Archive for March, 2010

Pompeiian dogs ready for adoption!

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

The Cave Canem project launched last November to microchip, treat and neuter the stray dogs that populate the ancient city of Pompeii. When last we saw our brave canine heroes, they were still in the process of being rounded up by the Italian animal welfare groups and the adoption website didn’t exist yet.

Now all the rounding up has been done and the website is up and running. On the site you will find a lovely photo gallery of the pups up for adoption (with the ones already adopted marked as such). They all have adorable Pompeiian names.

The best part of the site, though, is the backstory written by one Stella Pende for each dog. They tie each dog in to the city of Pompeii and its mythology. The anthropomorphic characterization is gloriously lurid at times.

Meet Polibia:

PolibiaIn the quarter of the ancient baths at Pompeii, where I roam freely, they call me Polibia. I am two years old and like each respectable member of my family, I am a freed-slave and when possible I choose this humid warmth area that gives body to my fur and soothe my poor tired paws. My doggy friends at Pompeii say that I am magic because, suddenly one morning, my tail awoke with a white wisp, but they don’t know the truth. One night at the bath I was immersed in the warmth of the pool, when, Apollo the Beautiful, revealed himself showing his muscles and vigour on the purple glitter coach, wrapped in a cloud of smoke. But he was also very annoyed to find a hairy freed-slave in his favourite waters. So, furious, he caught me by the tail and threw me out of the bath and this divine touch lightened my tail tip.

Mythological backstory animal abuse! Damn you, muscular and vigorous Apollo. Damn you and the purple glitter coach wrapped in a cloud of smoke you rode in on.

Sadly only the first page of the dog stories is translated into English. The rest of them are just as fabulous, so fire up Google Translate and go to town.

If you’re in Europe and/or able to get to Italy in person, you can apply to adopt one of these historic honies. The requirements and forms you need are on this page. If I could, I would snap them all up myself.

Vettius the dog guards the mosaic depicting one of his ancestors

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The Most Important Ancient Site in London

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Metal vessels found in Roman wellThe outstanding website Heritage Key is running a series of London-themed challenges for bloggers. There are neat prizes to be won, but most of all, much love for London’s marvelous wealth of history to be expressed.

I missed the first challenge because I got all freaked out under pressure and went completely blank, so I’m hoping I can squeak in just under the deadline for The Most Important Ancient Site in London challenge.

For my most important ancient site in London I choose (drumroll please) Drapers Gardens. This soggy patch of land on Throgmorton Avenue had the great fortune of being deemed basically undevelopable until 1967, when the Drapers Company decided to build an office tower on their garden space.

When the eponymous skyscraper was demolished in 2007 in preparation for a new building to be erected on the spot, an archaeological survey stumbled on a massive treasure trove of daily life in Roman London from the 1st to the 4th century A.D.

Drapers Gardens’ sogginess had not only kept this mother lode from being obliterated by two millennia of development and redevelopment, but it also helped keep these objects in an exceptional state of preservation.

Among the treasures are 19 metal vessels from the mid to late 4th c., possibly hidden in a well by a wealthy family fleeing one of many Saxon raids on the city, or they may have been left behind intentionally as part of the ritual closing of the well. The vessels are made from copper and lead ore and include wine jugs, dishes, ladles, even a set of three nesting bowls. They’re in such spectacular condition that the articulating handles on some of them still swing.

Wooden ruler with Roman inches markedA total of over 1100 artifacts were found at the site. Other remarkable finds include hundreds of brooches, a wood door with its original hinges, a roman road with wood footbridges over the ditches on both sides, a wooden ruler with the lines marking the Roman inches still visible, an infant burial site and the skull of a brown bear that probably died in the amphitheater nearby.

The dig uncovered not just rare and beautiful artifacts, but really the entire structure of the neighborhood for 300+ years of Roman life in London: streets, alleys, floors, clay and timber foundations of dwellings, waste disposal and plumbing systems. In Rome itself you don’t find this kind of staging because the city has been built and rebuilt so many times, and because timber or clay housing just doesn’t tend to last 2000 years.

The Drapers Garden find is a microcosm of Roman city life, not only a worthy candidate for the most important ancient site in London, but surely in the running for one of the most important discoveries of Roman social history, period.

Pictures courtesy Pre-Construct Archaeology

Edit: Holy crap, I won! :boogie:

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UV light reveals Giotto details

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Restorer examines Giotto painting with UV lightsResearchers examining Giotto’s wall paintings in the Peruzzi Chapel of Florence’s Santa Croce church with ultra-violet rays have uncovered an incredible wealth of detail invisible to the naked eye.

Giotto’s Santa Croce paintings were made on dry plaster, as opposed to frescoes which are painted on wet plaster. That made the color more brilliant when he first applied it in 1320, but dry paintings don’t last as well as frescoes so these beautiful works didn’t have the best start from a preservation perspective.

Then it got worse. The Peruzzi family, who had commissioned Giotto’s paintings for the chapel, decided to redecorate in the early 18th century and whitewashed the walls. Crazy sumbitches.

Restorers in 1840 removed the white paint, but used harsh solvents and wire brushes and all the rest of the horrid arsenal of 19th century “conservation” and so ended up stripping the delicate Giotto paintings. Then to add insult to injury they repainted over some of the damage they did to highlight areas so they could be seen from the ground.

The 19th c. paint was removed by a restoration in 1958, so all that’s left now are the battered remains of Giotto’s own work.

That’s where our team of intrepid researchers steps in. Financed by a grant from the Getty Foundation, the four-month project aimed to utilize non-invasive diagnostic tools to assess the condition of the paintings.

“It was something really astonishing,” said Cecilia Frosinini, co-coordinator of the project that studied the scenes in the lives of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.

“We knew we could get some very interesting results from our scientific diagnostics but when we looked under ultra-violet light, all of a sudden all these very faint paintings that were ruined by old restorations took on a new life,” she said, pointing to one scene while donning protective eye wear. […]

“The scenes are again three dimensional … we were able to see all the chiaroscuro effects,” she said. “There were bodies under the garments … they became three dimensional, you could see the folds of the garments, the expressions of the faces.”

Original Giotto painting from Peruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce The same painting under UV light

Look at the halos. It’s amazing how much of the original gold paint is still there. On the non-UV one you can only see that small sliver of gold on the right of the saint’s nose. Under UV light all of the sudden the entire round stands out.

Unfortunately, the ultra-violent rays which are so illuminating in short bursts would damage the paint if they were focused on it permanently, so this can only be a short-term application. The team plan to use the information from the UV examination as a map for future restorations.

They’re also hoping to snaggle enough grant money to take detailed UV pictures of the entire chapel so they can create an online virtual chapel for the general public to get as close to Giotto’s originals as we can 700 years later.

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JFK condolence letters published

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Two pages from "Letters to Jackie: Condolences From A Grieving Nation" Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation by historian Ellen Fitzpatrick is a collection of condolence letters Mrs. Kennedy received in the wake of her husband’s assassination.

The outpouring of grief was so enormous — the White House got 800,000 condolences in the first seven weeks alone — that most of the letters were destroyed. Two hundred thousand pages made it to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston where Fitzpatrick found them.

Fitzpatrick was at the Kennedy library researching a different book when she asked to see some of the condolence letters in hopes of getting a sense of how Kennedy was perceived by Americans in his own time. As soon as she started reading, she was hooked.

“It was like the roof came off the building, the walls dropped away, the floor came out from under me. I was absolutely floored by what I’d begun to read,” she said Friday. “I have been teaching American history for 30 years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a collection as powerful and that represented so many ordinary people speaking from the heart about their views about American society, and politics, and the president.”

And she had to get permission from every one of the letter writers to include them in the book. This is probably why nobody’s ever done it before and the letters have remain unpublished all these years. After narrowing her list of thousands of favorites down to 240, she was able to track down 220 of the writers. Out them, only 5 declined to be included.

The excerpts in the article are so moving I wept like babby, but the part that struck me the most was Fitzgerald pointing out that we’ve seen so many piles of books about JFK, the assassination, the administration, from movers and shakers, from conspiracy theorists, from historians and from journalists, but this is the first work to collate perspectives from everyday Americans, and they’re just wrenching.

Writing two days [after the assassination], eighth-grader Mary South described learning that the president had been shot just as she sat down to play the church organ at her Catholic school in Santa Clara, Calif.

“I tried to tell myself he would be all right but somehow I knew he wouldn’t. … the tears wouldn’t stop. The slightly damp keys were hard to play but I offered it up that the President might live,” she wrote.

In return for her letter, she received a small card printed with the words “Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness.”

“Getting that back felt like: She saw this. Jackie saw this,” South, whose married name is Mary Certa, said in an interview Thursday. “I felt good that I had done something. I just wanted her to know how upset we were and how helpless we felt.”

When one of Fitzpatrick’s researchers called and read her letter, “I started to cry all over again,” said Certa, 60, of Campbell, Calif. “It was like I was right back there in 1963.”

I think this approach brings the sheer emotion of the tragedy to the fore like nothing has after all these decades of Camelot and grassy knolls.

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Einstein’s ToR manuscript on display for first time

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

A page of General Theory of Relativity on displayThe complete original manuscript of General Theory of Relativity penned by Einstein’s very hand has gone on display today for the first time at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem. Einstein donated the manuscript to Hebrew University in Jerusalem when it was founded in 1925. He left them the rest of his documents in his will.

The manuscript has been kept in a safe at Hebrew University since the founding. A few pages have gone out on display to museums on occasion, but very rarely.

The University lent the manuscript to the Academy to put on a display worthy of its 50th anniversary celebration. The display will be open until March 25th, therefore overlapping the Academy’s anniversary festivities with the 131st anniversary of Einstein’s birth on March 14.

It took Einstein eight years after publishing his theory of special relativity — in which he came up with the famed equation EMC2 (squared) — to expand that into his theory of general relativity, in which he showed that gravity can affect space and time, a key to understanding basic forces of physics and natural phenomena, including the origin of the universe.

But exhibit organizers say the significance of Einstein’s pages of careful script, diagrams, and perfectionist’s scratches will not be lost on casual viewers. They say the display will present the manuscript in the context of the theory’s legacy — which includes everything from modern space exploration to commercial satellite and GPS technology and present-day attempts to create a universal explanation of the forces of nature, a quest that started decades ago and stymied even Einstein himself.

This is the first time the whole 46 pages are laid out in a darkened room, each page gently lit in its own protective casing. You can read every page, every chart, note, and doodle as Einstein wrote them.

Einstein's original General Theory of Relativity on display

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US returns stolen Peter the Great pendant

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

Peter the Great medallionIn 2006, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg found that 220 pieces worth up to $5 million from its enormous collection had been stolen and sold by a former curator. One of the lost items was a silver pendant of Peter the Great, part of a collection of 1,200 Peter the Great artifacts donated to the museum by the surviving family of Czar Nicholas II in 1947.

In May 2009, Russian authorities contacted the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit to report a Seattle antiquities dealer who was selling a suspiciously familiar Peter the Great medallion online. ICE Agents confiscated the pendant and forensic investigation by Kremlin Museum specialists determined that it was indeed the missing item.

Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Seattle, was in Moscow on Thursday for a repatriation ceremony. His agency, which recovered the pendant, declined to name the antiques dealer who bought and was attempting to resell the piece of art.

“Artifacts of historical or cultural significance allow the public to experience a nation’s heritage, and these items shouldn’t be offered as souvenirs for sale to the highest bidder,” Winchell said in a statement.

Apparently the unnamed dealer is still under investigation, which is why the ICE is refusing to comment.

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Coins from Alexander the Great era found in Syria

Friday, March 5th, 2010

A man digging the foundation of his new home in northern Syria uncovered a cache of over 250 coins from the Hellenistic era (4th to 1st centuries B.C.).

He gave the coins in their bronze box to the authorities, and they’re now being analyzed and cataloged.

[Youssef Kanjo, the head of archaeological excavations in the ancient city of Aleppo,] added that the box contained two groups of coins, 137 “tetra” drachmas (four drachmas) and 115 single drachma coins.

One side of the tetra drachma coins depicts Alexander the Great, while the other side shows the Greek god Zeus sitting on a throne with an eagle perched on his extended arm.

Some of the coins bear the inscription King Alexander in Greek, while others say Alexander or carry the name of King Philip, most likely referring to his father.

Alexander conquered Syria in 333 B.C., after his defeat of Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issus. It and the rest of Alexander’s Asian empire became the Seleucid Empire after Alexander’s death and the splintering of his generals.

Alexander coins would have kept being produced under the Seleucid Empire, which would was finally toppled by Tigranes of Armenia 20 years or so before Pompey yoinked Syria for good for Rome in 64 B.C.

Alexander coins in bronze box, Syria Hellenistic era coins in bronze box, Syria

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A serpent repents in Queen Elizabeth I’s hand

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Portrait of Elizabeth I with serpent pentimento on her handA late 16th century portrait of Queen Elizabeth I has reveled over time and degradation that she was originally depicted holding a coiled serpent in her hand instead of the innocuous nosegay she holds now. When an earlier image that has been painted over begins to show through, that is known as a pentimento, which means repentance in Italian.

The portrait, painted by an unknown artist, some time in the 1580s or early 1590s, has not been on display at the National Portrait Gallery since 1921. You can clearly see the shadow of the serpent’s coming up from between her fingers and his tail coiling above her hand.

The serpent was a symbol of wisdom and reasoned judgment — as on the rod of Aesculapius, the physicians’ emblem — so that’s probably where our unknown artist was going with the imagery. He changed his mind, though (possibly in consideration of the common association of snakes with the devil and original sin), and quickly painted it over with a strangely-shaped but perfectly inoffensive little bouquet of roses.

Paint analysis shows that the snake was definitely made at the same time as the rest of the portrait. There is no varnish between the snake and flower layers, so we know it was painted right over.

Infrared image of original serpant design on the portrait Artist's impression of original rendered from the infrared

The artist repented of his creation, if you will, and now the serpent is repenting him right back.

That’s not the only pentimento showing through, though. X-rays show that a portrait of an unknown woman lies underneath Elizabeth. Her head is higher and she’s facing the opposite way. If you click on the first picture at the top right of this entry, you can actually see her eye and nose in the left side of Elizabeth’s forehead and temple where the paint has chipped off. It looks like an absorbed twin.

Again the painter is unknown, but he’s definitely not the same person who would paint Elizabeth on the panel later. It’s very thoroughly painted but not quite complete. This lady is wearing a French hood, a garment fashionable from 1570 to 1580, so she might have been on the recycling heap for 10 to 20 years before getting royally repurposed.

The serpent portrait will go on display starting on March 13th along with 3 other interestingly altered paintings of Elizabeth I in an exhibit called Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I of England, The Darnley PortraitThe four works range in date from the 1560s until just after her death in 1603. They were all modified in their time and have recently been re-examined using advanced scientific techniques of paint analysis, infrared and x-Ray photography so we can see more of what Elizabeth painters had hidden.

The most famous portrait of Elizabeth in the group, the Darnley portrait, originally showed the Queen with pink and rosy cheeks, so the image of the Virgin Queen always made up with white face and hands may turn out to be more of an artifact of faded paint than Elizabeth beauty standards.

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Medieval alabaster mourners leave Dijon for the Met

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Mourner holding back tears, alabaster, carved 1494A series of alabaster statues carved between 1443 and 1456 have never moved more than 200 feet away from the tomb they decorate in the city of Dijon, and even that tiny hop only happened once over 6 centuries.

In an unprecedented opportunity created by the renovation of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon where the tomb is housed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City gets to be the first place to exhibit them away from their home. The beautifully detailed and realistic alabaster mourners usually process around the base of the tomb of John the Fearless, so being able to see them not just across the Atlantic but also in detail and from all angles is a unique treat.

Carved over a 25-year-period by sculptors Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, each statue represents a mourner — mostly ecclesiastical figures such as a bishop, a choirboy and rows of monks from the Carthusian order.

Mourner with hands on his belt, alabaster, carved 1494In their normal setting in Dijon they are only partially seen as they blend in between miniature Gothic arches lacing the base of the wealthy and powerful couple’s black marble tomb.

The open display at New York’s Met has allowed them to loosen up, emerging as individuals with sometimes surprising results.

Far from being pompous advertisements for the deceased couple’s religious devoutness and social standing, the monks and priests of the procession exude individuality, humanity and a cheeky strain of rebellion.

Each statuette is about sixteen inches high (the choirboys are the smallest), and they’re all totally different. There’s a solemn bishop, a nattily accessorized gent with his hands in belt, a choirboy holding the remains of a cross, and a whole lot more. A total of 39 statues are exhibited on a catwalk so they still have their funeral procession flair.

John the Fearless, the second duke of Burgundy, died in 1419 and these figures are meant to depict his actual funerary cortege, even though the artists only began to carve them 24 years later.

Learn about the mourners from the Court of Burdundy on their website where an intensive photography project has borne beautiful fruit with 360 degree views of each statuette.

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Ancient etched ostrich eggs

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

60,000-year-old engraved ostrich egg fragmentsSay that 20 times fast. :giggle: But seriously, folks, researchers studying the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape of South Africa have found hundreds of engraved ostrich fragments.

These fragments are 60,000 years old, far older than the earliest writing. The symbols engraved are regular lines and hatches and so many in number that archaeologists think they may be communicative, or at least symbolic, rather than just decorative.

“What is extraordinary at Diepkloof is that we have close to 300 pieces of such engravings, which is why we are speaking of a system of symbolic representation,” Dr Texier said.

The team, which includes Dr Guillaume Porraz from the University of Tubingen, tried themselves to recreate the markings using pieces of flint.

“Ostrich egg shells are quite hard. Doing such engravings is not so easy. You have to pass through the outer layer to get through to the middle layer,” Dr Texier explained.

Some of the engraved cross hatchings and parallel lines are similar to later known symbols for water. The ostrich eggs seem to have had spouts, which could indicate they were used for transporting water, a technological breakthrough for early man.

The fragments are also intentionally colored. They aren’t the natural color of the ostrich eggs nor is an external pigment applied. The team was able to reproduce some of the colors by baking fragments of shell in a fire.

Before these ostrich fragments, 30,000-year-old cave painting like those at the Lascaux Caves were thought to be the oldest evidence of written human communication. If we can confirm a communicative symbolism in these etchings, we’ll push that major milestone 30,000 years further back.

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