Archive for May, 2010

Stirling Castle knight identified and reconstructed

Friday, May 21st, 2010

A team of forensic anthropologists have reconstructed the battle-scarred face of a 14th century knight unearthed at Stirling Castle in Scotland. You can clearly see the dent in his head from that axe wound to the skull he survived, and his not-so-great teeth.

Computer reconstructed face of Stirling Castle knight, d. 1341

The knight was found in 1997 along with other skeletons buried under the floor of the lost chapel of James IV, the oldest known building in the castle dating back to the early 1100s. It’s only recently that technology has been able to provide us with the goods on him.

Forensic analysis of his bones indicates he was raised in southern England and was in his mid-20s when he died. The team also found out that the sword blow that sliced through his nose and jaw wasn’t the most likely cause of death. Instead it was probably a Scottish arrow shot during an attack on the castle that killed him.

The most surprising find, however, is documentation that strongly points to his actual identity. Earlier speculation was that he might have been Robert Morley, killed in tournament at Stirling Castle in 1388. The fatal arrow wound doesn’t really fit the tournament death scenario, though, and the skeleton of a woman found next to him with her skull smashed in by a mace also suggests full-on ruthless assault rather than war games.

Documents uncovered by the team showed that Sir John, a Buckinghamshire lord, was a senior member of the garrison. He died on 10 October 1341 and his family line has since died out.

Prof Black said piecing together the potential identity of the knight was “absolutely unexpected”.

“When you start with something that was less than optimal, the chances of getting it back to even a possible name is much better that we could even have expected.”

However the identity of the woman buried next to him will probably never be known as women were not deemed important enough for their deaths to be recorded.

The research will go on permanent display at Stirling Castle next year. Historic Scotland, the organization that curates the castle, is also commissioning further study on the 10 skeletons found along with Sir John.


Oldest known pyramid tomb found in Chiapas

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

A team of archaeologists from Brigham Young University in the US, the Mexican National Institute of History and Anthropology, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico excavating the ruins of a pyramid in Chiapa de Corzo, southern Mexico, have uncovered an elaborate ancient burial. Pottery found buried with the remains dates the burial to 700 B.C., a thousand years before the Maya built pyramids to entomb their royalty. That makes this pyramid the oldest pyramid tomb in Mesoamerica.

The team found the burial chamber deep inside the pyramid after digging for 24 hours. This chamber held the remains of three people: a wealthy middle-aged male, a baby, and a young man. On a landing outside the chamber were the remains of a wealthy woman.

Jade jewels found in the mouth of the wealthy maleThe middle-aged man was richly adorned, his mouth was covered with a shell and his teeth were incrusted with jade. He also wore bracelets, anklets, necklaces and what the archaeologists believe to be a funerary mask with eyes made of green obsidian.

Investigators from the Archaeological Project Chiapa de Corzo say that judging by the wealth of jewellery he was buried with, he would have been of high rank.

Wealthy female buried with jewels and an iron pyrite mirrorThey said the two other bodies may have been added to the tomb to accompany the dead man to the afterworld and were possibly sacrificed.

The researchers say the position of the bones suggests the baby was carefully placed in the tomb, while the young man was possibly thrown into the burial chamber.

In an annex to the main chamber, the archaeologists found another smaller room containing the skeleton of a woman, also richly adorned with amber and pendants depicting birds and a monkey.

As far which pre-Colombian culture built the pyramid, that’s still unknown at this time. The period in question was a transitional one, and Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico on the border with Guatemala, was inhabited by a variety of peoples interacting, trading, intermarrying, fighting. The Olmec were up north near the Gulf but their influence spread far inland, the Maya were sprouting up in the south, the Zapotec were in nearby Oaxaca.

Some of the pottery in the tomb is similar in style to grave goods found in Olmec burials in La Venta, Tabasco, but they could have been traded, so we don’t know if the decedents were actually Olmec or just influenced by Olmec culture.

National Geographic has some more great pictures of the find.


Rare pics of the night Marilyn sang to JFK

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Marilyn Monroe famously sang a sultry “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John Kennedy 48 years ago today. In honor of the anniversary, LIFE magazine has uploaded a slideshow of pictures taken that night by photographer Bill Ray. Most have never been released before.

There are some great shots in the group, and Mr. Ray comments on each picture, providing great detail on the party, the old Madison Square Garden (aka Madison Square Garden III, closed in 1967 and bulldozed in 1989), and the difficulties the press had in getting close to the event.

He had wanted to get a shot of Kennedy watching Marilyn, his reputed mistress, performing but the Secret Service wouldn’t let photographers stay in front of the stage, so he had to wander all over the Garden looking for the one spot that would give him that shot. Finally he found a nosebleed seat behind the stage that had the proper sight lines.

“It had been a noisy place, everybody all ‘rah rah rah,'” Ray recalls. “Then boom, on comes this light. There was no sound — no sound. It was like space.” Marilyn was on the stage, taking off her white fur to reveal that scandalous dress underneath. “It was skin-colored and it was really tight. She didn’t wear anything underneath it, it was all sewn on, and those Swarovski crystals were sparkling. And she used this long pause… Then finally, she comes out with ‘Happy Biiiiirthday’ — she starts the whole breathy thing — and everybody just went into a swoon.” Ray took his shots, including this one and the iconic frame that opens this gallery. “I was praying because I had to guess at the exposure. It was a very long lens, which I had no tripod for, so I had to rest it on a pipe railing and try not to breathe.” Though he couldn’t get the Marilyn/JFK shot he’d initially wanted — “she was in such a bright spotlight and he was almost in total darkness” — Ray still came away with a winner of a picture: “I got very lucky with this,” he says.

Marilyn Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday' to JFK

Not iconic but awesome nonetheless is his backstage picture of the divine Ella Fitzgerald.

The Marilyn moment tends to eclipse everything that happened before it. But there were many stars on the bill. At some point Ray made his way backstage, where he captured a contemplative Ella Fitzgerald waiting to go on — and looking much more elegant than her surroundings, Ray says. “All of the Garden was old, and the dressing rooms back then were really tacky.”

Ella Fitzgerald far outclassing her surroundings

They almost look like mirror images or bizarro opposites, don’t they? The way they’re holding their arms; one shot from behind, one from the front; one onstage, one backstage; Marilyn in white(ish), Ella in black.


Greek police bust 2 looters with 2 ancient statues

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Kouros statues recovered from looters, 6th c. B.C.Police in Greece busted two men in the act of loading a rare matched pair of ancient statues into a truck to smuggle them outside the country where they planned to sell them for 10 million euros ($12.43 million). The police are also looking for a third member of the gang who was going to help get the works out of Greece.

They haven’t commented yet on where the statues were headed or who was meant to be on the receiving end.

Archaeologists said Tuesday the statues are “outstanding works of art” and may have come from a temple or cemetery in a lost ancient city in the Peloponnese region in southern Greece. Both are in excellent condition, but lack sections of their lower legs and were gashed by a plow or digging machinery.

They stand 1.82 meters (5 feet 9 inches) and 1.78 meters (5 feet 8 inches) high, and were probably carved by the same sculptor out of thick-grained island marble between 550-520 B.C, at the height of the archaic period of sculpture.

“They are exactly the same, with a slight variation in hairstyle and a small difference in height,” said Nikos Kaltsas, director of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens where the finds were temporarily housed for conservation and study. “The artist may have wanted to produce two similar figures that would form part of a group.”

The statues are in the kouros style, the stiff, posed style of sculpture that preceded the Hellenistic embrace of naturalistic statuary.

Archaeologists hope to find the missing pieces of the legs since the breaks are recent, but they haven’t pinpointed the exact location where the statues were excavated. Authorities suspect the site might be lost ruins of Tenea because a similar but slightly earlier statue was found in what may be Tenea’s cemetery. Here’s hoping the men they arrested spill all the details.

For now, the kouros will remain in the National Archaeological Museum for further analysis and conservation.


Lucky 13th c. gold and silver jewelry found in India

Monday, May 17th, 2010

I know what you’re thinking: when is finding gold and silver jewelry not lucky? Hear me out.

Construction workers leveling a site for a volleyball court at Anurag Engineering College outside of Hyderabad uncovered a pot filled with gold and silver jewelry from the Kakatiya dynasty, between 1083 and 1323 A.D.

It contained 75 gold ornaments including ear tops, mangalsutrams, beads and armlets weighing 189 grams and silver ornaments consisting of 18 anklets weighing 550 grams.

“It is a rare occurrence to discover gold and silver caches on the eve of Akshaya Tritiya,” said Prof. P. Chenna Reddy.

“These rare jewellery [sic] including beads made of semi-precious stones will be kept on display at the Dr Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy AP State Museum on Monday to coincide with the International Museums Day celebrations,” he said.

Ashaya Tritiya is a Hindu and Jain holy day considered to bring good luck and prosperity. It’s an auspicious day to begin any business venture and any gifts you give on Ashaya Tritiya will bring many happy returns to giver and receiver, so it has become customary recently for people to give gifts of gold jewelry and gold coins in particular. This find, therefore, is crazy great luck for the college and the Department of Archaeology and Museums.

Also, the jewelry is really beautiful, lots of intricate gold work. You check out the shiny on this slideshow. Some of it looks really heavy. I’m not sure I’d wear these in my ears, for instance:

Gold 'vathulu' (earware), 13th century


Lorenzo the Magnificent’s ancient satyrs for sale

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence from 1469 until his death in 1492, was known as “The Magnificent” during his lifetime and was a renown patron of the arts. Macchiavelli called him the greatest patron of art and literature that any prince has ever been. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli and pretty much every other luminary of the Florentine Renaissance you can think of lived and worked in his court.

Yet, he didn’t commission as many pieces as you’d think, and until very recently, no items known to have been in his personal art collection were extant. Medici collections after Lorenzo form the core of the most famous Florentine museums today like the Uffizi Gallery, but Lorenzo himself was a bit of black hole, magnificence notwithstanding.

Three Satyrs Fighting a Serpent, Roman copy of Hellenistic original, 1st c. A.D.Then an Austrian family decided to sell some of the clutter in their manor home and pointed a Sotheby’s expert to a sculpture of three satyrs fighting a serpent they’d stashed behind an armoire. It was dusty, dirty and covered in dead spiders, but Florent Heintz, head of Sotheby’s antiquities department in New York, could tell even from the blurry picture that there was something special under all those arachnids.

After a great deal of research, Sotheby’s experts found that the satyrs are a 1st century A.D. Roman sculpture after a Hellenistic original now lost.

A stash of letters, found by two scholars and published in 2006, chronicles its history. The missives show that in 1489 a Roman antiquities dealer, Giovanni Ciampolini, excavated the sculpture in the gardens of the convent of San Lorenzo in Rome, where several other famous ancient sculptures were unearthed, including the Apollo Belvedere, later installed in the Vatican. Shortly after it was found, the sculpture of the satyrs was sold to two of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s agents in Rome.

A letter to Lorenzo describes the figures as “three beautiful fauns on a small marble base, all three bound together by a great snake [… and even if one cannot hear their voices they seem to breathe, cry out and defend themselves with wonderful gestures; that one in the middle you see almost falling down and expiring].” The sculpture was packed in a crate and strapped to a mule for the journey to Florence from Rome, according to the letters.

Battle of the Nudes, engraving, Pollaiuolo, 1470-1490?The sculpture may have inspired some of the figures in Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs relief, carved in 1492, and possibly one of the fallen figures in Pollaiuolo’s Battle of the Nudes engraving (the guy on the bottom right looks a lot like the middle satyr), although that’s controversial because the date of the engraving is generally thought to be considerably before 1489.

After Lorenzo died, the sculpture disappears from the record for 350 years, until it turned up again in a private collection on the Dalmation coast in 1857. That’s when the ancestor of the Austrian family who consigned it to Sotheby’s purchased it. The satyrs were actually published in 1930 and a plaster cast — now in the University Museum in Graz — was made, but the statue dropped out of public view again until it was found behind that armoire.

It’s going up for auction on June 11th in New York City. Sotheby’s expects the piece to sell for between $300,000 and $500,000. I suspect that’s conservative.


The Complete “Metropolis” at a theater near you

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

Scene from new footage of 'Metropolis'In July of 2008, I blogged about the discovery of an almost complete edition of Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1927 film “Metropolis” in a museum in Buenos Aires. The footage had just been authenticated by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, holders of the rights to “Metropolis”, and restoration was still on a distant and hazy horizon.

Well that day has arrived, earlier than I expected. The movie is now complete with the 25 minutes of additional footage discovered in Argentina plus it’s been re-edited according to the Buenos Aires reels’ blueprint. (Before then there was no original Lang cut, just educated guesses of how he had edited the film.) Although the newly discovered footage is noticeably scratched up by a poor conversion to 16mm from the original 35mm nitrate done in the 70s, it adds a great deal to the movie we know.

Some of the newly inserted material consists of brief reaction shots, just a few seconds long, which establish or accentuate a character’s mood. But there are also several much longer scenes, including one lasting more than seven minutes, that restore subplots completely eliminated from the Paramount version.

For example, the “Thin Man,” who in the standard version appears to be a glorified butler to the city’s all-powerful founder, turns out instead to be a much more sinister figure, a combination of spy and detective. The founder’s personal assistant, who is fired in an early scene, also plays a greater role, helping the founder’s idealistic son navigate his way through the proletarian underworld.

The cumulative result is a version of “Metropolis” whose tone and focus have been changed. “It’s no longer a science-fiction film,” said Martin Koerber, a German film archivist and historian who supervised the latest restoration and the earlier one in 2001. “The balance of the story has been given back. It’s now a film that encompasses many genres, an epic about conflicts that are ages old. The science-fiction disguise is now very, very thin.”

You can read more details about the restoration on the website of Kino International, the theatrical distribution company releasing the complete “Metropolis”. The Kino site also has an awesome photo gallery of stills from the movie, plus behind the scenes shots, unspeakably badass production designs and original publicity posters.

If you’re in New York, you can go see it at the Film Forum until May 20th. It’s showing in select other theaters around the US the rest of the summer.

If you’re not lucky enough to live in or near one of those select theaters, you’ll have to wait until November for the DVD and Blu Ray release.

Metropolis poster, designed by Josef Bottlik, Berlin, 1927


Four tomb robbers to be executed in China

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Four tomb robbers from a gang of 27 have been sentenced to death for looting hundreds of artifacts from dozens of tombs in China’s Hunan Province. The rest of the gang got jail terms ranging from 13 years to life.

The looters used explosives and heavy machinery to steal artifacts from tombs as much as 2500 years old between April of 2008 and January of 2009.

“Police have retrieved all of the relics stolen by the gang,” said Wang Lifu, a court investigator.

He said one of the stolen relics, a seal of a Changsha King, from a tomb of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 25 ), was under the state first-class protection.

Wang said the gang members were from several provinces, including Hunan, Shandong, Jiangxi, Shanxi and Gansu.

It’s the largest tomb robbing operation ever busted in Hunan Province, and obviously the Intermediate People’s Court in Changsha isn’t kid around when it comes to making examples of convicted criminals.


Large hoard of Byzantine coins found in Macedonia

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Archaeologists excavating the Skopje Fortress have found a chest containing the largest amount of Byzantine-era gold and silver coins ever found in Macedonia. The 44 gold coins from the Byzantine Empire and 76 silver Venetian coins date to the 13th century when the Nicean Byzantine Emperor John III Doukas Batatzes ruled Macedonia. Venice was a major trading partner at that time.

The Byzantine coins bear the images of various kings and Biblical motifs from the reign of John III Doukas; the Venetian coins bear the images of various doges from a wider range of years in the century.

This is the most significant archaeological find at the Skopje Fortress, along with the Medieval lead stamps that were discovered several years ago at the site, Pasko Kuzman, archaeologist and Director of Cultural Heritage Protection in the Macedonian Ministry of Culture, told the Vreme newspaper.

Golden Byzantine coins have been unearthed at other sites in Macedonia, but rarely and in smaller quantities, he added. According to archaeologists, large quantities of bronze coins are often found at ancient sites around Macedonia.

Excavations have been going on in Skopje Fortress for the past three years, but this is the most luxurious find yet. In the same layer where the coins were found, archaeologists also found high quality jewelry that would have been worn by a woman of great wealth.

The period these coins represent was an important transitional phase in the history of Skopje and Macedonia. Byzantine control waned in the middle of the 13th century as Bulgarian feudal lords conquered the territory. Skopje declined as warring factions duked it out, so the Byzantines were able to step into the vacuum for a few decades until the Serbian Empire invaded in 1282.

By the middle of the next century, Skopje was the capital of the Serbian Empire until the Ottomans swept in 1392. They stayed put for over 500 years until just before World War I.

Byzantine gold coins


Vintage World Cup posters for sale

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Another fabulous vintage poster sale is coming down the pike, this time at Christie’s with a particularly notable group of World Cup-themed posters just in time for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa this June.

First FIFA World Cup, Uruguay 1930The most valuable lot and the most awesome one, in my humble opinion, is an extremely rare original poster of the first FIFA World Cup held in Uruquay in July 1930. Its estimated value is £15,000-20,000 ($22,000 – 30,000).

Not only is it a great piece of Art Deco design, but it marks a historic event as well. Uruguay hosted the first Wold Cup in part because the Uruguayan team had won gold at the 1928 Olympics, but also because 1930 was the 100th anniversary of Uruguayan independence. They built the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo to host the tournament and in honor of the momentous occasion.

On top of all that, Uruguay beat Argentina 4–2 in the final to win the first World Cup in front of a screaming home crowd of nearly 100,000. So the stylized number 1 on the poster ended up being a description of the Uruguayan team as well as commemorating the first FIFA World cup.

Blandin Ostende-Football poster, 1907I also really like the sort of roughneck Tintin look of André Blandin’s Ostende-Football poster from 1907. Perhaps its also having been designed by a Belgian artist is a factor in why it reminds me of Tintin, but I swear I didn’t know it when I first saw the picture.

There are also some neat travel posters in the auction, many of them advertising ship lines like Cunard and White Star, plus subway and tram travel. It’s worth having a browse through the whole collection.






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