Amazing WWII aerial reconnaissance photography

Millions photographs taken by Allied airmen during secret missions in World War II are being declassified and digitized in a huge archive called Tara (The Aerial Reconnaissance Archives).

Peenemunde in Mecklenburg-Vorpommem, Germany, site of Doodlebug bomb factory after bombing, 1944Tara is in Edinburgh, Scotland, now as part of the larger National Collection of Aerial Photography. Researchers have already cataloged and digitized 4000 of the pictures, but it will be years before the full 10 million photograph collection is online.

”The skill of the photo reconnaissance pilot was incredible – they were among the best pilots in the air force,” said Allan Williams, manager of the National Collection of Aerial Photography based in Edinburgh.

”As so many of them lost their lives the archive has become a memorial to them and the events on the ground they photographed. How they could take the photos they did is astonishing.

”When you remember they were taken in combat, and often being shot at – it’s astounding.”

It really is. The pictures are incredibly high quality, detailed images. You’d never guess they were taken under abysmal conditions from an airplane dodging enemy fire. They include photographs of now legendary sites, like Omaha beach in Normandy and the bridge over the River Kwai.

The archive includes pictures taken by the Royal Air Force all the way through to the 1990s and even some taken by the Luftwaffe. The bulk of the collection, however, are World War II reconnaissance.

Landing craft launching on D-Day , 6 June 1944During the war, these pictures were used by analysts to create a 3D rendering of any given area. The compiled data were then used to plan major operations like the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

The photographs are not only of interest to the WWII buffs among us (or the photography buffs, for that matter), but they’ll be an invaluable resource for countries like Germany and Italy where unexploded ordnance is still a concern for building projects. The pictures show exactly where bombs fell but didn’t explode.

You can browse the uploaded images at

Photos courtesy RCAHMS/PA Wire

Google to put Iraqi Museum artifacts online

Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, so brutally looted after the US invasion in 2003, is getting a boost into the 21st century thanks to Google. Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced in Baghdad that they would make virtual copies of all the artifacts in the museum at their own expense and put them online by early next year.

Ambassador Christopher R. Hill described the project as “part of an effort spearheaded by the State Department to bring technology to Iraq. We thought, what better way to do that than bring Eric Schmidt here?”[…]

Google chief Eric Schmidt, center, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, left, and Qais Rasheed, chairman of the state board of antiquities and heritage, rightJared Cohen, the State Department official who organized the visit, disputed a suggestion that the event seemed like a government-sponsored infomercial for Google. “This is a really good example of what we’re calling 21st-century statecraft,” he said. A dozen other companies are involved in the project to digitize the National Museum’s collections, so “it’s not an exclusive club,” he added.

The museum sort of re-opened in February of this year, but not really, because it wasn’t open to the public, just to a select few scholars and dignitaries and whatnot. Securing the extensive collection from the Cradle of Civilization has been an insurmountable obstacle to a full re-opening so far.

Digitizing the collection means people will finally really be able to see its full splendor, and not just what’s on display (only 8 of the 26 galleries have been restored), but the treasures in storage as they become available. Google has already taken 14,000 pictures, with many more to come.

Some of the collection has already been digitized by Italy’s National Research Center: The Virtual Museum of Iraq. That’s more of an overview, though, a greatest hits collection, if you will.

Google’s digitization will be done on site, which means you’ll get more of a tour feel than with the Italian site. Also, Google’s will be searchable and not Flash-dependent, a major bonus as far as I’m concerned.

I’m very much looking forward to getting to peruse 4000 years worth of history that has been out of reach for over 5 years.

Original “A Christmas Carol” manuscript on display

Dickens' orginal manuscript of "A Christmas Carol", 1843Titled “A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” and prominently autographed by the author on the title page, the original manuscript penned by Charles Dickens will be on display at the the Morgan Library and Museum from November 20th to January 10th.

The manuscript reveals the author’s method of composition: the pace of writing and revision, apparently contiguous, is rapid and boldly confident. Revisions are inserted for vividness and immediacy of effect.

Deleted text is struck out with a cursive and continuous looping movement of the pen, and replaced with more active verbs and fewer words to achieve greater concision. Dickens’s manuscript shows vividly his efforts to create the highest-quality literary work in the shortest possible time.

After Dickens got it back from his publishers in 1843, he had it elegantly bound in red leather and gilt tooled for his childhood friend and sometime lawyer, Thomas Mitton.

Mitton sold it to a bookseller in 1875, 5 years after Dickens’ death, for £50. It passed through various owners after that, ending up in Pierpont Morgan’s hot little hands in the 1890’s. The Morgan doesn’t say how much he paid for it, but the brokers who sold it to him are thought to have purchased it for £1000, which is a remarkable leap in market value over just 15 years. Goes to show how immensely popular the story was right away. Instant classic, as they say.

The manuscript will play a featured role in the Morgan’s Winter Family Day Celebration on December 6th. Educational theater group The Grand Falloons will lead visitors through the exhibit as characters from the story. They’ll also perform an original play where Scrooge confronts not just a myriad ghost, goblins and ghoulies, but also Dickens himself.

Edit: Browse a high resolution scan of the manuscript itself, complete with Dickens’ many crossings-out and revisions. Post the most intriguing revision in the blog comments and get invited to tea at the Morgan. :boogie:

Many thanks to Carolina Valencia for the tip. :hattip:

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", title page, First edition, 1843

Galileo’s missing fingers and tooth found (probably)

Officials of Florence’s Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (Insitute and Museum of the History of Science) announced Friday that Galileo Galilei’s right thumb, index finger and a tooth, missing since 1905, have been found.

Three fingers, a tooth and a vertebra were removed from Galileo’s body by science historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti in 1737, 95 years after Galileo’s death. By then the Church’s case against Galileo had been weakened by a century of heliocentrism, and after fruitless decades spent lobbying the Church by his disciples and the secular authorities of Florence, the last Medici Grand Duke flexed his muscles and erected a proper memorial in consecrated ground for the great man.

In a solemn ceremony witnessed by many prominent Florentines but no ecclesiastical authorities, Galileo’s body was moved from a non-descript storage area to the memorial tomb in the Basilica of Sante Croce, across from Michelangelo’s tomb. When the casket was opened, Tozzetti whipped out a scalpel and removed the fingers, tooth and veterbra. In his account of the event, he admitted he was sorely tempted to “take away the skull which had housed such extraordinary genius.”

Galileo's middle finger, currently on display in Florence's Museum of the History of ScienceThe middle finger went to the IMSS shortly thereafter. The vertebra went to the University of Padova, where Galileo taught for 19 years. Both institutions have carefully preserved their Galilean remnants ever since. The thumb, index and tooth were claimed by Marquis Vincenzio Capponi, a prominent Florentine from an old family who was one of the witnesses to the reburial.

The Capponi family placed the remains in a blown glass vessel which they later encased in a wooden box topped with a bust of Galileo. Over the generations, the Capponi descendants lost track of what the box contained, and they sold it. It passed through various hands until it disappeared from the record in 1905.

It popped up again at a recent an art auction, listed as unknown human remains in an 18th c. blown glass vessel encased in a 19th c. wooden box topped with a bust of Galileo. A collector bought it, researched it thoroughly and found that it matched the description of the Capponi Galileo reliquary. The collector then contacted the IMSS and donated the remains anonymously.

The museum will take a sample and DNA test it to confirm the identification of the fingers and teeth, but scholars are convinced from the documentary evidence that these are in fact the missing Capponi relics of Galileo. The case and contents match the descriptions of the Galileo artifacts in historical documents. Somebody along the way could have removed Galileo’s bits from the case and replaced them with some random body parts, of course, but the remains match the known ones so that seems unlikely.

The finger and tooth will go on display next Spring when the museum reopens after renovation with a new name: Museo Galileo, the Galileo Museum.

To learn more about Galileo and browse the other Galileo-related items on display at the museum, go here.

Mmm.. Antique jewelry… Damn. Antique jewelry.

Sometimes I wish I had never found out about how prevalent looted goods are in the antiques trade. Browsing an auction catalog of gorgeous historical pieces I could never afford used to be purely pleasurable. Now a pall is cast on every lot that has no record of ownership prior to 1970, and oh man are they legion. From my experience, they’re the vast majority of artifacts on sale.

Sardonyx cameo of Emperor Constantine, 4th c. A.D.The latest catalog to make me drool and sigh is from an upcoming Christie’s sale. On December 11th, 179 pieces of ancient jewelry ranging from 3700-year-old engraved Minoan gemstones to an early 4th century sardonyx cameo of the Emperor Constantine will go on the block.

I love jewelry and I really, really love ancient jewelry, so of course I go check out the offerings, and the first things listed are 57 engraved Minoan gemstones dating to 1700-1450 B.C. All 57 of them come from a “Swiss private collection”.

Swiss private collections are like the antiquities market version of the Canadian girlfriend you met at camp. Sure, it could be genuine, but it’s been used as a front too many times to be taken at face value. None of these beautiful and precious Minoan talismans were published before 1980, which is another red flag.

Then there’s the no-name not-even-a-country provenance, like the 3rd c. A.D. Roman onyx cameo which Christie’s says is the “THE PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN GENTLEMAN” (caps original). They claim it’s been in a “European private collection” since the late 19th early 20th century, but given all the fogginess and anonymity I see no reason to believe them without evidence.

Sotheby’s covered for loot purveyors like Giacomo Medici and Bob Hecht for decades, claiming their stolen goods came from some obscure unpublished collection. After a while it became an open secret in the industry. Hecht’s stuff came from an “old Swedish collection”, Medici’s an “old Swiss collection.” Sometimes they bothered to forge some provenance docs, sometimes not.

At least the heart-stoppingly beautiful Constantine cameo is legit. Look at the provenance and literature fields, how specific and detailed they are. Big difference, right? Not surprisingly, it’s the top lot with an estimated value of $150,000-250,000.

Also not looted are a pair of bracelets made in the 19th century by a jeweler who collected sixteen Roman intaglio ringstones (ca 1st century B.C.-4th century A.D.) and set them on gold chains. The bracelets can be linked together to make a choker.


Anyway, next time you come across an article about antiquities on sale or peruse an auction catalog, look for the ownership information. Ignorance may be more blissful than awareness, but it’s not as salutary.