The Father of Quality Lager reborn

May 28th, 2016

Humans have been brewing beer since at least 6000 B.C. in Mesopotamia — a study was just published a few days ago revealing a 5,000-year-old recipe for beer derived from residue inside pottery found in China’s Shaanxi province — but for thousands of years the chemical processes of fermentation were mysterious. Ingredients varied widely, and even when stripped to the bare bones, as with Bavaria’s 1516 beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, which stipulated that beer could only be made from water, hops and malted barley, things could still go horribly wrong. Some barrels from the same brew could go bad. This bad beer or “beer sickness” made the beverage undrinkable, or drinkable only at a great cost in intestinal discomfort.

It was only in the late 19th century that a cure was found for beer sickness. Mycologist Dr. Emil Christian Hansen, who in addition to being a veritable paragon of human determination is pretty much directly responsible for every healthy sip of lager you’ve ever had. Hansen was born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1842, the son of a hardworking laundress and an alcoholic Foreign Legion vet who lived on the streets a homeless drifter. To help support the family, from an early age Hansen took on all kinds of jobs, from acting to house painting. When he got a steady job as a tutor, he was finally able to support his formal schooling. He graduated high school at the age of 29 and matriculated at the University of Copenhagen where he studied zoology with a particular interest in fungi.

(Random historical connection interlude: when he was a student at the University of Copenhagen, Hansen was the assistant of Professor of Zoology Japetus Steenstrup. Steenstrup, also head of the university-affiliated Royal Natural History Museum, in 1850 loaned Charles Darwin some modern and fossil barnacle specimens from his personal collection to aid Darwin in his research for On the Origin of Species. Four years later Darwin expressed his gratitude by gifting Steenstrup with 77 barnacle fossils, 55 of which were discovered in storage and put on display at the Natural History Museum in 2014. In 1876, Hasen would co-author the first Danish language translation of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.)

In 1877, Emil Hansen got a job at Copenhagen’s Carlsberg Brewery reserching “organisms in beer.” The Carlsberg Laboratory had opened in 1875, the brainchild of brewery founder Jacob Christian Jacobsen, its mission advancing knowledge of biochemistry and brewery science. Just two years later, Hansen was head of the laboratory. In 1883, he made a momentous breakthrough while studying yeast. He realized bad beer wasn’t caused solely by bacterial contamination, as Louis Pasteur had proposed, but also by contamination from wild yeast strains. He isolated a single cell of favorable yeast and grew it into a pure yeast culture he called “Unterhefe Nr. I” (bottom-fermenting yeast no. 1) which when used as the sole yeast source in the fermentation process ensured that the microorganisms which caused beer sickness would not develop in the lager.

Carlsberg yeast no. 1 went into production in November 1883. Jacobsen was a philanthropic, progressive-minded man who was deeply committed not just to enlisting science to produce excellent beer, but to supporting scientific endeavors for the betterment of mankind in general. Jacobsen could have easily patented the “clean yeast” isolated in his laboratory, but instead he spread the purified yeast culture far and wide, reaching out to competitors and offering them living yeast specimens free of charge. Thus Carlsberg ended lager’s beer sickness problem and lager began its reign as the most popular beer in the world, today comprising 90% of all beer sold. Most of the lager produced today uses the same strain isolated by Hansen and distributed by Jacobsen.

Three years ago during construction outside the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, three bottles of beer, still corked and in remarkably good condition, late 19th century labels and all, were discovered in a forgotten cellar. Researchers at the lab uncorked one and sipped the contents. It was still good, apparently, although it no longer tasted like lager so much as a sherry or port. Carlsberg Laboratory scientists then took samples from the bottle in an attempt to isolate the original live brewing yeast that revolutionized lager production worldwide. Nobody thought they’d be successful, but against all predictions, after a year of research they succeeded, thanks to the thick layer of precipitate at the bottom of the bottle which was characteristic of late 19th century lager.

With a living culture of the original Unterhefe Nr. I, Carlsberg’s brewers set to the challenging task of recreating the first consistent quality lager. While the brewery has exceptional archives and even a museum, there is no exact recipe for the 1883 lager. All they had to go on in the records was the ratio of water, malt and hops, because the brewers back then didn’t write down the detailed recipe. At the time the brewery really only made one type of beer, and brewers worked on multiple batches a day. They knew the recipe backwards and forwards, so they didn’t bother to document it in writing.

The ratio was a solid starting point, though, and they did know a great deal about the sources of ingredients and the equipment used. They acquired floor-malted barley malt (floor malting was the system used in 1883). They secured well water drawn through the chalk layer that underlays Copenhagen, just as the water from the 68-foot feep well that supplied the Carlsberg brewery in 1883 was. They used “Gammel Dansk” barley, one of the first domestic barleys J.C. Jacobsen considered of high enough quality to use instead of importing Scottish and British varieties. Like the 1883 brew, the rebrew was not filtered or pasteurized, nor was gelatin added to clear the brew of hazy sediment.

Because perfectionism is the name of the game, the brewers called in glassblower Peer Nielsen from the Holmegaard glassworks, the oldest in Denmark founded in 1825. Holmegaard has been making Carlsberg bottles since the 1850s. Nielsen consulted with Carlsberg museum staff and glass collectors to determine what kind of bottle would have been used in 1883. He found that machine moulded glass bottles were only produced starting in the 1890s, so he used a wooden mould and to mouth-blow the green glass bottles just as his vocational ancestors had done.

On May 18th, the press, craft beer producers, connoisseurs and critics were invited the first tasting of the rebrew, named the Father of Quality Lager.

“I’m relieved,” Bjarke Bundgaard, a beer history expert for Carlsberg, told Live Science after the cask was tapped. “We were very afraid of unwanted microorganisms visiting in the barrel. But basically the beer fulfills what I would expect: rich, malty, higher levels of residual sugars. I think it’s quite authentic, so I’m satisfied.”

The lager was darker in color, sweeter and less fizzy than the familiar green-bottled Carlsberg pilsner of today, and it had 5.7 percent alcohol content (just short of their goal of 5.8 percent). Bundgaard said the historic lager was not as flavorful as the craft beers of today because “this was an everyday-life beer —it was something that people were drinking for lunch or even for their breakfast.”

Only around 30 bottles of the rebrew were made and there are no plans for retail production, but Carlsberg will be holding beer tasting events around the world. Enter your name and email here to be notified should there be one in your neck of the woods.

Neanderthals built stalagmite circles 175,000 years ago

May 27th, 2016

The entrance to the Bruniquel Cave in southwest France collapsed in prehistoric times, sealing off the cave from the Pleistocene until determined local speleologists dug their way through in 1990. Inside the cave just 336 meters (1102 feet) from the entrance, they found two circular structures made of whole and broken stalagmites. Archaeologists carefully documented the site, but were unable to date it. Accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating on a burnt animal bone found nearby returned a date of older than 47,600 years ago, which pushes the outer limit of C-14 dating’s 50,000-year range. The date dangled the intriguing possibility that the stalagmite circles had been built by Neanderthals, the only people in Europe from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago when anatomically modern humans moved in and rapidly took over.

Archaeological exploration of the site ended abruptly when the lead archaeologist F. Rouzaud died prematurely in 1999, and the difficult access to the cave kept other archaeologists from picking up where he left off. In 2013, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences palaeoclimatologist Sophie Verheyden, a speleologist who has a vacation home in the area, put together a team of experts to examine the annular stalagmites structures.

Verheyden’s team found two circular structures, the larger one 6.7 × 4.5 meters (22 x 15 feet), the smaller one 2.2 × 2.1 meters (7.2 x 6.9 feet). In the center of the larger circle are two stacks of stalagmites with two more accumulation structures outside of it. In total, about 400 stalagmite pieces were used in these structures, less than 5% of them whole. Half of them are from the middle section of the stalagmites. The ones used in the large circle have a mean length of 34.4 centimeters (13.5 inches); the ones in the smaller circle have a mean length of 29.5 cm (11.6 inches).

The annular geometry is too regular to be the product of random natural breakage, and relatively regular sizes of the stalagmites, larger in the larger circle and smaller in the smaller circle, are further evidence that this is deliberate construction. The possibility that they might have been cave bear nests is eliminated by the size and inner organization of the structures. Archaeologists also found prints left where some of the stalagmites were wrenched off the cave floor and traces of fire on all six structures, 57 reddened pieces and 66 blackened ones.

Uranium-series dating of stalagmite samples and the calcite regrowth covering the structures returned dates of 175,200 to 177,100 thousand years. The dates of all the samples fell into this range. The stalagmite structures are therefore among the oldest firmly dated human constructions, and Neanderthals were the only humans in Europe at that time.

The earliest surviving evidence of constructions by anatomically modern humans — collapsed circular structures made from mammoth bones or dear antlers — date to around 20,000 years ago. Indications of earlier Neanderthal building are limited to a few postholes and remnants of dry stone walls, but they cannot be conclusively attributed to Neanderthals or conclusively dated. The great archaeological gifts of the Bruniquel Cave, therefore, are the complexity and survival of the stalagmite circles and the repeatable, reliable direct dating.

This momentous find redefines our understanding of Neanderthal culture and abilities. From the research published in Nature, which you can read in its entirety here (pdf):

The attribution of the Bruniquel constructions to early Neanderthals is unprecedented in two ways. First, it reveals the appropriation of a deep karst space (including lighting) by a pre-modern human species. Second, it concerns elaborate constructions that have never been reported before, made with hundreds of partially calibrated, broken stalagmites (speleofacts) that appear to have been deliberately moved and placed in their current locations, along with the presence of several intentionally heated zones. Our results therefore suggest that the Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought for this hominid species.

There’s a compilation of photographs and 3D animated flyover of the site in the video on this page. Alas, I cannot embed it because of cursed autoplay, but it’s well worth viewing.

Altar cloth may be sole surviving Elizabeth I gown

May 26th, 2016

Speaking of Queen Elizabeth I, Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) curators think an altar cloth from St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, may be the only known surviving piece of one of the monarch’s famously elaborate gowns. There is no conclusive proof that the cross-shaped piece of fabric once belonged to the queen herself, but there’s very solid circumstantial evidence.

The altar cloth has belonged to the small rural church for centuries. The richly embroidered cloth, long rumored to have a connection to the Virgin Queen, stopped being used as altar cloth and was placed in a glass display case in 1909. The church received it from Blanche Perry, daughter of a Welsh nobleman who was born in Bacton and became one of the queen’s most loyal and longest serving ladies. Brought to court by her aunt Lady Troy who Henry VIII appointed Lady Mistress to his children Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth, Blanche was Elizabeth’s attendant for 57 years, ultimately rising to the exalted rank of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels, a role she held from 1565 until her death in 1590.

An epitaph she wrote for her funerary monument at St Faith’s describes her lifelong dedication to the Princess and later Queen Elizabeth, “whose cradle saw I rocked, her servant then as when she her crown achieved and remained til death my door had knocked…. A maid in court and never no man’s wife, sworn of Queen Elizabeth’s head chamber always with the Maiden Queen a maid did end my life.” She commissioned the monument at the time of her planned retirement (1576-1577), but she never did retire. She was Chief Gentlewoman until the end, after which the Queen had her buried with much pomp in St. Margaret’s, Westminster. Only her heart made it back to St Faith’s, her heart and a beautiful piece of fabric.

Experts from the Historic Royal Palaces asked to examine the textile last year. They identified it as an Elizabethan skirt panel from the late 16th century, and not just any skirt panel, but one of royal quality. It is cream silk woven through with silver thread with embroidery in colored silks, gold thread and silver thread. It was embroidered with florals — columbines, daffodils, roses, honeysuckle, oak leaves, acorns, mistletoe — and animals — birds, dragonflies, butterflies, caterpillars, frogs, fish, dogs, stags, squirrels. There are also miniature boats being rowed by tiny humans. This was professional embroidery of the highest standard.

The sumptuary laws explicitly reserved such rich garments for members of the immediate royal family. A single gown could cost the equivalent of labourer’s yearly income. Curators believe it was a gift from the Queen to Blanche Parry, a rare, valued gift that was a token of the Queen’s high esteem, love and friendship. Queen Elizabeth didn’t give away her dresses very often, and no garments from her royal wardrobe have survived, only accessories. This section is the only piece of fabric known that is likely to have come from a gown of Elizabeth’s. It survived because it was treated with reverence, very quickly converted into an altar piece and treated with utmost care for the next four centuries.

The HRP curators have removed it from its frame and frozen it to kill any critters that might have been gnawing on its delicate fibers. Conservators will now analyze it and recommend a course of action that will preserve it in the long term. After it is conserved in the laboratories of Hampton Court, HRP hopes it will go on public display. St Faith’s is still the undisputed owner, however, so they’ll have to determine where it will be exhibited in the long-term. One possibility is that a replica will be made for the church, while the original is kept in the security and ideal conservation conditions of the Historic Royal Palaces.

Help save the Drake Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

May 25th, 2016

The Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich have launched a campaign to buy the iconic Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I before it’s put up for public auction. The Art Fund has contributed £1 million ($1,461,000) and Royal Museums Greenwich £400,000 ($584,000), its entire annual acquisitions budget, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They need to raise another £8.6 million ($12,564,000) to secure the portrait for its asking price of £10 million or else it will be sold to the highest bidder.

The oil-on-panel portrait was painted in around 1590 to commemorate the scrappy English navy’s defeat of the mighty Spanish Armada in 1588 and has become an iconic representation of Queen Elizabeth. It has appeared in textbooks and inspired countless film and television portrayals of the Virgin Queen. Some scholars consider it the definitive representation of the English Renaissance.

Queen Elizabeth stands with her elegant right hand covering North America — Spain of course claimed much of South America — on a globe. Next to her shoulder is a crown representing her rule of a new global empire, and her dress, hair and jewelry are festooned with pearls, symbols of virginity and the sea. The fabric of her gown is embroidered with suns, symbols of power and enlightenment. Behind her are two scenes from the defeat of the Spanish Armada: on the left English ships in the foreground sail towards the larger Spanish fleet, on the ship Spanish ships are buffeted onto the rocky coast of Ireland or Scotland by what was termed the “Protestant Wind,” the breath of God Himself weighing in on the side of England and Protestantism.

The portrait was unusual in its time for the horizontal orientation, and was immediately popular enough to inspire multiple versions. This is one of three versions of the portrait to survive. One of them is in the National Portrait Gallery. It was trimmed on both sides to make it a vertical portrait and the English and Spanish ships in the background, the very parts of the paintings that give it its meaning, were overpainted in black. Conservators discovered the overpainting and removed it in the 1970s. The other version is at Woburn Abbey and is thankfully still intact.

The artist is unknown. Previously the National Portrait Gallery and Woburn Abbey versions were attributed to the Queen’s Serjeant Painter George Gower, but the NPG now believes all three portraits were painted by different hands and have changed the attribution of their version to an unknown artist of the British school.

The only version of the portrait still in private hands was once owned by, and likely was commissioned by, Sir Francis Drake which it makes it the most important of the three because of its close association with one of the heroes of the events depicted. It has been in his family ever since. It currently resides at Shardeloes in Buckinghamshire, the estate of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family. They’re ready to sell, and if the campaign is successful, the portrait will belong to a public institution for the first time in 425 years.

Royal Museums Greenwich would be the perfect home for this iconic painting, with its fine 16th- and 17th-century collections, maritime setting and world-renowned conservation expertise. If our campaign is successful, the portrait will hang at the newly renovated Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth I was born. Plans are underway for a national programme to secure the widest possible audience. The painting is in a fragile condition and bringing it into public ownership now will secure its long-term future, conservation and display.

It’s in dire need of that conservation expertise. Its background scenes of the victory over the Armada were also overpainted at one point, and the whole work is yellowed with missing flecks of paint. Half a millennium in drafty stately homes hasn’t done it any favors either. The Royal Museums Greenwich have the facilities to ensure a proper climate controlled environment that is ideal for conservation of the oil paint and oak panels.

All donations will be matched pound for pound, so whatever you can contribute is actually worth double. Click here to donate.

Mug at Auschwitz hid jewelry for 70+ years

May 24th, 2016

Staff at the Auschwitz Museum have discovered one person’s cherished treasures hidden under the false bottom of a mug for more than 70 years. The mug is one of more than 12,000 pieces of enameled kitchenware — pots, bowls, kettles, cups — in the museum’s collection, the quotidian things people brought with them when being deported in the desperate hope that they would have some kind of normalcy. Nazi officials encouraged this belief.

“The Germans incessantly lied to the Jews deported for extermination. They were told about resettlement, work and life in a different location. They allowed the victims take with them little luggage. In this way, the Germans were confident that in the luggage – including clothes and items needed for life – they would find the last valuables of the deported families,” said the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński.

“The hiding of valuable items – repeatedly mentioned in the accounts of survivors, and which was the reason for ripping and careful search of clothes and suitcases in the warehouse for looted items – so-called ‘Kanada’ – proves on the one hand to the awareness of the victims as to the robbery nature of the deportation, but on the other hand it shows that the Jewish families constantly had a ray of hope that these items will be required for their existence” stressed director Cywiński.

The owner of the mug defeated this vile scheme by creating a false bottom and hiding precious valuables in the space: a woman’s gold ring with gemstones and a gold chain necklace, coiled and wrapped in canvas. Both pieces bear the mark of a head of a knight with the number three on his right side, a symbol in common use in Poland between 1921 an 1931 for 583 gold, which means the gold content is 583 parts per thousand, or just a hair under 14 karats. While the ring is missing its central gemstone and some of the smaller ones, several of them remain snug in their settings.

The hidden treasure was discovered during routine maintenance work on the enameled kitchenware in the exhibition. Curators noticed that what had once seemed like the bottom of the mug was in fact pulling up, revealing a secret compartment. It kept its cache secure for more than 70 years before the metal gradually degraded, lifting the false bottom and separating it from the mug. Museum staff X-rayed the mug to see what the false bottom was hiding. X-ray fluorescence then confirmed the presence of copper, gold and silver. Only then did conservators carefully remove the bottom to examine the precious contents.

Through the rust you can make out a brand name and colors on the false bottom. The edges are rough, which is at least in part due to corrosion, but I think the mug’s owners cut out a circle from a discarded tin of some kind and then somehow fitted it into the mug so adeptly that it fooled the Nazis, the crews of people they had tearing apart people’s belongings looking for valuables and from 1947 to 2016, the staff of the Auschwitz Museum.

As with so many thousands of objects recovered from Auschwitz, there are no identifying marks that might help historians give credit to the ingenious person or people who so effectively hid these jewels from the Nazis and everyone else for seven decades. The mug and jewelry will kept in the museum in a manner that reflects how they were used so cleverly by desperate but hopeful people, mute but eloquent witnesses to the experience of Jews deported to the extermination camp.

Thousands of historic cosmetic, hygiene products digitized

May 23rd, 2016

Included in the National Museum of American History’s enormous collection of 90,000 artifacts in the Division of Medicine and Science are more than 2,200 historic cosmetic, hygiene and personal care products. Most of them have never been on display and outside of museum curators, people don’t even know they’re there. Thanks to a grant from Kiehl’s, a skincare company founded in 1851 which has over the years donated more than 100 items from its own past to the Smithsonian, the collection has now been digitized.

The National Museum of American History, with the support of Kiehl’s, plans to extend the collection to the Web through the Cosmetics and Personal Care Collections Digitization Project. A museum specialist will identify, photograph and provide descriptive information for the cosmetic and personal care objects collection on the Web. The project will allow the museum’s collection of cosmetics and personal care products to be accessed online for education and research around the world.

The objects date from the 19th century to the present and include everything from skin creams to soaps, perfumes, razors and tooth powders. The range of products and dates provides a fascinating view of how drastically beauty standards and personal care regimens have changed over the years. Browsing the collection you can tread the dangerously fine line between medicine and makeup, poison and perfume. The inextricable link between medicine and cosmetics was acknowledged by Congress in 1938 when it passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act giving the Food and Drug Administration some degree of regulatory oversight over the cosmetic industry.

The grant comes none to soon as soaps and the paper box they came in were not made to last. These were disposable items and there isn’t a lot conservators can do to keep them from crumbling to dust. Then there are the inevitable chemical reactions, like between toothpaste and its old tubes.

If you’re researching something of have a particular interest in one type of product, you can search the collection by keyword. I got a kick out of searching for poisons like arsenic and lead, which have been mainstays of skin care products since antiquity. I also had fun picking more general old-timey keywords like “tonic” and browsing all the quackery and impossible claims that ensued. If you’d just like to have a look around, click on one of the categories listed in the column to the right of the page. I enjoyed clicking on each category and then scrolling down to the filter options, clicking the date, and exploring the whole category from oldest to newest.

Did you know that after World War I, they made menstrual pads out of sphagnum moss? Apparently they were first invented during the war for use in surgical dressings and later found new life as a consumer product. That brings me back to the wonderful barrels of 14th century poop found in Odense, Denmark, in which clumps of moss were found because they were used as toilet paper. Damn good toilet paper at that.

The collection is full of cool random finds like this. The digitization project will continue to keep up with new acquisitions.

Huge medieval cemetery found under Cambridge College

May 22nd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating under the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, Cambridge, have discovered one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Britain. The first remains on the site were found during renovations to the college’s Victorian building from 2010 to 2012. The discovery was kept under wraps until 2015, when Cambridge announced that archaeologists had unearthed the intact skeletal remains of 400 individuals, plus the disarticulated remains of close to 1,000 more people. The bodies were interred in the cemetery of the medieval Hospital of St John the Evangelist, the college’s namesake. It was in use between the 13th and 15th centuries and is one of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds ever discovered in Britain.

Historians have known since the mid-20th century that there was likely a cemetery under St John’s College, but they had no idea it was so massive. The hospital was founded by the community in 1195 to care for the indigent. It was a small structure in its infancy, but grew into a large institution that cared not just for the poor, but also for other residents and Cambridge University scholars. While the hospital did have support from the Church, the cemetery was a lay institution and the burials reflect this status in their simplicity. There is very little evidence of clothing or grave goods. A few artifacts have been found but it’s not clear from their positions that they were interred with the bodies. The vast majority of burials were done without coffins, many without even a shroud, likely because of the majority of patients at the hospital were poor.

The intact skeletons were found neatly buried in rows, but they were just the last group buried in those plots. Archaeologists discovered six “cemetery generations” on the site, meaning six complete turnovers of the space. Older remains would be taken to the charnel house or the bones removed to make room for new bodies to be buried in the newly vacated areas. Despite the turnover, archaeologists also found gravel paths, a well and seeds from a number of flowering plants in the cemetery. This indicates the graves were tended to by the community, and the cemetery was less of a boneyard and more of a park-like space where people could pay their respects and grieve their dead. That’s not something you find often in cemeteries of hospitals for the poor.

Also unusual for a medieval charity hospital graveyard is the lack of young women and infants. Out of the identifiable remains, half of them were women, most of them between 25 and 45 years old. Given the high rates of death in childbirth of both mothers and babies at the time, you’d expect to see more of the former and at least some of the latter. Historic research explained this imbalance. In 1250 the hospital promulgated an ordinance that prohibited the care of pregnant women. Its focus was to be “poor scholars and other wretched persons,” as long as said wretched were not carrying future wretches.

The hospital of St John the Evangelist was long said to have been in active use during the Black Death (1348-1350), but archaeologists found no evidence of this. There were no osteological indications of plague on any of the bones and no mass graves of the types most commonly used to dispose quickly of the infectious dead. The dead of St John will nonetheless be of aid to scholars researching the effect of the Black Death on Cambridge. The University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research has just received a £1.2 million grant from the Wellcome Trust to study how the plague affected the city.

A spokesman said: “This collaborative project, with Professor John Robb as PI and collaborators Dr Toomas Kivisild, Dr Piers Mitchell, and Mr Craig Cessford, explores the historical effects of major health events such as epidemics.

“It will combine multiple methods (archaeology, history, osteoarchaeology, isotopic and genetic studies of both human and pathogen aDNA) to study the people of medieval Cambridge.

“It will use the recently excavated large sample of urban poor people from the Hospital of St. John, complemented by comparative samples from other medieval social contexts and other historical periods.

By comparing samples from before and after the Black Death epidemic of 1348-50 for a wide range of social and biological indicators, this new research aims to reveal how the plague changed human well-being, activity, mobility health and the genetic constitution of Europe.

US returns stolen Columbus letter to Italy

May 21st, 2016

A rare printed copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing what the people and placed he’d found on his famous transatlantic voyage that was stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, has been found in the Library of Congress and returned to Italy. Nobody knows exactly when the red leather-bound volume that included the letter along with other early printed texts from the 1490s was stolen because it was replaced with a forgery that looked surprisingly plausible despite having been printed from a photographic plate.

The director of the library, Fulvio Silvano Stacchetti, suspects it was stolen in 1950 or 1951 when it was on loan to the national library in Rome because that was only time in the recent past when it was out of their hands. Experts who have analyzed the forgery think the technology and materials used are newer than that, and what investigators have been able to trace of its history suggests a much more recent date for the theft. It was in the hands of a rare book collector in Switzerland in 1990 and was sold at Christie’s New York two years later for $330,000. In 2004 it was bequeathed to the Library of Congress.

The forgery was first spotted in 2012, when an unnamed individual doing research in the library’s rare book room encountered the volume and thought it looked fishy. He reported his suspicions to the Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) who contacted Italy’s crack Carabinieri Art Squad. Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Mark Olexa, a specialist in cultural property theft, joined Carabinieri investigators and Italian experts in Florence in July of 2012 where they examined the forgery. They confirmed that it was indeed a fake, missing the Riccardiana library stamp, with the wrong sized pages, different page numbering, different stitching patterns compared to other prints of the letter, and on paper that while old, was a century younger than it should have been.

Investigators tracked the original letter to the Library of Congress where HSI agents worked with experts from the Smithsonian to confirm its real identity. They found evidence of deliberate attempts to disguise the true origin of the text. The stamp of the Riccardiana Library had been removed with chemical bleach and some of the characters altered to make them less recognizable at a glance. That’s why the American collector and Library of Congress had no idea it was stolen. (It wouldn’t have killed Christie’s to take a closer look, though, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts the Swiss dealer knew what was up.)

The investigation into the theft is still open, but on Wednesday, May 18th, the volume was formally returned to Italy in a ceremony at the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome. Italian Culture Minister Enrico Franceschini noted aptly: “It is interesting how 500 years after the letter was written it has made the same trip back and forth from America.”

This is not a copy of the original letter written to Ferdinand and Isabella, as some of the articles are describing it, nor is it quite accurate to say that the original letter was lost, as other articles have said. I mentioned in this post about the fresco that may include a depiction of the first indigenous Americans in European art that Columbus is known to have written two letters with near-identical content, one addressed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, one to Spanish finance minister Luis de Santangel, Columbus’ patron and advocate. He sent both letters at the same time, either when he landed in Lisbon on March 4th or Palos on March 15th, 1493.

The original letter to Ferdinand and Isabella was never published, so far as we know, so there are no extant copies. The letter to Santangel made it to press within weeks. The earliest known edition of the Santangel letter was published in the original Spanish by Barcelona printer Pere Posa in April of 1493. It was believed lost until a copy was found in Spain in 1890. That copy is now in the rare book division of the New York Public Library.

The Santangel letter quickly made its way to Rome where a Latin translation was printed by Stephen Plannck by May, 1493. Plannck printed a second edition that same year. There were several changes. The first edition had only King Ferdinand’s name in the introduction, thought to be a deliberate slight resulting from the Aragonese translator Aliander de Cosco’s disdain for Castille, and the second edition had the names of both Ferdinand and Isabella in the header. The second edition also changed the name of the recipient from Raphael Sanxis to Gabriel Sanchez (Aliander was translating the Posa Spanish edition of the Santangel letter, but he mistakenly thought the king’s treasurer Sanxis was the recipient instead of the finance minister Santangel) and Italianized the name of the translator to Leander di Cosco. The recovered letter is a Plannck II edition.

Between 1493 and 1497, 17 editions of the letter were printed. An estimated 3,000 copies were distributed in major cities throughout Europe. Very few of them, around 80, have survived. About 30 of them are Plannck II letters. The figures are approximate because as a highly sought-after document, forgeries of the letter abound and authenticity can be hard to determine.

The letter will now be returned to the Riccardiana Library. The Galata Sea Museum in Columbus’ hometown of Genoa has submitted a request to the Culture Ministry that they get the letter because they’ll put it on display instead of squirreling it away in an archive where so few people will see it that they won’t notice it’s been stolen and replaced with a forgery for decades.

You can read the full text of the Santangel Columbus Letter in the original Spanish and translated into English here. This book compiled by the Lenox Library (later absorbed into the NYPL) starts with a reprint of the one pictorial edition with woodcuts said to have been drawn by Columbus himself, and a neat comparison of the four Latin editions, including both Planncks.

Louvre and Rijksmuseum co-parent Rembrandt portraits

May 20th, 2016

Marten Soolmans (1613-1641) was the son of a wealthy Calvinist sugar refiner who had fled Antwerp and the wars of religion for Amsterdam in 1585. In 1628, Marten, then just 15 years old, went to college in Leiden where he studied law and met a young painter named Rembrandt Van Rijn. Jurisprudence didn’t work out, so instead of a law career Marten acquired a wife in June of 1633. Oopjen Coppit (1611-1689) came from a very old, very rich Amsterdam family who had made their fortune in grain and gunpowder. Best of all, she brought a 35,000 guilder dowry with her to the marriage.

How better to spend some of that sweet dowry skrilla than on a pair of portraits painted by Rembrandt, at that time the most sought-after portraitist in the city. Marten and Oopjen had their portraits painted in 1634 when Rembrandt was 28 years old. No records of what they spent on the paintings have survived, but comparison with similar works suggests they paid at least 500 guilders per portrait.

Decisively rejecting his Calvinist roots, Marten wears a satin-edged, starched black outfit with bows, elaborate lace collars, cuffs and garters and absolutely shamelessly huge rosettes on his shoes. He holds a glove in his hand as a symbol of fidelity to his bride. Oopjen dons a delicately patterned black silk and quilted satin gown with lace details matching his, although her shoe rosettes are comparatively petite. She is draped in exquisite jewels — pearl earrings, a pearl-festooned headdress, a four-strand necklace of pearls, a three-strand pearl bracelet, a gold rings on both hands plus a third hanging from her necklace. She holds an ostrich feather fan with a thick gold chain.

They were the first and last life-sized, full-length portraits Rembrandt ever made. Created in a style rarely seen in Holland at that time, their art historical significance has garnered them the moniker of “brother and sister of the Night Watch.” Before them, full-length, life-sized paintings of people standing up in their finest of finery were the province of royalty and aristocracy, and mostly in Flanders and down south. More than just images of moneyed people of the time, these proud, regal portraits of bourgeoisie capture the zeitgeist of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old, and its new elite of merchants for whom bank accounts, not bloodlines, determined social hierarchy.

The two portraits were in private collections in the Netherlands for four centuries. After the death of collector from a long line of collectors Annewies van Winter, in 1877 her nine children sold the collection virtually in its entirety to Baron Gustave de Rothschild, scion of the French branch of the banking dynasty, for 1.5 million guilders, very much against the wishes of the Dutch government which tried its utmost to keep these unique masterpieces from leaving their homeland. They just couldn’t afford to compete with the Rothschilds. The Rembrandt Association was founded in 1883 in reaction to this great loss, its goal to raise money to prevent other treasures of Dutch artistic patrimony from suffering the same fate. The portraits of Marten and Oopjen remained behind closed doors in the Rothschild collection for the next 130 years plus, leaving only once for a temporary exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum and Rotterdam’s Boymans van Beuningen Museum in 1956.

In March of 2015, news broke that Baron Eric de Rothschild was planning on selling the portraits for a nosebleed asking price of €150 million ($168 million). He applied to France’s Ministry of Culture for an export license, and much to the general horror of the French press, it was granted. Why, outlets like La Tribune de l’Art asked, weren’t the portraits declared National Treasure which would block export and delay sale for at least 30 months to give France and its museums the chance to raise the money to buy them? There was no question they qualified for the National Heritage designation, but they weren’t even submitted to the Advisory Board of National Treasures. The Ministry and the Louvre responded that they knew very well that they wouldn’t have been able to raise that kind of money in 30 months or ever, so blocking export of paintings they couldn’t possibly keep would have been “a perversion of the device,” as Heritage Director Vincent Berjot put it.

The sounds of wailing and gnashing of French teeth were sweet music to Dutch ears. They quickly set to the task of raising an ungodly €160 million to acquire both portraits. By mid-September of 2015, a preliminary deal was signed. The government of the Netherlands would chip in half the sum, the Rijksmuseum the other half.

France wasn’t licked yet, though. Three days after the announcement of the preliminary agreement, the French Culture Ministry took a page out of King Solomon’s book and offered €80 million to buy one of the portraits. Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin claimed the offer was “part of joint efforts by France and the Netherlands” to split the baby between the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum, but Dutch officials were noncommittal at best. Besides, it was unclear whether Eric de Rothschild would even consider splitting up the works.

On September 30th, 2015, France and the Netherlands published a joint press release announcing that they had indeed teamed up to buy the portraits. For months they’d been working on a deal wherein the countries would buy both portraits and share joint custody. They would pay €80 million apiece and while French acquisition law required that each party be the official owner of one painting, in fact the pair would never be separated and they would instead split their time between the two countries. The Netherlands got Marten Soolmans and France got Oopjen Coppit.

This was an unprecedented sale, the first joint acquisition by France and the Netherlands, the first artworks shared by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum. The acquisition was concluded on February 1st, 2016, and since the portraits were already there, the Louvre was the first to put them on public display. Conservators did a basic cleaning and used “fake saliva” to restore some of their sheen before the portraits were unveiled on March 10th, 2016, in front of illustrious guests including Francois Hollande, President of France and the King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands.

They will be on display at the Louvre for three months until June 13th, after which they move to Amsterdam where they will go on display at the Rijksmuseum next to the Night Watch for three months from July 2nd through October 2nd. They will then be removed for a thorough conservation. The conservation work will also be a joint effort, headed by Sébastien Allard, Director of the Department of Paintings at the Louvre, and Taco Dibbits, Director of Collections at the Rijksmuseum.

The conserved works will go back on display at the Rijksmuseum for three months before spending another three months in the Louvre. That will be the end of the short exhibitions. After the final three months in Paris, the portraits will return to Amsterdam for five years, then to Paris for five years. After that, each museum will have them for eight years at a time. The Louvre and Rijksmuseum have agreed that the paintings will always be exhibited together and will never be loaned to any other museums.

Rare ancient nilometer found in Nile Delta

May 19th, 2016

Workers digging a water pump station in the ancient city of Thmuis discovered an ancient nilometer, a structure used to determine the water level of the Nile River. A team of American and Egyptian archaeologists from the University of Hawaii and the Alexandria Center for Hellenistic Studies have excavated the find and believe it dates to the 3rd century B.C. when Thmuis was an important city under the Ptolemies. Fewer than two dozen ancient nilometers have been found in Egypt, making this a very rare find.

Thmuis, near the present-day city of El-Mansoura in Lower Egypt’s Nile Delta, flourished as port city from the 4th to 1st century B.C. It became the regional capital of the nome of Kha when the course of the Nile shifted from Mendes, a famous city in antiquity which had briefly been the capital of Egypt in the early 4th century B.C. under the reign of 29th Dynasty Pharaoh Nepherites. Located just half a kilometer north of Thmuis, in the 4th and 3rd centuries Mendes began to lose population as its branch of the Nile silted over and the river that was the lifeblood of Egypt moved to Thmuis. The people followed the Nile, abandoning the ancient capital for the new one.

Situated on an eastern branch of the Nile next to Daqahliyyah Lake bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, Thmuis became an important hub of agriculture, trade and religion in the region. In the Roman era, it was of significant military importance as well. The Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported in The Wars of the Jews that Titus, son of the new emperor Vespasian, brought his legions to Thmuis on a fleet of long ships. He moored the ships there and marched across the Sinai Peninsula to Cesarea before laying siege to Jerusalem in early 70 A.D. during the First Jewish–Roman War.

In December of 2012, an archaeological team sponsored by the National Geographic Society began excavating an area of Thmuis where monumental architectural features, possibly the remains of a temple built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 283-246 B.C.) for his sister-wife Arsinoë II, had been discovered a few years earlier. The temple complex was on the banks of the Nile. Archaeologists believe the nilometer was part of this temple. Its discovery confirms that the Nile channel ran along the western side of Thmuis.

Priests used the nilometer to predict the extent of the annual flooding of the Nile.

Made from large limestone blocks, the nilometer was a circular well roughly eight feet (2.4 meters) in diameter with a staircase leading down into its interior. Either a channel would have connected the well to the river, or it would have simply measured the water table as a proxy for the strength of the river. Seven cubits — roughly 10 feet (3.04 meters) — was the optimum height for prosperity.

“During the time of the pharaohs, the nilometer was used to compute the levy of taxes, and this was also likely the case during the Hellenistic period,” says Robert Littman, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii. “If the water level indicated there would be a strong harvest, taxes would be higher.”

Because a weak flood meant there would be famine and an excessive one destroyed homes and drowned fields, predicting how far the waters would overflow was a matter of life and death. Thmuis residents brought offerings to the temple in the hope of winning the favor of the Nile River god. There’s a list of Greek names and associated numbers on one of the limestone blocks. Archaeologists believe they were sponsors who donated money for the construction of the nilometer.

It was in use for about 1,000 years before the course of the Nile shifted again, leaving Thmuis to suffer the depopulation that Mendes had suffered before it. Today it’s a small village, but the Nile’s ancient presence is still felt in the high water table, high enough to make it worthwhile to dig the well that unearthed the nilometer.

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