Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Staffordshire Hoard helmet band, pommel pieced together

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Anyone who has ever done a large jigsaw puzzle knows how essential it is to put like with like. When your puzzle is 4,000 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold, silver and gem-festooned objects, sorting out which are part of the same artifact is essential. Thus one of the most important and complicated labours in the first phase of conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard was the grouping together of fragments according to their physical and stylistic characteristics. From the grouping exercise, researchers identified more than 1,500 fragments of silver gilt foil they believe were part of an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon helmet.

Only four other examples of Anglo-Saxon helmets have been found, including one unearthed in the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939, so it’s imperative that the puzzle be pieced together. It’s a painstaking job, figuring out how 1,500 sheets and strips of foil, many of them no larger than 10mm (.4 inches) across, fit together. So far they’ve been able to piece together a zoomorphic frieze and many of the fragments making up the helmet band that runs around the circumference of the object. The helmet band designs are die-stamped warriors armed and kneeling.

Here’s a glimpse of the tiny pieces of a zoomorphic frieze from the helmet conservators are negotiating:

The Sutton Hoo helmet is silver. The Staffordshire Hoard is gilded. That suggests that whoever donned this elaborate and expensive helmet was of extremely high status, perhaps a king or prince.

Another object conservators have pieced back together from fragments is a pommel. There are more than 70 pommels in the Staffordshire Hoard, but this one is unique. Reassembled from 26 fragments, the gold, gold filigree, garnet, niello and inlaid glass pommel has a rounded piece on the shoulder called a “sword-ring.” Although only one of the pommel’s sword-rings has been found in the hoard, the construction indicates there were two originally, one on each side. This is the first pommel ever discovered to have two sword-rings, making it an entirely new type. It is also lavishly decorated in a combination of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish motifs. It may even have a combination of early Christian and traditional polytheistic decorative themes — the garnet and glass inlaid disk could be a stylized Christiana cross, while three serpents on the back of the pommel are pagan.

Chris Fern, project archaeologist, said “The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendour. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy. The skill of the craftsmen is equally thrilling to behold, with many of the finds decorated with pagan and Christian art, designed to give spiritual protection in battle.”

“The newly recognised pommel is truly exciting. It combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest 7th century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures.”

The second stage of conservation and research has been funded to the tune of £400,000 by Historic England, but they need to raise another £120,000 to complete the project. This phase will entail the conservation and physical joining of the fragments that have been matched to each other, a comprehensive study of the exquisite cloisonné cellwork seen on so many pieces from the hoard (see the gold and garnet Bible bindings in the video below for an example), a microscopic analysis of materials that are as of yet unidentified, contextual research of the practice of hoarding and the creation of an online database of the complete hoard by 2017.

If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can make an online payment here. You can also download this donation form (pdf) to contribute by check.

If you’re in the Birmingham area today, hustle on over to the museum to meet the Staffordshire Hoard conservation team. You’ll get to ask them questions and you’ll even have the chance to clean a piece of the hoard and examine it under a microscope. The event is free and open between 11:00AM – 1:00PM and 2:00 – 4:00PM.

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Plaster casts of Vesuvius’ victims restored

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

When Vesuvius erupted on August 24th, 79 A.D., a column of ash and pumice rained down on Pompeii, depositing as much as a foot per hour in some parts of the city. Fleeing the shower of stone and ash, many people took shelter in buildings, a deadly choice as it happened, since within six hours from the beginning of the eruption, the weight of accumulated pumice fall caused roofs and walls to collapse. An anomalously high percentage of the remains of people who died in this phase of the eruption — 345 individuals, or 88% of the people killed during the pumice fall deposit phase — were found indoors, killed by the buildings they had taken fled to for protection. Out of the people found outdoors (49 of them, or 12% of the pumice fall victims), most of them were probably killed by debris from collapsing structures. The rest were likely felled by larger stones striking them at ballistic speeds.

Most of the remains discovered, 650 people, were found in pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) deposit, 334 (51%) of them outdoors, 316 (49%) indoors. There is no evidence that they were burned to death. They were encased by fine ash and covered by the pyroclastic flow that blanketed the town, sealing in the ash and pumice layer and suffocating the people trapped underneath it to death.

The ash and pyroclastic layers hardened quickly around the bodies. The soft tissues decomposed over time, leaving only bones in cavities once occupied by whole bodies. More than 1700 years later, excavators of the ancient site noticed that underneath the skeletal remains of a young woman was an imprint of her breasts and body. They didn’t know how to preserve it, however, so the imprint was lost as excavations continued, as were similar such finds.

The breakthrough came on February 5th, 1863, when Giuseppe Fiorelli, Pompeii’s director of works who introduced a revolutionary new scientific rigor to the excavation of the city, was told by a labourers that they had found a cavity with bones at the bottom. Fiorelli told them to stop digging immediately and had plaster poured into that cavity and two others found nearby. They waited two days for the plaster to dry and then chipped away the ash exposing the cast of a person killed during the eruption of Vesuvius almost 1800 years earlier. Facial expressions, clothes, the position of the bodies all were perfectly captured by the plaster casts.

Plaster had been used once before in 1856 to capture an imprint in the ash, but it was the imprint of a long-gone architectural feature, not of a human being. That was Fiorelli’s brilliant innovation. He remained director of works until 1875. Under his leadership, plaster casts were made of people, animals — most famously the dog on its back with four legs in the air found in the House of Orpheus — furniture, doors, window frames, even the holes in the ground left by roots. The plaster casts of roots allowed archaeologists to identify plants with enough precision to recreate the landscaped pleasure gardens of the wealthy a well as the more practical vegetable gardens that fed the people of Roman-era Pompeii.

It was the expressive pathos of the human figures, their final moments frozen in time by the volcano that killed them, that has made a profound impression in all who have seen them since 1863. Luigi Settembrini, professor of Italian literature at the University of Naples, visited the site just a few days after the first castings were made. That night, February 13th, 1863, unable to sleep, he wrote a letter to Fiorelli.

It’s impossible to see those three cast figures and not feel moved. [...] They’ve been dead for 18 centuries, but they are human creatures seen in their agony. This is not art, not imitation, but their bones, the reliquaries of their flesh and clothes mixed with plaster: it’s the pain of death that reacquired body and shape. [...] Up until now there have been discovered temples, houses and other objects to interest the curiosity of cultured people, artists and archaeologists, but now you, oh my Fiorelli, have discovered human pain, and whoever is human feels it.

The filling of the cavities with plaster has continued ever since. In 1984 they tried a different medium, resin instead of plaster. Inspired by the lost wax method of bronze casting, archaeologists injected wax into the cavity left by the body of a young woman found in the Villa of Lucius Crassius Tertius in Oplontis. Once the wax was hardened, it was coated in plaster. The wax was then melted and the empty plaster cast filled with liquid epoxy resin. The result was a transparent cast through which you could see the Maiden of Oplontis’ bones and her jewelry in situ. Although its transparency and durability are marked advantages, resin casting is complicated, time consuming and expensive. Today Pompeii’s archaeologists are still using plaster. It’s a tricky process. Only a small percentage of the remains found can be cast — there are only around 100 plaster casts (including animals) out more than 1,100 bodies found — due to the condition of the ash shell, and the bones are very brittle. The plaster has to be thick enough to support the bones suspended in it but thin enough to flow freely into nooks and crannies so it can capture all possible detail.

Because the casts are human remains, archaeologists have been reluctant to restore them. The very old plaster has begun to degrade, however, exposing the bones inside. Now, as part of the Great Pompeii Project, a program of restoration and stabilization of many endangered areas of the ancient archaeological site, all 86 plaster casts of human remains are being restored. The plaster is being rehydrated where possible and repaired where it has crumbled away. The casts have been X-rayed and laser scanned so archaeologists knew exactly where everything inside was before they began to work on the plaster. With the precise data mapping of the laser scan, restorers have also been able to create precise replicas of the cast with 3D printing. That will be very helpful going forward for traveling exhibitions and the like.

This video, which I would strongly recommend muting, shows an overview of the restoration, starting with the casts being moved from the areas of the archaeological site where they’ve been on display to the restoration workshop (set up in one of Pompeii’s ancient buildings) of the Special Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii. It’s remarkable how much it looks like the wounded being carried on stretchers to a field hospital full of war casualties.

Twenty of the restored casts will go on display in Pompeii’s amphitheater as part of the Pompeii and Europe exhibition starting May 27th and running through November 2nd. The exhibition will take place concurrently at the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

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Le Brun’s Jabach Family restored and on display

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Charles Le Brun’s monumental portrait Everhard Jabach and His Family purchased last year by the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been restored and is now on display in the museum’s European Paintings Gallery alongside other French works from the 17th century. Feast your eyes upon this pair of very satisfying before and after pictures:

The painting is 7.6 feet by 10.6 feet, so even getting it the Met from London was a task as monumental as the portrait. It couldn’t be padded to the gills because if the crate got too big it wouldn’t fit on the cargo plane. Thankfully there was no damage in transit.

Once it arrived safely, conservator Michael Gallagher’s first task was to remove the varnish applied in the late 19th or early 20th century. It was discolored and darkened, giving the painting a yellowed tint. Using cotton swabs and a solvent custom blended to remove this particular varnish without damaging the paint underneath, Gallagher painstakingly cleaned the whole surface revealing Le Brun’s rich hues and previously invisible details like baby Heinrich’s adorable pink toes. That delicate pink and white skin is even more evident in figure of Jabach’s daughter Anna Maria whose skin, hair and clothes look completely different with the varnish gone.

That was child’s play compared to the work Gallagher and his team had to do to repair damage to the top of the painting. That big horizontal line you see running across the width 18 inches below the top is a fold mark. It’s not clear when the canvas was folded over, but there’s a picture published in an 1969 issue of Country Life of the painting hanging in Olantigh Towers, the Kent stately home where it lived from 1832 until the 2014 sale, that shows the painting folded. Olantigh Towers burned in 1903 and was rebuilt on a far more modest scale. It’s possible the monumental painting was reducing by folding so it would fit in the smaller space of the new home.

It was a drastic, some might call it insane, choice. The top foot and a half of the canvas was folded over a smaller stretcher and hammered into place with tacks driven through the painted surface. It was finally liberated from its Procrustean prison in 2012 when the painting was flattened out and a temporary strip-lining attached around the perimeter with wax-resin adhesive. This was good enough to show prospective buyers, but it wasn’t conservation. It was up to the Met’s team had to address the fold and the tack holes.

First they had to flip the painting onto its face, remove the stretcher, strip-lining and wax residue. You can see the team in action in a series of videos posted in this blog entry by Michael Gallagher. Then they had to flatten out the fold and bring the surface in plane. Again Gallagher posted a series of short and sweet videos to demonstrate the process. Before they could deal the holes, they had to flip the painting right-side up and work from the surface. That was ingeniously done as well.

Tubes, man. Handy with a giant Picasso curtain; handy with a giant Le Brun canvas.

After reattaching the canvas to its stretcher, conservators added canvas insets and fills to areas of paint and canvas loss. A coating of fresh varnish was next to prepare the filled areas and other faded parts for retouching.

All that was left was putting it in the new frame, custom-made by Parisian framers who have been in business since the 1800s and shipped to New York in four sections. That turned out to be a fortunate coincidence because the painting is so huge it was barely able to squeeze through the gallery doors naked. The elaborate gilded frame was assembled and installed in the gallery where the painting now hangs in all its restored glory.

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George Takei helps save internment camp artifacts

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

Thanks to the efforts of George Takei, his legion of fans and thousands of people around the round, a collection of 450 artifacts from Japanese American internment camps have been saved from the auction block and acquired by the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles. The collection had been consigned to the Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey, for sale on April 17th, but on April 9th Japanese Americans and heritage organizations including the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation came together to start a Facebook page and Change.org petition protesting the auction.

The Japanese American History: NOT for Sale campaign quickly garnered thousands of supporters, among them actor and activist George Takei. Takei, long before he became famous for playing Star Trek‘s Hikaru Sulu, spent three years of his childhood imprisoned in internment camps with his family — first the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, and then the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. He now serves as chairman emeritus on the JANM’s Board of Trustees. He publicized the efforts to halt the sale and contacted David Rago to work on a solution that would spare the artifacts of Japanese American internment from being dispersed to the highest bidders. Takei negotiated on behalf of the Japanese American National Museum and personally wrote a check to ensure the collection was kept together in the public interest.

On April 15th, Rago announced the lots were being removed from sale. On May 2nd, at a gala event where Takei was given the museum’s Distinguished Medal of Honor For Lifetime Achievement, JANM announced that they had acquired the collection for an undisclosed sum.

“Taking the auction off the calendar was a great victory for the Japanese American community and its friends,” said Sacramento resident Yoshinori “Toso” Himel, an organizer of the “NOT for Sale” campaign. “A second victory was the announcement that now the items will be in a community institution.”

When Himel and his wife, Japanese American historian Barbara Takei (no relation to George Takei), saw an unlabeled photo of Himel’s mother earlier this year in one of the 23 lots up for auction, the couple joined forces with other Sacramento Japanese Americans, including the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, to oppose the public sale. [...]

Himel, also the founding president of the Asian/Pacific Bar Association of California, said the artifacts need to be interpreted and placed in their proper context. He said his mother’s photo, which shows her smiling while her eyes are downcast, was used as propaganda by the War Relocation Authority “to mask the tragedy suffered by her and an entire racial group of innocent people.”

The collection was first amassed by folk art expert Allen H. Eaton. Eaton had wanted to document the art produced by the internees as early as 1943 and in 1945 he visited five of the camps in person. He also dispatched colleagues to photograph the works made at four other camps. During his travels through the camps, he collected a unique group of artworks, furniture, photographs and other items, most of them gifts from the internees at Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. In 1952, his seminal book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, was published. In it Eaton wrote: “This evacuation, regardless of its military justification, was not only, as is now generally acknowledged, a great wartime mistake, but it was the most complete betrayal, in one act, of civil liberties and democratic traditions in our history, and a clear violation of the constitutional rights of seventy thousand citizens.”

Eaton originally intended to put the artifacts he had received on display in an exhibition that would do justice to the 120,000 Japanese Americans, 60,000 of them children, interned during the war. The internees who gave him their artworks and personal belongings did so with the understanding that they would speak for them in this exhibition, but it never happened.

Ten years later Eaton died and his collection went to his heirs who later passed it on to Thomas Ryan, a contractor who worked for the Eatons and was also a family friend. Thomas Ryan bequeathed it to his son John, a Connecticut credit-card marketing executive. Ryan felt he wasn’t in a financial position to give away the artifacts which Rago had valued at $27,000 but he hoped museums and internment camp organizations would successfully bid for the lots. As large groups of internment artifacts don’t come up for sale often, the auction would have established commercial value benchmarks, a notion that itself was deeply offensive to the Japanese American community, as was the idea of pitting private collectors against non-profit organizations and the families of internees whose likenesses, names and artworks were being sold.

“I believe that through understanding comes respect, and JANM continues to take major steps forward to increase the public’s understanding of a grievous chapter in American history,” said Takei, chairman emeritus of the museum’s Board of Trustees, and the fifth recipient of JANM’s Medal of Honor. “All of us can take to heart that our voices were heard and that these items will be preserved and the people who created them during a very dark period in our history will be honored. The collection will now reside at the preeminent American museum that tells the story of the Japanese American experience.”

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Museum acquires Empress Sisi’s silk ankle boots

Friday, May 15th, 2015

A pair of white silk ankle boots worn by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Sisi, was acquired at auction by the Sisi Museum in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. Bidding at the auction, held by the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna on May 7th, 2015, was so fierce that the shoes, estimated to sell for $9,200 – 16,000 wound up costing the museum $86,000. The shoes were worn only once by the Empress and were given to one of her chambermaids in April of 1899 when Elisabeth’s closets were cleaned out after her death.

Other Sisi-related items sold far higher than expected. A beautiful red morocco leather travel writing and sewing box given to Elisabeth when she was an 11 years old Bavarian princess, just five years before she would marry her cousin Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, was estimated to sell for $11,500 – 23,000, but a furious bidding war erupted over this piece too. In the end it went to a phone bidder who paid $86,000 for it. In a fitting bookend to her life, Sisi’s death certificate issued in Geneva on September 13th, 1898, three days after her assassination by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, sold for $17,500, 15 times the low estimate of $1,150.

On the other hand, her personal traveling chamber pot, a lovely white glazed ceramic vessel along with its lockable wooden doeskin-lined travel box engraved with her monogram and the Austrian imperial crown, went for a comparatively modest $5,800, on the low end of the pre-sale estimate of $4,600 – 9,200. I hope the museum bought it because it’s such an incredibly intimate object it belongs in their permanent collection of her belongings.

The Sisi Museum inhabits rooms in the Hofburg Palace that were once the empress’ suite. The objects on display tell the story of her life, starting with her unusually unstructured youth in Bavaria where her circus-loving father avoided the restrictions and formalities of court in favor of his country estate of Possenhofen where the family lived an outdoorsy, free-spirited life of horseback riding and travel. A shy, timorous girl, she was ill-prepared for the exigencies of her new role when she wed the 23-year-old emperor. The rigidity of the imperial court was a heavy burden on her. Pressured by her formidable mother-in-law/aunt Princess Sophie of Bavaria to produce the male heir, Sissy had three children in three years until her son Rudolf was born. All three of these children were removed from her care immediately after their birth; Princess Sophie raised them, not their mother.

Elisabeth had numerous health problems — coughing, insomnia, anemia — exacerbated by what today we would likely consider disordered eating. She was obsessed with maintaining her slim figure, fasting and dieting to ensure her weight never went past 50 kg (110 lb), a very low figure considering she was 5’8″. She exercised assiduously, converting the Knight’s Hall of the Hofburg into a gymnasium and riding horses and walking for hours at a time. Her profound dislike of court life played a role in her illness as well. When she traveled to spas to take the cure, or to Corfu or to Madeira, her symptoms quickly disappeared only to return with a vengeance as soon as she neared Vienna.

Considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe, Sisi spent hours a day on her beauty regimen. Her ankle-length hair took two to three hours a day to arrange. She used all kinds of nostrums and creams to preserve her youthful good looks. Here’s a tip for you from Empress Elisabeth: wear a pounded filet of raw veal on your face underneath a leather mask. Keeps the skin supple, donchaknow.

As she got older and most self-assured, she spent more and more time away from court, traveling and avoiding imperial duties as much as possible. She also avoided politics, only getting involved in Franz Joseph’s decision-making once but to great effect. She was a very vocal advocate for the recognition of Hungary’s political rights and played a significant role in persuading her reactionary husband to agree to the Compromise of 1866 which established the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were crowned King and Queen of Hungary in 1867. The next year Sisi gave birth to their last child, the Archduchess Marie-Valerie. The timing was generally believed not to have been a coincidence, ie, she let Franz Joseph into the bed she’d spent a decade keeping him out of as a reward for the Compromise.

It was a one-time deal. The imperial couple grew increasingly estranged as Sisi continued to travel on her own and avoid the settled domesticity (albeit a massively glamorous version) of life in Vienna that her husband wanted. When their only son Rudolf killed himself in his hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889 after the death of his 17-year-old mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera (we don’t know how she died; it could have been a murder-suicide but the authorities covered everything up and modern examinations of her bones have been inconclusive), Franz Joseph and Elisabeth’s marriage splintered irrevocably. They lived separate lived from then on, although their later letters indicate they eventually developed a genuine friendship.

Ten years later, Sisi was visiting Geneva under an assumed name. She had refused police protection and dismissed her attendants when Luigi Lucheni, aware of who she really was thanks to the newspaper headlines identifying the “Countess of Hohenembs” as the empress, stabbed her in the heart with a sharpened file. Her tight corset slowed her blood loss enough to keep her alive for a few hours before her pericardium filled with blood and her heart stopped beating. Franz Joseph, who had been madly in love with her since she was 15, was devastated by her death. While she had received relatively little press coverage and public attention in the empire during her increasingly withdrawn life, after her death the legend of the beautiful but miserable queen, the open-hearted innocent stifled by imperial etiquette but beloved by the people, sprang into being. A trilogy of films in the 1950s starring Romy Schneider as Elisabeth sealed that image in the modern imagination.

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Letter written in murderer William Burke’s blood on display

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

The University of Edinburgh is participating in this year’s Festival of Museums, a Scotland-wide series of special exhibitions and activities that will take place the weekend of May 15th – 17th, with a romp through their most deadly collections. One Last Fright will include events like a talk about gruesome Victorian medical procedures as seen in prints collected by surgeon Sir John William Thomson-Walker, poisonous cosmetics and dyes from the University’s geology collection and A Scandal in Surgeons’ Hall, an evening of dancing, magic, fortune-telling and a recreation of a Victorian crime scene.

The most popular event — tickets are already sold out but you can still add yourself to the waiting list — is a tour through the University’s collection of Arthur Conan Doyle books and related materials and best of all, a rare glimpse at a scrapbook relating to the Burke and Hare murders. The scrapbook, thought to have been compiled by a medical student shortly after the grisly events were exposed, has never been display in public before. Neither has its most gruesome page: a letter written in William Burke’s blood.

William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants who moved to Edinburgh looking for work as navvies (canal diggers). Burke arrived in Scotland around 1817 and worked the Union Canal. Hare arrived around that time or a little later and also worked the Union Canal. In 1826, he married a widow who owned a cheap but not entirely disreputable (meaning it wasn’t a brothel) flop house. Burke and Hare didn’t know each other or meet until 1827 when Burke and his common-law wife Helen McDougal moved into the same neighborhood as the boarding house. They became friends and, when opportunity struck, partners in murder.

The late 18th and early 19th century saw an explosion of interest in medical studies. The University of Edinburgh was widely reputed to have the best medical school in Britain, if not Europe. So many students clamored to attend its lectures that private anatomy classes sprang up to service the demand. Dr. Robert Knox, a surgeon with a stellar reputation garnered attending to the wounded of the Battle of Waterloo, ran hugely popular anatomy, physiology and surgery courses starting in 1825. At their peak, his classes were attended by 400 students, more than attended all the other private anatomy lectures combined.

Knox’s advertisements emphasized that the every lecture would “comprise a full Demonstration on fresh Anatomical Subjects,” a very tall order when you consider that his 1828-9 Practical Anatomy and Operative Surgery lecture course ran from October 6th 1828 through the end of July 1829 with twice daily demonstrations, ie, dissections of human cadavers. “Arrangements have been made,” the ad assured prospective students, “to secure as usual an ample supply of Anatomical Subjects.”

Just what those arrangements were turned out to be the sticking point. By law, only executed murderers who had been condemned to posthumous dissection were released to anatomy schools. There were nowhere near enough people hanging from the gallows to satisfy the voracious appetite of the University and the private lecturers. For Knox’s Practical Anatomy course alone, we’re talking 10 months of twice daily dissections. Even if he reused bodies a few times — let’s go so far as to say the same cadaver could last a week (highly unlikely) — he still would have needed more than 40 bodies just to get through that one course. Then there was his Physiology course to supply, plus the University’s and the lectures by all the other anatomists.

Where there’s demand, someone is going to come up with the supply, and those someones were known as body-snatchers, grave-robbers, ghouls or resurrection men. Digging up recently deceased bodies was highly lucrative work. Resurrectionists would be paid the equivalent of months of wages for a single body. It was the kind of work best performed by locals who knew who was dead or dying and who had relationships with bribable cemetery sextons and with the anatomists. Locals also knew their way around, necessary for surreptitious nighttime excavation and transportation of dead bodies, and could better avoid or pay off law enforcement.

Burke and Hare were not local. They had none of the connections and knowledge resurrection men needed to make their macabre living. In fact, they quite fell into selling bodies by accident. When an elderly lodger at the Hare boarding house named Donald died still owing £4 rent, Hare and Burke stole the body out of the coffin, replaced it with tanner’s bark, and then schlepped it to the University of Edinburgh where they had heard Professor Alexander Monro III, Chair of Anatomy, was always keen to take a dead body off a guy’s hands. They asked a student in the courtyard if any of Monro’s staff was about and the student suggested they take their merchandise to Robert Knox at Number 10 Surgeon’s Square instead.

There they found three of Knox’s assistants — Jones, Miller and Ferguson — and arranged to deliver Donald’s body after nightfall. Dr. Knox examined the corpse and determined its market value was £7.10s (more than $1,000 in today’s money). None of them asked any questions. They just told Burke and Hare that they would be glad to see them again when they had another body to dispose of. That was December of 1827.

A few months later they had another body to dispose of, only this time it was no accident. Hare got a lodger so drunk he (it might have been a woman; the order of murders is unclear) couldn’t move, then covered his mouth and nose while Burke laid his weight across his chest until he was smothered to death. They put the corpse in a chest and alerted Knox’s assistants that they had fresh material. Miller arranged for a porter to meet them for their convenience and the body was brought to Knox’s lecture rooms. Knox expressed approval at its fresh condition and gave them £10 for the body.

Thus began a pattern that would continue undisturbed for another year. Lodgers would come in and if they weren’t already ill, Mr. and/or Mrs. Hare would get them pass-out drunk so Burke and Hare could suffocate them without the victims being able to put up much of a fight. This method ensured there were no obvious marks on the body indicating murder so Knox and his crew could continue to ask no questions.

Burke and Hare killed at least 16 people before they were finally found out. The last victim was Mrs. Mary Docherty. They were extra sloppy this time, stashing her dead body under a bed that a lodger had left her stockings on. The lodger saw the body and went to the police. Instead of disposing of her promptly in the river or somewhere, they quickly brought the body to Knox and made yet another sale even though they knew the cops would be sniffing around. An anonymous tipster told the police to check Knox’s anatomy lecture rooms and there they found Mrs. Docherty.

Burke, McDougal, Hare and Mrs. Hare were arrested. They had circumstantial evidence of two other murders — a young man names James Wilson (aka Daft Jamie) who was well known in the neighborhood and a beautiful young woman named Mary Paterson who was falsely rumored to be a prostitute — but charged them with Mrs. Docherty’s first because she was the only whose body had been found. The evidence was weak even in the one case because there was no proof she’d been murdered. Concerned Burke and Hare would get off by blaming each other, Lord Advocate Sir William Rae granted the Hares immunity if they testified against Burke.

It was at the trial in December of 1828 that the notion that Burke and Hare had been resurrectionists came into play. The only reason there was any question of whether they were resurrection men was because Helen McDougal needed plausible deniability. She knew Burke and Hare were dealing in corpses, but if she could claim that she thought they had bought the bodies or robbed graves to get them, then she wouldn’t be an accessory to murder. It worked; the jury found the charge against her not proven. Burke was found guilty of the murder of Mrs. Docherty and sentenced to death and dissection.

On Wednesday, January 28th, 1829, Burke was hanged. His body was delivered to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection by Alexander Monro who immortalized the event by writing the following letter with the murderer’s blood.

This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh on 28th Jan. 1829 for the Murder of Mrs. Campbell or Docherty. The blood was taken from his head on the 1st of Feb. 1829.

As was the custom at the time, Burke’s skin was used to bind books and make accessories, some of which are on display today at the University’s Anatomical Museum. Burke’s skeleton was preserved for anatomical study, as recommended by the Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle at sentencing: “I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of your atrocious crimes.”

Monro’s letter made its way into the scrapbook along with news stories, songs and other references to the murders, trial and execution. It will be on display along with a petition signed by medical students around the time of the murders demanding more bodies be made available for anatomical studies. Ultimately the Burke and Hare murders solved the cadaver bottleneck once and for all. In 1832 Parliament passed the Anatomy Act allowing any unclaimed bodies to be given to medical schools for dissection before burial. That gave medical schools access to the great masses of dead paupers instead of the much thinner supply of murderers and put a virtually immediate end to the resurrection trade in the United Kingdom.

(In the US it went on for much, much longer, but that is another story and will be told another time.)

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13th c. rune stick found in Odense dig

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

From the dig that brought you the barrels full of 14th century human excreta in the city center of Odense, Denmark, the latest find is a small wooden stick inscribed with runes in the early 13th century. Excavations were already complete (the last day was August 29th, 2014) when archaeologists picked out three small pieces of wood while processing the large number of finds. The three fragments fit together to form a stick 8.5 centimeters (3.3 inches) long, 1.2 cm (.47 inches) wide and a few millimeters thick. Archaeologists saw there were lines on the front and back and recognized them as runes.

Lisbeth Imer, a rune expert from The National Museum of Denmark was called in to examine the stick. Preserved for 800 years in the anoxic, water-logged environment, the wood was soft with the texture of cold butter. After conservation — a long soak in water-soluble wax — the wood will firm up, but it might also obscure key details of the runes making them harder to interpret accurately. Imer therefore had to work with the soft piece as it was. There’s also a divot missing in the middle and at some point in its long life the stick was gouged by a root growing against the back.

She was nonetheless able to extract key words. The runes are in Latin (the runic alphabet can be used to write in any language, just like the alphabet I’m using right now). There’s the word salu, which can mean “good health” and the back is inscribed t = umi or t = ume famulum suum which together can be read as “Tomme his servant,” Tomme being the stick’s owner and the “his” referring to God. It seems, therefore, that this rune stick was an amulet meant to keep its bearer healthy. A broken hole at one end suggests it may have been worn on a string.

It’s the first runic inscription on a wooden stick found in Denmark in 50 years, but we know these sorts of objects were widespread in medieval Scandinavia despite their relatively poor survival rate because a stash of 670 rune sticks were discovered during excavations at the Bryggen commercial buildings in Bergen, Norway, after a 1955 fire. This rune stick was also found in a commercial milieu. It was unearthed in a layer containing the remains of trade stalls from the 1200s when the area is known to have had a fish market before it was moved just north to a site still known today as Fisketorvet or Fish Square.

The rune stick was displayed to the public on April 25th at Møntergården, Odense’s cultural history museum, as part of Research Day, but it won’t be exhibited again until conservation is completed.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Runes shmunes. What about the poop?! I’m delighted to report there is an update on the barrels of 700-year-old poop excavated at I. Vilhelm Werners Square in 2013, and it may be the greatest update of all time.

First about the barrels themselves: dendrochronological analysis found that the trees used to make the barrels came from Kolobrzeg, Poland, and were felled from 1348 to 1352 and 1346 to 1358. They were used to transport salt from Poland to Denmark and once the contents were removed, the barrels were repurposed. The poop dates to the 1360s, so the turn-over was quite quick. The staves of used barrels loosen up leaving gaps between them, a bug if you’re trying to carry salt, but a feature if you’re using them as latrines. The loose staves allowed liquid to slowly seep out into the ground leaving the solid waste to compact in the barrel. Studies have shown that with proper seepage, a single barrel can remain usable for one person for 20 years.

The compacted poop was removed from the two barrels and is being kept in plastic bags in refrigerators at the Odense City Museums. Researchers take out a teaspoon at a time, run it through a sieve and look at the particulate matter under the microscope. Grains and seeds can be identified by their cellular structure to give us a comprehensive picture of people’s diets in medieval Odense. So far they have found the remains of a variety of lovely fruits — apples, figs, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries — and mustard seed which would have been used as a flavoring spice. They also found miller’s bran and corn cockle seeds from a weed that grows alongside edible grains. The seeds are actually poisonous, but because they are difficult to separate from the grain during harvest and processing, a few seeds make their way up the food chain and down the poop chute. Corn cockles are most commonly found in rye fields, so it was likely rye bread or porridge.

Regarding the moss discovered in the barrels, moss has been found in medieval latrines in England as well. Several species of moss make excellent toilet paper, it seems, and sphagnum moss, aka peat moss, not only provides a comfy wipe, but it has additional hygienic properties as well. There are two kinds of cells in the leaves. The larger of the two can hold water much like a sponge, so it acts as a wet wipe, washing the business area instead of just drying it. In the Middle Ages it was also believed to have antiseptic properties. Interestingly, peat moss is a common additive to modern composting toilets because it encourages the absorption of liquid, encourages aerobic action and helps block odor.

Speaking of odor, Odense City Museums invited Kouki Fujioka from Tokyo’s Jikei University to take a whiff of their medieval poop. He is a scent expert, you see, and has developed a system to detect, isolate and categorize scents. He took odor samples from the barrel excrement and will measure the proportions of acids and alcohols in them which will indicate the level of spoilage. He will also work to replicate the various hearty aromas of 700-year-old human excrement which may sound less than enjoyable, but the museum is excited about the possibilities of recreating the smells of the past. Imagine a museum exhibition in Smell-O-Vision. What an intensely immersive connection to history.

Human excrement isn’t the only scatological gold unearthed at this site. Archaeologists also found a perfectly formed dog crap from the 12th century, a very rare survival, which they are analyzing for pollen and seeds to discover what dogs ate in medieval Denmark.

Oh and they found some gold gold too — a 14th century cross pendant and a delicate 13th century ring with a cabochon garnet — if you’re the kind of weirdo who’s into that sort of thing.

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Chauvet Cave replica opens in France

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015


The walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France are decorated with the earliest known pictorial drawings made during the Aurignacian period, between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago. More than 1,000 drawings of animals — including horses, bison, lions, cave bears, panthers, eagle owls, woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses — hand prints and abstract line and dot designs cover 91,000 square feet of space. The art has unique qualities like incised outlines that give figures depth and a sense of dynamic movement conveyed by multiple legs as if we were seeing the animals in motion.

The cave was discovered in December of 1994 by three speleologists: Jean-Marie Chauvet (after whom it was named), Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. They were the first people to see the splendour on the walls since the cave opening was sealed by a rockfall 23,000 years ago. France learned a hard lesson with the Lascaux Cave which was discovered in 1940, opened to the public in 1948 and in dire condition by 1955 thanks to the carbon dioxide, moisture, contaminants and lichens introduced by unwitting visitors. This time they took no chances. The French government declared the Chauvet Cave a protected heritage site almost immediately and only made it available to fewer than 200 researchers a year.

Because of its excellent condition, the density and quality of the art, which includes some species of animals like the panther and owl seen in no other Paleolithic art, and the rich remains of prehistoric fauna and human footprints found on the ground, the cave was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June of 2014. But how to share said heritage with said world without causing irreparable harm to it? Again Lascaux paved the way. Lascaux II, a replica of the main sections of the cave and its art, opened in 1983 and has been very popular to the tourists who can no longer see the original cave.

In 2008, a contest was launched to select the architect who make a replica of the Chauvet Cave. French architects Fabre and Speller won, but their design for the concrete building that would house the replica cave was only one part of a complex whole. This construction and art project would ultimately requiring the close collaboration of 500 people employed by 35 different companies. A 3D laser scanning survey was carried out in 2011 so that every feature of the cave interior could be duplicated. Since the cave is very long, it was rearranged in the replica, basically folded into a circle with all the art consolidated, but meticulously mapped out to its original topography. The original 91,000 square feet were thus reduced to a more manageable but still vast 32,000 square feet, 10 times the size of Lascaux II.

The construction of the walls, ceilings and floors with their accurate topographic features was achieved by bending thousands of metal rods to precisely match the natural lumps and bumps mapped by the 3D scans. The rods were then welded together in sections that could be affixed to steel beams in the ceiling of the new structure. Before they were installed in place, the cage-like sections were covered with two layers of mortar: one of landscape mortar and a top layer of finishing mortar the same colors and textures as the clay and limestone of the original. Even the cracks were reproduced exactly. A thin layer of fine mortar sprayed with a retardant to keep it damp while the artists work was used for the walls with engraved images and finger paints.

Once the sections were prepped, the artists got their turn. Painters used the same kind of charcoal made from Sylvester pine trees and the ocher pigment used by the Aurignacian artists tens of thousands of years ago. Pictures of the originals were projected onto the wall sections, ensuring they were reproduced accurately to the millimeter. Thanks to the mortars used as a base, these materials will sink into the walls over time just the original ones did.

Because they wanted to reproduce not just the art but convey the experience of being in the original cave, geological features like stalactites and calcite concretions were recreated out of epoxy resin or concrete. Crushed or powdered glass was added to the resin to give it that beautiful glittery look you see in natural cave formations. Some of the pieces were treated with glossy topcoat that make them look wet, like the water that formed them is still dripping.

Once all 27 large panels were complete, they were installed in the building along with replicas of the bones and footprints found on the ground in the original cave. It took only 30 months from the time construction began in 2012 until its completion. The cost was $59 million, sure to be recouped many times over by the expected influx of 300,000 to 400,000 visitors a year. On Saturday, April 25th, 2014, the replica opened to the public.

This video is in French, but even if you don’t speak any you should still be able to follow it roughly based on the descriptions above, and you really should watch it because it is mind-blowing how they put this thing together.

Also, if you have Netflix, you have to watch Werner Herzog’s breathtaking documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He was allowed very rare access to the original cave and the result is an artistic tour de force as much in execution as in subject matter.

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Goya’s witches back together again at long last

Monday, April 27th, 2015

In November of 1792, the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, then 46 years old, was afflicted with a severe illness that almost claimed his sanity if not his life. Symptoms included deafness, dizziness to the point of being unable to stand and vision loss. He spent six months, the first half of 1793, convalescing at the home of financier and collector Don Sebastián Martínez in Cádiz. Martínez secured the best medical attention available for his friend but Goya never did fully recover. He lost his hearing permanently. Martínez described his slow recovery in a letter to Goya’s close friend Martín Zapater, an Aragonese merchant Goya had known since they were schoolboys together at the Escuela Pia in Zaragoza:

The noises in his head and the deafness have not improved, but his vision is much better and he is no longer suffering from the disorders which made him lose his balance. He can now go up and down stairs and in a word is doing things he was not able to do before.

Some doctors today speculate that his symptoms may have been caused by Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder which can cause vertigo, tinnitus (a ringing in the ears), migraines, vomiting, abnormal eye movements and temporary of permanent deafness. Whatever the cause, the illness had a profound effect on Goya. It altered his understanding of his body, and therefore of the body in general, profoundly. He wrote to Zapater at the end of 1792 saying “Now I don’t fear witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, giants, rogues and liars or any kind of body except human ones.”

That would turn out to be a prophetic vision of his art after his recovery. Goya, who up until that point had focused on idealized beauty, relatively sunny compositions and portraits commissioned by the wealthy and aristocracy of Spain, began to explore darker subjects, starting with a series of 11 small oil-on-tinplate pieces that would become known as the Fantasy and Invention series. In a 1794 letter to his friend Bernardo de Yriarte he wrote: “Vexed by my illnesses, and to compensate in part for the great wastes of time they have cost me, I have dedicated myself to painting a group of cabinet pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations that ordinarily find no place in commissioned works.” He mentions one in particular, a courtyard in a madhouse “in which two nude men fight with their warden beating them and others with sacks (a subject which I witnessed in Zaragoza).” Yard with Madmen (1794), now at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, could not be starker in contrast to the Watteauesque tapestry cartoons of his early career, religious paintings and royal portraits painted just three years before his illness.

Although Goya continued to be court painter and make flattering portraits by commission, in his private art he wrestled with those witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, giants, rogues and liars that so compelled him since his own body had turned traitor. Most of these were not for public consumption, although he did paint several witch-themed canvases for the country home of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. In 1799 he published Caprichos, a group of aquatint etchings depicting “numerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society,” whose most famous plate today is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, but he quickly withdrew it from sale out of concern that the Inquisition might come calling over his depictions of clerical folly.

Later in life, between 1819 and 1823, his explorations of haunted humanity came to their fullest fulgor in the Black Paintings, 14 murals he painted on the walls of his country house outside of Madrid called the Quinta del Sordo, meaning the House of the Deaf Man (named after a previous owner). Black because of the dark palette and because of the subject matter, their unflinching horror and modernity have deeply influenced and continue to influence artists ever since. Saturn Devouring His Son remains unparalleled in its depiction of cannibalistic madness, and The Great He-goat (Witches Sabbath), originally on the wall to the left of Saturn on the ground floor of the Quinta del Sordo, is probably the second best-known masterpiece of the collection. The Black Paintings were removed from the walls and transferred to canvas in 1873 and are now in the collection of the Prado.

In the same period when he was so uniquely decorating his walls at Quinta del Sordo, Goya also created an album of drawings known today as the Witches and Old Women album. It was one of eight albums Goya filled with his private visions, imaginings and dreams after his illness and you can see parallels between the small drawings and the figures in this vast Witches Sabbath mural. After his death in 1828, Goya’s son Javier rearranged the drawings into three large albums and after Javier’s death in 1854, his son Mariano sold the three albums. Eventually the drawings were removed and sold piecemeal winding up in collections all over the world.

In the dismantling of the albums, Goya’s careful numbering of each drawing was sometimes cut off, so even though we know, for example, that the 22 ink drawings of witches and old women were once all together in one of the original eight albums, their order was lost. Now for the first time since were sold at auction in Paris in 1877, the witches are all together again and on display at the Courtauld Gallery in London, and in their original order.

In what the noted Goya scholar Juliet Wilson-Bareau calls a “feat in forensics”, conservators and curators spent months examining the sheets to determine the pictures’ correct order. Although Goya (1746-1828) meticulously numbered each sketch, eight lost their numbers over the years. The team analysed the brown and grey ink marks on the back of the drawings and “realised that some stains might be more than just accidental workshop marks”, says Stephanie Buck, the Courtauld’s curator of drawings. These offset marks corresponded with the sketches on the front, which means that the Spanish master drew the pictures in a bound sketchbook and not on loose sheets of paper that were later bound. Buck says that the discovery of the offset marks was instrumental in determining the correct sequencing.

This is not only the first time the drawings from the Witches and Old Women album have all been together again in a public exhibition; it’s the first time any of the eight albums’ drawings have been shown together. Goya only ever shared them with close friends and associates. If you’d like to share the great artist’s unfettered examinations of human nature as he originally composed them, The Witches and Old Women Album exhibition runs through May 25th, 2015.

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Viking blacksmith grave even greater than expected

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Last fall, farmer Leif Arne Nordheim borrowed his neighbor’s backhoe to remove some pesky flagstones from his garden in Sogndalsdalen on the southwestern coast of Norway. Lifting the last flagstone revealed tools — a hammer and tongs — which Nordheim first assumed were of relatively recent manufacture. When he found a bent blade, he realized it was likely archaeological and called in the county Cultural Department. Archaeologists from the University Museum of Bergen soon followed and an excavation of the find site ensued.

The find turned out to be far greater than originally realized, and the ancient blacksmith tools were impressive enough already. Archaeologists unearthed a large collection of forging tools and weapons, including three hammers of different sizes, two anvils, blacksmith tongs, coal tongs, a rake to remove coals, a tray used to add coals, a chisel, a scythe, a sickle, a drill, pieces of grindstone, nails, a single-edged sword, an axe, two arrows and a knife. Underneath the tools and products of the blacksmith trade archaeologists found more personal items: a razor, beard trimming scissors, tweezers, a frying pan and a poker.

The deepest layer of excavation contained ashes, charcoal and small bone fragments. The pieces of bone haven’t been identified yet, but archaeologists believe they are human remains, likely the blacksmith owner of the marvelous tools above. Between the ashes and bones fragments, researchers found the objects that the deceased was probably wearing when his body was cremated: beads and a bone comb.

In total the excavation yielded about 60 artifacts and 150 assorted fragments. Forging tools have been found in graves before, but this is an exceptionally rich collection for a blacksmith burial. Indeed, it’s the richest burial, blacksmith or not, found in the area in years.

“We think that the blacksmiths’ contemporaries wished to show how skilful he was in his work by including such an extensive amount of objects. He might have forged many of these tools himself.”

“The grave gives the impression that this was a local blacksmith and he enjoyed a high status in his society beyond being his trade,” says [co-leader the excavation Asle Bruen] Olsen.

The design of the axe and some of the other metal objects dated them to the 8th or 9th century A.D. Subsequent radiocarbon dating confirmed the date of the burial to be around 800 A.D.

The artifacts are currently being conserved by experts at the University Museum of Bergen. Once they’re stabilized they will go on display, possibly in a dedicated exhibition. Incidentally, the University Museum of Bergen has a neat Instagram account, incidentally. As always, I wish the pictures were bigger, but the highlights from the museum’s collection are fascinating.

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