Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Oldest madeira collection found in New Jersey museum

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

Workers renovating Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, discovered a rare collection of Madeira wines, some dating back to Colonial times. Museum staff knew the Kean family had wine storage shelves in the cellar, but they were obscured by a plaster and plywood wall built during Prohibition. When workers broke through the wall and the locked wooden cage behind it, they found a collection of 18th and 19th century wines far larger than they realized. There are three cases containing more than 50 bottles of Madeira, the oldest of which date to 1796. The attic held an unexpected wine cache as well, not in bottles but in 42 demijohns dating to the 1820s. It’s the oldest and largest known collection of Madeira in the United States.

The museum staffers cataloged the cases and jugs of Madeira as they were discovered. While some of the stock needed to be researched online, most of the wine was still labeled with handwritten tags, or could be looked up in the thousands of Liberty Hall documents dating more than 200 years.

“We have the receipts from the liquor store, or the liquor distributor in New York, in Elizabeth or wherever,” [Liberty Hall director of operations Bill] Schroh said. “We can also trace the purchaser, when it was purchased and who it was purchased from.”

Part of the research showed some of the Madeira was imported by Robert Lenox, a millionaire merchant from New York who owned land in the heart of Harlem, which is where the borough’s main avenue gets its name.

Liberty Hall was the country home of William Livingston, scion of a prominent New York family and a successful lawyer. When he bought the land in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), New Jersey, he planned to retire to the estate. He was intimately involved in the design of the 14-room Georgian home and of the landscaping and orchards on the 120-acre property. He and his wife settled in to their happy retirement home in 1773, but Livingston’s retirement wouldn’t even last a full year. Revolution pulled him back into political and military action. He was a delegate to both Continental Congresses, was a general in the New Jersey militia and was New Jersey’s first elected governor in 1776.

Livingston was only able to return to Liberty Hall in 1783 and the estate had been rudely treated by the British who trashed the place on the regular searching for him when he was a wanted man. American soldiers also looted the home. Livingston lovingly repaired the home and gardens, even as he continued to serve as governor until his death in 1790.

The hall was purchased by Peter Kean, the son of Livingston’s niece Susan, in 1811. Peter and his mother maintained the estate for the next 22 years. In 1833, Susan’s grandson Colonel John Kean inherited it and over the course of six decades, transformed the Georgian home into a 50-room Victorian mansion. It has remained in the Kean family who have worked to preserve it and open it to the public as a museum displaying original artifacts from the Livingston and Kean families in rooms dedicated to different time periods.

It seems the wines were collected by both the Livingstons and the Keans.

Some of the original Madeira stock was shipped to the second generation who lived at Liberty Hall, in anticipation of John Adams’ presidency. Although Liberty Hall President John Kean was well aware of the wine collection, he couldn’t have imagined its historical significance.

“We knew there was a lot of liquor down here, but we had no idea as to the age of it,” said Kean, first cousin to New Jersey’s former governor. “I think the most exciting part of it was to find liquor, or Madeira in this case, that goes back so far. And then trying to trace why it was here and who owned it.”

Madeira was a popular tipple for the early American upper crust, because unlike most wines at that time, it can take a lot of jostling of the kind sure to be experienced on a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage. The fortified dessert wine also lasts far longer than other wines without spoiling or turning to vinegar. In the 18th century, the 13 colonies bought 95% of the Madeira produced on the Portuguese archipelago and gentlemen of wealth and good taste would have a selection of Madeiras in their cellars (or attics). The Liberty Hall collection has six different kinds of Madeira.

The newly liberated cellar space with its original wooden shelves, now restored and structurally reinforced, is open to the public, along with some of the bottles and demijohns. John Kean had the opportunity to taste a sample from one of the Madeiras and he said it tasted fine, like a sweet sherry. The bottles from 1796 have not been sampled. They might be whipped out for an appropriate special occasion in the future: a visit from the President of Portugal.

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US returns looted royal seals to Korea

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned two looted royal seals from the Joseon Dynasty to the Republic of Korea at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C., on June 30th. The repatriation ceremony was planned to coincide with South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s visit to Washington so that Thomas D. Homan, acting director of ICE, could formally hand the seals over to the President who then carried them back to South Korea personally.

The two royal seals are the same size — four inches square — and both have handles shaped like turtles, but they were made a century apart from different materials. The oldest of them is the royal seal Queen Munjeong (1501-1565) which was made in 1547 out of gilt bronze. Technically 1547 was the second year of her son’s reign, but King Myeongjong was just 12 years old when he ascended the throne after his half-brother’s death under suspicious circumstances, so Queen Munjeong acted as regent. The seal uses a title given to Munjeong during her early regency.

(It was widely believed that Myeongjong’s half-brother King Injong, who reigned for only one year after his father’s death and was 30 years old when he died, was poisoned to death. Queen Munjeong was the prime suspect for the ringleader of the conspiracy to remove the young, reform-minded, active king and replace him with his kid brother whom she could easily manipulate. She stayed on as regent long past her son’s majority, remaining queen until her death 20 years later. Myeongjong was 32 years old when he finally became king in more than name.)

The second royal seal was made for the future King Hyeonjong (r. 1659-1674) to commemorate his becoming the crown prince in 1651. It’s carved out of highly prized white jade and is taller and more massive than the Queen’s seal.

Both of these are of a type of royal seal known as an “eobo,” used for ceremonial purposes rather than for official government documents which were the province of the “guksae” or the great seal. Because they were the official stamp of royal authority, the production, deployment and retirement of royal seals were stringently regulated by the Jongmyo, the Confucian shrine dedicated to the preserving the memory and rituals of the Joseon royals. The Joseon Dynasty is one of the longest ruling dynasties in the history of the world (1392 to 1897), so you might be forgiven for thinking they were lousy with royal seals after all that time, but because of that strict oversight, during the 500+ years of the Joseon Kingdom and Korean Empire only 37 guksae and 375 eobo were made.

They were all present and accounted for until the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The seals were hot items for looters and pillagers, and continued to be actively stolen during the Korean War (1950-53). The two returned seals are microcosms of the larger syndrome. Queen Munjeong’s seal is believed to have been stolen during the Korean War, King Hyeonjong’s during the Japanese occupation. The Korean government has vigorously pursued all leads to track down their precious cultural heritage since the 1950s. Four of the great seals have been recovered and seven of the royal seals. There are still 29 great state seals and 46 royal ones unaccounted for as of today.

The seals are a microcosm of Korea’s assiduous attempts to reclaim their lost treasures too. There are US State Department records going back to the mid-1950s that document requests from the Korean ambassador to locate the stolen seals of Queen Munjeong and King Hyeonjong. There is no evidence of any investigation taking place at that time. That would have to wait until 2013 when ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division opened an investigation into Queen Munjeong’s royal seal at the request of South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) who had found out the seal at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and had been for 13 years. The Korean Broadcasting Service did a little digging and identified the private collector who sold the Queen’s seal to LACMA in 2000. They found the King’s seal at his house.

The seals will be conserved and stored at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. They won’t go on display right away. The CHA is currently planned a special exhibit in August that will put the royal seals on public view.

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Aztec golden wolf burial found in Mexico City

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

Excavations in Mexico City run into momentous finds every other week, it seems. It’s like Rome. As soon as anyone puts a shovel a couple of feet into the ground, they bump into a treasure trove of the city’s ancient history. The latest announcement is of a discovery made by archaeologists in April of this year: the remains of a sacrificial wolf literally draped in gold. The final tally is 22 intact pieces of jewelry made from thin sheets of gold elaborately decorated with symbols. Most were pendants, the tie that held them together long since decayed; there’s also a nose ring and a chest plate.

Detail of 22 gold pieces formed into symbols in wolf burial. Photo by REUTERS/Henry Romero.The wolf was about eight months old when it was ritually killed. Its body was adorned with gold ornaments and a belt of shells from the Atlantic. It was then placed on a bed of flint blades inside a stone box and buried near the staircase of the Templo Mayor (behind the colonial-era Metropolitan Cathedral), the primary center of worship in the sacred precinct of Aztec Tenochtitlan. It was buried facing west and was meant to represent Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and of the sun. Archaeologists found layers of offerings in the burial pit, items representing air, earth and sea and laden with religious meaning.

In forty years of excavations around the Templo Mayor area in Mexico City’s Zocalo, or central square, the gold covering this little wolf is far and away the finest in both metal quality and in its crafting. More than 200 ritual sacrifices and offerings have been found over the four decades. Only 16 of them contained gold, and little wonder since the Cortes and his successors took every last atom of Aztec gold they could find and melted it down for the Spanish treasure ships. Looters, both deliberate (treasure hunters) and incidental (workmen stumbling on something and pocketing it for sale on the black market), despoiled what was left underground. The Aztec, famous for their prized gold work, have been archaeologically denuded of it in Mexico City, the modern city built over their great capital of Tenochtitlan.

This small wolf burial, therefore, is of oversized historical importance as well as great pecuniary and artistic value. It came very close to disappearing from the archaeological record before it was ever documented. A city sewage line built in 1900 interfered with the burial, damaging the box. Thankfully the contents were not exposed, because one little glint of gold and the crew would have helped themselves to all of it, leaving nothing but scattered bones.

INAH archaeologist Alejandra Molina works on the skull of the young wolf. Photo by REUTERS/Henry Romero.The golden wolf was buried during the 1486-1502 reign of King Ahuitzotl, the most feared and powerful ruler of the Mexica, who extended the empire as far south as present-day Guatemala. The reign of Ahuitzotl was particularly brutal, which may also explain the fate of the young wolf.

[Lead archaeologist Leonardo] Lopez said tests on its ribs will be needed to confirm his theory that the animal’s heart was torn out as part of the sacrifice, just as captured warriors were ritually killed on blood-soaked platforms of Aztec temples.

But this was no ordinary violence, noted [Harvard historian and Aztec expert David] Carrasco.

“These people didn’t just kill these things. They didn’t just kill people and throw them away,” he said. “They took elaborate, symbolic care for them because they knew that the presence that they represented, the presence of god, had to be nurtured.”

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Wedgwood First Day’s Vase saved

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

One of four vases made by Josiah Wedgwood on the opening day of his new Etruria Works at Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, has been acquired by the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery after coming within a razor’s width of being exported out of the UK by an overseas buyer. The vase was bought at a Christie’s auction on July 7th, 2016 for £482,500 ($625,759). In December, Culture Minister Matt Hancock placed a temporary export bar on the vase as an object of its rarity and national significance to British art, industrial and ceramic history. It would have been the only one of the four First Day’s Vases to leave the UK. Two are in the Victoria and Albert Museum; the other is still owned by the Wedgwood family.

After a fundraising campaign that saw donations from hundreds of members of the public, private businesses and institutions like the Art Fund and National Heritage Memorial Fund, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Friends of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery were able to raise the £482,500 purchase price to keep the vase in the UK. They have negotiated with the auction buyer and have worked out the exchange. The vase will now go back to the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery where it was on display, loaned by the owner, the granddaughter of Cecil Wedgwood, from 1981 until it was withdrawn in 2016 to be sold to the highest bidder.

Made of Black Basalt and decorated with a painting technique Wedgwood termed “encaustic” (hand-painted with enamel pigments and a clay slip then fired), six First Day’s Vases, each slightly different, were thrown by Josiah Wedgwood himself on June 13th, 1769, the opening day of his new Etruria factory. His partner Thomas Bentley turned the wheel. Four of the six vases survived the firing process. Wedgwood, who had a real understanding from the very beginning of the importance of preserving his company’s history, specifically noted in a letter to Bentley’s workshop that the vases “sho’d be finish’d as high as you please but not sold, they being the first fruits of Etruria.”

The figures are copied from a 5th century B.C. Attic red-figure vase in the collection of antiquarian Sir William Hamilton (whose wife, Emma Hamilton, was very notoriously and very scandalously the lover of Admiral Horatio Nelson for seven years before his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805). The vase was published in the illustrated catalogue of Hamilton’s vase collection in 1766 and Josiah Wedgwood got a preview copy of the book because of his connection to Sir William. Hamilton was a generous patron to Wedgwood, giving him access to his collection of vases so he could study and often times duplicate their forms and decoration.

The piece that inspired Josiah Wedgwood’s First Vase is an elaborately painted water jar that features dense and complex groupings of figures from Greek mythology — the kidnapping of the Leukippides, Heracles in the garden of the Hesperides — and was considered by art historians of the 18th and 19th centuries as one of the greatest extant examples of Greek design. Today it is known as the Meidias Hydria now that its artist has been identified as the Meidias Painter. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1772 when Hamilton sold his entire vase collection to the institution.

Wedgwood getting access to Hamilton’s collection and an early view of the high quality plates in the catalogue before any other artist gave him a great advantage in the market. Neo-classical decorative arts were all the rage, and Josiah Wedgwood was ideally positioned to fulfill the public’s craving. Modelled in both shape and decoration directly from the original ancient vessels, the First Day’s Vases tapped into this market with a verisimilitude that none of Wedgwood competitors could boast of, and the influence of Hamilton’s antiquities was felt throughout the Wedgwood line, in vases, tableware, reliefs and patterns.

At the foot of all four of the First Day’s Vases is the inscription “Artes Etrurae Renascuntur,” meaning the Arts of Etruria are Reborn. Josiah Wedgwood played a large role in popularizing neo-classicism, and these vases, the name of his factory, the duplication of elements of ancient vases but on an industrial scale, underscore how central the inspiration of antiquity was to Wedgwood. It was the foundational idea behind the Etruria Works.

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Revolutionary War musket ball found in Charleston cracks archaeological case

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

A team of archaeologists and college students have unearthed a single lead musket ball from the Revolutionary War in Charleston, South Carolina. This is the first archaeological evidence found of the British lines from the Siege of Charleston in 1780.

Archaeologists and students from the College of Charleston had been excavating behind the historic Aiken-Rhett House (built in 1835 on an infilled work yard) for two weeks in the hopes of discovering physical traces of a British trench that was part of a network of trenches used to besiege the city. A ground-penetrating radar survey indicated significant soil disturbance under the surface, so the team of more than a dozen people was assembled to excavate quickly and efficiently.

On Wednesday of last week the team was excited to find a lead ball, but their hopes were dashed when it was identified a post-Revolutionary lead shot from a hunting gun. Thursday their luck turned when they dug up a small lead ball that was the proper age, fired by the proper weapon (a musket) and was flattened on one side from the impact against a target. It’s the proverbial smoking gun.

Charleston Museum Director Carl Borick has been searching for the 1780 siege line for nearly 15 years. “Based on these artifacts, my research and the archaeologists’ assessment of the mottled soil in the trench, we have pretty much confirmed it was part of the British siege lines during the 1780 siege.”

As the students worked, the director of museums for the Historic Charleston Foundation, Lauren Northup, led tours around the site explaining in detail what they hoped to discover.

“We have worked for three weeks to uncover evidence of a suspected revolutionary war seize trench dug by the British in 1780,” Northup told Fox News. “We are nearing the end of the field school and we have finally reached the trench.”

Northup says the British-built trenches were open only for a short period of time. “A trench was built very quickly and it was really meant to transport troops safely behind earthworks,” she explained. “Basically once they dug it and passed through they then filled it back in.”

That’s why it has been so difficult to find archaeological evidence of the trenches. They were dug and refilled so quickly, there’s no real structure to find. (They can’t all be Thaddeus Kosciuszko tunnels.) The only indication of their presence is the random stuff that the British troops dropped in the trench, or, as in this case, the remnants of battle.

This one tiny bullet could well crack the whole siege trench network wide open. Researchers will be able to compare the one known trench with military and historic maps of the British siege positions and marked trenches. That will give them an approximate idea of where to find whatever physical evidence survives of the other trenches.

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Section of Great Wall repaired with traditional materials, toughness

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

The Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China is famed for its picturesque tree-covered mountain locations and dramatic vistas of jagged peaks and plunging cliffs. Built about 50 miles north Beijing along the skinny spine of a mountain ridge with steep dropoffs left and right, Jiankou is a great draw to hikers and photographers fit enough to tackle the challenges of the winding rise and run of this section. They also have to be willing to take their lives in their hands, because it is a tough walk, all but vertical in some parts, and there are significant sections in dangerous disrepair.

The 12-miles stretch of wall at Jiankou was built during the Ming Dynasty (1369–1644). The Great Wall as we think of it today is largely the work of Ming emperors who took a scattershot collection of earthwork defenses built by their predecessors (the first border walls built to repel invaders go at least as far back as the 7th century B.C.) and transformed them into massive walls, first of tamped earth, then of stone and bricks. The Jiankou section was made of large white stone and bricks that contrast vividly with the dark greens of its wild backdrop.

It’s not clear under which Ming emperor and when exactly the stone and brick Jiankou wall was constructed. Chinese chroniclers credit Ming general and scourge of Japanese pirates Qi Jiguang (1528–1588) with repairing and improving this section of the wall when he was put in charge of defending the northern frontier from the Mongols in 1572. He also added a great many watchtowers to strengthen the border defenses. The copious use of brick in Jiankou also suggests a 16th century date, but it’s likely that the overall work was done in multiple stages of restoration, improvement and maintenance.

Repairs to the Jiankou section stopped altogether Qing conquest of China in 1644. The Qing conquered the Mongol Empire and annexed it, so the old borders were no longer relevant. The difficult terrain compounded the neglect and the wall at Jiankou was left virtually untouched for almost 400 years. There’s a big upside to centuries of abandonment in a remote location: a lot of the original materials are still in place — damaged, collapsed, structurally unsound, but original and therefore restorable to something close to its 16th century condition. More accessible sections of the wall were used as quarries for local construction so much of the original masonry and brickwork is lost forever. Others have been repaired with historically inaccurate materials like concrete (which always ends in disaster; concrete is not the friend of historic preservation) to make them more tourist-friendly.

Mule carries bricks to the wall. Photo by Damir Sagol for Reuters.In 2005, a program of restoration began on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall. This is excruciatingly slow work because it’s so hard getting materials up the mountain — mule trains are often the only option, and even mules can get a little cranky having to haul more than 300 pounds of bricks apiece up a precipitous mountain ridge — and finding skilled workers to do the dangerous construction job. It takes a special kind of testicular fortitude to lay brick while dangling from a rope over a freaking abyss.

The restoration is now in its third phase and the focus is on preservation, not creating a new tourist trap. Original materials are used where possible, accurate reproduction using traditional crafts where not.

Where they could, workers used the original bricks that had broken off the wall over the centuries. Where there were none to be found, they used new bricks made to exacting specifications.

“We have to stick to the original format, the original material and the original craftsmanship, so that we can better preserve the historical and cultural values,” said Cheng Yongmao, the engineer leading Jiankou’s restoration.

Cheng, 61, who has repaired 17km of the Great Wall since 2003, belongs to the 16th generation in a long line of traditional brick makers.
[…]

Just a tenth of the wall built during the Ming Dynasty has been repaired, said Dong Yaohui, vice president of the China Great Wall Association.

“In the past, we would restore the walls so that they would be visited as tourist hot spots,” he said, by contrast with today’s objective of repairing and preserving them for future generations. “This is progress.”

Amen to that. This video shows some of the workers being badasses on an ordinary day at the job site.

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Templo Mayor skull tower keeps getting skullier

Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

The Aztec tzompantli (skull rack) discovered in the Templo Mayor complex in downtown Mexico City two years ago has proven to be on an even vaster scale than first realized. Archaeologists with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) unearthed the tower of skulls six feet under the floor of a colonial-era house west of the Templo Mayor. At the center of a rectangular platform 34 meters (111.5 feet) long and 12 meters (40 feet) wide, they found a circular structure six meters (20 feet) in diameter made of skulls mortared together with a combination of lime, sand and volcanic gravel.

Tzompantli were used by the Aztecs to display the heads of the sacrificed, usually warriors captured in battle. The skulls were pierced from temple to temple and threaded onto wooden stakes that were mounted onto vertical posts like a grisly abacus. Pierced skulls and the remains of stakes have been found before, but they’ve been very modest in size and there was no permanent, mortared structure in place studded with the skulls of sacrificial victims.

The Templo Mayor skull tower is therefore unique in the archaeological record. Holes through the parietal bones of the skulls’ indicate that as unusual as it is, the tower was part of the life cycle (death cycle?) of the Huey Tzompantli, a huge skull display in the city center that horrified even the Spanish conquistadors, no strangers to mass slaughter. One of Cortes’ soldiers, Andres de Tapia, described the Huey Tzompantli as displaying thousands of skulls at a time. Archaeologists believe the tower was the stage two, the final disposition of the heads after they’d been exposed to the public on the Tzompantli array. The defleshed heads were then mortared into the tower, all of the skulls positioned to face the inside the circle.

Skulls lined up in situ. Photo by Henry Romero for Reuters.When the discovery was first reported in August 2015, archaeologists had found 35 skulls. Now that number is now 676, and the excavation isn’t over yet. Archaeologists fully expect the final tally will reach into the thousands, just like de Tapia said. The sheer scale of the tower is striking enough, but the inclusion of skulls of adult women, youths and small children took archaeologists by surprise.

Historians relate how the severed heads of captured warriors adorned tzompantli, or skull racks, found in a number of Mesoamerican cultures before the Spanish conquest.

Skull of a child. Photo by Henry Romero for Reuters.But the archaeological dig in the bowels of old Mexico City that began in 2015 suggests that picture was not complete.

“We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you’d think they wouldn’t be going to war,” said Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist investigating the find.

“Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli,” he added.

The Templo Mayor was one of the most important temples in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire which became Mexico City after the Spanish conquest. The tower is now located next to the Metropolitan Cathedral built over the Templo Mayor by the Spanish. When it was built during Stage VI of the construction of the Templo Mayor (between 1486 and 1502), it was on the corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice, a fitting location for a tower of skulls.

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Miniature apothecary’s shop in cabinet form

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

If the shamelessly indulgent excess of Baroque pietre dure cabinets are too ostentatious for your tastes, the Rijksmuseum has an alternative for you: an 18th century collector’s cabinet that opens into a miniature apothecary shop complete with every Barbie Dream Apothecary Shop accessory you could possibly conceive of in your nerdiest of fantasies.

It doesn’t have the glorious riot of colors and patterns you see in the hard stone inlay, but by no means was this a modest piece. About eight feet high and three feet wide and deep, the cabinet is made of oak and pine wood with veneers of walnut and olive wood, plus shell and ivory inlays and gold-plated copper accents. When its doors and drawers are closed, the cabinet looks like a handsome piece expertly built out of fine woods. The way the veneers are cut and installed to create Rorschach-like complex symmetrical patterns attest to the craftsman’s skill before you even get a glimpse at the spectacular interior.

It’s divided into the three horizontal sections. On the bottom is a wide, deep two-door closet in which important books and larger items in the collection were kept. The middle section consists of three drawers, two small ones above one large one the full width of the cabinet. The top is another two-door closet, smaller than the bottom level and unlike the veneered ones below, these doors are mirrored.

It’s the mirrored doors that open to reveal the plethora of cubbies, drawers, shelves, bottles and more than 300 Delftware jars that are so instantly recognizable as an apothecary’s shop. The scale is so accurate that when you look at the open cabinet without seeing the rest of the cabinet, it looks like you could walk right in and buy all the basil, dried scorpion, mummy flesh and Mithdridatum you need. (All of those materials are listed on the labels of the Delft pots, btw.) There’s even a faux tiled floor made with inlaid wood veneers that looks totally real.

Painted panels on both sides of the central wall represent the medical motif. The top left painting depicts Apollo, Greek god of healing, standing on a pedestal inscribed “Ars longa” (art is long). His counterpoint on the right side is the grim skeletonized figure of death holding his scythe, standing on a pedestal inscribed “Vita brevis” (life is short). Life and death are the stocks in trade of the medical professional, then as now, and the phrase “Ars longa, vita brevis” is a Latinized version of an aphorism written by the Greek physician Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine. The most prominent painted panel is the one on the center bottom in which a doctor examines a urine flask (which is a large part of what doctors did back then, other than read ancient sources). The painting to the right of this is a pharmacology student cooking something up in the lab; to one to the left is a room filled with books. They’re depictions of the practical, hands-on work, the book learning and the staring at pee that symbolize the broader medical profession, including pharmacology.

A pair of gilded putti hover at the top of the central wall. Above their heads they hold up a crown made of medicinal plants and in their other hands, a draped banner which bears the motto “Pietas, scientia, temperantia, vigilantia, et studium assiduum ornant pharmacopceum” (piety, knowledge, temperance, vigilance and assiduous study are ornaments to the pharmacist). The left, central and right walls of the miniature shop are covered head to toe with pharmacological specimens, each to its own, often labeled, jar or drawer. The Delft jars, some with spouts, others smooth-lipped, are all custom-made to fit the shop. There are dozens of them, each painted with their own label.

But no self-respecting cabinet would lay it all out there. Hidden compartments are a must, and this cabinet is no exception. The back “wall” of the shop conceals 56 more drawers, each divided into multiple compartments. Only five of them are empty. The rest still contain specimens of almost 2,000 plants, seeds, animal body parts, minerals, rocks and fossils, all deemed to have medicinal use back then. The whole back wall slides up to reveal its secret cache of drawers.

The maker of this masterpiece is unknown. Researchers have discovered that the cabinet was made around 1730 in Amsterdam, and the combination of quality materials, intensive attention to detail and the specificity of the pharmacological motif indicates this was a very expensive custom-made piece of furniture commissioned by a wealthy doctor or pharmacist. In the 18th century, the Dutch bourgeoisie, flush with profits from flourishing trade and business, enjoyed the conspicuous consumption the aristocracy had always indulged in, but put their own stamp on it. Instead of making collector’s cabinets that looked like church facades inlaid with a multitude of the hardest, most prized semi-precious stones, the kind of thing popes and princes were into it, the businessmen sought to create luxury versions of their own environments. What better way for a medical man to show off his collection of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens than in a cabinet that looks like a dollhouse version of his flawlessly appointed shop?

The Rijksmuseum acquired the cabinet in 1956, but it has very seldom been on display. It needed a great deal of study and conservation before it could be stabilized for its own safety and those of visitors. More than 50 experts were involved in this research project, and good thing too, because they found samples of uraninite and two other uranium-heavy minerals that had to be locked up in lead boxes and put into storage in accordance with the regulatory provisions of the Dutch Nuclear Energy Act.

The cabinet has now been conserved and has gone on display in the Rijksmuseum’s 18th century gallery. It is the only known 18th century miniature apothecary’s shop in the Netherlands, and will be displayed fully open so visitors can enjoy the cabinet in all its detail. The results of the research project has been published in a large-format book — so large the photographs capture the miniatures almost in real size — which can be preordered on Amazon (cost: $60) or purchased directly from the Rijksmuseum’s online store (cost: €40) starting July 3rd.

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Neolithic funerary urn found in Yorkshire barrow

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a rare complete Late Neolithic funerary urn in Silsden, West Yorkshire. The clay vessel dates to around 3,000 B.C. and was buried in a prehistoric barrow discovered on the site of a future housing development. Because it was clear to the naked eye that there were archaeological features on site, a terrace on the north side of the River Aire, developers Barratt Homes engaged Prospect Archaeology (PA) to organize a seven-week excavation before construction began. PA brought in contractors Archaeological Services WYAS (ASWYAS) to evaluate and excavate the site.

The ASWYAS team began with a geophysical scan of the property. The magnetometer picked up anomalous features consistent with Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age burials. Excavation confirmed the results of the scan. Just under the surface of the terrace was a prehistoric barrow bounded by a double ditch. Few artifacts and remains were discovered, but the ones that were are notable. Among the few flints unearthed was a Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead, a later flint blade and most significantly, a complete collared clay urn. The artifacts, size and design of the barrow indicates it was first created around 5,000 to 4,500 years ago in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age.

The barrow is only part of a larger complex. About 100 meters (330 feet) from the barrow is squared space enclosed by ditches is probably a mortuary enclosure, used in funerary rites that culminated in the barrow burial. On the outside of the barrow’s outermost ditch archaeologists found a pit alignment — a lined up series of pits that delimit an area in the same way boundary ditches do — that dates to the Iron Age, 1,500 years after the barrow was first made. Pit alignments are still somewhat mysterious. Archaeologists aren’t sure if they were dug that way in haste — some were later dug out into full-on ditches — or if there was a deliberate purpose to the pit design. Soil samples have been taken from the bottom of the pits so that they can be dated and analyzed for more information.

The large urn was decorated with engraved lines in the collar. These types of vessels are believed to have been used primarily for burial or other ritual purposes. The Silsden pot falls into line with its brethren. It was found buried in a pit near the center point of the round barrow. Archaeologists believe it was the primary burial, the reason the barrow was built. This pot was not the only burial found in the barrow. Other pottery vessels that may contain human remains and a later cremation burial were unearthed from the barrow and its associated ditches. That means the barrow was recognized and used reverently for hundreds of years well into the Bronze Age.

To ensure its precious contents, which may still contain human remains, were not disturbed or worse, carried away by a stiff breeze, during excavation in situ, the main pot was wrapped on site and raised intact so it could be transported safely to the conservation lab and excavated in a contained and controlled environment. After excavation, conservation and study, the funeral urn will probably go on display at the Cliffe Castle Museum.

The excavation of the Silsden site also found later remains, mainly evidence of agricultural usage like field ditches, ridge and furrow cultivation from the Middle Ages, and relatively new features added in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of them in particular deserves a spotlight dance: a dry stone wall built to mark a boundary line or enclose a field. It is a real beauty and I feel compelled to give it a vigorous, even vehement, Charles Foster Kane clap. I love a great dry stone wall, and apparently Yorkshire is crisscrossed with them, like a great patchwork quilt with masonry seams. The craft is still very much alive, with drystone walling associations and training programs to ensure there will be a new generation of builders keeping the tradition, and any historic walls in need of repair, standing proud.

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Original 1953 Disneyland concept map sells for $708,000

Monday, June 26th, 2017


The first map of Disneyland, created in a single frenetic weekend of 1953 by Walt Disney and Disney artist Herb Ryman, sold at a Van Eaton Galleries auction in Los Angeles on Sunday for $708,000. That’s on the low-end of the $700,000 to $900,000 pre-sale estimate — some breathless reports before the auction suggested the price could top $1 million — but it still sets a record for the most expensive Disneyland map ever sold, even though it’s not an actual map of the real life Disneyland.

The map was created to use in a pitch to a potential investor, the television studio ABC which was then just five years old. Walt Disney’s idea for a theme park nestled in the orange groves of Anaheim, California, sounded like a cockamamie scheme to most money people and Walt and his brother Roy were repeatedly turned down. Walt was so convinced this was a winning idea that he refinanced his home to raise money for the enterprise, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. Construction of Disneyland would cost $17 million and to convinced financial types to invest that kind of money, Walt realized he needed to create a visual representation of his idea so they could get it without having to use their limited imaginations.

On September 26th and 27th, 1953, the weekend before Roy Disney’s pitch meeting with ABC executives in New York City, Walt Disney and Herb Ryman sealed themselves in to a room at Disney Studio a drew up a map. Disney told Ryman what to draw, and Ryman penciled his boss’ vision on a sheet of vellum. He then transferred the drawing to more durable paper and hand-inked and colored it. The map was mounted on a three-fold presentation board and Roy Disney hustled it off to New York to present Walt’s vision to the ABC people. It worked. In exchange for a Disney-produced TV series to be aired on the network, ABC agreed to finance the construction of Disneyland, still the biggest network deal in history adjusted for inflation. (Disney bought all of ABC’s shares of Disneyland in 1960 and 36 years later bought ABC itself.)

In October, Roy brought the map back to California where it was used throughout 1953 and 1954 to show designers, investors, engineers and artists what Walt had in mind. It was altered several times in 1954 — lines darkened, colors added, new cars hooked up to the train, the scroll gussied up — and was repeatedly featured in the advanced publicity materials from September 19th, 1954, until the park’s opening on July 15th, 1955.

It didn’t keep up with the planning, though. Land of Tomorrow on the map became Tomorrowland in the park. Frontier Country became Frontierland. Lilliputian Land never happened at all. Sleeping Beauty Castle, the center point of Disneyland, is way at the back of the park in the concept map. The train station and Main Street square do match up with the real Disneyland.

Even though the map had been essential to securing the funding for Walt Disney’s brainchild and in promoting it in the months before its opening, Walt gave it away without hesitation before the park was even completed. The lucky recipient was one Grenade Curran, a show business veteran and jack of all trades who worked at Walt Disney Studios.

Grenade’s father was Charles Curran, an adept with the hand-held camera who became both Clark Gable’s and Roy Rogers’ personal cameraman. His mother had been an MGM dancer in her youth and had a very successful later career in the studio’s scenic art department. With an uncle and cousin in the business as well, Grenade grew up on the backlots of Hollywood. He was buddies with some of the most famous actors of all time and their children. From the time he was a baby, he was in front of the camera in commercials and movies. As an adult, he followed in his mother’s proverbial footsteps and worked as a background dancer in classic MGM musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Band Wagon. Over his decades in the business, he also worked behind the camera, touching every aspect of production from wardrobe to set design to direction.

In 1954 he got his first job with Walt Disney Studios working as a safety diver on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring Kirk Douglas. Several other behind-the-scenes jobs followed in Disney pictures and television shows. Walt Disney knew Curran’s family and he took a liking to Grenade, not the least because of his undeniably kickass first name. So even though he was just a regular production guy, not an executive, animator or an artist, Grenade found himself in the middle of historic events thanks to that jocular rapport he had with Disney.

After the deal was struck in New York, Walt Disney showed Grenade the first check from ABC and the check the mortgage company gave him when he refinanced his home. Grenade also saw the map, witnessing artists make changes and additions at Disney’s command. In March of 1955, Grenade asked him what he planned to do with the map and then boldly asked if he could have it. Walt said yes and Grenade Curran became the proud owner of the first map of Disneyland.

Construction on the park began in 1954 and on July 15th, 1955, Disneyland had its World Premiere Invitational Opening broadcast live on television and hosted by Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummins. Walt Disney assigned Grenade Curran to drive one of the Autopia cars in the very first Main Street Parade led by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Actor Don DeFore road in the car with him.

The opening was supposed to be an invitation-only preview, a show for celebrities and tantalizing glimpse brought to the rest of the country by ABC, but word got out and the public showed up in droves. The park, which was still under construction as of that morning, wasn’t even remotely ready for the 50,000 people who clamored to ride the teacups, moon over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and squeal with delighted horrors through Snow White’s haunted forest. The asphalt on the streets melted in the 100 degree Anaheim heat. The toilets backed up. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. And yet, the massive failure of the opening day was also proof that Disneyland was a major draw, would make all of its costs back lickety-split and basically turn out to be a license to print money.

Curran knew when he got the map that it was significant as a piece of history and a unique example of Walt Disney’s creativity and his team’s artistry. When Disneyland’s success birthed a myriad theme parks all over the world, he realized the map marked the beginning of a global cultural phenomenon. He kept it for 25 years before selling it to avid Disney collector Ron Clark. Clark has had it in a vault ever since. The map went on display for the first time in more than 60 years earlier this month at the auction preview.

The buyer has chosen to remain anonymous but appears to be a private collector. Clark had hoped the map would be acquired by Disney so it could go home, but they must not have been bidding because there’s no way a company with pockets as deep as Disney’s wouldn’t push the hammer price above the low estimate.

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