Archive for January, 2013

Calcified teratoma found in pelvis of Roman woman

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

A teratoma, for those of you who have not delved into the fascinating world of medical oddities, is a tumor, usually benign, in which abnormal germ cells cause random bits of body to grow inside organs that bear no relation to said bits. Teratomas have been found to contain hair, teeth, bone, skin, muscle, bronchi, fatty cells, thyroid tissue, and more. These are not parasitic twins or fetus in fetu situations. Early in embryonic development, germ cells are triggered by our genes to form sperm in males and eggs in females, but they are also pluripotent meaning they have the potential to develop through cellular differentiation into any cell type. Sometimes they get triggered abnormally, and a creepy little ball of teeth and hair winds up setting up shop in your ovaries, among other places.

It’s a fairly rare phenomenon and in 60% of cases patients are entirely asymptomatic so teratomas aren’t often encountered even among the living. They are virtually unheard of in the archaeological record because they have to calcify to survive the march of time, and once calcified they can be easily confused for simple stones by archaeologists who have no idea there’s lung tissue and teeth and hair inside that rock. It takes a special teratoma to calcify and be positioned in such a way that it is clearly identifiable as a mass of organic origin.

This special teratoma was found in the pelvic region of a woman who died and was buried in early 5th century Spain. Her skeletal remains were discovered in 2010 in a necropolis at the archeological site of La Fogonussa near the town of Lleida in Catalonia, Spain. She was 30 to 40 years old when she died and was buried under roof tiles (tegulae) that had been leaned against each other to form a gabled roof over her body, a common form of burial at the time. There were no grave goods found interred with her; she was likely of modest means.

Physically she wasn’t in great shape. She had degenerative lesions from arthritis in her shoulder, wrist, hip, and knee and arthritic bone spurs in her spine. Then there was the round ball in her pelvis. Its position and shape strongly suggested that it was calcified organic material so it was sent to the lab for further analysis. There were all kinds of possible candidates: it could have been a large gallstone, a calcified lymph nodes, an ovarian calcification, even a coproliths (calcified feces). Researchers examined it visually and with CT scans to figure out what it was.

They found that it’s a partial sphere 42.72 millimeters (1.68 inches) in length and 44.27 millimeters (1.74 inches) in diameter at its widest point. It’s not a solid mass anymore. Most of the tissue has decayed leaving a shell 3.2 millimeters (.13 inches) thick at the thickest. That shell was once the capsule or outer layer of the tumor. There was some loose sediment inside the shell in which researchers found a thin piece of bone and two deformed teeth. An irregular bone formation attached to the inner wall also proved to contain teratoma treasure: two more deformed teeth.

The teeth and bone prove that it’s no gallstone, but rather the only archaeological ovarian teratoma ever discovered. Only one other ancient teratoma has been reported in the paleopathological literature, an 1800-year-old mediastinic (above the pericardium but below the collarbone) teratoma published in 2009 by none other than Philippe Charlier, who between the teratoma, the 16th century royal mistress overdosing on gold, the head of Henry IV, the blood of Louis XVI and the ancient pooper scoopers, has had one mighty cool career.

Researchers were not able to determine teratoma lady’s cause of death. Encapsulated ovarian teratomas are benign and not fatal in and of themselves, but they can cause complications that result in death.

“This ovarian teratoma could have been the cause of this woman’s death, because sometimes the development of teratomas results in displacement and functional disturbances of adjacent organs,” the researchers write. They note that infection, hemolytic anemia and pregnancy complications can also occur with an ovarian teratoma, events that could also have caused the woman’s death.

Or not. She could just as easily have died from a heart attack or a hundred other illnesses that can’t be identified from skeletal remains. Since the teratoma is small and was safely ensconced in her ovary, it wouldn’t have shown outwardly. She probably didn’t know she had a mass inside her, never mind a mass of teeth and bones.


Greeks, Romans wiped their asses with pottery discs

Monday, January 21st, 2013

In China paper was used for intimate cleaning as early as the second century B.C., but there was no toilet paper in classical Europe. In my many, many visits to ancient Roman toilets over the years, I had always heard that Romans used a sponge on a stick to wipe after defecating. In public latrines, the sponge-stick, or tersorium, would then be rinsed in running water and left in a bucket of vinegar for the next poor bastard to use.

The existence and use of the tersorium is confirmed in ancient writings. Seneca describes the implement in a deeply disturbing anecdote in the 70th of his Letters to Lucilius used to illustrate how people prefer even the worst death if they can choose it themselves over an easier death chosen for them by a master.

Nay, men of the meanest lot in life have by a mighty impulse escaped to safety, and when they were not allowed to die at their own convenience, or to suit themselves in their choice of the instruments of death, they have snatched up whatever was lying ready to hand, and by sheer strength have turned objects which were by nature harmless into weapons of their own. For example, there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself, – the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death!

As uncomfortable as a communal vinegar-soaked sponge-stick may seem to our delicate modern hygienic sensibilities, at least sponges are soft and vinegar does disinfect. Compared to using a rounded fragment of pottery to wipe yourself with, a tersorium sounds like paradise. Yet, a study co-authored by forensic anthropologist Philippe Charlier (who also co-authored the comparison of Louis XVI’s blood with Henry IV’s head)
published in the British Medical Journal has confirmed that pessoi, ceramic discs thought to be game pieces in ancient chess-like strategy games, were put to a more utilitarian use: scraping away fecal matter after defecation.

Researchers examined two terracotta pessoi, probably fragments from broken amphorae, found in the filling underneath Roman latrines close to excrement deposits. The fragments were recut to have smoother edges, thank God for small favors, and date to the 2nd century A.D. The smaller piece (on the left in the picture) was found on the island of Ustica, just north of Palermo, Sicily, and is 4.7 centimers (1.85 inches) in diameter, 1.7 centimeters (.67 inches) thick. The larger one was found on Gortyn, on the southern coast of Crete, and is 6 centimeters (2.36 inches) in diameter, 1.3 centimeters (0.51 inches) thick. That doesn’t leave much room for clean holding, but I suppose they have to be small enough to be wielded in, uh, tight quarters.

One side of the pessoi were cleaned as part of standard archaeological practice. The other side and the edges were not. Examination of the non-cleaned areas under a microscope found solidified and partially mineralised feces.

Although this is news to me, many pessoi have been found nestled the excrement deposits under ancient latrines all over the Mediterranean. There is also artistic evidence of the use of pottery fragments for wiping. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a kylix, a wine cup, no less, that has this extraordinary image on the tondo, the flat round inside the cup:

I’m not the only one to whom this story comes as a surprise. Even experts like archaeologists and museum curators are just finding this out now. Dr. Rob Symmons, the curator of the Fishbourne Roman Palace, the largest Roman home in Britain, was highly amused to find all those discs they’ve been exhibiting as game pieces may turn out to have had a less cerebral and more scatological purpose

“The pieces had always been catalogued as broken gaming pieces but I was never particularly happy with that explanation. But when the article produced the theory they were used to wipe people’s bums I thought it was hilarious and it just appealed to me. I love the idea we’ve had these in the museum for 50 years being largely ignored and now they are suddenly engaging items you can relate to.”

Symmons, who has been at the museum for seven years, added: “We will obviously have to think about reclassifying these objects on our catalogue. But we hope the pieces will make people smile when they learn what they were used for.”

He concludes with classic British understatement: “They would have probably been quite scratchy to use and I doubt they would be as comfortable as using toilet roll.”

EDIT: Commenter rwmg rightly notes that the Christmas issue of the BMJ is famous for its spoof and light-hearted articles. This article is most certainly one of the latter, but I can’t say for sure either way if the study itself (ie, the microscopic examination of pessoi) is fictional or if it actually happened but is entertaining enough to include in the Christmas issue. The documentary and archaeological evidence it cites — ancient literary sources, the BMFA kylix, a 2002 article in the journal Hesperia on the pessoi unearthed in the Athenian agora — is factual. You can read the 2002 paper, A contextual approach to pessoi (gaming pieces, counters or convenient wipes?) by John K. Papadopoulos, on pages 423 – 427 of this pdf, and you should because the quotes from Aristophanes alone are worth the price of admission.


Original Batmobile sells for $4.62 million

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

The original Batmobile from the 1960s television series starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader sold at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Phoenix, Arizona, on Saturday for $4.62 million. The iconic vehicle was created from the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car by car customizing pioneer George Barris who also made the Munsters Koach and the Beverly Hillbillies truck.

“Barris told Reuters he had supplied vehicles for movies and television shows before, but this one had to be markedly different than the others.

“With every pow, bang, wow, wee, I wanted the car to do something just like the actors,” said Barris, 87, in an interview before the auction. “The car had to be a star on its own. And it became one.”

The star car has been in his possession since before it was a Batmobile. He was working with Ford in the early 60s and they sold it to him for a token $1. This is the first time it’s ever been sold outside of that handshake agreement.

George Barris and his family accompanied the Batmobile onto the stage while the show’s theme song played in the background. The audience started signing it while the bids got higher and higher. There was a reserve price set for the car, but neither Barris nor the auctioneers announced it publicly. All we know is it was in the multi-million dollar range, not that there was much of a chance of the Batmobile not reaching the minimum. Interest was astronomical and bidding fierce. Finally the hammer fell at $4.2 million for a total of $4.62 million including buyer’s premium.

The total cost ties the record for the highest price paid for a movie car at auction. James Bond’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5 driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger sold for $4.6 million in 2010.

The buyer, for once not anonymous, is Champagne, Rick Champagne, a Phoenix-area business man who has been a fan of the show since he was a boy. He had a toy model Batmobile then. He’s got the real thing now.

“I really liked Batman growing up and I came here with the intention of buying the car,” Champagne, 56, told Reuters in a brief interview moments after he bought the car. “Sure enough, I was able to buy it. That was a dream come true.”

When asked where he’s going to keep it, Champagne replied “in the living room. I’m going to tear down a wall and put in my living room.” Which doesn’t sound at all weird to me, even if he meant it as a joke. As long as your living room has some kind of ramp to the outdoors, that is, because this car is street legal and you’d be insane not to drive it.

Watch the entire auction spectacle as it went down on this video starting around the 27 second mark:



Shackleton’s whisky returned to Antarctica

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

PM John Key with Shackleton whiskyThree bottles of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky found frozen under the floorboards of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island, Antarctica have been returned to Antarctica after a productive sojourn in Scotland. Accompanied by the Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key, the bottles were locked in containers and flown from Christchurch Saturday on a U.S. Air Force transport plane. They are scheduled to be reunited with two other crates of whisky and two of brandy that remain undisturbed under Shackleton’s hut by March at the latest.

The whisky was bottled in 1898 after aging for 15 years. Shackleton brought it with him on his ill-fated Nimrod expedition to the South Pole in 1907. Its 47.3% alcohol by volume kept it liquid even as the crates were frozen solid. They were rediscovered under the floorboards by a team from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust in 2006. It took them four years to budge one of the crates so that it could be flown to Canterbury Museum in Christchurch for a very gradual thawing under controlled conditions.

In January of 2011, three of the 11 bottles in the thawed crate were flown to Scotland on a private plane. Whyte & Mackay, the owner of the onetime Mackinlay’s distillery, was keen to examine the whisky, whose original recipe was long lost. The deep freeze had preserved it in like-new condition, and master blender Richard Paterson was tasked with drawing samples from the sealed bottles to taste in the hope of being able to produce a replica.

Master Blender Richard Paterson looks at a bottle of Shackleton's whisky like he's about to make sweet, sweet love to itAfter months of painstaking blending work, Paterson recreated the whisky. A limited edition run of 50,000 bottles flew off the shelves at $150 a pop. Whyte & Mackay donated five percent of sales to the Antarctic Heritage Trust. That amounted to almost $400,000. The first run was so successful that Whyte & Mackay has issued a new product inspired by Shackleton’s whisky. It’s called The Journey, is a blend of different malts, but tastes just like the first replica. Again a percentage of sales will be donated to the Antarctic Heritage Trust which stands to make double the amount this time around, a massive boon to its conservation work.

The original three bottles from which Paterson drew samples with a syringe were flown to New Zealand last month and are now back in Antarctica. A trace amount remains in Scotland, however. Richard Paterson kept a tiny vial of it.

“Nosing, tasting and recreating this amazing piece of history was the highlight of my 40 year career,” [Paterson] enthused.

“I’m delighted that my experience and skill has paid dividends, and not just for the company, the industry or for those that love whisky or history. It’s also made a tangible difference to the AHT and thanks to this second edition, that difference will be even more profound.”

The story of Shackleton’s frozen whisky has inspired a book that tells the story of the epic Nimrod expedition and the creation of the original whisky by Mackinlay’s distillery. Amusingly enough, apparently Shackleton was a near teetotaler, drinking only on rare celebratory occasions. Author Neville Peat even thinks he’s solved the mystery of the missing 12th bottle which was not found in the thawed crate. You can read more about the book in the media release (pdf).


3000-year-old tombs found in Luxor temple

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Italian archaeologists excavating the mortuary temple of 18th Dynasty (1550-1291 B.C.) pharaoh Amenhotep II in Luxor have discovered a number of rock tombs from the Third Intermediate Period (1075 – 664 B.C.). Each tomb has been cut into the rock with a deep shaft leading down into a burial chamber. The burial chambers contain the remains of wooden sarcophagi painted in black and red with funerary and religious scenes, skeletal remains, canopic jars and furniture for use in the afterlife.

The canopic jars are of excellent quality. There are 12 in total, some in limestone, the others in burnt clay. These vessels were used to hold the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines of the dead. The lids of the jars are carved in the shape of the four sons of Horus who are charged with protecting the organs. The baboon-headed deity is Hapi, guardian of the lungs. The human headed deity is Imsety; he protects the liver. Qebehsenuef has a falcon’s head and guards the intestines. Duamutef’s jackal head protects the stomach.

The canopy [sic] vases are thought to have come from the tomb of a woman. They date back to the period between 1075 and 664 B.C. and, [lead archaeologist Dr. Angelo] Sesana notes, were laid out in the manner of two on one side and two on the other of the burial, inside of which a sarcophagus and skeleton were found. The archaeologist said that they were unidentified. “But another time, and it was such a strong emotion that I began jumping up and down, I found canopy vases with the inscription of the name of the dead. It was the same name as that of a sarcophagus I had identified six years before.”

The contents of the tomb have been moved to a Luxor storehouse for restoration and examination. When the conservation and research is done, they’ll be put on display in a museum.

Other finds made this season include a monumental ramp and the tomb of a child of around six months of age. The body was missing, but inside the terracotta sarcophagus were artifacts — a beautiful set of bowls, plates and assorted tableware — neatly laid around a space where a mummy once was. The sarcophagus lid was broken, probably by looters in antiquity. The child’s tomb dates to the Middle Kingdom, around 1800 B.C., and archaeologists believe there may be a connection between it and the tombs of two young women from the same period discovered in last year’s dig.

The quality of the artifacts suggests the tombs hold the remains of élite members of Third Intermediate society. The fact that rich and important people were being buried in Amenhotep II’s temple at least four centuries after his death (he reigned from approximately 1427 to 1401 B.C.) underscores the religious importance of the temple even after its builder’s dynasty was long gone.

The Italian archaeological team from the Center of Egyptology Francesco Ballerini (CEFB) has been excavating the temple of Amenhotep II for fifteen years. For more about the temple and the group’s excavations, see their website. It has an interesting excavation diary but that’s only available in Italian. It’s worth firing up an online translator to read it, though.


Sachs poster collection going under the hammer

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Just ten months ago after seven years of litigation, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, Germany, ruled that 4,529 rare turn of the century posters collected by Hans Sachs before he and his family fled Germany in 1939 belonged to Sachs’ son Peter. Hans Sachs, a dentist with an unfailing eye and unquenchable thirst for graphic art, had amassed 12,500 posters starting when he was a teenager in the late 1890s right through to the precipice of World War II. His collection, replete with small print run rarities, political propaganda, sports events, advertising for movies, operas, art exhibits and consumer goods, some of them by masters like Toulouse-Lautrec and Gustav Klimt, was the biggest and best in Germany, probably in the world.

He was a pioneer in the recognition of the value of the graphic arts, and in an era when posters were meant to be stuck to a wall and torn down or covered up a few days later, he treated his collection like a fine gallery of oil paintings. He put his money where his mouth was, too. He had an addition built to his home to house the collection and opened it to the public as the Museum of Applied Arts.

The rise of the Nazi party ruined all this. In the summer of 1938, the poster collection was confiscated by Joseph Goebbels who coveted the art for a museum of his own. A few months later, on November 9th, 1938, during the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews, Hans Sachs was arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside of Berlin. Thanks to the tireless efforts of his wife Felicia in securing visas to England, he was released three weeks later. Together with his wife and one-year-old son Peter, Hans fled to London and from then to New York.

When the war was over, Hans assumed his collection could not have survived, so he applied for a refund under West German’s compensation program. In 1961, he received 225,000 German marks (about $50,000 at that time). Five years later, Sachs discovered that as many as 8,000 of his posters had indeed survived the war but were squirreled away in an East German museum. His attempts to share his knowledge with the museum were rebuffed and Hans died in 1974 never having laid eyes on his beloved collection again.

After reunification, the collection, now reduced to 5,000 pieces (no one knows what happened to the rest), was moved to the German Historical Museum in Berlin where it was kept in storage. Only scholars were allowed access to it. Peter Sachs had no idea a considerable chunks of the collection had survived until 2005. He immediately initiated a campaign to get the posters back. He offered to repay the compensation, now tip money compared to the market value of the rare collection, and took the museum to court.

Because his father had accepted the money, the courts consistently ruled that Peter had no legal grounds to reclaim the posters. The final court of appeals overruled those letter-of-the-law judgments because even though it was true that technically the posters now belonged to Germany, the whole point of compensation laws was to redress the injustices of the Nazi regime. Thus the court ruled in Peter’s favor in the interest in justice.

When the story broke last year, one of Peter Sachs’ lawyers, Matthias Druba said: “Hans Sachs wanted to show the poster art to the public, so the objective now is to find a depository for the posters in museums where they can really be seen and not hidden away.” That objective is no longer. I don’t know what kind of effort he made to place the entire collection in the past 10 months, but apparently he was unable to find any takers so instead he’s going to sell the vast majority of it.

Starting tomorrow and going through Sunday, 1,233 of the posters will go under the hammer at Bohemian National Hall in New York City. Guernsey’s Auctions is handling the sale, and you can bid online via Live Auctions (day one here, day two here, day three here). Thousands more will be sold at later auctions planned for September and next January.

Peter Sachs will be keeping exactly four posters with sentimental value for himself and plans to donate another 800 or so to museums. He’s entirely content with this decision.

“There’s of course no practical way that I could frame and hang 4,300 posters, so I just didn’t see any other alternative than to do what we’re doing,” Peter Sachs, 75, said by telephone from his home in Las Vegas. “But I don’t feel guilty in any way whatsoever — even with them being auctioned I think it’s far preferable that they will wind up in the hands of people who truly enjoy them and appreciate them rather than sitting in a museum’s storage for another 70 years without seeing the light of day.”

Yes well, that’s debatable, I suppose. Researchers who will now have to visit a few thousand collectors and museums all over the world to view a collection that was once in a single museum might beg to differ. There’s no question what his father’s position on the issue would have been. He kept his collection together even under the unspeakable duress of the Nuremberg Laws and volunteered to help the museum that was keeping it hidden behind the Iron Curtain.

Sachs has reimbursed the German government for the 225,000 marks compensation payment, and why not? The full 4,300 poster collection is valued at between $6 million and $21 million, so Mr. Sachs is looking at quite the plush retirement.

The only bright side to this, and it ain’t much of one, is that at least we get to see the collection in pictures via the online catalogs. There’s also a print catalog available for $52 that has pictures of all the posters being sold this weekend.


Burne-Jones’ Days of Creation drawings for sale

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

A complete framed series of six highly detailed pencil drawings by Victorian artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones depicting the days of creation is coming up for auction for the first time in 40 years. The Days of Creation painting is considered one of Burne-Jones’ greatest works, and this pencil drawing is more than just a study for the later masterpiece. There are distinct differences between the painting and the drawing. It’s a fully realized exhibited work in its own right.

Burne-Jones made the drawings around 1871 during a period of withdrawal from public exhibition. The year before he had stormed off when the Society of Painters in Water-Colours asked him to modify a painting of Phyllis and Demophoön which was deemed a little too spicy to display as is because the mainly naked Phyllis was clearly recognizable as model Maria Zambaco, his lover and the daughter of his patron. Also she was embracing Demophoön in a manner that suggested more sexual hunger that Victorian womanhood was supposed to evince. He refused to make the change and withdrew from the exhibition and from the society.

For the next seven years he stopped showing his work but he never stopped working. In 1870 he designed six stained glass windows for his old Oxford friend and frequent collaborator William Morris. This was his first exploration of this version of The Days of Creation idea. Each of the six windows featured an angel with a flame on his forehead holding a globe depicting God’s actions on that day — the separation of light from dark, separation of the waters, and so forth. As the days progress, the number of angels increased to match. Morris & Co. turned Burne-Jones’ designs into stained glass and they were installed in the west window of All Saints Church, Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire.

The pencil drawings are similar to the stained glass in concept and iconography, but are more complex and detailed. We know from a note in his work-record that he began the drawings in 1871. In 1872, he began work on the paintings, a gouache watercolor with shell gold and platinum paint on linen panels more than twice the size of the pencil drawings. He worked on the paintings off and on through 1876. Once completed, the panels were framed in a huge Renaissance revival contraption designed by Burke-Jones specifically to hold all six Days.

In May of 1877, Edward Burne-Jones exhibited The Days of Creation painting in his comeback show at Grosvenor Gallery in London. It was a sensation. Oscar Wilde went to the Grosvenor Gallery show, describing his visit in detail in an article for Dublin University Magazine (the essay is included in his book of collected writings, Miscellanies). He critiqued works on display by the likes of Sir John Everett Millais and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema before lingering on Burne-Jones’ triumphant return with The Days of Creation, The Beguiling of Merlin, and the Mirror of Venus. Here’s his description of The Days of Creation:

The next picture is divided into six compartments, each representing a day in the Creation of the World, under the symbol of an angel holding a crystal globe, within which is shown the work of a day. In the first compartment stands the lonely angel of the First Day, and within the crystal ball Light is being separated from Darkness. In the fourth compartment are four angels, and the crystal glows like a heated opal, for within it the creation of the Sun, Moon, and Stars is passing; the number of the angels increases, and the colours grow more vivid till we reach the sixth compartment, which shines afar off like a rainbow. Within it are the six angels of the Creation, each holding its crystal ball; and within the crystal of the sixth angel one can see Adam’s strong brown limbs and hero form, and the pale, beautiful body of Eve. At the feet also of these six winged messengers of the Creator is sitting the angel of the Seventh Day, who on a harp of gold is singing the glories of that coming day which we have not yet seen. The faces of the angels are pale and oval-shaped, in their eyes is the light of Wisdom and Love, and their lips seem as if they would speak to us; and strength and beauty are in their wings. They stand with naked feet, some on shell-strewn sands whereon tide has never washed nor storm broken, others it seems on pools of water, others on strange flowers; and their hair is like the bright glory round a saint’s head.

The painting was considered a triumph. Burne-Jones’ Renaissance influences (particularly Michelangelo and Mantegna) and clean style moved him out of the orbit of his early mentor pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and placed Burne-Jones firmly at the head of the burgeoning Aesthetic movement. Days was so popular that stained glass versions of it were commissioned by a variety of churches for years even after Burne-Jones’ death. Morris & Co made a neat version in Della Robbia ware ceramic between 1893 and 1906 for Dyfrig Chapel at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales.

The painting went through various private hands until its last owner, Grenville Winthrop, bequeathed it to Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum in 1943. The series remained on display in Cambridge for the next 47 years. It was on loan in a dining room in Dunster House at Harvard University in 1970 when the fourth panel was stolen. It is still missing today. The surviving five panels are still at the Fogg Art Museum.

That makes this series of pencil drawings even more important. They’re complete and framed together as Burne-Jones’ intended. Their ownership history is also illustrious. Their first owner was Aglaia Coronio, a friend, model and muse of Burne-Jones’ who probably received the drawings as a gift from the artist. After her suicide in 1906, her niece Zoë Ionides purchased the drawings from the estate before they could be put up for auction. The first time they came up for sale on the public market was 1973, after Zoë’s death. It was bought by an art gallery who sold it to the mother of the present owner who of course wishes to remain anonymous.

The Days of Creation drawing will be sold at Bonhams in London on January 23rd. The pre-sale estimate is $340,000 – $400,000.


Medieval church graffiti reveals fascinating details

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS) is a community archaeology project which enlisted volunteers to document pre-Reformation graffiti in Norfolk churches. From January 2010 until June 2012, project workers did completely surveys of 65 of Norfolk’s medieval churches (10% of the total) and preliminary surveys of another 40. Medieval graffiti were discovered in 80% of the surveyed churches.

These are some remarkably beautiful and illuminating works. It’s not your standard “Kilroy wuz here” stuff, although names found have found, and it’s definitely not the bawdy libels of Roman Pompeii. They are line drawings, some abstract, some of people, demons, ships and crosses. Circles are also a popular theme. It’s social history, contributions of the regular parishioners who attended church but couldn’t afford to leave their mark by sponsoring rich vestments, dazzling stained glass or soaring bell towers.

Most of them are inscriptions scratched into the lower walls. They’re hard to see today without making a point of looking for them with the aid of angled lighting, but when they were first made, the lower walls were painted with bold colors so the scratched out images would look white against a bright red, black or ochre background. In some of the churches, the lower walls were crowded with graffiti but they did not overlap, suggesting that people made a point of not messing up earlier works, perhaps because they had a devotional purpose. A ship could have been inscribed as a prayer for a safe voyage, for example. It also suggests the authorities didn’t cover them up or scrape them off but rather tolerated them for very long periods, sometimes centuries even, until the walls were repainted, whitewashed or stripped.

It’s really an extraordinary new vision of medieval church aesthetics. Can you imagine what the walls of these churches looked like at peak graffiti? All those clean white drawings on bold backgrounds must have been like a reverse toile.

The project has also discovered important information about church construction. At one of the first sites they explored, Binham Priory, they found an eight-foot inscription depicting the great west window. It wasn’t a free hand drawing, but rather was made using compasses and straightedges, thus NMGS believes it was the work of the master mason who used the wall for architectural drawing.

Although much of the drawing was obscured by later painting, it’s a find of major historical significance because the west window’s Gothic bar tracery design was revolutionary when it was built between 1220 and 1245. It was the first of its kind in England, predating its successors by decades. The lower part of the great west window collapsed in the early 19th century and the window was bricked up, so the earliest sketches of the traceried window can provide invaluable information. Already experts who have examined the drawing note that the design is considerably more elaborate than they realized.

The next step for the project is to expand the massively successful pilot program into a full survey of the remaining 90% of Norfolk’s medieval churches. Volunteers are very much needed, so if you’re in Norfolk and want to have a unique opportunity to scour the walls of churches for centuries-old graffiti, call Project Director Matthew Champion at 07810 677723 or email info at You can also contact them via their Facebook page.

The program’s success has inspired six other counties to launch similar projects, so check your local listings.


Possible 9-foot model of Brunelleschi’s dome found

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating inside an 18th century theater slated to become an addition to the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral in Florence have discovered what appears to be a builder’s model of the cathedral’s famous dome. The mini-dome is nine feet in diameter and features bricks laid in a herringbone pattern, a unique characteristic of the dome designed and built by architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi.

It was found in a layer two-and-a-quarter feet below surface level which contains copious metal and marble fragments from the period when the space was used as a construction workshop during the late 14th and 15th centuries, the same time when Brunelleschi was working on his dome. Herringbone brickwork had been used before in Persian domes, but Brunelleschi’s was the first in Europe, which means this model may be the first brick herringbone dome built on the continent.

The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was built between 1420 and 1436, and the herringbone pattern was one of the key elements to Brunelleschi’s brilliant design. An octagonal dome had been planned for the cathedral by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296, but even as the rest of the church was built, the dome never moved past the model phase. The decision to eschew Gothic buttresses in favor of a classical dome was made when the design of architect Neri di Fioravante was accepted in 1367. That left the Duomo’s builders with a dilly of a pickle: how to build a huge octagonal dome without elaborate scaffolding that would make the interior of the church unusable and without exterior buttresses.

In 1418 the wool guild sponsored a contest to solve the thorny problem. Brunelleschi studied the dome of the Pantheon in Rome — still today the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world — but he couldn’t use the Pantheon’s techniques for the Duomo dome. The Roman recipe for concrete was lost, for one thing, and for another, it had required massive wooden forms to keep the dome standing while the concrete dried. There literally wasn’t enough timber in Tuscany to scaffold and frame even a masonry dome 144 feet in diameter. Also the outer walls of the cathedral had already been built, and there was no way they could withstand the compression forces of a massive, heavy dome. Besides, there was still the stricture that the interior of the church had to be open to the public during construction.

Brunelleschi’s solution was brickwork rather than concrete or stone. He built wooden vertical ribs that curved upwards from each corner of the octagonal base. The ribs had slits that wooden planks could be attached to, and then terrifying skinny platforms built off the planks for workers to use building the dome without the need for scaffolding. The bricks were then laid in a diagonal herringbone pattern that would transfer the weight of the bricks to nearest vertical rib while the mortar was drying instead of pressing downwards and collapsing onto the heads of assembled worshipers.

Even today there are many questions about how he accomplished this extraordinary feat of architecture. Brunelleschi kept his overall plan close to his chest, releasing snippets on a need-to-know basis so he couldn’t be easily replaced. The discovery of a brick and mortar model (as opposed to the small mock-up style model which is on display at the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral) could add to our understanding of Brunelleschi’s methods.

Unfortunately the top of the mini-dome is missing, probably sheared off during the construction of the theater in 1779. The theater was commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold, son of Maria Theresa of Austria and future Holy Roman Emperor. It replaced the many workshops used by artisans and craftsmen employed by the Works of the Cathedral since the Middle Ages, one of which may well have been the place where Michelangelo sculpted the David. The Theater of the Intrepids became known for its low-brow entertainment, raucous audiences and wholly crappy acoustics.

In the 1900s the theater was gutted and used as a garage until it was purchased by its former owners, the Works of the Duomo, in 1998. For the next decade or so, the organization used it for storage and as a restoration laboratory. In 2009, construction began to transform the space into an adjunct space for the museum. The new addition is scheduled to open in 2015. The newly discovered domelet will be fully excavated, restored as much as feasible and put on display in the new museum.


Portrait on a snuffbox identified as Mozart

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Experts at Salzburg’s Mozarteum have identified a miniature portrait on ivory embedded in the lid of a snuffbox as an authentic portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In preparation for Pictures of Mozart: A Portrait Between Imagination and Reality, an exhibition of authenticated, dubious and fake Mozart portraits which opens January 26th in the Mozart Residence, researchers re-examined all the portraits belonging to the International Mozarteum Foundation in detail. By analyzing the wee oval painting (it’s just 3 by 2.5 centimeters) and the historical record, they were able to confirm that the miniature on the tobacco tin is a portrait of the composer painted in 1783 by Johann Grassi.

Mozart was 27 in 1783, living in Vienna and already famous as an exceptional keyboard player and composer. It’s known that he and Grassi met in Vienna at this time. The portrait is unusual because it’s most of the images of him depict him in profile or looking away from the viewer. This is one of few that shows him looking directly at the viewer, and it’s the only one painted after 1781. It’s also rare to see Mozart not wearing his peruke. His hair is powdered, but it’s his real hair.

The box was acquired by the International Mozarteum Foundation in 1956. The Foundation has been able to trace the ownership record of the tin back to Johann Grassi himself. He apparently added his portrait of Mozart to the snuffbox after the composer’s death in 1791, eight years after the miniature was painted. We know an 1829 engraving of Mozart by Dresden printmaker Johann Gottschick was modeled after the miniature because Gottschick said as much. It wasn’t until this latest research that experts were able to confirm the snuffbox miniature was the authentic original.

Research can’t always produce good news. Another portrait owned by the Foundation which has long been considered a portrait of Mozart as a child has been found to be a fake, not a mistake, a fake. Boy with a Bird’s Nest, a sweet portrait of a boy holding a nightingale nest, is inscribed “Mozart 1764.” The artist was eight years old in 1764 and the boy in the painting looks around that age. The large (31 by 24 inches) oil painting was purchased by the Mozarteum Foundation from a British art dealer in 1924 for what was a considerable sum at the time.

Unfortunately, what the experts found is that the inscription was not original the painting. It was added around the time of the sale, an intentional deception to raise the price and sell the piece to the Mozarteum. Even the claimed artist, Joseph Zoffany, and his signature is fake. The painting is by some unknown British painter and its subject is a nameless English noble child. It bears no relation to Mozart whatsoever.

There are only 14 confirmed portraits of Wolfgang Mozart known. The Foundation owns 12 of them. The exhibition brings them all together with pieces loaned from other institutions to compare authenticated portraits to questionable ones to known fakes. It’s the first time all these images of the genius will be together in one place.






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