Archive for January, 2011

Boy George returns stolen icon to Cyprus

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Screen cap of icon in Boy George house on Dutch TVIn 1985, at the peak of Culture Club’s fame, singer Boy George bought a gold-leafed Greek Orthodox icon of Jesus Christ Pantokrator. It hung in his home for almost 26 years. Then one fateful day a camera crew from a Dutch TV show filmed him puttering about in his north London mansion and Bishop Porfyrios, the Cyprus Orthodox Church’s representative to the EU in Brussels, just happened to be watching. In the background, hanging against the wall of a room that serves as George’s closet, he caught a glimpse of the icon.

The Bishop investigated further and found that it was indeed Cypriot in origin, that an icon of Jesus Christ Pantokrator just like that one had been looted from the Church of St. Charalambous in Neo Chorio, near Kithrea in northern Cyprus, in the chaos of the Turkish invasion in 1974. Many Cypriot artifacts were stolen then (and continue to be stolen now, for that matter), winding up in antiques shops all over Europe where dealers ask no questions but probably tell a lot of lies to whales like Boy George.

Bishop Porfyrios confirmed with the priest at St. Charalambous that the icon was indeed the 300-year-old Christ Pantokrator that had been stolen from the church 36 years before, then contacted Boy George to tell him about the piece’s true history. Boy George promptly offered to return it and on Wednesday he did so, officially handing the icon to the Bishop at the Cypriot church of Saint Anagyre, near his house.

Boy George – real name George O’Dowd – said he was “happy the icon is going back to its original rightful home”.

“I have always been a friend of Cyprus and have looked after the icon for 26 years,” he added.

“I look forward to seeing the icon on display in Cyprus for the moment and finally to the Church of St Charalambos from where it was illegally stolen.”

To thank him for his decentness, the committee of Saint Anagyre will invite Boy George and his family to be the guest of honor at the church’s name day celebration on July 1st. Composer and friend John Themis will also be invited, as he helped impress upon the singer the cultural importance of the icon to the Church of Cyprus.

From the left: Church functionary holds icon, Bishop Porfyrios, Boy George, John Themis holds a contemporary painting, gift from Church of Cyprus

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Stolen Civil War revolver found after 35 years

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

.36 caliber Spiller and Burr Civil War revolverA Confederate-issue .36 caliber Spiller and Burr revolver was stolen from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond by person or persons unknown in 1975. Owned by General George Washington Rains — a former West Point professor and munitions expert who along with his older brother Gabriel provided much of the CSA’s gunpowder, landmines and explosives — during the Civil War, the gun was one of the museum’s most treasured objects.

“This is one of the very first and one of the only Confederate manufactured handguns,” said Museum of the Confederacy Collections Manager Catherine Wright.

Wright says only 1,450 of the guns were made. That is one reason why the museum called the FBI when the gun, with an estimated value of $50,000, disappeared from the collection in 1975. Wright says the gun was stolen when the museum collection was moved out of the White House of the Confederacy and into a new museum building.

“It may have been a casualty of some sort of opportunistic thief who saw a loose case or a door which may have been standing ajar. The security measures were lax in those days,” said Wright.

Apparently the revolver disappeared into the dark underworld of antiquities collecting, because no sign of it was found for 35 years. This past December, a woman in Knoxville, Tennessee, found the revolver while going through her father’s things after his death. She brought the gun to an antique dealer in Ohio hoping to sell it, but the dealer looked it up in a Confederate firearms book and traced it to the Museum of the Confederacy.

The woman won’t be charged with attempting to fence stolen property. Neither she nor anyone else knows how the weapon got into her father’s collection. He never lived in Richmond and he could have acquired the piece at any point during the past four decades.

The revolver will go back on display at the Richmond museum for the first time in 35 years next month. For more about the downright fascinating Rains brothers, read this article: The Confederacy’s Bomb Brothers by Peggy Robbins.

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Burma king’s gold letter deciphered after 250 years

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

In 1756, King Alaungphaya of Burma sent a letter to King George II of Britain. Written in Burmese script, the letter was engraved on a gold sheet and decorated with 24 rubies then encased in an elephant tusk for delivery, but despite its designed-to-impress packaging, nobody at King George’s court could read the language so in 1758 George forwarded it to the Royal Public Library (formerly the private collection of the Dukes of Hanover, then their official government library, then once the elector of Hanover became King of England, styled the Royal Public Library) in his hometown of Hanover, Germany, for archiving.

The letter remained in a vault in Hanover for 250 years, mainly unremarked although Danish King Christian VII saw it in 1768. It would have been better he hadn’t because he damaged it in handling making the text even harder to decipher.

Gold letter by Burmese King Alaungphaya to the English King George II, 1756, at Leibniz LibraryThree years ago historians at what is today known as the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library, after the famous mathematician and philosopher who was also its head librarian between 1676 and 1716, revived the long-dormant golden letter and set about finally deciphering it.

Amid the valuable gems and flowery language, King Alaungphaya confirms his permission for a harbour to be built in the city of Pathein to encourage trading co-operation between the two countries. Written in Burmese script, it is addressed to “the most meritorious and supreme [king] master of all the parasol-bearing kings … lord of ruby, gold, silver, copper, iron, amber and precious stone mines, lord of white elephants, red elephants and elephants of various colours”.

It goes on to convey “kindest greetings to the English king who rules over the English capital”.

The letter, which was contained in an elephant tusk, referred to the presence in Burma of Henry Brooke, a British envoy working for the British East India Company who was in charge of the settlement in Pathein.

It went on: “Following the humble request of your esteemed Highness’ envoy, Mr Henry Brooke, We have granted the site for your ships in Pathein at the place he wanted.

“A sealed royal order was sent to the officer of the English king and the governor of Pathein was instructed to measure and hand over [the piece of land] in Pathein.

“When close friendship prevails between kings of different countries, they can be helpful to the needs of each other that we are eager to fulfil.”

First let’s just state for the record that “lord of white elephants, red elephants and elephants of various colours” is a truly outstanding honorific. Having said that, it’s clear that King Alaungphaya was eager to curry favor with the British King. He was the founder of a new royal dynasty — the Konbaung Dynasty — and spent all eight years of his reign, from 1752 to 1760, fighting to reunify the country splintered under a variety of kinglets and to keep foreign powers out.

His prompt acceding to British desire for ship berths was doubtless informed by his desire to maintain strong trade ties to Britain and its rich supply of weapons.

The golden letter was formally presented to the Leibniz Library yesterday. It will go on display for a short time, but given its fragile condition, extreme rarity and high face value, most of the time it will be kept out of public view.

The letter will be the subject of an international congress next year.

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Rare 1770 map of New York restored like magic

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Map cataloger Carolyn Hansen was going through the warehoused archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society this May when she found a rolled-up linen canvas. When she gingerly attempted to unfurl the crispy brown shellacked roll, she heard it rip. She stopped immediately but not before she saw a name: Ratzer.

Bernard Ratzer was a British Army officer who surveyed the east coast of America during the French and Indian War and the early days of the American Revolution. His 1770 map, “Plan of the City of New York,” is famous for its sharp detail and in-depth rendering of the topography, geography, streets and notable buildings of Manhattan.

“It’s one of the ways we know about how this place looked before the grid really took hold,” said Matthew A. Knutzen, geospatial librarian in the New York Public Library’s map division.

It’s also incredibly rare. There were only three known to survive. One copy the publishers sent to King George III, now in the British Library in London, and two are in delicate condition in storage at the New York Historical Society on the Upper West Side where they’ve been since they were donated by NYHS founder John Pintard on Jan. 4, 1810.

The Brooklyn Historical Society, on the other hand, had no record of owning any Razter map, never mind the ultra-rare 1770 “Plan” one. The map Hansen found had been shellacked and mounted on linen at some point, probably to decorate some wall. The name Pierrepont, a prominent Brooklyn family, was on the back of the linen. The hard-coated map had been cut into strips so it could be rolled and stored. When Hansen and other BHS personnel oh-so-carefully managed to unroll just enough to see what they were dealing with, they found the 1770 Ratzer “Plan of the City of New York.”

Realizing they had found a previously-unknown fourth Ratzer 1770 but that it was so fragile that it might not even exist for long — three strips of shellacked paper crumbled at the touch — the Brooklyn Historical Society called in paper conservationist Jonathan P. Derow who promptly swooped in to save the day and restore the map to a condition that will shock and amaze you.

Derow made a little plastic tent over the map in the middle of the BHS office and put a humidifier inside. That softened the paper enough so that he could transport it back to his office for conservation.

He washed the map for four days in an alkaline bath that removed acid and grime, and he cut away the linen backing. He aligned the pieces, using a strong magnifying glass and tweezers, and let the map dry, only to see tiny gaps appear between strips, the result of the paper’s shrinking. He rewet it and started over, but let the pieces overlap slightly. That worked: the map shrank perfectly in place.

White lines were visible where the map had ripped, the brighter inner fabrics of the paper standing out from the stained surface. Mr. Derow visited Argosy Book Store on the Upper East Side and bought a handful of obscure old books — among them, for example, “The Select Dialogues of Lucian, to Which Is Added, a New Literal Translation in Latin, With Notes in English,” from 1804 — that were printed on cloth paper, like the map, and not wood pulp.

He performed on them a technique that should chill the blood of any author, wondering where his books will be in 200 years: he baked them in his kitchen stove and boiled them in water. He painted the resulting brackish stew onto the white lines, matching them to the rest of the map.

The astonishing result:

Ratzer "Plan of the City of  New York" map, 1770, before (l) and after (r) restoration

Now that the map is back in top shape and safe behind plexiglass, the Brooklyn Historical Society plans to put it on public display. You can zoom in for closeup views of the before and after pictures on this page.

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Ancient Indian temple stitched back together

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Kailasanathar Temple before (l) after (r)The 1,250-year-old Kailasanathar Temple in the town of Uthiramerur, one of the oldest temples in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is in danger of collapse. Its 80-feet-high dome has developed cracks as much as three feet wide. The thick pelt of vegetation covering the dome makes conservation difficult, and there is very little government to be had for restoration projects. In a country bristling with ancient monuments, the Indian government preserves just 5% of them.

Indian heritage conservation organization REACH enlisted engineering experts from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, to examine the foundation of the temple and determine what, if anything, could be done with limited funds and care for historical integrity.

When the monument was examined it was found that a few stones in the sub-structure were dislodged from their original position, and there were several cracks in the plinth due to stress, strain and shock says Anu Padma, who was involved in the conservation project as a research scholar.

“In Uthiramerur the options were limited. If the broken stones are to be removed and replaced, the restoration process would have become very complicated and could have further damaged the temple dome,” Dr [MS Mathews of the civil engineering department at IIT-M] said. […]

So the team at IIT-M decided that “granite stitching” would be the most simple, least invasive and the necessary method to restore the temple to its original glory, Dr Mathews said.

The site observation and inspection showed that the cracks in the granite stones were “non-progressive” and laboratory tests were conducted to assess the load-bearing capacity of stitched granite beams in comparison with the solid, uncracked granite beams.

“Test results proved that the stitching would bear the desired load,” Ms Anu Padma said.

Granite stitching is a technique that uses steel rods and epoxy to pull two sides of a crack back together. Restorers drill a diagonal hole (at approximately 45 degrees) that passes through both sides of the crack, remove the granite dust and chips, then pump the hole full of an epoxy grout. Then they insert a grooved stainless steel rod into the drilled tunnel and fill in the holes with some of the granite dust removed after drilling. The rod is embedded in both sides of the rock, effectively sealing the granite back together just like a stitch in a piece of clothing, and without any unsightly visible supports.

Drilling, epoxy application, steel rod, holes filled, crack stitched

It’s an inexpensive technique but because they were applying it to an ancient structure, experts ensured that they used the highest quality materials. The stainless steel rods have a high percentage of chromium which will keep them from corroding for at least 500 years. Hopefully somewhere in those five centuries there will be proper funding and care for India’s ancient monuments so those rods won’t be stretched to their limits.

Once the foundation was stabilized, restorers turned their attentions to the superstructure, repairing the dome and its elaborate figure carvings out of a limestone plaster based on the ancient formula.

You can find some pictures of the restoration in REACH’s flickr account.

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Roman mosaics found in Syria

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Archaeologists excavating the Faydht Marina archaeological site in central Syria have uncovered mosaics from the Byzantine era (between the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the Muslim conquest in the 7th century). Byzantine coins recovered at the site date to the 5th century, but that doesn’t mean the mosaic dates to the same time. Pottery fragments from the Islamic era and the later Ottoman and Mamluk eras were also found.

Head of the archaeological mission Abdullah Basal said that the mosaic painting was greatly damaged as it is too close to the surface of a dusty road.

The uncovered parts revealed images for some kind of bird, almost a duck or a peahen, and a leopard separated with a grapevine decoration, he added. A head for a man riding upon an animal still covered while another head at the upper part of the painting was approximately revealed.

Basal said that the main theme of the painting was said to symbolize an ancient Roman legend inspired by the surrounding environment at that time[.]

The lime floor was found two meters under the road surface.

Byzantine mosaic found in central Syria Archaeologist excavates Byzantine mosaic

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Florida Public Archaeology lab seeks volunteers

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

If you’re in north Florida or environs and you’re an archaeology junkie with zero experience, you can volunteer to help sort archaeological artifacts in the laboratory of the Florida Public Archaeology Network in Pensacola.

The lab is open on Wednesdays and Fridays from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and you don’t have to volunteer for more than a day at a time, so you could make a long weekend out of it and pile into the car to party with the oldies. There is no age limit. Repeat: kids can do this!

Volunteers will help rough sort artifacts recovered from local archaeological sites. No experience is needed, but all volunteers are given a brief orientation.

The volunteer program is perfect for students needing volunteer hours for scholarships, individuals and groups interested in history and archaeology, as well as those wanting to get their hands dirty! All ages are encouraged to participate; however, anyone under 16 years of age must be accompanied by an adult. Individuals, families, and groups as large as 12 can be accommodated.

FPAN is involved in the excavation of many archaeological sites on land and underwater, including the 200-year-old Mardi Gras Shipwreck and the Emanuel Pt. Shipwreck, Florida’s earliest shipwreck site believed to date to the 1559 expedition of Tristán de Luna.

This program opened on Wednesday the 12th and will end April 29th. Perfect for the family looking to do something awesomely nerdy for Spring Break. The lab is open to volunteers the rest of the year too.

Contact Irina Sorset via email (isorset at uwf dot edu) or by phone (850) 595-0050 Ext 103, to make arrangements.

lab volunteers

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Construction halted on site of L.A.’s first cemetery

Friday, January 14th, 2011

La Placita churchConstruction of a section of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a new Mexican-American cultural center, has been halted after dozens of skeletal remains were discovered on the site of Los Angeles’ first cemetery. The find was unexpected because according to the Los Angeles Archdiocese the cemetery, just south of La Placita Our Lady Queen of Angels Church (founded 1822) in downtown LA, was closed in 1844 and all the bodies were disinterred and moved to a new burial ground at that time. Turns out they missed a spot or 24.

When the skeletons were first found starting in October, cultural center officials planned to continue construction. They said they were following all legal and archaeological protocols and that the Archdiocese had told them just to return the remains to them for proper reburial. Descendants of the Spanish, Native American and Mexican settlers weren’t pleased that construction was continuing without pause and without consulting them.

Archeologists excavate human remains found adjacent to La Placita Our Lady Queen of Angels ChurchControversy over the continuing construction grew increasingly hard to ignore. President and CEO of La Plaza Miguel Angel Corzo claimed that the coroner’s office told him the remains in the area would date only to the 1840s, around the time of the cemetery’s closing, not to early settlements, so there weren’t any Native American remains.

Native American groups, however, pointed to old mission records indicating that 2/3rds of the 670 people buried in the cemetery had been American Indians. One archaeologist had been going over the documentary evidence with Center officials for a week and a half while they continued to claim in public that as far as they knew, there were no Native American burials uncovered.

The Archdiocese was also less than pleased when they realized the extent of the remains found.

“That you have possibly discovered substantial remains, including full burials … raises for us a number of new ethical and legal questions concerning the current activity at your construction site,” wrote Brian McMahon, director of the church’s cemeteries office to La Plaza Chief Executive Miguel Angel Corzo, in a letter obtained by The Times. “We are not interested in helping to manage your public relations issue in order that the project may continue; we want to see the right steps taken and taken quickly to deal correctly and responsibly with this matter.”

Duly chastened, Corzo released a statement today announcing construction on the cemetery site would be suspended effective immediately. They won’t go forward without a more deliberate assessment and without input from settler descendants.

“We’re glad that they see there is sufficient reason to stop the project and make an assessment and let us appoint a most likely descendant to work with them in treating and disposing of the remains with dignity and respect,” said Dave Singleton of the Native American Heritage Commission.

The center was scheduled to open on April 9 of this year. We don’t know if that’s still on, but the rest of the site has not uncovered any human remains, only a small section of the center’s 30,000 square foot garden; so the actual buildings will keep getting built.

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Jaw-dropping 19th c. Roman micromosaic for sale

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

micromosaic of the Roman Forum, by Cesare Roccheggiani, ca. 1879Still wounded that nobody bought me that $45 million Turner painting, I could learn to love again if you get me this amazing micromosaic from ca. 1879 of almost the exact same scene: a panoramic view of the Roman Forum with the Colosseum in the distance. It will go under the hammer on January 30th at Myers Auction Gallery in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Detail from middle leftWhat makes this piece so astonishing is that it’s made entirely of hundreds of thousands of itsy bitsy teeny weeny pieces of opaque colored glass. The mosaic is 59 inches wide, 32 inches long and weighs over 100 pounds. It’s so huge and heavy the frame had to be supported with iron straps.

Detail bottom rightAlthough there is no artist’s signature, the piece is attributed with surety to Cesare Roccheggiani, a master mosaicist who worked at the Vatican workshops from 1856 to 1864 and moonlighted making popular micromosaics for the Grand Tour crowd and for art dealers at his private atelier. There were as many as 96 mosaicists working in Rome by 1874, but most of them produced smaller items like cameos and jewelry and small plaques for the tourist trade. A piece of this size would not have been the usual tourist purchase. This kind of magnificence was reserved for aristocrats and the very wealthy, and was probably commissioned rather than purchased off the rack.

Since the 1920s, the artwork had rested above a mantel in the residence of a prominent Tampa businessman. When the home was sold in the 1980s, the buyer was given the option of purchasing some of the existing furnishings. The micromosaic was among the pieces selected. Now, through descent, the estate artwork is headed to auction.

“While unsigned, we believe it is almost certainly the work of Roccheggiani,” said Michael Myers, founder and co-owner of Myers Auction Gallery. “A micromosaic nearly identical in size and subject matter, and artist-signed by Rocchegiani, was auctioned last month at Christie’s London gallery for more than half a million dollars.”

The exquisite artistry in the circa-1879 work to be auctioned by Myers renders a photorealistic quality. “It’s so luminous, it even fooled a visitor who walked into our gallery and thought they were looking at a picture on a flat-screen TV,” said Mary Dowd, Michael’s wife and business partner. “An artwork as stunning as this one would have been very expensive in its day and available only to a very wealthy buyer.”

Some things never change. The estimate is a conservative $100,000-$200,000, but given the Christie’s result from December, I think we can safely say that figure will be eclipsed.

NB: if you compare the Turner painting to this mosaic, you can see how much more excavation was done in the area between 1839 and 1879. Granted, Turner’s beautiful glowing mist isn’t exactly photorealistic, but look particularly at the Arch of Septimus Severus in the lower left. In Turner’s time it looks almost sunken at the base of a hill. By the time Roccheggiani made his mosaic, that area is cleared, paved and staired.

Those are the results of the final defeat of the Pope, inclusion of Rome into a unified Italy in 1870 and the subsequent push to revive the city’s ancient past.

'Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino', J.M.W. Turner, 1839 micromosaic of the Roman Forum, by Cesare Roccheggiani, ca. 1879

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Oldest New World dog found in human poop

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Samuel Belknap III, a University of Maine graduate student doing research for his thesis on ancient diets in southwest Texas, has found bone fragments of the oldest known domesticated dog in the Americas. The fragments were in an intact ancient human stool sample, indicating that 9,400 years ago people were using dogs not just as companions, workers and guardians, but also as food.

The paleofecal sample was discovered in the 1970s in Hinds Cave, an archeological motherlode in a small canyon of the lower Pecos River, near the Mexican border. Hunter-gatherers lived in the area for 9,000 years, starting before 8,000 B.C. and persisting until as recently as a thousand years ago.

Belknap and fellow UMaine graduate student Robert Ingraham first visually identified the bone as a fragment of the right occipital condyle, the place where the skull articulates with the atlas vertebra of the spine. Ingraham also visually identified the bone at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, which indicated that the fragment closely matched that of a short-nosed Indian Dog from New Mexico.

The bone was then sent to University of Oklahoma researcher Cecil Lewis, who runs the Molecular Anthropology Ancient DNA Laboratory, for DNA analysis. The DNA analysis from the lab, along with a 2002 genetic study of archaeological dog specimens, supported the conclusion that BE-20 is from a domestic dog rather than a wolf, coyote or fox, and is closely related to a species of Peruvian dog.

The age of the bone and the paleofecal material were both radiocarbon dated, confirming that they were contemporaneous and really, really old. This is an important element because previously researchers thought they had found bones of even older dogs (about 11,000 years old) in the Jaguar Cave in Idaho, but that date was based on the archaeological context. When the bones were carbon dated, they turned out to be far more recent, just 1,000 to 3,000 years old.

Judging from the size of the bone (just 1.5 centimeters or a half inch long), Belknap thinks the dog was fairly small, about 25-30 pounds. He’s thinking it might have been chopped up into a stew, which would also explain the second bone he found that is too small to analyze but may be from the dog’s foot.

According to ethnographic studies, dogs were consumed either in times of desperation or times of celebration. Dogs were butchered in a specific way and may have been cooked in a stew, which could explain how bones from a skull and wrist or ankle ended up in the same paleofecal sample.

“It could be that the smaller bones broke off in the butchering process and found their way into a stew or soup,” Belknap said.

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