Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

VR bus drives back in time through ancient Rome

Thursday, June 23rd, 2022

On Thursday Rome debuted a new high-tech way to experience its monuments: the Virtual Reality Bus. The small fully electric bus takes a maximum of 14 passengers on a 30-minute circuit of ancient Rome’s most important sites, from Trajan’s Column through the Forums, the Colosseum, the Palatine, the Circus Maximus, to the Theater of Marcellus and back again. While driving by, the magic of VR will transport passengers back in time so they can see the city as it was before the ruins were ruins.

There are no headsets or viewing accessories of any kind required. A transparent 4K OLED screen has been installed in front of each window with a motorized curtain between the screen and the window. When passengers want to see the monuments of ancient Rome as they are today, they raise the curtain. When they want to see what it would have looked like if they drove by 2,000 years ago, they close the curtain for the virtual reality view.

A sophisticated network of 5G broadband synchronizes the 3D virtual models on the screens to the exact location of the bus. Three GPS on different locations on the bus, a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, a velocimeter and a surface laser document every jolt and jostle of the bus and realistic effects are then simulated in real time on the VR screens.

The bus is also equipped with digital speakers between every window and every other seat row, but to give the customers a truly immersive sensory system, they have taken a page from the great Smell-O-Vision stunts of the 1950s. A fragrance delivery system will evoke the scents of ancient Rome as the bus drives by temples, forums, the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. Inspired by the burned offerings to the gods and the assorted funks of the arena, a scent designed to match the site is released as you pass. Temples get you frankincense, myrrh, charcoal, guaiac wood, birch and vetiver grass. When you drive by the Colosseum, you’ll get hit with a wave of metallic aldehydes, civet musk, oud wood, costus, cistus labdanum resin and cumin. The Imperial Forums will serve oak moss, patchouli, sandalwood and amber balsam.

The bus runs every 40 minutes from 4:20PM to 7:40PM. English language tours are available only on the 5:00, 6:20 and 7:40 bus. The others are all in Italian. A regular tickets costs €16 and can be purchased online or at the ticket booth at Trajan’s Column.  Children younger than six ride for free.

Get a sneak peek at what this experience looks like in this video. Alas, there is no Smell-O-Vision on YouTube. Yet.

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Up close with the Ryedale Hoard

Thursday, June 16th, 2022

The Yorkshire Museum is hosting a series of online expert lectures and curatorial talks dedicated to the Ryedale Hoard, the unique group of ritual bronzes used in ceremonies of the imperial cult in the late 2nd century that the museum was able to acquire last year. The hoard went on display to the public for the first time when the museum reopened in April. The lecture series runs in conjunction with The Ryedale Hoard: A Roman Mystery. There will be one online talk a month until the exhibition ends in March 2023.

Each episode in the series is first livestreamed on the museum’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. The lectures are following by a Q&A period where viewers can ask questions in the comments. The recorded lecture is then posted on YouTube.   

There have been two so far. The first video is hosted by Professor Michael Lewis, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the British Museum, and delves into how Treasure is defined in terms of the 1996 Treasure Act. This is relevant to the Ryedale Hoard because it failed to qualify as official Treasure despite its undisputed antiquity and unprecedented archaeological importance and was only saved for the public patrimony thanks to Richard Beleson, a generous supporter of the Yorkshire Museum. Lewis lays out the processes of the PAS and explains how archaeological treasures can fall through the cracks, using examples some bloggers you know might have obsessed over once or twice.

The first talk doesn’t really get into the particulars of the Ryedale Hoard, however. That’s what the second one does. It is hosted by the Yorkshire Museum’s curator of archaeology Lucy Creighton. She covers the discovery of the objects by two metal detectorists, how they realized they had found something really special, then goes into detail about the objects themselves, holding them up to the camera to point out features that are not necessarily conveyed in still photographs. She points out a peg embedded in the hoof of the horse and rider figure that would have originally been slotted into a base with a flat surface, for example, and shows a piece of bronze found inside the head of the Marcus Aurelius bust that was once the back of the head.

The next online lecture looks excellent as well. Metals, Making and Magic: The Smith in Roman Britain will be delivered by Dr. Owen Humphreys on July 21st. Sign up here to receive notices of future lectures. I did last month, forgot all about it, and remembered only after I received the museum’s reminder email linking to the discussion. 

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Tour Persian Persepolis

Saturday, May 7th, 2022

The Getty has added new virtual experiences to dovetail with and enhance its new exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World which opened at the Getty Villa Museum last month and runs through August 8th.

The exhibition looks at the relationship between Classical Greece and Rome and the Persian Empire over three dynasties (Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian) and 1,100 years (550 B.C. – 650 A.D.). The cultural links between the three ancient powers were strong notwithstanding their often bellicose political relations.

“The military rivalry between the ancient Persian empires that controlled much of the modern Middle East, and the Greeks and Romans of the eastern Mediterranean, determined the geopolitical map of Eurasia from Britain in the west to the border of India in the east for over a thousand years. In the early 5th century BC, against all odds, the Greeks repulsed a series of Achaemenid invasions that would have changed the cultural trajectory of Europe. Two and a half centuries later, Alexander the Great’s conquest of the East brought down the Achaemenids but also inspired an epochal cross-fertilization of the two cultures and traditions. The rise of the Romans as the major Mediterranean power from the 2nd century BC made a clash of titans inevitable. More than once the destinies of Europe and the Middle East hung on the outcome of mighty battles between the Roman emperors and the Parthian and Sasanian kings. Yet throughout all these violent vicissitudes, an active exchange of goods, languages, ideas, faiths, and artistic visions, reflecting a strong mutual respect, flourished in both directions. We see this most vividly in the imperial imagery celebrating their kings and rulers that was propagated by both the Persians and their Greek and Roman adversaries. As we ponder the most significant turning points in Eurasian history, there was perhaps no more momentous encounter than that between Persia and the Classical World,” says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“The many spectacular objects on view are extraordinary expressions of Persian political and cultural identity, many of them among the most famous masterpieces of Persian art. I hope this exhibition will convey how fruitful the intermingling of very different artistic and other cultural traditions was for both cultures, as can still be seen in aspects of our visual arts today.”

The exceptional collection of artifacts on display include architectural reliefs, intaglio gemstones, cuneiform seals, jewelry, precious serving dishes and royal sculpture on loan from institutions all over the Unites States, Europe and the Middle East. Many of the artifacts are on display in the US for the first time.

The objects in the exhibition are enhanced and contextualized by a cutting-edge immersive film offered to visitors at the Getty Villa. The movie takes viewers on a tour through the royal palace complex in the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis in its heyday before Alexander the Great burned it to the ground in the 330 B.C. It uses the same technology used in the Disney+ series The Mandalorian to give a 360-degree HD viewing experience for people lucky enough to see the exhibition in person.

For people without easy access to Malibu, the museum has created Persepolis Reimagined, an online interactive digital tour of Persepolis so we can virtually fly into the capital, through the bulls guarding the Gate of All Nations, into the Apadana (audience hall), through the Palace of Xerxes, the Southeastern Palace, the Royal Treasury and the Hall of 100 Columns. At each stage there are clickable interactive elements that go into further detail about the features and in some cases, what remains of those features today. It is easy to navigate, beautifully modeled and strikes a good balance between richness of content and digestibility.

Potts adds: “I am especially pleased that visitors to the exhibition will also be able to explore some of the highlights of ancient Iranian art and architecture through digital technologies. Two innovative digital experiences—one an immersive on-site experience at the Villa; the other accessible online—will allow visitors to walk in the steps of a Persian dignitary through a digital reconstruction of the spectacular Achaemenid palace of Persepolis. These new tools, in partnership with the latest scholarship, can provide dynamic, interactive engagement with distant places and cultures, and we hope to expand their use in the future.”

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Child mummy with mullet CT scanned

Sunday, February 6th, 2022

The latest episode of the British Museum’s excellent YouTube series Curator’s Corner looks at the museum’s use of a high-resolution CT scanner to study the mummies in its collection. There are still many things we don’t know about Egyptian mummification processes because almost no written material about it has survived (only three papyri are known), and because even modern non-destructive methods of analysis like X-rays and CT scans have been deployed on a small number of examples.

To expand the available data of mummification, the museum has undertaken a comprehensive re-examination of its mummies from the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms through the Roman period, spanning the millennia from 2000 B.C. to 300 A.D., discovered at different sites in Egypt. The scanner they are using is leaps and bounds ahead of scans taken just 10 years ago, capable of capturing extremely thin elements — surviving skin, hair, textiles — as well as the dense elements like bone.

The episode illustrates the British Museum’s CT scanner at work on the cartonnage mummy of child from the mid-1st century that was discovered in the necropolis of Hawara in 1889. The mummy is tightly enclosed in a case made of linen, plaster and resin and wrapped with a painted burial cloth. Over the head is a tempera portrait depicting a young boy wearing a white tunic with a red ribbon or corded necklace. An amulet was probably affixed to the case at the apex of the necklace, but that has been lost.

His hair is cut in a distinctive business-in-the-front short bang with a party-in-the back unbound lock flowing on both sides of his neck. This may be a variation on the side lock, sometimes referred to as the Horus Lock, which is common in iconographic depictions of children from the Old Kingdom through the Late Antiquity.

The painted shroud is decorated with images of deities, including Nut with outspread wings flanked by sphinxes. Below her the shroud is divided into four panels with images of rituals performed by priests in front of deities. The CT scan revealed the painted decoration on the sides that was too damaged or faded to be seen with the naked eye. Isis is on one side, her sister Nephthys on the other, their wings spread in a gesture of protection around the face of the child. The scan also detected the presence of four wax amulets placed directly on the child’s skin.

The Curator’s Corner episode shows some excellent images of the highly detailed CT scans explained by Egypt and Sudan department curators Daniel Antoine and Marie Vandenbeusch.

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Even more spectacular Rome in 3D

Monday, January 31st, 2022

History in 3D‘s odyssey to create the most detailed and accurate virtual recreation of ancient Rome as it was in the 4th century proceeds apace. It’s been years and more years will pass before the finished model, but their 2021 was incredibly productive. Right now, about 40% of the city has been completed, and that’s ongoing concurrent with other, smaller projects capturing not just ancient Rome but Greece as well.

The past couple of months have seen a wonderful profusion of new videos on History in 3D’s YouTube channel showcasing the results of last year’s hard work. While the ultimate goal is the model of 4th century Rome, they’re building virtual models of some of Augustan Rome as well, “excursions,” as they put it, back in time.

He’s a fly-through of the Augustan-era Roman Forum complete with painted polychrome statuary, glowing bronzes and the richly textured marble cladding of the city that Augustus famously said he had transformed from brick to marble:

This is fascinating glimpse into the House of Augustus and Livia on the Palatine, a compound Suetonius dismissed as “a modest dwelling remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of local stone and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.”

The Augustan Campus Martius is another gem. It opens with a view of it as it was in the 4th century when it had been extensively built up, then contrasts it with the wide open spaces of the 1st century area. You get to see the Mausoleum of Augustus and Ara Pacis when they were new:

Moving forward a couple of centuries, here’s an excursion through the Baths of Caracalla, which even in their ruined state are some of the most spectacular remains of ancient Rome still standing. It is 13 minutes long and I wish it were longer:

This 8-minute fly-through of the main model of the city is a preview of what a masterpiece the finished work will be. The lighting, atmospheric effect, the meticulous detail of every tegula and bronze statue on the roofs and pediments of the Caput Mundi:

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The history of writing in 1.5 hours

Monday, November 15th, 2021

Among the many treasures of this summer’s virtual lecture series accompanying the Getty Museum’s exhibition on 3000 years of Mesopotamian history, there was one particularly sparkly jewel. From Laundry Lists to Liturgies: The Origins of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia was an absolute revelation, and I’m not just saying that because it was hosted by my favorite Assyriologist, Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum. Dr. Finkel and Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts cover an enormous amount of ground on the origins and evolution of cuneiform: the first known writing system, its beginnings as a combination of pictograms and impressions, the incredible complexity of early Mesopotamian mathematics, writing’s shift from drawing to symbol to sound and ever so much more. The discussion lasted an hour and a half and I was riveted the entire time.

The webinar took place on August 11th, and I have been waiting impatiently ever since for the Getty to upload it to their YouTube channel as they did for the other videos in the series soon after the live debut. Finally two weeks ago I emailed the Getty’s Public Programs coordinator asking forlornly whether something had gone awry with the one video I was keenest to share. Something had — they didn’t get into specifics, just that they had experienced difficulties with the upload — but they were optimistic it would be up within a couple of weeks.

The couple of weeks have elapsed and the video is at long last available. Set aside a block of time and bask in the illumination:

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Ghost stories with Irving Finkel

Saturday, October 30th, 2021

Thursday’s live-streamed discussion about Mesopotamian beliefs on ghosts hosted by historian Bettany Hughes with British Museum Assyriologist, cuneiform expert and raconteur extraordinaire Dr. Irving Finkel was, as expected, a highly entertaining and information-rich exploration of what the earliest writers in the world recorded about the care, feeding and, when necessary, forcible removal of the spirits of the dead.

It has now been uploaded to the BM’s YouTube Channel so if you missed it live, you can catch it now to celebrate Halloween Assyrian-style.

Irving Finkel goes into even more detail on ancient Mesopotamian ghost beliefs in this earlier video that I somehow missed until now. It’s a presentation by him alone rather than the interview/discussion style of the webinar, and let’s face it, in any given circumstance, the more Finkel the better.

His rant about The Exorcist at 13:15 is an absolute treasure, as is the mumbo jumbo section at 23:15. The discussion of the newly-identified ghost drawing is at 33:35. 

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Virtual Mesopotamian civilization

Thursday, July 29th, 2021

The Getty Villa Museum is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Mesopotamian history from the dawn of the first cities in the Fertile Crescent around 3200 B.C. to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. An array of rare artifacts — sculptures, cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, jewelry, paintings, bricks, decorative friezes — of exceptional quality, almost all of them on loan from the Louvre, are on display at the museum in Malibu through August 16th. It was scheduled to open on March 18th, 2020, but was preempted by you-know-what. The Louvre was kind enough to extend the loan for more than a year and the exhibition finally opened on April 21st.

The Getty has put together a fun and informative series of workshops and lectures to accompany the exhibition. Circumstances forced them online, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy events virtually that we would not have been able to attend in person. Want an excuse to make a ton of cookies while learning how to write cuneiform? Now you’ve got one.

For an overview of Mesopotamian history as represented by the artifacts in the exhibition, watch this lecture by Dr. Ariane Thomas, director of the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Louvre. I particularly love that the inscriptions on the objects are fully translated on the presentation slides, which is essential given the central role of cuneiform to Mesopotamian civilizations. Also 22 minutes in is an excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out loud. This is the first time I’ve heard Babylonian spoken.

Delve deeper into cuneiform tablets in this presentation by historian Dr. Amanda Podany who examines the religious, political, legal and economic significance of writing in Mesopotamia and examines the lives of three ancient Mesopotamians as revealed in cuneiform inscriptions: Enheduanna (24th century B.C.), daughter of King Sargon, high priestess of the moon god Nanna, the world’s first known poet, the 18th century B.C. scribe Pagirum and Hammurabi, king and lawgiver.

Next archaeologist Tate Paulette, expert on ancient spirituous beverages, explores Mesopotamia’s rich beer culture as documented in written, artistic and archaeological records. The lecture covers the history of beer in Mesopotamia, how it was brewed and drunk, and modern attempts to recreate it.

Last but certainly not least is my favorite internationally-renown cuneiform expert, Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum, whose last visit to the Getty featured him taking on all comers at the Royal Game of Ur. Being a more innocent pre-pandemic era, that event was not filmed, much to my disappointment, but this time his discussion of the origins of writing is open to all of us from the comfort of our own homes via Zoom. From Laundry Lists to Liturgies: The Origins of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia kicks off on August 11th at 11:00 AM Pacific Time. Registration is required and free. Presumably the recording will be made available on YouTube like its predecessors. See you there!

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Newly released film of Hindenburg disaster

Wednesday, May 26th, 2021

On May 6, 1937, newsreel crews were at the Lakehurst Naval Station to record the arrival of the pride and joy of the German airship fleet, the Hindenburg. The newsreel cameras were all clustered in a mooring area facing the bow of the dirigible, so when it suddenly burst into flames claiming the lives of 35 passengers, crew and one member of the ground crew, all of the footage of the disaster captured it from the front.

The investigation into the disaster relied primarily on witness statements. The Hindenburg itself was obliterated in the conflagration, so there was no physical evidence to go on to explain the cause of the fire. German officers, including Captain Ernst Lehmann who would die of his injuries the next day, blamed the disaster on sabotage. Others speculated that power from a radio transmitter on the field was responsible; one witness bruited the possibility that high-frequency radio induction had ignited the gas. The Commerce Department report could only conclude that a gas leak in the stern of the airship had created a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air that was ignited by electrostatic discharge of some kind, but they could not determine the source of it.

An amateur videographer was also on the field that day. Harold Schenck was standing next to Hangar One with his trusty Kodak 8-millimeter camera. Unlike the news cameras, Schenck was positioned to get a broad view of the airship as it attempted to land. The film for this little cam could only record two minutes, so he took short clips that he would later put together with explanatory intertitles. He captured the Hindenburg’s approach first and filmed its full length as it burned. It is the only known footage that shows the nose and tail at the same time.

Schenck offered his footage to the Commerce Department investigators but they weren’t interested because they had all the newsreel footage already and didn’t seek out different angles. Thankfully he kept it, and so did his family after he passed away. In 2012, Dan Grossman, a historian, writer and airship expert who has studied the Hindenburg disaster for years, met Bob Schenck, Harold’s nephew, at the 75th anniversary memorial of the disaster on the Lakehurst airfield. Grossman viewed the Schenck footage and was stunned by its unique coverage and perspective of the fire.

The film has now been shown to the public for the first time in an episode of the excellent PBS show Nova. The show used it as a jumping point for a new investigation of the disaster. The episode lays out the background of the flight, the difficulties it encountered, the timeline of the disaster, putting the new footage in context. It explores the footage itself, confirming it authenticity with a film restoration expert, and explains the science behind what we see in the footage.

Every step of the investigation combines historical research and the scientific method to present a highly compelling case for what set off the deadly fire. Highlights include the curators at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen watching the footage in amazement, and the series of experiments designed by Konstantinos Giapis, Professor of Chemical Engineering at CalTech. The Schenck film does not show the source of the spark, so Giapis experiments with various possibilities.

The end-result is genuinely exciting both from a science fair perspective and a historical one. It’s a eureka moment for sure. I won’t spoil it because it’s seriously riveting to follow the progression of the investigation. Watch this show.

You can see a sneak preview of the Schenck footage in this trailer:

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Unframed Botticelli reveals original paint

Monday, May 3rd, 2021

The removal of the frame encasing Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Kings in London’s National Gallery has revealed original paint, giving conservators a rich source of information to restore the tempera-on-wood masterpiece. The work has suffered hardships in the six centuries since it was painted, some accidental (water damage), some blunderous (drastic overcleaning). It was bought by The National Gallery in 1857, and it was so brutally “restored” that many details were lost.

In order to conserve it by modern standards, the National Gallery team first took X-rays which showed that the painting continued underneath the top of the frame. When restorer Jill Dunkerton and conservator Britta New removed it from its frame, they found that while very dirty, the paint underneath was in excellent condition compared to the main part of the composition which was sadly flattened by the terrible 19th century cleaning. The unframing also made new sense of the proportions of the figures and their grouping in three levels. The bottom of the frame had hidden a step and made the figures on the left and center look like they were different sizes for no reason.

The painting’s dimensions — 20 inches high and 54 inches wide — suggest that it may have originally been designed to fit a piece of furniture, so it’s unclear when it was first framed. The one that was removed dates to the 19th century when framers in Florence created a custom-carved frame that would accommodate the concave warp the long panel had developed by then.

Here’s a video of the frame being removed piece by piece:

It was painted around 1470, early in the careers of Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi. Botticelli had just struck out on his own after working as an apprentice in the studio of Fra Filippo Lippi, Filippino’s natural father, who had died the year before. Filippino completed his apprenticeship in Botticelli’s new workshop and was listed as his sole assistant in the guild records of 1472. In an unusual twist, The Adoration of the Kings was started by Filippino and then completed by Sandro. Generally apprentices completed the works of the masters, not the other way around. Botticelli is likely responsible for the crowd of kings, horses and onlookers on the left, the dwarf and the man gazing upwards in the central section and the shepherds on the right; Filippino’s hand is evident in the Virgin and Child, the kneeling king kissing Christ’s foot and the entourage behind him.

The distant town, lake and rocks in the center background were copied from Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata by Jan van Eyck, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Early Northern Renaissance art was much in fashion in Florence at the time, and drawings of important works made their way south where Florentine artists used versions of them in their own designs.

Botticelli and Lippi’s northern inspiration gave Jill Dunkerton a unique window into what the original would have looked like before the scrubbing. She was able to study Van Eyck’s piece to recreate some of the lost detail, and the results of her retouching are pretty spectacular so far. Check out this video of her at work. The before and after of the rocks is a particularly striking contrast.

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