Archive for January, 2011

Only known Henry VIII mural found during home reno

Monday, January 31st, 2011

A couple in Milverton, Somerset removed layers of old wood panels, plaster and wallpaper from their living room wall to get it ready for repainting only to find a a large mural of Henry VIII had already claimed the space in the early 16th century. This mural is the only one known of Henry VIII. There was another one decorating a wall in the Palace of Whitehall, but it burned down in the 1698 fire that destroyed the palace complex. (Hans Holbein’s iconic portrait of Henry VIII was also destroyed in that fire. We only know of it now from copies.)

The artist is unknown, but the home, categorized as a “particularly important building of more than special interest” on England’s Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, belonged to Thomas Cranmer who was Archdeacon of Taunton at the time the mural was painted (ca. 1530). The personal chaplain of the Boleyn family, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry in October of 1532, and on May 23, 1533, two months after his consecration, he ruled Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void. Five days later he declared Henry and Anne’s secret January marriage valid. Four days after that he crown Anne Queen of England.

You can see why he might have enjoyed an enormous mural of the king in his home.

Henry VIII mural, detailMichael Liversidge, former head of history of art department at Bristol University, said the discovery was “totally fascinating” and of “enormous importance and significance”.

“It would have been an expression of loyalty,” he said.

“Cranmer could have done it as a tribute to Henry and that would make it an object of great importance and significance. It is a unique image.”

Once the 20-foot-wide, 6-foot-high mural was revealed, homeowners Angie and Rhodri Powell brought in conservation experts to clean off the plaster, glue and assorted building materials and to fill in holes behind the facade.

Conservator Ann Ballatyne said: “This is quite special. I’ve not seen anything like it and I’ve been working on wall paintings since 1966.

“I’ve not seen anything as magnificent as this.”

You can see some BBC video of the mural and its conservation here.

Hawass: the Situation in Egyptian Antiquities Today

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Zahi Hawass has posted a statement on his website describing what exactly went down at the Cairo Museum and giving a brief overview of reports he’s received from his inspectors in other cities. I’m going to repost it here in its entirety because the Internet is still down in Egypt and its websites are not always accessible. In fact, Hawass had to do a fax relay just to get this statement posted on his site.

On Friday, January 28, 2011, when the protest marches began in Cairo, I heard that a curfew had been issued that started at 6.00pm on Friday evening until 7.00am on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, on that day the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, was not well guarded. About a thousand people began to jump over the wall on the eastern side of the museum into the courtyard. On the western side of the museum, we recently finished something I was very proud of, a beautiful gift shop, restaurant and cafeteria. The people entered the gift shop and stole all the jewellery and escaped; they thought the shop was the museum, thank God! However, ten people entered the museum when they found the fire exit stairs located at the back of it.

As every one knows, the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, is naturally lit and due to the architectural style of it, there are glass windows on its roof. The criminals broke the glass windows and used ropes to get inside, there is a distance of four metres from the ceiling to the ground of the museum. The ten people broke in when I was at home and, although I desperately wanted to go to the museum, I could not leave my house due to the curfew. In the morning, as soon as I woke up, I went directly there. When I arrived, I found out that, the night before, three tourist police officers had stayed there overnight because they were not able to get out before the curfew was put in place. These officers, and many young Egyptians who were also there, helped to stop more people from entering the museum. Thankfully, at 10.00pm on Friday night, the army arrived at the museum and gave additional security assistance.

I found out that one criminal was still at the museum, too. When he had asked the people guarding the museum for water, they took his hands and tied him to the door that lead to the gift shop so that he could not escape! Luckily, the criminals who stole the jewellery from the gift shop did not know where the jewellery inside the museum is kept. They went into the Late Period gallery but, when they found no gold, they broke thirteen vitrines and threw the antiquities on the floor. Then the criminals went to the King Tutankhamun galleries. Thank God they opened only one case! The criminals found a statue of the king on a panther, broke it, and threw it on the floor. I am very thankful that all of the antiquities that were damaged in the museum can be restored, and the tourist police caught all of the criminals that broke into it. On Saturday, the army secured the museum again and guarded it from all sides. I left the museum at 3.00pm on Saturday, 29, 2011.

What is really beautiful is that not all Egyptians were involved in the looting of the museum. A very small number of people tried to break, steal and rob. Sadly, one criminal voice is louder than one hundred voices of peace. The Egyptian people are calling for freedom, not destruction. When I left the museum on Saturday, I was met outside by many Egyptians, who asked if the museum was safe and what they could do to help. The people were happy to see an Egyptian official leave his home and come to Tahrir Square without fear; they loved that I came to the museum.

The curfew started again on Saturday afternoon at 4.00pm, and I was receiving messages all night from my inspectors at Saqqara, Dahsur, and Mit Rahina. The magazines and stores of Abusir were opened, and I could not find anyone to protect the antiquities at the site. At this time I still do not know what has happened at Saqqara, but I expect to hear from the inspectors there soon. East of Qantara in the Sinai, we have a large store containing antiquities from the Port Said Museum. Sadly, a large group, armed with guns and a truck, entered the store, opened the boxes in the magazine and took the precious objects. Other groups attempted to enter the Coptic Museum, Royal Jewellery Museum, National Museum of Alexandria, and El Manial Museum. Luckily, the foresighted employees of the Royal Jewellery Museum moved all of the objects into the basement, and sealed it before leaving.

My heart is broken and my blood is boiling. I feel that everything I have done in the last nine years has been destroyed in one day, but all the inspectors, young archaeologists, and administrators, are calling me from sites and museums all over Egypt to tell me that they will give their life to protect our antiquities. Many young Egyptians are in the streets trying to stop the criminals. Due to the circumstances, this behaviour is not surprising; criminals and people without a conscience will rob their own country. If the lights went off in New York City, or London, even if only for an hour, criminal behaviour will occur. I am very proud that Egyptians want to stop these criminals to protect Egypt and its heritage.

At this time, the Internet has not been restored in Egypt. I had to fax this statement to my colleagues in Italy for it to be uploaded in London on my website.

Update: 2 mummies destroyed in Cairo Museum

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

A quick update as I continue to be riveted by the events in Egypt: Zahi Hawass said on State TV that he examined the museum this morning and found that some looters had indeed broken in at some point last night before the building was secured.

“I felt deeply sorry today when I came this morning to the Egyptian Museum and found that some had tried to raid the museum by force last night,” Zahi Hawass, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said on Saturday.

“Egyptian citizens tried to prevent them and were joined by the tourism police, but some (looters) managed to enter from above and they destroyed two of the mummies,” he said.

They ripped off their heads, to be precise. The mummies appear to have been from the Pharaonic period. The ticket office and gift shop were also stripped bare. I’m guessing looters were looking for cash and easily salable items, hence the focus on the museum administration rather than on the collection of 120,000 priceless ancient artifacts.

Broken display case in Cairo Museum, still from Al Jazeera footageAn AP camera crew allowed inside the museum reported seeing at least ten broken display cases and the artifacts they had contained scattered and damaged. All of them were found in the building, however, and Hawass is optimistic that the broken pieces can be restored.

Damaged artifact in Cairo Museum, still from Al Jazeera footageThe NDP building continues to burn, but firefighting crews are now handling the blaze. Hawass remains deeply concerned that the burning building could damage the museum if it collapses, and even if it does remain standing, between the fire, smoke and now water there are many ways the museum and its contents could suffer from the proximity.

Elsewhere in the country, other ancient sites and museums are also in peril. Hawass says the army has yet to answer his call to protect sites in areas where people have been evacuated. There have been local efforts to ensure the security of Egypt’s heritage. Authorities erected barriers and put guards around the temple of Karnak in Luxor, and there’s a ring of tanks, no less, around Luxor’s museum.

Protesters outside Cairo museum, NDP building burning next to it

Army, Protesters protect imperiled Cairo Museum

Friday, January 28th, 2011

NDP headquarters in flames, January 28th, CairoThe Egyptian Museum in Cairo has found itself in a perilous location because of the anti-government protests that have rocked the country over the past few days. It is next door to the headquarters of the National Democratic Party in Tahrir Square, a focal point of protest. There have been reports of government buildings being looted, continuing explosions downtown and the NDP headquarters is burning with no firefighters on the way.

Unconfirmed stories emerged earlier today that people were attempting to break into the museum to plunder it. Al Jazeera’s live feed reported that thousands of civilian protesters formed a human chain around the Egyptian Museum to keep any would-be looters away. That story appears to be true.

The greatest threat to the Egyptian Museum first appeared to come from the fire enguling the ruling party headquarters next door on Friday night as anti-government protests roiled the country.

Then dozens of would-be thieves started entering the grounds surrounding the museum.

Suddenly other young men — some armed with truncheons taken from the police — formed a human chain outside the main gates on Tahrir Square in an attempt to protect the collection inside.

“I’m standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure,” said one of the men, Farid Saad, a 40-year-old engineer.

Another man, 26-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim, said it was important to guard the museum because it “has 5,000 years of our history. If they steal it, we’ll never find it again.”

Finally, four armored vehicles took up posts outside the massive coral-colored building in downtown Cairo. Soldiers surrounded the building and moved inside to protect mummies, monumental stone statues, ornate royal jewelry and other pharaonic artifacts.

It’s a beautiful thing, and a testament to the profound connection contemporary Egyptians have to their ancient past.

Unfortunately neither the army nor a human cordon can keep the museum from catching fire, so it’s still in urgent peril. The building doesn’t even have to catastrophically burn down for sparks and smoke to cause enormous damage to the precious antiquities within. Egypt’s dry climate means a great number of highly flammable ancient organic materials have survived the millennia. The museum is packed with wood furniture, papyri, ancient textiles, even food and, of course, human bodies. The golden death mask of Tutankhamun is a lot less danger than they are.

Vietnam’s own “Great Wall” rediscovered

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Andrew Hardy (center) and Nguyen Tien Dong (left) in front of wallAfter five years of exploration and excavation, archaeologists from Hanoi’s École Française d’Extrême-Orient and the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences have uncovered a 79 mile-long wall. The locals apparently call it “Vietnam’s Great Wall,” even though it’s far less imposing — it alternates masonry and earth ramparts, the highest parts of the wall reaching a mere four feet — and ancient.

Built in the early 19th century under Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen Dynasty, the Long Wall of Quang Ngai was built to demarcate the border between rival ethnic groups in Quang Ngai Province of central Vietnam. It reaches from northern Quang Ngai down south to Binh Dinh Province and is a prime candidate for the greatest feat of engineering of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Despite the locals’ nickname referencing the Great Wall of China, the Vietnam Wall is more like Hadrian’s Wall — a Roman-era wall on the border of England and Scotland.

Like Hadrian’s Wall, the Quang Ngai wall was built along a pre-existing road. More than 50 ancient forts have been identified along its length, established to maintain security and levy taxes. There is evidence to suggest that many of the forts, markets and temples built along the road are much older than the wall itself.

It served to demarcate territory and regulate trade and travel between the Viet in the plains and the Hrê tribes in the mountain valleys. Research suggests it may have been built in cooperation between both the Viet and the Hrê.

According to experts, the wall’s construction was in the interests of both communities, and inhabitants in both zones tell stories about how their respective ancestors built the wall to protect their territory from incursions by the other side.

Despite its relatively recent prominence, the wall became overgrown and unknown. Five years ago, Dr. Andrew Hardy, head of the Hanoi branch of École Française d’Extrême-Orient, found a reference to the wall in a geography report compiled by a Nguyen Dynasty courtier in 1885. Intrigued, he teamed up with Dr. Nguyen Tien Dong of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and they put together the excavation project which has now borne fruit.

Mayan king’s sarcophagus cover replaced on tomb

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Pakal II sarcophagus slab back in placeThe sarcophagus of Mayan king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, aka Pakal II, was covered with a seven ton slab of solid sedimentary rock after he was buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions in the ancient city of Palenque, Mexico. The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the slab indicate that Pakal was born on December 23rd, 603 A.D. and died on August 28th 683 A.D. They describe his progress along the Tree of the World, how he will descend to the underworld, defeat its gods and be reborn as K’awiil, deity of maize.

When Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhulllier discovered the tomb in 1952, he raised the seven foot wide, twelve foot long cover so he could examine the contents of the sarcophagus. Instead of putting it back into place, Lhulllier’s team propped the slab on 4 metal beams. Although the metal was mortared to keep oxidization from damaging the stone, the metal structure was insufficient support for the massive piece of rock and corrosion is an ever-present danger.

The influx of breathing, panting, sweating tourists packing the small space with their heat and moisture over the decades since its opening has accelerated the deterioration of the burial chamber. It was finally closed to visitors in 2004, and since then, experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have been studying how best to conserve the tomb in general and how best to handle the slab in particular.

In July of 2010, they decided to replace the questionable metal beams with sturdy wooden ones. Then, the question was whether the wooden supports should be replaced with new stainless steel beams or whether it would be best to just return the slab to its original place covering the sarcophagus. Considering the preservation challenge presented by the open sarcophagus, and since the remains of Pakal II have been extensively studied and sampled already, they decided to go ahead and replace the cover.

Junction where sarcophagus and cover meetSo in a tight space with 100% humidity, 15 INAH archaeologists, National University of Mexico engineers and assorted staff donning chemical protection suits worked four ten-hour days to return the slab to active duty. First they used four hydraulic jacks to support the slab while they cut up and removed the wooden beams. This required a great deal of coordination since there is so little room to maneuver.

Then they lowered the slab using two of the jacks at a time to alternately lower each side inch by inch. Finally, once the slab was snug in place, they sealed the conjunction spot with a mixture of lime and sand. This will reduce the flow of oxygen into the interior of the sarcophagus and thus keep the funerary remains in the best possible condition.

INAH took advantage of the opportunity to scan the slab with a penetration radar device. This new technology can reveal even the smallest of fissures and weaknesses that would have made removing the beams dangerous. The scan detected a high moisture content in the northeast corner of the slab, but no fractures or structural damage.

Rare Keats love letter for sale

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Keats love letter to Fanny Brawne, 1820A beautiful and touching letter poet John Keats wrote to his lady love Fanny Brawne just a few months before he died will be up for auction at Bonham’s London on March 29th. It is one of only 39 surviving letters from Keats to Brawne that remain in private hands, so the opportunity to purchase one is a rare event. The pre-sale estimate for the letter places its value between £80,000 ($125,000) and £120,000 ($190,000).

When Keats wrote the letter, he was actually living in the same building with Fanny, Wentworth Place in Hampstead Heath, London. He was already very ill with tuberculosis, however, and since both Keats and Fanny had vast personal experience of nursing family members with the disease, they knew they had to stay away from each other lest she run the risk of infection. The letter passionately bemoans their physical separation.

My dearest Fanny

The power of your benediction is not of so weak a nature as to pass from the ring in four and twenty hours – it is like a sacred Chalice once consecrated and ever consecrate. I shall Kiss your name and mine where your Lips have been – Lips! why should such a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things. Thank God, though I hold them the dearest pleasures in the universe, I have a consolation independent of them in the certainty of your affectation. I could write a song in the style of Tom Moores Pathetic about Memory if that would be any relief to me. No. It would not be. I will be as obstinate as a Robin, I will not sing in a cage. Health is my expected heaven and you are the Houri – this word I believe is both singular and plural – if only plural never mind – you are a thousand of them.

Ever yours affectionately my dearest, j.k

Just a few months after he wrote this, in September 1820, John Keats moved to Rome on the advice of his doctors. The warmer climate, they hoped, would stay the progress of the disease and prolong his life. Unfortunately, that was an unseasonably cold and wet autumn in Italy, and his caretakers, his friend Joseph Severn and Dr. James Clark, did more harm than good by bleeding him and starving him (one anchovy and a piece of bread a day), so Keats’ health deteriorated rapidly. Five months later, he was dead.

Fanny mourned him, complete with shorn hair and black clothes, for six years. She kept all the letters he had written her, leaving them to her children when she died in 1865. They published the letters in a slim volume in 1878, then sold the original letters at auction in 1885 for a grand total of £543 17s ($859 in today’s money).

John Keats by William Hilton after a portrait by Severn, ca. 1822 Portrait Miniature of Fanny Brawne, 1833

Unpublished Burns letter found on Burns Night eve

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Robert Burns letter to James Gregory, held by 10th Duke of RoxburgheA letter written by Scottish poet Robert Burns to James Gregory, head of Edinburgh University’s medical school, has been discovered in the archives of Floors Castle in Kelso, in the eastern Scottish lowlands known as the Scottish Borders. The letter is dated May 13, 1789, and was discovered by a castle staffer in a 19th century autograph book that belonged to the sixth Duke of Roxburghe.

The discovery was announced just in time for Burns Night (January 25), when Scots everywhere come together to sup on sheep organs boiled in other sheep organs, quaff whisky, sing Burn’s songs and recite his poetry.

The current (tenth) Duke of Roxburghe, Guy Innes-Ker, notes that his ancestor was an avid collector of correspondence and autographs and that the book in which the Burns letter was found also contains an autograph from Charles Dickens. The book contains documents that date back to King Charles I (1600-1649), many of them family records.

The newly discovered letter includes an early draft of one of his most famous poems, “On Seeing a Wounded Hare,” which would be first printed 4 years after the letter. The draft includes a verse that Burns deleted in its entirety before printing, so the letter provides rare new insight into the evolution of the poem. The deleted fourth verse:

Perhaps a mother’s anguish adds its woe
The playful pair crowd fondly by thy side
Ah! helpless nurslings, who will now provide
That life a mother only can bestow!

The Floors Castle staff sent the letter to a variety of Burns experts to authenticate it. They all confirmed it was the real deal.

The document was eventually verified by Professor David Purdie, editor-in-chief of the Burns Encyclopaedia. [..]

Prof Purdie hailed the unearthing of the correspondence, describing it as a “remarkable discovery”.

He said: “Unpublished letters of Robert Burns are extremely rare and this example is doubly interesting as it not only displays the evolution of one of his poems, The Wounded Hare, published in the 1793 Edinburgh Edition of his Poems, but, in Burns and Gregory, it brings together major figures of both the literary and scientific components of the Enlightenment.

“This is the only letter that we know of from Burns to Gregory. Burns rated Gregory as a literary critic. They had met in Edinburgh at the dinner table of Lord Monboddo – one of the great law lords of the 18th century – and got on well.”

In the letter Burns is keen to hear Gregory’s opinion of his work, and tells him to “mark faulty lines with your pencil.” Apparently Gregory’s response was less than effusive in its praise as Burns would write to another friend that “Gregory is a good man, but he crucifies me!”

The poem was inspired by the unsporting shooting of a hare that Burns witnessed during his stay at Ellisland Farm in 1789. A farmer named Thomson shot a hare for gnawing on his father’s garden, wounding her, but not killing her. Burns was so furious about the shot that he threatened to throw Thomson in the river. He didn’t follow through on the threat, but he did fustigate him with blistering poesy.

Ellisland was the inspiration for many of Burns’ works. Even though he lived there just half a year, he wrote over 130 songs and poems while living on the farm, almost a quarter of his oeuvre. He also wrote 230 of the 700 known letters in his lifetime correspondence, and all this while he was actually farming.

The letter will go on display at the castle when it opens to the public this Spring.

Lost Vatican manuscripts on display in Dallas

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Manuscripts from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy on displayA collection of rare illuminated manuscripts that were once in the Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel are on display at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum from today until April 23rd. This will be the only US exhibit of these 40 codices from the 11th to the 18th century.

“These were in the Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel so these were the most private books read by the popes and cardinals at very special ceremonies. There are some codices here that Michelangelo would have heard or read from,” said Meadows director Mark Roglan.

“All of them are one of a kind … and done by hand. It is an art,” he said as he pointed to some of the precious books, encased in glass.

Aside from their artistic value, the writings in the codices are liturgical treasure troves which include blessings, missals and preparations for masses.

The manuscripts were torn from the bosom of the Sistine Chapel by Napoleon’s troops when they occupied Rome in 1798. They looted the city thoroughly, including the Sistine Chapel’s Sacristy and its rare manuscripts. Before they could be shipped back to France, a powerful Spanish cardinal, Francesco Antonio José de Lorenzana y Buitrón, Archbishop of Toledo, Primate of Spain, and Ambassador of King Charles IV to the Holy See, arranged to purchase a large number of the stolen codices. He then donated them to the Biblioteca Capitular de Toledo in Spain.

They remained in the library, largely forgotten for 200 years until 1997, when art historian Elena De Laurentiis came across a picture of one of the illuminated manuscripts and recognized that it must have come from one of the looted Sacristy pieces. De Laurentiis is also the co-curator of the exhibit which puts on display the 40 finest manuscripts from the Sistine Sacristy Collection. Most of them have never been on public display before.

The Crucifixion, by Perugino, ca. 1495-99On the artistic level, a diversity of styles will be displayed in the exhibit. An overall highlight is the Missal with Christmas Mass of Cardinal Antoniotto Pallavicini (Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid). Datable to between 1503 and 1509, and generally regarded as one of the richest codices from the Sistine Sacristy Collection, it is not only exquisitely rendered but has a fascinating history. Several other missals also underscore the presence of complex decorative schemes executed, or at least influenced, by master illuminators of the papal scriptorium, such as Vincent Raymond (French, active c.1535-1557) and Apollonio de’ Bonfratelli (Italian, c.1480/1520-1575). Even the roles of calligraphers and copyists such as Niccolò Raimondi (Italian, active 17th century), primarily concerned with the transcription of the text, are explored within the context of overall production.

A number of the high Catholic Church figures who commissioned these works are of similar interest, albeit on an ecclesiastical level. These dignitaries—including bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and popes alike—are omnipresent on the pages of the codices through the repeated inclusion of their coats-of-arms. The result is an intriguing 200-year record of papal use and ownership stretching from the pontificates of Pope Paul II (r. 1464-1471) and Pope Clement VII (r.1523-1534) through the time of Pope Urban VIII Barberini (r.1623-1644).

The 70s have a lot to answer for

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

There’s avocado kitchen appliances, shag carpeting over hardwood floors, double-knit polyester leisure suits, my dad’s sideburns and now we can add drilling holes into a 1st century A.D. marble Roman funerary urn, putting a red shade on top and using it as a skeezy lamp to the list of grievances.

The urn was first acquired in the 1950s by scientist and bombmaker Sir Sydney Barratt. When he died in 1975, he left it along with his and his own father’s antiques and collectibles to his schoolteacher son, John Barratt. It was he, apparently, who had the brilliant idea of drilling two holes into the lid and base, threading a cable through them, putting a metal bracket with a lightbulb socket on top then dressing it all up with a tragic red lampshade (sadly not pictured anywhere; I looked).

John Barratt died last year and his niece put the whole estate, 30-acre Crowe Hall, near Bath, and more than 300 antiques collected over three generations up for sale. Christie’s staff identified the lamp base as an elaborate 1st century Roman urn used for holding the ashes of someone who had probably been a wealthy and important person in life. From description of the auction lot:

Roman funerary urn, 1st cent. AD, tortured in the 1970sWith decoration carved in shallow relief, the shoulder with garlanded bull’s heads, the body in two registers separated by a beaded relief border, the upper with floral motifs and fruit laden trays flanked by birds with outstretched wings the lower with radiating tongues, with twin handles in the form of bearded satyr heads, with fluting on the lid and foot, mounted as a lamp stand, restorations[.]

Because of the atrocious lamp conversion and the restorations, experts estimated its sale value at an extremely low £7,000 – £10,000 ($11,000 – $15,000). Its beautiful carving, completeness and the comparative invisibility of the damage, however drove bidders to far exceed that modest estimate.

A number of phone bidders pursued the urn before it became a contest between one of them and a European dealer in the room who successfully bid 370,000 pounds for it.

With the auctioneers’ fees added on the overall price paid was more than 445,000 pounds.

That’s $692,809, 10 times the low valuation.




January 2011


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