Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Skrydstrup Woman wasn’t from Denmark either

Monday, May 29th, 2017

In 2015, a team of researchers from the National Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen announced that Egtved Girl, a Bronze Age woman whose well-preserved, beautifully appointed oak burial has made her an icon of Danish archaeology, was not from Denmark. Strontium isotope analysis of her molar and wool fibers found in the grave found that she most probably from southern Germany, most likely the Black Forest area.

Egtved Girl isn’t the only Bronze Age woman in Denmark buried in a hollowed-out oak coffin discovered in an exceptional state of preservation. Researchers have targeted three of them — Egtved Girl, Skrydstrup Woman and the Borum Eshøj Woman — as part of a study that examines the origins and mobility of these women whose rich grave goods and elaborate burials attest to their high social status. The Tales of Bronze Age Women study aims to understand how elite women were perceived in Bronze Age society and what their origins and movements over time can tell us about their roles in establishing and reinforcing long-distance trade networks, political alliances and cultural exchanges.

Skrydstrup Woman was certainly a person of great importance in her community. Her remains were unearthed in a burial mound in Southern Jutland in 1935. One of the richest Bronze Age burials ever discovered, her wool skirt and sweater were in exceptional condition. Attached to her woven belt was an ornate comb made of horn. She wore two large spiral earrings made of gold and a necklace. Her blonde hair was two feet long, intricately plaited in multiple braids then drawn up into an updo bound by a horse-hair hairnet. Her teeth were in fantastic condition, with thick, clean layers of enamel and not a single cavity, evidence that she had had a healthy, varied diet as a child.

Her elaborate hairstyle and clothing, too large and bulky to be practical for moving around in, had to have been arranged as part of her funerary treatment. It must have taken hours for the hair to be braided and styled, and the skirt, made from a single two meter-wide piece of fabric that was repeatedly folded at the waist to create even pleats that went all the way around the body, was also an extremely labour-intensive endeavor. The tumulus she was buried in was 13 meters (42.6 feet) in diameter and 1.75 meters (5.7 feet) high, all formed from thousands of pounds of peat that had to be harvested and arranged into the mound shape. The entire community had to be involved in creating such a time-consuming and resource-intensive grave.

Since the sensational discovery of Egtved Girl’s origins, the research team has discovered that Skrydstrup Woman also moved to Denmark from foreign parts. Like Egtved Girl, she was only around 17 years old when she died in about 1300 B.C., but unlike Egtved Girl, who arrived on Jutland a year or so before her death, she had lived in Skydstrup for three or four years at the time of her death. Before she moved to Denmark as a young teen 13 or 14 years of age, Skydstrup Woman lived hundreds of kilometers away. The strontium isotope signature couldn’t pinpoint the exact location, but likely candidates include what are today the Czech Republic, France or central Germany.

The new information about the famous Bronze Age remains was revealed on national broadcaster DR’s big-budget documentary series Historien om Danmark (The History of Denmark).

“This is going to change a whole lot about our understanding of the entire Bronze Age,” Professor Karin Margarita Frei of the National Museum of Denmark says in the programme. [...]

“The result is important because it shows that the Egtved girl was not a freak occurrence. It appears there is a pattern that is telling us how people, and in this instance women, moved around during the Bronze Age,” Frei, who also led the Egtved girl study, told the broadcaster. [..]

The sudden long-distance migration may be the sign of an alliance between tribes or an arranged marriage, Frei told DR.

For more about the Tales of Bronze Age Women project, watch this overview video from the National Museum.

This video gives more detail about how strontium isotopes act as “nature’s GPS.”

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Watch Irving Finkel play the Royal Game of Ur

Sunday, May 28th, 2017

If you’ve the day off Memorial Day, or if you just have 25 minutes to spare during the course of your day, you can finally luxuriate in the nerdly delights of watching Dr. Irving Finkel, one of the world’s foremost experts in cuneiform and the man who deciphered the oldest game rulebook in the world, playing the Royal Game of Ur. His opponent is YouTuber Tom Scott, who seems a bright, capable fellow and who is, of course, completely outclassed. He’s very cheerful about it, though, and puts up a fine fight.

This is not the amazing open tournament Dr. Finkel played at the Getty on April 2nd about which I promised a glowing write-up to any reader who attended and reported on the experience. It was a private game filmed and uploaded to the British Museum’s YouTube channel, and I suspect that makes for a far more entertaining video. The asides to the camera and the dry repartee between the players are sheer joy, and they’ve added a helpful graphic to show the progress of each players’ pieces which are otherwise hard to distinguish on the board itself. There are also captions explaining the action and some of the historical context, as well as letting viewers know of coming attractions like Scott’s exploration of probability. Then there’s the slow-mo instant replay of key moments — mainly involving Finkel’s killer moves — that would otherwise have been missed.

Royal Game of Ur, ca. 2600 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.The version of the game they’re playing is highly simplified. They’re using a replica of the beautiful lapis lazuli, shell and wood board that was unearthed by Leonard Woolley in Iraq’s Royal Cemetery of Ur in 1926-1927, and ridiculously cool tetrahedral dice. The best part, other than just seeing the game played by the man who has researched it for decades and the unsuspecting lad who found himself in Dr. Finkel’s crosshairs, is that these guys are just plain funny. The little burns never end. Finkel wins all the points for his aside to the camera in reaction to Scott’s probability thing: “I’m rather intrigued to discover that my opponent, who looks like a perfectly civilized person, is in fact mathematically capable.”

On a personal note, watching Irving Finkel be awesome makes me think of Livy’s account of the sack of Rome by the Gauls under Brennus in 390 B.C. Brennus’ men were so awestruck by the immovable dignity of the elderly patricians who had refused to leave their homes and remained seated stock-still in their chairs while the Gauls plundered the city that at first all they could do was stare at them. When one of them could no longer contain himself and stroked the beard of patrician M. Papirius, Papirius responded by striking him with his ivory staff. That broke the spell. Papirius was the first to be killed. The rest of the patricians were next. Then the Gauls killed everyone else and burned the city to the ground.

I’m not saying I would disrespect the purity and greatness of Dr. Finkel’s snowy beard by daring to put my filthy mitts upon it, but I now understand the powerful draw Brennus’ men must have felt more than I ever did.

But I digress. Watch this game. It’s a blast.

 

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Ancient bronze stud stolen from Pompeii exhibition

Saturday, May 20th, 2017

Today in people are the worst news, a bronze artifact from the 6th century B.C. has been stolen from an exhibition at the archaeological site of Pompeii. The object was a door ornament on loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Basilicata in Potenza. It’s not of great monetary value. Just 7.3 inches in diameter and relatively plain in decoration, it was insured for 300 euros ($333).

Archaeological site of Satrianum. Photo by Liberotag73.The piece is of great historical meaning to Basilicata, however, as it was discovered at one of the most important archaeological sites in the region: a hill known as Torre di Satriano where a Norman castle, of which only the tower remains, once dominated the land. Excavations beginning in the 1960s (the first led by pioneer of early Italian archaeology R. Ross Holloway) have discovered evidence of human habitation of the site going back to the second millennium B.C., developing into a complex system of terraced settlements in the 8th century B.C. inhabited by the Peuketiantes, a local people who by the 6th century B.C. were building elaborate multi-use structures influenced by artistic and architectural styles of Greek colonies in Taranto and Corinth. One of the archaeologists who has excavated Torre di Satriano is Massimo Osanna, today the director of the archaeological site of Pompeii.

Massimo Osanna, the director general of the Pompeii archaeological site, expressed dismay. “In addition to being a gesture that injures Pompeii and Italy’s cultural heritage, even though it is not a priceless piece, it hits me on a personal level and it was an area where I had conducted the excavation myself,” he said.

Bronze ornaments in door replica on display before theft. Photo by Circo Fusco/ANSA.The bronze stud was an example of that connection between one of the ancient Italic peoples of southern Italy and the colonies of Magna Grecia, which is why it was on display in the Pompeii and the Greeks exhibit in Pompeii’s Palestra Grande (the large gym). One of several bronze ornaments unearthed at the 6th century structure at Torre di Satriano, the wooden door they once adorned had long since decayed. For the exhibition, the stud was set down the middle of a cartoon-like replica of the door with three others just like it, while two larger, highly ornamented bronze knockers were placed on each side, recreating what archaeologists believe was the original placement.

Bronze stud on display before theft. Photo by Circo Fusco/ANSA.The director of the Basilicata Regional Museum Hub, Marta Ragozzino, voiced “solidarity to my friend and colleague Massimo Osanna”.

“Above and beyond its extraordinary Lucanian context, which Osanna himself investigated and which the show on Pompeii and the Greeks has finally unveiled to the public, the stolen relic has modest value,” she said.

“But a gesture of this kind leaves us incredulous and pained, a gesture that attacks and wounds the cultural heritage that belongs to the community and, when brought to Pompeii, the whole world”.

Police forensic technician examines place where artifact was stolen. Photo by Circo Fusco/ANSA.The theft was discovered by security guards on the evening of Wednesday, May 17th, at around 8:00 PM. That means the stud was stolen during visiting hours, a bold and/or foolhardy choice since the thieves would have had to get behind the protective plexiglass panel in full public view and unscrew the bronze piece from the door-like panel. After hours, the room is under video surveillance. Police are now reviewing the tapes to see if the perpetrators can be identified.

There have been rumblings about the quality of the security — the ALES firm has the security contract for the Ministry of Cultural Heritage — for some time. To have an artifact stolen in front of the guards’ noses in broad daylight hasn’t exactly silenced the doubters.

 

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Ashmolean acquires unique Civil War painting

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Group portrait of Prince Rupert, Colonel William Legge and Colonel John Russell by William Dobson, ca. 1645, 150 x 198 cm © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.The Ashmolean Museum has acquired an exceptional group painting by Civil War-era court painter William Dobson. It was acquired through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, which allows donation of nationally significant artworks and antiquities in place of payment of taxes owing, and allocated to the Ashmolean because of the painting’s unique relevance to Oxford during the Civil War.

The work was commissioned by Colonel John Russell, commander of Prince Rupert’s elite Bluecoats regiment, in the winter of 1645–6, less than a year before Dobson’s death. The painting captures three of the Royalist commanders: Prince Rupert, King Charles I’s nephew, Colonel William Legge, the Governor of Oxford, and John Russell. This was a tough time for the three men and for the Royalist cause in general. Rupert, the figure on the left, had just been defeated at Bristol, surrendering the main Royalist port to the Parliamentarians. John Russell, a supporter of Rupert’s who had valiantly fought at the Battle of Naseby and barely survived to fight again at Bristol, is on the right. Legge stands in the center.

The painting is filled with symbols and references to the recent discord between the King and his nephew and to Rupert’s enduring loyalty. The scroll which Rupert holds in his right hand may refer to the blank sheet which Charles had sent to him on which to compose his confession. Instead, being innocent, Rupert asked Legge to return the letter empty, which greatly moved the King and resulted in a pardon. Rupert has also discarded his scarlet cloak which he was recorded as wearing when he rode out of Bristol following his surrender.

Beside the cloak is a dog wearing a collar with the initials ‘P.R.’ The dog is a motif traditionally associated with faithfulness and may, in this painting, be intended to stand for Boye, Rupert’s famed white poodle who rode into battle with the Prince and was killed in 1644 at Marston Moor. To Parliamentarian pamphleteers Boye was a ‘devil dog’ credited with supernatural powers, such as being weapon-proof and able to catch bullets with his teeth. Among Royalists, Boye was also immensely popular and as ‘Sergeant-Major-General Boy’, he became the army’s mascot. There is also, in the painting, hints of revenge likely to be directed towards George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol, who led the faction against Rupert and tried to convince the King that his nephew was a traitor. The central figure dips his cockade in the glass of wine which evokes biblical episodes where clothing stained with wine symbolized vengeance.

Oxford became the new Royalist capital in 1642 after Parliamentarians took London and King Charles I fled. There he established his court in exile where it remained until the city was successfully besieged by Parliamentarian forces in 1646 and Charles escaped yet again, this time disguised as a servant.

Elias Ashmole by John Riley (1646–91). Oil on canvas, 124 x 101 cm © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.Elias Ashmole was a staunch Royalist. He left London in 1642 too, and moved to Oxford in 1644 where he was appointed an ordnance officer for the King’s army. A lawyer by trade, Ashmole was a man of eclectic interests including alchemy, botany, astronomy and collecting antiques, coins and books. He took full advantage of the opportunities his new town had to offer. In 1645 he was accepted to Brasenose College where he would pursue his studies in natural philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and astrology.

Long after the Civil War was over and just a year before the Restoration, Ashmole’s renowned collection of coins, book and manuscripts was geometrically expanded when John Tradescant the Younger, who like his father was a famed gardener (they’re both buried in the St. Mary-at-Lambeth churchyard) and collector of varied treasures from books and coins to weapons, taxidermied animals and curiosities of natural science, either gave his collection to Ashmole or was conned out of it by Ashmole in 1659.

The Statutes of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.The Ashmole-Tradescant collection was bequeathed to Oxford by Ashmole in 1677. In 1683 he had the whole kit and caboodle moved to a new museum on Broad Street custom-built to house the treasures. The collection was by then so large that it filled 26 great chests and had to be moved to the museum by barge. Unlike its predecessors, which were either private holdings or used for institutional research and teaching, the original Ashmolean was the first modern public museum, forming the blueprint for museums as we know them today. That first Ashmolean building on Broad Street still stands, now as the Museum of the History of Science.

Friday, May 19th, is the 400th anniversary of Elias Ashmole’s birthday. The Ashmolean will be celebrating their founder’s 400th birthday with a grand parade down Broad Street by Civil War reenactors. King Charles I will lead the procession at the head of his army. When they reach the Ashmolean, they will join Elias Ashmole’s birthday party where reenactors will bring to life the characters in his 400th birthday present painting.

 

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National Museums Scotland gets Galloway Hoard for £1.98 million

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

Selections from the Galloway Hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.The Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (QLTR) has allocated the Galloway Viking Hoard to the National Museums Scotland (NMS) on the condition that they make an ex gratia payment of £1.98 million ($2,550,000) to the finder Derek McLennan who discovered the hoard in 2014. NMS has until November of this year to raise the sum. They’ve set up a donation site (which is showing me a DNS error at the moment, probably because it’s brand new).

Unique gold bird pin from the Galloway Hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.The bulk of the find is a rich Viking-age hoard of silver jewellery and ingots. However, it also contains an outstanding range of exceptional precious metal and jewelled items including a rare gold ingot, a gold bird-shaped pin and a decorated silver-gilt cup of Continental or Byzantine origin. The cup is carefully wrapped in textiles and is the only complete lidded vessel of its type ever discovered in Britain or Ireland. This vessel contains further unusual objects: Glass beads from Scandinavia. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.beads; amulets of glass and rock crystal; pilgrimage relics; a silver penannular brooch; another rare gold ingot; five Anglo-Saxon disc brooches of a kind not found in Scotland before; and jewelled aestels, pointers used to read and mark places within medieval manuscripts.

Other finds from around Britain or Ireland have been exceptional for a single type of object—for example, silver brooches or armlets. However, the Galloway Hoard is unique in bringing Stamp-decorated bracelets from Ireland. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.together a remarkable variety of objects in one discovery, hinting at hitherto unknown connections between people across Europe and beyond. It also contains objects which have never before been discovered in a hoard of this age. Incredibly, fragile textiles, leather and wooden fragments have also survived, providing an extremely rare opportunity to research and reveal many lost aspects of the Viking Age.

The Dumfries and Galloway Council, which launched a campaign earlier this year to keep the hoard in the county where it was discovered, is less than pleased with the QLTR’s decision.

Cathy Agnew, Campaign chair, said: “This treasure was buried in Galloway for safekeeping 1,000 years ago – it is deeply disappointing that the QLTR believes it should be allocated to the National Museum in Edinburgh where it will potentially be lost amongst so many other wonderful artefacts.

Silver ingots. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.“This is a most unfortunate decision for the region and for Scotland. It is doubly disappointing that a more enlightened approach has not been taken, especially as 2017 is Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

“The support from the public, from academics, politicians of all parties, and so many others – across Scotland and the world – to keep the hoard in Galloway, where it would be cherished, has been magnificent. It is a real shame their voices and their passion have gone unheeded.”

Brooch from Galloway Hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.It’s hard for a county council to win against the resources of a national museum, especially when the local museum that would house the hoard has not actually been built yet. They made a valiant effort, drastically increasing the budget for the new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery and raising a great deal of money and support for the cause of keeping the hoard in Dumfries and Galloway. They knew it was a long shot, however, and all the while hoped to be able to come to an agreement with NMS for joint ownership.

Detail of brooch decoration. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.National Museums Scotland showed no interest in shared custody. It thinks it is the proper home for a treasure of international significance, because they have the wherewithal and expertise to give it all the care and security such complex, delicate archaeological materials need. The preservation of the extremely rare surviving organic remains in particular requires specialists and facilities that the National Museums can provide. Its location in Edinburgh will also “ensure that the Hoard is seen by the maximum number of people, from Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, the UK and internationally.”

Brooch from Galloway Hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.In its press release on the allocation of the hoard, NMS had this to say on Dumfries and Galloway’s involvement:

National Museums believes that it is important there is a display of the Hoard in Dumfries and Galloway, and intends to continue to seek a dialogue with Dumfries and Galloway Council to ensure that a representative portion of the Hoard goes on long-term display in Kirkcudbright Art Gallery.

Runes inscribed on silver ingot. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.It’s not joint ownership, but it’s something. Had they made a tandem bid that was accepted, the bigger museum would almost certainly have had the greater say in the division and exhibition of assets anyway, so in the end the Kirkcudbright Art Gallery might well end up with much the same sort of display it would have had if they had partnered with NMS.

 

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Preview Rome’s San Giovanni subway museum

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Ancient Roman pottery on display in the San Giovanni subway station. Photo by Andrew Medichini/AP.After six years of delays caused by constant archaeological discoveries, the first station of Rome’s new Metro C line is complete. The San Giovanni station near the Papal Archbasilica of St John in Lateran was unveiled to the press this week. The subway stop won’t be open to the public until the end of the year at the earliest because the rest of the line is still under construction. The station’s atrium museum was opened to the public on April 1st of this year, but that was just for the one day. It’s not clear whether visitors will be able to enjoy the exhibits before the official opening of the San Giovanni subway station.

Iron pitchfork from Imperial farm. Photo courtesy the Cooperativa Archeologica.The construction of the San Giovanni station beginning in 2011 unearthed a vast swath of the city’s history, from prehistory to the modern era. The richest finds date to the late Republic and early Imperial era, with the most extraordinary features discovered on a 1st-3rd century A.D. commercial agricultural concern 20 meters (65 feet) below the surface, the closest ever found to the center of the ancient city. Archaeologists discovered farming-related artifacts including a three-pronged iron pitchfork, woven baskets, and leather fragments, possibly from a shoe or glove. The farm’s engineering was evidenced in grooves carved deep into Lines of amphorae recycled as water channels found during San Giovanni construction. Photo courtesy the Cooperativa Archeologica.stone from the many turns of a long-decayed waterwheel, and in recycled amphorae, their ends cut open to be nested into each other in long lines for use as water channels. Archaeologists also found a huge hydraulic reservoir (115 feet by 230 feet), the largest ancient Roman water basin ever found, dating to the 3rd century A.D.

“It’s so big that it goes beyond the perimeter of the (metro) work site and it has not been possible to uncover it completely,” [excavation head Rossella] Rea explained. “It was lined with hydraulic plaster and, on the basis the size that had been determined so far, it could hold more than four million litres of water”. [...]

“It seems likely that its main function was to be a water reservoir for crops and an area that made it possible to cope with overflows from the nearby river. No other basin from ancient Roman agriculture is of comparable size. Beyond the walls of the work site it extends toward the (ancient city) wall, where it is probably preserved”.

Organic finds from the Imperial-era farm. Photo by Andrew Medichini/AP.San Giovanni’s massive archaeological endowment didn’t stop there. A surprising number of well-preserved archaeobotanical remains were recovered, among them seeds, nuts, and the roots and stumps of willows and other trees. A number of peach pits were also discovered, likely the remnants of the farm’s orchards. Peaches are not native Roman fruits — these probably originated in Persia — and even in the Imperial era they were still considered an expensive, exotic import. It indicates that the farm was used to produce luxury foods, likely for the Imperial table.

Clay and lead pipes from the 1st century A.D. on display at San Giovanni station. Photo by Andrew Medichini/AP.And that’s just scratching the surface of what was found during the San Giovanni dig. More than 40,000 artifacts were unearthed (hence the half a decade of delays): ancient pottery, coins, oil lamps, delicate glass perfume bottles, baked clay pipes, lead pipes, architectural elements, sculptures, reliefs, colorful dishware from the 17th through 19th centuries and on and on. The station museum displays a broad selection of these treasures in spacious, well-lit display cases.

Strata and dates marked on the wall as the escalator descends to the train platforms. Photo by Andrew Medichini/AP.The station has been ingeniously designed to take advantage of its subterranean location to create an immersive time machine experience for travelers and visitors. Riders enter the station today, then as they descend towards the train platforms, they pass through the Middle Ages to the Rome of the Emperors to the Republic all the way back to the Pleistocene. Artifact exhibits and information panels accompany you as you time travel, marking important dates in the city’s history.

Amphorae on display at San Giovanni station. Photo by Andrew Medichini/AP. Roman copper, bronze and silver coins from 3rd century A.D. on display at San Giovanni station. Photo by Andrew Medichini/AP.

 

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Rodin’s unique Absolution on display for the first time

Monday, May 1st, 2017

Absolution on display in Kiefer-Rodin exhibit, Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo courtesy the Musée Rodin, Paris.Absolution, a unique and mysterious work by Auguste Rodin, has gone on display at Paris’ Musée Rodin for the first time since its creation in around 1900. Very little is known about this sculpture. There is no documentation about it in the artist’s archives, and he never made a marble, terracotta or bronze version of it. It’s such an experimental piece with no directly comparable works in Rodin’s oeuvre that curators aren’t even sure if it’s finished. The fact that he kept it at all suggests Rodin was at least satisfied with it.

Absolution before treatment. Photo courtesy the Musée Rodin, Paris.It has never been exhibited before because it is incredibly fragile. Three plaster sculptures are draped with a fabric coated in plaster, the latter of which posed a particularly thorny conservation challenge. It was kept in storage wrapped in paper, and when conservators removed the wrapping, they found the piece coated in dust and broken in several places. The three plaster figures had come apart and the fabric had lost a good portion of its plaster coating. In order to even get to the figures, the draping had to be lifted which, given its extreme fragility, was a risky operation. Then the broken figures had to be put back together and the fabric, cleaned and repaired, put back in place. They had to accomplish all of this with just an old black and white photograph of how the sculpture had once looked to go on.

This video shows the difficulties conservators had to overcome to stabilize Absolution enough to put it on display, albeit in a glass box to protect it from even the smallest breeze that might cause the textile to move.

Ugolino absolved by the Earth in "Absolution," during conservation. Photo courtesy the Musée Rodin, Paris.Rodin was one of the first sculptors to include textiles in his artworks. He took advantage of the flexibility of the medium to drape and mold the fabric, which he would then coat in plaster. The integration of textiles lent his sculptures a soft, fluid element in marked contrast with the hardness of plaster and stone. In Absolution the textile envelopes the figures of a man, Ugolino della Gherardesca, betrayer of his benefactor, condemned to the lowest circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno; a woman, representing the Earth; and the head of a martyr. The draping obscures many details of the sculpture within, framing and highlighting the thematic significance of the kiss of forgiveness, the eponymous absolution.

Scaffolding erected around "Absolution" for conservation. Photo courtesy the Musée Rodin, Paris.Absolution has been on display since last month at the Kiefer-Rodin exhibit. The exhibition commemorates the centenary of Rodin’s death by pairing his work with pieces by contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer that were inspired by sculptures and drawings by Rodin. Like Rodin, Kiefer experimented with contrasting media, hard and soft, textile and stone. By putting Kiefer and Rodin together, the exhibition emphasizes the modernity of Rodin’s vision. It will run through the end of the year.

Conservators use an old photograph as a guide during conservation. Photo courtesy the Musée Rodin, Paris.The original plan was for Absolution to travel to the Barnes in Philadelphia where it would be on display from November 2017 until March 2018 before returning for permanent display in Paris, but the Musée Rodin’s conservators determined that it is impossible to transport the delicate sculpture anywhere, never mind across the Atlantic, without damaging it. The textile is the main sticking point. Any vibration or movement can cause the gypsum to flake off, and because of the way it is draped over the plaster figures, it can’t be packed or wedged in a way that supports it during transit. Figuring out protective packaging for the textile would be so complex and experimental an engineering challenge that the Musée Rodin is unwilling to take the risk.

So Absolution is staying in Paris, safe from people’s breath and air currents in its glass box.

 

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Florence Nightingale’s Egyptian artifacts to go on display

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Florence Nightingale standing with owl, Athena. Lithograph by F. Holl after a sketch by Florence's sister Parthenope. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.Florence Nightingale wasn’t even 18 years old when she first realized the expected life of an elegant young woman of her milieu — husband, children, charitable causes — was not for her. One of two much-loved daughters of wealthy, upper class parents, Florence grew up at Embley Park in Hampshire, spending the summers in the manor house of Lea Hurst on her father’s estate in Derbyshire. Her parents had progressive views of women’s education, and both Nightingale daughters received a thorough classical education from their Cambridge-graduate father William. On February 7th, 1837, at Embley, Florence felt “God called her to His service.”

Embley Park, Hampshire. Drawing by Parthenope Nightingale. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome ImagesWhat form this service would take she wouldn’t know for some years, but at least by 1844, nursing was on her mind. American poet and author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic Julia Ward Howe recalled that while she and her husband Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe were visiting the Nightingales at Embley that year, Florence asked Dr. Howe, “If I should determine to study nursing, and to devote my life to that profession, do you think it would be a dreadful thing?” He replied that it would be a good thing, a response that buoyed her hopes.

She began to plan in secret to pursue her vocation. The plan was to learn the job by working as a nurse at Salisbury Hospital for a few months and then come home and display her newly acquired skills to such great advantage caring for the sick and destitute in the local village of West Wellow that any doubts her family might harbor would be instantly dispelled.

She didn’t even make it to the first step. Her mother was so horrified by the idea of Florence working as a nurse in a hospital that the plan was stillborn. It wasn’t the gross aspects of the job that so terrified Mrs. Nightingale. Disease, exposed body parts, gruesome operations, rivers of blood paled in comparison to the sexual shenanigans doctors and nurses were reputed to indulge in on hospital wards. Nurses were widely seen as little more than doctors’ paid mistresses.

Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell from "Biographie des sages femmes celebres," by Alois Delacoux. 1834. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.To her parents’ credit, they both looked into the idea, contacting their many friends in the medical profession to ask their opinions. William Nightingale even argued Florence’s case in correspondence with a doctor friend, but the responses were uniformly negative. Nursing was no job for a moral, religiously devout, rich, attractive, highly educated and marriageable gentlewoman. Even pioneering female physician Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell told Florence that a young lady she knew decided the only way for her to be taken seriously as a nurse without being assumed to be some doctor’s side-piece was to dress in pantaloons, cut her hair short and hope her deep voice kept the wolves at bay. A head nurse in a London hospital told Florence “she had never known a nurse who was not drunken, and that there was immoral conduct practised in the very wards, of which she gave me some awful examples.”

Florence was passionately opposed to the life expected of her. She felt her calling to the marrow of her being. She wanted to be a “savior” in God’s name, for her existence to have a profound purpose. The Nightingales hoped some travel might distract their determined daughter, maybe even inspire her to follow her many intellectual pursuits instead of nursing. In 1847, Florence was sent to Rome with some friends of the family. She loved it, but as soon as she returned to London in 1849, she found work inspecting hospitals and working at schools for poor children.

Faience amulet acquired by Florence Nightingale in Egypt. National Museums Liverpool.And so the prospect of more foreign travel was dangled before her. This time her father was sending her, again with friends of the family, to Egypt and Greece. Again she loved it. On her trip to Egypt in 1850, she picked up several easily transported figurines as souvenirs. They were not fancy things, and as a group she had a rather low opinion of them, but there were some she really liked. She wrote to her sister Parthenope:

As for the Egyptian rubbish, you may do just what you like with it, keep it or give it away. There is nothing that reminds me of what I have seen, nothing that savours of my Karnak except the bronze dog, the brick seals which sealed the tombs at Thebes, and the four little seals in the light box … you don’t know how difficult it is to get anything at Cairo – for I know you will think, and very truly, what I have sent home very shabby.

Faience figurine acquired by Florence Nightingale in Egypt, 1850. National Museums Liverpool.Parthenope kept them, and they remained in the family for almost a century. The last owner was Rosalind Nash, daughter of Florence’s cousin and her close friend and confidante. In 1949, she donated the group to what is now the National Museums Liverpool. On April 28th, they will go on display for the first time in Liverpool World Museum’s new Egyptian gallery, home to the second largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the UK (the British Museum has the largest).

Ashley Cooke, the senior curator of antiquities at the World Museum, is delighted to display her amulets at last. They included four to the protective goddess Taweret, particularly cherished by women during childbirth.

Shabti of Pa-di-Neith acquired by Florence Nightingale in Eygpt, 1850. National Museums Liverpool.“What she brought back is fascinating to us, but I think she expected to be offered ancient treasures and she was very disappointed with what was available,” he said. “Ironically we are displaying some of the objects which she did rate and was very pleased at getting hold of – which have turned out, alas, to be fakes.” [...]

In a later letter she mentioned the most precious of her seals again: “I possess an antiquity though which I really do value, an official seal, of the time of Rameses the Great, my hero, with his cartouche upon it. An undoubted reality. Who will dare to open letters sealed with the great Rameses’ own seal?”

Cooke said kindly: “Unfortunately the four little seals are all forgeries but at least they gave her some pleasure and they are quite pretty little things.”

Florence Nightingale tending to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. National Library of MedicineNot even all the wonders, fake or real, of Egypt could keep Florence from achieving her goal. Five years after her trip to Egypt, Florence Nightingale went to tend to the wounded of the Crimean War, and the rest, as they say, is history. Her role in the war may have been overstated in hindsight, but her struggle against societal disapproval to even get a chance at nursing played an essential role in her many great accomplishments after her experience in the Crimea. She built nursing into a profession with standards of care and commitment, founded the first secular nursing school and advocated tirelessly for improving healthcare for people of all social strata.

 

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Jorvik Viking Centre reopens 16 months after flood

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

HRH Prince Charles with archaeologists Peter Addyman and Richard Hall at the Coppergate dig in 1976. Photo courtesy York Archaeological Trust.On December 27, 2015, the Jorvik Viking Centre was flooded by the heavy rains that submerged downtown York. One of York’s most popular attractions, the Jorvik Centre is a recreation of the streets of Viking York whose foundations were discovered on and around Coppergate Street during an excavation by the York Archaeological Trust from 1976 to 1981. The excavations unearthed artifacts like a silk cap, coins, amber and cowrie shells that proved 10th century Viking York had extensive trade links stretching as far as the Byzantine Empire and beyond.

(The Lloyds Bank Coprolite. Photo courtesy the York Archaeological Trust.Coppergate is also the find spot for a record-breaking archaeological treasure: the Lloyds Bank Coprolite, discovered in 1972 at the construction site of the bank branch. It is the largest known human coprolite, a majestic turd eight inches long by two inches wide, that was mineralized and thus preserved in exceptional condition. The crap provided a rich glimpse into the life of a 10th century York Viking. He or she subsisted mainly on bread and meat, which explains the sheer size of that beast, and was riddled with parasites and parasite eggs.

This video featuring York Archaeological Trust paleoscatologist Dr. Andrew Jones talking about the coprolite beats raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens by a mile on my personal favorite things scale.

(Pardon the digression. You know I can never resist archaeological poop.)

Foundations of Coppergate's Viking streets under the museum floor. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.Curators were able to rescue the large collection of artifacts unearthed in Coppergate from the floodwaters, but the mannikins of Vikings going about their daily lives and their recreated homes and businesses could not be moved. They stewed in the murky water that filled the first floor of the museum until it receded. The damage to the exhibits and the facilities was extensive.

New recreation of Viking latrine being flushed. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.Insurance payments and copious fundraising allowed the Jorvik Centre to rebuild and expand, improving some of the tableaux, adding new stinks to the beloved smell-o-vision feature of the recreations, and creating a new gallery that will allow the museum to securely host important loans from other institutions. After 16 months and £4.3 million ($5,380,000), the newly renovated Jorvik Viking Centre reopened to the public on April 8th.

York Helmet. Photo courtesy the York Archaeological Trust.One of the centerpieces of the grand reopening is the Coppergate or York Helmet, an 8th century Anglo-Saxon helmet that was found in a wood-lined well during construction of a shopping center in 1982. The pit was near the site where the remains of Viking York were discovered that is now the Jorvik Viking Centre. Even though the helmet was damaged by the mechanical digger that found it, conservators at the British Museum were able to reconstruct it to its original condition. It is one of only three intact Anglian helmets ever discovered in Britain.

The York Helmet’s permanent home is the Yorkshire Museum. It will be on display at the Jorvik Centre for four weeks in honor of the reopening.

“Although itself not strictly Viking, it is likely that it was appropriated and used by one of the Viking settlers into the late ninth century. It is a prestigious piece of armour, so it could have been buried in its wood-lined pit by the new owner to hide it, but for some reason, was never reclaimed, and remained underground until the very last excavations of the Coppergate dig in 1982,” comments director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, Sarah Maltby. “We are looking forward to bringing the helmet back in Coppergate — it is a real treat for those visiting during our first month of re-opening that they will see it in almost exactly the same spot as it was unearthed.”

Bedale Hoard after conservation. Photo courtesy the Yorkshire Museum.After this brief visit to its old stomping grounds, the helmet will return to the Yorkshire Museum for a new exhibition Viking: Rediscover the Legend. A collaboration with the British Museum, the exhibition will bring together for the first time some of the greatest Viking and Anglo-Saxon archaeological treasures ever discovered, including the Bedale Hoard, the Vale of York Hoard, the Gilling Sword and the Lewis Chessmen. It opens at the Yorkshire Museum on May 19th and runs through November 5th before touring the country, stopping at the University of Nottingham, The Atkinson, Southport, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Norwich Castle Museum.

Jorvik Viking Centre's new boat recreation. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre. Blacksmith recreation at the Jorvik Viking Centre. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.

 

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Look at Idrimi’s statue and receive his blessing

Monday, April 10th, 2017

Idrimi statue, 15th century B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.One of the gems in the British Museum is the statue of Idrimi, King of Alalakh, an ancient city-state in what is now Turkey, in the 15th century B.C. Destroyed in 1200 B.C., probably by the Sea People, Alalakh was never rebuilt. The remains of the city are today the archaeological site of Tell Atchana, which was first excavated by famed archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1930s. The statue of Idrimi was unearthed by Woolley in the remains of a temple during the 1939 dig season.

Woolley described the find in a dispatch on May 21st, 1939:

“A rubbish-pit at the temple gave us great surprise. From it there came a white stone statue just over a metre high of a Hittite king, a seated figure; the head and feet were broken off but except for part of the foot the statue is complete and in wonderfully good condition and even the nose is only just chipped. The figure is covered literally from head to foot with cuneiform inscription which begins on one cheek, runs across the front and one side of the body and ends at the bottom of the skirt, rather more than fifty lines of text. Nothing like that has been found before.”

Idrimi statue, 3/4s view. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.Nothing like that has been found since. The Akkadian language inscription (pdf of translation here) is a detailed autobiography of Idrimi’s life and military conquests. Its chronology of monarchs, wars and population shifts remains to this day the primary source for the history of the Levant in the 15th century B.C. According to the inscription, Idrimi was born in Halab, modern-day Aleppo, Syria, part of the kingdom of Yamhad, the youngest of seven sons of a prince. Driven out of Aleppo by an unspecified “outrage,” Idrimi and his family fled to Emar where their maternal aunts lived, but Idrimi couldn’t tolerate going from prince to the poor relation; so he took his groom and chariot and joined up with groups of nomads in Canaan who recognized his noble lineage and acknowledged him as their ruler. This is the first known written reference to the Land of Canaan.

After seven years of vicissitudes and sacrifices to the god Teshub, Idrimi finally reclaimed his ancestral heritage and became king of Alalakh. Many conquests, much booty and the construction of great palaces and temple followed. Alalakh prospered for 30 years under Idrimi’s rule. At the bottom of the inscription, Idrimi threatened dire consequences to anyone who would seek to erase this record of his achievements or claim it as their own.

He who removes this my statue, , may the sky curse him, may his seed be closed in the underworld, may the Gods of sky and earth divide his kingdom and his country! He who always changes it, in any way whatever, may Teshub, the lord of the sky and the earth and the great gods in his land, destroy his name and his descendants!

There’s another coda to the inscription, this one anomalously carved into his cheek so it looks like the cuneiform version of a speech bubble.

Thirty years long I was king. I wrote my acts on my tablet. One may look at it and constantly think of my blessing!

That goal will now be fulfilled on a vastly greater scale than Idrimi could ever have imagined. The statue has been in the permanent collection of the British Museum since it was excavated. Its surface is so fragile that to preserve the inscription the statue is on display behind protective glass. Not even researchers are allowed to get behind the glass, which means the inscription has not been able to benefit from the latest scholarship on Akkadian cuneiform.

title=Scanning technology has stepped into the breach. For two days, Idrimi was liberated from his enclosure so experts from the Factum Foundation could 3D-scan the statue using close-range photogrammetry and white light scanning. With every minute detail of the surface captured, the data was used to generate a 3D model available online to anyone in the world who wants to examine the statue.

It is encased in glass because “dust contains moisture, which wears away the natural laminates in the stone”, [Curator for the Levant at the British Museum James] Fraser says. It is carved from magnesite — a soft, brittle stone that may have been chosen because it was easy to carve. The glass barrier also prevents close study of the text. Instead, scholars have had to rely on old photographs and transliterations of the text to aid their research. “The digital model will revolutionise access to the object,” he says. It will also act a great touchstone for conservators because it is an accurate representation of the object’s condition as of 2017.

James Fraser gives a brief tour of the inscription during the short time Idrimi was out of his enclosure for the scanning in this video:

And now for Idrimi in his full 3D scan glory. Get your ancient king’s blessing here!

Incidentally, Idrimi is in excellent company on the British Museum’s Sketchfab page. There are 3D scans of ancient statuary from Egypt, Greece and Rome, a Bronze Age bracelet and two of the Lewis chessman (one king, one queen).

 

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