Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Van Gogh Museum’s exceptional French print collection online

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam first got into the French turn-of-the-century prints when it bought 800 exceptional examples from a German private collection in 2000. Since then the museum has made a point of acquiring more outstanding pieces. There are just under 1,800 French prints from 1890-1905 in the Van Gogh Museum now, but they are almost never displayed because light exposure is so dangerous to them. As of today, 1,739 French fin de siècle prints from the Van Gogh Museum’s collection have been uploaded to a dedicated website where we can see them but light cannot harm them.

The reason the Van Gogh Museum has made a point of collecting French prints is that they’re very relevant to Vincent Van Gogh’s aesthetic, artistic interests and the milieu in which his art evolved. Printmaking really took off in France in the second half of the 19th century. Before then, prints were copies of well-known artworks, an inexpensive way to for the general public to have a faithful rendition of the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo in their homes. Printmaking evolved into a valid artistic medium in its own right when French artists explored the possibilities of the form in a creative and engaging way. The Japonisme trend played a significant role in this shift, because the Japanese had such a rich tradition of artistic woodblock printing as evinced in the work of masters like Hokusai and Suzuki Harunobu.

Many of the greatest artists of the second half of the 19th century had print collections and experimented with lithography and printmaking in their own work. Prints appeared in the public and private spaces of Paris as posters, magazines covers, menus, theater programs, sheet music and books. The medium allowed artists to get their work out there on a large scale, to cross-pollinate with other art forms and even to control the supply and demand of their own output by deliberately creating limited editions coveted by the buying public.

Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, so most of the prints in the collection were made after his death when the rage for printmaking in France reached its apex, but he and his brother Theo followed closely the explosion of printmaking in the fin de siècle. Both collected prints from their friends and contemporaries. The Van Gogh Museum’s print collection begins where Vincent’s collection began and then moves forward connecting the next generation of artists to those who influenced them.

Those connections are at the core of the Van Gogh Museum’s new online exhibition of the print collection. The French Printmaking homepage opens with a group of thumbnails. Click on one and take the plunge, or if you click on “Discover the prints” on the left side to get to a larger assembly of tiled prints. Those tiles of print thumbnails hover behind any individual print you chose to click on as well. Once you’ve clicked on one print, four themes appear at each corner that connect this print to others in the collection. Themes include the publisher, medium, technique, salient features of the print, subject, pattern, and on and on. The Van Gogh staff have assigned an astonishing 1,300 themes to the print collection, which makes it a browser’s paradise.

This approach gives a unique glimpse into the richness of the printmaking community of fin de siècle Paris. You can get an instant understanding of how artists shared the same printers, influenced each other in everything from the paper used to the visual motifs. When click on a print, you can see it’s stats, but there is no detailed paragraph or two explaining the setting, author, etc. that you might expect to find. Instead, the print and its contents are described by keywords, each of them hotlinks to more works in the collection that can also be described by those keywords.

I like me some words, so I was glad to see more than a group of descriptors when I clicked on individual themes. They’re full of information, links to more information, even a list of resources for further reading on your own. It’s a marvelously flexible and user-friendly system and so very highly conducive to lost weekending. And oh, the resolution. The beautiful, perfect, gloriously high resolution. It makes me feel kinda funny, like when we used to climb the rope in gym class.

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Getty buys Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë for record $30.5 million

Friday, January 29th, 2016


The J. Paul Getty Museum blew through the record for Baroque artist Orazio Gentileschi when it bought his Danaë at a Sotheby’s auction Thursday for $30.5 million. That’s more than seven times greater than the previous record of $4,117,803 set in 2007 with the sale of a Madonna and Child. The entire sale of 61 lots took in a comparatively meager total of $53,473,500. If she were a film, Danaë would be a summer tentpole.

The work was part of a series of three paintings commissioned by Giovanni Antonio Sauli, a wealthy nobleman from Genoa, in 1621. Sauli encountered Gentileschi that year when he was in Rome with an ambassadorial delegation to honor the newly elected Pope Gregory XV. Orazio’s brother had already done some work for Sauli, and with Orazio’s reputation as fine artist well-established in Rome, Sauli asked him to come home with him and make some paintings for his palazzo. Orazio accepted the job, which also entailed curating Sauli’s art purchases, and lived in Genoa for three years until he left for France in 1624 to work for Marie de Medici, Regent of France, a pretty dramatic upgrade as patrons go which can be in significant part attributed to the success of the Sauli series.

The three works he painted for Sauli are Danaë, Penitent Magdalene and
Lot and his Daughters. Drawn from different religious traditions — Greek mythology, the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures — the three subjects shared a thematic connection of the human connection to the divine and a stylistic connection of being something on the naughty side. They were very popular and immediately well-known, boosting Gentileschi’s fame and triggering a number of commissions from other local noblemen, the Duke of Savoy, and finally the gig with the ruler of France. The Danaë is generally considered by art historians from the 18th century to the present to be the greatest of the three.

For centuries Danaë remained with Sauli’s descendants, only reemerging in 1975. It was bought by New York art dealer and collector Richard Feigen in 1977, although he had to fight the notoriously prickly California collector and museum founder Norton Simon for it. It’s been in the Feigen family trust since 1998, when prices for Orazio Gentileschi paintings were closer to the $100,000 range than the tens of millions.

While Penitent Magdalene is in a New York private collection, this purchase now reunites the remaining two works in the series. The Getty acquired Lot and His Daughters in 1998. Just a few years later, the museum brought all three of the Sauli commissions together again for a 2002 exhibition. In preparation for the exhibition, a copy of Danaë now in this Cleveland Museum of Art was compared side by side with the Getty’s new baby and was confirmed to be a later duplicate made from a tracing. For many years since it first emerged after centuries of being lost, the Cleveland work was thought to be the rediscovered original, but the original has pentimenti that the copy does not have, and it’s painted in the more rigid, formal manner of a copy. Gentileschi made multiple copies of the other works in the series as well. It was common for artists to make replicas of their most successful and sought-after pieces.

The Getty is, of course, thrilled with its new acquisition.

“The sensuality and splendor of Danaë, which is part of a trio of masterpieces that Gentileschi completed at the apogee of his career, draw together the Caravaggesque naturalism prevalent in Italian art in the early 17th century with the refinement of color which marks the mature style of Orazio, one of the most elegant and individual figures of the Italian Baroque,” said Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum. “During his lifetime Gentileschi was probably the most internationally successful of all the artists associated with Caravaggio.”

Once it arrives at the Getty, Danaë will be displayed in the Museum’s East Pavilion, along with Lot and His Daughters. The timing will be announced.

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Harihara head and body reunited after 130 years

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

France has returned the head of a 7th century statue of the Hindu god Harihara to Cambodia more than 130 years after it was removed. The head was taken from the Phnom Da temple in Cambodia’s southern Takeo province in 1882 or 1883 by French linguist and archaeologist Étienne Aymonier who was the first to fully explore and document Khmer ruins in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in the late 19th century. Cambodia was a protectorate of France at that time, part of the colony of French Indochina, and Aymonier was the colonial administrator. From 1874 through 1882 or 1883, Aymonier surveyed ancient temples and monasteries in southern Cambodia and helped himself to a large number of artifacts which he brought back to France with him. Aymonier’s collection of Khmer treasures went on display at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. The next year they were joined to the Asian collection of the Guimet Museum in Paris.

Harihara is a syncretic deity that blends elements of Vishnu and Shiva, the deities of creation and destruction. The iconography of the statue head is typical of Harihara: the elaborate hairstyle of braids bound together in a multilayer bun on one side of the top of the head, a cylindrical mitre on the other side, a third eye on the forehead and a crescent moon in the middle of the hair.

While the head was in the museum in France, in 1913 French archaeologist Henri Parmentier found the headless body of a statue in Phnom Da. In 1944 the body was moved to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Just over a decade later in 1955, Cambodian archaeology expert Pierre Dupont posited that the head in the Guimet and the body in the Phnom Penh museum belonged together.

Dupont’s hypothesis was recently proved correct when the restoration workshop of the National Museum made a mold of the upper body and sent it to France. It matched the head perfectly. The head and other artifacts collected by Aymonier now at the Guimet were legally exported, so there was no question of a lawsuit or court case. Aymonier had the permission of King Norodom to export the works to France where they would be exhibited to show the West the importance and beauty of Khmer art. The Guimet and the National Museum made a deal to exchange the head for the recently excavated pedestal of a 10th century that matches a statue in the Guimet collection. Both pieces are on permanent loan, so there’s no official change in legal ownership.

On January 21st, conservators reattached the head of Harihara to the body at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The ceremony was attended by 200 people, including government and museum officials, diplomats, foreign dignitaries.

“After it was separated 130 years ago, we are welcoming the reunification of the head and the torso of Harihara,” Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said at the ceremony. “According to our Khmer culture, the reunion is symbolic of prosperity.”

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17th c. Indian textile 30 feet long goes on display

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016


A 17th century devotional textile 30 feet long is going on display at the British Museum as the centerpiece of an exhibition about cultural history of the northeastern Indian state of Assam where it was made. Made around 1680, it’s a type of devotional textile known as the Vrindavani Vastra. This is example is the largest surviving Assamese devotional textile. It is composed of 12 strips of colored silk made using the lampas technique of weaving that were later stitched together to form a huge devotional wall hanging.

According to the 10th-century Hindu scripture the Bhagavata Purana, Vrindavan, a town in Utter Pradesh, was the god Krishna’s childhood home and as such is considered a holy site to pilgrims today. Vrindavani Vastra means “the cloth of Vrindavan.” It is woven with scenes from Krishna’s youth in the Vrindavan forest. Krishna is depicted in repeated motifs fighting the bird demon Bakasura, dancing on the serpent Kaliya, swallowing the forest fire and other elements of Krishna worship that were significant to the 16th century Assamese scholar, mystic and saint Sankaradeva who wrote about them in his devotional dramas. A verse from one of Sankaradeva’s dramas is woven into the textile.

Assam is famous for its weaving, especially in silk and cotton. The lampas technique used to create this textile involved weaving on a a wooden draw-loom with two sets of warp and two sets of weft threads. It was famed for the vibrant and detailed textiles it could produce, and you can see in the Vrindavani Vastra what a wide range of figures, colors, designs, even text, could be made with this technique. Unfortunately despite its extensive use from the 16th through the 18th centuries, the technique is now lost.

The 12 strips of woven silk are each different but related. Experts believe they may have been used to wrap copies of the Bhagawad Purana or to decorate altars. At some point between their creation in the late 17th century and the early 20th century, the 12 strips made their way from Assam, which is just south of the eastern Himalayas, to Tibet where they were stitched together. Four horizontal strips of Chinese brocade and metal suspension loops were added to the top at that time so the now-huge textile could be hung on the wall of the monastery.

It was hanging on the wall of the Gobshi Temple near Gyantse in southern Tibet when Perceval Landon, correspondent for The Times came across it during the British expedition to Tibet, aka the Younghusband Expedition, in 1903-04. He acquired the piece and donated it to the British Museum in 1905.

The textile has rarely been exhibited in its entirety. The new exhibition is the first to explore the vibrant cultural history of Assam.

In the exhibition, the Vrindavani Vastra will be displayed alongside other Assamese objects from the British Museum and several important loans, including another magnificent example of one of these Krishna textiles on loan from Chepstow Museum. This survives as the lining of a remarkable item of 18th-century Anglo-Indian costume. Manuscript leaves from the British Library, masks (the making and acquisition of which have been funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation) and modern textiles will help reveal this intriguing period in Indian history.

Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The Cultural Context of an Indian textile runs from January 21st through August 15th.

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Breitner’s Girl in a Kimono series together for the first time

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

After the reopening of Japan to foreign trade in the 1850s and 1860s, European artists like Claude Monet, James McNeill Whistler and Vincent van Gogh were influenced by Japanese fine and decorative arts. One of Van Gogh’s friends and compatriots, George Hendrik Breitner, was inspired by the Japonisme trend to create a series of 13 paintings of a young girl wearing a kimono.

Breitner was born in Rotterdam in 1857. For the decade between 1876 and 1886 he studied and worked in The Hague where he explored working class areas of the city, sketching the people and places he encountered. He embraced the social realism movement and considered himself le peintre du peuple, the painter of the people. He moved to Amsterdam in 1886 where he was soon able to add photography to drawing and painting. Breitner took pictures of street life, people at work and going about their business in the city, some of the photographs reminiscent of the kind of work Jacob Riis was doing in the crowded and scary tenements of New York City at the same time.

Breitner was one of the first artists to use photos as studies for specific paintings, not just of street scenes but in the studio as well. He integrated his social realist perspective in his studio portraits, making a point of employing models from the working class. One of them was a milliner’s shopgirl named Geesje Kwak who, along with her sister Anna, posed for Breitner in around 1893-1895 when she was 16-18 years old. It was Geesje Kwak who would be immortalized as the girl in a kimono.

Japonisme had intrigued Breitner since he’d traveled to Paris in 1884. He collected Japanese woodcuts and in 1892 visited an exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague. The show was his immediate inspiration for the kimono series. He acquired several Japanese kimonos and a pair of folding screens that he set up in his studio on the Lauriergracht canal. Geesje Kwak posed in the kimonos — one red, one white, one blue — against the backdrop of the folding screens on a bed draped in oriental rugs. She was paid for her time and there was no hanky panky going on; all strictly professional. Breitner kept meticulous records of which models posed for him when, for how long and at what rate.

Breitner’s work with Geesje Kwak ended when she emigrated to South Africa with her younger sister Niesje in 1895. Geesje died of tuberculosis in Pretoria in 1899, just shy of her 22nd birthday. The Girl in a Kimono series was not a success with critics initially, but today they are considered the pinnacle of the Dutch expression of Japonisme in the fine arts. The Rijksmuseum will celebrate the series with an unprecedented exhibition that brings together all of the Girl in a Kimono paintings, including a previously unpublished one from a private collection, plus the preliminary photographs, sketches and drawings Breitner used as studies for the paintings.

There have been exhibitions in the past devoted to this beloved theme of Breitner’s, but the paintings of Girl in a Kimono have never been displayed all together. Displaying all the Girl in a Kimono works together, combined with the preliminary studies in the form of drawings, sketches and photographs, as well as Breitner’s easel and paint box, gives the exhibition above all an impression of the way in which the painter went about his work in his studio on the Lauriergracht in Amsterdam. [...]

In total there are 20 paintings on display, including 13 Girl in Kimono works and one nude. Furthermore, 15 drawings and 15 photographs will be displayed, plus Japanese prints. Moreover, there are two beautiful kimonos from the same period as the ones worn in the paintings.

Breitner: Girl in Kimono opens on February 20th and runs through May 22nd at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

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Infernal Landscape drawn by Hieronymus Bosch

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

A drawing previously thought to have been made by an assistant in the workshop of medieval Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch has been authenticated as a piece by the master himself. Infernal Landscape is a little-known drawing first emerged in 2003 when the anonymous owner sold it auction to an equally anonymous buyer. It has been squirreled away in a private collection since the sale. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), an international art history study that has been researching, analyzing and documenting the oeuvre of the medieval master since 2010 in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death this year, were able to examine the drawing before its first public exhibition this year in honor of the anniversary.

The drawing shows a chaotic, scary, monstrous hell where the souls of the damned are caught in a large fishing net rigged up to a water wheel in the maw of a hellbeast. Some are condemned to act as clappers for giant bells, others cluster in groups while fantastical creatures devour, torture and abuse them. Naked people are made to straddle the blade of a huge knife in the mouth of a giant in a basket. It’s the kind of scene Bosch is best known for, reminiscent of the Hell panel in The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych.

In fact, it was its very Boschishness which initially led scholars to think it was the work of an assistant. They thought it was a pastiche, a copy of several Bosch figures made by a student. The BRCP used state-of-the-art technology to analyze the drawing. They examined it with infrared reflectography, ultra high-resolution macrophotography in both infrared and visible light, X-radiography and microscopy. They tested the paper, handwriting and inks, comparing them to known Bosch drawings from major European collections. The team found that some of the figures in the Infernal Landscape match underdrawings in paintings. There is a similar fellow in a basket underneath The Garden of Earthly Delights, even though Bosch chose not to include him in the final painting.

“It’s not just a ‘successful pastiche’, as some have called it. I’ve seen quite a few of these, and 99% of the time, they are not very inspiring,” [BRCP project coordinator Matthijs] Ilsink says. “This one is very, very good.” He says the argument that the work is “too Bosch to be by Bosch” does not hold water, given the fact that other, equally “Boschian” drawings — including Tree Man (around 1505) in Vienna’s Albertina — are considered to be authentic works. “You can’t blame Bosch for being too Bosch,” he says. [...]

Ilsink says that Bosch often changed his mind as he worked, so his paintings have a lot of overpaint and underdrawings. “Someone creating a pastiche of his works wouldn’t have access to these earlier versions,” Ilsink says. He admits that some might argue that Infernal Landscape was made in the artist’s workshop, but he does not believe this to be the case.

The drawing is an important addition to Hieronymus Bosch’s body of work. It’s large in size and so richly chaotic that it gives art historians a glimpse of Bosch’s additive, free-association approach to composition.

The BRCP’s research has also gone the other way. The team discovered that two paintings attributed to Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross and The Seven Deadly Sins are likely the work of followers, not the artist. Macrophotography, x-radiography and infrared reflectography revealed that Christ Carrying the Cross that it was produced after 1525, nine years after Bosch’s death, and the painting style is dissimilar enough to make it unlikely that it was even made in his workshop. The Seven Deadly Sins was exposed by its underdrawings and overall quality as definitely not the work of Bosch himself, although it’s possible that it was made in the family workshop.

The Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, commonly referred to as Den Bosch, birthplace, home and workplace of Hieronymus Bosch, is celebrating the anniversary year with a great many parades, concerts, games, theatricals, art shows, lectures and, for the December finale, “the lighting of the Bosch beast” in the city center which I haven’t been able to find a precise description of but sounds like the greatest Burning Man ever. The Noordbrabants Museum will hold a major exhibition of Bosch’s work. Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius brings together masterpieces from top institutions in Europe and America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. For the first time, a majority of Bosch’s works will be together on public display in the city where they were painted. Artworks include world-famous pieces like the Haywain Triptych and the Ship of Fools, as well as virtually unknown works like the newly authenticated Infernal Landscape drawing and 12 panels recently restored by the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative which have never been on view to the public before. The exhibition runs from February 13th through May 8th, 2016.

Den Bosch was founded in the 12th century a fortress city and much of the historic center has survived intact, including the complete medieval ramparts that encircle the old town. It was spared from destruction in World War II and spared from even worse destruction by well-meaning modernizers after the war thanks to the city council’s quickly declaring the entire old city a protected historical townscape before the first rampart could be felled or the first canal filled. That means if you take one of the special Bosch Experience tours available from March to November of this year, you will be seeing things he actually saw, walking the same winding roads he walked, visit the same places he worked and lived.

All of the research and analysis the BRCP has done over the past six years will be published in a two-volume monograph later this month. There will also be a website, funded by the Getty Foundation, where all the BRCP’s research and images will be available for our rapt perusal. It’s set to launch before the opening of the Noordbrabants Museum exhibition but there’s no url yet. I’ll update when the site goes live.

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Joe the Quilter’s murder cottage found

Friday, January 8th, 2016

The evening of Tuesday, January 3rd, 1826, began like so many others for Joseph Hedley. He bought a pound of sugar, picked up a pitcher of fresh milk, a sheep’s head and pluck (an offal package of heart, liver, spleen, sweetbread and lungs often sold with the head) from Mrs. Colbeck, the wife of a local farmer, and headed home to his secluded cottage on the outskirts of Warden, Northumberland. At 6:00 PM, labourer William Herdman stopped by the cottage on his way back from his job at the paper mill and spent a few moments visiting with Joe. They sat by the fire and chatted while Joe prepared some potatoes for his dinner. At around 7:00 PM a peddler named Mrs. Biggs asked Joe for directions having missed her turn in the dark. That was the last time he was seen alive, except by his murderer.

Four days later, some of his neighbors grew so concerned by their elderly friend’s absence that they broke into his house. They found the food he’d gotten Tuesday evening on the table as if he’d just walked in and set it down. They found Joseph lying a pool of blood in a small inner room where he kept his chickens and wood for the fire. He had been cut 44 times on his head, face, chest and neck. His hands had deep defensive wounds inflicted during the old man’s desperate struggle to fend off his attacker. A garden hoe with blood and grey hairs on the handle and head lay across his chest.

The cottage bore the evidence of his brutal last struggle. The bed tester was torn down. Blood was found on the door lintels, the chimney, the walls, the plates on the table, and splattered on the walls and floor. His clogs were found outside, lost in a futile attempt to flee, an attempt also testified to by the muddy state of his clothes.

The tiny cottage had been ransacked. All of the drawers and containers were open and the contents strewn about, but as far as could be ascertained, only a handful of Hedley’s few possessions — two silver table spoons, four tea spoons, two silver salt cellars — seemed to be missing. Authorities suspected the motive for the murder and destruction was theft. Despite his humble means, there was a completely unfounded rumor going around that the 75-year-old man on parish relief had secret riches stashed in the house. It seemed someone of malicious intent had heard the gossip and was willing to chop an old man to ribbons to get to the non-existent treasure.

The brutal murder of Joseph Hedley made news around the country. A widower who had cared tenderly for his bed-ridden wife for eight years before her death, Hedley was reputedly a kind, charitable man who gave to those in need even though he himself had very little and relied on the likes of Mrs. Colbeck and the support of the parish to survive. He was more than gainfully employed, however. In fact, he was widely known as Joe the Quilter due to his gifts with the needle.

Joe the Quilter started out as a tailor, but didn’t take to the trade. Pattern-cutting and seam-sewing were not for him. Decorative stitching, on the other hand, was. He became adept at stitching floral patterns, geometrics and figures onto linen and cotton. He would cut the patterns on cardboard, put the template on the fabric stretched across a frame and pencil through the holes, creating the outline of the design on the textile. Over time Joe developed an impressive collection of designs for his clients to pick from when ordering a quilt. And order they did, from Ireland and the United States as well as closer to home. Very few of his works have survived. The ones that have are in museums.

His fame as an artisan earned assured the government made a genuine effort to find the perpetrator of this heinous crime. Home Secretary Robert Peel offered His Majesty’s full pardon to any accomplices who came forward with information, as long as they were not ones who wielded the weapon. The Overseers of the Poor of Warden offered a 100 guinea reward for information leading to the capture of the culprit. A few people were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder, but they were released shortly thereafter. The trail went cold and the murder of Joe the Quilter was never solved.

The cottage was demolished in 1872. By 1887, the location of the cottage was lost. Last year, student archaeologists from University College London and Newcastle University and local volunteers led by experts from the Beamish Museum began looking for the cottage. Because of the sensational murder, the cottage was recorded in architectural detail by police, journalists and others, giving researchers today rare insight into the living quarters of the working poor in Georgian England who did not, as a rule, have elevations and floor plans of their hovels drawn up for posterity.

The initial exploration in November of 2014 discovered promising clues that they might have found the cottage site. It was covered for the winter and excavation resumed last September. The dig has unearthed the bases of three walls, part of the flagstone floor, one side of the brick fireplace, evidence of a wooden partition that once separated the main room from the chicken room. About one third of the width of the cottage, including what would have been the front wall, was trimmed off when a field boundary cut through the home’s footprint. The cottage turns out to have been slightly larger than reported, about 30 feet long by 20 feet wide, or 600 square feet total surface area.

The team has also found hundreds of pottery fragments, iron nails, buttons, a four-penny silver groat used for Maundy money (charitable giving) and a bone pick, a tool used by quilters. One key artifact discovered is a copper alloy name badge inscribed “Rev R. Clarke, Walwick.” A Reverend Clarke is known to have trudged through almost impassable snow to bring succor to Joe when he trapped by the snow and “perishing of want” during the winter of 1823. The copper plate probably came off his saddle.

The remains of the cottage have been numbered brick by brick, stone by stone, and will be removed to storage at the Beamish Museum. Beamish is an open air museum telling the stories of daily life in north England in the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s. A new project entitled Remaking Beamish will expand the museum to include a new typical 1950s town and to enlarge the 1820s section. Joe the Quilter’s cottage will be rebuilt, complete with the original flagstones his clogs once trod, as part of the enlarged Georgian exhibition, a poor working’s man dwelling to contrast with the Pockerley manor house of the local gentleman farmer which is in the section.

For more about the discovery of the cottage and its significance, see the Beamish Buildings blog

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A look inside a crocodile mummy

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

The British Museum has performed a new study of a 2,500-year old crocodile mummy which is now on display for the first time in 75 years. Scanning Sobek: Mummy of the Crocodile God, is one of The Asahi Shimbun Displays, a series of short exhibitions that explore objects in a new light. In this case, visitors will get to see the crocodile itself and the new information about the creature’s life and death revealed in the study.

The mummy is a Nile crocodile that dates from 650 – 550 B.C. and is four meters (13 feet) long. It was mummified after death, dried in natron and then coated in beeswax and pitch before being wrapped in linen bandages. The mummy was a representation of the god Sobek, the crocodile-headed deity which symbolized the power of the pharaoh, fertility, military strength and protection from harm. Crocodiles, which lay as many as 80 eggs in one clutch and which ferociously protect their young, carrying hatchlings on their backs or even in their mouths, were seen as great generators and guardians, powers that took godly form in Sobek and the pharaoh. The British Museum mummy has more than 25 mummified hatchlings on its back, representing that combination of generative and protective power evinced by the Nile crocodile.

It was one of about 300 crocodile mummies discovered in the Per-Sobek temple in Kom Ombo, a site about 30 miles north of Aswan in southern Egypt, and in the neighboring animal necropolis of el-Shatb. The Kom Ombo temple was the largest and most important center of worship of Sobek in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras. Built in the 2nd century by Ptolemy VI Philometor on the site of an earlier temple to Sobek by 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 B.C.), the unique symmetrical double temple had two sections, the southern one dedicated to Sobek, the northern to falcon god Horus the Elder. The necropolis, with hundreds of crocodile graves cut into the hard rock, was in continuous use from the Middle Kingdom through the Greco-Roman period.

The temple bred sacred crocodiles, the mummified eggs and juveniles used as votive offerings to the god. Sacred crocodiles bred at the temple were treated with kid gloves, adorned with jewels and hand-fed. Worshipped as the incarnation of the god himself, they lived out their natural lives and were mummified after death. They were probably as tame as fearsome Nile crocodiles could get. In Book XVII of his Geography, Strabo describes priests feeding a sacred crocodile in Crocodilopolis, modern-day Faiyum, the largest center of cult worship for Sobek.

[T]here is a sacred one there which is kept and fed by itself in a lake, and is tame to the priests. It is called Suchus; and it is fed on grain and pieces of meat and on wine, which are always being fed to it by the foreigners who go to see it. At any rate, our host, one of the officials, who was introducing us into the mysteries there, went with us to the lake, carrying from the dinner a kind of cooky and some roasted meat and a pitcher of wine mixed with honey. We found the animal lying on the edge of the lake; and when the priests went up to it, some of them opened its mouth and another put in the cake, and again the meat, and then poured down the honey mixture. The animal then leaped into the lake and rushed across to the far side; but when another foreigner arrived, likewise carrying an offering of first-fruits, the priests took it, went around the lake in a run, took hold of the animal, and in the same manner fed it what had been brought.

The Kom Ombo temple was in ruins from Nile flooding, earthquakes and centuries of stone quarrying for building projects when it was cleaned, restored and rebuilt as much as possible by French engineer and archaeologist Jacques de Morgan in 1893, then acting Director of Egyptian Antiquities. A selection of the surviving crocodile mummies from Kom Ombo are on display in the new Crocodile Museum near the temple that opened in 2012. The British Museum’s crocodile mummy was discovered during Jacques de Morgan’s work on the site and donated to the museum in 1895.

The mummy was scanned at the Royal Veterinary College using high-resolution computer tomography. The scans were used to create a 3D model displaying the details of the crocodile’s insides and the contents of his stomach confirms at least part of Strabo’s account.

Not all organs were removed by the embalmers and the stomach contents – the remains of the crocodile’s last meal – are still present. The crocodile appears to have been fed select cuts of meat prior to death, including a cow’s shoulder bone and parts of a forelimb.

Exact replicas of these bones – 3D printed from the scan data – are displayed next to a four-metre CT scan visualisation of the crocodile. The bones were found inside the stomach along with numerous small irregular-shaped stones, which the crocodile swallowed for ballast and to assist digestion, as well as several unidentified small metal objects.

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Tutankhamun’s restored gold mask back on display

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

The gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun has gone back on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo after two months of restoration to repair a botched reattachment of its false beard. The beard fell off last summer when the mask was returned to the display case after workers replaced a burned out light bulb. Anxious to get the mask back on display as quickly as possible, museum staff hastily reattached the beard with a sloppy thick application of epoxy that hardened into an unsightly layer.

When the news got out a few months later, at first museum officials denied any damage had happened before admitting that someone had blundered. They brought in a team of German and Egyptian restorers led by Christian Eckmann and secured a donation of 50,000 euros from the German Foreign Ministry to fund the restoration. After months of analysis and preparation, work began on the mask this October.

Researchers took the opportunity to study the mask thoroughly. It was 3D scanned and examined inside and out with a microscope in the hope that it might answer some questions about its composition, like what materials and techniques were used to put it together, and whether there is any evidence supporting the theory most recently proposed by British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves that the mask was first made for Queen Nefertiti and then hastily modified for Tutankhamun after his unexpected death at age 19.

The biggest challenge was determining how best to remove the epoxy layer to liberate the false beard from its clumpy prison. Restorers wound up sticking with simple tools that would have been available to the original makers in 1,324 B.C.: wooden tools and heat. The adhesive was slightly warmed to soften it and then removed by careful scraping with the wooden sticks, spatulas and other tools which are soft enough they won’t scratch the gold. It took two weeks to remove the beard and another six to figure out how best to reattach it in a responsible, reversible way.

Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty said the reattachment came after studies explored the best materials to use for the work.

“We indeed found them to be the natural materials which the ancient Egyptian used; they are still the best tools: beeswax,” el-Damaty told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday. “It was prepared well and the beard was attached very successfully.”

The false beard wasn’t really attached when Howard Carter discovered the tomb in 1922. It looked like it was in place, but the support had broken in antiquity so when Carter moved the mask it was in two pieces. The mask and beard were displayed separately until 1946 when for the first time he beard was glued in place. That wasn’t the only time glue was used. Restorers found multiple thin layers underneath the epoxy one. The restoration team will publish a full report of the analysis, study and restoration of the mask and beard.

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Centenarian ham and peanut 3D scanned

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

A 112-year-old ham and 125-year old peanut in the collection of the the Isle of Wight Museum in Smithfield, Virginia, have been 3D scanned by Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology professor Dr. Bernard Means. Means specializes in scanning archaeological artifacts and recreating them with 3D printing for use in the classroom and to give the public something they can touch and explore while learning about the ancient objects. The result is the Virtual Curation Laboratory, a collection of more than 600 3D printed artifacts scanned from originals at Jamestown Rediscovery, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, the State Museum of Pennsylvania, the Virginia Museum of Natural History and many other institutions. Its primary focus is on Native American artifacts, but when the Isle of Wight Museum asked Dr. Means to scan their ham and peanut, he was glad to oblige.

“The ham and the peanut are clearly important to the people of Isle of Wight County, and Virginia as well, and the lab is pleased to help them tell the story,” Means said. “But, I can also use the ham scan and peanut scan to teach my students at VCU.”

In the spring semester, Means and his students will be working on a series of exhibits, and the ham and peanut scans will likely be featured among a larger presentation of the human use of animals and plants. Some of these items, he said, will go on display at the VCU Globe building in the spring.

Officials with the Isle of Wight County Museum may also talk with Means’ students remotely about their museum and why the ham and peanut are important cultural artifacts.

The ham is the crown jewel in the Isle of Wight Museum collection and has achieved national fame in the years since it was first cured and hung from a rafter in one of P.D. Gwaltney Jr.’s packing houses in 1902. P.D. Gwaltney, Jr., founded the pork processing company with his father P.D. Gwaltney, Sr., in 1880 and soon Gwaltney hams became a household name. Junior was instrumental in the passage of the 1926 act of the Virginia General Assembly which defined Smithfield hams as a product raised only in specific parts of Virginia and North Carolina and makes imposter hams liable to fines.

That one 1902 ham was overlooked as the company expanded and became increasingly successful. When it was finally rediscovered in 1922, P.D. Gwaltney, Jr., adopted it as a company mascot and pet. By 1924 Gwaltney had it in an iron safe which he opened daily to show off his prize superannuated ham to visitors and guests. He then had a brass collar inscribed “Gwaltney’s Pet Ham” and a leash made for the ham and took it on the road to conventions and county fairs an example of how effective and safe the Gwaltney curing process was. He insured it against fire and theft for $1,000, upping it to $5,000 in 1932. The ham has been featured in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoon three times — in 1929, 1932 and 2003 — and gets yearly birthday parties where “Hammy Birthday” is sung by an adoring populace. The museum also has a webcam appropriately named HamCam pointed at Gwaltney’s pet for those who can’t get their ancient ham fix in person.

The Isle of Wight Museum’s greatest star is billed as the world’s oldest cured ham (there’s a Chicago ham 10 years older than the Gwaltney ham hanging in a butcher’s shop window in Oxford, England) and is reputedly still edible. Edible and delectable are not synonymous, obviously. The fat in dry cured meat oxidizes before its tenth birthday taking much of the flavor with it. Then as it diffuses throughout the ham, it gives it a rancid odor and taste. Eventually it gets rock hard and darkens. The oldest commercially available hams are aged for eight years.

Still, theoretically if you discarded enough of the outer layers, there would be a ham nugget in there that could be ingested by humans without killing them, ie, it’s edible. Dr. Means noted that the ham has “a powerful scent that I cannot describe,” which I’m guessing was more on the powerful stench side of the scale than the powerful delicious side.

As for the peanut, it can’t compete with the ham for fame, but it’s older and is tied both to the Smithfield ham tradition and to the Gwaltney family’s personal history. Before getting into the pork business, P.D. Gwaltney, Sr., had been in the peanut business in Tidewater, Virginia. He built the first industrial peanut cleaning plants and was known as the Peanut King before Amedeo Obici took the crown with his Planters Peanut Company in the early 20th century. Processing peanuts and processing hams were connected businesses at the time. In fact, when the 1926 act was passed, one of the definitions of a Smithfield ham was that the hogs were peanut-fed. This requirement was eliminated in 1966.

The Isle of Wight Museum plans to add the 3D scans to its website, giving viewers a different view of the famed pork product than what they can see through the HamCam. It may even use the scans to create a 3D printed ham for visitors to interact with since the original is kept under glass for preservation purposes.

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