Archive for January, 2010

Volunteers wanted to be mummified on TV

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Britain’s Channel 4 is searching for a terminally ill person to volunteer to have his or her body mummified on television then displayed in a museum for 2 years.

A documentary production company is working with an unnamed scientists who thinks he has figured out the exact Egyptian mummification procedure. They’ve tested it on pigs and it shows promise, apparently, so now they want to go all the way and try it on a human being.

The Independent sent an undercover reporter posing as a potential volunteer to interview with the production company, Fulcrum TV which has otherwise not commented on the record. It’s a pretty creepy interview, not surprisingly. They want to follow the volunteer around with cameras for a couple of months to “understand who you are and what sort of person you are so the viewers get to know you and have a proper emotional response to you,” ie, watch you die.

[Executive producer Richard] Belfield said that no payment would be made, not even to help relatives after the volunteer’s death: “No not as such. Of course we would cover all costs. But the advice from our compliance lawyers is that it would be wrong to offer payment.”

He added: “The Egyptians were extremely clever organic chemists. Some of the materials they used came from as far afield as Burma and the Far East. One resin they used we know only existed in Burma. One thing we want to explore is how they developed their knowledge of chemistry.

“If you would like to think about it over the weekend you can call me at any time. Let me give you my numbers…”

The museum display after mummification isn’t obligatory, you’ll be glad to know. They run a classy operation, after all.

The thing is, it’s a perfectly legitimate pursuit to investigate the mummification procedure, which has never been fully explained. I’m sure many people who are interested in leaving their bodies to science would be glad to get mummified. It’s the reality TV part that’s gross.


Mexico 1, Starbucks 0

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Starbucks has agreed to pay intellectual property rights to the Mexican government for unauthorized use of Aztec images on a set of mugs.

The images were of the Aztec calendar stone, a basalt monolith found under Mexico City’s central square in the 18th century, and the Temple of the Moon in Teotihuacan.

Starbucks Mexico said Thursday that the supplier of the mugs had sought approval for the images from government archaeological agency since 2008, but had failed to receive it.

“Starbucks Mexico assumes responsibility … and is prepared to pay the amount corresponding to the use of these images,” a statement said, apologizing for “any misunderstanding.”

I’m pretty sure you don’t get to use images just because the rights holders don’t answer your queries, and I’m pretty sure Starbucks is aware of that.

Anyway, the mugs have been removed from the shelves for now while they settle the amount to be paid. A decision is expected next week. All that’s certain is that they’re going to make them pay.

Aztec calendar stone Pyramid of the Moon


Lead in Egyptian eyeliner helped fight disease

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

Kohl pot, ca 1550 1069 B.C., Louvre MuseumThe copious use of lead in ancient (and even fairly recent) makeup is generally not considered to have been a great call, healthwise. Lead is toxic to many of our organs and to our nervous system, so you wouldn’t think slathering it all over your eyes in that typical Egyptian cat-shape could be good for you.

Analytical chemists at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Louvre have examined some of the eyeliner from the Louvre collection and found two lead salts not found in nature which means the Egyptians actually took the considerable amount of time and trouble to synthesize these compounds to add them to their kohl. They aren’t glossy and don’t add any color advantage, so why bother?

To see if the lead might confer any health benefits, Amatore, Walter, and colleagues added lead salts to human skin cells called keratinocytes, which were grown in the lab. The researchers hypothesized that the lead would stress the cells and cause them to make hydrogen peroxide, nitric oxide, and other compounds involved in the body’s immune response. And indeed, cells treated with lead began pumping out more nitric oxide than did control cells, the team reports online in Analytical Chemistry.

Amatore says that nitric oxide sets off a series of biochemical processes in the body that ultimately send immune cells called macrophages to the site of infection, where they engulf invading organisms. That’s probably not what’s happening in keratinocytes, says immunologist Martin Olivier of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who was not involved in the study. It’s unlikely that macrophages or other immune cells would exit the body and burst through the skin to fight off infectious agents at the surface, he notes. Instead, nitric oxide released by keratinocytes could directly kill eye-disease-causing bacteria on the skin or near the eye by breaking down a bacterium’s structure or DNA. Another plausible scenario, says Olivier, is that lead itself could directly stimulate immune cells already present in the eyelid.

Contemporary writings support the idea that the nitric oxide was intentionally included to combat eye disease. Ancient manuscripts describe lead salts being used to treat eye disease, scars, and discolorations so it seems those dramatic cat’s eye looks may have been intentionally medicinal as well.

Jennifer Weuve of Rush University Medical Center cautions that Egyptians also had a shorter lifespan than ours, so perhaps any long-term consequences to the lead in their makeup might be obscured by their earlier deaths. It may not have been so much good for them as not bad enough to noticeably harm them in the few decades that had to live.


“Drowned Bugatti” fished out of Lake Maggiore

Friday, January 8th, 2010

bugattiunderwaterA 1925 Bugatti Brescia that was pushed into the Swiss side of Lake Maggiore in 1936 has been retrieved by a diving society and put up for sale.

It’s not in very good condition, what with having been underwater for 70+ years, but about 20% of the body is usable and you can still see bits of the original blue paint. The Brescia was called that because it won the top four spots on the Brescia course in a 1921 race, so its an important car for collectors. Even with just 20% of the body left, it could be fully restored or used as a model for an accurate modern duplicate.

Locals thought the story of the sunken Bugatti was apocryphal until a diver found it 160 feet below the lake surface in 1967, but nope, it really happened. The French-registered car appears to have been owned by Zurich architect, Max Schmuklerski. He lived in Ascona, Switzerland, for 3 years working on some buildings and stored the car in his builder’s yard for the duration.

Customs agents knew it was there and they knew it was never registered in Switzerland. When Schmuklerski left Ascona, the builder certainly wasn’t going to pay the custom duties and by the now the car was 11 years old and well-used, so its value was probably less than the tax bill.

So the builder and/or the customs agents decided to just dump it in the lake. The kept a chain attached to it in case they needed to retrieve it, but over time the chain corroded and the Bugatti dropped down to the lake floor.

It would probably have remained there until it disintegrated had it not been for a tragedy. In February of 2008, Damiano Tamagni was mugged by three juveniles. He was beaten so severely that he died from his injuries. He and his father Maurizio were members of the local underwater diving and salvage club in Ascona so they decided to raise the Bugatti sell it to fund a charity in Damiano’s name. The Fondazione Damiano Tamagi seeks to combat juvenile violence.

Despite its condition, Bonham’s estimates the Bugatti could sell for €70,000 – €90,000 ($100,000 – $130,000) which would be a nice nest egg to launch the charity.

See the Bonham’s lot details for lots of pictures of the car at various stages in its recovery.

The "Drowned Bugatti" on display


Skull and Bones skull and bones on sale

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

A human skull and crossbones converted into a ballot box for Yale’s Skull and Bones secret society are going on the auction block at Christie’s in New York City on January 22nd. This is not the reputed skull of Apache warrior Geronimo which is subject to a lawsuit from Geronimo’s descendant. It’s an older skull, from the 1870’s or earlier.

The skull is believed to have been owned by Edward T. Owen, who was graduated from Yale in 1872 and went to become professor of French and linguistics at the University of Wisconsin. The word THOR is etched into the skull [sic]; it may have been the nickname given to Owen or another society member.

The skull is being sold with a black book, inscribed with Owen’s name, the year 1872 and the numeral 322, a reference to the society’s year of inception and to the death of the orator Demosthenes in 322 B.C. It contains the names and photographs of about 50 Bonesmen, including Taft, who became the 27th president of the United States; Morrison Remick Waite, who became U.S. chief justice in 1874; and William Maxwell Evarts, who served as U.S. secretary of state and U.S. attorney general.

The word THOR is not etched into the skull, actually. It’s etched into the right crossbone. The skull has a hinged flap on top which is why people think it was used as a ballot box for votes during society meetings and kept on display in its the New Haven headquarters.

The Society has no comment on the sale (of course), Yale has no comment on the Society (also of course) and Christie’s won’t say who the seller is. The entire lot, skull and bones box plus the black book and photographs is estimated to sell for $10,000 to $20,000.

You can track the lot or place a bid, why not, on the Christie’s website.

Skull and Bones ballot box, black book, and member photographs


Bologna to restore its medieval canals

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Canale delle Moline at San Vitale, BolognaMayor of Bologna Flavio Delbono announced Tuesday that the city will be reopening one of the canals in the historic center of the city.

The canal system, built between the 12th and 16th centuries to accommodate the ever-increasing transportation needs of the city with the oldest university in Europe (founded in 1088), was paved over by roads and parking lots in the post-war boom of the 1950s. You can still catch a glimpse of bits and bobs of the old canals, but they’d long since been superseded by cars.

Now choked by smog and perpetually overshadowed as a tourist attraction by its more famous neighbors Milan, Florence and Venice, Bologna is looking to beautify and reinvigorate the historic center.

A parking lot and part of the road would be torn up between Via Riva Reno and Via Galliera, revealing not only the water underneath but also the remains of an Ancient Roman bridge. The two banks of the canal would be connected by a footbridge, while cars would have the use of one side of the waterway. While Bologna is unlikely to ever rival Venice, said Delbono, more waterways will be uncovered if this first stage goes well, and Bologna could eventually join the ranks of Europe’s major rediscovered ”canal cities”, such as Strasbourg, Bruges and Birmingham. He said the waterways would not only make the historic centre more pleasant for Bolognesi, they would also boost tourism and could even be used for commercial activities.

No start date was announced, but this initital phase should take about 18 months. If it’s successful, other canals might follow. That’s a big if, though, because like every old city in Europe, car traffic is a major issue so the loss of street and parking space could turn out to be more of a city planning headache than the canals are an advantage.

If it does work out, there are 5 main canals still running underneath of the streets of Bologna which could be revealed one at a time. The Navile had its own port and linked Bologna to the major thoroughfare of the Po river. The Reno and the Savena brought water to the city and the other canals. The Cavaticcio and Moline powered grain and silk mills. Bologna was famed for its silk industry, considered the height of European silk production technology from the 15th century to the 18th.

You can actually tour these underground canals now, as well as some tunnels from Bologna’s rich Roman and Etruscan past. Bologna has been a major city since it was called Felsina under the Etruscans in the 6th century B.C.

Bologna is also famously progressive. It was the first city in Europe to abolish serfdom in 1256, and it was the only Italian city in the 15th century that allowed women to practice any profession, some could even get a degree from the university.


Huge tomb found in Saqqara

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Egyptian archaeologists have unearthed the largest tomb ever found in the necropolis of Saqqara south of Cairo. Carved out of limestone, the tomb dates to to the 26th Dynasty (664 -525 B.C.) and was found near the entrance of the necropolis.

The tomb consists of a big hall hewn out of the limestone rock.

There are a number of small rooms and passageways where ancient coffins, skeletons and well-preserved clay pots were discovered, as well as the mummies of eagles.

Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, who announced the discovery, said that early investigations showed that although the tomb dated back to the 26th Dynasty, it had been used several times.

It was certainly opened several times, and appears to have been robbed at the end of the Roman era, around the 5th c. A.D. It is so large it took Hawass two hours just to walk around inside of it.

Various stories have said the mummified birds were either eagles, falcons or hawks, so I’m not sure which one is correct. If they were representatives of the god Horus (which would make sense in a funerary context), they were probably falcons as he is usually depicted as a man with the head of a falcon.

The team also found another limestone tomb right next to it, this one sealed with many clay pots and ancient coffins scattered around.

Newly-discovered Saqqara tomb


Noah’s Ark was a round raft

Monday, January 4th, 2010

A newly translated ancient Babylonian clay tablet dating to 1,700 B.C. reveals new details of the global flood story. Dozens of clay tablets tell the tale of the one righteous man and his ark full of animals, but this one tablet is the only one that actually describes the vessel.

The tablet in question was owned by RAF veteran Leonard Simmons who got it somewhere in the Middle East when he was serving there right after the war. He had a chest full of tablets, pottery, seals and various other artifacts that he had bought at bazaars and whatnot, but although he showed them to experts, they all dismissed them as commonplace.

Dr. Irving Finkel examines a clay tabletWhen he passed away and his son Douglas inherited the collection, he took the tablet to British Museum cuneiform expert Dr. Irving Finkel. Dr. Finkel is one of the few people in the world who can sight-read cuneiform and he knew at first glance that this was no common clay tablet.

“In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it,” said Finkel. “But the ark didn’t have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It’s still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods.”

Finkel’s research throws light on the familiar Mesopotamian story, which became the account in Genesis, in the Old Testament, of Noah and the ark that saved his menagerie from the waters which drowned every other living thing on earth.

In his translation, the god who has decided to spare one just man speaks to Atram-Hasis, a Sumerian king who lived before the flood and who is the Noah figure in earlier versions of the ark story. “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions And save life! Draw out the boat that you will built with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same.”

It closes with Atram-Hasis telling the builder he’s leaving behind to drown to make sure he caulks the door behind Atram-Hasis when he last enters the boat.

Round bundle boats called quffa are still found on the Euphrates today, very similar to ones found on Assyrian wall carvings from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.). In the 20th century some were made that could transport 16 tons of grain and dozens of animals, so the idea of round coracle ark is not as crazy as it may sound.


Picasso’s “little guitar” found in a shoebox

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

A wee wooden guitar made by Pablo Picasso has been recovered 3 years after it was stolen by a con-man. Picasso made it for his daughter Paloma, but once it was finished he gave it instead to his friend, Italian artist Giuseppe Vittorio Parisi.

Parisi kept it for decades, but when he was 92 (in 2007), an unnamed “businessman” persuaded him to part with it. The fraudster promised he’d create a special special wood and glass display case for the piece, but once he had it, he disappeared never to be seen again.

When Parisi died in January 2009, his widow Wanda asked the police to retrieve the guitar. The Carabinieri searched for almost a year, finally finding the piece in a shoebox in the closet of a luxury apartment in Pomezia, a town south of Rome. The businessman has been charged with fraud and is currently out on bail.

A Picasso expert has authenticated the guitar, thanks in part to an inscription of “Paloma” in the artist’s own hand. Now the little guitar is on its way to Maccagno, a small town on Lake Maggiore where Parisi was born and where his vast collection of art is on display in at the Civic Museum of Contemporary Art.

Picasso's little guitar


Small London museum scores unknown Chagall

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

The London Jewish Museum of Art is a small museum in St. John’s Wood, London, which opened less than 10 years ago. It was built up around the collection of the Ben Uri Gallery’s, a Jewish artists’ society begun in 1915, and has been steadily adding works from notable artists over the 9 years of its existence.

But it’s the most recent purchase which has really put the museum on the map. David Glasser, one of the museum’s chairmen, found a previously unknown Chagall in the catalog of a small French auction house. The piece is a gouache, a painting made from opaque watercolors mixed with gum, from 1945. It’s one of several Holocaust-themed paintings made by Marc Chagall after he fled Nazi-occupied France in 1941.

The gouache on heavy paper, which Chagall signed and titled himself lightly with a pencil in Russian — “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio” — employs one of his familiar motifs, an image of a crucified Jesus, which he used as a metaphor for persecuted Jewry. But this crucifixion, painted in New York, where Chagall settled for several years, is one of the most brutal and disturbing ever created by an artist primarily known for his brightly colored folkloric visions.

"Apocalypse in Lilac" by Marc Chagall, 1945“Apocalypse” shows a naked Christ screaming at a Nazi storm trooper below the cross, who has a backwards swastika on his arm, a Hitler-like mustache and a serpentine tail. Another small figure can be seen crucified and a second being hanged, and a man appears to be poised to stab a child. A damaged, upside-down clock falls from the sky. The darkness and directness of the work may have been a response not only to the war but also to the death of Chagall’s wife, Bella, a year earlier from a viral infection that might have been treated if not for wartime medicine shortages. […]

“Although in many of his works Chagall had reacted to events in Germany, he usually did not depict them but used symbols — such as the crucifixion, a Jew holding a Torah, a mother protecting her child or a falling angel — to suggest what was happening there,” writes Ziva Amishai-Maisels, a Chagall scholar and professor emeritus at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in a catalog to accompany the exhibition of the painting. “Although he still used some of these symbols in ‘Apocalypse,’ he combined them with the reality of the Holocaust in a manner that was very rare in his work. This and the way he depicted the conflict between the Nazi and the naked Christ make this a unique work.”

Chagall never sold “Apocalypse”. His son David sold it to a private collector two years after his father’s death, where it remained for 25 years until it was put up for auction. The estimate was a surprisingly affordable 25,000 – 35,000 euros ($36,000 – $50,000) which the London Jewish Museum could actually afford.

Just to be sure the price didn’t triple as experts thought it easily could, Glasser approached the Art Fund, a British philanthropic organization that gives institutions grants to help purchase expensive works. They guaranteed him an extra 100,000 euros (ca $143,000). He ended up not needing it. Maybe it’s the somber theme, maybe it was the sparsely attended auction, but for whatever reason, Glasser was able to buy “Apocalypse” for 30,000 euros (ca $43,000).

The painting goes on display at the Osborne Samuel gallery in Mayfair this Thursday. At the end of the month, it will join the The London Jewish Museum of Art‘s permanent collection.





January 2010


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