Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Exhibition marks 350th anniversary of Great Fire of London

Friday, June 24th, 2016

The Great Fire of London broke out in the wee hours of September 2nd, 1666, and raged for three days, leveling the old city within the Roman walls, a quarter of London, and destroying more than 13,000 homes, St Paul’s Cathedral, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and London Bridge. The Museum of London will mark the 350th anniversary of the conflagration with a new exhibition, Fire! Fire!, which will showcase life in the city before the fire, the events of the fire itself and how London recovered.

The museum will display period art and artifacts in its collection that illustrate the devastating fury of the fire. Some, like burned and melted pottery fragments from a shop on Pudding Lane near where the fire first sparked, have been on display before. Others have never been seen in public before, for example a ceramic roof tile melted and bent in half by temperatures of at least 1500 Celsius and a singled floor tile, burned iron padlocks and keys found at Monument House on Botolph Lane, one street down from Pudding Lane. Another piece on display for the first time is an unfinished needlework panel believed to have been saved from a house in Cheapside during the fire.

There are also two letters written by eye witnesses, one from James Hicks, a post office employee whose office burned down just after 1:00 AM on September 3rd. He fled with his family taking as many letters as he could with them. His letter informed postmasters of the destruction. The other letter was from Robert Flatman to his brother Thomas who worked in the city as a barrister but was out of town for the Great Fire. In the letter of September 9th, 1666, Robert told his brother that he had saved his books from his chamber in one of the Temples (professional associations where barristers kept their offices and lodgings).

In 1666, much of the City of London was little changed from the Middle Ages, a warren of cobblestone alleys tightly packed with crowded timber tenement buildings whose upper storeys jutted over the street to maximize precious square footage. By the mid-17th century the overhanging jetties projected so far over the alleyways that they kissed the jetties from buildings across the street, which made fire very easy to spread and practically impossible to stop. When the fire started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, it quickly jumped from building to building and soon formed an implacable wall of flame too hot for people to even attempt to counter. Perhaps controlled demolition of structures forming a firebreak perimeter could have contained it, but Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth didn’t order those until the fire had burned all night and day.

What little firefighting equipment existed was small-scale and ineffective: tall ladders, leather buckets of water and squirt guns that look like large syringes could douse a building fire when deployed quickly, but once fire spread these tools couldn’t keep up. Long firehooks were used to pull down buildings, and when the buildings were too high for that, controlled demolition by gunpowder might do the trick. Once the fire was raging, it was too hot and fast for these methods to work. Once the Thames waterfront was on fire, the city’s supply of water was cut off.

Early fire engines carried barrels of water to a fire and pumped it out, but they delivered a comparatively meager stream of water, and that’s assuming they could even make it down the winding alleys of the City of London. Some were on sleds, other on wheels. The Museum of London has a very rare surviving 17th century fire engine which it acquired in 1928. It has been on display, but since all that remains in the central barrel and pump, it just looks like a wooden keg with an iron tap sticking out the top.

For the new exhibition, the museum employed Croford Coachbuilders in Kent to reconstruct the vehicle that carried the barrel and pump. They used traditional methods, tools and material to recreate the carriage. With no plans to go by, the coachbuilders used a 19th century photograph located by museum curators of the engine from when it was still complete with undercarriage, tow bar and pumping arms. Curators also found a print showing the fire engine, designed by John Keeling in London around 1678, in action, which helped the craftsmen replicate the original.

This video documents the construction process. It’s a fascinating summary which I wish were longer. My favorite part is when they take the completed wheel made of three different kinds of woods — elm for the hub, oak for the spokes, ash for the felloes (the part that goes around the spokes) — and fit the iron rim onto it. The rim has to be slightly smaller than the wheel to keep it all together, so they heat that bad boy up so it expands, slap it on the wheel, then quickly dump cold water on it to keep the hot iron from burning the wood and to force the iron to contract around the wheel. It’s smoke-filled awesomeness.

Fire! Fire! opens on July 23rd, 2016, and runs through April 17th, 2017.

Long head of Silla woman reconstructed from skull fragments

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

In late 2013, archaeologists excavating in advance of a driveway construction project near Gyeongju, a town in southeastern Korea that was the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom, unearthed human skeletal remains. Found in a mokgwakmyo, a traditional wooden coffin, in a marshy area, the skeleton was complete and relatively well-preserved, albeit fragmented in places. Grave goods, including pottery and a wooden comb, were found inside the coffin that identify it as a Silla-era burial.

The Silla Kingdom started as a small city-state in 57 B.C. and ruled an increasingly large part of the Korean Peninsula until 935 A.D. Its thousand-year duration is one of the longest in the historical record, and two of its ruling dynasties — the Parks and the Kims — transcended the kingdom to become the most common family names in Korea today.

Despite the Silla Kingdom’s long life and enormous influence on the history and modern culture of Korea, researchers have had few opportunities to study Silla bones at all, and never with multiple analytical technologies. Intact human remains from the Silla period are rare because Korea’s acidic soil and the cycles of hot/wet, cold/dry weather accelerate the decomposition of soft tissue and bone alike. A 4th-6th century grave discovered in 2009 contained unprecedented complete sets of human and horse armor, for example, but not a single human remain. The wooden coffin survived, as did a box with assorted grave goods. The bones had disintegrated. The discovery of a complete skeleton in 2013 gave scientists the chance to carry out anthropological analysis, extract mitochondrial DNA, run stable isotope tests and craniofacial analyses that led to a full facial reconstruction.

The person deceased was a woman between 35 and 39 years of age at time of death. The length of the femur indicated she was around 155 cm (five feet) tall. The mitrochondrial DNA results placed her haplogroup F1b1a, a haplogroup typical of East Asia but not the dominant group in living Koreans today. Stable isotope analysis found that her diet consisted mainly of foods in the C3 category (wheat, rice and potatoes) and was likely vegetarian.

Her skull was found broken in dozens of pieces. In order to help determine her gender and to create a facial reconstruction, archaeologists cleaned the fragments and dried them. Each piece was scanned and imported into 3D modelling software to figure out how the pieces fit together. Once the model was complete, the team then puzzled together the actual skull from the fragments.

Her skull was unusually long and narrow. This kind of head shape often seen in cases of intentional cranial deformation. It appears to be natural in her case. Intentionally deformed crania are flatter in the front and the bones of the side grow to compensate from the pressure of the deforming agent (usually a piece wood or tight bindings applied to infants when their skulls are still soft).

In the craniometric analysis, the major cranial indices were compared with the corresponding data derived from the subjects of modern Korean adults. The results showed that the skull has longer, narrower and lower cranium with a narrower facial bone and orbits than those from the modern Korean adults groups. The nasal aperture demonstrated an average width in the nasal index. In terms of appearance, it was assumed that the individual had horizontally long & vertically short head with inclined forehead from lateral view and narrower face from frontal view.

This dolichocephalic or long-headedness trait is rare in the population of Korea today. Koreans are more often brachycephalic, defined as the width of their skull being at least 80% of the length.

Here is the complete craniofacial reconstruction:

You can read the full study published in the journal PLOS ONE here.

La Belle restoration complete

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

After 17 years, restoration of the hull of La Belle, one of four ships that carried French explorer René-Robert de La Salle and 300 would-be colonists on his mission to the Gulf of Mexico, is finally complete.

La Belle was a 54-foot frigate that could navigate open ocean but was had a shallow enough draft that it could hand coastal and river waters as well, an essential design for this trip since La Salle’s aim was to found a colony in the Mississippi River Delta. Their poor maps of the Gulf sent the explorers way off course. When his main storeship, L’Aimable, ran aground, La Salle was compelled to transfer as much of her contents as he could salvage to La Belle, so when a storm claimed her too off the coast in Matagorda Bay, 400 miles west of the Mississippi Delta, in 1686, she sank with a disproportionately huge complement of artifacts and supplies.

That gave the Texas Historical Commission archaeologists who discovered the wreck in 1995 a lot of work to do. They built a double-walled cofferdam around the wreck, pumped out the water and from September of 1996 to April of 1997, excavated the surviving bottom third of the ship’s oak hull. By the end of the excavation they had recovered nearly 1.6 million objects — barrels of gunpowder, weaponry, personal items, cookware, crates full of trade geegaws (brass rings, pins, hundreds of thousands of glass beads).

The hull was sent to Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program where the timbers were soaked in a bath of polyethylene glycol (PEG) solution, a petroleum-based polymer that replaces the water in wood to keep it from warping, cracking or shrinking when it dries, for 10 years. When the high price of oil made the use of PEG prohibitively expensive, conservators put the timbers in the largest archaeological freeze-dryer in the world. After four years in the freezer, in the summer of 2014 La Belle‘s timbers were transported to the o the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. There they were reassembled in a side gallery where the process could be viewed by the public.

In May of 2015, reassembling of the timbers was complete and the entire hull was moved to the main gallery of the museum, its final resting place after 20 years of upheaval. While the hull timbers were back together again, the restoration wasn’t finished yet. The were gaps that needed to be closed and additional surviving sections of the hull added to the structure. While conservators were working on that, the main gallery was refurbished around the ship’s hull to create the permanent exhibition that would fully showcase La Belle and its many artifacts.

The restoration is now complete and the ship positioned at a 21-degree angle, just as it was on the sea floor when archaeologists excavated it. The temporary exhibition La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, is ongoing now. The permanent exhibition is scheduled to open in November, after which some of the artifacts from the wreck will become part of a traveling exhibition that will visit several locations in the United States and France, which is still the legal owner of La Belle and everything on it.

UK bars export of lavish Florentine inlaid table top

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

The UK Culture Ministry has put a temporary export bar on an Italian inlaid pietre dure table top that sold for £3,509,000 ($5,323,855), more than five times its high estimate, at a Sotheby’s auction last December. Made in the Grand Ducal workshops in Florence between 1600 and 1620, the table top is a glorious technicolor extravaganza of marble and semi-precious stone including agate, quartz, chalcedony, jasper and imported Persian lapis lazuli of the highest quality.

The four corners of the table are inlaid with coats of arms of the Grimani family, one of Venice’s most wealthy and powerful noble families. Family crests are rare motifs in the hard stone tables made by the Grand Ducal workshops, and this table is unique in having four of them. The abstract decoration around the crests is also unique. Other armorial table tops were commissioned by the Medici family as gifts for allies and dignitaries, and almost everything produced in the workshops was done at the behest of the Medici family. It is possible that the Grimanis arranged a private commission. There are no extant records to confirm either way.

The family certainly had enough pull to access the Grand Ducal workshops. Founded by spice and textile merchant Antonio Grimani (1434-1523), the family’s fabulous wealth catapulted them to the top of Venetian society. Antonio was the first Doge, elected in 1521 and serving until his death. There would be another two Doges in the family — Marino Grimani (1532-1605) and Pietro Grimani (1677-1752) — and a great many other big shots in the Church, business and politics.

The table top’s decoration telegraphs the prominence of the family in multiple fields. Each of the four crests is topped with a different symbol. The red domed hat (bottom right corner in the picture) is the Corno Ducale, the traditional headpiece of the Doge. The crossed keys of St. Peter (bottom left) represent the family’s support of the papacy and the many papal offices they held in reward for that support. The lion holding a book (top left) is the symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist, Venice’s patron saint, is a nod to two cardinals in the family who held the prestigious position of Cardinal Priest of San Marco. The double cross (top right) refers to the Grimaldi holders of the coveted and highly lucrative position of Cardinal Patriarch of Aquileia.

The Grimanis were not shy about parading their wealth. They amassed major collections of antiquities and art and packed them into two great palaces, the Palazzo Grimani di Santa Maria Formosa and the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca on the Grand Canal. Both palaces employed some of the greatest architects of their time, including Sansovino and Palladio. Family members and the palaces were painted by the likes of Tintoretto and Canaletto. The pietre dure table top had to be grand to decorate these homes.

The fortunes of the Grimani family began to decline in the late 18th century courtesy of the Napoleonic invasions. The family started selling off their collections piecemeal in 1806. They sold off the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca to their new Austrian overlords in around 1816-1818 and the Austrians converted it into a post office. The table top was in the Palazzo Grimani Santa Maria Formosa until 1829 when it was acquired by Henry Greville, 3rd Earl of Warwick (1779-1853) through British Consul William Taylor Money (1765-1834) who acted as Lord Warwick’s agent in the purchase of the table top and a marble floor for the earl to install in the renovated Great Hall of Warwick Castle.

Interestingly, the Grimani’s refused to sell the entire table. The insisted on keeping the legs and base of the table which they then topped with a fake apparently to save face. Lord Warwick had a new base made and by 1847 the table was on display in the Gilt Drawing Room. Another pietre dure table top Warwick bought from the Grimani’s was displayed in the State Bedroom. The second table top was made in Rome and doesn’t have anything like the same visual impact or historic iconography, but it’s still an exceptional example of the art form.

Both table tops were sold at the Sotheby’s auction. The Roman piece sold for £1,625,000 ($2,465,450), more than three times its high estimate. The UK is not blocking export of that one, but there’s no reason to assume the buyer applied for an export license in the first place. British institutions have until September to raise the purchase price plus VAT of the Florentine table to keep it in country.

Cygan is back! Eric will be. What about Kaiser?

Sunday, June 19th, 2016

The imposing 1950s robot Cygan has been restored to his former dapper rakishness and is going on display next year at the Science Museum in London as part of its Robots exhibition which brings more than 100 historic and contemporary robots to the museum. Cygan is one 12 working robots who will be on display, his nearly eight-foot height, powerful pincer hands and renewed shiny good looks will be put to use smashing things and lifting other things for the delight of visitors, just like in the old days. No word on whether he’ll be picking up showgirls in each arm.

When last we saw Cygan, he was about to be sold at auction and there was an attempt to secure him for the city of Leeds as robot in residence. The attempt was not successful and on September 5th, 2013, Cygan sold to American collector Jerry Wallace for £17,500 ($27,300). Mr. Wallace intended to restore the gentle giant, and when I checked in with him a year later, he told me via email that Cygan’s condition was dire. They had to strip him down to his skeleton to remove all the rust, corroded metal, bad screws and everything else that had gone wrong in his many long years of being exposed to the elements. Wallace’s team sandblasted the skeleton and repainted it with rust-proof paint. The motors all needed to be replaced. Then they created a wireless remote system to automate his various movements. The exterior was cleaned and repaired, but the restorers left it original.

If you’d like to hang with Cygan, you don’t have to wait until next year. He’s already out and about in the Science Museum. Meanwhile, roboticist Giles Walker will be bringing another grand old mechanical man back to life: Eric, built by Captain W. H. Richards & A.H. Reffell in 1928 and billed as the UK’s first robot. Eric was a showman too, with an aluminium plated body, light bulbs for eyes and an electrical charge that would shoot blue sparks from his teeth.

He made his debut on September 20th, 1928, at the Society of Model Engineers’ annual exhibition where he was a big hit. He traveled all over the UK, to the continent and the United States where he was roundly beloved, before disappearing without a trace. Thanks to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Eric will be rebuilt. We have the technology. What we don’t have is a lot of information about how he was made. His creators kept their secrets close to their chests, so all we have to go on is a few stories in the press of the period and a few relevant papers curators were able to secure from descendants of Richards and Reffell. Between those archives, period photographs and films and a little deductive reasoning, Walker will make if not an exact replica, a pretty damn close approximation of the original Eric for the Robots Exhibition.

Does Eric really deserve the title of the UK’s first robot, though? New Zealand inventor Captain Alban Joseph Roberts had a robot skating the streets of London eight years before Eric was a twinkle in Captain Richards’ eye. Robot aficionado and researcher par excellence Reuben Hoggett of Cyberneticzoo has has the scoop about him (and about Eric, for that matter). Roberts created an automaton named Kaiser who he controlled by remote control light waves. Unlike Eric who was fixed to the power box under his feet, Kaiser could walk, or glide, and he didn’t need to carry a giant battery box to do it.

Here’s a 1920 Pathe’ newsreel of Kaiser rolling around and opening his arms with his stylish headdress and cape.

Roberts had an eclectic approach to invention. An expert in electricity who ran the municipal electrical utility in Patea, New Zealand, when he was 24 years old, he would go on to experiment with remote control flight, both vessels (dirigibles, cars, ships) and devices (marine and aerial torpedoes). In 1912, he held a demonstration of a remote-controlled model dirigible 10 feet long which he made fly around the Lyceum Theater in Sydney and drop a toy bomb on the precise spot indicated by an audience member, a proto-drone, basically. Scientific American called him “the Edison of Australia,” an intended compliment foiled by the fact that Roberts was from New Zealand.

He also worked on vehicles flying and terrestrial controlled by sound and light. In 1916, he created a resonator that could operate a model aircraft with sound (Sci Am article about it page one, page two). In 1920, the same year he took Kaiser for its first spin, he operated a driverless car with a whistle. The newspaper account of the demonstration presciently explained the significance of Roberts’ invention: “it may mean that before long we shall be able to explode a mine or fire a battery in Constantinople by pressing a button in London.” Again in 1920, as if he wasn’t busy enough that year, he also took a turn to the whimsical when he demonstrated a synesthesia machine that translated the tones of the human voice into different colors.

In a move that Cygan would later copy with gusto, Roberts spent the 1920s on the vaudeville circuit, first with light and sound control demos, then operating a second robot of his invention that trundled around on a wheeled base and could move its mouth as if speaking. It didn’t have Kaiser’s legs, though. The electronics in its base were covered by an Arabian costume. You can see Roberts demonstrate it on the streets of London on January 1st, 1928, in this newsreel. (They attribute the demonstration to the magician Jasper Maskelyne, but it’s Roberts, who was a part of his show, operating the remote.)

Captain Roberts moved from inventing potential wonders of the world to show business to plain ol’ business. He died in 1950 with much of his early genius forgotten.

So was Eric the UK’s first robot? I’m not sure what criteria the Science Museum is using, but even if you disqualify the Arabian fellow because it doesn’t have the tin man form with functioning legs and arms, Kaiser still has Eric beat by close to a decade. The only leg they have to stand on is that Eric was called a “robot” (the R.U.R. on his chest stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, after a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek which introduced the word “robot” to the English language), while Kaiser was called an automaton, but that’s a shaky leg. The Robots exhibition includes automata going back to the 16th century, after all.

Restored 6th c. purple gospels return home

Friday, June 17th, 2016

The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis is a 6th century Greek manuscript written in uncial script (upper case script with rounded letters in use from the 4th-8th centuries) that contains the gospel of Matthew, most of the gospel of Mark (verses 14-20 of chapter 16 are missing) and the Epistula ad Carpianum (a letter from Eusebius of Caesarea, the “Father of Church History,” to Carpianus on the concordance of the four gospels). Because of the letter and an illumination of all four evangelists, scholars believe the 188-page codex was originally more than double the size and included all four gospels. It’s not certain where it was written. Comparisons with other manuscripts suggest Antioch is a possibility, as is Byzantium.

It is one of several surviving manuscripts of the New Testament known as the Purple Uncials or Purple Codices after their reddish or purple pages. The vellum was dyed the royal color and the text written in silver and gold ink. St. Jerome, author of the Vulgate, the first comprehensive translation of most of the Bible into Latin, defended himself against charges that he was rejecting the authority of the Greek writers of the Septuagint in his translation by dismissing the purple codices as pretty but inaccurate.

“Let whoever will to keep the old books, either written on purple skins with gold and silver, or in uncial letters, as they commonly say, loads of writing rather than books, while they leave to me and mine to have poor little leaves and not such beautiful books as correct ones.”

For them to have been held up as examples of old-fashioned scholarship, the purple Bibles must have been widespread in Christian theological circles when Jerome wrote that in 394 A.D.

Most of the surviving Codices Purpurei date to the 6th century, but there are examples as early as the 4th or 5th century (Codex Vercellensis Evangeliorum,
Codex Veronensis, Codex Palatinus) and as late as the 9th century (Minuscule 565, Minuscule 1143). There are Purple Codices written in Greek and Latin, and one in Gothic (Codex Argenteus). They were created in numerous place within the Roman’s former sphere of influence, from Syria to Anglo-Saxon England to Byzantine Greece.

The Rossano Codex is particularly notable for its 14 illuminations depicting the life and ministry of Jesus. It’s one of the earliest surviving illuminated gospels and contains two of the first and most significant representations of Pontius Pilate. He’s depicted as a white-haired judge seated on a curule chair, a symbol of Roman political power because only magistrates were allowed to sit on them. Only one other purpureous codex from the 6th century, the Vienna Genesis, is illuminated, and it’s a fragment of the Septuagint, specifically the Book of Genesis, so no Jesus or Pilate. Images include the above-mentioned four evangelists, Lazarus being raised from the dead, the entry into Jerusalem, the parable of the ten virgins, the Last Supper (in which Jesus and Peter recline to dine) and washing of the feet, Jesus healing the blind man, the Good Samaritan, the suicide of Judas and the Pilate scenes.

It was first brought to light by poet, literary critic and journalist Cesare Malpica in 1846, but the first to track it down to the sacristy of the cathedral of Rossano, Calabria, in southern Italy, and study it with scientific rigour were German theologians Adolf von Harnack and Oscar von Gebhardt published it internationally to great scholarly acclaim in 1879.

The manuscript has suffered many centuries of dismemberment, arduous travel, fire and a botched restoration in 1919 which applied hot jelly to the illuminated vellum leaves causing them to turn transparent. Alarmed by its deteriorating condition, the Rossano archdiocese enlisted the aid of Rome’s Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Library Heritage (ICRCPAL). From 2012 until 2015, ICRCPAL conservators worked with chemists, physicists, biologists and the latest technology to analyze and repair the Codex. There’s a nice selection of photos of the Codex and its restoration on the project website. They’re small, sadly.

In 2015 was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register of documentary heritage. Now that the restoration is complete, the Codex will return to the Diocesan Museum where it is the featured exhibit. Three newly renovated galleries are dedicated to the manuscript: one to display the Codex itself, one in which a documentary film about the work is played, one dedicated to the restoration. A new climate-controlled, continuously monitored display case will house the fragile document. The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis goes back on display on July 2nd.

The rediscovery of a Pictish silver hoard

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

In 1838, a Pictish hoard of silver was unearthed on the grounds of Ley Farm near Fordyce, Aberdeenshire. Two prehistoric stone circles, Gaulcross North and Gaulcross South, were located a few hundred yards from the farmhouse, and the hoard was discovered a few feet south of the north circle. Maybe. Found by labourers clearing the land for agricultural use by the new tenant, the silver pieces were poorly documented at the time. The precise find spot was not recorded, nor were the pieces themselves. There were vague, conflicting accounts of what was found. Some said a silver chain four feet long, assorted buckles, pins and brooches; others reported just a silver chain, pin and armlet. The stone circles were all but destroyed during the brutal clearing process (dynamite was involved), leaving just one stone standing by 1867 when the first account of the hoard was written by John Stuart. He said the artifacts were buried inside the stone circle.

The fate of whatever pieces were found was also unclear. The property owner, Sir Robert Abercromby, 5th Baronet of Birkenbog, was said to have kept the hoard. He was also said to have given some pieces to the Banff Museum (his maternal grandfather was Alexander Ogilvie, 7th Lord Banff) in Aberdeenshire or to the Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh. The three surviving pieces of silver were in fact at the Banff for a while. They are now at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In 2013, the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts project and National Museums Scotland’s Glenmorangie Research Project combined their efforts to investigate the site in the hopes of finding out more (anything, really) about the context of the original Gaulcross Hoard. Since they didn’t know exactly where the first pieces of the hoard had been found in the 19th century, the team had to cover a great deal of ground. A geophysical survey of the site was followed by metal detector enthusiasts scanning the Gaulcross site.

Archaeologists expected to find no more than a few fragments of silver here and there, just enough to pinpoint the find site, but on the second day metal detectorist Alistair McPherson found three Roman silver siliquae (a type of 4th century Roman silver coin that was widely cut up for use in the 5th century when fresh Roman currency was no longer imported into Britain), pieces of folded hacksilver, the endpiece of a silver strap and a silver bracelet fragment. With the tantalizing prospect of greater finds than they had expected and the daunting prospect of the field being ploughed and planted soon, the team got cracking with metal detectors and two trenches.

They ultimately unearthed more than 100 pieces of hacksilver chopped up from Roman and Pictish coins, jewelry, dishes, flatware, between the 4th and 6th centuries. It is the northernmost hoard of pre-Viking hacksilver ever discovered. The finds also included intact artifacts: a crescent-shaped pendant with double-loops at each end, a double-link chain, and two silver hemispheres that may have originally been part of a single piece.

Compared to other two other hacksilver hoards found in Scotland — the Traprain Law hoard and the Norrie’s Law hoard — the discovery of so much material left in the ground after the 1838 find gave researchers new insight into the evolution of silver in Scotland since its introduction during the Roman era.

Silver was not mined in Scotland during this period, instead it had its origins in the Hacksilber from the late Roman world, as exemplified by the Traprain Law hoard. The differing compositions of individual objects in the three Scottish Hacksilber hoards will show how, through time, late Roman silver was recycled and re-cast into high-status objects that underpinned the development of elite society in the post-Roman period. During the process of recycling, the Roman silver was remade into new objects, but its origin may not have been entirely forgotten. Some of these later objects may have also directly referenced the late antique world, with items such as hand-pins showing the adaptation of late Roman military styles, both in terms of design and decorative techniques. As Gavin notes, the use of Roman models may have been intended to evoke military prowess and ostentation amongst elites in early medieval Britain and Ireland.

You can read the full report of the investigation and discoveries in the journal Antiquity.

Antikythera Mechanism was an astronomy text

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

It’s been 115 years since sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera recovered a bronze gear device that we now know as the first analog computer, and researchers are still working on solving the mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism. The mechanism has been at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens since its discovery. For the first couple of years, nobody had any idea what a unique treasure it was. Museum staff focused on the more showy objects from the shipwreck — the divers had raised 36 marble statues, many pieces of bronze statues, jewelry, glassware, lamps and amphorae from the site — and paid little attention to the corroded lump of bronze in storage. In 1902, an archaeologist noticed there was a gear in that lump, and there were words on that gear. The lump broke up as corrosion loosened its grip, eventually splitting up into 87 fragments.

Launched in 2005, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) brings together an international team of researchers and the latest technology to thoroughly reexamine the Antikythera Mechanism in the hopes of shedding new light on how it worked, what it was used for, who made it and a panoply of other questions raised by the remains of the complex device. The first research published in the 1970s dated the mechanism to around 80 B.C., but the AMRP has confirmed a later date, between 150 and 100 B.C., based on the form of the lettering.

The first inscriptions read from the mechanism in 2,000 years were “Venus” and “sun ray.” Within months another 600 characters were deciphered and published. The advances slowed down after that, with 923 characters deciphered into the 1970s. Using 3D CT scanning, surface imaging and high resolution photography, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) was able to more than double the number of characters deciphered on the device. Their first publication in 2006 brought the total up to 2,160. The most recent data, presented on Thursday, June 9th, at the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, brings that number up to 3,400 characters. There are 14,000 characters discovered this far on the device — even the smallest fragments have proved an important source of inscriptions — so there’s still plenty of deciphering left to do.

By examining the structure of the gears, the numbers of teeth, how they interact with each other, and the inscriptions, the AMRP confirmed that the device was an incredibly detailed astronomical calendar that could predict eclipses, calculate the dates of the Olympics, the positions of the sun, moon and planets in the solar system and more. There is nothing else like it known from antiquity, and no other mechanical device would even come close to its complexity until the Middle Ages.

The latest research suggests that this mechanism wasn’t used by astronomers in their daily work, however.

“It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos,” Jones said. “It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.”

“I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device.”

The letters — some just 1.2 millimeters (1/20 of an inch) tall — were engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the mechanism, which originally had the rough dimensions of an office box-file, was encased in wood and operated with a hand-crank.

There is so much more to be learned about this precious device, and hopefully there will be new pieces of the puzzle discovered. The Return to Antikythera project, which in October of 2012 began exploring the shipwreck site for the first time since Jacques Cousteau’s two-day 1976 survey, proceeds apace. Artifacts like pottery, sculptures, a huge anchor and a bronze spear two meters long have been recovered from the shipwreck. Fingers crossed they’ll find more of the Antikythera Mechanism too. The newly deciphered texts have given researchers a much better idea of what parts are still missing, so marine archaeologists have a precise idea of what to look for now. The new diving season began in late May.

This video, produced four years ago for the Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, gives an overview of the wreck and its many inestimable treasures.

Also, I love this picture so much I had to feature it. It’s a marble statue of a wrestler that was half stuck in the sand and mud of the sea floor and half exposed to the water. One guess which side is which.

A romp through the Prelinger film archive

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

It’s been a while since I had a proper weekend romp through historic films. The Prelinger Archive, a wonderfully eclectic group of home movies, commercials, government and corporate educational and instructional films and a wide range of other assorted clips is today’s fertile field.

Confused by those newfangled rotary dial phones? Have no fear, AT&T is here (or was, in 1927).

This is how you brush your teeth, boys and girls of 1928. To reinforce the message, Goofus and Gallant apply for a summer job to the man with the pince-nez glasses. Goofus’ blackened grill and busted outfit does not impress, while Gallant’s sparkly whites and sharp suit win the day. Mr. Gorman is pretty mean to poor Bill about it.

This is a 1945 Army picture about insomnia associated with what was then called Combat Fatigue and is now PTSD. It’s not the most compelling of reels — perhaps it was designed to help cure insomnia — but there are two elements of note: 1) the movie within a movie starring Donald Duck, and 2) Dick York, best known as the first Darrin from Betwitched, in the role of the lead insomniac’s friend Lucky who laughs uproariously at Donald Duck’s entirely unfunny antics and generally babbles way too much. Bonus points for the shower scene.

Lessons learned from a 1961 prom. Shake hands with the receiving line of chaperones. The boy fills in the dance card, putting his own name in the first and last positions. Showing off on the dance floor is bad; accompanying a girl off the dance floor “so she’s not stranded” is good. Shake hands with the exit line of chaperones. Enjoy the midnight supper offered by parents afterwards. Say goodnight. Nobody even come close to making out. Enjoy Coca Cola.

The Prelinger Archive was assembled in New York in the 1980s, but it acquired a collection of California pictures so they have quite a few films of the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

It starts off in the Western Addition neighborhood which surviving the earthquake with limited damage. Many of its Victorian homes still stand today. A shot at the beginning shows one of those amazing thickets of overhead cables from electric and telephone companies so common in cities before consolidation and monopolies began to thin out the volume of them. Around the 3:07 mark, the view changes starkly from the comparatively unscathed Western Addition to the rubble-filled war zone of Market Street.

This one captures one of the fires that devastated the city even more than the quake had. It’s remarkable how crowded the streets are, and there’s one car zipping down the street, driving around horse-drawn vehicles, people and rubble. The film rate is sped up, so it’s not actually going fast as it looks to be, but you can see later in the film that other kinds of vehicles stayed in their lanes a lot more. There’s a running streetcar and the destroyed dome of San Francisco’s grand City Hall makes an appearance.

This one was taken from Market Street and has a wider view of what was left of the City Hall and Hall of Records complex.

San Francisco passed the first anti-drug legislation in the country in 1875 and opium was its target. The law made it illegal to own or frequent an opium den, but as usual, prohibition did nothing to stop the growth of opium in the city. By the turn of the century there were hundreds of opium dens in Chinatown. In the end it took force majeur to bring down the opium dens. Unfortunately the earthquake also took down the rest of the city with it. In 1907 the sale of the drug itself was outlawed, except for prescription purposes. The police tried to combat the scourge of opium with very public bonfires of confiscated opium and smoking accessories, but other than creating huge, dense clouds of opium smoke in downtown San Francisco for passersby to get inadvertently high off of, the autos-da-fé accomplished little.

Here’s a video of one of these opium bonfires from 1914. In an interesting contrast to the earthquake films, in the background you can see the new City Hall with its dome still under construction. It would open a year after this film was shot.

Speaking of vice, since it’s Saturday and one hopefully doesn’t have to worry about keeping one’s viewing safe for work, perhaps you might enjoy the archive’s significant group of old-timey stripper videos. This is burlesque dancing, mainly from the late 1940s and 1950s, I would guess, although there may be earlier ones in the mix. They are not dated, alas. There is a hint of nudity here and there — sheer undies, the occasional glimpse of underbutt or rhinestone pasties, that sort of thing — but nothing to clutch pearls over.

Red-Headed Riot has a Rita Hayworth thing going on.
Dance of the Doves” involves no doves whatsoever, but rather one cockatoo and one macaw. Nora the Quivering Torso lives up to her name by moving more than the rest of them put together. This lady is unnamed but is notable for her proto-twerking skills and the black censor band built into her panties to obscure her scandalous butt cleavage.

Betty Rowland, “Burlesque’s Ball of Fire,” closes out the show. She starts off with a fine gown and ends up behind the curtain (still in her underwear, of course) à la Gypsy Rose Lee.

Hikers find first ancient petroglyphs on Montserrat

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Locals Shirley Osborne and Vaughn Barzey were hiking on the Caribbean island of Montserrat this past January when they saw some carvings on a moss-covered rock face. They reported their discovery to the authorities. Volunteers with the Montserrat National Trust, archaeology professors and students from universities in the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean studied the carvings in the hills near the town of Soldier Ghaut (Ghaut means “abrupt ravine” in Montserratian) about five miles north of the capital city of Plymouth. Officials kept the find under wraps until researchers confirmed that they were indeed ancient petroglyphs, the first ever discovered on Montserrat.

They are stylistically similar to petroglyphs made by the indigenous Amerindians (commonly referred to as the Arawaks, archaeologically known as the Saladoid culture) on Caribbean island like St. Kitts, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, among others.

“We have Amerindian artifacts on the island, but had not seen petroglyphs,” said Sarita Francis, director of the Montserrat National Trust. “These are the first, that we know of, that have been found here.”

Initial analysis suggests Montserrat’s petroglyphs are between 1,000 and 1,500 years old, Francis said, though carbon dating will paint a clearer picture of the images’ origins.

The petroglyphs consist of geometric shapes and what may be stylized animal or human figures. One figure could be a bat. Another with two deep circles cut from the stone and a line underneath is more than a little reminiscent of a rudimentary face design. The mouth doesn’t turn up at the corners, but it still manages to look like a smiley face.

The earliest artifacts found on the island long predate the Arawaks. Flint blades, flakes and other evidence of knapping about 2,500 years old have been found in the central hills of Montserrat and judging from the style and technology of the lithic materials, archaeologists believe the first settlers came from South America between 4,000 and 2,500 years ago. This Archaic, pre-ceramic culture was displaced with the arrival of the Arawak between 500 and 300 B.C. who settled Montserrat until they in turn were displaced by the raiding Caribs (also known as the Kalinago). By the time the Spanish arrived, the Awarak had left the island and the Caribs do not appear to have settled it. The next wave of settlers came in 1642 and were predominantly Irish.

Navigation

Search

Archives

June 2016
S M T W T F S
« May    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
2627282930  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication