A riveting look at the Gardner heist via podcast

July 20th, 2018

Boston’s National Public Radio station WBUR and the Boston Globe have produced a podcast series dubbed Last Seen on the greatest unsolved art crime in history, the theft of 13 masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18th, 1990. The case has bedeviled authorities local and federal for 28 years and is still being actively investigated. The reward money is now up to $10 million, and yet, concrete evidence of any kind remains elusive.

The 10-episode series will look at the events of March 18th, 1990 and follow the track of the investigations, but it won’t be a retelling of what went down. There will be interviews with people who have never been interviewed before, among them the second security guard on duty that night and in-depth examinations of the investigative trail over the decades. The reporters have been given unprecedented access to the Gardner heist materials and many of those materials will be posted online in tandem with the podcasts.

“Our reporters have spoken to key people who have never before publicly talked. They have seen places and documents that no other reporters have seen before. Their work even led federal authorities to conduct a high-stakes excavation in a residential neighborhood in Florida. It all comes together in a provocative look not only at the crime and all the colorful characters around it, but at the investigation that has failed to solve it,” said Jane Bowman, Vice President, Marketing and Strategic Partnerships, The Boston Globe. […]

Who pulled off what the FBI describes as the largest property crime case in U.S. history? Was it a mob associate who ran the TRC Auto Electric repair shop in Dorchester, the Irish Republican Army and Whitey Bulger, two wannabe rock ‘n’ rollers or someone else entirely? Last Seen looks at these and many more suspects as hosts Horan and Rodolico travel from Boston to Philadelphia, Florida, Ireland and Italy investigating motives, scenarios and dead bodies with key players and leading experts on the robbery.

The series begins on September 17th and subsequent episodes will air every Monday. There’s an associated Facebook group you can join to comment on the podcasts and discuss it with other listeners. If you have iTunes (I broke up with it years ago and it was a nasty split), you can subscribe to the podcast here. The podcast will also be available for streaming on WBUR’s Last Seen page and for streaming and download in any other of your favorite podcast purveyors (here it is on Podbay.fm, for example).

Get a tantalizing taste of Last Seen in this excellent trailer. That old-time radio announcer opening and the clips of statements from investigators, witnesses and suspects give it a genuinely haunted crime-thriller vibe.

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Black sarcophagus of DOOM opened

July 19th, 2018

Because the Internet is a silly place, the 30-ton black granite sarcophagus unearthed in Alexandria earlier this month became something of a meme. It looks so deliciously ominous that the plan to open it sparked a viral wildfire welcoming/warning the demonic powers sure to be unleashed once the lid was pried up.

Fearing no plague-wielding revenants or curses from ancient gods, a team of experts dispatched by the Ministry of Antiquities opened the sarcophagus on Thursday. The first glimpse inside revealed a red fluid filling much of the coffin. It smelled so putrid that the team left the lid off for an hour before attempting to remove enough of the liquid to see what else might be in the sarcophagus.

The foul fluid was removed one large jug at a time. When they got down to the lees, the team found the skeletal remains of three individuals. They had originally been mummified, but the liquid turned out to be sewage water that had leaked into the coffin via a crack on the east side and it had eaten away at the mummified tissue leaving only the bones.

The lack of inscriptions on the sarcophagus indicated that it did not belong to a pharaoh or king. When it was first discovered, Antiquities Minister Mostafa Waziri surmised that it might hold the remains of a priest as someone who would have had the social significance to command so large and impressive a coffin. Preliminary examination of the bones tells a different story. One of the skulls has multiple fractures, the result of sharp-force trauma that indicate he died in battle. The other two skulls are intact. All three appear to be male.

The mummies are being moved to the Alexandria National Museum which has a state-of-the-art laboratory for the conservation and study of ancient remains and artifacts and the high-tech security system to keep them safe during the process. There they will be X-rayed and analyzed to determine their ages at time of death, map their facial features and pinpoint their dates.

The sarcophagus will be raised from the pit with a mechanical loader. Cars have been temporarily exiled from the street to make way for the behemoth that will lift the black granite behemoth out of the ground and transport it to the Military Museum in the adjacent military northern region. The pit will then be scanned with metal detectors and excavated further to make sure all artifacts are recovered.

Lastly, the miasmic nameless horror that was released by these unwitting fools will spread over the world and swallow us all until we hear naught but the grinding of gizzard stones and taste naught but the burning bitterness of stomach acid for all eternity.

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Cornplanter’s tomahawk back at museum 70 years after theft

July 18th, 2018

A historic pipe tomahawk has returned to the New York State Museum 70 years after it was stolen by person or persons unknown. The tomahawk belonged to Allegheny Seneca war chief Cornplanter who received as a diplomatic gift from President George Washington in 1792. As war chief, Cornplanter had led the Seneca as allies of the French against the British in the French and Indian War. He took on the war chief mantle again during the Revolutionary War, this time on the British side. His involvement was against his better judgment as he thought the Iroquois nations should remain neutral. He was outvoted, however, and reluctantly did his duty.

Cornplanter, fighting with Loyalist forces, was successful as a war leader. Pro-Independence settlers were killed and their properties were burned, and the Colonists did the same to Iroquois towns. George Washington dispatched Major General John Sullivan to eliminate the Iroquois in New York state and he did just that, first defeating them in pitched battle and then systematically burning every village, farmed field, food store and animal from May to September of 1779. When winter came, the surviving Iroquois had nothing to live on. The refugees headed up to Canada, Cornplanter trying his best to get them to safety, but many of them died from starvation and cold.

With the war lost and the Colonists colonists no more, Cornplanter turned to his diplomatic skills. He helped negotiate and was a signatory of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784 and met personally with President George Washington in 1790 to protest how the Seneca and other Iroquois nations were being treated, treaties notwithstanding.

Pipe tomahawks were significant objects of intercultural exchange in the 18th century and could be used as smoking pipes; smoking was a common ceremonial practice between parties after reaching an agreement. The meetings between Washington and Cornplanter, also known as Gy-ant-waka, in the 1790s eventually led to the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794), which established peace between the sovereign nations of the U.S. and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.

Cornplanter died in 1836. There is no record of the movements of the ceremonial pipe tomahawk until 1850 when it was donated to the New York State Museum by Seneca statesman, civil engineer, attorney and Union lieutenant colonel Ely Samuel Parker. He acquired it from the widow of a Seneca man named Small Berry. The haft was not original when Parker got the tomahawk, but Cornplanter’s name in the Seneca language, Gy-ant-waka, was engraved on one side of the blade identifying it as the historic piece. The name John Andrus engraved on the other side is unknown but is thought to have been the manufacturer.

Small Berry’s widow described the original haft to Parker, so he replaced the replacement with a replica that came as close as possible to her description: curly maple decorated with bands and geometric spade/arrowhead-like shapes of silver inlay. While he was at it, Parker added a brass plate engraved with his own name to the bore end.

The pipe was an important piece in the museum’s ethnographic collection for decades. It disappeared between 1947 and 1950, it’s not clear exactly when or how. Whoever snatched it, it wound up in the murky penumbra of private collections until June of this year when one last anonymous collector finally had the decency to return it to the State Museum. It is now on display in the museum’s main lobby through December 30th.

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Leicester Roman mosaics go on display

July 17th, 2018

The large sections of a Roman mosaic floor discovered at the old Stibbe factory site in Leicester the winter of 2016/2017 is now on public display. This is the first time the public has had a chance to see the cleaned and conserved mosaics.

The University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) was contracted to excavate the site before construction of new apartments in late 2016. They discovered most of a Roman block, including the remains of two townhouses with sections of mosaic floors in several of their rooms. The largest surviving section in one of the homes was about seven by ten feet in area, an estimated quarter of the size of the original. The design and style of the mosaic suggest it dated to the late 3rd century or early 4th.

That was exciting enough, but the largest mosaic pavement in the other home spanked its neighbor soundly with a stretch just shy of 33 feet long. It is the largest and highest quality Roman mosaic floor found in Leicester in 150 years.

Because the apartment building was going to go up Roman insula or no Roman insula, the ULAS team had to raise the mosaics in a meticulous and complex salvage operation. The mortar sealing the mosaics had long since degraded so archaeologists had to use glue and fabric to keep the tesserae together.

The public was invited to see the mosaics in situ on one weekend of May 2017, but since then the priceless pieces have been treated behind closed doors. Their return to public view will be brief (for now). The exhibition opened on Monday at BBC Radio’s studio in Leicester and runs until Friday, July 27th. Admission is free and visitors can see it Monday through Friday from 9AM to 5PM.

Those of us who can’t Uber our way to Leicester in a timely fashion will have to make do with not inconsiderable consolation of Sketchfab.

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New megalithic passage tomb found at Irish heritage site

July 16th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a new megalithic passage tomb at the prehistoric site of Brú na Bóinne about 25 miles north of Dublin. Brú na Bóinne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is renown for its three large Neolithic passage tombs dating to around 5,000 years ago, and a profusion of at least 90 smaller tombs. Many of them are marked by megalithic stones with elaborate abstract carvings, making Brú na Bóinne the largest collection of megalithic art in Western Europe.

To this vast archaeological wealth we can now add one main passage tomb with satellite tombs. Two burial chambers have been unearthed on the western side of the main tomb. A large stone cairn more than 130 feet in diameter was built on top of the tomb.

The six kerbstones that have been identified so far would have formed part of a ring of stones that followed the cairn perimeter. One kerbstone is heavily decorated with Neolithic carvings and represents one of the most impressive discoveries of megalithic art in Ireland for decades.

A further two possible satellite tombs were also found.

The find site is not actually on public land. It’s on 430 acres of Brú na Bóinne owned by agri-technology company Devenish Nutrition which acquired the Dowth Hall estate in 2013 and established a research farm on the property. County heritage authorities and Devenish worked together to coordinate the excavation led by a team from University College Dublin School of Archaeology.

“For the archaeologists involved in this discovery, it is truly the find of a lifetime,” Dr Clíodhna Ní Lionáin, Devenish’s lead archaeologist for the project said.

Meanwhile, Dr Steve Davis of the UCD School of Archaeology said it is “the most significant megalithic find” in half a century in Ireland.

Devenish, thankfully, has no intention of hiding this internationally significant find. As a science research company, they consider preservation and protection of this archaeological material in keeping with their purview. The company has contracted Mullarkey and Pedersen Architects to preserve the passage tomb and make it accessible to the public. The first public visits will take place in a month. August 18-26 is Heritage Week in Ireland, and Devenish has already invited people to celebrate Irish heritage by visiting the megalithic passage tomb.

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Basel papyrus deciphered at long last

July 15th, 2018

An ancient papyrus in the collection of the University of Basel has been deciphered 500 years after it made its way to Switzerland. Basel was the first university in German-speaking Switzerland one of the first German-language universities to acquire a papyrus collection. It was 1900 and large groups of papyri had only recently begun to be found preserved in the arid heat of the Egyptian desert. The 65 papyrus fragments bought by the university were written in five languages (Greek, Latin, Coptic Egyptian and hieratic) in the Late Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic eras. They consist of everyday documents including contracts, loans, tax receipts, letters and petitions.

This was probably a disappointment to scholars exploring the nascent field of papyrology when the collection was acquired because the impetus that drove the papyrus fever of the late 19th century was the prospect of new sources for momentous historical events like the dawn of Christianity and finding the lost books of classical antiquity. A contract to transport a confiscated camel was not exactly the dream document. The collection was stashed away and forgotten until the papyri were rediscovered in two manuscript drawers in the University of Basel’s library in 2015.

Because of their long lapse into obscurity, the papyrus texts were all but unknown in the scholarly community and had never been properly recorded, researched and published. Over the past three years, an interdisciplinary team has worked in the University of Basel’s Digital Humanities Lab to analyze the papyri with imaging technology as the texts are transcribed, translated, annotated and digitized.

Part of the Basel collection are two papyri that were not purchased in 1900. They weren’t purchased in 1800. Or 1700. They were acquired in the second half of the 16th century by lawyer and avid collector Basilius Amerbach for his spectacular cabinet of curiosities. The Amerbach collection was started by his father Bonifacius. The son inherited it in 1562 and he was even more extravagant than his father in both reach and grasp. How he got his hands on papyri is not clear, but researchers think he probably bought them in Italy 300 years before the first major papyrus finds in Egypt were snapped up by the antiquities magpies in Europe. They were so rare at that time that many Western scholars saw their first papyrus in the Amerbach collection.

After Basilius’ death, the papyri went to the University of Basel where he had been a professor for many years. One of the two has been confounding experts ever since. It has mirror writing on both sides that nobody has been able to decipher. As part of the university’s papyrus recording and digitization project, the mystery papyrus was photographed with ultraviolet and infrared light. This revealed that the papyrus was not technically A papyrus, but rather a multi-layer composite made from several papyrus fragments that had been glued together, likely by a bookbinder during the Middle Ages, to use the thickened linen piece as a cover.

The Basel team didn’t have the chance to use a particle accelerator to read through the layers, so they turned to good ol’ fashioned human expertise and patience. They called in a specialist in papyrus restoration and he painstakingly separated the sheets with tools like a scalpel and Q-Tips. Once the sheets were singletons again, the Greek could be read for the first time in centuries.

“This is a sensational discovery,” says Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel. “The majority of papyri are documents such as letters, contracts and receipts. This is a literary text, however, and they are vastly more valuable.”

What’s more, it contains a previously unknown text from antiquity. “We can now say that it’s a medical text from late antiquity that describes the phenomenon of ‘hysterical apnea’,” says Huebner. “We therefore assume that it is either a text from the Roman physician Galen, or an unknown commentary on his work.” After Hippocrates, Galen is regarded as the most important physician of antiquity.

Last year, the full Basel papyrus collection got its long-awaited moment in the sun when the project team presented their research in the form an exhibition at the library. The final results of the project’s work will be published in early 2019.

With the end of the editing project, the research on the Basel papyri will enter into a new phase. Huebner hopes to provide additional impetus to papyrus research, particularly through sharing the digitalized collection with international databases. As papyri frequently only survive in fragments or pieces, exchanges with other papyrus collections are essential. “The papyri are all part of a larger context. People mentioned in a Basel papyrus text may appear again in other papyri, housed for example in Strasbourg, London, Berlin or other locations. It is digital opportunities that enable us to put these mosaic pieces together again to form a larger picture.”

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There 93 penises on the Bayeux Tapestry

July 14th, 2018

Oxford medieval history professor George Garnett has counted 93 penises, human and equine, on the Bayeux Tapestry. The vast majority of them, 88 to be precise, are horse penises from the central panel where all the historic action takes place. The five human penises (plus one possible one) are only found in the top and bottom borders.

It makes sense that the equine genitalia would be so distinct and prolific. The embroiderers who created the tapestry (a misnomer, by the way, because it’s wool thread embroidered on linen panels, not a woven textile) were far more precise in their depiction of horses than of people. There are about 200 horses on the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered with realistic color, tack, wooden saddles and stirrups. Some are destriers, some palfreys, some packhorses, all of them clearly distinguishable. Even the gaits can be identified in battle scenes.

The penises of the horses convey rather obvious meaning about their riders. The bigger the phallus, the greater the power.

The penises depicted on certain stallions might be thought to demonstrate no more than the designer’s scrupulous anatomical accuracy. But it cannot be simply a coincidence that Earl Harold is first shown mounted on an exceptionally well-endowed steed. And the largest equine penis by far is that protruding from the horse presented by a groom to a figure who must be Duke William, just prior to the battle of Hastings.

This, the viewer is meant to infer, was the charger on which the duke fought. The clear implications are that the virility of the two leading protagonists is reflected in that of their respective mounts, and that William was in this respect much the more impressive of the two, as the denouement of what survives of the tapestry showed to be the case. Odo of Bayeux, the duke’s half-brother, plays a very important role in the action, but although he is depicted in the thick of the fray, cockily rallying the Norman forces at a critical juncture, the genitalia of his very large horse are modest indeed by comparison.

That might be thought only appropriate in a senior man of the cloth, sworn to celibacy, but it is also true of all other mounted participants in the battle, who appear to be laymen. Duke William had to be the outstanding individual in every respect, including his horse’s penis

“Cockily rallying,” eh? I see what you did there, Professor Garnett. It’s worth noting that Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, is the person who commissioned the tapestry so his horse’s modest endowment compared to his half-brother’s steed’s impressive one could have been a form of genuflection or currying favor.

The exposed human genitals are less obvious and therefore more intriguing in their meaning. There’s a naked man with an erect phallus reaching out towards a nude woman covering her face and crotch with her hands. Emory University professor emeritus of medieval history Stephen White has posited that this could be a scene from Phaedrus’s Latin versions of Aesop’s fables, namely a tale of a father who raped his daughter. It’s at the beginning of the tapestry under the scene where Earl Harold (Edward the Confessor is still alive at this point) is taken prisoner in France and taken to Duke William. The bottom frieze designs from this scene forward feature several animals stories from the fables — the Fox and the Crow, the Wolf and the Lamb, the Bitch and her Puppies, etc. — so it’s reasonable to think the dramatic human postures were inspired the tales as well.

In the top frieze while the main panel is depicting the Normans ride to battle there are two sets of naked figures. One is a man whose penis is obscured by a large axe he’s holding, but his testicles are clearly visible behind him. He’s holding out something unidentifiable to a nude woman. A few inches to the right of them are a naked man and a woman. The first could refer to a fable in which a widow has a sexual relationship with the man guarding the cemetery where her husband’s body is buried. To cover up his negligence after a body is stolen when they’re having sex, the widow gives him her husband’s body to substitute for the stolen one. The second couple might be from a story in which a prostitute claims to be in love with her client and he doesn’t believe her.

The last two naked men are individuals in the bottom border. One is bent over pulling an axe out of a container or off a cloth. The other is squatting and just letting it all hang out. The first could be referring to the fable in which an axe-maker persuades trees to let him use their wood to make a handle and then chops them down once he’s made his axe. The second has no Aesopian explanation.

(The sixth possible penis belongs to a dead soldier, stripped of his mail and clothes after falling on the battlefield of Hastings. It’s sort of a single curved line in the crotchal region that doesn’t connect to anything else, so while it looks like a side view of a flopped over penis, it’s difficult to confirm or deny. Please appreciate that I said “difficult,” not “hard.” Because I’m classy.)

As with all of Aesop’s fables, they come with moral lessons, ones that educated viewers would have recognized. The ones depicted in the borders of the tapestry revolve around betrayal, deceit, untrustworthiness, and were probably meant to be visual allegorical comments on the action in the main panel. With penises.

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French farmer finds first Pyrenean mastodon skull

July 13th, 2018

A farmer in the Haute-Garonne department of southwestern France has discovered the first-ever skull of a Pyrenean mastodon. He partially unearthed the fossil in 2014 while digging on his farm near the village of L’Isle-en-Dodon, about 40 miles southwest of Toulouse and 50 miles north of the Pyranees mountains. All he could tell was that it was a large, hard mass with teeth four inches long. Concerned that his fields would be overrun by would-be paleontologists looking for fossils, the farmer didn’t tell anyone about his find until 2016 when he reported it to the Natural History Museum of Toulouse.

In September of 2017, a team from the museum began excavating the skull. When the museum experts first saw the exposed sections, they recognized the fossil as a gomphotherium, an extinct ancestor of the elephant from the Miocene epoch (ca. 23-5 million years ago). It had four large tusks, two on the upper jaw, two on the lower, a powerful jaw, short trunk and small brain cavity. They probably lived in swampy areas, wetlands and lakes where they used their tusks to dig through the muddy terrain for vegetation.

As the museum experts exposed more of the skull, they realized it wasn’t from a more commonly found species of gomphotherium. It bore the distinctive characteristics of the gomphoterium pyrenaicum, a create so rare that its existence is only known from four molars discovered in 1857. Their large size and simple structure identified them as belonging to a separate species from other gomphoteria found in Europe, but that was the extent of the information that could be derived from such limited material.

“Now we have a full skull which will allow us to get a clearer picture of the anatomy of this species,” Duranthon said.

“We’re putting a face on a species which had become almost mythical,” the museum’s curator Pierre Dalous added.

The landowner allowed the team to remove the skull from the rock it was embedded in and donated it to the museum. They cut out a block of the stone surrounding the skull and transported it to the Natural History Museum where it is now being excavated in laboratory conditions, the stone chiseled away from the embedded fossil one centimeter at a time with extreme care to preserve every surviving part of it. (The tusks were damaged by the earth mover before it was discovered.) About half of the job has been completed thus far. They expect to be done and the skull to be fully revealed in six to nine months.

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Wood knight found in Lincoln Cathedral tower

July 12th, 2018

A wooden knight has been discovered secreted away in one of Lincoln Cathedral’s towers. The three-foot statue, found during an audit of the cathedral’s historic artifacts, is a clock Jack, a figure that would strike the clock tower bell so it would chime at regular times. He once must have had a hammer to hit the bell, but that tool is long gone. There are no identifying marks on the carving. His features are worn and it’s not clear which clock he was attached to, one inside the cathedral or in the tower.

Initial research suggested the knight might have struck the hours in the north vestibule clock, parts of which date to around 1380, but further investigation pointed to it being part of a later clock across the south aisle. Fern Dawson, collections and engagement officer at Lincoln Cathedral who found the knight during the audit, discovered a reference in an old cathedral publication to an 18th century sketch of a “Clock Jack or striking man believed to be from a clock in Lincoln Cathedral.”

She pursued the lead and found the sketch by engraver Samuel Buck in the archives of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The sketch is a rough drawing of a mechanized clock but does not clearly depict the knight and indeed opens up more questions than it answers. There are three clock Jacks, on top of the clock face left and right and above a representation of the sorrowful Christ. The center panel bears the inscription: “The Glas doth run y’Globe doth goe. Awake from sin. Why sleep you so.” Nobody has of yet determined what that first sentence means exactly. There’s also an unidentified coat of arms in the sketch and a series of symbols along the top that are some kind of code of shorthand that hasn’t been deciphered.

Fern added: “This is an incredibly exciting find. While I originally thought it was possible the clock jack could have been a part of the earlier clock, it has been suggested by the Wallace Collection’s curator of arms and armour, Tobias Capwell that ‘stylistic particulars’ – including the clock jack’s beard, rounded skirt and basic shape of the solid, one-piece back plate – point to a mid-to-late sixteenth-century date.

“Further adding to the mystery are symbols which appear to be a form of short hand on the top right-hand corner of the sketch by Samuel Buck. These markings have yet to be identified.

“The clock jack is an amazing discovery, allowing us, the future generation, a glimpse into a different time.”

Jack the Knight will go on display with out treasures from the Lincoln Cathedral collection in a new visitor’s center scheduled to open in 2020.

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Syncroton recovers daguerreotype lost to tarnish

July 11th, 2018

The intense radiation and light of the particle accelerator has done it again. We’ve already seen synchrotron X-rays read a long-erased Galen text, map the molecular composition of cannon balls from the Mary Rose and virtually open a heavily corroded 17th century box to reveal the medallions within in jaw-dropping detail. Now we can add daguerreotypes tarnished beyond recognition to the synchrotron’s ever-expanding abilities to resuscitate the fatalities of time.

The daguerreotypes in question belong to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa, Ontario. Taken in the 19th century, they were so corroded and marred that all that was visible of one of them was a ghostly outline while the other was a hacked up Kandinsky abstract with not even the ghost of the sitter remaining. Their terrible condition made them ideal subjects for a new study on the chemical changes that cause daguerreotype degradation.

Daguerreotypes were made by exposing silver plates to iodine vapour and waiting for minutes until the vapour had made the plate light-sensitive enough to capture the image. The photographer would then develop the picture by exposing the plate to mercury vapour. A solution of sodium thiosulfate cleaned the plate of excess iodine leaving a stable image on the plate.

Pinpointing the smallest trace of chemical residue is what synchrotron technology does best. Over the past three years, researchers from Western University in London, Canada, analyzed damaged daguerreotypes at the Canadian Light Source (CLS). Findings published last year and earlier this year revealed the chemical compositions of different manifestations of tarnish, but the most recent report takes a great leap forward to reveal the people underneath.

This preliminary research at the CLS led to today’s paper and the images [lead study author and Western University phD candidate Madalena] Kozachuk collected at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source where she was able to analyze the daguerreotypes in their entirety.

Kozachuk used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging to analyze the plates, which are about 7.5 cm wide, and identified where mercury was distributed on the plates. With an X-ray beam as small as 10×10 microns (a human scalp hair averages 75 microns across) and at an energy most sensitive to mercury absorption, the scan of each daguerreotype took about eight hours.

“Mercury is the major element that contributes to the imagery captured in these photographs. Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail,” said Tsun-Kong (T.K.) Sham, Western’s Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation. He also is a co-author of the research and Kozachuk’s supervisor.

This research will contribute to improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and will provide a way to seeing what’s below the tarnish if cleaning is not possible.

The identity of the two people whose images have been recovered is unknown. One is a woman, the other a man, and both daguerreotypes are early examples, perhaps dating as early as 1850. The plate of the woman was bought at a garage sale and that’s all the NGC knows about it. There’s no information at all about the fella.

The full study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read free of charge online.


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