Egtved Girl enters the uncanny valley

The Bronze Age grave was discovered in 1921 near the village of Egtved on southeastern Denmark’s Jutland peninsula when a farmer who was digging up her burial mound struck her coffin with his shovel. She had been buried in a hollowed out oak trunk which was dendrochronologically dated to 1,370 B.C. The trunk was lined with cowhide and furnished with grave goods including a birch bucket at her feet. She was wearing a wool tunic under a cord skirt and a belt with a large circular bronze buckle.

The tree trunk coffin, delicate woolen clothing and the hairs of the cow hide were beautifully preserved, but there was little left of Egtved Girl herself, only her blonde hair, some teeth, nails and traces of skin and brain matter. She also left behind the imprint of her body on the cowhide. One molar was sufficient for researchers to determine via strontium isotope analysis that she was not born and raised in Denmark. She was likely from the Black Forest area of southern Germany and only lived in Denmark for a year or so before her death.

From the remains and body impression, researchers were able to determine she was between 16 and 18 years old when she died. She had shoulder-length hair with a whorl on the back of her head and was between 5’3″ and 5’5″ tall. With the information discovered from her burial and a large portion of educated guesswork, National Museum researchers worked with 3D artists to create a virtual avatar of Egtved Girl.

This isn’t a facial reconstruction derived from a skull. There is no skull. Her skin shade, facial features and eye color are guesses. The purpose is to create an engaging representation of Egtved Girl to introduce the exhibition to museum visitors.

Together with developers, 3D artists from Khora and the program Metahuman, the National Museum’s researchers have revived her as a digital human with a voice and living facial expressions. Her face is built with the help of the latest technology, which is usually used in computer games like Fortnite and The Witcher and in movies like Dune, Star Wars and The Mandalorian.

That technology has not previously been used in a museum. But it helps bring the past to life for a wide audience.

“Egtved Girl is important for our cultural heritage, and therefore it is crucial that we constantly increase the dissemination of her. Many visitors pass by her coffin and are in doubt as to whether she is actually lying there because the bones are gone. But now she draws attention to herself. At the same time, our desire is to create a stronger connection to the past, and this is best achieved if you can identify with a person from the past. Now you can come face to face with Egtved Girl”, says exhibition editor Mette Boritz.

It might be a bit of an unsettling encounter for unwitting visitors. But don’t take my word for it. Hear it from Egtved Girl herself:

Muses in the Getty lab

The J. Paul Getty Museum has created a fascinating online exhibit about the challenging conservation of a group of reliefs from a lost Roman sarcophagus. Muses in the Lab: Conserving a Roman Sarcophagus on Google Arts & Culture is an easily scrollable, annotated and illustrated play-by-play of the conservation of a fragmentary high relief from a large sarcophagus that features a woman seated next to three standing muses.

The seated woman was likely the deceased. Facing her is Terpsichore, muse of dancing and choral song holding a lyre. Beside her in the center of the composition is Thalia, muse of comedy, holding the top of a comic mask. She wears a netted catsuit similar to ones seen in sculpture of comedic actors in costume. On the right is Euterpe, muse of music and lyric poetry, holding her double-pipes in both hands.

A second group of fragments from this sarcophagus are from the right front corner. Melpomene, muse of tragedy, stands in front of a draped curtain holding a tragic mask. The right end of the sarcophagus is attached to this fragment. It features a low relief of a beaded man holding a book roll. There’s also a bundle of book rolls at his feet, suggesting he may be a representation of a writer, likely a tragic poet given his location next to Melpomene.

The main group is 54 inches high by 88 inches wide and would have been the central scene in the front of a massive sarcophagus.  Its style dates it to the mid-3rd century A.D. The Getty acquired it from a New York art dealer in 1972. They knew nothing of his history before that and there is still no information about its origin. Both the front scene and the right corner were on display together from 1974 until the 1980s when they were taken down and put in storage.

Conservators revisited the reliefs in 2018 as part of the reinstallation of the museum’s antiquities collection. They found that the quality of the carving was exceptional, almost entirely in the round and every single surface, even the ones in the background behind the figures, is polished and shaped. The marble sculpting is so extraordinary that conservators believe it was done in Rome itself. If that is true, it would be the largest sarcophagus of its type known to have been produced in Rome.

Unfortunately, the fragments had not fared well in storage. They were in poor condition, with cracked, discolored joins from all kinds of different materials applied in past restorations. The pinning methods used to hold the reliefs together had damaged the marble and were no longer stable.

In order the correct past mistakes and reassemble the reliefs with modern conservatorial principles of non-invasive reversibility, the Getty team had to separate all of the fragments, remove the bad joins and pins, then put it all back together again. There were almost 50 fragments so it was a challenging job. During the painstaking cleaning of the fragments, conservators were delighted to discover the remains of the ancient polychromy, mostly purple, that added detail and vivacity to the sculpture.

When it came time to piece the fragments back together again, the conservation team took an innovative approach. They inserted steel sleeves into the already existing holes and fitted pins into the sleeves. Magnets were placed inside the ends of the pins and the sleeves. That way the fragments connect via the magnetic pins, meaning there is no need for adhesives and the fragments can be dismantled in minutes. Lastly, they created a custom mount that works with the new pinning system to keep the group secured.

The right corner group with Melpomene and the bearded man was not added to the display for practical reasons. The corner piece would make it necessary to block out a display place the equivalent of the large sarcophagus, most of that empty space. The group of four are discretely mounted to the wall.

The online exhibit lays out the complications of the restoration process, how conservators have to devise new solutions to fix their predecessors’ mistakes, the role modern design and technology can play to improve the display and long-term care of formerly abused antiquities.

Matthew Paris’ Book of St Albans digitized

The Library of Trinity College Dublin has digitized one of the greatest medieval masterpieces in its collection: The Book of St. Albans, handwritten and illustrated by chronicler, scribe and illuminator Matthew Paris. The artwork and verse text was previously only available in a black-and-white facsimile edition made in 1924 that cannot begin to convey the bright colors of the original.

Born in England, Matthew Paris was still a teenager when he entered monastic life as a monk at the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans in Hertofordshire. He lived at St. Albans from 1217 until his death in 1259, where he wrote all of his known works including his seminal history of the world, the Chronica Majora (ca. 1240-53) and the Book of St. Albans (ca. 1230-1259).

Alban lived in the 4th century and is venerated as the first English Christian martyr. The monastery dedicated to him was founded by King Offa of Mercia at the end of the 8th century. It was an important site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, attracting the nobility and aristocracy of England. They even offered accommodations for royal women, the only monastic house in England to do so.

The Book of St. Albans, which included also a Life of St Amphibalus (according to some sources the man who converted Alban) and other writings about the history of the abbey, is composed of 77 leaves with 54 illustrations. Matthew’s drawings are narrative scenes that take up a third of the top of the page. Some are in comic book-style double panels. He enhanced his line drawings by coloring them with washes of green, red, blue and silver and gold accents. The colors are brilliantly preserved in the manuscript.

Each scene is peopled with human figures in dynamic motion, and they are not just saints, kings and extras. Matthew Paris included people from all walks of life — sailors, soldiers, bell ringers and builders. His illustration of Offa directing the construction of the first St. Albans church is a unique graphic representation of medieval construction techniques, tools and materials. It also features some solid gore like Alban’s severed head and his executioner’s eyeballs falling out into his hand.

The text is in both Anglo-Norman French, the language of the secular ruling class, and in Latin, the language of the clergy. It is a small enough volume to be portable, and there is evidence the monastery did lend it to important patrons. A note on Folio 2r records that the volume was loaned on one occasion to Sanchia of Provence (d.1261), the Countess of Cornwall, who was the sister of Queen Eleanor of Provence (1223-1291).

The note says she kept the book until Whitsuntide and must have returned it because the manuscript remained at St. Albans Abbey until the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Unlike the relics of saints Alban and Amphibalus, the manuscript survived the orgy of destruction. It was owned by astronomer John Dee (1527-1609) at some point, and then by Bishop James Ussher who bought it in 1626. (Ussher’s claim to fame is having counted up the generations in the Bible to determine conclusively that the world was created on October 22, 4004 B.C.) Ussher bequeathed his library to Trinity College and the Matthew Paris manuscript officially entered the library’s rare book collection in 1661.

Browse the digitized Book of St. Albans here.

Seven tons of iron nails in one fort!

The latest online talk from the Yorkshire Museum’s Ryedale Hoard series is so good I was rapt the whole time. (Actual footage.) →

Entitled Metals, Making and Magic: The Smith in Roman Britain, the talk was delivered by Dr. Owen Humphreys of the Museum of London Archaeology, an expert in Roman ironwork. He opens with a bang by summarizing the enormous differences in metalworking production between Iron Age Britain (even after contact with the Empire was well-established) and Roman Britain. Despite the name of the era, very few iron nails have been found at Iron Age British sites, whereas Roman archaeological sites even from the earliest years of the conquest is full of metal.

The title of this post is a reference to one salient example: The Roman legionary fortress of Inchtuthil in Scotland was built in 82/3 A.D. to garrison troops for Roman governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s invasion of Scotland. He was recalled by Emperor Domitian in 85 A.D. and the fort was abandoned less than two years later. The buildings were dismantled and all of the iron nails removed and buried in a large pit. When archaeologists excavated the site in the early 1950s, they found seven tons of iron nails in that pit. Seven tons of nails. More than 875,000 of them. (Plus another three tons of assorted iron objects.) Granted, Inchtuthil was a big fort with barracks, a hospital building, a workshop and other buildings, but it’s a startling example of the scale of Roman metalwork only 40 years after the conquest.

Humphreys then delves into the craft itself — its cultural depictions, tools, differences between Roman smithing and local techniques. If you watch nothing else, watch the Humphrey’s explanation of the lost wax method of casting bronze starting 40 minutes in. He uses the bust of Marcus Aurelius from the Ryedale Hoard as a model to illustrate how the process worked. It’s probably the clearest brief explanation of the technique I’ve ever seen. Also extra points for listing Pliny’s recipes for bronze, different depending on what was being made with it. 

Okay watch!  

VR bus drives back in time through ancient Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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