Archive for March, 2009

Darwin lived the gentleman’s life at Cambridge

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

We haven’t known a great deal about Darwin’s college days because all we’ve had in the way of evidence are a registration record or two.

But this year, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publishing of On The Origin of Spieces, Honorary Keeper of the Archives and Fellow Commoner, Geoffrey Thorndike Martin, uncovered six financial ledgers from Christ’s College, Cambridge, which include Charles Darwin’s itemized expenses.

They show that Darwin, who studied at Christ’s College between 1828 and 1831, lived the life of a 19th century gentleman and paid people to carry out tasks such as stoking his fire and polishing his shoes. […]

The books also contain accounts for the barber, chimney-sweep, apothecary [pharmacist], porter, brazier [who looked after the fires], glazier, hatter, laundress, linen-draper and painter, among others.

Back then, students purchased goods and services on account and the merchants applied to the college for payment. Then the college just billed the students for these expenses along with its own charges (ie, tuition) on a quarterly basis.

So now we know that the young Charles Darwin spent more on shoes than he did on books, and that he paid extra for a serving of vegetables with every meal. (The default rations were a joint of some sort of meat and a pint of beer. Srsly.)

The bills have been digitized and made available to all comers on Darwin Online. I get errors when I try to load the images and text on the site itself, but the pdf files work just fine. They’re image rich and high resolution, though, so they take a while to download.


The oldest pet picture?

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

It’s called “Poodle With Bow, On Table” and is at least one of the oldest, if not the oldest. It’s a daguerreotype from the 1850’s, photographer (and model) unknown.

Look at the cuteness:

How did they get that poor creature to sit still for the ages it took them to take a picture in the 1850’s? It must have been heavily sedated.

This photograph is one of thousands going on the auction block next Monday at Sotheby’s New York. There are some extremely famous names among the artists, including the likes of Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, Imogen Cunningham, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Edward Henry Weston.

Last year Sotheby’s sold an Edward Weston photograph for $1.6 million. The estimates for his lots this time around are far more modest, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 dollars.

The highest estimate — $200,000 – $300,000 — goes to a László Moholy-Nagy portrait of Lucia Moholy, an extremely well-known photograph considered part of the artist’s seminal oeuvre.

You can browse the entire Sotheby’s sale — and it’s worth it — here.


Drought reveals ancient ruins in Anbar

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Iraq is suffering the worst drought in decades, and as the waters of the Euphrates recede, ancient ruins are surfacing for the first time since Saddam Hussein dammed the area in the mid-1980’s.

Ratib says that at least 75 archeological sites had been partially excavated before the area was flooded. They ran the gamut of civilizations — from 3,000 B.C. to the Sumerian and Roman periods. Ancient Jewish settlements were also submerged in the area. But because of the receding waters, Ratib has been able to access some sites for the first time — including, for instance, a cliff with a series of pre-Christian tombs carved into its face. Though they have been heavily damaged by the water, Ratib says they still have value. […]

But it’s not only previously discovered archaeological sites that the drought has made accessible.

Ratib and a colleague are suddenly excited by something they’ve seen on this particular day. They kneel next to what looks like an old stone wall, shards of pottery everywhere. Ratib says he believes it is a Roman-era irrigation ditch.

“I’ve never seen this site before,” he says. “When we excavated this area decades ago, this was all buried underneath the soil, but the receding waters uncovered it.”

Unfortunately, these discoveries come at the expense of local farmers and fisherman, who deprived of their normal income, have a strong incentive to loot the newly reveled sites.

It’s unlikely that Baghdad will be able to finance reasonable protection of the sites, never mind further excavations. There are 10, count them, 10 guards assigned to protect the entire Anbar province. This does not bode well.


Church statue stolen in Italy found in Charlotte

Friday, March 20th, 2009

A 17th c. wooden bust of St. Innocent stolen from Santa Maria degli Angeli alle Croci in Naples in November of 1990 has been found in a private home in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Officials from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency have seized the statue and will return it to Italy this month.

Two years ago, authorities in Rome contacted U.S. Customs and Enforcement officials with information that an Italian citizen had sold a similar wooden statue to an antiques dealer from Greensboro.

ICE tracked down the buyer as the owner of Caroline Faison Antiques, which specializes in 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century antiques. She purchased it at an antiques fair in France, Johnson said. […]

ICE contacted Johnson last year to see if she recognized pictures of the stolen items. She said the paint was almost gone, but she recognized the form of the bust.

When she realized it was stolen, she said she immediately bought the statue back from her customer and gave it to federal agents. Johnson said she did not get her money back from Faison, nor did she ask.

Good on her, although I can’t help but point out that if she’d actually cared to demand any kind of provenance, she could have been part of the solution right up front instead of feeding the problem.

It’s an unusual case because most of these stolen artifacts end up sold in major cities like New York. It’s also unusual in that it was found at all after so much time.

The bad news is that the bust has not been well-treated over the past 20 years. The head was lost somewhere in the voyage between Italy and France, where it was first purchased by Caroline Faison Antiques. A cross St. Innocent used to carry is also gone, as is much of the gold paint.

Santa Maria degli Angeli alle Croci will surely be delighted to have him back on the altar, even the worse for wear.


Pharaonic embalming bed restored from fragments

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

It was discovered in pieces in a tomb next to King Tut’s in the Valley of the Kings three years ago. Archaeologists have painstakingly put the puzzle together so now we can see the entire bed as it was when it was used 3,000 years ago.

The bed, featuring carved heads of a lion and a lioness at its foot, slopes downwards five centimetres (two inches) from head to toe to help drain bodies being prepared for mummification. […]

Luxor antiquities director Mansour Bouriq told AFP that unlike most beds found in tombs, this one was not ceremonial but actually used for embalming.

“We believe this was a room used for embalming because we found some embalming materials, including herbs, oils and pottery vessels,” he said.

No mummy was found inside the tomb, so they can’t date the bed exactly, but they think it dates to the 8th dynasty (1570-1304 BC).


The British Library “mislays” 9,000 books

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

Over 9,000 actually, ranging from medieval treatises to first editions of 20th century novels. Library officials think they’re just lost in the stacks, not stolen or removed from the premises.

One item, an essay entitled Of the Lawful and Unlawful Usurie Amongest Christians, by 16th-century German theologian Wolfgang Musculus, is valued by the library at £20,000, and has not been seen for almost two years. Others are precious only to a specialist market, such as a set of tables of 1930s London cab fares, or the 1925 souvenir history of Portsmouth Football Club.

Although the library has not listed any value for thousands of the books, a quick Guardian tot-up of the market price of nine collectible volumes came to well over £3,000 – including £1,300 for a first edition of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1891, missing from the library’s shelves since 1961. […]

Most of the losses are 19th and 20th century texts, including first editions of novels by Charles Dickens and John Updike, although many older books have also vanished, including a 1555 edition of 12th-century Jewish scholar Moses ben Maimon’s Letter on Astrology, missing since 1977, and a 17th-century guide to Rome.

Many of the books turned up missing in and around 1998, the year the library moved from the British Museum to St Pancras, so it’s very possible they were put on the wrong shelves in the confusion of the move.

Still, some of these have been missing for decades. You can declare a missing person dead after 7 years. How long before they admit that the first edition of Dorian Gray is gone for good?


10,000 cave paintings found in Peruvian Amazon

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Peruvian archaeologist Quirino Olivera has found thousands of 6,000-year-old cave paintings in the Amazon jungle in the Andes.

They’ve been researching the area for the past two years and had found over 6,000 Stone Age cave painting already. Now they’ve found 10,000 more.

According to Olivera, most of the Tambolic paintings depict hunting scenes and are similar to those found in Toquepala. The artists used mainly red, brown, yellow and black pigments.

The Toquepala caves are located in the western Andes, at an altitude of 2,700 meters above sea level. They are noted for cave paintings depicting scenes of hunters corralling and killing a group of guanacos, a camelid animal native to South America. Known as “chaco” in the Peruvian Andes, this hunting technique consists of forming human circles, to corral the animals and either capture or kill them.


Aerial pictures reveals Norman fish trap

Monday, March 16th, 2009

The article’s headline suggests archaeologists spotted this thousand-year-old v-shaped rock wall off the coast of West Wales using Google Earth, but really they were perusing more mundane aerial photographs.

The unique shape of the rock structure helped the Normans trap fish without boats or anything at all. All they had to do was wait for the tide to go out and hundreds of fish would be trapped behind the rocks.

The trap is just 12ft deep close to Poppit Sands on the Teifi Estuary in Dyfed. Dr Otto believes the walls are made of locally quarried rock or boulders brought down to the coast by glaciers during the last ice age.

The trap’s walls are covered in algae, worms and sea anemones. The wall is around three feet wide, and only the top foot is exposed. The researchers are unsure how tall the original trap was – and how much is buried under the shifting sands.

Louise Austin, of the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, said: ‘Fish traps were a widely used means of catching fish in the past which made a significant contribution to the economy of many coastal and estuarine communities. Today only a few are known to survive in Wales.’

These structure were so effective that their use in rivers was actually banned in the Magna Carta. Traps like this were only allowed along the coasts where stock was less likely to be depleted.


Cleopatra’s murdered sister?

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

An team of Austrian archaeologists think they may have found the remains of Cleopatra’s younger sister Arsinöe in a tomb in Ephesus, Turkey. Anthony and Cleopatra had Arsinöe was assassinated on the steps of the temple of Diana in Ephesus to eliminate a potential threat to their throne.

The tomb in question was discovered in 1926, the skull of its inhabitant removed and measured by the scienticians at the time. It was lost during World War II, though, so all that’s left is the skeleton in the sarcophagus.

In the early 1990s Thür reentered the tomb and found the headless skeleton, which she believed to be of a young woman. Clues, such as the unusual octagonal shape of the tomb, which echoed that of the lighthouse of Alexandria with which Arsinöe was associated, convinced Thür the body was that of Cleopatra’s sister. Her theory was considered credible by many historians, and in an attempt to resolve the issue the Austrian Archeological Institute asked the Medical University of Vienna to appoint a specialist to examine the remains.

Fabian Kanz, an anthropologist, was sceptical when he began this task two years ago. “We tried to exclude her from being Arsinöe,” he said. “We used all the methods we have to find anything that can say, ‘Okay, this can’t be Arsinöe because of this and this’.”

After using carbon dating, which dated the skeleton from 200BC-20BC, Kanz, who had examined more than 500 other skeletons taken from the ruins of Ephesus, found Thür’s theory gained credibility.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s all really, really tenuous. Facial reconstructions based on 80 year old measurements of a skull that no longer exists, a vague 200 year date range and unusual tomb shape that might or might not refer to a lighthouse that also no longer exists are evidence of pretty much nothing in my book.

Add to that the ludicrous “Cleopatra was part African” spin based on the 1920’s measurements that suggest an elongated skull and it really gets goofy.

There’s no evidence that Cleopatra and Arsinöe were full sisters, so even if the ethnicity claims about the skeleton are true and it can somehow be confirmed that the remains are Arsinöe’s — two highly unlikely scenarios — that would say exactly nothing about Cleopatra’s ethnicity.


Superman sells for $317,200

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

Action Comics #1, the first comic featuring Superman, is the Holy Grail of comic book collectors. There are maybe 100 copies still around, and most of them have been restored or are in less than fine condition.

So it’s no surprise that even in these dire economic times, an original Action Comics #1 in excellent condition has sold for a whopping $317,200.

It’s one of the highest prices ever paid for a comic book, a likely testament to the volume’s rarity and its excellent condition, said Stephen Fishler, co-owner of the auction site and its sister dealership, Metropolis Collectibles.

The winning bid for the 1938 edition, which features Superman lifting a car on its cover, was submitted Friday evening by John Dolmayan, drummer for the rock band System of a Down, according to managers at

Dolmayan is rare comic dealer and bought it for an anonymous client, not for himself.

The seller is also anonymous. He bought it at a second-hand comic store in the 50’s when he was 9 years old, then squirreled it away and forgot about it for 15 years or so.

When he found it again in 1966, he figured he’d hold on to it just in case it increased in value. Well, it did. From 35 cents to 31,720,000 cents.





March 2009


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