Archive for March, 2009

Juliet’s balcony available for weddings and bar mitzvahs

Friday, March 13th, 2009

j/k on the bar mitzvahs, but it really is opening for weddings. The city of Verona is hoping to market itself as the capital of love with the famous balcony as the epicenter.

Britons and other European Union nationals will be charged 800 euros (£740). Couples from outside the EU must pay 1,000 euros.

Locals will have to pay a comparatively cheap 600 euros, although that is still expensive when compared with an ordinary marriage certificate in Italy, which costs just 50 euros. […]

The balcony is part of a 14th century building known as Juliet’s House, which was once the home of the Cappello family – possibly the model for the Capulets of Shakespeare’s play.

Even more possibly not related to the play at all. There was no feud between the Cappelli and Montecchi, and no famous lovers that we know of. Shakespeare made it all up, basically, and now Verona is looking to cash in.

And why not? It’s a lovely, picturesque location, and down in the courtyard there’s a statue of Juliet which brings good fortune to people who rub her right breast. Hence the noticeably shiny patina in the chestal area.

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The Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

The DAAHL is a searchable, browseable compendium of data from Google Earth, Google Maps, Geographic Information Systems and up to date archaeology of what are today Israel, Palestine, Jordan, southern Lebanon, Syria and the Sinai Peninsula.

It’s still a work in progress, but you can already find all kinds of really neat things. Say, for instance, you want to see maps of the various empires that have claimed the area over the years. Just clicky here, choose the empire in the dropdown box and voila. Or even more entertaining, click on the Animate Empires button to see them all in succession.

Predynastic Egypt was tiny! I had no idea it was such a shrimp compared to New Kingdom Egypt.

Then there’s the Archaeological Periods map. Here too you can select periods or animate them all, and you’ll see the site locations where artifacts from those periods have been found. All the maps are zoomable, so you can click in for a closer view on these smaller locations.

If you have the Google Earth plugin — which you should get only for this if for no other reason — you can view artifacts in 3D in the Online Virtual Museum. The list of scanned artifacts is still very small, but they’re working on it.

Think of the possibilities here for all museums. They could digitize their entire holdings allowing people the kind of detailed closeup view that security in real life museums never allows. They could also virtually display their huge caches of items in storage.

It’s the wave of the future, y’all. Virtual reality without the dorky helmet.

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Rare Mayan panels found in Guatemala

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Archaeologists excavating the Mayan city of El Mirador in Guatemala’s northern jungle have unconvered two large Mayan panels dating to 300 B.C. They’re representations of the Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh.

These panels are the earliest known sculptural depictions of the main characters in the Popol Vuh, the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

The newly discovered panels, both 26 feet long and stacked on top of each other, were created around 300 BC and show scenes from the core Mayan mythology, the Popol Vuh.

It took investigators three months to uncover the carvings while excavating El Mirador, the biggest ancient Mayan city in the world, the site’s head researcher, Richard Hansen, said on Wednesday.

On one panel, the twins are depicted surrounded by cosmic monsters and above them is a bird deity with outstretched wings. On the other, there is a Mayan corn god framed by an undulating serpent….

The Popol Vuh as we’ve known up until know is a book, originally written in the Quiché language in the 16th c. A.D., so to find these figures in action more than 1800 years earlier shows the remarkable endurance of the Mayan religion.

Interesting side note: the 500,000 acre site of El Mirador is endangered by looters, drug traffickers and deforestation, so the Guatemalan government is enacting a plan to make a national park out of the area, complete with a silent, propane-powered train to carry tourists to the area that currently can only be accessed by helicopter and a two-day hike through the jungle.

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Secret message found in Lincoln’s pocket watch

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

The descendants of Jonathan Dillon, Abraham Lincoln’s watchmaker, have had a family legend that their ancestor carved a graffito in Lincoln’s watch after the attack on Fort Sumter and then returned it to the president without telling him.

Dillon told his children (and, half a century later, a reporter for the New York Times) that he opened the watch’s inner workings and scrawled his name, the date and a message for the ages: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”

The gold watch is now at the Smithsonian where watchmaker George Thomas has taken it apart gear by gear to solve the mystery once and for all.

Turns out, Mr. Dillon’s hindsight wasn’t exactly 20/20. He didn’t actually make any predictions about slavery, but he did mark the opening salvo of Civil War.

Split into three different sections to get around the tiny gears, was this razor-thin etching: “Jonathan Dillon April 13, 1861. Fort Sumter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. Thank God we have a government.”

Douglas Stiles, Dillon’s great-great grandson, is thrilled to bits. He’s the one who alerted the Smithsonian about the family legend and the New York Times article from 1906 he just found out about last month.

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Shakespeare was kind of a babe

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Up until now we haven’t really had reliable portraits of William Shakespeare. Only two are considered canonical: an engraving by Martin Droeshout from the First Folio of his plays published in 1623, and a memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare died in 1616, so both of these images are posthumous, and although there have been a handful of other portraits speculated to be of the bard, none of them have proven to be authentic.

According to Stanley Wells, the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, we have a very likely candidate now in the Cobbe oil painting.

Wells is convinced that an oil painting on wood panel that has rested for centuries in the collection of an old Irish family was painted from life around 1610, when Shakespeare was 46. […]

The painting has languished for centuries outside Dublin at Newbridge House, home base of the Cobbe family, where until recently no one suspected it might be a portrait of the Bard. Three years ago, Alec Cobbe, who had inherited much of the collection in the 1980s and placed it in trust, found himself at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London called “Searching for Shakespeare.” There he saw a painting from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., that had been accepted until the late 1930s as a portrait of Shakespeare from life. Looking at it, Cobbe felt certain the Folger painting was a copy of the one in his family’s collection.

Wells ran dendrochronology (tree ring dating) tests on the wooden panel, had it X-rayed and subjected to infrared reflectography. All methods confirm a date of 1610 which suggests the Cobbe painting is not just the only living portrait of Shakespeare, but also the source of later portraits like the Folger painting and the Droeshout engraving.

This confirms indications in the literary record that Shakespeare had a serious fan club when he was alive, serious enough for there to be a demand for images of him.

The Cobb portrait also presents the son of a glovemaker as something of a toff.

“The Cobbe portrait will show people a man who was of high social status,” says Wells. “He’s very well dressed. He’s wearing a very beautiful and expensive Italian lace collar. A lot of people have the wrong image of Shakespeare, and I’m pleased that the picture confirms my own feelings — this is the portrait of a gentleman.”

Not to mention kind of a babe.

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UK returns tons of stolen antiquities to Afghanistan

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

The British government has returned over 1500 artifacts confiscated at Heathrow over the past 6 years to Afghanistan.

That’s 3.4 tons of antiquities looted from thousands of archaeological sites all over the country.

The Heathrow collection includes more than 1,500 objects spanning thousands of years of Afghan culture: a 3,000-year-old carved stone head from the Iron Age and hand-cast axe heads, cut rock crystal goblets, and delicate animal carvings from the Bactrian era, another thousand years earlier. The oldest artifacts in the collection include a marble figure of an animal showing similarities to artifacts dating to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, dating as far back as 8,000 years.

The collection also contains gilded bronze pieces, coins, and ornately inscribed slabs dating from Afghanistan’s early Islamic period (8th-9th centuries A.D.) and treasures from the Medieval Islamic period (10th-14th centuries A.D.) that serve to replace the decimated collection at the National Museum, which was hit by a rocket in 1993 during the civil war, then repeatedly looted.

The National Museum workers have somehow managed to save 90% of the museum’s holdings — I’ve written about their puts-movies-to-shame heroics before — but that still leaves 70,000 pieces lost.

None of the Heathrow hoard were previously held at the museum. They are all freshly looted directly from archaeological sites and have no trail of ownership whatsoever, but they are going to help plug some of those 70,000 holes.

I leave you with a chilling thought: 3.4 tons of antiquities is just a fraction of what gets stolen from Afghanistan every year. Most of them aren’t intercepted at customs. These artifacts were all found during random searches, so you can imagine it’s a rather hit-and-miss system.

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Vampire/plague victim found

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

In a mass grave of 16th c. plague victims excavated in Venice, one of the interred was found with a brick jammed in her mouth.

Archaeologist Matteo Borrini thinks her survivors shoved a brick into her mouth because they thought she might turn vampire and spread more plague.

At the time the woman died, many people believed that the plague was spread by “vampires” which, rather than drinking people’s blood, spread disease by chewing on their shrouds after dying. Grave-diggers put bricks in the mouths of suspected vampires to stop them doing this, Borrini says.

The belief in vampires probably arose because blood is sometimes expelled from the mouths of the dead, causing the shroud to sink inwards and tear.

He claims this is the earliest vampire-treated remains, but similar finds have been made elsewhere, including by Peer Moore-Jansen of Wichita State University who scoffs at the “first vampire” claim.

Borrini is undaunted, insisting that his study reveals that this Venetian lady who died in 1575 is the first one to provide archaeological evidence of anti-vampiric exorcism.

The whole thing seems tenuous to me. Vampire legends were pretty much all over the map until Bram Stoker sealed the 19th c. Transylvanian version into the popular consciousness. The post-mortem shroud chewers sending plague vibes out from underground bear little resemblance to what people today think of as vampires.

There may just be a wee drappie of sensationalism driving Prof. Borrini’s claim. And understandably so given the sweet press he’s gotten.

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High Definition Iceman

Friday, March 6th, 2009

Now you too can observe Otzi the Iceman in extreme-closeup detail from the comfort of your home, thanks to the Iceman Photoscan project.

They’ve taken 150,000 high definition images from 12 different angles, in normal and UV light. You can zoom in on his every tattoo, to the width of just a few millimeters, and you can even view him in 3D if you have the glasses.

The detail is crazy. You can see every pore, every hair follicle, every scrap of clothing.

To keep him as well-preserved as possible, his living space duplicates the conditions of the glacier in which he so happily slumbered for thousands of years. Otzi lives in a darkened chamber, climate controlled to a perpetual -6°C (21°F) with 98% humidity.

There’s a viewing window so visitors to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology can file past and give him a peek, but it’s 40 x 40 cm (15 x 15 inches) area, so you don’t exactly get an eyefull. Hence this high definition picture scanning project.

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Olympic construction yields ancient goodies

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Preparatory digs on the site of what in 2012 will be London’s Olympic Park have yielded all kinds of ancient artifacts and remains.

So far archaeologists have found a 4000-year-old flint axe, 4 Iron Age skeletons, medieval pottery, a 19th c. wooden boat, a 4th c. Roman coin, a Victorian cobblestone road, WWII gun embankments and more.

“We now know that the Olympic Park area was settled and utilised continuously from the prehistoric period onwards. These people lived and died here.”

The prehistoric skeletons were buried in graves around an area of Iron Age settlement, he said, and the boat was used for hunting wild fowl on the River Lea.

Mr Tyler added: “This new story of the Lea Valley is London before London – a previously unknown London.”

Unknown because what is now East London was outside the boundaries of the settlement and city for centuries. The Iron Age burials may indicate that the Lower Lea Valley area was actually settled before London proper was.

The range of artifacts is almost like a timeline of British history. The Museum of London is documenting and preserving the finds even as construction continues, and 1000 people have already visited the finds as part of an Olympic Delivery Authority community outreach program.

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Cure for the common cold: dragon’s blood

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

According to a handwritten 17th c. manuscript of nostrums, tinctures, and remedies going up for auction today, there’s nothing like boiling a shallot, herbs, and some bruised dragon’s blood in a pint of fairy water to kill a cold.

Here’s the full recipe for the next time you have the sniffles:

Take your Sallet Oyle and a pinte of faire water.

Boyle it with an earthen pott in your wax then shred the herbs very small and the rosemary and planting water into the pott.

Let it boyle a little then bruise the Dragons blood very small and putt them in letting them boyle a little.

Then take the turpentine and wash it three times in faire water and the last time in rose water them put it into the pott.’

The 64-page book is estimated to sell for a mere £400 ($568), which is a steal if you ask me. It was found under a pile of papers by one Philippa Mulley while she was cleaning her dead aunt’s house 25 years ago.

She threw it in a drawer and forgot about it until last month, when she had it appraised and put it up for sale at Bonhams.

I don’t even know how it’s physically possible to put something like that in a drawer and forget about it for 25 years. I’d be stroking it obsessively 24/7 from the minute of discovery.

The calligraphy alone is complete awesomeness, never mind the 100 recipes of more-or-less wacky folk medicine.

Update: Sold for £816 ($1,150). Now that’s more like it.

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