Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Mjölnir rises from mom’s tea spoons

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

I’ve always suspected that there was a disproportionately high percentage of genius among the readers of this blog. This has now been confirmed with the irrefutable finality of Thor’s hammer.

Last year I posted about the discovery of a small Viking amulet on the Danish island of Lolland. The pendant was in a shape known as Thor’s hammer, a well-known design from the Viking Era thought to invoke the power of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir to protect the wearer. Because they’re not a literal hammer shape, however, there has been some debate among scholars about whether these amulets really are representations of Thor’s hammer. The amulet found on Lolland last Spring answered the question with a runic inscription that reads “This is a hammer.”

There are more elaborately decorated Thor’s hammer amulets, like this gold-plated one found in Ödeshög, Sweden, or this one found in Skåne, both now in the Swedish History Museum, but the plainer Lolland hammer is the only one ever found with runes inscribed on it. The fancier ones are as popular today as they were in the 10th century. Pages and pages of search results return links to commercial copies from companies specializing in replicas of historical artifacts to Etsy shops. The Lolland hammer, being a much more recent find, is less extensively duplicated, although at least one outfit wasted no time in creating replicas for sale. It also happens to copy my blog entry word for word and picture for picture.

So when regular commenter Lory posted yesterday that he had made his own replica of the Lolland rune hammer, naturally I wanted to see the results of his endeavors. The pictures he sent me so impressed me that I asked if I could post them in a dedicated blog entry. Lorenzo agreed. Here they are on the right next to the original on the left.

The original amulet was cast in bronze and only has traces remaining of silver or tin plating and a tiny smidge of gold plating. Lorenzo, as you see, made his version entirely out of silver.

He agreed to answer a few questions about his work. I first asked if he was a professional jeweler or silversmith or if this was a hobby. The answer astounded me. Not only is he not a professional silversmith, but this was his first attempt at making anything like this. He learned how from YouTube!

I like bricolage like an hobby in my free time. I saw that hammers around the neck of many people during a summer trip in Denmark riding my old motorcycle. They said me that that hammer (mjölner, in danish language) is like an amulet in that place.

And so, when I came back to home in Italy, I’ve decided to buy a mjölner for my neck too, but looking on the net, I saw the Lolland one in Copenaghen Museum and I loved it. I strongly wanted it and so, I decided to make my silver copy.

I’ve learned the mergering system from the net (Youtube is a good teacher). I bought special wax (more hard than normal) for the maquette, and some instruments to model it like the original one.

The size isn’t the same, because I don’t know the real one, and there are some little differences too, because I’m not a professional jeweller. The silver comes from some little tea spoons that I’ve stolen [from] my mother.

Is that not the greatest thing ever? I think we can all agree that his mother’s tea spoons gave their lives for a noble cause.

After the wax model, I’ve made a negative copy of it in a big cuttlefish bone bought in a special shop. If you look on the net, you’ll see that the mergering method is very simple and fast.

I did look on the web and Lorenzo knows whereof he speaks. Cuttlebone is apparently an ideal material for home silver casting because it can withstand great heat and can be carved easily into a detailed mold. From the Wikipedia entry on cuttlebone:

Jewelers prepare cuttlebone for use as a mold by cutting it in half and rubbing the two sides together until they fit flush against one another. Then the casting can be done by carving a design into the cuttlebone, adding the necessary sprue, melting the metal in a separate pouring crucible, and pouring the molten metal into the mold through the sprue. Finally, the sprue is sawed off and the finished piece is polished.

Which is just what Lorenzo did.

After the mergering, with a soldering butane blowpipe and a ceramic melting pot, I’ve used three different paste and a little circular instruments with my little drill to eliminate some mergering imperfections and make it shining like you can see in the last two pics.
That’s all. :)

Here’s the finished pendant, bright and shiny as the original would have been before the plating wore off:

Can you believe that’s his first attempt at casting silver? It’s downright inspiring. (Don’t worry, Mom, your silver collection is safe from me.)

For the necklace Lorenzo plans “a strong leather cord with beautiful old style clasps.” I’m sure it will look smashing.


Trunk of undelivered 17th c. letters rediscovered

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Yale University music historian Rebekah Ahrendt was researching a theatrical troupe that entertained audiences in turn of the 18th century The Hague when she came across a notice in a 1938 French journal describing a collection of undelivered letters at a museum. Intrigued, Ahrendt tracked down the collection at the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague where it had lain undisturbed and unremarked since 1926. She found a trunk waterproofed with sealskin and filled with 2,600 letters sent from France, Spain and the Spanish Netherlands between 1689 and 1707.

The letters were collected by The Hague postmasters Simon de Brienne and his wife, Maria Germain. Any letters that could not be delivered because the recipients could not be found, or if found they refused receipt or could not or would not pay the postage due, the couple kept. (At the time the recipient paid postage, not the sender.) Most postmasters destroyed such letters, but the de Briennes hoped someone might someday take delivery and pay the postage so they put them in the trunk as a kind of fingers-crossed savings account.

Simon de Brienne was good at making money. Born in France, he was a servant of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the younger son of German prince Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and maternal nephew of King Charles I of England. He was arrived in The Hague in 1669 and was appointed Postmaster seven years later. His wife was appointed postmistress in 1686. His new job didn’t stop Simon from working his royal connections. He was employed as chamberlain to William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, and when his boss became King William III of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the Glorious Revoultion of 1688, the Briennes went with him to England. As a trusted confidant, Simon was given a plum position as Keeper of the Wardrobe at Kensington Palace in 1689. Ten years later, he sold the office for £1550 and a cask of the best Burgundy wine. They returned to The Hague shortly thereafter.

The collection, still in Simon de Brienne’s original trunk, was bequeathed to the museum in 1926. Out of the 2,600 letters in the trunk, 2,000 are opened and 600 are sealed. They include missives from people from all walks of life — noblemen, merchants, singers, actors, spies, peasants, Hugenot exiles, women, men — and are written in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Latin. Most of the correspondence that has survived from this period was written by the elite. To have such a wide range of society represented in their own voice (many of the letters were written phonetically with little punctuation in the dialect of the writer rather than in the formal, educated hand of the highly literate) is unique.

One open letter from the collection has been transcribed and translated manages to delicately suggest a pregnancy scandal without actually coming out and saying it. It was sent to a wealthy Jewish merchant in The Hague.

“I am writing on behalf of your friend and mine and she realized as soon as she left the opera company in The Hague to go to Paris that she had made a terrible mistake. Now she needs your help to come back to The Hague. You can divine without difficulty the true cause of her despair. I cannot put it into so many words; what I ought to say to you is so excessive. Content yourself with thinking on it, and returning her to life by procuring her return.”

The letter wound up in de Brienne’s collection because it is marked “niet hebben,” which means it was refused.

It’s not just the content of the letters that are of interest to historians. Scholars who study paper, postal systems, economics, linguistics and seals will find in this collection a unique source of information from the late 17th and early 18th century. It will be an invaluable resource for the nascent study of letterlocking, the practice of folding a letter in complex ways to convert it into its own envelope.

Ahrendt has already made significant historical discoveries in her own specialty.

As a music historian, Ahrendt found the correspondence between musicians especially interesting and says the information these missives contain casts a different light on the development of the musical labor industry: “This archive is truly a cultural history of musicians. I was surprised to learn that musicians traveled so much during that time period. We have so few witnesses to describe what daily life was like for your average musician, and these letters tell of large networks of these musicians traveling frequently. This is completely different from what we previously believed about the history of musicians.”

Brienne also put his own records as postmaster in trunk, giving historians another unique view into the business of mail. The accounting books for incoming and outgoing mail lists the price for every letter.

blockquote>”We discovered how postal routes and the financial system of that time worked. There is documentation of the point at which you paid a rider or a boatman to transport your post. We learned about the connection between the post office in Hague and the post office in Paris. We even found nasty letters from the Parisian postmaster saying that he hadn’t been paid properly,” says Ahrendt.

This pearl of great price won’t just be available to those who are fortunate enough to study them in person. An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Universities of Leiden, Groningen, and Oxford is working on digitizing this exceptional archive. The project is called Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered and the website is already live although the content is limited as of yet. Right now the Letters section is a slideshow of beautiful high resolution images of seals and letters, some with brief summaries describing the image, some labeled only with an archive number. Click on the icon with the four boxes in the bottom right corner of the screen to browse the letters index via a topic gallery instead.

Thanks to the latest scanning technology, the sealed letters won’t be opened, but they will seen nonetheless.

Dr Nadine Akkerman, from the University of Leiden, says: “Because early modern ink contained iron, incredibly delicate scanning can detect it on the paper. By scanning each layer of paper in a letter packet, we should be able to piece the letters back like jigsaw puzzles and read them without breaking the seals.”

Earlier this year they tested the technology by creating a bundle of 20 stacked letters, each written with quills and iron gall ink, folded using period accurate letterlocking formats and sealed with two different kinds of wax. The bundle was then scanned with high contrast TDI CT (Time Delay Integration, computed tomography) and the contents were revealed without damaging the folds and seals. This video is a fly-through of the test scan.


Kitchen of Shakespeare’s last home found

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the site of William Shakespeare’s last home, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon, have discovered the remains of the property’s kitchen. They have identified a fire hearth (the Tudor equivalent of an oven) and a cold pit (the fridge) and a brew house where the playwright’s staff would have made beer and preserved food by pickling and salting. They also found fragments of dishes and cups. The latest archaeological finds have made it possible to create accurate drawings of what New Place looked like in Shakespeare’s time.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has raised half the £5.25 million needed to restore and redesign the site of New Place from sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund. (Click here to help the Trust raise the second half.) The three sections of the property — Nash’s House, home of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Nast built adjacent to the New Place home, the Knot Garden, a sunken garden inspired by Jacobean designs installed on the grounds after World War I, and the Great Garden, a former priory garden incorporated into the New Place property in the mid-16th century — will be refurbished and reconceived as a museum and garden dedicated to Shakespeare, his life, family and works. The archaeological surveys of the site are part of this program.

The house that would become known as New Place was originally built by Hugh Clopton, a wealthy mercer (a merchant specializing in the trade of imported luxury fabrics and dress accessories) who had made his fortune in London where he served terms as Sheriff and Lord Mayor. He was a proud native son and benefactor of Stratford-upon-Avon, rebuilding a guild chapel, replacing a rickety wooden bridge with a beautiful stone arch bridge and leaving provisions in his will for further improvements to the city along with funds to help support maidens, scholars and apprentice mercers. Even as he held important guild and municipal offices in London, in about 1483 Clopton had a new house built for himself in his hometown on Chapel Street. It was the second largest house in town.

The property stayed in the Clopton family until the mid-16th century when it passed to the recusant Catholic Underhill family. Shakespeare purchased the house and property including gardens, two barns and an orchard, from William Underhill on May 4th, 1597, for £120 in silver. It was a grand home, with impressively wide frontage, 20 rooms and 10 fireplaces, but by the time Shakespeare bought it, the house, which had been described by antiquary John Leland sixty years earlier as a “praty house of bricke and tymbre” was in “great ruyne and decay and unrepayred.” Renovations began immediately. Shakespeare’s wife Anne seems to have moved in full-time right away; William split his time between Statford and London for a while before moving permanently into New Place in 1610. There he planted the first mulberry tree in Stratford, according to legend with his own two hands.

The Bard lived there until his death on April 23rd, 1616. He bequeathed the property to his daughter Susanna Hall who lived there until her death in 1649. It then went to her daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth died in 1670. After her husband’s Thomas’ death in 1674, New Place was sold to Sir Edward Walker who in turn left it to his daughter, wife of Sir John Clopton. Thus by 1700, New Place once again belonged to the Clopton family. Sir John had it almost entirely rebuilt before 1702 for his son Hugh.

Sir Hugh Clopton took pride in the association of his family home with William Shakespeare. He opened New Place to visitors and told stories of questionable likelihood about finding epigrams scratched onto the windows by Shakespeare and his daughters (his only son, Hamnet, had died the year before they bought the house). The next owner would not be so genial.

Reverend Francis Gastrell, a canon of Lichfield Cathedral, bought the property from the Clopton estate in 1753. He had no interest in opening his home to literary pilgrims and was sick to death of people showing up at his house expecting to get a show the way they had in Sir Hugh’s day. In 1756, he chopped down the mulberry tree that was the focus of many a literary pilgrim’s attention thanks to the story that it had been planted by the Bard himself. In 1759, he got into a dispute with the city on whether he should pay the full tax rate or get a reduced rate because he lived part of the time in Lichfield. Vowing New Place would never be assessed again, he razed it to the ground.

Several depictions of New Place in the 18th century survive. Engraver and antiquary George Vertue visited Stratford in 1737. He sketched New Place and took notes describing the property as a two storey, half-timbered building with an attic, five gabled bays and a central gateway facing onto Chapel Street. Scholars now believe the Vertue sketch is not of the home itself, but of a gatehouse with servants’ quarters and a long gallery. There’s also an extant print of a drawing by Samuel Winter of the main house ca. 1759.

The New Place property was sold multiple times in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of it were sold piecemeal and became detached from the original property. What had once been the Great Garden became the Royal Shakespearean Theatre in 1829, but it didn’t even survive 50 years. Shakespeare enthusiast J.O. Halliwell launched a fundraising campaign in 1861 to acquire the full grounds of New Place. He cleared some parts of the property of its later construction and excavated the site in 1862 and 1863, finding parts of the original 15th century home and the 18th century rebuild. In 1872 the former Royal Shakespearean Theatre was demolished. The grounds were redesigned as a pleasure garden and in 1884, the entire New Place property was transferred the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Because the site is now a listed park and garden, so the Trust can’t just reconstruct the house as they think it was when Shakespeare lived there. Instead, they’ve designed an imaginative way to convey the important areas of the structure within the parameters of the garden. Brass lines in the ground will mark the footprint and key areas of the previous structures. Halliwell’s excavations will be of aid in this because he never had them backfilled which has helped archaeologists determine which part of the buildings were in which location and where else to dig to find undisturbed archaeological features. The garden will be re-landscaped with themes evoking Shakespeare.

The redesign was originally scheduled to be complete in time to commemorate the anniversary of William Shakespeare death in April of 2016, but the archaeological discoveries have pushed back the opening date to the summer.


Historical archive found in Russian birds nests

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Archaeologists have discovered an archive of 19th and early 20th century Russian history assembled by birds nesting in the attic of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod, a small medieval town 40 miles west of Moscow. Restorers have been working on the church, built in the early 15th century, since 2009, repairing the facade, windows and dismantling 19th century brick archways to return the arches and vaults to their original dimensions. Underneath the brick they found a fragment of a fresco of a seraphim surrounded by saints whose composition suggests it may have been painted by Andrei Rublev, Russia’s greatest medieval artist of icons and frescoes, or an artist from his school.

This summer restoration began on the roof of the cathedral. To clear the space before construction, archaeologists surveyed the attic which had a thick layer of debris deposited by the swifts and jackdaws that have been nesting under the roof for centuries. The debris is composed of soil, organic litter, branches and layer upon layer of soft and warm paper fragments collected by the birds to line their nests. Among the fragments are pieces of personal letters, scores of them written in an aristocratic hand that mention Russian foreign minister Count Karl Nesselrode, pieces of printed books, pre-revolutionary official documents drawn up by the military and police, a birth certificate, a college diploma, student notebooks with multiplication tables and Easter hymns. The oldest piece is thought to date to the 1830s when the church roof was last replaced.

One fragment holds historical weight out of proportion to its dimensions. It’s a calendar page from December 6th, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II’s name day, that has a handwritten note on the back quoting a verse by poet Yakov Polonsky about taking comfort in the loss of hope and happiness which in hindsight seems a little premonitory. Nicholas and his family were still alive at the time, but imprisoned in a mansion in Tobolsk. The scrap is a keyhole into the transition of the Old Style Russian dating to the New Style. Russia had used the Julian calendar for centuries, but the Soviets finally switched the country over to the Gregorian system on January 1st, 1918. Both dating systems appear on this calendar page scrap. The big red six is the Julian date, while underneath it in French is the Gregorian date, December 19th, 1917.

There are also fragments of ration coupons, a bread coupon from December of 1933, and a stamped ration card from August of 1941. Other financial records found in the attic are a contract on the delivery of a cow in 1936, a donation to the monastery of St. Sava Storozhevsky and a loan to a merchant. There’s even a piece of a 1,000 ruble banknote which was worth a great deal of money when it was lost and claimed by the avian archivists.

Some of the most intact pieces are candy wrappers, probably just because they’re small and didn’t need tearing. They were also probably popular discards on the street, giving the birds a rich source of litter to warm their babies. There are numerous wrappers from pre-revolutionary caramels and candies, plus cigarette packaging of brands from the Petrograd Soviet.

The scraps suffered beak damage — there’s extensive hole punching — but they are still legible, some with great graphics in surprisingly bright color. Zvenigorod Museum archaeologist Alexey Alexeev has uploaded dozens of pictures of the bird archive scraps to this photo album.


Movie posters found under old linoleum sell for more than $200,000

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015

From the annals of every history nerd’s fantasies, a home renovation revealed a treasure trove of vintage movie posters under a linoleum floor (and the original hardwood to boot). Builder Robert Basta purchased the southern Pennsylvania home cheap at auction because it needed a lot of work. He planned to renovate it for resale, something he’s done many times before. While he was away on business, his son Dylan wanted to earn a little extra money while he was home from college, so Robert had him take on a bear of a job — tearing up the lino in a small upstairs room. Robert had seen a newspaper from 1946 peeking out through the broken flooring; he told Dylan to keep it in case it was interesting.

The newspaper preserved, Dylan and his brother Bob went on to find a poster of Tarzan the Ape Man, the 1932 movie starring five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. They texted a photo of the poster to Robert. By the time he got back home and the linoleum was all gone, Bob and Dylan had found 16 more movie posters, all in excellent condition. There were other newspapers under the lino too. It seems a previous owner of the house, possibly artist MSW Brungart who is known to have worked for the local movie theater, used paper he had lying around to protect the floorboards before covering them with linoleum.

At first they didn’t realize what a treasure they had found. None of the posters were for films they recognized, so they figured they were of small value. A little Googling soon illuminated them to the fact that they had stumbled on a stash that included some of the rarest posters highly desirable to collectors.

They’re all one sheets from the pre-Code era, a woefully brief period between 1929 and 1934 when studios largely ignored the censorship rules of the Motion Picture Production Code because the Great Depression had hit them like a freight train and sex, nudity and violence sold then just like they sell now. The party came to an abrupt end when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began enforcing the code with the iron fist of committed fanatic and equally committed hypocrite Joseph Breen. One of his henchmen Val Lewton explained Breen’s do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do philosophy to producer David O. Selznick:

“Mr. Breen goes to the bathroom every morning. He does not deny that he does so or that there is such a place as the bathroom, but he feels that neither his actions nor the bathroom are fit subjects for screen entertainment. This is the essence of the Hays’ office attitude towards prostitution, at least as Joe told it to me in somewhat cruder language.”

Breen, in concert with Catholic Legion of Decency (the Production Code was co-written by Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord), threatened the studios with nation-wide protests, draconian local censorship and the possibility of federal censorship and they had the muscle to make real trouble. The studios caved and for the next 20 years the sex and violence was hidden in oblique dialogue, those weird face-mashing close-mouthed kisses and implied off-screen.

I really, really love pre-Code movies, but I wouldn’t have seen any of them were it not for Turner Classic Movies. Unlike other classic movies, the pre-Codes never aired on TV until TCM revived interest in them in the 1990s. This is why the Basta family didn’t recognize any of the films on the posters.

The Bastas contacted Heritage Auctions for an expert valuation and that’s when they discovered they had been standing on more than $200,000 worth of movie posters. This weekend, the 17 under the floor posters went under the hammer at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Movie Posters sale.

It was the first poster they found, Tarzan the Ape Man (MGM, 1932) that was the rarest, most desirable piece. The movie was Johnny Weissmuller’s first appearance on film in the role that would make him famous. In fact, other than a non-speaking, uncredited, seconds-long practically naked cameo in the 1929 Ziegfield musical Glorifying the American Girl, this was Weissmuller’s first part in any movie. He would go on to shoot another 11 Tarzan movies, five of them with Maureen O’Sullivan. This one-of-a-kind Style D one sheet is the only one that pictures him and O’Sullivan in a scene from the film. It sold yesterday for $83,650.

The second biggest seller is my favorite poster from one of my favorite movies. It’s one of only three known surviving Style C one sheets of Red Headed Woman (MGM, 1932), starring Jean Harlow at her gleefully naughty best. This is one of the greatest of all pre-Code movies, certainly the most unrepentant. The bad girl wins in the end and she wins big. Jean Harlow, a literal scarlet woman, glowers alluringly from this vivid poster like a demon from the flames of Hell. It is a perfect encapsulation of the character and just freaking gorgeous. It sold for $77,675.

The poster for another terribly juicy pre-Code movie, Doctor X (First National, 1932), sold for $23,900. This was Fay Wray’s first horror movie. There’s a creepy doctor, an amputee with a penchant for cannibalism, murder and some quality mad science. It’s also a very early example of a two-color Technicolor movie. The poster is even more vivid than the movie.

Three other posters from the under the floor collection are the only known surviving posters of their movies:

    1. Congorilla (Fox, 1932), a documentary filmed in the Congo which is the first to have authentic sound recorded in Africa, sold for $2,390.
    1. Any Old Port (MGM, 1932), a classic Laurel and Hardy short produced by Hal Roach, sold for $8,962.50
    1. Sporting Blood (MGM, 1931), Clark Gable’s first starring role in a picture, sold for $2,987.50.
  • Heritage Auctions didn’t note which of the lots came from under the linoleum, so I wasn’t able to make a complete list. Based on news stories, the following pieces were also part of the collection: The Golden West (Fox, 1932) sold for $6,572.50; The Rider of Death Valley (Universal, 1932) sold for $4,302; The Long, Long Trail (Universal, 1929) sold for $2,987.50; Blondie of the Follies (MGM, 1932) sold for $1,792.50; The Dance of Life (Paramount, 1929) sold for $1,254.75. Tess of the Storm Country (Fox, 1932) sold for $776.75. Some of the articles about this story claim this movie was Academy Award nominated, but I believe that’s a misreading of Heritage Auction’s lot information which refers to the first Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell outing, the 1927 silent picture 7th Heaven as receiving three Oscar nominations. I searched the Academy Awards Database and there are no nominations for Tess.

    Counting only the dozen posters that I could confirm were part of the subflooring collection, sales topped $217,000. Robert Basta was still in shock before the first hammer fell.

    “You always dream of coming across something valuable hidden in a closet or under the floorboards but it had never happened – until now.”

    “I’m a simple man – I own my house but I don’t have a pension and at some point soon I’ll want to retire. The money from this sale will be life-changing.

    “It will make things so much easier for me and my family – it’s a real blessing.”


    Speaking of the Rijksmuseum…

    Saturday, November 21st, 2015

    Some of you might remember the greatest of all flashmobs that was created to celebrate the reopening of the museum and the return of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to its original location. It’s been more than two years since I posted it, and I still regularly rewatch the video. It’s just so, so good. A quick refresher for those of you not as obsessed as I or for anyone who may have missed it the first time:

    The only bad thing about that sublime video is that it’s too short. I said at the time that I wished there were a director’s cut so we could see more of the story as it unfolds. Well, there isn’t a director’s cut, but there’s a making of video! It was uploaded a week after the first one and since I watched the embed on the blog entry rather than going to the YouTube channel, despite my repeated viewings I didn’t realize the second one was there. I’m making up for it now, though. I’ve already watched it three times. I love the curator puttering around like a kid at Christmas fixing people’s costumes and props. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

    There’s one thing I wish they’d addressed that has niggled at me all these years: why did they cast the taller man as Willem van Ruytenburch (in the fabulous yellow outfit) and the shorter man as Frans Banninck Cocq (in the center with the red sash)? In the painting van Ruytenburch’s shortness is very noticeable, and since he was Banninck Cocq’s lieutenant, their comparative height was a meaningful distinction that communicated their difference in status. The curator sniffed about the purple outfit one of the guards was wearing as inaccurate. Surely he had something to say about the choice to make van Ruytenburch so tall.


    Vermeer’s Little Street discovered

    Friday, November 20th, 2015

    The exact street in Delft that Johannes Vermeer depicted in his 1658 painting View of Houses in Delft, better known as The Little Street, has been identified. It’s the Vlamingstraat, at the current house numbers 40 and 42, and even though the original buildings are gone, it’s eerie how similar the modern scene is to the 17th century one even though the details are very different.

    The Little Street can be regarded as “the earliest ‘portrait’ of the exterior of an ordinary house in northern European art”, according to Grijzenhout. It represents yet another indication of Johannes Vermeer’s innovation.

    For nearly a century, scholars have debated whether The Little Street depicts a real pair of buildings or if it was conjured up in Vermeer’s imagination. The most widely accepted theory was that it represented a view from the inn owned by Vermeer, the Mechelen. His back windows overlooked almshouses in Voldersgracht, although the scene would not have been quite as in the painting so the artist must have produced his own interpretation. The almshouses were demolished in 1661 and a 20th century building now houses the Vermeer Centrum, which presents reproductions of the artist’s work.

    University of Amsterdam professor of Art History Frans Grijzenhout tossed out the theory and found the site by consulting what some might consider a painfully mundane city record from 1667: the ledger of the dredging of the canals in the town of Delft, also known as the quay dues register. The register records the taxes paid by everyone with a canal-front home for the dredging of the canal and maintenance of the quay. Because homeowners only paid taxes for the canal works in front of their property, the ledger is meticulously precise about the width every house and alley between them, accurate to around 15 centimeters (6 inches).

    Grijzenhout found a property on the Vlamingstraat, a lower-end neighborhood in eastern Delft, which had two houses 6.3 metres (about 21 feet) wide separated by two alleys about 1.2 meters (four feet) wide. Additional historical research, Google Maps data and analysis of the modern-day location confirmed that Vlamingstraat 40-42 fits. No other property in Delft matches the unique configuration in The Little Street.

    The houses that stand on the site now were built in the late 1800s. The reason the painting and street today look alike even though the buildings are so different is that bricked entryway into the alley next to the house on the right. It’s a skinnier opening than it used to be thanks to the larger house on the left, but it is still recognizable.

    Grijzenhout also discovered during his research that the house on the right of the painting was owned by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, Vermeer’s widowed aunt. She sold tripe and that alley next to her house was nicknamed the Penspoort or Trip Gate after her business. Vermeer’s mother and sister lived across the canal from the aunt, so this was a view he must have seen very many times. It’s even possible that the figures in the painting are family members; maybe that’s his aunt working in the doorway of her house. The personal connection explains why he selected this scene to paint. Out of the 35 known surviving works by Vermeer, just two of them are townscapes, both of them in Delft. The second is View of Delft (1660-1) and it’s more of a skyline scene. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

    The Little Street and the discovery of its location are the focus of an exhibition running through March 13th, 2016, at the Rijksmuseum. After that, the exhibition will move to the Museum Prinsenhof Delft from March 25th through July 17th, 2016. The Museum Prinsenhof Delft is thrilled to host the first Vermeer painting to visit the city in 60 years, and for it to be a painting so important to the history of the city makes it all the more special. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the painting and then walk in Vermeer’s footsteps to the street itself. The museum is going all out to give tourists the full Vermeer experience, creating walking routes and a virtual reality app that will put people in the middle of Vermeer’s Delft.

    Google Art Project has put together a neat virtual exhibition that combines high resolution views of the painting with Google Street View tours of the Vlamingstraat location.


    The Great Thanksgiving Listen

    Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

    If like me you’ve wept openly at StoryCorpsFriday broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition for the past decade, or at their beautiful animated shorts on PBS, you may have wondered how to go about recording the oral histories of your own loved ones. StoryCorps uses professional radio equipment to record and has a platoon of trained volunteers to facilitate the interviews. Interviews are recorded one at a time in the StoryCorps MobileBooth that travels the United States or in one of the permanent StoryBooths in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Atlanta.

    Despite its limited geographical reach, StoryCorps has been able to record thousands of stories a year and now have more than 65,000 recordings from 100,000 participants. This Thanksgiving, they hope to at least double that figure in just one long weekend. Obviously they don’t have 65,000 sets of radio equipment and facilitators. This goal can only be achieved with new technology, and that’s what StoryCorps has created.

    Every year the TED conference awards a $1 million prize to someone with “a creative, bold vision to spark global change.” StoryCorps’ founder Dave Isay was the winner of the 2015 Ted prize and his bold vision was the app, a smartphone app that anyone anywhere in the world with an Android and iOS device could download and use to record high-quality audio.

    That vision has now become a reality. More than $400,000 of the prize money went to the development of the app; the rest was spent creating a dedicated website and adding server capacity so that interviews can be uploaded directly to the site. The free app extends StoryCorps’ range to the entire world.

    Armed with a working beta of the app, anyone can participate in the Great Thanksgiving Listen. The project seeks to take advantage of a holiday where multiple generations of family and friends are locked together in a house with no way easy way out. The focus of the initiative is on working with high school teachers to encourage their students to record a grandparent or other senior family member during Thanksgiving weekend as part of their social studies, history, civics, journalism and political science classes. There’s a teacher toolkit (pdf) with instructions for students on how to plan and conduct the interview as well as the mechanics of recording and uploading the result. All interviews recorded this weekend will be uploaded not just to the StoryCorps website, but also the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

    It’s not just for students, however. Anybody with a compatible device can take their shot at capturing the invaluable oral histories of a whole generation of elders. The app helps users prepare questions, find the best location for the interview, record the conversation on a mobile device, take a photograph to accompany the interview, share the completed recording with friends and family celebrating the holiday and finally upload the interview. It also provides editing tools. All recordings uploaded in the first year will be archived at the Library of Congress as well as on the website.

    “In this time of great disconnect and division, we hope the Great Thanksgiving Listen will prove a unifying moment for the nation,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ Founder and President​. “We are excited to use the new StoryCorps app to bring the country together in a project of listening, connection and generosity. Together we will collect the wisdom of a generation and archive it for the future, while at the same time reminding our grandparents how much their lives and stories matter.”

    Download the app here and start planning your interview now. If you haven’t watched or heard any of StoryCorps’ interviews, please check them out on StoryCorps’ website. The animations are here, the audio interviews here.

    Here’s one example of the kind of profoundly meaningful oral history these conversations record:


    Inca child mummy genome reveals lost history of South America

    Sunday, November 15th, 2015

    When a member of a mountaineering club first spotted what would prove to be the frozen mummy of an Inca child 17,400 feet up Argentina’s Aconcagua Mountain in 1985, he mistook it for a patch of grass. The other climbers, knowing grass didn’t grow at that altitude, checked it out and found not vegetation, but black and yellow feathers on the headdress of a young boy who had been sacrificed on the mountain 500 years earlier. With only part of the mummy exposed by erosion, the climbers wisely left it alone and returned to the city of Mendoza at the foothills of the Andes where they alerted archaeologist Dr. Juan Schobinger to the find. Fifteen days later, Schobinger and a team of volunteer archaeologists climbed the mountain and carefully excavated the mummy bundle.

    This was a milestone in the history of mountain archaeology because it’s extremely rare that the professionals get to excavate the find before the people who discover it. Folks just can’t resist having a dig, sometimes because they were only up there in the first place looking for ancient treasure, as in the case of the El Plomo Mummy found in the Chilean Andes in 1954, or because they thought it was a recent death and called the cops, as in the case of Otzi the Iceman or out of simple curiosity.

    The Aconcagua Mountain region in northwest of Argentina was once part of Collasuyu, the southern-most province of the Inca Empire. It was in this empire that lasted less than 100 years from 1438 A.D. until the Spanish conquest in 1532 A.D. that mountain sacrifices reached their apogee. The Incas built shrines at the peak of the highest mountains — Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia — and there practiced the ceremony of capacocha, the ritual sacrifice of children on occasions of great import like the death of an emperor or in the wake of a natural disaster. The children selected were the most beautiful and healthiest in the empire. They would be given narcotics and alcohol, taken to mountaintop shrines and either left to die of exposure or killed outright.

    The Aconcagua child appears to have been killed by a blow to the head when he was about seven years old. The cold and dry of the Andean environment preserved his body, the two wool tunics he was wearing, the wool, hair and vegetable sandals on his feet, and multiple layers of cotton cloths and fiber cords wrapped around him, included the outermost wrap festooned with yellow parrot feathers. A total of 25 textiles were found in the bundle. Because the mummy was excavated with proper archaeological procedures, the exceptional preservation was maintained and additional objects were found in the fill underneath the child: six figurines, three human with clothes and feather accessories, and three stylized flames, one gold-plated and two made of Spondylus shell.

    Preserved first by 500 years in a frigid and arid climate and then by careful archaeological practice — a replica is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Cuyo while the mummy itself is kept in a freezer at all time — the Aconcagua mummy was a rare pristine subject for interdisciplinary studies. Researchers found red dye, probably from the achiote tree, on his skin and a red liquid, also probably involving achiote, in his stomach. He’s been examined by medical doctors to determine cause of death, been subject to histological, microbiological, osteological, genetic and environmental analysis. He’s been X-rayed and CT scanned.

    Now a team of geneticists has has mapped his mitochondrial genome, a first for any Native American mummy. In fact, not only is he the first Native American mummy whose full mitochondrial DNA has been successfully extracted, he’s the first for whom complete sequencing has even been attempted. Geneticist Antonio Salas from the University of Santiago de Compostela had high hopes that the Aconcagua mummy’s unique preservation conditions might have preserved enough of his DNA to be testable. A small sample of the child’s lung was tested — internal organs are less likely to be contaminated — and all 37 genes passed down from his mother were sequenced.

    The boy’s pattern of genetic variations placed him in a population called C1b, a common lineage in Mesoamerica and the Andes that dates all the way back to the earliest Paleoindian settlements, more than 18,000 years ago. But C1b in itself is very diverse — as its members spread throughout Central and South America, smaller groups became isolated from one another and started developing their own particular genetic variations. As a result, C1b contains many genetically distinct subgroups. The Aconcagua boy’s genome didn’t fit into any of them. Instead, he belonged to a population of native South Americans that had never been identified. Salas and his team dubbed this genetic group C1bi, which they say likely arose in the Andes about 14,000 years ago. They detail their findings today in Scientific Reports.

    When Salas combed through genetic databases, ancient and modern, he found just four more individuals who appear to belong to C1bi. Three are present-day people from Peru and Bolivia, whereas another sample comes from an individual from the ancient Wari Empire, which flourished from 600 to 1000 C.E. and predated the Inca in Peru. Clearly, C1bi is extremely rare today, but the fact that it has now popped up in two ancient DNA samples suggests that it could have been more common in the past, says Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a population geneticist who studies the Americas at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato and was not involved in the current work. If you sample just one or two individuals, “what are the chances that you pick the rare guy?” he says. “Most likely, you’re picking the common guy.”

    It’s likely only so rare today because the Spanish and their diseases did such a thorough job of annihilating the native population. An estimated 90% were dead shortly after the conquest, and the rest interbred with Europeans, other Native American groups and Africans imported to the continent as slaves making the genes of modern Central and South Americans very distant indeed from the ones of their pre-conquest ancestors. The mummy’s DNA is frozen in time just as he was, providing us a rare window into past peoples. For instance, we know now that it took only 4,000 years for the earliest migrants to America to travel from Alaska to the Andes. The speed with which the continent was populated has been much debated, so this is very signficant new information.

    Salas plans to go even further. He is working on mapping the complete nuclear genome of the Aconcagua mummy and when that’s done, he will turn his attentions to sequencing the genome of all the microorganisms in the boy’s digestive tract. That would lend new insight into the evolution of the microorganisms that live inside of us, helping us or actively trying to kill us.

    You can read the full study here.


    Tour the British Museum online with Google

    Saturday, November 14th, 2015

    The Google Cultural Institute (GCI) and the British Museum have worked together to make it possible people all over the world to enjoy the museum’s many offerings from the comfort of their homes. So far 4,654 objects and artworks have been made available for our perusal. Google’s Street View cameras have trundled through the museum’s vast halls, so you can virtually walk through them from the second basement to the fifth floor, the largest indoor space yet captured on Street View. They’ve even captured the outdoors so you have a stroll around the beautiful museum building itself.

    The British Museum has an excellent website with more than 3.5 million objects in its searchable database, 920,000 of them with one of more photographs attached. Many of the pictures are very good, but even the largest of them are modestly sized (the usual caveat regarding my obsession with high resolution photography applies, of course) and there are a significant number that look dated or are in black and white. It’s a wonderful thing, therefore, to have fresh images of thousands of objects in ultra high resolution courtesy of Google’s gigapixel cameras.

    For example, the museum’s entry for the Admonitions Scroll, a Chinese painted silk handscroll more than 11 feet long from the 5th to the 8th century that depicts scenes from a 3rd century court poem, has 247 images. If you want to explore the details, you can go through the pictures one by one, but it’s tedious to have to go back and forth and the photo quality is less than satisfying. There are duplicates, old black and white shots and none of the pics I clicked on are more than 750 pixels wide. The scroll looks dingy, the painting dim.

    Contrast that with the version on the Google Cultural Institute’s British Museum page. It’s a whole different viewing experience, like someone turned the light on in the room. You can see the whole thing in front of you at once. You can view the work in a depth of detail that you couldn’t possibly achieve in person unless your name is Steve Austin and they’ve made your other eye bionic too. You can see the weave of the silk, the individual hairs in the brushstrokes. It’s stupefying.

    In addition to the objects from the permanent collection, there are also online versions of the museum’s temporary exhibitions, six of them right now with more to come. I’ve been pining to see Celtic Life in Iron Age Britain since it opened at the end of September. Gorgeous examples of Celtic metalwork, jewelry, objects of daily use and more are now viewable in detail online. It’s a curated online exhibit, not just a list of objects, arranged in a logical progression accompanied by explanatory notes. No Gundestrup Cauldron, though, sadly. It’s on the National Museum of Denmark’s GCI page, but not in gigapixel fun.

    The collaboration between Google and the British Museum has also paved new territory for digital museum offerings. The Museum of the World microsite allows viewers to explore a timeline of artifacts divided into their continents of origin but then linked together by thematic connections. You swoop through time to a sparkly wind chimes sound effect while the objects load as polka dots, different colors for each part of the world — Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. When you click on one of the dots, you see a small thumbnail and the title of the object and lines radiate outwards connecting it to other objects. If you want to learn more, click again. The detail view has a text explanation of the piece, an audio description introduced by a narrator and expanded on by a relevant curator. Click on the picture to see it in high resolution. On the right side under the audio there’s a map so you can see where the piece came from and then a few thumbnails of related works if you’d like to skip directly their detail views.

    I found it thoroughly engrossing. I scrolled all the way to the back of the timeline to the oldest artifact in the museum: a 1.8 million-year-old basalt chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It has only one connected piece — an 800,000-year-old Olduvai handaxe — by the related objects thumbnails take you far afield to an archaic Native American birdstone (1,000-1,500 B.C.) and an early 19th century Inuit ulu (a crescent-shaped knife). Once you get to the handaxe, the radiating lines proliferate.

    You can browse by continent — just click the name and all the other dots will disappear, click it again for them to return — or by the themes listed in the menu to the right. Click the three squares in the upper left corner to cut the scrolling and jump to specific times.

    Seriously this feature is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes. I would strongly recommend you only click on the first link when you have a nice chunk of time available, because there is no way in hell you’ll be able to stop once you get started. This is ideal lost weekend material.





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