Archive for July, 2009

Golden Boy’s new digs

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

In 1916, sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman completed a monumental statue for AT&T called “The Genius of Electricity”. Cast in bronze and covered with tens of thousands of pieces of paper-thin gold leaf, Golden Boy weighs 16 tons and stands 24 feet (7.3 meters) high, with a nine foot wingspan.

It went on top of AT&T’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan, and was at the time the second largest sculpture in New York, second only to the Statue of Liberty. It was even on the cover of phone books for a few decades until the 60’s.

Then came the break up of the Baby Bells in the 80’s and AT&T moved into a new building with a notched roof, so they made a niche in their gigantic multi-story lobby just for Golden Boy.

The telecoms just kept flailing through the 90’s and Golden Boy was moved a couple of times until he ended up in the parking lot of a New Jersey office park.

Now that SBC has bought AT&T and taken its name, they wisely decided to rescue Golden Boy from the chilling ignominy of his Jersey location and return him to glory in the lobby of their Dallas headquarters.

Lee Sandstead, who hosts the Travel Channel’s Art Attack, is enthusiastic, almost effusive.

“This is absolutely a serious work of art, and it’s absolutely a masterpiece,” said Sandstead, an art historian. “It’s perhaps the most beautiful depiction of the male figure in American art.” […]

Longman is one of the few women in American history to create monumental sculpture.

“The work was considered too physically demanding for a woman,” he said. “It required lifting heavy equipment up and down scaffolding, and bending metal.”

She was a protégé of Daniel Chester French, working with him on the design of the Lincoln Memorial. She is now largely – and, Sandstead thinks, unfairly – forgotten.

“If she had been born 30 years earlier, she would have been more famous,” he said. “By 1915, her kind of art was beginning to wane in popularity, critics were beginning to be attracted by the modernist movement, which was more abstract.”

She seems to have had a full career, though, until her death in the 1950’s. Commissions certainly kept coming in. Here she is working on a bust of Edison for the Naval Research Laboratory in 1947, just five years before she died. It was completed in 1952.

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Vindolanda never stops giving

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Excavators at Vindolanda Fort, a Roman fort near the border with Scotland just south of Hadrian’ Wall, thought it was just going to be a rampart mound near the north gate.

What they were digging up, however, turned out to be a 1.5 ton altar to the god Jupiter.

“There is a substantial and exceptionally well preserved altar dedicated by a prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls to an important eastern god, Jupiter of Doliche.”

The inscription reads: “To Jupiter Best and Greatest of Doliche, Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, fulfilled his vow gladly and deservedly.” […]

Mr Birley said: “Major altars like this are very rare finds and to discover such a shrine inside the fort is highly unusual.

“The shrine also has evidence of animal sacrifice and possible religious feasting.”

Jupiter of Doliche (an ancient city in southern Turkey thought to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world) is represented riding a bull while holding a battle axe in one hand and a thunderbolt in the other. The other side depicts a jar and a shallow dish.

Shortly thereafter excavators uncovered a second altar in the shrine, this one dedicated by a prefect of the Second Cohort of Nervians. Only the bottom part of it remains, however, so there are no pretteh carvings.

Both the Fourth Cohort of Gauls and Second Cohort of Nervians served in Vindolanda, Epiacum to them, in the third century AD.

Vindolanda is no stranger to major finds about Roman life on the Wall, most famous among them are the wooden tablets of correspondence from soldiers, merchants, slaves, women living at the fort and its adjoining town in the first couple of centuries after Christ.

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Update: Ft. Craig Buffalo Soldiers identified

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

I’ve posted a couple of previous entries on the sad and disturbing story of the grave-robberies at Fort Craig, New Mexico.

Quick summary: Local historian Dee Brecheisen dies leaving a large cache of artifacts which his estate sells. A tipster tells the feds that among those artifacts was the mummified corpse of a black soldier Brecheisen had looted from Fort Craig. Federal agents find the skull, then they exhume the entire Fort Craig cemetery to identify and preserve the remains from further depredation.

A vast search of military and civilian archives plus copious forensic analysis ensues in an attempt to identify the bodies. Now the three soldiers found at Fort Craig have been identified and will be reburied with full honors at Santa Fe National Cemetery on Tuesday, July 28.

Over three weeks, Owsley and his team used CT scans, X-rays, bone density scans and isotope tests to analyze the remains.

Medical records showed that Morris died from an ax wound to the back, Ford succumbed to a spinal infection and Smith suffered complications from typhoid fever.[…]

The Bureau of Reclamation placed newspaper ads in the hometowns of Smith, Morris and Ford in hopes of finding descendants, but two of the soldiers were former slaves and finding family lineage has proven difficult, said agency spokeswoman Mary Perea Carlson.

Smith was from New Market, Ky., and died in 1866; Ford was from Taylor County, Ky., and died in 1868; and Morris was from Akron, Ohio, and died in 1877.

Thomas Smith was 5’2″ and no older than 20 when he died. All the people buried at Fort Craig seem to have hard damn lives.

In addition to the harsh conditions and frontier warfare, there were murders, suicides, fatal accidents and disease: typhoid, cholera, dysentery and smallpox, among others.

The bones of one woman — burial No. 33 — revealed the ravages of what was probably advanced syphilis. The spines of men in the cavalry were deteriorated from long hours in the saddle. Several skulls bore gunshot wounds, most likely the result of a bloody Civil War battle nearby.

A criminal forensic artist did a facial reconstruction from the skulls so we have sketches of what two of the Buffalo Soldiers may have looked like.

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A Jacobean space program

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

John Wilkins was a 17th c. inventor, academic, bishop, and Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law. In the 1640’s, he designed a space-going vessel that he thought would send a man to the Moon to establish trade agreements with the locals.

Not to crap on the most excellent Apollo rocket, but Wilkins had flair Werner von Braun could only dream of. His plans featured a wooden ‘chariot’ that would be propelled to the Moon by gunpowder, feather wings and springs.

Suppose this earth were A, which was to move in the circle C, D. and let the bullet be supposed at B. within its proper verge; I say, whether this earth did stand stil or move swiftly towards D, yet the bullet would still keepe at the same distance by reason of that Magneticke vertue of the center (if I may so speake) whereby all things within its spheare are attracted with it. So that the violence to the bullet, being nothing else but that whereby ’tis removed from its center, therefore an equall violence can carry a body from its proper place, but at an equall distance whether or no the center stand still or move.

Yeah, I’m not sure I really get it either but apparently he was pwning Copernicus on the motion of the earth in this passage.

Sadly he doesn’t seem to have reached the prototype stage of the space chariot, although he was known to have built and tested a variety of flying machines when he was at Oxford, around 1654.

If you want to get a manageable and highly entertaining glimpse of Jacobean science, philosophy, theology, technology and how intertwined they all were, you could do far worse than to read The Discovery of a World in the Moone Or, A Discovrse Tending To Prove That ‘Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World In That Planet.

For something a tad closer to home, keep an eye on Space.com for the first new pictures of the Apollo Moon landing sites in decades. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will be looking out for our remains, including the American flag Armstrong planted that Aldrin saw blow down when the Eagle departed.

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Metal detectors strike again

Friday, July 17th, 2009

This time it’s a gigantic hoard of over 1000 Roman silver coins.

I think the date is initially misprinted in the article, though. It claims the coins date from between 206 BC and 195 BC, but that has to be AD. The head of Augustus is on many of the coins, and he wasn’t a twinkle in his great-great-grandmammy’s eye in 195 BC.

Mr Bennett, 42, who works at the central library in Leamington Spa, found the hoard in farmer Peter Turner’s field in Stratford-upon-Avon on July 13 last year.

Landowner Peter Turner, 74, said: ‘Keith had been metal detecting and suddenly stopped because he saw a large number of objects flash up on his screen.

‘After digging down around four feet he saw the top of a large pot had been smashed and hundreds of silver coins were inside.’

The quantity of coins is huge. Even back then it would have been worth five times a Roman soldier’s yearly salary. Most likely whoever owned the land buried the coins for safekeeping.

The British Museum is still appraising the hoard — it’s certainly worth tens of thousands of pounds — but it was officially declared a treasure today.

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Rural Egypt oasis provides glimpse of daily life

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

The ancient town of Amheida on the Dakhleh Oasis was and is hundreds of miles away from the political and cultural capitals of Egypt, but it’s been inhabited since the Stone Age and excavations indicate they kept up with the times.

The early settlers were farmers, maybe even before the Nile valley got famous as a center of agriculture. Irrigation is a lot easier when you have a steady supply of water rather than a yearly flooding, as the copious remains of figs and olives indicate.

They also seemed to have been tapped in to the dominant culture, despite their physical distance from it. The Roman and Greek era art found on the site features contemporary mythology and deities.

Then there’s the school. Conventional wisdom has it that teachers were poorly paid and widely reviled generalists hired by parents of would-be functionaries to ensure salable literacy. Amheida’s school, however, tells a different story.

Divided into three rooms lined with benches for more than 50 students, it more closely resembled today’s formal institutions. Students were segregated by subject and age, and the teacher’s lessons were scrawled on the walls, which were treated like blackboards at the time. What remains of that writing has caught Cribiorre’s attention.

“There you have a poem written on the wall in the column in red ink. The poem speaks of rhetoric. It says, ‘come on, get up, get to work,'” she explained. “It’s encouragement from a teacher of rhetoric to his students. But it’s all poetry. In Greek.”

Scholars had thought that rhetoric, not poetry, was taught in Roman Egyptian schools. The schools churned out politicians and bureaucrats, aristocratic young men destined for leadership. Prior to the find, Cribiore had suspected that they might also have learned poetry, and this confirmed it. The teacher had written his lessons in verse, showing that schools from the period were more formal than once believed.

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The only tomb of an Aztec king?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Archaeologists have been crossing their fingers ever since excavations at the Templo Mayor uncovered a monolith of an Aztec goddess in 2006.

Now they’re crossing all their toes too, because they’ve found a lavishly decorated canine skeleton guarding a sealed entrance.

The animal was found wearing wooden earflaps mounted with turquoise mosaic, a collar of greenstone beads, and golden bells around its four feet.

If it’s a dog, it suggests a tomb because in Aztec mythology the dog leads its master through the underworld. And if it’s a tomb and those seals are really still sealed, then this might be a major all-time find.

The existence of multiple seals suggests that the tomb, if it’s there, could be a collective crypt containing the king and his successors, López Luján said.

“Each time they buried a newly deceased [dignitary], they sealed the entrance with a plaster seal,” he speculated.

That the seals are unbroken suggests that the potential tomb has not been looted.

Droolworthy though the thought may be, they’re doing this in a painstaking way, so it’ll be a long time before we know either way.

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It’s hard out there for a knight

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

A 14th c. skeleton found buried under the floor of the chapel in Stirling Castle, Scotland, has yielded new clues to what a hard-scrabble existence being a knight errant really was. The skeleton was first uncovered in 1997 and radio-carbon dated to circa 1390 AD.

It wasn’t until until recent advances in laser scanning, though, that they found out how many hits the poor guy had to take during his young life.

He appears to have survived for some time with a large arrowhead lodged in his chest, while the re-growth of bone around a dent in the front of his skull indicates that he had also recovered from a severe blow from an axe.

He eventually died when he was struck by a sword that sliced through his nose and jaw. His reconstructed skull also indicates that he was lying on the ground when the fatal blow was delivered. […]

However, it was only recently re-examined following advances in laser scanning techniques that not only revealed the nature of the three wounds, but also showed that the knight had lost teeth, probably from another blow or from falling from his horse.

They think they know who he was: one Robert Morley, killed in tournament at Stirling Castle in 1388.

He had bone stress on his ankles from riding and muscle injuries from heavy lifting. His right arm was bigger than the other from all the swordplay. He was between 18 and 26 when he died.

I’m sure courtly love was on high his list of priorities, right after surviving axe blows to the skull.

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2,000 year old makeup found intact

Monday, July 13th, 2009

An intact cosmetics case was found in the tomb of a wealthy Etruscan woman.

Dating to the second half of the second century B.C., the intact tomb was found sealed by a large terracotta tile. The site featured a red-purple painted inscription with the name of the deceased: Thana Presnti Plecunia Umranalisa.

“From the formula of the name, we learn that Thana Plecunia was the daughter of a lady named Umranei, a member of one of the most important aristocratic families of Chiusi,” the researchers wrote.

Indeed, the wide rectangular niche tomb certainly represents the noble origins of the deceased.

The ashes of Thana rested in a small travertine urn, decorated with luxuriant foliate elements and the head of a female goddess, most likely the Etruscan Earth goddess Cel Ati.

The highly decorated cosmetics case was found nearby. Blocked from oxidation by a clay layer that had built up over time, the expensive imported Egyptian ointment survived intact, all the more remarkable when you consider that the unguentarium had no lid. The clay formed a seal with the alabaster vessel, keeping the air out.

Ancient cosmetics have been found before, but the elements had already gotten to them, which makes this find unique. It can be chemically analyzed in depth.

“The natural resins were the pine resin, exudated from Pinaceae, and the mastic resin, from Anacardiaceae trees. The lipid was a vegetable oil, most likely moringa oil, which was used by the Egyptians and Greeks to produce ointments and perfumes,” Ribechini said.

Also called myrobalan oil, moringa oil was mentioned by Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. – 79 A.D.) in his celebrated Natural History as one of the ingredients in the recipe of a “regal perfume” for the king of Parthes.

Since moringa trees were not found in Italy — they are native to Sudan and Egypt — and given the Egyptian origins of the alabaster unguentarium, the researchers concluded that the ointment was imported to Etruria.

Thana Presnti Plecunia Umranalisa had expensive tastes. Researchers believe the fancy cosmetics represented an important moment in her life, possibly her wedding.

Interesting note: she uses her mother’s family name. By the Roman naming convention — which is otherwise very similar — her first and last names would be feminized versions of her father’s name. Etruscan women were astonishingly emancipated, especially compared to the Greek and Roman societies that bracketed them.

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Update: Copernicus had blue eyes

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

I posted a while back about the recent genetic tests comparing hair found in a book Copernicus owned with the remains thought to be his.

That was a big deal because even though people know what church he was buried in, the actual location was unknown, so the DNA confirmed that the excavated remains were his.

Now more details about the genetic analysis have been released and it turns out that Copernicus looked even more like James Cromwell than we realized.

The genetic analysis also found a variation in a gene called HERC2, which is usually found in people with blue eyes and is very common in Northern Europe.

Recent studies have shown that this HERC2 variant is also associated with lighter hair color and lighter skin.

“Indeed, Copernicus most probably had blue eyes and should also have lighter skin and hair color,” Wojciech Branicki, at the Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow, Poland, told Discovery News.

The finding is rather unexpected, since the great astronomer is usually portrayed with dark eyes.

Why would he have been so portrayed? The researchers point to a common contemporary portraiture technique called chalcography, which is an engraving on copper or brass. It didn’t render color accurately, so artists might have repeated an original chalcography error in their potraits of Copernicus.

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