History fetish? What history fetish?
Updated: 50 min 19 sec ago
In December of 2011, Japanese retail clothing mogul Yuzo Yagi offered to donate €1 million to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a pointy marble-clad vanity pyramid built in Rome in the 1st century B.C. At the time, the agreement was scheduled to be signed in January of 2012 and work to start in April, but the donation agreement didn’t get signed until March, the scaffolding didn’t begin to go up until November and it wasn’t finished until February. Actual restoration work began in March of 2013. Then in a shocking twist, it was completed five months early.
The Culture Ministry contacted Yuzo Yagi and asked him to donate another million euros for a second stage of restoration that would return the Carrara marble cladding to its original whiteness as opposed to its longstanding grimy gray. White happens to be Mr. Yagi’s favorite color — he is known for his stylish all-white ensembles — so he was happy to double his original donation.
In December of 2013 he signed a second donation agreement, again requiring nothing more than a discreet plaque near, not on, the pyramid, naming him as the donor. Even during the restoration the only signs on the pyramid are informational billboards at ground level and white banners assigning themes to each side — the mystical side, the scientific side, the historical side and the secret side. The billboards explain the history of the pyramid through these four themes. Yagi’s company gets credit for his patronage on the billboards, but just in discreet text lines. No logos or glaring anything. The images of the pyramid and information of its background dominate completely. Masterpiece Theater is more cluttered than that, like by a lot.
Now phase two is well on the way to being finished and they’re ahead of schedule again. Restorers expect to be done three months before the expected November deadline. The early finish means Yagi isn’t ready for an inauguration ceremony. He’s thinking of just waiting until next summer and making a big event. He’s also so pleased with how this venture has gone that he’s contemplating donating more money for the preservation of another monument.
Yuzo Yagi toured the pyramid on Tuesday, accompanied by Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who took the opportunity to promote Mr. Yagi’s dignified generosity as a model for future donors and to tout the state’s new tax incentives for businesses who donate to cultural heritage projects.
You can see how great the pyramid looks inside and out in this news story on Mr. Yagi’s visit:
Oh man, I want to wear a hardhat and go inside! If the burial chamber looks modest it’s because Augustus’ sumptuary law of 18 B.C. forbade ostentatious luxury in tombs. Unlike the Egyptians whose tombs he modeled his own after, Gaius Cestius was not buried with lavish treasures to accompany him to the afterlife. He got white walls with small frescoes of alternating winged Victories and ceremonial vessels, plus a few bronze statues of him outside the pyramid.
The frescoes were in serious danger from water leaking through the marble slabs into the brick and concrete structure. Those leaks have all been plugged now. Also gone are the severe microorganism infestation that was making a meal of the marble and the copious vegetation sprouting through the damaged exterior walls. The pyramid hasn’t looked this good or been this healthy since it was built, I wager.
Here’s a 3D animation of a point cloud generated from laser scan data before the scaffolding went up. It gave restorers a clear picture of the condition of all four sides, the deterioration of the marble cladding, any unevenness in the surface or cracks and evidence of shear.
The tourist reported the find to the authorities in the nearby city of Calvillo in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes who in turn called in regional experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Archaeologists examined the monolith and discovered it’s a unique piece of major historical import in the region. Carved in the image of a man with a headdress and earrings, its location near a waterfall and spring suggests a connection to a deity.
The figure shows a strong influence of Teotihuacan style from between 200 to 600 A.D. The urban center of Teotihuacan was 350 miles southeast of Calvillo, but its cultural sphere of influence was vast. Before now, however, archaeologists thought the local culture was entirely Chichimeca, nomadic hunter-gatherers of varied language and ethnicity, but no artifacts this old have been found in the state before. It significantly predates known Chichimeca settlements in the area.
In order to keep it safe from human depredation, experts will be completing the looters’ work. The 10-ton stone is simply too big and unwieldy to remove. It’s in the wilderness where there are no roads. It would require specialized equipment and a cargo helicopter to air lift it out of the jungle, and officials have neither the material nor the funding to make that happen. Instead, they’ve installed a shelter around the stone and will have a joint police and army surveillance team on site while archaeologists detach the carved figure from its rocky home. The operation is expected to take 15 days to a month.
Once it’s been removed, the carving will be kept at the INAH lab where archaeologists can study it fully. Its ultimate destination will be the Municipal Museum that is currently under construction in Calvillo.
An intact sealed mineral water bottle from the German town of Selters has been retrieved from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Poland. There’s a maker’s seal on the front of the bottle, a faded dark brown circle around the circular text “Selters” with the initial H and N topped by a crown inside, which identify it has having been manufactured between 1806 and 1830. The stoneware bottle still has liquid inside which is not seawater, but it’s possible the bottle was reused and recorked so archaeologists won’t know if there’s prized 200-year-old mineral water in there until they test the contents in a lab.
The H and N on the seal stand for Herzogthum Nassau, meaning Duchy of Nassau, a province in western Germany that is today the state of Hesse. The Selters area of the province on northern slopes of the Taunus mountains was famous for its mineral springs. Long before the duchy existed when the region was part of the Electorate of Trier ruled by a prince-archbishop, local monasteries documented the wells in records from the 8th century. By the 16th century Selters’ naturally carbonated water was well known all over the country. German doctors wrote papers on its curative properties and the crisp, pleasantly sour taste from its uniquely high alkaline salt content.
Starting in the mid-18th century, the water was packaged in stoneware vessels and sold internationally. Shipments went out to the Netherlands, Sweden, England, France, Russia, Africa, even as far afield as America and Jakarta. It was a highly profitable venture, with more than a million jugs sold in 1791. The Electorate west of the Rhine was occupied by France in 1803 and absorbed into the French diocesan system. East of the Rhine its territories were secularized and incorporated into the county of Nassau-Weilburg which merged with Nassau-Usingen to form the Duchy of Nassau in 1806.
The Duchy would only last for 60 years (it was annexed by Prussia in 1866), but during its existence the Selters water was its primary export. In 1850 three million jugs were sold, bringing in annual net profits of 100,000 guilders to the Duke’s privy purse. A public fountain allowed locals to collect the prized water free for home use.
The stoneware bottles were quite ingeniously designed to preserve the freshness and carbonation of the water. The necks were kept short and the bottles filled all the way to the top before being corked and cemented. The aim was to keep air out in order to preserve the fizz and flavor. As long as the air bubble in the neck was small (or non-existent, ideally) and the cork held, the water would retain its unique qualities in the sealed bottle for months. In the mid-19th century, analytical chemist Dr. Remigius Fresenius of the Wiesbaden Agricultural Institution stored Selters water for 15 years and found it substantially unchanged when he retested it.
Selters water was so famous worldwide that when artificial carbonation was invented, some of its products were referred to as “Selterser water,” aka water of Selters, aka seltzer water. Thus Selters became a genericized trademark, like Xerox for photocopies or Kleenex for tissues.
With millions sold every year for more than a century, many Selters stoneware bottles have survived. Corked and sealed ones, however are much more rare. The one discovered on the shipwreck is by far the most valuable object recovered from the unidentified vessel, labeled simply F-33-31, which lies 40 feet deep in Gdańsk Bay. In addition to its inherent coolness, the bottle has helped narrow down the ship’s age. Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples from the ships planks should narrow it down further.
The underwater archaeologists from the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk surveying the wreck have also found pottery fragments, small metal and ceramic vessels, shoe parts and ship parts, including wooden pulley blocks. They’ve also found a number of large stones which they believe were the ship’s main cargo, used in the construction of foundations or fortifications.
Once the survey is complete, the data and images will be used to create a 3D digital model of the wreck. The team has taken more than 7,000 pictures of the site from which a highly detailed virtual model can be constructed, an innovative approach to underwater archaeology that the National Maritime Museum has pioneered. After testing, the water bottle will go on display at the National Maritime Museum.
The ancient capital of the Moche culture lies five miles south of the city of Trujillo on the northern coast of Peru. Its inhabitants lived in an urban center bracketed by the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, the largest adobe structures known. The Spanish looted the former extensively, diverting a river to erode the bricks and wash out the gold from burials of Moche rulers. The Temple of the Moon is in better condition and still retains 200 square feet of painted murals depicting the daily life, human sacrifice, deities, wars of a people who have left no written records. The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon Archaeological Project has been excavating the site for 20 years, and still it holds magical surprises.
The latest surprises are some wonderfully vicious-looking feline claws made of metal in the 1,500-year-old tomb of an elite man excavated under the urban center of the site. The claws were found towards the top of the burial, below his head around neck or shoulder height and archaeologists aren’t sure how they were worn. They could have been part of a costume used in ritual combat where the winner was given the claws as a prize and the loser was sacrificed.
Big cats and deities with feline characteristics played an important role in Moche cosmology. They are frequently depicted in figurines, murals and painted on ceramic vessels. One of the painted friezes at the Temple of Moon, as a matter of fact, depicts large felines attacking and killing human victims, and a feline features prominently on what may be the most important artifact discovered in the tomb: a pyramid-shaped copper scepter which is topped with the face of a feline, fangs bared. The four sides of the scepter are also decorated, three of them with warriors displaying their weapons and the fourth with a large cat that has just killed a nude prisoner.
The scepter is very similar in shape and design to one discovered in the tomb of the Lord of Sipán with one major difference: Sipán’s sceptre was made of gold, not copper. The scepter is a symbol of rule, but the copper indicates this man was a local ruler, certainly a person of high social rank, but a vassal of Moche royalty rather than standing atop the hierarchy himself. Hence the preponderance of copper and brass in the tomb. The only gold found was a few modest pieces inlaid in a pair of large round earplugs. The quality of the earplugs again is high, but not the highest. He was a nobleman, a political or religious leader, possibly an envoy sent to newly conquered territories.
The high status is confirmed by the presence of a metal mask that once covered his face. It is in pieces now, but the shiny metal buttons used to cover his eyes are in excellent condition. The presence of eye coverings confirm his elevated status. Ten decorated ceramic vessels were buried with him, most of which have been painted with pattern motifs but some of which depict figures from Moche cosmology, another indicator of the importance of the deceased. Metal blades placed at the hands and feet are also characteristic of elite burials. Archaeologists believe these metal objects coded information of the deceased’s place in Moche hierarchy.
Archaeologists hope to determine whether he was a native ruler or if he came from elsewhere by using stable isotope analysis which can reveal where a person was raised based on the proportion of certain elements in their teeth and bones. It’s a time consuming process; results won’t be expected until next year. Meanwhile, once the artifacts and remains were removed, the tomb was promptly sealed to keep the archaeological context safe from the coming rains. It will be re-opened for further study.
An archaeological team excavating the Newfoundland colony of Avalon, founded in 1620 by George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore, has discovered a small copper crucifix dating to the early days of the settlement. It’s just 2.8 centimeters (1.1 inches) wide at the arms and has the traditional image of Christ on the cross on the front. On the back is the Virgin Mary cradling the Christ child. The features of the relief are worn almost smooth, indicating that the devotional object was rubbed constantly. Coupled with its small size and broken top, it suggests the crucifix was once part of a rosary.
The crucifix was amongst a collection of ceramics, bones, nails and building debris associated with the construction of a large stone dwelling built for Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, in Ferryland, Newfoundland. The dwelling was started sometime after 1623 and completed before the arrival of Calvert, most of his family and about 40 additional settlers in 1628. The cultural deposit containing the crucifix was sealed sometime in the second half of the 1620s, thus providing a securely datable context for the artifacts and a window into the lives of those who worked at Calvert’s colony of Avalon during this early period.
This is the first unambiguously Catholic object found from the time of Calvert’s founding of the colony, and as such it is of singular importance. George Calvert served as King James I’s Secretary of State for six years before resigning and officially converting to Catholicism in 1625. There’s some question as to whether that was the result of a revelation in the moment or the public confirmation of a long-held but hidden faith. His father Leonard was Catholic and in the fraught environment of the Elizabethan religious reforms, suffered constant harassment from the authorities for such crimes as employing Catholics and not going to Church of England services. Little George became a pawn in this game, being forced at age 12 to change tutors to an approved Protestant who would eschew the “popish primer” his previous tutor had employed.
In order to graduate from Oxford and carve out a career for himself as a diplomat and politician at the court of King James, George Calvert certainly professed Protestantism. His wife was Protestant and he raised his children Protestant. By all accounts he was an honest, decent man so there’s no reason to assume he was being deceptive about his religious faith, but either way his experience with religious persecution played an integral role in his plans for Avalon.
He first bought property on Newfoundland from Sir William Vaughan and named it Avalon after the island from Arthurian legend where Christianity was introduced to Britain. Colonists arrived in 1621 led by Captain Edward Wynne who wrote glowingly (and inaccurately) to Calvert describing Newfoundland as a bountiful land with a mild climate. Calvert thought fishing was the key to making the colony self-sustaining, maybe even profitable. In 1623 Calvert secured a royal charter extending his lands to the whole southeast peninsula, officially naming it the Province of Avalon “in imitation of Old Avalon in Somersetshire wherein Glassenbury stands, the first fruits of Christianity in Britain as the other was in that party of America.”
George Calvert’s 1623 charter for the province enshrined freedom of conscience by not requiring that colonists take the oath of supremacy accepting the sovereign as the head of the Church of England. That principle was underscored when Calvert took his first trip to Avalon in the summer of 1627. He brought two priests with him — Father Anthony Smith and Father Thomas Longville (later that year Longville returned to England and was replaced by a Father Hackett) — who according to the colony’s disapproving Puritan clergyman Rev. Erasmus Stourton “said mass every Sunday at Feiryland and used all other ceremonies of the church of Rome in the ample manner as it is used in Spain.” Very much against Stourton’s inclination, Avalon was the first North American colony to practice religious tolerance.
It’s possible that the recently discovered crucifix belonged to one of the three priests, one of the 100 colonists who were established at Ferryland by 1627, or maybe even Calvert himself. Given the early dating, it’s probably more likely to have been lost one of the home’s builders or by Sir Arthur Aston, the governor of Avalon from 1625 to late 1626, or by one of the Catholic colonists he brought with him.
Calvert went back to England before he could experience the joys of a Newfoundland winter, but returned in 1628 with his wife and most of his children. That’s when he found out that Wynne’s letters had been more fiction than fact. A frigid, long winter and fishing ships bedeviled by French privateer the Marquis de la Rade, made life very hard, nigh on unbearable for the good Baron. He and his family left Avalon in 1629 for more hospital climes in the Virginia territory. Two years later, he received another royal charter granting him property north of the Potomac on both side of the Chesapeake Bay. He died five weeks before the charter for Maryland was issued. His son Cecilius took over where his father left off, enshrining the same principle of religious freedom in Maryland as his father had instituted in Avalon.
One of only four known original World War I recruitment posters featuring the iconic image of Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer sold at auction on Wednesday for £22,000 ($37,656), double the low estimate of £10,000 – £15,000. The other three are in museums, one in the Imperial War Museum in London, one in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and one in the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising in London (the display wing of the massive Robert Opie Collection). They’re not likely to come up for sale, well, ever, so this was a unique opportunity.
The poster was part of a remarkable collection of almost 200 World War I posters that spent decades out of the light in an attic in Kent. The sellers inherited the collection from their grandfather, who had helped distribute surplus posters to libraries, museums and collectors on behalf of His Majesty’s Stationary Office at the end of the war. The grandfather died some years back, but the sellers didn’t realize what an absolute treasure they had until they gave the collection a good, hard look inspired by all the discussion and activities around the hundredth anniversary of the start of the war. They had a complete collection of all posters published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee between 1914 and 1916 (when conscription rendered recruitment moot), plus additional ephemera.
The Kitchener poster is one of the latter. It wasn’t an official publication of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, but rather a recruitment message privately issued by the popular magazine London Opinion. London Opinion had a circulation of about 250,000 a week at this time and was swept up in the patriotic fervor that characterized the weeks after Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th, 1914. The magazine commissioned illustrator and cartoon artist Alfred Leete to create a recruitment-themed cover for its September 5th issue. He scared it up in less than a day.
It was not a complex design. Leete used a photograph of Lord Kitchener, probably the one shot by famed portrait photographer Alexander Bassano around 1885 which had become very well known in postcard form, and modified it so that both his eyes stared forward (Kitchener had a pronounced strabismus in one eye), his jawline was more heroically square, and his moustache larger and more dramatically shaped. He added the uniform hat and the foreshortened arm and finger pointing at the viewer, a design that had been used before in a 1906 cigarette ad, among others. Under Kitchener’s neck were the words “Your country needs YOU,” while magazine promotions above and below offered recruits £1,000 worth of insurance and 50 photographs for a shilling.
The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, meanwhile, was still using text-only recruiting pitches in periodicals and on posters. These were scions of the upper classes who had no high opinion of commercial advertising and its eye-catching gimmicks. A royal coat of arms was acceptable, but the first poster with an actual image on it had a simple silhouette of the United Kingdom behind the legend “Britons! Your country needs you.” Kitchener himself had no interest in being on posters.
So the London Opinion took it upon themselves to put him on one. Unlike the magazine cover, the poster version had some color. “BRITONS,” it blared in large bold red letters above the famous image of the Secretary of State for War, Kitchener “Wants YOU. Join your country’s army! God save the King.” It was printed in September of 1914 in a relatively modest run of about 10,000 units. Since it was not an official poster, it wasn’t on display in military recruitment offices and other common PRC outlets, but it still got around, distributed along with magazines at newstands, at train stations and even on a Belfast tram dedicated to recruitment posters.
Kitchener’s basilisk stare and engorged index finger made an impression. By 1915, there were versions of Leete’s designs on posters in Canada and New Zealand, and other countries soon followed. The PRC issued their own Kitchener poster in 1915. He wasn’t pointing or hollering in all caps — the rallying cry was a 30-word quote from a speech — but the face was similar to Leete’s drawing of the youthful 1885 Kitchener. Later that year the PRC finally issued an official poster featuring Leete’s design. There were combatant flags at the top and walls of text on the sides and bottom, but there was Lord Kitchener pointing sternly, informing viewers that “Your country needs YOU.”
The year after that, Leete’s vision was transformed into another iconic image. On July 6th, 1916, the cover of the illustrated news magazine Leslie’s Weekly was a drawing by James Montgomery Flagg of a stern Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, asking them “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” This was almost a year before the United States’ entry into the war, but advocates for intervention on the British side like former President Theodore Roosevelt and former Secretary of War Elihu Root had been campaigning for a massive boost of military funding and troop training (not just of the regular army but of hundreds of thousands of conscripts as well) so the country would be prepared for war when it came.
The Preparedness Movement got its way with the National Defense Act of 1916, passed in June 1916, and the hawkishly patriotic Leslie’s Weekly was fully on board. The Flagg cover became a full-on recruitment poster the next year after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917. It was a massive success with more than four million printed in 1917 and 1918. Flagg himself modestly declared it “the most famous poster in the world,” but even if that’s true, Alfred Leete and Lord Kitchener deserve a large portion of the credit.
Five late Roman-era skeletons unearthed at the site of an ancient villa near Blandford in North Dorset may be the first owners of a Roman villa ever found in Britain. The team of archaeologists and 85 students from Bournemouth University excavated the villa on a corn field near Winterbourne Kingston last year. This year they did a geophysical survey of the grounds using electrical resistance meters to map archaeological features beneath the earth and found a grave site 300 feet away from the building. Excavation revealed the individual burials of five people: two adult males, two adult females and one elderly females.
The remains date to the 4th century (around 350 A.D.), the same period when the villa was built. Researchers believe the remains represent three generations of the family who owned the villa. Even though many Roman villas have been unearthed in England, most of them were discovered in the 19th century when archaeological practices and technologies were still artifact-focused. Human remains were poorly documented or ignored altogether, thus there is much we don’t know about the landowning elite of late Roman Britain.
The bones have been removed and sent to laboratory for testing that will hopefully narrow down the date and fill in many blanks about the people who lived in the villa.
Miles Russell, a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Bournemouth University and one of the archaeologists leading the dig, said, “The discovery is of great significance as it is the only time where evidence of a villa and the villa’s occupants have been found in the same location in Britain. This could provide us with significant information, never retrieved before, about the state of health of the villa owners, their ancestry and where they came from.”
Miles continued, “One of the big questions in South West is whether the villas in the South West were owned by Britons who have become Roman or owned by people from another part of the Empire who have come to exploit an under-developed rural area. All villas in this region in the South West are late-Roman – and our findings should tell us more about what life was like in this period of history. This is what can be assessed when the bones are analysed.”
The period was a turbulent one, characterized by political upheaval, economic decline, military dissension and increasing Saxon incursions. Britain supported the usurper emperor Magnentius (reigned 350-353 A.D.), and it suffered the displeasure of the legitimate emperor Constantius II after Magnetius was defeated and killed. Magnetius’ supporters in Britain were hunted down and killed by Constantius II’s envoy.
Ten years later, the Barbarian Conspiracy saw masses of Saxons, Scotti, Picts, Attacotti join with some native Britons and rebellion legions on Hadrian’s Wall ravage the province. They were defeated by general Flavius Theodosius, father of the future emperor Theodosius I, in 368. Meanwhile, the minting of new coins all but stopped by the end of the century. Getting a richer understanding of the occupants of a Roman villa during this era will open a window on how the elites lived when all this was happening around them.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in the neighborhood this weekend, the dig will be hosting an Open Day this Sunday July 13th from 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM. There is no fee and you don’t have to register. Visitors will get a guided tour of the site, a chance to meet the team and to see some of the artifacts that have been excavated this year.
For the less fortunate rest of us, we can follow the Durotriges Project dig on their outstanding Twitter account which is very active and crammed with great pictures.
Much of what we know about woolly mammoths has come from discoveries of skeletal remains, and even when the occasional soft tissues were discovered, scientists weren’t able to examine thoroughly and non-invasively until the advent of technologies like computer tomography. The discovery of two baby mammoths preserved virtually intact for 40,000 years by the Siberian permafrost have given scientists a unique opportunity to learn about their lives and deaths using full-body CT scans and cutting edge X-ray technology.
Lyuba, who died when she was one month old, was found on the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia in 2007. Khroma was two months old when she died in the northernmost area of Yakutia. She was discovered in 2009. They are the most complete examples of mammoths ever found, Khroma more so because her body was frozen almost immediately after death while Lyuba’s suffered some decomposition before it was stopped in its tracks by ice. Although they were found 3,000 miles apart, they are the same species and died around the same time which allowed for the first comparative study of mammoth skeletal development from two examples of known age.
Their completeness proved a challenge for researchers. Lyuba was too big to fit in standard CT scanners so at first scientists had to make do with partial scans done in Tokyo in 2009 and Wisconsin in early 2010. When the remains were transferred from Chicago to New Jersey later in 2010, University of Michigan researchers convinced the Russian team to let them take the mammoth on a detour to the Ford Motor Company’s Nondestructive Evaluation Laboratory in Detroit. They have an oversized scanner used to examine vehicle transmissions which was big enough to accommodate Lyuba. At Ford she got her first full-body scan.
Researchers were then able to compare the Ford scans with ones taken of Khroma at two French hospitals, and compare Micro-CT scans of both mammoths’ teeth done at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. It was the dental scans that pinpointed their ages at death — Lyuba was 30 to 35 days old, Khroma 52 to 57 days old — while the CT scans revealed interesting skeletal differences.
Scans of Khroma’s skull showed she had a brain slightly smaller than that of a newborn elephant, which hints at the possibility of a shorter gestation period for mammoths.
Lyuba’s skull is conspicuously narrower than Khroma’s, and her upper jawbones are more slender, while Khroma’s shoulder blades and foot bones are more developed. These differences may simply reflect the one-month age difference between the calves, or they could relate to the different populations from which the two calves derived.
The scans also found that the mammoths died in similar tragic accidents.
In Lyuba, the scans revealed a solid mass of fine-grained sediment blocking the air passages in the middle of the trunk. Sediment was also seen in Lyuba’s throat and bronchial passages. If Lyuba had died by drowning rather than suffocation – as some have suggested – then traces of sediment should also have been detected in parts of the lungs beyond the bronchial passages, but that was not the case.
Slightly coarser sediment was found in Khroma’s trunk, mouth and throat. Her lungs weren’t available for study because they were scavenged before the carcass was recovered. Since both animals appear to have been healthy at the time of death, a “traumatic demise” involving the inhalation of mud and suffocation appears to be the most likely cause of death in both cases, according to the authors.
The researchers suspect that Lyuba died in a lake because sediments found in her respiratory tract include fine-grained vivianite, a deep blue iron- and phosphate-bearing mineral that commonly forms in cold, oxygen-poor settings such as lake bottoms.
It’s possible that Lyuba crashed through the ice while crossing a lake during the spring melt. If she was struggling to breathe while submerged in a frigid lake, the mammalian “diving reflex” may have kicked in during her final moments, Fisher said. The reflex is triggered by cold water contacting the face, and it initiates physiological changes that enable animals to stay underwater for extended periods of time.
You can read the entire study, complete with 30 previously unpublished high resolution scan images, online free of charge in the Journal of Paleontology.
Odalisque in Red Pants is back in Venezuela after more than a decade on the lam. The 1925 Matisse painting of a semi-nude woman wearing a pair of red pants was stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art as early as 2000. Nobody knows for certain exactly when it was stolen because the thieves replaced it with a fake which was not noticed until 2002. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, it was a really, really bad fake, too, and not just in the small details that experts would recognize. The vase in the front right of the canvas was the wrong color. Not the wrong shade. The wrong color. The original is yellow while the fake is blue.
Matisse made a series of Odalisques in the 1920s. He decorated a corner of his Nice apartment in Moorish style with a low couch, fretwork screens, carpets and colorful wall hangings. He returned again and again to theme of the harem concubine standing, sitting, reclining in sensual poses, clad in languorously draped fabrics or nothing at all. Matisse explained his motivation thus: “I paint odalisques in order to paint the nude. Otherwise, how is the nude to be painted without being artificial? But also, I know they exist. I was in Morocco. I saw them.” There are Matisse Odalisques in museums all over the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst. Venezuela’s Odalisque in Red Pants was the only one in a Latin American museum.
It was purchased from a New York art gallery in 1981 by Sofia Imber, art critic, collector and founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art, for $480,000. Its estimated worth today is $3 million. The museum started in Imber’s garage in 1973 became a world-class museum with a collection of about 3,000 works by contemporary masters like Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Kandinsky and Botero.
The theft of the painting came to light in late 2002 when Miami-based Venezuelan gallery owner Genaro Ambrosino alerted museum officials that he had been approached by someone attempting to sell him the Odalisque in Red Pants. After no further leads on the theft for nine years, in 2011 the F.B.I. found out that a Cuban man was attempting to sell the painting in Miami. Agents made a deal with the seller, Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, to buy the painting for $740,000 and in July of 2012, agents met with Guzman and a woman named María Martha Ornelas, wife of Guzman’s “Mexican partner,” who carried the Matisse rolled up in a poster tube from Mexico City to a Miami hotel. They told the agents during their sales pitch that the painting was stolen by museum employees and replaced with the crappy fake. After examining the work, the F.B.I. agents arrested the would-be sellers.
Repatriation discussions have been ongoing ever since. Finally on Monday the painting arrived at the Maiquetia International Airport in Caracas where it was greeted by Culture Minister Fidel Barbarito and a live television broadcast.
“It’s generally well preserved,” Culture Minister Fidel Barbarito told local television from Caracas airport where a white box containing the painting was shown upon arrival after a court in south Florida authorized its return.
“This is another achievement of the Bolivarian revolution, of a government in touch with the arts,” the minister said, referring to the country’s 15-year-old socialist government that began in 1999 with the election of the late Hugo Chavez.
Barbarito said the painting would undergo a delicate 72-hour “acclimatization process” and be back on display at the museum in around two weeks. There was damage to the edges of the work but not the painting itself, he said.
That statement about the Bolivarian revolution was a not at all subtle reference to the controversy that has plagued the Venezuelan government’s approach to the arts since January of 2001 when then-President Hugo Chávez announced on his weekly radio broadcast that he had fired Sofia Imber as director of her own museum because “culture ha[d] become elitist as a result of being managed by elites,” and that he was firing her and other “elites” in the first salvo of a “Bolivarian cultural revolution.” The purge was roundly criticized by the art world.
The subsequent discovery of the stolen Matisse and unnoticed fake didn’t exactly cast this “revolution” in a positive light, hence the big show at the airport on Monday.
The Spoliation Advisory Panel, a committee of the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport, has issued a report (pdf) recommending that the British Library return a 15th century painted wood panel to the descendants of its 1936 owners. It’s not so much a matter of law — the original owners’ title would have expired by 1948 at the latest and the British Library didn’t take possession of the piece until 1968 — but rather the “moral strength of the Claimants’ case” that underpins the recommendation.
The panel is a tempera on wood painting attributed to Guidoccio Cozzarelli that originally was used to cover ledgers and other financial records in the Biccherna, the Sienese treasury that managed all the city-state’s revenues and expenses. It depicts the entrance and the exit of public officers from the Biccherna in 1488. Underneath the cityscape are the coats of arms of the officials; underneath the coats of arms the officials’ names are listed.
The practice of covering the records of the Biccherna with painted panels began in the mid-13th century. They started off as simple designs — the camerlengo (the chamberlain or head treasury official) at his desk, the coats of arms of Biccherna officials — and became increasingly complex as the city grew in wealth and political prominence. They began to include historical scenes, current events and religious allegories, eventually growing beyond the constraints of the ledger cover into wood panel paintings commissioned from the area’s best artists that were hung on the treasury wall.
Although much of the vigour of the form was lost after Cosimo de’ Medici conquered Siena in 1555, Biccherne continued to be made into the 17th century. They began to be dispersed in the 18th century when local families claimed them as testaments to their lines’ histories and heraldry. The city’s archive of panels was plundered by Napoleon and shipped to Paris. They were sent back after the Bourbon Restoration (one cartload fell into the Rhône on the way), but some of them were sold off when they arrived. The city’s collection was gradually pieced back together starting in the 19th century. Today there are 105 Biccherne on display at the Siena State Archives.
The Biccherna panel now in the British Library was in a Jewish-owned Munich art gallery whose contents were forcibly sold at auction in June of 1936. The owners had been presented with an extortionate tax bill in 1935, a common Nazi practice which, coupled with banking restrictions and other fees and tariffs, ensured Jews would be stripped of all their property before they could leave the country. When, as expected, they couldn’t pay the bill, they were forced to sell their assets at absurdly low prices. In 1930 the Biccherna panel was priced at 15,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,500 dollars in 1930 because inflation in Germany was crazy; at 1936 rates it was worth nearly double). At the 1936 auction it sold for 2,800 Reichsmarks, the equivalent of about $1,100 at the more stable currency conversion rate.
There is no record of who bought it at the forced sale. The panel next appears at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1942. It was sold as part of the collection of Arthur Bendir and was purchased by Henry Davis, a collector of important book bindings. Davis donated it to the British Library in 1968 as part of a gift of 890 rare bindings. Its place in the Henry Davis Gift is one of the reasons the BL really wants to keep the panel. It wants to keep the collection intact and accessible to scholars.
The claimants submitted their case to the Spoliation Advisory Panel because the BL can only return an object of cultural heritage in its collection at the recommendation of the Panel and with the approval of Culture Minister. They want the Biccherna Panel back. The British Library hopes to negotiate payment in lieu of restitution. The Spoilation Panel is fine with that plan, but it’s the claimants that will make the final call. If they can’t agree to a compensation solution, then the BL will have to return the piece.
Cadw, the Wales’ Historic Environment Service, has launched a neat new initiative as part of its Time Traveller campaign to inspire interest in Welsh history and encourage tourism to Welsh historic sites. It’s a video series called Castles from the Clouds, so named because some of Wales finest castles are filmed by a remote controlled drone carrying high resolution cameras. The videos are short but sweet, providing sweeping bird’s eye view vistas of the castles.
So far there are four videos uploaded to the Cadw YouTube channel, with more to come.
Laugharne Castle was built in the 13th century on top of a 12th century Norman earth and timber fortification by the de Brian family. It was destroyed by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last sovereign prince of Wales. Most of what stands today are the remains of a Tudor-era mansion built by Sir John Perrot who was reputed to be one of Henry VIII’s bastards. In 1644, it was besieged for a week and captured by Parliamentary troops. Already severely damaged by cannon fire, after its capture the castle was slighted (deliberately destroyed in whole or in part) leaving it in ruins. Those ruins inspired Dylan Thomas who wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in the castle’s garden gazebo overlooking the estuary of the River Tâf.
Caerphilly Castle was watershed (no pun intended) in the history of castle construction. Built by Gilbert de Clare in the 13th century, the castle is encircled by a series of concentric walls and is surrounded by elaborate water defenses, artificial lakes and moats created by the damming a local stream. It’s the second largest castle in Britain (Windsor is number one). By the late 15th century the castle was in decline. By the 18th several towers had collapsed and the waters receded. It wasn’t until the 1950s when the castle was given to the state that the water defenses were re-flooded. One tower still standing today leans even more than a certain tower in Pisa.
Kidwelly Castle is a Norman castle that began as a ringwork castle in the 12th century. The stone castle was built in the mid-13th century by the de Chaworth family with the outer defenses added in the 14th century. It remained in English hands until Henry VII gave it to Rhys ap Thomas who had fought for him ably at the Battle of Bosworth. You might recognize it from the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
St Davids Bishop’s Palace:
St Davids Bishop’s Palace began life as a monastery in the 6th century. The Norse raiders made a meal of it at least 10 times over the next four centuries. The Normans built a motte and bailey fortification to protect the holy site which held the relics of St. David, patron saint of Wales. A succession of bishops in the late 13th and 14th centuries built the stone structures. Bishop Henry de Gower built the cathedral in the 14th century, including the Great Hall with its beautiful wheel window.
Another bishop, Bishop William Barlow, is largely responsible for its ruin. Initially a Augustinian prior, he became prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation and an active participant in the Dissolution of Monasteries. In 1536, he stripped the Palace’s lead roof to raise money for his daughters’ dowries. Without a roof, the palace began to fall apart. By the 17th century it was considered a derelict hulk unfit for repair.
Subscribe to Cadw’s channel to see new Castles from the Clouds videos as they’re uploaded.
As a dedicated aficionado of coloring (no, I never grew out of it and never will), I must point you towards another aspect of Cadw’s Time Traveller campaign, the printable coloring sheets of Welsh heroes and (there’s one heroine but she’s a rather passive, tragic one). They’re very simple line drawings suitable for crayon work and young colorers. I’d love to see them add more intricate examples.
Leiden University archaeologists have unearthed a rare and beautiful silver bowl from the from the early 7th century in Oegstgeest, a town in the province of South Holland in the western Netherlands. It was discovered just over a year ago, on June 4th, 2013, during the excavation of village from the 6th and 7th century on the banks of the Rhine. The find wasn’t announced for a year to allow the team to complete the excavation without interference from treasure hunters and lookie-loos.
The silver bowl itself dates to late antiquity, probably around 300-500 A.D., and is decorated with plant and animal figures in gold leaf. On the inside, three large trees or plants go from the base of the bowl to a border frieze. The plants divide the frieze into three sections separated by rosettes. Each section features animal figures running, one set appears to be three deer, another is two bucks and a dog, the third is two mythological animals, one of which appears to be carrying a human leg in its mouth. These decorative motifs suggest the bowl was originally manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean or Middle East.
It’s the elaborate gold and garnet appliqués that date to the first half of the 7th century. The base of the bowl is inset with a central disc that has garnets inlaid in a cross pattern. Between the garnets are swirls made of knotted gold wire. Tiny versions of the swirls decorate the border of the disc. There are two mounts with suspension rings added to the outside of the bowl. They too are gold with garnet accents and swirls of knotted gold wire. The style of decoration is from the German Rhineland (except for the suspension rings which are more in keeping with English and Scandinavian styles), so someone took an expensive Eastern bowl and made it even more expensive by adding Germanic gold accents.
The rings are characteristic of hanging bowls and the handsome interior decoration would certainly be more effectively shown off if the bowl were suspended with the interior visible. However, in order to hang evenly the bowl would have needed a third ring and there’s no evidence of a third mount on the bowl, not even rivet holes. It’s possible the piece was in the process of being manufactured, which would make it a very rare artifact captured mid-production.
The bowl was presumably used as a drinking vessel or a wash basin initially, but at some point a small hole was made in the base of the bowl from the outside in. The hole would have made it impossible for the bowl to hold liquids without leaking and it seems to have been done on purpose.
The ancient village was criss-crossed by several small waterways leading to and from the Rhine. The bowl was found in one of those small waterways, and archaeologists believe it was deliberately deposited as a sacrifice.
Researchers are assuming that the bowl, which is 21 centimetres wide and 11 centimetres high, was buried as part of a ritual sacrifice. Such gilded discoveries are extremely rare. This one is exceptional because such bowls were usually made of bronze. In addition, they were not, as a rule, lavishly decorated with gold leaf. This means that we are dealing with an artefact that is unique, not only for the Netherlands, but for all of Western Europe. (Until the discovery of this bowl there were no indications of the presence of a local or regional elite on the Oegstgeest settlement. It may be that in this period some members of the elite lived on ‘simple’ farms.)
The was in pieces when it was first found. A full restoration funded by the Province of South Holland has returned it to its former glory. The bowl is now on display at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities as part of the Golden Middle Ages exhibition that runs through October 26th. After that, it will be exhibited in the museum’s permanent collection on long-term loan from the Province of South Holland.
When Walt Disney’s groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937, it was accompanied by one of the largest publicity campaigns in film history. A wide variety of posters, banners and standees were created for distribution to theaters all over the world. Many of them are highly sought after by collectors today, but none more so than the elusive 24-sheet billboard. Made from 24 sheets lithographed separately and then knitted together to form three character groupings spanning an incredible 19-and-a-half feet in width and 9’11″ in height, only a few of them were ever produced and only one of them is known to survive. Behold its awesomeness:
The surviving billboard had lost its bottom left panel, but it has now been fully restored and placed on linen. It’s going up for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Movie Posters sale in Dallas on July 19th with a presale estimate of $10,000 – $20,000. That’s actually relatively modest considering that a handsome but much less rare One Sheet is being offered at the same auction with a presale estimate of $5,000 – $10,000. (A fantastic set of standees of Snow White and all Seven Dwarfs is a steal at $2,500 – $5,000, assuming they go that low.)
All of these promotional materials were the work of Swedish-American illustrator Gustaf Tenggren. The characters — Snow White, The Evil Queen, the Witch, and the Dwarfs — were designed by Albert Hurter and Joe Grant. Disney hired Tenggren, who was already well known for his Arthur Rackham-influenced fairy tale illustrations, in 1936 to create the backgrounds and give the forest and cottage an old world illustration look. He was also in charge of painting the posters and other advertising materials for the movie.
Tenggren then deployed his signature style and exceptional attention to detail in the backgrounds and settings of Pinocchio, particularly the village streets and Gepetto’s Workshop, but his tenure at Disney would be brief. His last movie was Bambi for which he painted intricate forest scenes. They were not ultimately used because they were considered ill-suited to the aesthetic of the picture. Tenggren left Disney in 1939.
In 1942 he went to work for Little Golden Books, illustrating one of the greatest of them all: the immortal The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey, which remains in print to this day and is the all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in English. For more about Tenggren’s remarkably varied art, see Lars Emanuelsson’s World of Gustaf Tenggren website and Gustaf Tenggren blog.
The official transcript of the Declaration of Independence puts a period after the iconic phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The transcript is drawn from an 1823 engraving by printer William J. Stone who was commissioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to make a facsimile of the original manuscript on parchment written by Timothy Matlack, clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, and signed by the Continental Congress on August 2nd, 1776. (July 4th is the day the Declaration was officially adopted, not the day John Hancock put his John Hancock on it.) The Stone engraving is the most frequently reproduced version of the Declaration of Independence.
By the time Stone made his copy, the original was already suffering from condition issues. That’s why he was commissioned to copy it, in fact, so there would be a version for distribution to the surviving signers, their families, luminaries of the Revolution like Lafayette and public institutions nationwide. Stone’s engraving is considered the closest thing we have to the Declaration when it was still legible. The original, now on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is kept in a bulletproof glass case filled with inert argon gas. The writing is so faded as to be next to illegible.
It’s impossible to confirm with the naked eye, therefore, whether there was a period after “the pursuit of Happiness” in the original. Professor Danielle Allen from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, thinks there was not, that Stone made a mistake that has been carried forward nearly two centuries. It’s not pedantry that underpins her analysis. The punctuation plays a significant part in the interpretation of the preamble.
The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights.
“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”
Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen’s research say she has raised a serious question.
“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”
Several early documents support Allen’s argument. There is no period in any of the official versions written or printed in 1776. Thomas Jefferson’s original rough draft has a semicolon after the pursuit of Happiness, just as it does at the end of all the “that” clauses in the sentence. The Dunlap Broadside, printed in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776, uses a triplicate dash, an m-dash followed by a space and a hyphen.
There is a period in an unauthorized leaked version of the Declaration published in Benjamin Towne’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, on July 6, 1776. The first official document to include a period after Happiness was the 1777 broadside printed by Mary Katharine Goddard. The first public issue of the Declaration to include the names of all the signatories (minus one, Thomas McKean of Delaware, who may have signed after Goddard’s version was printed), the Goddard broadside was commissioned by Congress for distribution to the states. Goddard and Towne knew each other well. Towne began his career in the print shop of William Goddard, Mary’s father, and Mary had reprinted Towne’s version in her own paper, the Baltimore Journal, on July 10th, 1776. It’s no surprise, therefore, that she stuck with Towne’s punctuation when she printed the official broadside in January of 1777.
Allen thinks the period made its way into Towne’s bootleg printing as an artifact of the many diacritical marks Jefferson included in his drafts to convey the flow of it as a document to be read out loud. You can read her paper about it, Punctuating Happiness, here (pdf). She goes into very persuasive and fascinating detail, analyzing the early written and print versions, breaking down the stylistic differences between John Adams’ work and Thomas Jefferson’s and ever so much more. It is seriously a page-turner and very appropriate reading for the day.
The National Archives found it persuasive as well. They are now looking into making some changes to their online presentation of the Declaration based on her work, and are examining the possibility of deploying new imaging technology to photograph the Declaration through its encasement and reveal details not visible to the naked eye.
Archaeologists surveying the site of highway construction in Warcq, a town in the Ardennes department of northeastern France, have unearthed a rare Gallic chariot tomb from the first to mid-second century B.C. Inside the tomb is an aristocrat of Remi tribe, one of the first Celtic tribes to have settled Gaul. They buried their aristocrats in pits, resting on top of their chariots, since the 6th century B.C. and several hundred of them have been unearthed in the region.
This one is unique, however, for several reasons. It is exceptionally large at five square meters (54 square feet), dwarfing the other known tombs of this type. It was also found intact, untouched by tomb robbers, and in an exceptional state of preservation. The waterlogged clay soil has preserved most of the timber framing, including the roof which has collapsed on the tomb contents. The late date of the burial is also exceptionally rare. Most Remi chariot tombs date to the start of the second Iron Age (5th-4th century B.C.).
The team has not yet been able to determine if the human remains belonged to a man or a woman. A man, a chieftain and military leader, is the likelier candidate, but women have been found in chariot tombs as well. Forensic anthropologists will attempt to determine sex from the skull and pelvic bones, but if they’ve sustained too much damage to be identifiable, the grave goods will help pinpoint whether a woman or a man was buried there. Military artifacts will point to a man’s burial, household goods to a woman’s. To the left of the skeleton archaeologists found some beads, but they were probably part of the deceased’s coat rather than grave goods in their own right.
The metal strapping from the two wheels of the chariot has survived, and amazingly enough, so have fragments of gold leaf that archaeologists believe once coated the inner wheel. The hubs are decorated with bronze features inlaid with glass paste. These precious elements strongly indicate this was a ceremonial chariot rather than a utilitarian piece.
Buried with the deceased were four horses. They were quite petite, 4’3″ at the withers, and were sacrificed specifically to accompany their master on his or her journey to the afterlife. Their skeletons appear to be intact at this point. The skull of one of them was lodged under one of the wheels of the chariot, but the bones of two horses buried along the western wall are still articulated. Four horses are another unusual feature in a Remi chariot tomb. The common find is a simple pair of horses. The remains of a fifth smaller animal (possibly a pig) have also been unearthed.
This survey was only scheduled to last three weeks before highway construction began, so the archaeologists are battling against time to get everything out of the grave with proper deliberation. Officially they have three days left, but they have far more to do than can be done in such a short window. In order to excavate the full site, they have to remove the collapsed ceiling planks. They can’t just yank them out, though, because they’re incredibly rare artifacts in their own right. Instead, each plank has to be coated in plaster strips to ensure they maintain structural integrity before being moved very slowly to keep them intact.
The President of the General Council of the Ardennes, Senator Benedict Huré, has assured the archaeologists that they will have all the time they need to properly excavate the tomb, “a week or more if necessary.” That’s not exactly a reassuringly generous offer, but the alternative is to rebury everything and pave it over, so here’s hoping they get the time they need to do a thorough job of extracting the archaeological remains.
A large bronze ritual wine vessel from the Late Shang dynasty (12th/11th century B.C.) that is the greatest example of its kind has been donated to the Hunan Provincial Museum where it was reunited with its lid after almost 100 years of separation. It was slated to be the star lot at a Christie’s Asian art auction on March 20th, but a group of Chinese collectors came together to buy the artifact for the museum. The private sale went through on March 19th, one day before the auction. The sum paid is undisclosed, but the scuttlebutt is that it was around $30 million.
At more than two feet high, the Min Fanglei (Min is the name of its maker inscribed inside the vessel’s neck, fanglei is the word for “wine vessel”) is the largest archaic bronze of its kind, taller even without its lid than any other known example with lids.
The vessel’s massive size distinguishes this extraordinary work as one of the foremost examples of its kind. The surface is intricately cast with stylized animals and mysterious monster masks that provide a fascinating insight into early Chinese culture and beliefs. The crisp, precise casting of this complex design vividly illustrates why bronze vessels created during the Shang and Zhou dynasties rank among the finest examples of bronze casting the world has ever seen.
When it last passed through Christie’s hands in 2001, the vessel sold for $9,246,000, then a world auction record for any piece Asian art. It remains a record price for an archaic Chinese bronze sold at auction.
It was certain to blow right through that figure had it gone under the hammer in March. The Hunan Provincial Museum would have found it very expensive to go head-to-head against the deep-pocketed collectors that have driven prices for Asian art into the stratosphere over the past decade or so. It declared its intention to bid, but odds are slim it would have won. Wanting the masterpiece rejoined with its lid in the museum inspired Taiwan collector Robert Tsao to contact his fellow collectors abroad, in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland and call for a united front: nobody bids to give the museum a chance to win. The private purchase ensured nobody else could kill the reunion plan.
The Min Fanglei was unearthed by peasants in Taoyuan County, Hunan province, in 1922. The son of the peasant brought the lid to his school in the hope that the schoolmaster could identify it. The schoolmaster immediately recognized what a treasure it was and bought the lid for 800 hundred silver dollars. Meanwhile, a businessman from Hubei province (Hunan’s neighbor to the north) got wind of the find and bought the body of the vessel for 400 silver dollars. That’s how the two parts got separated.
The lid was sold to a military officer who gave it to the Hunan government in 1952. In 1956 it became part of the permanent collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum. The body was sold to the city of Shanghai in 1924 and then purchased at auction by foreign collectors. While the lid stayed in China, the vessel traveled the world, jumping from collector to collector in the US, the UK, Japan and France. It was a French collector who bought it at the 2001 Christie’s auction. He died earlier this year, which is why the Min Fanglei was on the market again.
The Min Fanglei arrived in Changsha, Hunan’s capital on June 21st. On June 28th at a ceremony at the museum, officials placed the lid on the vessel for the first time in a century. It will go on permanent display at the Hunan Provincial Museum in 2015 when it reopens after a three-year renovation.
The museum’s curator of fine arts Lulu Lippincott suspected it was a modern fake and planned to deaccession the piece. Before lowering the boom, she asked chief conservator Ellen Baxter to determine whether it was a fake. Baxter found that the painting had cracks in it that were characteristic of a panel painting rather than an oil on canvas. The stamp of Francis Leedham, a 19th century British restorer who specialized in the terrifying practice of transferring paintings from wood or fresco to canvas (read a summary of the process here, if you dare), on the stretcher confirmed that this painting was already at least a century old in the Victorian era.
X-rays revealed that underneath the corny lady was the portrait of an older woman with puffy undereyes, a bit of a double chin, a handsome nose bump and significantly larger hands. This subject also sported a halo and held an alabaster urn in her meat hooks, attributes of Mary Magdalene that had been painted over after Leedham had transferred the portrait to canvas. The face and hands were extensively repainted, probably to make the distinctive subject more conventionally “pretty” and appealing to potential buyers.
It was Lulu Lippincott who identified the sitter. She compared the dress, the least tampered with element of the painting, to other portraits of Medici women and found a painting of Isabella de’ Medici wearing the same garment. Born in 1542, Isabella was a luminous figure in the Medici court during her short life. She was beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, intelligent, well-educated, a lover of the arts. Her father Cosimo doted on her. When she was 16, her father arranged a politically expedient marriage for her to Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. He was a violent man, an avid hunter, fighter and future leader of the Papal armies, but he lived in Rome and Cosimo saw to it that his daughter (and her dowry) stayed with him in Florence.
Cosimo gave her an exceptional amount of freedom for a noblewoman of her time. She ran her own household, and after Eleanor’s death in 1562 [corrected from 1559, thank you Edward!], Isabella ran her father’s too. She threw famously raucous parties and spent lavishly. Her father always covered her debts and protected her from scrutiny even as rumors of her lovers and excesses that would have doomed other society women spread far and wide. Her favorite lover was said to be Troilo Orsini, her husband Paolo’s cousin.
Things went downhill fast for Isabella after her father’s death in 1574. Her brother Francesco was now the Grand Duke, and he had no interest in indulging his sister’s peccadilloes. We don’t know what happened exactly, but in 1576 Isabella died at the Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi near Empoli. The official story released by Francesco was that his 34-year-old sister dropped dead suddenly while washing her hair. The unofficial story is that she was strangled by her husband out of revenge for her adultery and/or to clear the way for him to marry his own mistress Vittoria Accoramboni.
Lippincott believes that the picture was painted around 1574, and that the halo and urn were added shortly after the work was completed. The Mary Magdalene attributes transformed the portrait into a “symbol of repentance”; Isabella’s brother Francesco, who became head of the family in 1574, was less accepting of her scandalous lifestyle. “This may have been Isabella’s attempt to clean up her act,” Lippincott says.
Conservator Ellen Baxter cleaned up the portrait’s act, removing yellowed varnish and all that tragic overpaint. The age and stability of the paint layers made it a relatively straightforward process, although once the Victorian modifications were gone, there were areas of paint loss, particularly around the edges. Baxter filled in the blanks with a light, judicious hand.
Watch this video to see her in action:
Now that the Isabella has been liberated from a later era’s bad taste, attribution can be revisited. For now, the Carnegie is attributing the portrait to the circle of Alessandro Allori, although it could be the work of the master himself.
Meanwhile, Isabella is going on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated exhibition, a fascinating glimpse behind the conservator’s curtain as viewed through the analysis and conservation of five Renaissance paintings in the museum’s collection. The exhibition debuted Saturday and runs through September 15th.
This spring, metal detectorist Torben Christjansen found a small amulet in Købelev on the Danish island of Lolland. Just one inch long and wide, the piece is in a shape known as Thor’s hammer, a design thought to invoke the protective power of Thor and his dwarf-forged hammer Mjolnir. About 1,000 of these Viking-era amulets have been discovered in Scandinavia, the UK, Russia and the Baltic countries, often unearthed in women’s graves. There has been some debate, however, on whether they were representations of Thor’s hammer, even stylized versions. Skeptics point out that the shaft is disproportionately short to be a hammer, and the head too symmetrical.
Christjansen reported the find as treasure trove to the local Museum Lolland-Falster where curators dated it to the 10th century. The amulet was cast in bronze and has traces of the silver or tin plating and gold plating that once adorned it. One side of the hammer’s head is decorated with interlacing pattern, the other side with a runic inscription seven characters long. This is the first Thor’s hammer amulet ever found inscribed with runes.
Because the runes were so small — three to seven millimeters high — and the surface corroded from the centuries it spent in the ground, the Museum Lolland-Falster curators sent the amulet to the National Museum of Denmark for their experts to decipher. Examining it under a microscope, museum runologist Lisbeth Imer was able to translate the inscription and it resolves the hammer question in the bluntest terms possible: the runes read “Hmar is x,” or in modern Danish “Hammer is” (the x isn’t a letter but a delimiter between two words). Translated into English the inscription simply says “This is a hammer.”
There are two mistakes in the runes. The author left out the first a in “hammer” and flipped the S-rune backwards à la Toys-R-Us. These could have been errors of literacy or a function of the tiny space the writer had to inscribe. Even if his or her spelling was spotty, the rune carver would have derived status and prestige from being literate in a society that prized writing.
The hammer wasn’t the only artifact Christjansen found on the site. He discovered pieces of silver needles and a matrix used to make brooches. These finds could indicate there was a jewelry-making workshop in the area. If so, the hammer could have been made locally. There are no plans currently for an archaeological investigation of the site. Christjansen will keep surveying the area with his metal detector, however, and Museum Lolland-Falster curators will be working with him going forward.
Archaeologists excavating the 15th century Inca archaeological site of Incahuasi, about 90 miles southeast of Lima and 20 miles inland from the coast of central Peru, have found 25 quipu, groups of knotted and dyed strings tied together that were used by the Inca for keeping records. The quipu are in various shapes, sizes and configurations. The longest is two groups of strings tied together to form a row three feet wide, with an additional tail in the center where the two strands meet. The smallest is just a few inches wide, the size of a small notepad.
Quipu (also called “khipus” or “talking knots”) typically consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. They aided in data collection and record-keeping, including the monitoring of tax obligations, census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded on knots in a base-10 positional system. Some quipu had as many as 2,000 cords.
In widespread use for 800 years or so in cultures that had no written language, the quipu were targeted for destruction by the Spanish conquistadors. They were collected and burned. Today only a few hundred have survived because they were used as grave goods. The Incahuasi quipu, on the other hand, were not found in a funerary context but rather unearthed in the city’s warehouses where they were used in the management of whatever was stored there, most likely agricultural products. Ceramic pots recovered from the warehouses are marked with symbols for maize and other crops.
Incahuasi was founded in 1450 by King Túpac Yupanqui who expanded the Inca empire south along the coast and established the city as an administrative and military center for the ongoing campaign against the local Huarcos people who resisted the Inca invaders. He called it New Cusco, after the Inca capital, and planned the city to be a smaller scale replica of the original. The architecture was therefore deliberately grand, meant to convey imperial power. Structures found so far include 64 circular columns, ushnu (terraced pyramids) temples, forts, soldier’s barracks, ceremonial courtyards, warehouses, grain stores on a plan of streets and squares similar to the northern capital. It’s the most important Inca archaeological site in coastal Peru.
The climate is dry, a sub-tropical desert, which required the construction of canals and irrigation systems to enable agriculture. It also preserves organic material like knotted cotton strings. Their condition is so good that conservators have actually been able to iron them, believe it or not. The strings of the longest one were crimped and tangled, so curator Patricia Landa Cragg placed a damn paper towel on top of them and passed an iron over it. The treatment works like a charm, as you can see in the photograph left where the strings on the left side have been ironed while the ones on the right have not. There’s video of Patricia explaining the process on this page (which is currently down but was working fine earlier). The video also shows some of the other quipu found at the site and the recovered ceramic pottery.
For more about this fascinating and complex system of 3D language (there’s some evidence quipu weren’t just used for accounting purposes, but also to record literature and mythology), see Harvard’s Khipu Database Project.
A rediscovered painting by Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi sold for a world record €865,500 ($1,175,211) at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris on Thursday. The final price including buyer’s premium was far in excess of the pre-sale estimate of €200,000-300,000 ($271,568-407,352), driven up by seven bidders competing against each other.
The previous auction record for a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi was £419,500 (about $715,000 at today’s exchange rate) set at 1998 Sotheby’s sale in London. It was the same Self-Portrait as a Lute Player that failed to sell at auction due to an overly-optimistic reserve in the millions of dollars last January. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford acquired it in a private sale for an undisclosed sum in March.
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy was thought lost, its existent only known from an early 20th century black and white photograph in the library of an Italian art dealer. Sotheby’s experts rediscovered it in a private collection in the south of France where it had been secreted away for 80 years. The old picture is thought to have been taken when the painting was acquired by the family of the current seller for their collection.
It’s no wonder that Mary Magdalene was subject to a bidding war. It is a particularly striking example of Artemisia’s Caravaggio-influenced play of light and dark. A large canvas at 32 by 41 1/3 inches, the piece depicts the Magdalene is the throes of religious ecstasy. The conventional wisdom is that it was painted between 1613 and 1620, the period during which Gentileschi became a highly sought after and respected artist in Florence. Some scholars believe it’s an even earlier work because they see her father’s influence in the color palette while her Florentine work saw her move away from that and develop her own signature style. Her Florentine period also featured more luxurious elements, while this painting is downright Spartan. Sotheby’s Old Masters experts think she painted it shortly after the devastating rape trial in 1611 when she was still in Rome. They believe she may even have used herself as a model, since she wouldn’t have had a great deal of access to paid models as a young woman artist still in her teens.
The abandoned, blissful pose and the way the figure fills the frame is unusual. Artemisia’s father Orazio set his subjects farther back. This composition is all Artemisia, an early glimpse into her burgeoning creative vision. The religious theme illustrated by a figure bathed in a single strong beam of divine light was popular at the time (Caravaggio was a master of the form) but Artemisia’s treatment — the tight framing, Mary pictured as a regular woman without overtly religious iconography, the sheer ecstasy — takes a highly personal approach to the subject. Compare it to two other ecstatic women from her oeuvre, Cleopatra at the moment of her death and Danaë at the moment of her impregnation by Zeus as a shower of gold. Magdalene seems so much more naturalistic and unbridled rather than posed and conventional.