Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Dickens museum buys lost portrait

Friday, July 19th, 2019

The Charles Dickens Museum has acquired a long-lost miniature of the author as a young man 175 years after it was last seen in public. The museum launched an appeal last November to raise £180,000 to secure the portrait for its collection at 48 Doughty Street, the historic home in which Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The miniature first re-emerged in 2017 part of a box of assorted odds-and-ends including an old recorder, a brass dish and a metal lobster that was being sold at auction in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The buyer bought the box for £27. The portrait was covered in yellow mold that obscured its details, but after some Googling its new owner thought it might be a depiction of Dickens. In 2018, the buyer sent the portrait to the Philip Mould & Co Gallery in London where it was conserved and studied. Free of its bilious crust, the portrait was identified as the portrait whose whereabouts have been unknown for more than 170 years.

It was painted in late 1843 by Margaret Gillies, one of the foremost miniaturists of her time and a particular favorite among literary luminaries. Dickens sat for it six times during the period when he was writing A Christmas Carol. He was 31 years old. Gillies exhibited it at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1844, and that year a black-and-white print of it was used as the frontispiece of A New Spirit of the Age, a collection of essays about great Victorian writers, Dickens first among them.

That poor quality rendition of the portrait would become the sole extant version. Gillies wrote in 1886 that she had “lost sight of the portrait itself” and nobody else knew where it was either. Philip Mould’s researchers think it made its way to South Africa in the 1860s with one of the sons of George Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes. Gillies’ daughter was married to another of Lewes’ sons and the families were close.

It will go on display starting October 24th and is expected to be a regular feature of the museum’s holiday celebrations. The watercolor is fragile so it won’t be on display all the time to ensure the long-term preservation of its paint.

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Dugout canoe found in Maine

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

A dugout canoe believed to be the oldest ever discovered in Maine has been unearthed in Cape Porpoise Harbor on the state’s southern coast. The canoe was found late last year by archaeologist Tim Spahr during a survey of the intertidal zone of the beach. The remains of the canoe had been exposed on the surface by shifting sands. The canoe, dug out of a birch tree trunk, has been radiocarbon dated to 1280-1380 A.D.

There’s an Algonquin fishing weir complex off Cape Porpoise’s Redin Island.  Spahr, who has written a paper about the weir complex, believes the dugout canoe is likely of Algonquin origin, used in the community’s fishing and trading activities.

The waterlogged sand had preserved the wood, but once it was exposed, the canoe was endangered. Spahr, principal archaeologist and investigator of the Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance, assembled a team of archaeologists and students from the University of New England in Biddeford and the University of New Brunswick to excavate the canoe.

“We started a few days before, building a custom crate to carry the canoe,” Spahr said. On Saturday morning, while they waited for the tide, the team conducted training and practiced how they would move the canoe.

“A few of us went in with wetsuits and snorkeling gear to move the sand before the tide subsided,” he said.

At around 2 p.m. the tide was low enough for crews to get handmade straps under the canoe, and they were able to lift it out and into the crate.

“It was incredibly volatile. It did suffer a few cracks in the wood, but we were able to get it into the crate in one piece,” Spahr said.

The canoe was transported to the Clement Clark Boathouse for the first phase of a long conservation process. It will be fully immersed in fresh water for a year to keep it from drying out and to gradually remove the salt content. It will have to be moved before winter to a location with climate control so the water bath won’t freeze.

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Video recreates earliest Pictish fort

Friday, June 7th, 2019

A Pictish fort that once occupied the Dunnicaer sea stack off the coast of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, has been reconstructed on video. Located near the site of Dunnottar Castle, which was built on top of a later Pictish fort, Dunnicaer is today disconnected from the mainland at high tide but is believed to have been a much larger and connected outcropping before erosion from the crashing surf whittled it into a sea stack.

Pictish symbol stones had been discovered there by adventurous young men in 1832, but because it’s so difficult to access, Dunnicaer has barely been examined by archaeologists. In 2015, a team from the University of Aberdeen enlisted the aid of mountain climbers to reach the summit of the sheer cliff face and excavate the surface. They discovered evidence of a hill fort with stone ramparts framed with wood timbers, floors and stone hearths. Some of the hearths were built on top of each other, indicating space was extremely limited and dwellings were constructed on top of old ones.

Radiocarbon dating of the timber placed its construction between the 2nd and 4th century A.D. That makes it the oldest Pictish fort ever discovered in Scotland.

“Dunnicaer appears to have been home to a significant fort, even at this early date,” Dr Noble added. “We can see there were ramparts, particularly on the south side, constructed of timber and stone. This is consistent with the style of later Pictish forts.

“The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site.

“It is likely that the sea stack was greater in size than it is today as the fort appears to extend over a large area. Dunnicaer was likely to have been a high status site for a structure of this scale and complexity to have been present as early as the 3rd century.” […]

Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist Bruce Mann said “The dates for this site are truly amazing, and hugely important for Scottish archaeology. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD evidence of how and where people were living largely disappears, leading to all sorts of speculation over what happened during the next 200 years. This discovery now starts to not only fill in that missing story, but also helps us to understand the early origins of the Picts in the north east.”

It was hard to access even in back then, and the radiocarbon evidence indicates it was inhabited for a short time, likely abandoned in favor of Dunnottar when erosion made the sea stack dangerous. Unfortunately the heavy erosion has continued, taking significant portions of any archaeological materials crashing into the sea along with the cliffs.

Now a new virtual reconstruction of what the fort might have looked like in the 4th century has been created using information from the University of Aberdeen’s excavation. It’s fascinating to see how intimately the archaeology is linked to the geology of this unique environment.

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Rare pristine Nazi cypher machine sold at auction

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

An extremely rare German cryptographic machine in excellent condition has sold at auction for €98,000 ($110,000). The Schlüsselgerät (meaning “cipher machine”) 41 was supposed to replace the famous Enigma enciphering machine after it was cracked by Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers in 1941, but very few ended up being produced and only a handful of survived in working condition. They’re so rare that even corroded husks are still prized by museums. This one is not only functional, it looks practically new.

The SG-41 was invented by cryptologist Fritz Menzer. Menzer had enlisted in the Reichswehr as a mechanic when he was 18 years old and without any formal training, developed an interest in cryptography into inventing new cracking methods and devices. In 1940, he was appointed Regierungs-Oberinspektor of the OKW/Chi, the cryptology division of the German Army High Command.

The new device had six wheels (Enigma had three, four in later models) that could rotate in both directions and used two reels of paper, one for the original text, the other for coded message, rather than bulbs illuminating letters. The keyboard operation made it much faster to use and the encryption algorithms were more complex and sophisticated. The hand crack on the side inspired the machine’s nickname: Hitlermühle, or Hitler Mill.

Even though it was distinctly superior to the Enigma machines in cryptographic functionality, the SG-41 wasn’t used until 1944. The problem was the hardware. They were supposed to lightweight and durable for use on the front lines, but shortages of aluminum and magnesium forced the use of heavier materials. The end-result was a machine that weighed 25-33 pounds which made them much too heavy for field use.

Three years after their invention, a few SG-41s made it into production. About 500 were made by Wanderer-Werke in Chemnitz, eastern Germany (makers of the iconic Continental typewriters), and dispatched to the Abwehr in late 1944 to replace the limping and inadequate Enigma-G machines still in use. Another thousand (the SG-41Z variant), were sent to the Luftwaffe weather service. The Wehrmacht planned to manufacture 1,000 of them by October 1945 and ramp up production to 10,000 a month by January of 1946. The war ended first.

The recently-sold example is one of the Abwehr machines, so one of only 500 ever made. The auctioneers enlisted cypher machine expert Klaus Kopacz to examine their Hitler Mill. They disassembled it, adjusted the wheels, inserted paper reels and tested it. Everything worked. All it needs is some WD-40 and fresh ink as the printouts were barely legible. There are only five small parts missing (a button, a spacer, a spring, a bolt and a metal disc), all easily replaceable.

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Getty acquires gems of ancient intaglio collection

Monday, May 13th, 2019

Intaglios are gems, miniature designs intricately carved on gemstones, but the 17 acquired by the Getty Museum at auction two weeks ago are gems among gems. That’s why those 17 pieces, many of them not even an inch long, cost the Getty just shy of $8 million, $7,939,250, to be precise.

The entire sale of 40 Roman, Greek, Etruscan and Greco-Persian intaglio and cameo gemstones at Christie’s on April 29th raked in $10,640,500. Obviously the Getty with its bottomless pit of cash picked the choicest ones, but they weren’t the only players in this game because the hammer prices went far beyond pre-sale estimates. A Greek Mottled Yellow Jasper Scaraboid with a Grasshopper from the Classical Period (ca. late 5th century B.C.), for example, was estimated to sell for $30,000-50,000. It sold for $519,000. A Roman Amethyst Ringstone with a Portrait of Demosthenes signed by Dioskourides, gem engraver to the Emperor Augustus, was estimated to sell for $200,000-300,000. The Getty dropped $1,575,000 on it.

The tradition of ancient carved gems was born from the seals and cylinders of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. They were sigils, used to make imprints into wet clay to sign official documents. From there they spread throughout Greece, Egypt and Persia and the Levant. Over the centuries they came to hold religious significance as well, carved with images of deities and mythological heroes, worn as amulets and consecrated to temples as votive offerings.

In the Greek Classical Period, the engraving became finer wrought and more detailed. The quality and variety of available stones took a great leap forward during the 3rd century B.C. thanks to Alexander the Great’s conquests. (You’d think, therefore, that there would be more than one gemstone carved with a bust of Alexander, but only one is known to survive.) While still used to create impressions, carved gemstones became primarily fashionable adornments at this time, jewels of high craftsmanship and expensive materials.

Intaglios, in which the designs are cut into the surface of a stone, are the direct descendants of the signet tradition. The other form of ancient gem engraving, cameo, is its positive, a relief created by carving away the stone around it, the stone version of the clay bullae stamped from seals. Most of them were mounted onto rings in settings of precious metals. Larger pieces were used as pendants or perhaps brooches.

Romans continued the Hellenistic tradition of carved gemstones, introducing a new material: glass, from which cameos could be cut with advanced knowledge of what layers of color would emerge, unlike the beautiful crapshoot of carving agates and chalcedonies.

The craft declined and fell along with the empire, but the beauty of the stones ensured they were prized whenever they were discovered. In the Middle Ages they were mounted on religious objects, an inadvertent return to one of their more ancient functions. The revival of Classical art in the Renaissance drove a new interest in ancient intaglios and cameos. The wealthy collected them, sometimes remounting them into new pieces of jewelry. Come the Grand Tour in the 17th century, portable, glamorous engraved gemstones became de rigeur features of the most elegant and aristocratic cabinets of curiosities.

As an art dealer to European royalty and English Grand Tourist aristocrats, Count Antonio Maria Zanetti, amassed a great collection of carved gemstones, ancient and modern, and published a thorough catalogue of his pieces. His most beloved stone was a portrait of Antinous. Mirroring Hadrian’s fiery affection for his favorite, Zanetti pursued this one black chalcedony intaglio with unmatched passion. For 23 years he tried to get his hands on it. He said he would have sold his house to buy it. By 1740, he had succeeded (and kept his house). He sold it shortly before his death in 1767 to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, who assembled a great collection of 780 engraved gemstones during his lifetime.

In this century, Roman art dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi acquired some of the finest ancient carved gemstones known, including the Marlborough Antinous. He carefully curated his collection, selecting exceptional examples from earlier dispersed collections like George Spencer’s. Most of them he bought before World War II, and while the collection has been in Switzerland since the 1950s, has never been on public view and wasn’t published until last year, the ownership history of every gem is beyond impeccable, stretching back centuries.

Little wonder the Getty jumped on these tiny masterpieces to the tune of eight million dollars.

“The acquisition of these gems brings into the Getty’s collection some of the greatest and most famous of all classical gems, most notably the portraits of Antinous and Demosthenes,” explains Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “But the group also includes many lesser-known works of exceptional skill and beauty that together raise the status of our collection to a new level. Two such are the image of three swans on a Bronze Age seal from Crete, which has an elegance and charm transcending its early date (c. 1600 B.C.); and the image of the semi-divine Perseus, a marvel of minute naturalism that cannot fail to enthrall. This acquisition represents the most important enhancement to the Getty Villa’s collection in over a decade.”

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Breton village offers reward to decipher mysterious stone inscription

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

The village of Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany is sending out an appeal to linguists, cryptographers, students, scholars and puzzlers of all stripes to decipher a mysterious inscription carved onto a boulder centuries ago, and they’re willing to put money on it.

The inscription begins “grocar drear diozeevbio” and more text follows — “roc ar b,” “dre ar grio se eveloh ar viriones baoavel,” “r i obbiie:brisbvilar” — none of it in any recognized language.

“This inscription is a mystery and it is for this that we are launching the appeal,” said Veronique Martin, who is spearheading the search for a code-cracker.

The rock, which is around the size of a person, is accessed via a path from the hamlet of Illien ar Gwenn just to the north of Corbeau point.

The inscription fills the entirety of one of its sides and is mainly in capital letters but there are also pictures including a sailing boat. There are two dates, 1786 and 1787.

“These dates correspond more or less to the years that various artillery batteries that protected Brest and notably Corbeau Fort which is right next to it,” she said.

The rock is bathed by the sea. The image of the sailboat is so close to the foot of the rock that the waters touch it at high tide.

The only known part of the inscription is a relatively recent addition: the date 1920, engraved by a Russian soldier garrisoned there during World War I. Just in case there might be a link between this and the rest of the inscription, linguists in Russia were contacted but to no avail. It’s not a Cyrillic language/dialect and Russian does not appear to have anything to do with it.

The Champollion Mystery of Plougastel-Daoulas, named after the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion who translated the hieroglyphic inscription on the Rosetta Stone, runs through the end of November 2019. All submissions, analyses and research reports, will be analyzed by a jury of academics and a representative from Brittany’s archaeology department. The most plausible entry will receive a €2,000 award.

The municipality has already received more than a thousand emails. If you’d like to try your hand at solving this riddle, email veronique.martin@mairie-plougastel.fr .

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Rare sea croc fossil found in Denmark

Friday, May 10th, 2019

The white chalk cliffs of Stevns Klint on the Danish island of Zealand are geological marvels, one of the best exposed Cretaceous-Tertiary boundaries in the world, complete with a visible record of the ash cloud created when the Chicxulub meteorite crashed off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago and caused the greatest mass extinction of all time. A thin grey line of clay divides the white chalk at the bottom from the line above it; it is a literal boundary line marking the end of the Cretaceous.

The cliffs are replete with fossils documenting plant and animal life before the meteorite and their recovery afterwards. Many are embedded in the cliff face and the constant erosion makes it a very productive site for fossil hunters.

Amateur geologist Peter Bennicke has made several important finds there, most recently two teeth and two armour plates from a 66-million-year-old crocodilian. The plates, also known as osteoderms, are sheets of bone under the skin of crocodiles that are coated with horn-like material. They’re what give crocodiles that armor-like plating down their back and sides.

“The patterns in the armour plates vary among different types of crocodiles, but along with the two long and slender teeth we can confidently deduce that the crocodile is of the Thoracosaurus genus, which was the most prevalent sea crocodile of the time – just about the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Tertiary period,” said Jesper Milan, a museum curator with Geomuseum Faxe.

Thoracosaurus survived the mass extinction rather well, living long into the Danian era. They had long, slender jaws with curved teeth which worked with deadly efficiency at catching fish. Their fossils have been found far from the coastlines of their era, indicating that they were strong swimmers who hunted their prey far from land.

Jesper Milan notes that only a few loose Thoracosaurus teeth from the end of the Cretaceous have been found in Denmark before. The discovery of teeth and plates from a specimen on the other side of the boundary is of greater importance than their modest dimensions might suggest because they fill an important gap in the fossil record.

The fossils will go on display at the Geomuseum Faxe later this year.

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Leonardo’s St Jerome coming to US

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness by Leonardo da Vinci is coming to the US in July. It will go on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the master’s death. The  painting is part of the Vatican Museum’s collection, which, inconceivably vast though it is, only has this one painting by Leonardo da Vinci. As a matter of fact, it is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in Rome. It is also one of maybe a half-dozen paintings whose attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has never been in doubt.

Four of the 15 or so surviving Leonardo paintings are incomplete, and St. Jerome is one of the four. The lion is still a drawn outline, as are Jerome’s foot, his robe draped on the ground, left hand, outstretched right arm holding a stone, one of his attributes, with which he will beat his chest. A church in the upper right of the panel is also a rough outline.

The painting represents Jerome (A.D. 347–420), a major saint and theologian of the Christian Church. The scene is based on the story of his later life, which he spent as a hermit in the desert, according to the 13th-century Golden Legend. The penitent Jerome—aged, gaunt, and nearly toothless—kneels in prayerful meditation before a cave in a rocky landscape. Reclining before Jerome is the tame lion, his companion in the desert and a central figure in the story of Jerome’s life. The saint’s face and gestures convey Leonardo’s theories on human physiognomy and the psychology of expression.

In its unfinished state, the painting shows us that Leonardo did not proceed in a wholly disciplined way. He was particularly interested in creating a detailed, anatomically correct under drawing for the saint’s ascetic body. The elegant silhouette of the reclining lion seems now especially powerful, because there is almost no modeling beyond the outlines. A close examination of the paint surface reveals the presence of Leonardo’s fingerprints, especially in the upper-left portion of the composition. Leonardo used his fingers to distribute the pigments and create a soft-focus effect in the sky and landscape.

Leonardo was painfully slow at painting, which is one of the reasons his oeuvre is so miniscule. He started this panel around 1483 when he was in Milan. When he died in Amboise, France, in 1519, it was still far from finished. We don’t know who commissioned it or why Leonardo kept altering it and working on it nigh onto 40 years.

The work is currently on display in a new location, the Braccio Di Carlo Magno on the left side of St. Peter’s Square, instead of in its usual spot in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Access is free and the location is much more conducive to quiet contemplation than the frenetic mob scene in the Vatican Museum.

The Met’s exhibition runs through October 6th, 2019, after which St. Jerome will head back across the Atlantic the Paris where it will join other masterpieces by Leonardo at the Louvre’s quincentenary Leonardo exhibition.

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Programming Note

Sunday, April 14th, 2019

I’ve belatedly upgraded to the current version of WordPress and things are a little hinky. Nothing huge, but some hiccups need ironing out. Hold tight!

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Almost Back

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

Thank you all for your well-wishes and kind words yesterday. I think they were the virtual equivalent of a cortisone shot because I’m feeling better already. JINX JINX WINGED PHALLUS WARD OFF ALL EVIL EYES PLEASE AND THANK YOU

Assuming the fascinus does its job, I’ll be back with an on-topic post tomorrow.

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