Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Ali Atar sword digitized in 3D

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

An exquisite sword designed by the finest metalworkers of Grenada and wielded by one of the last great military leaders in Muslim Spain has been digitized in 3D. It belonged to Ali Atar, Warden of Loja and Lord of Zagra, who has become a heroic figure with many tales of dubious accuracy told about his background, bravery and generosity.

According to legend, Ali Atar started out as a trader in spices who climbed the ranks of Andalusian military leadership thanks to his skill in battle. He served Muhammad XII, Sultan of Granada, known by Christians as King Boabdil. Muhammad was also related to Ali Atar, having married Atar’s beautiful daughter Moraima whom he loved beyond all others. Muhammad’s reign was a tumultuous one riven by internecine warfare. Christian rulers took advantage of Grenada’s weakness to take Muslim cities and chip away at what was left of the last sultanate. The Sultan tried to flip the script and in April 1483, he and Ali Atar tried to take the Christian city of Lucena (Cordoba). The battle was lost and Ali Atar, then 90 years old, died in the fight, his trusty sword in hand.

Ali Atar’s long life and battlefield death mirrored the final century of Muslim rule in Spain. The Nasrid dynasty, rulers of the Emirate of Grenada, was the last Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula. Muhammed XII was captured at the Battle of Lucena and was only freed after he swore allegiance to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was a meaningless allegiance as their Most Catholic Majesties had no interest in maintaining any kind of Islamic rule in Iberia, even under their ostensible suzerainty. In 1491, Ferdinand and Isabella besieged Grenada and on January 2nd, 1492, nine years after Ali Atar’s death, Muhammad XII surrendered the Alhambra palace to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I and went into exile in Morocco.

His sword’s fame outlived Ali Atar. Covered in gold and ivory, the sword was taken by Christian forces after Atar’s defeat at Lucena and is now one of the most precious treasures of the Toledo Army Museum. Researchers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia and Toledo company IngHeritag3D worked together to create a 3D model of this storied weapon.

Its design and materials posed challenges to the digitizing team.

First they photographed the sword from many angles using a technique called photogrammetry. Then they overlapped all the images, drew planimetries (drawings of the meticulous filigree of the grip) and generated its 3D model.

“These techniques offer the possibility of valuing relevant pieces inside and outside museums, since three-dimensional modelling is prepared both for specialists -who can manipulate the piece virtually-, and for being shared publicly and interactively through the Internet,” says engineer Margot Gil-Melitón, co-author of the work.

Using a web viewer, any user can use their mouse to check an exact replica of the handle of this genet sword, a type of genuinely Nasrid weapon introduced in Al-Andalus by the Zenetas (Berber people from whom it takes its name). Ali Atar’s sword has a knob in the shape of a bulbous dome, an ivory fist carved with drawings and Arabic letters, and a golden arriax (sword grip) topped with zoomorphic figures.

To record the details of this fine ornamentation, the researchers have devised solutions that have facilitated the analysis of highly reflective materials and complicated geometries. Their workflow could also be applied to characterize other museum pieces.

Here’s the completed 3D model of the grip of the sword:

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800 medieval illuminated manuscripts digitized

Saturday, March 16th, 2019

England and France may have had one or two little issues with each other in the Middle Ages, but all is forgiven now and 800 medieval illuminated manuscripts have been digitized and made available to the public on the websites of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The BL and BnF have the largest collections of medieval illuminated manuscripts in the world. To make some of these masterpieces accessible to the general public, both libraries worked together with funding from the Polonsky Foundation, a charitable organization that focuses on preserving and sharing cultural heritage primarily through the digitizing of important collections.

The carefully curated collection features works created in Medieval England and France between 700 and 1200 A.D.

The manuscripts have been selected for their historical significance in terms of relations between France and England during the Middle Ages. They are also of unique artistic, historical or literary interest. Produced between the eighth and the end of the twelfth century, they cover a wide range of subjects, illustrating intellectual production during the early middle ages and the Roman period. Among these manuscripts are a few precious, sumptuously illuminated examples such as the Benedictional of Winchester around the year 1000, the Bible de Chartres around 1140 or the Great Canterbury Anglo-Catalan Psalter produced circa 1200.

With this corpus being of undisputable scientific interest, the programme is also characterised by several manuscript recovery operations: digitisation, online dissemination, restoration, scientific description and even mediation.

The BnF portal provides access to all 800 manuscripts. They are grouped according to themes, authors, places and centuries for ease of navigation and can be searched in English, French and Italian. The technical tools are downright nifty. Manuscripts can be viewed side-by-side for comparison. They can be annotated online and the annotations downloaded as json files for sharing. Manuscript pages can be downloaded as individual images or the entire manuscript can be download as a PDF.

The BL portal presents a selection of manuscripts. Articles on subjects like medieval legal, medical and musical writing place the works in their historical context and significance. There are also pieces on the wider background of illumination, book-making, science and learning in the Middle Ages. A few of the manuscripts in the collection have been highlighted here, and boy are they showstoppers — lavish illustrations, intricately carved ivory and precious metal covers, hymnals, psalters and a phenomenal bestiary.

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Roman soldier graffiti phallus comes to light

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

Archaeologists documenting graffiti carved by Roman soldiers near Hadrian’s Wall in the 3rd century uncovered a large phallus concealed for centuries behind vegetation. Soldiers left their distinctive marks in 207 A.D. when cutting stone from the quarry in Cumbria to supply material for major repairs and strengthening of Hadrian’s Wall ordered by the emperor Septimius Severus. He was in Britain launching an invasion of Scotland at the time, so refortifying the northern border was a top priority for him.

The site is known as the Written Rock of Gelt and inscriptions were first discovered there in the 18th century. It became a popular attraction and a path was built to allow people to view the ancient graffiti on the 30-foot rock face. The path collapsed in the 1980s and was not rebuilt, making the inscriptions largely inaccessible. Overgrowth of plant matter and erosion of the soft sandstone has obscured the graffiti and steadily worn away at the surface.

As well-known as the site it is, because of the difficulty in accessing it the inscriptions have never been documented to modern archaeological standards. A team from Newcastle University is in a race against time to fully explore and record them all before they are gone forever. They have found more than they expected.

It was thought ‘The Written Rock of Gelt’ included a group of nine Roman inscriptions, of which only six were legible, however more are being discovered, some are new and others were previously thought to be lost. Four new written and figurative inscriptions were discovered while preparations for this new project were being made, including a relief sculpture of a Phallus – a Roman ‘good luck’ symbol.

The site is one of only a handful of Roman quarries in England to feature these kinds of inscriptions. The information recorded is of particular importance because it gives the names of men and in some instances, their rank and military units. One datable inscription ‘APRO ET MAXIMO CONSVLIBVS OFICINA MERCATI’ referring to the consulate of Aper and Maximus, offers proof of rebuilding and repair work to the Roman frontier in the early third century AD.

The inscriptions also identify the legions deployed to the quarry. One reads C IVL PECVLIARIS VEXILATIO LEG XX VV, which translates to “The century of Julius Peculiaris; detachment of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix.” Another reads “VEX LI EG II AVG OF APR SVB AGRICOLA OPTIONE,” meaning “a detachment of the Second Legion Augusta, working April under Agricola, Optione [the NCO designated by the centurion to command the detachment]”. There’s a smiley face next to that inscription, possibly a cheeky nod at Agricola.

There’s another image, a profile head and shoulders that may have been been a more elaborate caricature of a commanding officer. And because the classics are classics for a reason, one carving notes “Publius Aelius Hadrianus est hic,” the Roman legionary version of “Kilroy was here.”

Archaeologists are collaborating with climbers to abseil down the rock face. Hoisted on ropes and pulleys, the team is cleaning the surface first and then recording it using structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry. The high-resolution images will then be used to create a detailed 3D record of the incriptions. The 3D models will be made available to the public later this year on Historic England’s Sketchfab page.

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When a nun faked her own death to escape the convent

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019

Sixteen heavy tomes that document 425 years of official business by the archbishops of York are being thoroughly read, translated and indexed for the first time. From the 13th century through the 17th, the registers of the archbishops were carried around wherever they traveled and clerks recorded every act, letter and order in them. After the English Civil War, they were stored in London and ignored until the late 18th century when they were returned to the Diocesan Registry in York Minster.

They are now in the care of the University of York where researchers have been able to publish a few parts of them, but only sporadically and only in Latin. Thanks to an ambitious new project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, medieval historians from the University of York and The National Archives (UK) will transcribe and translate every word in every volume. The entries will be indexed and uploaded to an online database freely accessible to anyone who is interested.

Already fascinating stories are emerging from the records. The register from August 11th, 1318, records a monition, a formal admonishment from the archbishop, to one Joan of Leeds. Archbishop William Melton, future Lord Treasurer of England, warns said Joan, “lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house” which she had departed in deliciously dramatic fashion.

Melton, writing to inform the Dean of Beverley about the “scandalous rumour” he had heard about the arrival of the Benedictine nun Joan, claimed that Joan had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex”, and “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place”.

After faking her own death, he continued, “and, in a cunning, nefarious manner … having turned her back on decency and the good of religion, seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”

There is no follow-up in the register as to whether Joan opted to return to her life of poverty and obedience or stuck with the carnal lust, but given all the Count of Monte Cristo shenanigans she had to go through to free herself of the former, I’d wager she went for the latter. I also can’t help but wonder whether all her sisthren really were deceived by whatever rudimentary dummy Joan could possibly have manufactured. Surely the ones who had direct contact with the non-body had to be willing conspirators.

The logs from Melton’s term as archbishop from his consecration in 1317 until his death in 1340 occupy an impressive five volumes, just shy of a third of the extant registers. He carried them with him as he went about the complex business of archbishopping, lord treasuring and tending to his enormous personal estates and riches. He played an important role in the wars of Scottish independence too, thanks to York’s strategic position on the northern border. In 1319, with England’s fighting men engaged in the Siege of Berwick, Melton mustered priests, clerics and civilians to fight Scottish men-at-arms at Myton on the river Swale. It was a slaughter, needless to say, with thousands of these amateurs either slain by professional fighters or drowned in the Swale. The archbishop barely fled with his life. Researchers hope to find out more about The White Battle, so named because of the high number of clergy, in the registers.

The records will be available via York’s Archbishops Registers Revealed, which currently provides free access to a database of 20,000 images of the registers from 1225 to 1650. So far more than 3700 entries have been indexed and are searchable by keyword, but there are no full transcripts or translations, just summaries. When the digitization project is complete, all of the registers, invaluable records of political, religious, military and family life in medieval York, will be fully searchable and readable for those of us who can barely make out the letters of British Church Latin of the Middle Ages, never mind read any of it.

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Dublin Apocalypse goes online

Friday, February 8th, 2019

The Dublin Apocalypse, a 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelation, is one of the greatest medieval treasures in the collection of Trinity College Dublin. It is also one of the least seen. Now the whole world can see it in high resolution thanks to a digitization initiative.

In medieval Europe illuminated manuscripts containing the Book of Revelation were hugely popular among royalty and the wealthy elite. These devotional aids were designed to help the faithful understand one of the most dramatic and difficult Christian texts.

The beautiful Dublin Apocalypse manuscript represents one of the most lavish examples of this tradition and is among the finest illuminated volumes in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The 14th-century Latin manuscript of the Book of Revelation is accompanied by exquisite illustrations in gold and vivid colours and depicts scenes of the horsemen of the Apocalypse, battles with many-headed beasts and the heavenly Jerusalem for its readers to enjoy.

The Dublin Apocalypse was produced in East Anglia in the early 1300s, likely by an illuminator known as the Ormesby Master. His highly individual style is characterized by intricate geometries in the borders, backgrounds and architectural features, complex compositions with remarkably soft flesh tones and a palette rich with pinks, blues, greens and greys applied in multiple layers of translucent washes. The illuminations in the Dublin Apocalypse are particularly stellar examples of his talents because unlike other Apocalypses of the period which have half-page illustrations, the Dublin manuscript’s illuminations take up almost the entire page.

Most of its history is unknown. Sometime in the early 19th century it was acquired by Franc Sadleir, Triny College fellow, professor and librarian, and he gave it to the university in 1837 in exchange for a bunch of uncatalogued annuals. A rather unbalanced deal, it would seem, but de gustibus non est disputandum and all that.

Anyway his loss is our gain. Peruse the digitized Dublin Apocalypse here. You can leaf through the manuscript page by page, using the viewer to zoom in on the details, or you can open each page as a jpg and examine the whole thing at maximum resolution. There’s also an open as pdf function, but I got an error when I attempted to use it. In the upper left is a “Click for more information” link which explains the scene and verses of Revelation it depicts. The scans are wonderfully high in resolution so you can dig deep into the intricate illuminations.

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Megatherium skull collected by Darwin digitally reconstructed

Thursday, December 27th, 2018

A Megatherium americanum skull fragment collected by Charles Darwin in 1832 has been rediscovered and its two pieces digitally reconnected in a 3D model. When Darwin found the specimen on a beach in Argentina, it was encased in rock (ie, the matrix) which made it difficult to see the details of the fossil. Darwin thought it was a Megatherium skull, but he couldn’t be certain.

He sent it to the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) where Richard Owen, the first Director of the Natural History Museum, applied the Gordian Knot solution and sliced the specimen in two parts. In so doing he revealed a cross-section of the teeth was able to confirm that it was indeed a Megatherium skull fragment. The two pieces were eventually separated — the larger remaining in the RCS collection, the smaller winding up at Down House, Darwin’s home — but the destination of the smaller piece was poorly documented and the connection was lost.

The divided skull came back to the fore when researchers at the Natural History Museum were researching the three Megatherium specimens as part of a project with the ambitious goal of digitizing Darwin’s full collection of mammal fossils. They went way back to the journals of Darwin’s Argentina trip to identify the three specimens, but the the divided one didn’t match his description because of Owen’s cut. Records explained that it was a cross-section but not where the smaller piece was. They could find no records referring to it past 1845.

Having searched the Museum’s huge collection of fossil mammals for the missing fragment, and that of the RCS to no avail, curator of fossil mammals Pip Brewer and palaeobiologist Adrian Lister extended their search to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, where they were miraculously able to locate the remaining fragment of Darwin’s Megatherium specimen. […]

On September 4 2018, both parts of the specimen were brought to the Museum where 3D specialist Kate Burton scanned both fragments using a 3D surface scanner. This scan is the first time that these fragments of the same Megatherium skull have been united in over 150 years. By scanning both fragments of the specimen, the Museum is able to make these vitally important specimens accessible to all, from scientists and educational groups to artists and enthusiasts across the globe, inspiring the next generation of natural world ambassadors.

The new scans were released on November 24th to celebrate the 159th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Here is the Megatherium, both parts viewable together and apart so you can view the teeth in cross-section.

Oh and they have an aurochs skull! I do love an aurochs skull. They have three specimens, actually, all of them digitized. None of them were collected by Darwin, but this one, which was found near Atholl in Perthshire, Scotland, was documented by Richard Owen in 1846.

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London Medieval Murder Map goes live

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Coroners’ inquests in Britain have made frequent appearances on this here blog, but only in their role in determining whether archaeological material is official treasure according to the criteria of the Treasure Act. Commenters have occasionally remarked on how incongruous it is that coroners are tasked with investigating ancient hoards and medieval brooches and Bronze Age hand axes as well as suspicious deaths. Thanks to the efforts of the University of Cambridge, Institute of Criminology, Violence Research Centre, we can now give the profession’s original purpose all due attention.

UC researchers have created an interactive online map of 142 murders that took place in London in the first half of the 14th century. The London Medieval Murder Map documents the location of the crimes, the years they took place, the means of murder, the identity of the victims and, if known, the killer. You can hover over each pin on the map to get a preview of the information about the homicide that occurred there; click on them to read the whole story. Filters on the top right allow you to group the crimes by categories — victim gender, weapon used, whether the location was public or private, the ward the crime scene was in — and you can explore the vicious underbelly of London on two different maps. One is an Elizabethan-era map, so drawn two centuries after the murders, but it offers a birds-eye view of a London before the explosion of urban development made it diverge radically from the city in the 14th century. The other was created in 1270. To switch between the two, click on the icons in the upper left half of the map.

This extraordinary record of crime in medieval London comes down to us in its entirety from Coroner’s inquests. After a sudden death, suicide, accident, murder, any death that was not clearly attributable to natural causes, the coroner and sheriff would assemble a jury to investigate the circumstances. Coroners had jurisdiction over the 24 wards — neighborhoods inside and outside the old Roman wall that were largely self-governing — of London. Juries were composed of free men from the ward in which the body had been found and from three adjacent wards. Juries could have as few as 12 members or as many as 50.

The conclusions drawn by the officials and jury at the inquest were documented in the Coroners’ Rolls. In the case of homicides, they included a summary of the location and time of the murder, the parties involved, the weapon used and the types of the wounds. The rolls also included the jury’s answers to questions about witnesses, the fate of the murders and items found at the scene of the crime.

There are nine extant Coroners’ Rolls from London between 1300 and 1340. The years from 1301 through 1314 and 1317 through 1320 have been lost. The 142 homicides pinned on the map are the murders documented in the surviving Coroners’ Rolls.

It’s a fascinating browse. The information encompasses not just the Clue-like summations (“Male in public with a long knife”), but also interesting names, vernacular that can delicately be described as colorful and an overall picture of life and death in the big city that is sometimes rendered in minute detail. There are also statistical data that can be compiled from the rolls, like for instance that by far the most murders, 52.8% of them, took place in public squares and streets. That’s 75 murders. Only six happened in a tavern, the same number that happened in a religious building. Brothels and prisons were comparatively safe places with only two and one murder recorded respectively. The weapon of choice was the long knife, with 51 bodies on its blade. The short knife takes second place with 29, and the bronze goes to the staff. Ten more people were killed with staffs than with swords.

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Watch the first film Frankenstein restored

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

This year is the bicentennial of the publication of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking masterpiece Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It is a fitting celebration of the momentous anniversary that the Library of Congress has restored the first motion picture production of Frankenstein and uploaded it to the web for our viewing enjoyment this Halloween.

The first cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein was produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1910. It was directed by James Searle Dawley, former apprentice of Edwin S. Porter, pioneering director of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, and starred actors from Edison’s stock company — Augustus Phillips as Victor Frankenstein, Charles Ogle as the Monster and Mary Fuller as Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth. Unlike his mentor Porter, Dawley took a static approach, filming staged wide shots straight-on like the audience was viewing a play.

Edison’s title calls it a “liberal adaptation” of the novel, and he wasn’t kidding. Crammed into less than 14 total minutes, the story eschews the now-classic horror elements of Shelley’s story. The creature is not the work of a surgical student who has made liberal use of graveyard materiel. He is created from a sort of alchemical experiment, a witch’s brew of ingredients tossed into a cauldron that produces a crusty carbuncle turned flaming skeleton turned Einstein-haired weirdo.

This was a deliberate choice, the result of growing concerns for the purported immorality of the increasingly popular medium. Edison, keen to keep his most golden goose laying those lucrative eggs, created the first censorship board in 1909 to kowtow to the concerns of moral scolds. Frankenstein was the fist production under the new ethos. The Edison Company catalogue of March 1910 emphasized how bowdlerized the film was as a selling point.

“To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly’s [sic] story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”

Ergo, the complicated questions Mary ShellEy raised about the boundaries of science, the responsibilities of parenthood, the dangers of hubris are replaced by a garden variety morality tale in which a man’s inner evil expresses itself outwardly.

Even though the story had been staged to great success in a myriad adaptations since the 1820s (it was the plays that made the novel a best-seller), the first film of Frankenstein was no a box office success. Critics reviewed it positively, but audiences didn’t respond. After the usual few months of distribution, the prints were withdrawn and the film recycled.

One of them survived, falling into the hands of Wisconsin collector Alois Detlaff in a freakishly round-about way. The rare 35mm print had belonged to his wife’s grandmother Marie Franklin who had a performing jones and used to put on little shows accompanied by film shorts, including Frankenstein. She left her collection to her son. He left it to his son who sold it to a collector who sold it to another collector who sold it to Detlaff in the 1950s.

He knew the film was in his collection and had screened it privately, but the print was in bad condition so he stashed it, only making public its existence after the American Film Institute declared it one of the top 10 most significant lost films in 1980. The movie has been in the public domain since the 1930s and there are many copies of it available online. They’re all pretty terrible, rips from DVDs Detlaff burned of his unrestored print. The Library of Congress went back to the source, restored the film and recreated the missing elements from the originals.

The Library purchased the Dettlaff Collection in 2014 and while it is full of titles we are delighted to add to our holdings, we were especially interested to see Frankenstein, joking that perhaps it might arrive from Wisconsin on a bed of spun gold. While it came in a fairly nondescript can, it didn’t take us long to get the reel into our film preservation lab for a 2K scan in advance of photochemical preservation. From that 2K scan we worked on a digital restoration. The film’s head credits and the first intertitle were missing, but fortunately the Edison Historic Site in East Orange, New Jersey, had a copy of the head credit we could drop into place; the intertitle was recreated using the style of the other titles. We asked Donald Sosin, a highly regarded silent film composer and accompanist, to provide a score.

So without further ado, be he trick or be he treat, here is the first on-screen Frankenstein:

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The woman in the iron coffin

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

In 2011, construction work on Corona Avenue in Queens accidentally (and roughly) unearthed the remains of a woman. The backhoe had wrenched open the coffin, dragged the body out and covered it with piles of soil, but still the remains were so well-preserved that at first it was investigated as a potential crime victim. Scott Warnasch, forensic archaeologist with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, identified it as a historical burial from fragments of iron he recovered at the site, pieces of the damaged coffin of a type that was made in the mid-18th century.

A visual examination of the mummified remains determined that they belonged to an adult African-American woman. She was clad in a loose-fitting garment recognizable as a 19th century nightdress, knee-high socks and a knit cap. Her skin was largely intact and in so free of decomposition that smallpox lesions could clearly be seen on her head, chest, legs, even feet. Experts from the CDC were called in to ensure there were no infectious pathogens still active in the remains.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed X-ray tomography (CT) scans allowed the scientists to examine the body noninvasively and create a biological profile of the woman: They determined she was 5 feet, 2 inches tall (1.6 meters), African-American and about 25 to 30 years old, Warnasch explained.

The site where she was discovered was formerly an African-American church and cemetery; the church was founded in 1828 by the region’s first generation of free black people, but there are newspaper accounts of an African-American cemetery on that land dating to a decade earlier, according to Warnasch.

An expensive iron coffin was an unexpected final resting vessel for a young African-American woman from Newtown (modern-day Elmhurst), Queens, which was then a small farming town. First patented by Almond Dunbar Fisk in 1848, the cast iron coffins quickly became very desirable items for the wealthy. Fisk had been inspired to invent them when his brother William died in Mississippi in 1840 and could not be transported to New York for burial in the family plot because the journey was so long. His father Solomon was devastated by this, and in response to Solomon’s heavy grief, Fisk conceived the idea for an air-tight coffin that would preserve a body for transport even over great distances. The market for such a product was wider than that. Anybody who could afford to keep a loved one out of the hands of the dreaded resurrection men would buy a Fisk coffin too. When former First Lady (the first First Lady as we think of the role today) Dolley Madison was buried in a Fisk coffin in 1849, they became immensely popular among the political and societal elite.

In 1850, a pine coffin cost $2 in 1850. A Fisk metal coffin cost $100. This was an unaffordable price for people of modest means such as the African-American community of Newtown, all of them either the children of slaves or freed slaves. (Slavery was only fully outlawed in 1828 in the state of New York.) The woman had been lovingly prepared for burial, cleaned, dressed in a lace nightdress, a handsome comb and bonnet placed in her hair, but none of her funerary accessories indicated the kind of wealth needed to make an iron coffin even remotely possible.

Warnasch used the date the coffin was manufactured (1848-1854) and the first federal census to include free people of color by name (1850) to seek out the woman in the iron coffin’s identity. He was able to narrow it down to one very strong possibility: Martha Peterson, daughter of John and Jane Peterson, who died at the age of 26.

John Peterson was the president of the United African Society, the organization which purchased the land for the cemetery. He was a prominent member of the community and had a direct link to the founding of the burial ground. That would help explain the high level of care given the body despite her death from a highly infectious air-borne disease as well as the expensive coffin.

The smallpox alone would have been sufficient reason to pay the price for a Fisk coffin because infected cadavers could still transmit the deadly disease. Burying her in an air-tight coffin would protect the close-knit community from a potential epidemic.

Forensic specialists initially thought that Peterson might have been buried in the iron coffin because her loved ones feared the spread of disease. However, further analysis led the investigators toward a different explanation, Warnasch said, adding, “but I don’t want to give too much away.”

He doesn’t want to spoil the episode of the PBS show Secrets of the Dead which covers the discovery of the body and subsequent research. I have no such scruples because revealing 150-year-old spoilers is pretty much the entire point of this blog. I’ve watched the program and I’m sure it will be just as fascinating to watch even if you know ahead of time what they’ve discovered, but in case some of you are highly sensitive to revelation of denouements in history documentaries, I’ll put the key discovery on page two.

Or you could just go right to the documentary. In addition to the interesting find Warnasch refers to, there is an amazing section about the results of the MRI and how the smallpox lesions were founds inside her brain. The full episode is available for viewing on the PBS website. Watch it now before they take it down.

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Stephenson’s Rocket in 3D

Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Stephenson’s Rocket, an iconic steam locomotive from the early days of train travel has been laser-scanned in all its 13-feet-long, three-ton glory. It is the largest object in the collection of the Science Museum Group ever to be 3D scanned.

Built in 1829 by Robert Stephenson and Company, Rocket won its manufacturers a lucrative contract with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway when it slaughtered the competition at the Rainhill Trials on Thursday, October 8th, 1829. It did 70 miles back and forward over a 1.5 mile track with an average running speed of 12 miles per hour and reaching a peak speed of 30 miles per hour. The competition favorite, Novelty, barely moved at all due to multiple joint failures. Sans Pareil was above the weight limit and guzzled fuel at triple Rocket’s rate and ground to a halt when its boiler ran dry.

Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson, aka the “Father of the Railways,” worked with his father and other partners to design innovative trains and railways. Rocket incorporated several technological innovations — a single pair of driving wheels, multiple boiler fire-tubes, pistons angled close to horizontal rather than vertical, etc. — which made it faster, more stable and more fuel-efficient than its competitors. These features would be replicated (and improved upon) in future steam locomotives.

Thanks to the 3D model, Rocket can now be studied in detail from anywhere in the world. Audiences can move this three-tonne locomotive around with ease on screen, peer underneath and explore the innovations which made Rocket the fastest locomotive of its time. […]

Working with Science Museum Group colleagues, a team from ScanLAB spent 11 hours recording every angle of Rocket to create the 3D model using over 200kg of camera, lighting and scanning equipment. Scanning and photography was particularly challenging due to Rocket’s colour, glossy texture and complex shape.

The 3D model was created from 22 high resolution LIDAR scans and 220 gigabytes of photographs (more than 2,500 individual pictures). The ScanLAB team processed the data for six weeks to generate a point cloud of spatial coordinates, color and intensity values for 750 million points. The 3D model is just the beginning. The point cloud information and scans will be set to other uses as well, including an augmented reality environment.

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