Archive for December, 2009

1,000 letters and postcards by Joan Miró to be published

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Joan Miró, "Le Coq"The Joan Miró Foundation is publishing the for the first time over 1,000 letters and postcards written by artist Joan Miró to a wide variety of correspondents over the course of his life.

Joan Miró was a Surrealist painter and sculptor who garned huge fame in his lifetime. He rejected the Surrealist label which he saw as another imprint of bourgeois hierarchy. His correspondence is bound to be packed with great insights and pithy phrasing. He once famously declared himself dedicated to the “assassination of painting” and said about Picasso and Cubists that he wanted to “break their guitar.”

These letters enable us to follow the course of Miró’s life from his early years as an artist, his departure for Paris, the strategies of the 1920s, the splendour of the 1930s, the cultural wilderness of the Franco years, and the desire to start again with renewed energy after the end of the Second World War. They show the private side of the artist, a man dedicated body and soul to his art, with deeply rooted ethical, aesthetic and political convictions. They are essential reading for any study of his life and work.

We have Miró himself to thank for this. He was careful to preserve his sketches, drawings, notes, studies, anything at all pertaining to his art. He also kept every letter he received, and at some point realized he should keep copies of what he sent as well.

He donated his remarkable archives to the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, and a team of researchers has now edited the correspondence collection for publication.

Joan Miro's correspondence

More Google Street View tourism

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Commenting on my entry about walking the streets of Pompeii using Google Maps Street View, Stuart of Free History Books asked if I knew of any other sites of archaeological note which could be browsed in Street View.

I said I’d look into and so I have. Not only are there other historical wonderlands available for virtual tourism, but Google and UNESCO have an ongoing collaboration to upload as many World Heritage Sites to Google Maps Street View as possible. So far they have 18 sites ready to roll, including Stonehenge, Santiago de Compostela, and the historic center of San Gimignano, a walled medieval wonderland of towers in Tuscany.

Just click the “Select location” dropdown menu and pick your destination. Then drag the little yellow guy from the zoom controls onto the map to talk a stroll.

Going forward, Google plans to add Street View data from many more countries.

In the coming months Google will work with UNESCO to select additional World Heritage landmarks, in countries where Street View imagery is being collected, which will be photographed for the project. The aim is to collect imagery from diverse regions throughout the world including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, US and many countries throughout Europe. With permission from the site manager/owner such places look set to one day be available to millions of people around the world who may never have the chance to visit them in person.

May that day come sooner rather than later. :boogie:

There are hundreds more World Heritage sites already on Google Maps (click the “Discover more World Heritage sites” button under the “Select location” dropdown to see them all), but they’re just in satellite view, which of course can be very cool in and of itself, but doesn’t give you that same being in the middle of things vibe.

Speaking of which, I feel like walking in the footsteps of the Druids right about now.

View Larger Map

Adopt a Dot!

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

The Art Institute of Chicago has the most adorable conservation program. In honor of the 125th birthday of Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884, the Art Institute is putting up six different colors of dots from the painting for adoption.

The six options are light blue, red, green, pink, dark blue and black. The descriptions on the Art Institute are just too cute. A couple of my favorites:

Light Blue
I don’t want to brag, but some people say I set the entire scene of La Grande Jatte. You can find me nearly everywhere—working hard to give the sky its radiance, rippling through the water with a soft summer breeze. But I’m not always so obvious. Did you know I’m also a little dog’s collar and the smoke of a pipe? That’s right; I can be subtle too! Look for me in the shade under the brim of a hat, keeping cool and refreshed on this sunny day.

I am bold; there is no way around it! My presence is not for the faint of heart, and I work best when used in small doses to create bright bursts of color and contrast. Found in an umbrella, an overcoat, and tiny specks on the tip of a little dog’s tail, I bring life and a bit of mystery to the scene! Look for me in the lake on the rower’s hats and in the tiny flag on top of a sailboat.

You can adopt one dot for $10, three dots for $25 and all six colors for $50. Just fill out and submit this form to become a proud parent of a precious tiny dot. You can also adopt a dot as a gift. You’ll get a button with your dot and a card describing the location of your dot on the painting. The deadline has passed, I’m afraid, for guaranteed delivery of dot adoption button and card by Christmas, but you can get them in person if you’re in Chicago.

All the funds will go towards conservation costs for this spectacular piece of art and for other pieces in the museum. Seurat was a great innovator and experimented with the chemical makeup of color as much as he did with color theory. He used a newly-invented pigment called zinc yellow for the sun-drenched area of lawn, and it was already beginning to degrade during his lifetime. In the next 125 years, a lot of that yellow turned brown, so the painting really needs constant tending.

Adopting a dot from A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte is joining a great art historical and pop culture family. It caused a revolution in the late 19th century and its principles are the same ones used in 4-color printing today. The painting has been the star of a Stephen Sondheim musical (Sunday in the Park with George), a featured player in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and even recreated by Barney in an episode of The Simpsons.

Adopt a dot!

Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat

French King’s mistress overdosed on gold

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Diane de Poitiers at her bath, François Clouet, c. 1571Diane de Poitier was King Henry II’s mistress in the 16th century. She was a renown beauty, athletic and intelligent. She kept Henry’s interest until his death, despite being 20 years older than him.

Perhaps that age difference is one of the reasons she seems to have sought an elixir of youth from apothecaries. Unfortunately for Diane, said apothecaries held to the alchemical principle that gold is the immutable and perfect element. If you want to retain your youthful perfection, therefore, ingesting some form of gold would seem to be the way to go.

A contemporary of hers historian, soldier and biographer Pierre de Bourdeille, said she was beautifully pale even without makeup, that she looked 30 when she was twice that age and took a daily dose of gold to achieve this remarkable effect. It’s only recently that anyone has been able to use modern chemical analysis to confirm his story.

Jaw bone fragment superimposed on Diane de Poitiers' last portraitDiane de Poitier died in her chateau Anet in 1566. She was buried in an elaborate tomb in a funeral chapel, but her remains were removed and thrown into a pit outside the chateau walls during the French Revolution.

Last year some of her bones were found, confirmed as hers by a healed united fracture of the tibia and fibula which she was known to have sustained during a riding accident in 1565. The remaining jaw bone also matched perfectly the last portrait of her from the school of François Clouet.

Now French scientists have analyzed tissue and hair remnants and found an extremely high concentration of gold, 500 times greater than in a lock of hair from her younger days preserved at the chateau. She didn’t wear crowns or gold fabric every day so the gold wasn’t externally applied. They also found her bones were fragile — unexpectedly so for an athletic woman who swam and rode daily — and her hair was thin and brittle. Both of those are symptoms of gold poisoning.

The British Medical Journal which has published the study has an informative video about Diane de Poiters and her gold habit here. Much to my disappointment, the BMJ is not immune to the tedious trend of historical reenactments cluttering up a documentary, but there’s a lot of great info about the science in amidst shadowy scenes of Diane looking in mirrors or visiting an alchemist.

Huge ancient pylon lifted from Alexandria harbor

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Isis temple pylon being raised from the Alexandria harborEgyptian authorities lifted a nine-ton block of red granite thought to have been part of a pillar of the Temple of Isis in Alexandria out of the sea today.

The temple was part of a large Pharaonic palace complex from the Ptolemaic dynasty. It was in this sea-side palace that Cleopatra trysted with Marc Anthony, although the pylon most likely predates Cleopatra herself.

The block is the first major artefact extracted from the harbour since 2002, when authorities banned further removal of major objects from the sea for fear it would damage them.

It was discovered by a Greek expedition in 1998.

To retrieve it, divers had to spend weeks cleaning it of mud and scum before dragging it across the sea floor for three days to bring it closer to the harbour’s edge.

The plan is to keep it in a freshwater tank for 6 months to dissolve all the sea salt. It helps pickle artifacts when they’re underwater, but once they’re dredged up, the salt becomes a corrosive. Once the conservation process is over, the Isis pylon will be housed in a temporary downtown museum along with 200 other objects raised from the harbor over the past couple of decades.

In the long term, the plans are far more ambitious. It’s still in the planning stages, but Egypt and UNESCO are collaborating to create an underwater museum complete with tunnels that would allow to visitors to explore the ruins of the old city, felled by earthquakes in the 4th century.

Marine archaeologists have already found 6,000 artifacts under the harbor in Alexandria, including dozens of sphinxes and pieces of what they think is the famous Pharos, the lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The underwater museum would also have an above ground building, which is where the Isis pylon would be displayed permanently. Mind you, nobody’s even sure this is strictly feasible. Not only is the projected cost a challenging $140 million which neither Egypt nor UNESCO actually has right at the mo, but the technical obstacles of building an underwater museum in a harbor known for ship-destroying storms and city-destroying earthquakes will be hard to surmount.

Now this I can believe is butter

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Unlike the scary 3000-year-old adipocere bog butter, the latest aged butter actually looks like butter. It’s 97 years old, and it’s been living at no more than 10 degrees Celsius since Captain Robert Scott left it at base camp during his ill-fated final expedition to the South Pole.

Silver Fern logo on Captain Scott's butterThe Antarctic Heritage Trust has been restoring Scott’s Cape Evans hut. Despite the steady low temperature, the past couple of years have seen a lot more snow than usual, and it’s damaging the structure. While working on the pony stable (yes, Scott brought a bunch of Siberian ponies with him; it didn’t end well for them either), they found a wrinkled bag amidst a stack of empty boxes. Inside the bag they found two blocks of butter, much to their amazement.

“I think the butter was absolutely a treasure find,” Lizzie Meek of the Antarctic Heritage Trust told TV NZ. “It looked like an old wrinkly bag and you look inside and saw the wonderful Silver Fern logo,” she said.

She desribed the butter’s smell as “very pungent.”

“What’s amazing is how strong that smells,” she said. “I’m not sure I’d want it on my toast.”

Yeah no. Even in the freezer 100 years is a long time for any dairy product. On the other hand, maybe they just liked a bit of funk back then, like a cultured butter.

The silver fern is a familiar symbol to New Zealanders, most famous today as the logo of their legendary Rugby team, the All Blacks. Captain Scott’s team set off from New Zealand, so all their supplies were purchased there or donated by locals.

The maker’s label on the butter reads CCCDC, which probably stands for Canterbury Central Co-operative Dairy Company, a Christchurch company established in the 1890’s.

The AHT team plans to restore the butter, believe it or not. They’ll carefully remove the pieces of grit embedded in it and then just put it right back in the stable where they found it. Assuming its condition does not deteriorate, it should be fine in the frigid temperatures for another century at least.

Captain Robert Scott writing in his diary, Cape Evans Hut, winter 1911Captain Scott’s second expedition set out to be the first to reach the South Pole, but adverse weather and some questionable choices on Scott’s part ensured they got there second, five weeks after Norwegian explorer and sled dog expert Roald Amundsen.

Dejected by their loss, Scott and his team trudged through Antarctic blizzards for 3 months, until the final three of them died on March 29 , 1912, just 11 miles from the food and fuel depot. Scott himself appears to have been the last man to die. His touching final diary entry, found by a search party 8 months later, and the tragic finale of the expedition, made him a hero in the Commonwealth.

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last […] Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.

You can follow Captain Scott’s last expedition as recorded in his diary entries posted on Twitter and on this blog for the full experience.

Update: flowers in Scottish Bronze Age burial

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Meadowsweet flower heads found in Bronze Age burialThe unique 4,000-year-old cist burial found in Forteviot, Scotland, this summer has turned up an even greater surprise than the carvings on the massive capstone over the human remains on a bed of quartz pebbles and birch bark lattice with metal, wood, leather accessories: whole flowerheads.

This is the first concrete evidence of pre-historic peoples intentionally burying someone with flowers. Pollen has been found in ancient graves thousands of years older than this one, but it could have gotten in there in a myriad ways, including in honey or mead sacrifices. These complete meadowsweet blossoms prove once and for all that our ancient ancestors used flowers in burials.

Dr Kenneth Brophy, from the University of Glasgow, said the flowers “don’t look very much. Just about three or four millimetres across.”

“But these are the first proof that people in the Bronze Age were actually placing flowers in with burials.”

The dark brown heads were found, along with a clump of organic material which archaeologists now say is the stems of the flowers.

The bunch had been placed by the head of the high-status individual known to have been buried in the grave.

Meadowsweet is a fragrant flower which has been used medicinally and for its fragrance for millennia. It’s mentioned as one of 50 ingredients of a beverage called “save” in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. A favorite of Queen Elizabeth I’s, it was most likely the flower strewn by Queen Gertrude over Ophelia’s grave when she says “Sweets to the sweet, farewell!” (Act V, Scene 1).

In more recent history, Italian Rafaele Piria first produced salicylic acid from meadowsweet and willow bark in 1838. When Bayer synthesized a related compound 60 years later, they called it aspirin after the botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria.

The largest slave graveyard in the world

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Slave burial on St. HelenaArchaeologists have found a burial ground containing the bones of an estimated 10,000 slaves on the island of St. Helena.

That desolate spit of land in the middle of the Atlantic is best known today for having hosted a certain Napoleon Bonaparte during the six years between his final defeat at Waterloo and his death, but decades after Napoleon died, the British used the island to bury dead slaves captured from slavers after the trade was abolished.

The bodies, many of them children, were discovered where they had been buried after being brought to St Helena between 1840 and 1874 by Royal Navy patrols hunting the slavers. The captured ships were forced into the island where the traders were arrested and their victims liberated. By then, however, many were already dead in the fetid holds where they had been packed together for the long journey.

Many of the survivors also died soon after they were brought to Rupert’s Valley, near the capital Jamestown. It was used as a treatment and holding depot by the navy’s West Africa Squadron. Smallpox, dysentery and other diseases claimed many of those who had endured hunger, thirst and the terrible conditions below decks.

St Helena under the East India Company, 1790This is a major discovery in the history of slavery, not just because of its huge scale, but also because the vast majority of the other slave burials we know of are in the New World. It will fill in some tragic blanks in the history of the Middle Passage, and the 19th century slave trade as practiced by the East India Company which owned St. Helena from 1658–1815 and 1821-1834. The EIC kept slaves on the island until 1832, long after Britain outlawed the trade in 1807.

So far 325 skeletons have been excavated, mostly male and many of them children, some of them infants younger than one year old. They were often buried in groups, which makes sense because of the captured slaver ships. Some of the deceased were buried with their personal effects and/or with artifacts like metal tags relating to their enslavement and later rescue.

The analysis of the bones won’t be finished until May, but already just from looking at the remains anthropologists might be able to pinpoint tribal heritage based on notches filed on their front teeth. This is a lot more than the British were able to do in the late 19th c. when slaves were freed. The rescuers weren’t familiar with African languages and customs, so liberation rarely led to repatriation.

All the burials uncovered were found on a swath of land being excavated for a new airport road. There are thousands more in the valley, but archaeologists do not plan to disturb those graves. Once they’ve finished studying the remains already found, they will be reburied either in Rupert’s Valley or in an ossuary built near where they were discovere.

Good night, sweet Prince

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Prince Giorgio I of SeborgaHis Tremendousness Prince Giorgio I of Seborga has left this mortal coil, and it is very much the poorer for his absence. Born a mimosa flower farmer, son of a mimosa flower farmer, in the tiny Italian Riviera cliffside town of Seborga, Prince Giorgio singlehandedly convinced the locals to elect him prince in 1963.

Seborga had been independent principality a thousand years before, you see, when the Holy Roman Emperor granted the abbots of the Cistercian monastery the fiefdom and title. It remained independent until it was sold to the House of Savoy in 1729 and absorbed into its kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont.

There was a hitch, however. Giorgio Carbone researched assiduously and found that the purchase of Seborga was never officially registered, nor was the principality mentioned in subsequent territorial treaties like the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 which restored the nearby Republic of Genoa, or the 1815 Congress of Vienna which apportioned the spoils after Napoleon’s defeat. It didn’t make the act of unification of Italy in 1861, or even a mere footnote in the formation of the Italian republic after the abdication of the last Savoy king, Victor Emanuel II, in 1946.

Armed with all this absence of evidence/evidence of absence, Giorgo took it to the people, all 308 of them.

After convincing his Seborgan neighbors of their true significance, Giorgio Carbone was elected prince in 1963. He gracefully accepted the informal title of His Tremendousness, and was elected prince for life in 1995 by a vote of 304 to 4. Voters then ratified Seborga’s independence, which, by the prince’s interpretation, it already had.

Prince Giorgio established a palace, wrote a Constitution, and set up a cabinet and a parliament. He chose a coat of arms, minted money (with his picture), issued stamps (with his picture) and license plates, selected a national anthem and mobilized a standing army, consisting of Lt. Antonello Lacala. He adopted a motto: Sub umbra sede (Sit in the shade).

I think we can all agree Prince Giorgio I was the coolest prince ever. Oh sure, Italy didn’t exactly recognize Seborgan sovereignty, nor did any other stable nation, and sure, Prince Giorgio’s subjects still paid Italian taxes and elected an Italian mayor, but if anything that only makes His Tremendousness more tremendous.

In 2006, one Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet, self-styled heir of the Holy Roman Emperors, tried to claim the throne of Seborga in order to return it to Italy, but nobody cared. Even a combined Disney-German-French-English princess just couldn’t compete with the awesomeness of Prince Giorgio.

He passed away at home on November 25th of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Since dedication to his people kept him from taking a wife — as he told People magazine in 1993, he loved all his female subjects equally — the succession is now in question. Can they find another prince so awesome? I doubt it. The standing army, Lt. Antonello Lacala, might have to institute some sort of coup.

Behold His Tremendousness surveying his wee domain in this story from a few years ago:


Here’s a lovely panorama of Seborga with the sea and the for real real Principality of Monaco in the distance:

The Principality of Seborga

Volunteer finds medieval gold coin

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

The York Archaeological Trust is excavating a medieval dump in the Hungate area. They’ve opened the dig to volunteers, and one lucky railway controller struck 14th century gold.

The coin, known as a Quarter Noble was found two weeks ago and is estimated to be worth about £200, but back in the reign of Edward III, it’s loss would have been a bitter blow to its owner.

Jon Kenny, community archaeologist at York Archaeological Trust, said: “It would be fair to say that it’s the sort of thing that, if you weren’t that wealthy, it could have been your life savings.

“Whoever lost it would have really regretted it.”

The Quarter Noble is from what is know as the Fourth Coinage (1351-1377). You can tell because there’s a fleur de lis in the middle of the cross on the tails side. Here’s the only picture I could find of the coin from the dig:

Edward III Quarter Noble

Here’s a more detailed version of a Quarter Noble from a coin sale site:

Quarter Noble

It’s valued at £550 – 600, three times the estimate of the York coin. It looks much shinier, so I suppose it’s worth more money because it’s in better condition.

The York one is cooler anyway because this is the first time anybody on the dig has found any gold at all. Precious metals didn’t get tossed on the trash pile much in the Middle Ages. (Or now for that matter.)

Richard Daniel, the finder, has been volunteering on the dig for 18 months. He used to press his face against the glass during a previous York dig but never imagined he’d get the chance to join in the fun.

Find out all about the Hungate dig on its website.




December 2009


Add to Technorati Favorites