Archive for October, 2011

Visit an Etruscan tomb in virtual 3D

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Two new museum exhibits dedicated to Etruscan culture, one at the University of Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum (APM), the other at the National Museum for Antiquities (RMO) in Leiden, will debut what looks like a brilliant digital 3D reconstruction of the Regolini-Galassi tomb in Cervetri.

The Regolini-Galassi tomb dates to the 7th century B.C. and was discovered in 1836 by General Vincenzo Galassi and the archpriest of Cervetri, Alessandro Regolini. Within they found at least two burials in four chambers — a lavishly adorned woman of royal status in the end cell, ashes in a bronze funerary urn in the right chamber — and evidence of one more — a bronze bed in the antechamber next to a chariot indicating a warrior burial. They also found an amazing wealth of precious artifacts, elaborate furnishings, silverware, gilded and bronze vessels decorated with lions and griffins, and immense golden pectoral pieces and a golden disc fibula which had once covered the body of the princess.

The 300 artifacts discovered in the Regolini-Galassi tomb are now on display at the Vatican Museum, but the tomb itself, poorly conserved after Messrs Galassi and Regolini emptied it out and left to the elements, is no longer open to the public. Enter Etruscanning 3D, a collaborative project supported by the APM, RMO, the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren, Belgium, CNR-ITABC (a research institute that uses new technology in the preservation of cultural patrimony), Visual Dimension in Ename, Belgium, plus the Vatican Museum and the Villa Giulia in Rome, which seeks to digitize Etruscan tombs so museum visitors can experience them as they were when first discovered.

The team began by laser scanning the tomb in June of this year. They then compared the current data with maps, sketches and reports from the original 19th century excavation to pinpoint as closely as possible the precise location of objects in the tomb. Next they spent three days at the Vatican laser scanning the artifacts from the tomb. Computer graphics and GIS data were then employed to recreate a 3D rendering of the tomb.

The coolest part, though, is how the digital rendering was developed into a user-friendly interface for the museum exhibits. The visitor stands in front of a large screen. On the floor is a map of the Regolini-Galassi tomb. The user walks on the map moving a virtual camera which displays the reconstruction of that area of the tomb on the screen. There are seven “hotspots” on the map. When the user stands on a hotspot, a narration describes all the artifacts found on that spot.

Sadly, the narration appears to be in Dutch only at this point, but at least you can catch a glimpse of the reconstructed tomb experience in this YouTube video:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cj7NuW6Uc3Q&w=430]

Etruscans: Women of Distinction, Men of Power, the double exhibit at the Allard Pierson Museum and National Museum for Antiquities has been conceived as a diptych, APM focusing on the role of men in Etruscan society while the National Museum focuses on Etruscan women. The exhibits opened on October 14 and will close in March of 2012. After that, they are scheduled to move to the partner Italian museums.

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3 Staffordshire Hoard pieces form mystery object

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Conservators have discovered that three gold, garnet and enamel pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard which bore no immediately obvious relation to each other fit together to form a beautifully perplexing mystery object. The millefiori stud (catalogue number K545), a gold mount with a collar of garnets and a glass enameled checkerboard surface, has a rectangular hole on the under side surrounded by four smaller round holes. A small gold cylinder (K1055) decorated with cloisonné garnets has a rectangular protuberance of silver on one end and four round holes. The cylinder’s tab A fits into the millefiori’s slot B perfectly, and the four holes on both pieces align.

On the bottom end, the cylinder has another set of four matching holes with a torn piece of silver plate in the center. That torn plate in turn matches precisely the torn silver in the center of an elaborate gold cloisonné garnet circular object (K130). The silver plate in the middle was riveted to the gold circle by four rivets, same as the holes on the other two pieces. Those four rivet holes show up on the other side of K130, too, so our mystery object has at least one more part.

(Aesopian interlude: as historian David Starkey noted at the time, this is why it’s so important to keep archaeological discoveries intact in their proper context. If the hoard had been broken up and sold to the highest bidder, those pieces could have been scattered to the four corners of the earth.)

As for what it might have been used for, researchers have proposed several possibilities.

(1) A fitting on a saddle.

(2) The decorative tip to a shield boss, presumably from a very elaborate shield. (In this case the object would have been rivetted to the top / front of a standard iron shield boss. A warrior held his shield by grasping a handgrip that ran across a circular hole cut in the centre of the shield. The domed boss covered the hole while leaving space for the warrior’s hand inside.)

(3) A decorative top to a stopper that fitted into a drinking horn. (Here the object would have been rivetted to a wooden stopper that fitted inside the mouth of the horn.)

(4) A decorative terminal to a parchment roll. (I think the suggestion is that there would be one at each end of the roll, fixed to whatever the roll was attached to.)

(5) A lid to something. But what? (Again this probably requires the object being rivetted to something like a wooden stopper.)

You can see how the first two pieces — the millefiori stud and the cylinder — came together thanks to perspicacious curator Deborah Magnoler in the following video from this summer. The gentleman with her is Dr. David Symons, curator of the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, the museum that shares ownership of the hoard with The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh_tNPXYPBE&w=430]

Finally, and I’m really surprised at how little this has been advertised, some of the Staffordshire Hoard is coming to America! One hundred of the most important pieces, including gold and garnet sword pommels, the folded gold cross and the strip of gold with the Latin Biblical inscription, will be on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., starting next Saturday, October 29! The exhibit runs until March 4, 2012 so you have five months to claw your way there before all the pretty shiny heads back home.

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Etruscan image of woman giving birth found

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

An archaeological excavation at Poggio Colla, an Etruscan site northeast of Florence, has uncovered a fragment of pottery engraved with two images of women giving birth. The fragment is over 2,600 years old which apparently puts it in the running for the oldest depiction of a woman giving birth in western art. According to Open University archaeology professor Phil Perkins, images of childbirth are rare in ancient art. There are later Greek and Roman representations but this depiction is several hundred years older than anything else extant.

(When I first read that I thought it couldn’t be right because not two weeks ago my mom showed me a picture she took at the Temple of Kom Ombo in Egypt of a bas relief depicting a woman mid-childbirth. I looked up the temple dates, though, and Kom Ombo turns out to be Ptolemaic, built in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. The Temple of Edfu, which has another childbirth relief, was built between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. Dendera’s Temple of Hathor, Egyptian goddess of childbirth, is Ptolemaic too.

What about the hieroglyph msỉ? It’s the word for childbirth and is a logographic depiction of a woman giving birth. Does pictorial writing not count as an image or is the glyph a later addition to the Egyptian vocabulary? Those aren’t rhetorical questions. I searched but thus far have not found an answer. If y’all know, please to tell.)

It was Professor Perkins who identified the fragment as a piece of Etruscan bucchero, a characteristic Etruscan black clay pottery that begins appearing on the archaeological record in the seventh century B.C.

The ceramic fragment is less than 1-3/4 x 1-1/4 inches (4 x 3 cm), from a vessel made of bucchero. Bucchero is a fine, black ceramic material, embellished with stamped and incised decorations, used to make eating and drinking vessels for Etruscan elites. Typically, stamped designs range from abstract geometric motifs to exotic and mythical animals. There are no known Greek or Roman representations of the moment of birth shown as clearly as the Poggio Colla example until more than 500 years later. The fragment dates to about 600 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era).

Because the site at Poggio Colla has produced numerous votive deposits, scholars are certain that for some part of its history it was a sacred spot to a divinity or divinities. The abundance of weaving tools and a stunning deposit of gold jewelry discovered earlier have already suggested to some scholars that the patron divinity may have been female; the discovery of the childbirth scene, because of its uniqueness, adds another piece of evidence to the theory.

The fragment was discovered by William Nutt, agraduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington, who is one of the lucky few selected for the Poggio Colla Field School, a hands-on archaeological plunge into the excavation of one of Etruria’s most fascinating sites, inhabited by Etruscans for almost the entire length of time they are known to have existed, between 700 B.C. and 187 B.C. Nutt is legally blind, very, very lucky and right about now, very, very happy.

“I was very grateful to be accepted to the summer program at Poggio Colla – it was my first archaeological dig,” said Nutt, who is attending UTA under a National Science Foundation fellowship. “I found the artifact at the beginning of my second week there. It was quite dirty, and we weren’t sure what it was until it was cleaned at the onsite lab and identified by Dr. Perkins. It was thrilling to find out that it was so significant. To make a discovery like that, which provides important new information about a culture we know so little about, is exactly what makes archaeology and anthropology so appealing.”

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Intact Viking boat burial found in Scotland

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Archaeologists excavating the peninsula of Ardnamurchan in Scotland have discovered the first fully intact Viking boat burial site ever found in the mainland UK. The grave is five feet wide and almost 17 feet long, the size of boat itself which has long since decayed. The only remnants of it are 200 metal rivets that once held the timbers together and some slivers of wood still attached to rivets. The shape of the boat, however, with its pointed prow and stern, was pressed in the ground over the centuries and is still clearly visible. Experts have given the site a preliminary date of 1000 A.D., but we won’t know the exact date until the remains are radiocarbon dated.

The Viking, of whom only a few bone fragments and teeth remain, was buried in a traditional pagan Norse warrior ritual: laid to rest on his boat with his shield on top of him, then covered in stones. Buried in the grave with him archaeologists found a sword, a battle-axe, a spear, the shield and a number of other artifacts including a bronze drinking horn, a bronze Irish ring-pin and a Norwegian whetstone. The range, variety and quality of grave goods indicate that the warrior was widely traveled and extremely well-off.

Viking boat burials in general were reserved for the most important personages destined for Valhalla. Few of them survive intact because as befits a naval theme, chosen burial sites were often coastal and thus highly susceptible to flooding and erosion. Some of them have been found on Scottish islands — the Norse were settled and living in Orkney and Shetland by the mid-800s — but all the Viking burials found on mainland Britain have been found in traditional Christian cemeteries.

The Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, a collaborative team of archaeologists from Manchester and Leicester universities, plus private archaeology firm CFA Archaeology and volunteer non-profit Archaeology Scotland, has been excavating the Ardnamurchan every summer for six years focusing their research on periods of social transition, for instance the shift from Bronze Age to Iron Age.

Hannah Cobb, an archaeologist from the University of Manchester who is co-director of the excavation, said: “We had spotted this low mound the previous year, but said firmly that it was probably just a pile of field clearance rocks from comparatively recent farming.

“When we uncovered the whole mound, the team digging came back the first night and said it looked quite like a boat.

“The second night they said: ‘It really does look like a boat.’ The third night they said: ‘We think we really do have a boat’. It was so exciting, we could hardly believe it.”

They recovered fragments of an arm bone and several teeth, which should allow analysis of radioactive isotopes and reveal where the man came from.

The fragments of wood clinging to the rivets should reveal what trees were felled for his ship, and possibly where it was built.

The beautiful and rugged coastal Highlands of Ardnamurchan have long since appealed to local populations as burial grounds. There are cairns dating back to the Stone Age 6,000 years ago in the area. Perhaps it was specifically selected as a final resting point for a highly respected Viking figure, or perhaps he died in transit. Its completeness, artifact remains, pagan ritual and location on the British mainland provide a rich field of material that archaeologists expect will illuminate post-raid Viking life in Scotland.

The artifacts are now being studied by team members at the universities of Manchester and Leicester. They will be cleaned and eventually put on display at a museum to be determined. Of course the British Museum is interested, but the locals think this spectacular find should be exhibited in Scotland where it was found.

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Ancient citadel in Herat, Afghanistan, restored

Monday, October 17th, 2011

After decades of war and neglect, the medieval citadel of Qala Ikhtyaruddin in Herat, western Afghanistan, has been restored. Funded by a donation from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and support from the U.S. and German governments, Afghan craftsmen have been working since 2008 to make extensive repairs to the masonry and structure of the walls and ramparts which were in such bad shape they were visibly crumbling. Buildings within the citadel’s lower enclosure were also repaired or replaced with period-appropriate replicas.

The citadel has been destroyed or come close to it many times in its checkered history. In 1950 plans to demolish the citadel were thankfully derailed, and UNESCO oversaw extensive conservation of the site between 1976 and 1979. Unregulated development in Herat’s city center, battles and the presence of a military garrison put unbearable pressure on the citadel and its ancient materials, many of which was reused for new construction. The enormous size and complexity of the site makes conservation a major logistical challenge. It is more than 250 meters (800 feet) long and 70 meters (230 feet) wide in places. Its two main enclosures contained deteriorating buildings, courtyards and 18 brick masonry towers.

Herat was an important crossroads on the Silk Road, the trade route that moved luxury goods between the Levant and India and China. Excavations have discovered evidence of habitation on the site dating back to the sixth century B.C. Alexander the Great himself occupied the area in 330 B.C. and is thought to have built the first fortress on the site. Not the last, though, as Herat’s prime location made it attractive to every occupation force in the area. The citadel was destroyed by the Mongolian army 1221, rebuilt by the Persian Kartid dynasty, then destroyed again by Timur’s (Tamerlane’s) army in 1380. It was Timur’s son, Shah Rukh, and his wife Queen Gowhar Shād who implement extensive construction programs in the 15th century, creating the walled citadel of brick, stone and glazed tiles that we see today.

It’s not just the crumbling masonry that’s been repaired. The project focused also on adapting ancient buildings to modern uses while preserving their historical architecture. Several buildings have been converted into a public cultural center that has been used to much acclaim for concerts and art shows. There is also a provincial archeological museum.

Housed at the citadel is the National Museum of Herat, one of four provincial museums in Afghanistan to reopen to the public. The Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin worked with the German Archaeological Institute to document and restore artifacts and prepare them for display. There are about 1,100 items from the Herat region in the museum; about 250 are on display.

Most of them are from the 10th to 13th centuries when Herat was a center of politics and culture. There is pottery, metal work, a tombstone of major Persian painter Behzad, 260 manuscripts and books and a cenotaph adorned with tiles that date from 1378.

Tourism seems like a distant prospect, what with the war and all, but preserving Afghanistan’s immense cultural heritage is the first step in making it possible at all.

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Old South Meeting House raises Revere bell

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

The 210-year-old bronze bell cast by Revere & Sons purchased this summer from the First Baptist Church of Westborough was raised into the steeple of Boston’s Old South Meeting House on Sunday.

Mayor Thomas Menino struck the bell with a gavel, then before a cheering crowd, a crane slowly hoisted the 876-pound bell nearly 200 feet to a waiting inanimate iron rods extending from the bell tower. The rods were then drawn into the steeple sliding the bell into the clock tower. As soon the clock mechanism was stopped momentarily so it could be connected to the bell ringing mechanism, handbell choir Back Bay Ringers played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and church bells all over Boston rang in unison welcoming the oldest Paul Revere bell on the Freedom Trail. (Not even the bell at the Paul Revere House is older; it was built in 1804.)

Other than the ceremonial gaveling, however, the Revere bell has not been rung yet. The striking mechanism needs a couple of weeks more work before the bell can peal once again. The bell itself, despite its age and an incident in 1938 when it was torn out of the Westborough steeple into a cemetery by a hurricane, is in excellent condition. Its wooden elements — the yoke and frame on which it rests and the bell wheel — needed far more attention than the bell itself. The yoke and frame are original and so were carefully restored.

The bell wheel had been hastily constructed after that 1938 hurricane. It was neither functional nor historical, so the Old South Meeting House enlisted the aid of Jeff D. Makholm, an economist who in his spare time loves building boats and recreating historical carpentry. Makholm had built a bell wheel for the Old South Church, so he had specific relevant experience. He used 19th century architectural drawings to recreate the wheel as it would have been out of quarter-sawn white oak with gold leaf accents.

The Old South Meeting House, famous as the place where the Boston Tea Party was launched in 1773, has not had a bell in the tower since 1876. Officials weren’t even sure the bell would ring properly given how much vertical real estate has grown around the small colonial building since then. Architect and historical preservationist Wendall Kalsow enlisted the aid of professional acoustician Lincoln B. Berry to determine whether the bell could actually be heard in the downtown Boston of today.

As good luck would have it, downtown Boston of today has even better bell acoustics than it had in 1801 when the bell was first cast.

Surrounding the steeple are tall buildings with reflective windows that cause the peal of a bell to bounce back toward its source. Instead of hearing one ring coming from the steeple, bystanders will find themselves enveloped by a cascade of bells coming from many directions.

A downtown pedestrian in 2011 would probably have a better listening experience than a colonial Bostonian as tones of C-sharp, E, and A tumble down the walls of neighboring skyscrapers.

“It’s kind of like a concert hall,” Berry said. “The tower’s proximity to various buildings is going to produce a nice ripple of reflection, and it will add some grandeur to the overall character of the sound.”

I can’t wait to hear it. Until then, here’s some video of the bell’s dramatic slow lift to the steeple.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JfWoCDfyXU&w=430]

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Coat of arms saved from 1849 Montreal Parliament fire found

Saturday, October 15th, 2011

For five short years, between 1844 and 1849, Montreal was the capital of the Province of Canada. The Crown provinces of Upper Canada (English-speaking Ontario) and Lower Canada (French-speaking Quebec) were united in 1841 and three years later the capital was moved from Kingston, Ontario to newly renovated buildings in St. Anne’s Market in Montreal.

The Burning of the Parliament Building in Montreal, by Joseph Légaré, ca. 1849These were not easy days for our neighbors to the north. The repeal of the Corn Laws, protectionist legislation which had privileged Canadian exports by applying lower tariffs, in 1846 had left the Canadian economy reeling. With bankruptcies and defaults on the rise, Parliament passed a law indemnifying certain Lower Canadians who had lost property during the Rebellions of 1837-1838, aka the Patriots’ War, uprisings against the Crown that sought political reforms. Similar laws had been passed in aid of Upper Canadians, but the rebellion was so identified with French Lower Canada that Anglophones considered the new indemnity act the government “paying the rebels.”

In early 1849, the bill left committee and debate began. The English-language press was almost uniformly opposed to the bill (only one small daily published by a cabinet member supported it), just as the Francophone press uniformly supported it. The bill was amended to ensure that nobody convicted of treason during the rebellion would be reimbursed for their losses, but that did not satisfy its increasingly rabid opponents. The Rebellion Losses Bill passed both Houses of the Provincial Parliament on March 9.

All that was left was for the Provincial Governor, Lord Elgin, son of the Parthenon chiseler, to sign the bill. That wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Elgin was not a fan of the bill. Still, the bill had passed with solid majorities in both houses from Upper and Lower Canada delegates, and the Whig government of Lord John Russell in London supported it, so in the end Lord Elgin signed it into law on April 25, 1849.

When he left the Parliament building at 6:00 PM, he was greeted by a throng of irate Anglos. They pelted his person and then his carriage with rotten fruit and rocks, forcing him to flee at a gallop. A meeting was called for later in the evening supported by an incredibly incendiary Extra edition of the Montreal Gazette.

When Lord Elgin — he no longer deserves the name of Excellency — made his appearance on the street to retire from the Council Chamber, he was received by the crowd with hisses, hootings, and groans. He was pelted with rotten eggs; he and his aide-de-camps were splashed with the savory liquor; and the whole carriage covered with the nasty contents of the eggs and with mud. When the eggs were exhausted stones were made use of to salute the departing carriage, and he was driven off at a rapid gallop amidst the hootings and curses of his countrymen.

The End has begun.

Anglo-Saxons! you must live for the future. Your blood and race will now be supreme, if true to yourselves. You will be English “at the expense of not being British.” To whom and what, is your allegiance now? Answer each man for himself.

The puppet in the pageant must be recalled, or driven away by the universal contempt of the people.

In the language of William the Fourth, “Canada is lost, and given away.”

A Mass Meeting will be held on the Place d’Armes this evening at 8 o’clock. Anglo-Saxons to the struggle, now is your time.

Almost 2000 men went to that meeting. At first they worked on a petition to Queen Victoria demanding Elgin be recalled. Then the petition was set alight and the meeting became a mob that descended upon the Parliament building. The House was actually still in session, working late on a question of establishing an appeals court, when the crowd descended hollering imprecations, throwing stones and finally, setting the building on fire. The last entry for the day and the new entry for the next in the Journals of the Legislative Assembly put it succinctly:

Journal of Legislative Assembly Province Canada for April 25, 1849, and April 26

The Parliament building was a total loss, including the libraries and archives of Upper and Lower Canada which had been consolidated after Union. Two hundred books out of 23,000 were saved, as well as a portrait of Queen Victoria. The gilded pine Royal coat of arms which hung above the Speaker’s chair was presumed destroyed.

Robert Kaplan with coat of armsA hundred and thirty-plus years later, former Toronto MP and Canadian Solicitor-General Robert Kaplan was browsing a flea market in New York state when he found a gilded pine Royal coat of arms that looked a little worse for wear. The vendor told him it was the very same coat of arms that had once hung in the Parliament building when it succumbed to riotous flame in 1849. There were burn marks on the back and missing parts that suggested the story could be true, but Kaplan didn’t explore the connection to see if the artifact was authentic. Instead, he paid the Quebecois dealer $300 and hung the coat of arms above the piano in his New York apartment. He also touched up some of the gilding and let his kids color it with crayons.

There it remained until last year when Kaplan read that the Pointe à Callière Museum was expanding its excavation of the Place D’Youville Ouest, the site of the former Parliament building, looking for surviving artifacts. He wrote to the museum telling them about his flea market find and offering to donate the piece if they could confirm its authenticity. They could.

Royal coat of arms from Montreal Parliament buildingOn Friday, a beaming Francine Lelièvre, the museum’s director, made it official: The coat of arms is indeed the one that hung above the Speaker’s chair when an enraged mob torched the Parliament building on April 25, 1849, she said at a press conference where she and Kaplan unveiled the donation.

Visible damage, like the lion’s and unicorn’s missing heads, testify to the violence that laid waste to the building and a library containing government archives dating back to New France.

“A man sat on the Speaker’s chair, proclaimed the Assembly dissolved, and tore off and broke the coat of arms that crowned the podium and chair,” wrote a witness, Amédée Papineau, the son of Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau.

Kaplan is sorry to see it go, but delighted to see it take its proper place in the history of Montreal and of Canada. He played an instrumental role simply by being the person who stumbled on it in New York. How many other people shopping the flea market that day would have even had occasion to realize and embrace its historical importance?

The Pointe à Callière Museum plans to construct an elaborate archaeological complex covering nine historical sites including the burned Parliament location, which will display some of the 50,000 artifacts from different periods found during the excavation while also preserving and displaying the remains of area historical buildings. The sites will be linked to each other by the William Collector Sewer, an underground tunnel 400 meters (1213 feet) long which is yes, a historical sewer, and which will combine exhibition space with a no-traffic, no-inclement weather, pedestrian-only look at the bowels of Montreal. For more about this fascinating project, see the Pointe à Callière website.

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Hume’s Edinburgh mausoleum restored

Friday, October 14th, 2011

When Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume died in 1776, his friend, famous architect Robert Adam, designed a mausoleum for him in the Old Calton Burying Ground in Edinburgh in keeping with Hume’s last wishes. Shortly before his death, Hume had written in his will: “I also ordain that, if I shall dye any where in Scotland, I shall be bury’d in a private manner in the Gallon Church Yard [aka Calton graveyard], the South Side of it, and a Monument be built over my Body at an Expence not exceeding a hundred Pounds, with an Inscription containing only my Name with the Year of my Birth and Death, leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest.”

His request would be fulfilled, although later additions and alterations would mar the dignified simplicity of Hume’s vision. Before his monument could be built, however, the great Skeptic and Empiricist, had to be buried in the plot he had secured for himself in Calton. The placid, even cheerful death (here’s how economist and friend Adam Smith described Hume’s final days in a letter to Hume’s literary executor, William Strahan) of so prominent an irreligious figure drew a great deal of public attention. Crowds assembled outside his house waiting to hear if he would change his mind about the improbability of an afterlife once death came a-knockin’.

After his burial, his friends stood guard at the grave site, pistols cocked and torches aloft, for eight days and nights to ensure Hume’s grave would not be desecrated or interfered with. It’s said that some of the curious hid behind gravestones to see if the Devil himself would come and spirit away the man James Boswell dubbed “the Great Infidel.” (Boswell, famous biographer of Samuel Johnson, had spoken to Hume just over a month before his death and had been shocked by his equanimity. Johnson insisted to Boswell that Hume must have been faking it. Boswell got drunk and had sex with a number of prostitutes, as was his wont when under stress. A lot of people were deeply invested in how Hume reacted to his impending death.)

By 1778, Adam’s vision of Roman-inspired cylindrical mausoleum much like those found on the Appia Antica, complete with pre-fab decay, had been construction over Hume’s burial spot and an adjacent lot bought by the philosopher’s brother John. Robert Adam used unpolished masonry and rough ashlar to convey the impression of classical antiquity. Over the doorway was the simple inscription Hume had requested: “DAVID HUME, NATUS APRIL. 26. 1711. OBIIT AUGUST 25. 1776” At some point before 1813, for reasons lost in the mists of time, someone replaced the Latin “NATUS” with “BORN” and “OBIIT” with “DIED.”

After that, some more wording was added even less in keeping with Hume’s vision. Hume’s nephew, a famous jurist also named David Hume, erected a memorial to his wife Jane Alder after her death in 1816. Her name was inscribed on funerary urn in a niche about the door and captioned with:

“Behold I come quickly
Thanks be to GOD which
giveth us the victory, through
our LORD JESUS CHRIST.”

Somewhere between then and 1820 yet another inscription was added just below the tablet, this one noting that the tomb was “Erected in Memory of Him/ in 1778” because by then the mausoleum had become something of a family vault, so its original purpose needed reiterating. During the mid-19th century, a metalwork cross was erected on a plinth above the keystone. The date 1841 is inscribed on it, perhaps indicating when the cross was added, perhaps in memoriam of Hume’s nephew David who had died in 1838. The cross was gone by the 1880s.

With Adam’s incorporating decay into the original design, plus all the later activity, plus the passage of time, Hume’s mausoleum was in dire need of cleaning and maintenance. The City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh World Heritage, plus a of private donors, pulled together to sponsor a proper conservation of the mausoleum this year, the 300th anniversary of Hume’s birth.

Conservators focused on clearing vegetation and mortar pointing to replace crumbling mortar with fresh, durable lime. Particular attention was paid to the decorative elements on the cornice, architrave, and frieze around the top of the structure.

A spokesman for Edinburgh World Heritage said: “The Hume mausoleum is of great importance to the city and Scotland. Designed by the famous architect Robert Adam to commemorate the nation’s foremost philosopher, it neatly encapsulates Edinburgh’s history as a city at the heart of the Enlightenment. This sort of conservation work is essential to keep the building in good order for the future, and to encourage more people to appreciate the value of the city’s historic graveyards.”

This was accomplished for the bargain price of £5,000 ($7864). Spend a little now so you don’t have to spend a lot later.

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Rare, maybe royal, Egyptian coffin found in Torquay

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

University of Bristol Egyptologist Aidan Dodson was working on an ambitiously tedious project to catalogue every Egyptian sarcophagus in English and Welsh provincial museums when he discovered that a coffin on display in Torquay Museum was of exceptional quality, extremely rare and far older than the museum had realized. Dodson puts the age of the coffin to somewhere between the reign of 18th Dynasty pharaohs Ahmose I and the early reign of Thutmose III, ie, somewhere between 1525 and 1470 B.C. The museum estimated it dated to 700 B.C.

The child’s sarcophagus, just under 4 feet in length, was cut from a single block of cedar wood then covered in plaster-impregnated linen. The linen was painted white and the face red (indicating that the mummy within was male). The eyes are inlaid volcanic glass and limestone mounted in bronze. The design is so rare there is only one other similar example in the UK. Not even the British Museum has a coffin like this one, notes Torquay Museum curator Barry Chandler, bursting with glee.

It was the quality of the inlaid eyes, the depth of detail in the realistically modelled knees that first caught Dr. Dodson’s eye. That kind of ornamentation was reserved for extremely high ranking personages like royalty or government ministers. For it to be found on a child’s coffin underscores how important the family must have been.

Unfortunately we don’t know who that family was because the names of the child and his parents have been scratched out. The mummy inside is a thousand years younger than the coffin, so the names were probably erased when the new occupant was installed. The 2,500-year-old mummified boy within, wrapped in linen and a beaded net with figures of deities attached to it to protect the organs of the boy for the afterlife, was given a CT scan at Torbay Hospital in 2006. They found that the boy was three or four years old when he died, but could not determine the cause of death. We don’t know his name either, but the museum has dubbed him Psamtek.

The coffin and Psamtek were donated to the museum in 1956 by Lady Winaretta Leeds, scion of the Singer sewing machine dynasty and committed amateur Egyptologist. She traveled extensively in the Middle East, and is thought to have acquired the coffin in the 1920s. The child’s coffin and mummy were in storage for decades until they became the stars of the newly refurbished museum in 2007. Psamtek in particular drew crowds because he is the only human mummy currently on display in the UK. Now his coffin can finally compete.

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Almost intact young Therapod fossil found in Bavaria

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Paleontologists in Kelheim, Bavaria, have discovered the fossil of a young dinosaur that is 98% intact, including some remains of skin and hair. This makes young Otto, as the fellow has been dubbed, the most intact dinosaur skeleton ever found in Europe. The exact species has yet to be identified, but it belongs to the theropod suborder, a group of mainly flesh eaters whose most famous member is Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The fossil, named Otto by the paleontological team, is approximately 135 million years old. It was discovered between one and two years ago on a riverbank but the find was not announced until last Sunday to ensure the excavators would not be interfered with. The find site is still being kept secret, as is the name of the landowner who is now the proud papa of a bouncing baby theropod.

Oliver Rauhut, curator of the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich, says it’s “probably the most significant new theropod fossil archosaurs from German soil since the discoveries of the ancient bird Archaeopteryx.”

Though the 72-centimeter juvenile dinosaur is preserved in stone, a number of anatomical details remain. “The best-preserved Tyrannosaurus we have are about 80 percent preserved, and that is already terrific,” said Rauhut, comparing the two theropods, which are among the rarest dinosaur fossils.

Most of the fossils in this group exist in only fragments, said Dan Ravasz, spokesman for the upcoming mineral exhibition, The Munich Show, a trade fair dedicated to minerals, germs, jewellery and fossils that runs for four days starting on Oct. 27.

The experts aren’t certain just how old the dinosaur was when it died, though they estimate that a freshly hatched Tyrannosaurus would have been about the same size. They were able to determine that the specimen is young by measuring the size of its skull, body proportions and the bone surface. Learning more about young dinosaurs is important for scientists to understand more about their evolutionary process.

The German government has declared Otto a German cultural asset. That designation lowers its market value considerably by ensuring that it cannot leave the country. It will be on display for the full four days of The Munich Show, but after that its fate is uncertain. It appears that a permanent loan is being set up between the owner and the government so that Otto can go on display in a German museum.

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