Archive for August, 2008

Update: Peru wants them tons of gold and silver too

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Way back in December I posted about a huge fortune of 17 tons of silver and gold a private treasure hunting firm found on a shipwreck presumed to be the Spanish. Spain is taking the company to court over ownership rights to the salvage.

Now Peru wants in on that.

Peru filed a claim Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tampa to determine where the coins originated, entering the fray over the $500 million loot found on a sunken ship by Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration. Odyssey has been fighting the Spanish government for ownership of the ship and its contents.

Peruvian consumer rights advocates contend the coins were made with Peruvian metals and minted in Lima. When Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes y las Animas sank west of Portugal with more than 200 people on board in 1804, Peru was still a Spanish colony.

Bold move. There isn’t a Spanish gold ship which crossed the Atlantic without Peruvian specie. If they pull this off, Peru will have a claim to billions of dollars worth of discovered and undiscovered treasure.

The legal tangle is immense. I don’t see this being resolved any time soon, or possibly at all. Meanwhile, Odyssey has possession of $500 million worth of gold and silver coins. If they can pop it all into an interest-bearing account somewhere, they’ll be billionaires by the time the case/s is/are decided.

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Etruscan Masterpieces from the Hermitage

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

I didn’t even remember that the Hermitage had a significant Etruscan collection, but it sure does, and it’s going on display at a Tuscan museum this September.

One of the most notable artifacts on display is a unique bronze funerary urn in the shape of a reclining youth. It is literally the only known bronze Etruscan funerary urn, and it is a beauty:

It was discovered in Perugia in 1842 and purchased by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. Many of the other pieces in he exhibit were also bought by Alexander II.

This is sure to bring all kinds of fresh attention to a hidden gem of a museum. The Etruscan Academy Museum has really gone all out for the exhibit.

The MAEC is opening seven new rooms for the occasion and also starting a major new archaeological project with the Hermitage Foundation Italy to uncover more of the ancient glory dotted around the city.

The Cortona museum boasts one of Italy’s most interesting Etruscan collections including one of the longest inscriptions in Etruscan, which is still largely undeciphered.

They don’t have much of a web presence — an all too common problem I’ve encountered with historical sites — but you can still get a sense of what an amazing collection the museum hosts, not to mention the associated archaeological park. Etruscan Academy Museum.

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Save the Delta Queen!

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Commissioned in 1927, the Delta Queen is the last all-wood overnight paddlewheel steamboat still in operation on the Mississippi river. She looks just like her earlier brethren who carried Mark Twain and has a remarkable history including service as a troop carrier in World War II.

Because of her wood superstructure, the Delta Queen needs an operating exemption from the Safety of Life and Sea Act, an exemption every Congress since 1968 has gladly provided. Until now.

I’m not sure what’s behind the hesitation. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota made a floor speech claiming the Delta Queen is unsafe because of the wood structure, but the examples of dangerous incidents he cites are either from the 19th century or from contemporary steel ships. The one boiler problem he mentions on the Queen herself was a model of efficient safety procedures, so hardly supports the contention that the Queen is inherently dangerous.

She has passed every yearly Coast Guard inspection. She’s been retrofitted and secured in every possible way. There is nothing at all wrong with her. She is a registered historic treasure of the Department of the Interior and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a National Historic Landmark and a member of the National Maritime Hall of Fame.

Save the Delta Queen!

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Creepy cool

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

I don’t know why this Russian brain research facility was abandoned, but they were in some kind of rush. Look at the wealth of creepiness they left behind.

There’s no information I could find on the web about the exact name and location of this facility. This site claims it was a secret Red Army lab closed under Gorbachev.

That awesome picture of him sans birthmark underneath a jar of brains supports the claim that the research ended along with the Soviet system.

How great is it that they just left the place as is, specimens floating bloatedly in yellow fluid and perched on boxes of what look like chocolate covered hazelnuts?

Click here for more cool pictures of Russian urban decay from the same photographer.

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Puccini, you dirty dog, you

Monday, August 18th, 2008

The New York Times has a great story about the life and art of Giacomo Puccini.

It’s coming up on the 150th anniversary of his birth, and there’s a new movie about his raucous love life being released to coincide with the anniversary.

Puccini proudly called himself a “mighty hunter of wild fowl, opera librettos and attractive woman.” Mr. Benvenuti’s film, “Puccini e la Fanciulla” (“Puccini and the Girl”), presents a newly uncovered strand in Puccini’s messy biography. It asserts that he has another living granddaughter, Nadia Manfredi, the child of another son, also named Antonio, born of an affair with Giulia Manfredi, a feisty woman of humble background who ran a hostelry in Torre del Lago popular with local farmers and transient hunters. Personal letters and other documents that Mr. Benvenuti was shown by Nadia Manfredi in early 2007 present what seems a persuasive case.

And that’s after he had a 17 year affair with a married piano student of his who bore him a son and lived with him in raunchy sin until her husband finally died and Puccini’s family browbeat him into marrying her despite the fact that he was porking half the town as he had been pretty much non-stop from day one.

Juicy gossip aside, the article covers some interesting musical ground as well. Puccini was apparently fascinated by modern musical approaches and included them in his operas.

Puccini was intrigued by the experiments of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. He took the 60-mile trip from Torre del Lago to Florence just to hear an early performance of Schoenberg’s landmark “Pierrot Lunaire” (1912), an experience that made a deep impression. And Anton Webern, no less, Schoenberg’s student, who would become the master of the radically compact and elusive gesture in 12-tone composition, once wrote to Schoenberg of his enthusiasm for Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” (1910). “A score with an original sound throughout, splendid, every bar a surprise,” Webern wrote, with “not a trace of kitsch.”

The aggressive opening chords of “Turandot” present Puccini in his tough-guy modernist mode. Yet think of the Act II scene for Ping, Pang and Pong, three ministers at the court of the ancient emperor in Beijing. It’s easy to treat it as a comic/nostalgic interlude in an otherwise intense opera. But to listen closely to this elaborate trio is to marvel at the intricate, pungent orchestral harmonies, spiked with piercing dissonance.

I never thought of it that way on account of I was too busy cringing at the racist coolie aspect. Time to listen to “Turandot” again. The non-Nessum Dorma bits, that is.

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Can we get a revote on that Elvis stamp?

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Because I found the best candidate by far. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Roman Elvis.

Roman Elvis is actually an acroterion, a decorative piece usually found on the corners of sarcophagi, and he’s going to be sold to the highest bidder in the Geddes Collection auction at Bonhams this October.

Other items going under the hammer include red and black-figure Attic and Apuglian vases, Roman mosaics, Egyptian artifacts, other classical sculptures like sarcophagus friezes.

Many of these items will sell for up to £90,000 each, and the bust, which even the collector has nicknamed ‘Elvis’, is estimated to make between £25,000 and £30,000.

It is to laugh. Elvis is going to make way, way more than that.

There was no mention that I could find on the Bonhams site or in the press about the ownership trail of these fantastical pieces. Mr. Geddes is Australian and has been collecting since the 70’s. Beyond that, who’s to know?

I cannot tell a lie, though. Shady provenance or no shady provenance, I would find it very, very hard to resist purchasing Roman Elvis if I had the funds. He’s ever so dreamy.

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Stone Age burials in a green Sahara

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

In 2000, Palaeontologist Paul Sereno was in Niger looking for dinosaur fossils in the Ténéré desert. He found animal remains alright, but they weren’t dinosaurs. They were people who lived and died there 10,000 – 5,000 years ago when the desert was lush with lakes, rivers and vegetation.

This map shows how the Gobero site was savannah for a while there, even as the Saharan sands still dominated. A shift in the winds brought monsoon rains to the Ténéré, making not just livable, but downright congenial as desert habitats go.

Two distinct peoples lived there at different times, first the Tiffian and then the Tenerian a few thousand years later. The former were taller and buried their dead most likely wrapped in shrouds. The latter smaller and leaner and buried their dead on their sides as if they were sleeping.

Harpoons and fishhooks found on the site suggest both peoples were fishermen, living off the lake that is now sand all the way down to the bedrock.

“At first glance, it’s hard to imagine two more biologically distinct groups of people burying their dead in the same place,” said team member Chris Stojanowski.

The Arizona State University bioarchaeologist added: “The biggest mystery is how they seemed to have done this without disturbing a single grave.”

Sereno did find him some dinosaurs, mind you. Good ones, too.

The site yielded fossils of huge crocodiles and dinosaurs including the complete skeleton of Sarcosuchus imperator, one of the biggest crocodiles that ever roamed the earth some 110 million years ago.

Sereno also unearthed the Nigersaurus, a plant-eating dinosaur with a huge jaw studded with 500 teeth that lived in the same geologic period, the Cretaceous, some 110 million years ago.

Read the full story and see all the gorgeous pictures on the National Geographic site.

Or if you’re really into it, you can read Sereno et al’s paper on their discovery. They’ve got tons more pics, graphs, data, you name it. Srsly fascinating stuff.

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All of Scotland’s historical sites online

Friday, August 15th, 2008

The Highland Council has created an incredibly nifty searchable, interactive online database of over 50,000 historical sites in Scotland. It’s called the Highland Historic Environment Record (HER) and is an invaluable tool for anyone planning to skip through the heather or even just for history nerds like me to spend hours clicking through.

The site, which went live yesterday, provides a database of more than 50,000 historic buildings, archaeological sites and finds dating from prehistory to the present day.

Developed by Highland Council’s planning department, the resource not only catalogues a diverse range of historical sites but also one or two more quirky attractions and items.

Take for example the 1950s petrol station at Brora, Sutherland. Users who stumble upon this “monument” are welcomed with a page of information including pictures, exact location and a blurb on the site which boasts two pumps. A group of World War II accommodation blocks can be found at Portmaculter and the miniature castle at Achmelvich is another curiosity.

WANT! I want a miniature castle!1

See, it’s already working on me. That’s how you promote local tourism right there. Forget the lame slogans and soft-focus commercials. Here’s the site: Highland Historic Environment Record.

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Ancient Greek “sewn” boat raised

Friday, August 15th, 2008

The 2500-year-old shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Gela, Sicily, by divers 20 years ago, and the local archaeological authorities have been trying to recover it ever since.

Thanks to the Italian Coast Guard, they’ve now succeeded in raising the entire wreck which will be restored in Portsmouth before going back on display in a new maritime museum in Gela.

What makes this ship particularly remarkable is that it’s the largest, most intact vessel ever found to be constructed with a ancient technique known as “sewing”. Homer mentions this ship-building method in the Illiad.

The ship’s outer shell was built first, and the inner framework was added later. The wooden planks of the hull were sewn together with ropes, with pitch and resin used as sealant to keep out water. […]

Beltrame, of the Università Ca’ Foscari, said the ship—”part of a family of archaic Greek vessels”—is something of a missing link in the evolution of naval engineering.

“It shows a mix of sewing and mortise-and-tenon joints—a different technique that later prevailed in shipbuilding,” Beltrame said, referring to joints in which a protrusion in one piece of wood inserts into a cavity in another.

Sewn-together planks isn’t so far from the first vessels people made to cross the water. It’s a transitional form where you can still see the Robin Crusoe raft inside the oil tanker. Very cool.

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Please tell me this is a joke

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

City of Rome plans ancient theme park outside of town.

“The model is Euro-Disney in Paris,” said Deputy Mayor Mauro Cutrufo, announcing plans to build a vast ancient Rome theme park just outside the city which he says could be up and running within three to four years.

The park would provide family-friendly attractions to show visitors what life was like in the Rome of 2,000 years ago.

To be built on an as yet unspecified 1,000-1,200 acre site, it would put a Roman twist on rides like Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, in which visitors float on boats through a fantasy pirate world.

“You would relive scenes from the Colosseum, from ancient Rome, gladiators or maybe Julius Caesar or other things,” a Rome city official said.

There aren’t enough puking emoticons in the world to describe what I’m feeling.

Hopefully the regional government of Lazio will end this tortured madness before it begins in earnest.

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