Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Early 17th c. telescope found in Delft

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

The oldest telescope in the Netherlands was discovered during digging for a new subway tunnel in Delft. Just four inches long and heavily corroded, the device was first thought to be an old shell casing, but the city archaeologist saw what looked like glass pieces at both ends and forwarded it to the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden for their experts to examine.

Conservators cleaned the instrument and found under all the layers of corrosion that it was made of tin, the metal used in the earliest telescopes. Its original cap was still attached. Both lenses were removed and cleaned. They’re 12 millimeters in diameter with an irregular shard-shaped perimeter. The eyepiece is flat on one side and concave on the other. while the lens is flat on one side and convex on the other, construction typical of the first generations of telescopes. The quality of the glass is abysmal, full of bubbles with uneven grinding. Only the middle five millimeters of the lenses are ground well enough to function.

Despite their inherent limitations, once cleaned the lenses actually worked. Conservators put the telescope back together and were able to see through it at five times magnification. That would not have been sufficient for military use or for astronomy (in any case it took Galileo for the first looking glasses to be pointed up to the sky). It was a wealthy person’s plaything, basically, used to get a better view at public gatherings, perhaps, or to get a better view of the stage at the theater.

The shapes of the lenses, the bubbles in the glass, the uneven grinding and the use of tin strongly suggest it was manufactured before 1650. After that, tin was replaced by brass and other more durable metals and the quality of glass and grinding were vastly improved. The general appearance of the telescope is also in keeping with prints from the first half of the 17th century. Neither is it likely that the telescope was made later but on the cheap. There are remnants of gilding on the tin, which means when first produced, this piece was an expensive luxury item. Nobody would spend money on a gilded telescope but use primitive lenses in it unless those were the only kinds of lenses available.

The telescope was invented in Middelburg in 1608, but until this find, the oldest one in the Netherlands dates to 1669 (it’s at the Boerhaave Museum along with the next oldest from 1683). Because tin corrodes so easily, none of the earlier ones were known to have survived. This one was found in an old canal where the low oxygen environment kept it from rusting into nothingness. There’s even a very slim chance that it’s the oldest telescope in the world, but it’s highly unlikely. There’s only a tiny window of possibility since Galileo started making his in 1609, the year after the first patents applications were filed in the Netherlands and the Museo Galileo in Florence has two of his from 1609-1610.

The telescope is going on display at the newly renovated De Prinsenhof Museum in Delft for it’s grand reopening on May 23rd.

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Artifacts found under London Bridge rail station

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

As part of an extensive redevelopment of London Bridge Station, the city’s oldest rail station (opened in 1836), archaeologists have had the unique opportunity to excavate underneath the station and its viaduct. The station has a vast footprint and since it was constructed long before archaeological surveys were invented, this is the first chance archaeologists have had to explore the site. Other excavations in the London Bridge area have revealed a great deal about the growth and development of the city from the Roman era on, but the station site was thought to have been either very marshy or fully underwater for much of its history that archaeologists weren’t sure what they’d find.

They found that although the area was certainly marshy and waterlogged it may have been, but it was still extensively developed. Excavations have gone as deep as 20 feet below street level in the massive arches of the station foundations. The earliest finds were traces of the Roman military occupation followed by evidence of the Boudican rebellion and the Roman civilian settlement. The remains of three previously unknown Roman structures were found: a bathhouse, a large waterfront building and what may have been a boat landing platform. Thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged ground along the Thames, rare organic elements have survived, like 17 timbers piles from trees felled between 59 and 83 A.D. which were part of the foundations of the large waterfront building. The landing platform consists of a timber baulk packed with rocks and wood.

Later discoveries include the remains of Saxon defenses and the floors and walls of large townhouses on Tooley Street which the historical record identifies as the abodes of important medieval clerics like the Prior of Lewes. (The remains of other such homes owned by non-London religious orders can be found today at Winchester and Lambeth Palace.) From the late Middle Ages on, the marshy land was extensively reclaimed for industrial and residential purposes. The remains of floors, walls and cellars testify to dense, closely-built buildings packed along a network of small streets.

Hundreds of artifacts were also found mirroring the changing phases of the London Bridge station area. A Penn Tile, made in Penn, Buckinghamshire, between 1330 and 1390, was used as flooring in an expensive building. These glazed patterned tiles became popular in London after the Black Death obliterated local tile producers. Also from the 14th century is a rare white clay flagon, probably made in Cheam, that archaeologists believe was used to serve ale in the townhouse of the Abbot of Waverley. Now it’s on display at the Wheatsheaf Pub in Stoney Street.

Starting in the 16th century in the wake of the introduction of tobacco from the New World there was a bustling business of clay pipe manufacturers in the neighborhood. These were mainly small backyard workshops. Archaeologists found the remains of a pope kiln that had been demolished centuries ago which proved fortuitous from an archaeological perspective because it allowed the excavators to find pieces of the superstructure. They also found many pipes, some whole, some discarded and broken after a failed firing. One pipe is marked with wording that identifies its maker. “JOINER STREET” is written on one side of the stem and “TOOLEY STREET BORO” on the other, indicating it was made by James Minto between 1809 and 1811. That means the clay pipe industry was still producing a couple of decades before the construction of the station.

In the fun category, archaeologists found a rare cribbage board made out of animal bone in the 17th or 18th century. The game was invented in the 17th century, so this piece could be a very early example. I love those concentric circles down the middle. They look just like the marks on much earlier dice, like this one from 13th or 14th century Ireland.

My favorite find is a set of three pewter tankards from the 18th century. They were discovered in a cess pit, possibly because the bends and twists around the lip made them hard to drink from, but they still look great. Two of them are inscribed with the names of the hostelries where they were once used to quaff lukewarm brews. One says “Mary Jackson, Kings head, Tooley Strt,” the other “J main, St Johns Coffee house, Bermondsey Strt”. The best part: the The Old Kings Head is still open for business today, not on Tooley Street but very close by on Borough High Street.

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Washington Monument reopens after three years

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

The Washington Monument reopens to the public Monday after nearly three years of work repairing damage wrought when an earthquake struck the capital on August 23, 2011. Several historic structures were harmed by the quake, but after initial repairs the National Cathedral and the Smithsonian Castle could remain open. The Washington Monument was not so lucky.

It’s a hollow obelisk 555 feet high made out of three different kinds of marble and 36,000 stone blocks. When the earthquake struck, it whipsawed the obelisk, showering debris on the tourists climbing its vertiginous heights. Thankfully nobody was injured, but the monument was immediately closed for assessment. The National Park Service found one large crack four feet long and one inch wide, more than 150 other fractures and cracks, chipped and gashed stones, lost and loosened mortar, damage to the lightning protection system and elevator.

The estimated budget for repairs was $15 million. Congress voted to fund the work to the tune of $7.5 million but only on condition that the National Park Service secure matching funds. Private equity billionaire and dedicated history nerd David Rubenstein stepped up to the plate and donated the necessary $7.5 million and the repair project began in earnest in early 2012.

It required 2.7 miles of new sealant between stones, and 53 stainless steel “saddle anchors” to bolt in place slabs on the monument’s slanted pyramidion in case of another earthquake.

The slabs had been held in place mainly by gravity, and engineers worried that the slabs could fall off, James M. Perry, the chief of resource management for the mall and memorial parks, said Saturday. [...]

In addition to the earthquake damage, the monument, which was begun in 1848 and finished in 1884, had seen more than a century of rain, snow, sleet and wind. Up close, it was a patchwork of repairs going back decades.

Cracks needed to be filled. Loose hunks of marble had to be dug out and replaced with scores of individual patches called “dutchmen.” Joints had to be smoothed and cleaned. Most of the damage was near the top.

Officials have said 150 dutchman patches were used, so many that work crews ran out of spare marble they had on hand for repairs. But a company was found that had salvaged old marble steps from homes in Baltimore. And that marble had come from the same quarry as some of the monument marble.

The repairs were complete on time and on budget. The Washington Monument will be officially reopened at 10 AM with a ceremony hosted by Al Roker and attended by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, National Mall & Memorial Parks Superintendent Bob Vogel and of course David Rubenstein. Entertainment will be provided by American Idol Season 12 winner Candice Glover, the Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps, the United States Navy Band, and the Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral Choir.

The event will be open to the public and tours of the monument will begin at 1:00 PM. Tickets are first come, first served, so if you want to be in the first wave of visitors to the repaired Washington Monument, you’ll want to line up early. The ticket office opens at 8:30 AM.

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Hunley begins five year caustic bath

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

Last Thursday was the first day of approximately 1,825 days the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley will spend immersed in a caustic bath of sodium hydroxide and water. This a watershed step in the conservation of the 40-foot iron submarine, a long bath 14 years in the making. The caustic bath will first remove the concretion, the thick layer of hardened shell and sand that formed on the hull of the sub during the 136 years it spent on the floor of Charleston Harbor since it sank the night of February 17th, 1864. The concretion completely covers the outside of the sub, obscuring the damage that might answer the questions about how and why the Hunley sank after successfully torpedoing the Union warship USS Housatonic.

Michael Scafuri, Hunley archaeologist, said the concretion has been mapped, photographed and recorded with 3-D imaging to make sure they have every bit of information possible from the Hunley’s protective shell.

And now they are ready to see what lies beneath.

“Under that concretion is the possibility of new information about the attack,” Scafuri said.

With the shell and sand removed, Scafuri said scientists should learn more about the Hunley’s design and operations, and may be able to tell what caused the submarine to sink.

The solution of 99% water and 1% sodium hydroxide should begin to loosen the concretion within a few months, giving conservators their first look at the hull in the 14 years since the submarine was raised from the Atlantic seabed. Once the concretion is loosened, conservators will scrape it off the hull, a painstaking process that will take months.

After the scraping, the Hunley will settle in for the long soak. The sodium hydroxide has another important job to do: removing nearly a century and a half of sea salt from the iron hull. That’s the process that will take five years, with conservators regularly draining the 76,000 gallon tank of its 68,000 gallons of solution (large jugs of gravel and water in the tank displace 8,000 gallons) when it gets too salty.

There are risks inherent in this procedure. Sodium hydroxide is a dangerous chemical and this treatment has never been used on so large an artifact. The lab had to be retrofitted for the safety of the space and its occupants. It’s the only way to ensure the long-term stability of the submarine, however. It’s been in a tank of cold water since its retrieval, for 11 years in a custom truss that kept it at the same angle as its had been on the ocean floor, then upright for three years. The water, a mild electric current and the concretion have preserved the hull for these initial conservation stages, but eventually the iron will corrode if the salt isn’t removed.

Once the salt is completely extracted, the Hunley will be able to be displayed outside of a tank for the first time.

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Mysterious notes in 1504 Odyssey deciphered

Friday, May 9th, 2014

On April 24th, the University of Chicago Library announced a contest to decipher mysterious margin annotations in a rare edition of Homer’s Odyssey printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1504. This was only the second edition of the Odyssey in Greek ever printed (the first was published in Florence in 1488) and this particular example passed through many hands, several of which left marginalia in various languages on the pages.

The two-volume book is part of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana (BHL), a collection of rare early print editions of Homer’s works that was donated to the library in 2007 by Michael C. Lang. Lang had noticed that in the second volume of the 1504 edition there were handwritten annotations that had some French words mixed in with what looked like a shorthand. Researchers at the library weren’t able to crack the idiosyncratic script, so they opened it up to public at large with a $1,000 reward offered by Lang for the first person to identify and translate the code. People from all over the world responded to the challenge.

Less than two weeks later, we have a winner. The feat was accomplished Daniele Metilli, a computer engineer, archival science student and general lover of cyphers, with the help of French speaker and stenographer Giulia Accetta. He’s in Italy and couldn’t make a trip to Chicago to view the book in person, so the library sent him high resolution images of two pages from Book XI of the Odyssey that have the annotations in question.

Because the shorthand was mixed with French and because one of the notes contains a legible date of April 25, 1854, Metilli and Accetta started by investigating French shorthand systems that may have been in use in the mid-19th century. The earliest French shorthand methods were created in the 17th century, one by Jacques Cossard in 1651, the next by Charles Alois Ramsay in 1665. Neither of those systems matched the one in the Odyssey. They then turned to 19th century systems but none of those worked either.

It was an appendix in a 1792 book on stenography by Théodore-Pierre Bertin that pointed them in the right direction. The appendix included a table that compared a stenographic system invented by Samuel Taylor in 1786 to a “tachygraphy” (from the Greek word for “swift”) system for the French language invented by Jean Coulon de Thévenot in 1776. The notes in the Homer edition looked very similar to the tachygraphy in the table. Metilli and Accetta located a copy of Thévenot’s manual Tachygraphie des Français, an 1819 edition of Tachéographie ou Tachygraphie française by stenography professor N. Patey and two mid-19th century French translations of the Odyssey and got to work.

In Thévenot’s system, “every consonant and vowel has a starting shape, and they combine together to form new shapes representing syllables,” Metilli wrote. “The vertical alignment is especially important, as the position of a letter above or below the line, or even the length of a letter segment can change the value of the grapheme. This explains why most notes in the Odyssey shorthand are underlined—the line being key to the transcription.”

They were able to translate almost of all of page A and some of page B. The mysterious marginalia are French translations of Greek words and phrases, questions about the text, definition comparisons, corrected errors, the kind of notes someone who was studying Greek would take. Most people wouldn’t scribble their notes in the margin of a very rare, very expensive 1504 edition, however. Why not get a cheap mass market contemporary edition if you’re going to write all over it? Also, most people in 1854 weren’t using shorthand that was popular 50 years earlier. Cracking the code has yet to solve the mystery of who this eccentric annotator was.

In his report (pdf) on the deciphering of the marginalia, Metilli proposes three possible hypotheses: 1) the notes were written by a student, 2) by a teacher, 3) by a translator. If 1) were correct, you’d expect there to be more unnoticed errors in the notes. The other two possibilities would explain the competence of the translation, and 3) would be quite likely to be familiar with shorthand systems.

Metilli then had a bit of a coup de foudre:

The main edition of the Odyssey we used as reference was translated by Édouard Sommer and published by Hachette book by book starting in 1848. While transcribing the shorthand, we had noticed how the annotations sometimes seemed to use the exact same wording as the “argument analitique” found in that edition.

The Sommer translation is very accurate and close to the text, just like our annotations. The other translations of the time (Bareste, Leconte de Lisle) look nothing like it. So it finally came to me: which year did Hachette publish book XI of the Odyssey? Which year did the annotator write his notes? The same year: 1854. What if Mr. Sommer were our mysterious annotator?

Sounds downright plausible. It still doesn’t explain why in the world he used the Manutius edition, of course, but that’s some quality Nancy Drewing right there. One thousand dollars very well deserved.

I know from the wonderful responses to the World War I shorthand post that we have several shorthand pros in the house. Be sure to check out Metilli’s report because there are all kinds of details about the system and translated passages in there. You don’t have to read French to enjoy it.

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Lost Mendelssohn song found in US

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

An unpublished song written by Felix Mendelssohn that has been lost for 142 years has been found in the United States. The signed manuscript was discovered by the current owner among his grandfather’s papers. The grandfather was a musician and a Mendelssohn fan, but we don’t know how this unique piece of music made it to the States into his collection.

The song is a short 29 bars for alto voice and piano entitled Des Menschen Herz ist ein Schacht (A Man’s Heart Is Like a Mine). Mendelssohn wrote it in 1842, using the second stanza of the Friedrich Rückert poem Das Unveränderliche for lyrics. The verses describe the human heart as a mine that can produce precious metals or more utilitarian materials but can’t give anything that it doesn’t contain already. Rückert’s poems were very popular with composers like Schubert, Brahms and Mahler. There are more than 120 musical pieces set to his poetry.

This piece was a private commission from Johann Valentin Teichmann, a manager of Berlin’s Royal Theater who had lived in the Mendelssohn’s Berlin home from 1828 to 1831 when Felix was 19-22 years old. The Mendelssohns were a highly literature, cultured family who hosted a salon for artists at their house in Berlin for many years. Teichmann was part of this cultural community and worked closely with artists, playwrights, composers for decades in his management role at the Royal Theater.

Teichmann appears to have been too enthusiastic about the song for Mendelssohn’s taste. The composer wrote him a pointed letter on May 3rd, a few days after he had delivered the musical manuscript, asking Teichmann not to share the song with anyone else “because I have written it only at your request and only for you.” The letter lets him off the hook about having shown it already to one person, bookseller Wilhelm Besser. Mendelssohn says since the cat is already out of the bag that Teichmann can go ahead and give Besser a copy of the piece.

Des Menschen Herz ist ein Schacht was never played in public, nor even published. It was only known to scholars from records of its sale at two auctions in Leipzig, one in 1862 and another in 1872. After that second sale, it disappeared from the record, only to crop up across the Atlantic nearly a century and a half later. The letter Felix wrote to Teichmann was found with the manuscript.

The owner has put the autographed musical manuscript and the letter up for auction at Christie’s in London. The pre-sale estimate is £15,000 – £25,000 ($25,320 – $42,200).

Whoever buys it, they won’t be able to keep it secret like Mendelssohn wanted. Now that it’s been rediscovered, the music is public record and has in fact already been performed. Alto Amy Williamson and pianist Christopher Glynn had the honor of playing Mendelssohn’s song for its first public performance on BBC Today:

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Van Dyck self-portrait acquired by National Portrait Gallery

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

In December of 2009, Sir Anthony van Dyck’s last self-portrait sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking £8,329,250 ($13,521,704) to collector Alfred Bader and art dealer Philip Mould. Painted in England by the artist shortly before his death in 1641, the portrait is considered one of the finest he ever made and it is almost certainly the only self-portrait likely to come up for public sale in our lifetimes. Before it was sold in 2009, the last time it was on the market was 1712. Even though van Dyck worked for 10 years in England, becoming the pre-eminent court painter and receiving a knighthood from his patron King Charles I, there were no Van Dyck self-portraits in a British public collection.

Thanks to a massive fundraising effort and the contributions of people from all over the world, the National Portrait Gallery has now broken the streak and acquired the 1641 self-portrait. It took a lot of doing. When the portrait came up for sale in 2009, the NPG did not have the funds to join in the raucous bidding that established the new record for a Van Dyck painting. In 2010, Bader and Mould offered the work to the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate for £9.5 million ($16,000,000). The museums put their heads together and tried to find a way to save the masterpiece for the nation, but even with a generous grant from the Art Fund, the total was far out of reach. None of the other possible grant sources were able to contribute, and with the economy still so sluggish, the NPG and Tate didn’t think a public fundraising appeal would be able to generate the millions of pounds necessary.

They would get one last crack at the apple. In 2013, Bader and Mould arranged a private sale of the portrait to mining and gaming billionaire, financier and art collector James Stunt, son-in-law of Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, for £12.5 million ($21,000,000). Stunt is British but for much of the year he and his wife live in the insanely huge Los Angeles mansion that once belonged to Aaron Spelling, so he had to apply for an export license to take the portrait to the US. Recognizing the unique importance of the self-portrait, the UK put a three-month export ban on it to give British institutions the chance to prove they could raise the money to buy it back for the nation.

This time the National Portrait Gallery launched a nation-wide fundraising appeal with the immediate goal of raising enough money by the time the export ban was set to expire in mid-February to buy them a little more time. Seeded with a £500,000 ($843,700) grant from the Art Fund and £700,000 ($1,180,000) from the NPG’s acquisition budget, the appeal took off. By the end of January, the effort had raised an impressive £3.2 million ($5,400,000), enough to prove they had a real fighting chance of raising the full sum if given enough time, and so the export ban was extended another five months.

In March, seeing the passionate involvement of the public in the ultimate disposition of the painting, Stunt decided to withdraw his export license application. The painting was then offered to the National Portrait Gallery for £10 million ($16,874,000), a generous boost to the fundraising effort.

“When I agreed to buy this great portrait I didn’t expect the huge swell of public opinion and the strength of emotion its export would generate,” said Stunt, who had planned to hang the portrait in his Los Angeles home.

He added that he had “carefully reconsidered” his position and hoped that his withdrawal, together with the reduced price, would see the appeal succeed.

His hope was not in vain. On May 1st, the National Portrait Gallery announced that the appeal had succeeded. Thanks to £1.44 million ($2,430,000) in donations from more than 10,000 individuals, plus £1.2 million ($2,025,000) donated by two private trusts and the coup de grâce, a £6,343,500 ($10,704,000) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Van Dyck self-portrait was saved for the nation. They also raised an additional £343,000 ($580,000) to fund a national tour of the painting.

The portrait, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, will remain there until August 31st. It will then be removed from public view while conservators assess its condition and experts research its history. Starting in January of 2015, the portrait will tour museums and galleries around the UK for three years.

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Louvre and Prado Mona Lisas as stereoscopic image

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Two years ago, the Prado Museum in Madrid announced that a painting long thought to be a relatively unremarkable copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was actually painted contemporaneously with the original, likely by a student following the master as he drew and painted the portrait. Infrared reflectography found that the 18th century black overpaint obscured a hilly background almost the same as the original. When the black overpaint and varnish were removed from the Prado’s copy, further infrared and X-ray analysis found underdrawings and alterations from the tracing and all the way through the upper paint levels that matched those in 2004 scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa. That means from the initial sketches to the changes and corrections as painting progressed, the Prado copy followed along at each stage.

That’s not to say they’re identical, even underneath the cracked and yellowed varnish that darkens and discolors the original. Two German researchers studied both paintings, selecting landmark points (like the tip of her nose, say, or a particular feature in the mountains) and mapping the path from the landmarks to the observer’s sight line. These trajectories tracked perspective changes between the two versions.

They found that the background of the Prado painting, while virtually identical in shape, is 10% more zoomed in than the Louvre version’s. The expansion doesn’t follow a perspectival pattern you’d expect if the landscape were painted from life, which suggests the mountains in the background and the loggia right behind her were painted from a flat studio backdrop. The trajectories illustrated a number of perspective changes in the painting of the figure, particularly dense in Mona Lisa’s hands and head.

With the comparative perspective data, the researchers were able to calculate the positions of the canvases relative to the sitter and then they made a model of Leonardo’s studio during the painting of the Mona Lisa with Playmobil minifigs.

The original (labeled 1st) is further back and to the right of the Prado copy, and the horizontal distance between the versions is about 69.3 millimeters. The average distance between the eyes of Italian males is 64.1mm, a statistically insignificant difference which suggested to the researchers the possibility that the two paintings might have been deliberately positioned to be a stereoscopic pair which when viewed together give the impression of three dimensions

Carbon points out that Da Vinci “intensively worked on the 3D issue.” In addition, in inventory lists there were hints of the existence of two “Mona Lisa” paintings on his property at the same time, and that he owned colored spectacles, Carbon said.

This evidence “might indicate that he did not only [think] about the 3D issue theoretically but in a very practical sense in terms of experiments,” Carbon added. Also, when looking at the original colors of the two paintings the only real difference was in the sleeves, in which they are reddish in one version and greenish in the other. “This could be a hint to Leonardo’s approach to look at the two La Giocondas through red-green (red-cyan) spectacles,” he said, similar to those one might don to watch a 3D movie.

That’s a lot of speculation and there are significant counterpoints refuting this hypothesis. The hands work as a stereoscopic pair because the trajectory differences are horizontal. Most of the trajectories on the upper portion of Mona Lisa’s body like her face and hair have a vertical orientation. Still, Leonardo did write about binocular vision and depth perception, so it’s possible he had some idea there could be a dimensional payoff in the positioning of the two canvases.

You can read the whole paper here (pdf) to get the fully fleshed out argument with math and everything. It could all be pure imagination and it would be worth it for the minifig studio alone, as far as I’m concerned.

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London on film, now and then

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Last year when I posted about Claude Friese-Greene’s rare natural color films of Britain in the mid-1920s restored and preserved by the British Film Institute, one of the commenters (hi Karen!) noted that she kept looking up locations in the period film on Google Maps to compare what they look like now to what they looked like 90 or so years ago. Someone else had a similar idea, only he kept to the same medium.

Short film director Simon Smith spent much of 2013 following in Claude Friese-Greene’s footsteps. Smith took modern versions of the Biocolour camera and with an impressive attention to detail, placed himself precisely where Friese-Greene had shot his scenes of London in 1927 at the end of his three-year cross-country journey. The result is a side-by-side before-and-after view of London in 1927 and in 2013.

The shooting angles are so well-matched, even where there are more street lanes or a completely different skyline. It’s remarkable how similar old and new London vistas are despite all the new construction.

Simon Smith didn’t stop at Friese-Greene’s film. Next he turned to another film in the BFI National Archive, Wonderful London, filmed in 1924 by Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller. Parkinson was General Manager of Master Films, a production company that focused on creating cheap, short melodramas, romances and action pictures until 1924 when the company folded. Parkinson and Miller had worked together before on Master Films’ 1922 anthology Tense Moments from Famous Plays, which I would dearly love to see because it sounds awesome.

(I would also do unspeakable things to see Parkinson’s unreleased 1928 The Life Story of Charlie Chaplin, a pictorial history of Charlie’s poor childhood on the streets of London. Parkinson shot the neighborhoods Chaplin grew up in, the schools he went to, old music hall artists young Charlie performed with, and contrasted them with his luxurious accommodations at The Ritz during his triumphant 1921 return to the London of his youth. Apparently the movie was never released because Chaplin got wind of it and prevented its distribution. The original film was discovered in the attic of one of Parkinson’s relatives in 1997 and sold at Christie’s for $28,552. As far as I can tell, whoever bought it has not published it. Boo!)

After Master Films went out of business, Parkinson and Miller focused on travelogue shorts, starting strong with Wonderful London, a series of 20 short films each about 10 minutes long that capture London’s lesser known attractions and non-touristy neighborhoods along with the famous sights.

This time, Smith went for a more unusual approach. Instead of the side-by-side, he embeds the 1924 film into the middle of the modern scenes he shot to match. It’s eerie and cool to see the modern world blend into the sepia world like someone opened a rift in space-time. I do miss the split screen in one way, though: I wish I could see the entirety of the 1924 footage instead of just a little chunk of it amidst the London of today.

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Exact 3D replica of King Tut’s tomb opens

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

An exact 3D facsimile of King Tutankhamun’s tomb opened outside the entrance to the Valley of the Kings Wednesday. This ground-breaking approach to heritage preservation and sustainable tourism has been a long time in the making. Zahi Hawass was still in charge in November of 2008 when the Supreme Council of Antiquities approved a project to thoroughly document and reproduce three endangered tombs in the Valley of the Kings, those of Seti I, Queen Nefertari and Tutankhamun. Seti’s and Nefertari’s were already closed to the public due to their precarious conditions. King Tut’s was and is in grave danger from the changes in temperature and humidity caused by up to 1,000 tourists visiting the tiny burial chamber daily. For its own good, Tut’s tomb is going to have to be closed too, and in fact should already be closed. Only its value to the tourist trade is keeping it open right now.

Madrid-based Factum Arte, which as early as 2001 was studying the tombs and developing technology specifically for scanning them, began work on the tomb of Tutankhamun in March, 2009. Over the course of five weeks, the FA team scanned the walls, ceiling and sarcophagus using a low intensity red light laser 3D laser scanner that captures the surface at 100 micron resolution with 100 million independently measured points per square meter, the highest resolution ever reached on such a large scale. The mechanics of this scanner made it impossible to record the entirety of the cramped tomb with it, so a white light 3D scanner with a resolution of 250 to 700 microns was brought in to scan the entire burial chamber and sarcophagus. The space was then photographed using low level cold lights to take pictures of the reliefs at a 1:1 ratio. The last step was a close analytical observational study of the surface.

When the recording of the tomb was complete in May, Factum Arte took the data back to its facilities in Madrid where the team set to work analyzing the 3D data and the high resolution images, running routing tests and ensuring exact color matching using samples from the tomb. The reliefs were routed out of panels made from low-density polyurethane resin. The tiles were then put together in sections and cast with a rigid backing. The paintings on the tomb surface were applied with an adhesive transfer. The first attempt failed because the elastic material resisted settling into the 3D surface, so in 2012 the team devised a new thinner elastic material that is held in place with a low contact adhesive and then cured under pressure in a vacuum bag. The result was not only perfectly sealed, but the print quality improved significantly.

Meanwhile, political upheaval in Egypt blocked the final implementation of the plan. The facsimile tomb would be stuck in limbo in Madrid until November of 2012 when it finally made its way to Cairo to mark the 90th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The facsimile was set up in a covered outdoor space in Cairo’s Conrad Hotel. You can see the walls go up in this video:

Now the final stage of the project has been completed. The replica tomb of Tutankhamun has been built next to the house of Howard Carter at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

The replica tomb was so accurate that some Tutankhamun experts among the Egyptologists and dignitaries burst into tears while attending the opening in Luxor today.

“We are not talking virtual reality, it is a physical reality,” Mr Lowe told The Independent from Egypt. “To have an emotional response to something you know to be a copy is an extraordinary moment.”

The hope is that tourists will have the same reaction so they won’t mind having to make do with the facsimile when Tut’s real tomb is closed. There are great advantages to the replica, like museum-style information and the ability to get close to the surfaces. A replica of the pre-historic Lascaux cave in France has been a smashing success, attracting 10 million visitors since it opened in 1983, and it doesn’t have the benefit of high resolution, 3D laser-scanned reproduction. Egyptian authorities plan to ease into the replacement, keeping the original tomb open for now but gradually reducing the number of people allowed in.

A 30-minute special on the replica tomb will air on BBC2 Friday and BBC News Saturday. Here’s a video explaining the scanning and printing process from Factum Arte:

This is raw footage of the production of the replica, from software combining the laser scanning data with the digital photography to the printers carving out panels of the tomb with a router:

Here is a very long, silent video journey through the photographic data, but if you’d like to explore the high resolution photography of the walls without having to sit through all that, Factum Arte’s website has an excellent Flash viewer that allows you to zoom in wherever you’d like and even compare the photography to the laser scanned relief. Click the up arrow at the bottom of the window to navigate between the four walls, the pictures and the scans. The level of detail is truly something to behold.

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