Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

17th c. coin hoard found under Polish church

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

University of Gdansk archaeologists have discovered a hoard of nearly 1,000 coins under the church of St. Andrew the Apostle in Barczewo, northeastern Poland. The coins were found in and around a glazed ceramic mug buried under the north-western corner of the chancel. They date to the late 16th, early 17th century and are in good condition, albeit in need of cleaning.

The coins are silver and were struck for the Polish royal crown and bear the image of King Sigismund III Vasa’s long reign (1587-1632).

The find is made up mainly of lower denomination Polish coins, and includes groschens, 1.5 groschens, as well as 3 and 6 groschen coins.

The haul includes many Prussian shillings struck for Prince George Wilhelm Hohenzollern, who was a fief of the Republic of Poland, as well as Lithuanian coins. […]

Many of the coins have marks on them suggesting that they were in circulation for a long time. One of them has a hole showing that it could have been worn around the neck.

Starting out in the 14th century as settlement around a defensive castle belonging to the Bishop of Warmia, Barczewo, then known as Wartberg, was in the territory of Prussia after its conquest by the Teutonic Knights. Its Franciscan monastery was of central importance to the town politically and economically. Wartberg received city rights on July 4th, 1364, one of a dozen Warmian towns to receive city rights. It was the only one among them with an explicitly reserved square allocated to the monastery. St. Andrew the Apostle was built next to the monastery to serve as the monks’ church.

Barczewo became part of the Kingdom of Poland by the terms of the Second Peace of Thorn in 1466, but it was inside the boundaries of Royal Prussia, an autonomous area ruled by the Warmian bishops. Its autonomy waned when it joined the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 and while it prospered in crafts and grew in size, it was also regularly beset by fires and military conflict. It burned twice in less than five years (1594, 1596) and was occupied by the Brandenburg Army in the mid-17th century.

When the coins were buried, therefore, the monastery church was the safest place in town. After a period of abandonment during the Reformation in the first half of the 16th century, the monastery was restored by the Bishop of Warmia, the Bernardine order replacing the original Franciscans. The Warmian bishops supported the monastery generously for centuries. Archaeologists believe the coin hard was likely cached under the floor by the monks themselves for reasons unknown.

The excavation is a rescue operation before construction work begins to strengthen the subsoil under the church’s foundation. The extensive restoration project for the church is expected to last through 2021. The coins will be conserved and then displayed in the church itself in a new exhibition space.


Conquest-era home found in Mexico City

Friday, August 9th, 2019

Excavation of early viceregal period home in the historic center of Mexico City. Photo by Melitón Tapia, INAH.An excavation by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in the historic center of Mexico City has unearthed a house built right after the fall of Tenochtitlán. It is an unusual example of the transition between indigenous Mexica architecture, material and workmanship and Spanish design.

A team from the Program of Urban Archeology (PAU) has been surveying the archaeological layers under an 1870s building at 17 Justo Sierra Street for the past four months in advance of redevelopment. The area was part of the sacred enclosure of Tenochtitlán southwest of the Templo Mayor before the Spanish conquest, and differential land subsidence posed a threat to any potential historical remains at the site.

By boring vertical holes into the ground eight feet deep, the team discovered the remains of a pre-Hispanic basalt slab floor indicating there was once a square or open space in the Sacred Enclosure next to the House of Eagles. They also found a platform just 16 inches high but 40 feet long, and that’s just the length that’s been excavated so far; there’s more to be found. The platform has a north-south orientation and may have been connected to one that ran behind the Templo Mayor and is believed to continue under Justo Sierra Street. The depth of the platform suggests it dates to the rule of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (1502-1520) and may have been part of the eastern boundary of the Sacred Enclosure.

One of the boreholes revealed a more unexpected find: the architectural remains of a house from the early viceregal period (1521-1620). It was constructed of basalt slabs, blocks of volcanic andesite and tezontle, pre-Hispanic materials recycled into a new home after the destruction of Tenochtitlan on August 13, 1521, by Hernán Cortés and his allies.

Architectural remains like this are rare discoveries, so the team extended the borehole into a full-on trench 12 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and almost nine feet deep.  They were able to discover a staircase connected to a wall three feet wide. This was the side access to the home.

[PAU head] Raúl Barrera said that this discovery “is wonderful! Because we are observing its clear manufacturing by surviving Mexicans, because this pair of steps – formed with basalt blocks – and the wall, preserve a fine stucco of lime and sand, of typically indigenous make-up; but the architectural pattern of this house is already clearly European.

“An interesting aspect that we observe in the remains of this house, is that the pre-Hispanic floor was not used, but rather leveled through fillings ranging between 15 and 40 centimeters, and then occupied the basalt slabs. Many times they displaced the viceregal dwellings on the pre-Hispanic structures; sometimes they reuse or adapt walls as foundations,” he said.

Archaeologists consider that the natives were returned to the area occupied by the Sacred Enclosure to serve as labor, under the direction of the Spaniards. An example of this is the open stairway, which denotes the continuity of indigenous construction techniques, but already under Renaissance architectural patterns. “Although Tenochtitlan fell, the Spaniards were afraid of an insurrection, and that caution is noted in the construction and thickness of the walls of the house built in the first years after the Spanish conquest,” the PAU head said.


Man as Industrial Palace now in motion

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

It has been almost a decade since I first saved a draft post about Dr. Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), the gynecologist and popular science writer who in 1926 designed an image you’ve almost certainly seen before: “Man as Industrial Palace,” an infographic depicting the functions of the human body as an industrial complex. It has taken me this long to delve as deeply as I felt this image deserved because detailed information about Kahn is hard to find on the Internet and because I wanted to include copious English-language labels for the amazing illustration. The originals are in German, and even then very little of what you see is labeled in the intricate poster. The visual takes precedence over the verbal. An exceptional trilingual monograph of Fritz Kahn’s life and works by Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz came to my rescue on every count. I owe this post to them.

The analogy of man to machine was a widespread cultural trend in the 1920s and 30s. The explosion of industry and consumer technology in the early 20th century inspired new approaches to art and literature, integrating the the human experience into the dynamic speed, power and sharp edges of the machine age. Futurists stuffed steel ball bearings into roast chicken, Fritz Lang made men cogs in one machine and made a woman out of another, and Fritz Kahn diagrammed the complexities of human biology by comparing them to industrial and household machines.

Born in 1888 in Halle der Saale, Fritz was the son of Arthur and Hedwig Kahn. Arthur was a physician and a writer and his son would follow in his father’s footsteps. He started writing popular science articles for the journal Kosmos while still an undergraduate at Berlin University in 1907. By the time he graduated from medical school as a gynecologist in 1914, he’d already written a book about astronomy for the general public, and after serving as a medic in World War I, he continued to work both as a doctor and as an author, publishing a successful book about the cell in 1919 and writing articles on, among other things, archaeology, aviation, Jewish history and his war experience.

His books sold briskly, going into repeated print runs in their first years, but it was his knack for illustration and design that would become his trademark. (Quite literally, in fact, as in later years a team of illustrators would bring his design concepts to fruition and those images would be stamped with his FK trademark.) From 1922 through 1931, the heyday of the Weimar Republic, Kahn published a five-volume study of human biology, Das Leben des Menschen  (“The Life of Man”), to international best-selling acclaim, wrote articles for Kosmos and other magazines, gave lectures, edited the Encyclopaedia Judaica all the while continuing to practice medicine.

It was in Das Leben des Menschen that Fritz Kahn published the image that would become most indelibly associated with him. The supplementary folding plate entitled Man as Industrial Palace depicted the primary functions of the body as a complex factory complete with homunculi busily operating the controls. Men in suits in the conference rooms of the brain make decisions as Reason and Will; the Mind is run by a librarian. A man in a headset operates a telegraph for Hearing. A photographer snaps the shutter of the bellows camera for Sight. Men at lightboards monitor valves and signals of the Muscle, Gland and Nerve Control Centers. Workers shift gears to move food through the digestive tract. A man seated at a stamping machine produces red corpuscles in the Blood Marrow. Winches, pulleys, pistons, cables and tubes form the infrastructure of all of the body’s systems.

Here is an illustration that labels the “Man as Industrial Palace” graphic in detail. It was included in an explanatory supplement to the poster printed in 1926. I’ve put the lettered and numbered labels translated into English in this pdf file.

Illustration from an explanatory supplement to the "Man as Industrial Palace" poster, 1926.

That was the last of Fritz Kahn’s books initially published in Europe. Kahn, whose grandfather had been a cantor, whose father was deeply devout in his Judaism, who had published tracts against anti-Semitism in the 1920s and was a committed Zionist, happened to be in Palestine when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He wisely decided to stay where he was, and he and his family settled in Jerusalem. In Germany his books were banned and burned, but that didn’t stop his publisher from reprinting a version of Das Leben des Menschen, illustrations included, without attribution and with the addition of a vile new chapter by Nazi sympathizer Gerhard Venzmer promoting scientific racism and anti-Semitism.

He left Palestine in 1939 and moved to France where he barely managed to stay ahead of the German invaders. In 1940 he was interned in Vichy France, but thanks to the Herculean efforts of his wife and humanitarian Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, he was released and the couple fled to Spain and Portugal. They were able to emigrate to the United States in 1941 thanks to the intervention of Albert Einstein. “As I have a high opinion of Dr. Kahn as personality and as author I should be thankful if the visa would be granted to him,” Einstein wrote to the US Consul in Lisbon.

Kahn’s books were already known in the US, but it took him a while to get a foothold in the American literary market. When Das Leben des Menschen was translated into English and published in the United States as Man in Structure and Function in 1943, he finally had a hit again. He continued to publish popular science books even as his generalist approach began to fall out of fashion in favor of specialist authors, and he eventually returned to Europe. He died in Switzerland in 1968.

Some of his books remained in print into the 1980s, but the appetite for his approach had waned and his striking imagery faded from the wider cultural consciousness. Nonetheless, his man-machine visions had a profound influence on many, from his contemporaries like patent medicine hawker Dr. Ferdinand-Gabriel-Aimé Brunerye, to modern-day artists like Madrid illustrator Fernando Vicente who channels a Frankenstein creature of Vargas, Vesalius and Kahn to create dissected biomechanical pin-up girls.

In the Internet era, his images, particularly Man as Industrial Palace, took on new life. His prescient grasp of what would become the ubiquitous infographic — a picture conveying simplifying data — made Kahn’s work on trend once again. Photos of them are widely shared and reproductions of the poster are easily available online. The originals will run you a cool two grand on eBay.  The larger format promotional posters subscribers to Das Leben des Menschen received sell for much more than that ($3,750 at a 2007 Christie’s auction, for example). Institutions have given Kahn long overdue attention in the past decade as well, and exhibitions including his work have been displayed at the Berlin Medical Historical Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Art Basel and other museums around the world.

Some of those exhibitions have included an interactive animated display of Man as Industrial Palace created by graphic artist Henning M. Lederer, and the animation is so awesome that it inspired this entire post. If any graphic in the world was ideally designed to see in movement, Fritz Kahn’s man-machine is that graphic.

From the moment on that Henning Lederer got to know Kahn’s poster “Man as Industrial Palace” in 2006, he had the idea to animate this complex and strange way of explaining the functions of a body. He wanted to continue Fritz Kahn’s act of replacing a biological with a technological structure by transferring this depiction with the help of motion graphics and animation. In addition to the moving images,
as a framework, Henning created a cabinet for his work including a mixture of old and new technology. This new version of the “Industrial Palace“ is an interactive installation for the audience to interact with – and by this to explore the different cycles of this human machinery.

If you missed this installation in the many museums where it has been exhibited alongside Kahn’s originals, you won’t get to explore the full genius of Lederer’s animation which divides the diagram into six cycles (Respiration, Blood Circulation, Digestive Circuit, Control Center and Industrial Palace) and allows visitors to push a button to see each in action.  Thankfully, Lederer uploaded the Industrial Palace animation to Vimeo for the benefit of biomech/history/anatomy/industrial arts nerds everywhere.



New documentary of Eastland disaster

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

One hundred years and one day after the steamship Eastland rolled onto its side while still tied to the pier of the Chicago River at the Clark Street Bridge killing 844 picnic-goers in what remains Chicago’s greatest loss of a life in a single day, a new documentary aired about the disaster aired on Chicago’s PBS station. The Eastland disaster took the lives of 844 people, most of them women and children. The Great Chicago Fire killed 300, but the former fell down the memory hole even in Chicago while the latter has become an iconic watershed moment in city history. 

Producers Harvey Moshman and Chuck Coppola have engaged the subject before, producing a one-hour documentary, The Eastland Disaster, in 2001. The 2015 discovery of long-lost footage of the catastrophe inspired Moshman and Coppola to delve once more into the events of July 24th, 1915. This treatment goes into more depth, featuring new and archival interviews with witnesses, survivors, descendants and historians, extensive research into the aftermath and CGI-enhanced recreations of how the disaster took place.

The Eastland was built in 1903 by the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan, which specialized in freight ships. Cargo is loaded evenly and stays still at the bottom of a ship’s hold. Even a top-heavy vessel will remain relatively stable with a belly full of cargo and proper water ballast. Passengers are not so predictable. They move around and spread out, and the whole reason the Eastland was so top-heavy in the first place was that it had been built with bulky upper decks to accommodate large crowds of vacationers and day-trippers. Ballast can’t counter the constantly shifting weight of moving passengers. Eastland frequently listed and took on water when carrying half as many passengers as were on board on the day of the disaster. It had listed so badly to port on a 1912 voyage that the crew only managed to keep it from capsizing by herding all the passengers to the starboard side.

On July 24th, 1915, the steamship was even more top-heavy, loaded with extra life boats and rafts on the upper deck. The Seaman’s Act requiring sufficient lifesaving craft for every passenger would go into effect at the end of the year and by its terms the Eastland would go from a legal capacity of 2,000 passengers to 1,200. A rainy summer had resulted in very poor ticket sales in June and July of 1915 — on Jun 15th there were a grand total of 41 passengers on the excursion — and the ship’s owner, the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co., was keen to jack the capacity way up to recoup some of their losses. Just two weeks before the Western Electric picnic, they managed to pile enough life boats onto the upper deck to get approved to carry 2,500 passengers and 75 crew. Stability tests were optional at this time, so inspector Robert Reed simply counted the seats available on the life boats and certified the Eastland for that number of passengers on July 10th. 

Exactly two weeks later, the Eastland, now loaded with 33 extra tons of life boats, rafts and new concrete decking to replace old rotten wood, took on its first load of 2,500 passengers. To raise the gangplank and make boarding easier and faster, Eastland‘s Captain Harry Pederson had a standing order that the ballast tanks be emptied, a practice he engaged in despite warnings from naval architects that the perpetually listing Eastland‘s tanks must always be full to keep it balanced. This choice had unbearably tragic consequences by destabilizing the ship all the more and ensuring the highest possible body count. 

A huge crowd of 7,000 employees and family members of the Western Electric company waited elbow-to-elbow on the docks for the five steamers engaged to take them across Lake Michigan on their fifth annual company picnic. The Eastland was the first to load up. Men, women and children flocked on board, many crowded in the hull to avoid the drizzle of the misty Chicago morning, many more seeking some breathing room, river views and a good time on dance floor accompanied by live piano music on the upper decks.

The ship began to list. Then it listed some more. Then it listed to the other side, ever at a steeper incline. With its dock lines still attached, the Eastland capsized, rolling all the way over on the river side. Hundreds tumbled into the river. With barely any room to spread out in the short river berth, they fell on top of each other and desperately pulled people down in their attempts to reach the surface. Anybody in the hull on the river side was trapped, destined to die of suffocation, blunt trauma and trampling before the water even reached them. 

From Nurse Helen Repa’s heartbreaking account of the day and how she gave aid to the victims at the scene of the disaster and at the nearest emergency hospital:

I shall never be able to forget what I saw. People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a life raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything they could reach—at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all.

With the ship capsized and thousands of people struggling for their lives, many hundreds of them trapped inside the ship, suffocating under the weight of furniture, debris and other passengers, Pederson, instead of aiding in the rescue of the men, women and children he’d help doom to a monstrous death, tried to stop steel workers from using their acetylene torches to cut holes in the hull. “Stop it,” he yelled. “You’ll ruin the ship.” The steel workers had to waste precious time arguing their way past him.

The captain and five crewmen were arrested. Captain Pederson had to dodge an angry mob when he was released from custody. State and Federal indictments against Pederson, the Eastland‘s chief engineer Joseph Erickson, officials of the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co. and the inspector, Robert Reed. They were charged with conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship and put on trial. The famous Clarence Darrow was their defense attorney. He argued that the ship had rolled because it struck a hidden pylon under the water. Total fabrication, of course, and everyone knew it. The defendants were all acquitted.

A civil suit was lodged by the heirs of the victims. Only the chief engineer was adjudicated guilty of negligence. The cap on damages was the value of the ship’s hull — $45,000 — and the creditors got to take their payment first. By the time the salvagers, coal suppliers and the rest had been paid, there wasn’t a cent left for the families. The St. Joseph Co. went out of business. Pederson retired to a farm. William Hull, vice president of the company, fled Chicago to avoid prosecution and became a banker in St. Joseph, Michigan. (Extradition laws were different in 1915, and people could not be compelled to return to Chicago for trial even though they lived there when the crime took place and had deliberately left the jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.) No one served time in prison or even paid a fine.

In the teens, Chicago had a thriving film industry. There were three newsreel companies — Tribune Selig, Mutual, Universal — all of which had cameras and crews on the scene within minutes of the Eastland‘s capsizing. Films of the disaster was distributed to 40 other cities and around the world. It could be seen in practically any city in the Midwest except for the city where the tragedy took place. Newsreel footage was banned in Chicago. The mayor’s office decided the death and devastation would be too horrific for Chicagoans to watch.

Literally a century would pass before footage of the disaster was seen in Chicago thanks to University of Illinois Ph.D. candidate Jeff Nichols’ discovery of surviving newsreel clips in the Europeana database. The first time it was broadcast in a public theater in Chicago was at a preview showing of the new documentary a few weeks ago.

Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day aired on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW on July 25th and several times since then. It may be available On Demand in that market, but it won’t be distributed to PBS stations nationwide until 2020. It is available for digital download ($9.95) right now and the DVD ($19.95) will be available later this month.


No McDonald’s at Baths of Caracalla

Monday, August 5th, 2019

There’s are dozens of McDonald’s in Rome — the flagship in Piazza di Spagna next to the Spanish Steps, one near the Fountain of Trevi, another at the Termini station, etc. — and there’s one a dozen miles south of the Eternal City that straddles an archaeological museum displaying a perfectly preserved stretch of Roman road. That last one only happened because the road was discovered during construction of the new location and McDonald’s paid to excavate, conserve and display the archaeological remains underneath its restaurant.

What it won’t get to do, however, is build a new Double Arches adjacent the soaring majesty of the actual arches of the Baths of Caracalla. The crazy thing is that it almost did.  Municipal authorities approved plans to build a huge 8,600-square-foot McDonald’s that would have seated 250 people, had a drive-through, a bouncy house and a big parking lot. Construction had even begun. That’s how residents found out about this plan and began to raise a huge stink, complete with on-site protests and vigils that got tons of press.

Finally, Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli announced on Facebook on Wednesday that the ministry had canceled the authorization for construction.  How it got to the point where the state authorities had to reverse the municipality’s approval is a mystery. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi says she knew nothing about it until she read about the protests in the paper and that she supported the Bonisoli’s decision. “The wonders of Rome must be protected,” she wrote on Twitter (to much derision in comments from Romans sick to death of the garbage that is choking the city this hot summer).

There will be an inquiry of dubious efficacy to figure out how this debacle went down, and there’s still a chance McD’s will take them to court to get to build on a UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site as planned. It wouldn’t be the first time. For now, at least, the Baths of Caracalla will be reserved for summer operas and McFlurry-free tourists.


Coin collection buried by Holocaust victim found

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

The search is on for the legal owner of an exceptional collection of coins found in a cellar in Hungary that was buried by someone who almost certainly died in the Holocaust. The coins were found in the town of Keszthely 120 miles southwest of Budapest this February when the current homeowners were digging a hole in a cellar. They dug out five glass jars, each filled with coins and carefully sealed. The jars held 2,800 gold and silver coins from all over the world ranging in date from antiquity to the 20th century.

Almost half of the coins are from Pannonia, which was a province of the Roman Empire that covers modern-day western Hungary, according to Ferenc Redo, an archaeologist and coin expert.

The others are mostly antique coins from around the world, including pre- and post-revolutionary France, 19th century German territories, and both Tsarist- and Soviet-era Russia.

Many are from even farther afield, including South America, Africa, Asia and British-ruled India.

The house where the collection was found was in the ghetto in 1944 and given the presence of early 20th century coins, it’s almost certain they were buried by their Jewish owners in the desperate hope they might return to reclaim them at the end of the war.

The homeowners turned the coins in and they are now in the custody of Keszthely’s Balatoni Museum. There was also some jewelry stashed with the coins, some engraved. The engraving provides a key clue to the possible identity of the collection’s owners: the Pollak family, successful traders who lived in Keszthely before World War II.

The Holocaust struck like a whirlwind in Hungary. Even though Hungary had passed draconian anti-Jewish laws for decades (it was the first European country to do so after World War I), the government resisted Nazi pressure to expel/deport/murder its Jewish citizens on the grounds that the “Jewish problem” would be better solved by slaughtering them after the war was over, because their labour and skills were needed during the war.

That’s how Hungarian Jews managed to survive most of the war without being destroyed. Ghettoized, entrained, marked and immiserated, most assuredly, but still alive. As late of the spring of 1944, there were 800,000 Jews in Hungary, one of the largest extant Jewish communities in Europe at that time.

That changed in March 1944, when German forces occupied Hungary. The tides of war had turned against Germany and the Hungarian government was actively making peace overtures to the Allies. Hitler wasn’t having that, so the relatively hands-off alliance ended and occupation began.

Adolf Eichmann came in and did his monstrous thing. With the sickening efficiency that had become his trademark, he divided the country into six zones and emptied each in turn of its Jews. Deportations began on May 15th. Between then and July 8th, 440,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz.  Three thousand people a day, every day for six weeks, arrived on cattle cars at Auschwitz, 90% of them killed on arrival. The influx was so great that the crematoria could not keep up.

According to the 1941 Hungarian census, there were 755 Jews in Keszthely, about 6% of the town’s total population. On May 15th, 1944, 768 Jews from 319 families were locked into the ghetto, a few blocks centered around the town’s handsome 19th century neoclassical synagogue. On June 20th, 719 of the Jews (the rest used for slave labour) were moved to the Zalaegerszeg ghetto, then to Auschwitz. Twenty-two members of the Pollak family, five of them children, were among them. By the time the deportations ended in July, 829 Jews had been deported from Keszthely. When the war was over, only 64 of them had survived. Today just a dozen Jews live in Keszthely.

The museum plans to digitalise the collection and enlist archivists and historians to scour the Pollak family tree in search of descendants.

If no owner can be found, the collection will revert to ownership by the state.

“We also hope the exhibition will spread the word about the coins, and that a legal owner will turn up,” Havasi said.


Do you know this face?

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

The North Carolina Office of State Archaeology has been stumped by an artifact found in a field near Newton Grove, North Carolina, and is asking for help in identifying it. The sandstone sculpture was discovered by Tom Giddens while ploughing his field. He moved the slab to the side and kept on ploughing.

When he was done, he turned the stone over and saw that it had a face carved on the front. He alerted the Office of State Archaeology to his discovery.

“It is definitely a rare find, which is why we presently don’t know how old it is or who made it. It is made of sandstone, which is of medium hardness and therefore does not require specialized tools to carve,” [Assistant State Archaeologist Mary Beth] Fitts said of the sculpture.

The piece is large at 22.2 x 15.75 inches and appears to have some carving on the back as well as the face on the front. There’s a line along the bottom side that seems to define a chin.

Archaeologists are hoping that someone out there knows of a comparable artifact. A similar piece might shed light on when this one was carved and by whom. In aid of that, the NC Office of State Archaeology has created and shared a 3D model of the sculpture.

If this congenial fellow looks familiar, let the Office of State Archaeology know on their Facebook page or via email.


Giant Justinian gets Getty grant

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

A monumental oil on canvas painting in dire need of conservation will get the help it needs thanks to a $176,800 grant from the Getty Foundation. Emperor Justinian, made in 1886 by Orientalist French painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and now in the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, will be restored as part of the Getty’s Conserving Canvas initiative, which provides funds and expertise in the latest conservation methods that will be taught to the trainees in the program.

For centuries, it was common practice to protect canvas paintings by backing or lining them with another canvas to create a moisture barrier and provide greater structural integrity, but a shift toward minimal intervention has produced a knowledge gap among today’s museum conservators in how to treat lined paintings.

Conserving Canvas aims to ensure that conservators remain fully prepared to care for these important works of art through a combination of training activities and information dissemination. […]

The John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory at The Ringling will partner with Artcare Conservation to carry out the conservation treatment of “Emperor Justinian” in its Miami studio. International collaboration involves four postgraduate mid-career painting conservators from the United States, Canada and Colombia who have been invited to participate as trainees in various stages of the structural treatment. Two junior painting conservators at The Ringling will also take part as trainees.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant was a Parisian painter who, influenced by a voyage to Spain and Morocco in 1872, became enamored with Orientalist style and subjects. He was known for large-scale pieces, murals in particular after 1880, and Emperor Justinian is one of his larger works at 13.3 x 22 feet. You can see the influence of Moroccan design in the tile and fabrics. The rich golds and red, characteristic elements of his palette, still manage to shine even after years of neglect and damage.

The work has only been owned by two people. Dry goods magnate and avid art collector Godfrey Mannheimer bought it from the artist in 1887. He donated it the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1890 and for a time at the turn of the century is was prominently displayed there, but in 1928 the museum returned it to the donor’s family, namely Mamie Manheimer (Godfrey’s daughter) and her husband Dr. Leonard Dessar. John Ringling bought the monumental canvas from them in 1928.

Son a German immigrant harness maker, John Ringling was born in Iowa to a large family of modest means in 1866. He was 18 when he teamed up with four of his brothers and an established showman to form The Yankee Robinson and Ringling Bros. Double Show. Less than five years later in 1888, the Ringling Brothers had their own show. They were innovators — the circus first to travel the country by train — and when they bought Barnum & Bailey in 1907, they became the biggest show in the country.

In 1905, John married Mable Burton. His investments in railroad, oil, real estate (at one point he owned 25% of the Sarasota area) and entertainment made him very wealthy, and he and Mable spent lavishly on travel, art and property. John and Mable built a splendid collection, acquiring top quality art works, furnishings and decorative objects on every trip to Europe. They filled Ca’ d’Zan, the sumptuous Venetian Gothic style palace they had built in Sarasota in 1926, with their acquisitions, and the massive 36,000-square-foot mansion gave their collection plenty of room to grow in its 56 rooms.

Mable died in June of 1929 aged just 54 from diabetes and complications from Addison’s disease. John was devastated by the loss of his beloved wife, and his misfortunes would spill over into his finances later that year. The Wall Street Crash hit his investments very hard. Still, he set in motion the vision he and Mable had always had to use their collection as the core of an art museum “to promote education and art appreciation, especially among our young people.” In October of 1931, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art opened its doors.

John died in 1936. In his will he bequeathed his entire estate, museum and collection included, to the people of Florida. The state didn’t take on the job of administering the museum with enthusiasm in the first decade. It was only open off-and-on and not maintained properly. In 1946, the first Arthur “Chick” Austin, Jr., an expert in Baroque art, was hired as its first director. From then on, the Ringling Museum of Art developed into one of country’s finest.

In 1980 it was declared the official State Art Museum of Florida. Twenty years later, the State gave Florida State University governance of the museum. Today the museum complex (which includes the Circus Museum, the Historic Asolo Theater, the Ringling Art Library and the John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory),  is one of the largest university art complexes in the country.

Emperor Justinian has spent most of its decades in lovely Sarasota rolled up in storage. The paint has flaked very badly and there are a number of holes in the canvas. The flaking on the left side of the work is so severe, protective facings have been applied to the surface to keep any more paint from falling off. The conservation team will first stabilize the paint and reduce the significant distortion in the canvas. Discolored varnish will be removed and areas of paint loss will be judicious filled in. New lining fabric will be affixed to the back of the original canvas to give it structural support.

When conservation is completed, the painting will be given pride of place in one of The Ringling’s largest galleries. I’m eager to see how they frame it. I love a huge frame and a piece that size can take a lot frame.

(Sorry about that shamelessly not-quite-alliterative tile. It was so close, though.)


Operation Night Watch begins today

Monday, July 8th, 2019

Operation Night Watch, the Rijksmuseum’s ambitious research and conservation project of Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece begins today, July 8th, in full public view. The monumental oil painting will remain in place instead of being moved to a lab. An ultra-transparent glass chamber has been erected around it to allow conservators and the complex technology they’ll be using to work in controlled condition even as visitors get a clear view of the action.

Never before has such a wide-ranging and thorough investigation been made of the condition of The Night Watch. The latest and most advanced research techniques will be used, ranging from digital imaging and scientific and technical research, to computer science and artificial intelligence. The research will lead to a better understanding of the painting’s original appearance and current state, and provide insight into the many changes that The Night Watch has undergone over the course of the last four centuries. The outcome of the research will be a treatment plan that will form the basis for the restoration of the painting.

Imaging techniques, including macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (macro-XRF) and infrared reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS), will help determine its current condition, and macro X-ray fluorescence scans will analyze the chemical make-up of the paint literally millimeter by millimeter. Each scan takes 24 hours and the team will have to do 56 of them to cover the whole work. The data will allow researchers to create an insanely detailed map of the pigments used in every layer, revealing any changes in composition and shedding new light on Rembrandt’s painting process.  

The high-resolution photography will be absolutely unprecedented. There will be 12,500 photographs taken ranging in resolution from 180 to 5 micrometres. No painting this size has ever been photographed as so high a resolution. Researchers (and the rest of us peering over their shoulders) will be able to study details invisible to the naked eye. 

The Night Watch will be removed from its frame for the initial research phase and placed on a bespoke easel. It will keep the work stable while experts study the entire canvas using two platform lifts to access every part of the masterpiece. 

For those of us who can’t attend in person, the Rijksmuseum website will offer video of the work in progress. There will also be special events on social media for the public around the world to learn more about the project. Those kick off today with an Instagram Live chat with Katrien Keune, head of Science at the Rijksmuseum. It starts at 5PM (11AM EST). If you have any questions about the research into the Night Watch and the conservation, pop over to Instagram and ask it.

You can see the extremely cool glass-walled enclosure built and the painting mounted in this time-lapse video:


Original Apollo 11 moon landing film for sale

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

The only surviving, first-generation film of the Apollo 11 moon landing is being sold at auction on July 20th, the 50th anniversary of that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. This isn’t the iconic but grainy-as-hell footage that was broadcast live on television. This is what was shown on the screen at Mission Control in Houston and it is complete.

The lot consists of three 10.5-inch metal reels of videotape recorded at at Mission Control, Manned Spaceflight Center, Houston, Texas. The tapes run 45:04, 49:00, and 50:15 minutes, encompassing the entire lunar landing process including nine minutes at the beginning of the first tape when Mission Control was waiting for the Westinghouse TV camera mounted on the Lunar Landing Module’s (LM) Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly to be deployed on the lunar surface. Once the camera had captured the Neil Armstrong’s first steps, he and Aldrin recovered it from the MESA and mounted it on a tripod for the wider shots. 

This primary witness to mankind’s greatest technological achievement was inadvertently rescued by an engineering student from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, from the destruction visited upon the slow-scan videotapes of the historic first moon walk and preserved ever since. Viewed only three times since June 1976 (perhaps the only times since they were first recorded late in the evening on 20 July 1969 at NASA’s Mission Control Center, Houston, Texas), these three reels of 2-inch Quadruplex videotape justify a statement made during the mission by Capsule Communicator Charlie Duke to Apollo Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. Duke had told Collins, who was aboard Columbia in lunar orbit, that he was just about the only person in the world without television coverage of his crewmates’ planting of the United States flag on the moon. In response, Collins asked, “How is the quality of the TV?” “Oh,” replied the CAPCOM, “it’s beautiful, Mike, it really is.”

If these videotapes do not quite transport viewers to the lunar surface with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they certainly put you in front of the big screen monitor at Mission Control on the evening of 20 July 1969, with images clearer and with better contrast than those that the more than half-billion-person television audience saw on their home sets. Home viewers watched video that had been transmitted over a 1,600-mile relay of microwave transmission towers to the major television networks in New York City, with each transfer causing a bit of deterioration to the picture quality. In contrast, Mission Control saw the same video that is on these 2-inch quad videotapes: moving pictures sent directly to Houston from closed circuit TV transmissions from the lunar surface beamed to 64-meter-diameter radio telescopes at the Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek Observatories in New South Wales and Canberra, Australia, respectively, and NASA’s own similar-sized antenna in Goldstone, California.

It’s mind-boggling to think that such a historic treasure trove survived entirely by happenstance instead of being hoarded and lovingly conserved, but that’s what happened. When Gary George was an intern at the NASA Johnson Space Center in 1976, he went to a government surplus auction at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. For the prodigious sum of $217.77, he purchased a lot of 1,150 reels of magnetic tape once owned by NASA.

Some of the tapes were a reel-to-reel kind then used by television stations. Since it was expensive and re-recordable, George planned to sell them to local stations. He did sell some of them. The smaller format tapes most got tossed. It was his father who suggested he keep the videotapes with the Apollo 11 label, and thank the stars above Gary George listened to Dad. 

And so the tapes lay fallow but safe until 2008 when George learned that NASA was trying to find the original videotapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He contacted NASA but they weren’t able to sort out how even to view the tapes to see what was on them. He did his own research and found a video archivist capable of playing the tapes. In October of 2008, the video was viewed for the first time, possibly ever, and they were pristine. They were played again that December in order to be digitized. They were played one more time by Sotheby’s experts in preparation for the auction.

Meanwhile, NASA gave up on trying to locate the original videotapes of the SSTV high-resolution recordings they had so inexplicably taped over. Instead, they had CBS Television’s footage restored and upconverted in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 EVA. Now they have the chance to right this wrong, but it’ll cost them. The pre-sale estimate for the tapes $1,000,000 – 2,000,000.

By the way, that entire auction is a space nerd’s paradise. Be sure to browse the catalogue if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ll take the command module pin from Apollo 9, all of the rocket, satellite contractor and advertising models, and at least one of the prototype space suits. Oh, and the Mars globe too.





September 2019
« Aug    


Add to Technorati Favorites