Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Priscilla Catacombs re-opened and Google Mapped

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

The Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, an eight-mile network of warrens on several levels dug out of soft volcanic tufa used for Christian burials from the second century A.D. through the fifth, have been re-opened after five years of conservation. Restorers used laser technology to clean the wall paintings, a highly significant collection of early Christian iconography that includes the earliest known depiction of the Madonna and Child dating to around 230 A.D. and, in a room known as the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, a later third century depiction a woman with arms outstretched wearing what the Vatican’s Italian language website calls “a rich liturgical vestment” (the English version calls it “a rich purple garment”) which some consider evidence of female clergy in early Christianity. In the newly-dubbed Cubiculum of Lazarus, lasers revealed a fourth-century fresco of Christ raising Lazurus, still wrapped in his shroud, from the dead. This work had been obscured by centuries of grime.

The Priscilla catacombs are thought to have been named after the wife of Manius Acilius Glabrio, Roman Consul in 91 A.D. (the future emperor Trajan was his co-consul) executed by Domitian for atheism, ie, his refusal to worship the Roman gods because he was Christian. She had him buried in what was once a quarry and donated the property to the church so others could be buried there. It’s known as the “Queen of the Catacombs” because of the art work and because so many martyrs and popes were buried there. Popes Saint Marcellinus (296-304), Saint Marcellus I (308-309), Saint Sylvester I (314-335), Liberius (352-366), Saint Siricius (384-399), Saint Celestine I (422-432) and Vigilius (537-555) were laid to rest in the Catacombs of Priscilla, as were the following martyrs: brothers Felix and Philip, probably killed under Diocletian, their mother Felicity and five of their other brothers (Alexander, Martial, Vitale, Silanus and Januarius), Saint Philomena, Saint Pudens and his daughter Saint Praxedes. His other daughter Saint Pudentiana is buried next to her father, but there are no surviving accounts of whether she was martyred.

Such a rich connection to important figures of the early Church made the Priscilla catacomb a target of looters. That’s why it was forgotten for almost a thousand years, because, like many other catacombs at the time, its entrances were deliberately blocked and hidden in the sixth century to protect it during a period when Rome was being sacked on a regular basis. It was one of the first catacombs to be rediscovered in the 16th century, and then the local sackers got to work stealing tombstones, sarcophagi, tufa blocks and the remains of presumed martyrs.

Thankfully they left the paint of the walls, and eight labyrinthine miles are hard to completely strip of all their contents so when archaeologists began excavating the site in the late 19th century, they found around 750 marble fragments of funerary art. These pieces of sarcophagi and funerary inscriptions have been kept for a century plus in a space in the basilica of San Silvestro, a new church built over the foundations of a fourth century one in 1907. In addition to the conservation of the catacombs themselves, the project saw the construction of an innovative new museum to house these pieces. They needed restoration and they needed to be displayed in a suitable context, so a museum was built over what was still an open archaeological site.

They covered the foundations of the ancient church, which still contains many burials, with a pavement made out of panels of clear glass, metal gratings or imperial travertine. The clear panels cover the areas with significant archaeological remains so visitors to the museum can look down and see the ruins. The gratings provide air flow to the remains to ensure moisture levels don’t rise encouraging the growth of destructive vegetation and microorganisms. They also provide easy access for future maintenance of the archaeological material because they can be easily removed. The travertine was chosen because of its durability and because it is aesthetically in keeping with its surroundings. Its opacity obscures cables and other unsightly fundamentals of modern construction.

The Museum of Priscilla has its own website now and it’s actually good, something worth noting since so many archaeological sites have truly atrocious websites if they have any web presence at all. It’s only in Italian but it’s worth browsing even if you have to use an online translator. The videos do not have English captions but I still think you should watch them if only to see how the museum came together. It’s quite spectacular.

This video covers the process of museum construction from early rejected concepts to final execution. Watch it to see the space go from display room with a solid floor covering ruins protected solely by burial in sand into a floorless archaeological site into a handsome, multi-layer, non-invasive one-room museum.

This one describes the construction of the floor, the three different kinds of panels, their uses, why the materials were chosen:

Doesn’t that combination floor look great? I think it’s brilliant.

The following video shows the restoration of the 750 fragments. My quick translation of the main points: three restorers worked on the fragments for two and a half years. In the early 1900s, the marbles were affixed to the church wall with iron hooks and mortar. They needed to be cleaned of oxidized iron, cementacious materials and concretions accumulated over the centuries underground. The cement was so much harder than the ancient marble that removing it with power microdrills without damaging the marble was a great challenge. They had to use the smallest of bits to do the work. Once cleaned, the fragments were reunited using a special glue. The biggest surprise was the discovery of traces of the original polychrome paint. The figures of people were outlined in red. The fruit is fuxia (I’d call it a raspberry or a purple more than a bright pink, but I’m not there and the restorer is so what she says goes.) There’s so little left because “restorers” in the past scrubbed the marble raw with wire brushes (like the British Museum did to the Elgin marbles in the 19th century). In fact, the one feature all these fragments have in common is that their surfaces are thoroughly scratched.

Finally, if you’d like to get a more detailed view of the Catacombs of Priscilla but can’t make your way to Rome right at this minute, you can tour them on Google Maps! The whole eight miles haven’t been scanned, but you can follow basically the same route you’d take if you were there in person and then some. According to the Giorgia Abeltino of Google Italy, the had to build specialized cameras and instruments to take the Street View process underground, and it pays off. I’ve been in my fair share of catacombs and they are dark, y’all. The virtual tour is illuminated and detailed beyond my wildest expectations.


Hear John Donne’s sermon of November 5th, 1622

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

John Donne, lawyer, metaphysical poet and Anglican priest, died on March 31st, 1631. He had been Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London for a decade at the time of his death, a prestigious leadership position in the Church of England to which he was appointed by King James I despite only having taking orders six years earlier. Donne was born and raised Catholic but had converted to the Church of England in the late 1590s. Indeed, he caught the eye of the king in 1610 by publishing the tract Pseudo-Martyr which argued that Catholics could in good conscience swear the Oath of Allegiance to King James, a law promulgated in 1606 in reaction to the Gunpowder Plot the year before requiring all Catholics in public service to affirm their loyalty to the King even if the Pope excommunicated him. (This was a significant stance on a personal level because Donne had refused to take the previous iteration, the Oath of Supremacy, a requirement for graduation from English universities, and thus never receive his degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Also, his mother was the great-niece of Sir Thomas More who was executed for treason after his refusal to take the first version of this oath under Henry VIII.)

Donne had been exiled from court in 1601 after his secret marriage to Anne More (no relation to Sir Thomas), daughter of Sir George More, Lieutenant of the Tower, and niece of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Donne’s employer and patron. His struggles to support his ever-growing family (Anne had 12 children in 16 years; she died birthing the last one) were significant. Even with a kindly relative putting a roof over their heads and legal skills earning them a few ducats, John was always on the hunt for a stable position and income.

He wanted a job at court, the kind of posting he would surely had received had he not pissed off Egerton and derailed his youthful promise, but that wasn’t going to happen. His friends told him to take orders, but he was reluctant to become an ordained minister. When Thomas Morton, then Dean of Gloucester and future Bishop of Durham, asked him to consider a career in the church in 1606, Donne explained his reluctance:

[M]y refusal is not for that I think myself too good for that calling, for which kings, if they think so, are not good enough; nor for that my education and learning, though not eminent, may not, being assisted with God’s grace and humility, render me in some measure fit for it; but I dare make so dear a friend as you are my confessor. Some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men, that though I have, I thank God, made my peace with him by penitential resolutions against them, and by the assistance of his grace banished them my affections, yet this, which God knows to be so, is not so visible to man as to free me from their censures, and it may be that sacred calling from a dishonour.

Translation: John was way too into the wine, women and song in his youth, so much so that his reputation could bring the holy office into disrepute. And this before his erotic poetry was published, although the elegies had circulated among friends in manuscript form when he first wrote them, probably in the 1590s. He wasn’t wrong, incidentally. Long after his ordination some people would still throw his youthful indiscretions in his face when they had a dispute with him.

Finally Donne gave in to the pressure of his friends, King and wallet and took orders in 1615. His first appointment was as Royal Chaplain. The next year he was appointed Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn. This is where he began to deliver regular sermons and to be recognized as a skilled orator. He gave 50 sermons the first year, at a time when any self-respecting sermon would be at least one hour long and more often double that. Donne became very much in demand as a preacher, getting invitations to preach everyone from Queen Anne’s private residence to Whitehall to St. Paul’s Cross, the courtyard adjacent to the Cathedral where large audiences gathered to listen to sermons on the great controversies of the day.

When he was appointed Dean of St Paul’s in 1621, St. Paul’s Cross became the home base for his sermons. Although in theory sermons were not subject to censorship, in fact the King was deeply involved in who preached about what, and a sermon that didn’t sit right with His Majesty could easily result in its preacher spending a night or two in the Tower. Sermons increasingly failed to sit right with the King as the question of the proposed marriage between Prince Charles and the Catholic Princes Maria Anna of Spain raged across pulpits.

In 1622, King James I made it explicit by issuing Directions for Preachers which instructed all clergy to stick to the liturgy and refrain from comment on affairs of state. James directed Donne to make a sermon in favor of the new rules, which he did on the grounds that subjects should obey the monarch and trust in his wisdom.

Two months later, the King told Donne to go for another round in a sermon on November 5th, 1622, the 17th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Again the focus of this sermon was obedience to the monarch, comparing James to the “good king” Josiah and emphasizing his Anglican orthodoxy to deflect suspicions that his desire for a Spanish match for his son was the result of a secret tendency towards Papism.

We know what he said in this sermon because Donne wrote it down at the King’s request a couple of days after having delivered it. Now we can know what it sounded like, thanks to the brilliant multi-disciplinary efforts of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project.

This Project uses architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to give us access experientially to a particular event from the past – the Paul’s Cross sermon John Donne delivered on Tuesday, November 5th, 1622.

These digital tools, customarily used by architects and designers to anticipate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that are not yet constructed, are here used to recreate the visual and acoustic properties of spaces that have not existed for hundreds of years.

The St. Paul’s Cathedral of Donne’s time burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In order to create an accurate architectural model of the St. Paul’s Cross courtyard, the VPCP used contemporary artistic depictions of the site and measurements taken by archaeologists of all that survived the fire: the foundations of the buildings surrounding it. They calculated the acoustics of the space from the architectural data and from likely ambient noise like crowd buzz, church bells, seagulls and horse carts passing by. They also adjusted the acoustic model depending on where the listener is standing and how many people were in the courtyard.

To resurrect the preaching style of a man who died almost 400 years ago, researchers sought out descriptions of Donne’s sermons from contemporary witnesses and enlisted the expertise of historical linguists to pin down a proper period accent and pronunciation. The project took three years to complete and more than 50 experts in many fields from history to architecture to acoustical engineers.

The website is replete with information about every aspect of the project including of course the star of the show, John Donne’s November 5th, 1622, sermon, available from two listening spots.

Here’s a quick flyover of the visual model of St. Paul’s Cross:

Here’s the first eight minutes of the sermon as heard from the Sermon House box where the dignitaries sat (because you guys are totally my dignitaries):

How about that echo, huh? No wonder he had to speak so slowly. For summaries of the text and to hear the rest of the recreated sermon, click here. To listen from the cheap seats, click here. To follow along with the script, click here.


Transcribe Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein notebooks

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

The notebooks in which Mary Shelley wrote the first draft of Frankenstein, complete with her husband Percy Shelley’s notes and edits, have been digitized and uploaded to The Shelley-Godwin Archive. This is the first step in a very exciting project for lit nerds that seeks to digitize the manuscripts of every luminary in this luminous family: novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her husband and Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, her philosopher father William Godwin, and her pioneering early feminist mother Mary Wollstonecraft.

The archive went live on Halloween, appropriately enough, starting off with a bang by uploading the Frankenstein notebooks which have been in the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library since 2004. The Bodleian has a vast archive of papers from the Godwin-Shelley family, a collection that began in 1893 when Lady Shelley, widow of Mary and Percy’s son Sir Percy Shelley, donated a full third of the family archive to the library and opened the Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford, with its remarkable marble sculpture of a nude, dead Shelley washed up on the shore of Viareggio.

Lady Shelley died in 1899, leaving two-thirds of the remaining family archive to her husband’s cousin and the last third, including the Frankenstein notebooks, to her two eldest grandsons, Shelley Scarlett and Robert Scarlett. They both died childless, so their chunk of the family papers went to their brother Hugh, the 7th Baron Abinger. Hugh’s son James loaned the papers to the Bodleian starting in 1974. After his death in 2002, his son James decided to sell the papers and gave the library the right of refusal. The Bodleian launched a fundraising campaign that culminated in 2004 with the purchase of the Abinger archive and the final reunion of the great Shelley-Godwin archive.

The Bodleian has a wonderful online exhibit about the Shelley-Wollstonecraft-Godwin papers and memorabilia that includes high resolution scans of the Frankenstein notebooks. You can flip through both volumes page by page, zoom in on details and do your best to decipher Mary and Percy’s handwritings. If you’re going to expend that kind of effort, however, wouldn’t it be cool if you could add your decipherings to a transcript? What if you could categorize Mary’s text and Percy’s to make them separately searchable?

That’s where the Shelley-Godwin Archive comes in to the picture. A collaborative effort between the New York Public Library, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the Bodleian, Harvard University Library, the Huntington Library and the British Library, the Archive wants to enlist crowd power to create clean, searchable transcripts of the Frankenstein notebooks. Here’s how it works: click on Frankenstein on the header menu and select a manuscript. You can choose from Mary’s original two notebooks, the fair copy (a clean copy in her hand which she sent to publishers) or her notebook pages arranged according to the original three volumes of the first edition of Frankenstein. Click on the manuscript of your choice and you’ll get a thumbnail view of pages from the notebook. When you hover over the thumbs, you’ll see either a red dot indicating no transcript has been made yet, a yellow dot meaning that there’s an unvetted transcript or a green dot meaning the transcript is complete.

Clicking on one of the thumbnails will take you to a split screen editor where you can read the manuscript page on the left and read or work on the transcript on the right. If the transcript has already been done, you can click a button to view only Mary’s writing with Percy’s edits greyed out and vice-versa. That is such a great feature for scholars and readers in general interested in the question of how much influence Shelley had over Mary’s writing. It’s been almost two centuries since Mary dreamed of a reanimated corpse haunting its creator on a fitful night in Switzerland, and there are still books being written today about how much of Frankenstein was Mary’s work. Some even argue that he wrote the whole thing and that Mary only copied it for him, as she did with many of his poems.

You don’t have to be interested in the authorship issue to enjoy the Shelleys interaction in the Frankenstein notebooks. You can catch rare glimpses into their relationship by reading his notes, like when he addresses her directly in the margins as “Pecksie”, his nickname for her. I also find it fascinating just to see how the draft and editing process raised the novel from infant to adult. If you need an editor, you could do a lot worse than Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The archive’s next step will be to digitize Shelley’s manuscript of Prometheus Unbound, the four-act lyrical play inspired by Aeschylus’ Prometheus trilogy. After that, more of his assorted manuscripts, and he wrote a huge amount. Mary Shelley collected his manuscripts after his death and, once Percy’s father Sir Timothy allowed her to, she edited the first four-volume edition of his poems and a two-volume edition of his prose. It was a long, exhausting job going through piles of unfinished scraps and notes, many of them close to illegible. Her edits have been criticized — she cut out parts she worried would make him look bad, like his atheism — but it was a Herculean effort that probably nobody else could have done.

It very important to her that Percy be recognized for his immense talents, as he really hadn’t gotten much love by the time of his death. Collecting the papers of her remarkable parents was also very important to her. Mary Shelley started the Shelley-Godwin Archive back when it was all paper, and now that it’s pixels, we can all help curate it.


Hear only complete surviving ancient song sung

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Fragments of ancient music have been found going back as far as the eighteenth century B.C., the most ancient ones recorded on cuneiform tablets, but there is only one complete song from antiquity known to have survived: the Seikilos epitaph. It was discovered carved on a marble column-shaped stele in Tralleis, near Ephesus, Turkey, in 1883, and is now in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Dating to the first or second century A.D., the stele announces its function clearly in the inscription. “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” The last line is damaged, reputedly by Anglo-Irish railway engineer Edward Purser who was on site building the Smyrna-Aidin Ottoman Railway when the stele was discovered and who sawed off the base so his wife could use it as a flower display, but it appears to be a dedication from Seikilos to a Euterpe, perhaps his wife?

It’s the song that ensured the stele would truly be an everlasting memorial because he didn’t just have the lyrics engraved, but rather also included the melody in ancient Greek musical notation. The lyrical message is your basic carpe diem. These are the lyrics in transliterated Greek and in an English translation:

Hoson zes, phainou
Meden holos su lupou;
Pros oligon esti to zen
To telos ho chronos apaitei

While you live, shine
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll

Herodotus’ The Histories describes an Egyptian practice which puts Seikilos’ song in context:

In social meetings among the rich, when the banquet is ended, a servant carries round to the several guests a coffin, in which there is a wooden image of a corpse, carved and painted to resemble nature as nearly as possible, about a cubit or two cubits in length. As he shows it to each guest in turn, the servant sings, “Gaze here, and drink and be merry; for when you die, such will you be.”

I suppose this is how they got people back into a revelrous mood when things were winding down, by reminding them life is fleeting so party while you have the chance. I’m not sure how well that would go over today, although given the season, you could totally take a tip from the ancient Egyptians and pass around the realistic mini-corpse in a coffin when your Halloween party looks to be flagging.

Anyway, because of the clear alphabetical notation Seikilos’ song is playable today. Lyre expert and ancient music researchers Michael Levy has a wonderfully virtuoso performance on his YouTube channel for which he uses a wide range of lyre techniques to give it that zesty drinking song vibe.

Musician and Oxford University classicist Armand D’Angour is working on a research project to use the latest and greatest discoveries on Greek musical notation to bring ancient music back as accurately as possible.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.

The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch: letter A at the top of the scale, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than N halfway down the alphabet. Absolute pitch can be worked out from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes.

While the documents, found on stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, have long been known to classicists – some were published as early as 1581 – in recent decades they have been augmented by new finds. Dating from around 300 BC to 300 AD, these fragments offer us a clearer view than ever before of the music of ancient Greece.

Dr. David Creese, a Classics professor at Newcastle University, has constructed a zither-like instrument with eight strings on which he plays ancient Greek music. Instead of strumming or plucking the strings like you would with a lyre or traditional zither, he strikes them with a little mallet. You can see him playing it in class in this YouTube video. That is the Song of Seikilos he is playing in that video, incidentally, but obviously not a full rendition. Here he is playing it and singing it:

Compare Dr. Creese’s version with Mr. Levy’s. I find it fascinating how different the two performances of such a simple song can be, and it underscores the inherent challenges of resurrecting ancient music even when you have the words and melody.


Update: begin solving the Pictish Puzzle October 25th

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

If you’ve been anxiously anticipating getting your chance to help piece back together the carved face of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll Stone from thousands of fragments, mark you calendar: on October 25th, the website Pictish Puzzle officially launches. It’s a placeholder right now, but once it goes live, anybody with a reasonably functional computer — it doesn’t have to be a high-end gaming machine — will be able to use the Pictish Puzzle program to manipulate fragments in 3D and piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The fragments are organized in the database by category and users can collect pieces from all the categories to work with in the same way you would put together a conventional jigsaw puzzle. You could pull up all the knotwork pieces, for instance, and pick fragments you think look like they might go together, then go to the corner category to look for some framing pieces. Other categories include human, animal, tool mark, strip, spiral, key and, awesomely, appendage. Once you have two or more pieces on your desktop, you can push them around in three dimensions to see if any of them might fit.

Here’s a preview of the software at work:

That looks hard, man. I’m intimidated because I am not a great puzzler, but you don’t have to be a great anything to give this a try. You don’t have to have a fancy computer, gaming experience or flawless spatial awareness. The designers specifically made the program to be widely usable by anyone. The more people participate, the better the odds of getting any useable recreations out of this project.

All suggested solutions will be displayed for users to judge before being examined by professionals. The final results will be combined to create a digital replica of the original face of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, something that hasn’t been seen since 1676. Everybody who worked on the puzzle will be credited in some way.


Gamers enlisted to put Pictish slab back together

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

The National Museums Scotland will be enlisting the aid of gamers to help piece back together the base of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, an elaborately carved Pictish sandstone cross-slab from 800 A.D. The stone once stood in Hilton of Cadboll, a seaboard village on the east coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in northeastern Scotland. Originally carved on the seaward side with an early Christian cross and on the landward side with traditional Pictish symbols like the crescent and double disc and secular themes like a hunting scene, the stone was knocked down in the 17th century, possibly by a storm in 1674.

After its fall, it was lying face down with the Christian side exposed which apparently gave someone a very bad idea. One Alexander Duf had the early Christian Pictish cross on the reverse side chipped away and replaced with his crappy coat of arms. He also left an inscription identifying himself as the vandal: “He that believes well does well sayeth Solomon the wyse. Heir lyes Alexander Duf and his three wyves 1676.”

The criminal carving was done, but the stone was not moved to Mr. Duf’s actual tomb. It remained where it fell until the mid-19th century when the MacLeods of Cadboll removed it to Invergordon Castle for use as a garden ornament. From there it spent a brief stint in the British Museum in 1921, but public opinion was strongly opposed to the move, so it came back to Scotland within the year, this time going to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh where it is still on display today in the Early People gallery.

In 2001, Historic Scotland funded an excavation by the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) on the site where the cross-slab had stood for eight centuries. Their aim to recover any fragments of the stone left behind and to determine when it was first erected. They found the missing base of the slab and more than 3,000 fragments of the carved cross face chiseled away to make way for Mr. Duf’s execrably poor taste and narcissism. The pieces range in size from little chips three centimeters (1.18 inches) in diameter to large pieces as much as 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) long.

Putting humpty dumpty back together has proved to be too challenging with conventional methods, and it has taken more than a decade for a possible technology solution to be developed. Scottish technology firm Relicarte has developed a program which gives users access to 3D scans of each fragment which can then be pieces together in an online 3D environment.

Aegir Maciver, director of Peebles-based Relicarte, which developed the platform for online gamers, said the stone’s precious fragments were transported at night to Borders General Hospital, placed in trays and put through a CT scanner, which digitised the fragments and reproduced them as 3D objects.

The task, which took two nights to complete, also involved the laborious business of labelling each individual fragment.

“We had already been doing some work at the museum and we were told they were about to undertake the Cadboll Stone project and intended to have a digital aspect too and asked us to come up with ideas,” Maciver said.

“We came up with the crowd-sourcing idea and digitising the three and a half thousand fragments. We created an online software platform which allows you to view and manipulate files.”

Maciver continued: “It’s very innovative and allows people who don’t have powerful computers or 3D software to go online and interact with 3D models in real time.”

Because gamers are accustomed to manipulating objects in a virtual 3D environment, archaeologists hope to enlist their skills in solving the puzzle of the Hilton of Cadboll fragments. National Museums Scotland will shortly issue an appeal to gamers asking them to contribute to the herculean effort of piecing together the carvings which can then be deciphered by experts in Pictish symbology.

UPDATE 10/10/2013: And we have a website! It’s just a placeholder right now. Pictish Puzzle officially launches on October 25th.


Virtual tours of Jamaica slave uprising, HMS Victory

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

I’ve got two hot tips for you today because I idled away large amounts of time sleeping, watching silent movies like a big nerd and enjoying the two virtual tours mentioned in the title like an even bigger nerd. The subjects are not related; the only thing they have in common is that their heyday was the 18th century.

The first tour uses documentary and map research to plot every stage of the 1760-1761 Jamaican slave uprising. This is so cleverly put together. You have the option of using a terrain map or political map as the base. If you want, you can explore each phase of the revolt by clicking on the timeline before, but the best thing to do is to click play in the upper left hand corner and just allow yourself to see the movements as they happened. I’m not usually the press play type. I like to click forward and back on my time, thank you very much. In this case, however, being taken on the voyage is a million times better than just clicking around, because you see the geographic links between each stage and flare-up of insurrection.

Historians have long debated whether the Jamaican slave insurrection that started in 1760 and continued for another 18 months was a spontaneous uprising, carefully planned by slaves across the country or a mixture of both. The end-result was devastation: 500 slaves killed, 500 deported to Africa, 60 white people killed and thousands of pounds in property destroyed. What this cartographical analysis found is that there were three major uprisings within the 18 months, that there were strategic choices made by rebellion leaders along with more spontaneous, disorganized outbursts.

It’s an impressive collaborative effort between historians and cartographers that has produced an attractive, easy to follow, surprisingly dynamic, information-rich resource on a complex period. I kind of want a map like this of everything now.

The second time sink is more of a literal virtual tour since you get to see with your own eyes the complete wreck site of the HMS Victory, First Rate Royal Navy warship that sank off the coast of Plymouth in 1744 and that was the predecessor to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s ship of the same name. The wreck was discovered by treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration in April of 2008.

The remains of the HMS Victory are 246 feet deep underneath a shipping lane beset by strong tides. There’s no chance of visiting the site in person, so Odyssey Marine has created a photomosaic map of the vast debris field complete with high resolution video captured by remote submersibles. Start here to follow the Virtual Dive Trail. Click on any of the outlined areas and you’ll see an incredibly clear photograph of the wreck. Click on “dive” in the upper right header and a pop-up window opens with video of the area and a description of what you’re seeing.

The quality is insane. I don’t know how that lit it so effectively but you can see bronze cannons, iron ingots, wooden planks, the large rudder, everything like it’s in your living room, assuming your living room has a vaguely blue cast to it.


Drunk History is back and bigger than ever

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Drunk History, the former YouTube web series that graduated to a Funny or Die exclusive complete with appearances on the Funny or Die HBO sketch show, is coming back. This time it has its own series on Comedy Central the first episode of which debuts on Tuesday at 10:00 PM EST. Since the show now has a 30 minute time slot to fill all by itself, each episode will feature three sketches on different subjects centered around one theme.

Derek Waters, creator of the original series, is the host. Over the course of eight episodes, he travels to different cities to film his friends, often local comedians, imbibe spirits to the point of extreme intoxication and then expound on a historical event. That drunken narration becomes a voice over while famous actors perform the story, lip-syncing to every drunken slur and stumble. Waters describes the show in this excellent Splitsider interview:

I always say the tone is “ridiculousness taken seriously.” The way the show’s gonna work is that, each episode you’re gonna see people that are passionate about their city, and then you’ll be seeing narrators that are either from that city or know a lot about that city telling these detailed stories. We’ll be doing the reenactments just like the shorts, but it’s gonna have more of me interacting with locals from those cities. Three stories an episode.

Early reviews of the new series are positive. It seems Waters has managed to capture the absurd greatness of the modest web series while giving the sketches a connective thread so they work in a full episode and series of television. Sketches in the first episode describe events that happened in Washington, D.C.: Watergate, with Nathan Fielder as Bob Woodward, Fred Willard as Deep Throat, Jack McBrayer as H.R. Haldeman and Bob Odenkirk as President Nixon, John Wilkes Booth’s conflict with his brother leading to the assassination of Lincoln (Adam Scott as JWB, Will Forte as Edwin Booth, Stephen Merchant as Abraham Lincoln), and Elvis Presley’s famous meeting with Richard Nixon, source of so many online avatars, performed by Jack Black (who killed as Ben Franklin in the original series) as Elvis Presley and Odenkirk reprising his role as Richard Nixon.

You can catch a glimpse of that last sketch in this clip:

The entire episode can be previewed online on Comedy Central’s website. The only other clip online right now is a Winona Ryder playing Quaker martyr Mary Dyer, one of four Quakers who were hanged in Boston for the crime of not leaving the Massachusetts Bay Colony in keeping with statues banning Quakers from the Puritan colony.

I never could get enough of Drunk History. The meager flow of sketches couldn’t come close to quenching my thirst, and that last one with Ryan Gosling doing the ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas really doesn’t count because it’s Drunk Literature, not Drunk History. Getting to see three sketches in a row each week feels like the richest luxury. Mark your calendars for Tuesday night, or bookmark the Comedy Central page so you can watch the full episodes online after they air.


Sutton Hoo exhibit on Google Cultural Institute

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Expanding its online databases of cultural treasures, Google has added online museum archive exhibits to a portfolio that already includes the hugely successful Google Art Project and Google Street View’s tours of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Archive Exhibitions are designed by museum curators and experts who collect images and video from their institutions’ archives, caption them and create an online display.

British Museum curators have put together a beautiful tour of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo. It’s structured as a timeline, starting with the discovery in 1939. There are period pictures of the ship as it was revealed, digital reconstructions of the artifacts, maps, black and white video of the excavation and video of the artifacts today. The British Museum website has an excellent set of pictures of the Sutton Hoo treasures, but the Google Cultural Institute exhibit lays out the history of the dig and the artifacts in a crisp, easy-to-follow structure that includes multimedia elements and, best of all, highly zoomable images.

Once you’ve enjoyed your journey through the funerary riches of Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, check out the rest of the museum collections. This one from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum features photographs of Holocaust victims found in the property sorting area after liberation. They give a deeply moving glimpse into the family life of Polish Jews before the war. The Imperial War Museums has two World War II exhibits, one telling the stories of the Kindertransport, the evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territories, and the other about D-Day.

On a more lighthearted topic, the Instituto Luce Cinecitta’ has a wonderful collection of photographs of Italy in the heady Dolce Vita days of 1954-1965. It’s not just about Fellini and the dawn of the paparazzi; it’s also about the booming post-war economy and Italy’s dive into consumerism, Fiat 500s. There’s a great period newsreel of the first supermarket opened in the Roman suburb of EUR (where I grew up!).

Also not to be missed are the exhibitions from the Museo Galileo in Florence. One focuses on the Medici collections of scientific instruments. As always with the Medici, the objects are as beautiful and luxurious as they are important in the history of science. The other covers the Lorraine collection which was built on the Medici core after the House of Lorraine inherited the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1737. The Museo Galileo is a garden of earthly delight for combo science and history nerds. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to explore its collections in this kind of detail. Also, I want Grand Duke Peter Leopold’s chemistry cabinet. Badly.

New museums and exhibits are added all the time, so be sure to keep an eye on the Google Cultural Institute.


Color films of Britain in the 1920s

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

A reader — he knows who he is — pointed me to this video, a remarkable color film of London in 1927 that has been making the Internet rounds the past couple of days. The uploader notes that it’s the work of British film pioneer Claude Friese-Greene using a color process invented by his father William. The name rang a bell because last year I wrote an entry about the restoration of the earliest natural color movies (as opposed to ones shot in black and white and then tinted by hand afterwards), experimental films shot in 1902 by Edward Raymond Turner using a three-color process patented in 1898 which he was never able to develop into a practical working model of camera and projector.

After Turner’s premature death, investor and American film producer Charles Urban hired early film pioneer George Albert Smith to continue where Turner had left off. Smith simplified the Turner process by dropping the blue and turning it into a two-color red and green process called Kinemacolor which Urban and Smith patented in 1906. The black and white film was shot through red and green filters and then projected through them. Even though it required special projectors, Kinemacolor was a hit from its first public showing in 1908. At its peak popularity, more than 300 theaters in Britain had installed Kinemacolor projectors.

It was William Friese-Greene who dethroned Kinemacolor. An avid photographer and inventor — he got more than 70 patents for his inventions during his lifetime — William Friese-Greene drove himself into bankruptcy repeatedly with his passion for moving pictures. One of his inventions was a two-color red and green film process he called Biocolour which he patented in 1905. The process required exposing alternate frames of film through red or green filters and then staining them red (for the green filtered frames) or green (for the red filtered frames). The end result suffered from flickering and very visible red and green edges around figures in rapid motion, but so did Kinemacolor. That was the nature of the beast with these early two-color systems.

In 1911, he tried to sell his system to filmmakers and movie theaters. Biocolour had one great advantage over Kinemacolor: it played through regular projectors, no special equipment necessary, but Kinemacolor’s popularity and the strength of its patent stopped him in his tracks. Urban filed an injuction against Biocolour Limited in 1912, on the grounds that Biocolour’s two-color red and green process was an infringement of Kinemacolor’s 1906 patent. Friese-Greene challenged the injunction on the grounds that Kinemacolor’s patent was too broadly written and not detailed enough to cover the Biocolour process. He lost in the lower courts but an appeal to the House of Lords was ultimately decided in Friese-Greene’s favor in 1915 because Smith had not specified in the patent which exact colors were necessary for his process to work. He claimed that any two colors from nature would work, which was not at all the case, hence the years of struggle from Turner’s first experiments until Smith’s success with red and green.

William Friese-Greene’s win killed Kinemacolor, but with no funding and a World War going on, he was unable to convert his legal victory into theatrical success. He died penniless in 1921. His son Claude picked up where his father left off, developing and improving Biocolour. In the mid-1920s, Claude traveled the length of Britain from Land’s End in Cornwall to John o’ Groats in Scotland, filming in the “new all British Friese-Greene natural colour process.” The result was a travelogue of Britain in 26 ten-minute episodes called The Open Road which is the source of those shots of London linked to above.

Here’s the full London shoot done in 1927 at the end of the three-year voyage. The little girl selling peanuts at the cricket match slays me.

You’re not seeing what audiences would have seen, however. The British Film Institute digitally restored the film to remove the flickering and clean up the color. The entire film was shown on British television in a BBC documentary series in 2006. The DVD is available on the BFI website.

The British Film Institute’s YouTube Channel has more than 60 extracts from The Open Road, most of them less than a minute long but all of them riveting. The color film has a way of making these scenes, now almost a century old, feel much closer to our present. At the same time, they are still very much of a time gone by, an immensely compelling combination.

My favorite scenes are the ones that capture people at work. There are fishermen bringing in the catch and herring girls gutting it in Oban, Scotland (1926):

Three generations of weavers in Kilbarchan, Scotland (1926):

Harvesting on Earl Bathurst’s Estate using traditional oxen in Cirencester (1924):

A potter at his wheel and the ladies painting Wedgwood Etruria pottery (1926):

I also love the ones where Claude took full advantage of the red and green process by filming things that are particularly red and green.

Dingle Gardens Shrewsbury, Shropshire (1926):

Gingers enjoying a bathe by the sea at Torquay, Devon, in 1924:

From a historical perspective, I love the Roman baths in Bath in 1924 and the charming utter lack of thrills and chills on the Reed, a ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Lancashire, in 1926.

Really I could post every last one of them. There are no duds here. I highly recommend spending a few hours watching them all, which is exactly what I did today.