Archive for April, 2012

African Queen restored and bearing a Bogart again

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

The restored African QueenLast December, Captain Lance and Suzanne Holmquist announced that they would restore the African Queen and put her back to work doing inland water tours. After three and a half months of work and almost $70,000, the 30-foot riverboat used in the iconic 1951 John Huston movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn is officially back in business.

The steamship, built in England in 1912 then used by the British East Africa Railway Company to carry cargo and passengers in the Belgian Congo and Uganda, had been deteriorating in dry dock for ten years. Her previous owner, Jim Hendricks Sr., had rescued from her a land bound horse farm in Ocala, Florida in 1982, then used her for tours and took her around the world twice for special events. Once Jim Sr. died in 2002, the boat passed to his son Jim who unfortunately could not afford to maintain her as his father had.

Captain Lance and Suzanne Holmquist on the QueenThe Holmquists could see the Queen sitting forlorn on her dock as they operated their charter boat business. Captain Lance, who has a passion for restoring boats, noticed that even decrepit in dry dock the African Queen was still a hugely popular stop for tourists. Hundreds of people would come every day to take her picture. So they struck a deal with Mr. Hendricks: they’d restore the boat as historically accurately as possible, and in return Jim would lease them the Queen to use for charter tours.

The restoration was challenging, but not as hard as some of the other restorations Captain Holmquist has done. The African Queen was still structurally sturdy. First they had to fix the hull. Made from 10-gauge British steel, most of it had toughed out the tough times. Only 20% of the steel panels were corroded enough to need replacing, but that 20% took three weeks of welding to fix. Watch this YouTube video to see the welders, and their commanding officer/Chihuahua, Stewart “The Killer” Kipp, in action.

Also salvageable was much of the original black African mahogany used for flooring and siding. The Holmquists just had to oil and condition it. For historical authenticity and ambiance, they decided to spend $26,000 to install a new steam boiler even though during the shooting of the film the boat wasn’t actually powered by steam; they just made it look like it was. Last up was a new paint job, which lasted just a few hours before Captain Holmquist took a rag and some brown paint and messed it up so it would look like it looked chugging through the jungle with Bogie and Hepburn.

“We wanted it to look beat up, like it appeared [in the Congo] in World War I,” said Suzanne Holmquist. “It’s starting to get its sheen back, and its authentic look.”

The African Queen will be officially relaunched Thursday. The Key Largo Chamber of Commerce is throwing her a party and fundraiser dockside at the Holiday Inn Key Largo. Stephen Bogart, son of Humphrey and Lauren Bacall, will be there. The first ride on the Queen with Stephen Bogart will be auctioned off at the event, as will the original steel pieces from the hull that were replaced. The party is open to the public; the suggested donation is $15.

Starting at the end of the month, the African Queen will be taking passengers on two-hour canal cruises several times a day, and for six-passenger dinner cruises around Key Largo on select evenings. She will also be available for private charters. See her back on the water and hear her lovely bell in this video.


St. Petersburg restorers find pre-Revolution treasure

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Naryshkin silver flatwareConstruction workers restoring a 19th century mansion that once belonged to the noble Naryshkin family discovered an immense treasure of silver services, pearl- and porcelain-handled flatware, enamel, jewels, and medals, hidden in a secret storage compartment between the second and third floors of the building. More than 1,000 individual pieces from the 19th and early 20th centuries were found, all of them in excellent condition thanks to careful packing in vinegar-soaked cloths.

1917 newspaper used to wrap treasureThe objects were then wrapped in newspapers from March, June and September of 1917, which gives us a handy time frame for when the treasure might have been buried. This was a turbulent time in Russia, to say the least. The Duma had taken control in February, setting up the Russian Provisional Government and forcing Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. Some months later the October Revolution would bring the Bolsheviks to power. Within days, Lenin’s Decree on Land abolishing private property was passed by the Second Congress of Soviets. The first floor of the mansion was put to use as a stolovaya, a cafeteria-style restaurant where workers could get a cheap meal.

More silverThe Naryshkin family, whose many illustrious members include Nataliya Naryshkina, wife of Tsar Alexis and mother of Peter the Great, and Princess Maria Naryshkina, mistress of Tsar Alexander I, fled the country in 1917 leaving behind a wealth of riches that were moved to the State Hermitage Museum in 1920. Several of the silver sets found in the mansion bear the family crest. The treasure might not all have belonged to the Naryshkins. Somov’s 1908 student card from the imperial collegeDocuments belonging to army officer Sergei Somov were also found among the objects, so perhaps some of it was once his. Somov also fled the country after the October Revolution. He died in France in 1976.

Silver candleholder (I think)The mansion is itself a historical treasure, despite the hard treatment it has received. It used to be two separate buildings, one of them built in the 17th century by Prince Pyotr Trubetskoi, the other owned in the 18th century by Abram Petrovich Gannibal, the African great-grandfather of poet Alexander Pushkin who as a child had gone from being a hostage of the Ottoman Sultan to the godson of Peter the Great who had him raised and educated along with his own children. In 1832 the two houses were made into one large mansion which Duke Vasily Naryshkin bought in 1875.

Watch and jewelsAfter the fall of the Soviet Union, the Trubetskoi-Naryshkin mansion was converted into apartments. In 1999, the St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation set up offices in the historical building. Ten years later, construction company Intarsia began a three-year program of re-engineering, restoring and adapting the building for use as a restaurant (doubtless a pricier one this time) and a conference and cultural center.

Gold-lined silver cups and gobletsIntarsia reported the discovery to the police on Thursday, March 29, but it appears some pieces were discovered by workers a few days before that. Police searched the site and discovered two caches, one containing three gilded silver salvers, the other a box of silver forks and spoons, which had been secreted behind construction debris. Some workers apparently hoped to smuggle them out when the coast was clear.

Gilded porcelain-handled flatwareA full inventory and assessment of the treasure by St. Petersburg’s Committee for the State Control, Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments (KGIOP) is ongoing. When they’re done, the treasure will be put in a museum. Intarsia hopes they’ll be able to put it on display in the second floor exhibition rooms of the Trubetskoi-Naryshkin mansion once the restoration is done later this year.

Dusty silver candelabrasThe question of ownership might get thorny, though. By law, the workers who discovered the treasure can claim 50% of it and the property owner the other half, unless it is deemed of historical or cultural value, which in this case seems a foregone conclusion. If the treasure is deemed historically significant, the state will claim ownership and reimburse the finders/owners the market value.

Then there are the family members. Any Naryshkin descendants who might be out there could make a claim, as could any Somov descendants.

MedalsIvan Artsishevsky, chairman of the House of Romanov, said the discovery of the treasure could cause self-proclaimed Naryshkin descendants to step forward, demanding the treasure be returned to them.

“In my experience of working with the Romanovs, I can say that ‘secret’ descendants from the Emperor’s dynasty regularly appeal to me with all kinds of claims and demands. In this case many such ‘relatives’ may appear,” Artsishevsky was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Silver and enamel boxArtsishevsky said all of the precious objects found should be donated to a museum, adding that he was sure that no real Naryshkin descendants would come forward in hopes of claiming the treasure.

“All this should be given to a museum. All of these objects actually belong not to the Naryshkins, but to all Russian people. I doubt any of the duke’s descendants would believe otherwise,” he said.


Mucha’s “Slav Epic” goes to Prague despite protests

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Nestlé's Food for Infants by Alfons Mucha, 1897Alfons Mucha, the Czech artist who basically invented Art Nouveau (it was originally known as “Mucha Style”) and whose characteristic berobed women with flowing hair against a field of flowers have been selling everything from theatrical productions to champagne to chocolate since the late 19th century, rejected the Art Nouveau label, considering himself and his art first and foremost a product of the Slavic folk tradition in which he was raised. In 1900, he traveled all over the Balkans in preparation for his work on the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion for the Paris World’s Fair. Although he returned to Paris and continued his customary work, he was inspired by the trip to dedicate himself to “work for the [Czech] nation.”

Mucha was born in 1860 in Ivancice, a rural community in Moravia that was then part of the Austrian Empire. The area was a hotbed of Slavic nationalism, even more so in reaction to the Habsburg efforts to “Germanize” the many cultures in the empire. He left in 1879 to do design work for a theater in Vienna. He returned to Moravia after the theater burned down, doing some freelance art work including murals for Count Karl Khuen of Mikulov who would fund his first formal artistic education.

Gismonda by Alfons Mucha, 1894In 1887 he moved to Paris, studying and getting jobs as a commercial artist. He became famous in 1895 after a chance encounter in a print shop resulted in his making a poster for the play Gismonda, starring the incomparable Sarah Bernhardt. She loved the poster so much that she signed him to a six-year contract.

His fame spread worldwide, but back in his homeland he was considered something of a sell-out, more French than Slav. Although Mucha saw himself as Czech and his art as an expression of his Slavic identity, his countrymen tended to disagree. When he was commissioned to paint murals in the Mayor’s Office at the New Municipal House in Prague in 1909, the move was roundly criticized by the public.

"Slavs in their original home", first Slav Epic canvas, ca. 1912Undeterred, in 1910 Mucha moved his family to Prague and, while still taking some commercial gigs to pay the bills, poured his talents and resources into the passion project of a lifetime: a series of 20 monumental paintings (the biggest canvas is 26 feet wide and 20 feet tall) depicting the history of the Slavic people. "The Celebration of Svantovit"The Slav Epic took him 18 years to complete, during which time World War I saw the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of the new nation of Czechoslovakia with Prague as its capital.

On September 1, 1928, Alfons Mucha donated the complete Slav Epic to the people of Czechoslovakia. "The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy"All 20 paintings went on display in the Trade Fair Palace in Prague where they inspired a range of reactions, many of them negative. The left-wing nationalists considered the style and pan-Slavic sentiments old-fashioned, and the fascists held Slavic nationalism itself in contempt.

"The Bulgarian Tsar Simeon"When in 1939 Nazi Germany followed its occupation of the Sudetenland by invading the rest of Czechoslovakia, Mucha was one of the first artists to be arrested by the Gestapo. They released him, but he died shortly thereafter on July 14, 1939 of pneumonia. "The Bohemian King Přemysl Otakar II"In his will, he bequeathed the Slav Epic to the city of Prague, on condition that they build a special pavilion to house them.

Building a pavilion for enormous Slav nationalist paintings wasn’t Prague’s top concern during World War II. "The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan as East Roman Emperor"Just keeping the paintings out of Nazi hands was challenge enough. The Slav Epic was rolled up and hidden in storage rooms (as well as, rumor has it, a crypt) to keep it safe. Unfortunately the end of the war wasn’t much help, as the Soviet-backed Communist Party which took power in the 1948 Czech coup had no love for the Epic. They certainly weren’t going to build a pavilion for it.

"Jan Milíč of Kroměříž"The paintings were moved to the southern Moravian town of Moravský Krumlov in 1950 for safekeeping but remained in storage. Finally in 1963 they went on display at the local castle. When the Communist regime fell in 1989, there was discussion about bringing the paintings back to Prague, since the artist did give them to the city, but the Moravský Krumlov community vehemently protested. The Mucha family sided with Moravský Krumlov, noting that legally Prague couldn’t claim the paintings without complying with the condition in Alfons’ will requiring a dedicated pavilion. "Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel"They were concerned that moving the works only to put them up in some transitional space would be detrimental to their delicate health.

A decade of legal wrangling ensued, in the middle of which Prague approved plans for the construction of a new pavilion which was scheduled to be complete by 2010. "The Meeting at Křížky"Disputes over the proposed architecture of the pavilion kept it from ever getting built, but come 2010, Prague sent movers to the Moravský Krumlov castle anyway.

The Mucha family got an injunction to stop the move until they’ve built this everlovin’ pavilion like they’re supposed to, but five of the paintings made it out the door anyway, going on display in early 2011 at Prague’s Veletrzni Palace after restorers examined them. A year has passed and the legal issues remain unresolved, but over the protests of the Mucha family and the town of Moravský Krumlov, now Prague has taken the remaining 15 works.

"After the Battle of Grunwald"The Veletrzni Palace is the only place with the wall space to display all 20 gigantic paintings, but its conditions are far from ideal. Temperature and humidity levels fluctuate enormously with the weather, and again, a temporary exhibit in an old building does not comply with the conditions stipulated by Alfons Mucha. "After the Battle of Vítkov Hill"The Mucha family and the foundation they run are working assiduously to create a permanent location for the Slav Epic in Prague’s central train station.

The Mucha Foundation says that Prague’s main railway station is the best permanent home for the paintings. [The artist’s grandson] John Mucha says that the foundation is in negotiations with the council about the plans. “Everyone’s pulling in the same direction,” he says. “If we all manage to keep this momentum, the Slav Epic should be unveiled [there] in spring 2014.” When describing the suitability of the venue, John Mucha says that the train noise can be screened, and appropriately the art nouveau station was designed by Josef Fanta, a friend of Alphonse Mucha.

We’ll see if that ever happens. Meanwhile, the Epic will have to make do with the drafty, moist palace.

"Petr Chelčický at Vodňany""The Hussite King Jiří of Poděbrady""Defense of Sziget against the Turks by Nicholas Zrinsky""The Printing of the Bible of Kralice in Ivančice""The Last days of Jan Amos Komenský in Naarden""Holy Mount Athos""The Oath of Omladina Under the Slavic Linden Tree""The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia""Apotheosis of the Slavs"


Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue” is back to her bluest

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

"Woman in Blue Reading a Letter" by Vermeer, 1663-64, before restorationJohannes Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter has been thoroughly cleaned and restored, revealing new details about the original masterpiece and removing later interpolations. Woman in Blue was the first Vermeer the Rijksmuseum ever acquired. It was purchased from a London art dealer by Amsterdam banker Adriaan van der Hoop in 1839. He bequeathed it to the city of Amsterdam which put it on display at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts from 1854 to 1885, then loaned it to the Rijksmuseum where it has remained ever since.

Over the years, age, yellowed varnish, retouchings and other questionable conservation choices dimmed the glory of its sublime blues, but major projects to correct those issues are so expensive they’re usually reserved for works that have major condition problems that endanger the immediate health of the painting. Museums rarely have the funds to overhaul a painting just to make it look great again.

In 2010, the Rijksmuseum got its chance when Japan requested they allow Woman in Blue to tour the country, which would be the painting’s first trip to Asia. Japan offered to fund a full restoration of the painting before it left Amsterdam in return for the loan, and the Rijksmuseum accepted.

"Woman in Blue Reading a Letter" by Vermeer, 1663-64, after restorationConservator Ige Verslype, supervised by an international committee of experts, spent more than a year painstakingly restoring the piece, focusing on returning the picture as much as possible to its original condition. Before doing anything, he examined the work with the latest imaging technology (infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence scanning) and took five tiny paint samples from key places. He then removed most of the yellowed, cracked varnish, thus bringing the original color of the woman’s jacket back to vibrancy and unveiling the secret of Vermeer’s blue paint.

Ige Verslype: “The greatest surprise was when we discovered how Vermeer produced such an intense blue colour. We now know that he used a copper-green undercoat to give the colour extra depth. Once the yellowed glaze had been removed, this magnificent blue came back into view in all of its glorious nuances.”

Before the restoration, the dark blue on the back of her jacket that’s in shadow looked the same color as the blue velvet on the top of the chair. After the restoration, you can clearly see that they are different shades.

Next to go were the retouchings and overpaintings from previous restorations. In 1928, restorers mistook three white spots on the box or paper on the table in front of her as pearls. Vermeer used pearls in many of his paintings, and there were other pearls on the table in this painting. The restorers daubed some yellow on those white spots to make them noticeably pearls. This time around, conservators had scans to show that in fact those spots weren’t pearls, but simply white highlights. Verslype removed the yellow, returning the superfluous pearls to highlights.

Removing overpaint and varnish from the chairs showed them in a whole new light. You can see details of the upholstery that before were shrouded in darkness, like the edges of the velvet backing wrapped around the side. They also discovered a whole new row of brass nails on the side of the chair seat that had been completely covered in dark paint.

Once the restoration was complete, the Woman in Blue went on her first Asian tour, starting in June 2011 in Kyoto, then moving to the Miyagi Museum of Art in Sendai, and finally Tokyo’s Bunkamura Museum of Art. The tour ended on March 14, 2012, and the painting returned to the Rijksmuseum.

There it was put back on display on March 30, the first time Dutch audiences had a chance to see the restored work, and the first time in two years they got to see the painting at all. Along with the freshly blue Woman in Blue, four frames that have encased the painting over the years at the Rijksmuseum are also on display. The first one is a neo-rococo frame that was on the painting from when Adrian van der Hoop bought it all the way through the 1940s. Then it was reframed using a carved oak frame from around 1700. In the early 1960s, Woman in Blue was reframed again, this time in a gilded French Regency frame from ca. 1710. The last of the four was a modern ebony reproduction frame used starting in the 1990s.

Neo-Rococo frame, ca. 1839 Oak frame, ca. 1700, used in the 1940s Gilded French Regency frame, 1710, used 1960s Contemporary ebony reproduction, used 1990s

None of them are quite right for the masterpiece. Conservators have taken the opportunity to study carefully what Vermeer preferred to use for frames. Ebony seems to be the consensus material, but the contemporary ebony-like frame, smooth and machine-tooled, flattens the look of the painting. The Rijksmuseum is looking for a simple ebony frame from the 17th century but hasn’t been successful yet. While the search is on, they’re using the gilded Regency frame.


More pics of largest find of Bronze Age artifacts

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Last December, I blogged about the extraordinary discovery of hundreds of well-preserved artifacts from the daily life of the Bronze Age residents of what is today the Must Farm Quarry in Whittlesey, southeast England. Hundreds of 3,000-year-old artifacts were found, among them textiles, swords, eel traps, spear tips, tools, a charred platform bridge and bowls of nettle stew, nettle stew still within. It’s the largest Bronze Age find ever made in Britain.

Bronze age longboatThe most astonishing discoveries were six log boats dug out of oak and ash trunks. Finding an entire wooden boat from the Bronze Age is rare but not unheard of; finding six seemed nigh on miraculous. Now that already exceptional number has increased to eight and the team from Cambridge Archaeological Unit is still excavating.

It’s the unique geology of the Cambridgeshire fens that has kept this slice of Bronze Age life preserved 13 feet below ground level. If it hadn’t been for brick-making company Hanson which owns the quarry and mines its Jurassic clay to make their bricks, it’s unlikely that anybody would have dug so deep to find a 3000-year-old fishing village virtually frozen in time. Laudably, the company is funding the archaeological exploration and has promised to continue to do so.

When I first posted about this spectacular find, there were only a couple of small pictures in news stories and it was a huge bummer for me and everyone reading. Two days later, Cambridge Archaeological Unit photographer Dave Webb posted a comment to the entry with a link to a bunch of great pictures, particularly of those spectacular dugout canoes. I edited the link into the entry, but I think most people missed that the first time.

Now I’m making up for it and then some. Past Horizons has posted a second set of David Webb’s pictures, these focusing on some of the other artifacts, like a bronze sickle or bill hook, spear heads, some textiles and the bowl of stew. They also have a composite picture showing one of the excavation areas (the one with the collapsed platform) peppered with artifacts.

Excavation composite, collapsed platform Nettle stew bowl, spoon removed with stew still attached Scythe or bill hook Woven textile

I also found a fascinating description of a visit to the Must Farm site by Sheridan Kirby of the Fenland Witters blog. You can see more of the pictures from that visit on her Flickr stream. Joan Munns was with her on the tour. Her pictures start here (click the “Older” right arrow button to browse through the rest) and here’s a video of their visit so we can live vicariously through them:



English giant’s extremely long johns for sale

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Frederick Kempster, ca. 1908Born in Bayswater, London, in 1889, Frederick Kempster was of normal height just like his six siblings until he turned 15 and began to grow. His father had died of bronchitis when he was 8, and his mother Jane struggled to support the three youngest children, including Frederick, who were still living at home. She took in laundry and cleaned houses, but couldn’t make enough money to keep a roof over their heads. In 1898 they were evicted from their one-bedroom hovel in Islington. Homeless and destitute, the family was forced apart. Jane needed her children cared for so she could get a job as a domestic servant, so she sent her daughter to live with her sister and the two boys to Barnardo’s Commercial Street Shelter, a group home for orphans and indigent children, in London’s East End.

A month before he turned 10 years old, Frederick found himself on a boat to Canada. Barnardo’s believed that the children in their care could carve out new lives for themselves in the wide open spaces of the frontier, so they regularly shipped hundreds of kids to Canada to work as farm hands and domestic servants. Frederick worked for a Manitoba farmer for the next five years until a weakness in his legs made him unfit for agricultural labor.

Frederick with his mother JaneWhen he returned to England in 1904, his unusual growth had already begun. He went back to live at another Barnardo’s Home where he was taught the basket-making trade. By the time he was 19, he was well over seven feet tall (it’s hard to know precise figures because the reported figures are all over the place). In 1911, he marched in the “Parade of Giants” at the Crystal Palace in London as part of the celebrations leading up to the coronation of King George V. That’s what gave him the idea that he might actually be able to make a living just by being his tall self.

A few months later, he got a job as a giant at Astley & Co.’s American Circus in Essex. For the next three years he toured Europe and America with the circus, staying near his sister in Essex during his downtime. Articles about him from 1913 describe him as 7’9″ by now and over 300 pounds. Each hand reputedly had a 16-note reach on a piano.

Frederick Kempster POWHe was in Germany with his troupe when World War I broke out in August 1914. Frederick and four other members of the company including a legless dwarf were stranded in Berlin and kept under house arrest in a room they’d rented. Some news stories report that he was mistreated and malnourished, but in interviews Frederick seemed downright sanguine about his time as a POW. They played a lot of cards and dominoes, he said, and the local police chief would bring his kids around to see them.

After a month, Germany let Frederick and company go. He stayed at an inn in Wiltshire run by another sister of his and her husband. He was never drafted to fight in the war. Depending on what story you read, the military either had no idea what to do with him and so left him alone, or they dearly wanted to put his freakish height to good use but just couldn’t figure out how.

He was in no condition to be fighting anyway. He was lame in one leg and had been since a failed operation to repair his weak legs after his return from Canada. In 1917, he was hospitalized. He recovered enough to start one final tour in the north of England. While doing a gig in Blackburn, Frederick Kempster caught pneumonia and died on April 15, 1918. He was just 29 years old.

Frederick Kempster's long johnsBefore he died, he met a doorman in Blackburn named Tom Cook whose wife Maggie was a laundress. They became friends and boon companions, and apparently, Maggie did his whites. Tom Cook’s nephew David Jardine found an enormous pair of long johns and a night shirt among his uncle’s belongings in the 1970s. After David’s wife Ivy died two years ago, their son John refound the extremely long johns while clearing out the house.

It’s John putting the very long johns up for sale at Tennants Auctioneers in Leyburn, North Yorkshire. They will go on the auction block on April 28, with an estimated value of £150-250 ($238-$396).


Mammoth attacked by lions, butchered by humans

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

The carcass of a juvenile woolly mammoth, soft tissues beautifully preserved by the Siberian permafrost, was examined by an international team of scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Yakutsk who found evidence that the animal was brought down by apex predators — probably lions — and then poached by the apexest of all predators, MAN. If the initial findings are confirmed, this will be the first mammoth carcass with preserved soft tissues ever found that bears evidence of interaction with humans.

The mammoth, nicknamed “Yuka,” was discovered frozen in the ice near the Arctic Ocean by mammoth tusk hunters. Bernard Buigues of the scientific exploration organization Mammuthus acquired the carcass for scientific research, keeping it from being sold to private collectors. Experts found by analyzing the teeth that Yuka was about two and a half years old when it perished at least 10,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating is ongoing; once it’s done, we’ll know if it died 10,000 years ago or much earlier.

Although large parts of the animal are missing courtesy of predators, much of Yuka’s soft tissue is in remarkably good condition. The foot pads, trunk, swaths of skin and ginger fur are so intact it could almost pass for a fresh kill.


Darker woolly mammoth hair ballThat red fur is in and of itself exciting. It’s very long and lighter than other mammoth pelts that have been discovered. In 2006, University of Manitoba scientist Kevin Campbell published the DNA sequence of mammoth hemoglobin. He also found genes that could have been for lighter hair. Campbell is excited to find a mammoth with preserved light hair because if DNA is successfully extracted from Yuka, researchers will have a chance to match the DNA sequence with the light hair phenotype. (The picture on the right is an example of the more common darker hair found on mammoths, from this entry from 2008.)

But it’s Yuka’s death that is arousing the most buzz, both because of the lion attack and because of the possible human intervention.

Healed scratches found on the skin indicate a lion attack that Yuka survived earlier in its relatively short life.

However, similar deep cuts that had not healed suggest a subsequent lion attack that either caused or happened very near the time of Yuka’s death.

Also, when moving one of Yuka’s legs, Professor Fisher recognized evidence of a freshly broken leg when it died and suggested this may have occurred as Yuka tried to flee from attackers.

The lions in question (Panthera leo spelea) are an extinct subspecies of the African lion, known commonly as Eurasian cave lions but were present at the same time as the mammoths.

“Did we know lions hunted mammoths? Well, we guessed they did. But could we ever have expected to see such graphic evidence? No – but here it is,” explained Professor Fisher.

Lions hunt baby elephants in Africa today, but after taking them down they eviscerate their prey, eating through the belly. Yuka doesn’t appear to have been gutted, lion-style. Instead, there are marks that indicate tool-assisted butchering.

This includes a “long, straight cut that stretches from the head to the centre of the back” as well as “very unusual patterned openings” into the skin and “scalloped margins” on the upper right-hand flank.

The skull, spine, ribs and pelvis were all removed from Yuka’s body, but the skull and pelvis were found nearby. However, most of the spine and three-quarters of the ribs are missing.

Each scalloped mark on the skin is made up by 15-30 small, serrations that “could be the saw-like motion of a human tool” and there are “some quite striking cut marks” on the leg bones, according to [University of Michigan environmental science professor Daniel] Fisher.

The scientists interrogated the tusk hunters who found the carcass to see if they might have made the cuts. They deny it, and it wouldn’t have been in their financial interest to slice and dice a salable artifact. There are still people today who poach prey from lions, so it’s not an outlandish proposition, by any means.

A documentary film crew recorded Yuka’s recovery from the tusk hunters and the subsequent examination at the Academy of Sciences. Woolly Mammoth: Secrets from the Ice debuted yesterday on BBC Two in the UK. It will air at a future date to be determined on the Discovery Channel in the US. Here’s a clip:



Google Art Project expands geometrically

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

When Google Art Project launched in January of last year, it gave anyone with a computer access to 17 major museums in nine countries including the US, France, Germany and the UK. The interface was on the clumsy side, unfortunately, making it hard to navigate, and although some stand-out individual pieces were presented in almost microscopic detail, the overall coverage was limited.

Now Google has announced the completion of the second version of Google Art Project. From 1,000 gigapixel ultra-high resolution images of paintings, the database now offers 32,000 images of not just paintings, but photographs, sculptures, textiles, rock art, ancient artifacts and so much more from 151 museums in 40 countries. If you’d like to take a turn through some of those museums and institutions, 46 of them have virtual tours, including the White House, Athens’ Acropolis Museum and the nearest and dearest to my heart, the Musei Capitolini on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

The interface is vastly improved. You can navigate speedily from collection to collection. If you want to take a virtual tour of the museum, click the yellow man icon in the upper left next to the museum name and the Details button, then navigate just as you would use Street View in Google Maps. If you’d like to browse the artworks instead, just click on the thumbnails in the collection gallery. Click the details button for more information about the piece, including a link to the artwork on the website of the museum. Of course you can also search for individual artworks or artists using the menu in the top left.

They also have a much more user-friendly personal gallery where you can not only save the images in a collection of your own, but also make notes and share them with friends. If you’re in the mood to be surprised, click the Discover button on the left vertical menu (it looks like a light bulb) and Google Art Project will take you on a random tour of its wonders. You can browse it as a gallery or view as a slideshow.

The educational resources are greatly enhanced. Click on the Education link on the menu at the bottom of the screen to get an art historical overview in the Introduction and Look Like an Expert sections. The DIY section offers tips and ideas for ways to use Google Art Project as an educational and creative resource, to create a virtual exhibition of your own unbounded by geographical and financial limits. DIY even connects to 10 other museums’ own proprietary educational databases, like the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History which I dearly love and have spent many lost weekends perusing.

The Google Art Project YouTube channel has introductory videos about using the site, about the artists and the museums. Here is a trippy preview of some of the incredible museum views and gigapixel artworks:

Here is the Google Street View camera as it records 360 degree views of every public room in the White House:


Prehistoric stringed instrument found on Skye

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Fragment of a bridge from a lyre, ca. 550-450 B.C.Archaeologists excavating the High Pasture Cave on the Isle of Skye have discovered a wooden fragment that they believe came from a lyre or similar stringed instrument. The fragment was burned and part of it broken off, but you can clearly see the carved string notches that identify it as a bridge. It was discovered in the rake-out deposits of the hearth outside the entrance to the cave. The deposits date to between 550 and 450 B.C., which would make the bridge a fragment of the oldest stringed instrument found in Europe.

Artifacts and organic remains ranging from the Bronze to the Iron Age have been found in the High Pasture Cave. The large cave complex appears to have been put to a variety of uses over hundreds of years, including religious rituals. In 2006, archaeologists discovered a cache of antler and bone points dating to 500 B.C. in a section of the cave known as the Bone Passage. Seven of the pieces had an odd wear pattern at the tip suggesting they had been turned over and over again. Experts speculated at the time that they could have been used as tuning pegs for a lyre. Now they’ve found evidence of an actual lyre from the same period in the cave, so the speculation looks considerably more solid.

Computer model of the bridge with strings(Not that they’re a matched set or anything. They were found in different spots and reconstructions of the bridge suggest it came from a six-stringed instrument which would only need six tuning pegs.)

The oldest stringed instruments in the archaeological record have been found in what is now Iraq, like the bull-headed lyre found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur which dates to around 2500 B.C. Because stringed instruments are typically made out of wood, they usually rot before archaeologists can find them; in fact the sound box of the Ur lyre had rotted away, but the bitumen-covered front panel and the gold and lapis lazuli bearded bull’s head survived.

Musical instruments from Iron Age Europe were not the luxury models of ancient Sumer nor did they have the advantage of a dry, hot environment to preserve the wood. Even Roman-era instruments are so hard to come by that we have to rely on literature, mosaics and frescoes to learn about them, or carvings on altars like the one unearthed in Musselburgh in 2010 which until now was the earliest representation of a musical instrument ever found in Scotland. Finding a piece of an instrument that is centuries older than any previous discoveries and is so clearly recognizable as a piece of an instrument (the bridge is probably the single most recognizable part of a lyre because of its shape and the string notches) is therefore enormously significant to our understanding of ancient music and poetry in Europe.

Culture and External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop added: “This is an incredible find and it clearly demonstrates how our ancestors were using music and ritual in their lives. The evidence shows that Skye was a gathering place over generations and that it obviously had an important role to play in the celebration and ritual of life more than 2,000 years ago.”

The artifact is being conserved by AOC Archaeology in Edinburgh. There are some nice views and models of the bridge in the following video, and a charming finale in which Dr. Graeme Lawson of Cambridge Music – Archaeological Research plays a reproduction ancient lyre.



Is an old mobster the key to the Gardner art heist?

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

"The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" by Rembrandt, 1633The FBI thinks so, and no, Monty Burns is not their suspect. They have detained Robert Gentile, a 75-year-old Hartford mobster who has a venerable arrest record beginning in the 1950s and going all the way through to his most recent arrest last month for selling prescription painkillers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham stated during a bail hearing in a Hartford District Court that they have “reason to believe that Mr. Gentile had some involvement with stolen property out of the District of Massachusetts.” That doesn’t mean they think he was directly involved in the theft of three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, five Degas, and two historical artifacts from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on St. Patrick’s Day night in 1990. They think he may have information about the theft based on his connections to a mafia crew that was working in Boston in the years after the theft.

Durham said Gentile was associated with a crew active in Boston and led by Capo Robert Luisi, but associated with Philadelphia’s mafia family. It was Luisi who “made” Gentile by inducting him into the Philadelphia family, Durham said in court Tuesday.

When Luisi was arrested and confronted with a long prison sentence for selling cocaine about a decade ago, he implicated Gentile and other alleged members of his crew in a long list of criminal activity, Durham said.

In 1998, Gentile established an elaborate surveillance of the armored cars that he believed were transporting cash from the Foxwoods Resort Casino. Gentile plotted the truck routes and the frequency of pickups, Durham said.

In Gentile’s basement, Durham said, FBI agents found police identification materials, uniforms, Tasers and police scanners — devices that criminal gangs often use in armored-car robberies. There also were weapons and ammunition.

"The Concert" by Vermeer, 1658-1660The two unknown men who pulled off the largest art theft in history also wore police uniforms and ID. That’s how they duped the security guard into letting them in and then letting them “arrest” him after they “recognized” him as a criminal with an outstanding warrant. The thieves told him to call the only other security guard to the security desk and then took them both to the basement where they tied them to pipes and duct-taped their hands, feet and mouths. The entire museum was theirs, so they helped themselves to $500 million worth of art, including two extremely rare and important pieces: Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the only seascape he ever painted, and Vermeer’s The Concert, which is one of only 34 known works by the Dutch master.

The investigation into the crime has been ongoing ever since. The FBI and the US Attorney’s Office have been working on the case with the Gardner’s Director of Security. Their primary focus is on recovering the works, not on making an arrest. The Gardner Museum offers a reward of $5 million for information leading to the recovery of the art in good condition, and the Feds offer complete confidentiality to any tipsters.

A. Ryan McGuigan, Gentile’s lawyer, points out that given that enormous payday and the minimal risk to snitching, why would the old man not spill any information he has and claim the reward? He certainly wasn’t making $5 million selling prescription pills. The government is also putting pressure on Gentile by denying him bail, so that’s even more incentive for him to talk. He insists he doesn’t know a thing about the Gardner heist (and that the prescription drugs were for his personal use, not for sale, of course).






Add to Technorati Favorites