Archive for March, 2011

Google trikes go inside ancient sites

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Google Street View continues to add new sites to their already impressive list of historical locations you can explore online. Now that they use tricycles as well as cars to travel the world photographing what they see, they can follow paths that cars cannot, like for instance the inside of the Colosseum.

As of yesterday, Google Maps offers tricycle-captured Street Views of some of the most historically significant sites in Italy and France, with the promise of more to come. The Official Google Blog reports:

In few clicks you can navigate through centuries of history. Start at the birthplace of Rome, the Palatine Hill, where the mythical founders of the city, Romulus and Remus were found and saved by a she-wolf, and where the most ancient buildings of the city are located. Follow the Appian Way, a little path that became one of the most strategically important roads of ancient Rome. After the long walk, experience the splendor of Imperial Rome at the Thermae (Baths) of Diocletian—ancient wellness and cultural centers with 33 acres of pools, gymnasiums and public libraries.

After wandering around Rome, you can fast forward in time to witness the celebrated architectural wonders of the Italian Renaissance, including Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower) and Brunelleschi’s Cupola (dome) in Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. While in Florence don’t miss the opportunity to walk through Ponte Vecchio and shop at the famous artisan jewel stores built on top of it!

I checked (of course), and the pictures of the shop windows aren’t high res enough to drool over the details of the jewelry on the Ponte Vecchio. It’s still a fantastic stroll, as is the walk around the Piazza di San Giovanni, the square where you can see the Duomo of Florence in front of you, then turn around and see the Baptistry of San Giovanni behind you with the copies of its three sets of intricately carved bronze doors, the south doors by Andrea Pisano, the north and east doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The east doors are the famous “Gates of Paradise,” so dubbed by none other than Michelangelo. (The ones you see in place now are reproductions. The originals were removed for preservation purposes in 1990 and are now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.)

In France, you can visit the Palace of Fontainebleau, one of the largest and most beautiful of France’s royal châteaux.

Also, if it’s been a while since you checked Street View’s gallery of UNESCO sites, they’ve added seven new ones all from Japan, including the Tenryuji temple and Himeji-jo castle.

I leave you with a stroll down the Via Appia Antica, which you will doubtless recognize from about a thousand movies if you haven’t seen it in person yet, and which is one of the most unreservedly magical picnic spots in the universe.

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Aaand he’s back

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Zahi Hawass was reappointed Minister of Antiquities today. Interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf had agreed to demands from ministry employees that Antiquities remain separate from the Culture Ministry. Faced with an aimless department with a power vacuum at the top, continuing thefts at archaeological sites generating a great deal of concern and UNESCO attention, plus a world-famous archaeological power player on the loose, he asked Hawass to return. He, of course, accepted.

Mr. Hawass, who has never been accused of being humble, said on Wednesday that he did not ask to come back, but that there was no one else who could do the job. “I cannot live without antiquities, and antiquities cannot live without me,” he said.

Pardon my rolling eyes. Anyway, he returns to the mess he left, and then some. Ministry inventories of the damage and theft from museums and ancient sites released two weeks ago of the losses from the Cairo Museum and the Tel El-Faraein storehouse found 81 artifacts missing, including four gilded statues of Tutankhamun.

A UNESCO delegate visited Egypt last week to see for himself the situation on the ground and to produce a thorough list of what’s gone missing so it can be published worldwide in an attempt to preempt stolen artifacts from turning up in antique stores and auctions. Some officials were made uneasy by the visit, thinking it smacked a little too much of foreigners coming to Egypt to show the hapless natives how to manage their cultural patrimony. Others were glad to have UNESCO’s help.

From both perspectives, Hawass’ return is an advantage. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s what spurred his reappointment.

“What we need now is the quick appointment of an antiquities leader,” Abdel Maqsoud [director of the central administration for antiquities in Alexandria and Lower Egypt] pointed out. To date, he says, no one knows who will meet with the UNESCO delegate. “It could be an archaeological team from the ministry of antiquities affairs or the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf or both – nobody knows yet,” confirmed Abdel Maqsoud.

On his part, Zahi Hawass, former minister of antiquity affairs said that he was requested by the assistant director general for culture, Franceso Bandarin to meet the UNESCO delegate. Hawass said that he will discuss with the delegate the recent status of Egypt’s antiquities and the amount of break-ins and loss, as well as the means to restituate [sic] such objects in the case they were smuggled out of the country.

He made clear that on several other occasions he rejected offers from UNESCO and other international organisations help to protect Egypt’s antiquities, calling the interference of any foreign country in the protection of Egypt’s heritage “antiquities colonisation.”

A top official in the ministry who requests anonymity told Ahram Online that Hawass cannot meet UNESCO delegate officially as he is no longer the antiquities minister, although he can meet the delegate as a professional archaeological expert in order to provide suggestions, the same as the former general director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Gaballa Ali Gaballa or any other archaeological expert.

That was Monday, March 21st. A week and a half later and here we are.


Victorian beetle-wing dress restored wing by wing

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

A Victorian stage costume made in 1888 using 1,000 iridescent jewel beetle wings is back on display after two years of meticulous restoration. The dress was created for famed Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth and was immortalized by American painter John Singer Sargent in an 1889 portrait now in London’s Tate Gallery.

Terry loved the dress and it was so iconic a look that she wore it throughout her lifetime at personal appearances and performances even after her retirement. After she died in 1928, the Beetle Wing dress was put on display at the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, a museum founded by her heirs at Terry’s beloved Smallhythe Place, a 16th century half-timber house she had purchased in 1899 and lived in until her death. Her daughter Edith Craig donated the house and Terry’s collection of theatrical memorabilia to the National Trust in 1939 who kept the Beetle Wing dress as the centerpiece of the home’s costume exhibition.

After 120 years of near-continuous use and display, the hand-crocheted fabric with its individually sewn-on beetle wings was in extremely precarious condition.

The conservation team conducted a thorough scientific investigation, which included microscopic analysis of 70 tiny thread samples taken from the repaired seams. The results were then combined with evidence of deterioration and wear which were compared alongside the Sargent painting and contemporary photographs of Terry in the unaltered dress.

The conservators then went on to separate, repair and reunite pieces of the original dress from what is believed to be an amalgamation of two costumes, probably originally very similar in construction. This second costume was possibly a spare costume for the understudy or just a slightly different version for another scene in the play.

Conservation was complicated by the unusual construction of the dress which is hand crocheted and knitted from Bohemian yarn, described by the designer Alice Comyns-Carr as being, “a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel”. Conservators supported the now weak and stretching dress on a custom dyed nylon net after painstakingly repairing all the holes in the crochet using a re-crochet technique. They also focussed [sic] on restoring the original length and fullness to the elaborate sleeves.

The Smallhythe Place curators had collected the original beetle wings as they fell off the dress over the decades. The conservators were thus able to re-attach many of the original wings as well as replacing any broken ones that could not be repaired. (Yes, they actually repaired individual beetle wings by pasting them to tiny pieces of tissue.)

The dress is now on display, posed with arms raised as in John Singer Sargent’s portrait. The pose was not one she actually struck in the performance. It was Sargent’s idea, and its dramatic posture reveals the sweeping sleeves and draping of the dress itself.


Small English church finds original King James Bible

Monday, March 28th, 2011

St. Laurence Church, Hilmarton, WiltshireSt. Laurence Church in Hilmarton, a charming little 12th century Norman parish church, has had a large old Bible on a shelf behind the pews since the mid-19th century. A note next to it claimed that it was from the second of two original printings of the King James Bible done in 1611, but nobody really expected it to be true.

Since this year marks the 400th anniversary of the original King James printing, the parish council finally decided to research their Bible. They took it to an expert, the Rev. David Smith at the Museum of the Book in London, and he immediately recognized it as one of approximately 200 remaining original King James Bibles.

Smith identified it thanks to a printing error – a place in the Gospel of Matthew that should say Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane and spoke to his disciples instead says that Judas, who betrayed Jesus to the Romans, entered the garden.

That the St. Laurence Bible had that error, but not another one in the Book of Ruth, enabled Smith to pinpoint exactly when the book had been printed, Procter explained.

The first printed edition had a misprint in Ruth 3:15 reading “he went into the city,” instead of the proper “she went into the city.” Because of this misprint, the first and second 1611 editions are known as the “He” and “She” Bibles. That makes the St. Laurence one a “She” Bible.

When the King James version was first printed, 100 years before it was even called the King James Bible, it was called simply the Authorized Version and it was published in large folios for distribution to Church of England pulpits. These were never intended for private home perusal.

Since the St. Laurence parish church had been up and running for 500 or so years by then, it’s eminently possible that this is the Authorized Version they received in 1611. All we know about its direct history is that it was re-discovered the first time in 1857 by St. Laurence vicar the Reverend Francis Fisher. He recognized its historical importance and cleaned it up.

Unfortunately, he also mutilated it by trimming the pages so they would fit his hand-carved oak cover. Because of the trimming and the missing first four chapters of Genesis, this almost complete Bible is officially considered a fragment.

The parish will be getting a glass case to display the Bible in a more secure environment.


Roman spa in Turkey submerged under dam waters

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

2000-year-old Roman bridge almost submergedThe 1,800-year-old Roman spa complex of Allianoi in Izmir Province, Turkey is already halfway submerged under the dammed waters of the Ilya River. Flooding began on December 31st, 2010. By the end of February, Allianoi was already under an estimated 61 million cubic meters of water. You can see a desperately sad slideshow of the rising waters here.

Despite the best efforts of historical preservation activists, the government refused to budge from its plan to make a reservoir out of one of the best preserved ancient spas — still a functional hot spring — in the world. According to the Bergama Chamber of Agriculture, the dam will double the agricultural value of the area, irrigating 44,000 acres of hard farmland and helping 6,000 local families.

The Turkish government also claims the sand they covered the Roman structures in will preserve the site so they can just dig it back up again once the dam reaches the end of its lifespan (30-50 years), but according to Ahmet Yaras, the head archaeologist of the Allianoi dig, even if the immense pressure from the weight of the water and silt don’t damage the site, and even if the dam isn’t just rebuilt, the notion that anyone will just happily dig down through the 50 feet of silt that will be left behind after the water drains is no more than a fantasy.

Meanwhile, the hemorrhage of young people leaving the area for greener pastures isn’t likely to be staunched by the new reservoir.

“Irrigation is crucial for the agriculture of the region,” said Gorenc. “Eventually the salaries of the villagers will rise and migration to the big cities will decrease.”

But some in the village of Pasakoy, which lies nearest to the dam, believe it will not halt the current migration pattern, which has already turned many Anatolian villages into virtual ghost towns. “There aren’t people who want to farm the land,” said Pasakoy Mayor Adnan Celik, who has lost most of his own fields to the reservoir.

“The young people emigrate from the village and their parents and grandparents are too old to farm. The tourism from ruins would have kept them here,” Celik contended.

Colonnaded atrium with mosaic floor as the water encroachesThe economic potential of the ruins has never been fully explored. The ruins were only discovered in 1998 when archaeologists excavated the area in preparation for the construction of the dam. They found the complex in exceptional condition, complete with thermal baths, streets, insulae, covered passages, courtyards, colonnades and huge swaths of undamaged mosaics. They also found a hospital that was very likely used by famed 2nd century doctor Galen, the father of pharmacy and author of medical books that were held as the gold standard of medicine in Europe and the near East until Andreas Vesalius in the 16th century.


2500-year-old brains, now with picture!

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

In August 2008, archaeologists excavating an Iron Age pit on the grounds of the University of York discovered a skull with something rattling around in it. Finds Officer Rachel Cubitt peered inside and saw an odd yellow substance. That substance turned out to be a brain.

Cubitt recalled a lecture she had attended by Dr. Sonia O’Connor — who had discovered 25 medieval skeletons with preserved brains a decade earlier — about rare instances of ancient brain matter surviving even when the rest of the soft tissues decayed, so she ensured the skull was treated with special care and contacted Dr. O’Connor for further research.

Heslington skull; dark part is folded brain matter, light part is soilThey took it to York District Hospital for CT scans and other tests and confirmed the presence of brain matter. The brain had shrunk to a quarter of its original size, but the cerebral structures were still clearly identifiable. Transmission electron microscopy examination revealed tubules like the myelin ones found around neurons, and chemical analysis indicated the presence of peptides found in neurofilaments.

Organs have been found before in decent states of preservation, but they’re usually the results of mummification, natural or man-made, or freezing, and in those cases other soft tissues survive as well. To find a brain inside a skull with no other non-skeletal remains is extremely rare.

“It was just amazing to think that a brain of someone who had died so many thousands of years ago could persist just in wet ground,” said Sonia O’Connor, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Bradford. O’Connor led a team of researchers who assessed the state of the brain after it was found in 2008 and looked into likely modes of preservation.

Dr. Sonia O'Connor examines brain inside the skull with an endoscope“It’s particularly surprising, because if you talk to pathologists who deal with fresh dead bodies they say the first organ to really deteriorate and to basically go to liquid is the brain because of its high fat content,” O’Connor said.

When it was found, the skull — which belonged to a man probably between 26 and 45 years old — was accompanied by a jaw and two neck vertebrae, bearing evidence of hanging and then decapitation. Cut marks on the inside of the neck indicate that the head was severed while there was still flesh on the bones, O’Connor said. There is, however, no indication of why he was hanged, and the rest of his remains have yet to be found.

What appears to have happened in this case is the body was buried very soon after death in its watery grave. The anaerobic environment — and possibly some physiological factors like disease or starvation during life — kept the brain from putrefying. Over time it shrank and changed from soft, fatty tissue to a rubbery, durable material.

Studies are ongoing, but the brain has been dated to between 673 and 482 B.C., about 500 years older than the initial assessment. This is definitely the oldest brain ever found in Britain. It’s hard to compare to other such finds because, surprisingly, there hasn’t really been a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of preserved brains. O’Connor’s team is compiling a list of similar finds over the past 50 years for a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

When I wrote about this discovery back when it was first reported, the only picture I had was the above CT scan. Now there’s a big juicy brain to show, sitting on a plate looking like an especially gross Halloween Jell-O mold. :boogie:

Delicious Heslington brains, 2500 years old


New species found: a saber-toothed vegetarian

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Fossilized head of Tiarajudens eccentricusPaleontologists in Tiarajú, southern Brazil, have discovered the fossil of a new species: a plant-eater about the size of a large dog with 5-inch long canines jutting down over its lower jaw. Not only did the 260 million-year-old critter have saber teeth despite its exclusively vegetarian diet, but the entire roof of its mouth was covered with teeth, probably for ready replacement of old ones similar to how sharks have rows of backup teeth.

Scientists have named it Tiarajudens eccentricus — “Tiarajú” because it was found there, “dens” for “teeth,” and “eccentricus” for “eccentric” on account of its unusual and unexpected combination of features.

“If you asked me how surprised I was about finding this fossil, I can tell you that finding a fossil so bizarre as Tiarajudens eccentricus, a fossil that looks like if it has been made from parts of different animals, is like finding a unicorn,” vertebrate paleontologist Juan Carlos Cisneros at the Federal University of Piauí in Teresina, Brazil, told LiveScience. “You see it, but you don’t believe it.”

This animal was a kind of anomodont, the most abundant four-legged creatures of the Permian, the 50-million-year-long period right before the age of dinosaurs. Anomodonts belonged to a group known as therapsids, which gave rise to modern mammals.

It’s the first therapsid found whose top and bottom teeth fit together like ours. That makes for highly efficient chewing to help grind up the fibrous plants and stems of Permian Brazil.

Tiarajudens eccentricus drawingThe saber teeth would not have been used for chewing, however. They were in all likelihood weapons used to protect against predators and spar with competitors, much how modern male deer use their antlers. Since scientists thought the sparring behavior was introduced by modern animals, finding a herbivore with sparring weapons from 260 million years ago when therapsids first appear in the fossil record rewrites evolutionary history.

Interesting technological side-note: scientists found this site using Google Earth. The area today is blanketed in dense vegetation, so researchers would be working blind if they hadn’t had satellite pictures showing in detail erosion patterns and colors of the stone. The erosion indicates which areas might have more fossils nearer the surface, and the colors indicate the different ages of the stone. They looked for well-eroded Permian-colored stone and they found them a saber-toothed pigturtle.



Roald Dahl made a great Rod Serling

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Famed author and undercover sex spy Roald Dahl also wrote screenplays for American television in the late ’50s and ’60s. He’s best known for his work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including having penned the scripts for the Emmy-nominated “Lamb to the Slaughter” (1958) episode starring Barbara Bel Geddes, and “Man from the South” (1960) starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre.

In 1961 he stepped in front of the screen for a brief, shining moment, hosting the science fiction anthology series ‘Way Out on CBS. It was a hastily assembled mid-season replacement for Jackie Gleason’s failed game show which had only aired once, followed the next week by a live on-air 30 minute apology from the comedian and then eight weeks of a completely different show wherein Gleason interviewed celebrities.

When CBS pulled the plug, they enlisted Dahl to scare up something quickly to air in its place. Dahl had a characteristically creepy short story already good to go, so in the blink of an extreme-closeup eye, the first episode of ‘Way Out, “William and Mary,” aired at 9:30 PM on Friday, March 31st, as the lead-in to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

The critical reviews were outstanding, especially for Dahl’s humorous introductions, like this one from the premiere episode:

Now you may find that this particular play disturbs you just a tiny bit as it goes along. If it does, let me assure you that that’s nothing to what it did to me when I wrote it. I thought it was perfectly beastly. The play is called “William and Mary” and it is not for children. It is not for young lovers either or for people who have stomach difficulties. It is more perhaps for wicked old women who relish a juicy plot where all sorts of nasty things happen which they can then wish upon their closest friends and their loving husbands. You see it’s ‘Way Out.

Sadly, despite the critical acclaim and strong ratings in cities, the show didn’t take off nationwide and CBS canceled the show after 14 episodes. It has never been released on VHS or DVD. The only place it could be seen was the Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles, which has the entire 14-episode run available in its viewing rooms.

Now, thanks to this wonderful series of tubes we’re on, the Internet Archive has put the first five episodes online for our brain-in-a-jar viewing pleasure.

Watch them all because they are awesome.

As for Roald pronouncing his name Ru-al, I don’t even know what to say about that. I think I’m going to have to pretend I never heard it.


Sicily welcomes the Getty’s cult goddess home

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

In 1988 the J. Paul Getty Museum bought a larger-than-life-sized 5th c. B.C. Greek sculpture of a cult goddess (at the time referred to as Aphrodite, but later that attribution was found to be inaccurate) for a record sum of $18 million. The statue was so valuable because it was a very rare almost complete acrolithic sculpture, a sculpture where the face, hands and feet were carved out of marble or ivory and the body made out of wood or limestone that would be gilded or dressed with fabric for display. The bodies are usually long gone, so having the whole thing, plus the face, an arm and feet makes this a unique example.

The statue became the centerpiece of the Getty Villa museum in Malibu’s permanent collection. When the Getty bought it, however, they had to turn their necks all the way around like owls to avoid seeing the glaring evidence that it had been recently looted from Morgantina, Sicily, a former Greek colony and an extensive archaeological site that was poorly guarded and a prime target for thieves. Instead they claimed to believe the ludicrously false cover story that the goddess had been secreted away since the 1930s in a mysterious private collection in Switzerland, the Canadian girlfriend of provenances.

Finally, under pressure from the Italian government who had put Getty curator Marion True on trial and were loudly clamoring for the return of illegally exported artifacts, in 2006 the Getty hired a private investigator to trace the statue’s history of ownership, and the investigator found a number of photographs dating to the early ’80s showing the statue in pieces, fresh dirt still encrusted on her face, on a plastic tarp on a floor somewhere. So much for the Swiss collection from the ’30s. The investigators also found evidence linking the “collector” to a Sicilian smuggling ring.

Faced with this damning evidence, in 2007 the Getty board caved and agreed to return the goddess to Italy. (The year after that the LA Times revealed that the Getty had had a chance to see those same pictures a decade earlier, but they chose not to. Can you spell willful blindness, boys and girls? I knew you could.)

On Monday, they made good on the agreement.

The 7-foot tall, 1,300-pound statue of limestone and marble was painstakingly taken off display at the Getty Villa and disassembled in December. Last week, it was locked in shipping crates with an Italian diplomatic seal and loaded aboard an Alitalia flight to Rome, where it arrived on Thursday. From there it traveled with an armed police escort by ship and truck to the small hilltop town of Aidone, Sicily, where it arrived Saturday to waiting crowds.

The Getty also generously donated the custom-designed seismic base they built to support the statue. Since Sicily is as earthquake-prone as Los Angeles, the base will provide an important measure of security for the statue, allowing it to move gently along with the earth during tremors.

The sculpture will be put back together for display in the Aidone Archaeological Museum. A full-scale exhibit is scheduled for May.



Civil War sub to sit up for the first time since 1864

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

The H. L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine named after its inventor, sank under mysterious circumstances in 1864, right after she became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat. After torpedoing the USS Housatonic, a Union warship that was enforcing the blockade of Charleston harbor, the Hunley gave the agreed-upon signal that she was returning to base and then disappeared. No combat submarine would sink a warship for another 50 years.

Her location remained a mystery until underwater archaeologist E. Lee Spence pinpointed the likely location in 1970. It took 25 more years before divers from the National Underwater and Marine Agency would lay hands on her. She was found lying on her starboard side at a 45-degree angle only 100 yards away from the wreck of the Housatonic. The Hunley had been buried in layers of silt which preserved the vessel from treasure hunters and from the elements during her 130 years of slumber.

The H. L. Hunley on her side in the conservation tankUnderwater archaeologists took another five years to stabilize the wreck in situ on the ocean floor. Then in 2000, the Hunley was raised. They slipped a series of harnesses underneath her hull attached to a truss, then the recovery barge Karlissa B lifted it with a crane before a cheering crowd in Charleston harbor. The barge took the Hunley to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston where, still in her harnesses, she was immersed in a tank of refrigerated fresh water for further conservation.

Fast forward 11 years and now scientists are finally ready to take the Hunley out of the cradle and stand her upright. It’s taken so long because, among other tasks, archaeologists have had to map every shell, pebble, and mussel in the concretion layer coating the vessel. Not only does this layer contain valuable information about the Hunley‘s long underwater life, but it also provides a protective shell. Removing it before the sub is rotated could weaken her fatally.

The rotation, as the scientists call it, will set into motion the final phase of the sub’s rehabilitation — and may answer lingering questions about its disappearance in the dark days of the Civil War. People have waited a long time for those answers, but the crew at the Lasch lab has moved cautiously because, well, they don’t want to drop it.

Since the sub was delivered to Warren Lasch in 2000, archaeologists and conservators have removed several pieces of the sub and emptied it of sediment, crew remains and other artifacts. That has potentially changed the strength of the sub and created new stress points. But computer models show that the plan to slowly inch the sub upright and to the floor of the tank it sits in will work flawlessly.

Once she’s upright, the concretions will be removed and the hull will be visible to the naked eye for the first time, exposing any wartime damage and perhaps at long last answering the question of how and why the Hunley went down with all eight hands in the moment of her great triumph.






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