetheless, as soon as the government archaeologists left, villagers returned to the site with their digging implements to help themselves to any loot they might have missed. Individuals who did manage to remove coins from the site before and after the official excavation were persuaded to hand them over after being told that they were breaking cultural heritage laws by keeping the objects.

Local folklore has it that the coin hoard was the treasure of a landlord who buried it under the foundations of his home 1,000 years ago. There is no evidence of this being true. Of the three filled cellars unearthed during the excavation, two were filled with coins and one with assorted debris. The fill in the third cellar included some dateable materials placing it in the Yuan Dynasty period. The story of the landlord puts him in the Ming Dynasty. Besides, it’s highly unlikely that a landlord, tradesman or any one individual would have had access to such a huge cash reserve, and even if they did, they would have converted it into more easily portable silver or gold bullion. According to Fuliang County Museum Director Feng Ruqin, the coins were probably stashed by a private organization or a bank.

The excavation is over now and all three cellars have been backfilled for their protection. Conservators and researchers now have to commence the daunting task of cleaning, derusting, classifying weighing, cataloging and studying 5.6 metric tons of coins. The process is expected to take at least two or three years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Runes call a comb a comb

Mon, 2018-01-15 23:14

Archaeologists excavating the ancient market square in the city of Ribe in southwest Jutland, Denmark, have unearthed a comb from around 800 A.D. that is inscribed with the word “comb” written in runes. They also discovered a second runic inscription on a plaque of bone or antler that has yet to be deciphered.

This is a sensational find, especially for Denmark. Runic inscriptions of any date are rare in Denmark; runes dating to the 9th century are exceptionally rare in Scandinavia period. Almost all of the runes from that period are carved on runestones, not inscribed on combs or bone plates. (Interestingly enough, the oldest Germanic language discovery ever made in central Germany were 3rd century runes also inscribed on a comb.)

So few runes have been found in Denmark that the discovery of two runic inscriptions from around 800 A.D. doubles the number of rune-engraved artifacts found in Ribe. The oldest extant town in Denmark, Ribe was already bustling in 793 A.D. when Viking raiders pillaged the monastery of Lindisfarne launching the Viking Era. Archaeologists have found evidence, however, of peaceful trade between the Norse of Norway and Denmark in Ribe. During an earlier dig season at the Ribe marketplace, antlers from Norwegian reindeer were found. They date to 725 A.D., which means the Norse were already taking on significant sea voyages and engaging in lucrative transactions with their neighbors long before the accepted date of the Viking Era.

Given its history as a market city big enough to attract business from elsewhere in northern Europe, the comparative lack of runes on the archaeological record is puzzling. The runic alphabet was undergoing a seachange when Norsemen were trading reindeer antlers in Ribe, with the more complex Elder Futhark giving way to the newly succinct 16-letter Younger Futhark. The transition took place gradually over the 7th and 8th centuries, but by the early 9th, largely coinciding with the arrival of the Viking Era, the Younger had decisively overthrown the Elder. Researchers have been hoping to find more runes from this pivotal transition phase to shed new light on the transition to Younger Futhark and the role the towns played in the shift.

Archaeologists were especially interested to find out whether the script on the comb and plate were the new alphabet, which came into use at the beginning of the Viking Age.

Previously, the Vikings used a more complicated alphabet known as the 24 character futhark—itself a combination of the first six letters of the alphabet.

“It was built up so each rune had its own name and indicated the sound. But as the language developed, the names and sounds changed too, and in the end it was too difficult to remember the sound value of each rune and there was too much uncertainty in the message being conveyed,” says rune expert Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum of Denmark.

“At some point they decided not to use the old system anymore,” says Imer, who was invited to Ribe to study the two new discoveries and decipher whether it was the old or new alphabet.

Imer found that both inscriptions were written in Younger Futhark, just the linguistic jackpot they were hoping for. The word “comb” in inscribed on both sides of the comb, although they are different parts of speech. The verb “to comb” is on one side, the noun “comb” on the other. The handwriting suggests the inscriptions may have been carved by two different people.

The runes on the bone plate are fragmentary — both ends are missing — and the piece was damaged by fire at some point making it even more difficult to read. It is clear that the text was engraved by one person, someone with a fine hand who could pull a proper line. He did not use the markers which denote the beginning and end of a word, so while the inscription is in theory decipherable, it’s difficult and experts haven’t cracked it quite yet.

Here’s Imer giving it a go in this video:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Flooded cellar in France may be medieval mikveh

Mon, 2018-01-15 21:22

Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, an ancient city in southeastern France that boasts a splendid 12th century Romanesque church, medieval town walls and gates and a cobblestoned downtown of considerable charm, can also lay claim to unique vestiges of a small Jewish community that abided there for three centuries or so before the saw the anti-Semitic writing on the all and got out while the going was good.

There was a small but consistent population of Jews in the city from the 12th century well into the 15th. They were ghettoized into a handful of streets on and around the Rue Juiverie, the street that is still named after them centuries after their departure. As was the custom with these segregated neighborhoods, the residents had a curfew and were locked in at night. Still, bounded on one side by the town market and on the other by bishop’s palace, the Jewish quarter was in the very heart of the city and the 70 or so families who lived there made good.

We know there was a synagogue in the neighborhood because a 15th century Holy Ark was found in one of the buildings, known as Tower House, in the early 18th century. Dated 1445, the stone archway with wooden doors was where the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were kept. It is a unique survival, the only one of its kind in France and is now on display in the local archaeological museum.

To the marked advantage of the Jewish community, the town wasn’t part of France in the Middle Ages. It was ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, so yes,while they were locked in at night and subject to a number of discriminatory laws and practices, at least they didn’t have to deal with repeated expulsions, confiscations and a wide variety of oppressive measures ordered by French kings like Philip II, who was just 17 years old when he kicked out the Jews and stole their stuff in 1182, and Louis IX who set copies of the Talmud on fire by the thousands, made usury illegal and forced Jews charged with the newly criminal offense to pay huge sums in support of the Crusades and turned the Inquisition up to 11. They even managed to dodge the mass expulsion edict of 1394 when all the Jews in France were forced to leave the country by order of King Charles VI.

Provence was absorbed into France in 1481. Initially it seemed like Jews in the province, which had deeply rooted Jewish communities going back to the 1st century A.D., might be okay. Their privileges were confirmed in 1482. But de jure and de facto are two very different things, and in 1484 waves of anti-Semitic violence broke out regularly. Provencal Jews, recognizing the stench of pogrom approaching, starting packing up and leaving, and the Jews of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux were no exception. Archival records note there were just three Jewish families left in town by 1486, and that’s the last mention of any Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux Jews on the historical record.

In the 1990s, the city government began to buy properties in the old Jewish quarter with an eye to restoring it and creating a suitable environment to return the Holy Ark to its original context in the Tower House. Archaeologists have been studying the neighborhood since 2014 and have discovered remains going back to Gallo-Roman times. The most recent work has unearthed a flooded cellar that archaeologists believe was a mikveh, a ritual Jewish bath. The city called in experts from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) to explore this intriguing find.

This small (7 by 4 meters), vaulted and partially buried construction contains a groundwater emergence point. The bath would have consisted of a shallow pool. The construction forms and techniques could correspond to the configurations of Medieval mikvaots.

The building has since been modified several times. The cellar was used to store bottles, for example (the archaeologists collected more than 600 of them), and anomalies suggest a later, more complex, modification. A diverticulum and the existence of a walled, partially masked, opening suggest architectural alterations that were masked by later transformations. They could be the remains of spaces associated with the mikveh and necessary for its functioning (dressing room, stairway access, etc…).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Wicked copper-headed barbed arrow found in melting ice

Sun, 2018-01-14 23:30

A wicked looking copper arrowhead still masterfully attached to a barbed antler shaft discovered in a melting patch of ice in Yukon, Canada’s northwestern most province, in 2016 has been found to be almost 1,000 years old making it one of the earliest copper artifacts ever found in the Territory.

The credit for this discovery goes to a herd of caribou, because even though the arrowhead was found by an archaeologist, he wasn’t at the site to excavate or search for ancient artifacts. Archeologist Greg Hare was flying over the area in a helicopter accompanied by a film crew that was shooting a documentary. He was pointing out some of the sites where he and his colleagues have discovered First Nations hunting weapons when they saw the caribou. The documentarians wanted to get a clean shot of the majestic ruminants so Hare’s helicopter landed to allow the filmmakers in the second copter to get a clean shot.

The rocky hillside where they landed was topped with a rapidly vanishing layer of half-melted ice and under normal circumstances they would never have stopped there given the precariousness of the melting ice on the surface. While they were waiting, the team spotted a barb sticking out of a barely-there thin layer of ice. They pulled it out gingerly and found a copper blade attached to the barb.

“This is one of the oldest copper elements that we ever found in the Yukon,” Hare said.

For thousands of years, caribou took refuge in the summer up high on the alpine ice patches to escape the heat and swarms of harassing insects. That made those ice patches good areas for ancient hunters to get close to the caribou.

Some weapons would miss their marks and disappear in the snow and ice, over time building a treasure trove of artifacts now revealed by the melting ice. Archaeologists have found ancient hunting tools made of wood, antler bone, and now copper.

“The significant part of the story is that [the arrowhead] is so old, and it is such a beautiful expression of copper metallurgy,” Hare said. “Copper only first shows up in the Yukon about a thousand years ago and this is almost at the beginning of that technology.”

The arrowhead was radiocarbon dated to 936 years ago. Bows and arrows only began to be used by First Nation hunters about 1,100 years ago, so this really is an incredibly early example of copper metallurgy in the area. For thousands of years before then the weapons of choice were atlatli, throwing darts launched by striking them with a paddle. It was a technology that was employed by indigenous peoples in Yukon for almost 7,000 years before it was abandoned in favor of the bow and arrow.

The copper in the arrowhead is incredibly pure at 99.9 percent, and it is of local extraction. The nugget from which it was made was recovered in the metal-rich creeks of the southwest Yukon. The quality of workmanship is exceptional and the hunter who missed his target doubtless would have searched for it in the snow and ice-covered terrain for days, even weeks, after it was lost.

The random good luck that put Hare and his team down on that hillside to recover such a rare and important transitional in the evolution of indigenous hunting weaponry would have passed them (and us) by if the timing had been only slightly off. Two weeks after the discovery, Hare returned to the site to explore it further and all the ice had melted leaving nothing behind to find besides lumps of still-frozen caribou dung. If there was anything there, it was carried away by the runoff into the rocks or down the hill.

Look at the condition of this arrowhead. It is a spectacular piece of work and we are very fortunate the right people were in the right place at the right time to rescue it in such pristine condition just as it emerged from the melt.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Michigan State to create vast slave trade database

Sat, 2018-01-13 23:04

Funded by a grant of $1.47 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Michigan State University will create a massive database that brings together scattered information about enslaved people as a priceless research hub for scholars and the public alike. The project, entitled Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade, will be one-stop-shop for people seeking slave data for academic, genealogical and personal interest purposes. They will be able to search for specific individuals, create charts, map routes and analyze demographic data.

MSU has long been at the forefront of African studies — US News and World Report ranked its African history graduate program the best in the country — and they are eminently equipped to combine scholarship with digital resources that students, researchers and anybody else who wants to delve deeper into the subject can use. This is the raison d’etre of MSU’s Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences which will be one of the databases linked together with other world-class databases to create the Enslaved tool.

“‘Enslaved’ brings new digital tools and analytical approaches to the study of African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade,” said project co-investigator Walter Hawthorne, professor and chair of MSU’s Department of History. “By linking data compiled by some of the world’s foremost historians, it will allow scholars and the public to learn about individuals’ lives and to draw new, broad conclusions about processes that had an indelible impact on the world.” […]

The partner projects in phase one are “African Origins and Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database” led by David Eltis, professor emeritus, Emory University, and Paul Lachance; “The Slave Societies Digital Archive” led by Jane Landers, Vanderbilt University; “Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography” and “Dictionary of African Biography and African American National Biography” led by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Steven Niven and Abby Wolf, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University; “Freedom Narratives” led by Paul Lovejoy, York University; “Legacies of British Slave-Ownership” led by Keith McClelland, University College, London; and “The Liberated Africans Project” led by Henry Lovejoy, University of Colorado Boulder; and “Slave Biographies” led by Daryle Williams, University of Maryland.

The first phase of the project is expected to about 18 months. The goal is develop a functional framework that proves that it’s even possible to link the eight online collections in the initial pilot into one searchable, cross-navigable, publicly accessible database. After that’s done, they can get down to the real nuts and bolts of getting so many moving parts to work together in harmony. It’s going to be a while, but the results could be groundbreaking. Dean Rehberger, director of Matrix and one the leaders of the project:

“In bringing together data from a number of highly successful projects, we have the opportunity from many small threads of data to weave together lives of enslaved individuals once thought lost to history.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Precise date of Porta Nigra in Trier identified

Fri, 2018-01-12 22:32

Archaeologists have discovered the precise date of the Porta Nigra, the majestic Roman gate in the ancient city walls of Trier that is the largest ancient city gate north of the Alps. Researchers have determined conclusively that the Porta Nigra was built in 170 A.D. Up until now it was only possible to estimate a date range, a fairly broad one at that of between 150 and 320 A.D. Later modifications obscured the original structure, and while there are date markers on some of the sandstone blocks in the western tower, they are incomplete.

Its massive size also suggested that it was built at least in part to fend off regular attacks from Germanic tribes during the turbulent 3rd century like other large, highly fortified gates from the period. The city walls of Trier (Colonia Augusta Treverorum) were built during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) which was relatively peaceful. The battles Marcus Aurelius fought against Germanic tribes were east of the Danube. Trier was way west of the hot zone. There wouldn’t have been an obvious need at that point to build a gate with such extensive defensive features. The need, it turns out, was probably the sort of motivation that often underpins monumental construction: to convey the power and prestige of the city.

It was trees that made this discovery possible, trees, water and the science of dendrochronology (tree ring analysis). In the fall of 2017, archaeologists seeking to answer the question of when the gate was built dug a deep cylindrical shaft at a site adjacent to the Porta Nigra where the ancient walls (demolished by shortsighted wretches after the unification of Germany in 1871) once stood. The site was carefully chosen because the Mosel River flowed through it in Roman times. The team hoped the waterlogged substrate might have preserved timbers used in construction of the gate.

At first they came up empty. Then to their jubilation they found two planks and a round piling, but it was a very tempered, serious archaeologically skeptical jubilation because not every piece of wood can be tree-ring dated. In fact it seemed their worry was well justified. The wood looked good from the outside, but were so soft that couldn’t even take the necessary samples. Freezing the pieces helped, making it possible to take a cross-section and get some partial information, but you need more that a piece of a tree to calculate the exact year it was felled. The dendrochronological gods were on their side, however, and the scientists found a small piece of park on one of the timbers that completed the annual tree ring record.

“This is a milestone in the history of the city of Trier,” said the director of Trier’s Rheinisches Landesmuseum, as the results of the findings were made public on Friday. […]

The fact that the ancient oak wood that was found could be dated to the winter of 169/170 AD was a “stroke of luck,” said Mechthild Neyses-Eiden, an expert in dendrochronology — the science of three-ring dating — who led the research at the Trier museum. At the time, wood was used for construction immediately after being felled, she explained.

Trier was founded by Augustus Caesar in 16 B.C., but very little is known about the first couple of centuries of its existence. (The orgy of destruction after unification didn’t help.) Finally getting a firm date for the Porta Nigra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an iconic symbol of the city, helps sharpen an otherwise very hazy picture.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Penn Museum training loot-detecting dogs

Thu, 2018-01-11 23:09

The Penn Museum is deploying one of nature’s highest precision weapons, the canine olfactory sense, in the fight against artifact looting. The museum, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the nonprofit Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research are working together on a project that will train dogs to detect and protect smuggled artifacts.

No longer a matter of local desperadoes trying to make a quick buck, artifact smuggling is big business now, generating an estimated four to six billion a year in blood-drenched profits for the criminal and terrorist organizations.

“[K-9 Artifact Finders is] an innovative way to disrupt the market in illicit antiquities, and that’s really what needs to happen to slow down the pace of looting and theft in conflict zones,” consulting scholar for the Penn Museum and 2000 Penn doctoral graduate Michael Danti said. “Currently, art crime, that means fine arts, antiques, antiquities, is usually ranked as the fourth or fifth largest grossing dollar criminal activity in the world on an annual basis.”

Danti said terrorist organizations often use stolen cultural artifacts to fund their operations, deliberately destroying them and using them for propaganda and “click-bait.” He added that high-profile groups like the Islamic State have continuously done this, setting a precedent for other similar organizations to employ the same techniques.

The K-9 Artifact Finders program is still in the initial setup phase at this point. The plan is divided into three parts, much like Caesar did to Gaul. To narrow down the almost impossibly broad range of smells associated with cultural heritage objects, trainers will focus on the Fertile Crescent which has been devastated by war, instability and increasingly professional organized criminals that treat the area’s immense cultural patrimony like their personal piggy bank. Penn Museum’s world-class collection of Mesopotamian artifacts will be invaluable in this pursuit.

Four dogs from the Working Dog Center’s, carefully selected for their noses and temperament, will learn to distinguish between up to three types of newly excavated objects. Once the dogs have completed the scent imprinting and recognize what they’re supposed to look for, the trainers will teach them to distinguish between different subsets of odor.

[Penn Vet professor Cynthia] Otto said there is a special procedure to introduce the smell of artifacts to dogs without compromising the artifacts.

“Our main training approach will be to use cotton balls and let the artifacts and cotton sit together in a closed non-permeable bag. That way the odor from the artifacts is absorbed by the cotton and we don’t have to risk damage to the artifacts,” Otto said. “We will also train the dogs to ignore the odor of the plain cotton and other things that might be similar but not the actual artifact.”

The second phase will be on-the-ground testing and the third a demonstration program that would give customs officers the tools to train their own K-9 units to find smuggled artifacts. Phases II and III don’t have all the funding they need yet. To make a tax deductible donation to help get the program from theory to practice, click here.

There are a lot of unknowns about this ground-breaking idea, like whether it’s even possible for dogs to distinguish between artifacts and things that smell like them due to a shared environment or what have you. I bet it is. One should never underestimate the power of the canine nose, and the anti-looter squad wouldn’t be the first dogs used in aid of archaeologists. Migaloo, a very good girl from Brisbane, Australia, was trained to detect human remains of archaeological age. Cadaver dogs have been around a long time, but Migaloo was the first to have the nose and the training to detect ossified remains, not decaying flesh. She found 600-year-old skeletal remains buried eight feet underground during one her tests.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First book remains found in Blackbeard’s ship

Wed, 2018-01-10 23:15

Conservators at the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab in Greenville, North Carolina, have discovered something they never expected to find on a shipwreck: paper, wadded up into a plug and stuffed down the barrel of a breech-loaded cannon, one that would have been fired by men under the command of infamous English pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. The Queen Anne’s Revenge was the flagship of his fleet. It ran aground in the treacherous waters of the Inner Banks of North Carolina in 1718 and was discovered in 1997.

The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources (NCDCR) conservation team have been cleaning, conserving and documenting artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck site off the coast of Beaufort Inlet since 2006, and committed to full recovery of all the archaeological materials in 2014. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of objects, 280,000 of them recovered before the decision was made to leave no Blackbeardiana behind. It was during the course of this ambitious project that the paper was found in the cannon.

These fragments survived 300 years on the coastal seabed of North Carolina because they were protected by being balled up tight in a confined space. The wadding and cannon coffin kept them from dissolving into nothingness. In that context, the waterlogging was the key to its preservation rather than a means of destruction.

That’s not to say that the paper was in tip-top shape and could be read like a Kindle. The QAR Lab’s artifact conservators teamed up with paper conservation experts, art conservators and scientists to do examine the mass. Upon closer examination, conservators found that the plug of sodden paper were all that was left of a book, tiny fragments of pages at the most the size of a quarter. Still, there was faint text still legible on some of the fragments.

With such small snippets to work with, researchers had to spend months investigating the source of the pages. They were finally able to identify it as the 1712 first edition of A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World by Captain Edward Cooke.

As the prolix full title indicates, the book documents Captain Cooke’s voyages undertaken in 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711. It’s a journal of routes, weather patterns, notable events, an atlas with current maps of coastlines, details on native flora and fauna and histories of the countries and their residents. The notable events have something of a recurring theme: the taking of “prizes,” meaning the overt and unrepentant assaults on Spanish treasure galleons along the Manilla route. Cooke talks about it constantly, which ships they took, when and where. It’s really something of pirate’s manual to despoiling Spanish shipping, truth be told, complete with essential navigation details of relatively fresh date. I can see why Blackbeard’s crew would be into it. The feeling would not have been mutual.

Cooke’s book was a “voyage narrative” describing his adventures on an expedition made by two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which sailed from Bristol, England in 1708. The expedition leader was Captain Woodes Rogers, who also published an account of the expedition, and who was later sent in 1718 as Royal Governor to rid the Bahamas of pirates.

Voyage narratives were popular literature in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, inspiring new voyages both real and fictional. Both Cooke’s and Rogers’ works describe the rescue of Alexander Selkirk from an island on which he had been marooned for four years. Selkirk’s story became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, “Robinson Crusoe.” Although books like these voyage narratives would have been relatively common on ships of the early 18th century, archaeological evidence for them is exceedingly rare, and this find represents a glimpse into the reading habits of a pirate crew.

This unique find from the wreckage of Queen Anne’s Revenge provides archaeological evidence for books carried on ships in the early 18th century, and adds to our knowledge of the history of Blackbeard’s flagship and those who sailed her. The historical record has several references to books aboard vessels in Blackbeard’s fleet, but provides no specific titles; this find is the first archaeological evidence for their presence on QAR.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

2,500-year-old dragon bed pieced back together

Tue, 2018-01-09 23:02

Dismantling, cleaning, conserving and coating the largest the expanse of medieval glass in the UK took a decade. Piecing together a single lacquer bed frame took almost two. The dragon bed was unearthed in 2000 from a tomb complex on Commercial Street in downtown Chengdu, capital of China’s southcentral Sichuan province, but it was not arranged for ease of interpretation. It was in pieces, various sections of it placed in multiple coffins. First the archaeologists had to locate every part — 45 in total, the largest more than 10 feet long, the smallest about eight inches long — and then they had to immediately conserve the water-logged wood to ensure it didn’t dry up, shrink, crack and suffer irremediable paint and lacquer loss.

For 10 years, from 2000 until 2010, the wood parts were kept underwater for their own protection. In 2010, the dehydration process began. The bed pieces were soaked in a combination of chemicals that replaced the water content with an air-stable waxy substance similar to the way PEG was used in the preservation of the Mary Rose. This stage took four years. Next was a very slow drying stage that according to national regulations must be carefully monitored to ensure there is no more than 5% shrinkage. The conservators at the Cultural Relics and Rehabilitation Center of the Chengdu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology managed to keep the shrinkage rate even lower than that, 3%.

Once dried and stabilized, the bed was ready for reconstruction. The problem was that it was hard to even know where to start, like a thousand piece jigsaw without a map on the underside of the box lid. Then the ghosts of Shu spoke to the engineers and conservators through little engraved icons near each joint. They look like a child’s line drawing, not proportional or to scale, more like symbols on a Mahjong set, but each symbol near a mortise has a match near a tenon. Fit the joints with the matching symbols together and you have yourself a 2,500-year-old dragon bed.

All told, it has taken 17 years, but they finally accomplished it. The lacquer bed is one majestic piece again, 2.55 meters (8.37 feet) long, 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) wide and 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) high. Named after the cinnabar dragons that decorate its long sides, the bed is the largest, oldest ancient lacquer bed ever discovered in China, and it is exceptionally well-preserved, with all of its original mortise and tenon joints still in fine functioning order.

“Parts of the bed were scattered in a number of boat-shaped coffins at the time of the discovery, and it took archeologists and their staff 17 years to restore the bed to its original form to the best of their ability, using various techniques,” said Xiao Lin, who heads the restoration department of the institute.

“Based on its structure and patterns, the bed is very likely to have been used by an ancient king of Shu State, who ruled the region in the early Warring States period 2,500 years ago,” said Yan Jinsong, an archeologist who headed the excavation work of the tomb complex. “The signs that makers left on the bed are highly related to the language used in the Shu State, offering new and valuable clues to archeologists keen to decode the mysterious ancient language.”

According to later chroniclers (all of whom were keen to connect their emperors or rulers with mythical godlike power figures of the distance past), the Bronze Age Shu culture has legendary antecedents going back thousands of years. There isn’t any archaeological evidence connecting the Shu to, say, the “Yellow Emperor,” but there are remains of settlements and artifacts dating as early as 2,000 B.C. By the 5th century B.C., the Shu kings were firmly established and founded Chengdu as their new capital. It’s around this time that the dragon bed was made, like for one of the Shu kings or princes. They didn’t have long to enjoy it. The Shu kingdom was conquered by the state of Qin in 316 B.C. during the Warring States period and victorious Qin general Zhang Yi rebuilt Chengdu.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Restoration of York Minster’s Great East Window complete

Mon, 2018-01-08 23:19

A decade after it began, the restoration and reinstallation of the Great East Window of York Minster is complete. The window was design by master glazier John Thornton of Coventry in the first decade of the 15th century. It only took him and the gifted assistants in his workshop three years, from 1405 until 1408, to design, cut and execute the sweeping, majestic richly colored vista of Biblical scenes from the Creation of the world in Genesis to the end of it in the Book of Revelation. He was paid £56 by the Chapter of York for this masterpiece.

Composed of 311 individual panes, the Great East Window is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the UK. Experts believe it also the largest depiction of the Apocalypse in the world. It survived German bombs in World War II, something Thornton’s windows in Coventry Cathedral were unable to do because while they were taken down for their protection and technically made it through the Blitz, they were stored haphazardly with no references whatsoever to their original configuration and so could not be pieced back together.

The window panes were last conserved after World War II, so a thorough refurbishment was very much in order. The Great East Window conservation became a key component of the York Minster Revealed project. In 2008, the experts at the York Glaziers Trust dismantled the window, taking down all 311 panels and removing them to their restoration lab. For five years, every individual piece of glass, large or small, was painstakingly studied, cleaned, conserved and examined in the Bedern Glaziers Studio where visitors could see the conservation team at work. Broken pieces and ones misplaced in previous conservation efforts were fixed. The latest and greatest protective coating was applied to keep the newly refreshed colors from fading or suffering damage from UV rays.

The cost of the restoration was £11.5 million, much of it contributed by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Between 2011 and 2017, conservators spent a cumulative 92,400 hours working to repair and protect the window for future generations. Halfway through, in 2015, the first half of the restored glass panels (157 of them) were returned to the window. Visitors could see the revived color in situ again. Gradually the other 154 panels were returned to their original locations in the Tracery and Old Testament areas.

The last of the 311 panes was installed on Tuesday, January 2nd, ushering in a very auspicious New Year. It was money and time very well-spent. The revived Great East Window is so pristine and vivid now it’s much easier to follow the complexity of the Biblical narrative, and the pioneering use of technology will be a template for future glazing restorations at York Minster and beyond.

Sarah Brown, Director at York Glaziers Trust, said: “This has been a once in a lifetime project for the team and it’s a huge privilege to be part of this milestone in the Minster’s history.

“The Great East Window is one of the great artistic achievements of the Middle Ages, a stunning expanse of stained glass of unparalleled size and beauty in Britain. The work undertaken as part of this project will ensure this masterpiece is preserved for hundreds of years to come.”

The Dean of York, The Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, added: “It’s a triumph to have the Great East Window complete once again and we look forward to seeing it in all its glory when the scaffolding is removed and the project formally completed in the spring.

“Its completion marks the start of a multi-million pound campaign in partnership with the York Minster Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to provide state-of-the-art protective glazing to all 128 of our medieval stained glass windows.

“It will take us 20 years to achieve this but the environmental protection will stop the corrosion and decay caused by the glass being exposed to the elements, buying us much needed time for vital conservation work which will preserve the irreplaceable windows for generations to come.”

The glass panels have all been returned to the Great East Window but there's still lots to be done at the East End to get it game-ready.
We'll keep you up to date on how things are looking ahead of the big reveal later in the year! #BehindTheScenes pic.twitter.com/fXKDwWkXkb

— York Minster (@York_Minster) January 5, 2018

Big start to the New Year for a big project! After 10 years, 311 panels & an average of 500 hours spent on each – the FINAL panel of the Great East Window is installed!
Well done to @yorkglaziers on a fantastic job

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The Making of a Roman Silver Cup

Sun, 2018-01-07 23:45

In 2014, the Getty Museum was fortunate enough to be allowed access to one of the world’s greatest Roman treasures: the silver hoard discovered by a farmer ploughing his field in Berthouville, Normandy, France, in 1830. An unprecendented assemblage of silver-gilt objects that epitomize the best Roman silversmithing had to offer, the plates, bowls, cups, pitchers, statuettes are crafted with high relief details, scenes from mythology and elaborate designs that were probably the dining set of an incredibly wealthy Roman. Inscriptions by the donor, one Quintus Domitius Tutus, dedicating them to the Gallo-Roman version of the god Mercury indicate they were later used for ritual purposes and deliberately buried, but first they were likely used to set a fabulously splendid banquet table.

The Getty Villa in Malibu played host to Berthouville’s most famous citizens starting in December 2010 as part of a collaboration with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to employ its own greatest assets — the deep bench of conservation experience and know-how — to conserve and restore the objects. They had been roughly handled in the initial cleaning back in the olden days of the 19th century, so they needed cleaning, restoration and punctilious research to revive their shine. The work Getty conservators did uncovered a great deal of new information about how Roman silversmiths worked and how 19th century restorers worked.

Because of their aid in restoring these precious objects, the Getty was given the sole opportunity to exhibit the treasure and other fine silver pieces from the collection of the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville ran from November 2014 through August 2015. It was the first time the Berthouville treasure has ever been allowed to leave France and very possibly the last.

I wrote about the exhibition at the time, but I missed the very cool YouTube video showing how Roman silversmiths would have created one of the exquisite cups in the treasure. There’s also a cool 3D rotating view of the Mercury statuette that is one the stars of the Berthouville show.

The video quality on this one leaves something to be desired, but the content sure doesn’t. It’s a lecture by Getty antiquities curator Kenneth Lapatin on the background of the Berthouville Treasure.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unique Roman game board found in 4th c. tomb in Slovakia

Sat, 2018-01-06 23:37

The accidental discovery of a 4th century burial in Poprad, Slovakia, in 2006 made national and international headlines for the exceptional richness of the find. Poprad, in the foothills of the High Tatra Mountains in northern Slovakia, is famed as a resort town and for its beautiful historic center, but this tomb was found by construction workers on a job site in an industrial area, not the historic center. Finding a tomb with a yew wood bed lined in sheets of silver was an unexpectedly thrilling surprise.

The individual buried was found to be a young adult male about 30 years old at the time of his death. He was born in the area where his body was interred, but he spent significant stretch of time in the Mediterranean. The tomb dates to around 375 A.D., just a few years before from Rome’s withdrawal west of the Danube and the end of the formerly friendly relationship between empire and the German tribes who inhabited what would become modern-day Slovakia.

Archaeologists think he may have served in the Roman army which was then hurtling towards disaster under pressure from barbarian migrations, both voluntary and Hun-driven, and dependent on the outer provinces and beyond for soldiers and mercenaries. He wouldn’t have been an infantry grunt. He was too wealthy and clearly a member of the elite of his own society. He was a person of rank, a prince or nobleman, the kind of person the Romans paid through the nose to fight for them as foederati, leaders of irregular units composed largely of their own men. The Visigoth king Alaric was one of those, until the emperor wouldn’t give him the command and lands he demanded so he sacked Rome to the bone not once, not twice, not thrice but four times. So was Childeric, King of the Franks.

If he did fight for Rome, that would explain his movements, his valuables, and one very special artifact found in his tomb: his game board. In a tomb full of shiny treasures and rare preserved organic objects like a wood desk, the discovery of the rectangular board with a proliferation of small incised squares and a few playing tokens of green and white generated enormous excitement. The type was unknown to the archaeologists and even after years of assiduous research, it is still something of a mystery.

“There were plenty of board games in ancient times with many variants, but reconstructing the playing technique is a very complicated process that only top experts can solve,” said the deputy of director of the Archaeological Institute in Nitra, Karol Pieta, as cited by the SITA newswire. Pieta lead the research on the tomb in Poprad. […]

“There has been not a playing board of similar type in Europe yet,” said Pieta for SITA. Games of this type were found in Greek and Roman temples on the floors or in the streets of ancient towns, carved into stone pavement. This portable wooden board game from Poprad is unique.

The team enlisted the aid of those experts, Ulrich Schädler, director of the (absolutely charming) Swiss Museum of Games on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Excited by the find, he was eager to get a closer view of the game and went to Slovakia to study it in person. His report is nothing short of glowing.

“The board game from the tomb of the German prince in Poprad is a great discovery and contribution to the history of games in Europe. It’s the best preserved ancient wooden board game that has been found to the north of the Mediterranean Sea. Together with Roman glass playing pieces it was apparently a prestigious object that documented contacts of the dead with the Roman world,” said Schädler, as quoted by SITA.

An analysis of the playing pieces revealed that it is ancient glass from the east Mediterranean, probably from Syria. “So the game was apparently brought from the territory of the Roman empire to under the Tatras,” added Pieta for SITA.

The game board will go on display at an exhibition dedicated to the contents of the tomb later this year at the Podtatranské Museum in Poprad.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Largest early world map stitched together virtually

Fri, 2018-01-05 23:49

The largest known early map of the world has been digitally stitched together into one single glorious panorama of exotic far-flung lands and mythical creatures. This virtual parturition births into the world the cartographic baby of Urbano Monte, a 16th century geographer who created the planisphere in 1587. The 60-page manuscript covered depicted all the known world from the North Pole to the much conjecture but still unknown Terra Australis way down south. The 60 manuscript pages when put together to create the complete top-down view of the earth Monte envisioned are 10 feet by 10 feet, the largest early non-mural map known.

That’s not its only intriguing attribute. It’s a North Polar projection, aka an azimuthal equidistant projection which accurately positions landmasses along global meridians. While there are a few examples of the form before Monte’s planisphere, his use of the North Polar projection in this map was a major step forward and later cartographers borrowed from it liberally. He drew every part of the map by hand on those 60 sheets, labelling every land mass, every hill, every dale, every river, country, ship and coastline, practically every tree. There are charts that record the length of days and nights during the year, the strength of the sun’s rays at different times, a lunar eclipse, a wind chart and many tidy explanations of geographic nomenclature and concepts. It is unreal, and I’m not just saying that because of the mutant fish monsters and mermen living it up in the Terra Austraulis Ignonita, which appears to have basically been Vegas before Bugsy Siegal.

It was this information dense by design. Monte included information on weather, topographic data, the amount of daylight, and tons more because he wanted it to be the complete resource for the learned statesman, a scientific planisphere that was to be secured in a wood panel and revolve above the heads of viewers via a pin through the North Pole, a slowly turning planet, if you will. The revolving map was another innovation of Monte’s.

Unfortunately he never did put the manuscript sheets together and create his great masterpiece. The masterpiece has remained bound in Italian sheep leather for 430 years. (There are two other manuscripts known, one with missing areas, the other a later one of 64 pages.) Making Urbano Monte’s dream come true is now possible without destruction, as long as you have the expertise, resources and dedication to put in the many hours of work takes. The David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford University recently acquired the manuscript and has been digitizing its pages. They’ve done a spectacular job and the end result is an online resource that allows visitors to zoom in to enormously high resolution images of each page as well as to see a digital composite of the pages in their proper order, assembled just the way Monte instructed on one of the pages of the planisphere. There’s a top-down view of the 10×10 square map, several reprojections that map the virtual map on to the globe, as a Mercator projection, etc. Every label is easily readable thanks to the zoom, resolution and Monte’s elegant, clear-as-a-bell handwriting. It’s a digital masterpiece of an analog masterpiece.

When we georeference Monte’s map and then re-project it into Mercator projection we immediately understand why he used the north polar projection instead of Mercator’s: Monte wanted to show the entire earth as close as possible to a three-dimensional sphere using a two-dimensional surface. His projection does just that, notwithstanding the distortions around the south pole. Those same distortions exist in the Mercator’s world map, and by their outsized prominence on Monte’s map they gave him a vast area to indulge in all the speculations about Antarctica that proliferated in geographical descriptions in the 16th century. While Mercator’s projection became standard in years to come due to its ability to accurately measure distance and bearing, Monte’s polar projection gave a better view of the relationships of the continents and oceans. In the 20th century air age, the polar projection returned as a favored way to show the earth. Monte would have been pleased to see a modern version of his map used in the official emblem of the United Nations.

That is totally cromulent map. Imaging making something even remotely that accurate with colored pencils and 60 sheets of paper (well, sheepskin). You must browse through every page of this map and zoom way in to the spot all the animals, monarchs on thrones, irate mermen, even the aritst himself in not one, but two self-portraits. It’s too good not to be enjoyed in all its glory. Then you can pay homage to the master by seeing it look incredible connected as he had intended it to be 430 years ago. It’s been a long time in coming.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Wellcome acquires elegant portrait of luxuriously bearded woman

Thu, 2018-01-04 23:35

The Wellcome Collection, the free museum and library founded by pharmacist and medicalia collector Sir Henry Wellcome is surely one of the most wide-ranging, fascinating and vibrant museums in London. It has just added another gem to the millions: an oil painting of Barbara van Beck, a 17th century artist and business woman who made a splash in European and British high society thanks to her talent, grace and hairiness, largely the last of these.

Van Beck had hypertrichosis or Ambras syndrome, a genetic condition that cause thick hair growth in places where it doesn’t normally grow on humans. Barbara’s long, silky chestnut hair covered her face, from forehead to nose to chin. Combined with her fine figure and excellence on the harpsichord, her concerts and performances were a big draw, attended in theaters and drawing rooms instead of the dingy carnival sideshows “bearded women” would be relegated to in later centuries. Her condition made her stand out — people loved to see her the juxtaposition of biological oddity, fashion plate and accomplished lady — but it was her ability to perform artistically as well as socially that garnered her such appreciative and well-heeled audiences.

Diarist John Evelyn records attending one such performance in London in his entry of September 15, 1657:

I saw the hairy woman, twenty years old, whom I had before seen when a child. She was born at Augsburg, in Germany.
Her very eyebrows were combed upward, and all her forehead as thick and even as grows on any woman’s head, neatly dressed ; a very long lock of hair out of each ear; she had also a most prolix beard, and moustachios, with long locks growing on the middle of her nose, like an Iceland dog exactly, the color of a bright brown, fine as well-dressed flax. She was now married, and told me she had one child that was not hairy, nor were any of her parents, or relations. She was very well shaped, and played well on the harpsichord.

She worked consistently for decades, was a bona fide celebrity and widely depicted even long after her death. The Wellcome has five prints of van Beck already in its collection. Engraver Richard Gaywood’s 1656 portrait of her standing by a harpsichord, her hands posed delicately on the keys, was widely circulated and copied by later artists. The newly acquired oil painting predates Gaywood’s engraving by 10 years or so. It is the first painting of van Beck in the Wellcome Collection and is of very high quality.

“We don’t know who painted the portrait, or where, when or for whom, but the point of it is Barbara’s dignity,” Angela McShane, Wellcome’s research development manager, said. “This is a beautifully executed high-status painting. She is not portrayed as a freak as the Victorians would have described her – as I often say when lecturing, you can blame the Victorians for most things – but as a woman with great self-possession and presence, painted at a time when she would have been viewed, as Evelyn saw her, as wonderful, a natural wonder.”

“There is nothing titillating about her low-cut dress either, though we might now see it that way. She is dressed is in the highest fashion of the day and contemporary viewers would have recognised that.”

That is a tribute to her gifts and perseverance. Her life could have easily taken a very different path. Barbara van Beck was born Barbara Ursler in Augsburg, Bavaria, in 1629. As Evelyn alludes to, by the time she was eight years old her parents were exhibiting her in traveling shows, but either did not neglect her education or she used her wits to get one herself by whatever means were on offer. As an adult she was highly cultured, spoke several languages and had traveled extensively.

It was also fortunate timing. Given how people with such visible conditions were often treated before and after her (called demons, ostracized, made to live in squalor, put on display like zoo animals from cradle to coffin), Barbara van Beck was lucky to have been born during a window of time starting in the late 16th century when monarchs, aristocrats and high society developed a keen interest in anomalous configurations of the human body. It was part of the cabinet of curiosities ethos, collecting oddities of biology, minerology, archaeology, geology. If it was deemed exotic, some king wanted to display it. Indeed, it is eminently possible that the oil painting of van Beck was commissioned for one of those aristocratic collections, perhaps even the most famous of them all.

[The condition] was named for Ambras castle in Innsbruck, where Ferdinand II, the archduke of Austria, had created a famous cabinet of curiosities – still open to the public – which included portraits of people with unusual medical conditions such as hirsutism. The portrait of Van Beck is of such high quality that McShane wonders if it could have been in the collection at some point after Ferdinand’s death.

“We know nothing of Barbara’s life after that meeting in London. She disappears from history. There is no reason why she wouldn’t have had a normal lifespan. If you survived to 10 years old, you were highly likely to make it to 60. There must be more records of her out there somewhere, a research project waiting for somebody.”

The portrait is not yet on display. It needs some love of the cleaning and conservation type which the Wellcome Collection staff are currently giving it. The plan is for the work to go on public display early this year. It will also be a featured player at the Culture of Beauty conference at the Wellcome later in 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

“Templar Stone” found to predate Templars

Wed, 2018-01-03 23:49

A stone long believed to be a medieval artifact associated with the Templar Knights has been revealed to be older, cooler and to bear no relation to the military order of monks. The stone is one three long burial slabs with faint carvings on the surface that now reside outside the Inchinnan Parish Church in Renfrewshire, Scotland, next to a group of 10 slabs known as the Templar Stones. Originally located in the kirkyard of the defunct All Hallows Church, a Templar church in the 12th century, the stones were believed to date from around that time and the carvings to something mysteriously Templar-related.

Templar stones (Inchinnan)
by Spectrum Heritage
on Sketchfab

The Templar Knights have long been associated with secrets and mysteries — strange rituals, intrigues and depravities, and lots and lots of money. Founded in 1119, the Knights Templar gained great renown as crusaders, but the vast majority of them never picked up a weapon. A bookkeeping ledger was more their speed and they built a banking business that counted the highest authorities secular and ecclesiastical as clients. That’s all fine and dandy when you’re winning battles, carousing unsupervised and reputedly engaging in occult and mysterious initiation rituals. Not so much when you look like God has forsaken you because you lost the Holy Land. That’s when the order became a target for a very crowned, very truculent, very determined enemies who happened to be in debt to them up to their eyeballs. The Templars had accumulated so much wealth and power in the world of high finance that in 1307, seeing an opening in the escalating rumors of weird initiation rites, King Philip IV of France arrested, tortured and executed all the Templars he could find. He also confiscated their ample stuff and prevailed upon the Pope to officially disband the order. This is how kings get their enormous debts written off.

All Hallows Church continued on after the demise of its founding order in different hands. The church was rebuilt repeatedly, the last time in the early 20th century, and the burial stones remained in place. It was only in 1965 when the last All Hallows was demolished to make room for the runway tarmac of Glasgow Airport that the Templar Stones were moved to the nearby Inchinnan Parish Church where they still abide 50+ years later.

It was this connection to All Hallows Church that inspired the discovery that at least one of the engraved stones was not what people had thought it was. Digital graphic recreation experts Spectrum Heritage, in collaboration with the Inchinnan Historical Interest Group (IHIG), have been working on a creating a digital 3D reconstruction of the last All Hallows. They sifted through archives, records, blueprints, old artworks, photographs, anything that might give them some data to create an accurate model. As part of the project, IHIG arranged for a community archaeology dig manned by volunteers from seniors to children to excavate the site of the former All Hallows.

Before it was a grassy patch underneath the flight path of jets, the site of the long-gone All Hallows Church was the location of earlier religious structures itself. The Inchinnan Old Parish Church was built there in early Middle Ages and dedicated to St. Conval, founder a monastery believed to have been established in the area around 600 A.D. and whose body said to have been buried in the church.

Inchinnan 1. Recumbent grave-slab.
by Spectrum Heritage
on Sketchfab

As a part of the ‘St Conval to All Hallows’ community archaeology project, Clara Molina Sanchez (Spectrum Heritage) has been using a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on the burial stones to bring out the worn detail which is no longer visible to the naked eye. Megan Kasten (a PhD student from the University of Glasgow) has been studying the many carved stones at Govan Old church and wanted to compare these with the stones at Inchinnan. Earlier this month she examined the 3D models from Inchinnan closely and to her surprise noticed that one stone had a cross on the top third of the stone and faint panels of interlace. […]

This discovery adds to the existing three large carved stones decorated with crosses, carved animals and interlace that are characteristic of a group of sculpture that is typically referred to as the ‘Govan School’ of carving. These stones date to the 9th to 12th century when All Hallows, along with Govan and Dumbarton Rock, were places of burial for the elite of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. […]

All the stones have decorations and/or inscriptions, which are generally not visible to the naked eye. To make these carvings visible, two different digital documentation techniques were used. Firstly, photogrammetry was used to accurately capture the shape of the stones. In this case, the colour of the biological growth makes it harder to see the details on the surface, but, by ‘deactivating’ it, the different carvings of swords, crosses and inscriptions can now be seen.

The second technique, RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging) is a multi-image technique that provides very detailed information on the surface of a material. RTI files allow the user to explore the surface of the material virtually with different lighting conditions. In this case, a Virtual RTI was created from the photogrammetric models. And to do that, a digital dome made up of 93 lights was placed over the 3D models, thus creating an image for every light. These images were processed, which in turn produced an RTI file for each one of the stones. This made it possible to obtain information about the stones’ decorations that can also complement the photogrammetry itself. The combination of both techniques has been proven to be a very valuable tool to unveil details of the surface invisible otherwise to the naked eye.

Inchinnan 2. Cross-shaft fragment
by Spectrum Heritage
on Sketchfab

There is very little material in the archaeological or historical record about the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Any information we can glean from new technology to recover knowledge lost, eroded by time and the elements, will make it possible to paint a broader, more accurate historical picture of this little known period.

Inchinnan 3. Recumbent cross-slab / shrine cover
by Spectrum Heritage
on Sketchfab

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Inadvertant looter returns Toronto’s oldest artifact to city 82 years later

Tue, 2018-01-02 23:47

Jeanne Carter was a little girl in 1935 when the 10-year-old spotted an interesting stone object walking on the road towards Toronto’s historic Fort York, newly opened as a public park after centuries as a military installation. She picked it up, noted its neat triangular shape, mused that it might be an arrowhead of some kind, a souvenir perhaps, put it in her pocket and went about her business. She continued to go about her business for eight more decades, keeping the little object for all that time in her mother’s handsome long mahogany box of assorted treasures and knick-knacks.

That field trip to the new Fort York park turned out to be even formative that she realized. As an adult, Carter’s love of history inspired her to volunteer for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). In 1957 she co-founded of a volunteer committee at the museum and led tours to countries all over the world. Today at 92 years old, she is the longest-serving volunteer at ROM. On a whim, because she had no idea just how much of a treasure her little treasure was, Jeanne Carter had the arrowhead examined by a historian friend.

“I thought it was an arrowhead or something, but nothing more than a souvenir,” said Carter, now 92.

A few weeks ago she learned it is not only an arrowhead, but also between 4,000 and 6,000 years old, originating from some of the region’s first Indigenous people from the Archaic period (8,000 to 1,000 BC).

“I nearly fainted,” Carter said of when she heard the news.

Her friend passed the arrowhead along to city historian Richard Gerrard who confirmed its advanced age and some unusual qualities.

“The material it’s made out of, quartzite, is strange for this part of Ontario,” Richard Gerrard, a historian with Museum and Heritage Services and a trained archeologist. “And finding anything that old sitting on the ground is special and has a wonderful story.”

The arrowhead, with slightly rippled, sharpened edges, would have been attached to a wooden shaft and used for hunting, but because of its age, it’s impossible to know what tribe would have used it, or any other details, said Gerrard.

Ancient arrowheads are not a common find in the area, not now and not in 1935. Only four total are known to have been discovered at Fort York, and the other three were all unearthed by archaeologists in official excavations. Unlike the archaeologists, Jeanne didn’t dig an inch to find hers. Historians think her smashing find was the result of construction work at Fort York. In 1935 the site was transitioning from active military to site to public part, so it’s likely that installation of infrastructure like a water or sewer pipe happened to churn the soil where the arrowhead lived and bump it to the top of the road for a little girl to treasure for her whole life.

She has been an outstanding custodian of the artifact, keeping it excellent condition and out of the digestive tracts of a number of children and grandchildren. When she realized how important it was, she immediately gave it to the city.

“I never dreamed it was important to Toronto or Ontario,” Carter said.[…]

The arrowhead is now among the more than 1 million historical objects and archeological artifacts held by the city. The vast majority are in storage, while some are on display at the city’s 10 site museums, like Fort York.

Many of the city’s artifacts were found in archeological digs at historic sites or development projects throughout Toronto, and will be held and preserved indefinitely.

“Material recovered archeologically tells the city’s story and reflects the First Nations presence over thousands of years,” said Wayne Reeves, the chief curator of Museums and Heritage Services for the City of Toronto. “No paper record was left by those early inhabitants, so knowing their story through archeological specimens is essential.”

The arrowhead is so special it will be one of the select few objects that go on public display. It is destined for exhibition at Fort York, probably summer of 2018, where Carter plans to be the first in line to visit it.

Meanwhile, another historic fort on the opposite side of the continent is doing something too cool not to report despite its utter lack of connecting thread to the above story. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington, is offering 19th century sabre training classes to the public. The sword was used by Army mounted dragoons in the 1850s and there were Army dragoons garrisoned at the fort at that time. Historians have confirmed that the men of E Company of the 1st Regiment of Dragoons were transferred to Fort Vancouver from Southern Oregon in 1855, likely fresh from the fight in the Rogue River Indian Wars. They were stationed there for about a year before being sent to Walla Walla where they built the eponymous fort.

That means when you sign up for Basic 1 (footwork, solo and partner drills, offensive cuts and thrusts, defensive guards and parries) or, for the more advanced student of the bladed arts, Basic 2 (more and harder solo and partner drills, perfecting technique), you’ll be tracing the steps of long-gone infantrymen, learning a skill that was their bread and butter even before the Civil War.

The classes will be held on seven consecutive Sundays from January 21st through March 4th. Basic 1 classes start at 3PM; Basic 2 at 5PM. The both run an hour and a half long. The fee is $100 per course, payable to Academia Duellatoria, a Portland historical fencing school whose staff will run the classes. Payment must be made by check or PayPal before classes start. (Contact Jeff Richardson of Academia Duellatoria at 503-888-9310 or by email) to book your spot. Training sabers and protective gear will be provided.

Here’s the best part: Anybody who sees both courses through to the end can join the fort’s team of volunteer reenactors at living history events. The class isn’t just a mechanical lesson on saber rattling. The whole point is to teach students about how the weapon was used by dragoons in the 1850s at Fort Vancouver and elsewhere, all the historical background you’d need to be able to relay to visitors in a reenactment scenario.

P.S. Oh man, Zorro and Italian longsword classes! Be still my beating heart. (Strictly a metaphor. Please do not jab me in the chest with the pointy end.)

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

2nd. c. Chinese bronze mirror found in Japan in perfect condition

Mon, 2018-01-01 21:33

Archaeologists excavating the Nakashima archaeological site in Fukuoka City, Japan, have unearthed an ancient Chinese bronze mirror in exceptional condition. Dating to about 1,000 years ago, the late Yayoi Pottery Culture period (300 B.C.-300 A.D.), the mirror was discovered in Fukuoka’s Hakata Ward. The modern-day city and its environs formed the core of the ancient state of Nakoku or Na, a small kingdom on the island of Kyushu that was governed independently of the state of Wa (the rest of modern-day Japan) from the 1st through the early 3rd century.

Nakoku had close ties to the Chinese Han dynasty and for centuries after its demise, most of what was known about Na came from reports in ancient Chinese chronicles. According to a chronicle of the Han Dynasty written by court historians during the Liu Song dynasty (5th century), in 57 A.D. the state of Na sent a high envoy to pay tribute to the Han Emperor Guangwu. In return, the emperor gave the envoy an imperial seal made of solid gold for his king, a version of the jade seals crafted for the emperors themselves. The gold block seal was discovered by farmers on Shikanoshima Island in 1784, confirming for the first time with archaeological evidence the story in the ancient histories. It was inscribed with sublime simplicity making it instantly identifiable: “From the King of] Han, presented to the King of Nakoku.” The seal is now on permanent display at the Fukuoka City Museum and the find site is an archaeological park dedicated to the discovery of the national treasure.

The bronze mirror isn’t 95.1% gold and doesn’t have an inscription from the Chinese emperor to King on it, but it is very much a rare and precious thing, thanks largely to how unprecedentedly intact and well-preserved it is. It dates to the first part of the 2nd century A.D., around the time when chroniclers record China and Na were engaged in the slave trade together (107 A.D.). Whether connected to that trade or another, a treasure for a high official bearing tribute or diplomatic gift, this mirror was a luxurious object then and is even more so now that it is an impossibly rare survivor.

The bronze mirror, manufactured in China during the Later Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220), carries patterns that classify it as a “linked-arc mirror.” It measures 11.3 centimeters across, and its surface is inscribed with text that reads, “chang yi zisun,” which means, “to benefit future generations forever.”

The mirror was unearthed in April, together with earthenware from sometime around the middle of the late Yayoi period, from a depth of some 2 meters beneath a former village site.

While most ancient mirrors datable to similar periods are typically found broken and covered with patina, this specific one was found whole, unpatinated, and in such good condition that it still reflects the viewer’s face, albeit vaguely. It is believed a humid environment prevented it from oxidation. […]

Hidenori Okamura, a professor of Chinese archaeology with Kyoto University, said, “The find site is not a tomb, so the mirror may have been used in religious rites. The find will also serve as a material for precisely determining the shaky date of the late Yayoi period.”

The mirror is now on display to the public at the Fukuoka City Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Happy New Year’s Eve!

Sun, 2017-12-31 12:06

May Janus make his two (or four) faces to shine down upon your endeavours. May Bacchus’ leopard-drawn chariot safely convey you in whatever condition you happen to find yourself to and from your destinations. May you ring in the New Year with people you love, or at least people you don’t actively hate, and when the clock strikes midnight, raise a glass to we many, we happy many history nerds. Long may we drone on about our favorite subjects to our friends and family until they beg us to shut up for just one second or stuff their ears with dinner table napkins. Hey, it’s a gift.

We’ll meet back here tomorrow for a new post, the yearly retrospective that has become such a firmly established tradition for me now that it wouldn’t feel like the year has turned without it. Have a wonderful night!

P.S. – Aw, I can’t leave you with nothing at all to while away the time between breakfast and party. Janus, donchaknow. One looks back even as one looks forward.

This is a nifty 3D digitial reconstruction of St. Salvator’s Quad and Chapel at the University of St Andrews. The great spire of St. Salvator’s is original to the 15th century structure, but the rest of the quad today bears little resemblance to what it looked like when it opened in 1450. It was altered irrevocably starting with the great upheavals of the Reformation in Scotland, and indeed, a pivotal event in that history took place in the quad: the burning at the state of Patrick Hamilton, a 24-year-old scholar and advocate of the ideas of Martin Luther. He who was the first person condemned to die and executed for espousing Protestantism in Scotland. That was 1528.

With the 500the anniversary of the Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg castle, University of St Andrews researchers collaborated with Smart History to set the scene virtually so we could get an idea of what St. Salvator’s looked like in its medieval heyday.

St Salvators – St Andrews 1559 from Smart History on Vimeo.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History