Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Is this the skull of the legendary “weasel bear”?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

A huge polar bear skull with very different features from modern polar bear skulls has been discovered at an eroding archaeological site in northernmost Alaska. Its massive size and elongated, narrow shape recall an unusual polar bear reported by Inuit hunters but never photographed, filmed or in any other way scientifically verified.

In interview projects documenting the traditional knowledge of the Inuit peoples of northern Alaska and the western Canadian Arctic, hunters report very rare sightings of a bear “that has a longer neck; it’s high and pure white, but looks like a weasel and runs fast like a weasel”. This creature is known as “tiriarnaq” in the Siglitun dialect, “tigiaqpak” in the Kangiryuarmiut dialect, all of them translating to “weasel bear.”

Here’s a description of a weasel bear by a Sachs Harbour hunter from a 2010 interview:

“You get sometimes bears which we call tiriarnat, and they get over 11 foot. They get very big; they’re slim, their necks are way longer than the stubby bears that we get now. I never seen a weasel type bear for years, years and years…. We used to see some north of Storkerson Bay when we travel…. And they’re very big…. Stubby bears get ten [feet] three [inches], ten [feet] four [inches], that sort of thing. But a weasel type bear is 11-foot plus.

There are differences between some of the accounts of the weasel bear — some say they’re fat, not slender, others say they’re all male — but the large, long, narrow head and neck is common to all the stories. The recently discovered skull fits the description.

“It looks different from your average polar bear,” said Anne Jensen, an Utqiaġvik-based archaeologist who has been leading excavation and research programs in the region.

Through radiocarbon dating and subsequent analysis, Jensen and her colleagues estimate that the big bear skull — which appears to be the fourth largest ever found — is from a period between the years 670 and 800. It is possibly the oldest complete polar bear skull found in Alaska, inspiring a name for the departed creature that owned it: The Old One.

Exactly what accounts for its differences is yet to be determined; genetic testing is needed for that, Jensen said. It could have been a member of a subspecies or a member of a different “race” in genetic terms — similar to the varying breeds that are found among dogs — or possibly something else entirely, said Jensen, who works for the science department of the Native village corporation, Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., or UIC.

The rapid thawing of the permafrost on the Chukchi Sea coast has exposed the archaeological site of Walakpa, 13 miles southwest of Utqiaġvik (the northernmost city in the United States formerly known as Barrow). First excavated by Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford in the late 1960s when the permafrost was still perma, Walakpa is a settlement from the Birnirk period (600-1300 A.D.). It was widely believed to have been so thoroughly explored by Stanford’s team that there were no archaeological materials of note left to discover.

Climate change proved that consensus wrong in the late summer of 2013 when the face of a bluff sheered off after a storm, exposing the timbers of an ancient house. They could not be fully excavated due to adverse environmental conditions and lack of funding. In 2014, a 90-foot section of soil collapsed. A local discovered the polar bear skull at that time, although exactly where and when is unclear.

Anne Jensen was finally able to raise the funds for a solid three-week dig last summer. The exposed timbers were lost by then, but Jensen’s team unearthed a number of artifacts and remains preserved for centuries in the permafrost and recovered before their decay was accelerated by the warming soil. The sheered-off bluff where the timers were found still harbored a rare treasure: four mummified seals, naturally preserved in what had once been an ice cellar. These are the only mummified seals ever found outside of the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Jensen excavated one of them, a female dubbed Patou dating to the mid-1940s whose body is intact from fur to claws.

Time is running out for this site and many others in Alaska, and funding hasn’t come to close to keeping up with the pace of site deterioration.

The good condition of the artifacts is only temporary. As thaw and erosion occurs, items fall into the sea or, if exposed to the air, are at risk of decay.

Even if they are not exposed to air, artifacts can be vulnerable to below-ground degradation, Jensen said. As soils warm, bacteria are better able to decompose bones and other items. Even worse, warming soils can bring the items to a point where they generate their own heat, speeding the decomposition process.

With open water present up to eight months of the year instead of two and with temperatures rising and shorelines crumbling, the threats to the archaeological sites are increasing exponentially, Jensen said. Sites are eroding at a rate that far outpaces the normal grant process used to secure funding for work, and some new emergency approach is probably warranted, she said.

“It’s like the library is essentially on fire — now,” she said.

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Navy posts Hunley recovery report online

Monday, February 20th, 2017

The U.S. Navy has released a comprehensive archaeological report on the recovery of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley and it is a total page-turner.

The Hunley sank off of Charleston Harbor on February 17th, 1864, but not before taking down its target, the USS Housatonic, in the first successful torpedoing of a ship by a submarine. Famous for this feat and for its disappearance immediately after the clash, the wreck of the Hunley was much sought by scholars, archaeologists and an adventure novelist. After decades of scholarship and fruitless searches, it was the novelist, Clive Cussler, with a team of experts from the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), who found the wreck in 1995. It was tilted on its starboard side, embedded in the seabed at a 45 degree angle and buried under feet of silt.

The idea of raising the hand-cranked iron submarine that played such a seminal role in the development of naval technology was a daunting one. It had been protected for 131 years by its silten blanket, and any excavation could endanger the sub. If it survived being dug out, then it would have to be safely raised out of the water, a logistical challenge of massive proportions. But the incentives to take the plunge were strong. Unlike other shipwrecks, Hunley almost certainly had sealed compartments that contained not just untouched artifacts, but the remains of the eight brave crewmen who operated this terrifying contraption. With the news of the discovery making headlines all over the country, the wreck would certainly become the target of looters.

Five years passed from discovery to recovery, five years of assiduous research, planning and problem-solving. You don’t have to be Civil War or naval history buff to find the Navy’s report on the recovery project riveting. It covers so much ground that anyone with an interest in archaeology, conservation, science, engineering, metallurgy, museums, even project management will be fascinated. I’ve read a lot of archaeological reports over the years, but I’ve never read one this thorough. It goes into depth on the historical background of Hunley, including its predecessors, recovery attempts after the war and searches in the 20th century. It’s not just verbiage, either. There is a plethora of pictures, maps and diagrams.

Dr. Michael McCarthy of the Western Australia Museum, who participated in a 1999 symposium of experts convened to discuss the recovery of H.L. Hunley, puts it beautifully in the foreword:

[This report] ably brings to the world the complexity of such a multi-faceted project, its own history, including the search and finding, the engineering problems and solutions, the archaeology, conservation, historical research, public access, and future exhibition plans. Clearly evident is the fact that it has all required perseverance, dedication, and exceptional time management from not only the archaeologists, researchers, and conservators, but those who managed the funding and the enormous resources required to complete the project. What editors Robert Neyland and Heather Brown have brought together and presented in what follows is a fitting and lasting tribute to the project’s many and various constituents and, like H.L. Hunley itself, it is a monument to its builder and to its three brave crews, young men once lost and now known to all.

The 321-page document can be downloaded free of charge in pdf format here.

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How to move a painting the size of football field

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

For a brief window in the 1870s and 80s, cycloramas were all the rage in the United States. The trend began with large-scale panoramas in the late 18th century. European artists pioneered the form, creating massive works that depicted famous battles, Biblical and mythological scenes, landscapes, famous explorers exploring exotic lands and more. This evolved into cycloramas, 360 degrees paintings installed in purpose-built circular buildings so that viewers on a central platform could have a full-immersion experience of being in the middle of the action.

Cycloramas caught on in the 1870s after the Franco-Prussian War inspired a proliferation of battle depictions. It was European artists who brought their techniques of creating massive 360 degree paintings to the United States. The Battle of Gettysburg, now at the Gettysburg National Military Park and the largest oil painting in the world, opened the cyclorama floodgates. French artist Paul Philippoteaux, who had been painting cycloramas in Europe since 1871, was commissioned to create the massive panorama by a group of Chicago investors in 1879. It took him two years and a couple of dozen of assistants to finish the piece. It went on display in Chicago in 1883 and was a runaway success, so much so that Philippoteaux was commissioned to make another three Battle of Gettysburg cycloramas.

The Gettysburg blockbuster started a trend, and the same year it first went on display, German-born Milwaukee resident William Wehner founded the American Panorama Company. He had little difficulty investors that there would be a market in the United States for massive-scale views of scenes from the Civil War. The Battle of Atlanta, fought on July 22nd, 1864, was the chosen subject for the American Panorama Company’s second and most elaborate work, and little wonder since one of Wehner’s patrons was Illinois senator and Union Major General John “Black Jack” Logan who had commanded the Fifteenth Corps in the Battle of Atlanta.

Wehner recruited a team of 20 artists from Germany, each experts in large-scale painting and specializing in certain areas — landscape, horses, human figures — and researched the battle assiduously. They had access to the sketchbooks and notebooks of Harper’s Weekly Civil War campaign artist Theodore Davis, official government documents and maps, spoke to veterans of the battle from both sides, and traveled to Atlanta so they could scope out the site of the battle with their own eyes. Even though the neighborhood where the battle took place (Edgewood, then an eastern suburb, now intown Atlanta) was completely unrecognizable just 20 years later, the artists were able to view tracks and landscape features by sketching from towers.

The Battle of Atlanta made its debut in February 1887 in Detroit. Senator Logan had died in December of 1886 and the work was advertised as “Logan’s Great Battle” in homage to him. His cavalry charge to reinforce the Union lines was a featured scene in the cyclorama. Believe it or not, this massive painting more than 370 feet wide and just shy of 50 feet high was designed to be moved. After it was shown in Detroit, vast swaths of the canvas were draped on wooden frames and taken on the road where it was shown in Minneapolis and Indianapolis. The Cyclorama opened in Indianapolis in May of 1888 and by then Wehner’s company was in trouble. He sold The Battle of Atlanta to a local exhibitor. In 1890, that company sold it to promoter Paul Atkinson of Madison, Georgia.

Atkinson put it on display in Chattanooga, taking it south of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time. It finally set foot in Atlanta in February 1892, where Atkinson put it on display in a wooden building on Edgewood Avenue, close to the battle site. In Atlanta, Atkinson promoted the one-time “Logan’s Great Battle” as the only painting of a Confederate victory, and he had it altered to make sure it fit the new pro-Southern narrative. A group of cowering Confederate prisoners were changed to retreating Union soldiers, for example.

(It’s true that the Battle of Atlanta ended with the Union’s failure to take the city and the death of Major General James McPherson, one of the highest-ranking Union soldiers to fall in battle during the Civil War. General Sherman had to besiege Atlanta for more than a month before the city finally surrendered on September 2nd, 1864. Still, the one-day Battle of Atlanta was something of a Pyrrhic victory given the 5,500 Confederate casualties they could ill-afford this late in the war, and since the final conclusion of the wider fight for Atlanta was a decisive Union victory that played an important role in revitalizing Northern enthusiasm for the war and in re-electing President Lincoln, Atkinson’s pitch was more than a little disingenuous.)

The days of the great panoramas in the round drawing crowds were over by then, however, and the Edgewood Avenue exhibition was financial failure. A year later, the painting was sold for a comparative pittance to Atlanta business magnate Ernest Woodruff. He quickly resold it to George V. Gress and Charles Northen. They had it repaired and installed in a new building in Grant Park, but again The Battle of Atlanta failed to attract visitors. In 1898, George Cress donated the painting to the City of Atlanta.

The city created a new building to house it in Grant Park in 1921. For some unfathomable reason, instead of just measuring the thing and making proper calculations, the new building which, once more for emphasis, was custom-built to house the painting, could not fit the whole painting. About eight feet of sky and a vertical section six feet wide were sliced out to squeeze it into the new Atlanta Cyclorama building.

In 1936, a Works Project Administration team completed a diorama covering the space between the bottom of the painting and the edge of the viewing platform. On a red clay floor evoking Georgia’s characteristic russet heavy soil, landscape features, artillery, railroad tracks and 128 plaster soldiers were added to bring the painted scene into three dimensions. The soldiers ranged in size from 20 to 50 inches high and were placed to ensure they’d be in proper perspective and scale with the painting when viewed from the platform.

Condition issues proliferated over the decades at Grant Park. Twenty years of discussions from the late 1950s until the late 1970s considered a number of solutions to the problems, all of them rejected as too expensive. Finally between 1979 and 1982 the painted and diorama were conserved and the building renovated to include a revolving viewing platform.

Since then, the painting continues to struggle with condition issues. Meanwhile, Zoo Atlanta, which shares space in Grant Park with the Atlanta Cyclorama and draws far, far larger crowds than the painting could ever dream of drawing, is keen to expand. In 2014, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the cyclorama would be moved to a new state-of-the-art facility at the Atlanta History Center‘s 33-acre campus in the toney Buckhead neighborhood.

Moving a painting 359 feet wide and 42 feet high that weighs seven tons is not for the faint of heart. It has taken more than two years to plan and prepare the move. Earlier this month, the deed was done, in a painstaking series of steps.

Workers, Mr. McQuigg replied, will spend days rolling the painting, which is appraised at $7.5 million, onto a pair of 6,200-pound spools. A crane will slowly lift the spools — “We’re hoping paint-drying goes faster,” Mr. McQuigg said in an interview — through seven-foot holes cut in the roof of the nearly century-old building. Then, once the shrink-wrapped painting is resting aboard two trucks, the workers will let the clock tick.

“We’re going to wait until everybody goes home and the traffic dies down and there’s no more Atlanta rush hour,” Mr. McQuigg said in the musty room where the cyclorama has hung for generations. “Heck, it might be 3 in the morning.”

That’s pretty much what happened, although the two giant spools were raised on different days. The first scroll did end up being transported in the middle of the night to the new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building at the Atlanta History Center. The second was moved during the day.

Now that they’re in the new building, the sections of the painting will be reunited and restored.

The restored painting will finally have the proper perspective: Until now, the painting hung like a shower curtain and there were folds and creases. When the painting reopens next year, the aim is to return the “immersion” effect.

The Battle of Atlanta will be displayed in its original hyperbolic, or hourglass shape. Through proper tension at the top and bottom, the painting’s horizon will appear closer to the viewer, restoring the original 3D illusion.

You’ll be able to see the whole painting: At Grant Park, patrons sat on a carpeted revolving grandstand, which kept them from taking in the entire painting at once. At the AHC, visitors will gaze from a platform 15 feet above ground. The diorama will be rebuilt. The idea is to remove as many obstructions as possible and let the painting make its own statement.

The Battle of Gettysburg is the same height as the Atlanta Cyclorama, but it’s 377 feet wide. When the restoration is complete, The Battle of Atlanta will get a little closer in width and beat it in height. The pieces cut out to squeeze Procrustes the Painting into the 1921 Atlanta Cyclorama building will be readded so that for the first time in almost a century, the complete panorama will be seen as the German painters created it. The restored cyclorama will be 371 feet wide and 49 feet high. The Atlanta Cyclorama will reopen to the public in the fall of 2018.

Here are timelapse videos of the two halves of the painting being scrolled up. The first half was scrolled on December 7th, 2016, the second on January 21st, 2017.

Here is the first scroll raised from a hole in the roof of the old Atlanta Cyclorama building and then being laid on the flatbed truck for transport to the new building.

This news story has film of the cranes lowering the massive scrolls into the new cyclorama building at the Atlanta History Center:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/pHJMvVom3Go&w=430]

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Who’s a good Rembrandt? You are! Yes you are!

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

A drawing of a dog in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Germany, has been identified as the work of 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt Van Rijn. The chalk sketch of a little terrier, believed to have been drawn around 1637, has been in the museum’s collection since the 1770s, but was mistakenly attributed to German animal painter Johann Melchior Roos. His father, landscape painter and portraitist Johann Heinrich Roos, his brother Philipp Peter Roos, two other brothers and a sister were all known for their drawings of animals. Philipp Peter even kept a mini-zoo at his villa in Tivoli just to have live models for his drawings. The Roos were so strongly associated with animal studies that for centuries if a Dutch/German Baroque animal drawing turned up without a clear attribution, it would by default be categorized as a piece by Roos. The Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in particular has a large collection of Johann Melchior Roos drawings because he spent the last years of his life in Braunschweig.

The dog study was noticed two years ago by the museum’s head of drawings, Dr. Thomas Döring, when he was going through their collection of 10,000 drawings for the Virtual Kupferstichkabinett, a major digitization initiative virtually reuniting the collections of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel which began life as the private art and book collection of the Dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. The ducal collections were gradually split up between the two institutions between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The Virtual Kupferstichkabinett brings them back together online.

While cataloging the drawings, Döring saw the terrier and suspected there was a more illustrious hand behind the dynamic canine that previously realized.

“It’s been on display for decades under the name of Johann Melchior Roos,” he told CNN, “so the idea that this could be a Rembrandt was never considered before. But the boldness of the strokes, the variations in the shading from very gentle to quite violent and the expressive gaze [of the dog] — these are very typical idiosyncrasies of Rembrandt’s work.”

Doring said his experience cataloging drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils during an earlier project was key to the discovery.

“I was used to looking out for the differences between Rembrandt’s work and drawings by other artists,” he explained.

Two years of research ensued, including microscopic examinations of the drawing and extensive studies of comparable Rembrandts in museums and collections in Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. Döring then consulted international authorities on Rembrandt for their opinions. Dr. Holm Bevers, Chief Curator for Dutch and Flemish Prints and Drawings at the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in Berlin was the first to officially attribute the drawing the Rembrandt. Pieter Roelofs, curator of 17th century Dutch painting at the Rijksmuseum, was the second. An Old Master specialist at the British Museum was the third. Dr. Döring published the drawing as an original Rembrandt in the quarterly journal Master Drawings and so far has received unanimously positive responses.

Dogs appear as secondary figures in many of Rembrandt’s paintings, see the little fellow excitedly play-bowing on the bottom right of The Night Watch, and several of his sketches of people have a dog in the scene as well. Other animals he drew — lions, pigs, elephants, camels, cats, horses — as studies for larger Biblical, historical, pastoral and mythological paintings. Not many of his drawing of animals survive. Rembrandt is believed to have collected most of them in a single volume he called “Animals, from life” (“Beesten nae’t leven”) which was listed in a 1656 inventory of his belongings but is now lost.

Rembrandt’s doggie will go on display at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum starting April 6th in the Dürer, Cézanne, and Me: How Masters Draw exhibition. It runs through July 7th, 2017.

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Guercino found! Round up the usual suspects.

Friday, February 17th, 2017

They already been rounded up, truth be told, but when a stolen 17th century masterpiece is found in Casablanca, the headline pretty much writes itself. The masterpiece in question is Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus, an oil on canvas painted made in 1639 by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, aka Guercino. For the next 375 years, the painting remained safe in the Church of San Vincenzo in Modena. Even a direct hit on the church by an Allied bomb in 1944 left the Guercino unmolested while the presbytery and the frescoed choir were reduced to rubble.

The lucky streak broke in August of 2014 when the painting was stolen from the church, probably the night of August 10th. The theft wasn’t noticed until the morning of the 14th when the priest saw the front door was unlocked. The church is only open on Sunday for mass and the doors are kept locked at all other times. There was no sign of forced entry on the door, so the thieves must have gotten in when the doors were open and hid in the church until the coast was clear. Then they somehow made off with a painting nine and a half feet high and six feet wide still in its huge wooden frame.

Police investigated thoroughly, going full CSI on the church looking for any microscopic speck of evidence that might help track the painting and its kidnappers. They also collected hours of security camera footage from the streets around the church in the hope of finding a van or truck large enough to transport so large and unwieldy an artwork. The investigation enlisted the aid of Interpol and local authorities in countries around the world, but came up empty. There was no trace of the Guercino.

There was the usual speculation by police and in the press you see every time something huge and famous and therefore virtually impossible to resell is stolen that the theft was commissioned by a villainous private collector. And again as it so often seems to be the case, the real explanation is that art thieves are, as a group, terrible at everything but the stealing (and sometimes at the stealing too).

Last week, like a bolt from the blue, Interpol got a call from the Moroccan police alerting them to a large canvas discovered during an investigation, a canvas they believed to be the stolen Madonna with the Saints. A man claiming to be an art dealer had offered the painting for 10 milioni dirham (about $1 million) to a wealthy Moroccan businessman and art collector. He recognized it as a Guercino right away, and since he wasn’t off planet in August 2014, he knew it had to be the painting stolen from Modena. He reported the encounter to the cops. The judicial police of Casablanca’s Hay Hassani prefecture arrested three people, all Moroccan nationals, the ringleader a longtime resident in Italy, for the theft.

Interpol alerted the Italian authorities on the evening of Wednesday, February 15th. On Thursday, February 16th, Lucia Musti, chief prosecutor of Modena, confirmed “with the greatest satisfaction” that the painting recovered in Morocco was indeed Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus by Guercino, stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo between the 10th and 13th of August, 2014.

The Italian and Moroccan authorities are working out the details of the repatriation of the painting now. There are no reports yet as to its condition.

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The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra online

Sunday, February 12th, 2017


Palmyra, the crossroads of civilizations, prosperous center of trade between the Silk Road and Europe from the 3rd century B.C. under the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom through the 3rd century A.D. under the Roman Empire, is no stranger to wartime destruction. Emperor Aurelian razed the city in 273 when it rebelled against his rule. He pillaged its temples and used their treasures to decorate his temple to the sun god Sol in Rome. Enough survived to make Palmyra’s monumental ruins some of the most extensive and dramatic in the Greco-Roman world, and when European visitors started writing about the spectacular remains starting in 1696 with Abednego Seller’s The Antiquities of Palmyra, Palmyrene structures like the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, the tower tombs and the Great Colonnade became icons of classical architecture and inspired Western artists, poets and architects.

One of those artists was Louis-François Cassas (1756-1827) who made highly detailed drawings of the ruins of Palmyra in 1785. Cassas spent a month in Palmyra, recording all of the ancient ruins he saw. As an architect, Cassas had a keen eye for sculptural features which gave his renderings a precision matched by none of his predecessors in the voyage pittoresque tradition of illustrated travel accounts. His drawings of Palmyra, detailed views of ornamental features, architectural elevations and reconstructions illustrated his own travel account, Voyage Pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phenicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte, published beginning in 1799.

Following in Cassas footprints but using a new medium was Louis Vignes (1831-1896), a French career naval officer and a photographer. In 1863, Vignes was assigned to accompany Honoré Théodore d’Albert, duc de Luynes, on a scientific expedition to Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Luynes was an avid amateur archaeologist and antiquarian, an expert in Damascus steel and a patron of the arts with a particular taste for commissioning works in the classical style. The year before the expedition, the duke had donated his vast collection of antiquities — coins, Greek vases, medallions, intaglio gemstones — to France’s Cabinet des Médailles, and as an immensely wealthy aristocrat with a passel of big titles, when Luynes demanded that the French government provide him with a naval officer for his voyage, he got what he wanted.

Vignes was a particularly good choice for a mission that would encounter numerous archaeological remains, because he had been trained by pioneering photographer Charles Nègre and could be of as much help to the duke on dry land as he was on the seas. Luynes’ primary objective was to do one of the first scientific explorations of the Dead Sea. From the Dead Sea, the expedition traveled the Jordan River Valley, the mountains of Moab and the full length of the Wadi Arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba. Over the 10 months of the expedition, they also visited Palmyra and Beirut where Vignes took pictures of the ancient ruins.

The scientific report of the expedition, Voyage d’exploration à la mer Morte, à Petra, et sur la rive gauche du Jourdain, wasn’t published until 1875, eight years after Luynes’ death. Vignes photos of the Dead Sea were included in the publication, but by then Vignes had long since cut to the chase. He hooked up with his old mentor Charles Nègre to develop and print the negatives Vignes had taken in Beirut and Palmyra. The albumen prints were given to the duc de Luynes before his death in 1867. The Vignes photographs are the earliest known pictures of the Greco-Roman remains in Palmyra.

They have taken on even more significance in the light of recent events. Palmyra’s ruins have been devastated in the Syrian Civil War, bombed and shelled by everyone, deliberately destroyed by IS ostensibly out of iconoclastic fervor, although their real motivation, I think, is to taunt the world into multiple impotent rage strokes; cultural heritage destruction as a brutal mass troll. The temples of Bel and Baalshamin were blown up, as were three of the best preserved tower tombs, the Arch of Triumph on the east end of the Great Colonnade and, if recent reports bear out, the tetrapylon and part of the Roman theater.

In 2015, with the monstrous savaging of Palmyra’s ancient monuments well underway, the Getty Research Institute acquired an album of 47 of Vignes’ original photos taken in Palmyra and Beirut. That album was digitized — the pictures can be browsed here — as were 58 additional Vignes prints from the duc de Luynes’ personal collection.

Now the Getty Research Institute has enlisted its Vignes photographs, Cassas drawings and other important sources in an online exhibition dedicated to history of Palmyra.

The online exhibition draws heavily from the Getty Research Institute’s collections as well as art in museum and library collections all over the world. The exhibition explores the site’s early history, the far-reaching influence of Palmyra in Western art and culture, and the loss, now tremendous and irrevocable, of the ruins that for centuries stood as a monument to a great city and her people.

“The devastation unleashed in Syria today forces a renewed interpretation of the early prints and photographs of this extraordinary world heritage site.” said Getty Research Institute curator Frances Terpak. “They gain more significance as examples of cultural documents that
can encourage a deeper appreciation of humanity’s past achievements. Understanding Palmyra through these invaluable accounts preserves its memory and connects us with its grandeur and enduring legacy.”

The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra is the Getty Research Institute’s first online exhibition and it’s beautifully curated. I hope it’s the first of many to come.

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New Harriet Tubman photo found in 1860s album

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

A previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman has been found in a carte-de-visite album compiled in the 1860s. She is seated, immaculately clad in a gingham skirt and dark shirt with gathered sleeves. It was taken shortly after the Civil War, between 1865 and 1868, and captures a younger, less care-worn Harriet than she is usually pictured.

[Historian and Tubman biographer Dr. Kate Clifford] Larson said that in her 20 years of researching Tubman, she’s been sent dozens of photos of black women by people claiming to have discovered a new image of the soon-to-be face of the $20 bill. But not one has actually depicted Tubman, Larson said.

On the other hand, she continued, she knew it was Tubman in Swann Galleries’ photo as soon as she saw it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind about the provenance of the photo and that it is Tubman,” she said. “I had never run across it.”

The album belonged to Emily Howland, an abolitionist and educator from a prominent Quaker family in Sherwood, New York, whose childhood home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. She taught at schools for free blacks in the late 1850s, and during the Civil War taught freed slaves and the children of slaves to read and write in the contraband camps of Union-occupied Virginia. After the war she donated land and founded dozens of freedmen’s schools in multiple states.

Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 when she was in her 20s and spent the next two decades dedicated to the abolitionist cause in the most dangerous, hands-on way. She personally risked her life returning to Maryland no fewer than 13 times to free 70 of her families members and other slaves, guiding them up north over the Underground Railroad to safety, which after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made the north almost as terrifying a place for escaped slaves as the south, often meant Ontario. Abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed her “Moses” because she led her people out of slavery. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was a Union Army scout, spy and guide of the successful Union raid on Combahee Ferry, South Carolina, which liberated 750 slaves. After the war, she worked several jobs to support her family, gave extensively to charity though she had very little, and was a tireless advocate for women’s suffrage.

Tubman moved to Auburn, New York, in 1859 where she bought land from Senator William Henry Seward, future Secretary of State under Lincoln and engineer of the Alaska purchase under Johnson. The Sewards were part of a tightly knit network of abolitionists in Cayuga County, Emily Howland among them, and Harriet and Emily soon met. They became life-long friends, and worked together in the suffragist movement. Harriet Tubman died in 1913 at around 90 years of age. Emily Howland lived to cast her first vote in the 1920 election at the age of 92 after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She lived almost another decade after that, passing away in 1929 at the age of 102.

The album has 44 pictures of prominent figures, including two of Tubman (the other is a very well-known full-length portrait of Harriet standing with her hands on a roll-back chair taken by Harvey B. Lindsley in the early to mid-1870s) and one of John Willis Menard, the first African-American elected to Congress in 1868. He would have represented Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district had he ever been seated, but his opponent, Caleb Hunt, lodged a challenge contesting Menard’s right to be seated which was ultimately decided by the full House of Representatives in neither’s favor. The black man was too black and the other guy didn’t even bother to show up, so they voted both of them down and left the seat vacant.

The new photograph goes under the hammer at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City on March 30th. The carte-de-visite album will be sold in its entirety, including the pictures of Tubman and John Willis Menard. The pre-sale estimate is $20,000 to $30,000.

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Stolen Van Goghs on display before going home

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

The two early oil paintings by Vincent Van Gogh stolen from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 2002 and recovered in Italy last fall will be heading home next month. When the announcement that the paintings had been found was released last September, it wasn’t clear when they would be returning to Amsterdam. As evidence in a complex international drug trafficking trial, the artworks could have been tied up in Italy’s Bleak House-slow court system for years. Italian authorities took quick action, however, and on January 19th, a judge in Naples released the paintings from attachment, freeing them to be returned to the Netherlands.

In gratitude for the efforts of the Guardia di Finanza, the financial police who spearheaded the raid on the apartment of drug trafficker Raffaele Imperiale the village of Castellammare di Stabia and discovered the stolen paintings in the basement, other law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and people of Naples, Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/85), have gone on display at the Capodimonte Museum for a short exhibition before their homecoming. The paintings went on public view for the first time in 14 years on Tuesday. The show ends on February 26th.

Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum: “It is really a miracle that the paintings, which since 2002 were thought to have vanished from the face of the earth, have been found. The efforts of so many people have made the impossible possible. The fact that these two Van Goghs are again on public display after fourteen years calls for a celebration worthy of the occasion. As a ‘grazie mille’ for the efforts of all those involved in Italy in the recovery of the artworks, they are first being shown to the public in the region where they were found. Afterwards, our Van Goghs will return home, where a festive welcome awaits them and our visitors can once more admire them in the Van Gogh Museum. I cannot tell you how happy I am!”

The discovery of the paintings has inspired an upsurge of Van Gogh love in Naples. Vincenzo De Luca, the President of the Campania region, asked Joep Wijnands, the Dutch ambassador to Italy, to help arrange a new Van Gogh exhibition at the Capodimonte Museum. He also said they’re working on a loan of Van Gogh’s iconic The Starry Night, now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That’s a lofty goal. The Starry Night has never been loaned to an Italian museum before.

The case raises an interesting question on the wider issue of art crime. This article quotes Giorgio Toschi, general with the Guardia di Finanza:

“More than ever we are seeing art works being used by criminals either as safe haven investments or as a way of making payments or guaranteeing deals between organized criminal groups,” he said at the unveiling of the two paintings on Monday.

This is the first I’ve heard of extremely valuable and recognizable artworks being used as a kind of black market currency in the criminal underworld. It’s fascinating. The most popular explanation, that major paintings are stolen on commission by shadowy private collectors in volcano lairs, almost never seems to pan out. When the paintings are found, they’ve been stashed in barns or sheds or moved all over the place because volcano lairs aside, it’s actually really, really hard to unload a world-famous painting whose theft made international news. It’s always seemed more likely to me that the most of the time thieves have no idea they’ll be saddled with unsaleable goods. Organized crime networks, on the other hand, are hardly cash-poor, so they don’t have to scrounge for buyers. Whether it moves or not, a Van Gogh is still worth tens of millions of dollars. Using it as a marker or a pension fund makes perfect sense.

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Science reveals Selden Map’s secrets

Monday, February 6th, 2017

New research has discovered a fascinating hidden history of the Selden Map, the oldest surviving merchant map in the world. About 60 inches long and 40 inches wide, the map was drawn in ink and hand-painted with watercolors between 1607 and 1619. It plots 18 trade routes in an area of East Asia bounded by Siberia to the north, the Spice Islands to the south, Japan to the east and southern India and Burma to the west. At the top of a map is a compass labeled in Chinese characters to indicate the orientation of the map. The routes all start from the port city of Quanzhou in China’s southern Fujian province, which at the time this map was drawn in the late Ming Dynasty was a major shipping hub for trade between Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

By an unclear route, in the 17th century the map made its way into the possession of an English lawyer, avid Orientalist and collector named John Selden (1584–1654). He valued the map so highly that he granted it its own line-item in his 1653 will: “a Mapp of China made there fairly and done in colloure together with a Sea Compasse of their making and Devisione taken both by an englishe commander.” Selden bequeathed it to the Bodleian and it entered the collection in 1659. The Bodleian’s inventory note described it as “A very odd mapp of China. Very large, & taken from Mr. Selden’s.”

The “very odd” map was often put on display, unfortunately to its detriment, but it fell out of fashion in the 18th century after famed astronomer Edmond Halley declared it cartographically inaccurate. In 1919, the Selden Map was mounted on a linen backing so it could hung on the wall. This would have disastrous consequences. The fabric backing stiffened over time, distorting and cracking the fragile paper, and its brittle condition was exacerbated by being kept rolled up. In the 1970s conservators noted the map’s dire condition, but decades would pass before the conservation issues were addressed.

In 2008, Robert Batchelor, a professor of British and Asian history at Georgia Southern University, sought out the Selden Map. He identified two features on the map which made it unique compared to all other known historic Chinese maps: 1) it’s not a map of China, and 2) the shipping routes plotted from Quanzhou. China was placed in the center of other maps, but in this one it’s just one of many countries around the South China Sea that traded with each other. The shipping routes marked it as the earliest example of Chinese merchant cartography, commissioned by traders, not the imperial court. It also contravenes the received wisdom that China was isolated from the rest of the world during this period. Its merchants were still doing plenty of business.

Batchelor’s research spurred a new conservation and restoration plan. This time conservators took their time, researching past interventions to determine what parts of the map were original and which later alterations, if any, should be kept. They decided to keep a border added the map in the late 17th century because of its historically significant Latin annotations. The linen backing and earlier patching attempts were removed. The restored map was digitized and put online.

The restoration gave researchers the opportunity to learn more about this mysterious cartographical rarity. It was examined with remote multispectral imaging technology which revealed parts of the map invisible to the naked eye. They way the map was drawn, the materials used to make it,

The researchers found the binding medium used for the map was gum Arabic, a gum made from the sap of the acacia tree – typically used by European, south and west Asians – and not animal glue, which was almost always used in Chinese paintings at the time.

Examinations of the pigment used found a mixture of indigo with orpiment, a yellow mineral – rather than gamboge, a yellow dye – to make a green colour, which is also very unusual for a painting in China in this period. And the detection of a basic copper chloride in the green areas suggests an influence from south and west Asia, where it was often used in manuscripts. This green pigment was not typically used in paper-based paintings from China.

The binders and pigments used are more consistent with those found in manuscripts from a Persian or Indo-Persian tradition –and the Islamic world – than the European or Chinese, the researchers state.

Detailed examination even found instances where the cartographer made alterations – some stylistic, others unintentional, and some made as the cartographer’s knowledge of a certain area developed. The scientists were able to identify that the trade routes were laid down before the land was drawn in.

They believe that the cartographer did not plan the full map from the beginning, which was why they had to redraw some of the routes many times – and why they ran out of space at the southern and western points of the map, forcing the trade routes to be off the compass directions. Two trade routes were drawn without their corresponding compass directions, suggesting the map was unfinished.

As a result of this new evidence, the research team proposes that the map was drawn not in China, but in Aceh on the island of Sumatra.

It is the most westerly port in south east Asia marked on the map and has the longest history of the presence of Islam in south east Asia, as well as a long history of Chinese contact.

It is also one of only six ports on the map marked with a red circle – possibly indicating the main trading network of the map’s owner – and is the only port marked on the map to have a magnetic declination in the early 17th Century closest to that indicated by the tilt of the map’s compass rose.

The new research has been published in the journal Heritage Science and can be read in its entirety free of charge here.

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Lost songs of Holocaust survivors found

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

Lost recordings made just after World War II of Holocaust survivors singing songs have been rediscovered at the University of Akron. These recordings were part of a project by Dr. David Boder, a Latvian Jewish psychologist who had settled in the United States in the 1920s and quickly made a name for himself in academia and as a clinician. He became an American citizen in 1932, but he traveled regularly to Europe and kept in touch with his family until the war disrupted movement and communications.

In May of 1945, just days after the Allies accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender, Boder got the idea to interview displaced persons, Holocaust survivors, victims of the dislocations and horrors of World War II. His aim was first to get a record of victims’ experiences while it was all still painfully fresh. It was important to him to ensure Americans understood fully what had happened to people, how they managed to survive in ghettos, concentration camps, labor camps and on the run hiding in forests or barns or wherever shelter was to be found. He hoped that disseminating their stories would generate public support for immigration of war refugees to the US. Also, as a psychologist, he had a broader interest in how people cope with great trauma, a subject he would continue to investigate throughout his professional life.

His plans took a while to come to fruition. Financing the trip, securing the necessary permits to travel through occupied Western Europe delayed his plans for more than a year. Finally in July 1946, he arrived in Paris and dove right in to the project. Using what was then bleeding-edge technology, a wire recorder, Border spent the summer at 16 different locations in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, interviewing 130 displaced persons — mainly Jews, but also 21 non-Jews — in nine languages. The recordings, which included religious services and songs as well as interviews, took up 200 spools of steel wire. Border’s interviews are the earliest extant recordings of Holocaust oral histories today.

David Boder died in 1961. His archives, including the 1946 wire reels, were dispersed among several different institutions. In 1967, 48 spools of Boder’s wire recordings entered the collection of the University of Akron’s Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology. They were fully inventoried at the time. Most of the other recordings mentioned in Boder’s writings were at UCLA or were rediscovered in the Library of Congress and the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1990s. There was one spool Boder listed that was missing, however. It was songs song in Yiddish and German by Holocaust survivors recorded at a refugee camp in Henonville, France.

Despite years of attempts, researchers at the University of Akron had not been able to play the wire reels. They had some old wire recorders, but they either weren’t compatible or couldn’t be repaired without a major overhaul of the original parts, which is far from ideal, obviously, from a historical preservation perspective. Finally they were able to find one on eBay which they repaired with new and cannibalized parts from other machines. With their new/old Frankenrecorder, the research team was able to convert the spools to digital format.

The digitization project was underway when they found one spool in a tin box that had been inventoried as “Heroville Songs.” It was a mistake. The label on the box actually said “Henonville Songs.” It was the long-lost spool. UA multimedia specialist Jon Endres digitized the song recordings and was the first to hear those haunting voices in decades. You can read his blog entry about the discovery here.

The team shared the digitized content with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where experts translated the songs, five in Yiddish, one in German, and explained the background.

For [Cummings Center executive director David] Baker, hearing the recording for the first time was exceptionally moving. “There was a Holocaust survivor, after 70 years, singing to us,” he says. “Obviously we had a lot of questions.”

Some of Baker’s questions were soon answered. The singer was Guta Frank, and [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum musicologist Bret] Werb knew her history. Frank was a Polish Jew who fled from one ghetto to another with her family for four years. Parents and siblings were killed along the way, and she and her sister finally ended up at a forced labor munitions camp outside Czestochowa, Poland. Her sister left behind a memoir, which can be read online.

Werb also provided Baker with a translation of the songs Frank sang to Boder. One, called, “Our Town is Burning,” is a well-known song often performed at Holocaust commemorations. Written shortly before the war broke out, the song calls out the complacency of bystanders watching a town burn and doing nothing to help.

But Frank’s version was different from the standard rendition of that song. She sang: “The Jewish people are burning.” On the recording, Frank tells Boder that the composer’s daughter sang the song in the basements of the Krakow ghetto to inspire people to rebel against the Germans.

A second song sung by Frank was the official song of the labor camp where she was held. Camp commanders encouraged the inmates to sing such songs on their way to work. “They liked it,” says Werb. The lyrics were long known, but the melody had never been heard before. “It’s sung by someone who must have been there,” says Werb.

Here are a selection of clips from the Henonville Songs spool. The first is Dr. Boder’s introduction which explains the interviews are taking place at the Henonville camp. The other three are song clips, the last of which is “Our Camp Stands At The Forest’s Edge,” the song inmates were forced to sing for their commanders’ enjoyment.




[youtube=https://youtu.be/sOyOH_kWAdQ&w=430]

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