Archive for October, 2009

Bluehenge discovered two miles from Stonehenge

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Archaeologist laser scanning the postholes at Bluehenge All that’s left is the holes where the huge stones once stood plus a few arrowheads and deer antlers that Stone Age people actually used as pickaxes, but archaeologists think they once held a circle of 25 two-ton Welsh bluestones approximately 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter.

The stones were removed thousands of years ago, possible put to use in the inner circle of Stonehenge itself. The outer henge — a ditch with a bank mounded up facing the outside — around the stone circle dates to 2400 B.C., but the arrowheads found inside the circle are 500 years older than that.

[University of Sheffield Professor Mike] Parker Pearson said his team was waiting for results of radiocarbon dating which could reveal whether stones currently in the inner circle of Stonehenge were originally located at the other riverside construction.

It should also show whether the newly discovered circle’s stones were removed by Neolithic people and dragged along the route of the avenue to Stonehenge, to be incorporated within its major rebuilding about 2500BC. After that date Stonehenge consisted of about 80 Welsh stones and 83 local sarsen stones.

Archaeologists suspected that there may have been something at the end of the avenue between Stonehenge and the Avon river, but they didn’t imagine that it would be a whole new ring of standing stones.

That might suggest that the entire area was a funereal compound for Stone Age Britons. The dead might have been celebrated in the nearby Neolithic village of Durrington Walls where there was a henge and timber circle, then transported to the Avon river for a short river procession that docked at Bluehenge.

Pearson speculates that the bluestone circle was the crematorium where bodies were ceremonially burned before being buried at Stonehenge.

Map of possible funerary route between the henges

No matter what Bluehenge’s function(s) may have been, its location and very existence dramatically alter the Stonehenge narrative.

Dr Josh Pollard, project co-director from the University of Bristol, described the discovery as “incredible”.

“The newly discovered circle and henge should be considered an integral part of Stonehenge rather than a separate monument and it offers tremendous insight into the history of its famous neighbour. Its landscape location demonstrates once again the importance of the river Avon in Neolithic funerary rites and ceremonies.”

Another team member, Professor Julian Thomas, said the discovery indicated that this stretch of the river Avon was central to the religious lives of the people who built Stonehenge.

“Old theories about Stonehenge that do not explain the evident significance of the river will have to be rethought,” he said.


Goths in Roman Britain

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

A Roman era skeleton found in Gloucester in 1972 has mystified archaeologists for decades. It was found with a fancy silver belt and shoe fittings and an inlaid silver knife from somewhere in the Balkan/Southern Russia area, which is a long ways away for someone in 400 A.D. Britain.

A Goth in Roman BritainThey knew from his burial in a mausoleum and from his quality vestments that he was obviously someone important, but they didn’t know if he was a local man who could afford exotic gear or someone who came from the same place as the silver.

Now thanks to a research grant, the Gloucester City Museum has been able to analyze the skeleton with state of the art technology and the results are in: he was a Goth from east of the Danube, most likely a high ranking mercenary in the Roman army.

(Oh, and he was also a vegetarian. A lot of these Romanized tough guys seem to have subsisted primarily on a vegetarian diet.)

David Rice, archaeology curator at Gloucester City Museum, said: “Archaeologists have always wondered who he was and what he was doing in Gloucester.

“We’ve discovered he came from way outside of the Roman Empire, from the other side of the Danube.”

It was possible to detect he lived in very cold regions as a child, before moving west, he said.

Mr Rice added: “To have such an unusual person in this city means that Gloucester was a more important place in Roman times than we’ve previously thought.”

That means there were Romanized Goth functionaries in the far-flung areas of the Empire just 10 years before Alaric and his Visigoth army sacked Rome. Before then, they had been in a military covenant with the Byzantine Empire since the middle of the 4th c.

That relationship soured under the Emperor Valens. They defeated and killed him at Adrianople in 378 A.D.

Even Alaric had various deals with the Eastern and Western Empire at various times. The Roman Senate went so far as to grant him a generalship. Of course, it was only to stop him from besieging the city, and the deal fell through soon enough. Hence the sack.

Pardon my rambling. The point of all this blather is that Goths were involved in the Roman military, but they were also fighting against it for centuries. The fact that a high-ranking Goth would be deployed to Britannia province in 400 A.D. is very much unexpected.


Hawass plays hardball with the Louvre and wins

Friday, October 9th, 2009

It only took them 2 days to cave completely when he flexed his muscles. Here’s what happened. On Wednesday, Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, dramatically announced that Egypt was cutting all ties to the Louvre. No more collaborative dig in Saqqara. No more Louvre curators making speeches in Cairo. No more nothing.

The bones of contention were 4 fragmentary steles chipped off the walls of the 3200-year-old tomb of noble cleric Tetaki in the 80’s and bought by Louvre in 2000 and 2003. Hawass said he’s asked for them to be returned before, most recently sending the museum a letter 7 months ago, but has gotten either refusals or the silent treatment in return, so he whipped out the big gun.

The French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand immediately stepped into the fray and assured everyone that the Louvre had acted in “good faith” when it purchased the stolen funerary inscriptions, and they were just waiting for a special investigative committee to confirm the pieces were stolen is all.

Today, Mitterand convoked the National Scientific Committee of the Museums of France and in an unanimous vote of the 35 experts, the committee agreed that the pieces had indeed, quel dommage, been stolen and will be returned to Egypt without delay.

That’s a matter of weeks, in slightly more concrete terms. Egypt is holding them to it. All ties to the Louvre will remain suspended until the steles are safely back in the motherland.

Tekati’s tomb was discovered by Lord Carnarvon — who along with Howard Carter would later uncover King Tutankhamen’s tomb — in 1908. The tomb was quickly closed to keep out looters (that worked out great, didn’t it?), and only rarely re-opened for scientific study.

Last year, Egyptian archaeologists reinvestigated the tomb and found the theft damage. That’s when they started taking a good hard look at the pieces the Louvre had bought.

Hawass pwns the Louvre


Caravaggio painting to be restored in public

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

"Adoration of the Shepherds", Caravaggio, 1609Starting next week, Caravaggio’s painting the “Adoration of the Shepherds” is going to be restored in public in Rome’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower chamber of the Italian parliament (basically the Italian version of the House of Representatives).

Small groups of tourists and art students will be allowed to watch the restorers at work. The goal is to inspire a greater sense of connection and involvement with Italy’s rich artistic heritage.

The painting doesn’t seem to be in need a huge amount of work. The projected end of the restoration is February of next year, in time for the work to go on display in the Quirinale Palace on the 400th anniversary of Carvaggio’s death.

Caravaggio, whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi, was on the run from the law when he painted the “Adoration of the Shepherds”. He had a notoriously bad temper, which got him in many a brawl. He basically never lived in a city without getting chased out of it after he whupped the wrong guy. In 1606 he killed a man over a tennis match and had to flee Rome with a price on his head.

Over the next 3 years, he went from Naples to Malta (where he got into a brawl and ran) to Sicily (whence he fled because his enemies were trying to kill him) to Naples again (where 4 knights in armor attacked him and wounded him) to Porto Ercole, where he died, apparently from a fever, on his way way back to Rome to ask the Pope for a pardon.

That was in 1610, just 1 year after painting the “Adoration of the Shepherds” during his time in Messina, Sicily.

His chiaroscuro style — dark and light elements contrasting strongly with little or no mid-range — and embrace of naturalism influenced great artists who came after him like Rubens and Rembrandt.


Coney Island bell rings again after a century

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Restored Dreamland Pier bellOn May 27, 1911, the 500-pound bell that used to ring the arrival and departure of steamboat visitors to Coney Island’s Dreamland Pier sank below the waves along with the pier itself in a devastating fire.

There it remained in its watery grave until commercial diver and Coney Island native Gene Ritter recovered it last month.

The pier, and its artifacts, were thought lost forever until Gene Ritter, a professional diver in Brooklyn, discovered remnants of Dreamland in 1990. Many dives later — in the warm, clear water of an afternoon last November — Mr. Ritter and one of his diving partners, Louie Scarcella, found the bell. It sat 25 feet down, upright but tilted slightly in the sand, Mr. Ritter said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said.

The bell was lifted from the sea with inflatable bags last month and towed to the Gateway Marina on Flatbush Avenue. It was then hauled by crane onto land. The bell was in good condition and had mostly “resisted marine growth,” said Mr. Denson, the executive director of the Coney Island History Project. Mr. Ritter said he wanted to return to the dive site in a bigger boat to check for other items. “Every single artifact we find will stay here,” he said. “They belong to the people.”

The Dreamland Pier bell after it was pulled up from the ocean floorIt was in great condition when he found it. The bronze finish was looking a little green around the gills, but there were no severe incrustations or rust. The inscription on the bell — a dedication to trapeze artist and founding member of the Gregory Brothers Circus James Gregory, plus the casting date of 1885 — looked pristine. They even managed to ring it and it still sounded good after living 25 feet deep under the Atlantic for 98 years.

Now the bell has been lovingly restored and is on display at the Brooklyn Borough Hall. It’s the only major artifact to survive the devastating 1911 fire. The 1,200-foot pier itself was iron so just sort of melted into the ocean. The Dreamland park ended up a twisted pile of rubble.

The fire began in the Hell Gate ride where boats were drawn down into a swirling pool. Some workers doing late night roof repairs before the season was to open the next day dropped a bucket of hot tar when some light bulbs burst. The sparks ignited the tar and next thing you know, the Hell Gate ushered in an inferno.

A panorama of Dreamland Park after the fire

That stump in the middle of picture was all that remained of the Dreamland Tower, a 375-foot tower decked out in 100,00 lights that could be seen from Manhattan back when even the tallest structures were just 10 stories high. Look how pretty it was lit up at night:

Dreamland Tower at night

For more about Dreamland Park and the fire, see this fantastic essay.


The first candid photos ever taken in Japan

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Another neat piece of photographic history went on the auction block yesterday in a Bonham’s sale called “India and Beyond – Travel and Photography”. It’s a photo album of pictures taken mainly in Japan in 1898 by the felicitously named Walter J. Clutterbuck. Candid picture by Walter Clutterbuck, Japan, 1898

Besides the awesomeness of his name (somewhat reminscent of eminent Goonies treasure hunter Chester Copperpot), Clutterbuck took what are thought to be the first candid pictures of people on the streets of Meiji-era Japan. Before him, Japanese pictures were posed studio portraits, so not exactly a slice of life.

He actually disguised his camera as a pair of binoculars so people didn’t even know he was taking pictures of them. How he managed to disguise a 19th c. stereoscopic camera as binoculars, I do not know. Here’s an example of a Henry Clay stereoscopic model from the 1890s. It’s 5 x 7 or 8 inches in dimension.

I poked around a little and found a style of binoculars from that era that might have served as cover for one of those cameras: the ‘Zodac’ Prismatic Box Binoculars were made by Aitchison & Company in 1895 or so. They’re 8 x 20 inches, and that box design might have been able to contain the entire stereoscopic camera.

Henry Clay stereoscopic camera, 1898-1899 Aitchison 'Zodac' Prismatic Box Binoculars

I’m just spitballing here. I don’t know the exact model of his camera or how he modified it. I’m terribly curious, though. I wish the binocamera had been included in the sale just so I could see it.

There are a few pictures from his travels to China and Hong Kong in the album as well. The estimate was £3,000 – 4,000, but Bonham’s doesn’t say what it actually sold for, so the album either didn’t sell of the catalog hasn’t been updated after sale.

The latter is unlikely. People bid over the internet these days, so the auction sites update the data in real time.


Scientist reproduces the Shroud of Turin with medieval materials

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Luigi Garlaschelli, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Pavia, says he has reproduced the Shroud of Turin using only materials and techniques available in the Middle Ages.

The Shroud of Turin is said to be the sheet in which Jesus was wrapped after the Crucifixion. It bears an image of a bearded man, with wounds on his head, wrists, feet and side.

In 1988, three independent laboratories radiocarbon-dated it to between 1260 and 1390 A.D. This set off a major controversy and some people questioned whether the small samples taken from the edges of the cloth could have been contaminated from hundreds of years of handling. (The Church itself took no stand on the question and never has. The shroud is a symbol of the Passion of Christ, as far as they’re concerned, and they leave it at that.)

Before then, in 1978, a team of American scientists from NASA, the Navy and a variety of universities and research agencies carefully examined the shroud. They found microscopic protein evidence that the linen came from the first century Middle East.

They also found that the bloodstains were in fact blood, and that the image wasn’t made of paint or pigment. Scientists still haven’t been able to pin down exactly how the image on the linen might have been created at that time.

Enter Garlaschelli and his team.

They placed a linen sheet flat over a volunteer and then rubbed it with a pigment containing traces of acid. A mask was used for the face.

The pigment was then artificially aged by heating the cloth in an oven and washing it, a process which removed it from the surface but left a fuzzy, half-tone image similar to that on the Shroud. He believes the pigment on the original Shroud faded naturally over the centuries.

They then added blood stains, burn holes, scorches and water stains to achieve the final effect.

It looks pretty damn good, I must say. The original is on the left, the reproduction on the right.

Shroud of Turin on the left, Garlaschelli's new one on the right

Of course this doesn’t prove anything other than that it was physically possible for people to have rigged themselves up a miraculous shroud in the Middle Ages. As Garlaschelli notes, folks who don’t believe the carbon dating results from some of the most reputable labs in the world aren’t likely to believe him either.

The study was also funded by an Italian association of atheists and agnostics, so people who don’t trust their motivations and Garlaschelli’s integrity obviously will not trust the findings.

The Shroud of Turin is kept out of sight most of the time. In the past 300 years, it has only been viewable by the public 17 times. The last time it was on public display was in 2000. To catch a rare glimpse of the Shroud of Turin, make your way to the Guarini Chapel in the Turin Cathedral next year between April 10 and May 23.

Fun fact: a displaying of the Shroud actually has a name. It’s called an “ostensione” — an ostentation in English — after the shameless way in which the royal house of Savoy showed it off back in the late 16th/early 17th century when they first got it.


The man behind the mouse ears

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

The Walt Disney Family Museum opened its doors for the first time Thursday. Founded by Walt Disney’s daughter and grandson, the facility cost $110 million to build, and focuses on the man and his work.

Earliest Mickey Mouse drawings, by various artists including Ub IwerksThe Disney Company collaborated — they hold the copyrights to all the important cartoons and of course own many of the seminal artifacts — but didn’t fund it. All that cash and much of the memorabilia came from the family foundation. Disney Co. just loaned them some of the major pieces, like the two-story-high camera used to create the 3D effects in “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.”

The museum is housed in a 19th c. Army barracks and two adjacent buildings in the Presidio in San Francisco. The family specifically wanted to adapt a historical property for use as a museum, and the barracks also provided them with the space to build a 20,000 square foot addition in the U-shaped courtyard.

From the New York Times museum review:

The 348 frames that made up 1 single minute of footage from "Steamboat Willie"Every gallery is packed with video monitors, touch screens and sound systems intended to bring static drawings, storyboards and ephemera to life. Many of the exhibits focus on technological advances made by Disney himself that resulted in the first successful synchronized sound cartoon (“Steamboat Willie,” 1928), the first convincing suggestion of depth in animation (“The Old Mill,” 1937) and the first modern-day theme park (Disneyland, 1955). […]

One of the most fascinating objects here is an enormous notebook created by Herman Schultheis, a technician in the camera-effects department in the late ’30s, in which he documented how images were produced in “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.” Next to it, an animated display of the book responds to touch, so you can almost feel the creators’ imagination at work as they transmute real objects into fantastical washes of color.

It’s not all fun and games, though. There is a section in the permanent collection that gets into the animators’ strike of 1941 and Walt Disney’s subsequent testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 where he enthusiastically named names of “communist agitators” who he was convinced wanted to smear his name and take down his studio.

The museum has audio recordings of Disney’s HUAC testimony, which I wasn’t able to find online, but you can read how personally Walt Disney took the strike and about his concerns over the power of propaganda in film in the HUAC transcript.

The display also includes interviews from the striking workers as well as from the animators who crossed the picket lines, so you get both sides of the story.


Anne Frank captured on film

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

The real Anne Frank, I mean, not an actor in a movie. This footage was shot from the street when a neighbor was getting married on July 22, 1941.

For a few seconds, the camera points upward and captures an excited, raven-haired young girl leaning out the window to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom.


Less than a year after she leaned out of that window, Anne would receive an autograph book for her 13th birthday, a book she decided to use as a diary. A month after that, the family would go into hiding in the “Secret Annex”, the hidden top floors of her father’s office building.

Two years later, they would be betrayed and sent to their ultimate deaths in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Only Otto, Anne’s father, would survive the death camps.

This is the only known footage of Anne Frank, courtesy of the bride and groom who have allowed the Anne Frank House to display it. It was uploaded to the brand new Official Anne Frank Channel 10 days ago.

Anne Frank writing, 1941The channel already offers a variety of eye-witness interviews, period footage and comments from contemporary luminaries on the enduring significance of Anne Frank and her diary.

They also have a sneak preview of the Anne Frank House virtual museum which will launch in April of next year. Once it’s up and running, you’ll be able to walk the halls of the Secret Annex as they were during the war.

Until then, you can learn more about Anne Frank and her world from the Anne Frank House website.


Lewis Chessmen to tour the motherland

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

Lewis Chessmen in the National Museum of Scotland, EdinburghThe Lewis Chessmen are 12th c. ivory chess pieces that were found almost 180 years ago on the island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.

There are 93 pieces in total, constituent parts of 4 different sets, and all of them in virtually untouched condition, so it’s thought that they belonged to a merchant who stopped on the island while traveling from Ireland to Norway.

The pieces were found in a small stone chamber 15ft beneath a sand dune near Uig on the west coast of Lewis at some point before 1831.

They include elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales’ teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, mitred bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks.

It is believed they were made between about 1150-1200 AD when the Western Isles were part of the Kingdom of Norway, not Scotland.

Similar carvings from the period have been found in Trondheim, Norway, so it’s thought that the chessmen were carved there and brought to Lewis by the trader.

Lewis chessmen (kings and queens) in the British MuseumSince their discovery, they’ve been sold and resold, so now there are only 11 pieces left in Scotland. They’re part of the National Museum of Scotland‘s permanent collection. The 82 remaining pieces belong to the British Museum.

Needless to say, this is a sore spot for many Scots — including the Scottish National Party government — who would like to have the whole set back together again in Scotland. That’s not likely to happen any time soon, but at least they can get partial satisfaction from the loan of 24 of the British Museum’s chessmen for a year-long traveling exhibition in Scotland.

The National Museum of Scotland is adding 6 of its pieces to the exhibit, so a total of 30 of these exquisite pieces will be on display in various Scottish museums in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stornoway and Lerwickfrom from May of 2010 to May of 2011.

The SNP sees this as a compromise, a step towards the ultimate goal of repatriating the whole set. The British Museum disagrees. (Scoffs, really.)

Lewis Berserker rook biting his shield and king






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