Archive for November, 2009

Diplomat tries to leave Iran with 6 tons of antiquties

Friday, November 20th, 2009

Shapur II (309-79 A.D.) silver drachmHe actually had the gonads to describe them as “personal effects” in his customs declaration, banking on his diplomatic immunity to ship them out of the country without setting off alarms. Unfortunately for Argentinean embassy functionary Sebastian Zavalla, security noticed discrepancies between the declaration and the enormous shipment so they alerted customs officials.

Customs overrode diplomatic immunity and in front of an embassy representative, they opened the cargo. Inside they found ancient Persian gold and silver coins, battle shields, manuscripts, engraved stones and a whole bunch of other really random stuff.

Iranian officials have displayed the goods at a warehouse in Tehran to illustrate what they described as attempted “cultural plunder” by Zavalla, who worked as a counsellor at the Argentinian embassy. Among them are a hand-written Qur’an, a carved wooden door, and 19th century manuscripts belonging to Iran’s religious minorities.

The exhibition also includes animal skins, a stamp collection and – incongruously – portraits of Stalin, as well as a Vietnamese poster celebrating the fall of Saigon to communist forces in 1975.

Zavalla insists he bought all this stuff completely legitimately in Tehran’s Jomeh bazaar and other such retail outlets. He claims the Iranian items make up no more that 20% of the cargo. Of course, that’s not really much of a defense. Twenty percent of 6 tons is 1.6 tons of Iranian antiquities which is mind boggling, even for the most dedicated swap meet denizen.

Iranian customs spokesman Mohammad Behboud Ahani says they’ve invited experts to assess the monetary value of the would-be shipment, but of course he considers the market value insignificant compared to its historical value to Iran.

Zevalla left before his tons, so he’s back in Argentina now. Iran’s foreign ministry is up in arms, accusing Argentina of an “undignified diplomatic act” but the undignified diplomat is out of their reach now. They’ll have to be content with his shady collection and imprecations, I suspect.

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Red Cross sells off some of its history

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

The American Red Cross has been struggling with an operating deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars for two years now. They’ve managed to reduce it, but they still have $33.5 million to scrape up from somewhere, and that somewhere is its extensive collection of historical art, textiles, treasures of all kinds dating from before Clara Barton founded the organization in 1881.

Civil War-era flag of the U.S. Sanitary CommissionDozens of artifacts and archival items will be auctioned by Heritage Auction Galleries over the next few months. They’re being selective, though, because the American Red Cross is custodian of some major pieces of American history.

What once was a collection of more than 135,000 objects, images, books and reels of film kept in a Lorton, Va., warehouse outside Washington is being drastically scaled back. The warehouse will be closed next year to save $3 million annually.

Many items predate the time in 1881 when Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in Washington. Some have been sent to the National Archives under a long-standing partnership, the most historically significant art and objects will be kept at the Washington headquarters and others will be auctioned in the largest sale in years, archivist Susan Watson said.

The charity will honor donor intent and keep its best and most historically significant art and objects, Lowe said. That will include original paintings by Norman Rockwell, Howard Chandler Christy and African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, among others. Rockwell was commissioned to do paintings for the Red Cross as the basis of posters asking people to join or donate.

Rose Percy with Tiffany jewelry and accessoriesSome of the pieces for sale are utility items like World War I nurse uniforms, poster art, a woolen Civil War-era flag of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the precursor to the Red Cross, which may be the last one remaining from the Civil War period.

1930s Cartier Art Deco desk clock lampOthers are decorative items and artwork donated by supporters over the years, like an 1864 Rose Percy doll set, complete with custom Tiffany jewelry and accessories, and a 1930’s Cartier Art Deco silver, gold, jadeite and pearl desk clock which is one of only 3 known.

The sales are conservatively estimated to bring in $200,000. That sounds very conservative to me, like maybe even a lowball. I mean, Cartier, Tiffany, a document that saved a man from being sent to the death camps in World War II… There’s no telling where the prices will end up.

You can see a beautiful video overview of the collection on the Heritage Auction website.

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Mummies were heart unhealthy too

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Researchers from the Mid America Heart Institute gave 22 mummies in the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo CT scans and found that 9 of the 16 with usable heart tissue showed signs of heart disease, mainly hardened arteries.

At first glance, the results were unexpected because we modern types indulge in more risky behaviors like smoking and Big Macs. We think of pre-modern people on the whole living less sedentary, less heart-unhealthy lives than we do.

“We were struck by the similar appearance of vascular calcification in the mummies and our present-day patients,” said another researcher, Dr. Michael Miyamoto of the University of California at San Diego. “Perhaps the development of atherosclerosis is a part of being human.”

One mummy had evidence of a possible heart attack but scientists don’t know if it was fatal. Nor can they tell how much these people weighed — mummification dehydrates the body.

It’s not entirely surprising, upon reflection. Only very well-off people were mummified, and they would have had diets high in meat, especially salted meat. High salt intake = high risk of hypertension.

The mummies ranged in date from 1981 B.C. to 334 A.D., and half of them were over 45 when they died. The average lifespan was under 50 when they lived and died, so it seems they tapped out pretty much on schedule.

Or maybe not. The average is of course derived from splitting the difference between short, medium and long lifespans. Considering the privileged existence the mummies probably led, as a demographic group they may have outlived the average considerably. Salted meat is not as efficient a killer as starvation.

Mummy of Esankh, 1070-712 B.C., entering a CT scanner

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Great Drain gets first clog in 2000 years

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

The Great Drain is a water overflow system the Romans built to carry water a half a mile from the hot spring that feeds the Roman Bath in the city of Bath to the river Avon.

The Great Drain, Bath, EnglandIt has been working since then with few interruptions during periods of abandonment. It works so consistently and effectively it hasn’t even been fully explored despite being man-sized for much of the way.

Now thanks to a crappy extension built when the city expanded past the original walls long after the Romans left, engineers are going in for a full examination of the Great Drain and its various more modern attachments. The extension is backed up, leaving Bath in danger of flooding.

The Roman structure has easily outlasted the work of more modern engineers. A final section dating from the Sixties collapsed two years ago and had to be rebuilt.

Miles Barnes, of Bath council, said: “The Roman engineers really knew what they were doing. Most of the drain is in absolutely tip-top condition and still doing the job it was designed for.”

A large part of that is how simple the structure is. It doesn’t have any pumps or mechanisms or moving parts. It’s just solidly built tunnels and gravity that have allowed it to carry a million liters of hot water a day for 2000 years.

People are expecting to find more than great engineering down there.

Carnelian gemstone engraved with discus thrower, late 1st c. A.D.When the site of the Roman Baths was originally excavated in the late 19th century, finds made in the Great Drain included 33 carved cameo gemstones and a mysterious tin mask.

Mr Barnes said: “Gems were as rare and precious then as they are now. We don’t know whether they were put in the sacred spring as an offering or just dropped by accident.”

The hot spring was sacred to the Celts, and the Romans sort of folded in the Celtic Sulis with their Minerva so there may be all kinds of votive offerings in the drain. There could also be all kinds of random stuff that fell down their over the millennia.

Even if they find no sparkly things, though, just getting a chance to fully explore the structure is a great thing. The original wooden planks that lined the drain are still there in many places. Plus, on a more practical city planning note, it’ll be helpful going forward to finally have a complete survey of the drain that keeps Bath from drowning itself.

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Adopt a Pompeiian dog

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Plaster cast of a dog chained up in Pompeii when Vesuvius eruptedDogs featured prominently in ancient Pompeii life before Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., and they still do, only now nobody owns them. Strays scrounge up a living amidst the “Cave Canem” (beware of the dog) mosaics and the plaster casts of their ancestors, trapped in their death agonies under 60 feet of ash and pumice.

Tourists with their fanny packs full of sammiches probably make for a fairly good feed, but even relatively well fed strays are unhealthy. Also, their constant foraging and excreting aren’t exactly good for the ruins, which have more than enough conservation problems to deal with on their own.

Today Pompeii’s emergency commissioner (Pompeii has been under an extended state of emergency a year and a half now) Marcello Fiori announced a new initiative to get all of Pompeii’s strays adopted. It’s a multistage process.

Volunteers from three of Italy’s leading animal charities, anti-vivisection league LAV, the National Animal Protection Authority and the National Dog Protection League, have been fitting the animals with microchips, collars and name tags.

In the next phase, the animals will be treated for any illnesses and then sterilized. Special animal welfare offices have already been set up around the ancient site, staffed by volunteers and providing food and warm shelter.

After that, the dogs will be put up for adoption on a dedicated website, www.canidipompei.com (”dogs of Pompeii”). The site doesn’t exist yet, sadly, but once it’s up you too can adopt yourself a warm, fluffy, adorable piece of history.

At least I assume so. The article says they’ll be seeking adoptive parents from all over the world, although I imagine there will be shipping issues. Probably non-residents will have to travel to Italy to pick up Fidus. I’m going to start saving up now.

"Cave Canem" mosaic in entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet, PompeiiPompeii streii
Stray dogs in Pompeii

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Old book smell: Is there anything it can’t do?

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

Mmm... Old books...An international research team has devised a smell test that determines exactly how degraded the compounds in an old book are, and how best to counteract the decay without having to damage the book to take samples. The method is felicitously named “material degradomics”.

Lead researcher Dr. Matija Strlic from University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage noticed that conservators often smelled the books to assess conservation needs. That gave her the idea for creating a smell test that would pinpoint the volatile compounds that are released as the paper ages and degrades.

The test employs gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to analyze the paper, binding, etc. and separate out the different compounds.

The team tested 72 historical papers from the 19th and 20th centuries – some of which they bought on eBay – and identified 15 compounds that were “reliable markers” of degradation.

“The aroma is made up of hundreds of compounds, but these 15 contain most of the information that we need,” said Dr Strlic.

Measuring the levels of these individual compounds made it possible to produce a “fingerprint” of each document’s condition.

Once they have that fingerprint, librarians and conservators can more accurately determine which books are in greatest danger of degradation. Knowing which compound is at what level will also help fine-tune the conservation process.

The system isn’t quite ready for primetime. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry devices are still rather unwieldy and they use samples. Dr. Strlic is working on making a portable “material degradomics” machine which could easily be deployed by librarians to find out all kinds of things about a book, not just the compounds degrading on the pages, but also its age and what materials were used to make it.

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Antiquities-for-taxes swap saves Welsh archive

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

Unlike the Vasari scheme, this one was even consensual! A little known codicil in the UK tax code allows inheritors of major estates with the attendant major tax bill to give the government assets of historical value in lieu of 40% of payment.

The heirs of Penrhyn Castle in Gwynedd, Wales, were therefore able to donate the castle archives, that’s complete records dating back more than 700 years, from 13th century Latin parchments to 20th typed ledgers.

The earliest item in the Penrhyn archive is from 1288 and details the sale of the township of Karnechan, along with all its goods and people!

There are more than 120 similar legal documents dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries, written in Latin on parchment.

They provide a vital understanding of the Griffiths of Penrhyn, vassals to the princes of Gwynedd and key allies in attempts to form a single Welsh principality. […]

In the 17th Century, the castle passed into the hands of the Pennant family.

Hundreds of documents relate to the family’s estates in Jamaica and their controversial involvement in the trade of slaves, sugar and rum, the profits from which financed the expansion of Penrhyn slate quarry into the biggest such operation in the world.

Penrhyn CastleIn fact it was the slaves-and-slate lucre that funded the building of the current Norman revival castle in 1820. The medieval structure — a crenelated manor house — had already been knocked down and rebuilt in the 1780s.

The documents are currently conserved and cared for at Bangor University’s library. Part of the deal made with Internal Revenue stipulates that the archive remain where it is. Curator Einion Wynn-Thomas is relieved that the long-term future of this collection is now secure.

It’s a completely unique record of medieval Wales, and an uninterrupted perspective on local business development, like the link between the slate trade and the slave trade. Without the swap system, these invaluable primary sources would most likely have been split up and sold to the highest bidder.

The assets-in-lieu scheme has been on the books since 1901, but until World War II, the government pretty much picked the cash every time. The heavy death duties meant the collections and contents of great estates often had to be sold by the heirs just so they could pay off the tax bill, never mind finding the cash to sustain the historical property going forward.

After the war, a special fund was set up to pay off the exchequer the value of the historical asset, but it only kicked in with very high ticket items. Gordon Brown in 1998 created a Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs acquisitions, exports and loans unit specifically to investigate assets-in-lieu possibilities without focusing solely on market value as the bottom line. Now historical and cultural value are part of the calculation as well, and that saves all kinds of beautiful and precious things which may not necessarily sell big.

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Old Europe in New Amsterdam

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Architectural model, fired clay, 4600-3900 B.C.“Old Europe” is a term for a group of interrelated cultures farming the Danube Valley between 5000 and 3500 B.C in what are now Romania, Bulgaria and Moldavia. They built heavily, some of the towns developing into cities of 10,000 people. Despite their impressive architectural, ceramic and metallurgic skills Old Europeans haven’t been studied much in the West.

Artifacts were first discovered in the late 19th century, but only excavated systematically in the 30’s. Then the war and Cold War kept Old Europe out of reach of Western scholars. It was barely known at all until some collaborative excavations began in the 1990s.

Now 250 Old European objects of ceramics, jewelry, religious statuary, etc. from over 20 museums across the Danube Valley have traveled to New York and are on display in New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

Archaeologists also know that Old Europeans had metallurgy—in fact, of copper artifacts dating earlier than 3500 BC, five tons were recovered from this area—more than what has been found in the rest of the Old World, according to guest curator Dr. David Anthony.

Zoomorphic appliqué bulls, 4400-4200 B.C.Metallurgy is what set off the development of this society, Anthony said. He theorizes that because metallurgy and ceramics share the same basis in pyrotechnology, it was women who discovered metallurgy. “In most of the prehistoric tribal cultures around the world, ceramics made for household consumption … are made by women—and so it was probably women, female potters, who discovered metallurgy. We normally think of metallurgy as being conducted by large, hairy-chested, sweating men.”

"The Thinker" and female figurine, fired clay, 5000-4600 B.C.I don’t know about that. The large number of female figurines found has led some people to believe that Old Europeans may have been matriarchal or structured in some way that emphasizes female leadership, but the civilizations were pre-literate, and there are copious mother figurines extant from many Neolithic cultures.

Nobody knows exactly what happened to this highly skilled, quasi-urban civilization. They seem to have disappeared quickly, leaving behind structures burned to the ground. At first archaeologists thought the fires were the result of war and/or natural causes, but recent analysis has found evidence of vitrified clay in the walls of these buildings. It takes an enormous amount of heat for the sand in clay to turn to glass, so that suggests deliberate arson beyond a few torches and flaming arrows, like maybe the inhabitants stuffed their houses with accelerants and lit them up. Maybe as a ritual purification thing, maybe a hundred other possible reasons.

Read more about Old Europe and the artifacts on display on the exhibition website.

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Lost Chaplin film bought for $5 off eBay

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

"Zepped" film canisterThe seller didn’t know it was a lost Chaplin film, of course. He just had an old can of nitrate film to sell, and inventor and antique collector Morace Park bought it for £3.20 ($5.68) because he liked the look of it.

It is a pretty awesome canister. It’s from 1916 — the same year the film was produced — and still has the remains of a couple of labels.

It was Mr. Park’s friend John Dwyer, a former member of the British Board of Film Classification, who discovered Charlie Chaplin inside the canister.

The unearthed film, called Charlie Chaplin in Zepped, features footage of Zeppelins flying over England during the First World War, as well as some very early stop-motion animation, and unknown outtakes of Chaplin films from three Essanay pictures including The Tramp. These have all been cut together into a six-minute movie that Mr Park describes as “in support of the British First World War effort”. It begins with a logo from Keystone studios, which first signed Chaplin, and there follows a certification from the Egyptian censors dating the projection as being in December 1916. There are outtakes, longer shots and new angles from the films The Tramp, His New Profession and A Jitney Elopement.

Chaplin himself was not involved in the production of this short. He determinedly refused to get involved in the war effort and he got a fair amount of grief for it at the time. This movie is almost like the studios’ and the British Empire’s dream propaganda Chaplin.

Film of Charlie Chaplin in ZeppedIn the movie, Chaplin wishes he could leave the US, return to England and fight the Germans. A fantasy animation sequence follows which sees him magically transported to England where he single-handedly brings a Zeppelin down in flames and makes good his escape.

Park and Dwyer are working on a documentary about the film now. They borrowed a bunch of money from friends and relatives and filmed themselves visiting locations associated with Chaplin, Zeppelins, Essenay and Keystone studios. They’re hoping to reconstruct the making of Zepped as well as covering Charlie Chaplin himselfand his early career.

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As the scandal turns: Vasari archive in foreclosure

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

The scandal from the questionable sale of the Vasari archives to a Russian concern has a whole new bag of issues now. According to unnamed sources, Equitalia, a tax collection agency, has seized the Vasari archive for non-payment of an inheritance tax.

Giorgio Vasari's house, ArezzoNot many details are forthcoming so far. I can’t quite tell from the article if it’s a lien or a foreclosure. Whatever the exact economic mechanism, Equitalia has named the Tuscan archival superintendency temporary custodian of the property, so the precious Vasari papers are officially out of Festari/Russian/private hands.

As it happens, the Tuscan authorities have delegated hands-on custody of the papers to the curator of the Vasari house, who is already a government employee of course, so exactly not a single thing will change. The papers will remain where they are, being cared for by the same staff.

The only difference is the people who tried to sell it to the Russians no longer possess it. Now the government does, and it didn’t have to scrape up an impossible 150 million euros to get it. When will we learn the lessons of Al Capone and The Untouchables? Don’t fuck with the government when you haven’t paid your taxes.

Meanwhile, regional and national agencies are still investigating the specifics of the sale. Since I last posted about this story, Ross Group spokesman Vasily Stepanov has indicated that the corporation isn’t even the actual buyer, but rather an intermediary brokering the sale between the Festari family and an anonymous Armenian oligarch who made a fortune on timber in Siberia.

Awesome, right? I swear you couldn’t make this stuff up.

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