Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Digitized Freer|Sackler collections up and running

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

As promised, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s digitized collections went live on January 1st, 2015. The new website is called Open F|S and is populated with high resolution images of the museums’ 40,000 works of Asian art. You can search by keyword or browse by object type, topic, name, culture, place, date and whether it’s currently on display.

Just to take the database for a quick spin, I did a keyword search for “peacock” because I am thoroughly obsessed by the Peacock Room, originally a dining/Chinese porcelain display room in the London home of shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland that was lavishly decorated by James McNeill Whistler in 1876-7. The entire room was purchased in 1904 by future museum founder Charles Lang Freer who had it installed in his Detroit home. It was moved to the new Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after Freer’s death in 1919. All that moving wasn’t good for the room. Attempts to repair structural damage in the late 1940s neglected much of Whistler’s work, leaving colors darkened and patterns obscured. The room was returned to its early splendour by a punctilious cleaning and conservation in 1993 and is now on display in all its glory.

The Peacock Room exhibition page has a nice image gallery, but the photographs are too small to feast upon the details to my satisfaction. Those dark days are over now. The Open F|S entry on the Peacock Room has four huge pictures that you can click on to zoom in or that you can download.

The peacock search results pointed me to a wealth of other beautiful objects. The textiles are particularly fantastic to view in high resolution because you can see the details of the stitching and fabric, like in this late 18th century painting on silk by Mori Sosen. I also love seeing ceramics, like this gazelle vessel made in 12th-14th century Syria that is part of Freer’s ceramic collection on display in the Peacock Room, in extreme close-up because the cracks and flakes give you a whole new perspective on the glazing and design.

If you plan to enjoy this resource for browsing or to make art work of your own using the Freer and Sackler collection images, consider signing up as a beta tester. They are looking people willing and eager to go down the rabbit holes of this vast digital wonderland and report back on any issues. So far I’ve encountered a couple of minor weirdnesses — the zoom feature cutting the picture in half, difficulty clicking between the different Peacock Room images — but they were quickly resolved by refreshing. The only actual feature that I reported as questionable is that you can zoom past the native resolution which gives you a close-up view of a lot of pixellated, blurry edges. I think the zoom should max out at the highest res. Beta testers will also be given early access to future closed test versions of Open F|S which sounds like good clean fun to me.

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Købke’s romantic sunset is actually a sunny day

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) have discovered that View of Lake Sortedam, an 1838 landscape by Christen Købke that was thought for decades to depict a romantic sunset reflected in the russet lake waters, is in fact a bright sunny day over blue lake waters. Two women standing on a jetty seeing off a party in the rowboat on a summer evening at sundown is a wistful, melancholic scene. Make it high noon and the romantic theme of separation is distinctly less emphatic.

The artist painted the lake, which was then outside the old city of Copenhagen in a liminal suburb between the city and the rural country, with the express goal of getting it into the yearly exhibit of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Rumor had it the Danish King was interested in acquiring the painting for the Royal Picture Gallery (now absorbed into the National Gallery of Denmark), and indeed, after the landscape was exhibited at the Royal Academy show in 1839, it was purchased by the monarch. View of Lake Sortedam was the first painting by Christen Købke in the Royal Picture Gallery.

That proved to be the pinnacle of his career during his lifetime. At the end of 1838, flush with a travel stipend from the Royal Academy, he traveled to Italy. Upon his return in 1840, he abandoned the romantic nationalism of his earlier work in favor of scenes based on sketches from his travels. These were not well received. He submitted one of those Italian landscapes in his application to become of a member of the Academy in 1846 and was rejected. Two years later he died of pneumonia at the age of just 37.

The importance of View of Lake Sortedam, in terms of subject matter, execution and period, was not recognized for more than a century after his death. In 1841 the King had the painting moved to his private apartment in Christiansborg Castle where it remained for 25 years. It only went on public view in 1864 when it was returned to the Royal Picture Gallery. When the National Gallery was established in 1896, Lake Sortedam moved there with the rest of the Royal Collection of Paintings, but as recently as the 1970s it was hanging above a door, not a location commensurate with its significance.

In the 1980s, art historians began to recognize the piece was one of Christen Købke’s most important paintings and it took a prominent place in exhibition of the artist’s work at home and abroad. It is now considered one of the signature Danish Golden Age paintings in the collection.

With little attention paid to it for a century and a half after it was painted, View of Lake Sortedam changed without people noticing it. The contrast between the pale blue of the sky and the red of the lake had caused some art historians to wonder if it was a natural phenomenon — the sun setting out of frame to the right could make the lake red while the sky was still light — or if perhaps the color had shifted over time.

Conservators at the SMK took small samples of paint from the lake and sky both in areas where they had been protected from the sun and exposed to it. The samples were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy to identify the chemical components of the paints Købke used.

The colours have changed due to a chemical reaction in the blue pigment, which is known as Prussian blue. The colour changes have been exacerbated by 176 years of exposure to light.

The sky has become paler and lighter. And the lake, which was painted using a mixture of red, blue, and white pigments, was originally a bluish grey. Now, however, it has taken on a reddish, purplish hue. The frame in which the work is set has protected the original colours out at the very edge – and this difference in colour piqued the conservator’s curiosity.

Kasper Monrad, senior researcher at the SMK, states that this new discovery completely changes how we should look at this painting. Up until this point the work was believed to be a romantic sunset scene. In the mid-1830s Købke painted many romantic artworks – and this work has been regarded as part of that group. In light of the new knowledge – that the scene actually shows a bright summer’s day – the work must be regarded as far less romantic in scope.

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Ode on the animation of a Grecian urn

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

I’m a devoted fan of the Greek vase animations made by Panoply. Computer animator Steve K. Simons and Greek warfare expert Dr. Sonya Nevin work together to develop moving parts from the static images on Greek pottery, much of it in the extensive collection of the University of Reading’s Ure Museum. They collaborate with ancient music experts to create soundtracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of the symposia depicted on the vases. It’s a full-spectrum historical immersion achieved through modern technology.

The project is focused on education and community outreach. Each animation provides additional resources for teachers to use the animations in class, and many of Panoply’s videos are storyboarded by local schoolchildren who get to enjoy an exceptional opportunity to learn about ancient art and history by studying a vase and then get to express their own creativity in the creation of the animated version of the scene. Sometimes they’re more serious treatments, sometimes lighthearted, but either way, the results are consistently wonderful. One of my favorites in the lighthearted category is this brilliant Dance Off storyboarded by the pupils of the Maiden Erlegh School and Kendrick School in Reading.

That 6th century B.C. Etruscan black figure oinochoe vase just GOT SERVED.

A more serious treatment is this animation of a combat sequence from 6th century B.C. lekanis vase made on the Greek island of Euboea.

The only thing I don’t like about it is that there isn’t more of it, which is why I was so excited to see Panoply’s latest effort, Hoplites! Greeks At War, a much longer and more detailed animation of the practice of ancient war from religious sacrifice to the thrust and parry of battle to the final victory.

I think it’s a masterpiece: the way the music and action are in perfect rhythm, how that blow creates the crack in the vase, integrating the condition of the vase into the scene, the addition of figures to form a little army instead of using the individual images alone. I feel like starting a petition demanding that all cheeseball reenactments of ancient history on television be replaced with Panoply animations.

Because I can’t resist them, I’m going to embed a couple of other favorites below, but you should go through all of the animations. They’re very short — Hoplites! is the exception length-wise, Dance Off the rule — so it won’t take you long to watch them.

Clash of the Dicers, created for a conference at the University College Dublin, features Achilles and Ajax playing a game during a lull in the Trojan War. It’s from a 6th century B.C. black figure amphora signed by potter Exekias now in the Vatican Museum. I love how the background glows like lava.

Medusa, storyboard by pupils from Addington School in Reading, was created pulling characters from three different vases: the gorgon is from a 6th century B.C. black figure kylix cup, her stoney victim from an Apulian 4th century B.C. red figure alabastron, and the warrior is from the Hoplites! lekanis.

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Freer, Sackler to release entire collections online

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have completed a digitization project whose scope is unprecedented in the United States. Come January 1st, 2015, their entire collections, more than 40,000 works of Asian and American art, will be released online. Most of these works have never been on display so they will be seen by the public for the first time as high resolution images.

In the initial release, each work will be represented by one or more stunningly detailed images at the highest possible resolution, with complex items such as albums and manuscripts showing the most important pages. In addition, some of the most popular images will also be available for download as free computer, smartphone and social media backgrounds. Future iterations plan to offer additional functionality like sharing, curation and community-based research.

“The depth of the data we’re releasing illuminates each object’s unique history, from its original creator to how it arrived at the Smithsonian,” said Courtney O’Callaghan, director of digital media and technology at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “Now, a new generation can not only appreciate these works on their own terms, but remix this content in ways we have yet to imagine.”

The museum’s masterpieces range in time from the Neolithic to the present day, featuring especially fine groupings of Chinese jades and bronzes, Islamic art, Chinese paintings and masterworks from ancient Persia. Currently, the collection boasts 1,806 American art objects, 1,176 ancient Egyptian objects, 2,076 ancient Near Eastern objects, 10,424 Chinese objects, 2,683 Islamic objects, 1,213 South and Southeast Asian objects and smaller groupings of Korean, Armenian, Byzantine, Greek and Roman works. In addition, the Freer Study Collection — more than 10,000 objects used by scholars around the world for scientific research and reference — will be viewable for the first time.

To enable the widest possible usage, fully 90% of the images will be free of any copyright restrictions for noncommercial use. The museums hope this will engender wider study of Asian art as well as new artworks inspired by the pieces in their galleries and archives.

Very few museums in the US have digitized their entire collections, and none of them are museums specializing in Asian art. The Freer and Sackler are also the first of the Smithsonian museums to have complete online collections. It’s not surprising that they would be pioneers in this area. The Freer and Sackler are the only museums to have been in on the ground floor of both the Google Art Project digitization initiative and the Google Cultural Institute. Google did the heavy lifting on those, though. The Smithsonian staff spent nearly 6,000 work hours this year photographing and digitizing the Freer/Sackler collections.

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Yorkshire Hoards on Google Art Project

Friday, November 7th, 2014

The Google Cultural Institute and the York Museums Trust have joined forces to create an exhibition of hoards discovered in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Hoards exhibition gives audiences the chance to view buried treasure from the Bronze Age (1000 B.C.) to the Civil War (1650 A.D.). The entries are arranged in chronological order so you can take a virtual trip through Yorkshire history, and descriptions are accompanied by high resolution photographs and video.

Hoards were buried for different reasons in different periods. Bronze Age axe hoards, for example, were buried near bodies of water which suggests there was a ritual purpose behind it. Iron Age and Roman coin hoards are often indicators of unrest, earthly goods buried to keep them safe from danger until the owner could return. Some of them were clearly savings, however, the ancient version of stuffing it in your mattress. Valuables were added to over time, in those cases, instead of being buried in one fell swoop.

Hoards are a great way to explore a region’s history, therefore, because they’re concrete evidence of how people dealt with external threats, their religious practices, the geographic range of their connections, what kind of containers they used, etc. It’s also just cool to be able to zoom in on a great many beautiful artifacts and coins that haven’t previously been photographed in high resolution.

The York Museums Trust is also collaborating with Google to present an online highlight reel of one of their museum’s exhibitions: 1914: When the World Changed Forever, a World War I display currently enjoying great success at the York Castle Museum. Objects include a horse’s gas mask, weapons and an ingenious Zeppalarm device that connected to a home’s gas line and lit a light bulb and sounded an alarm when the gas company turned down the supply to dim the lights and warn of an impending dirigible raid.

The Google exhibitions are just the tip of the iceberg. The York Museum Trust has embraced digitization on a grand scale, placing 160,000 objects in its collections, thousands of which are not on public display, in a freely accessible online database. More than 50,000 of the entries include high resolution images of the objects, all of which are in the public domain so you can download them and use them as you wish. More photographs will be uploaded as they are taken.

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MoMA finds lost 1913 film with all-black cast

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has discovered footage of a previously unknown 1913 film with vaudeville and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams starring in a cast of all black actors. It’s not a completed film that a movie theater would have received, but rather seven reels of unassembled daily rushes, multiple takes from each scene, that the director and editor would later edit together into the finished picture. The museum discovered the footage in its collection of 900 negatives from the Biograph studios that were rescued from destruction by MoMA’s first film curator, Iris Barry, when the company’s Bronx warehouse closed in 1939.

It is the earliest surviving film to feature an all-black cast, and is among the earliest ever shot. The Foster Photoplay Company, a Chicago film production company founded in 1910 by theatrical promoter and entertainment journalist William Foster, released what is thought to be the first all-black picture, The Railroad Porter, in June of 1913. MoMA researchers discovered that the Bert Williams film was shot in September of 1913. None of the early Foster Photoplay movies have survived. (Unrelated but interesting coincidence: William Foster worked as a publicity promoter for Bert Williams and his partner George Walker’s groundbreaking 1903 musical In Dahomey, the first full-length musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans to be staged in a Broadway theater, and its equally successful 1906 follow-up Abyssinia.)

Unlike the Foster pictures which were created, shot and performed by black artists, only the actors in the recently discovered footage were black. They were employed by the famed Biograph Company, the film production company which launched the careers of D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Mabel Normand and Lionel Barrymore. Biograph hired Bert Williams, who by then was hugely famous for his vaudeville routines, musicals and best-selling song recordings, to star in their all-black comedies. He had to wear blackface, which is as incongruous as it is gross considering that none of the other actors (that I can see in the stills, at least) are in blackface.

Even though it includes elements of minstrelsy, the general subject matter and approach does appear to be more in keeping with the “race films” that Foster and other black producers made to counter the ugly stereotypical caricatures of on-screen minstrel pictures.

Of historical relevance is the display of adult romantic feelings between black performers, which was largely considered unacceptable to white audiences into the first two decades of the 20th century. In the film, a repeated, lengthy kiss between Williams and his costar appears to be the earliest surviving portrayal of a serious romantic relationship between black characters on film. The film also features a lengthy early example of African American vernacular dance, with a nearly two-minute, full-cast performance of a cakewalk, the dance that Williams and partners George Walker and Aida Overton Walker had made an international sensation with theater audiences and the white upper class around 1900.

Although no main title, intertitles, script, or production credits have survived with the film, MoMA’s curators tried to reconstruct the film’s narrative, ultimately piecing together what appears to be a middle-class comedy centered on the membership of Williams’s character in a black social club, with an additional plotline concerning Williams and rival suitors vying for the hand of the local beauty after a day of fairground activities, a bit of larceny, and a night of exhibition dancing.

The plot and characters of the film aren’t the only historically significant elements of this find. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the black cast interacting with the white crew on set in New York City and on location in what curators believe is Englewood, New Jersey.

The unedited rushes and MoMA’s research will go on display at the museum’s 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History exhibition on October 24th. The assembled footage will be screened at MoMA’s 12th annual film preservation festival To Save and Project on November 8th.

Meanwhile, here’s a 1916 Biograph picture starring Bert Williams that has survived intact. As with the cakewalk scene in the recently discovered film, A Natural Born Gambler features one of Bert Williams’ most famous vaudeville routines. It’s the final scene of the picture (beginning at 19:30) in which Williams pantomimes an entire poker game alone.

The Internet Archive, bless its generous heart, has an impressive collection of Bert Williams’ music. His recordings were wildly successful, selling in the hundreds of thousands back when a record that moved 10,000 copies was considered a best-seller. His most famous was probably Nobody, but my favorite is 1920′s When The Moon Shines on The Moonshine both because it’s catchy and because it’s such a perfect little window into the first year of Prohibition.

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The Roosevelts: An Intimate History debuts tonight

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History premieres tonight at 8:00 EST on your local PBS station. It’s a seven episode, 14-hour series that covers the life and times of three Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor — from 1858 (the year Teddy was born) to 1962 (the year Eleanor died). Tonight’s episode follows the family from 1858 to 1901, the births and childhoods of all three of the main players and the early travails and successes of Teddy Roosevelt through his ascension to the presidency after the death of President William McKinley on September 14th, 1901, 113 years to the day ago.

I loves me some do-rag-era TR, so I’m looking forward to tonight’s show. The next episode is sure to deal with another of my favorite TR stories, the time he got shot in the chest but refused to get treatment until he finished the speech he had been scheduled to give.

A later episode will include the extremely rare footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking on his iron leg braces filmed by Jimmie DeShong, the Washington Senators pitcher who recorded the president with his 8mm home movie camera at the All-Star Game in Griffith Stadium, Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1937.

PBS has made a half-hour preview of the first episode available if you want a sneak peek. There are lots of short clips on the website already, and the full episodes will be uploaded after they air.

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Roam 1930s and 40s America in 170,000 pictures

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Resettlement Administration (RA), a New Deal program that aimed to relocate hundreds of thousands of farmers on exhausted land and migrant laborers to viable land in planned communities purchased with low interest loans. FDR established the program by executive order and Congress wasn’t a fan, to say the least, so it was underfunded from the start.

In an attempt to get the support of the public, the head of the RA, Columbia University economics professor Rexford Tugwell, appointed Roy Stryker, a former economics student of his at Cornell and an accomplished photographer, to lead the Historical Section of the RA’s Information Division. Stryker set up a photographic program to document the hardships of the farmers and their successes with the RA. He enlisted a cadre of exceptional photographers, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano (no relation to FDR) and Gordon Parks among them.

The photographers traversed the country, capturing rural and suburban farmers, migrant workers, their families, equipment and stock in every state. When the goal of resettlement soon died on the vine, the RA shifted focus to the construction of relief camps in California for migrant workers fleeing the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Stryker made sure his team of artists were funded and that their photographs were published in the mainstream press. These early RA pictures established the reputations of photographers whose images would soon become enduring symbols of America in the Great Depression.

On January 1, 1937, the RA was subsumed under the Department of Agriculture and in September of 1937 it was transformed into the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The photography program continued under the FSA for another five years until it was transferred to the Office of War Information. The FSA was eliminated and all the photographs in its files were sent to the Library of Congress. The OWI photography program focused on documenting the country’s mobilization in World War II. Farms gave way to airplane factories and migrant laborers to soldiers. The OWI was dissolved in 1945.

By the end of the decade-long FSA-OWI photography programs, they had generated an extraordinary archive of almost 170,000 pictures, prints and negatives. The archive was kept at the Library of Congress, grouped together with the Office of Emergency Management-Office of War Information Collection, the American at War Collection and the Portrait of America Collection. Because the LoC is consistently awesome, the archives have been digitized and made available to the public. You can even surf the exceptional color photographs of the FSA-OSI collection on the LoC’s Flickr page.

To make perusing this record, following in the footsteps of the photographs as they crossed the country, easier, a team from Yale University with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities have created a web platform called Photogrammar. You can search the database by keyword, date, location or select the name of a photographer and browse all of his or her work. The best part, though, are the maps. There’s one organized by county (the darker the green the more photographs) and one where each photographer is represented by a dot of a different color. I especially love the dot map with the 1937 Vico Motor Oil Map feature turned on, because you can see the movements of the photographers on the street map. You can see all the photographers on the maps at once, or you can select one at a time from the dropdown menu.

Then there are the data experiments that are still works in progress. I like the Metadata Explorer which illustrates the distribution of photographers over time and subject matter in California.

It’s a brilliant way to collate a collection so large that it’s quite beyond human scale. It’s also a time sink of massive proportions, needless to say, especially if you want to explore the photographs in greater detail by clicking on the Library of Congress Call Number which opens the picture on the LoC site where you can view them in high resolution which of course I did religiously.

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Vast archive of pre-war European Jewish life digitized

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Photographer Roman Vishniac’s vast archive documenting Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and after World War II is being digitized and made available to the public. The joint project of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has already scanned almost 9,000 negatives that have never been seen or published before. More negatives continue to be added all the time. Ultimately 40,000 items — photographic prints, contact sheets, films, letters, interviews, recordings — will be scanned and uploaded to the dedicated website: vishniac.icp.org.

The goal of the project, in addition to making this precious record widely available to all who wish to study it, is to crowdsource as much information as they can about the photographs.

ICP and the Museum invite scholars and students across a wide range of disciplines, families across generations, and members of the public to explore the archive, contribute their research and family stories, and help identify the people and places depicted in the images. The diverse perspectives brought together by this unique effort, and by the work of a dedicated group of internationally recognized scholars, have already yielded exciting discoveries.

“We believe this initiative represents a new model for digital archives, and we are excited to bring this collection to an even-wider audience,” said Mark Lubell, ICP’s executive director. “Our shared goal is to make the images available for further identification and research, deepening our knowledge of Vishniac’s work and the people and places he recorded in his images.”

Born near Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1897, Roman Vishniac received his first camera as a gift on his seventh birthday. Even as he studied biology and zoology in college, he continued to explore photography and was an accomplished amateur photographer by the time he left Russia in 1920. He and his new wife joined his émigré family in Weimar Berlin. Throughout the 1920s, Roman took copious pictures documenting the street life of the city, particularly his own neighborhood populated primarily by Russian Jews. He experimented with framing and composition, and even built his own darkroom in his apartment.

In the wake of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Jews are increasingly marginalized. Vishniac kept taking pictures, documenting the increasing dominance of anti-Semitic laws and attitudes in Berlin. He soon traveled further afield. From 1935 to 1938, the Paris headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) commissioned him to photograph rural Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. They aimed to publicize the images in the United States to raise awareness of the deep need in these impoverished communities.

In 1938 and 1939, the AJDC sent Vishniac to Poland and the Netherlands to photograph Jewish refugees expelled from Germany. From the Netherlands he traveled to France, working as a freelance photographer. In 1940, he gave all his negatives to a friend in Paris, asking him to take them to the United States. That was very well timed since shortly thereafter he was arrested and interned in Camp du Ruchard in Clichy for three months. He got out and managed to leave France for Lisbon where he reunites with his wife and children and together they flee to New York.

His pre-war negatives had finally reached him in 1942 and prints of some of them had already been displayed in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews. The vast majority of them, however, remained unprinted negatives, and Vishniac never labeled them or annotated them in any way. That’s why it’s so important that those negatives are now published online. There are still people alive who may be able to recognize the people and places in the pictures but the clock is ticking. Others may recognize something they’ve seen in family photographs even if they weren’t born when Vishniac took the pictures.

You can search the collection by keyword, date, location, etc., or you can browse through all 8999 scanned negatives. Register here to help with the labeling.

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Faces of medieval Scotland

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

In 2009, preparatory work for the Edinburgh Trams project unearthed approximately 400 medieval and early modern burials under Constitution Street. The site had once been part of the South Leith Parish Church graveyard in the port town of Leith (incorporated into Edinburgh in 1920) but had fallen into disuse centuries earlier and was quickly forgotten. In 1790 the Church Council declared they knew of no bodies buried in that location when Constitution Street was built to provide better access to the harbor. The archaeological survey was done because the Constitution Street area was close to the city center of early medieval Leith and to the town’s defenses in the 16th and 17th centuries. The discovery of so many human remains outside the wall of the existing graveyard, therefore, was an unexpected and potentially important source of information about how people lived in died in medieval Leith.

A comprehensive study of the bones ensued, complete with forensic examinations, isotope analysis and facial reconstructions of all the bodies where there were sufficient remains to make it possible. In the final tally, there were 302 complete burials with partial remains of at least 100 more people discovered. Thirty-three of the bodies were dated. They all pre-date 1640 with the earliest dating to 1315. The South Leith Parish Church was founded as St Mary’s Chapel almost two centuries later in 1483, and 33% of the burials happened before that date, which means this church was built on the site of a pre-existing one.

The 1640 cut-off may be related to the Plague of 1645 which killed 2,700 people, half the population of Leith. The South Leith Parish Church played an important role in implementing sanitary measures and in the care of the sick during the plague, but its graveyard couldn’t handle the burial of half the city nor would the center of town be an ideal location for large plague pits. Then the Civil War happened. The church was occupied and used as a powder magazine by Parliamentary troops from 1650 until 1657. It was subsequently restored to ecclesiastical use, but the one-two punch of plague and war may explain why the burials stopped and were all but erased from memory.

Researchers determined that the people buried in this part of the churchyard were shorter than the UK average of 164cm for women and 171cm for men. The average height of the women was 155cm (5’1″) while the men averaged 169cm (5’5.5″). The overwhelming majority (90%) died before the age of 35 and 32% of the deceased were children, particularly older children aged 7-12. Isotope analysis on the remains of 18 bodies found that 80% were very much local having been raised in the Leith/Edinburgh area. The rest were only slightly less local, having been raised within a radius of 15-30 miles.

Most were buried in single graves, interred in wooden coffins or wrapped in shrouds. Three communal graves were found in which women were buried with children. One woman was found buried with a neonate across her pelvis, which means she probably died late in her pregnancy or in childbirth.

The facial reconstructions done by post-graduate students at the University of Dundee’s Forensic Art course personalize all these facts and figures.

By using forensic modelling to determine the shape and depth of facial muscles and soft tissues, isotopic analysis to ascertain individuals’ origins and state-of-the-art computer programming, researchers were able to build up lifelike facial representations for the 400 to 600-year-old remains.

Amongst the reconstructions was that of a boy, aged between 13 and 17, who was thought to have lived around Leith and Edinburgh and to have died in the late 14th or early 15th century, an adult male aged 25 to 35 who lived in the mid 16th to 17th century and a woman also aged between 25 and 35, who died in the late 14th and early 15th century.


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