Spoooooky historical pictures

Check out this great collection of period skull illusions and Halloween costumes. Some of those early century clowns will put the fear of God into you, I tell you whut.

Little girls and their dog skull Cafe De l'Enfer, Paris ca 1910 Scary old timey clown

In other fun Halloween history news, Archaeology magazine has collected all kinds of different Halloween-themed witches-and-vampires finds and articles here. You might have even seen me blog about one of two of them in the past.

I love this one about the urine and bellybutton lint in the witch bottle, and this article about evidence of spellcasting in Cornwall.

Lastly, enjoy the most adorable skeleton art from artist Olaf Breuning in the gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome.

Villa Medici belongs to the French government, and they have a program where artists apply to live there for a while and just make art. The Villa and its grounds make for a dramatic backdrop in all kinds of media.

Skeletons in the Villa Medici garden

I’ve never seen skeletons with so much joie de vivre.

:skull: Happy Halloween! :skull:

Everything at Lehmans must go!

Lichtenstein Statue of Liberty lithographInvestment bank Lehman Brothers imploded into dramatic bankruptcy last year, and now they’re finally selling the art off the walls.

Surprisingly for such a notoriously spendthrift brand, especially one run by a CEO with a $15 million personal art collection, Lehman doen’t have a lot of bick ticket items on the block.

When the collection hits the auction block on Sunday in Philadelphia, proceeds will go to pay creditors, but they won’t be throwing any ticker tape parades about being made whole. Like so much about the Lehman legacy, the collection turns out not to be worth much. Freeman’s Auctioneers & Appraisers estimates that the 283 lots for sale are worth about $750,000 in total. […]

Compared with other investment banks, however, Lehman Brothers didn’t make its corporate art collection a major priority, people close to it say. Many of the works are by unknowns, meant primarily to decorate wall space. UBS, by contrast, owns 40,000 art objects, including works by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, which they loan to museums like the Tate in London. JP Morgan Chase is also known for having a significant collection, established 50 years ago by David Rockefeller.

The collection comprises mainly 20th century prints, photographs and paintings. Some of the standout pieces include a print by Alexander Calder ($800-$1,200 estimate), a Statue of Liberty lithograph by Roy Lichtenstein ($15,000-$25,000 estimate), and a set of 9 Walker Evans photogravures of the Brooklyn Bridge ($1,000-$1,500 estimated), but there are plenty of neat pieces for a few hundred dollars.

The auction is Sunday at Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia. Browse the catalog to see if there’s anything you’d like to preserve from the collapse of the financial system.

There will be two more Lehman sales after this, paintings and sculpture on December 6th and 450 more prints on February 12.

Happy 50th birthday, Asterix!

Cover of my edition of "Asterix the Gaul"Asterix, that indomitable little Gaul, is 50 today, as are his comrades-in-arms from the one village that resists being divided into three parts by Julius Caesar. Asterix got his big break in the magazine Pilote exactly fifty years ago today.

His creators, illustrator Albert Uderzo and writer Réne Goscinny, published the first book, Asterix the Gaul, two years after that, and basically never stopped. Even after Goscinny’s death in 1977, Uderzo continued to crank out the best-selling books. Asterix books have sold 325 million copies and been translated into 107 languages.

Uderzo, Goscinny, Obelix, Asterix and DogmatixNot to universal acclaim, I’m afraid. I’m not a purist, but there’s no question that the books lost some of their brilliant puncraft and wit when Goscinny passed away. The first 24 books are by far superior to the ones that came after.

Asterix and Cleopatra is my forever favorite, but I cherish all the precious English translations from my youth. They never lost their luster even after I learned enough French to get the originals. Anthea Bell is the translator. There’s a great interview with her here.

Ironically perhaps, Asterix in Britain was a particular challenge to translate because one of the joys of the original was the way in which Goscinny captured the British characters speaking French with a dreadful English accent. It is also a favourite of Uderzo.

“While I like all that we have made, I have a little preference for Asterix et Les Bretons, for the way that René made the British speak with the structure of the English language transformed into French. I found it an extraordinary idea,” he says. “For René, who knew English perfectly, it was like a child’s game”.

Bell, who always ran her scripts past Goscinny when he was alive, was relieved to find that her translation solution – to use very dated, stilted, ‘upper class twit’ language in the style of PG Wodehouse – met with the French writer’s approval. “I told him that we were intending to use phrases like ‘what ho, old bean!’ and ‘hullo, old fruit’ and his eyes lit up,” she said. “‘Vieux fruit! I wish I’d thought of that…’ he murmured.”

He may belong to the world now, thanks to great translators like Ms. Bell, but Asterix is an undeniable French icon, celebrated as an incarnation of the rebellious, stubborn, self-confident French national character. Paris has gone Asterix-mad this anniversary.

They’ve had all kinds of Asterix-themed events, including a sky drawing of the little Gaul done by an elite Air Force unit (video of the aerial stunt), a 50th anniversary book release which is a collection of Goscinny short stories rather than one full-length book. There’s even a musical called “Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix” by Parisian composer Frédéric Chalin staged at Champs Elysees Theatre.

Parisians are to be besieged by tributes to France’s most popular comic strip. Today, among the third-century Gallo-Roman baths upon which the Musée de Cluny is partially built, an exhibition of original plates and manuscripts opened to allow fans a glimpse of the creators’ inspirations. […]

Menhir with Asterix in front of the Palais BrongniartTo add to the Astérix fervour gripping the capital, various symbols of the books such as giant menhirs … and speech bubbles of famous exchanges will be erected at eight locations including the Place de la Concorde and in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Update: Oh yay, a slideshow! The menhir with faux hieroglyphics is just adorable.

The Musée de Cluny doesn’t have much of a website, so those of us not in Paris today will have to be content imagining the thirty original plates by Uderzo and the handwritten and typed scripts by Goscinny set in what was once a Roman frigidarium.

There are also new parodies by Uderzo of famous French artworks done Asterix style on display in the Cluny gardens. Here’s “Impedimenta Leading the Gauls” after Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”:

Impedimenta Leading the Gauls, Albert Uderzo, 2009 "Liberty Leading the People", Eugène Delacroix, 1830

Mysterious carvings near Templar church in Scotland

Builders reinforcing an old wall near a ruined church in Temple, Midlothian, have uncovered a stone carved with strange symbols.

It’s a flat, rectangular stone, possibly a sarcophagus lid. The carvings look vaguely Viking, vaguely Celtic and are vaguely dated to the 10th, 12th, 13th or 14th century. Since it was found near the ruins of what was once a Templar preceptory, there’s a certain Da Vinci Code intrigue to it.

Historian and author John Ritchie said the stone raised many questions. “It is a crude carving, quite primitive, but I have never seen anything like it in my life,” he said. “It has a whole series of symbols on it and the symbols are very interesting.

“The symbols at the bottom look like Viking sun compasses, while the dials at the top look a little bit like a Celtic cross but with notches carved on them.”

Then on the left there’s the sword and shield with what looks eerily like Pac-Man engraved on it. (See where the arrow is pointing below.)


Nobody really knows what they mean, although there’s speculation that they might be sheep shears or hawking bells, perhaps carved on a knight’s headstone.

Expert David Connolly, of Connolly Heritage Consultancy, said he believed the stone was from the 13th or 14th century.

“It is a significant site because it was the Templar Preceptory for Scotland,” he said. “I think from the condition, it may once have been set inside the church – which was once much bigger,” he added.

“He could be a Templar, he could be a Hospitaller, he could just be a knight who wanted to be buried there – but the heraldry is like nothing anyone has seen before.”

Or it could all just be a big lark carved by wacky kids in the throes of 70’s videogame mania. We just don’t know, and we won’t know anything about it for sure until historians get to do some serious analysis.

The stone is still in place, and the landowner, Crispin Miller, says when he restores the churchyard he’ll put an arch over the stone so historians can study it further in situ.

Spikes in the head at Ur

Warrior skull, flattened by pressure of earth and later burialsRoyal burials uncovered at Ur in the 20’s were replete with thousands of courtiers buried along with their royal masters. C. Leonard Woolley, the director of the excavations at the time, thought the careful burials indicated a solemn, peaceful death, like maybe they all got dressed up pretty, marched into the tomb and took poison.

For years that has been the convention wisdom. The remains were in many tiny pieces, crushed by the pressure of tons of earth and later burials that compressed the skeletons over the 4500 years since their deaths, so archeologists really haven’t had a chance to use any modern scientific tools on them.

Now the University of Pennsylvania is putting on an exhibit of artifacts from Ur, so researchers took the opportunity to take CT scans of skull pieces from a man and woman. The CT scan data was used to make a 3D image of where the skull fragments fit together.

Woman's skull, CT on left, decorated for burial on right

The researchers, led by Janet M. Monge, a physical anthropologist at Penn, applied forensic skills to arrive at the probable cause of death in both cases.

There were two round holes in the soldier’s cranium and one in the woman’s, each about an inch in diameter. But the most convincing evidence, Dr. Monge said in an interview, were cracks radiating from the holes. Only if the holes were made in a living person would they have produced such a pattern of fractures along stress lines. The more brittle bones of a person long dead would shatter like glass, she explained.

Dr. Monge surmised that the holes were made by a sharp instrument and that death “by blunt-force trauma was almost immediate.”

Rmarkhor goat eating the leaves of a treeThe research also turned up evidence that some of the sacrificed courtiers had been baked (as in heat, not as in weed) and treated with a mercury compound, which suggests a primitive mummification procedure, probably necessary to keep the bodies from decomposing during long funerary rituals as well to help pose them for banquet tableaux and the like.

The Penn exhibit includes the two highly decorated skulls, plus 220 other objects from the site. They have a wonderful companion online exhibit too, featuring lectures, zoomable pictures of gold jewelry, pre and post-conservation pictures, details about the original expedition, details about the current research, and oh so much more.

There’s at least a semester’s worth of college in that online exhibition, I swear.