Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Herculaneum and its papyri live on video

Saturday, October 19th, 2019

During the first excavation of the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum, the team unearthed the villa’s entire library, more than 1,800 scrolls still tightly rolled and neatly stacked in shelves. That was in 1754, 1,675 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius instantly carbonized organized material in clouds of superheated gases and ash and then buried the city in 60 feet of hard volcanic rock. The volcano destroyed the city, and at the same time preserved the only complete ancient library in the world.

Naturally scholars were desperate to read those scrolls which could contain a wealth of long-lost texts. Early attempts at unrolling the scrolls did identify a few Epicurean texts, but unrolling carbonized papyrus almost certainly results in its destruction, and the vast majority of the villa’s scrolls were left to the hopefully more tender mercies of the future. Non-invasive technology like X-rays and CT scans were deployed, but with little success.

Ultrabright synchroton X-rays has been successful where other imaging techniques have failed, reading erased works by Galen, virtually opening a 17th century mystery box and recovering the image of a hopelessly tarnished daguerreotype. In 2015, the power of the synchroton particle collider was first deployed on Herculaneum papyri. It was a test of the possibilities and the results were very encouraging, albeit limited. The work proceeds apace, however, and two scrolls from the L’Institut de France are now being scanned by the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchroton science facility.

The use of carbon ink is one of the main reasons these scrolls have evaded deciphering, according to [University of Kentucky’s Professor Brent Seales]. Unlike metal-based inks, such as the iron gall used to write medieval documents, carbon ink has a density similar to that of the carbonized papyrus on which it sits. Therefore, it appears invisible in X-ray scans.

“We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization. First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible, and we need that level of detail to ferret out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits. In addition, we believe strongly—and contrary to conventional wisdom–that tomography does indeed capture subtle, non-density-based evidence of ink, even when it is invisible to the naked eye in the scan data. The machine learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it–pixel by pixel–from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is—voxel by voxel—in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragments. The tool can then be deployed on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader.”

You can learn more about the study of the carbonized scrolls, past, present and future, in a live-streamed discussion from the Getty Villa. It will be shown on the Getty’s YouTube channel from 4-6PM PST (7-9 PM EST).

Speaking of Herculaneum and the Getty, Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri, the seminal exhibition at the Getty Villa, ends a week from Monday. For those of us who haven’t been able to make it to Malibu to visit this extraordinary assemblage of statuary, frescoes, mosaic floors and more than a thousand of those famed carbonized papyrus scrolls, the Getty will be broadcasting a special curatorial tour of the exhibition live on its Facebook page on Thursday, October 24th, at 9:15 AM PST (12:15 PM EST).

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Bingewatching the Lost Dress of Elizabeth I

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

The always excellent Historic Royal Palaces YouTube channel has three new videos about the Bacton Altar Cloth, believed to be the only surviving fabric from a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I. If it wasn’t hers, it had to have belonged to a woman of the highest nobility or royalty. There were literally laws against anyone of lesser rank wearing so sumptuous a textile. (Sumptuary laws, donchaknow.)

Its provenance can’t be definitively traced through historical records, but the pivotal connection between queen and parish altar cloth is Blanche Perry, one of Elizabeth’s longest-serving and most dedicated ladies-in-waiting. By the end of her 57 of years of service, starting when the queen was a young princess, Perry held the title of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The Queen was known to have given her hand-me-downs, and Perry donated the textile to her parish church, St Faith’s in Bacton, where her ancestors and her own heart are buried. Historic Royal Palaces curators confirmed that the silver chamblet silk richly embroidered with animals, people and botanicals in gold and silver thread, was once a dress.  There is evidence of pattern cutting that would not be present had the piece not been a garment later recut and sewn to make a cross-shaped altar cloth.

The conserved Bacton Altar Cloth has gone on display at Hampton Court Palace alongside the iconic Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth wearing a gown that features the elaborate embroidery and precious materials also seen in the Bacton Altar Cloth. The exhibition runs through February 23, 2020. The Historic Royal Palaces videos present fascinating background on the cloth, its conservation and installation.


This is a overview of the find, starting with an absolutely delightful visit at St. Faith’s with historian Ruth E. Richardson, former church warden Charles Hunter and Historic Royal Palaces Curator and Tudor fashion expert Eleri Lynn. The parishioners always knew their altar cloth was reputedly a piece of one of Queen Elizabeth’s gowns, but until they raised the 3 pounds some-odd necessary to frame it and hang it on the church wall in 1909, it was apparently stashed under the vicar’s bed for safekeeping. God I love history so much.


This all-too-short video gives us a glimpse at the conservation of the altar cloth. You see close-ups of the embroidery in brilliant like-new color (a view you don’t get in any of the photographs), the removal of the backing cloth and the patches underneath that while simple are meaningful historical textiles in and of themselves. I wish it were feature length, seriously.


This is a behind-the-scenes video showing the installation of the altar cloth and Rainbow Portrait. Even though there is no narration, it is riveting because you see the nuts and bolts of curatorial work, the mounting of the pieces, the detailed touch-ups on the frames, how they have to navigate through the confines of medieval spaces like those glorious but really quite short Gothic arched stone doorways. I also loved seeing the magnificent artworks casually leaning against the walls of back corridors. It conveys in a few seconds how incredibly deep a bench of cultural heritage is in Hampton Court Palace and, I’m sure, in every other site maintained by Historic Royal Palaces. Oh, and the wallpaper! A big to the dark emerald green damask wallpaper in the room where the portrait and altar cloth are now on display. 

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Man as Industrial Palace now in motion

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

It has been almost a decade since I first saved a draft post about Dr. Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), the gynecologist and popular science writer who in 1926 designed an image you’ve almost certainly seen before: “Man as Industrial Palace,” an infographic depicting the functions of the human body as an industrial complex. It has taken me this long to delve as deeply as I felt this image deserved because detailed information about Kahn is hard to find on the Internet and because I wanted to include copious English-language labels for the amazing illustration. The originals are in German, and even then very little of what you see is labeled in the intricate poster. The visual takes precedence over the verbal. An exceptional trilingual monograph of Fritz Kahn’s life and works by Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz came to my rescue on every count. I owe this post to them.

The analogy of man to machine was a widespread cultural trend in the 1920s and 30s. The explosion of industry and consumer technology in the early 20th century inspired new approaches to art and literature, integrating the the human experience into the dynamic speed, power and sharp edges of the machine age. Futurists stuffed steel ball bearings into roast chicken, Fritz Lang made men cogs in one machine and made a woman out of another, and Fritz Kahn diagrammed the complexities of human biology by comparing them to industrial and household machines.

Born in 1888 in Halle der Saale, Fritz was the son of Arthur and Hedwig Kahn. Arthur was a physician and a writer and his son would follow in his father’s footsteps. He started writing popular science articles for the journal Kosmos while still an undergraduate at Berlin University in 1907. By the time he graduated from medical school as a gynecologist in 1914, he’d already written a book about astronomy for the general public, and after serving as a medic in World War I, he continued to work both as a doctor and as an author, publishing a successful book about the cell in 1919 and writing articles on, among other things, archaeology, aviation, Jewish history and his war experience.

His books sold briskly, going into repeated print runs in their first years, but it was his knack for illustration and design that would become his trademark. (Quite literally, in fact, as in later years a team of illustrators would bring his design concepts to fruition and those images would be stamped with his FK trademark.) From 1922 through 1931, the heyday of the Weimar Republic, Kahn published a five-volume study of human biology, Das Leben des Menschen  (“The Life of Man”), to international best-selling acclaim, wrote articles for Kosmos and other magazines, gave lectures, edited the Encyclopaedia Judaica all the while continuing to practice medicine.

It was in Das Leben des Menschen that Fritz Kahn published the image that would become most indelibly associated with him. The supplementary folding plate entitled Man as Industrial Palace depicted the primary functions of the body as a complex factory complete with homunculi busily operating the controls. Men in suits in the conference rooms of the brain make decisions as Reason and Will; the Mind is run by a librarian. A man in a headset operates a telegraph for Hearing. A photographer snaps the shutter of the bellows camera for Sight. Men at lightboards monitor valves and signals of the Muscle, Gland and Nerve Control Centers. Workers shift gears to move food through the digestive tract. A man seated at a stamping machine produces red corpuscles in the Blood Marrow. Winches, pulleys, pistons, cables and tubes form the infrastructure of all of the body’s systems.

Here is an illustration that labels the “Man as Industrial Palace” graphic in detail. It was included in an explanatory supplement to the poster printed in 1926. I’ve put the lettered and numbered labels translated into English in this pdf file.

 

Illustration from an explanatory supplement to the "Man as Industrial Palace" poster, 1926.

 

That was the last of Fritz Kahn’s books initially published in Europe. Kahn, whose grandfather had been a cantor, whose father was deeply devout in his Judaism, who had published tracts against anti-Semitism in the 1920s and was a committed Zionist, happened to be in Palestine when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He wisely decided to stay where he was, and he and his family settled in Jerusalem. In Germany his books were banned and burned, but that didn’t stop his publisher from reprinting a version of Das Leben des Menschen, illustrations included, without attribution and with the addition of a vile new chapter by Nazi sympathizer Gerhard Venzmer promoting scientific racism and anti-Semitism.

He left Palestine in 1939 and moved to France where he barely managed to stay ahead of the German invaders. In 1940 he was interned in Vichy France, but thanks to the Herculean efforts of his wife and humanitarian Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, he was released and the couple fled to Spain and Portugal. They were able to emigrate to the United States in 1941 thanks to the intervention of Albert Einstein. “As I have a high opinion of Dr. Kahn as personality and as author I should be thankful if the visa would be granted to him,” Einstein wrote to the US Consul in Lisbon.

Kahn’s books were already known in the US, but it took him a while to get a foothold in the American literary market. When Das Leben des Menschen was translated into English and published in the United States as Man in Structure and Function in 1943, he finally had a hit again. He continued to publish popular science books even as his generalist approach began to fall out of fashion in favor of specialist authors, and he eventually returned to Europe. He died in Switzerland in 1968.

Some of his books remained in print into the 1980s, but the appetite for his approach had waned and his striking imagery faded from the wider cultural consciousness. Nonetheless, his man-machine visions had a profound influence on many, from his contemporaries like patent medicine hawker Dr. Ferdinand-Gabriel-Aimé Brunerye, to modern-day artists like Madrid illustrator Fernando Vicente who channels a Frankenstein creature of Vargas, Vesalius and Kahn to create dissected biomechanical pin-up girls.

In the Internet era, his images, particularly Man as Industrial Palace, took on new life. His prescient grasp of what would become the ubiquitous infographic — a picture conveying simplified data — made Kahn’s work on trend once again. Photos of them are widely shared and reproductions of the poster are easily available online. The originals will run you a cool two grand on eBay.  The larger format promotional posters subscribers to Das Leben des Menschen received sell for much more than that ($3,750 at a 2007 Christie’s auction, for example). Institutions have given Kahn long overdue attention in the past decade as well, and exhibitions including his work have been displayed at the Berlin Medical Historical Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Art Basel and other museums around the world.

Some of those exhibitions have included an interactive animated display of Man as Industrial Palace created by graphic artist Henning M. Lederer, and the animation is so awesome that it inspired this entire post. If any graphic in the world was ideally designed to see in movement, Fritz Kahn’s man-machine is that graphic.

From the moment on that Henning Lederer got to know Kahn’s poster “Man as Industrial Palace” in 2006, he had the idea to animate this complex and strange way of explaining the functions of a body. He wanted to continue Fritz Kahn’s act of replacing a biological with a technological structure by transferring this depiction with the help of motion graphics and animation. In addition to the moving images, as a framework, Henning created a cabinet for his work including a mixture of old and new technology. This new version of the “Industrial Palace“ is an interactive installation for the audience to interact with – and by this to explore the different cycles of this human machinery.

If you missed this installation in the many museums where it has been exhibited alongside Kahn’s originals, you won’t get to explore the full genius of Lederer’s animation which divides the diagram into six cycles (Respiration, Blood Circulation, Digestive Circuit, Control Center and Industrial Palace) and allows visitors to push a button to see each in action.  Thankfully, Lederer uploaded the Industrial Palace animation to Vimeo for the benefit of biomech/history/anatomy/industrial arts nerds everywhere.

 

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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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