Thursday’s live-streamed discussion about Mesopotamian beliefs on ghosts hosted by historian Bettany Hughes with British Museum Assyriologist, cuneiform expert and raconteur extraordinaire Dr. Irving Finkel was, as expected, a highly entertaining and information-rich exploration of what the earliest writers in the world recorded about the care, feeding and, when necessary, forcible removal of the spirits of the dead.
It has now been uploaded to the BM’s YouTube Channel so if you missed it live, you can catch it now to celebrate Halloween Assyrian-style.
Irving Finkel goes into even more detail on ancient Mesopotamian ghost beliefs in this earlier video that I somehow missed until now. It’s a presentation by him alone rather than the interview/discussion style of the webinar, and let’s face it, in any given circumstance, the more Finkel the better.
His rant about The Exorcist at 13:15 is an absolute treasure, as is the mumbo jumbo section at 23:15. The discussion of the newly-identified ghost drawing is at 33:35.
The Getty Villa Museum is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Mesopotamian history from the dawn of the first cities in the Fertile Crescent around 3200 B.C. to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. An array of rare artifacts — sculptures, cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, jewelry, paintings, bricks, decorative friezes — of exceptional quality, almost all of them on loan from the Louvre, are on display at the museum in Malibu through August 16th. It was scheduled to open on March 18th, 2020, but was preempted by you-know-what. The Louvre was kind enough to extend the loan for more than a year and the exhibition finally opened on April 21st.
The Getty has put together a fun and informative series of workshops and lectures to accompany the exhibition. Circumstances forced them online, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy events virtually that we would not have been able to attend in person. Want an excuse to make a ton of cookies while learning how to write cuneiform? Now you’ve got one.
For an overview of Mesopotamian history as represented by the artifacts in the exhibition, watch this lecture by Dr. Ariane Thomas, director of the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Louvre. I particularly love that the inscriptions on the objects are fully translated on the presentation slides, which is essential given the central role of cuneiform to Mesopotamian civilizations. Also 22 minutes in is an excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out loud. This is the first time I’ve heard Babylonian spoken.
Delve deeper into cuneiform tablets in this presentation by historian Dr. Amanda Podany who examines the religious, political, legal and economic significance of writing in Mesopotamia and examines the lives of three ancient Mesopotamians as revealed in cuneiform inscriptions: Enheduanna (24th century B.C.), daughter of King Sargon, high priestess of the moon god Nanna, the world’s first known poet, the 18th century B.C. scribe Pagirum and Hammurabi, king and lawgiver.
Next archaeologist Tate Paulette, expert on ancient spirituous beverages, explores Mesopotamia’s rich beer culture as documented in written, artistic and archaeological records. The lecture covers the history of beer in Mesopotamia, how it was brewed and drunk, and modern attempts to recreate it.
Last but certainly not least is my favorite internationally-renown cuneiform expert, Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum, whose last visit to the Getty featured him taking on all comers at the Royal Game of Ur. Being a more innocent pre-pandemic era, that event was not filmed, much to my disappointment, but this time his discussion of the origins of writing is open to all of us from the comfort of our own homes via Zoom. From Laundry Lists to Liturgies: The Origins of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia kicks off on August 11th at 11:00 AM Pacific Time. Registration is required and free. Presumably the recording will be made available on YouTube like its predecessors. See you there!
On May 6, 1937, newsreel crews were at the Lakehurst Naval Station to record the arrival of the pride and joy of the German airship fleet, the Hindenburg. The newsreel cameras were all clustered in a mooring area facing the bow of the dirigible, so when it suddenly burst into flames claiming the lives of 35 passengers, crew and one member of the ground crew, all of the footage of the disaster captured it from the front.
The investigation into the disaster relied primarily on witness statements. The Hindenburg itself was obliterated in the conflagration, so there was no physical evidence to go on to explain the cause of the fire. German officers, including Captain Ernst Lehmann who would die of his injuries the next day, blamed the disaster on sabotage. Others speculated that power from a radio transmitter on the field was responsible; one witness bruited the possibility that high-frequency radio induction had ignited the gas. The Commerce Department report could only conclude that a gas leak in the stern of the airship had created a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air that was ignited by electrostatic discharge of some kind, but they could not determine the source of it.
An amateur videographer was also on the field that day. Harold Schenck was standing next to Hangar One with his trusty Kodak 8-millimeter camera. Unlike the news cameras, Schenck was positioned to get a broad view of the airship as it attempted to land. The film for this little cam could only record two minutes, so he took short clips that he would later put together with explanatory intertitles. He captured the Hindenburg’s approach first and filmed its full length as it burned. It is the only known footage that shows the nose and tail at the same time.
Schenck offered his footage to the Commerce Department investigators but they weren’t interested because they had all the newsreel footage already and didn’t seek out different angles. Thankfully he kept it, and so did his family after he passed away. In 2012, Dan Grossman, a historian, writer and airship expert who has studied the Hindenburg disaster for years, met Bob Schenck, Harold’s nephew, at the 75th anniversary memorial of the disaster on the Lakehurst airfield. Grossman viewed the Schenck footage and was stunned by its unique coverage and perspective of the fire.
The film has now been shown to the public for the first time in an episode of the excellent PBS show Nova. The show used it as a jumping point for a new investigation of the disaster. The episode lays out the background of the flight, the difficulties it encountered, the timeline of the disaster, putting the new footage in context. It explores the footage itself, confirming it authenticity with a film restoration expert, and explains the science behind what we see in the footage.
Every step of the investigation combines historical research and the scientific method to present a highly compelling case for what set off the deadly fire. Highlights include the curators at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen watching the footage in amazement, and the series of experiments designed by Konstantinos Giapis, Professor of Chemical Engineering at CalTech. The Schenck film does not show the source of the spark, so Giapis experiments with various possibilities.
The end-result is genuinely exciting both from a science fair perspective and a historical one. It’s a eureka moment for sure. I won’t spoil it because it’s seriously riveting to follow the progression of the investigation. Watch this show.
You can see a sneak preview of the Schenck footage in this trailer:
The removal of the frame encasing Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Kings in London’s National Gallery has revealed original paint, giving conservators a rich source of information to restore the tempera-on-wood masterpiece. The work has suffered hardships in the six centuries since it was painted, some accidental (water damage), some blunderous (drastic overcleaning). It was bought by The National Gallery in 1857, and it was so brutally “restored” that many details were lost.
In order to conserve it by modern standards, the National Gallery team first took X-rays which showed that the painting continued underneath the top of the frame. When restorer Jill Dunkerton and conservator Britta New removed it from its frame, they found that while very dirty, the paint underneath was in excellent condition compared to the main part of the composition which was sadly flattened by the terrible 19th century cleaning. The unframing also made new sense of the proportions of the figures and their grouping in three levels. The bottom of the frame had hidden a step and made the figures on the left and center look like they were different sizes for no reason.
The painting’s dimensions — 20 inches high and 54 inches wide — suggest that it may have originally been designed to fit a piece of furniture, so it’s unclear when it was first framed. The one that was removed dates to the 19th century when framers in Florence created a custom-carved frame that would accommodate the concave warp the long panel had developed by then.
Here’s a video of the frame being removed piece by piece:
It was painted around 1470, early in the careers of Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi. Botticelli had just struck out on his own after working as an apprentice in the studio of Fra Filippo Lippi, Filippino’s natural father, who had died the year before. Filippino completed his apprenticeship in Botticelli’s new workshop and was listed as his sole assistant in the guild records of 1472. In an unusual twist, The Adoration of the Kings was started by Filippino and then completed by Sandro. Generally apprentices completed the works of the masters, not the other way around. Botticelli is likely responsible for the crowd of kings, horses and onlookers on the left, the dwarf and the man gazing upwards in the central section and the shepherds on the right; Filippino’s hand is evident in the Virgin and Child, the kneeling king kissing Christ’s foot and the entourage behind him.
The distant town, lake and rocks in the center background were copied from Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata by Jan van Eyck, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Early Northern Renaissance art was much in fashion in Florence at the time, and drawings of important works made their way south where Florentine artists used versions of them in their own designs.
Botticelli and Lippi’s northern inspiration gave Jill Dunkerton a unique window into what the original would have looked like before the scrubbing. She was able to study Van Eyck’s piece to recreate some of the lost detail, and the results of her retouching are pretty spectacular so far. Check out this video of her at work. The before and after of the rocks is a particularly striking contrast.
After so many centuries of hardship and an arduous restoration, the Mausoleum of Augustus finally reopened in March. The response was huge. Tickets, which were limited by pandemic measures, sold out immediately. Things were looking up for the largest circular tomb in the world, and then it hit the wall of the latest lockdown.
Mayor of Rome Virginia Raggi commemorated the one-month anniversary of the all-too-brief reopening by posting a cool new drone video of the mausoleum on her Facebook page. It starts as an overhead of the exterior, then flies into the tomb itself. The footage conveys the scale and dimension of the site far more effectively than still photographs. As usual, I just wish it were longer.