Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Conservators dismantle 1830 Appleton pipe organ

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Boston-born Thomas Appleton was apprenticed to cabinet maker Elisha Larned when he was a youth, a trade that he would not pursue but that nonetheless taught him key skills for his true vocation. He switched to organ building in his early 20s, getting a job in the workshop of William Marcellus Goodrich in Templeton, Massachusetts, in 1807. Goodrich would become known as the father of organ building in New England and Appleton was an apt pupil. He went into business with piano makers Hayt and Alpheus Babcock in 1810, but the company went under in the economic recession following the War of 1812. Appleton’s collaborations with Goodrich from 1810 through 1820, on the other hand, were very successful. Together they built organs, pianos and claviorgans which dominated the Boston market. During the three decades Goodrich’s shop was in operation — 1803 to 1833 — only three organs were imported into Boston because he (and later he and Appleton) were able to fill the city’s considerable demand for high quality instruments.

Appleton struck out on his own again in 1821. Over the next two decades, he did what is generally held to be his best work. According to the Organ Historical Society, Appleton “brought the hand-made organ to the zenith of craftsmanship.” Thomas Appleton lived a long, fruitful life, dying in 1872 at age 87. During his lifetime, he built 35 organs for Boston churches and organizations, and more than 100 for other cities.

One of the latter was an organ he built in 1830, the only instrument he made that year, for South Church in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a two-manual organ with 836 pipes in sixteen ranks and an 18-note pedalboard. The façade pipes were covered in gold leaf and the instrument was cased in an extraordinary Greek Revival case 15 feet tall. The church replaced this majestic instrument with a larger model in 1854, moving the original somewhere else. It popped back up again in 1883, when it was acquired by the Sacred Heart Church in Plains, Pennsylvania. The installer, Emmons Howard, added nine notes to the pedalboard at that time.

The Appleton pipe organ was used in the Plains church until it was replaced by an electronic organ decades ago. The church thankfully did nothing at all to the Appleton instrument and it was left to gather dust in the rear gallery. That’s where it was, all but obscured by clutter, when a young organ buff happened upon it in 1980. He alerted Alan Laufman of the Organ Clearing House, an organization founded by the Organ Historical Society to rescue endangered pre-electric organs, who recognized it as the very special instrument it is. The date “1830″ inside the case made it clear that this was the organ Appleton built for South Church, now the earliest surviving Appleton pipe organ.

Two years later, the organ was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of no more than four two-manual Appleton organs known to survive, this one was the earliest and the only one with ironclad documentation identifying it as an Appleton. It had some condition issues after so many decades of neglect — cracks in the air reservoir, dried leather on the bellows, plywood nailed to some of the mahogany veneer surfaces, bad paint jobs on others, a few broken pipes — but nothing but a few stopknob labels, a few of the keyboard ivories and bits of the moldings were missing. The giant hand-pump handle was still there. Even the initials of the choir boys tasked with pumping it were found carved on the back of the case.

Organ expert Lawrence Trupiano was tasked with restoring the organ, an exacting job to be sure, but at least there was nothing to rebuild, no modern pieces needed to replace broken or unusable origins. He regilded the façade pipes, fixed the broken pipes, renewed the mahogany case and brought it back to its original splendor. Laurence Libin, the Metropolitan Museum’s curator of musical instruments, described it as “the finest and best preserved and possibly the largest early 19th-century American instrument still intact.”

The restored Appleton pipe organ was installed in the equestrian court of the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments at the Met in 1983. Since then it has been played regularly for gallery visitors and special events. In February of this year, the André Mertens Galleries closed for refurbishment. The Met took the opportunity to do some conservation work on the organ. Over the course of three weeks, the Appleton pipe organ was completely dismantled, under the hawkeyed supervision of Lawrence Trupiano. Its needs will be seen to and it will be back in place for the reopening of the gallery in 2017.

Meanwhile, enjoy this time-lapse video of the dismantling process which serves some hardcore reverse-IKEA realness accompanied by the strains of Louis Vierne’s “Divertissement” from 24 Pièces en style libre, Op. 31, performed on the Appleton organ by Paolo Bordignon on November 4th, 2015.

Library acquires hand-drawn 1790 map of Detroit

Saturday, October 1st, 2016

The University of Michigan’s Clement Library has acquired a previously unknown map of Detroit from 1790. The hand-drawn, hand-colored map entitled “Rough sketch of the King’s Domain at Detroit” was found in a home in Almonte, Ontario. The owner believed his grandfather had bought in the 1930s, but he didn’t know anything about it. He contacted experts to find out if it was an original 18th century piece as labeled and they confirmed that its authenticity. The owner wanted an educational institution to have the map so that it could be of use to students, teachers and researchers, and the University of Michigan was the ideal place for an early map of Detroit.

The map is 21-by-40 inches in dimension and shows Fort Lernoult, built by the British in 1779 and ceded to the United States in 1796, top center, its surrounding fields and defenses, the shipyard and associated Navy garden on the Detroit River and, just south of the fort, the grid lines of the early city which by then had a population of about 2,000 people. The town was protected east and west by wooden stockades running from the river to the fort. Drawn on watermarked 18th century paper, it dated September 1790 and signed by “DW Smith Actg Fort Adjutant.” That was Captain David William Smith, the son of Major John Smith, commander of the 5th Regiment of Foot at Fort Lernoult. Major Smith was the chairman of the land board of the District of Hesse (the section of English Canada that included the city of Detroit); his son was the secretary.

It wouldn’t be Captain Smith’s only foray into map-making. The Clement Library has another map of Detroit drawn by him, but he would really go pro once up north. Two years after he put pen to paper on the “Rough sketch of the King’s Domain at Detroit,” he was appointed deputy surveyor general by Canada’s Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe (the real life inspiration for the highly fictionalized and scenery-chewing villain on the AMC’s American Revolution series Turn: Washington’s Spies) and was elected to the 1st Parliament of Upper Canada. In 1798 he was appointed surveyor general of Upper Canada and the next year published A Short Topographical Description of His Majesty’s Province of Upper Canada in North America, with an annotated second edition published at Simcoe’s behest in 1813. He also managed to purchase 20,000 acres of land in Ontario that would form fully half of the original city of Toronto.

Brian Dunnigan, curator of maps and associate director of the Clements Library[:]

“This is a really special find because there aren’t any other maps that depict Detroit at this particular time period, which was about six years before the British peacefully evacuated the town and fort to make way for the arrival of United States troops.” [...]

According to Dunnigan, who is an expert in early Detroit, Mackinac, Niagara and 18th-century Great Lakes history, and author of “Frontier Metropolis: Picturing Early Detroit,” the manuscript plan identifies the east and west boundaries of the “Domain,” an extra-wide ribbon strip of land that Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, founder of Detroit, granted to himself in 1701.

The map includes many new details of the frontier city. Within the platted ground of the Domain is a very specific plan of the town, its defenses, and Fort Lernoult, constructed during the American Revolution and located (in modern terms) at the intersection of Fort and Shelby streets. It also includes proposed fortifications that were never constructed.

Due to a number of parcels of land bearing numbers, Dunnigan believes the map was once accompanied by a key or a report that has not yet been found.

The map will be the star of an exhibition at the Clement Library in 2017.

Stolen Van Gogh paintings found after 14 years

Friday, September 30th, 2016

Two oil paintings stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002 were found by Italian police in a town outside of Naples. The anti-mafia squad raided the apartment of Raffaele Imperiale, a major drug dealer who is currently on the lam probably in the United Arab Emirates, in the village of Castellammare di Stabia as part of a large-scale investigation into drug smuggling by the Amato Pagano clan affiliated with the Camorra, the mafia-like criminal organization centered in Naples. It was in the basement that they found the two paintings wrapped in cloth.

The police called in experts to confirm the identity of the paintings, but they already knew what they had. The theft from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is notorious, one of the FBI’s top 10 art crimes thanks to the paintings’ (very conservative) estimated value of $30 million. The two thieves climbed a ladder to the roof and broke into the museum in December of 2002. They stole Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/85), two of the artist’s important early works. Two men were convicted of the theft a year later, but the paintings were never recovered and how they wound up a thousand miles south of Amsterdam in the hands of Camorristi 14 years later remains a mystery.

Van Gogh Museum officials are ecstatic. Museum director Axel Rüger said at the press conference in Naples: “The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for.” The paintings are priceless to the museum, of course; their less left the collection with yawning lacunae.

The art historical value of the paintings for the collection is huge. Seascape at Scheveningen is the only painting in our museum collection dating from Van Gogh’s period in The Hague (1881-1883). It is one of the only two seascapes that he painted during his years in the Netherlands and it is a striking example of Van Gogh’s early style of painting, already showing his highly individual character. The hoped-for forthcoming return of the Seascape will fill an important gap in the museum presentation.

Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is a small canvas that Van Gogh painted for his mother in early 1884. It shows the church of the Reformed Church community in the Brabant village of Nuenen, Van Gogh’s father being its Minister. In 1885, after his father’s death, Van Gogh reworked the painting and added the churchgoers in the foreground, among them a few women in shawls worn in times of mourning. This may be a reference to his father’s death. The strong biographical undertones make this a work of great emotional value. The museum collection does not include any other painting depicting the church. Moreover, it is the only painting in the Van Gogh Museum collection still in its original stretcher frame. This frame is covered in splashes of paint because Van Gogh probably cleaned his brushes on it.

Colonel Giovanni Salerno, head of the Guardia di Finanzia (financial police) division that executed the raid, said they recognized those unique paint marks on the back even before the paintings were authenticated as the missing Van Goghs.

The works appear to be in good condition, all things considered. The frames are gone. Seascape at Scheveningen has suffered some damage and is missing a small rectangle of paint (5 x 2 cm) from the bottom left corner. Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen has some damage around the edges. Conservators will have to examine them more closely to assess their condition. Clearly they have not been kept in ideal climactic condition, so there’s bound to be issues there.

Because the paintings are evidence in a giant organized crime case, they won’t be heading back to Amsterdam anytime soon. They will remain in the hands of Italian law enforcement at least until the criminal case is presented in court, perhaps even through the trial, which could take years. Police in Italy are very sensitive to art theft issues, however, and the museum has every confidence that they’ll do their utmost to get the paintings home as soon as possible.

200-year-old pub, liquor found in Manchester

Thursday, September 29th, 2016

There are many old pubs in Britain. Interruptions in service, moves, rebuilds make it ambiguous which is the oldest, but there are candidates in the running that are literally ancient, like 6th century ancient, and the Feathers Hotel, the oldest continually licensed pub, dates to 1619 and incredibly still has its original wooden facade. So within that venerable context, a pub from the early 19th century isn’t all that remarkable in and of itself.

Manchester is a city of a half a million people today and while it can trace its history back to the 1st century when it was founded as a civilian settlement attached to the Roman fort of Mancunium, for almost 1,800 years it was a small country market town. It wasn’t even a city until 1853. Industrialization made the difference. Manchester exploded in the 19th century when it became a center for cotton processing. In the three decades between 1820 and 1850, the rural hamlet became an urban metropolis bristling with smoke-belching factories and mills.

What make the discovery of the ruins of an early 19th century pub in Manchester’s city center is that so few structures from that period survived the rapid change brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Archaeologists found the foundations and walls of the pub and a bank vault during a survey of a site on the corner of Port Street and Great Ancoats Street where a skyscraper is slated to be built. That there was anything left at all of buildings from the Napoleonic era in downtown Manchester was surprise enough, but then they also found a great many artifacts that included names of people and the pub throughout its history. More than 20 glass bottles survived, some in excellent condition, three or four them still full of booze. (Brandy, apparently.)

Historians know which pub it is because it was still functioning as such until 1928. Opened in 1821 as The Astley Arms, the pub was renamed the Paganini Tavern in 1840, returned to the Astley Arms the next decade before ending its century-long run as Cornbrook House. The building remained standing. It was restored and partially reconstructed in 1986, but eventually was demolished leaving a vacant lot.

Aidan Turner, supervisor at the site and senior archeologist, said it was exciting to be able to link the findings to living people today.

He said: “We found pottery and bottle from the Astley Arms which actually has the name of the proprietor Thomas Evans, and the name of the pub written on it, so it must have been a commissioned piece for the pub.

“It’s brilliant because you can suddenly connect it to the local people in the area. We looked online about his family history and one of his descendants now lives in Texas.

I hope they contact the Texan descendant before the site is covered back up and the 13-story skyscraper is built on top of it. Some of the artifacts will go on display in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry. (I’m partial to the handsome glass bottle with the workman’s arm emblem, traditionally a symbol of manufacturing and industry seen on everything from the Great Seal of Wisconsin to mechanic signs to the logo of the Socialist Labor Party of America, but probably best known in the United States as one of the most enduring corporate logos of all time: Arm & Hammer baking soda.) What happens to the rest, including that ripe old brandy, is up to the property owners.

Lord of Sipan’s face digitally reconstructed

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Like the Egyptian pyramids, huacas (monumental structures) in Peru have been plagued by looters for centuries, and the eroded adobe pyramid built by the Moche before 300 A.D. in Huaca Rajada, near the town of Sipan, was no exception. It was looters, in fact, who first broke into the pyramid and struck literal gold. The archaeological gods were on the job that day, thankfully, and when the thieves got into a dispute over their loot, one of them squealed to the police.

The police called in archaeologist and Moche expert Walter Alva who excavated the site and discovered an elaborate royal burial. In the center of the tomb was the skeleton of a man about 5’4″ tall and 35 to 45 years old at the time of his death. His body was bedecked in precious ornaments — headdresses, face masks, ear rings, nose rings, a large pectoral, necklaces — and all around him were rich grave goods of gold, jewelry, pottery and much more, a total of 451 artifacts. Buried in the tomb with him were three women, two men, a child around nine or 10 years old, a dog and two llamas. The skeletal remains of one more man were found perched in a niche over the chamber roof. It was then and remains today the richest intact pre-Hispanic tomb ever found.

The central figure became known as the Lord of Sipan. The contents of the tomb were removed for study and conservation. They are now on display at the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum in Lambayeque. At the site of the adobe temples in Huaca Rajada, replicas of the Lord’s tomb and others found in the pyramids have been installed so visitors can see them in the open air.

A reconstruction of what the Lord of Sipan might have looked like adorned in all his finery is on view at the museum, but recently a new project was launched to use the latest technology to reexamine the remains and create a digital reconstruction of the Lord of Sipan’s visage. It was a tough challenge. The skull was discovered in 96 pieces, and museum staff had glued the fragments together supported by a plastic frame.

The study’s osteological analysis advanced the Lord’s age a decade (he was 45-55 years old when he died) and increased his height (he was a quarter inch shy of 5’6″). He was not very well muscled, which fits with his high status as he would not have been doing much in the way of heavy lifting. He had a few cavities, but nothing to write home about; overall his dental health was excellent. There was no sign of violence or trauma on his bones, just the beginnings of osteoarthritis in the spine, likely at the site of a long-ago injury in his youth.

Inca Garcilaso de la Vega University commissioned the Brazilian Team of Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Odontology to see if they could virtually take the skull apart and put it back together more accurately. They performed a high resolution 3D scan of the skull by photographing it from a variety of angles (photogrammetry). Those images were then entered into a software program that could unglue all the pieces and start over from the beginning. Using an average male skull as a template and with the input of a forensic dentist, the team was able to put the skull puzzle back together. The areas with missing pieces were filled in gray. Then the musculature and facial features with digitally constructed from the skull.

Walter Alva, who is still very much on the job as director of the Sipan Archaeological Project and of the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum (whose construction he championed with unmatched zeal), says of the facial reconstruction of the Lord of Sipan:

“This brings us closer and connects us especially to the current indigenous population. We see that the face of the Lord of Sipan is very similar to the Moches of Lambayeque who still survive to this day. The faces of the fishermen, the farmers of the region are direct descendants of this creative race.”

The digital reconstruction process is captured in this video:

Parks Canada confirms HMS Terror found

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

Parks Canada has confirmed that the shipwreck discovered in Terror Bay by the Arctic Research Foundation (ARF) is indeed the HMS Terror. The crew of the ARF’s research vessel Martin Bergmann notified the government agency of their find on September 11th. Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team arrived to explore the wreck on September 15th. With help from the Canadian Coast Guard and Environment and Climate Change Canada, the team surveyed the site with side-scan sonar and a multi-beam echosounder. Underwater archaeologists dove the wreck three times.

The dives took place during difficult weather conditions and through poor visibility. The wreck’s upper deck is heavily covered by silt and marine life. Nevertheless, the divers were able to observe a number of features that were typical or unique to 19th century British polar exploration ships and the wreck has a number of design specifications that were common to both HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, including three masts, iron bow sheathings and a double-wheeled helm. There are no wrecks other than HMS Erebus with these features in the region.

Comparing this solid archaeological data to an extensive research archive that includes ship plans of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team was able to confirm that the wreck is HMS Terror. The scans showed the well preserved wreck has and features matching the historic records for HMS Terror, including: the configuration of the bowsprit (the spar extending from the ship’s bow); placement of the ship’s helm; the boarding port; and deck scuppers (holes on the side of the ship to allow drainage) which differ from HMS Erebus.

The Parks Canada marine archaeologists found that the shipwreck is intact from stem to stern. No artifacts or human remains were spotted on board, but the visibility was so bad that doesn’t mean there aren’t any to be found. The thick layer of silt and marine life is obscuring anything on the deck. It’s also preserving it.

Next on the agenda is working with the Government of Nunavut and the Designated Inuit Organizations to protect the wreck site.

Luna settlement dig finds more 16th c. artifacts

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Archaeologists returned to the site of the first multi-year settlement in the United States this summer and discovered more 16th century artifacts. Discovered by a local historian almost a year ago in Pensacola, Florida, the Santa Maria de Ochuse settlement was founded by Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano in August 1559. The 1,500 colonists — Spanish soldiers, indigenous Mexicans and African slaves — would have been well-provisioned has six of their 11 ships not been destroyed by a hurricane a month after their arrival. They wound up having to make do on their own which did not go well. In 1561, the survivors were picked up by Spanish ships and there was no further attempt at settlement of what would become the United States until Pedro Menéndez founded the St. Augustine colony in 1565.

The settlement site was excavated this season by archaeologists and students of the University of West Florida Archaeology Summer Field School. The team focused on the center and perimeter of the settlement, and what they’ve discovered aligns very well with primary documents about the expedition found in Spain by UWF archaeologist Dr. John Worth. One find that would warm the heart of any archaeologist is a trash pit, a stuffed one at that. The pit contains food detritus — seafood like shellfish, oysters and scallops — and a deer antler that suggests the would-be colonists supplemented their fishing with hunting. The team also found a number of iron strap fragments that were probably the hoops from barrels. Once the barrels were empty of the supplies they carried, archaeologists believe, Luna’s people may have broken them up and put them to practical use, like in the forging of nails, for example, or to make goods to trade with the local Native American population for food.

The dense grouping of mid-16th century Spanish artifacts (pottery sherds, nails) in the core area of the settlement strongly points to this being the Luna settlement. The sheer amount of trash points to a large number of people living there for a significant stretch of time. The fact that the inhabitants even bothered to create a trash pit, as opposed to burning it or discarding it willy-nilly, is evidence that this wasn’t just a landing party, but a planned settlement. There is also evidence of permanent structures built on the site, something attested to in the historical archives, in the form of post molds and horizontal stretches that would have been floors and other surfaces.

One artifact may even identify one dwelling as belonging to a specific member of the expedition.

For example, in one area containing a dense concentration of artifacts, they also found a balance scale weight, made out of a copper alloy, likely used in measuring pay for soldiers. Worth says there’s only one person in the expedition, the treasurer, who was in charge of that and, therefore, would have owned a set.

“The finding of that one scale weight in that particular spot, next to a post hole, may mean that we have found the house, the residence, of the treasurer of the Luna Expedition, Alonso (Velazquez) Rodriguez,” said Worth, noting that they also have a lot of documentary accounts by this same guy about what happened during the expedition.

Worth suggests a greater level of interest to have the words of Rodriquez along with some of his possessions, “so, to dig through his house floor, or his warehouse, or his, you know, yard and get the artifacts that he handled and he used, even like, for example, a brass pin that was found in that same unit.”

A brass pin in the 16th century would have been used as a paperclip of sorts, and Worth says it’s an item that the treasurer Rodriguez might have been using this item to hold papers together in his office at the Luna settlement. “We’re finding traces of those activities, and, the documents that I’ve read in Spain may actually have been written by him in that spot.”

According to the Spanish records, the Luna settlement was going to have 140 homes, four houses to a block with streets separating them on a rectangular plan. In the middle would have been a plaza, as any self-respecting Spanish settlement would have. Settlers had begun work on their new town, clearing the vegetation and building living and public spaces, but the hurricane hit five weeks after they got started, disrupting the original plan.

The Luna Settlement Project has a blog, which unfortunately did not keep up with the excavation during the summer, but the few posts it does have are interesting examination of the documentary and artifact record this far. There are some great pictures and lots of links to coverage of the excavation on the team’s Facebook page.

Tate acquires its earliest portrait by woman artist

Saturday, September 24th, 2016

The Tate museum has acquired the earliest portrait in its collection painted by a woman. Portrait of an Unknown Lady (1650-5) was painted by Joan Carlile, one of very few women known to have been a professional portrait artist in 17th century Britain. Museum researchers believe she may even have been the first woman in Britain to be a professional oil portraitist.

The unknown sitter’s pose and elegant white satin appear in two of her other known portraits. This repetition of a composition lends weight to the notion of Carlile as a professional artist. In 1653 her neighbour Brian Duppa noted that ‘the Mistress of the Family intends for London, where she meanes to make use of her skill to som more Advantage then hitherto she hath don’ and in 1654 Carlile is recorded as living in London’s Covent Garden, then the heart of London’s artistic community.

Little is known about Joan Carlile’s early life. She was the daughter of one William Palmer, a senior official at St. James’s Park and its Spring Garden, now open to the public as one of the Royal Parks, but at the time still very much the private reserve of the monarch. In 1626 she married Lodowich Carlile, a playwright and courtier who was Gentleman of the Bows, Groom to the King and Queen’s Privy Chamber and Keeper of the Great Forest at Richmond Park to King Charles I. They lived together at Petersham Lodge, a perk of the Richmond Park gig, which is where they were living when Bishop Brian Duppa was their neighbor. He apparently had a high opinion of Mrs. Carlile’s talents. He wrote to a correspondent in early 1654: “I have had a long studied designe of having yr Picture, and by that Hand rather then by any else.”

He wasn’t alone. King Charles I thought highly of her work, and no lesser a figure than court painter par excellence Anthony van Dyck mentored her. Charles gifted them both with nose-bleedingly expensive ultramarine paint. Even after the beheading of Charles I, Lodowich Carlile retained his job as Keeper, which is unusual for someone who was really quite close to the late king since they had gone hunting together frequently. He kept the job throughout the Commonwealth and into the Restoration.

Their stint as bohemians living the Covent Garden life didn’t last long. They returned to Petersham Lodge in 1656. By then she had established her reputation as a portrait painter in society. Historian and courtier Sir William Sanderson included a reference to her in his 1658 survey on the history of art in England, Graphice, The Excellent Art of Painting. He named her first in a short list of four women artists notable for their oil paintings. Mrs. Carlile, says Sanderson, is a “virtuous” and “worthy” example of his maxim “that the ground of all excellencies in this Art is the Naturall fancie bon-esprite, quick wit and ingenuity, which adds and enables the elaborate.”

The couple moved to London again in 1665, this time residing in the St. James’s Market area. Lodowich died there in 1675, followed four years later by Joan. The newly acquired portrait is one of a handful of works by Joan Carlile known to survive.

Ancient burned scroll virtually unwrapped

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

In 1970, an excavation of an ancient synagogue in the town of En-Gedi just west of the Dead Sea unearthed a parchment scroll. The town was inhabited from the late 8th century B.C. until it burned down in early 7th century A.D., and the scroll bore mute witness to En-Gedi’s fate. It was found inside the synagogue’s Holy Ark and was badly charred, so severely damaged that there was no way of unrolling it to read its contents. The lightest touch would cause the carbonized chunk to crumble. Radiocarbon dating determined the scroll dates to the 3rd or 4th century A.D.

Forty-five years later in 2015, the Israel Antiquities Authority and University of Kentucky computer science Professor Brent Seales announced that high-resolution micro-computed tomography scanning and new virtual unwrapping software engineered by Seales and his crack team of students had been able to peer into the blackened, crispy scroll and read the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus. That makes the En-Gedi scroll the oldest book from the Torah found since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls (1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D.) and the only ancient Pentateuchal book ever found in a Holy Ark.

The noninvasive technology works by converting the 3D scans into 2D images on which the writing is legible. Computer algorithms partition the 3D scans into segments with writing on them. The surface is then rendered into a 3D model where all textures — writing, ink — are positioned exactly where they were they found in the original scan. From the 3D model a flattened 2D version of the surface texture is generated which unwraps the rolled up surface onto a flat page.

Since last year, Seales’ team has virtually unraveled five complete wraps of the parchment scroll. While the text itself is less than thrilling (they find one scroll and it has to be Leviticus?), the implications for future research are deeply exciting.

Besides illuminating the history of the biblical text, our work on the scroll advances the development of textual imaging. Although previous research has successfully identified text within ancient artifacts, the En-Gedi manuscript represents the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively.

The University of Kentucky team has worked on scrolls found at Herculaneum that were carbonized in the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the town and its better known neighbor Pompeii, but that was four years ago and they were only able to pick out a single blurry unidentifiable letter. I dearly hope they give it another try now.

This video explains the virtual unwrapping process and how it worked on the En-Gedi scroll.

The full study replete with technical details has been published in Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.

Ukraine returns five paintings stolen from Dutch museum

Monday, September 19th, 2016

Five of the 24 paintings stolen from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands, on January 10th, 2005, have been returned to the Netherlands by the Ukrainian authorities. How they ended up in Ukraine is unclear. Museum officials searched constantly for their purloined works — 17th and 18th century oil paintings by Dutch masters and 70 pieces of silverware — for years before finally spotting a picture of one of the paintings on a Ukrainian website in 2014.

In July of 2015, two members of the ultra-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) militia contacted the Dutch embassy in Kiev claiming that their battalion had all 24 of the stolen paintings and all the silverware. They claimed to have found the loot in the villa of one of their political enemies, a crony of the former president, and were willing to sell it back for an astronomical sum based on their groundless assumption that the art and silver were worth 50 million euros, a figure more than 50 times greater than the realistic assessment of expert appraisers.

The museum got the Ukrainian police involved, then the Foreign Ministry, then diplomatic talks ensued. No progress was made. When in December of last year they heard that the militia were looking for other potential buyers, museum officials notified the media and the whole crazy story made international news.

Since then, all kinds of under-the-radar things have been happening. Seemingly out of nowhere and with little explanation of the turn of events, in April of this year four of the 24 paintings were recovered by the Ukrainian secret service (SBU). They announced at a press conference that the recovery was the result of a special operation conducted in 10 regions of Ukraine over the course of four months, but no details were forthcoming about who had them or any legal repercussions for the thieves. All they said is they were found “in the possession of criminal groups,” which yeah, duh.

The four recovered works were The Peasant Wedding by Hendrick Boogaert, Kitchen Piece, by Floris van Schooten, The Return of Jephta and Woman World, both by Jacob Waben. These were the most prized of the stolen paintings and the museum was excited to get them back, especially since curators were concerned about their condition. Two of the paintings were still rolled up after having been cut out of their frames in the heist. Two others had been reframed.

Despite all the publicity about this caper and the artworks, the Ukrainian government dragged its heels about returning the paintings to the Westfries Museum. Officials decided they had to launch their own investigation of the pieces and who the legitimate owner was. The museum had supplied the authorities with ample documentation of their legal claim, which was doubted by nobody, not even the militia members themselves who had reached out to them directly, after all.

Then, in May, a fifth painting emerged, New Street in Hoorn by Izaak Ouwater. This one was handed in to the Dutch embassy in Kiev by an unknown buyer who apparently did not realize it was stolen when he purchased it. Again, no details were forthcoming.

Finally whatever kinks needed working out were worked out and on September 16th, all five of the paintings were formally returned to the Netherlands in a ceremony at the Dutch embassy in Kiev. Museum experts examined the works to authenticate them and assess their condition. The news for some of the works is grim.

[Museum director] Ad Geerdink: “Naturally I am very pleased about the return. But I am very sad about the condition of the paintings A Kitchen Scene by Floris van Schooten and A Peasants Wedding, by Hendrick Boogaert. For years, the paintings have been moved all over the place and they were folded or rolled up. They really suffered a lot. When unrolling them, a piece came loose. Luckily they can still be restored, but it will be a time-consuming effort. The costs will be significant, at least 100,000 Euros. As a museum, we are not able to bear these costs ourselves. We therefore hope that people will help us with the restoration by joining the crowd funding campaign. We will start the crowd funding when the paintings return to Hoorn. In the spring of 2017, we want to let the paintings shine again in full glory in the Westfries Museum.’

The paintings will be back on Dutch soil on October 7th and the museum is planning to welcome them with much happy fanfare. The five works will be briefly on display starting on October 8th and admission will be free for a week so the people of Hoorn can welcome back their long-lost prodigals.

I will post an update when the crowdfunding campaign is launched.




October 2016
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