Hyper-resolution Night Watch

September 17th, 2020

Last year, the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, the Rijksmuseum launched a major project to conserve The Night Watch, crafting a state-of-the-art analysis and treatment program to learn everything possible about Rembrandt’s largest and most famous masterpiece — how it was made, with what materials, how best to repair and maintain it going forward. They built a custom glass enclosure so visitors could see the museum’s most famous masterpiece during the operation.

Operation Night Watch was still in the study phase when the museum was closed in March. Analysis resumed on May 13th with new safety protocols for the team working in the glass enclosure. The restoration process, initially scheduled to begin in the fall of 2020, has been pushed back to early next year.

Meanwhile, the Rijksmuseum has posted regular updates on the study since it began last summer. There are fascinating articles on the discoveries thus far, including the pigments Rembrandt used and the chemical composition of the painting mapped using Reflectance Imaging Spectroscopy. (Spoilers: Rembrandt painted over feathers that used to be on the helmets of the watchmen in the background and he used arsenic in the gold embroidery of Willem van Ruytenburch’s yellow doublet. Other Dutch artists used arsenic in still lives. He was the first to introduce it to portraiture.) 

There are also some nifty videos. Here’s a timelapse of how they moved the colossal work to its temporary location:

This is a timelapse of the construction of the glass enclosure:

Most recently, the team created the most detailed photograph of The Night Watch ever taken. They have digitized it so everyone in the world can examine Rembrandt’s brushstrokes down to the tiniest crack.

The Rijksmuseum’s imaging team made this photograph of The Night Watch from a total of 528 exposures. The 24 rows of 22 pictures were stitched together digitally with the aid of neural networks. The final image is made up of 44.8 gigapixels (44,804,687,500 pixels), and the distance between each pixel is 20 micrometres (0.02 mm). This enables the scientists to study the painting in detail remotely. The image will also be used to accurately track any future ageing processes taking place in the painting.

Dive as deep you like into The Night Watch here

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Conservators discover Michelangelo’s tool marks on Pietà

September 16th, 2020

Conservation of the Bandini Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s last sculptures and one of his most striking (in more ways than one), has revealed previously unknown details from its violent creation. Under centuries of grime, restorers found everything from the artist’s original chisel marks to colors left behind in past work on the white marble.

The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the organization which manages the works in the collection of the Duomo Museum, began a comprehensive cleaning and conservation program last November. This is the first true restoration of the sculptural group in its nearly 500-year history. Work, rudely interrupted by you-know-what, has resumed. The thorough cleaning of the surface has been completed on the back of the sculpture and is in its initial phases on the front.

Ongoing diagnostic surveys have provided information considered to be fundamental for the knowledge of the work and its restoration: there is no historic patina with the exception of traces found at the base of the sculpture, something that is still being investigated. The presence of elevated quantities of chalk from the cast executed in the 1800s has instead been confirmed. These results have led to cleaning operations first and then to start the intervention at the back. The waxes present on the surface, including those from candles that were used on the main altar of Florence’s cathedral where the sculpture was kept for over 220 years, were removed with a scalpel.

According to his Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo began the sculpture on his own with no commission. It was 1547. He was in his early 70s and painting frescoes had become too strenuous for him. Chiseling four figures out of a hunk of Carrara marble eight feet high, on the other hand, was just a good way to pass the time and stay fit. Unlike his first and most famous Pietà now in St. Peter’s Basilica which features a youthful Virgin Mary with the body of Christ draped across her ample lap, the dominant figure is that of Nicodemus who stands behind the limp, twisted body of Jesus, helping Mary the Mother (right) and Mary Magdalene (left) support the dead Christ. Michelangelo intended it for his own tomb, and purportedly the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait.

Papal and Medici projects for churches, palaces and bridges constantly interrupted his work on the sculpture and the piece itself became an exercise in frustration as he encountered constant flaws in the hard marble that made it impossible to complete as he’d envisioned. Vasari said it was so “full of emery” that the chisel set off sparks. He also said that Michelangelo had by this point in his life become such a terminal perfectionist that he never completed any sculpture to his satisfaction, that all his finished works were done in his youth, and even then if it had been up to him he never would have turned them over to his patrons.

Finally one evening in 1555, Michelangelo’s frustration boiled over. One of the Madonna’s elbows had broken when he was working on it. Michelangelo then deliberately broke of other body parts from the statue. His servant Antonio stopped him from completely smashing it to pieces and asked the master to give it to him as is. Antonio sold all the pieces of the broken group to the Florentine banker Francesco Bandini who enlisted Tiberio Calcagni, a sculptor and a collaborator of Michelangelo’s, to put the Pietà back together again as much as possible and fill in any blanks he could.

Calcagni’s work from around 1565 was the last clearly identifiable intervention on sculpture until the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore’s project. The conservation was performed in public view at the museum before the pandemic shut them down. Starting September 21st, guided tours of no more than five visitors will be allowed to view the work in progress.

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First Phoenician wine press found in Lebanon

September 15th, 2020

University of Tübingen archaeologists have discovered the first Phoenician wine press at Tell el-Burak in Lebanon. In the first millennium B.C., Phoenician trade was instrumental in the spread of wine around the Mediterranean, but the archaeological evidence from this period has come almost entirely from the consumption side — amphorae used to transport it to buyers, drinking sets, how different vessels were adapted for mixing, sharing and imbibing. Archaeological remains of wine production in Phoenicia itself, however, has never been discovered before.

The settlement of Tell el-Burak is six miles south of Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. It was founded by Sidon in the last quarter of the 8th century B.C. and was occupied until the middle of the 4th. Recent excavations discovered the remains of four houses dating to the Iron Age. Inside one of them was a courtyard with a plastered basin beneath the floor. This is the treading basin of the wine press. Archaebotanical remains indicate the settlement was agriculturally active, and most of the, 41.7%, consist of grape vine seeds.

The winemaking installation was constructed during the late 8th century B.C. and was in use into the 6th century B.C. Two other plastered structures in the Iron Age home may also have been connected to the wine production, but archaeologists are uncertain what function they performed.  A large number of transport amphorae found in earlier excavations add to the evidence that this was an extensive wine production facility active for centuries.

The discovery also lends new insight into Phoenician construction methods and materials.

Analyses carried out at the Tübingen CCA-BW within the framework of the ResourceCultures collaborative research center (1070) have now provided new data on the composition and technology of the Iron Age plaster of which the wine press was made. “A good-quality lime plaster could be difficult to produce,” say the authors, “The Phoenicians refined the process by using recycled ceramic shards. This made it possible to build better and at the same time more stable buildings.” A local and innovative tradition of lime plaster had developed in southern Phoenicia, they add, “The finished plaster was water-resistant and hardwearing. The Romans adopted this technique for making their buildings.” An ongoing organic residue analysis at the University of Tübingen may determine whether all three plastered structures at Tell el-Burak were connected to wine production.

The study has been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here.

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Rails from 1906 trolley dug up in Walla Walla

September 14th, 2020

About 450 feet of 114-year-old trolley tracks were removed last week from downtown Walla Walla, Washington. They were pulled to make way for new utility work.

Significant stretches of the tracks remained embedded in the city’s roads. They were left undisturbed until 2011 when city water main improvement projects that would necessitate the removal of sections of track spurred an archaeological survey of the site. Using metal detectors, magnetometers and good old-fashioned shoe leather, archaeologists traced the trolley rails and recorded where they were visible and where they might be present under smooth asphalt.

Walla Walla’s first street car system began in 1889 and was horse-drawn. The cars ran on a standard gauge track with most of the rails installed in a cement base eight inches thick. It lasted a decade before plans to upgrade to an electrified system fell through and the horse-drawn street cars ceased operations in 1899.

Come the opening of the Walla Walla River hydroelectric plant in 1905, electrical power became more easily available in the city, in 1906, the Walla Walla Valley Traction Company built the first electric trolley system. At first it was just one line between the railway depot to the city park. By 1918, there were an estimated 14 miles of trolley tracks in the city, plus dozens more in extensions to the suburbs, neighboring cities ( Milton and Freewater, 14 miles away across the state line into Oregon) and spur lines to national train lines and shipping on the Columbia River.

The urban trolley system was a major economic boon to workers and to businesses, providing inexpensive, quick and reliable transportation to people and freight. It was a short-lived boon. The advent of the car killed the trolleys but good and Walla Walla’s city trolley system was shut down for good on December 31st, 1926. The service to Oregon, ceased in 1931.

In 1926, the city determined that only the tracks on brick or unpaved areas needed to be removed. The ones on paved streets would simply be abandoned. As roads were asphalted, the rails would be covered up with nobody the wiser. The sections of track visible today were exposed by erosion of the asphalt layer which, as it happens, does not bond well to iron rails.

The 2011 survey concluded that much of the  Walla Walla Valley Railway Company’s rails were still in place under the surface and exposed in discreet areas. Intersections and areas with recent infrastructure work did have the old tracks removed. The section beneath Whitman Street had 4000 feet of railway. Archaeologists determined that this section was not contiguous and having been buried for decades, they were unlikely to shed new light on the history of public transportation in Walla Walla. They recommended the utility work continue and that the rails be fully documented upon removal. Archaeologists kept only one section of the rail which was stamped with a date and manufacturer name. It is now at the Fort Walla Walla Museum.

The same principal was applied a week ago, when workers pulled 450 feet of the rails under Whitman to proceed with plans to repair and replace water, sewer and road infrastructure.

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The Blue Boy is back and bluer than ever

September 13th, 2020

After three years of restoration (plus a little pandemic thrown in there) Thomas Gainsborough’s most iconic masterpiece, The Blue Boy, has been reinstalled in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, and he is looking bluer than ever.

A Portrait of a Young Gentleman was first removed from public view in August 2017 for a thorough technical analysis and conservation program to treat long-standing structural problems, discolored varnishes, bad overpaint and flaking. A full year of that painstaking work, from September 2018 through September 2019, was undertaken in public so visitors to The Huntington could see The Blue Boy unframed as conservators cured what ailed him.

I swear the above phrasing was not intentional, but I’m keeping it in because one of the cool discoveries made during the analysis of the lining was that the adhesive Gainsborough used was a paste made of rye flour and ale. The conservation team brought in a food historian to recreate the historic recipe using modern ingredients so they could utilize it in a mock-up and study the interaction between adhesive and lining.

Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator and leader of the project, removed several uneven layers of dirt and discolored varnish with small cotton swabs to reveal Gainsborough’s original brilliant blues and other pigments. Then, with tiny brushes, she reconnected the artist’s brushstrokes across the voids of past damage as part of the inpainting process. As O’Connell worked on the painting, she became intimately aware of Gainsborough’s every brushstroke. “It’s been an incredibly deep professional experience,” she said. “Conservation work is very much a process of discovery. I’ve not only had a view of the painting at the microscopic level, but I was also able to observe each stroke as the true colors of Gainsborough’s palette were revealed from underneath many layers of dirt and discolored varnish.”

During the process, O’Connell discovered that although Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy on a recycled canvas (as revealed in earlier X-rays), he made considerable use of a complex network of paint layers and pigments to create a painting that truly showed off his skills.

Gainsborough did not paint The Blue Boy on commission. He created it for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770 to showcase his abilities in Van Dyck-style portraiture, hence the 17th century style of the boy’s striking clothing. Gainsborough’s aim was to take on the sine qua non of court portrait painters and to beat the revered Van Dyck at his own game. He succeeded. The Blue Boy was an immediate hit at the exhibition and Thomas Gainsborough, son of working class parents, vaulted up the social ranks from making portraits of merchants to painting nobles and aristocrats.

The Blue Boy was supposed to be reinstalled in March, but then the thing that happened happened, so his return was pushed back. Phased reopening has begun. For now, only the botanical gardens are open to visitors, but when the galleries reopen, he will be waiting for them with a whole new glow.

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Silver seal of medieval woman found

September 12th, 2020

The seal matrix of a woman from an important medieval family discovered in the village of Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, has been declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. That was the expected verdict as it fits the criteria of the Treasure Act of 1996 on two grounds — it is made exclusively of precious metal (silver) and is more than 300 years old — but as a historical artifact, it is a treasure beyond price.

Discovered by a metal detectorist in April 2019 on the grounds of the Henley Business School, the seal matrix dates to the late 13th or early 14th century but is in pristine condition. It is a pointed oval shape 1.3 inches long with a loop on the back. Around the edge of the front of the matrix is an inscription that reads “SIGILLUM.MAR.GERIE.PEVREL” meaning the “Seal of Margerie Pevrel.” In the center is the Peverel (variously spelled Pevrel, Peverell, Peveril) family crest of three garbs (a bundle of grain bound around the stalks) embedded in an urn with scrolls and florals on the sides and top.

Seal matrixes are not uncommon finds, but ones inscribed with specific names on them are more rare. Ones that name a woman are vanishingly rare. Ones found in a context directly connected to the woman who owned them can be counted on the finger of one finger. What is today the Henley Business School was the estate of Yewden Manor in the 14th century. The Peverel family owned Yewden Manor from 1248 until the mid-14th century.

There are two likeliest candidates for the Margerie Peverel who owned this seal. One is Margaret of Cornwall, wife of James Peverel and mother of Sir Hugh Peverel IV. She died in 1349. The other is Hugh IV’s daughter Margaret who was born in 1321. Both lived at Yewden Manor and one of them lost her seal while out and about on her estate.

Now that it has been declared treasure, it will be assessed for fair market value and offered to a local museum in exchange for a fee in that amount offered to the finder. The River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames is hoping to add it to its collection.

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Massive lion sculpture found in Cambodia

September 11th, 2020

Workers digging at the site of a new water pumping station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, have discovered a massive stone lion. A crew from the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) was digging near the Wat Phnom temple when they came across the ancient statue lying on its back 13 feet below street level. It measures more than eight feet in height and was found broken in two parts.

The lion appears similar in design to the massive statues that guard the main pagoda and main stupa of the Wat Phnom temple. The temple lions are not as massive as this one, however. Hab Touch, director-general for tangible heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, speculates that the newly discovered lion was part of a different structure at the site, something large like a bridge. It could also have originated elsewhere and been moved to the location later.

National Museum director Chhay Visoth told The Post that he cannot make any assumptions about which era the stone lion was made in because experts needed time to check the composition of the ancient stone.

“We cannot make assumptions of the lion that we found during mine clearance for the reservoir plan because we don’t have any connections regarding this statue.

“Normally, we can know the date of an artefact by identifying other things around it,” he said.

Viosth said it’s suspected that the lion was created at the same time as Wat Phnom or sometime after Cambodia was a French protectorate.

That’s a rather elastic range. Wat Phnom was built in 1372. Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863. The sculpture is now being studied by experts at the Ministry of Culture. They might be able to determine its possible age with a tad more precision, but with no contextual clues from an archaeological excavation, it will be difficult to confirm.

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Monumental pool complex found outside Rome

September 10th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a monumental pool dating to the 4th century B.C. near the Giardino di Roma neighborhood 10 miles southwest of Rome. The stone sunken pool is a massive 48 meters (157 feet) long and 12 meters (39 feet) wide was discovered during a preventative archaeology excavation at the site of a future residential and commercial real estate complex.

Its function is unclear. The most plausible current hypothesis is that the monumental pool was part of a system of water management, a large reservoir or settling tank. It could also have had an agricultural purpose — an ancient hydroponics farm. Then there’s always the old fallback of unknown ritual purpose. The outer walls were made of tufa blocks and an inclined ramp connects the pool to the street level of the time. This was not a Roman-style public bathing facility or anything else familiar on the archaeological record. The two-hectare site is replete with layers of building and structures and artifacts that have been discovered range over eight centuries starting in the 5th century B.C.

At the time the pool was built, the area was already an important crossroads connecting the city of Rome and its first colony, Ostia, which according to legend was founded by Ancus Marcius, fourth king of Rome, in the 7th century B.C.

The artifacts recovered may provide additional clues to the usage of the pool and other structures over different historical phases. One of the remains found may be of particular import: it’s a wooden fragment, preserved in the watery bottom of the pool, inscribed in Etruscan. At the time, the Etruscan language was used by Latin communities as well, including Rome.

“The excavation, in all its grandeur, reveals an important place” – explains superintendency archaeologist Barbara Rossi – “which lasted for over eight centuries, as demonstrated by the quantity and above all the quality of rediscovered structures, such as the monumental basin from the fourth century BC, found in all its expanse.”

“An in-depth study of the large number of materials that this investigation has returned to us and continues to return to us – wood, terracotta, metal objects, inscriptions – will reveal the secrets of this extraordinary corner of the greater Rome area.”

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Silla grave with full set of jewelry found

September 9th, 2020

The grave a Silla aristocrat bedecked from head to toe in jewelry has been unearthed in Gyeongju, South Korea. This is the first Silla tomb since the excavation of the Great Tomb of Hwangnam in 1973-1975 to be found with the deceased buried in a full set of accessories from gilt bronze coronet to gilt bronze shoes. The burial dates to the first half of the 6th century.

Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.) and at its zenith in the 7th-9th centuries, it was the fourth largest city in the world. Located in the Hwangnam area of Gyeongju’s historic center, Hwangnam Tumulus No. 120-2 was excavated as part of a city project to explore important archaeological remains from its history as the Silla royal capital. Last May a gilt bronze shoe was discovered. Now the tomb’s complete treasure has been revealed.

The grave is wooden chamber tomb surrounded by a stone mound, a type characteristic of the Silla Kingdom. At the head of the grave were placed numerous pottery vessels.  The individual is believed to be a woman based on the accessories but the skeletal remains are too degraded to draw a firm conclusion. A gilt bronze crown on a round frame was folded flat and placed on the face of the deceased. The round frame is decorated with three twig-shaped ornaments and two pieces of deer antler ornaments at the top. Heart-shaped holes pierce the tips of the decorative elements. On both sides of the round frame are gold pendants adorned with jade and gold beads.

The deceased wears thick gold hoop earrings in both ears. A beaded breast band covered the chest. Around the waist is a silver belt. Both wrists are covered in silver bangles. One of the bracelets on the right wrist is festooned with more than 500 tiny beads just a millimeter in diameter. The right hand has silver rings on every finger. The left hand is still in the process of being uncovered, but there is one silver ring on it as well.

The gilt bronze shoes are decorated with openwork cut-outs in T shapes. These were ornamented with coin-shaped gilt-bronze accessories. The shoes would not have been worn in life. They were created specifically as funerary adornments.

The CHA said the height of the owner of the tomb is estimated at 170 centimeter, as it is 176 cm from the middle of the gilt-bronze cap to the shoes. But the sex of the deceased was difficult to discern at the moment, it added.

“This is a small-sized tomb, but the owner has the full set of accessories. It is expected to be possessed by a noble or royal-blooded person,” a researcher from the CHA said. “We’ve found many new things from this project. We will keep studying the case.”

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400-year-old chamois acts as model for ice mummy research

September 8th, 2020

A chamois preserved for 400 years in the Ahrntal glacier in Italy’s South Tyrol will give researchers new information on how to conserve ice mummies that are increasingly at risk of exposure and decay due to glacier melt.

The goat-antelope died at an altitude of 10,500 feet and the ice preserved much of its skin. It was discovered by world champion skier and alpine enthusiast Hermann Oberlechner in the Val Audrina at a location so remote it can only be reached by a six-hour hike. The receding ice had exposed the hairless, leathern skin and Oberlechner realized this was not your usual animal carcass. He took a photo and mailed it to a park ranger and they notified cultural heritage officials of the find. (I mean, I barely get a bar a mile away from home where there’s moderate tree coverage, but he can send pics 10,000 feet up the Alps?)

On August 26th, a team of Alpine Army Corps troops and experts from Eurac Research helicoptered to the Val Aurina to recover the carcass. The goat was chiseled out of the ice and fragments of its glacial context saved for further analysis.

The goat was transported to a Eurac laboratory in Bolzano where it will be studied further with the aim of establishing the most effective protocol to conserve ice mummies exposed by rapidly receding glaciers. Researchers will also investigate how best to protect ancient DNA in mummified remains.

In mummified specimens, DNA has often degraded and is present only in minimal amounts. In fact, faced with a new discovery, the first question experts encounter is how to examine the mummy while continuing to preserve it, without damaging its ancient DNA. Every action has irreversible consequences on DNA fragments, which makes experimenting with new techniques on human finds impossible. Contrastingly, an intact animal mummy is a perfect simulant for research – especially if its conditions are similar to those of the world’s other ice mummies, of which Ötzi and the Inca girl Juanita are among the most famous. “Thanks to our previous studies we know the optimal physical and chemical parameters for preservation from a microbiological point of view. In the laboratory we will bring the chamois to those conditions and focus on their effects on DNA. With repeated in-depth analysis we will verify what alterations the DNA undergoes when external conditions change,” explains Marco Samadelli, conservation expert at Eurac Research. “Our goal is to use scientific data to develop a globally valid conservation protocol for ice mummies. This is the first time an animal mummy has been used in this way,” adds Albert Zink, Director of the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research.

This video shows the painstaking process of removing the chamois mummy from its icy grave, how it was exposed, how ice chips and organic materials were bagged and how the body was transferred onto a custom-made stretchery thing (not a stretcher at all, really, more like plastic bed with ribs so it could be covered with a tarp without touching the remains).

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