Archive for October, 2008

Lincoln’s coat: preserve or display?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

The Brooks Brothers (!) coat Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night of his assassination is part of Ford’s Theater permanent collection.

Until last year when Ford’s closed for renovations, the coat had been on exhibit since the museum acquired it in 1968, but now that reopening approaches, some conservators are concerned that the coat can’t take being on public display much longer.

Light and gravity can doom historic clothing, they say. And the Brooks Brothers coat, like other Lincoln garments, had been on almost continuous display from the time they were acquired in 1968 until Ford’s was closed for renovation last year, officials said.

“It might be that it’s time to put these things away and not to exhibit them to the public if there’s any hope of saving them for future generations,” said Cathy Heffner, president of Textile Preservation Associates, who said she examined the clothes for the National Park Service last month.

The concern illustrates an ongoing debate over the display of national treasures: the desire to preserve items for posterity vs. the right of citizens to experience them.

It’s a tough question. Light damages textiles irreparably. There is no way to restore them once the UV rays have done their thing. UV blocking technology can help delay the inevitable, but it’s not a long-term solution.

Meanwhile, people want to see these kinds of deeply personal artifacts of iconic figures. How much closer can you get to the great man himself than to see his blood on his coat?


Neanderthals ate sea mammals

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Archaeologists have found evidence that Neanderthals living in caves on the Rock of Gibraltar ate seals and dolphins.

This is a major find because up until now there has only been evidence of our more direct Cro-Magnon ancestors eating seafood, a misconception that has helped bolster the presumption of our cognitive superiority.

The researchers can’t be sure how the ancient Neanderthals hunted their seafood, but suggest that perhaps Neanderthals used clubs to kill seals that came close to the beach to have their pups. This skill might have involved knowledge of the seasons, and prediction of seal birthing time. And maybe they snatched dolphins that swam too close to shore, or got stranded on the beach.

The fact that the sea mammal remains found in the caves date from several different time periods spread over about 30,000 years demonstrates that seafood eating wasn’t just a fluke event, but a practiced and repeated behavior, Finlayson said. And there’s no reason to think it wasn’t happening all along the coasts of Portugal and Spain where Neanderthals were living at the time.

Not having any idea that scientists claimed Neanderthals were strictly land-meat eaters, I find it an odd assumption. Even if it had been true, why would it indicate cognitive inferiority?

It’s not like the other humans used dragnets or dynamite or something to get their seafood. They probably hunted and scavenged just like the Neanderthals did. :confused:


Caligula wuz here

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

More specifically, Caligula died here. The crazy sumbitch was killed by his own guards in a passageway underneath the palace, and now, Italian archaeologists may have found that very passageway.

Maria Antonietta Tomei, a Rome archeologist, said a cryptoportico or underground corridor discovered beneath the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill matched exactly the description given by the Rome historian Suetonius, who says that the Emperor was stabbed to death after watching an entertainment. He left via the passageway, where the Praetorian Guard led by its commander, Cassius Chaerea, was lying in wait.

Professor Tomei said she was “absolutely convinced” that the cryptportico was the one in which Caligula met his end. Although it bore builders’ stamps from the time of Claudius, it already existed at the time of Caligula, and had only been restructured by his uncle and successor.

Cassius Chaerea particularly hated Caligula because he mocked him all the time, giving him embarrassing watchwords. Moral of the story: do not mercilessly taunt your bodyguard.

Anyway, Professor Tomei seems suspiciously certain that this is the corridor in question. Suetonius isn’t exactly rich with detailed descriptions of the corridor. He just says it was a covered passage.

Unless there was only one of them underneath the palace, I don’t see how they could know for sure they’ve found the place Caligula died.


Upscale Blitz tunnels for sale

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

The little people of WWII London hid in subway stations during the Blitz. Big shots (like spies and government functionaries) got much nicer digs: the Kingsway Tunnels.

British Telecom owns them now, and they’re looking to sell.

The two wartime tunnels that kept the men in bowler hats safe from the Luftwaffe were supplemented in the 1950s by four more, about half as long as the originals, added by the Post Office, who turned the site into a vast telephone exchange. The large tunnels are linked by smaller ones, and the sense of being in an underground town is heightened by the wooden roads signs that tell you which tunnel you are in – “South Street”, “First Avenue” or “Tea Bar Alley” etc. A menu board is still on the wall in the old staff restaurant, offering sausages, chips, tea and sweets

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the world hovered on the brink of nuclear war, dozens of engineers, technicians and support staff were literally entombed in the tunnels, forbidden to go up to ground level for days. Their grim task would have been to keep phones working after London was obliterated by a nuclear bomb. They had emergency generators to keep the machines, lights and air conditioning going independently of whatever horror was being experienced above. They also had a well-stocked bar and restaurant, a recreation room with a snooker table, a private cinema and an artesian well for fresh water.

Sounds pretty sweet, neh? I’ve always wanted a bomb shelter, but I was thinking more goofy 50’s cinderblock style. This one is deluxe.

You’d think a mile of prime downtown London historical real estate would get snapped right up, but health and safety codes prevent the space from being used in the most lucrative ways. No boutique Blitz Hotel, no nightclubs, no Howard Hughes-style personal dwelling.

The realtors claim they’ve already seen interest, but BT won’t say what kind of money they’re looking to make from the deal. I read £5 million, but that’s unconfirmed.


Roman Elvis underdelivers

Friday, October 17th, 2008

He sold for £24,000 ($41,000). The estimate was between £25,000 and £30,000, so somebody got themselves a bargain.

Apparently the whole Bonhams auction sold a lot less than expected, despite the publicity from Roman Elvis and Italy demanding some of their stuff back.

David Gill lays it out adroitly.

Out of three lots that got the most attention, one (Elvis) sold under estimate, one (the Hydria) was withdrawn due to its being stolen goods, and one just didn’t sell. The overall sales total was projected to be something in the $1.3 million range. Instead, they made $814,000, and many lots remain unsold.

Perhaps the bleak economic news is making people less willing to spend big on Roman bouffants.


Tomb of man who inspired Gladiator found

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

Marcus Nonius Macrinus was a highly regarded general and consul under Marcus Aurelius. He was (at least in part) the model for the Maximus character in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

Archaeologists working on building site just north of Rome have found columns, parts of the roof, friezes, tumbled down walls, and most importantly, a Latin inscription which identifies the stone mausoleum as Macrinus’.

Although parts of the tomb have crumbled into the Tiber over the centuries, enough has been recovered during months of excavation that experts are discussing the possibility of rebuilding the tomb as the centrepiece of an archaeological theme park.

This would also include the house of Empress Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, at Prima Porta nearby. This villa occupied the high ground dominating the view down the Tiber valley to Rome and some of the walling that retained its terraces can still be seen.

Except for the terracing – the gardens are currently being excavated – all that can be seen today are three vaulted subterranean rooms, from the largest of which the fresco decor of an illusionistic garden view was removed to Rome, where it has recently been installed in the Palazzo Massimo, following cleaning and restoration.

Sounds good, as long as it doesn’t mutate from archaeological park to Gladiator theme park. :facepalm:


Bonhams caves and I was right (yet again)

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

When Bonhams’ sale of the Geddes Collection made the news this summer it was because there was a superstar among the antiquities, namely Roman Elvis.

At the time, I said:

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?

Well, with the auction scheduled for today, former Italian culture minister Francesco Rutelli started making noise a week ago about some of the lots having been looted from Italy.

There are many Apuglian vases for sale, most of them with no history prior to 1970, most likely indicating they were part of the explosion of looted Apuglian antiquities on the black market over the past few decades.

One of those Apuglian vases used to be in Robin Symes’ collection, and Robin Symes is one of those antiquities dealers from the Arsène Lupin school of “collecting”.

He was caught up in the great Medici case which is currently prosecuting former Getty curator Marion True. Although the Italian government hasn’t prosecuted him, a civil case brought by his late partner’s family has basically ruined him.

Anyway, the auction is going on as scheduled today, but Bonhams has withdrawn a number of lots, including almost all the Apuglian pottery, even the one the original press release called the most important item in the collection.


Pagan/Christian tomb found inside Roman villa

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Romans buried their dead outside the city walls, traditionally, or inside a church. A 6th c. tomb in the middle of someone’s house is pretty much unheard of.

That’s not all that’s unusual about this find.

Two skeletons were found. One was of a woman between the ages of 25 and 30, with teeth in excellent condition and no signs of arthritis. […]

The other skeleton was a child of indeterminate sex between the ages of five and seven. The position of their bones showed that the woman had been laid to rest first. The tomb was then re-opened to bury the child and the woman’s spinal column was pushed to one side. A hole in the stone slab covering the tomb allowed visitors to pour libations for the dead.

“This shows that the long-established, originally pagan, rite of offering libations to the dead clearly continued into early Byzantine times,” observes Wilson.

Yet, the presence of a Christian cross on a lamp found in the room and on the underside of a grave slab suggests that the deceased were Christian. As well, the skeletons were wrapped in plaster, a practice believed to be Christian for preserving the body for resurrection.

This is the earliest plaster burial found on Sicily.

The tomb was disturbed at least once more, possibly by thieves, although whoever tidied up before they left.

Excavators have found all kinds of food preparation areas, amphorae, stemware. It’s almost like a butler’s pantry. People were clearly stocked up for long-term libation which makes this tomb a glimpse into a fascinating transitional moment as well as an interesting anomaly on its own.


Toy hedgehog found in child grave at Stonehenge

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Archaeologists digging west of Stonehenge have found a child buried with a chalk hedgehog figurine. The child was buried about 3000 years ago.

Archaeologists who discovered the grave, where the child was laying on his or her side, believe the toy – perhaps placed there by a doting father – is the earliest known depiction of a hedgehog in British history. […]

Dr Joshua Pollard, of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, said: ‘Representational art from this period is very rare and so far as I’m aware, if the identification is correct, it’s the only known prehistoric depiction of a hedgehog from Britain.’

Hmm… Not quite seeing the hedgehog there. It does remind me of a Zuni animal fetish, though.


Update: Paradise not to be paved after all

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

It looks like the Mayor of Rome has stopped construction on the Pincio parking lot.

Instead of a new 700 space lot, 500 new spaces will be added to the existing parking deck a few blocks away at Villa Borghese. Why didn’t they do that from the beginning, you ask, especially since the Borghese parking lot isn’t full most of the time as it is?

This editorial has a handy local croneyism explanation:

The original idea was to get cars off the street in the areas around Piazza di Spagna by selling the slots in the Pincio car park to residents in the historic centre, as well as to parliamentarians and their staff at the chamber of deputies and the senate. It was never made totally clear exactly who would be the beneficiaries of the 700 slots, but they were certainly going to be privileged people.

So. There weren’t going to be tourist rent-a-car and commuter carpools in that deck anyway. They were going to gut the Pincio so legislators and their clerks could park a block closer to work.

Breathing. Breathing. In with anger out with love. It’s over now.

Until the next time.

Breathing. Breathing.





October 2008


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