Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

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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Golden altar of Sahl Church removed for study

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Sahl Church in the Northwest Jutland village of Sahl near Struer is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. Built around 1150 out of granite ashlars, it has several notable features: a rune stone built into the chapel’s west wall, 16th century frescos, a burgundy silk velvet chasuble embroidered with silver thread made from the wedding dress of Queen Anna Sophia that is still used today on special occasions. Its most spectacular feature is the Golden Altar, a gilded copper altarpiece made by a Danish master artisan from Ribe in around 1200. Embedded with crystals around the borders, the reliefs on the altarpiece panels depict figures and scenes from the Bible, particularly the childhood and suffering of Jesus, and Christian symbolism.

Popular devotional objects in the Middle Ages, only seven golden altars remain today in Denmark and only two of them in their original locations. (The rest are kept at the National Museum.) The bursts of iconoclastic zeal and the preference for plain church decor of the Reformation took a heavy toll on these objects. Many of them were destroyed and the ones that remain are not in the best of the condition. The altarpiece of Sahl Church is by far the best preserved of the seven, largely intact with no major missing parts. Most of the crystals were lost by the 1930s, but they were restored by National Museum experts in 1935.

In 1850, Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, an archaeologist who was Denmark’s Inspector for the Conservation of Antiquarian Monument, surveyed the church as part of an inspection tour of the area. He warned in a letter that Sahl’s vicar was “adamant that the strange old altarpiece was to be removed” and when he wasn’t able to get rid of the priceless medieval gold and crystal altarpiece, he hired a local artist to paint over the wings. They weren’t original to the piece, thankfully, and they’re gone now but it lends some insight into why there are so few of these inestimable treasures left. Changes in fashion and taste can wreak havoc on historic artifacts, even ones whose value in sheer materials is blatantly obvious. This same vicar, by the way, also had the church’s medieval wooden coffer axed to pieces FOR FIREWOOD. Yet another page in the endless People Are Terrible ledger.

The altar has not been absolutely dated. What we know of their ages has been deduced from analysis of the design style and craftsmanship. When it was last restored more than 80 years ago, it was only spruced up. A new study of the Sahl Golden Altar by conservators at the National Museum of Denmark will give experts the opportunity to use modern methods of analysis to test the wood itself. Dendrochronology, if successful, can provide very precise dates. It will also be X-rayed and the gilding analyzed. They hope the study will reveal more information about the altar’s construction and materials.

While the altar is at the museum, visitors to Sahl Church will see a large-scale photograph of it draped over its usual location.

Within the last few years, the National Museum has conducted further studies on several of the golden altars. The results from this will be gathered in a publication about the unique cultural heritage of golden altars from the Middle Ages, which exists in Denmark.

It is the Carlsberg Foundation, which has granted the money for analyzes of the alhl from Sahl, and the experts hope that the results will be available at the end of the year.

In addition to a new study of the altar, the church itself will also be thoroughly reviewed. This appears in a publication published in the beginning of 2018, where the churches in Estvad, Rønbjerg and Vinderup will also be described.

The publication of the four Western Jutland churches is published as a volume in the National Museum’s great work of Danish Churches, which aims to publish descriptions of all the churches of the country. The project started in 1933, and today about two thirds of the Danish churches are described.

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Rare Rockwell painting owned by Debbie Reynolds for sale

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

A rare painting of Benjamin Franklin striking a saucy pose as he signs the Declaration of Independence will be sold to the highest bidder at The Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds Personal Property Auction to be held in Los Angeles on October 7th-9th. For the past seven years until Ms. Reynold’s recent death, the painting was on loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts which must be disconsolate by the loss of so important and unique a piece.

The painting is accomplished in oil on 37 x 28 in. canvas, capturing a full-length portrait of Benjamin Franklin with a quill pen in hand, prepared to sign The Declaration of Independence and leaning on a Federal-style desk with the Seal of the United States behind him. The platform base reads, “Sesqui * Centennial * Celebration * of * the * Signing * of * the Declaration * of * Independence”. This incredibly historic Rockwell work has been exhibited in twelve museums around the United States since 1972 and has been published in several books.

Rockwell painted the work for the cover of the May 29, 1926, edition of the Saturday Evening Post commemorating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Post commissioned the subject and chose Benjamin Franklin for a specific reason: Franklin was the publisher of the influential Pennsylvania Gazette, the Philadelphia newspaper that the Saturday Evening Post claims as its historical ancestor, even though the Post didn’t exist until 1821 and the Gazette ceased publication in 1800.

The Post‘s reverence for Franklin continued to be expressed in its covers for decades. Between 1943 and 1961, every January the cover would feature a portrait of Benjamin Franklin (usually rather dry ones with a sadly unsaucy stone bust in the foreground) and a quote from his writings. Even today the revived magazine runs a “find Benjamin Franklin’s key” contest, named after his famed kite experiment first published anonymously in the Pennsylvania Gazette of October 19, 1752.

The pre-sale estimate for the oil-on-canvas original capturing the history of one of the United States’ most brilliant innovators, statesmen and printers and a magazine whose slice of Americana covers by Norman Rockwell have become iconic is $2,000,000 – $3,000,000. This is the first time the painting has been gone up for public auction, so the sky is probably the limit, pricewise.

Some of the proceeds from the auction will go to Debbie Reynolds’s most beloved charity The Thalians and The Jed Foundation, an anti-suicide organization chosen by Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd.

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Peruvian child mummy X-rayed in Texas hospital

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

An ancient Peruvian mummy that has been part of the collection of the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science for 60 years received its first X-ray yesterday at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. Very little is known about the mummy which was removed from Peru by unknown (illegal?) means at an unknown time. It has been at the museum since it opened in 1957, a gift from New York’s American Museum of Natural History via its former employee and the Corpus Christi Museum’s first director, Aalbert Heine. The mummy was one of many ancient artifacts and remains Heine brought to the new museum, accession number 137 in a collection that now counts in the millions.

There are no records extant of the mummy at the Museum of Natural History. The Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science’s tag labels it the mummy of an Inca child approximately 2,000 years old. As the Inca Empire is nowhere near that old (the civilization’s origin story places its founding in the 13th century), the label is drastically off-base. It is wrapped in a coiled rope that looks like a basket but isn’t. The only other potential source of information about the mummy are a few textile fragments that have somehow managed to remain on her body, but they have yielded no more answers so far.

Attitudes towards the display of human remains have changed over the years as the anthropological approach shifted from treating people like curios to respect for the dead (and living, for that matter) within their cultural context. The mummy was removed from display in the 1980s and has been kept in storage ever since. Last year, collections manager Jillian Becquet and assistant curator of education Madeleine Fontenot began to investigate the history of the mummy with the aim of repatriating it to its homeland. After extensive research in the museum archives, newspaper records and scrapbooks, the two had little new information to show for it.

Enter the Driscoll Children’s Hospital. An X-ray might reveal important information that would confirm its Peruvian provenance, an essential step in the repatriation process.

“She was not my average patient!” said Suzi Beckwith, Diagnostic X-ray Coordinator at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. […]

“Because of the size of the mummy, I thought it was a baby,” Beckwith said. “But looking at the X-rays, you see her legs are actually tucked in. So she’s not a baby. She’s a little girl.

X-rays can confirm gender, age, and even cause of death.

“We’re looking for things that can help us give information to anthropologists in Peru, and then hopefully confirm cultural group that she belongs to, said Jillian Becquet, Collections Manager at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.

The burial position confirmed by the X-rays could be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Different cultural groups buried their dead in different positions, so experts could determine her origins from that alone. Examination of her bones could pinpoint injuries, healed, peri-mortem or post-mortem.

The museum is working with Peruvian Embassy officials to identify the mummy and arrange for her return. Fontenot and Becquet hope Peruvian experts can learn more about her by studying the rope that binds her and the fragments of cloth. They’re not at that stage yet, however. Before they decide whether to invest in that kind of research, Peruvian officials will study the X-rays and documentation to see if the mummy is a likely candidate for repatriation to Peru. The more data they have, the more securely they will be able to claim her as their own.

“Whatever group was around her chose to do this very caring thing, to wrap her purposefully and bury her,” Becquet said. “Somebody along the way disrespected that, and so we want that to be restored.”

When this little mummy is returned to the land of her ancestors, the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science will have no people left languishing in its storage cabinets. She is the last one.

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Irma exposes dugout canoe, history buff saves it

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

A dugout canoe driven from its watery home on the bottom of the Indian River just north of Cocoa in Brevard County, Florida, by Hurricane Irma has been saved thanks to the quick thinking and responsible actions of a local history buff. Freelance photographer and history enthusiast Randy “Shots” Lathrop spotted a cypress log on the banks of the Indian River on Monday, September 11st. A less keen eye would have dismissed it as just another piece of arboreal debris littering the shores of the river thanks to Irma’s destructive power, but Lathrop noticed its carved interior and prow and recognized it as a dugout canoe.

He took a picture and sent it to an archaeologist friend who confirmed that it appeared to be a canoe. Lathrop immediately reported the find to the Florida Division of Historical Resources, as required by law, but with all the havoc wreaked by the hurricane the FDHR, the state archaeologist wasn’t going to be able to inspect the canoe right away. Meanwhile, county workers were clearing the area of debris. Lathrop was concerned that they would mistake it for a log, toss it in the truck and put in a landfill before the archaeologist had a chance to see it. He secured permission from the FDHR to move it to safety.

That was easier said than done, however. The canoe weighs close to 700 pounds, and is saturated with water from having been at the bottom of a river for years or even centuries. He enlisted the aid of a friend with a truck and the two of them managed with difficulty to heft the artifact onto the bed. They transported it to a nearby freshwater pond and submerged it to keep the wood from drying out and to keep hurricane debris collectors from disposing of it.

Three days later, the FDHR dispatched a regional archaeologist from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to examine the canoe. He wasn’t comfortable identifying its makers or date based solely on the preliminary investigation, but the possibilities are intriguing. This is an unusual piece.

The 15-foot-long canoe could be anywhere from several decades to several hundred years old, according to Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman with the department. Carbon dating will help to narrow down the boat’s age. […]

Dugout canoe compartment. Photo courtesy Randy "Shots" LathropThe canoe has a squared off form, which Revell said is commonly seen in the historic period (from 1513 to about 50 years ago in Florida), but there are several uncommon features on it too: compartments, square nails and what appears to be a seat.

“The compartments are a bit out of the ordinary,” she said. “The square nails are cut nails. Cut nails were first in production in the early 19th century so that helps to indicate it is a historic canoe.”

Lathrop noted that there are visible remains of red and white paint, colors traditionally used by the Seminole people to paint canoes (among other things).

The canoe is now being conserved in a water bath. There are no specific plans for its ultimate disposition at this juncture, but the buzz is it will stay in Brevard County where it will go on public display once it has been stabilized.

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Irma cannot defeat cats with opposable thumbs

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

Ah, Internets, how I missed you. An outage of just over 24 hours had me in full white-knuckle withdrawal mode. I don’t know how the Harvey/Irma folks can stand it. Take, for instance, the staff of the Hemingway Home and Museum on Key West. Key West, like all of the Florida Keys, was smack in Irma’s path, and the Overseas Highway, its sole road linking it to the mainland, was sure to be underwater leaving Key West without means of resupply. Residents were ordered by the governor to evacuate the Keys. The National Weather Service minced no words, warning that “nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe” from Irma. Governor Rick Scott minced even fewer words: “You will not survive.”

Hemingway Home and Museum, Key West, Florida. Photo courtesy Hemingway Home and Museum.One museum curator, 10 museums staffers and more than 50 cats were not persuaded. Curator of the Hemingway Home and Museum Dave Gonzales chose to stay in the historic property once inhabited by Ernest Hemingway and 10 staffers joined him. Perhaps even more beloved (and certainly better known) than the mere humans are the cats, most of them polydactyl, descended from the author’s original cats.

Hemingway loved cats and ended up with more than 50 of them. He had a great fondness for polydactyls which were considered good luck on board ships. It was a sea captain who gave Hemingway his first polydactyl, Snowball. Today the descendants of Snowball and his feline family live on the estate and have the run of the place, just as the cats did when Hemingway lived there. Most of them are neutered, with only a select few allowed to breed very rarely to ensure the population remains steady at around 50. Named after the greatest stars of pop culture, they are so famous and so popular that polydactyls, particularly those with little thumbs that make them look like they’re wearing boxing gloves, are commonly known as Hemingways. Half of the visitors to the Hemingway Home and Museum go there just to see the cats.

Nobel-prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway’s home on Key West has many of his personal belongings on display from furniture to pens, and of course it has its greatest stars roaming the grounds, but it is a National Historic Landmark whose history long predates Hemingway’s residence. The white Spanish colonial mansion was built in 1851 by marine architect Asa Tift. A ship’s captain and salvage wrecker who was well-versed in the challenges of building on a small island that is almost entirely at sea level, Tift chose his site wisely. He picked the second highest point in Key West at 16 feet above sea level and then quarried its limestone. That provided his home with a deep, dry basement and a supply of 18-inch blocks carved from solid limestone with which to build it.

A family squabble kept the old Tift mansion boarded up and abandoned until Ernest Hemingway bought it in 1931 for $8,000. He lived in the home with his second wife Patricia and their two sons from 1931 until 1940. Those brief nine years were exceptionally prolific, the most productive of his life. He wrote 70% of his total output during those years, including To Have and Have Not, Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He also paid a nosebleed-inducing $20,000 to have the first in-ground pool in Key West installed in 1938. Two years later and three years after he began his affair with Martha Gellhorn, Ernest moved to Cuba, got a divorce and got remarried to Gellhorn three weeks after it was finalized.

He kept the house until his death, although he never lived in it again. He died in 1961 and his widow (wife #4, Mary Welsh) sold it to Bernice Dickson who would transform it into a museum. In all this time, through the dozens (hundreds?) of hurricanes and crazy storms it has seen since 1851, the Hemingway Home has always held out against the elements. Its basement doesn’t flood. Its walls remain unbreached. That’s why Gonzales is so confident in the Hemingway Home’s capacity to weather even a monster hurricane like Irma. Only Solares Hill (18 feet above sea level) is at a higher elevation than the Hemingway estate, and its massive limestone construction and deep basement make it one of the safest places, if not the safest, on the island. It also has an array of generators for power and climate control. The ten employees who are joining Gonzales live at lower elevations on the island and have chosen to seek shelter behind those thick limestone blocks.

Besides, somebody has to take care of the cats. The staff helped round them all up and bring them indoors to safety. Father John Baker from St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Basilica (one of the oldest Catholic parishes in Florida and Pauline Hemingway’s parish when she lived at Hemingway Home) blessed the staff and cats.

Window and shutters nailed down under plywood, fully stocked with supplies, safe and dry in a basement that has never flooded, Gonzales, the staff and the cats stared Irma down. She was no match for them. From the Hemingway Home Cats Instagram page:

We are so extremely happy to announce that everyone, cats and staff, have weathered the storm and are only reporting trees down on property as far as damage goes. Communication with the Hurricane crew is incredibly limited and they currently do not have power, water, phones or internet. We do not have any photos to share at this time. Nicole was our only admin for the page that stayed on the hurricane crew. She will share when internet access is available. Please keep in mind that clean up is already underway and therefore we will not be posting anything more until normal communication services are available on the island. We appreciate the concern and well wishes.

Here’s a great tour of the Hemingway Home and Museum led by Dave Gonzales, whose handsome snowy beard may or may not be related to Hemingway’s iconic facial hair.

And here is an extremely badass cat with many toes ideally positioned for the pummelling of interlopers keeping Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter from harm.

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Rijksmuseum to delight Schiphol travelers even more than the duty-free cheeses

Friday, September 8th, 2017

The Rijksmuseum, ever the innovator in devising new ways for people to experience its incalculable cultural patrimony, opened a mini-branch at Schiphol airport. It was the first museum in the world to open in an airport. Now Rijksmuseum Schiphol is back again and better than ever in a newly refurbished space. The area just past security between Lounge 2 and 3, dubbed Holland Boulevard, has been converted into a museum showcasing some of the Netherlands’ greatest works of art.

The exhibition space was designed in an S-shape for ease of movement and travellers can enter it from two opposite sides. On display are 10 paintings from the Rijksmuseum collection. There are two pairs of exceptional portraits, landscapes with windmills enough to satisfy the most demanding of tourists, a floral still life that anyone who has played with the museum’s fantastic Rijkstudio gallery will recognize as the sample image on how to use the system, turbulent seascapes on canvas and on tile. Among the masters on display are Jan van Goyen, Willem van de Velde the Younger, Abraham Mignon and Michiel van Mierevelt.

For those last-minute “what did you bring me?” presents, there is also a gift shop with souvenirs from famous Dutch museums, including the Rijksmuseum. (They have some pretty great stuff, actually. I reverently clip my toenails into The Night Watch mini-tray my parents got me from the Rijksmuseum gift shop a few years ago.)

The new exhibition makes Schiphol the only airport in the world with original 17th century artworks on display in the terminal. If visitors can’t make it to Holland Boulevard, Schiphol will give them a little something cool to remember the Netherlands’ art by anyway. Starting on September 5th, the entire 73-meter facade of carousel 16 in Baggage Hall 3 was decorated with pictures of 45 iconic paintings by the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Mostaert, Johannes Vermeer and Vincent van Gogh.

Rijksmuseum Schiphol is open 24 hours a day and admission is free. Travellers flying into or out of Amsterdam will be able to transmute the base metal of slogging through airports into the purest Dutch Golden Age.

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17th c. royal flagship unearthed in central Stockholm

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Earlier this summer, the remains of a shipwreck were discovered during renovation of a quay on the Skeppsholmen islet in central Stockholm. Stockholm is no stranger to shipwrecks underneath its feet. Like Manhattan, San Francisco and other major port cities, large parts of it were constructed over the rubble of discarded ships. Archaeologists from the Stockholm Maritime Museum were overseeing the work and so were on site when the wreck first emerged and it was quickly clear to them that this ship was much older than anything they had expected to find in the area.

“We were really surprised, because we have some old maps that show some wrecks from the early 1800s, and it seems like the older wrecks don’t show up on the map. There were no indications of this wreck on the maps,” [marine archaeologist Jim Hansson] said, adding the remains uncovered include a section of the ship two metres up from the keel and parts of the transom.

“It was really well preserved. It is only to the first deck level, but you can still see the cut marks from the axes on the timber, for example. It’s been really nice to excavate the parts.”

Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples from the shipwreck found that the oak timbers were cut in the winters of 1612/3 and 1613/4 from trees in Sweden. The principle of Swedish shipbuilding in the early 17th century held that wood should be used within two years of cutting, so most of the ship was probably built between 1612 and 1614 with bursts of activity through 1616. The team searched through the naval archives for major warships that were built at that time. Only four warships were found on the lists made then. Two of them were too small, the third sank in a storm at sea leaving one likely identification: the Scepter, the largest of them all.

The Scepter was built by Isbrand Johansson, the Dutch-born master shipwright at Stockholm’s Royal shipyard, starting in late 1612, early 1613. She entered the lists in 1615 but was only fully completed and ready for action in 1617. Displacing 800 tons and armed with 36 guns, it was one of the flagships of young King Gustavus Adolphus’ fleet. In 1621, the Scepter carried that same king on a mission of conquest to Riga, then part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. They got it as far as Estonia before a storm forced them to stop. The king disembarked and made his way to Riga overland. The surviving ships of the 148 that had set out for Riga tried again only to meet another brutal storm. The fleet, including the Scepter, finally did make it to Riga, although Scepter ran aground once she got there and the whole fleet had to wait for the crew to extricate her.

After a long and distinguished career, the Scepter was retired in 1639 and sent to a farm in the country with lots of other ships to play with in a big crystalline lake. Naw, jk, they scuttled her on the coast of Skeppsholmen so her woodsy skeleton could be part of the foundation of a new shipyard being built on the island.

The king who ordered her construction when he was a teenager and caught a ride to nowhere on her a few years later, was a brilliant military commander whose success in warfare on sea and land during the Thirty Years’ War made Sweden one of the great powers of Europe. From his ascension to the throne as Gustav II Adolf in 1611 two months shy of his 17th birthday until his early death in 1632, Gustavus fought constantly, first to keep his throne and then to expand its territories and powers exponentially. He inherited wars against three foreign powers and was beset by enemies/family members who thought a boy king made an easy target.

They were wrong. Little Gustav turned out to be really good at fighting. (When will we learn the lessons of Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island?) His innovative approach combined modern technology (artillery), cavalry and infantry to work together seamlessly. All of his troops received extensive cross-training and were not saddled with all the hierarchical obsessions about which branch of the armed services were superior to others, cavalrymen being higher-up on the socio-military scale than infantry, etc. Gustavus did away with those entrenched inequities kept other nations’ militaries splintered in function and fractious in disposition. Every branch was treated equitably with full financial support from the king’s efficient and, most importantly, solvent administration.

Because of his forward-thinking integration of resources human, animal and technological and his gift for logistics, Gustavus Adolphus has been called the Father of Modern Warfare. After he died leading a cavalry charge at The Battle of Lützen on November 6, 1632, the Swedish Estates of the Realm declared that King Gustavus Adolphus would hereby be known as Gustavus Adolphus Magnus, Gustav Adolf the Great. That remains his official name in Sweden. He is the only king of Sweden to be granted this honorific.

It was Gustavus Aldophus who created the modern Swedish navy, taking it from the small Royal Fleet his grandfather King Gustav Vasa had started with ships he bought from the powerful Hanseatic city of Lübeck into a naval force of state-of-the-art warships. Gustavus started from scratch, building and expanding shipbuilding facilities that could supply new vessels at a brisk pace. He also started young, still effectively under regency, ordering new, heavily armed warships so he had a chance against in all those wars Sweden had been embroiled in while he was still in diapers. Ten years after the Scepter was launched, Gustavus launched an even larger beauty queen of a ship that also wound up wrecked. This one wasn’t wrecked deliberately — it was too top-heavy and just toppled over like a real life Barbie doll would — and good thing too because then we would have been denied the misty fantasy dreamship that is the Vasa.

“It’s a really important find because the ship is from the generation before Vasa, so we can see the technical building methods that were used, and it can help us understand what went wrong with the Vasa as well,” said Hansson[.]

The poor Scepter doesn’t rate the kind of huge-budget, multi-decade commitment that resurrected the Vasa. It isn’t intact, obviously, and there are no plans to raise it. Researchers have done some 3D imaging of the wreck in situ, fully documented it and taken samples. She’s staying where she is. Construction continues at the site, still overseen by Stockholm Maritime Museum archaeologists who are hoping more of the ship, or artifacts therefrom, may be discovered.

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16th c. local nautical map from colonial Mexico is satellite accurate

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

When the Spanish first colonized the Americas in the 16th century, they were starting from scratch, cartographically speaking. The maps of the New World were largely line drawings of the east coast done by explorers and navigators. These were combined to create large scale coastal maps of the entire continent, but they weren’t complete, accurate or in proper scale. Spain needed detailed, precise maps and not just of the coastline to fully exploit its newly conquered territories and to settle disputes with Portugal over who owned what. As a consequence, in the last third of the 16th century King Philip II launched a project to map the entire continent, coastal and interior. To aid in this goal, they employed Relaciones Geográficas, surveys sent to the colonial authorities in every community soliciting an array of information about local geography, languages, natural resources, trade, religion, botany, demographics, place names and topography. The completed surveys also had to include a map of the area.

Data trickled in — political boundaries, topographical features, the largest roads and towns mapped using diverse sources ranging from pre-Columbian indigenous tradition to contemporary artists to Spanish officials — but the regional maps, if they were submitted at all, were not the accurate representations Spain had hoped for. Most of them contained no distance measurements (which means no scale) or usable coordinates. Many of the colonial authorities in these towns were local leaders and had no training in formal cartographic methods, and they commissioned the maps from Spanish, Creole and indigenous artists, not people likely to take exact measurements and transfer them to the page. The standards of European cartography were only employed by a handful of punctilious functionaries from Spain.

One of the most adept Spanish mapmakers was Francisco Gali, a sailor, explorer, author from Seville who is best known today for having explored the Pacific Northwest coast in the search for a port that could be used by the Manila galleons on their way to Peru. Before making it all the way up north, he arrived in New Spain in 1580. He settled in the town of Tlacotalpa, modern-day Tlacotalpán, in the state of Veracruz, southeastern Mexico, where a group of local mayors asked him to make the regional map demanded by the Relaciones Geográficas questionnaire.

Architect and professor of Graphic Engineering at the University of Seville Manuel Morato has been studying topographic maps and regional cartography since 2010. Gali’s map of Tlacotalpa is highly relevant to his interests because it is one of the earliest examples of nautical cartography in Spanish America and is exceptionally accurate. In fact, His study of the map has found that it matches up to modern technologically-derived data with startling precision.

Gali produced a hand-drawn nautical chart in February 1580 with great exactitude by the standards of the time. It shows in great detail the coast, the estuaries, bays, capes, lagoons and rivers, and in some areas, indicates the depth of the water. Both the chart and the text of the Relación are kept in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. According to the text of the Relación, in the local tongue, “náhuatl-Tlacotalpa” means “divided land,” which refers to the fact that the village was founded in the Pre-Hispanic era on an island in the river Papaloapan, as is represented on the map.

“The Gali map has been compared with current satellite photographs, and the images are practically the same, apart from the distances of the time and the growth of the populated areas, like the city port of Veracruz and its surroundings,” adds the researcher. So the planimetric deformation of the map, compared with a current one, could be due to the fact that Gali did not take sufficient measurements or that he did so, but too quickly, as he was only passing through the area.

North American experts like Barbara Mundy suggest that these deformations could be due to Gali having used an existing padrón (a master map that was updated as new lands were discovered) that included these deformations. In this case, Gali only had to complete the information by adding locations and detailing geographical features. Manuel Morato maintains that this hypothesis is quite unlikely due to the secret nature of the Padrón Real, which was jealously guarded in the Casa de la Contratación in Seville, and of which obsolete copies were destroyed so that they did not fall into the hands of foreign powers. Other causes could have been motivated by the lack of in situ measurements and the impossibility of determining geographical length in the 16th century.

Morato ‘s study of the Gali map of Tlacotalpa has been published in The Cartographic Journal. It’s a fascinating read, and not just for map nerds either because it covers so much ground, if you’ll pardon the on-the-nose metaphor.

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