Mummy Autopsy 2: The Revenge of Irtyersenu

Irtyersenu's sarcophagus lidIn 1825, physician and obstetrician Dr. Augustus Granville performed the first modern scientific autopsy of a mummy. The 2,600-year-old Irtyersenu had been taken from the necropolis in Thebes and passed along to the good doctor, who performed an extensive 6 week autopsy then presented his findings in grand style in the Royal Society halls.

“I determined, perfect and beautiful as it was, to make it the object of further research by subjecting it to the anatomical knife, and thus to sacrifice a most complete specimen of the art of Egyptian embalming, in hopes of eliciting some new facts illustrative of so curious and interesting a subject,” Granville said.

In a dramatic flourish, Dr. Granville lit said halls with candles made from wax he scraped off the mummy. He thought it was a mixture of bitumen and beeswax used to preserve her. It turned out to be adipocere, ie, her own body fat broken down into a crumbly waxy substance.

So he described her corpulent figure, her remarkably intact soft organs, her pelvic bones that showed signs of multiple childbirths, her age at death (50 – 55), under the flickering light of her own fat.

He found a tumor on her ovary and declared it the cause of death, but Irtyersenu has had the last laugh after all, because with today’s technology, scientists have been able to demonstrate that in fact the tumor was benign, and it was tuberculosis that killed her.

Reporting on Wednesday in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B, scientists led by Helen Donoghue, a specialist in infectious disease at University College London, used hi-tech analysis to explore what might have happened.

Thwarted by the difficulty of obtaining a well-preserved sample of DNA, they took material from the bones and soft tissues and tested it with liquid chromatography, analysing it for chemical telltales.

The signatures point to biomarkers of the cell wall of Mycobacterium tuberculosis — the germ which causes TB. It was found in the lung tissue, pleura, diaphragm and femur.

Paleopathology studies done on other Egyptian remains suggest tuberculosis was common in Egypt at the time.

The quality of the art on her sarcophagus plus the fact that her internal organs remained in place instead of being placed in canopic jars suggests Irtyersenu was neither too poor to afford a quality burial, nor rich enough to be able to afford the top notch embalming procedures, so solidly middle class and easily exposed to any Mycobacterium tuberculosis going around.

Dr. Granville's original drawings of the mummy and sarcophagus lid

Nero’s revolving dining room found?

Bust of Nero, NaplesSuetonius described a circular banquet hall with a perpetually revolving floor in Nero’s Golden House. People have thought he was talking about the famed octagonal hall and was just confused about the shape and which part of it moved.

A remarkable structure uncovered during routine structural support work on the Palatine Hill, however, suggests that the floor might indeed have revolved to mimic the movement of the heavens.

The dig so far has turned up the foundations of the room, the rotating mechanism underneath and part of an attached space believed to be the kitchens, she said.

“This cannot be compared to anything that we know of in ancient Roman architecture,” Villedieu told reporters during a tour of the cordoned-off dig.

She said the location of the discovery atop the Palatine Hill, the rotating structure and references to it in ancient biographies of Nero make the attribution to the emperor most likely.

Huge pillar underneath the floorThe dining room is 50 feet in diameter. The pillar underneath it is 13 feet wide, the largest one known in Roman architecture. Four spherical structures surround it, filled with an unidentified dark substance that archaeologists have sent to be analyzed.

There are also 7 arches underpinning the floor of the dining room, 4 on the top level (one of them complete), and 3 on the bottom level. Presumably the pillar, spheres and arches were all part of the rotating mechanism.

It’s not confirmed that this is the dining room Suetonius mentioned. There are no inscriptions or specific indicators, but the structure was definitely built after the great fire of 64 A.D. and before the Senate declared him an enemy of the state after his death in 68 A.D.

Its astonishing grandeur and architectural complexity certainly suggests it was imperial work, and the Domus Aurea was extravagant beyond anything seen before or after. It covered 200 acres over 4 of Rome’s 7 hills and included a massive lake which was drained by the Flavians to build the Colosseum.

That dining room would have had a prime view of the lake, in fact, and its waters might even have powered the revolving mechanism.

My kingdom for an accurate battle site

Battle of Bosworth Field dioramaFor hundreds of years people have thought the Battle of Bosworth, the final clash in the War of the Roses and the last battlefield to see the death of a British monarch (Richard III), took place on Ambion Hill.

After almost four years of careful investigations undertaken by the Leicestershire County Council and the battlefield Trust, experts now believe the battle actually took place a full mile away.

Richard Knox, curator of Bosworth Battlefield, said it was now likely that the proper site was on low-lying ground between the villages of Shenton, Stoke Golding and Dadlington, first proposed by the historian Peter Foss in 1990.

Map of Foss' Redesmore battlefield theoryThe key to the mystery is likely to be finding the former marshland that Henry is said to have used to his advantage to attack the vastly larger army of his enemy from the flanks.

Investigations there have found ancient names given to the area such as Fenn Hole and Fenn Meadow, and a team is currently scouring the area with metal detectors.

Jones' Atterton battlefield theoryTests have apparently conclusively demonstrated that Ambion Hill cannot be the battlefield, but there is another spot also in contention besides the Foss hypothesis: a field in Atherstone, where documentary evidence indicates that Henry the VII remunerated farmers for damage done “at our late victorious field”.

We won’t know the final results of the survey until early next year. Hopefully some battle artifacts will be found on one of the possible sites which confirms without question where the Battle of Bosworth actually took place.

Bosworth Field memorial stone commemorating Richard III's deathThis is a bit of a bummer for the Leicestershire County Council which has built a large visitor’s center on Albion Hill and installed a huge commemorative stone marker on the putative spot where Richard III was killed.

Still, they’re the ones sponsoring the study because they want to know the truth, as far as it is possible to uncover given the fragmentary and conflicting medieval and Tudor sources.

On the bright side, if it does turn out to be one of the other locations, they can keep the field free of visitor’s centers and parking lots and whatnot. The new visitor’s center at the battle of Gettysburg was intentionally built away from the battlefield so the site could be restored to Civil War-era topography.

Maybe they can do something similar once they pinpoint the right spot.

Historic theatre to be renovated into a theater!

Newport Casino Theater signThese days when you hear about a historic property getting renovated, it’s all too often turned into lofts or condos or retail space, so I was delighted to hear that the Newport Casino Theatre, designed by architect of the rich and famous and scandalous crime-of-passion victim Stanford White, is being renovated for use as an actual theater.

Built in 1880 as part of the Newport Casino complex, now a National Historic Landmark, the theater belongs to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It was tennis that rescued the Casino complex from decrepitude and almost certain demolition in 1954, and in 1963, James van Alen donated the theater to the Tennis Hall of Fame so the complex was unified again.

The complex is widely considered one of the best examples of Victorian Shingle Style architecture extant. Everything except for the theater was extensively renovated in 1997, and now it’s the theater’s turn.

It’s the first theater Stanford White designed, and the only one left standing, so even as it closed its doors in 1987 due to structural damage it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

A visual masterpiece, the Casino Theatre served as both a 500-capacity removable seat theatre and as a ballroom for dances. The interior was gold-trimmed ivory with a sky blue ceiling, decorated with golden stars. It was the scene of many artistic performances, both amateur and professional. Dances, recitals, poetic readings, shows and ballets were held for the adults, while children were entertained by vaudeville acts and magical mystifications.

Some of the most famous artists of their eras trod those boards, Basil Rathbone, Oscar Wilde, Charlton Heston, Helen Hayes and Will Rogers among them.

The theater closed its doors in 1987 and has been vacant ever since. Although its facade and structure have suffered some damage, it is still sound and the acoustics are said to be excellent. The original cosmetic features are still in place if in need of a face lift or two.

View from the balcony of the Newport Casino TheatreThe building, which will seat roughly 300 people, maintains its original touches, from grand curtains and an orchestra pit beneath the stage to green-fabric chairs with spaces below for men to stow their top hats.

A walk along the theater balcony reveals gold-inflected woven wickerwork on the ivory walls and intricate renderings of scallop shells and flames.

The paint is peeling and some of the chairs may have to be removed. Air conditioning and heating units will have to be added, plus stuff like wider aisles and ramps to bring the building into compliance with modern laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Once it’s done, perhaps as soon as next summer, nearby Salve Regina University will get to use it as its school theater. The Tennis Hall of Fame and local organizations like the Newport International Film Festival will also use the space for a variety of functions.

Postcard of North Wing of Newport Casino, ca 1900

Sheer joy for history and technology nerds

Michael Bennett-Levy is retiring. He’s moving from a medieval fortress in Edinburgh to a medieval fortress in Southern France, and like anyone on the move, he has to downsize.

When you’re an antique scientific instruments dealer, however, your version of downsizing is the coolest Bonhams auction of all time.

His collection of early televisions is without peer. There are beautiful furniture pieces from the very dawn of broadcast television in the 30’s; there are advanced technology projection units from the 50’s; there are stylized decorative televisions from the 70’s. Some of them are even in working condition.

His two dozen rarest sets were made in the 1930s to receive the first British and American broadcasts. He is selling them on Wednesday at a Bonhams auction in London, with estimates ranging from a few thousand dollars to about $33,000 for an oak unit that also contains a record turntable, radio and mini-bar.

Bonhams will offer his prewar sets as one group lot; then if the reserve of a few hundred thousand dollars is not met, they will be dispersed. “But I should cry if the television sets are split up,” Mr. Bennett-Levy, the author of an exhaustive 1993 study, “Historic Televisions and Video Recorders,” said in a phone interview. “I doubt anyone could form such a significant collection again. There are perhaps 500 prewar televisions known to survive, fewer than there are Stradivarius instruments. I own 5 to 6 percent of what’s in private hands or museums.”

That’s just the most expensive part of the collection. I’ve been browsing the catalog for two days now, oohing and aahing over the vast array of early technology.

I’m not even close to finished and so far I’ve come across timepieces from gilded 18th c. French mantle watches to wall-hanging Swatch watches, telescopes, barometers, navigational instruments, foghorns, ship models, gas masks (including one for a baby), Zeppelin bomb shrapnel, an anti-tank missile, a pull-along grasshopper toy, turn of the century roller skates, kaleidoscopes, photographic equipment, stereo viewers and cards and oh so much more.

Most droolworthy of all, though, is a full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry photographed by Joseph Cundall in 1874 and mounted on its original Arts and Crafts stand. It’s 226 feet long. It was the longest panorama ever made in the 19th c., and as far as Michael Bennett-Levy and Bonhams know, it’s still the longest panorama ever made.

There were only 6 of those ever printed, and the rest are either lost, damaged or incomplete. The estimate is £5,000 – 8,000. If I had the cash, I would seriously pay double that up front right now no questions asked.