Mayan king’s sarcophagus cover replaced on tomb

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

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

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

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

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.