Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Scala Sancta unboxed

Thursday, April 18th, 2019

The 28 white marble stairs said to have been trod upon by Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate have been unveiled for the first time in three centuries. Church tradition holds that the staircase led to the prætorium of Pilate and was brought from Jerusalem to Rome by Helen, mother of Constantine, in 326 A.D.

(There’s no way they were the authentic prætorium stairs, just for the record. There was no marble in Palestine, and Rome would certainly have not gone to the expense of importing the high quality Aegean marble these stairs were made of for a backwater governor’s headquarters. Besides, Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Pilate’s prætorium included. Helen was sold many, many “relics” on her tour of the Holy Land.)

They were installed in the Lateran Palace, the ancient domus of the Plautii Laterani family on the Caelian Hill which was given to the Pope by Constantine around 313 A.D., leading up to a hall near the Chapel of St. Sylvester. They were protected with a dedicated roof and regular steps were built on either side for non-ceremonial use.

The Lateran Palace was the primary residence of the popes until the 14th century when the papal court was moved to Avignon. By the time the long Babylonian Captivity was over and the papacy returned to Rome in 1377, the Lateran had suffered extensive damage in two major fires and the popes looked elsewhere for digs, eventually winding up in the Vatican.

Today, the Scala Sancta leads to the Sancta Sanctorum, the first private papal chapel which is known as the Holiest of Holies due to the numerous relics secreted there none of which have been seen since the early 16th century. The sanctuary is one of several buildings of the Lateran complex which includes the palace and the Basilica of St. John in Lateran, the titular seat of the Bishop of Rome. The Sancta Sanctorum is the only surviving section of the original ancient Lateran Palace, demolished by Pope Sixtus V in 1586 to make way for the much smaller one that stands there today. (Sixtus V was notorious for razing ancient monuments to the ground for use as raw material in his ambitious programs of architectural modernization.) He had the steps moved to the base of the Sancta Sanctorum and opened them to the public for the first time.

The steps and chapel became a major site of pilgrimage, with pilgrims ascending the stairs on their knees, kissing three spots marked with a cross said to be stained with droplets of Christ’s blood. So many pilgrim knees rubbed against the marble that they eroded deep troughs across the full width of each step. To keep the stairs from whittling down to nothing, in 1723 Innocent XIII had them covered them with walnut wood for their protection. Those casings remained in place for close to 300 years.

Restoration of the Holy Stairs began in January of 2018. Both the marble and the wood coverings required conservation, as did the frescoes on the side walls, so the Scala Sancta has been closed since work began. When restorers removed the wood, they were surprised to find deep furrows in the center of the steps. They realized these marks were left by the tips of millions of pilgrim shoes pushing up to the next step.

The conservation of the wood is not finished yet. The work on the marble steps, however, is complete, so Church authorities decided to open them to the public for a very short period from April 11th until June 9th, the day of Pentecost. Orthopedists can go ahead and buy that new Mercedes, because pilgrims are flocking to the Scala Sancta to take advantage of the opportunity. Oh, and there are plenary indulgences on the line for anyone who goes up the stairs on the knees in prayer after taking Communion and Confession.

 Three medieval crosses, set into the marble to commemorate that event, will now become visible again: the first in porphyry at the beginning of the staircase, another in bronze at the end, and the third on the eleventh stair, where according to tradition Jesus fell, breaking the marble with His knee.

Under the technical and scientific direction of the Vatican Museums, with the contribution of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, the restorers have brought to light the ancient marble, gathering from under the wooden cover a multitude of written notes, ex voto, coins and photographs left by the faithful, and now conserved by the Passionist Fathers who since 1853 have safeguarded the Shrine, at the behest of Pope Pius IX.


Notre Dame stands

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

The roof is gone, the spire is gone, but the north and south towers of Notre Dame have withstood the conflagration. The rose windows survived, which is a freaking miracle. I thought they were goners for sure. The bells, including the great 13-ton bourdon Emmanuel, the only bell of Notre Dame to survive the cultural holocaust of the French Revolution, are intact. The artistic and religious treasures it held are safe in an undisclosed location.

Watching that spire collapse was so deeply horrifying I still can’t stand to recollect it, but it could have been so, so much worse, as in burned to the ground worse. The statues on the roof, which would have melted into puddles for sure, were removed prior to the beginning of the restoration work on the spire that was ongoing when the fire broke out.

The damage is massive and quite literally irreplaceable in the case of the wooden beams that formed the structure of the roof. They were cut down in the 13th century and there haven’t been any trees left that size in France for hundreds of years. It’s traumatizing to confront that level of loss. What’s gone is gone for good.

At the same time, the soaring Gothic majesty of that wood framing is the reason why the fire burned so thoroughly. Lots of oxygen, lots of combustible fuel, no way to break the fire, no way to fight it from the inside. Whatever architectural solution is devised to reconstruct the roof, I imagine fire security will be a top priority.

The church is owned by the state with the Church having rights of use. In the past this arrangement has caused lots of delays and nonsense when it came to restoration, but the agony of yesterday’s events will, one hopes, remain perpetually sharp and the outpouring of support — French billionaires have already pledge $339 million to the repairs — will keep attention fixed on bringing Notre Dame back.

My mother reminded me when we spoke just after the spire fell that when we lived in Rome many decades ago, a fire raged through St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, my favorite church when I was a kid. She said you could hear the stone cladding explode in the heat. St. Paul’s is far more modest in size and height than Notre Dame, and still the fire burned so viciously that it turned marble into artillery shells. Today it is more beautiful than ever, its gold facade gleaming even brighter than when I was a child with my face pressed against the window of the car to see the brilliant glow of the sun reflect against the mosaic every time we drove by it.

A reminder of what Notre Dame’s bells sounded like when her new ones were inaugurated just over six years ago. They will sound again. Between 43:20 – 45:18 all ten tower bells were rung along with the three in the spire, now lost forever.

(Between 12:15 – 21:50 the ten tower bells are rung in groups from largest to smallest. At 58:12 is the “Grand Solemnity,” beginning with Emmanuel followed by Marie and then the eight smaller ones.)


Stolen de Kooning conservation, plus a crazy twist

Friday, April 12th, 2019

Woman-Ochre, the hugely valuable painting stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 and rediscovered in the modest home of a New Mexico couple after their estate was sold in 2017, is being restored by conservators at the Getty Museum and specialists at the Getty Conservation Institute. Cut out of its frame and rolled up by the thieves, then crudely stapled to a frame, the canvas was in poor condition when it was recovered. The University of Arizona has wisely decided to bring in the heavy artillery in the form of Getty experts.

The Getty is well versed in the work of de Kooning, whose idiosyncratic working methods have created intense speculation and debate among conservators and art historians, primarily from visual inspection and anecdotal accounts rather than rigorous technical analysis. In 2010, the Conservation Institute worked closely with Susan Lake, then head of collection management and chief conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., on an in-depth study of de Kooning’s paintings from the 1940s through the 1970s, published by the Getty as Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials.

The Getty-University of Arizona project will also be a teaching tool, providing access and information to graduate-level conservation and science students at local universities as well as those from the University of Arizona.

The restoration begins this month and is expected to take about two years. The painting will be briefly displayed at the Getty Museum in 2020 before returning home to the University of Arizona.

In the meantime, the investigation into the theft continues. The FBI won’t comment on the case until they’ve completed their investigation, but there is new information from non-law enforcement sources, and y’all, this is a crazy, CRAZY story.

Quick recap: November 29th, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, a man and a woman entered the UofA Museum of Art in Tucson. The woman distracted the security guard while the man cut Woman-Ochre out of its frame, rolled it up and hid it under a coat. Fifteen minutes after walking in the door, the couple walked out and neither they nor the painting they stole were seen again for 32 years.

In August of 2017, David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, bought a bunch of stuff from the estate of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, for $2000. Jerry, a retired music teacher, had died in 2012. Rita, a retired speech pathologist, died in June 2017. After her death, her nephew and executor of the estate, Ron Roseman, put the contents of their house up for sale.

It was customers of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques commented that the de Kooning sure looked a lot like a real one. A little Googling and a call to the University of Arizona and the next thing you know, its authenticity was confirmed and the painting was on its way back to Tucson.

The rediscovery of a painting that a conservative estimate based on past sales of works from the series would value at something in the neighborhood of $150 million in a little ranch house in rural New Mexico made big news, of course. How had the Alters acquired it? Nobody in their family knew anything about it. It was hanging in their bedroom blocked by the door and could only been seen from inside the room. Ron Roseman didn’t even know it existed until January of 2017 when he was helping out his aunt as she struggled with dementia in her final months.

After the find made the press, Ron found an interesting photo when going through some old family pictures. It was of his aunt and uncle smiling as they spent Thanksgiving of 1985 with family. In Tucson. This is that picture:

This is a composite sketch of the thieves published in the Arizona Daily Star of December 5th, 1985:

The getaway car was a rust color. Except for one blue one at a different time, the Alters only owned red cars. The painting only shows evidence of having been reframed once after the theft, an amateur hack job using a commercial pre-made frame, not custom work. Van Auker said it was coated in thick dust and that the frame’s outline was marked on the wall when he removed it. He’s sure the painting had been fixed in that place for decades.

Yeah. And it gets crazier.

The Alters wrote three books together, one about traveling, another about poetry and a twist on Aesop’s Fables.

“The Cup and The Lip: Exotic Tales” features fictional accounts of travel adventures. In one story, “Eye of the Jaguar,” a grandmother and her granddaughter case a local city museum and then return to steal its prize exhibit, a 120-carat emerald.

The thieves leave behind no clues. The jewel is kept hidden “several miles away” from the museum, behind a secret panel, “and two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see!” he wrote.

No fingerprints were left at the scene of the crime. There was no security video in the museum at that time. There is no hard evidence to be found more than three decades after Woman-Ochre was purloined. But it sure does look like the Alters might just have done the unthinkable and pulled a massive heist for the sheer pleasure of looking at an abstract expressionist nude until the day they died. Is it weird that I can’t help but admire that a little? I mean, I can’t deny having fantasized about snagging some amazing artifact or artwork and cooing over it in secret for centuries as it shriveled me up and extended my life unnaturally like Gollum.


Marie Antoinette’s rooms reopen at Versailles

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

In January of 2016, the Queen’s State Apartment, the grand rooms occupied by the Queens consort of France from Louis XIV’s wife Maria Theresa to the doomed Marie Antoinette, were closed to the public as part of the “Grand Versailles” project, a massive 17-year, €500 million program to restore, upgrade and improve the buildings and grounds of the palace. The Queen’s rooms were in need of significant conservation and upgrades to the fire safety systems, utility networks, air treatment and climate control.

The four adjoining rooms — the Queen’s Guard Room, the Royal Table Antechamber, the Nobles’ Room and the Queen’s Bedchamber — had been hard done by heat. King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830- 1848), seen here turning into a pear, had heaters blowing in the palace that were way too hot and couldn’t really be controlled. The heat of the summer was bad enough, raising the temperature at the highest point under the ceilings to 115F. A new climate-adaptive air system was installed with humidity regulation controls.

After more than three years of painstaking labour, the Queen’s State Apartment will reopen on April 16th. In order to replace the ductwork and pipes behind the walls, the decorative woodwork had to dismantled, bronzes and textiles removed. Carpenters, goldsmiths, the silk weaving house of Tassinari and Chatel and many other artisans and trades were involved in the reconstruction and restoration.

Extensive studies were undertaken to recreate the original paint schemes, restore textiles and other decorative elements. The rocaille decorations on the wall, a trompe-l’oeil technique that used plaster, rock and seashells to create the illusion of gilded swirls, crests and cupids, created for Marie Leszczynska, wife of Louis XV, was rediscovered under thick layers of overpaint. The delicate blue grey background paint has been restored making the faux gilded elements stand out again. A grisaille allegory by François Boucher’s representing the queenly virtues of charity, piety, liberality and prudence was restored to its original softness as well with the removal of discolored overpaintings and varnishes that had left the figures looking yellowed and flat.

Two exhibitions will open in the rooms on Tuesday dedicated to three queens who called this apartment home and gave birth to 19 princes and princesses of France there. Marie Antoinette has the biggest name recognition, but Marie Leszczynska (who I know almost nothing about beyond the fictionalized account in the awesomely entertaining and even more awesomely confusing anime Le Chevalier D’Eon) is finally getting a little attention too, as is Madame de Maintenon, morganatic wife of Louis XIV.

On a technically unrelated but in a weird way related note, the palace will be throwing a rave this summer in the Halls of Mirrors. It’s a celebration of French electronica label Ed Banger Records and will feature the label’s top four DJs spinning at the foot of the Hall of the Mirrors to the delight of crowds grinding it out on a massive dance floor that will be erected on the terraces of the Château de Versailles overlooking its impeccable gardens. Grab your gilded pacifiers and most rococo glow sticks and book your tickets for the June 8th event here.

Also, Google Arts & Culture has a nifty online exhibit called Sciences at Versailles that uses artworks and objects to explore the role technology, engineering, astronomy, geography and other scientific pursuits played at the courts of Louis XIV and his successors.

Sciences at Versailles chapter 1: science & power
Sciences at Versailles chapter 2: astronomy, queen of sciences
Sciences at Versailles chapter 3: discovering new worlds, geography
Sciences at Versailles chapter 4: cascade creation, water engineering
Sciences at Versailles chapter 5: botany & zoology, a taste for exoticism
Sciences at Versailles chapter 6: fit for a king, medicine and surgery
Sciences at Versailles chapter 7: the science show, physics and chemistry
Sciences at Versailles chapter 8: mechanics, automatons and hot-air balloons


Greek shipwrecks open to public as underwater museums

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

For decades the prospect of looters and even well-meaning recreational divers damaging Greece’s vast underwater cultural patrimony made SCUBA diving illegal in Greek waters. Since 2005 diving has been allowed but only in very restricted circumstances, mainly to archaeological teams excavating ancient shipwreck sites. A new initiative under the BLUEMED program will now open ancient shipwrecks to the public who will be able to explore the sites via guided diving.

The first site to open is a 5th century B.C. wreck found near the uninhabited island of Peristera opposite the island of Alonissos. When the Peristera wreck was discovered and excavated in the early 1990s, it upended the historical understanding of ancient Greek shipping. Before this discovery, historians thought the largest merchant ships in Greece were built by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. and were no more than 70 tons carrying 1,500 amphorae. The Peristera ship was huge at 126 tons, the largest ship of the Classical era ever found in the Aegean, and it carried a cargo of more than 4,000 amphorae (that we know of; there was almost certainly other cargo on board that has not been found).

Thousands of ancient vases, the vast majority intact, lie in layers. Fish, sponges and other sea creatures have made the amphoras their home, adding color and life to the site. In some places, the cargo towers above divers as they pass along the perimeter of the wreck.

“It is very impressive. Even I, who have been working for years in underwater archaeology, the first time I dived on this wreck I was truly impressed,” said Dimitris Kourkoumelis, the lead archaeologist on the project preparing the site for visitors. “It’s different to see amphoras … individually in a museum and different to see them in such concentration.”

While any exposed wood of the ship itself has rotted away, the great mounds of amphorae surviving in situ make for an incredibly dramatic vista in a setting of great natural beauty within the National Marine Park of the Northern Sporades. Three other shipwrecks in the West Pagasitikos area have been selected as pilot sites for the tour program by Greece’s Ministry of Culture and Sports.

To prepare these locations for diving tours, Ephorate of Antiquities experts inspected the shipwrecks, cleaning them of trash and any modern interventions, documenting their current condition and status in exhaustive detail and designating “microregions” of the underwater archaeological monuments to serve as diving tour routes. The wrecks and topology of the seabed were surveyed with 3D scans and high-resolution photogrammetry performed by autonomous submarine vehicles. The ecology of the sites were also mapped and documented with a particular focus on the biodiversity of the marine environment.

The first of the guided tours took place last weekend with small groups of divers. The boat departed from the harbor of Steni Valla on Alonissos for the short trip to the Peristera wreck. During the jaunt on the boat, tour guides gave the visitors a rundown of the historical context of the shipwreck they were about to explore. Informational panels positioned along the perimeter of the site itself provided more explanation of what they were seeing.

“It was an amazing opportunity … to dive at last on an ancient wreck,” said Kostas Menemenoglou, a 39-year-old recreational diver from the central town of Volos. “It was a fantastic experience. It’s really like diving into history.”


Revolutionary War hero may have been intersex

Monday, April 8th, 2019

A recent investigation into the remains of Revolutionary War hero and Father of the American Cavalry Casimir Pulaski strongly indicates that he was female or intersex.

Born to a noble family is Mazovia, Poland, in 1748, by the time he was in his early 20s, he was a fierce fighter, a Polish patriot in the struggle against Russian expansionism. His military skills and courage were widely recognized in Europe as Poland hurtled towards the First Partition in 1772. When his small army of patriots were defeated and Poland was dismembered by Russia, Austria and Prussia, Pulaski was forced into exile for attempting to assassinate Russia’s puppet king of Poland Stanislaw II Augustus, eventually making his way to America where he took on the cause of Independence with great fervor.

Recommended to George Washington by Benjamin Franklin, Pulaski proved himself in the field at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, forestalling the British advance and very likely saving George Washington’s life by giving him the chance to escape. Two days later he created Brigadier General of the Cavalry. Within six months he requested and was authorized to raise an independent cavalry corps. It was a successful combat unit, characterized by Pulaski’s hit hard and run tactics. He was shot and fatally wounded at the Battle of Savannah on October 9th, 1779. He died two days later.

King Stanislaw said when he heard the news “Pulaski has died as he lived, a hero, but an enemy of Kings.” A statement he probably meant as a burn but Pulaski would absolutely have taken as a compliment, especially from a weak faux monarch like that.

Several stories whirled around about what happened to his remains. One of the more widely circulated stories was that he’d been loaded onto a cargo ship, the Wasp, bound for Charleston but when he died, the crew threw him overboard because the stench of his gangrene was so oppressive. It’s not the most likely fate for a cavalry brigadier general, especially since the sea voyage from Savannah to Charleston was so short so really there was no urgent need to dump him overboard like a sack of rotten potatoes. God knows what kinds of smells those sailors were used to. Another story was that he’d been buried at a plantation in Greenwich, just outside of Savannah.

After decades of discussion and funding struggles, the city of Savannah erected a monument to the noble cavalryman. The Pulaski Monument was inaugurated in a ceremony on January 8th, 1855. Colonel William P. Bowen, grandson of the owners of the plantation where family lore said Pulaski had been buried, summarized the evidence that the monument would also be the burial place of Pulaski’s remains. According to Bowen’s aunt, a 14-year-old girl at the time of Pulaski’s death, and the plantation’s groundskeeper, Pulaski’s body was transported to his grandparents’ estate in Greenwich and buried next to a palmetto tree and a glossy holly bush. When the monument was built, Bowen had the spot excavated and there was indeed a body buried there. The bones were closed in a metal box which was placed inside the monument.

In the 1990s, the monument’s structure was failing and had to be dismantled and reconstructed. When the monument was opened, they found a metal container, heavily corroded by rainwater. It was filled with neatly stacked bones, skull on top. The bones were examined in the State crime lab by forensic specialist Karen Burns. She found that the pelvis was female with the characteristic oval shape. So it seemed these were not the bones of Cazimir Pulaski after all.

Or were they? Burns considered the possibility that Pulaski may have had congenital adrenal hyperplasia, ie, was genetically female with ovaries and uterus but due to high testosterone levels had masculine external sex characteristics. Portraits indicated he had a receding hairline and thin moustache. He was of slight build, a few inches above five feet tall, had never married nor had any children. He was something of a lone wolf, both in his private life and as a military leader. He didn’t womanize, didn’t drink, didn’t fraternize with his comrades. A non-standard body type could have been a factor in this aspect of his personality. It’s not out of the realm of the possible that the Father of the Cavalry might have been intersex without him or anyone else realizing it.

Baptismal record indicates he was baptized at home due to what is described as a debilitatus. The baby was otherwise healthy and there is no evidence that Cazimir suffered any illness in his youth. The reference to a “debility” and the private baptism could reasonably have been a reaction to atypical sex characteristics. Whatever the circumstances attending his baptism, he was raised as a boy, was trained in cavalry combat as any young nobleman of his time was and excelled at it, besting both of his brothers.

A 10-year investigation of the bones, including an attempted comparison of mitochondrial DNA in the bones from the Pulaski Monument and bone fragments recovered from the grave of Pulaski’s grandniece Teresa Witkowska. The original investigation was unable to retrievable viable samples of mitochondrial DNA from those fragments.

Most of the remains were reburied in 2005 in a crypt next to the restored monument, but castsof the original bones and a few of the real ones were kept for future study. The investigation picked up steam again recently.

New tests on the same bones sampled the first time did retrieve mtDNA, but the comparison between a tooth from the Pulaski Monument bones and a femur from the Witkowska remains did not return a match. Those samples had been cut into, however, making them susceptible to contamination, so the team tried again with two different bone samples from the monument (a tallus bone) and Pulaski’s grandniece (a metatarsal). The mtDNA connection excludes 99% of the population, so that means the bones are either Cazimir Pulaski’s or there was some other random Pulaski relative buried in Savannah at the same time, which is so extremely unlikely it can be dismissed.

“One of the ways that male and female skeletons are different is the pelvis,” Virginia Hutton Estabrook, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University, told NBC News. “In females, the pelvic cavity has a more oval shape. It’s less heart-shaped than in the male pelvis. Pulaski’s looked very female.”

While the Pulaski skeleton showed tell-tale signs of extensive horseback riding and a battle wound on the right hand that the general is known to have suffered, the facial structure and jaw angle were decidedly female, Estabrook said.[…]

Was Pulaski aware of being different from the men around him?

“Probably he was not completely aware,” Estabrook said. “What we do know about Pulaski is that there were enough androgens (male hormones) happening in the body, so that he had facial hair and male pattern baldness. Obviously, there was some genital development because we have his baptismal records and he was baptized as a son.” […]

Told of the revelations about Pulaski, Richard Zawisny, president of the annual Pulaski Day parade, admitted, “I’d heard something about this before, but I’m a little shocked by this.”

“But in this day and age, I don’t think it will matter to most people,” he said. “I really believe that the majority won’t care, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that Pulaski was a Polish-American hero.”

The study of Casimir Pulaski’s skeletal remains is the subject of an episode of America’s Hidden Stories that premiered on the Smithsonian Channel Monday, April 8th, at 8:00 PM. It’s fascinating.


There’s only so much “Wow!” “Amazing!” I can take

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

I’m watching the Egypt Live broadcast but I have to get up and do something else every ten minutes because the breathless exclamations are just too much for me to stand. STOP SAYING WOW, JOSH. And especially stop talking over people who have something substantive to say just to exclaim “Wow! Amazing!”

8:30 lol did Zahi Hawass just call him fat? Okay, I’m getting into this now.

Note: Hawass is just shy of his 72nd birthday. Look at him haul himself through these tight passages without breaking a sweat.

Hmm… Split screen with ads on the right and the live action on the left. I don’t hate it. In fact, if you’re going to do breakouts to pre-recorded explanatory bits, then keep the live thumbnail going with that too.

Ugh. Jokey food segment. The goat in the beginning was bad enough. The falafel punsterism is so much worse.

Oh hey, I didn’t know canopic jars were named after a type site! Beautiful examples in this tomb.

Zahi, no. Please. Not the curse.

I find Waziri’s calm descriptions and handling of the artifacts rather a relief after the extraness of Hawass and Gates.

I’ll tell you what, this gives you a good idea of what a hard job it really is to excavate sites like this. I’m not claustrophobic at all, and I can’t help but feel uneasy at the tight spaces and oppressively close rock walls deep underground.

“The adventure in archaeology makes me completely forget the pain. [moans in pain]” — Zahi Hawass

And we have reached the big limestone sarcophagus that will be opened live. They didn’t announce in the press materials that they’d open two less important ones before they even got to this one.

Mahmoud is the unsung hero of this broadcast.

I’m going to have to find out more about the wax heads and their revival in the New Kingdom.

That is the most perfectly wrapped mummy I’ve ever seen. I’ll say it: Wow. Amazing.


Egyptian sarcophagus to be opened on live TV

Saturday, April 6th, 2019

An ancient Egyptian sarcophagus will be opened live in a two-hour television special to air simultaneously at 8:00 PM Sunday on the Discovery, Travel and Science channels. Expedition Unkown: Egypt Live will be hosted by one Josh Gates who is described as an “explorer,” and who in his capacity as a certified SCUBA diver assisted in an archaeological excavation once in the 1990s. Other than that, it seems his bailiwick is hosting TV shows and traveling places. The actual opening of the sarcophagus will be done by archaeologists under the ever-watchful (and promotion-keen) eyes of Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass and Mostafa Waziri, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt.

The limestone sarcophagus was found in the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel in Minya province, about 210 miles south of Cairo. More than 50 Ptolemaic era mummies were found there earlier this year. The sarcophagus is likely older than that, however, as it was discovered in deeper chamber.

Viewers will have the rare opportunity to see the inner chambers of an excavation site, where archeologists recently uncovered a network of vertical shafts leading to an underground network of tunnels and tombs with 40 mummies believed to be part of the noble elite.

The massive underground complex of chambers is a treasure trove of antiquities – all laying undisturbed for thousands of years. But there are several chambers yet to be explored – and many more discoveries to be revealed, including a mysterious limestone sarcophagus found buried deep within the complex. The identity of the mummy inside has been a mystery for 3,000 years… Possibly until now.

Or even more likely there will be no identifying inscriptions. For that matter, there may not be any mummified remains to speak of remaining inside. There’s a very strong possibility of an Al Capone’s vault situation here, but the live broadcast works as a marketing tool either way since viewers will get two hours worth of the “come see the ancient wonders of mysterious Egypt” pitch.

This is the first time an Egyptian sarcophagus will be opened on live TV, but it’s only the technology that’s been updated. Making a spectacle of the dead of ancient Egypt is part of a long tradition of mummy voyeurism and exploitation going back centuries. Dr. Augustus Granville garbed it in a loincloth of science when he performed an autopsy of the mummy of Irtyersenu before a large crowd in 1825, the surgical theater lit by candles made from what he thought was beeswax he scraped off her mummy but turned out to be Irtyersenu’s own body fat in the form of adipocere. Dr. Thomas Pettigrew became known as “Mummy” Pettigrew for the hugely popular mummy unravelling parties he threw for Victorian Britain’s moneyed elite.


Soil, not advanced technology, preserved Terracotta Army’s weapons

Friday, April 5th, 2019

Since the fearsome 2,000-strong terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shihuang (259–210 B.C.) was first excavated in the 1970s, the bronze weaponry has stood out for its remarkably good state of preservation. Tens of thousands of arrowheads, spear tips, lances, swords, hooks, crossbow triggers and other bronze parts of complex weapons have survived even as their wooden components decayed to nothingness. Many are still shiny, sharp and show no sign of corrosion whatsoever. Traces of chromium found on the bronze parts have led scholars to hypothesize that the unusually excellent condition was attributable to an early form of chrome plating used as an anti-oxidation measure, a technology only otherwise known to have been invented in the 20th century.

A new study published in Scientific Reports suggests that the chromium residue found on the blades was an element in the lacquer applied to the wood or bamboo parts of the weapons — grips, spear handles, lance and arrow shafts, crossbows, etc. — not to the bronze edged parts. In the decay of the organic material, the chromium residue contaminated the blades.

In the absence of an anachronistically advanced rust-prevention technology, what then has kept blades and points in such pristine condition? The study authors think the answer is in the composition of the bronze and in the soil itself. Bronzes with higher tin content are prone to develop rich-tin layers on the surface that prevent corrosion. Testing of the surface of batches of bronze arrows from the Terracotta Army archers found the ones with the higher tin content were more stable. The presence of arsenic in the bronze also helped prevent corrosion.

The alkali nature of the soil is another highly significant factor that this study is the first to explore.

The Terracotta Army is located in the southern edge of the Chinese Loess Plateau, a 640,000 km2 area covered by silt-sized aeolian sediments that make the bulk of the soil. Large-scale models predict pH values around 8–9 for the Lintong area43, and this was confirmed by our on-site measurements of soil samples from Pits 1 and 2, showing pH values between 8.1 and 8.5 (Table S3). Burial soil pH is a paramount parameter predicting metal preservation, as it is correlated with redox potential, drainage conditions, biological activity and aeration. Additional characteristics of loess of potential relevance here are its low organic content and predominantly very small particle size. We propose that the moderate basicity and low organic content of the loess would have prevented the formation of acids that would attack metal integrity. In addition, the very small particle size of the soil would have obstructed the aeration and humidity necessary for metal corrosion. Our proposal is consistent with studies in conservation science which have addressed the optimum conditions for metal preservation in burial environments, noting pH levels of 8–8.5 and small particle size as optimum.

The research team tested the claim by placing bronze tokens in an environmental chamber that created accelerated aging conditions and by burying bronze in soil excavated from Pit 1 of the tomb. The tokens and the buried bronze both remained in pristine condition. A bronze token buried in organic-rich, slightly acidic soil with a pH of 5.9 as a control, on the other hand, quickly showed signs of corrosion.

In conclusion, the perplexing suggestion that Qin weapon makers used an arcane chromium-based technology to prevent weapon rust has been refuted. Efforts should be made to update museum displays and other popular literature about the site with this new information. Furthermore, we predict that chromium will be detected on the surface of metal objects from other sites where they may have been in association with chromium-bearing lacquered parts, i.e. more likely on weapons than on ritual bronzes. The use of chromium-rich compounds in the manufacture of ancient lacquer should be in the agenda for future research, together with further technological study of the sharp and lustrous blades.


Russian aristocratic silver goes on display

Thursday, March 28th, 2019

The massive collection of more than 2,000 pieces of silver secreted away in the walls of a Saint Petersburg palace and discovered during renovations in 2012 has gone on display for the first time at the Tsarskoye Selo palace museum in Pushkin. The Narshykin family had bought the palace in 1799 and lived there until 1917 when the fled the country and the Bolsheviks on the double. They left behind many valuable objects which were transferred State Hermitage Museum in 1920.

But those were just the pieces that were easy to find. Before they left Russia with their portable wealth, the family carefully wrapped their antique silver and stashed it in a hidey hole between the second and third floors of the palace. It was so effective a hiding place that it wasn’t even found when the palace was extensively renovated in the 1960s. It took a three-year project of re-engineering and restoration that began in 2009 to break through a brick wall and reveal the secret room crammed with cases full of treasure.

Apparently some of the crew tried to take a cut of the loot, hiding it away before the construction company alerted the authorities to the find, but they weren’t up to the job the Narshykin’s had done so thoroughly before them and the police found the pieces when they searched the building.

The Naryshkin family was one of the most important in Tsarist Russia going back hundreds of years. It could trace its roots to the 15th century, but the family leapt to prominence when the beautiful Natalya Naryshkina (1651-1694) wed Tsar Alexis after his first wife died birthing their 13th child. Their son would become Peter the Great and she was rule as regent of Russia during his minority. Peter showered favor on his maternal family and the Naryshkin princes held high office in the government, military and court from then until the brutal end of the Russian monarchy.

In July of 1918, Colonel Kiril Mihailovich Naryshkin, adjutant to White Russian Lieutenant General Sergey Nikolaevich Rozanov, was one of the first people to enter the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. Rozanov and Naryshkin broke down the defensive palisade encircling the house and went in together. There were survivors left to rescue, only evidence of the slaughter that had taken place six days earlier when the guards, knowing White Russian forces were almost upon them, executed the Tsar, his family and loyal attendants.

While there was some talk at the time the treasure was discovered that Narshykin descendants might make an ownership claim on the silver or of the finders getting 50% of its value, but surprising nobody the collection was declared historically significant and therefore property of the state. Since then it has been studied, inventoried and conserved and is now on public view in the Catherine Palace, the main building of the Tsarskoye Selo palace museum, which is also home to the reconstructed Amber Room.





January 2021


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