Archive for December, 2011

Donor gives €1 million to restore a pyramid in Rome

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Pyramid of Gaius CestiusJapanese businessman Yuzo Yagi will donate €1 million ($1.3 million) to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a marble-clad pyramid built in Rome between 18 and 12 B.C. Egyptian style had become a fad in Rome following Octavian’s conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C., and the wealthy Gaius Cestius, who in life had been praetor, tribune of the plebs and a member of the Septemviri Epulonum, a religious college responsible for throwing banquets for the gods, left instructions in his will that a pyramid be built in 330 days to house his remains.

Built out of brick-faced concrete on a foundation of travertine, Cestius’ pyramid is 100 Roman feet (about 97 imperial ones) square at the base and 125 Roman feet (about 120 imperial ones) high, making it an extremely acute pyramid with a very pointy top. White Carrara marble slabs face the exterior which was entirely sealed with no entrance point after Gaius Cestius’ burial. Inside is a frescoed burial chamber that held Cestius’ ashes; it was looted in antiquity and tunneled into by disappointed thieves during the Middle Ages.

Pyramid of Cestius in the Aurelian wall, Porta San Paolo on the rightThe pyramid was built at the intersection of two Roman roads outside of the city, but as the city expanded the entire structure was incorporated into the Aurelian walls during their construction between 271 and 275 A.D. It’s still embedded in a particularly well-preserved area of the wall next to the Porta San Paolo gate. Getting absorbed by the wall might have been the best thing that ever happened to the pyramid. None of the other crazy vanity pyramids ancient sources mention having been built in Rome have survived.

The other side of the pyramid abuts the Cimitero Acattolico (the non-Catholic cemetery, also known as the Protestant Cemetery though people of many faiths are buried there) where the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats slumber eternally. It’s one of the most beautiful and fantastical spots in Rome, a favorite of my childhood thanks to the huge colony of semi-feral cats who live at the pyramid’s base. Whenever we were in the area for the San Paolo market, I’d insist we stop so I could look over the railing at the cats.

Pyramid burial chamber, tunnels from the Middle AgesLike many of the most beautiful spots in Rome, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius is in dire need of maintenance. The marble exterior is pollution-blackened, cracked and bristling with vegetation. Water is seeping through the walls and damaging the frescoes, already faded and degraded from millennia of looters/hostile elements, in the burial chamber. Past restorations haven’t been kind to it either. The acid used to clean the exterior in the 1970s left the marble vulnerable to attacks from microorganisms and particulate matter.

Restoration work was last done in 2002. Advances in technology since then will allow restorers to use new organic products to clean the surface and protect it from future damage. They also plan to use steel beams 23 feet long to stabilize the marble blocks. While they’re at it, researchers will follow up on some ultrasound data from a few years ago which turned up anomalous blank spots on the inside. They will use endoscopes to explore the anomalies. They’re probably not secret chambers but everyone’s hoping for them anyway.

Yuzo Yagi is the owner of Tsusho Limited, an Osaka-based chain of 400 clothing outlets. He has been doing business in Italy, importing Italian clothes for his stores, for 40 years. All he asks in return for the donation is that a plaque with his name on it be placed near the pyramid. No advertising heinousness. He will sign the official agreement in January and work is slated to begin in April.

Keats' grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Pyramid of Cestius visible in the right backgroundAnd now, let’s usher in the new year with two wonderfully on-topic verses from Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Go thou to Rome–at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shatter’d mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;

And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who plann’d
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transform’d to marble ….

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The Year in History Blog History

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Mr. Murphy dropped a note through the contact form last week suggesting that I write a Year in Review entry, a summary of the most popular posts both in views and comments, favorite stories, favorite referrals, all that good stuff. I thought that was a brilliant notion, especially since the Christmas-to-New Year’s interregnum can be something of a news desert. Strangely, I haven’t had much trouble finding stories to blog about this holiday season, but I’m still doing the review because it’s a great idea that I hope to make a year-end tradition.

Pedant note: I’m going to refer to the blog as “we” in this entry. This is because it looks weird saying “I” when I mean “the blog” and it looks weird when I say “the blog” over and over again instead of using a handy pronoun. Also I like sounding like the Pope.

Beggar Boy with a Piece of PieIt’s been a busy year here at Ye Olde Blogge of Histories. Starting in September of 2010, viewership doubled from an average of about 20,000 views a month to between 40,000 and 50,000. The major bump can be traced directly to the Master of Blue Jeans entry which was linked to by two bloggers with huge audiences: Jason Kottke and Andrew Sullivan.

In March of 2011, we crossed the 60,000 views a month line and hovered around it until September when we were just 462 views shy of 70,000. November was our biggest month to date with 88,943 views and December will almost match it (we’re at 84,262 at print time) despite the usual holiday decline in readership. The total number of views for 2010 was 386,069. The total for 2011 two days before the end of it is 803,854.

Many of those views seem to be the result of Google searches, often image searches. Sometimes search terms you’d never expect just explode out of nowhere and send us crazy traffic for a day or two. Our busiest day was May 1, 2011. We got 11,541 views (it used to be over 12,000 but the number dropped after an update to the stats plugin), 8,597 of them on an entry from two days before, Roman Ship Found at Ostia.

For some reason that is beyond me, on May 1, 2011, 8,482 people typed “roman ship found” into a search engine and ended up here. They actually started the night before, because that entry got 4,672 views on April 30, 2011, from 4,606 “roman ship found” keyword searches, all of them after 8:00 PM. You can imagine my surprise when I woke up and checked the dailies. I thought my counter had broken.

That freak search event didn’t quite put the Roman ships entry on top for the year, though. It has the third most pageviews with 14,850. The most viewed entry in 2011 was Michelangelo’s David on the Duomo roof, with 32,965 pageviews. That’s also mainly from search engine traffic, only instead of a huge crazy spike it’s from a hundred or so searches for “Michelangelo’s David” every day. Same goes for the second most viewed entry in 2011, Virtually raising the Titanic with 32,192 pageviews. In shocking news, people dig the David and Titanic.

It’s number four in pageviews that is probably my favorite entry of the year, and it’s without question the longest and most varied comment thread we’ve ever had. Library of Congress gets unique flat earth map featured an absolute superstar work of art that appeals to map lovers, scientists, theologians, historians and pretty much everyone else. All kinds of different blogs linked to it. The best part for me was that in the comments several people who had their own copy of the map but had no idea of how rare it was made themselves known. Because of that we even got a link in a local news story about the map.

That was a sweet referral, but my favorite has to be the one from The Atlantic newswire/Yahoo! News. In May I posted a story about an original piece of Frank Miller Batman art breaking sales records. Many moons later, in mid-November Frank Miller ranted incoherently against Occupy Wall Street. Ted Mann wrote an article for The Atlantic Wire about Frank Miller’s anti-Jihadist OWS screed which was picked up and distributed far and wide by Yahoo! News. In the last paragraph it linked to my article about the art sale earlier in the year. Hello 4,499 pageviews.

As far as favorite posts on their own merits, my favorite to research was the one that almost gave me an aneurysm when I lost the first version in an unfortunate log out incident: the entry about Seneca Village, the African-American (later also German and Irish) community that was destroyed in the building of Central Park. I had already spent the day engrossed in researching the details, but the rewrite gave me another day to go even further afield finding sources and maps to flesh out the context.

My sentimental favorite is the Valentine Day’s post about the Art of Kissing, a booklet from my mother’s childhood that I found in my childhood copy of The Whispering Statue, Nancy Drew adventure number 14. The discovery was thrilling to me and the history of the Little Blue Books series turned out to be nothing short of fascinating.

My favorite update is the one about the 2500-year-old brain found in York. The original story was from 2008, but this year we got a big juicy picture of glistening 2500-year-old brains and you just can’t put a price on that.

I also loved following the story of Shackleton’s deep frozen whisky. When I saw the National Geographic Channel special about the discovery and the recreation of the thawed whisky, I felt like I was with old friends. Seriously I was smug as hell about knowing everyone involved. I still haven’t gotten my hands on a bottle of the replica, unfortunately. Pity. It would have made an ideal New Year’s toast.

We passed a million pageviews this year (counting from September of 2009 when I installed the stats plugin). The uptick in traffic means that we’re already at 1,261,577 all-time pageviews now, so maybe we’ll cross the second million by next year’s review.

If you have any favorite or particularly memorable entries, please do comment. Also if you have any questions about this year that I didn’t cover in the review, please do ask them. Also welcome are rows of smilies, generic thanks attached to a website selling prescription meds/gold/Russian brides/shoes, aspersions on my parentage and justifiable outrage at any number of crimes I’ve committed against God and man.

My thanks to everyone who reads, even the Google Image searchers who only look, with much love to everyone who comments and emails me. I’ve received some of the most lovely compliments from total strangers via email. It means a great deal to me and is not an insignificant part of how I’ve managed to scrounge up the motivation to post daily for almost four years. :thanks:

Happy New Year!

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Yeti finger turns out to be human after all

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

In 1958 mountain climber and explorer Peter Byrne was in Nepal on the second year of a three year Yeti-seeking expedition funded by adventurer, philanthropist and oil millionaire Tom Slick Jr. In a Buddhist monastery in Pangboche, a small village in the Sola Khumbu region of the central Himalaya, Byrne learned from a temple lama that the monastery just happened to have the hand and skullcap of a Yeti. The custodian showed him a large, crusty, oily, blackened hand with curled fingers and long fingernails.

Byrne asked if he could have it but the lamas refused because its loss would lead to great misfortune for the monastery. Eventually he negotiated a bargain: he could take one of the fingers as long as he replaced with a reasonable facsimile and made a donation towards the upkeep of the temple.

Byrne cabled the information to Tom Slick Jr. and Slick had Byrne return to London to consult with primatologist Dr. Osman Hill. Slick, Byrne and Dr. Hill met for luncheon at the Regents Park Zoo. During a discussion of how they would secure an appropriate replacement finger, Hill upended his bag and dumped a dried human hand onto the table. Problem solved.

Byrne returned to Pangboche with his replacement hand and ten thousand rupees (about $160.00 at today’s exchange rate) to donate to the temple. He cut off the index finger from the Yeti hand and wired the human finger in its place. The next obstacle to overcome was the illegality of smuggling a historical artifact out of the country. So Byrne gave the Yeti finger to Jimmy Stewart to smuggle out of India in his wife’s lingerie case.

Yes that Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart was a personal friend of Tom Slick’s and just happened to be in India in December of 1958 on a tiger hunt. When Byrne got word to Slick that he had secured the Yeti finger, he cabled Byrne telling him to take it to the Grand Hotel in Calcutta where a Mr. and Mrs. Stewart would take custody of the article and smuggle it to Dr. Hill in London. They hid it in Gloria’s lingerie suitcase (rich ladies had dedicated suitcases for their unmentionables in those days). When they arrived, guess which bag was lost? Two days later a customs agent showed up at their hotel with the lingerie case in hand. Gloria asked if they had opened it and the customs agent assured her they would never paw through a lady’s delicates.

Thus the finger made its adventurous way to Dr. Osman Hill. He examined it and declared it the finger of a hominid of some kind, he couldn’t be sure of which kind. When Hill died in 1975, he bequeathed his collection of research specimens to the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum (the same museum where the Irish Giant’s bones are on display).

Hill’s collection wasn’t well catalogued and didn’t have immediate research value so it was stored and pretty much forgotten about until 2008 when curators going through the Hill collection found a box containing a plaster cast of a large footprint, some hair, scat samples and a large, blackened finger. Hill’s notes identified it as a Yeti finger from Pangboche Temple in Nepal.

Scientists have more tools than Hill did to determine just what creature once pointed that index finger, namely DNA analysis. The Royal College of Surgeons allowed a small sample to be taken to find out once and for all if it is a Yeti’s digit.

The finger is of human origin, according to Dr Rob Jones, senior scientist at the Zoological Society of Scotland.

“We have got a very, very strong match to a number of existing reference sequences on human DNA databases.

“It’s very similar to existing human sequences from China and that region of Asia but we don’t have enough resolution to be confident of a racial identification.”

BBC radio followed the story, interviewing Peter Byrne, now 85 years old and living in the United States. You can listen to the program here. There’s some discussion at the end of the broadcast about sending the finger back to Pangboche. The original hand was stolen in 1999 after a 1991 episode of Unsolved Mysteries analyzed a sample from the finger (results were inconclusive) and made the Pangboche monastery a newly popular location for cryptozoological tourism.

The income from tourism plummeted after the theft. Mike Allsop, an Air New Zealand pilot and Everest mountaineer, created a replica of the hand and skullcap to donate to the monastery in the hope that it would give them something to show tourists and perhaps inspire the return of the purloined Yeti parts. Getting the original finger back would mean a lot to the monastery.

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Tower of Babel floor plan and elevation

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

The Tower of Babel steleA stele from the collection of Norwegian businessman Martin Schoyen includes the clearest image of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II extant and the earliest images of the Great Ziggurat of Babylon, aka Etemenanki, the leading candidate for the Biblical Tower of Babel. This is one of only four known images of Nebuchadnezzar, and the other three are carved on cliff-faces in Lebanon and have been hard used by the elements. The stele shows the king in profile, wearing the conical hat of royalty, holding a staff in his left hand and an unknown object that might be a foundation nail or a scroll with plans for the tower in his right hand.

Nebuchadnezzar reigned over the Neo-Babylonian Empire between 605 B.C. and 562 B.C. During that time he restored and completed the great ziggurat which was first built by an earlier king at an indeterminate time (the Schoyen scholars say 1792-1750 B.C.) in honor of the god Marduk but had been damaged by the Assyrian King Sennacherib when he destroyed Babylon in 689 B.C. Restoration began under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar’s father Nabopolassar and was completed during the son’s reign 43 years later. Nebuchadnezzar boasts of his construction prowess on the stele, describing himself as the “great restorer and builder of holy places.”

“I mobilized (all) countries everywhere, (each and) every ruler (who) had been raised to prominence over all the people of the world (as one) loved by Marduk…” he wrote on the stele.

“I built their structures with bitumen and (baked brick throughout). I completed them, making (them gleam) bright as the (sun)…” (Translations by Professor Andrew George)

Line drawing of the Tower of Babel steleHe illustrates his great accomplishment with carved images of the gloriously rebuilt Tower: one is a ground plan of the temple showing the outer walls and inner rooms, the other an elevation showing the front of the ziggurat with the relative proportions of each of the seven steps and the temple on top. Unambiguously labeled as “The house, the foundation of heaven and earth, the ziggurat in Babylon,” these are the only contemporary images of the tower known to exist.

The ziggurat was ill-used by subsequent conquerors. Cyrus the Great of Persia took Babylon in 538 B.C. and pulled down the three stair ramps so the tower couldn’t be used as a fortress. By the time Alexander the Great took over in 331 B.C., water damage penetrating through the torn down stair ramps had caused severe structural damage. Alexander planned to restore the foundation of heaven and earth, but when he returned the next year no work had been done so he ordered the ziggurat torn down and rebuilt. It was torn down, but he died before it could be rebuilt.

All we’ve got left now is the square base of the Great Ziggurat just south of Baghdad. It can still be seen from satellites.

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Australian museum buys 1 holey dollar for $130,000

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

New South Wales holey dollarThe National Museum of Australia spent AUS$130,000 (hammer price AUS$111,000) to acquire a rare 1813 “holey dollar,” Australia’s first official minted currency, at the International Auction Galleries’ Australian & World Rare Coin auction on November 6th. There are only 300 or so holey dollars extant and this particular piece is one of only five which originated from Potosi, Bolivia. The rest are all Mexican silver.

The holey dollar was an ingenious solution to the severe shortage of coinage in the colony of New South Wales. Founded in 1788 by 1,487 British expatriates (778 of them convicts), the colony was so short on coin that rum was used as currency. The New South Wales Corps, the permanent local regiment that was supposed to maintain order, quickly became known as the Rum Corps due to their extra-legal control of the rum trade. In 1805 Governor William Bligh, the same William Bligh who had been captain of The Bounty until Fletcher Christian led a successful mutiny against him, tried to stop the Corps’ rum trade. The Corps responded with the Rum Rebellion of 1808, wherein William Bligh was forcibly deposed from yet another leadership position by underlings he could not control.

Lachlan Macquarie, by Richard  Read, 1822For the next two years the Corps ran the colony as they willed, until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie at the end of 1809. He was tasked with arresting the leaders of the Rum Rebellion and reclaiming political and military control of the colony from the New South Wales Corps. In 1812 the British government sent Macquarie £10,000 in Spanish dollars. Heavy in pure silver and worth eight reales, these Spanish pieces of eight had been used worldwide for currency since they were first struck in 1497. In Australia in 1812 their worth was fixed at five shillings.

1796 Spanish DollarInstead of releasing them into general circulation where they would be spent on goods arriving on merchant trade ships from all over the world and thus leave the colony almost as quickly as they arrived, Macquarie decided to solve the currency crisis by making these Spanish dollars a New South Wales currency. In keeping with his liberal policy of appointing emancipists (freed or pardoned convicts) to government jobs, Macquarie hired convicted counterfeiter William Henshall to punch holes in the Spanish dollars and overstamp both the outer pieces and the inner plugs (known as “dumps”) as NSW currency.

Macquarie provided Henshall with a workshop in the basement of a building known as ‘The Factory’ to make the holey dollars and dumps. This building, used by government printer George Howe, was near the corner of Bridge and Loftus streets, by the eastern bank of the Tank Stream. It was effectively Australia’s first mint, with Henshall Australia’s first mint master.

New South Wales dumpMacquarie initially anticipated that the task of converting the 40,000 Spanish coins would take three months, but the project took over a year to complete. Henshall had to experiment with making the necessary machinery, which proved difficult. It seems that a drop hammer, as opposed to a screw press, was used to stamp the coins. Henshall stamped the coins with their new value and ‘NEW SOUTH WALES 1813′. He incorporated his ‘H’ initial into the spray of leaves of the counterstamp design and also inscribed his initial between the words ‘FIFTEEN’ and ‘PENCE’ on the dump reverse dies.

(The dump pictured above left is from a holey dollar cast of out a 1773 piece of eight in the State Library of New South Wales).

This move doubled the number of coins in circulation, increased their worth by 25% and ensured that the money would not leave the colony. The holey dollars and dumps remained in circulation until 1822, when the government was able to supply sufficient sterling coinage to recall the holey ones. By 1829, most of the 40,000 holey dollars had been exchanged for legal tender. The government melted them down for bullion. Only a few collectors kept the holey dollars and dumps, which is why there are only 300 of the former left and about 1000 dumps.

The National Museum’s holey dollar will probably go on display in the Landmarks: People and Places across Australia gallery in 2013, along with other artifacts from the Macquarie era.

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Yew don’t look a day over 619

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Wakehurst Place yew, b. 1391A handsome but unassuming yew tree (Taxus baccata) near the mansion at Wakehurst Place, the Kew Botanical Garden’s country estate in West Sussex, turns out to be 620 years old. Twenty feet in diameter, it’s not the largest yew, never mind the largest tree, nor the most impressive (there are 100-year-old yews at Wakehurst that have grown up naturally on stones which are far splashier and more often painted/pictured/talked about than our medieval tree friend). Nobody at Wakehurst had any idea that particular yew was so ancient.

The tree was examined by a dendrochronologist as part of research for a long-term conservation management plan for the Wakehurst gardens. He took a core sample from the tree — you don’t need to cut the whole thing down to count its rings anymore — and found that the yew was planted in 1391, ten years after the Peasants’ Revolt and eight years before King Richard II was deposed.

Andy Jackson, the head of Wakehurst, said: “I am shocked and amazed. I thought I knew almost all there was to know about Wakehurst’s landscape, but it has unveiled a new layer to me. I’ve walked past this remarkably humble tree almost every day without realising just how old it is.

The yew is like an ancient key, unlocking information about the past and suggesting there was a much older designed landscape at Wakehurst that we didn’t know was there.”

The de Wakehurst family owned the land that would become the country estate starting in 1205. There’s a man-made terrace under the 1391 yew, so Jackson thinks the yew may be evidence of the earliest formal garden designed for the de Wakehursts. Last year archaeologists found remains of a 14th century house that was built near the current mansion (constructed in the 16th century) which is where the yew currently stands, so it may have been part of a line of landscaped trees planted to grace that first house.

(Sorry about the groaner in the title. I’m such a cheap date. :no: )

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No frankincense or myrrh, but here’s some gold

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

National Geographic has a fascinating feature story on an excavation that has literally struck gold, and huge amounts, in a 1200-year-old cemetery of the Sitio Conte peoples in Panama. Led by archaeologist Julia Mayo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, the team began excavating the El Caño site in 2005 and by 2010 had found the gold-packed burial of a chieftain. That was just the beginning.

The team returned last year during the January-to-April dry season and unearthed a second burial every bit as rich as the first. Bearing two gold breastplates in front, two in back, four arm cuffs, and a luminous emerald, the deceased was surely another supreme chief. Near him lay a baby similarly adorned in gold, most likely his son. Beneath both of them stretched a layer of tangled human skeletons, possibly sacrificed slaves or war captives. Radiocarbon tests would date the burials to about A.D. 900—the era when the Maya civilization, some 800 miles to the northwest, was beginning to unravel.

Mayo barely had time to catalog the new finds before her team uncovered more gold. Glinting from the walls of the pit, the artifacts marked the edges of four more tombs. As she surveyed the scene, she couldn’t help but feel stunned. “I was just speechless—fascinated, but also worried,” she remembers. The rains had already begun, and she was now in a race to retrieve all the treasure before the neighboring river flooded the site. Also, she knew looters were sure to come if news of the discoveries got out. She swore her team to silence and prayed for clear skies.

The conquistadores encountered the Sitio Conte people in the 1500s and described their astounding array of gold armature and jewelry (while slaughtering them and taking said gold, of course). It appears that the culture changed very little between the time of the burials Mayo discovered and their descendants’ encounters with the pointy side of the Spanish invaders 700-500 years later. With the exception of some carved stone monoliths, the Sitio Conte didn’t build monumental or even modest but enduring architecture like other Mesoamerican peoples. They lived in bamboo huts and used stone tools, and annual floods have laid waste to organic remains.

At the same time, they had goldsmiths with an exceptional level of skill. This is why earlier archaeologists who studied the Sitio Conte sites in the 1930s and later thought that the gold artifacts must have been imports from more sophisticated neighboring cultures. Mayo’s team has proven definitely that this is not the case.

Specialists at the Smithsonian Institution are analyzing the array of materials Mayo’s team has unearthed and have already made a major discovery. Natural impurities in the gold indicate that the metal was mined and worked in the region. This firmly puts to rest any debate about whether Panama’s treasures were imported from farther south, where cultures were supposedly older and more advanced. The native people in this area may have lived in simple huts, but they were rich enough to support master craftsmen and sophisticated enough to appreciate fine art.

And how:


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Yahweh invoked in ancient Antioch curse tablet

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Lead curse tablet invoking "Iao," Antioch, 4th c. A.D.A recently deciphered lead curse tablet discovered in a well in Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey, just north of the Syrian border) invokes Iao, the Greek name for Yahweh, asking that he turn his terrible power onto a local greengrocer named Babylas.

“O thunder-and-lightning-hurling Iao, strike, bind, bind together Babylas the greengrocer,” reads the beginning of one side of the curse tablet. “As you struck the chariot of Pharaoh, so strike his [Babylas'] offensiveness.” [...]

In addition to the use of Iao (Yahweh), and reference to the story of the Exodus, the curse tablet also mentions the story of Egypt’s firstborn.

“O thunder—and-lightning-hurling Iao, as you cut down the firstborn of Egypt, cut down his [livestock?] as much as…” (The next part is lost.)

Back side of the curse tablet which summarizes the main points of the full curseThe curse was inscribed in Greek 1700 years ago by an unnamed person. There’s no way of knowing what religion he may have been. Antioch in the 4th century had large Christian, Jewish, Jewish Christian (the latter two inspired the future saint John Chrysostom to write some opprobrious homilies that wouldn’t have been out of place engraved on lead and thrown down a well) and polytheistic communities. It’s possible that the unfortunate target of the curse was Christian, as the name Babylas was also the name of a third-century bishop of Antioch and martyr who died in prison during the suppression of Christianity under the emperor Decius (253 A.D.).

Babylas’ putative Christianity could have inspired his hater to ask Yahweh to hit him with the full thunder-and-lightning treatment, or the curser might simply have picked the deity that most suited him for his own reasons. University of Washington professor Alexander Hollmann who translated the tablet at first thought that the use of “Iao” suggested the curse writer was Jewish, but after examining comparable magic invocations Hollman realized Yahweh was deployed in spells cast by polytheists as well.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily any connection with the Jewish community,” [Hollman] said. “Greek and Roman magic did incorporate Jewish texts sometimes without understanding them very well.”

The curse was discovered in the 1930s during an excavation by Princeton University. They found many curse tablets from hundreds of years of Antiochans (one from the late 5th, early 6th century A.D. asks Kronos to bring down the horses of the Green and White chariot factions), so many that scholars are still translating them. The collection, including this most recently translated “Iao” curse, is kept in the Princeton University Art Museum.

Since curses were often rolled or folded up and then dropped in wells or drains to do their otherworldly damage unimpeded, it takes considerable conservation effort and care to open them up to the point where they can be read and translated, hence the deliberate pace.

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An embarrassment of digitized riches

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

The most ambitious digitization project I’ve ever heard of is halfway to its goal of putting every single publicly owned oil painting (plus tempera and acrylic) in the United Kingdom online. A joint effort of the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC, Your Paintings now has 104,000 artworks by the likes of Degas and Rubens uploaded to the website out of an estimated 200,000. It’s the first national online art museum ever attempted. Just to give you a sense of the scale, there are only 3,000 paintings in the immense National Gallery.

You’d have to visit over 3,000 art galleries, museums, libraries, etc. to see the Your Paintings collection in person, and even that wouldn’t be enough. Some of the paintings are in private institutions like Bishop’s palaces and Oxford and Cambridge (they were deemed important national patrimony despite their technical private ownership) and aren’t on display. Even the ones in public museums are often in storage or being conserved. An estimated 80% of the 200,000 oil paintings in the national collection are not available for public viewing at any given time. Besides, even if you could access all of the paintings, it’s unlikely you’d get well-known actors and artists to take you on a guided tour of their favorite pieces and themes.

You can already search the website by artist, collection, location and thanks to the 5,000 members of the public (plus curators and experts) who have signed up to tag each painting with relevant subjects, soon you’ll be able to search the entire database by keyword as well. There are over a million tags already in the system. If you’d like to be a tagger too, sign up here.

If your interests lie more on the history of science spectrum, Cambridge University Library has digitized and uploaded 4,000 pages of works by Sir Isaac Newton, including a fully annotated copy of the Principia Mathematica, drafts of his book on optics, his college notebooks and the “Waste Book,” a large volume filled with Newton’s notes and calculations, including some important work in the development of calculus, that he used when he had to leave Cambridge during the Great Plague of 1664.

Each page has been scanned individually in high resolution. You can zoom in on the smallest detail, or you can zoom out and read the transcription of the sometimes challenging handwriting. (Not all pages have transcriptions.) You can also download images of every page.

The Cambridge Digital Library, in collaboration with the Newton Project at the University of Sussex, has been digitizing their Newton manuscripts since June 2010. They had to take their time with it because many of the works were in need of conservation before they could be scanned. These 4000 pages are just the beginning. Thousands more pages will be uploaded in the coming year. The ultimate goal is to have Cambridge’s full Newton collection online.

Once that’s done, they’ll move on to digitize their collection of works by Charles Darwin and the archive of the Board of Longitude.

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Should “the Irish giant” finally be buried at sea?

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Charles Byrne (in the middle), the Knipe twins (also Irish giants) flank himCharles Byrne was an 18th century Irishman of extraordinary stature who became famous as “the Irish Giant” in London’s Cox’s Museum (a sideshow/museum of oddities similar to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City). Born in 1761, Byrne was already abnormally tall in childhood, and by the time he was a teenager his height had made him a popular local sideshow attraction. When he was 21, he left Ireland to seek fame and fortune in London. His 7’7″ height garnered him the giant gig at Cox’s Museum and he was instantly a huge hit. Unfortunately it was a short-lived success. Under the strain of his deteriorating health and the pressures of celebrity, barely more than a year after his move to London, the Irish Giant drank himself to death.

After a lifetime spent on display, Byrne’s deepest fear was that his body would be stolen by “resurrection men” in the employ of eminent Scottish anatomist John Hunter who was famous for his collection of anatomical specimens and oddities. Byrne told his friends that when he died he wanted to be sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea to avoid this horror. One of those friends turned coat in the most despicable way: he became the resurrection man Byrne feared. Hunter paid him 500 pounds (almost $80,000 in today’s money) to steal the body when the burial party stopped overnight on their way to the English Channel. He put heavy stones in the casket and gave Hunter his friend’s body.

John Hunter, portrait by John JacksonHunter boiled it immediately, probably in fear of imminent discovery, and hid the skeleton for four years. Once he figured the coast was clear, he put the giant’s skeleton on display in his museum. After Hunter’s death, his collection was bought by the British government and became the core of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London which to this day has Charles Byrne’s body on display.

Professor of medical ethics Len Doyal and lawyer Thomas Muinzer argue in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal that it’s high time Charles’ wishes were respected and his remains buried at sea.

The fact is that Hunter knew of Byrne’s terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body. What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified. Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death.

The Hunterian Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons’ possession of Byrne’s skeleton may have led to beneficial medical outcomes. However, as a justification for not burying his skeleton, that case is no longer tenable. Past research on Byrne did not require the display of his skeleton; merely medical access to it. Moreover, now that Byrne’s DNA has been extracted, it can be used in further research. Equally, it is likely that if given the opportunity to make an informed choice, living people with acromegaly will leave their bodies to research or participate in it while alive, or both. Finally, for the purposes of public education, a synthetic archetypical model of an acromegalic skeleton could be made and displayed. Indeed, such skeletons are now used in medical education throughout the world.

The Royal College of Surgeons disagrees. Their position is that the skeleton is still a unique source of important medical research.

Skeleton of Charles Byrne on displayDr. Sam Alberti, director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, said: “The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.

“A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the current research into Familial Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (FIPA).

“This genetically links Byrne to living communities, including individuals who have requested that the skeleton should remain on display in the museum.

“At the present time, the museum’s Trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains.”

I can’t say I find the utilitarian argument tremendously persuasive. It seems to me Charles Byrne has given far more than his fair share of himself to science already. Time for what’s left of him to rest in peace and, for the first time, in privacy.

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