Archive for June, 2006

Rare glimpse at priceless relics

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

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.

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The Brutus Coin

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

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.

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How reviews made the world

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

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.

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    Restoring medieval Kabul

    Monday, June 26th, 2006

    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.

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    “How Art Made the World”

    Monday, June 26th, 2006

    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:

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    Punctured shells: 100,000 year old jewelry?

    Friday, June 23rd, 2006

    Beady perforated shells

    There are only three of these shells — discovered in Israel and Algeria — so there’s no way of knowing for sure, but they do seem to confirm earlier evidence that human beings were decorating themselves way before archaeologists thought they were.

    The archaeologists also pointed out that the Israeli and Algerian sites were so far from the seashore that the shells were most likely brought there intentionally for beadworking. A study of modern shells of similar snails, they noted, determined that the chances that the holes occurred naturally were extremely small.

    In the journal report, the research team led by Marian Vanhaeren of University College London and Francesco d’Errico of the National Center for Scientific Research in Talence, France, concluded, “These beads support the hypothesis that a long-lasting and widespread beadworking tradition existed in Africa and the Levant well before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe.”

    There’s another excellent article on the find here.

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    More tales of treasure

    Monday, June 19th, 2006

    This time it’s an Anglo-Saxon pattern-welded sword rescued from the trash.

    The seventh century “pattern-welded” Bamburgh Sword, which was forged for a king, narrowly avoided being dumped in a skip by workers who were clearing the house of the archeologist and broadcaster Brian Hope-Taylor after his death. It was rescued by some former students who had gone to the house after hearing that his books were being sold off.

    Now granted, it’s not quite so coincidental a score — what with the late homeowner having been an archaeologist and all — but it’s still way fancy.

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    Below and above

    Monday, June 19th, 2006

    If you happen to find yourself in London looking for an off-the-beaten-path tour, check out Southwark’s Below and Above tours.

    Museum of London archaeologist Julian Bowsher walks around the streets of Bankside in the company of Ken Greig of Greig Stephenson Architects. The archaeologist describes what was found below and the architect describes the architecture above – a dialogue between past and present.

    It sounds like a neat way to see the city.

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    Oldest paintings in Western Civ found

    Friday, June 16th, 2006

    They’re 2700 year old Etruscan tomb frescoes found in Veio, outside of Rome. The vibrant frescoes depict birds in flight and roaring lions (no, there weren’t any lions in Italy at that point).

    Giovanni Colonna, a professor at Rome’s Sapienza University, said although the frescoes were not as old as Egyptian art or some cave paintings, they had to be the oldest examples of the Western tradition of art that was then developed by the Greek and Roman civilisations.

    Fragments of decorated pottery found in the tomb, and the clearly visible remnants of a wheel which once was part of a cart buried along with the bodies, indicate the burial site was that of a nobleman or prince.

    In Etruscan art, the birds would have symbolised the passage between life and death and the lions represented the underworld.

    The shady yin to this bright shining yang is that archaeologists only found the tomb because a looter led them to it to get leniency in his upcoming trial. Tomb raiders, known as tombaroli, have a long history in the area.

    They also have unique tracking abilities. Archaeologists had already examined the field where the tomb was found and declared it officially uninteresting. A convenient declaration, I would think, for a tombarolo who after following mole tracks and/or the roots of fig trees can then help himself to the loot nobody official suspects exists.

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    Turkey strikes back

    Friday, June 16th, 2006

    Recent reports of massive security failures in Turkish museums don’t tell the whole story. A museum with some Troy artifacts, for instance, has a security system sensitive to insects.

    The Canakkale Archaeology Museum, known throughout the world for its collection from the ancient city of Troy, houses nearly 30,000 artifacts excavated from 200 sites in and around Canakkale.

    The museum has been protected for 15 years by a closed-circuit camera system as well as an alarm system that is sensitive even to insects.

    The first sentence seems a bit of an overstatement. According to Istanbul Portal, the Troy collection is a new, small addition to the far larger and more diverse main museum.

    At the entrance to the Troy ruins is a small museum, which has recently been set up. The museum contains pottery, figurines, statues, glass objects and building stones found in the excavations at Troy and the surrounding region.

    I think we might here have an instance of press (and PR) from other countries tailoring a story for US tastes. Need to make a museum in Turkey look cool? Ottoman wonders aren’t going to do the trick. Not even Hellenistic gold makes the name-recognition grade. Unless it’s from Troy. We know Troy. Brad Pitt was in that.

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