Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Darwin’s Tree of Life notebook stolen

Tuesday, November 24th, 2020

Cambridge University Library has launched a public appeal for the recovery of two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks that have gone missing, likely stolen. One of them contains an iconic drawing known as the “Tree of Life” or “transmutation diagram” and both of them are of inestimable value. It’s a very cold case and there are no leads currently.

Dr Jessica Gardner, University Librarian and Director of Library Services since 2017, said: “I am heartbroken that the location of these Darwin notebooks, including Darwin’s iconic ‘Tree of Life’ drawing, is currently unknown, but we’re determined to do everything possible to discover what happened and will leave no stone unturned during this process.

“This public appeal could be critical in seeing the notebooks safely return, for the benefit of all, and I would ask anyone who thinks they may be able to help to get in touch.

“We would be hugely grateful to hear from any staff, past or present, members of the book trade, researchers, or the public at large, with information that might assist in the recovery of the notebooks.

“Someone, somewhere, may have knowledge or insight that can help us return these notebooks to their proper place at the heart of the UK’s cultural and scientific heritage.”

The notebooks were kept in the Special Collections Strong Rooms, an ostensibly secure location for the library’s most valuable and rare volumes. The last time they were recorded as having left the room was when they were photographed from September to November 2000. A routine check in January 2001 found the two notebooks and the bespoke blue box that held them were not back in place. An unfortunate assumption was made that they had simply been misplaced and would turn up again somewhere in the vast collection.

This was not an unreasonable belief, as appallingly sanguine as it seems now. The Cambridge University Library has an absolutely massive collection of Darwin material. Between letters, plans, drawings, manuscripts, 189 archives boxes and Darwin’s personal library of 734 books and 6,000 periodicals, the University Library’s Darwin collection covers more than 320 feet of shelving.

Gardner said: “Security policy was different 20 years ago. Today any such significant missing object would be reported as a potential theft immediately and a widespread search begun. We keep all our precious collections under the tightest security, in dedicated, climate-controlled strong rooms, meeting national standards.

“The building has transformed significantly since the notebooks were first reported as missing in terms of additional security measures such as new strong rooms, new specialist reading rooms, CCTV, enhanced access control to secure areas, and our participation in international networks on collections security.”

There were limited searches for the notebooks over the years, but all have been unsuccessful. This year the first comprehensive targeted search of the library’s storage facilities by specialist staff was begun, but again the notebooks could not be found. The full search will take five years to complete. In the meantime, the loss has been reported as a suspected theft to the Cambridgeshire Police, Interpol and the national Art Loss Register.

Darwin wrote down his thoughts about the speciaton, extinction and adaptation after his return from the voyage on the Beagle to South America in several notebooks. Notebook B contains his notes from July 1837 to February 1838. Notebook C was written between February and July 1838. On page 36 of Notebook B he drew a rough diagram to illustrate his idea of descent of species, how branches multiply as species that are well-adapted to their environments reproduce in great numbers, spread out geographically and diversify, “transmuting” from ancestral forms, while those who are not die out.

I think

[Tree of Life diagram]

Case must be that one generation then should be as many living as now

To do this & to have many species in same genus (as is). REQUIRES extinction.

Thus between A. & B. immens gap of relation C & B. the finest gradation, B & D rather greater distinction

Thus genera would be formed.— bearing relation

[page 37]

to ancient types.— with several extinct forms, for if each species “an ancient” is capable of making, 13 recent forms.— Twelve of the contemporarys must have left no offspring at all, so as to keep number of species constant.

The good news is those photographs taken in 2000 right before it disappeared with excellent high-resolution images that were uploaded to the University of Cambridge Digital Library. Full scans of covers and pages can be browsed online, and Darwin’s handwritten notes have been transcribed as part of the Darwin Manuscripts Project website.


The put-your-warring-lords-to-work rules

Wednesday, November 18th, 2020

Researchers at Kumamoto University have discovered a rare early Edo-period document regulating conduct at an expansive construction project used by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu to reel in his fractious lords. Issued by the head of the powerful Hosokawa samurai clan in January of 1608, the document lists 13 articles of behavior to be observed by everyone contracted to work on the reconstruction of Sunpu Castle. Its aim was to prevent conflict from breaking out on the worksite.

A seasoned warrior and daimyo (feudal lord) from a cadet branch of the imperial family, Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1646) was the clan leader during the early Edo period. He and the 5,000 troops at his command played a key role at the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara in which Tokugawa Ieyasu consolidated his power and the shogun rewarded Tadaoki for his support with even more lands.

To bring the fractious lords under the control of the newly-established Tokugawa shogunate, Ieyasu initiated major construction projects, in one fell swoop rebuilding castles and defenses damaged during the wars and making the daimyos pay for it, sapping their funds and independence. The code of conduct delegates all authority on the project to superintendent Masazumi Honda, one of the shogun’s top allies and newly-minted daimyo, and four Hosokawa vassals. The next articles ban all fighting within the clan on pain of death, watching a fight between opposing clans, let alone participating in one, or forcing any servants who run away to another house to return until after construction was finished.

The second half of the code provides a glimpse into the life of the soldier class (ashi-garu) mobilized for the project. Alcohol (sake) was strictly prohibited. They could bring their own food (bento), but were not to drink more than three small flat sake cups (sakazuki) of alcohol (Article 6). When going to town, they were supposed to declare the nature of their errand to the magistrate and obtain a permit (Article 7). Meetings with people from other clans or the shogunate were strictly forbidden (Article 8). Hot baths in another clan’s facilities were not allowed (Article 11). Sumo wrestling and spectating were strictly forbidden during the period of the project, and violators would be punished (Article 12). On the round trip between Kokura and Sunpu, workers were to travel in groups as indicated on an attached sheet (Article 13). This purpose of this historical document was to maintain peace at the project site and vividly conveys the aspects of the samurai society during its transition from a time of war to peace and prosperity.

This is the third known document recording behavioral rules during the work on Sunpu Castle. The first was promulgated by Mori Terumoto, lord of the Choshu clan and one of Ieyasu’s former enemies, but contains very similar language. The third is a verbatim copy of the Choshu document created by Maeda Toshinaga, lord of the Kaga clan. Researchers believe the daimyos were going off a sample rule set sent them by the shogun.

The code of conduct was written on two sheers of danshi paper, a thick white mulberry paper first produced in the 8th century that would become the preferred medium for official documents, ceremonial rites and court poetry. The sheets were joined together to make a large, expensive manuscript worthy of the dignity of head of the Hosokawa family. Kumamoto University researchers have conserved the fine paper, repairing a break in the join between the danshi sheets and restored their prized whiteness.


If I disappear for a month after Christmas, this is why

Saturday, November 14th, 2020

A childhood dream of mine has been made flesh, or rather plastic brick. Just in time for people including yours truly to start begging for it for Christmas, LEGO is releasing its newest brick set: the Roman Colosseum. At 9,036 pieces, this is the largest set Lego has ever produced, colossal, you might say. The previous record-holder was the iconic Star Wars Millenium Falcon at 7,500 pieces.

One for the history buffs as well as the LEGO fans, this authentic LEGO brick recreation features many of the true-to-life details found at the real historical icon, including a recreation of the three distinct stories from the Colosseum, each made up of the columns of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders.

These columns have been faithfully recreated in LEGO brick form using a variety of creative building techniques, including decorative volutes that have been created using a re-coloured LEGO roller skate element that has been turned upside down to create an authentic look.

The Colosseum even includes 80 ‘ribs’ in the spectator stands (the exact same number as the original) and three different shades of brick to replicate the different columns and aging of the almost 2,000 year old landmark.

The LEGO Colosseum measures 10.5″ high, 20.5″ wide and 23.5″ deep and is built on an oval base. The base also replicates original features like the travertine paving stones and pine trees that lined the walkway In order to display architectural features like the orders of columns to their best advantage and convey the sense of monumentality in a miniature, the model’s cross-section is steeper than the proportion in the real Colosseum.

It makes for a striking display whether you position it with the northern side, the more complete wall with all the stories and columns, or the southern side whose low wall exposes the intricate interior from the elaborate hypogeum structures under the arena floor to the back of the vertically exaggerated north wall. Even though it’s huge, the LEGO Colosseum is still light enough to be easily picked up and examined. You can look through the arches, see the sunlight shine through them.

The set goes on sale November 27th, Black Friday, for $549.99, so unless Santa is a lot flusher than I thought, you can heave a sigh of relief that I won’t go AWOL after all. Buyers on Black Friday weekend will get a gift with purchase of a little chariot to go with your new Colosseum.


Then there’s this video. I just cannot even deal with how awesome it all is.


(Virtually) unwrapping two mummies 415 years later

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020

I didn’t know this until I read the paper, but the reason powdered mummies were considered a medicine in the Middle Ages was a misinterpretation of Arabic medical texts. Mumiyyah, the Arabic word for bitumen, was deemed curative for many illnesses in traditional Islamic medicine. It was used to heal wounds, broken bones and to treat stomach ailments, among other things. The best source of medical-grade bitumen was said to flow down from a mountain in Persia.

The 12th century Arabic text The Book of Simple Medicaments by Serapion the Younger included a description of bitumen’s many medical uses. When it was translated into Latin, the term mumiya was mistakenly identified as the black substance found inside mummies. That black stuff was described as a mixture of decomposition fluids mixed with embalming materials to create a sort of cadaver-generated version of the natural bitumen found in tar pits and flowing down mountains.

Interestingly enough, bitumen wasn’t part of the mummification process in ancient Egypt until the New Kingdom, and even then it wasn’t used all the time. It isn’t found consistently in Egyptian embalming until the Ptolemaic era (after 332 B.C.) when it was used along with resin and unguents in cavities left by the removal of organs. Physician, philosopher and prolific author Abd Al-Latif Al-Baghdadi wrote in his Account of Egypt in the 12th century that the mumiya found the cavities of preserved Egyptian bodies could substitute for the good stuff in a pinch. Latin medical books took that and ran with it so that by the time the game of telephone was over, entire mummies ground up into powder were deemed the equivalent of bitumen. A brisk trade in mummies ensued, as they were a lot cheaper to acquire than actual bitumen.

By the 16th century, Egyptian mummies were much in-demand among European scholars, medical professionals and curiosities collectors. Roman nobleman and musician Pietro Della Valle picked up a pair of mummies in 1615 during his voyage through Egypt on the way to the Holy Land. He visited the necropolis of Saqqara outside Cairo where looters dug up mummies by the gross to be pulverized for the insatiable materia medica market. When travelers were in town, they could pay to have mummies excavated in front of them or to explore the rock-cut chambers themselves for an added frisson. Della Valle got the deluxe tour package. He was climbed through tunnels into two pyramids in Cairo and walked through the maze of chambers. The next day he went to Saqqara, known to him as “the place where the mummies are,” and sought to buy a mummy souvenir from the peasants who ran active businesses looting the underground chambers of the necropolis.

One of the looters lured him with the promise of a mummy of great beauty. It had been robbed from its grave three of four days earlier. It was intact, wrapped and covered by a full-length portrait painted on stuccoed linen. Della Valle described it in a letter published in his epistolary travelogue in 1650 as:

“excellently conserved and unusually adorned and composed which seemed to me to be something very beautiful and elegant. It depicted the man laid out, nude but tightly bandaged and wrapped in a large quantity of linen cloths, embalmed with that bitumen which, mixed with the flesh, is called Mumia and is given as a medicine. … There was also, on top the body, a cover made of linen cloth all painted and gilded that was very well stitched and sealed on all sides with lead seals. … [On it] was painted the effigy of a young man that without doubt is the portrait of the deceased, and was adorned in his clothing and from head to feet with so many painted and gold bagatelles, so many hieroglyphics and characters and similar fancies that believe me, it is the most gracious thing in the world.”

So enamored was he of the portrait mummy, Della Valle bought it on the spot and asked the seller if there was another. He said there was a second one just as beautiful still in the burial chamber. He and his associates quickly pulled it out of the pit and Della Valle was enchanted too see a second portrait mummy, this one of a young woman. He assumed it was the sister or wife of the young man buried in the chamber with her and the looters confirmed they’d been found next to each other. Again from the letter:

“The garment of the woman is much richer in gold and jewels than that of the man. In the gold plates spread over the surface, in additional to other signs and characters, are engraved certain birds and animals that look to me like lions, and in one of them in the lower middle, an ox or cow or what have you that is the symbol of Apis or Isis. In another, which dangles from the chest of the lowest necklace (because she has many necklaces), is the image of the Sun.”

He brought his prize mummies back to Rome with him in 1626. They were the first portrait mummies introduced to Europe. Pietro Della Valle’s collection was dispersed and sold after his death. In 1728, the pair of mummies were acquired for the collection of Friedrich August I, Elector of Saxony, aka King August II of Poland. Today August’s collection, mummies included, is part of the Dresden State Art Collections.

By some miracle, the Saqqara portrait mummies never suffered the destructive indignity of one those unwrapping parties that were so fashionable in the 19th century, nor was it destroyed by dissection. The two Dresden mummies and a third portrait mummy of a teenaged girl from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo are the subjects of a new study that virtually unwraps them with a CT scanner.

The mummies were found to date to the late Roman period (3rd or 4th century A.D.). The man was between 25 and 30 years old when he died. He was about 5’4″ tall and had dental caries. His bones had been disturbed at some point, probably right after he was discovered. He does not seem to have been thoroughly mummified. There is no evidence of organ removal and few remains of embalming liquids. The brain was not removed from the woman’s mummy nor from that of the young girl. Researchers believe they were preserved largely by the use of natron as a desiccant.

The woman, who died between the ages of 30 and 40, stood about 4’11” (151 cm) tall. She had advanced arthritis in her left knee. The teenager, who wore a hairpin, according to the CT scan, died between the ages of 17 and 19, and stood about 5’1″ (156 cm) tall. She had a benign tumor in her spine known as a vertebral hemangioma, which is more common in people over 40, the researchers said.

Both women were buried with multiple necklaces. It’s exciting to see these necklaces, but it’s not unexpected, [lead researcher Stephanie] Zesch said. “Because of these very precious shrouds, we are sure that those individuals have to be members of the higher socioeconomic class,” meaning that they could have easily afforded jewelry, Zesch said.

The study has been published in the journal PLOS One and be read in its entirety here.


It’s been a great week for mushroom pickers

Monday, November 9th, 2020

It has been a fruitful mushroom-picking season in Eastern Europe. On October 22nd, Bogusław Rumiński took his bike to go mushroom-picking in his home village of Jezuicka Struga in north-central Poland. While riding along a bumpy road, the bike got stuck in a rut and Rumiński fell over. He put his arm out to break his fall and came up with a handful of six silver coins. When he looked around, he found 60 more of them scattered on the ground.

He reported the find to the Provincial Office for the Protection of Monuments in Toruń who dispatched an employee to scan the find site the next day. Another seven coins were discovered. The day after that, archaeologists arrived on the scene to excavate. The dig turned up another 13 coins, bringing the total 86.

The coins are all silver and date to the second half of the 17th century during the reign of King John II Casimir Vasa (r. 1648 – 1668). The oldest was minted in 1657, the youngest in 1667. They are in different denominations — mostly six-groszy coins, but also larger denominations including 18-groszy coins. They were minted at a turbulent time in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The country was mired in the Russo-Polish War (1654-1667) and in the Swedish invasion known as The Deluge (1655-1660). While there is verdigris and other corrosion material on some of the coins, underneath that they look to be in excellent condition, close to mint. Because of this, archaeologists believe they were buried when they were new, likely hidden to keep them from becoming war booty.

The coins are now being conserved. When that is complete, they will join the collection of the Jan Kasprowicz Museum in Inowrocław.

Meanwhile, over in the Jesenicko district of Northern Moravia, Czech Republic, Roman Novák took advantage of ideal fungi-hunting weather after the rain to look for mushrooms in the woods near his home when he came across a piece of metal sticking out of some stones. He dug it up and found a sword. He dug some more and found a bronze axe.

Mr. Novák immediately contacted archaeologists who have since conducted several tests. These show that both the sword and axe date back to around 1,300 BC and resemble weapons used mainly in the area of what is today Northern Germany, says Jiří Juchelka, who leads the archaeology department at the nearby Silesian Museum.

“The sword has an octagonal handle. It is only the second sword of its type to be found here.”

Experts say they were surprised to find such a sword in the Jesenicko area, because, at the time, it was sparsely populated. However, tests on the soil show that it is indeed local.

It was made of bronze and cast in a mould rather than hammered like the much-stronger iron blades that followed them. The quality of the casting of this sword was fairly low. X-rays found the blade metal was replete with small bubbles which would have made it flimsy for combat. It may have been ceremonial or symbolic.

The find site will be archaeologically excavated and the sword and axe studied. When analysis is complete, the artifacts will be exhibited at the Ethnographic Museum of Jesenicko and the Silesian Museum.


Remember, Remember

Thursday, November 5th, 2020

Happy Guy Fawkes Day! To commemorate the 415th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, the UK National Archives has posted a great blog about how they’ve used their new multispectral imaging system on letters between the plotters that has secret messages written in orange juice. Just like the lemon juice letters of many of childhoods, the orange juice letters fade when they dry only to reappear again when the paper is heated.

Four centuries after they written, some of the secret ink letters are hard to read with the naked eye. Imaging in non-RGB areas of the electromagnetic spectrum like ultraviolet and infrared can drastically increase readability of the once-invisible ink.

Both inks are visible in a RGB colour photograph to varying degrees (top left) but imaging in the ultraviolet (UV) region of the electromagnetic spectrum increases the readability of the orange juice (top right).

To image this way, the letter is illuminated with UV light and the reflected UV light is recorded. Both the orange juice and iron gall ink absorb UV light, making the inks appear darker. Reflectance images appear on a greyscale but by combining a RGB colour photograph with a UV reflectance image we can create a false colour image (bottom left). These images keep the luminance of the UV image and blend it with the hue and saturation of the RGB colour photo, allowing for a more intuitive reading of the information on the letter.

The final image I took was an image in the infrared (IR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum (bottom right). Imaging in the IR region is frequently used to reveal underdrawings and concealed features. This is because the radiation penetrates deeper into the material and many materials, like organic pigments, become transparent.

In the IR region the orange juice completely disappears because it is an organic material. However the iron gall ink which contains iron salts is still partly visible, enabling us to clearly distinguish the two types of inks.

Another Guy Fawkes-themed offering from the National Archives is this podcast from 2009 which tells the story of the Gunpowder Plot and the subsequent investigation using a selection of documents from the archives to explore events from the perspective of eye witnesses.

Last but not least is an absolutely devilish online jigsaw puzzle of Guy Fawkes’ confession letter.

Incidentally, just in case you happen to be in the market for a number of soothingly distracting rabbitholes to fall into, the National Archives has tons of great video and audio content. I first discovered got into it in August when I watched the Stinking Fish, Beer and Brewing Controversies around 1800 live webinar which was even more interesting and entertaining than the title already suggested it would be. Since then, I’ve been going through their archived video and audio and there isn’t a dud in the bunch. The Film of the Month and What’s Online features tend to be my favorite videos, but it’s all gold, and the podcasts may well be the most information-rich ones I’ve ever heard. There are entire conferences from keynote addresses to panel sessions available, and the podcasts cover everything from topical issues to how to use public records — wills, census data, birth/marriage/death registers — to the curse(s) of Tutankhamun.


Is this the self-portrait of mason hidden in a column capital?

Sunday, November 1st, 2020

Carved figure that may be self-portrait of mason on column capital in the nave of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo courtesy Jennifer Alexander.A possible self-portrait of a mason has been discovered carved in the capital of a column inside the nave of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Easter egg was spotted by art historian Dr. Jennifer Alexander during a detailed survey the 11th century cathedral’s Romanesque architecture.

Alexander was conducting a stone-by-stone analysis to work out its construction sequence, in a project funded by the Galician regional government. It was when she was studying the capitals, about 13 metres above the pavement, that “this little figure popped out”, she recalled.

“A lovely image of a chap hanging on to the middle of the capital as if his life depended on it. It’s in a row of identical off-the-peg capitals where they’ve been knocking them out in granite – ‘we need another 15 of that design’ – and suddenly there’s one that’s different. So we think it’s the man himself.

Some of the column capitals in the central nave of the church have uniquely-carved variants featuring animals, angels, devils, Biblical scenes and the like. They imparted at-a-glance theology to the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to the cathedral, and added visual drama to the space. Those capitals are in less obscure locations, however, and this guy is a little too regular compared to the fantastical and Biblical figures on the splashier capitals.

The carved figure is about a foot high and has a round face with large ears reminiscent of a Dr. Bunsen Honeydew with eyes and no glasses. His arms are bent at the elbow so they can comfortably nestle in the chevron shapes formed by the wide banana leaves decorating the capital, basically in a shrug emoji posture. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ His right hand is curled into a fist. He has no left hand. He could be a mason, sure. Then again he could not be one too.

In other Santiago de Compostela news, The Portico of Glory, the cathedral’s high-drama three-arched entrance façade built in the 12th century by French architect Master Mateo, underwent a 12-year program of restoration that was completed in 2018. As much as possible, the polychrome paint on the portico’s 200+ figures was conserved, but much of it was lost centuries ago and what remains is mostly the result of later interventions. During the restoration work, the portico was documented in unprecedented detail with more than 2,700 gigapixel photographs capturing every inch of the elaborately-decorated  surfaces. Those photographs were converted into a digital 3D model and made available in a ground-breaking free app that allows users to crawl over every last detail of The Portico of Glory, see it before and after restoration, learn about the deterioration of the carvings and the treatments, all accompanied by an audio tour.

The app goes a giant step beyond the visuals with the music. The characters on the portico include 21 who bear musical instruments. Researchers recreated those instruments in 3D and then recreated the music they played, so while you examine the masterpiece of medieval art, you are accompanied by a soundtrack that not only matches the period, but the specific musicians on the archway itself. It is unbelievable, truly.

You can download The Portico of Glory app for iOS here and for Android here.


Studying the mysteries of Aztec colors

Wednesday, October 28th, 2020

A brilliantly illustrated pre-Columbian divinatory manuscript at Bologna University Library is being analyzed with the latest imaging techniques to learn more about the composition and use of its paints, still brightly colored today.

“We will employ fluorescence and hyperspectral imaging techniques to map the distribution of compositional material (both organic and inorganic) on every page of the manuscript”, says Davide Domenici, Professor at the University of Bologna and head of the project. “The level of detail these techniques are able to provide is unprecedented and will shed new light on the pictorial and technological practices developed by pre-Columbian artists”. […]

The research team will employ a macro-XRF scanner. This tool uses X-rays to examine the elemental composition of the object under investigation. Once the distribution of chemical elements is known, it will be possible to identify the pigments composing those elements. In this way, researchers will be able to retrieve the distribution of orpiment (a deep-yellow mineral pigment) by looking for arsenic which is the element composing this pigment.

The Codex Cospi will also get through hyperspectral imaging in the visible range. This method allows to study how visible light is absorbed, reflected, and emitted. Some chemical compounds may present peculiar light absorption, reflection, emission, and hyperspectral imaging that can map their distribution. In particular, through hyperspectral imaging researchers can map the use of organic dyes such as indigo, which was used together with specific clays in the production of the famous Maya Blue.

One of only a dozen pre-Columbian texts to survive the veritable orgy of destruction inflicted on indigenous literature by the Spanish conquerors and their missionary zealots, the Codex Cospi is believed to have been illuminated at the end of the 15th or beginning of the 16th century. It has been in Bologna since the 1530s, brought there by Domingo de Betanzos, a Dominican missionary who administered a large territory in what is today Mexico for the Spanish crown. The former hermit went to Mexico in 1526 where he founded the Dominican Order in New Spain and carved out an independent province under the complete control of the order. He dispatched a few evangelizing missions, but he spent most of time on temporal matters and fighting with other clerical potentates over who controlled what. He never dealt directly with the indigenous people he wanted to forcibly convert, but took time from his busy schedule to insist that they could never be priests because they were less than rational humans. He wasn’t even sure they could be baptized, which would seem to be a rather glaring contradiction but there you have it.

The Nahuas’ alleged irrational animal natures didn’t prevent them from making a pretty enough book that Betanzos deemed it worthy to curry favor with Pope Clement VII when he met him in Bologna in 1533 to get more favorable terms for the Dominican province of Santiago de Mexico. The Pope was there to meet with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who had sacked Rome and imprisoned Clement five years earlier. Betanzos came bearing splendid gifts:  mantles with multi-colored parrot feathers so artfully woven into the cotton that it had the texture of velvet, turquoise mosaic ceremonial masks, a turquoise-handled knife, stone knives with edges sharp as razors and first and foremost, the Codex Cospi which Bolognese chronicler Leandro Alberti, described in 1548 as a book painted with figures “that looked like hieroglyphs by which they understand each other as we do by letters.”

The turquoise masks and knives are today part of the collection of the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome. The Codex stayed put in Bologna. Its ownership history is hard to trace, but the likeliest trajectory is that the Pope didn’t take it to Rome with him and it ended up in the hands of Betanzos’ fellow Dominican Leandro Alberti. A handwritten inscription on the parchment cover of the manuscript records it having been gifted to Marchese Ferdinando Cospi in 1665. (They removed the original jaguar skin cover to replace it with the parchment at this time.) Cospi donated his vast cabinet of curiosities, codex included, to the city of Bologna in 1657. The manuscript was first held at the Academy of Science before ultimately it entered the collection of the Bologna University Library.


Using Ox intestine to conserve a fish skin bag

Monday, October 26th, 2020

A new exhibition dedicated to the culture of Arctic peoples opened at the British Museum last week. Ancient artifacts are on display next to modern adaptations, emphasizing how inventively indigenous communities around the Arctic interacted with their harsh environments. Objects in the exhibition include an paper-thin translucent parka made from seal guts, a harpoon with an animal bladder float and an incredible bag made out of duck feet.

Also on display are a variety of pieces made from fish skin: mittens, shoes, a sewing kit. It is obviously a very hardy material for cold, watery climes, and is so flexible it can be utilized in many ways. Two fish skin bags made by the Yup’ik of southwestern Alaska in the 19th century drew the attention of British Museum conservators, both because of the complexity of materials and construction and because they needed treatment.

On both bags, the scaly sides of the skins are mostly facing outwards. However, where there are bleached (white) or dyed skins (red), the skins are turned inwards so that the scales are on the inside of the bag and the softer smoother skin underneath is exposed. What is great is that it is still possible to see the form of the fish, as there are areas where the fin has been removed and the resulting small hole delicately stitched closed. Most of the seam stitching on the bags is done with sinew – a strong fibre made from tendons or ligaments, possibly of beluga whale or caribou (reindeer) – but you can also see white decorative stitching on both bags, which is believed to be caribou throat hair.

On the smaller bag, there are also small strips of white decoration. This is likely to be bleached seal throat, or oesophagus, often used to decorate objects. In wintertime, the oesophagi of seals would be cut from the stomach, inflated and left to freeze-dry outside in the cold, which would turn them very white. These freeze-dried oesophagi are called nerutet in Yup’ik.

In order to repair tears and weak spots, Organics Conservator Sophie Louise Rowe went to Sweden to learn more about how fish skin leather is made. Armed with expert knowledge on the material, she was able to repair multiple tears in the larger of the two bags, bring back its original suppleness in a humid chamber and stitching together the tears with tiny tabs of Japanese tissue.

The smaller of the bags was in better condition with fewer and smaller tears and creases. It posed another challenge, however, because curators wanted to light it from within for the exhibition to highlight the amazing translucency of the fish skin. The Japanese tissue used in the repair was opaque when backlit, which ruined the effect. Enter the ox intestine.

In the end, a repair was carried out using a material called ’Goldbeaters skin’, which is actually processed intestine, traditionally from an Ox. This might sound like an odd choice, but Goldbeaters skin is often used to repair parchment, so is a tried and tested method. The real benefit is that the material is transparent and very thin, so light passes through it well and repairs appear almost invisible.

Smaller fish skin bag with Japanese tissue repairs circled at the top during lighting test. Photo courtesy British Museum. The same bag lit after the goldbeaters repair. Photo courtesy British Museum.

The British Museum conservators give much credit to the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center’s YouTube Channel which is dedicated to sharing traditional crafts and languages. It has a fantastic 10-video series on the different ways to sew salmon skin.


Attn shoppers: Viking home in aisle 4

Sunday, October 25th, 2020

A Lidl grocery store that just opened in Dublin has the remains of an 11th century Viking home on display under its floor. When the building on Aungier Street near Dublin Castle was slated for redevelopment as a street-level retail space with student housing in the upper stories, a team from the Irish Archaeological Consultancy was enlisted to survey the site. They discovered the remains of the 1,000-year-old house, which only survived because this dwelling, very atypically for the time and place, had a cellar. It was dug out below ground level and the cellar was lined with masonry blocks. Wooden planks were then added to form the floor of the home. The planks are long gone, but the outline of the home is clearly visible thanks to the surviving stone blocks.

In order to preserve this unique dwelling of Hiberno-Norse Dubliners, the archaeological material was left in situ and covered by a thick plexiglass floor so customers can enjoy the history of the city while they shop. And not just medieval Dublin. There used to a be an 18th century theater on the site, and archaeologists also unearthed a brick “pit trap,” a hidden compartment under the stage that actors would burst out of to appear suddenly on the scene or drop into to disappear. The pit trap area, in a prime location right in front of the checkouts, was covered by plexi as well so it can be viewed while shoppers wait to make their purchases. I wonder if there will be a decline in impulse buying of candy and magazines now that customers have something cooler to fixate on in the checkout line.

The store has put up an array of information panels about the archaeological treasures under their feet. There are explanations of the finds and drawings interpreting the remains.

The foundations of the medieval parish church of Saint Peter, which served Dublin parishioners from c.1050 to c.1650, are also preserved beneath working areas of the new building.

“Hopefully this project sets a new benchmark for the treatment of archaeological heritage in the city. There has been a very collaborative approach from all sides.

“I think we have to challenge the Celtic Tiger approach of putting up a hoarding, excavating a site and then putting up a development,” said Dublin City Archaeologist Dr Ruth Johnson.

This video has great views of the Viking Lidl:





November 2020


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