Archive for February, 2011

Caravaggio’s long rap sheet on display

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Portrait of Caravaggio, artist unknown, after drawing by Ottavio Leoni, c. 1621Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio, was notoriously bad-tempered and violent, constantly getting into physical altercations, confident that his moneyed patrons would fish him out of scrape after scrape. They mainly did, as it happened, and when they didn’t, he just skipped town for a while until the heat was off him. The stories about him have become part of his legend — the bad boy artist who lived fast, died young and left a sunstroked/syphilitic/stabbed/lead poisoned corpse — and it’s difficult to tell fact from gossip.

Arrest report from May 28, 1605, for illegal possession of sword daggerRome’s State Archives contain a myriad primary documents detailing Caravaggio’s many brushes with the law (among other information about his life and work) but until recently they were on the verge of falling apart as the acid in the ink ate away at the parchment. With the Culture Ministry slashing budgets left, right, and center, it took a desperate appeal in the Italy’s version of the Wall Street Journal, Il Sole-24 Ore, to rally a group of private sponsors to donate the funds needed to restore thousands of police logs, court decisions and eye-witness testimony so the legend of bad boy Caravaggio could be fleshed out with the fact of him.

Pope Paul V, Scipio Borghese, by Caravaggio ca. 1606Now that they’ve been restored, the pages have gone on display at Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, a church that houses the State Archives, along with complementary works of art including Caravaggio’s portrait of Pope Paul V, last on public display 100 years ago, that illustrate the story of his life with heretofore unseen detail and accuracy. Written in a mixture of legal Latin and Roman vernacular (the latter is understandable if you can read modern Italian), the documents are bound into ten volumes of 1,500 parchment pages each. I defy even our best of criminals today to produce so glorious a rap sheet.

Here are some of the highlights of his arrest record:

  • 4 May 1598: Arrested at 2- 3am near Piazza Navona, for carrying a sword without a permit
  • 19 November 1600: Sued for beating a man with a stick and tearing his cape with a sword at 3am on Via della Scrofa
  • 2 October 1601: A man accuses Caravaggio and friends of insulting him and attacking him with a sword near the Piazza Campo Marzio
    24 April 1604: Waiter complains of assault after serving artichokes at an inn on the Via Maddalena

  • 19 October 1604: Arrested for throwing stones at policemen near Via dei Greci and Via del Babuino
  • 28 May 1605: Arrested for carrying a sword and dagger without a permit on Via del Corso
  • 29 July 1605: Vatican notary accuses Caravaggio of striking him from behind with a weapon
  • 28 May 1606: Caravaggio kills a man during a pitched battle in the Campo Marzio area
  • There are all kinds of previously unknown details in the record. For instance, although we know about the brawl in which he killed a man that led to him being condemned to death by Pope Paul V and him having to flee speedily and stay fled for four years, we now know that it was over an unpaid gambling debt and that it was a full-on planned rumble like in The Outsiders or West Side Story. All eight participants, Caravaggio and three of his mates (one of them a captain in the Papal guard and probably a mercenary Caravaggio hired for the occasion) plus their four antagonists are all named in the records. The man he killed was Ranuccio Tommassoni.

    The artichoke assault is a new find. Pietro Antonio de Fosaccia, the waiter who bore the brunt of Caravaggio’s artichoke-induced rage, filed a police report about it.

    About 17 o’clock [lunchtime] the accused, together with two other people, was eating in the Moor’s restaurant at La Maddalena, where I work as a waiter. I brought them eight cooked artichokes, four cooked in butter and four fried in oil. The accused asked me which were cooked in butter and which fried in oil, and I told him to smell them, which would easily enable him to tell the difference.

    He got angry and without saying anything more, grabbed an earthenware dish and hit me on the cheek at the level of my moustache, injuring me slightly… and then he got up and grabbed his friend’s sword which was lying on the table, intending perhaps to strike me with it, but I got up and came here to the police station to make a formal complaint…

    To be fair, that’s not great service. Not assault-worthy, mind you, but maybe short tip-worthy.

    Another piece of information found in the records is Caravaggio’s exact birth date and location: September 29, 1571, in Milano, not the small town of Caravaggio which gave him his nickname. That means he was older than biographers realized when he first began painting in Rome. He was 19, not 16, which makes him an adult, not the precocious phenom he would later be described as.

    Caravaggio died in 1610 in Porto Ercole, and the records shed some light on his passing as well. It seems that he did not die on the beach, as legends would have it, but that controversial bone-hunter Maurizio Merini was right that he died in a hospital.

    The Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza exhibit will remain open until May 15. There are no current plans for it to travel.

    Caravaggio documents and art on display at State Archives


    Raymond Chandler and wife reunited in the big sleep

    Thursday, February 17th, 2011

    Raymond Chandler and Cissy in a 1952 passport photoRaymond Chandler, author of classic hard-boiled detective novels like The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity, wasn’t hard-boiled in the least when it came to love. He was married to his wife Cissy for 30 apparently blissful years. She was 18 years older than he (she lied about her age to the end, so he thought she was only 8 years older) and when she died in 1954 after a long illness, he was completely devastated. He describes the devastation in a letter he wrote to his long-time friend and publisher Hamish Hamilton:

    In a sense I had said goodbye to her long ago. In fact, many times during the past two years in the middle of the night I had realised that it was only a question of time until I lost her.

    But that is not the same thing as having it happen. Saying goodbye to your loved one in your mind is not the same as closing her eyes and knowing they will never open again. Late at night when people have gone to bed and the house is still and it is difficult to read I hear light steps rustling on the carpet and I see a gentle smile hovering at the edge of the lamplight and I hear a voice calling me by a pet name.

    I have a couple of very old friends staying with me, and they are patient and kind beyond expectation. But the horrors are all mine just the same. For 30 years, 10 months and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the light for her to warm her hands at.

    Depressed and despondent, within five years he had drunk himself to death. So rudderless was he during those five years of his widowerhood that he never made a will or even any arrangements for his own funeral, nor left any provisions for what to do with Cissy’s ashes.

    When he died in 1959, his friends had him buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, a public cemetery east of downtown San Diego, a block away from neighboring Cypress View Cemetery that held Cissy’s ashes in its unclaimed vault. Without his specific instruction, Chandler’s mourners simply didn’t think to bury them together.

    Chandler had written in letters about wanting to be buried next to her, though, a fact noted in one of his biographies. In 2009, Chandler fan and historian Loren Latker was leafing through the biography when he noticed a line at the end of the description of the author’s funeral: “No one thought to have Chandler buried with his wife’s remains . . . as he wished.” Latker decided then and there to see if he could remedy this sad oversight.

    It took him 18 months of legal wrangling, but with the help of his wife Annie Thiel and lawyer Aissa Wayne (John Wayne’s daughter), Latker successfully petitioned the San Diego Superior Court to allow a reburial so Cissy’s ashes could be interred with her husband’s.

    On Valentine’s Day of this year, Cissy and Raymond were buried together at last. A hundred people came to the funeral, many in period costume, some fans, some performers, even one personal friend of Chandler’s. Sybil Davis, the daughter of Chandler’s literary assistant, was 13 when Raymond died, and she considered him a grandfather figure. Chandler left Sybil’s mother Cissy’s diamond wedding ring, his monogrammed silver cigarette case and his ostrich wallet, all of which are now Sybil’s and all of which she brought to the funeral.

    A cortege of vintage 1920s cars carried Cissy’s ashes to the burial ground while a jazz band played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The officiant was the same priest who had buried Chandler in 1959. You can see pictures of the ceremony on this Flickr photostream.

    Powers Boothe (star of the 80s series “Philip Marlowe Private Eye”) spoke. He read snippets from Chandler’s work, including “I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it…” and “If in doubt, have three guys come through the door with guns….” Boothe closed the service by channeling Chandler once more: “I’m not going to say goodbye. In the tradition of Raymond, I’m going to say, ‘I need a drink, and I’m going to have one.'”

    The Chandlers' new grave marker


    Oldest cups made from human skulls found in Britain

    Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

    Gough's Cave skull-cup showing cut marks along the edgesThree human braincases — one from a child about three years old, two from adults — found in Gough’s Cave, Somerset, England, have been radiocarbon dated to 14,700 years ago. These are the only skull-cups ever found in England, and although others have been found in Western Europe that date to around the same era (between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago) none of the continental ones have been direct dated by radiocarbon, only indirectly dated by analysis of something that was found next to them.

    The Gough’s skull-cups also show evidence of advanced processing of the cadavers and shaping of the braincases. Frequent cut marks and percussion marks suggest that the skulls were stripped clean of all tissue, then the mandibles removed and cracked probably so the marrow could be eaten. The skulls were then carefully broken horizontally so the face was removed and only the cranial base remained, a convenient bowl shape made even more convenient by careful chipping along the broken edges to make for more comfortable sipping.

    There are comparable examples of this process in the modern ethnographic record, as people were still making and using skull-cups in Fiji, for example, as late as the 19th century.

    The Magdalenian is associated with widespread evidence for the artificial modifications of human remains. This contrasts with earlier Upper Palaeolithic periods such as the Gravettian, where primary inhumation (sometimes with elaborate grave goods) was the common burial practice. Earlier interpretations of Magdalenian cut-marked human bones have implicated ritual practices involving disarticulation, defleshing and excarnation, but the consumption of the human tissues has generally been dismissed. At only two other Magdalenian sites (Le Placard and Isturitz) has the production of skull-cups been described. Both assemblages have an over-representation of cranial elements, many of which are intensively cut-marked. This evidence has been interpreted as ritual mortuary practice intended to prepare skull-cups.

    At Gough’s Cave there is unambiguous evidence for the intentional controlled production of skull-cups, resembling those from the Le Placard and Isturitz as well as modern ethnographic examples. The distribution of cut and percussion marks, however, suggests that this meticulous shaping of the cranial vault was preceded by the processing of the cadavers for consumption of body tissues (including bone marrow from the mandible), with a pattern of cuts and impact damage that is identical to that found on other large mammals from the cave.

    The combination of cannibalism and skull-cup production at Gough’s Cave is so far unique in the European Upper Paleolithic. Direct determinations on two of the vaults (~14,700 cal BP) make these the oldest dated examples of skull-cups in the archaeological record.

    A cast of one of the skull-cups will go on display at the Natural History Museum in London from March 1st.


    Slaves hid African charms in plantation greenhouse

    Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

    Wye House Farm orangeryUniversity of Maryland archaeologists excavating the orangery — a greenhouse dedicated to growing delicate warm weather fruits like oranges — of Colonial-era plantation Wye House Farm have found West African talismans embedded into the construction materials of the building. The charms indicate that slaves actually lived in the greenhouse as well as worked in it, and that they continued to practice African religious traditions while publicly professing Christianity.

    “This building has always been known to be a greenhouse and anybody could guess that slaves probably ran the heating system, but nobody could tell if slaves lived in the building or what they did beyond stoking the fire and being the laborers for the enormous surrounding garden,” Leone said. “That was how we started.”

    Pointed and metal objects at the doorway warded off evil spiritsAs they dug below a north-facing back room, the researchers found dishes, teacups, cutlery, buttons and other objects. Those objects identified the area as a slave quarter that was occupied between about 1785 and 1820.

    About two inches beneath the doorstep outside the quarter’s threshold, they also discovered two projectile points and a coin — signature objects used in African religious traditions to control the coming and going of spirits.

    Prehistoric pestle cemented with bricks at back of furnaceInside, they found another religious symbol: A stone pestle mortared into the framework of the furnace by the slaves who built it.

    In addition to the religious and everyday objects, the researchers were able to document an extensive series of agricultural trials conducted by the slaves who lived there.

    They were able to document the agricultural history of the greenhouse by analyzing fossilized grains of pollen. This is the firm time pollen analysis has been used on a historic US greenhouse. The technique identifies which families of plants were grown in the orangery, but can’t pinpoint the specific species.

    So we know, for instance, that the Wye House slaves began experimenting with medicinal plants — like ginger and Seneca snakeroot — food plants — broccoli, bananas and greens — and flowering plants. Within 30 years they were growing exotic plants like the eponymous orange trees, plus roses, irises, various members of the nightshade family.

    Greenhouses were rare, elite structures back then, and they didn’t come with manuals. The lessons its enslaved staff learned would have been valuable information handed down from generation to generation.

    The property was first settled in the mid-17th century by Welshman Edward Lloyd, but the main buildings, including the big house and the orangery, were built between 1780 and 1790. The Wye House orangery is the only 18th century greenhouse still standing in the United States.

    Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879At its peak, Wye House Farm fielded over 1,000 slaves, including at one point Frederick Douglass who lived there for 2 years as a child. The property is still owned by a direct descendant of Edward Lloyd, and its longevity and long, wide history of slaves living on the property makes it an invaluable source for archaeologists exploring the material remains of slaves. Mark Leone’s team has been excavating the site for 6 years.

    Douglass spoke of encountering his first experience of slave master brutality at Wye House Farm in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

    I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.

    This occurrence took place very soon after I went to live with my old master, and under the following circumstances. Aunt Hester went out one night,– where or for what I do not know,–and happened to be absent when my master desired her presence. He had ordered her not to go out evenings, and warned her that she must never let him catch her in company with a young man, who was paying attention to her belonging to Colonel Lloyd. The young man’s name was Ned Roberts, generally called Lloyd’s Ned. Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture. She was a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions, having very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood.

    Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in going out, but had been found in company with Lloyd’s Ned; which circumstance, I found, from what he said while whipping her, was the chief offence. Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d—-d b—h [damned bitch]. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, “Now, you d—-d b—h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.


    The Art of Kissing Little Blue Books

    Monday, February 14th, 2011

    The Art of KissingWhile leafing through an old Nancy Drew book of mine last week, I found a little pamphlet called “The Art of Kissing” by Clement Wood. It was published in 1926 by the Haldeman-Julius Company as part of their Little Blue Blook series. It seems appropriate that I pay this compendium of kissing history and practice my blogging respects on Valentine’s Day.

    Table of contents, "The Art of Kissing" by Clement WoodSadly, its original blue cover is long gone, but the content has remained unscathed. The 3½ x 5 inch volume is 55 pages long and includes such awesome chapter headings as The Two Kinds of Kisses (lip and nose, or osculus Europeanus and osculus Asiaticus), Size of Mouth and Kissing Devices. From the Size of Mouth section:

    The excessively small mouth is easily kissed, and at times is far less satisfying than a good mouth-filling pair of lips. The medium-sized mouth, in normal cases, gives the greatest pleasure. When the man is confronted with a mouth whose general stretch, if laid on the ground, would apparently reach from Ft. Desbrosses, Alaska, to the corner of Main Street and Zenith Avenue, Skaneateles, New York, the matter is purely one of measuration in applied physics. The safest way is to start at one corner and gradually progress toward the center, covering ground as effectively as possibly in the process. The foolhardy at times make a dive for the very center at the beginning, and may encounter the emotion of having stepped off of a neck-high stretch in the river into a pool of immeasurable depth. If this is definitely the case, the only thing to do is to paddle toward one side or the other, in the hope of reaching firm ground once more.

    You can see why it sold 257,500 copies in its day. Clement Wood’s entertaining style and penchant for risque subjects like “Byron and the Women He Loved” and “Modern Sexual Morality” made many of his 57 Little Blue Books among the highest sellers of the series.

    Clement WoodHe was famously prolific, cranking out not just these pamphlets but also books of poetry under his own name and ghostwritten novels at a breakneck pace of 80,000 words a month. He also wrote history books, reference works, literary criticism, joke books (including ones dedicated to ethnic stereotype humor that probably make for cringingly bad reading today), biographies and much more. One of the Little Blue Book manuscripts he wrote, The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, remains a big seller still in print today and in fact saved my no-talent ass in more than one poetry class.

    Wood lived as varied a life as his bibliography would suggest. He was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1888. At first he followed in his father’s footsteps and went to law school. He seems to have been good at it, as he made assistant editor of the Yale Law Journal and would be made a judge in Birmingham’s Central Recorder’s Court in 1913, just 2 years after getting his law degree. His Socialist leanings didn’t exactly endear him to the Alabama political establishment, however, and he was removed from the bench almost as soon as he got there.

    After that, he moved to Greenwich Village, New York, where he got work waiting tables, as a vice commission staffer, and, briefly, as secretary to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair. He was writing a humor column for the Socialist daily The New York Call in 1915 when he met Emanuel Julius. When some years later Emanuel, now married to Marcet Haldeman and in a remarkably progressive move legally renamed to a combination of both their names, Haldeman-Julius, started a publishing company dedicated to producing cheap, educational and entertaining books for the working man’s pocket, he commissioned Wood to do some of the writing.

    Emanuel Haldeman-Julius at his typewriter, 1925The endeavor was enormously successful, and Haldeman-Julius became famous. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dubbed him “the Henry Ford of Literature” (only without the strike-breaking).

    Though occasionally skeptical of his methods, the mainstream media eventually took note of Haldeman-Julius’s successes. The New Republic wrote that “the volume of his sales [is] so fantastic as to make his business almost a barometer of plebian taste”; a New Yorker profile observed that Haldeman-Julius must feel “the crusader’s pride” when, riding the subway on a visit to New York, “he sees a workman settle back on his strap and reach automatically to the pocket where he keeps his Little Blue Book.” Perhaps the most effusive praise came in a 1924 McClure’s article, which claimed that Little Blue Books were “spreading like beneficent locusts over the country,” and suggested that they would “help break down America’s cultural isolation.” “The best peace propaganda in the world is to make the culture of the whole world known to the whole world,” the article enthused, calling Haldeman-Julius “a creative genius who was blazing a more glorious path of service on principles akin to those of Ford.”

    By the time Emanuel Haldeman-Julius died in 1951 — less than a year after Clement Wood died of a stroke — there were 2,300 Little Blue Book titles, 1,800 still in print. Haldeman’s son Henry continued his father’s work until 1978 when the Little Blue Book publishing plant in Girard, Kansas tragically burned down.

    Now the books are collector’s items, and although my coverless, yellowed pamphlet is probably barely worth more than the 5 cents it originally cost, it’s a pearl of great price to me because it’s a) awesome, and b) the book my mom read with a flashlight under the covers when she was just a little girl dreaming about her first kiss.

    And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m a history nerd. Happy Valentine’s Day, lovahs. :love:


    Germany returns looted battle axe to Iraq

    Sunday, February 13th, 2011

    German authorities have returned a 4,500-year-old Mesopotamian battle axe to Iraq. Although nobody is sure where exactly it was stolen from and what path it took out of the country, it was probably looted from an Iraqi museum or archaeological site in the chaos in the wake of the 2003 US invasion.

    German authorities found the ancient axe in 2004 during an investigation into a Munich antiquities dealer and turned it over to the Roman-Germanic Central Museum (RGZM) in Mainz to determine its origin and age.

    The museum found the decorated axe was from the Mesopotamian city-state of Ur, presently the site of the city Tell el-Mukayyar in southern Iraq.

    Museum officials returned the axe to Iraqi Ambassador to Berlin Hussain M. Fadhlalla al-Khateeb.

    4,500-year-old Mesopotamian battle axe

    The Munich dealer is not named in any of the articles, but there was a story a couple of years ago about a Munich dealer being busted with looted Iraqi artifacts in 2004. Perhaps this is the same scofflaw.

    That article also points out that the Iraqi government was concerned about Germany becoming a hub for smuggled loot because they have such a high burden of proof that it makes it virtually impossible to prove in a court of law that an unprovenanced object was in fact stolen.

    “Unfortunately, we have information that make it clear that Germany has become a hub for the illegal international art market and the authorities have not yet done enough to prevent it” [former Iraqi ambassador to Berlin Alaa Al-Hashimy] said. “The legal situation in Germany is very unfortunate for us. The burden of proof is too high, especially for objects stolen by grave robbers” he said. “Even an expert opinion with a probability of provenance of 95 percent isn’t enough for the courts. Only previously catalogued objects such as those looted from the National Museum in Baghdad can be easily determined to be stolen”.

    Before 2009, only one artifact thought to be looted had been returned to Iraq and it too was an axe, as coincidence would have it. The fact that it took close to 7 years for the German government to go from confiscating this battle axe to returning it indicates that there is still a major bottle neck.


    Book nobody can read dates to early 15th century

    Saturday, February 12th, 2011

    Wilfred Voynich, 1885The Voynich Manuscript is an elaborately illustrated folio of 240 vellum pages hand-written by person or persons unknown in a language or code that is also unknown. People, including professional codebreakers from both World Wars, have been trying to crack it for a hundred years, ever since it was discovered outside of Rome by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in a chest of books the Jesuits were trying to sell in 1912.

    Ensourceled by the mysterious glyphs and the cosmological, botanical, pharmaceutical, culinary and biological drawings accompanying them, Voynich would spend the last 18 years of his life trying to decipher the manuscript. We are sadly no closer now than he was when it drove him to his death, but thanks to researchers from the University of Arizona physics department and radiocarbon dating, we can at least confirm that the parchment dates to the early 15th century, between 1404 and 1438, a century or so earlier than was previously thought.

    They weren’t able to date the ink, however.

    “It would be great if we could directly radiocarbon date the inks, but it is actually really difficult to do. First, they are on a surface only in trace amounts” [UA assistant physics professor Greg] Hodgins said. “The carbon content is usually extremely low. Moreover, sampling ink free of carbon from the parchment on which it sits is currently beyond our abilities. Finally, some inks are not carbon based, but are derived from ground minerals. They’re inorganic, so they don’t contain any carbon.”

    “It was found that the colors are consistent with the Renaissance palette – the colors that were available at the time. But it doesn’t really tell us one way or the other, there is nothing suspicious there.”

    Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, current owner of the manucript, still lists the later date on its Voynich Manuscript page. The later estimate was derived from analyzing the hairstyles, clothing and castles depicted in the drawings, and it’s certainly possible that the vellum is older than the print.

    The history of the volume can be traced back to 1639. At that time it belonged to Georg Baresch, a Prague alchemist who also couldn’t read it. He sent a copy of the mysterious glyphs to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar who was an expert in obscure languages, who was stumped and intrigued. He tried to buy the book from Baresch who wouldn’t sell. After Baresch’s death, however, the manuscript went to his friend Jan Marek Marci and Marci sent the book to Kircher who was a long-time friend and colleague. When Voynich found it 250 years later, the 1665 letter from Marci to Kircher was still with the manuscript.

    If you’d like to try your cryptographic hand at translating the 170,000 glyphs, separated by narrow gaps and clustered into “words” with larger gaps between them, or if you, like me, just like really pretty pictures, there’s a phenomenal gallery of every page in super high resolution here.

    Cosmological drawings from the Voynich Manuscript

    Botanical drawings from the Voynich Manuscript


    The real Ahab’s (second) shipwreck found

    Friday, February 11th, 2011

    Sketch of the ramming, by "Essex" cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, 1850In November of 1820, the Nantucket whaling ship Essex was rammed twice by an 85-foot sperm whale as its crew harpooned the whale’s podmates. The whale won and the Essex sank, a full 1500 nautical miles west of the Galapagos Islands.

    The ship’s captain, George Pollard, Jr., the first mate, Owen Chase, and the second mate, Matthew Joy, each took command of a whaleboat and a third of the crew. Thus began 90 plus days of survivalist hell, complete with delirium, deprivation and ultimately cannibalism, until the 8 barely surviving members of the crew were rescued.

    Captain Pollard was one of the survivors. Traumatized by having eaten his young cousin, whom he had sworn to protect, and although he made some bad calls that contributed to the disaster, he was given command of another whaler, the Two Brothers, after his return to Nantucket. His luck did not change, sadly, and the Two Brothers hit a reef on French Frigate Shoals, northwest of Honolulu, and sank in February of 1823. That was the end of Captain Pollard’s career. He went back to Nantucket and spent the rest of his days as a night watchman.

    The wreckage of his life would find a form of immortality, however, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville met Owen Chase’s son when they were both serving on different whalers in the early 1840s, and Chase lent him his father’s memoirs of the Essex tragedy. This account was a major inspiration for Moby Dick. Melville would seek Pollard out in the early 1850s after Moby Dick was published and they apparently had quite the meeting of the minds.

    Now archaeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries exploring the French Frigate Shoals area have found the wreck of the Two Brothers. Whaler shipwrecks are rarer than hen’s teeth, because most of them sank in high seas, not near the shore. This is in fact the first Nantucket whaler ever found. The only other one in existence is the Charles W. Morgan which was honorably retired after 80 years of service and is now a National Historic Landmark on display at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

    "Two Brothers anchor" on French Frigate ShoalsKelly Gleason, the leader of the team, was in the water — crystal-clear shallows about 15 feet deep — when a colleague suddenly signaled that he had seen something.

    “All of a sudden,” said Dr. Gleason, a marine archaeologist, “we came across this large anchor.”

    "Two Brothers" blubber hookThe anchor, some 10 feet long, was peacefully resting on the seafloor, and was far too heavy to lift. (The federally protected monument also has strict rules about removal of artifacts.) Anchors, like so many other types of maritime technology, evolved over the years, making them easier to place in a specific time period, and Dr. Gleason was pretty sure the anchor she was seeing was from the early 1800s.

    Divers soon found more debris, including several iron trypots, cauldrons in which blubber was boiled down into oil, the ultimate goal of the lucrative but highly speculative whaling trade. It was a brutal pursuit for both the whales, which were hunted nearly to extinction, and the sailors, who faced years at sea, meager rations and the omnipresent possibility of death.

    "Two Brothers" trypotArchaeologists have found around 80 total artifacts from the ship, including rigging, blubber hooks, ceramics and cast iron cooking pans. They are hoping to put some of the smaller pieces on permanent display in Hawaii, but the large scale items like the anchors will remain on the ocean floor.

    For more details about the find and some beautiful high resolution pictures of the finds, see the NOAA website.


    Most expensive Mickey Mouse cel ever for sale

    Thursday, February 10th, 2011

    Mickey Mouse in "The Band Concert," 1935 production celA hand-painted animation cel from Mickey Mouse’s first color adventure will be sold at Heritage Auction’s Comics and Comic Art Auction on February 24-25. This same cel went for $420,000 in a private sale in 1999, still the record for the most expensive animation cel ever sold.

    The cel is from 1935’s “The Band Concert” in which Mickey attempts to conduct Goofy and a variety of other characters in a rousing performance of “The William Tell Overture.” Circumstances — a wind storm, a bee, Donald Duck trying to mess them up by playing “Turkey in the Straw” on a piccolo — conspire to make this challenging, but the band plays on undeterred. The reason this particular animation cel is so valuable is that it is the only production setup in existence to feature Mickey and the full band.

    This charming and beautiful cel set-up shows Mickey and company at the beginning of the cartoon, greeting their audience. It’s the “pie-eye” Mickey at his best, and this incredible scene has never looked better. Professional restoration has been done by Ron Stark of S/R Laboratories. The image area measures approximately 12″ x 9.5″, professionally matted and framed to an overall size of 26.75″ x 22.75″.

    The seller is Kerby Confer, a Maryland radio executive with an extensive and top quality collection of original Disney pieces. He bought it in 2001 for an unknown sum (maybe he already broke the $420,000 record in the 1999 sale). Heritage Auction has put an extremely conservative $100,000 estimate on the piece

    Animation cels (short for celluloid, even though by 1935 they were actually made out of cellulose acetate which doesn’t burst into flame quite so readily) are transparent sheets onto which animation characters were painted. They were then overlaid onto a static background. This allowed studios to create an assembly line of different teams of artists working on characters in the same scene. Disney stopped using cels in 1990, replacing them with computer animation. The Little Mermaid was the last of her kind.


    Six 3rd c. statues found in suburban Rome villa

    Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

    Statues found in fountain basin, 3rd c. AD (earlier herm on far left)Archaeologists excavating an ancient Roman villa have found six statues from the third century A.D. The villa is now the Roman suburb of Anagnina, southeast of the historic center. In antiquity this would have been the countryside, and the villa a bucolic retreat for a wealthy person of some prominence, probably an imperial functionary.

    Severan bustFive of them appear to be busts or portraits of members of the Severan imperial family, including a woman and a child. The sixth is a life-size nude probably of Zeus. Another statue was found from a far earlier period, an archaic Greek herm (a bust carved above a squared pillar of stone), larger than life-sized.

    They were discovered in a fountain basin in the atrium of the villa, but they weren’t just tossed in there willy nilly. Between each statue was a piece of tuff, a soft volcanic stone, keeping them from rubbing together. Archaic Greek hermThe villa itself appears to have been sacked at some point in its life, stripped of expensive decorative elements like marble floors and columns, so perhaps the homeowner was trying to save his treasures in anticipation of a return that never happened.

    The “extraordinary” discovery, one of the biggest and most important in recent memory in the Italian capital, sheds light on housing conditions in the suburbs during the imperial period, the ministry said in a statement.

    “It may be that the last owner of the villa was a high-ranking official related to the dynasty” of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, the statement said.

    “The existence of a mausoleum dating back to the late imperial period reinforces such a hypothesis due to the ritual, common in the second and third centuries, of burying the owner next to his house,” it added.

    Severan female portraitThe villa also shows signs of having been built in stages, with the 3rd century construction being the final stage. That ties in with the Severan clothing and hairstyles of the statues to support the preliminary dating.

    These discoveries are as invaluable politically as they are archaeologically. With the Italian state pretty much broke and draconian budget cuts hitting the culture ministry, the excavation would never have happened without a 100,000 euro donation from a group of private businessmen who wanted to see a proper archaeological exploration of the area before building a public park on the site.





    February 2011
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