Archive for August, 2013

Poison ring found in 14th c. Bulgarian fortress

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

It’s not the large cabochon gemstone that opens on a hinge to reveal a secret compartment filled with tasteless, odorless, deadly iocane powder of your imagination. This ring has a more subtle, and therefore effective, design. It’s made out of modest bronze and has a hollow cartridge welded to the bezel. It’s finely crafted with a circular granulation detail around the top and five cylinders that look like stacked pennies going up the side. There’s a small hole on the side of the ring between two of the cylinders through which poison could be introduced into the hollow chamber and, when the propitious moment is at hand, into the food or beverage of your benighted target.

Its size suggests that it was made for a man to wear, probably on the little finger of the right hand. Since the hole is on the left side, it would be concealed by the ring finger next to it. A quick lift and tip of the pinkie and poisoning accomplished. It’s a much stealthier approach than having to open a splashy begemmed lid and turn your hand upside down without anyone noticing.

The ring was found by archaeologists excavating the remains of a 14th century fortress on Cape Kaliakra on the Black Sea about seven and a half miles from the town of Kavarna in northeast Bulgaria. Bulgaria’s National Institute of Archaeology has been excavating the fortress site since 2011. Amidst the remains of the 14th century walls, water pipes, baths and fortress, archaeologists have found more than 30 gold jewels, pearl earrings, rings set with precious and semiprecious gems. This ring is the only one made out of bronze discovered on the site.

Some of the gold rings also have holes deliberately drilled in them, but only the ones with gemstones and none of them have hollow cartridges. According to team leader Boni Petrunova, holes were sometimes added to rings to allow the gems to “breathe.” The bronze ring is in excellent condition and intact as is. There were no gemstones in need of a breathing port, so that hole was used for other purposes, nefarious ones at that.

The location certainly lends itself to deadly political machinations.

The ring was most likely used in the conflict between Dobrotitsa, ruler of the independent Despotate of Dobrudja in the second half of the 14th century, and his son Ivanko Terter, Petrunova said. The conflict is the most likely cause of many deaths of nobles close to Dobrotitsa at Kaliakra fortress.

Kaliakra was the capital of the short-lived principality that stretched from the Danube River delta to present-day Bourgas. The peak of its power came under Dobrotitsa, who had sufficient military strength to participate in Byzantine civil wars and, allied with Venice, challenge Genoese naval domination in the Black Sea.

Dobrudja was a center of wheat production for Byzantium and it had extensive trade networks with Italy and Spain through Genoa. That connection took an unpleasant turn on occasion, like when Genoese galleys dropped off the Black Death in 1346 or 1347 before carrying their Y. pestis-laden rat fleas to Sicily and thence to the rest of Western Europe.

There was also plenty of local intrigue. Dobrotitsa and his son Ivanko had a dysfunctional relationship, to put it mildly. Their vicious rivalry left swaths of dead supporters in its wake. Perhaps this ring is responsible for some of that body count.


Signet ring testifies to early Christians in Norfolk

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

An engraved silver disc thought to be the bezel of a signet ring discovered by a metal detectorist in February in Swaffham, Norfolk, has been officially declared treasure trove at a coroner’s inquest in King’s Lynn on Tuesday. It’s a small piece, less than half a gram in weight and just 11 millimeters (.43 inches) in diameter, but all ancient precious metals are treasure trove by British law and this one has particular historical significance as well.

The disc dates to between 312 and 410 A.D. and features a male head in profile wearing a diadem with the inscription “ANTONI VIVAS IN DEO” encircling the figure. The Latin inscription means “Antonius, may you live in God” which is a common Christian formula seen on rings and other jewelry. They’re very rare in Norfolk, however. This ring is only the second “VIVAS IN DEO” ring known to have been found in that county — the first is a gold betrothal ring found in Brancaster — and it’s the only such signet ring.

Adrian Marsden, local finds officer:

“On one level, of course, this is good negative evidence, implying that most people at the time worshipped the old gods. On another, it shows there were one or two Christians around.

“The ring would have been a gift to Antonius, perhaps on the occasion of his conversion, coming of age or betrothal/marriage.”

The Brancaster ring was identified as a betrothal ring because it had two figures, a male and female, facing each other. Since this is just the one diademed fellow, I lean towards it being an individual special occasion present, like the coming of age or the conversion. Also, the signet ring element sounds more like a graduation gift than a marriage gift.

We know it was intended for stamping because the engraving is in intaglio, dug into the silver, and it’s backwards. The inscription is retrograde: it reads left to right only when you’ve stamped it in wax.

Norfolk coroner William Armstrong also declared another two silver discoveries treasure trove at the same inquest: four East Anglian silver coins (one is actually plated in silver but with a copper alloy interior) attributed to the Iceni tribe, and one Viking silver ingot. The ingot dates to between 850 and 1000 A.D. and is of interest to historians because Vikings used ingots for currency in this period, so metallurgic analysis might provide some insight into Viking trade practices.

It weighs 7.04 grams and is 28 millimeters (1.1 inches) long. One end was broken in antiquity, so it was longer and heavier when it was new. The ingot has also been stamped with a decorative motif of pairs of triangles touching at the peaks which is usually found on Viking jewelry from this time. The British Museum has a piece of a silver arm-ring from the Cuerdale Hoard that bears this same stamp.

The next step is for British Museum experts to assess market value of the treasures, which probably will be relatively modest figures. The Norwich Castle Museum hopes to acquire the signet disc and the Viking ingot for its permanent collection.


Pre-Raphaelite mural found in William Morris’ Red House

Monday, August 19th, 2013

A mural painted by Pre-Raphaelite luminaries has been found hidden behind patches of 1960s wallpaper and a wardrobe in the master bedroom of Red House, the custom home built in 1859 for William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, and his new wife Jane Burden. They only lived in the house for five years, selling it in 1865. It passed through various hands until 2003 when it was acquired by the National Trust. The interior had been subjected to some unfortunate renovation choices over the decades, among them the application of imitation William Morris wallpaper over the mural in the Morrises’ bedroom.

One faded female figure and parts of an indistinct fifth figure were visible behind the wardrobe but in very bad condition. The National Trust raised £100,000 ($156,530) from the Wolfson Foundation and its own budget to restore the original mural. When the wardrobe and wallpaper were gingerly removed, conservators discovered a six foot by eight foot painting with five figures, not two, designed with trompe-l’oeil folds to look like a hanging tapestry. The figures are characters from the Bible. On the left are Adam and Eve with a snake climbing up the tree between them whispering disobedient things in Eve’s ear. Noah stands in the middle of the composition holding a small model of his ark. Rachel and Jacob perched on his ladder are on the right. Those are the two figures that were barely visible when the project began. Beneath Noah, Rachel and Jacob is a string of faded black text on a deep red background.

The mural had been ill-used by previous renovations. Old wallpaper was scraped off to make room for new wallpaper, and in the process paint was scraped off too. The remaining paint was flaking and pockmarked with divots. After two months of conservation, the mural was stabilized and, while the colors are still faded and there has been irrevocable paint loss, the five figures are distinct now and the text has been identified, thanks to the Red House’s Twitter and Facebook followers, as Genesis 30:6, which reads: “And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son.” The cleaner figures now show evidence of individual styles of the artists who painted them, and the National Trust hopes to pinpoint which of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painted which character.

Morris had all his pre-Raphaelite brothers take a hand in the decoration of Red House. Architect Philip Webb designed the house to Morris’ specifications. A lover of medieval art and literature, Morris wanted his new home to have a 13th century look with turrets, peaked roofs, a minstrels’ gallery, a well with a conical roof and stained glass windows. It was one of the first private homes of the era built out of visible red brick — the standard in this period was for brick houses to be stuccoed over — and the interior was decorated by Morris and his friends.

He wanted it to be dedicated to art, a party house for him and his friends to play with however the muse struck them. Patterned ceiling paintings in the great hall and wall hangings were done by Morris himself, custom furniture by Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones, murals with Biblical and medieval romance themes by Burne-Jones and others. (There are none of the wallpapers, prints or textiles that would become forever associated with William Morris, however, because he didn’t found his design firm until 1861 and the first run of wallpaper wasn’t manufactured until 1864.)

Aymer Vallance in The Art of William Morris describes those heady days:

Near about the same time, i.e., the latter part of 1860, in a letter to Bell Scott, Rossetti writes to say that his wife has “gone for a few days to stay with the Morrises at their Red House at Upton, and I am to join her there to-morrow, but shall probably return before her, as I am full of things to do, and could not go there at all, but that I have a panel to paint there.” The work was in oils, and it is said that one week sufficed for its execution. The subject of one of Rossetti’s compositions for the Red House was the Garden of Eden.

The Garden of Eden, you say, Vallance? Why, we just found one of those behind a wardrobe! Adam and Eve could very well have been painted by Rossetti. Eve’s posture — her curved neck, long blond hair, one hand held up to her forehead, the other holding an orb — is the spitting image of the Mary Magdalene in a stained glass window in Bradford Cathedral Rossetti made in 1864. Other contenders for the hands behind this mural are Ford Madox Brown for Noah, Elizabeth Siddal for Rachel and Morris for Jacob. Morris probably designed the overall painting.

This mural isn’t the only discovery made at Red House since the National Trust’s began to return the house as much as possible to its original condition. Basically everything white is hiding a Pre-Raphaelite treasure behind it, because Morris et al went hogwild in that house. Even elements that were still in view turned out to have parts hidden by later paneling, papering and furniture. For instance, the Wedding Feast, a mural by Edward Burne-Jones depicting a scene from the 15th century romance Sir Degrevant, depicts William Morris and his new wife Jane as Sir Degrevaunt and his bride Melydor.

Conservation healed its massive flaking problem and revealed there was a whole lower section underneath the scene with a pattern of flowers and bandeaux with the motto “Qui bien aime tard oublie” (“he who loves well forgets late”). Most awesomely of all, it revealed that what people had thought was a dog curled under a chair in the feast scene is actually a freaking wombat. Yeah. These guys were way into wombats. Edward Burne-Jones is known to have painted several wombats in his career, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had one as a pet for a while until it died after eating a box of his cigars.

Watch these videos from the National Trust’s YouTube channel to get a quick tour of the newly revealed mural and some of the other wall paintings from Red House.




All of Queen Anne’s Revenge to be salvaged

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

The Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of the notorious English pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, has been lying on the ocean floor off the coast of Beaufort Inlet in the Inner Banks of North Carolina since it ran aground in May 1718. It was discovered in 1996 by Intersal Inc., a private research firm that has searched for several shipwrecks under the oversight of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources (NCDCR). The wreck and all artifacts belong to the state and in 1997 NCDCR archaeologists began a long-term project of exploring, mapping and documenting the debris field.

Starting in 2006, the NCDCR’s Underwater Archaeology Branch added a program of artifact recovery to the ongoing study of the wreck site. Fifteen years after the initial discovery, the program was able to confirm that the wreck was indeed that of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a certainty they had scrupulously avoided expressing because none of the artifacts offered a smoking gun, so to speak, like the name of the ship. The large size of the ship, the great number of loaded cannons of different makes found, French artifacts and depth markings on the stern (it was a French slaver before being captured by pirate Captain Benjamin Hornigold in 1817 who gave it to one of his crewmen, Edward Teach, to captain), a date of 1705 on a ship’s bell: all the evidence added up to this being the QAR.

More than 280,000 pieces have been brought to the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort for conservation and display, but that’s just a third of the estimated total. Now the Underwater Archaeology Branch has announced that they plan to recover the entire wreck, from dishes to weapons to the ship’s planks, by 2014.

“The project calls for the recovery of all the materials. Everything. All the weapons, all the bits of the ship, all the personal items. Everything. If it’s down there, it’s coming up,” project leader Billy Ray Morris told on Wednesday.

Morris and a group of 14 marine archaeologists, technicians and restoration experts from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources believe the Queen Anne’s Revenge itself is a treasure trove, a unique repository of history from centuries ago. They plan to salvage the entire remains of the pirate ship by 2014. Cannon by cannon, plank by plank.

This will be a uniquely rich source of information about life on an 18th century pirate ship. There aren’t any shiny chests of treasure to hog the spotlight (Blackbeard and his crew had time to unload high value items after the ship ran aground which seems to have been a deliberate choice). It’s a treasure trove of social history with the additional cachet of association with and use by one of the famous pirates ever.

Once the wreck is salvaged, years, probably decades of conservation work will follow. Many of the artifacts can’t even be immediately identified because of concretions. Over the centuries spent in the ocean, artifacts become encrusted with sand, marine critters and other artifacts locking them together like concrete. It takes a lot of work to reveal the objects trapped in concretions. Here’s a cool example of one that has been cleaned enough to identify the different parts:

Check out the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project website for more information about the wreck, including a killer interactive site map, pictures (small ones, tragically) of the artifacts and a regularly updated blog.


Nevada petroglyphs oldest known in North America

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

Rock art carved on limestone boulders in Winnemucca Lake, a dried lake bed in northwest Nevada, is at least 10,500 years old and may be as much as 14,800 years old, a new analysis confirms. Even at the lower age range that makes these petroglyphs the oldest known in North America, and at the higher range it makes them contemporary with some of the first people to migrate to the continent from Asia.

Winnemucca Lake had some water in it as recently as the 1930s before construction projects drained the shallows for good, but at various times in the past it was so filled with water that the boulders on the western end of the lake were completely submerged for thousands of years. The carvings could only have been done when the rocks were above the water line. In order to determine when the petroglyphs were made, therefore, University of Colorado Boulder geochemist Larry Benson radiocarbon dated crusts of carbonate left on the boulders when they were under water. He found that a carbonate film underneath the rock art is around 14,800 years old while the carbonate crust on top of the art is around 11,000 years old. Additional information from rock and sediment core samples from adjacent Pyramid Lake narrowed down the range further, suggesting the boulders were above water in two phases: once between about 14,800 and 13,200 years ago, the second time between about 11,300 and 10,500 years ago.

Before this study, experts thought some of the petroglyphs at Long Lake, Oregon, were the oldest in North America. The most ancient Long Lake rock art (there are pieces carved as recently as 500 years ago) is dated by the ash which covered it after the eruption of Mount Mazama around 7,300 years ago. That means the art is at least that old and may be older.

There are some stylistic similarities between the Oregon petroglyphs and the Nevada works. They both have abstract designs of lines straight and curved, alone and in parallels, rings, swirls that appear to be part of a larger composition. The Winnemucca Lake rock art also features pieces that may be abstract renderings of nature — interlinked diamond shapes, trees, flowers, chevrons bisected by a central vertical line that suggest the veins of leaves. Individual carvings in the soft Nevada limestone are as small as eight inches wide to as large as three feet wide.

The petroglyphs are carved deep by what means we do not know. Larry Benson speculates that the artists used hard volcanic rock to carve into the soft limestone. As long as the carving tools are harder than the medium, it wouldn’t have taken too much time to get the job done. It still could have taken centuries for all the works we see today to have been carved, of course, or they may have all been done in one fell swoop.

Additional details about the dating might be determined by taking samples of carbonate from inside the carvings, but the petroglyphs lie within the borders of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe agreed to let Benson research the art only if he didn’t remove anything, not even a carbonate scraping, from the carvings themselves. (Some Native American tribes believe the spirits of the artists reside in their work and thus taking any part of it would be tampering with their ancestors’ souls.) He took his samples from the sides of the glyphs instead.


Panels stolen out of medieval rood screen in Devon church

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Thieves stole two painted oak panels from a rare 15th century rood screen in the Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon, southwestern England, sometime between July 22nd and August 9th. The two stolen panels depict Saint Victor of Marseilles and Saint Margaret of Antioch in rich jewel tones and gold paint. They were pushed out of their casings from the front and somehow, an adjacent third panel of an unknown female saint was also damaged, leaving a large shard missing from the left side.

Rood screens are large tracery partitions, usually the width of the church, that separate the nave (the main part of the church where the parishioners attend services) from the chancel (the front of the church where the altar is). They were made of wood or stone and were elaborately carved and decorated. This was a common feature in late medieval churches, but most of them were destroyed during the upheavals of the Reformation and under Cromwell because their decorative elements, especially figurative painting like the saints on Holy Trinity’s rood, were seen as idolatrous and because the partition represented a Catholic hierarchical divide between priest and church-goer. Holy Trinity’s piece is a rare survival and one of the best examples remaining, which makes the loss of the panels particularly painful.

The rood was built between 1460 and 1470, carved in elegant peaked Gothic arches that mimics the tracery of the stained glass windows. At the bottom of the structure are 40 oak panels 17 inches high and six inches wide, each painted with different saints and dignitaries of the church, some of whom have no other known surviving medieval representations. The quality of the painting is very high, probably the work of a master craftsman. There is evidence that the images were once whitewashed, which might explain how the rood survived the iconoclastic zeal of the Tudor and Civil War eras. Parts of it — the painted wood screens inside the arches rather than panels at the base — were removed and either destroyed or recycled to construct a pulpit that stands in front of the rood.

The entire church is a gem of historical preservation. It was built in its entirety in one two-decade effort between 1450 and 1470 and wasn’t subjected to later additions to alter its character. Its high medieval design and many original elements — even the original 15th century oak benches are still there, albeit encased in later box pews — have garnered it a Grade I listing, a designation that marks it as a building of exceptional historical interest.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time the rood screen has been the target of art thieves. Four of the saint panels were stolen in the 1990s and another three were ripped off in 2003. None of them have been recovered. The Church of England gave the church to the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a national charity that cares for 340 at-risk historic churches that are no longer in use as parish churches, in 1997. It is still consecrated ground, but now it is dedicated primarily to tourism and special events.

CCT churches are maintained exclusively by volunteers and needless to say, there is no money for security or monitored CCTV cameras. The church is open to the public during the day, and the key is kept by a neighboring volunteer. That’s why they don’t know when exactly the theft occurred. A maintenance contractor noticed the missing panels and alerted the trust.

Whoever stole them is unlikely to make much money from them. All auction houses, galleries, museums and antiques dealers have been alerted to the theft. They won’t want to touch so unique a property, especially since the thieves chose two rarely seen saints instead of more obvious figures. CCT chief executive Crispin Truman fears the panels will wind up being sold in some grubby back alley deal for a tenner. Their value, which is incalculable because of their rarity, lies in their proper context: the rood screen in Holy Trinity Church. Unmoored on the black market, they are unlikely to bring in a big price.

The Devon and Cornwall police have launched an appeal for information about the missing panels. They believe the pieces may have been taken out of the county in an attempt to sell them somewhere where they are less known. Thanks to all the publicity, police think that any attempt to sell them in the UK will be thwarted at this point, but they could be shipped out of the country or worse, dumped in a gutter somewhere that they’ll never be found until they decay beyond retrieval.

The CCT asks that anyone with information about the panels contact Laoise Bailey at, land line: +44 (0)20 7841-0415, cellphone: +44 07831 873-515. They have received many calls already from the general public and from art dealers so let’s hope one of them results in the return of these precious medieval artifacts.

This video shot in 2011 is a walk through the church. You can see the thick wooden doors, the rood screen, the pulpit, the pews, the windows, the vaulted ceiling and just the overall loveliness of this 15th century treasure.

EDIT: The video has been marked private and is no longer viewable.


Badger digs up graves of medieval Slavic chieftains

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Refusing to let English moles get all the glory, a German badger has unearthed a 12th-century burial ground on a farm outside Stolpe in Brandenburg, Germany. the sculptors who live on the farm, Lars Wilhelm and his wife Hendrikje Ring, had noticed the badger digging his sett (a badger’s den) over the course of five years. They had an idea that they might install some of their sculptures in the sett for an exhibition, so they observed the badger’s progress closely.

Last autumn, they saw the animal had turned up what appeared to be a human pelvic bone. Excavations by archaeologists in the 1960s had discovered an ancient graveyard on the other side of the road, so Lars and Hendrikje thought the badger might have turned up something similar. To see what else was inside that sett, they placed a camera into one of the openings and snapped photographs by remote control. They found jewelry that they were able to recover and then promptly called the authorities to report their finds.

The badger, his work now done, left the sett to the biped professionals. The archaeological excavation ultimately unearthed eight graves from the first half of the 12th century. Two of the graves were particularly notable because they held the remains of Slavic chieftains.

The skeletons in the two lords’ graves had bronze bowls at their feet. “That identified them as belonging to the social elite, they had the bowls to wash their hands before dining because they knew that was the refined thing to do,” said Kersting.

The objects found included an arrow head and a belt with a bronze, omega-shaped buckle with snake’s heads at each end.

One of the two skeletons was particularly well preserved and had evidently been a warrior. His body showed multiple sword and lance wounds and a healed fracture suggested he had fallen off his horse at some point, said Kersting.

The snake head buckle seem to be of Scandinavian manufacture, which underscores the warrior’s high status and wealth. Initial examination could not pinpoint the cause of his death. He was about 40 years old when he died, and he certainly was hardy, having taken several sword blows to the head that had healed before whatever killed him killed him. He was buried with a double-edged sword three feet long by his side, a testament to his battle-scarred existence.

The second of the two chieftains was missing his sword. Archaeologists believe his grave was looted, perhaps during the turbulence around the time of his burial. In the early 12th century, the Stolpe area was the site of constant conflict between the pagan Slavs who had lived there for centuries but whose power was on the wane, and the Christian Franks and Poles advancing from the west and east respectively. The people buried in this graveyard were among the last pre-Christian peoples in Germany. By the 12th century, east Brandenburg, central Germany, Pomerania and all of what is today Poland were fully Christianized.

Next to the second chieftain was the grave a woman, possibly his wife, who was found with a coin in her mouth to pay the ferryman for her passage over the river Styx to the underworld, another important indication that the deceased still worshiped the old Slavic deities.

The badger made the archaeologists very happy. These days they usually only get the chance to excavate sites slated for construction, and their work is bounded by the construction schedule. The badger’s digging gave them a rare opportunity to excavated an undeveloped site on a farm and they made an apposite rare find in a 12th century pagan burial ground. Nothing like it has been found in Brandenburg before.

The artifacts are currently being conserved. They will go on display in September at the State Archaeological Museum in the town of Brandenburg an der Havel.


Cygan, 1950s robot-about-town, can be yours

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

In 1957, Dr. Piero Fiorito, a Turin engineer and aeromodeller, turned his skill with mechanics and radio control circuitry to the construction of humanoid robots. He built three five-foot prototypes out of meccano, adding radio controls to the last two, and then went big with a robot more than eight feet high weighing more than 1,000 pounds. Dr. Fiorito named this handsome giant Cygan. Cygan could walk — or rather roll on wheels under each Frankenstein foot — backwards and forwards, turn right and left, raise his arms, lift things in his pincer hands and crush things in his pincer hands. He could do all of this on command, responding to spoken commands, visual signals and even light rays. His lead acid batteries, also stashed in his honking feet, gave him a 4 1/2 hour operating time.

Cygan made his public debut at the 35th International Samples Fair in Milan April 14th, 1957. His impressive size, smooth moves, shiny aluminum skin, neon green mohawk, pupils, mouth grill and ear antennae made a fine impression amidst the industrial products of many nations. Crowds came to see him walk around and lift his arms on an outdoor stage. His appeal couldn’t be restrained to his country of origin. From Milan he traveled to London where the risqué Windmill Theatre was his first stop.

The Windmill was known for its Revudeville, a vaudeville revue that featured scantily clad ladies dancing, comedians, sketches and most famously, naked ladies standing completely still. The Windmill Theatre was the only theater in London where on-stage nudity was allowed. Manager Vivian van Damm persuaded the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, who at that time was in charge of censoring all London theaters, that if nude statues were not censored, then nude living statues should be allowed too. Thus a “if you move, it’s rude” standard was applied and the nude Windmill Girls struck curious poses in tableaux vivants.

Cygan was perfect for a role in the revuedeville. He could carry two Windmill Girls on his broad shoulders and dance back and forth with a Windmill Girl’s dainty feet on his huge ones. Accompanied by a Windmill Girl entourage, Cygan (now called “Gygan” in the British press for reasons unknown) made a splash at the British Food Fair at London’s Olympia exhibition center in 1958. There is wonderful British Pathé newsreel footage of Cygan at the fair. Dr. Fiorito is in the light grey suit adjusting the thingies in his back. You can see Cygan walk, crush a tin cup and dance with one of his Windmill Girls while the narrator describes his many possible uses from “handling radioactive materials” to being an “obedient companion.”

If that last part sounds suggestive that’s because it is. In addition to having models and dancers draped over him in all his personal appearances, Cygan made the cover of a magazine lifting the skirt of Windmill Girl Sandra Penders. A French magazine dubbed him “the perfect husband” because he could walk, sing, dance, rock his wife for 48 hours without getting tired and if necessary, fend off his mother-in-law. They probably meant “rock” literally, as in rock her bath and forth, but I suspect there’s a little second entendre in there somewhere.

Cygan’s glamour days couldn’t last forever. The Windmill Theatre closed and became a movie theater in 1964. Shortly thereafter, Cygan was bought by a Ford car dealership in Leeds where he was dubbed Mr. Moto and kept as a mascot. His future travels were not so kind to him. He wound up outdoors on an airfield where kids would hang off of him instead of soubrettes. He was no longer functional and the elements soon did a number on him. In the early 2000s, lined with rust and missing his stylish green parts, Cygan appeared again at a salvage yard, painted silver to cover up the rust (poorly), and was then bought by M. Goldstein’s curio shop in Hackney Road, London, where he got replacement antennae and mohawk.

Now he’s part of Christie’s Out of the Ordinary sale which will take place in London on September 5th. The pre-sale estimate is a modest £8,000 – £12,000 ($12,344 – $18,516), but they expect Cygan to sell for more than that. I am crossing all my digits that some technology billionaire will buy him and make him work again. I know he’s not as easy to reboot as George was, but it’s just not right seeing his big ol’ feet strapped to a dolly. Make him dance, oh moneyed geek. Make him dance.


A Day for Detroit

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes had the excellent idea to dedicate a day of his blog to the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the greatest museums in the United States and a Detroit cultural lodestone since its founding in 1885. A Day for Detroit celebrates and brings attention to the DIA’s exquisite collection which is under threat from the city’s $18 billion bankruptcy.

Emergency manager Kevyn Orr has said they don’t plan to strip the museum and sell off its collection to help pay down the city’s debt, but he has also said all assets are on the table and talk is cheap when Orr is willing to spend $200,000 to hire Christie’s appraisers to assess the value of every piece in the DIA collection that is not blocked from sale by the conditions of the donation.

It’s not clear that the collection as a whole is legally salable. According to a 22-page opinion released by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, “art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the City of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece in the collection may thus be sold, conveyed, or transferred to satisfy city debts or obligations.” The bankruptcy judge may or may not consider Schuette’s opinion and even though the state senate has passed a law prohibiting the sale of the museum’s art except for the purpose of buying new art or otherwise enhancing the collection, the house won’t vote on it until they return from summer recess and anyway federal law may trump anything the state legislature passes.

With all this uncertainty in the air, it’s just and proper to focus some attention on the Detroit Institute of Arts and its endangered collection. There’s a preliminary list of participating blogs at the bottom of this article. My homie Edward Goldberg at Italy’s Secret Places has already posted a lovely entry on the bonds between Florence’s rich art history and the DIA.

I’m going to usher in A Day for Detroit here with a certain Guido Reni piece that might be familiar to anyone who was reading this blog a year ago. The Detroit Institute of Arts is the proud owner of an oil on copper painting called Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns. Reni painted it around 1630 by the 19th century it was a favorite subject for mass-production lithographs, plates, postcards.

Its most fateful copy was painted at the turn of the 20th century by Elías García Martínez on a wall of the small church of the Sanctuary of Mercy in the town of Borja, Aragon, northeastern Spain. For a hundred years it was a minor flaking oil painting hastily and improperly applied directly to the wall, but last year it transcended all that by becoming a canvas for the “restoration” enacted upon it by elderly church volunteer Cecilia Giménez.

For that alone the Internet owes a huge debt to the Detroit Institute of Arts.


Update: Cashel bog body is oldest in the world

Monday, August 12th, 2013

When the remains of an adult male were discovered in a bog near Cashel in County Laois, Ireland, by peat miller Jason Phelan in 2011, initial examination of the body suggested it was from the Iron Age, around 2,000 or 2,500 years old. Now the radiocarbon dating results have been published and the body is much older: it dates to 2141-1960 B.C. which makes the oldest bog body ever found and the oldest fleshed remains ever found in Europe. Archaeologists tested samples of the peat found above and below the body and one of the two hazel wood stakes found crossed above where the head would have been if it hadn’t been removed by the peat milling machine. The results confirmed the date range.

It’s rare to find a burial from the Early Bronze Age with the kind of violent trauma discovered on Cashel Man’s remains. The body was placed on the surface of the bog or in a shallow pool on his right side in a crouched posture. His arm was broken around the time of death by a blow and his back, broken in two places, has cuts that were inflicted by a blade or an axe. These multiple peri-mortem mortal wounds are thought to have had a ritual purpose, sacrifice by overkill. He was deliberately covered with peat after being placed in the bag. These characteristics are seen much more frequently in Iron Age burials, which is why archaeologists initially thought the body was so much younger than it is.

The original reports described the body as having been buried in a leather bag, but the more macabre truth is that the “bag” was actually his own skin, tanned to a leathery texture by peat’s natural mummification action. His knees were so tightly drawn up into such an awkward position that his legs appeared to be sticking out of a bag that kept him in such a contorted posture. The legs, directly in contact with the magical preservative that is peat’s acidic water, cold temperatures and low oxygen content, were well-preserved while the rest of him was lost. Milling machines removed the head, neck and left arm and damaged his torso. The follow-up excavation after the discovery recovered fragments of the missing parts, including the lower jaw, some teeth, ribs, collar bone, vertebra and his face which still had some short hair attached to the scalp.

The two stakes found over the burial are also more commonly associated with Iron Age bog burials. They could be more evidence of a ritual sacrifice. They may have been used to tie the victim down during the sacrificial overkill procedures, for instance. The location of the body supports the ritual sacrifice contention. The bog lies on a district boundary close to Crosdubh Hill, a site used a place of assembly by the ancient Irish. Other burials on a boundary next to a ceremonially significant hill are thought to have been human sacrifices, possibly to ensure plentiful harvest, possibly as part of a sovereignty ritual like an Irish version of The King Must Die where the old ruler is rejected and killed to usher in a new era.

However, now that we know the burial dates to the early Bronze Age rather than the Iron Age, comparisons to other bog burials may not be as revelatory as expected. Four thousand years ago (around 2200-2100 B.C.) inhumations were just starting to take hold in Ireland. In addition to the continuing use megalithic tombs, around this time you begin to see cemeteries of stone cists or simple pits dug into the earth, mounds, barrows, cairns. The bodies were positioned in a variety of ways — stretched out, curled up, crouched, flexed — and buried individually or in groups. In the group burials, some were buried all at the same time while others were buried individually and then the cist or pit re-opened every time a new body needed to be interred.

That suggests another possible interpretation of the hazel stakes. What if Cashel Man was left in the bog for storage until it was time to inter him with his family? In that case, the crossed stakes may have been left to mark the spot for later retrieval.

Cashel Man’s remains are still being studied. They are kept in conservation conditions at the National Museum of Ireland which has an extensive collection of bog bodies. Samples of his bowel contents have been tested and archaeologists are hoping the results will reveal what he ate just before he died.






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