Rare glimpse at priceless relics

English Heritage is opening the doors of one its main storage centers to the public. It’s a treasure trove of 3000 years of English history, and will only be available for public viewing on two more days.

“We’ve got a few pre-historic finds and then we have items from Roman sites like Beadlam Roman villa, through to fortifications like Helmsley Castle, Pickering Castle, Clifford’s Tower and abbeys and priories such as Rievaulx, Byland and Whitby.” […]

“We’ve got examples of Roman padlocks which are instantly recognisable and the Beadlam collection includes rings, bracelets, coins and even Roman tweezers,” she said.

“The villa was occupied by successive generations during the height of Roman rule and gives an insight into how the wealthy classes lived.”

As well as ancient weapons such as arrow-heads and canon balls, the Helmsley store houses old-fashioned tourism signs that once adorned many Northern castles and abbeys and which escaped the scrap-heap.

The warehouse also contains Europe’s most extensive collection of carved medieval stone from sites like Rievaulx Abbey and Kirkham Priory.

Oh, and entry is free.

Anyone within reasonable distance of Helmsley in North Yorkshire really needs to find their way there on August 23rd and September 20th. Be sure to call ahead and make an appointment (Helmsley Castle visitor center, tel: 01439 770173) or they won’t let you in.

The Brutus Coin

As in minted by Marcus Junius Brutus, assassin of Gaius Julius Caesar, complete with a crystal clear image of his ignominious mug.

The Brutus coin, minted 42 BC

Brutus and his conspiratorial friends assassinated Julius Caesar on March 15th, 44 BC. On March 20th he cleverly observed that everyone hated him for having killed the most popular man ever, and he hightailed it out of town to Greece.

He whiled away a couple of years studying philosophy and raising money for an army which would lose to Antony and Octavian at the Battles of Philippi in 42 BC. How better to raise money than to mint it? Hence the Brutus coin, one day’s wages for a foot soldier, dated 42 BC.

This amazing coin was unearthed under highly shady looting-like circumstances, and sold to a British coin dealer. The Greek government caught the sellers on their way out of the country, confiscated the ill-gotten gains, and then scored the coin back from the British dealer.

I actually feel a little bad for the poor dealer who gets neither a refund nor the coin, but them’s the breaks when you’re dealing with suspicious provenance. Especially nowadays. Countries like Greece and Italy are seriously hounding other countries to turn over stolen artifacts, and they’ve been remarkably successful.

How reviews made the world

Okay, as promised, I watched “How Art Made the World” on PBS last night, and overall I quite enjoyed it. It’s gimmicky — mainly in the editing and soundtrack — but not desperately so, and there were some very cool moments:

  • Spivey holding the wee 4-inch Venus of Willendorf in his hand. I knew it was small, but seeing it held really brings it home.
  • The montage of other venuses from all over the Mediterranean. Some of them are so alike you’d think they were carved by the same hand.
  • Prof. V.S. Ramachandran explaining how exaggerated features are intensely stimulating to seagull chicks as a prism through which to view these highly unrealistic venuses.
  • A recreation of the Italian diver uncovering the Bronzi di Riace. Yes that’s right. I actually found a recreation compelling. That’s a first for me, let me tell you.
  • The montage of Greek statuary showing the development of anatomical realism.
  • The explanation of the Greek version of exaggerated physical features, using a living model and some computer graphics to describe how the Greeks divided the body into planes and then sought to make each section different but balanced.
  • The examination of the Bronzi di Riace as examples of Greek exaggeration despite their seeming realism.
  • I’m looking forward to the follow-up episodes. Until then, I’ll leave you with a little something fun to look at courtesy of the Bronzi di Riace.

    Restoring medieval Kabul

    Prince Charles and Hamid Karzai are joining forces to rebuild the war-ravaged Murad Khane neighborhood of Kabul. Afghanistan has been at war with one power or another pretty much forever — the British even burned Kabul down once — so Murad Khane is the only remaining glimpse of medieval Kabul, and it’s in seriously dire straights.

    … most of the buildings are derelict, the area is piled high with rubbish and a green trickle of sewage runs along the streets of the city of 3.5m with no sewers or running water. Stewart chose Murad Khane partly because it was difficult. “I wanted to do something bold and urgent,” he said.

    Amid the rubble, Stewart discovered old merchants’ houses that retained the carved wooden jalis or lattice frames and movable shutters but are nowadays inhabited mostly by pigeons.

    In a sweet seller’s former home, a collapsed staircase leads unexpectedly to an enchanting room of carved wood flowers and peacocks, moulded plaster niches and coloured glass.

    The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, named after the medieval capital of Afghanistan, will also focus on reviving moribund traditional local crafts like woodcarving and calligraphy, and they’ve rented an 18th century mud fortress to serve as training grounds.

    For a more impassioned rhetorical perspective and some more details on the project, see this opinion piece in an United Arab Emirates newspaper. Or you could just get it all from the horse’s mouth here.

    “How Art Made the World”

    That’s the title of a five-part series that premieres on PBS tonight. The reviews are mixed — NYT likes Nigel Spivey despite his keen perception of the obvious, Hollywood Reporter finds it lame, Seattle Times thinks it’s a kid’s show — but Spivey will be hitting some amazing locations and covering some beautiful art. I’ll be giving it a peek, for sure.

    On a puerile note that would make the Seattle Times cluck, I am compelled to point out the several levels of phallic imagery in this picture: