Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Gun Verlaine used to shoot Rimbaud for sale

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

The gun used by Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine to shoot his young lover and fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud will be sold at auction next month in Paris. This weapon featured in one of the great scandals of 19th century French literature, which, given the amount of drinking, drugging and sexing going on in that bohemian milieu, is an impressive feat. It was known as the Brussels Affair and was the dramatic dénouement of a tumultuous two-year relationship.

Born in Metz in 1844, Paul Verlaine was the only child of a successful career military officer. His mother had had three miscarriages before Paul was born (she apparently kept the miscarried fetuses in jars in the family home), so he was very much beloved. His teenaged years were troubled and he was sent to boarding school where his boredom and appreciation for Baudelaire inspired him to write his own poetry. After he graduated, he had few interests besides pursuing his poetry. He enrolled in law school in 1862 but dropped out, preferring to hang with his artist friends in Paris.

He published his first poem in a literary magazine in 1863. His father, hoping like so many parents of artists before and after him that he would get a “real job,” secured him employment at an insurance company, then at City Hall. Verlaine continued to write even as he worked his 9-5 jobs. In 1866, when he was 22, his first collection of poems, Poèmes saturniens, was published. It was well-received and established him as a significant new talent on the scene.

His personal life, on the other hand, was a mess. He still lived at home with his parents. He drank to excess and was a brutally violent drunk. After his first love (his cousin who was raised by his parents after she was orphaned and wisely married someone else) died in childbirth in 1867, he tried to kill his mother several times in an alcoholic haze. At his mother’s vigorous encouragement, he got married in of August 1870 to Mathilde Mauté. He was 26; she was 17. They moved to Paris where, as a supporter of the Paris Commune, he enlisted in the National Guard and patrolled the streets of a quiet neighborhood every other night. When the Commune fell in May 1871, Verlaine fled the repression of the Communards.

He was back in the city by September which is when he met Arthur Rimbaud for the first time. Rimbaud was a fan of Verlaine’s poetry and had sent him several letters included poems of his own. In January of 1872, Verlaine invited the 17-year-old to moved in with him and Mathilde, an arrangement which was fraught with tension. There was a newborn in the house — Mathilde had given birth to their son Georges in October of 1871 — and Verlaine’s relationship with the teenaged poet quickly developed into a tempestuous sexual and emotional affair. Meanwhile, his alcoholism and violence increased. He beat Mathilde whenever he drank, threatened to kill her, even hit their infant son, once throwing him against a wall. She took the baby and left.

Their affair went public after that. Rimbaud was rude, shameless and just as much of an addict as Verlaine. They collaborated on poetry, drank absinthe by the keg, smoked opium and fought like wolverines, scandalizing even their circle of poets and intellectuals. After a desultory attempt to win back Mathilde by promising her he’d never see Arthur again, Verlaine left Paris with Rimbaud July of 1872 for Brussels. In September they moved on to London. There they spent almost a year off and on, fighting, drinking, breaking up, making up and generally being miserable with each other. Rimbaud tried to stab Verlaine. Verlaine called Rimbaud his “infernal spouse.” Rimbaud would write about this time in the aptly named A Season in Hell.

In June 1873, Verlaine left for Brussels alone. He couldn’t last a month before writing to Rimbaud asking him to join him. Rimbaud went to Brussels, but told Verlaine he was going to Paris instead of staying with him. On the morning of July 10th, 1873, Verlaine bought a Lefaucheux 7mm six-shooter from the Montigny armory in Brussels. He wrote to his family and friends to inform them he planned suicide, spent the rest of the morning drinking, then returned to his room with Rimbaud. When the younger man announced he was leaving, Verlaine fired at him twice, intending murder. He barely wounded him, one bullet grazing his left wrist, the other ricocheting off the wall into the chimney.

Rimbaud was treated for his wound at Saint-Jean Hospital then went straight to the train station to get out of Dodge. Verlaine was waiting for him. When he reached for his pocket, Rimbaud ran to the police who arrested Verlaine. Rimbaud withdraw his complaint the next day, Verlaine was tried for assault with pederasty as an aggravating factor. On August 8th, he was sentenced to two years in the prison of Petites Carmes. In October he was transferred to the prison in Mons. He was released early for good behavior after 555 days of incarceration on January 16th, 1875.

The two saw each other one last time in 1885. Rimbaud died of cancer six years later. He was 37. Verlaine died broke, drunk, diabetic and syphilitic in 1896 at the age of 51.

He never thought to claim his revolver from the police. They sent it back to Montigny where it remained in their archives, unknown to the public, for close to a century. When the Montigny company filed for bankruptcy in the 1980s and had to liquidate all its inventory, the owner reached out to his good friend and weapons collector Jacques Ruth to buy some of their stock. In gratitude, he gave Ruth the revolver at the center of the notorious Brussels Affair.

Ruth didn’t grasp its cultural significance at the time. He only realized what a scandalous treasure he had when he saw the 1995 film Total Eclipse starring David Thewlis as Verlaine and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud. In 2004, a new exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Paul Verlaine opened in Brussels. Ruth notified the curator that he had the famous revolver. The curator thought he was joking, but research confirmed that it was the real deal, serial number 14096, listed in the Montigny registry book as the one Verlaine bought on July 10th, 1873. It went on display for the first time at a 2015 exhibition on Verlaine held at the Mons prison where he did time.

The Lefaucheux six-shooter #14096 goes on the auction block at The Exceptional Sale at Christie’s Paris on November 30th. The pre-sale estimate is €50,000-70,000 ($54,315-76,041).

Ancient Samaritan 10 Commandments for sale

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

A marble tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Samaritan will be sold at auction next month at at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. The Yavneh 10 Commandments Stone is roughly two-by-two feet, weighs 115 pounds and was carved probably between 4th and 8th centuries A.D. in the Samaritan variant of Paleo-Hebrew script. It is one of only five inscriptions of the Samaritan Decalogue from before the Muslim invasion known to survive.

A close derivative of ancient Phoenician, Paleo-Hebrew script was in use from at least as early as the 10th century B.C. — the Zayit Stone, the oldest inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, dates to then — until the 5th century B.C. when Aramaic began to take its place. The Samaritans, however, continued to use their version of Paleo-Hebrew and still do so today.

Translated from the Samaritan dialect of Hebrew, the line-by-line inscription runs as follows:

1. Dedicated in the name of Korach
2. I will call you to remember for goodness forever
3. God spoke
4. all these words
5. saying I am the Lord
6. your God you shall not have
7. for yourself other Gods
8. besides me; you shall not make
9. for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness;
10. for I the Lord
11. your God am an impassioned God;
12. Remember the Sabbath day
13. keep it holy; honor
14. your father and your mother;
15. you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery;
16. you shall not steal; you shall not bear [false witness] against your neighbor
17. you shall not covet; you shall erect
18. these stones that
19. I am commanding you today
20. on Mount Gerizim rise up to God

You might notice they’re not quite the standard set of 10. The one about not taking the name of God in vain is missing, and there’s a new one at the end about building the temple on Mount Gerizim to house the tablets.

The tablet’s origins are nebulous, but according to research done in the 1940s, it was discovered in 1913 by construction workers building a railroad near Yavneh on the southern coast of what was then Palestine. They either gave it or sold it to a wealthy local man who installed it on the floor of a doorway into his courtyard. Over time, the middle of the inscription was worn down be people walking on it, but it can still be read under oblique lighting.

The son of the owner sold it in 1943 to Mr. Y. Kaplan who knew right away it was a rare Samaritan Decalogue tablet. Kaplan engaged scholar and expert in Samaritan history (and the future second President of Israel) Yitzhak Ben-Zvi to study the stone. It was he who determined its likely age range based on the writing style of the Samaritan. Later scholarship has expanded the possible date range to the early Islamic occupation period (ca. 640-830 A.D.), but the Byzantine date range is still prevalent.

The stone was sold to an antiquities dealer in the 1990s and in 2005 was bought by Rabbi Saul Deutsch of the Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn, New York. As an object of Israeli cultural patrimony, the tablet’s export required a special permit from the Israel Antiquities Authority who allowed it on the condition that it was to be put on public display.

The museum has a collection of ancient artifacts that illustrate people, places and things mentioned in the Torah, like 3,500-year-old Hittite toy chariots as examples of what the Egyptian chariots that chased the fleeing Jews during the Exodus may have looked like. Judging from what’s available online at least, some of the connections are tenuous at best. Fragments of Coptic-era Egyptian garments, for instance, are hardly indicative of what the Jews who left Egypt might have worn. While the tablet has been on display since the sale, as per the terms of the agreement with the IAA, it is not one of the artifacts included in the website’s slideshows.

The museum, which contains a large collection of artifacts of Jewish life and history dating back to antiquity, is shifting toward a more hands-on focus to attract younger visitors and decided it was time to sell the artifact.

“The sale will provide us with the money to do what we need to do. It’s all for the best,” Deutsch said in a statement.

The opening bid will be $250,000, a fortune for a small Brooklyn museum. One caveat, though, the condition requiring public display of the artifact still holds, so the buyer can’t just stash it in his cave of wonders. The auction is on November 16th, but you can bid online starting Friday, October 28th.

Huge mosaic floor in Jericho unveiled for one day

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

For one time only, the glorious 8th century mosaic floor of Khirbat al-Mafjar, colloquially known as Hisham’s Palace, was on view in all its colorful majesty on Thursday, October 20th. The floor features 38 different scenes in 21 colors, and at 825 square meters (8,900 square feet), it is one of the largest mosaic floors in the world.

Discovered in 1873 three miles north of the West Bank city of Jericho, the first excavations of the site took place between 1934 and 1948 under the direction of Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki. The palace got its name from a marble ostracon that was discovered during the Baramki excavations that had “Hisham” scratched on it. The name on the marble fragment suggested that the lavish mansion may have been built during the reign of the 10th Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724-743). The name stuck even though the palace may not have been built for the caliph himself. Robert Hamilton, the British colonial administrator and a colleague of Baramki’s, proposed the compound was constructed for the Hisham’s nephew and successor Walid ibn Yazid (r. 743-744) whose notorious love of the high life irritated the hell out his more temperate uncle.

Whoever it was built for, it had to have been someone in the royal family. The architecture, decorations and artifacts mark it as having been built under the Umayyad dynasty in first half of the 8th century. It’s in a category of structures known as the Umayyad desert castles, fortified palaces built near water sources in the arid regions of Jordan, Syria, Israel and the West Bank between 661 (when Damascus was made the Umayyad capital) and 750 A.D. (when the capital was moved to Baghdad).

Like the other desert castles, Hisham’s Palace includes an agricultural enclosure and a bath complex supplied with water from a nearby oasis. The spectacular mosaics covered the floor of the main bath hall, and one of the most famous stand-out pieces, a Tree of Life mosaic, decorated the floor of the bath’s bahw, or special reception room. It depicts a fruit tree with two gazelles peacefully hanging out on the left, while a gazelle on the right side is attacked by a lion. The contrasting scenes of peace vs. combat are believed to represent the power of the caliph to either bring prosperity to his people or to ruthlessly repress them.

Elaborately carved stucco panels, mainly florals and geometrics with some animal and human figures, including semi-nude men and women, were also found in the bath complex. The stuccos are now at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. The decorative elements in the desert castles are among the earliest Islamic art, and the mosaics, sculptures, frescoes and carved stucco features at Hisham’s Palace are of particularly high quality. The dizzying array of colors and patterns in the mosaics prefigure later Islamic design, while the figural art is unique to the Umayyad period.

The palace is the biggest tourist draw in the West Bank which has a major downside from a conservation standpoint. In addition to the tens of thousands of visitors stomping the site every year, Jericho’s urban sprawl, conflict and scant funds for preservation and personnel have placed Hisham’s Palace is in dire straights. In 2010, the non-profit Global Heritage Fund put it on a list of 12 sites on the verge of irreparable damage. The only mosaic on display in the Tree of Life in the reception room. The rest have been covered by soil and canvas almost since they were first unearthed.

In September 2015, the Japan International Cooperation Agency signed a grant agreement with the Palestinian Authority to give up to 1.235 billion yen ($11,860,000) to construct a protective roof and exhibition facilities for the bath mosaics. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities spent a year carefully removing the sand, soil and assorted debris covering the floor. Now that the construction phase is about to begin, the complete mosaic floor of the bath complex of Hisham’s Palace was uncovered for a day. The floors go back undercover until the project is complete. If all goes well, the newly protected and restored mosaics will be open to visitors by 2018.

Unique London museum restored to its former chaotic splendour

Monday, October 17th, 2016

After a comprehensive restoration lasting seven years and costing £7million ($8,536,000), Sir John Soane’s Museum in London has returned to its founder’s original design. The Soane is a uniquely idiosyncratic museum founded by preeminent neoclassical architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) in his home and office at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A self-made man, he first bought No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1792 after he was invited to become a member of the Architects’ Club, an important milestone marking his success and the approval of his peers. He completely remodeled the building and facade. In 1806, after his appointment as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, he bought the house next door at No. 13 and completely rebuilt it too.

By then his library and collection of antiquities, plaster casts and architectural models was too large to fit in one property and he conceived the idea to dedicate both No. 12 and No. 13 to a museum that would allow architecture students and interested amateurs to study his models, paintings, drawings and sculptures. While at first he planned to organize his collection in categories, he abandoned that idea in favor of an eclectic, chaotic arrangement of interesting juxtapositions that would inspire creativity in visitors.

In 1812, he opened No. 13 to his students in the hope it would enhance their education. Magazine reviews were rapturous, referring to the Lincoln’s Inn Fields museum as “an Academy of Architecture.” Soane wanted to ensure that his homemade “Academy” would remain open to the public entirely unchanged even after his death. That took an extraordinary effort because his son George as the direct male heir by law would inherit his property and Soane had a terrible relationship with his son. The only way to disinherit him was by a literal Act of Parliament, so Soane campaigned assiduously to get a Private Act to preserve his beloved collection in the buildings on which he had put so decidedly personal a stamp.

In April of 1833, the Soane Museum Act was passed requiring that after Sir John’s death, the house and collection be managed by a Board of Trustees on behalf of the nation and that they be kept “as nearly as possible” just as they were. Soane died in 1837 and the terms of the Act went into effect. Over the years, changes were made both to the structures — additions, walls knocked down, doors and rooms closed off, the Model Room on the second floor converted into a curator’s apartment and later offices — and, as exhibition space retreated to the needs of administration, to the objects on display.

A solution presented itself in the form of No. 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane had bought that building too in 1823, rebuilding it as he had its brethren and using the stables as a picture gallery connected to No. 13. The home itself he rented. This building was not included in the Act of Parliament. Soane left it to his family. In 2009, the museum had the chance to buy No. 14. They snapped it up and finally had much-needed office space. This gave them the freedom to embark on an extensive renovation of museum to restore it to Sir John’s original vision.

After a fundraising campaign that saw donations from many private donors and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Opening up the Soane (OUTS) project began in 2011. The last phase of the project was completed last month, and now not only are the rooms restored to their former design with the artifacts, models and art works in the spaces where Soane wanted them to be — 365 objects that have been in storage since 1837 are now back on display — but new spaces have been opened as well. The kitchens, for example, once the exclusive domain of Soane’s servants, now give visitors a rare glimpse into a Regency era kitchen. The original 1812 range in the back kitchen is believed to be the oldest surviving patented kitchen range in the world. There’s also a custom dresser designed by Soane in the front kitchen.

Bruce Boucher, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum says; “This is a momentous day in the history of the Soane Museum. Our extensive restoration work over the past seven years has reinstated all of Soane’s spaces which were lost over the decades following his death – many of them thought to be lost forever. Now, following the completion of this third and final phase of Opening Up the Soane, visitors can experience the Museum as fully as Sir John Soane intended”.

Has the victim of 322-year-old royal intrigue been found?

Saturday, October 15th, 2016

A scandalous and deadly mystery may soon be solved thanks to the sciency magic of DNA. The setting: Leine Castle in Niedersachsen, Germany, the residence of the Electors of Hanover and future Hanoverian kings. The players: Sophia Dorothea, the wife of the future King George I of Great Britain, her churlish husband, then Prince George Ludwig of Hanover, Sophia Dorothea’s lover, Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, her father-in-law Ernest Augustus, the Elector of Hanover, and the Countess von Platen, the Elector’s mistress and a schemer of Evil Queen in Snow White dimensions.

Sophia Dorothea had been forced to marry George Ludwig through the machinations of Sophia of Hanover, George’s mother and granddaughter of King James I of England, who sabotaged her other engagements and persuaded her mother, Countess Eleanor of Wilhelmsburg, of the advantage of the match. Her future mother-in-law’s motivation was purely pecuniary. Sophia Dorothea came with a rich income of 100,000 thaler a year (one thaler was worth 25 grams of silver, 10 times more than the English pound), and while George had zero personal charms (in Hanover he was known as “pignose” and his own mother considered him stupid and brutish) he had the powerful Electorate of Hanover coming his way and was also in line for the British crown.

So in 1682, the 16-year-old Sophia Dorothea married her first cousin Prince George Ludwig of Hanover, the future King George I of Great Britain. From day one the marriage was turbulent. They fought all the time, in private and public, and George slighted her at ceremonial occasions. Despite their active contempt for each other, they managed to reproduce twice: the future George II was born in 1683, Sophia Dorothea, the future Queen of Prussia, was born in 1687.

By then relations between the two were irretrievably broken, if they had ever been whole. George took a mistress whom he flaunted so shamelessly that his own father begged him to be more discreet for appearance’s sake, if nothing else. George ignored him, and instead took more mistresses whom he impregnated regularly. When he wasn’t violent and abusive to his wife, he acted as if she didn’t exist, humiliating her by raising his mistresses above her at court. Into this maelström walked Swedish count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. He and Sophia Dorothea had met just before her marriage and had had an innocent flirtation. When the dashing count came back into her life, their relationship blossomed into a romance which we know quite a bit about because hundreds of their love letters have survived and are now in the collection of the Lund University library. Many of them are written in code, a necessity as the gossip around them intensified.

Some of those letters were intercepted and shown to George Ludwig’s father Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover, who exiled Königsmarck from Hanover. George and Sophia Dorothea fought angrily over her affair and his many affairs (complete with illegitimate children). This argument turned violent, with George pulling out his wife’s hair and throttling her until she lost consciousness. Only the intervention of her attendants in the antechamber stopped the Prince from strangling his wife.

It all came to a head in 1694. Königsmarck returned from banishment and was appointed Colonel of the Guards. Sophia Dorotea, desperate after repeated entreaties to her own family had failed, hoped to flee Hanover with the count. He received a note written in pencil asking him to visit her rooms one night. When he appeared, she was surprised. The note was a forgery. Notwithstanding the glaringly obvious setup, he stayed for a while as she told him how untenable her position had become and asked him to arrange for their flight to Wolfenbüttel, about 40 miles away, where a devoted friend of her mother lived. This was a fatal error.

The forged letter was part of a plot hatched by Clara Elisabeth, Countess von Platen, Ernest Augustus’ long-time mistress and mother of two of his children. She and her coterie had spread nasty rumors about Sophia Dorothea since the marriage, poisoning the court against her and contributing significantly to George’s hatred and public slights of his wife. As soon as she found out that Königsmarck had fallen for the forged note gambit, she told the Elector that Königsmarck was scandalously visiting Sophia Dorothea at night, and persuaded him to order his arrest.

He allowed countess to command the operation. She got three trabants (yeomen of the guard) and their commanding officer to wait for him behind a chimney that was his sole escape route out of the palace (she had locked all the other exits), and promptly got them drunk so they might be less likely to recognize the colonel and more likely to do him harm which was her aim all along although Ernest Augustus was clueless about her real intentions. When Königsmarck approached the chimney, he was set upon by the guards. A sword fight ensued, and though he was an outstanding soldier who might have actually pulled off a one-against-four-drunks victory in the dark, Königsmarck’s sword snapped and he was mortally wounded.

The guards were horrified when realized who they had stuck, but the Countess von Platen deftly turned it around on them. She said they’d be in huge trouble for killing him, so it was best if they told the Elector Königsmarck had rushed them in some berserker frenzy, forcing them to kill in self-defense. Ernest Augustus was shocked and appalled. He’d given the countess an inch and she’d taken a life. He knew the news of the death of so famously brave, handsome and popular a noble adventurer would surely spread like wildfire throughout Germany, and the Elector would be cast as the villain of the piece.

The Countess had a solution to that problem too. She got Ernest Augustus to agree to dispose of the body in such a way that the crime would never be publically known. The 1845 Memoirs of Sophia Dorothea, a pro-Sophia biography compiled from archives, letters and diaries, describes the aftermath thus:

The Countess had little trouble in persuading the trabants to save their necks by doing as she desired them. All traces of the murder were soon obliterated. The dead body was unceremoniously cast into the most filthy receptacle that could be found for it, covered with quick lime, and the place walled up. So secretly and so skilfully were these measures taken, that no one in the palace was aware anything extraordinary had occurred during the night, although some persons had heard a slight disturbance of which they had taken little notice, and from that time to this, notwithstanding suspicions had been created by the mysterious disappearance of Count Königsmarck, nothing of a positive nature has been brought forward respecting his fate on which any reliance could be placed.

This account is derived from the Countess von Platen’s deathbed confession and to that of one of the trabants. Other stories circulated. Author, member of Parliament and son of the frst Prime Minister of Great Britain Horace Walpole was told by his father who was told by Queen Caroline who was told by King George II that the Königsmarck was strangled upon leaving Sophia Dorotea’s room and his body had been found under the floor of her dressing room when George II was visiting Hanover after his ascension to the British throne.

That’s a bit too much of a game of telephone to be reliable data, but the discovery of a skeleton during construction work at Leine Castle this summer might just be the hard evidence this intrigue has long lacked. Unfortunately the cause of death could not be determined by osteological analysis, but researchers were able to extract DNA from the bones. The DNA will now be compared to living relatives of Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck.

As for poor Sophia Dorothea, with her lover dead in such a messy way, George Ludwig felt empowered to divorce her and imprison her in the Castle of Ahlden in Lüneburg for the rest of her life, that’s 33 years out of 60. It wasn’t a brutal imprisonment; more of a house arrest life sentence. She had plenty of money to live in accordance with her status, was allowed her retinue and had the run of the castle, but her children were kept from her and every reference to her was erased from George’s future courts. Oh, and he kept that 100,000 thaler annuity even after her divorced her, of course. He really was a right bastard.

On her deathbed, she wrote one last letter to her husband, who had been King of Great Britain and Ireland for 12 years by then, cursing him. He refused to allow his courts in Hanover or England to officially mourn her, and even inveighed against their daughter when he heard the Prussian court in Berlin was wearing black for their queen’s mother. No wonder George II hated his father bitterly.

Study ancient Egypt online with the University of Pennsylania

Friday, October 14th, 2016

The Penn Museum, the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum, has one of the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the United States. There are more than 42,000 objects, including the largest sphinx in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world. The head curator of the collection is University of Pennsylvania’s Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr Professor of Egyptology Dr. David Silverman, one of the world’s leading experts on Egyptian history. He was a curator of the blockbuster Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit which brought 53 artifacts from the famous tomb to the United States for the first time in the late 1970s, and was the national curator of the even grander blockbuster, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, thirty years later. He has led multiple archaeological excavations in Egypt and is widely published on Egyptian history, epigraphy, language, art, and religion.

There was a time when being taught by an Ivy League professor preeminent in his field was a privilege reserved for very few, but it’s a brave new world out there now, and the University of Pennsylvania is offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) through Coursera entitled Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization. It will be taught by Dr. Silverman who developed the course using references to the Egyptian artifacts in the Penn Museum. MOOCs on ancient Egypt have been offered before by many institutions of higher learning, but none of them had access to a collection like the Penn Museum’s to illustrate the coursework. Silver spent two years developing this course and its sequels, researching the material, writing scripts for the lectures and choosing hundreds of photographs as visual aids. A crew for the university’s School of Arts and Sciences Online Learning filmed the galleries of the Penn Museum for days, working around the museum’s hours so that students will get the kind of unobstructed view of the objects on display that is virtually impossible in crowded real life.

The class begins on October 31st with a showing of the original The Mummy with Boris Karloff. Okay no. I made that up because of the coincidental Halloween opening date, but it would be a pretty entertaining overture, especially since the faux “archaeology” in that movie is so egregiously wrong on every possible level that it even eclipses Karloff’s outstanding makeup in horror quotient. In reality, the course consists of five filmed lectures about an hour long. The lectures will be supplemented with quizzes and project assignments, and students will be able to engage in online discussions of the material.

A prolific author, speaker, and exhibition curator, Dr. Silverman developed the course with an eye to answering the many questions he has encountered over the years. “I wanted to offer a course that tapped into the deep fascination that so many people—myself included—bring with them as they explore the art and culture of the ancient Egyptians,” he noted. “My hope is that through this course many questions will be answered—and new questions will arise. Ancient Egypt’s culture and achievements are worthy of a lifetime of study and exploration.”

As the course description notes, each hour-long videotaped lecture focuses on a different subject: History and Chronology; The Pharaoh and Kingship; Gods and Goddesses; The Pyramids and the Sphinx; Mummies and Mummification. Part two of the course explores Principles of Egyptian Art; The Basics of the Language of Ancient Egypt – Hieroglyphs; Magic; Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and the Religion of the Aten; and The Burial of Tutankhamun and the Search for his Tomb.

If you are fortunate enough to be in Philadelphia or environs on Saturday, December 10th, there will be an end of course Open House with Dr. Silverman at the Penn Museum from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Students will enjoy talks by museum Egyptologists, tours of the gallery, a mummification workshop, book signings and an Egyptian-inspired lunch at the museum café.

Already 20,000 people have signed up for the course. The MOOC is free of charge — there’s a fee of $49 if you want to get a certificate — and once it’s complete, all students will receive email notification of the second course in the series: Wonders of the Ancient World, which is schedule to launch in early 2017.

Find out if your ancestors fought at Agincourt

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

The Soldier in Later Medieval England website has added the names of more than 3,500 French soldiers known to have fought in the Battle of Agincourt, the 1415 clash between the English forces of Henry V and the French under King Charles VI (in name only; Charles was suffering one of several bouts of severe mental illness at the time and was not present on the battlefield). The French fighting men are now part of a database which lists more than 250,000 names of English soldiers who fought in campaigns between 1369 and 1453, including Agincourt. All together, the database is the largest list of medieval people ever assembled.

It’s amazing the level of detail the researchers involved in this project have assembled. It’s not just lists of names, but also any additional information. For instance, of the 3,500 French soldiers in the database, researchers were able to determine that 550 died on the field of Agincourt and that another 300 were taken prisoner to be ransomed. The database also records any known geographical origins of the soldiers, their ranks, where they served and when. You can search by name, rank or year of service. There are also biographies of a number of English soldiers of particular interest to researchers and contributors.

Muster rolls were the main source of information — records keep track of the money, if nothing else — and for the English soldiers, Chancery court documents were a rich source, pace Charles Dickens and Bleak House. Soldiers had to purchase letters of protection from the Chancery to ensure they wouldn’t be subject to lawsuits when they were deployed. Very useful information if you’re looking for year of service.

Professor Anne Curry, project Director and Dean of Humanities at the University of Southampton, says: “It is fitting that this new resource has been made available following the major 600th anniversary commemorations of Agincourt in 2015, in which our university played a key role. The Medieval Soldier website has already proved an invaluable resource for genealogists and people interested in social, political and military history. This new data will help us to reach out to new users and shed fresh light on the Hundred Years War.” [...]

Professor Adrian Bell, fellow project Director and Head of the ICMA Centre, Henley Business School at the University of Reading, comments: “Our newly developed interface interrogates sources found in many different archive repositories in England and France. Without our site, searching for this information would require many visits to the National Archives of both England and France, the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale and all of the Archives Départementales in Normandy.”

Even if you don’t have an ancestor who was pincushioned by Henry V’s Welsh longbowmen or stared down the charge of the French heavy cavalry but would still like to learn more about the Battle of Agincourt, the University of Southampton is offering a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the subject that starts October 17th. They’ve run it before and it was very popular, so they’re doing it again to give people who missed the first iteration another chance. I haven’t taken this particular course, but I did do their Archaeology of Portus MOOC (that’s being offered again too) and it was excellent.

Civil War ordnance exposed by Matthew detonated

Monday, October 10th, 2016

A cluster of Civil-War era artillery churned up from the sands of Folly Beach in South Carolina by Hurricane Matthew was safely detonated on Sunday evening. The 16 corroded cannonballs were found Sunday morning on the beach at East Ashley Avenue by former Folly Beach mayor Richard Beck who was walking the shoreline taking pictures of the wreckage Matthew left behind.

“I knew they were cannonballs,” he said. “One of them had a very distinct hole in it that went directly into it. Just knowing a little bit about the Civil War, I know that they put fuses in cannonballs for them to explode when they desired them to.”

Recalling a time back in his mayor days when Civil War cannonballs were found in the basement of a home and had to be detonated, Beck called the police to report the find. One of the officers who answered the call is a Civil War reenactor and confirmed the rusted lumps were indeed cannonballs.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and Charleston police bomb squad were on the scene by 12:30, but couldn’t do anything until the tide was out. At around 7:00 PM, with the help of the United States Air Force Explosive Ordnance Team, authorities were able to safely detonate the cannonballs. While it’s unlikely the black powder inside of them would have ignited given their age, condition and sodden environment, as a matter of public safety, the policy is to avoid all risks and destroy the ordnance.

“We call it ‘rendering safe’ and we did that right there on the beach front,” [Charleston County Sheriff's Office spokesman [Eric] Watson said. “They’re putting the dirt from the detonation back in the hole and they’re transporting the device to (Joint Base Charleston).”

It’s not a single device, to be clear, but most of the balls are fused together by the corrosion. According to the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, some of the cannonballs were detonated on the spot. The rest were transported to a nearby naval base where they were destroyed Sunday night.

Just to give you an idea of the lay of the land, Folly Beach is less than 12 miles from Charleston Harbor (by road; it’s closer by sea). A couple more miles over the water will take you to Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861, when Confederate cannon barraged the Union garrison at the fort. Folly Island itself didn’t see a great deal of combat during the war — there was a single battle (more of a skirmish, really) on May 10th, 1863, when Confederate troops scouting the island attacked Union troops they found there — but the island was occupied by 13,000 Union Army in August of 1863. They used it as a supply station, building a fort and an artillery battery in support of the Union troops besieging Charleston. It was a staging area for both Battles of Fort Wagner (July-September 1863), which took place on the adjacent Morris Island. The second Battle of Fort Wagner was famously depicted in the film Glory and the remains of at least 19 men from all African-American units including the 55th Massachusetts, 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry and the Second U.S. Colored Infantry were discovered at the west end of Folly Beach in 1987.

Hidden self-portrait found in 17th c. Dutch painting

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

Royal Collection conservators have unmasked a hidden self-portrait of the artist in Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraten’s A Vanitas (c.1666–1700). It’s an unexpected find in still life symbolizing the fleeting nature of life and the material things we value. The vanitas was a flourishing theme in Dutch art of the 17th century, and Roestraten’s scene includes some of the most popular imagery of the genre. Coins and a medallion hanging from a Mr. T-like thicket of chains represent all those worldly goods that you can’t take with you, a skull and cinerary urn represent the certainty of death, an open pocket watch on a silk ribbon signifying transience, Democritus, known as the Laughing Philosopher, laughs at human folly from the pages of a book captioned “Everyone is sick from birth / vanity is ruining the world,” and hanging from a string above the table is a glass orb representing the fragility of life.

The rest of the room is reflected in the orb, but before conservation, all you could really see was the light shining through window panes and a bulbous shape that has to be the skull but doesn’t look like much of anything. Still, Roestraten is known for concealing surprise images in his paintings and at least nine of them are tiny self-portraits hidden in reflections in glass and mirrors. Hoping his Vanitas might have just such an Easter egg, Royal Collection conservators set to cleaning it in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition Portrait of the Artist

During the removal of discoloured varnish, Royal Collection Trust conservators found the 3cm-high image of the artist at his easel painted as a reflection on the glass sphere. Roestraten can be seen in the surroundings of his studio, looking directly at the viewer and towards the skull and silver ginger jar in the foreground of the picture.

Anna Reynolds, Senior Curator of Paintings, Royal Collection Trust, and co-curator of the exhibition, said, ‘Vanitas paintings traditionally focus on symbolic objects that are designed to make us think about how we live our lives. The discovery of Roestraten’s reflection, previously hidden beneath a layer of varnish, is very exciting and adds a new element to the work – a sort of pictorial game that encourages us to look more closely.’

A Vanitas with its newly exposed self-portrait will go on display in Portrait of the Artist along with more than 150 artworks from the Royal Collection that feature the artist in his or her own creation. Other stand-out pieces are a self-portrait drawing of Annibale Carracci (ca. 1575-80), the famous profile red chalk drawing of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to his student Francesco Melzi (ca. 1515-18), Jan de Bray’s The Banquet of Cleopatra (1652) in which he used himself and his family as models, a self-portrait by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1623) and one my personal favorites, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (ca. 1638-9).

Greek police bust massive looting operating

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

Greek police have busted a large-scale criminal organization that trafficked in looted antiquities. More than 2,000 artifacts, most of them coins dating from as early as the 6th century B.C., were confiscated in the bust. There are 2024 coins, 126 assorted artifacts, the oldest of which is a marble Cycladic figurine from the 3rd millennium B.C. Other artifacts include gold jewelry, three gold plates weighing a total of 110 grams, bronze arrow tips, a bronze animal figurine, a glass vase, five Byzantine icons, a Byzantine cross, and two medieval statues of a male warrior and a woman which were found hidden in a well in Nemea.

Led by the police directorate in Patras, southwestern Greece, authorities investigated the operation for 14 months. More than 50 people are believed to have been part of the ring which ranged all over the country and covered every part of the traffic from illegal excavations to illegal export. The gang found artifacts by digging at or nearby known archaeological sites and by using satellite imagery to identify new potential sites. The worker bees would dig at night to avoid detection, and the leaders of the ring would then arranged for the sale of the artifacts by directly negotiating with auction houses and private buyers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK.

Thanks to extensive documentation found in the bust, police have the full receipts on who bought what when. The dirty auction houses, which Greek authorities are not naming because of laws protecting suspects from exposure before trial, not only knowingly ginned up bullshit ownership histories (heyo Swiss private collection!), they also conspired with the looters to artificially jack up the bids during live auctions to squeeze more money out of buyers and even went so far as to give these bastards tens of thousands of euros so they’d have the cash to buy black market artifacts, mainly coins, that they hadn’t themselves excavated.

Underscoring the wide range of the criminal conspiracy, police also found a cache of weapons — modern shotguns, rifles, pistols, air guns, bullets, a silencer, plus an antique pistol and antique swords — 21 metal detectors, 73 cellphones, 17 computers, currency measuring scales, piles of cash in euros, dollars and Kuwaiti dinars and counterfeit plates. But wait, there’s more! Seven cars and some cannabis, to be precise.

Two of the leaders of the gang, a 54-year-old father and 27-year-old son, were arrested Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border. Police found 946 ancient coins and 32 ancient artifacts hidden in the bumper of their car. Another 24 members of the gang were arrested as well. It seems this outfit has been operating for at least 10 years.




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