Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Disk from da Gama ship is earliest known marine astrolabe

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

One of the objects found in the excavation of the shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India discovered off the coast of Oman in 2014 has been identified as an astrolabe, a marine navigational tool that could calculate latitude based on the position of the sun. Marine astrolabes are very rare with only 108 of them known to exist. This one is the oldest of them all.

When divers discovered the copper alloy disc in the debris field of the Esmeralda, a ship in da Gama’s fleet that sank in 1503, there was no direct evidence on its surface of it being an astrolabe. All that was clearly visible were raised decorations — a Portuguese royal coat of arms and the esfera armilar (armillary sphere), King Manuel I’s personal emblem — which identified it as Portuguese. There is no writing on the disk and no other artifacts that might shed light on some aspect of the disk (age, purpose) were discovered near the find spot.

There were hints of its true function, however. Its round shape, its dimensions (17.5cm in diameter, 1.5mm thick), the hole in the center and the remains of what was likely a suspension bracket at the top so it could be worn as around the neck suggested it might be a very early astrolabe. Age of Discovery marine astrolabes were generally heavier and ballasted so they could hang plumb for optimal calculations even on a swaying, bobbing, rearing ship in heavy winds.

The Esmeralda disk doesn’t have the weight or cutouts common to the more typical examples from the 16th century. Because of the significant design differences, the marine archaeologists who examined it could not compare it to its brethren to confirm whether it even was an astrolabe. They’d need navigational markings to know for sure and while they thought there might be some very faint lines on the back, they were barely visible to the naked eye.

Into that breach stepped Professor Mark Williams at WMG, University of Warwick, and his trusty laser scanner. The high-tech scan and 3D model created from the data revealed that there were indeed markings on the disk, lines etched along the edges, each line exactly five degrees apart. Those are the navigational markings the team was looking for. Sailors used them to measure the height of the noonday sun to calculate their latitude on long voyages through wide-open seas. Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India in which the Esmeralda was lost took his fleet down all of west Africa, across the Cape of Good Hope, up the east coast to Mombasa and then east to India. It took years and was extremely dangerous. A tool that could give you some idea of where in the dickens you were was invaluable on journeys of such enormous scale.

The precise date of manufacturer is unknown at this time, but it’s decades older than the any other marine astrolabe we know of.

[Expedition leader David] Mearns said: “We know it had to have been made before 1502, because that’s when the ship left Lisbon and Dom Manuel didn’t become King until 1495, and this astrolabe wouldn’t have carried the emblem of the King unless he was King.

“I believe it’s probably fair to say it dates roughly to between 1495 to 1500. Exactly what year we don’t know – but it is in that narrow period.”

He added: “It rolls back this history by at least 30 years – it adds to evolution, it adds to the history, and hopefully astrolabes from this period can be found.”

Here’s a video capturing the exact moment the astrolabe was dug out of the sand.

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Paolina Borghese’s (unairconditioned) feet

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Set in the Mannerist splendour of Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa on the Pincian Hill, today the Galleria Borghese is one of Rome’s most beautiful museums. Its owner spared no expense to create a suburban party palace that would set off his superlative collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities. Frescoed ceilings and walls, inlaid marble floors and every other sumptuous architectural feature you can imagine serve as the backdrop to one of the greatest private collections of art ever amassed.

As the nephew of Camillo Borghese, Pope Paul V, Scipione benefitted handsomely from papal nepotism (not coincidentally, the English term derives from the Italian word for nephew), first garnering the elevation to the cardinalship and then a heap of other titles, benefices and revenues that would make the most exploitative Roman tax farmer blush. Much of those moneys he spent amassing an art collection worthy of the crowned heads of Europe. One of those crowned heads, in fact, the notoriously self-crowned head of Napoleon Bonaparte, bought a large part of it from his wastrel brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in the early 19th century. It would form the nucleus of the Louvre’s collection.

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini.Before it was chipped away by his heirs after his death, the collection included 12, count them, 12 Caravaggios. Today that figure is reduced by half, still an incredible concentration of paintings by the master of dark and light in a single small museum. When Caravaggio’s Youth with a Basket of Fruit, The Young Bacchus Ill and David with the Head of Goliath come to life at night, they get to play Texas Hold ‘Em with the likes of Raphael’s La Fornarina and Woman with Unicorn, Corregio’s Danae, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and Boticelli’s Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist and Angels. If they need to sweeten the pot, they let figures by Rubens, Parmigianino, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pinturicchio, Andrea del Sarto, Canaletto, and Perugino chip in. If they’re really in the mood to party, Paolina Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and wife of Camillo Borghese, rises from the marble couch the sculptor Antonio Canova captured her on and brings the heat. Bernini’s extraordinary, almost unbelievable Apollo and Daphne are too realistically frozen in mythological time to play along.

With so many world class treasures of the arts to enjoy, the Galleria Borghese was an obvious addition to my itinerary, all the more so since it would allow me to post an update to a past story. Remember this story from 2013 about Paolina Borghese’s dainty shoes discovered in the University of Aberdeen museum archives? I was delighted to find that according to my viewcount stats, it has been consistently popular ever since, largely thanks to foot fetish websites. Well, for all you feet fans out there, here’s Canova’s representation of Princess Paolina’s doggies.

I thought I had posted about a distinctly less entertaining story, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives so I guess I never did. The Galleria Borghese needs a new climate control system. I read about this situation a couple of years ago, if I recall correctly, and it was dire then. The ancient air conditioning was so hobbled that it barely produced enough cool air to keep the areas around the units at proper temperature, so they had to leave windows open to let some of the heat out of the hot, humid rooms and institute reservation-only ticketing to control the numbers of people allowed in at any given time. When I read about it back then, they were raising money to replace and update the whole system, but it was an expensive proposition and the Italian government wasn’t exactly rushing to spend that dough.

It still hasn’t been fixed, and y’all, it was bad. I mean really, really bad. I was genuinely horrified to my core by what I saw and experienced. The larger rooms with the more popular works (mainly Renaissance Old Masters) were stultifying, and you could actually see the moisture damage on the surface of oil paintings. One was so bad the paint was cracking in a line down the middle and bubbling up. Only a few of the works even had the protection of a glass panel covering the canvas. Only one of the 20-year-old air conditioners was blowing any air. I put my hand over it and it was lukewarm. It was deeply upsetting, so much so that I almost wished I hadn’t gone because seriously they need to shut the doors to human bodies and the heat, dirt, bacteria and effluvia they inevitably bring into a space and fix this monstrous state of affairs immediately. It is a true state of emergency. I can only hope against hope that my ticket price might help right this terrible wrong.

 

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Another hidden gem: Domitian’s Stadium under Piazza Navona

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

You may or may not have learned that the Roman Baroque masterpiece now known as Piazza Navona started out as a stadium built by the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) in 86 A.D. to celebrate the Certamen Capitolino Iovi, a musical, theatrical and athletic performance dedicated to Jupiter. He modeled the new stadium and the accompanying odeon on the Greek model, but Domitian didn’t simply use the terrain of a natural hill to build the multi-tiered stands into the way the Greeks did with their stadia. He had the financial means, the labour and the technology to create everything from scratch, and boy did he. The site he selected was on the Campus Martius, a level field outside the ancient Servian Wall that had served for centuries as a military training ground when Roman law prohibited the presence of troops inside the official boundary of the city.

Measuring about 275 meters long and 106 meters wide (902 x 348 feet), the stadium had one curved end and one flat end with two long parallel sides. The entrances were in the middle of the curved end (the hemicycle) and the long sides and, like all Roman stadia, had meticulously arranged numbered archways and staircases for optimal traffic flow and access to the bleachers. Archaeologists estimate that it could seat around 30,000 people.

It was used temporarily to host gladiatorial games after a fire disabled the Colosseum in 217 A.D., and some years later it was restored by the Emperor Alexander Severus. We know it was still in use in the 4th century because the historian Amianus Marcellinus mentions it. Shortly thereafter it was abandoned and suffered the same fate as the Circus Maximus, Colosseum and other monumental feats of Roman architecture: it was used as a quarry to supply travertine and brick for new construction. As its building materials were stripped away, its entrances and arches were used as shops and stables.

Within three centuries of Marcellinus’ writing, Romans had already forgotten the very name of the stadium, calling it the Circus Flamineus, then the Circus Alexandri, then the Campus Agonis which was corrupted into Navoni and ultimately Navona, which happens to mean big ship. The coincidence of this linguistic evolution led to the birth of the urban legend that the Piazza Navona was named after the naumachia, sea battles staged in an artificial lake inside the Circus. This never happened. It wasn’t that kind of arena.

Once the Piazza Navona was built, following precisely the shape of its ancient progenitor (which had been extensively built upon by that point), THEN it was flooded. Roman nobles got a big kick out of racing their carriages, some built in the shape of fantastical sea monsters but still pulled by regular terrestrial horses, poor things, through the flooded piazza every year.

With all the despoliation of Domitian’s original structure, including the regular bouts of construction on top of and in the middle of whatever was left, it’s remarkable that any of it was left to rediscover in 1936 when Mussolini’s project to demolish, rebuild and modernize the area’s streets and houses ran into the remains of the cavea, including a large travertine-clad entrance arch from the hemicycle end. A few bits and pieces were known to have survived in the basements of some of the houses along the piazza and under the Church of St. Agnes, but the discoveries from the 30s were more extensive and complete.

Still, nobody gave much of a damn about them. When I was a kid growing up in Rome in the 80s, you could see exactly one part of Domitian’s Stadium from the street, the big entrance arch, and because ground level was so much higher than it had been in imperial times, you really had to look for it at ankle height. That finally changed in 2014 when a new archaeological area opened underneath the Piazza. It is a small, eminently manageable, phenomenally well-lit museum featuring large chunks of Domitian’s Stadium and a handful of statue fragments, inscriptions and building materials discovered during the dig. I didn’t even know it was there until I happened to walk by the sign and followed it like the yellow brick history nerd road it is, and I read about this kind of thing every day. It’s crazy that it’s so little known. It is the only surviving example of a masonry-built stadium outside of the Greek world. People should be freaking out about it.

I mean, the rest rooms alone are worth the price of admission:

 

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Update 2: National Portrait Gallery bought Adams portrait

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

The best-case scenario for history and museum nerds has come to pass! The buyer of the 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams sold at auction last week for $360,500 is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.

John Quincy Adams silhouette by by Henry Williams, 1809. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian InstitutionThis could not be a more perfect fit. Collecting images of US presidents has been a key part of the NPG’s mission since the museum opened in 1968. Today it houses the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, from formal oil paintings by portrait masters like Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull to bronze sculptures of political cartoons, plaster casts of presidential body parts, medals, prints, silhouettes and of course, photographs. The Smithsonian already has two other daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams in its collections, one in the NPG taken a few months after the Haas portrait in August of 1843, the second in the National Museum of American History taken in 1846.

The Haas daguerreotype one will take pride of place because it is older than the others in the collection and indeed the earliest known surviving photographic portrait of an American president.

“John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the last President to have a direct tie back to the Founding generation, and the fact that he sat in front of a camera to have his portrait taken, is sort of remarkable,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “It confirms that in many ways America was born modern; embracing not only new government ideals but also the latest technologies that helped its leaders to become accessible to the public. To have acquired this unique piece of American history on the eve of our 50th anniversary has particular resonance because one of our goals is to remind people that the individual actions of our leaders and how we record their legacies impact the future.” […]

Adding to the significance of bringing this historic portrait to the museum is the crucial role Adams played in establishing the Smithsonian Institution. For over a decade, Adams tirelessly advocated for the implementation of James Smithson’s bequest to establish an institution dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. With this acquisition, the Portrait Gallery brings this singular treasure to its permanent collection and enriches the way the museum portrays Adams’ remarkable story as President, statesman and champion for the Smithsonian.

The newly acquired portrait of John Quincy Adams will go on public display next year in the National Portrait Gallery’s revamped America’s Presidents exhibition.

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Update: John Quincy Adams daguerreotype sells for $360,500

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

A daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams taken in March of 1843 by photographer Philip Haas sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction on October 5th for $360,500, including buyer’s premium. This exceeds even the high end of the pre-sale estimate of $150,000–250,000, not a surprising outcome given the rarity and historical significance of the image. There were four active bidders duking it out, driving up the hammer price. As of yet there has been no announcement about who placed the winning bid and unless it’s an institution or a collector who plans to loan it out or do something else public with it, there’s a good chance there never will be any such announcement.

The Haas daguerreotype is the earliest known surviving original photographic portrait of a US president. Two earlier daguerreotypes of presidents were taken, one of William Henry Harrison in 1841 around the time of his inauguration, the other of John Quincy Adams in 1842. Neither of those originals are extant, as far as we know. The Harrison portrait exists only as reproduction created around 1850; the first J.Q. Adams portrait is lost.

Adams gave this half-plate to his friend and fellow member of the House of Representatives Horace Everett who had been sitting for his own daguerreotype portrait in Haas’ Washington, D.C. studio when Adams arrived to have his redone. It has remained by descent in the Everett family all this time, nobody realizing that it was a picture of the sixth President of the United States. The seller assumed the man in the portrait was Horace Everett until he was told of its real subject and historical significance.

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Jeremy Bentham’s head goes back on display

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism, relentless advocate for social and political reforms from public education to animal rights to the rehabilitation of prisoners to women’s suffrage, wanted his body to be of use to humanity after he had finished with it. In keeping with what would become the key principle of his philosophical viewpoint, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” he decided that his dead body should be employed for the public good 63 years before he vacated it.

It was 1769 and Bentham, then just 21 years old, included a codicil in his will that his body be left to his friend and kinsman physician George Fordyce for dissection and preservation. He explained his reasoning in that document:

“This my will and special request I make, not out of affectation of singularity, but to the intent and with the desire that mankind may reap some small benefit in and by my decease, having hitherto had small opportunities to contribute thereto while living.”

The public dissection aspect was a challenge to the widely-held revulsion at the idea of cutting up a human body even though the surgical profession was then growing by leaps and bounds from it barber-chair origins and the proliferating medical schools were desperate for anatomical specimens. Bentham’s position was typically utilitarian: why, he reasoned, should corpses not be converted from potential sources of anti-social evils (the spread of disease, overcrowded burial grounds, the financial strain of funeral and interral driving the poor into debt, prison, penury) into sources of great benefit to society? And what greater utility could a dead person provide than to give anatomists the opportunity to learn and teach life-saving skills? Instead of being a societal pathogen, the cadaver would be an instrument of healing, a role only it could play.

But there was another instruction Bentham had for his body after death. He wanted his head to be preserved by such means as to ensure that his looks remained fundamentally unchanged, and joined to his skeletal remains in a tableau he called an Auto-Icon. He would become his own statue, he noted with delight, so there would be no need for marble effigies and solemn funerary monuments.

Two months before his death he reaffirmed this long-held position attaching a memorandum to his latest will that left his body, the duty of public dissection and creation of the auto-icon to his good friend and disciple in utilitarianism Thomas Southwood Smith.

I direct that as soon as it appears to any one that my life is at an end my executor or any other person by whom on the opening of this paper the contents thereof shall have been observed shall send an express with information of my decease to Doctor Southwood Smith requesting him to repair to the place where my body is lying and after ascertaining by appropriate experiment that no life remains it is my request that he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this my will and at the top of which I have written ‘Auto-Icon.’

The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of the time employed in writing I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The Body so clothed together with the chair and the staff in my later years borne by me he will take charge of And for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon and also on the labels on the glass cases in which the preparations of the soft parts of my body shall be contained as for example as in the manner used in the case of wine decanters my name at length with the letters ob. followed by the day of my decease.

Three days after Bentham’s death on June 6th, 1832, Dr. Smith followed his mentor’s instructions to the letter. Scholars, doctors, men of letters and other luminaries were invited to the dissection held at the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine. Again as instructed by Bentham, Smith delivered a lecture “on the Usefulness of Knowledge of this kind to the Community” over the dead body before proceeding with the dissection.

Once the anatomical demonstration was over, he went ahead with the auto-icon preparations. He made a skeleton of the bones of Bentham’s body. The philosopher’s head was preserved by putting it over sulphuric acid in a sealed cabinet. An air pump circulated the fumes, drawing out the fluids and drying the head completely, just as Bentham had discussed in his Auto-Icon memo. What Bentham hadn’t planned for was that his head came out looking like the Cryptkeeper’s long-lost twin. A little color adjustment was not going to be able to fix that.

Smith saw that putting so ghastly and unrecognizable a head on top of the stuffed and dressed skeleton would not be in keeping with Bentham’s intent, so he commissioned a wax model of Jeremy’s head from Jacques Talrich, a French artist who created a realistic impression using an 1828 bust, a portrait painted from life by Henry Pickersgill and Southwood Smith’s own memorial ring, one of 24 Bentham had made before his death bearing his profile and a few strands of hair that he willed to his closest friends. Some of Bentham’s hair from his Cryptkeeper head was embedded in the avuncular and warm Ben Franklin-esque wax head.

Continuing to pay scrupulous attention to Betham’s instructions, Smith created the auto-icon. The skeleton was stuffed and dressed, topped with the realistic wax head and put in Jeremy Bentham’s preferred chair. In one hand he held his favorite walking stick, Dapple. The whole set piece when then placed in a mahogany and glass display case. Southwood Smith kept the whole shebang in his New Broad Street home until he moved to a smaller place in 1850 and had no room in which to keep his friend’s mounted remains. He arranged to donate it to the University College London (UCL) which holds Jeremy Bentham as a spiritual founding father because so many of the co-founders were his followers.

Now the UCL had this remarkable effigy and relic of its philosophical role model and had no idea what to do with it. Putting him on open display seemed … awkward. Locking it up … rude? So they stuck the auto-icon in a back room and took people to see him by enquiry only. Dr. Smith wrote to a friend that “the authorities seem to be afraid or ashamed to own their possession.”

Smith was right. Bentham’s auto-icon was all but forgotten until it was rediscovered in the university’s anatomical museum in 1898 by Professor George Thane and curator T. W. P. Lawrence. They described their examination in this freaking amazing report. Seriously one of the greatest all-time reports. (I realize now I totally should have saved this story for Halloween.)

January 3, 1898
We opened the case containing the figure of Jeremy Bentham, and took out the latter. It was rather dusty, but not very much so. The clothes were much moth eaten, especially the undervest, and if taken off it would probably have been impossible to get the last on again. We undid the clothes, and found that they were stuffed with hay and tow, around the skeleton, which had been macerated and skilfully articulated. Both hands are present inside the gloves -the feet were not examined.

In place of the head is a wax bust, which is supported on an iron spike. The head was found, wrapped in cloth saturated with some bituminous or tarry substance (a sort of tarpaulin) and then in paper, making a parcel, in the cavity of the trunk-skeleton, being fastened by strong wire running from the ribs to the vertebral column. On unpacking this the head itself was found to be mummified, dried, and prepared, by clearing any suboccipital soft parts, so that it looks not unlike a New Zealand head. In the sockets are glass eyes. The atlas, which had been macerated, is fastened in its natural place below the occipital bone. At the top of the head is a small hole in the skull, where the tip of the spike had doubtless come through, and round the hole is an impression formed by a circular washer and nut which had fitted the screw on the end of the spike, and by which the head was formerly fixed on the trunk.

The face is clean shaved-hair scanty, grey and long.
(Signed) T. W. P. LAWRENCE and G. D. T.

Yes, Southwood Smith stashed Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head inside his skeleton’s chest cavity. Is that not the greatest real-life Washington Irving story you’ve ever heard? So practical too! I’m sure Bentham would have been delighted to have his rib cage serve as a handy storage compartment for his head.

Anyway, the auto-icon stayed in the anatomy museum for the next few decades before passing into the possession of the UCL library in 1926. The mummified head became part of the display. It was placed on a platter between the auto-icon’s feet, oddly enough. It would be another 13 years before Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon finally got a thorough restoration, and by then it was 1939 and London was getting to be a very dangerous place. He was moved to two different locations for his safety after the war broke out, only returning to UCL after it was over.

The head was removed from its peculiar position on the floor of the cabinet between the effigy’s feet before World War II, nobody is sure exactly when. It was placed in a display case of its own on top of the auto-icon cabinet, only returning to its former surroundings for the length of a photo session in 1948. It hasn’t been publicly displayed since then and only recently has it begun to receive the punctilious conservation attention it needs. So delicate that ambient movement alone can cause hairs to fall out, Jeremy Bentham’s head is now kept locked in a safe under strict security protocols in environmentally-controlled conditions at the university’s Institute of Archaeology. Only rarely are select researchers allowed access.

For a few months this fall and winter, however, he’s back and has such wonders to show you.

What does it mean to be human? Curating Heads at UCL, which is a pretty great name for an exhibition (although I think it would have been punchier using just the two words: Curating Heads), runs at UCL’s Octagon Gallery from October 2nd, 2017, through February 28th, 2018. Bentham’s remarkable auto-icon is a lens through which visitors can see the changing attitudes towards the display of human remains, the complexity of the issues, the cultural biases and taboos which delimit what human remains are displayed and why. There are events and lectures connected to the exhibition, including one on a favorite topic of mine, extracting and sequencing ancient DNA and what we can learn from it.

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Irma canoe could date to the 1600s

Friday, October 6th, 2017

Researchers have wasted no time studying the dugout canoe churned up in Brevard County, Florida, by Hurricane Irma and rescued by photographer and local history buff Randy Lathrop. The first round of radiocarbon dating results are in and they tease a solid likelihood that the canoe is much older than Lathrop thought it might be. Or younger. Or a little of both.

According to the Florida Division of Historical Resources archaeologist who examined it and performed the radiocarbon analysis, there is:

• A 50 percent probability the wood used to make the canoe dates between 1640 to 1680.

• A 37.2 percent probability the wood dates between 1760 to 1818.

• An 8.6 percent probability that it dates to 1930 or later.

“It is important to note that this gives us the probability of when the log used to make the canoe died or was cut down,” said Sarah Revell, Florida Department of State spokeswoman.

“The canoe has some interesting features, like the presence of paint and wire nails, that indicate it may have been made in the 19th or 20th century, so this adds to the mystery,” she said. […]

Revell offered some possible explanations. In one scenario, the canoe was made in the 1800s or 1900s, but from an old log. Or, perhaps the canoe was made in the 1600s or 1700s, saw use for many years, and was modified over time. Then again, though the probability is lower, someone could have crafted the canoe during the 1900s, she said.

“Florida has the highest concentration of dugout canoes in the world. We have more than 400 documented dugout canoes in our state. Each canoe is important in that it adds to our database and helps fill out the picture of how people used these canoes over thousands of years,” Revell said.

“This canoe is unique in that the radiocarbon dating indicates the wood is very old, but it has features that indicate it is more modern — so it is a bit of a mystery,” she said.

The Bureau of Archeological Research (BAR) will be doing some additional testing on the paint as they begin conservation protocols to keep the wood from drying out. The aim is to put the canoe on display in Brevard so it can be enjoyed in the community where it was found. That won’t happen until the wood is stabilized and that can take more than a year, even for a smaller piece like this canoe.

While it is being cleaned and soaked in a bath of polyethylene glycol for months, the canoe will still be able to be studied by researchers near and far. It has already been laster scanned and documented in high resolution detail to generate a 3D model that will give scholars, conservators, experts and educators the opportunity to virtually examine the canoe. This will help with every aspect of the study — determining its age, origin, design style, condition, conservation needs — and in future education efforts. This video shows University of South Florida Libraries 3D imaging experts working with local archaeologists to scan the dugout canoe.

And here is the end-result of that effort, a highly accurate 3D model that can be turned and zoomed and seen every which way:

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New video of wreck of Mars warship

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

The wreck of the 16th century Swedish warship Mars, flagship of King Eric XIV (r. 1560-1568), son of Gustav Vasa, first of his dynasty and first king of an independent Sweden, has been captured in defiance of visibility conditions at the bottom of the Baltic in a crystalline combination of footage and 3D rendering.

In an ironic twist that isn’t all that ironic given the length of time involved, King Gustav Vasa had begun to build a permanent, state-run Swedish navy (as opposed to the medieval system of drafting merchant vessels for war duties as needed) with ships he bought from the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. After his death in 1560, his son Eric picked up where Dad left off, investing heavily in the development of a navy that could protect his crown, still tenuous given his father’s rebellion. Grasping at straws of legitimacy wherever he could find them, Eric slapped all those numbers after his name, claiming descent from ever so many Erics before him, real or legendary, related or not.

His Danish cousins were not impressed. They considered him a usurper just like his father. One of Eric’s solutions was to ramp up Swedish naval strength to control trade on the Baltic. Big ships were a key part of this plan. In 1561, he engaged master shipwright Holgerd Olsson to build the biggest ship yet. It was Eric’s idea to call it the Mars after the Roman god of war, telegraphing even more clearly his bellicose intent. Mars was completed in the fall of 1563, just in time for the fireworks. Also known as the Makalös (Matchless), the ship was big, the largest ever up until that point on the Baltic. It was said to be longer than Lübeck’s cathedral of St. Peter.

The Danes didn’t appreciate Eric’s ambitious encroachment on their turf in the lucrative Baltic market and neither did Lübeck. In 1563, the conflict escalated into the Northern Seven Years’ War. It was Sweden against Denmark–Norway, Lübeck and the Polish–Lithuanian union. Sweden’s navy was already intimidating compared to its rivals. It had 38 ships, 16 of them large warships. The Mars was armed with at least 100 guns, perhaps as many as 200, depending on which source you believe. Its heavy artillery enabled it to fight at a distance, eschewing the old-fashioned boarding followed by hand-to-hand combat tactics that had dominated naval warfare for so long.

When the Mars and other Swedish warships went up against the fleets of Denmark, Lübeck and the Polish–Lithuanian union off the coast of the Swedish island of Öland on May 30th, 1564, at first Mars seemed to dominate the field. With those big guns of hers, she disabled the Danish flagship Fortuna and sank the Lübeckian ship Alte Bark. The Danish and Lübeckian commanders realized they would have to board her or face certain defeat. On day two of the engagement, they managed to do just that. The only problem is the Mars was on fire. The enemy crews only had enough time to board her and initiate looting procedures before they were all blown sky high in an explosion so powerful that it shot the ship’s mainmast straight up in the air like a crossbow bolt. The Mars sank quickly, taking many coins, cannons and lives to the cold Baltic seafloor with it.

After decades, centuries even, of fruitless searches, in 2011 the wreck of the Mars was found near Öland 250 feet below the surface of the water. Even though it went down in such a spectacular fashion, it was in excellent condition. Its guts were exposed in the explosion, but the wood has been perfectly preserved by the Baltic’s slow currents, cold water and lack of woodworm.

From its discovery in 2011 through 2015, marine archaeologists have been studying the wreck under very difficult conditions. It’s so deep and cold, visibility is literally zero and it’s not possible to dive in a regular way. They needed a special mix of gases to protect them from the bends, and documenting the wrack in total darkness required specialized scanning equipment.

Over the course of several years, a research team led by Johann Rönnby, professor of maritime archaeology at Sweden’s Södertörn University, has photographed and scanned the 453-year-old wreck Mars, the legendary flagship of Swedish King Erik XIV. […]

The Mars wreck site was discovered in 2011 by Rönnby’s team near the Swedish island of Öland. Initial investigations of the vessel, lying at a depth of 250 feet, indicated that a combination of slow currents and a dark and cold environment helped to facilitate the stunning preservation of the wooden warship.

National Geographic helped fund the research, so keep your eyes peeled for the story to air on its cable channel. Meanwhile, here’s a taste of the breathtaking footage and rendering drawn from a site that requires hand-held Klieg lights to see even a tiny part of it.

Deep Sea Productions filmed the exploration of the wreck for a documentary. Below is a brief introductory video to the production and a surprisingly enjoyable clip of reenactments from the film. I’m not a fan of what I deem to be an overreliance on reenactments in history documentaries because I find them a cheesy shortcut to generate feeble “action scenes” as if the history itself couldn’t possibly keep bums in seats. I have to admit these look not too bad. (Still not good tho.)

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Take a 3D tour through Rothwell charnel chapel

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

Rothwell charnel chapel is the UK’s most complete surviving medieval charnel house, rooms used to contain the bones of the dead to make room in cemeteries for the next generation of corpses. The charnel chapels attached to churches in the Middle Ages weren’t scary places. They were well-lit, clean, sturdily built with permanent access from the exterior (doors, stairways) so the general public could visit and pay their respects to the dead. Rothwell Parish Church built its charnel room under the church and contains the remains of at least hundreds of people who died in the Middle Ages.

It’s difficult to know how many charnel chapels existed in medieval Britain. Historians have generally thought they were fairly rare compared to their frequency on the continent, but researchers from the University of Sheffield think they have located as many as 60, or at least what little is left of them Time and the destruction wrought by the Reformation took an incalculable toll. That’s why Rothwell’s is so significant. One of only two medieval charnel chapels still remaining in situ (the other is St Leonard’s in Hythe, Kent), it is largely intact and still contains human skeletal remains placed there between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins, who led the project from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, said: “Rothwell charnel chapel is a site of major international significance. Surviving charnel chapels, with human remains still housed inside, are very rare in England. What is so fascinating about the Rothwell charnel chapel it is that it presents an ideal archaeological resource for researchers to use to advance our understanding of how the remains of the dead were treated during the medieval period.

With so little hard data to go on, many historians thought charnel houses were of minor religious import even in their heyday in England, that they were just places to store bones dug up from the intercutting of new graves or during church construction. The University of Sheffield’s Rothwell Project has upended that belief. It wasn’t until the 13th century that charnel houses and chapels began to be constructed. Before that, dug up bones were reinterred in the new grave or in mass pits. The new charnel spaces of the 13th century were the first time human skeletal remains were kept above ground in meaningful quantities. That’s a major shift in attitude and approach, and it can’t be explained in utilitarian terms because reburying the bones is a lot easier, cheaper and faster than building an above-ground space for them.

Rothwell Project researchers think this shift is connected to the doctrine of Purgatory receiving official Church recognition in 1254. Souls suffering the torments of purgation could be sped on their way to heaven by the prayers and hymns of the living on their behalf. Charnel chapels in mainland Europe are known to have had confessionals and been treated as places or repentance and forgiveness. English charnel chapels also had priests whose duty it was to hear confessions and offer absolution. The Sheffield team thinks all this is linked together, that charnel chapels, like chantries in the churches above them, provided the public with the opportunity to pray for the souls of the departed still locked in purgatory and to avoid the same fate themselves. The rejection of purgatory and confession by Protestants explains why the charnel chapels and their human remains were so cruelly disposed of during the Reformation. The bones were reburied, often in unconsecrated ground, and the rooms either walled up so no trace of them was visible from the outside or reused for random purposes rented out to local merchants for cool storage.

Unfortunately Rothwell charnel chapel is not widely accessible as an archaeological resource, no matter how valuable it might be, because it can’t accommodate human traffic (not of the living kind, anyway) due its delicate preservation conditions. The space is tight, keeping moisture and temperature steady is a challenge, and one false move could irreparably damage the structure and human remains.

In this day and age, there are other options. The Digital Ossuary is a collaboration between the University’s archaeology and computer science departments which has captured the physical space of the charnel chapel, its proportions, where the medieval access points were, high-resolution detail of the bones which will allow osteological study that was previously impossible as well as help determine conservation practices for the long-term preservation of the charnel.

“This new digital resource provides an opportunity for people all over the world to explore the site and helps us to preserve this fascinating window into the past for future generations.” […]

The new digital resource, together with research on the chapel, will be fed into undergraduate and postgraduate programmes for archaeology students at the University of Sheffield.

Archaeologists leading the project are also welcoming the input of researchers who might be interested in working with the model, which has been published via ORDA, the University’s file sharing platform.

And now, without further ado, here is the 3D flythrough of Rothwell Parish Church’s charnel chapel.

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After many arduous labors, Hercules back in Turkey

Sunday, September 24th, 2017

A Roman-era marble sarcophagus decorated with a bas relief of the Twelve Labors of Hercules on its sides has returned to Turkey after a long sojourn in the at haven of looted antiquities smuggling that is the Geneva Free Port. The saga begins on December 3rd, 2010, when the 2nd century A.D. sarcophagus was discovered in one of the Free Port warehouses by customs officials during an inventory check. Measuring 7.7 x 3.7 feet and weighing three tons, the sarcophagus is actually on the smaller side for its type, but it’s still hard to miss as a suspect antiquity, even hidden under piles of blankets and boxes.

This type of sarcophagus was a popular consumer good, produced on a large scale in workshops in Dokimenion (modern-day Iscehisar, western Turkey) from locally quarried marble in the second half of the second century. They weren’t all cookie-cutter pieces, however. Some are distinctly better than others, commissioned by people who could afford the highest reliefs, the most prized marble and the greatest sculptors. This sarcophagus is the best of all the surviving examples, with top-notch carving depth and anatomical detail. A very wealthy person must have commissioned it.

After years of being used as a pivot for the illicit trade in antiquities thanks to its no questions asked approached and tax-free Geneva warehouse complex, Switzerland was now taking a different approach. In 2003, it finally ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In 2005 it passed a law requiring that all objects of cultural patrimony had to have verified ownership records. In 2009, a new law forced international traders in cultural goods to file complete and accurate inventories. This law had teeth too, with funding for a customs notification system and thorough inspection of the goods stashed in Free Port warehouses.

So when the sarcophagus’ so-called owner, Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealership co-owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam who have been involved in many, many highly questionable transactions of looted artifacts, was unable to provide proper documentation in compliance with Switzerland’s more stringent regulation, the object was sequestered. Ali protested vociferously. He insisted it had belonged, like all of his loot, to his father who had bought it legally in the 1990s. He fought all attempts at restitution, and the case dragged through the courts for six years.

A joint investigation by Swiss and Turkish authorities found that the sarcophagus had likely been looted from the ancient site of Perge in Antalya during an illegal excavation in the 1970s. This was confirmed by soil and marble analyses. How it wound its way from Turkey to Switzerland remains unclear and the Aboutaam’s father Sleiman died in 1998 so he can’t answer any questions. He also can’t be prosecuted. On September 21st, 2015, a Swiss prosecutor issued an order that the sarcophagus be restituted to Turkey. The Aboutaam’s appealed twice before withdrawing the last appeal in March 2016. That left the restitution order as the final legal say in the matter, and all that was left was for the slow grind of the legal grist mill to finish its work before the piece was returned. Culture and Tourism Ministry officials in Geneva received the sarcophagus on September 13th. It was in Turkey on September 14th.

After almost seven years of legal wrangling, detective work and waiting, the Hercules sarcophagus was welcomed to its new home, the Antalya Museum, on Sunday in an unveiling ceremony presided over by Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş. It is now on display next to the Weary Herakles, a Roman copy in marble of a 4th century B.C. original bronze by the Greek sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon, which was also looted from Perge and whose torso was pried out of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after a lengthy battle so it could be reunited with the legs already on display the museum.

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