Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Look inside the Gjellestad mound

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020

It hasn’t even been a month since the first excavation of a Viking ship burial mound in Norway in 100 years began, and fascinating new data is already coming to light thanks to soil analysis and digital technology.

Researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) and the University of Oslo have analyzed five soil samples from the Gjellestad ship burial seeking clues to how the burial mound was constructed. The samples were taken during last year’s test excavation from the ship burial trench itself and from four different sites in the mound.

The analyses show that the construction and use of the mound is carefully planned and executed. It wasn’t simply placing the ship with the deceased on land and shoveling soil over it, according to NIKU researcher and archaeologist Lars Gustavsen.

“Here, the area of the mound has been carefully prepared by removing topsoil so that the intact subsoil was exposed. It is this subsoil that we see in the GPR data as a distinct black area around the grave itself.”

“Our analysis shows that this is soil that has been formed on-site; and the characteristic dataset signature must therefore be due to the fact that the mound covering the grave has changed the physical properties of the soil – likely due to soil compression from the heavy mound” Gustavsen continues.

The mound itself was made of turf or sod, not topsoil. Researchers were able to determine that it was not local, that all the turf used to form the mound was brought in from the outside. This was a complex, well-planned operation that appears to have followed an established procedure seen in other large ship burial mound.

The IT department at Østfold University College has been able to convert the findings from the geophysical surveys and excavations into a remarkable digital representation of the  Gjellestad ship site. The site is far more complex than just the one burial mound and with the exploration of the site still in its early stages, archaeologists have been working continuously with the IT team to update them with the latest information, correcting details and revising errors to ensure the 3D model is as accurate as humanly possible.

All their efforts have paid off with an interactive rendering of the site’s history. After a pretty cool intro of Viking ships braving the cold dark ocean waters, the Gjellestad site appears. You arrow through an overview of the site’s use from the Bronze Age onward, showing the cycle of construction and destruction of longhouses and how the mounds proliferated on the landscape.

If you click “open map” in the lower left corner, you can navigate to select spots to find out more about them.  If you click on the ship, you get a fly-in tour of how it was built, including an illuminating cross-section showing how the turf was layered to protect the ship and keep it vertical while the mound was built up around it. There are links to videos about the 2019 excavation, the discovery of the ship’s keel and nifty 3D ship viewer. You can manipulate the ship to see it from all directions.

The quality of the rendering is top-notch. They didn’t ruin it by trying to create believable humans puttering around, but there are some awesome sheep. Fine details include hearth fires and their smoke, tree leaves moving in the wind, the variety of grasses and the quality fencing.

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Digital pilgrimage to Canterbury ca. 1408

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

The medieval shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral has been recreated and the videos released 800 years to the day since his body was translated to the cathedral on July 7th, 1220. A  project three years in the making, researchers teamed up with digital modelling experts to create CGI models of the four main loci of pilgrimage in Canterbury Cathedral as they would have appeared to pilgrims in the early 15th century, a period for which there are numerous sources about the practices and operation of the shrine. What’s unusual about these video models is that the focus not just on the recreated the spaces, but also on how pilgrims of different classes interacted with the shrine, relics and cathedral.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was slain by four knights on December 29th, 1170, in the main hall of Canterbury Cathedral. Eyewitness Edward Grim wrote that the top of his skull was cut off and his brains scattered on the floor. The shock of this brutal assassination of a cleric on hallowed ground reverberated throughout Europe, and Becket was quickly considered a martyr. He was canonized a saint two years and two months after his death. In 1174, King Henry II, whose angry exclamation contra Becket had spurred the knights to commit this sacrilege, had to submit to a public act of penance at Becket’s tomb which had already become one of Christendom’s most important sites of pilgrimage.

He was buried under the floor of the eastern crypt covered by a stone slab. Two holes in the stone allowed pilgrims to kiss the tomb. The cult of Becket exploded and pilgrims visited the tomb in huge numbers over the next five decades. On the 50th anniversary of his death, July 7th 1220, Becket’s remains were translated to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel. The crown of his skull was kept in a gold reliquary in the Corona Chapel. The place of his martyrdom in the northwest transept and the original tomb were also sites of pilgrimage.

The shrine and Thomas Becket’s bones were destroyed by order of another Henry, eighth of his name, in 1538. Henry VIII went at Becket extra hard during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, even ordering the obliteration of his name, damnatio memoriae-style.

Using pre-Dissolution sources including first-hand accounts of pilgrims, archaeological materials (pilgrim badges, architectural features) and later scholarship, researchers recreated the physical sites and determined sums received at the four different stations and how well-trafficked they were. The Trinity Chapel shrine was the primary attraction, receiving by far the majority of the offerings. The Corona Chapel received the second highest sums (about 6-17%), the Martyrdom Chapel about 1-7% and the original tomb about .5-11%. The videos include people to convey how pilgrims made their offerings and moved around the sites.

Here is the digital reconstruction of Trinity Chapel, ca. 1408, viewed from the southwest.

Various pilgrim activities are taking place in the movie. A monk stands by the shrine and invites pilgrims to lay their offerings on the altar, including a merchant couple who present their child and give a candle in thanks for his deliverance from sickness, and a sea captain who gives a ring after surviving a storm. To the left of the screen, lower-status pilgrims have the miracle-stories in the windows explained to them by a clerk. Behind the shrine another monk points out the gems and precious objects to a higher-status merchant and his wife, encouraging them to add a gift of their own. In the niches around the marble tomb base other pilgrims pray to St Thomas on their knees.

This is the reconstruction of the Corona Chapel.

The Corona Chapel held a golden head reliquary, containing a piece of St Thomas’s skull that had been hacked off at his martyrdom. This reliquary had been remade in gold and studded with jewels in 1314. The popularity of pilgrim badges showing the head suggest it was a popular attraction within the Cathedral, but its small size and high value meant most pilgrims would only have been able to see it from afar.

The movie below shows the Countess of Kent, who has been invited by the Prior to a private ceremony. He removes the head reliquary from its display case, opens the top to reveal the relic inside, and offers it to the Countess to kiss. Her retinue of ladies-in-waiting look on, and pilgrims may have congregated outside the chapel to catch a glimpse of proceedings.

Third is the Martyrdom Chapel, site of Becket’s murder.

Here there was a small altar that had a reliquary containing the point of the sword which had cut into his head. The flagstones were said to bear the marks of his final footprints, and pilgrims came to kiss them.

The scene shows a mass on the morning of the Feast of the Martyrdom (29th December). On the eve of the feast a handful of hardy pilgrims were allowed to stay overnight in the Cathedral, swapping stories about Becket and eating and drinking around a fire. At dawn they went to the first of three Masses in the Martyrdom.

Last but not least is the original tomb where Thomas Becket’s body was kept for 50 years.

Even after the Translation, the now-empty tomb continued to be venerated as a site which had held the saint’s body – mostly likely by the long-term sick, who could stay without causing disruption to the activities in the cathedral.

A number of particularly ill or disabled pilgrims sit in long vigils around or at the empty tomb, while a clerk looks on to protect the valuables and aid those in need. To the left, a group of lower-class carers have formed a support group to discuss issues in caring for their sick relatives. As at the main shrine, a number of offerings in wax or crutches and other proofs of cure can be seen hanging around the tomb as proof of the saint’s power.

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15th c. wood panel painting conserved

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020

The Detroit Institute of Art holds in its collection a small egg tempera on panel work by 15th century Venetian painter Antonio Vivarini. It’s a scene from the life of Saint Monica, long-suffering mother of Saint Augstine, in which she coverts her pagan husband Patricius on his deathbed. This was not originally a stand-alone panel painting. It was part of the predella (small action scenes in the footer of an altarpiece whose main panels feature large-scale individual figures) of a polyptych which is no longer extant. It was cut out of the frame leaving the bottom of panel is therefore wider than the top.

The original altarpiece is believed to have been in the Church of Santo Stefano in Venice. The church was extensively rebuilt in the early 15th century at a time when the cult of Saint Monica reached its zenith in popularity. When construction was completed around 1440, there was a chapel with an altar dedicated to St Monica in the left aisle. Francesco Sansovino, writing in 1581, noted that the altarpiece in the chapel had been painted by Giovanni and Antonio Vivarini (phrased as brothers, but Giovanni d’Alemagna was actually Antonio’s German brother-in-law). In the 17th century, art historian Carlo Ridolfi described Vivarini and his brother-in-law’s art in the chapel as a statue of Saint Monica standing surrounded by “picciole historiette” (wee historylets) depicting scenes from her life.

The chapel was moved to the right aisle in the 18th century but the altarpiece did not move with it. The new chapel got new art, and the old was given away to an Augustinian lay community who cut it up and sold it piecemeal. Art historians in the 20th century have traced the scattered components, identifying five panels of the lost altarpiece in museums around the world: The Marriage of St Monica is in Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia; The Birth of Saint Augustine is now in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Saint Monica at Prayer with Saint Augustine as a Child is in the Museum Amedeo Lia in La Spezia; Saint Monica Converts her Dying Husband is in the Detroit Institute of Art; Saint Ambrose Baptizes Saint Augustine in the Presence of Saint Monica is in the Accademia Carrara,  Bergamo.

The panel at the DIA is not on public view. (Well, technically nothing is right now, as the museum is closed. It reopens on July 10th.) Its condition is too delicate for display and requires conservation to keep the wood from splitting more and the prevent continuing paint loss. The DIA has posted a fascinating video about the panel conservation, the first episode of the museum’s new Conservator’s Corner series on its YouTube channel. It covers the recent history of conservation and the latest treatment and is a satisfyingly comprehensive glimpse into how the conservatorial sausage is made.

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Livestream summer solstice at Stonehenge

Saturday, June 20th, 2020

Stonehenge is closed right now and won’t open until next month, leaving hundreds of disappointed pilgrims and tourists who would otherwise have flocked to the ancient site to see the dawn break over the Heel stone. English Heritage is offering an alternative experience open to everyone in the world: a livestream of sunset today and sunrise tomorrow morning.

The sunset broadcast begins in less than two hours, 8:26 PM GMT (4:26 PM EDT). Sunrise kicks off at a bracing 3:52 AM GMT, which will be shortly before midnight tonight EDT. The video streams will go live a half hour beforehand.

If weather cooperates, and so far it looks good, this is going to be a unique opportunity to view Stonehenge’s interactions with the sun on the longest day of the year because English Heritage will have cameras set up to capture the scene to its best advantage and there will be no people there to get in the way. This is what it looked like last year, just to give you an idea of what a mob scene it usually is:

To join in the remote revelry, simply go to English Heritage’s Facebook page. You don’t need to sign up, sign in or do anything at all other than click and watch. If you’d like to enhance your enjoyment of the moment by learning more about Stonehenge and summer solstice, the excellent weekly English Heritage podcast recently dedicated an episode to it which you can listen to here.

If you aren’t able to view the livestreams, the recorded videos will be posted later on English Heritage’s Facebook page.

And the sunrise (albeit a little short on sun):

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Bingewatching Irving Finkel

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

I was searching the archives for something entirely unrelated when Irving Finkel playing the Royal Game of Ur against Tom Scott showed up in the results. Of course I had to watch it all over again because that video is pure joy. That drove me to seek out and rewatch his all-too-short video on how to raise the dead the Neo-Babylonian way. It only whetted my appetite, so off I went to the British Museum’s YouTube channel to see if there are any other Finkelgems out there, and there are. And how.

So first, there’s a whole video dedicated to his deciphering of the rules tablet of the Royal Game of Ur. Halfway through he whips out the cutest artifact of childhood history nerdery I’ve ever seen: a copy of the Royal Game of Ur gameboard that he made with his own hands when he was nine. It’s freaking amazing, of course.

Next, in a return to the eternally popular theme of dealings with the dead, is a discussion of ghosts in Mesopotamia culture. Killer pull-out quote: “I would like to see a ghost. I’ve never seen one; it’s very annoying to me.”

Ghosts weren’t the only problem supernatural creatures ancient Mesopotamians had to counter, contain and appease. In this video Irving Finkel talks about one of the gnarliest supernatural beings in ancient Mesopotamia and how one gnarly demon could ward off the depredations of another. I don’t want to include any spoilers for a five minute video, but one of those beasties played a small but key role in a classic Hollywood horror and Finkel at long last redeems his reputation.

It seems that games were Irving Finkel’s first historical loves. In this video he tells an absolutely heart-warming story of how he was so enamored of the Lewis Chessmen when he saw them at the British Museum as a boy that he spent years buying the beautiful artisan crafted replica chess figures that were then available in the museum gift shop. His family was of modest means and he could only afford to get one at a time on special gifting occasions like Christmases and birthdays. There are 32 pieces in the Lewis chess set, so it took a long time to get the set. In fact, he was still out seven pawns when he got his doctorate. His father bought the last seven for him as a present when Dr. Finkel earned his title.

This touching story then takes an unexpected turn that literally made me laugh out loud. Irving Finkel is not just one of the world’s foremost cuneiform experts, the translator of the oldest game instructions in the world, adorned with a razor-sharp wit and epic beard, but he is an absolute master of shade.

Back to his area of curatorial expertise. Here,  plucked from the very marrow of my unspoken dreams, is Dr. Finkel giving a lesson in how to write cuneiform to Tom Scott, his cheerfully hapless opponent in the Game of Ur, and Matt Gray on the steps of the British Museum. He shows them how to make the wedge-shaped marks with a simple rectangular stylus on a tablet of wet clay and makes it look easy.

Finkel follow up with another lesson inside the museum to a nice fellow named Nick who played a key cameo role in the Lewis Chessmen video. This one-on-one tutorial can get into more detail and I have to say Nick’s finished “Ashurbanipal” after 25 minutes is downright respectable. I’d be thrilled with that result myself.

That would be a top notch home school project, btw. Print copies of the cuneiform code page from the Cuneiform book by Irving Finkel and clay tablet curator Jonathan Taylor, make some play dough with common pantry ingredients and cuneiform your name or Ashurbanipal’s or the dog’s and then bake the tablets in a 200F oven for half an hour to harden them for display. Embed a magnet in the back and Ashurbanipal could be holding up your kids’ drawings on the fridge.

I’ll close with a lecture Finkel gave to the Royal Institution on the history of cuneiform writing. At almost 40 minutes, it is a deeply satisfying jaunt into the material and delivered with his inimitable panache. This man is an international treasure.

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Life and Death in Pompeii on film

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

In 2013, the British Museum staged an exhibition dedicated to the daily lives of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum and how they were snuffed out by the eruption of Vesuvius. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum was a blockbuster, selling more than 50,000 advance tickets and drawing crowds of visitors flocking to see the more 250 artifacts from the British Museum’s collection and on loan from the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii. The show feature some iconic pieces — the fresco portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife, the “CAVE CANEM” mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat, the plaster cast of a dog writhing in its final agony — as well as lesser known but no less remarkable survivors, like a carbonized cradle, a loaf of bread, a life-sized bronze hare mould used to make cakes or terrines.

A private tour of the show was broadcast in movie theaters at the time. The hour-and-a-half film walks viewers through the exhibition guided by curators and experts including Mary Beard and Giorgio Locatelli. It covers the history of the towns’ destruction, the last two days of their ancient existence

It’s got a sexual content warning because of the many explicit artifacts typifying Roman frankness about sexuality that were found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mary Beard discussing whether a third figure in a fresco of a couple in a reverse cowgirl posture was part of a threesome or an ignored slave or a voyeur is good clean fun, as far as I’m concerned, as is her discussion of the triple-phallus wind chime ( “phalluses to the power of x” “with bells on!”) and the one about the “more hardcore” Pan-goat statue.

Seven years later, the British Museum has uploaded the complete film to its YouTube channel. It’s one hour and 27 minutes long and even so not nearly long enough for me. They should have made it a mini-series. Pompeii Live is free to view, of course, but like so many of its brethren, the museum has been hard-hit by the extended closure, so if you’d like to help support it, donate here

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Celebrate the raising of the Vasa

Thursday, April 30th, 2020

It’s been 59 years since the pristine wreck of Vasa, the Swedish warship commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf which sank less than a mile from dock on her maiden voyage on August 10th 1628, was salvaged from Stockholm bay. It  broke the surface of the waters on April 24th, 1961, where, floating on pontoons, sprayed constantly with harbour water, it was excavated for five months. For 27 years it was conserved at a temporary location at the Wasa Shipyard. In 1988 it moved into the Vasa Museum and ever since then has been one of Stockholm’s most visited tourist destinations with more than one million visitors each year.

As the museum is closed for the time being, you can celebrate the anniversary with some teletourism. Here is the Vasa Museum’s Director of Research Fred Hocker talking about the complex salvage operation that raised the Vasa while simultaneously giving us a tour of the ship.

Next up, Hocker’s guided tour of the king’s cabin, or rather, a replica of it.

Museum guide Lisa orchestra of carved wooden putti in steerage. I’m embarrassed to say this is the first explanation I’ve heard of why the space was called steerage and I appreciate that a term now synonymous with the cheapest, least comfortable passage possible described the antechamber of the king on the Vasa.

In this video museum Educational Officers Lotta Wiker and Emilie Börefeldt explain how the Vasa was raised, illustrated with models of various stages of the salvage.

That’s just the tip of the contact iceberg. The Vasa Museum broadcasts live streaming video  of tours, stories, concerts from the museum every weekday at 4:28 PM, ie, 16:28, the year the ship was launched to its immediate demise. The broadcasts are live on Instagram and are also uploaded to the museum’s Facebook page. English-language videos air on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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From the Met’s film vault

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

This year is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary. To celebrate their sesquicentennial, the Met has been uploading movies from their vast archive of films about art going back to the 1920s.

The Met’s Office of Cinema Works opened in 1922 when the moving image captured on film was less than 30 years old. The medium was still considered the cultural inferior to its cousin the so-called legitimate theater. The Met was one of the first museums to embrace its great education potential. The Office of Cinema Works produced films that would be screened first for museum members and then to visitors. It filmed the museum’s excavations in Egypt and made documentaries about the museum, objects in its collection, artist profiles, explanations of different artistic techniques.

Because the Office’s mission was educational, from its earliest days in 1922 the films it produced were made available for rent to other museums, schools and societies. The Met soon did brisk business in film distribution as well as production. They also pioneered the use of safety film. To be able to send their films to more screens and make them as easy and safe to use as possible, in 1928 they moved from the industry standard 35mm nitrate film to 16mm non-flammable acetate that could be screened with portable projectors.

The Office of Cinema Works was active through 1935, and its descendants at the museum continue to produce films about art well into the 2000s. Most of the 1,500 treasures in its climate-controlled vault have been in permanent retirement, however. Starting in January of this anniversary year, From the Vaults has been releasing a film from the archive every Friday, beginning, as is only right and fair on the Internet, with a film about cats.

Earlier this month, From the Vaults released a self-referential gem: The Hidden Talisman, a 1928 historical romance/ghost story that was filmed at the original Cloisters. The faux medieval setting is very apt to the drama. The first Cloisters was only in use for 24 years, from its opening in 1914 until the Met Cloisters as we know and love it today moved to its current location in 1938, so this film is a rare glimpse into a long-gone classic.

Here’s another great early one from 1924 about the Met’s Armor Galleries.

View the rest of the treasures from the Met’s film vaults on the museum’s YouTube channel.

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Virtual guided tour of Pompeii’s Regio V houses

Saturday, April 11th, 2020

There is a great deal of online content from museums and historical sites right now. I could never get enough of that kind of programming even before quarantine because most of the treasures of the world are out of individuals’ reach anyway just due to cost, time and distance. Virtual visits bridge those gaps, and while nothing can replace the in-vivo experience (is cyberStendhal Sydrome a thing?), they can open up vantage points that could not possibly be explored in person.

Today’s example of this comes to us from the eternal font of archaeological wonder that is Pompeii. The exploration of a previously unexcavated section of Regio V has been immensely production, discovering, among other big finds, a row of houses with balconies, the remains of a man found in a Wil E. Coyote-like posture under a stone and the beautifully frescoed walls of the House of the Garden.  The Archaeological Park of Pompeii has put together a video tour of two of the Regio V houses with stand-out features: the House with the Garden with its frescoes and the House of Orion, named after a floor mosaic of the mythical hunter being placed among the stars. 

Narrated by Director Massimo Osanna who is able to pack an incredible density of information in every sentence, the video uses high-definition film captured by drone to give us a fly-through view of both homes. It offers breathtaking bird’s eye views of Pompeii before swooping down into the House of the Garden and then on to the House of Orion. It’s like an archaeological Space Mountain with Walt Disney as your guide. The only negative is that it’s not twice as long and I’m hoping there will be more such videos to come.

The narration is in Italian and the auto-translated closed captions are as bad as ever, but you can follow along with the English transcript here

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Tour the Winchester Mystery House

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

The famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is closed until at least April 7th, but the museum has compiled a comprehensive 41-minute video tour for our remote enjoyment.

The manchester was built by Sarah Winchester, widow of rifle tycoon William Wirt Winchester. When he died in 1881, his wife inherited a huge fortune in cash and stock, making her worth a half billion dollars in today’s money and one of the richest women in the world. Legend has it — and it is very much legendary as Sarah left no correspondence or journals on the subject, nor did any family, friends or loyal employees ever volunteer an explanation — that, devastated by the loss of her husband and daughter, she sought the advice of a Boston medium named Adam Coons. After a séance, he told her that she was haunted by the thousands of Civil War soldiers and Indians who had been killed by Winchester firearms, and that the only way to appease the vengeful spirits was to use the Winchester money she’d inherited to build them a house. Another origin story claims that a medium told her she would die as soon as the house was finished, so she saw to it that construction continued until her last breath. There is zero evidence that any of this ever happened.

In 1884, she moved to California and bought a 161-acre farm in Santa Clara Valley from Dr. Robert Caldwell. There was a modest eight room farmhouse already on the property, but Sarah’s vision was far vaster. For 38 years, she had her crew of carpenters and masons work in shifts so construction continued 24-7, 365 days a year. (Again, this is the legend; somebody probably took some time off now and again.) built and built, creating a mansion with hundreds of rooms, rooms-within-rooms, unfinished rooms, mazes of corridors, dead ends, staircases that are short cuts from one part of the house to the other, staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open up to walls, doors that open to the outside two stories up, small doors, big doors, cupolas, turrets, windows of every shape and size, skylights in floors, prime numbers, especially 13, everywhere. There was even a seven story tower at one point, but it was destroyed in the 1906 Frisco quake.

When she died on September 5th, 1922, work immediately stopped. There are still nails half-hammered in to the walls. The rich reclusive widow and her labyrinthine mansion were already famous by then. The villa was known as the Spirit House and rumors abounded of nightly séances, copious hauntings and “evil spirits” confounded by Sarah Winchester’s architectural follies.

She left her estate to the charities she supported, dedicated employees and family. The furnishings of the house were sold and the mansion itself opened to tours in 1923. Millions of visitors have trod its eccentric floors in the century since then. You can now join them virtually from the comfort of your home, maybe chasing the tour with a viewing of the horror thriller Winchester starring Helen Mirren now showing on Showtime and streaming on Hulu.

You can also buy discounted ticket vouchers for a visit to the mansion that will be valid through May 2021. The vouchers cost $26, $13 off the regular ticket price. The income from the voucher sales will help keep the lights on and food on the table for the museum’s employees while the Winchester House is closed.

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