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Repton Viking camp is larger, older than realized

Sun, 2017-11-26 23:55

Archaeologists have unearthed weapons fragments, artifacts and the remains of workshops from a 9th century Viking camp next to St Wystan’s Church in Repton, Derbyshire. The University of Bristol team discovered the objects in the garden of the Vicarage adjacent to the church and were able to date by them precisely to the winter of 873-4, thanks to the application of cutting edge technology to retest bones from a mass grave found a few feet from the new dig site in the 1980s.

Archaeologists had long suspected that there might be a Viking camp there because it’s in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: The Great Army “moved from Lindsey to Repton and there took winter quarters” in 873. They relieved the King of Mercia, Burghred, of his heavy crown and took his kingdom. They let him keep his head, at least; he was simply expelled from Mercia. A location on the River Trent seemed likely. River access is probably one the main reasons they moved to Repton and set up a camp for the winter in the first place; the presence of a large and wealthy monastery on the banks of the Trent that contained the tombs and mortal remains of several Mercian kings was another good incentive.

In 1975, archaeologists excavating near the church on the banks of the Trent for the Viking camp site referred to in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thought they’d found what they had been seeking. They unearthed the remains of a medieval D-shaped enclosure built after the monastery. Dig co-leaders Professor Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle thought the enclosure and artifacts indicated this was indeed the Repton Viking Camp. The only problem was finding hard evidence of it. For a Viking camp, it was uncharacteristically tiny at about 1.5 hectares in surface area. Other Great Army camps are far larger, like the one at Torksey which is 26 hectares in area.

Additional archaeological explorations of the site in the 1980s made another major discovery: a mound containing a mass charnel grave with the remains of more than 300 people. Researchers believed them to be Vikings killed in battle, but radiocarbon testing dated the remains in the 7th or 8th centuries, so at least a century too early to be part of the Great Army.

In pursuit of fresh information regarding the size of the camp, University of Bristol doctoral candidate Cat Jarman and Professor Mark Horton of the University’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology picked a location on the west side of the enclosure and just outside of the boundary to see if there were other structures or other evidence of Viking occupation.

Geophysics, including ground penetrating radar, revealed structures including paths and possible temporary buildings.

Excavations showed these to be gravel platforms that may have held ephemeral timber structures or tents with deposits including fragments of Saxon millstones and a cross fragment from the monastery.

Associated were broken pieces of weaponry, including fragments of a battle-axes and arrows, and evidence for metal working. Also found were substantial numbers of nails, two of which had roves, the particular feature of Viking ship nails, as well as several lead gaming pieces. These are of a type that has been found in large numbers at the camp in Torksey and appear to be specifically connected to the early Viking armies.

Cat Jarman … said: “Our dig shows there was a lot more to the Viking Camp at Repton than what we may have thought in the past. It covered a much larger area than was once presumed – at least the area of the earlier monastery – and we are now starting to understand the wide range of activities that toonok place in these camps.”

As significant as they are, artifacts and structural remains alone could not provide archaeologist with the date evidence they needed. It was the bones from the charnel mound, found a few yards north of the most recent excavation, that stepped up to the plate. It’s not the 1980s anymore, and radiocarbon dating technology is more advanced and precise today than it was then. It also requires far smaller samples. We also have stable isotope analysis now which allows researchers to determine from levels of certain isotopes in the teeth where a person was born and raised, what kind of food he or she ate and more.

Jarman’s latest and greatest radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis results found that not only are the bones 9th century, but they died in the winter of 873-4, just when The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the Vikings set up camp in Repton. They also found a direct connection between the remains of the workshop and the charnel mound.

The remains were placed in a deliberately damaged Saxon building along with Viking weapons and artefacts.

The building also contained evidence of use as a workshop by the Vikings before it was converted into a charnel house.

The Bristol team located a path linking their workshop area and the charnel house, further strengthening the link between the two.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

LoC acquires, digitizes rare Mesoamerican map

Sat, 2017-11-25 23:38

The Library of Congress has acquired an extremely rare manuscript map created by the Nahuatl people of Mexico in 1593. The Codex Quetzalecatzin, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec, is one of very few manuscripts by indigenous Mesoamericans survive unburned, largely because it wasn’t part of the immense literary patrimony of pre-Hispanic cultures that was considered “demonic” because of its hieroglyphics, but rather the product of the Relaciones Geográficas, an extensive mapping project of colonial Spanish America ordered by King Philip II the late 16th century. Surveys sent to colonial authorities in every territory had to be filled in with a range of demographic, geographic, topographic and cartographic information, complete with an accurate and to-scale map of the area. The maps and much of the information on them were made by indigenous people based on local knowledge.

The codex maps southern Puebla from Ecatepec, today a suburb of Mexico City to the church of Santa Cruz Huitziltepec and across the provincial border into northern Oaxaca. It’s drawn in iron gall ink and painted in watercolors on paper. It is rich with hieroglyphics, colorful and compelling drawings and text labelling people and locations in Spanish and in romanized Nahuatl. While we don’t know the name of the artist/s and writers who made the Codex Quetzalecatzin, it does include unique geneaological information about an important local family — several generations of the Nahuatl “de Leon” family from 1480 through 1593 — and the interweaving of indigenous and Spanish cultures in the century after Christopher Columbus.

[T]he Librarian stated: “The acquisition of the map, because of its relevance to the early history of the European contact with the indigenous people of America, makes an important addition to the early American treasures at the Library of Congress, including the Oztoticpac Lands Map and the Huexotzinco Codex. It’s a rare document of world history and American history in general.” […]

As with many Nahua, indigenous group, manuscript maps of the period, the Codex Quetzalecatzin depicts the local community at an important point in its history and the iconography that makes up the map reflects some Spanish influence.

“The codex shows graphically the kinds of cultural interactions taking place at an important moment in American history,” said John Hessler, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection for the archaeology of the early Americas of the Library of Congress. “In a sense, we see the birth of what would be the start of what we would come to know as the Americas.”

Hessler added: “The codex relates to the extent of land ownership and properties of the family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are portrayed on the manuscript. With Aztec stylized graphics, the map illustrates the family’s genealogy and its descent from Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480 was the major political leader of the region. It also shows churches, some Spanish place names and images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish law and rule.”

In the codex, certain features that point to indigenous authorship include pre-Hispanic stylistics, such as symbols for rivers, roads and pathways, and hieroglyphic writing. The marginal notations with alphabetic writing utilizing the Latin alphabet and the names of some of the indigenous elites, such as “don Alonso” and “don Matheo,” are clues to its colonial era composition. This is evidence that some indigenous people enjoyed the Spanish title “don” and had been baptized with Christian names.

The LoC has digitized the map and uploaded it to its website, which in case you haven’t seen it yet is one of the greatest photographic archives on the Internet and has been for years, long before other institutions got on the bandwagon of making high-resolution images available online to the general public. It’s so great, in fact, that I couldn’t even upload the full image to this article because it’s so gloriously gigantic my server can’t handle it. I mean, of course I uploaded a gigantic version, but it’s less than half the size of the original behemoth. Behold it in all its grandeur here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

A Black Friday sale actually worth spending money on

Fri, 2017-11-24 07:00

In a shocking development, there was one single advertisment in the avalanche of Black Friday gimmick sales spam currently suffocating my email inbox that is actually worth sharing with people of the history nerdly persuasion. I’ve written before about Exhibition on Screen productions, films capturing the background and execution of blockbuster art exhibitions. I’ve only had the opportunity to watch one of them on the big screen, but if I’d had my way, I would have watched them all. The distribution is just very limited is all.

For one day only, ie, today, Friday, November 24th, every film in stock on their website is 50% off. Some of them are on DVD and only available in PAL format so they won’t work in most players in the US. Many of them are digital downloads which are a) easily viewed anywhere in the world, and b) cheap as hell. I’m limbering up my clickin’ finger because there’s going to be a lot of compensatory binging in my near future. I might be amenable to burning them as a stocking stuffers, but I make no guaratees.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, Michelangelo – Love and Death, The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them, The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch, Girl with a Pearl Earring – and other treasures from the Mauritshuis and Leonardo from the National Gallery London will all be mine. Oh yes. They will be mine. For less than $3.50 a pop.

My one crushing disappointment is that their Domus Aurea documentary is out of stock. You would not believe how little material is out there about the recent restoration and new virtual reality exhibition of Nero’s Golden House. The site doesn’t have a bookstore and the general bookstore had diddly squat about the palace beyond a few cheesy pages in a tour book that didn’t even begin to touch on all the new archaeological information and technology.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Any trouser-clad women in your old family photo albums?

Thu, 2017-11-23 22:26

For those of you in who celebrate it, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving full of good times, good food and only slightly deranged arguments that stopped well short of fisticuffs. I have family history on my mind today, thanks in large part to my father taking a moment before we gorged on a wide selection of fine viands to note that the house had been in our family for 106 years and Thanksgiving had been celebrated in it that whole time. His mother grew up there and even when she got married and had kids of her own, they always went to her parents’ house for TG. My father remembers fondly going every year as a child and youth when his grandmother hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Now that my parents live there, they have carried on the century-old tradition with great verve. Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday and they make a real production out of it every year.

Family lore always make me happy, so before the tryptophan knocks me unconscious more thoroughly than any fisticuffs ever could, I feel compelled to encourage you to check out Women in Trousers: A Visual Archive, a Cardiff University project that is collecting and digitizing images of daring, hard-working, all-around badass women who wore a variety of transgressive bifurcated garments from bloomers to Edwardian trouser skirts where you barely tell there are trousers under there to wide-legged jeans from the 40s. The archive is populated with all kinds of images — drawings, illustrations from periodicals, photographs of women on the job, advocating dress reform or simple in costume — from the mid-19th century to the 1960s. While the imagery focuses on the wearing of trousers, the project’s brief is a wider one: women’s social and political history and the evolution of dress reform in Britain, Europe and America.

The archive is already a fantastic browse but it is still far from finished, and the authors have appealed to the public to submit any photographs and stories they might have of women in their families wearing pants. The ones that have been uploaded so far are universally grand. The Land Girls from WWII are probably my favorites because of how cheerful and tough they were, but I love the ones on ski trips, on the boardwalk and in plays just living their lives and having a blast.

I’m going to go through my grandmother’s old black paper albums and look for a picture I remember seeing as a child of my great-grandmother — a Connecticut Yankee in the most authentic sense of the word who could shoot a rattlesnake through the eye from 100 yards, canned everything that wasn’t nailed down and used an outhouse until the very end of her long life. She was tough as nails but smiled constantly, always had a twinkle in her eye and a funny story for her great-grandkids. She also had a cast iron hand-pump that was the sole source of water inside the house. I was fascinated by it because it seemed like something in a play or on Little House on the Prairie, totally outside my experience and oh man the water was so, so cold. And rusty. She washed in it every day, bless her bulletproof hide.

I hope I can find that pic of her wearing pants because I would love to add her distinctiveness to the archive. With the holidays coming up, now’s a great opportunity to rifle through dusty closets and drawers for photographic evidence of the kickass trouser-clad women in your family. It would be worth it just for the conversations that the pursuit might stimulate, especially with the senior members of your clan.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Fancy chariot and horse burial found in central China

Wed, 2017-11-22 23:57


Archaeologists have found four ancient chariots and the remains of nearly 100 horses buried in a tomb in Xinzheng City, Henan province, central China. The chariots date to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) and one of them in particular is an exceptional example of a luxurious vehicle with all the bells and whistles of the era. It’s huge, 2.56 meters (about 8’5″) long and 1.66 meters (about 5’5″) wide, and was elegantly appointed with bronze and bone decorations. The chariot has set a new record as the largest ancient horse-drawn vehicle discovered in Xinzheng City, which is saying something because more than 3,000 tombs have been unearthed in the area, including chariot and horse burials.

Scientists believe the tomb may have belonged to a noble family of the Zheng state (806–375 BC), which was a vassal kingdom that governed this part of central China during the Zhou dynasty (1100–221 BC). […]

The leader of the dig, Ma Juncai, told Xinhua that no written records have so far been uncovered at the site, making it unclear who the burial pit belonged to, but archaeologists think it likely to have been the funeral site for a Zheng lord.

The site was first excavated in 2001. Two pits were revealed by the dig back then, but work was interrupted for 16 years until archaeologists were finally able to return to the location and pick up where they left off in February 2017. Over the nine months they’ve been excavating, archaeologists have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 90 horses in addition to the four chariots. Pit 3 is the largest of the three tombs, and boy did they need the space. Dig leader and Henan Province Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology archaeologist Ma Juncai estimates there are at least 100 horses buried here, but there could well be more. She believes there are more chariots yet to be unearthed as well.

A number of bronze artifacts have also been discovered in Pit 3. Archaeologists hope a thorough study of the bronze pieces will shed new light on the technological prowess and manufacturing methods of the period. They also hope the bronze artifacts might reveal more information about who was buried in the tomb, their social status and fill in some blanks about Zheng-era funerary practices.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

John Quincy Adams would have slain on Instagram

Tue, 2017-11-21 23:28

In a long, eventful life filled with accomplishments, John Quincy Adams often gets the credit for the one thing he didn’t do: being the first President of the United States to be photographed. That record goes to William Henry Harrison, poor sod, who had his picture taken around the time of his inauguration in 1841. Thirty-one days later, he was dead of a fever. (Legend has it he delivered his interminably long inaugural address without a coat thereby “catching cold” which developed into pneumonia and killed him. Now we know that the weather cannot infect you with disease — pathogenic microorganisms do that job — but it makes a good story so it has lingered as the dominant account of how the shortest presidential term of office came to such an abrupt end.) Adams was the second resident of the White House to photographed, albeit many years after his first and only term as President. It was in 1842 and only reprints and copies of that image and the Harrison portrait are known to survive today. The originals are lost.

That’s why there was so much excitement earlier this year when the news broke that an original daguerreotype of Adams taken by photographer Philip Haas at his studio in Washington, D.C. in 1843 emerged from the obscurity of attic clutter to the bright lights of Sotheby’s. It was the earliest known surviving original photographic portrait of a US president. Bidding was not surprisingly fierce and there was much rejoicing in the history nerddom when the National Portrait Gallery announced a few days after the auction that they had placed the victorious bid.

You wouldn’t know from how rare these original plates are, but as it turns out John Quincy Adams was a bit of a camera whore (said in reverent awe, Mr. President’s ghost, not disrespect). Louis Daguerre presented his new technology to the public in 1839, so when Adams sat for his first portrait in 1842, the process was still in its infancy. In March of 1843, he had another portrait taken, his first by Philip Haas. Then he went back Haas’ shop a week later to have the portrait redone because none of the ones from the first session came out right. His diary entries on those dates reveal his fascination with the “camera obscura” device and how it worked.

Getting his picture taken by top society photographers became a regular thing for John Quincy. In September of 1842, six months before he first visited Philip Haas, he sat for photographer John Plumbe at his Boston gallery, then again at Plumbe’s studio in D.C. three more times all in 1846. The second of these four sessions took place on February 14th, 1846. The former President noted in his diary that he went to “Plumbe’s Daguerreotype office” where they took two shots of him: “a full face and a profile, both quite successful.”

The reference in Adams’ diary was the only evidence of the existence of the “quite successful” profile picture by John Plumbe. If it was published, printed, reproduced or in another way disseminated we don’t know about it.

How is there a profile image of President John Quincy Adams published right here in this humble blog then, you boldly but fairly query? It’s not a print, reprint or a copy, though. (Okay it’s a digital copy. You know what I mean.) It’s the original plate shot and developed by Plumbe. It just randomly turned up recently at a Paris antiques market, was spotted by someone with a good eye, got conserved, appraised and authenticated by top experts and it’s all over but the spending.

It’s a quarter plate Daguerreotype in a burgundy-glazed leather case lined with purple silk and velvet. The brass matt is stamped “Plumbe” and cover of the case is embossed with a basket of flowers design that case was one of Plumbe’s signature motifs. The compartment that holds the plate has a paper liner that reads “Manufactured at the Plumbe National Daguerrian Depot, New York.” And the portrait itself is undeniably John Quincy Adams’ mutton-chopped mien in noble profile.

The 1846 Plumbe daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams will be offered at Heritage Auctions’ Americana sale on December 2nd with a pre-sale estimate of $50,000. HA has a strong web component; you can bid early online and the bids are already up to $25,000. Given the results of the last auction where a John Quincy Adams portrait went far and beyond all pre-sale expectations, $50,000 could be surpassed within minutes.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Biography of Chinese inquisitor found in 13th c. tomb

Mon, 2017-11-20 22:36

Archaeologists have discovered a double tomb of a lord and lady of the southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) in China’s southeastern Zhejiang province. The tombs were unearthed at a contruction site in Qingyuan County in 2014 but the findings have only now been published in English in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics, a translation of the Chinese-language archaeology journal Wenwu (Cultural Relics) which first published the discovery in 2015.

The two tombs date to the early 13th century and we are fortunate enough to know the identities of both the people buried within. One of the two tombs, Lord Hu Hong’s, had been broken into by looters in the distant past and so had been stripped of its valuables and grave goods. Only a smattering of porcelain with a decorative elephant motif survived the artifact raid. Thankfully the grave robbers weren’t interested in the kinds of things that most enthrall archaeologists today because they lack the showy obviousness and saleability of “treasure”, so they left behind a stele with a long biographical inscription detailing Lord Hu Hong’s many accomplishments. Perhaps they didn’t want to piss off the deities by going against the expressed wishes of the deceased whose life history, according to the inscription, “has been inscribed on this stone to be treasured here, in the hope it will last as long as heaven and earth!”

The other tomb held the remains of Lord Hu’s wife née Wu. She too had an extensive bio carved in stone but the inscription is too worn and damaged to be readable at the moment. The good news is the looters missed her tomb, so it still contains some of the luxurious objects — gold earrings, gold and silver hairpins, gold combs, and a crystal disc that looks streamlined and elegant like something you’d see in a high-end jewelry shop today. Like her husband, she too was interred with a porcelain vessel decorated with an elephant motif. Archaeologists found a large quantity of mercury residue inside née Wu’s tomb, likely an attempt to preserve her body that failed spectacularly.

Hu Hong bore the title “Grand Master for Thorough Counsel,” a position he filled ably for the southern Song emperors.

He and née Wu lived at a time when China was divided between two dynasties, with Hu Hong serving the southern Song dynasty that controlled southern China, according to the researchers who described the findings. […]

Apparently, he showed “outstanding talent” as a child in school and, in 1163, passed a competitive series of government exams to get a junior position in the government according to the inscription found in Hu Hong’s tomb. He then rose gradually through the ranks. His career got a boost in 1179, when he agreed to serve on the southern Song dynasty’s northern borders. In 1193, the government recognized him as “best county magistrate of the year,” the inscription says.

As the “investigating censor,” Hu Hong prosecuted the “treacherous and the heretical” in 1195, the inscription says. He was made a military commissioner in 1200 and was charged with defeating a group of rebels. “At the time, the Yao tribes were rebellious, and he stamped the rebels out,” the inscription says. Today, the Yao live in China and Southeast Asia.

In his final years, Hu Hong was growing critical of his own government, and retired not long after 1200. “He knew that he was beyond his prime and insisted on retiring. Had he kept being outspoken, he would have been pushed out,” the inscription says.

“Although worried about current affairs and concerned with the moral decline of the time, and though he could not easily let go, he no longer had the energy to fight and serve,” the inscription says. He died in 1203, and his wife died in 1206. Their tombs were built side by side. Hu Hong and née Wu had two sons, three daughters and two granddaughters, the inscription says.

I like how the inscription just lays out the politics of the situation: he quit before they could fire him. At least he got to enjoy his three short years of life after retirement.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Guernica as large as life in gigapixels

Sun, 2017-11-19 23:43

Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s monumental greyscale painting on the horrors of the Germano-Italian bombing of the eponymous Basque city during the Spanish Civil War, is a hard picture to get. For one thing, it’s so huge (26 feet wide, 11 feet tall) that fitting it in a single shot without skewing the perspective is a challenge. For another, there are serious condition issues because it was moved around so much over the decades before its final repatriation to Spain where it is now part of the permanent collection of Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum. A lot of flash photography and multiple shoots from all angles is contraindicated for its conservation.

I’ve encountered very few photos that can even begin to do this massive masterpiece justice. The best ones are all period taken by the surrealist Dora Maar in 1937 while Picasso painted Guernica in a frenzy of activity over less than a month. Eighty years later, her pictures were still the only ones worth looking at if you wanted to learn anything at all about the painting and the artist’s process.

That’s all changed, seemingly overnight to we civilians, but in truth it’s the culmination of years of work on the part of the conservators and researchers at the Reina Sofia. The museum has launched a new interactive website dedicated to the great canvas called Rethinking Guernica which features at its core a gigapixel image of the whole painting. Finally its giganticness is matched in pixels and viewers can get microscopically close to the tiniest speck of paint. Close enough to see brush hairs stuck in the impasto.

Hundreds died in an aerial attack on civilians that shocked the world and set a precedent repeated often by German and allied forces in World War II.

Picasso, then living in France, was commissioned by the struggling Spanish Republican government to produce a work depicting the bombing for the 1937 World Fair in Paris.

That commission and hundreds of other documents concerning “Guernica” are now available online for the first time.

They tell the story of a hugely well-traveled work, with stops in Scandinavia, Britain and the United States, where it spent decades on loan at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

There are papers relating to its trip to Venezuela in 1948 that was cut short due to a coup d’etat, and a frantic telegram sent by MoMA collections director Alfred H. Barr Jr. informing the artist that his works were safe after a fire tore through the museum in 1958.

The gigapixel Guernica can be viewed in more ways than the glorious extreme closeup the high resolution makes possible. By clicking on thumbnails at the bottom of the main screen, you can switch from the visible spectrum view to ultraviolet, infrared and X-ray imaging. You can thank Pablito the robot for that, by the way. He kicked off the Guernica Project in 2011 by scanning every centimeter of the canvas with every imaging technique in the book. It took him a year to complete so detailed a job, working only at night so as not to disturb museum visitors.

The guided tour that the site directs you to when you first load it doesn’t explain a great deal that you couldn’t figure out on your own if you’re even remotely Internet-literate. The icons going down the right side of the screen, for example, are fairly self-explanatory. The square at the top means click for full screen; the + and – underneath mean zoom in and out; the ? opens up the guided tour again if you regret closing it. There are two site-specific icons on the list, however, and they are awesome. The horizontal arrow icon allows you to view the painting in two different imaging technologies side by side, which is extremely cool, while the zig-zag constellation icon pulls up an enormous density of information about the changes to the painting over time, both deliberate ones like Picasso’s deviations from his original prepatory drawings and circumstantial ones like holes, fissures and craquelure in the paint.

Lastly, whenever you click on the image it pulls up tons of content about the history, context, conservation record, damage, repairs, etc. The Reina Sofia conservators have done an exceptional job sharing the results of their years of study of the painting, from cutting-edge technological analysis to archival research. There are all kinds of side-avenues to pursue — biographies of people involved in the history of Guernica, primary documents like letters to and from Picasso about the painting, essays on the meaning of the work, on the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair where it was first exhibited, just to name a few.

“Guernica is a source of never-ending artistic material and it’s a privilege to be with as an art historian,” says Rosario Peiro, head of collections at Madrid’s Reina Sofia modern art museum. […]

“Putting all of this together allows you to rethink the history of the painting,” Peiro told AFP.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

19th c. Dutch farmers: A Croc, a Croc, my dairy farm for a Croc!

Sat, 2017-11-18 23:46

Archaeologists have discovered evidence in the bones 19th century Dutch farmers that the traditional wooden clogs that are now ubiquitous on key chains and souvenir stands but were once ubiquitous on human feet caused permanent osteological damage. An international team of osteoarchaeologists from Leiden University and Western University (Ontario, Canada) discovered the tell-tale bones in 2011 during an excavation of a historic church cemetery in the village of Middenbeemster, Netherlands, that was being relocated.

Beemster was a rural farming community, a dairy farming community, mainly, and the team was hoping to gather previously unrecorded data about the diet, health, common injuries, illnesses and general health of country folk in the 19th century Netherlands using osteobiographical and paleopathological analysis as well as stable isotope analysis (to find out what they ate) and mass spectrometry. There’s a significant body of work that’s already been done on the inhabitants of Dutch cities, but the rural areas have been little studied so this was a unique and important opportunity.

They were able to analyze 500 skeletons, most them very well-preserved, of adult women, men and children. Out of those remains, 130 complete feet were found. Bio-archaeologist and Western University Anthropology professor Andrea Waters-Rist examined the feet bones and found a consistent pattern among them: they presented a rare type of bone lesion called osteochondritis dissecans (OD) which looks like a chip or divot has been chiseled out of the bone. She didn’t even have to use a microscope to see them. The missing chunks at the joints were clearly visible to the naked eye.

In the wider population, OD is found in less than one percent of individuals and the lesions affect various bones, very rarely those in the foot. A whopping 13% of the good folks from the Middenbeemster cemetery, on the other hand, had it and they only had it in their feet. Part of the cause was likely the hard physical labor involved in traditional farming, both inside the home and outside of it, but a lot of people fed their families with backbreaking work and they didn’t have craters in their feet bones. Researchers concluded that it was likely a combination of heavy labour and repetetive stress on certain areas of the feet cause by the iconic “klompen” (which are still worn today, btw, particularly in rural areas).

For farmers, the clogs would have been very useful shoes, as they were affordable, kept their feet dry and, if stuffed with straw, quite warm. As such, they would have been worn for most uses. As the clogs have a stiff sole, they could have amplified the stresses associated with farm work and travelling by foot.

That combination of hard work, while wearing klompen, day-in and day-out, caused the bone chip to form, Water-Rist explained.

“The sole is very hard and inflexible, which constrains the entire foot and we think because the footwear wasn’t good at absorbing any kind of shock, it was transferring into the foot and into the foot bones. It’s not very common in the foot. They were doing something different that we haven’t seen before,” she said.

Since these farmers lived in a time before industrialization, manual labour was more taxing on their body. Oftentimes the klompen was used as a tool for kicking down fences or pushing in a shovel – all tasks later made easier by machinery.

The results of the study of the klompen-related OD lesions have been published in the International Journal of Paleopathology but it’s behind a paywall so you’ll need a subscription or an institutional connection or to pay $31.50 to read it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tutankhamun’s neglected gold gets its day

Fri, 2017-11-17 23:52

When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922, there was such an immense wealth piled inside the small space that his team focused on the large ticket item and packed the rest up. Even finely embossed gold artifacts weren’t important enough to get attention compared to Tutankhamun’s death mask, especially since they were found in pieces before being stashed in the wooden box. They photographed the contents but that was it; they were left uncleaned, unexamined and otherwise undocumented. One of those wooden boxes has been in the stores of the Egyptian Museum Cairo ever since, still uncleaned and unexamined, for decades until 2013 when a collaboration between the Egyptian Museum and Tübingen University archaeologists set out to remedy this 90-year-old oversight. Four years later, the long-awaited goal has been achieved.

The team found the objects in Carter’s original wood crate and began to document and research each piece. They were restored and drawings made of their shape and decorations. The work was painstakingly detailed (hence the four years). In addition to the restoration, documentation and research, the team also faced jigsawing together of the gold fragments. Conservators Christian Eckmann and Katja Broschat were able to place many of the fragments together, ultimately producing about 100 complete or close to complete gold applications that they think were once fittings mounted on bows cases, quivers and horse bridles. One recomposed in their original configurations, the applications could be studied from an art historical perspective. Images embossed on the gold were studied in detail by team member Julia Bertsch, doctoral candidate in archaeology at Tübingen, who was able to identify Egyptian motifs from Middle Eastern ones.

Among these are images of fighting animals and goats at the tree of life that are foreign to Egyptian art and must have come to Egypt from the Levant. “Presumably these motifs, which were once developed in Mesopotamia, made their way to the Mediterranean region and Egypt via Syria,” explains Peter Pfälzner. “This again shows the great role that ancient Syria played in the dissemination of culture during the Bronze Age.”

Interestingly, he adds, similar embossed gold applications with thematically comparable images were found in a tomb in the Syrian Royal city of Qatna. There, the team of archaeologists from Tübingen led by Pfälzner, discovered a pristine king’s grave in 2002. It dates back to the time of around 1340 B.C., so it is just a bit older than Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. The archaeologist says, “This remarkable aspect provided the impetus for our project on the Egyptian finds.” Now,” says Pfälzner, “we need to solve the riddle of how the foreign motifs on the embossed gold applications came to be adopted in Egypt.” The professor says that here, chemical analyses have been illuminating. “The results showed that the embossed gold applications with Egyptian motifs and the others with foreign motifs were made of gold of differing compositions,” he says. “That does not necessarily mean the pieces were imported. It may be that various local workshops were responsible for producing objects in various styles — and that one used Near Eastern models.”

On Wednesday the gold embossed fittings went on public display for the first time in almost a century in an exhibition at the Egyptian Museum. When this temporary show closes, the artifacts will find a permanent home at the new Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids of Giza.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cranach painting in Royal Collection authenticated by pigeon tendon

Thu, 2017-11-16 23:46

Pigeon tendons have confirmed that Queen Victoria was right and a slew of subsequent Royal Collection curators were wrong: a painting she acquired is an authentic work by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Victoria bought it in 1840 as a Christmas present for her husband Prince Albert who was an avid collector of his countryman’s work and ultimately added a dozen paintings by the master himself or his workshop to the Royal Collection.

Portrait of a Lady and her Son (ca. 1510–40) is a double portrait of an Electress of the Holy Roman Empire and her apple-cheeked son wearing exquisite finery and holding hands. She and Albert did not question its attribution as a genuine Cranach, but by the early 20th century Royal Collection Trust experts reluctantly acknowledged that it was not by Cranach or even by his workshop. Instead, they believed it was painted by Franz Wolfgang Rohrich (1787–1834), who was an extremely successful Cranach forger. He cranked out more than 40 copies of the Electress holding her son’s hand and sold them to deep-pocketed collectors all over Europe. It took decades for people to cotton on to Rohrich’s fraudulent imitation game, and many of his pseudo-Cranachs are still in Europeans private and public collections.

Royal Collection Trust’s reasoning was that the style, principally the tender physical and emotional connection between mother and son, was not something seen in Cranach’s oeuvre. His figures are remote and stylized. Holding Mommy’s hand is not in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s wheelhouse. Also, while the Rohrich versions were everywhere, there was no painting that could be definitively identified as a Cranach original modified by the forger.

The issue returned to the fore recently when the Royal Collection Trust agreed to loan the portrait to an exhibition in Dusseldorf that took place earlier this year. RCT conservators and curators worked with Cologne’s University of Applied Sciences to study the painting in depth with technology that wasn’t invented when the early 20th century curators made the deattribution decision.

In collaboration with TH Köln (the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne), Royal Collection Trust’s conservators and curators examined the work ahead of its loan to the major exhibition Cranach der Alterer: Meister Marke Moderne at the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf in spring 2017. Infrared reflectography was used to look beneath the paint surface, revealing preliminary underdrawing typical of Cranach’s work. Analysis of the pigments, metal leaf and the application of paint provided further evidence that the portrait was a work of the 16th century.

Finally an x-ray of the painting revealed that a fibrous material had been used in the preparation of the panel. Analysis of similar fibres on other works by Cranach has identified them as tendons, and in one instance DNA analysis had shown them to be pigeon tendons. Sixteenth-century glue recipes often included pigeon tendons to strengthen the mixture and counteract the natural warping and splitting of the wood.

The evidence was reviewed by Professor Dr Gunnar Heydenreich of TH Köln, an expert on Lucas Cranach the Elder, who confirmed that the painting was an original work by the master from which it appears all later versions derive.

The Royal Collection Trust conservators are ecstatic at the reattribution of the portrait to Cranach and have wasted no time in giving it a prominent position on public display. It has been installed at eye-level in the King’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle where it will keep company with its brethren by Cranach and his workshop, including Apollo and Diana (ca. 1526), Lucretia (1530), and The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1530–35).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

12th c. silver and gold hoard found at Cluny Abbey

Wed, 2017-11-15 23:46

A hoard of hidden medieval treasure, a fortune in gold and silver coins, was an unexpectedly discovered during an excavation at the site of the famed medieval Abbey of Cluny in Saône-et-Loire, eastern France. The team, which includes nine students doing field work as part of the University Lumière Lyon 2’s archaeology masters program, unearthed the hoard in mid-September while looking for the remains of an infirmary believed to have been located there in the Middle Ages.

The medieval loot included 2,200 deniers (or pieces of silver) mostly issued by Cluny Abbey itself as well as 21 gold dinar coins, originally from the Middle East which were stored in a canvas bag.

The bounty also included a gold signet ring marked with the word “Avete” — a “word of greeting in a religious context” — as well as a folded 24-gram gold leaf and gold coin.

“The overall value of this treasure for the time is estimated between three and eight horses, the equivalent of cars nowadays, but in terms of the running of the abbey it’s not that much, amounting to about six days of supply of bread and wine,” said specialist Vincent Borrel.

In terms of archaeological and historical value, this treasure is off the charts. It is the first 12th century Cluniac treasure discovered in its original context during an archaeological excavation. It’s also the largest number of silver deniers discovered in one place and the only single hoard ever found to include Arabic coins, silver deniers and a signet ring. The intaglio stone is ancient Roman and engraved with the profile of a deity. (Religious context or no religious context, ancient engravings were prestige items and often used as signet rings by the medieval elite.)

Also of note is the survival of fragments of the original bag the hoard was stashed in. Fragments of it are still attached to some of the coins. There is also a surviving piece of tanned animal hide which was tied around the bundle of 21 gold dinars minted between 1121 and 1131 in Spain and Morocco during the reign of Almoravid sultan Ali Ben Youssef (1106-1143).

Practically from the time of its founding by by Duke William I of Aquitaine in 910 A.D., the Benedictine monastery of Cluny was one of the great monastic centers of Western Europe. They followed a strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict that within decades had catapulted Cluny to the top of the ranks, making the abbey the undoubted leader in European monasticism. The city of Cluny grew into a city thanks largely to the Abbey and the trade, employment and pilgrim moneys it brought to town. By the second half of the 10th century, the Abbey of Cluny was already well-established as the top monastery in the country and it retained its prominence into the 12th century.

Its influence began to wane when newer, more austere orders stole Benedictine thunder and the idea of remote rule by a single abbot, distant from the satellite houses and largely unaccountable, lost its appeal. In the 16th century the Abbey of Cluny was sacked by Hugenots and never really recovered. Come the French Revolution, the monastic order was dissolved and under Napoleon the abbey itself was demolished and used as a quarry. Today only one of its eight grand towers still stands, which is why archaeologists continue to excavate it today, 90 years after the first archaeological explorations of the site began.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Earliest evidence of winemaking found in Georgia

Tue, 2017-11-14 23:51

Archaeologists excavating the remains of a Neolithic village in the South Caucasus about 20 miles south of Tblisi, Georgia, have discovered the earliest evidence of winemaking in the world. An internation team from the University of Toronto and the Georgian National Museum have been exploring two Early Ceramic Neolithic (6000-4500 B.C.) sites, Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, and sent fragment of ceramic jars unearthed at the sites to specialists at the University of Pennsylvania for residue analysis. Using the latest and greatest technology available, a combination of Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FT-IR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and liquid chromatography linear ion trap/orbitrap mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS), and radiocarbon dating, researchers were able to confirm the presence of wine dating to 6,000–5,800 B.C. in the pots. That’s 600-1,000 years older than the previous contender, wine residue found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

The South Caucasus area was an epicenter of the transition from nomadic lifestyles to permanent settlements after the end of the last Ice Age. Now fixed in one place, people were able to grow their own food, planting grains and cereals like einkorn wheat and barely that are trendy again today as heritage foods. They also branched out from those staples, growing fruits, root vegetables, herbs, nuts both tree and legume. Among the fruits they cultivated was the wild Eurasian grape, domesticated during this period in Neolithic settlements and so successfully that it would become the progenitor of all 10,000 or so grape cultivars that produce 99% of the wine in the world today.

Finding ways to convert their crops into mind-altering substances was a natural next step, as was devising vessels in which to store, ferment and serve the harvest products. The firing of shaped clay to make pottery was invented during this period, the early 7th millenium B.C., for this very purpose. The huge jars found at Gadachrili and Shulaveris (or, more accurately, the fragments thereof) are examples of some of the earliest pottery ever made. Archaeologists believe they were used for all of the above purposes — storage of the grapes, fermentation into wine, aging into drinkable wine, and the moment everyone was doubtless waiting for, serving the wine.

Their footprints and walls visible above-ground today, the mudbrick roundhouses of Gadachrili Gora and its next-door neighboor Shulaveris Gora were certainly inhabited by grape-loving people. Pollen and other traces of the prehistoric vines have been found in copious quantities. A large pot from this period discovered at a nearby site is decorated with grape clusters. Intact ceramic pots have not been found at the two sites that are the focus of the study. Pottery production was in its infancy. There was no large scale industry yet, and because these settlements were in continuous use for thousands of years, the pottery that has been found in excavations is fragmentary and scattered.

The team sought out the best examples of sherds from the 2012–13 and 2014–2016 dig seasons, pieces from the base have the most potential to contain residue accumulated over years of use. The final tally was six sherds from the bodies and 13 from the bases of 19 large jars. The pot fragments and samples of the soil in which they were found (to identify/rule out environmental or bacteriological contaminants) made their way to the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers say the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine Vitis vinifera was abundant around the sites. It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today.

“Our research suggests that one of the primary adaptations of the Neolithic way of life as it spread to Caucasia was viniculture,” says [Stephen Batiuk, senior research associate in the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations and the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto]. “The domestication of the grape apparently led eventually led to the emergence of a wine culture in the region.”

Batiuk describes an ancient society in which the drinking and offering of wine penetrates and permeates nearly every aspect of life from medical practice to special celebrations, from birth to death, to everyday meals at which toasting is common.

“As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economics, and society throughout the ancient Near East,” he said.

The results have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be read online free of charge here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Temple with oldest mural in Peru engulfed in flame

Mon, 2017-11-13 23:18

The remains of a 4,500-year-old temple in Peru’s pre-Incan Ventarrón archaeological complex was devastated by fire on November 12th. As estimated 95% of the temple complex has suffered heavy damage as high winds fanned the flames faster than the archaeologists on site and the firefighters could contain them. One of the walls of the temple was decorated with a gripping mural of a dear being caught in a net. At about 4,000 years old, it’s the oldest known mural in Peru and the oldest in the Americas that has been absolutely dated and archaeologically excavated. It has been severely damaged by the smoke and heat. Whether there’s any hope of repair or recovery is uncertain at this time. While most of the fire is out now, we won’t know more until it has been entirely extinguished and archaeologists have the chance to examine the devastation.

Huaca Ventarrón was discovered in the Lambayeque region of northern Peru in 2007. Radiocarbon dating of the mud brick structure and artifacts revealed that the large complex was built in three phases, each named after the decorative motifs in the artwork — the “Temple of fish and opossum,” “Red-White Temple or Deer Hunting,” and “Green Temple” — over the course of the thousand years between 2,600 and 1,600 B.C. This is very early in the Mesoamerican timeline, a period now known as the Initial Formative or Preclassic Era, and the murals and objects discovered there feature iconographic and architectural approaches that have not been found anywhere else.

Since the site was opened to visitors in 2014, the monumental architecture, a matrix for later cultures who inhabited the coastal desert region of northern Peru, and the murals have made Ventarrón an important stop on archaeological tours of the Lambayeque region. More than 15,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them Peruvian nationals, have visited the site, often in conjunction with a trip to see the famed Lords of Sipan Moche tombs and museum nearby.

Indeed it was the director of the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum Walter Alva, who in 2007 led the excavation that discovered the Ventarrón temple complex, tasked with announcing the horrifying news.

“I have received the lamentable and tragic news of a fire that has destroyed the archaeological monument of Ventarron,” museum head Walter Alva said in a statement. […]

The fire devastated the ancient mural as well as pottery vessels and records of the Ventarron Archaeological Comoplex in Pomalca, in the Lambayeque region, television images showed.

Workers from the Pomalca agribusiness company triggered the blaze when they ignited a sugarcane field.

“We are losing an exceptional monument unique to its generation,” said Alva, who discovered the site in 2007. “I hope there is an investigation and responsibility established.”

“I can only express my outrage and sadness for this irreparable loss.”

The temple’s central staircase leads up to an altar that archaeologists believe was used to make offerings to the gods and to worship fire. Never disrespect the local gods, people. If history teaches us anything it’s that they’ll get back at you with as painful an irony they can devise.

The Culture Ministry in Lima is investigating the fire and will file charges based on cultural patrimony protections should they find there was any negligence or failure to adhere to all statutes regarding potentially dangerous activities near historically significant sites. I can’t say I’m holding my breath on this one.

If you can stomach it, here is video of the fire ripping through the temple complex. It was shot by archaeologist Ignacio Alva Meneses.

Incendio en la huaca Ventarrón: los murales más antiguos de América se encontraban allí (Video: Ignacio Alva Meneses) https://t.co/OWLLqfmwdF pic.twitter.com/fY7iDqdozr

— Agencia Andina (@Agencia_Andina) November 13, 2017

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Notably unromantic portrait of Admiral Nelson found

Sun, 2017-11-12 23:46

A portrait of Admiral Horatio Nelson depicting his war wounds in all their unvarnished glory has been rediscovered after 100 years out of public view and knowledge in private collections. It will go on display at Philip Mould & Company’s Pall Mall gallery starting November 13th. To celebrate its return, it will be displayed next to meticulous replicas of the fanciest accessories depicted in the painting: Admiral Nelson’s iconic bicorne hat, recreated according to his precise instructions Lock & Co. Hatters of St James’s who made the original hat by Nelson’s commission, and the still-lost Chelengk jewel very conspicuously pinned to the front of the hat in the portrait.

It was painted in 1799 by Leonardo Guzzardi, an artist at the court of Queen Maria Carolina and King Ferdinand of Naples and Sicily. Maria Carolina, 13th child of the formidable Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I of Austria, sister to Marie Antoinette of France, was a great patron of the arts and had a particular fangirl admiration for Admiral Nelson. She herself may have commissioned Guzzardi to capture Nelson’s likeness when the hero, painter and monarchs were in Palermo after their majesties’ hasty departure from Naples with French troops hot on their heels. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d sought a portrait of the admiral. Earlier in Naples she had told her son she’d have a portrait painted of Nelson so he could stand under it every day and say “Dear Nelson, teach me to be like you.” (Maria Carolina had a lot in common with her mother.)

In this portrait Nelson is emaciated and battle worn, with a scarred head, a missing arm (undetectable in the rendering), a blood-shot eye, and largely missing eyebrow. The portrait is uncompromising, so much so that one past owner, no doubt discomforted by the broken eyebrow, had it painted in to match that on the right. The wound had happened during the heat of engagement with the French at the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay in Egypt in August 1798, whilst standing on the quarter deck with Edward Berry. A shard of iron struck Nelson’s forehead, slicing the skin and leaving an inch of skull visible. The piece of flesh, cut at jagged angles as seen in this portrait, hung down over his right eye, leaving him momentarily blinded. Such was the shock that Nelson, caught in the arms of Berry, famously cried out “I am killed. Remember me to my wife”. He was taken below deck, where the surgeon treated the wound with adhesive strips and gave Nelson opium to reduce the pain. His treatment, however, was supposedly interrupted by news that the French flagship L’Orient was on fire, at which moment Nelson ran back up on deck. This moment is captured by a theatrical portrait attributed to Guy Head [National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, BHC2903], in which Nelson is shown on deck with a burning ship beyond, blood dripping from his bandage onto the shoulder of his white shirt. The injury left Nelson disorientated and severely concussed, and the pain of the wound was such that he was forced to wear his hat tilted back, as seen in the present work, for some months.

Positioned conspicuously on top of his hat is the legendary Chelengk jewel. The jewel, made of diamonds, was gifted to Nelson by the Grand Sultan Selim III on 13 December 1798, in appreciation for saving Aboukir Bay (then part of the Ottoman Empire) from assault by Napoleon. The impressive jewel attracted wonder but also adverse comment, especially when Nelson took to wearing it – unofficially – on his naval uniform hat in a show of undaunted vanity. The gift also included a scarlet pelisse lined with sable fur and two thousand sequins (a type of small gold coin), to be shared amongst the wounded.

All of Guzzardi’s portraits of Nelson derive from a single head-type painted in early 1799 in Palermo, where the artist and subject had flown following the Jacobin revolt in Naples in December 1798. Guzzardi, about whom very little is known, was described at the time as a ‘Celebrated Artist at Palermo, Portrait Painter to the King’, and although few of his works have survived, the existing examples reveal a highly distinctive style with a preoccupation for vivid flesh tones, bold colouring and sharp treatment of facial features.

The first painting Guzzardi did of Nelson was a full-length portrait depicting him in the full dress uniform of a rear admiral. He stands in the foreground on the deck of a ship, his left hand pointing in a weirdly awkward way towards a naval battle behind him on the right, a representation of the Battle of the Nile. The scarlet pelisse is draped over a chair under his pointing finger and the Chelengk jewel takes up half the front of his pushed-back hat.

There are 14 replicas of this portrait known to exist, some painted by Guzzardi, and the group can be split into two according to the admiral’s accessories. In the first iteration, he wears only the insignia of the Order of the Bath and the St Vincent naval medal around his neck. The later works include the star of the Turkish Order of the Crescent, a private issue gold medal for the Battle of the Nile and the official naval gold medal for the Battle of the Nile. While the newly rediscovered painting has the full complement of medals, experts believe they were later additions, that this portrait is one of the early group.

Art historians have known about this particular version of the portrait from archival records and photographs, but the last time its location was known was 1897 when it was documented in the collection of Alfred Morrison, an avid collector of Nelsoniana. He had bought it from Thomas Gullick, a London art dealer who had found the painting rolled up and gathering dust somewhere in Italy in the early 1880s. Even though less than a century had passed since it was painted, and even though the sitter has some very unique distinguishing features and was once one of the most famous people in the world, both the artist and the subject were unknown at that time. Gullick identified it right quick and tried to sell it to Earl Nelson (he passed) and the National Portrait Gallery (they also passed).

Morrison’s vast collection was broken up and sold by his widow. Some pieces went up for auction, others were sold privately. There are extant records of these sales but none of them mention this painting. It made its way to the United States where it was acquired by George M. Juergens of New York. A friend of the family bought it after Juergens’s death in 1987. That friend still owns it today. It seems he’s willing to sell it, however, as Philip Mould & Company is accepting purchase inquiries.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ex-grasshopper found in Van Gogh painting

Sat, 2017-11-11 23:26

Conservators have discovered the body of a definitely deceased grasshopper resting in disarticulated peace among Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees. Mary Shafter at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, was examining the work under a microscope as part of a research project for the upcoming catalogue of the museum’s collection of 104 French paintings when she spotted the little guy entombed in the deadly embrace of van Gogh’s thick impasto in the shadow of the first olive tree on the right. At first she couldn’t tell what it was; she thought it might be the leaf debris or an imprint left by leaf on the paint when it was still wet. A closer inspection at the foreign body revealed that it had a head (a decapitated one) and was animal, not vegetable.

Van Gogh liked to paint out of doors, en plein air, as the French (and art historians) call it. Conservators working on his paintings often find leaves, sand, specks of dirt, even small bugs embedded in the canvas. Grasshoppers are not so common. The members of the Nelson-Atkins team were excited by the grasshopper find, and at the prospect of the creature adding new information to the record about when Van Gogh painted Olive Trees. The general date is known, 1889, which was a troubled time for the artist. The year before he’d had his massive break-up out with his former bestie Gauguin followed in short order by the ear cutting incident. In 1889 Van Gogh checked himself into the asylum at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and remained there into 1890. The team hoped that if the grasshopper’s date of death could be identified from its stage in the growth/reproductive cycle or seasonal changes, then they might be able to conclusively determine whether Van Gogh painted Olive Trees during his stay in the mental health ward.

Paleoentomologist Dr. Michael S. Engel of the University of Kansas and American Museum of Natural History in New York City, came to their aid. He observed the insect under the microscope and realized that it was incomplete. The scattered body parts were missing the thorax and abdomen. He also was able to discern no sign of movement in the paint where the grasshopper’s bits were embedded, which means it was dead and dismembered before it hit the wet paint. This grasshopper was not pining for the fjords anymore by the time it landed on its eternal resting canvas. It therefore had nothing to contribute to the dating of its now thoroughly glamorous coffin.

So the trapped grasshopper came to nothing, new data-wise, but it’s still a thrilling little slice of Van Gogh’s process frozen in time. He was deeply passionate about capturing life in movement in its natural setting. In one letter to his brother Theo from 1885, he went off on an extended rant about artists who reuse the same old backdrops, tableaux vivants, orientalist and heroic themes, rehashed styles, even models in their studio set pieces, how phony and lifeless their depictions were. He named names too.

Perhaps you think that I’m wrong to comment on this — but — I’m so gripped by the thought that all these exotic paintings are painted in THE STUDIO. But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen — I must have picked a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand &c. — not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them &c. Not to mention that when one arrives on the heath after a couple of hours’ walk in this weather, one is tired and hot. Not to mention that the figures don’t stand still like professional models, and the effects that one wants to capture change as the day wears on.

That passage, which is not really a complaint so much as a recognition of how valuable working outdoors was to him despite the million irritants, explains exactly how the grasshopper likely got into the paint. He was either blown onto the wet canvas by wind or perhaps got stuck on it when Van Gogh lugged the large, heavy painting back home.

Visitors to the museum have been fascinated by the find. The grasshopper bits are less than half an inch in size and can’t possible compete with the density, vibrancy and complexity of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, but that hasn’t stopped visitors from doing their utmost to spot the wee body parts in the shadow of that tree.

While the grasshopper becomes an engaging topic for museum visitors, more significant research on Olive Trees is underway. Analysis by Mellon Science Advisor John Twilley confirms that van Gogh used a type of red pigment that gradually faded over time. These findings suggest that areas where van Gogh employed this red, either alone or mixed with other colors, appear slightly different today than when the painting was completed.

“Color relationships were central to van Gogh’s practice,” said Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator of European Art. “Since we now know that portions of the canvas where van Gogh employed this particular red pigment have faded, those color relationships are altered.”

The artist’s letters often referred to his works by their dominant colors, which means the more recent changes in appearance can present uncertainty as to which painting van Gogh alluded to in his descriptions. With funding through the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Endowment for Scientific Research in Conservation, more research is being conducted to evaluate the impact of these color shifts. The research is expected to clarify the original appearance of Olive Trees and to offer a clearer understanding of its place within van Gogh’s series of works on this theme.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Hilarious exhibition at Frans Hals Museum

Fri, 2017-11-10 23:34

The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, northwest Netherlands, will tickle visitors’ funny bones with an exhibition dedicated to depictions of laughter in the paintings of Dutch Golden Age masters. The Art of Laughter: Humour in in the Golden Age is the first museum exhibition to treat the subject of hilarity in 17th century artworks with the seriousness it deserves. It’s the first show to focus on the topic at all, which is curious when you consider how rich a vein of it runs through the artworks of the period.

Frans Hals is often called ‘the master of the laugh’. More than any other painter in the Golden Age, he was able to bring a vitality to his portraits that made it appear as if his models could just step out of the past into the present. Hals was one of the few painters in the seventeenth century who dared portray his figures – often common folk – with a hearty laugh and bared teeth. Merriment and jokes are prominent features in his genre paintings; artists in the Golden Age frequently used it in their work. Now – centuries later – the visual jokes are harder to fathom. A great deal of new research into the field has been carried out, particularly in the last twenty years, and we are beginning to get an idea of the full extent of seventeenth-century humour. […]

The exhibition showcases some sixty masterpieces from the Low Countries and beyond by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Judith Leyster, Adriaen Brouwer, Gerard van Honthorst, Jan Miense Molenaer and Nicolaes Maes. Works by these and other artists will be shown in the context of an introduction and seven specific themes, including mischief, farce and love and lust, and one room is devoted to each of them. The exhibition ends with the comical self-portrait, in which painters feature in their own jokes. Thus humour eventually arrives at the artists themselves, creating an intriguing finale. There will also be a small selection of joke books, incredibly popular in the seventeenth century, which confirm the reputation of the Dutch as an unusually cheerful and humorous people. According to an Italian contemporary, the writer Lodovico Guicciardini, who was living in the Low Countries at that time, the Dutch were ‘very convivial, and above all jocular, amusing and comical with words, but sometimes too much.’

I wonder if the Frans Hals Museum has detected any hidden poopers in the artworks on display. The Edwardian curators of the Royal Collection were not amused by the Dutch penchant for ribald humor as expressed in their Golden Age paintings. It’s funny to think of the vast chasm in curatorial outlook between the priggish post-Victorians and the modern Dutch who take such pride and pleasure in the joie de vivre evinced by their Old Masters, even to the point that they’ve thorougly researched the paintings so we too can get the jokes that viewers in the 17th century would have gotten at a glance.

The paintings on display are a deep bench, loaned from institutions all over the world. In order to defray the cost of shipment, insurance, installation and security, entrance to the exhibition will cost an additional €5 on top of the general museum entrance fee. It’s still a bargain, though, because one ticket to The Art of Laughter will also get you into the companion exhibition, A Global Table, which looks at Golden Age still lifes with their tables and sideboards groaning with food, as primary sources of information on the effect of the Netherlands’ colonial holdings and global trade network on how people ate back home.

One of the 53 paintings in the Laughter exhibition, Gerard van Honthors’ absolutely charming Smiling Girl, a Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Picture, which is totally a meme waiting to happen (suggested caption: “Guess what? THIS GUY’S BUTT!”), is still in the process of being moved from the Saint Louis Art Museum. It won’t get to Haarlem until the end of the month. For now, her mischievous grin is represented by a reproduction created by artist Rinus van Hall in 24 hours. Here’s a nifty time-lapse video of him at work:

The The Art of Laughter runs from November 12th, 2017 through March 18th, 2018. A Global Table opened late last month and runs through January 7th, 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

London Mithraeum is finally home again

Thu, 2017-11-09 23:43

The remains of the Temple of Mithras discovered under central London’s Walbrook Square in 1954 has returned to its original location and it looks great, better than it has in 50+ years. The temple, first built around 240 A.D., was unearthed by archaeologists William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams in the very last days of a two-year archaeological survey of the site before the construction of new office buildings. The temple was identified as a Mithraeum when the beautifully sculpted head of Mithras, complete with Phrygian cap, was found. A reporter happened to be there and took a picture. Mithras’ beauty caused a sensation and almost half a million people came to visit the excavation.

The ensuing public outcry forced the city to abandon its original plan — the demolition of the temple to make way for ugly concrete squares of cheap mid-century offices — and come up with a compromise solution. The excavation would be extended and once the archaeologists were done, the temple remains would be removed and reinstalled a few hundred feet away at ground level so the public could enjoy it. In 1962, plan B was completed and London’s Mithraeum was reconstructed on an empty patch of land on Victoria Street. The objects discovered would go the Museum of London, except for the incredibly rare surviving wood benches and joists from the temple’s original floor, preserved in the waterlogged soil where the lost Walbrook River had once coursed. They were thrown out like so much trash.

Unfortunately plan B was poorly executed. Modern concrete was used to patch up holes and build up some of the lost masonry. The temple was not installed in its original configuration and was basically unrecognizable compared to how it had looked in situ. Things did not improve as the city grew up around it, leaving it looking like a random, weird, squat rectangle of brick and mortar benches.

In 2010, the Walbrook Square site was bought by Bloomberg LP who planned to build a grand new European HQ there. Of course they knew about the potential for archaeological remains under the site, so an in depth survey was commissoned and this time the soggy muck of the lost Walbrook River turned in an even more spectacular feat of preservation. The excavation unearthed entire city streets, large slices of Roman London from its earliest days in 40 A.D. to the final withdrawal of Roman troops in the 5th century. Wood streets, wood walls, wood wells, a wood door, thousands and thousands of assorted objects made of leather, wood, textiles as well as metal and stone. The oldest dated writing ever found in Britain was discovered on one of hundreds of Roman wood tablets from the Bloomberg dig.

The Bloomberg coporation has far deeper pockets than the small potatoes real estate developers in 1954, so it made ambitious plans to include all of these archaeological marvels in an underground display space in the Bloomberg. Not only would Roman London’s many layers be viewable to the public, but it would foot the bill to rescue the poor, benighted reconstructed temple remains from their incongruous street-level location and overmortared neglect. The temple would return to its original location, dismantled, cleaned of modern interpolations and reinstalled in situ as it had once been. There it would have the chance to be seen in its proper context, safe from the elements, and would even be reunited with another piece of the temple that was discovered during the recent excavation.

Tha planned opening date for the new Bloomberg building and its greatest of all basements was 2017, and right on schedule, the London Mithraeum at Bloomberg SPACE opens November 14th.

Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the company, said they were stewards of the ancient site and its artefacts. “London has a long history as a crossroads for culture and business, and we are building on that tradition.”

The Mithraeum incorporates a new daylit art gallery at ground level with an opening installation, Another View from Nowhen, by the Dublin artist Isabel Nolan. A huge glass case displays more than 600 of the 14,000 objects found on the site, including a wooden door, a hobnailed sandal, a tiny gladiator’s helmet carved in amber, and a wooden tablet with the oldest record of a financial transaction from Britain.

You can’t just walk in to see this archaeological treasure. Entrance is free of charge, but you must book first to guarantee entry. Click this link to book tickets, and have a poke around the website while you’re at it because it’s really very good. They worked hard to collect images and footage of the 1950s excavation and have incorporated them effectively on the site.



Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery rediscovered

Wed, 2017-11-08 23:43

Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery has been rediscovered almost half a millennium after it was obliterated by order of Pope Pius IV. Unearthed between 2012 and 2014 during archaeological explorations of a site slated for housing development, the cemetery contains 408 graves, all aligned in parallel rows heads pointing to the west, and zero gravestones. It’s a miracle the former remained in any way intact considering what happened to the latter.

The discovery announced by the Bologna and was presented Tuesday at a news conference by Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola and other officials, including Bologna’s chief rabbi and Jewish community president.

The graves discovered included those of women, men and children, the regional superintendence for archaeology stated at a press conference Tuesday. Some had been buried with ornaments made of gold, silver, bronze, hard stones and amber, the superintendance [sic] said.

Pope Pius IV, canonized a saint by Pope Clement XI in 1712, would be appalled to hear any burials had been found unmolested and complete with grave goods. He certainly tried his utmost to ensure the opposite outcome. A zealot and ascetic who as a youth had eagerly worked as an inquisitor before being elected to the Holy Office permanently in 1550, Antonio Ghislieri rose in the ranks to become inquisitor general for all of Christendom in less than seven years. He was appointed by Pope Paul IV who, not coincidentally, was also a major proponent of the Inquisition and of an anti-Semitism so hateful and brutal that Hitler used his ghettoization system as a blueprint for his own.

When Ghislieri was elected pope in 1566, he picked up where his mentor had left off, rejecting the slight softening of the draconian anti-Jewish laws Pope Pius IV had attempted when he succeeded Paul IV. Pius V promulgated the Bull Hebraeorum gens sola on February 26, 1569, which opens with much the same gross nonsense Paul IV’s Bull had opened with:

“The Jewish people fell from the heights because of their faithlessness and condemned their Redeemer to a shameful death. Their godlessness has assumed such forms that, for the salvation of our own people, it becomes necessary to prevent their disease.”

The forms in question were usury, helping thieves and robbers profit from their illegal activities (pawning, maybe?), and the worst crime of them all “lure the unsuspecting through magical incantations, superstition, and witchcraft to the Synagogue of Satan and boast of being able to predict the future.” They probably turned people into newts too, but their victims got better before trial.

The Bull concludes with the decree banishing all Jews from the Papal States, excepting those in Rome and Ancona, within 90 days. A convent in Bologna was explicitly instructed by to destroy the cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the Europe which had been in continuous use since the 14th century, by the Pope later that year.

In November 1569, Pius handed over the cemetery to the nuns of the nearby cloister of St. Peter the Martyr and directed the sisters “to dig up and send, wherever they want, the bodies, bones and remains of the dead: to demolish, or convert to other forms, the graves built by the Jews, including those made for living people: to remove completely, or scrape off the inscriptions or epitaphs carved in the marble.”

Four ornate Jewish gravestones now displayed in Bologna’s Civic Medieval Museum are believed to have come from this cemetery.

Archaeologists found evidence of the sisters’ (or somebody’s, at any rate) handiwork in more than a third of the graves, 150 of which bear clear the tell-tale marks of deliberate, malicious desecration. The tombstones are simply gone. Destroyed so thoroughly as to not leave a trace, or employed in some other context where they are unrecognizable as anything but a piece of stone.

The human remains found in the graves will be given a respectful burial at a time and place yet to be determined.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Pylos warrior tomb’s tiniest treasure is its greatest

Tue, 2017-11-07 23:45

When the intact grave of a Bronze Age man was discovered in Pylos, southwestern Greece, two years ago, it was so dense with luxurious grave goods that it set a new record for the wealthiest single grave ever found in Greece. Its location, next to the so-called Palace of Nestor of Trojan War fame, and the richness of the contents even generated breathless speculation that this might be the tomb of a Homeric hero. Entirely groundless speculation — the shaft tomb is around 300 years older than the palace which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C. — but it’s an inescapable side-effect when archaeologists discover ivory-handled, gold-covered weapons, four gold signet rings, more than 1,000 semi-precious stone beads, silver and bronze cups, a massive gold chain, 50 seal stones decorated with Minoan motifs, carved ivory and ever so much more, enough to reignite a million childhood fantasies of pirate booty treasure maps where X always marks the spot.

After the dust from the dig had settled, the team, led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, had unearthed more than 3,000 burial objects, all of which were sent to the Archaeological Museum of Chora for triage, study and conservation. One of the objects was a small sort of kite-shaped piece caked in thick lime accretions entirely obscuring its surface. It was put in the To Do pile while conservators focused on the larger ticket items, like the heaps of gold, weapons and jewels.

They were finally able to beging cleaning the wee thing — it’s less than an inch and a half long — a year later and discovered that under all lime scale was one of the greatest pieces of art in Greek history. It’s a sealstone, not made of precious metals like the signet rings found in the tomb, but of agate. This one’s value is in the astonishing detail and precision in the miniature carving.

The “Pylos Combat Agate,” as the seal has come to be known for the fierce hand-to-hand battle it portrays, promises not only to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art, but to help shed light on myth and legend in an era of Western civilization still steeped in mystery. […]

Davis and Stocker say the Pylos Combat Agate’s craftsmanship and exquisite detail make it the finest discovered work of glyptic art produced in the Aegean Bronze Age.

“What is fascinating is that the representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature that one doesn’t find again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later,” explained Davis. “It’s a spectacular find.”

Even more extraordinary, the husband-and-wife team point out, is that the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, in length. Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens and photomicroscopy.

“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big,” said Davis. “They’re incomprehensibly small.”

The miniature masterpiece portrays a victorious warrior who, having already vanquished one unfortunate opponent sprawled at his feet, now turns his attention to another much more formidable foe, plunging his sword into the shielded man’s exposed neck in what is sure to be a final and fatal blow.

This thing is unbelievable. I think I’ve stared at the fallen fighter on the left for a solid hour.

Here is an enlarged drawing of the artwork so you can see the astonishing detail the carver was able to achieve with whatever meagre magnification options were available in 1,500 B.C. (or maybe none at all):

Beyond all the superlatives that can and should be showered upon this marvel of artistry, researchers believe the sealstone reveals new information of major significance about Minoan culture and their interactions with the Mycenaeans who so thirstily drank of Minoan culture and spread it throughout the Greek mainland.

In a series of presentations and a paper published last year, Davis and Stocker revealed that the discovery of four gold signet rings bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches found within the tomb, indicates a far greater and complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans.

But the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the Minoan-Mycenaean world, say the researchers. And that raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?

“It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing,” explained Davis. “It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy, is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.”

The revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art.

“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” said Stocker.

For more about the Griffin Warrior tomb, check out this thoroughly documented, content-rich website created by Davis and Stocker and the Pylos team. Pictures are a bit small, alas, but they need to pinch bandwidth pennies because conserving an enormous quantity of priceless archaeological artifacts is an expensive proposition, especially trying to keep the fragmentary bronze armour from falling apart. You can contribute to the project here. All donations go directly to conservation.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History