Archive for January, 2010

Smugglerius Unveiled

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Smugglerius is the cast of an executed criminal which has been used to teach anatomical drawing at the Edinburgh College of Art for generations, but nobody knew anything about it.

Smugglerius

Now a new exhibit in conjunction with the restoration of the college’s Art Cast collection lays out the history of Smugglerius the casting and his unfortunate model.

Artist Joan Smith and anthropologist Dr Jeanne Cannizzo from the University of Edinburgh researched the provenance of Smugglerius. They found out he’s a 19th century copy of a cast made in the 18th century from the deceased. They also found out the likely identity of the model, but you have to go to the exhibit to find out ’cause they’re not telling on the website. Yes, I am pouting.

Here’s what we do know.

Dating from 1854, the College Smugglerius is a copy of an original écorché – a figure with the skin and fat removed to expose the muscles and tendons – made in 1776 at Royal Academy of Art in London. This earlier cast, now lost, was moulded from the body of a hanged criminal by the sculptor Agostino Carlini, following its dissection by William Hunter, the famous anatomist. The College cast, which retains the stunning detail of the original, was made by a little known ‘moulder and figure maker’ called William Pink, probably at the time of his employment at the British Museum; an inscription on the base of the cast states “Published by W PINK Moulder 1854”.

Since its arrival at the College, the cast has been used in the teaching of anatomy to art students, much as the original cast would have been used by artists at the Royal Academy, among them William Blake.

The exhibit features not only the history of Smugglerius, but also a variety of art pieces made from his example. It’s a fascinating exploration of the storied relationship between anatomical dissection and artist depictions of the human body, issues of anonymity and identity.

The companion exhibitions of “Smugglerius Unveiled” and “Drawing For Instruction: the art of explanation” will be open from February 2nd to to March 6th. Admission is free. I’d love to hear about it, so if anyone goes, please comment and dish.

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Oldest bones of English royal found in Germany

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Statue of Queen Eadgyth (L) and Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor (R)Queen Eadgyth (pronounced Edith) was the granddaughter of Alfred the Great. Her half-brother Athelstan unified disparate Saxon and Celtic kingdoms and is thus considered the first king of England.

When Eadgyth was 19, Athelstan sent her and her half-sister Algiva or Adiva to Germany, telling the then Duke of Saxony to pick the one he liked best. Eadgyth was said to the prettiest and the Duke married her in 929 A.D.

That Duke later became Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor. Eadgyth bore him two children and died at the young age of 36 in 946 A.D. She was buried in the Cathedral of Magdeburg. Otto died 26 years later in 973 and although he had remarried after her death, he chose to be buried next to Eadgyth in Magdeburg.

Their remains didn’t stay put. Over the years they were moved several times, the last time in 1510 when the fancy cenotaph was erected in the Cathedral. People thought that it was just a marker, not the actual location of her bones, so when archaeologists researching the cathedral opened the vault they were shocked to find a lead coffin marked with Queen Eadgyth’s name and the 1510 date.

Inside they found a skeleton wrapped in silk. The bones belong to a woman between the ages of 30 and 40. That’s not final confirmation that the bones belong to Queen Eadgyth, of course. We’ll have to wait for the results of chemical analysis to know for sure.

In particular they will try to match radioactive isotopes embedded in the bones to those found in her birthplace in England.

Professor Mark Horton, of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who is co-ordinating the research, said: “We know that Saxon royalty moved around quite a lot, and we hope to match the isotope results with known locations around Wessex and Mercia, where she could have spent her childhood.

“If we can prove this truly is Eadgyth, this will be one of the most exciting historical discoveries in recent years. It is quite a surprise to find them so much in tact. It really is an important discovery.”

No earlier remains of an English royal are extant. Her brother Athelstan’s tomb is still extant in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, but archaeologists think it’s empty.

Tomb with lead coffin insideSilk-wrapped remains in lead coffin

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More history of science treasures

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newston's Life by William Stukeley, 1752The Royal Society has published a new set of documents marking important moments in the history of science, including an 18th century manuscript telling the original Isaac Newton apple story.

It’s a 1752 biography of Newton by William Stukeley who knew the great man personally and worked with him Boswell-style. The biography has been squirreled away in archives of the Royal Society for centuries, only to be published now as part of the Society’s 350th anniversary celebrations.

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went out into the garden and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he and myself,” reads Stukeley’s account of an evening with Newton in the scientist’s garden.

“Amidst other discourse, he told me he was just in the same situation as when formerly the notion of gravitation came into his mind.

“Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself, occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.

“Why should it not go sideways or upwards, but constantly to the earth’s centre? Assuredly, the reason is that the earth draws it.”

Harpes macrocephalus, from Fossil notebook by Henry James SpreadUnlike the Royal Society’s already awesome Trailblazers site, the Turning the Pages site features actual facsimiles of the manuscripts, so you can read them online as if you were turning their fragrant yellow pages.

Other documents in the Turning the Pages collection include Thomas Paine’s 1789 letter “On Iron Bridges” , Henry James’s 1843 Fossil notebook with beautifully detailed sketches of fossils, the 1681 “Constitutions of Carolina” by John Locke and other luminaries of political philosophy.

See if your computer has the specifications to load the amazing 3D version. If you don’t have Microsoft Net 3.5, it’s really worth it to download for the full experience. Otherwise you can use the Accessible version which isn’t as flashy but still has great scans of each page.

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An American Rosetta Stone?

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Man etched onto Jamestown slate tablet, 17th. c.Last June, archaeologists excavating the James Fort area of Jamestown, Virginia, found a 400-year-old slate tablet covered on both sides in words, numbers, etchings of people and animals. It was found in a well believed to have been dug in 1609 by Captain John Smith himself, although it had become brackish within a couple of years and served as a trash pit for the settlers.

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in America and this tablet is the first found with extensive inscriptions from the early colonial period. It has been studied assiduously in the 7 months since its find, most recently by examining digitally enhanced images of the complex engravings.

The enhancements have helped researchers identify a 16th-century writing style used on the slate and discern new symbols, researchers announced last week. The characters may be from an obscure Algonquian Indian alphabet created by an English scientist to help explorers pronounce the language spoken by the Virginia Indians.

“Just like finding the Rosetta Stone led to a better understanding of the Egyptians, this tablet is beginning to add significantly to our understanding of the earliest years at Jamestown,” [director of research and interpretation at Historic Jamestowne William] Kelso said. It conveys messages about literacy, art, symbols and signs personally communicated by the colonists who used it, he explained.

The digital images were made by curators at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute using a technique called reflectance transformation imaging, which takes hundreds of high-res pictures of the surface of the tablet under different angled lights. This emphasizes different grooves on the tablet’s surface. It’s like when you tilt your head and hunker down and narrow your eyes to find any marks you couldn’t see looking straight down on a shiny surface.

Can you tell I just kneaded some dough on a granite countertop? Only this is even worse because many of the images were made with a slate pencil on the slate surface, so they’re gray-on-gray and hard to see with the naked eye under any circumstance.

The Elizabethan specialists have found the words “Abraham” and “book” as well as some individual letters, but since the tablet was reused, there are many missing parts. The Elizabethan writing is in secretary’s hand, which supports Kelso’s theory that the tablet belonged to William Strachey, the first secretary of the Jamestown colony.

There’s drawing of a Palmetto tree and what may be a cahow, a rare sea bird found only in Bermuda. Strachey was stranded in Bermuda for 10 months on his way to Virginia.

Slate tablet (left), digitally isolated inscriptions (right)

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World history in 100 objects starts tomorrow

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Mark your calendars, folks. The first episode of BBC’s Radio Four and the British Museum A History of the World in 100 Objects debuts tomorrow. That’s already today for those of you across the Atlantic.

The theme of the first 5 episodes is “Making Us Human” and they covers objects that define us as human, made between 2,000,000 and 8,000 B.C. Tomorrow’s inagural object is the Mummy of Hornedjitef.

This is the mummy of Hornedjitef an Egyptian priest who was buried in a coffin, within a second, outer coffin. Examining his body using CAT scans and X-rays revealed that he suffered from arthritis and osteoporosis suggesting he was a mature man when he died. The embalmers have placed four packages inside his torso, probably his lungs, liver, stomach and intestines. He lived over a thousand years after Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great at a time when Egypt was ruled by Greek kings.

There’s tons of information on the brand spanking new website on each of the 99 objects that have already been selected for broadcast. For those of us out of Radio Four’s range, the programs will be posted as podcasts.

The website also has a neat feature where individuals upload objects of their own and explain their significance. Just get a good quality digital picture and click the yellow Add Your Own Object icon in the upper right of the page. A moderator will check to be sure it’s not pr0n then approve it.

You can view all the images in the series plus the ones uploaded by individuals and find out more about them using this Flash map. Click on Contributor in the menu on the left and choose Individuals to see only the pictures uploaded by people.

The radio program is just 15 minutes a day, but I’ve already spent hours browsing the site. It’s addictive.

The Mummy of Hornedjitef

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1000-year-old stele with image of Mayan ruler found

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

1000-year-old stele of Mayan rulerA 1000-year-old stele engraved with the image of a Mayan ruler was found in the Lagartero archaeological area of Chiapas, Mexico. Archaeologists found the bas relief late last year while excavating the 10th section of Pyramid 4 in Lagartero.

The stele depicts the ruler standing above a man at his feet, probably representing a seizure of power.

Archaeologist Sonia Rivero Torres, who heads the Lagartero archaeological project, said that the stele or commemorative monument – the first to be found complete on the site – measures 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) long, 55 centimeters (22 inches) wide and 6 centimeters (2 1/3 inches) thick.

The stele was sculpted in metamorphic rock, known locally as “heart of stone.”

“In the pre-Colombian monument the profile image of a Mayan ruler is seen standing over a bench carrying a bag of incense in one hand and dressed in a loincloth bound with a sash and wearing sandals and a feather headdress.

“At his feet, lying on his back on the bench, lies another, smaller person with his torso opened as a sign of sacrifice or of being overthrown,” the archaeologist said.

It was found during the excavation of a stone casket which turned out to be empty, probably looted in pre-Columbian times.

A little further down in the pyramid, archaeologists found earthenware pots, a polychrome plate, a black vase with a zoopmorphic lid with a collection jade objects insides, including two earflaps, a turtle and a bead necklace.

Earlier, archaeologists found a box full of vessels of different shapes, zoomorphic vases and even a few human bones were recovered.

Lagartero was occupied for almost a thousand years, between 300 A.D. and 1200 A.D., and is a 2 1/2 acre ceremonial center. The area was a crux of trade between what are now Mexico and Guatemala as well as a religious and cultural capital. Not only have the pyramids provided rich finds, but the grounds have turned up a ball-playing court too.

Authorities plan to open the archaeological area for visitors some time this year.

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The battle to save the Staffordshire Hoard

Friday, January 15th, 2010

The Art Fund in collaboration with multiple local governments and museums have launched a campaign to raise the £3.3 million (ca. $5.4 million) to keep the Staffordshire Hoard intact in local museums. The problem is they have only 13 weeks to raise this princely sum, so they’re basically at DEFCON 1.

Unless they raise £3.3 million by April 17th, the hoard be sold to the highest bidder. There will certainly be an export ban so it’s not likely to leave the country, but it could easily be split up and scattered amongst private collections and museums all over the UK.

Celebrities like former Python Michael Palin have joined with historians like Dr. David Starkey to support The Art Fund’s campaign.

Dr Starkey said [the Staffordshire Hoard] transformed the history of the Midlands from being an Anglo-Saxon “obscure Brummie slum” into the “centre of England”.

He added: “It’s only six months since these things were found. They’ve barely been conserved. All the study, all the work has got to start right here.”

Dr Starkey, who is also a television and radio presenter, said breaking up the collection or moving it would “lose its meaning”.

He added: “It must stay here, together and intact, to be studied and displayed here in the West Midlands, the foundation of whose history it will now become.”

If the campaign is successful, the hoard will be jointly owned by both the Birmingham Museum and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. The city councils of Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent and The Art Fund have started the ball rolling by donating £500,000.

To pitch in yourself, click here to donate. Share the link on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, whatever you’ve got. These are lean times, so the more people hear about the fund-raising drive, the better the chances of its succeeding.

They have handy dandy icons and banners ready for people to use, as well as easy email links and links to their Facebook/Twitter pages. Spread the word!

P.S. – I customized the icon on my page (see left) by slowing it down a little, taking out a frame and adding a border so it matches my blog style. I’ll be glad to offer my rudimentary services to anyone who would like to tweak the button before displaying it on their site.

The battle to save the Staffordshire Hoard

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Rembrandt found in a bathroom cabinet

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Rembrandt etching found in CUA bathroomThen years ago or so ago, Monseigneur David M. O’Connell, president of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., was looking for paper towels in the bathroom cabinet of his office when he found a strange bit of frame poking out under some junk. He pulled it out and found an etching that seemed familiar.

The name Rembrandt was on the back, but of course the Monseigneur had no way of knowing if it was genuine or a print or a copy.

In January of last year, Father O’Connell finally got around to asking the university’s records management archivist Leslie Knoblauch to have the etching appraised. While they were waiting to hear the results, CUA doctoral student Paul Wesley Bush translated the French inscription.

The etching measures 4.5 by 5 inches and has a paper backing that is crumbly and darkened with age. It bears a French inscription saying the picture is “the bust of an old man with a great beard seen about most of the face… His head a little perched gives him… the attitude of a man who sleeps,” according to [Paul Bush's translation].

In February the appraiser confirmed that it was the real deal: a genuine etching by Rembrandt. How it ended up with the paper towels in the bathroom cabinet, nobody knows.

Rembrandt was famous during his lifetime for his etchings. He made them by drawing with a needle on a resin-coated copper plate. The plate is dipped in acid which etches the needle lines into the plate.

Bush suggested they make an exhibit around the marvelous find, and so they have. “Fine Lines: Discovering Rembrandt and Other Old Masters at Catholic University” will be at the May Gallery in the John K. Mullen of Denver Memorial Library through May 24. Admission is free.

The current exhibit also features two engravings of Abraham Lincoln photos taken by famed Civil War-era photographer Mathew Brady: one by Scottish artist and engraver Alexander Hay Ritchie and the other by American John Chester Buttre, whose work includes a steel-plate engraving of a full-length portrait of President James Buchanan.

Additional exhibit pieces now on display at the May Gallery include a watercolor copy of a print of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein; two black-and-white engravings by English artist William E.C. Morgan; and six woodcut prints by Julius John Lankes, an American artist whose works are included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress and the British Museum.

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Ship’s skeleton emerges on Washington beach

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Shipwreck on Washaway BeachAs recently as a year ago this shipwreck was buried under 9 feet of earth and trees on Washaway Beach along the Pacific Coast in Washington state. Now erosion has revealed the 125 foot-long skeleton of a shipwreck.

A week and a half ago the keel peeked out, then the shifting coastline exposed more and more of the ship’s structure.

According to maritime experts and others, the wreckage could be part of the Canadian Exporter, a freighter that broke in two in August 1921 while carrying 3 million board feet of lumber and 200 tons of general cargo, as noted in a contemporary issue of American Shipping magazine. If so, the remains could belong to whoever bought salvage rights, or to a private landowner, or to the state.

“As near as I can tell, it’s on state land,” said Pacific County Assessor Bruce Walker, who visited the site over the weekend.

If ownership cannot be determined, the wreckage could become a salvageable piece of history. But even as the Assessor’s Office tries to sort that out, the worst fears of museum officials and maritime buffs are being realized as scavengers reap the sea’s rewards on their terms, stripping the remains for usable or sellable scrap.

“Why not?” asked nearby resident Lesley Strange, an unemployed former Bering Sea fisherman who said he already had taken away some pieces. “Am I gonna let it go in the ocean and not be recovered at all?”

Yes charming. If you’re going to “recover” bits of it, could you at least give a tiny crap about its historical value instead of selling it for scrap? Unfortunately, Washington’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation doesn’t have the authority to excavate, nor does the local Westport museum. Nobody does until ownership is established.

I suppose the locals are somewhat jaded. That stretch of the Pacific Coast has taken down of dozens of ships. It’s also one of the fastest eroding coastlines in the world, so people are always stumbling on remains.

The Canadian Exporter is just one of many ships to succumb to the sandbars and fog the entrance to Willapa Harbor. The crew were all rescued when the ship ran aground, but they couldn’t do anything but watch as the pressure from the waves broke the ship in two.

Twenty and forty-foot timbers have turned up before, matching the Exporter’s cargo. Identifying marks on the wreck also match the Exporter’s cargo manifest.

The Canadian Exporter, broken in two, 1921

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Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography on display

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

One of the rarest of all maps, the Ricci World Map of 1602, is going on display as part of the Library of Congress’ “Exploring the Early Americas” map exhibit. Unveiled today, it will remain there until April 10 when it will move to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a short exhibit, then to its permanent home, the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.

Detail from Ricci mapThis map is one of only two in good condition. Its rarity, important representation of the meeting of East and West and its Chinese annotations have earned it a lovely romantic moniker among collectors: the Impossible Black Tulip. There are a handful other copies in the Vatican library, in a private collection in France and in public collections in Japan.

This particular copy was sold by a Japanese collector to the the James Ford Bell Trust for a cool million dollars, the second highest price ever paid for a map. The highest price is $10 million, paid by the Library of Congress for the 1507 Waldseemüller World Map, the first to use the name “America”. The Waldseemüller map is currently on display right next to the Ricci in the Library of Congress exhibit.

Detail from Ricci mapThe Ricci World Map was drawn by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci at the request of Emperor Wanli. It’s the first Chinese map to show the Americas, and it’s huge with all kinds of detailed annotations. The notes next to North America mention “humped oxen” (aka bison) and the northernmost “Ka-na-ta” region. It’s composed of six rice paper panels totaling 5.5 feet in height, 12.5 feet in width. The panels were designed to be mounted on a folding screen.

Although Ricci never actually met the Emperor, he did impress him enough with a gift of a chiming clock that in 1601 he became the first Westerner ever invited into the Forbidden City. When he died in 1610, the Emperor granted him a special dispensation to be buried in Beijing rather than in Macao where all foreigners were by law to be buried.

Unfortunately this is the biggest picture I could find of the entire map, but the Library of Congress plans to upload detailed images of it to its excellent site after the exhibit is over.

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