Archive for November, 2013

600 ancient seals found at cult temple of Jupiter

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Archaeologists from the University of Münster excavating the ancient sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus near the town of Dülük in southern Turkey have unearthed more than 600 stamp and cylinder seals dating from between the 7th and the 4th centuries B.C. Seals were used as votive offerings to the gods and as such have been found at many ancient sanctuaries, but the sheer numbers found here make the discovery unique.

“The amazingly large number proves how important seals and amulets were for the worshipping of the god to whom they were consecrated as votive offerings”, according to Classical scholar [and excavation leader Dr. Engelbert] Winter. Many pieces show scenes of adoration. “Thus, they provide a surprisingly vivid and detailed insight into the faith of the time.” The stamp seals and cylinder seals as well as scarabs, made of glass, stone and quartz ceramics, were mostly crafted in a high-quality manner.

The seals are carved with a wide variety of images. They range from simple geometric shapes to scenes of heroes battling animals or mythological creatures. One seal depicts men worshiping star-like symbols of divinity.

“Even those images that do not depict a deity express strong personal piety: with their seals, people consecrated an object to their god which was closely associated with their own identity”, said [Dr. Michael] Blömer. People wore the amulets found with the seals in everyday life. “Strung on chains, they were supposed to fend off bad luck”, explained the archaeologist.

The Roman name for Dülük was Doliche, hence the name “Dolichenus” for the Jupiter whose cult was centered around the temple on the hill known today as Dülük-Baba Tepesi. The cult of Jupiter Dolichenus was a mystery religion that was popular all over the Roman empire from the early second century A.D. until its precipitous fall in the mid-third century. Shrines to Jupiter Dolichenus, who is always depicted holding a thunderbolt in one hand and a double-headed axe in the other while riding a sacred bull, have been found in Rome, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Austria and even in the remote British fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Like Mithraism, another bull-centered Eastern mystery religion, the worship of Jupiter Dolichenus was popular in the Roman army, but it wasn’t restricted to military. Judging from handy lists of adherents that have been found inscribed in some of the 17 known temples, more than 60% of the devotees were civilians.

Interest in the religion waned rapidly with the end of the Severan dynasty. Emperors like Caracalla and Septimius Severus had supported the religion, so when the last Severan, Alexander Severus, was assassinated in 235 A.D., his successor Maximus Thrax did not look favorably upon it or its adherents. The temple at Doliche was destroyed twenty years later by Sassanid emperor Shapur I. Since the cult was strongly identified with the deity’s original temple, Jupiter’s failure to save his own home from destruction made him look impotent and lost him whatever adherents he had left.

The seals that have been found long predate the Roman era of Jupiter Dolichenus, however. Like all the Eastern religions that carved a niche out for themselves in Rome, this Jupiter was a syncretized version of a much older deity. He started off as the Hittite sky and storm god Tesub-Hadad and was only blended with the Greco-Roman sky and storm god after the Romans conquered the area in 64 B.C. Most of what we know of this cult is post-Roman, so such a large number of seals from when he was Tesub-Hadad rather than Jupiter are invaluable sources for researchers. So far, archaeologists have identified seals from the Neo-Babylonian, local Syrian, Levantine and Achaemenid periods.

“The large find provides new impetus for research to answer unsolved questions of cult practices, cult continuity and cult extension – above all, these are important for the understanding of the early history of the sanctuary in the 1st millennium B.C., which had been unknown until recently”, according to Prof. Winter.


Seven score and ten years ago…

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

I was going to do a sort of Gettysburg Address inception thing where I rewrite the speech to describe the creation and delivery of the speech, but it was hackneyed and cheesy so I’ll just celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of the greatest two-minute speech in history the old-fashioned way.

On November 19th, 1863, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was inaugurated, more than four months after the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863). In the immediate aftermath of the carnage, the dead had been buried on the field, in churchyards, field hospital sites, anywhere a space could be found. Gettysburg attorney David Wills had the idea to create a national cemetery funded by the state governments of the Union soldiers who died there rather than funded by plot purchases by the families of the dead. Pennsylvania governor Andrew Gregg Curtin approved of the idea and appointed Wills to secure the land, contract designers, arrange reburials and organize a dedication event.

Wills invited Edward Everett, a pastor, classicist, politician and renown public speaker, to delivered the featured speech, a two-hour oration that covered ancient Greek burial practices, the Battle of Marathon, the military conflicts leading up to Gettysburg, Gettysburg itself, whose fault the war was, civil wars throughout history and how the states in rebellion wouldn’t hold a grudge once the war was over and we’d all come together again under the Union. (Read the whole oration here.) Wills asked Lincoln to follow Everett with a few brief remarks, and he made it clear in the formal invitation which was sent on November 2nd, two months after Everett had received his invite, that he meant brief. From the invitation:

It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the Great Battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.

There’s a widely circulated story that the press at the time panned Lincoln’s speech because ears were accustomed in those days to lengthy declamations so his short remarks were considered unworthy. In fact, most of the reviews in the media were positive, many recognizing the power of Lincoln’s words. One of the more famously grouchy reactions was an editorial in the Harrisburg Patriot & Union printed almost a week after the ceremony. Believing all speeches delivered on the occasion to be shameless exploitation of the noble dead by Republican Party shills eager to promote their agenda, the Patriot & Union panned both Everett’s oration and Lincoln’s speech. Lincoln got it worse, though; the editorial veritably seethes with contempt for him.

To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead […]

We will not include in this category of heartless men the orator of the day; but evidently he was paralyzed by the knowledge that he was surrounded by unfeeling, mercenary men, ready to sacrifice their country and the liberties of their countrymen for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth. Hi oration was therefore cold, insipid, unworthy the occasion and the man. We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.

A century and a half later here we are repeating and thinking of those words. The Patriot & Union’s descendant, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, has recently seen the light and issued a charming formal apology.

In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.

Regrets the error… I love that. :lol:

The Internet is full of Gettysburg-themed events today. The Google Cultural Institute has three online exhibitions about the address: one curated by Cornell University that explores the Bancroft Copy of the speech and contemporary depictions of its delivery, one about early drafts and multiple versions of the speech, and the last about the cultural impact of the address which is still very much felt today.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has created a website encouraging people to upload videos of themselves reciting the Gettysburg Address. Here’s a mashed up version from famous artists, journalists, pundits and politicians, including all five living presidents:

For more about the Address, see the Library of Congress’ fine online exhibition.


Sarcophagus found under Lincoln Castle opened

Monday, November 18th, 2013

A limestone sarcophagus discovered earlier this year underneath Lincoln Castle during an archaeological survey before construction of an elevator shaft has been opened. It was a lengthy, delicate process. When the stone coffin was first unearthed, only the side was visible. The trench was deep and the sarcophagus very heavy; it took months to dig it out. Finally in October archaeologists were able to gingerly remove the sarcophagus from its berth 10 feet under ground level, sliding it out horizontally.

The team had hoped that once the lid was exposed they’d find an inscription identifying who was buried within, but they were not so lucky. The lid of the stone coffin was mortared down for burial and since then had cracked all the way across horizontally in two places. In order to lift it, the team had to remove the lid in three sections. Archaeologists had gotten a glimpse of the contents when they threaded an endoscopic camera into the sarcophagus after the initial discovery so they knew it contained an articulated skeleton. When the first section of the lid was removed, they found the remains of leather boots or shoes, a very unusual discovery that confirmed the deceased was someone of great status in the community.

The mere fact of his having been buried in a sarcophagus indicated he was someone of wealth and/or prestige. The bones have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but pottery found in the same layer as the burials dates to the 10th century, a hundred or so years before the Norman invasion and the construction of Lincoln Castle by William the Conqueror in 1068. It seems William chose the site of an Anglo-Saxon chapel or church upon which to build his castle, a chapel in which the community’s elite were buried. Anglo-Saxons didn’t typically use sarcophaguses to bury the dead. It was probably a Roman-era coffin recycled for a local dignitary, perhaps a king or a religious leader.

In addition to the one in the sarcophagus, eight other bodies were found in the small 10-by-10-foot space. Seven were buried in wooden coffins, one wrapped in a finely woven woolen shroud and laid to rest in a niche in the foundations of the wall. Archaeologists believe the shrouded burial was a votive, that the man was someone holy and his remains were placed in the foundations of the church to sanctify it.

Before the lid was removed, experts took a 3D scan of the complete sarcophagus. Once the lid came off, the interior was also 3D scanned. This will allow researchers to examine the burial in detail without risking damage to the human remains or any artifacts that might still be there.

Mary Powell, Programme Manager for Lincoln Castle Revealed project, said: […]

“Finding a sarcophagus from this period that’s still undisturbed is extremely rare, so this discovery is of national significance.

“The next step will be to thoroughly analyse both the sarcophagus and the remains to learn as much as we can from it. This will undoubtedly increase what we know about Saxon Lincoln.”

It pretty much has to, because historians know very little about Lincoln after the Romans left and before the Normans came. That’s why the discovery of the church, of which there are no surviving records so nobody even knew it was there, and burials is of national significance.

They will also attempt a facial reconstruction extrapolated from the remains of the skull, but they have to put it back together first. Judging from the pictures, it looks heavily damaged.


One-of-a-kind toy bank coasts to $266,500

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

The only example of a cast iron mechanical bank that heretofore was known only by an ad in an 1884 catalog sold at auction in Philadelphia on Wednesday for $220,000 ($266,500 including buyer’s premium), many times the pre-sale estimate of $30,000-50,000. The Coasting Bank is considered the Impossible Black Tulip of toy bank collectors, only unlike the cartographical impossible black tulip which has a handful of surviving copies, there is only one Coasting Bank known to exist.

It was found in the attic of a home in Peebles, Scotland, of all random places, in excellent condition. The owners have no idea how it got from the US to their attic or when. The sellers too it to Lyon & Turnbull auctioneers in Edinburgh and they suggested it be sold at their partner auction house Freeman’s so it could be sold directly to American toy collectors, obviously a wise business decision.

Before 1955, even hardcore collectors had no idea it had ever existed. It was antique dealer William J. Stackhouse who ferreted it out. He was browsing a second hand shop in Norwich, New York, which was going out of business. In a pile of old magazines that were shop owner planned to throw away, Stackhouse came across a copy of the Winter 1994 issue of Ehrich’s Fashion Quarterly Wholesale Catalog, the mail order catalog of the dry goods emporium founded by the Ehrich Brothers on Eighth Avenue at 24th Street in New York City. On page 426, he found a number of advertisements for toy banks. One of them was the Coasting Bank, on sale for 95 cents. The ad describes the bank’s action:

Upon placing the sled at the top of the hill and pulling the string, the sled swiftly makes the descent until it meets an obstruction that lands the coaster on his head and deposits the coin in the bank.

An article by F.H. Griffith in the April, 1955, issue of Hobbies magazine published the discovery of the catalog and it’s double secret bank. It confirmed that there was no known example of this bank in any collection, nor is there a patent on file for it which is not surprising since many toy bank models never were patented. The other banks on the page are all real, though, and this was a catalog of inexpensive ready-made objects so if it was listed for sale, that means it had to have been produced.

Griffith noted that the mechanism bears some similarity Shoot The Chute Bank, a bank designed by Charles A. Bailey for J. & E. Stevens Company in 1906. (You can see the patent here. Stevens Co., based in Cromwell, Connecticut, was the oldest toy manufacturing company in the United States and became the number one sellers of toy banks in the country. Bailey was a toy-maker who had his own shop in the back of his Cobalt, Connecticut, house who also freelanced for J. & E. Stevens Co. He is considered a shining star in the firmament of mechanical bank designers, and in fact happens to have designed two of the other banks offered for sale on that catalog page, the Bismark Pig Bank and the German Exchange Bank. (You can’t tell from the catalog illustration because they’re trying to keep it a surprise, but the Bismark Pig Bank was so named because after you put the coin in the slot and press his tail, Otto von Bismark, “the cause of [the depositor’s] trouble,” pops out. This is a reference to the German chancellor’s blocking imports of US pork, thus causing the American pig seller’s trouble.)

In addition to the slide mechanism, the Shoot The Chute Bank and Coasting Bank also have materials — lead or white metal — and design elements — cast iron floral scrollwork on triangular coin receptacles — in common. It’s likely that the Shoot The Chute Bank was a descendant of the Coasting Bank, a second attempt to make the slide concept pay off after the first one disappeared into obscurity. I think the timing suggests it was inspired by the Shoot the Chute rides in Coney Island’s Luna Park (built in 1903) and Dreamland (built in 1904) which were the parks’ most popular rides. Bailey did note in the patent application that the figures would ride “a miniature boat or toboggan” down the chute and the production model looks more boat-like

If that was his aim, piggy-backing off the popularity of the rides didn’t work. The Chute sold almost as poorly as the Coasting Bank and today it sells much worse, despite its rarity. A very fine example of the Shoot the Chute mechanical bank sold in 2008 for $18,000, well below the pre-sale estimate of $25,000 – $35,000. As of that auction, there were only 12 original Shoot the Chute castings known to exist.

Not even a hot comic strip merchandising deal could make it sell. Popular comic strip figures of Buster Brown and his dog Tige were shooting the chute, you’d think they’d have fared better on the market. Richard Outcault began drawing the adventures of young Buster — a sort of Dennis the Menace dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy-like suit — and Tige — a pit bullish pup with the attitude and grin of the dog in The Mask when he channels the spirit of god of mischief Loki — in 1902. The strip was published in the New York Herald and was an immediate hit. In 1904 Outcault, a merchandising visionary, signed a reported 200 licensing deals at the Saint Louis World’s Fair. One of them was St. Louis shoe company Brown Shoes whose Buster Browns line of children’s shoes was so successful it is still going strong and the logo still stars Buster and Tige. They also bought the rights to the name of Buster’s sister in the comic, Mary Jane. That was the birth of the now-iconic Mary Jane shoe.


Assyrian gold tablet going back to Germany

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

A New York Appellate Court has ruled that the small gold cuneiform tablet looted from Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum at the end of World War II and acquired by Reuven Flamenbaum after his liberation from Auschwitz must be returned to the museum. It took the court less than a month to announce its decision which sides firmly with the plaintiff rejecting all the defendants’ legal arguments.

Quick summary (read last month’s entry for the full background): The tablet was discovered in the foundations of the Ishtar temple by a German archaeological team in 1913. The 9.5-gram card is inscribed in cuneiform on both sides describing the construction of the temple and calling on all who visit the temple to honor its builder, King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 B.C.). After complications and delays caused by the First World War, the artifacts made it into the Vorderasiatisches Museum’s collection in 1926. With another war looming in 1939, the museum closed its doors and put everything in storage. Sometime between then and the end of the war when inventory was taken, the tablet went missing. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of artifacts looted from the museum and the conflicting authorities of post-war Berlin, the museum did not report the loss to the police or any art theft registries.

According to Flamenbaum family lore, Reuven got the tablet from a Soviet soldier around that time. He traded it for two cigarettes or a salami (the details are hazy, obviously) and took it with him when he immigrated to the United States in 1949. He settled in Long Island and got a job at a liquor store. Later he bought said liquor store using the tablet as collateral for a loan. In 1954 he had it appraised at Chritie’s and they told him it was a fake worth a hundred bucks at most. Still he kept it as a treasured memento of his survival.

Reuven Flamenbaum died in 2003. Three years later, Hannah Flamenbaum, Reuven’s daughter and executor of his estate submitted a list of assets as part of a petition to settle the account. The tablet was not mentioned individually on this list, just a “coin collection.” Her brother Israel objected that the so-called coin collection was more valuable than Hannah had stated “and includes one item identified as a ‘gold wafer’ which is believed to be an ancient Assyrian amulet and the property of a museum in Germany.” He told the Vorderasiatisches Museum about it too, while he was at it.

The museum filed a claim to recover the tablet. At a Nassau County Surrogate’s Court hearing, Dr. Beate Salje, director of the Vorderasiatisches, testified that the piece was stolen at the end of the war by a person or persons unknown. The Red Army looted the museum — many of those artifacts were returned by the Soviets in 1957 — as did German troops and people taking refuge in the museum. The museum also submitted a report by Dr. Eckart Frahm, Assistant Professor of Assyriology at Yale University, covering a 1983 article by A.K. Grayson about the fate of the Ashur artifacts. This article stated that Professor H.G. Guterbock from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago told the author that he had seen a gold Assyrian tablet from a Berlin museum “in the hands of a dealer in New York in 1954.”

There is a reference to that allegation in the Vorderasiatisches’ record of the tablet, an annotation that it was “seen by Guterbach 1954 in New York” with “Grayson” written underneath. This entry is not dated and could have been written at any time after 1983, or before, I guess, if you suppose that Grayson heard the story from Guterbock whenever and told the museum. There’s zero evidence of that, however, so it’s meaningless speculation.

The Surrogate’s Court decided that the museum had met its burden of proving legal title, but that its claim was barred by the doctrine of laches, a legal principle that requires an owner “exercise reasonable diligence to locate” lost property. Apparently the court thought that note was evidence that the museum knew about the tablet’s being in New York decades ago but didn’t pursue it. It’s really not, though. They seriously misread the report.

The museum appealed and Hannah Flamenbaum cross-appealed, now claiming an affirmative defense that the tablet belonged to the estate based on the doctrine of laches. In May of 2012, the Appellate Division dismissed the cross-appeal and reversed the Surrogate’s Court decision on the grounds that the defense had not demonstrated that the museum failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet. The case went back to Surrogate’s Court and finally wound up before the New York Court of Appeals last month.

The New York Court of Appeals has decided for the museum, rejecting both the doctrine of laches argument and the ugly, in my opinion, spoils of war theory which the estate proffered holding that the Soviet Union gained legal title to the tablet when it was looted as a spoil of war and then transferred the title to Reuven Flamenbaum when he bartered two cigarettes or a salami for it. They shot down both arguments in terms that made my wizened little heart grow three sizes this day:

We agree with the Appellate Division that the Estate failed to establish the affirmative defense of laches, which requires a showing “that the museum failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet and that such failure prejudiced the [E]state” …. While the Museum could have taken steps to locate the tablet, such as reporting it to the authorities or listing it on a stolen art registry, the Museum explained that it did not do so for many other missing items, as it would have been difficult to report each individual object that was missing after the war. Furthermore, the Estate provided no proof to support its claim that, had the Museum taken such steps, the Museum would have discovered, prior to the decedent’s death, that he was in possession of the tablet …. As we observed in Lubell, in a related discussion of the defense of statute of limitations, “[t]o place a burden of locating stolen artwork on the true owner and to foreclose the rights of that owner to recover its property if the burden is not met would . . . encourage illicit trafficking in stolen art” (77 NY2d at 320). […]

The “spoils of war” theory proffered by the Estate — that the Russian government, when it invaded Germany, gained title to the Museum’s property as a spoil of war, and then transferred that title to the decedent — is rejected. The Estate’s theory rests entirely on conjecture, as the record is bereft of any proof that the Russian government ever had possession of the tablet. Even if there were such proof, we decline to adopt any doctrine that would establish good title based upon the looting and removal of cultural objects during wartime by a conquering military force …. Allowing the Estate to retain the tablet based on a spoils of war doctrine would be fundamentally unjust.

Then Hannah Flammenbaum’s attorney expressed his dismay at the ruling in terms that almost made my heart re-wizen.

Attorney Steven Schlesinger said the family was disappointed and questioned whether the court refused to uphold “title by right of conquest” because it would open the door for those who obtained art looted by Germans during the Holocaust.

“You can’t argue that the United States doesn’t recognize the right of conquest when this entire country is the result of the law of conquest,” he said, citing territorial expansion that includes Texas and California and at least 50 Indian land claims in New York.

Uh, are you seriously using the genocide of Native Americans as an argument in favor of a Holocaust survivor’s descendants getting to keep stolen property? Because that’s appalling. And yeah, actually, while we’re at it, upholding “title by right of conquest” would open the floodgates to collectors and museums keeping art looted during the Holocaust. These legal battles are ongoing. Why in the world would you want to be the case that establishes the right of Holocaust profiteers to keep the treasures they acquired with blood on their hands? All of this for a tablet that Hannah Flammenbaum claims she wants to donate to the Holocaust Museum anyway? It’s gross.


Da Vinci, a cello and a harpsichord walk into a bar

Friday, November 15th, 2013

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s many brilliant ideas was to create a musical instrument that combined the fingerwork of a keyboard with the sustained sound of a stringed instrument. He called it a viola organista and explored various mechanisms of foot-treadle operated rotating wheels that pull a bow across strings, sketching different designs for it in his notebooks including the Codex Atlanticus, (page 93r), now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and Manuscript H (page 28r) in Paris’ Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France. As far as we know none of these designs ever made it to the prototype stage.

Almost a hundred years later in 1575, church organist Hans Hyden of Nuremberg created the first functional bowed keyboard instrument operated by a foot-treadle. He used gut strings (later switched to metal when the gut strings failed to stay in tune) and five or six parchment-wrapped wheels which, when turned by the treadle and a hand-crank at the far end operated by a helper, would be drawn against individual strings determined by which keys were played. Hyden claimed his instrument could produce crescendos, diminuendos, vibrato and sustain notes indefinitely solely through finger pressure on the keys. He even said it could duplicate the voice of a drunk man.

He called it a Geigenwerk (meaning “fiddle organ”) which is the German translation of da Vinci’s name for it, but although some sources imply or claim he based his design on da Vinci’s, I have serious doubts about that. Leonardo was hugely famous in his lifetime and after, but it was for his art, not his notebooks. Bequeathed to his friend and apprentice Francesco Melzi, the notebooks were sold off piecemeal by the Melzi family after Francesco’s death in 1579. Pages were scattered to courts and collectors all over Europe. Some of Leonardo’s notes on painting were published in 1651, but the bulk of the notebooks only made it into print in the 19th century. I don’t see how Hyden could have had access to them.

None of Hyden’s Geigenwerks — he’s reputed to have built as many as 32 of them although only two are thoroughly documented — have survived. The details of its operation and the sole surviving illustration of the instrument have come down to us from German composer and music theorist Michael Praetorius who included one of Hyden’s original pamphlets describing the machine and a woodcut of it in the appendix to the second volume of his Syntagma Musicum, published as the Theatrum Instrumentorum seu Sciagraphia in 1620.

Imitations have survived, the earliest of which made by Spanish monk Raymundo Truchado in 1625. It is now in Brussels’ Musical Instruments Museum. Truchado’s Geigenwerk is an oddly truncated little thing which could only have been played sitting on the ground or perched on a low table. It had no foot-treadle, just the hand-crank in the back. The instrument is no longer playable today. Given its design it doesn’t look like it was ever comfortably playable at all, but it must have been worth it because it was used on occasion in the Cathedral of Toledo until the late 18th century.

Since then, many people have made versions of the bowed keyboard instrument, some of them using Leonardo’s designs as the starting point. They haven’t all been successful. This 2009 version of a portable viola organista made from one of Leonardo’s sketches is serving hilariously awkward one-man-band realness. Pianist and keyboard instrument builder Akio Obuchi has made several Geigenwerks which can indeed produce the kind of sounds Hyden described.

Now Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki has joined the fray with a viola organista that is as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to.

The instrument’s exterior is painted in a rich hue of midnight blue adorned with golden swirls painted on the side. The inside of its lid is a deep raspberry inscribed with a Latin quote in gold leaf by 12th-century German nun, mystic and philosopher, Saint Hildegard.

“Holy prophets and scholars immersed in the sea of arts both human and divine, dreamt up a multitude of instruments to delight the soul,” it says.

The flat bed of its interior is lined with golden spruce. Sixty-one gleaming steel strings run across it, similar to the inside of a baby grand. Each one is connected to the keyboard complete with smaller black keys for sharp and flat notes. But unlike a piano, it has no hammered dulcimers. Instead, there are four spinning wheels wrapped in horse tail hair, like violin bows. To turn them, Zubrzycki pumps a peddle below the keyboard connected to a crankshaft.

As he tinkles the keys, they press the strings down onto the wheels emitting rich, sonorous tones reminiscent of a cello, an organ and even an accordion.

It took him three years and $9,700 to build the instrument. Zubrzycki’s viola organista had its debut last month at the International Royal Krakow Piano Festival where it was given a standing ovation by an audience of virtuoso musicians and music lovers. It truly is magnificent, so rich and full you keep looking for the rest of the orchestra.

If you only have the time to watch one video, start with this one in which Zubrzycki tells the story of how he made the piece and plays it in his home. There are great closeups of the instrument and its moving parts. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

Here he is performing a piece by Carl Friederich Abel for the viola da gamba (the predecessor of the cello) at Krakow’s Church of St. Peter and Paul on October 21st:

This are snippets of several pieces he played at the International Royal Krakow Piano Festival:


Prince Henry’s hawking vervel found in Norfolk

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

A small silver ring and shield that once identified a bird of prey used for hunting by Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales, eldest son of King James I, was discovered by metal detectorists Jason Jackson and Alan Daynes in the east Norfolk town of Cley-next-the-Sea last year. While historic hawking vervels, as these rings are called, are not uncommon in the area — the Castle Museum in Norwich has more vervels in its permanent collection than the British Museum — royal ones are rare. One belonging to King Henry VIII’s brother-in-law and standard bearer Charles Brandon, first duke of Suffolk, was found in December of last year but he was known to have hunted in the area many times. There are no records at all indicating Henry Frederick ever went to Norfolk at all so that makes this find even more exciting.

The vervel was declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest last year, after which experts at the BM assessed its market value at £6,000. Thanks to a £2,400 grant from the Victoria & Albert Purchase Grant Fund and a £2,000 grant from the Art Fund, the Castle Museum was able to acquire the rare piece. It will go on display along with the other vervels in the museum’s collection next year (May 24th through September 14th) in The Wonder of Birds, an exhibition exploring avian topics like the birth of ornithology, birds in art, birds as symbols of status, birds in their natural environment and much more.

It’s a wee piece, with the ring just 10.5 millimeters in diameter and the shield 10 x 8 millimeters in size. It weighs 1.37 grams. Much like avian leg bands today, vervels had to be small and light so as not to be a burden on the creature in flight. They were attached to the jesses, thin leather straps tied to the bird’s legs as tethers to make the birds easier to handle on the arm, and again like modern avian leg bands, served to identify the bird should it be lost during the hunt or in training.

That’s how we know the ring belonged to one of Henry’s hawking birds: the prince’s name and symbol are on it. The outside of the band is engraved “Henrye Prince” and the shield is engraved with the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales: three ostrich plumes encircled by a coronet on top of a ribbon bearing the phrase “ICH DIEN,” a contraction of “I serve” in German. Henry was only Prince of Wales for two years, so we know the vervel was made between 1610 and 1612.

How it wound up where it was found is not so clear. Cley-next-the-Sea is a sleepy seaside village of 376 souls today, but in Henry’s day it was one of England’s busiest port cities thanks its location on the wide and deep estuary of the tidal River Glaven *. (Later in the 17th century, the estuary gradually began to silt over when local landowners attempted to reclaim marshy land by building embankments along the river. By the end of the next century, the River Glaven was no longer tidal and there was no more port.) Henry could have been in the area personally — just because no record of the Prince of Wales ever visiting Norfolk has survived doesn’t mean it didn’t happen — or one of his birds may have been there without him, either because it flew away never to return (entire breeding populations have been founded by escaped falconer’s birds) or because it was being trained for him by someone local.

Henry was an accomplished hawker and sportsman in general, despite his young age. His athleticism was one of his most praised features, along with his intelligence, reserve, judicious involvement in politics and public works and his moral rectitude (he made people who cussed in his presence put money in an alms box dedicated to the purpose, a 17th century swear jar). Falconry, the Sport of Kings as it’s still known today even though no kings do it anymore, was seen as a particularly proper pursuit for the heir to the throne as it was thought to teach leadership in battle.

Henry never got to put those leadership skills to the test on the throne. He died of typhoid fever in 1612 when he was just 18 years old. The country went into deep mourning for the prince. His father was unpopular and it was Henry who was seen as the unifying figure who could truly bring Scotland and England together. So many people wanted to pay their respects that Henry’s body lay in state for four weeks and his funeral procession was a mile long. After his death, his younger brother Charles, then 12 years old, became heir. He was not so roundly beloved. That would matter a great deal since he became King Charles I whose power struggles with Parliament became Civil War and whose head became separated from his neck on January 30th, 1649.



Museum acquires famed Gibson shipwreck photos

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

An exceptional collection of shipwreck photographs taken by four generations of the Gibson family was bought at a Sotheby’s auction yesterday by the Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) for £122,500 ($195,645) including buyer’s premium. The archive contains more than 1,100 glass plate negatives, more than 500 film negatives and 97 original print photographs of shipwrecks off the coasts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. They make the perfect complement to the RMG’s pre-existing collection of historic maritime photography.

For 125 years, starting with patriarch John Gibson, a seaman who became a professional photographer in 1860, the Gibson family braved shoals, waves and sand to capture haunting scenes of shredded ships, dramatic rescues, cargo salvage and burials of people who fell victim to the treacherous coastal waters of southwest England. John’s sons Herbert and Alexander joined the business in 1865 and their talents would come to define the Gibson archive and its exceptional high quality. The first wreck they photographed was in 1869 when the telegraph had just arrived on the Isles of Scilly.

These were not simple point and shoot operations. It was dangerous, highly physical labour.

On the occasion of the wreck of the 3500-ton German steamer, Schiller, in 1876 when over 300 people died, the two brothers worked together for days – [Herbert] preparing newspaper reports, and Alexander transmitting them across the world, until he collapsed with exhaustion. Although they were working in difficult conditions, travelling with a cart or boat to reach the shipwrecks – and scrambling over rocky crags and sand dunes with a portable dark room, carrying fragile glass plates and heavy equipment – they produced some of the most arresting and emotive photographic images of shipwrecks produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

They were pioneers. This was at a time when most photography was still firmly wedded to the studio portrait. The equipment was so bulky and fragile that climbing over crags hauling not just the camera and plates but a freaking dark room would be inconceivable to most people. That the Gibsons pulled it off is amazing in and of itself; that they also created images of such beauty and emotional resonance makes the archive little short of miraculous.

The Gibson family business is still going strong on the Isles of Scilly, although they’ve added souvenir and wholesale postcard sales to the professional photography. Sandra Gibson, John’s great-great granddaughter, runs it now with her husband Pete. The family decided it was time to sell the archive rather than let it continue to languish in boxes. Author John Le Carré, who used some Gibson photographs in his books, visited the business, then run by Frank, Sandra’s father, in 1997. I love his description of the archive:

“We are standing in an Aladdin’s cave where the Gibson treasure is stored, and Frank is its keeper. It is half shed, half amateur laboratory, a litter of cluttered shelves, ancient equipment, boxes, printer’s blocks and books. Many hundreds of plates and thousands of photographs are still waiting an inventory. Most have never seen the light of day. Any agent, publisher or accountant would go into free fall at the very sight of them.

Now that National Maritime Museum has the pictures, we can all go into free fall at the very sight of them, and the family can be sure it will be archived properly and shared with the world. The museum plans to use the archive to study the dangers of the seafaring life and to display this invaluable record as widely as possible.

Having secured the archive RMG will initially conserve, research and digitize the collection, leading to a number of exhibitions to tour regional museums and galleries, especially those in the South West of England.

Lord Sterling of Plaistow, Chairman of the Royal Museums Greenwich, said:
“The acquisition of this remarkable archive will enable us to create a series of exhibitions that will travel across the country, starting with the South West. I am very pleased that the National Maritime Museum has been able to secure this wonderful collection for the nation, and I know that the Gibson family are delighted that their family archive will remain and be displayed in this country”.


Unique Ganymede statue stolen from Tunis museum

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

An extremely rare late Roman statue of Ganymede with his arm draped across the shoulders of Zeus in eagle form was stolen from the Paleo-Christian Museum of Carthage in Tunis the night of Friday, November 8th. The statue is 49 centimeters (19 inches) high and is made out of white marble. The museum has been closed to the public for some time but three guards monitor the building in shifts. Not exactly a daunting security cordon for a thief to break through at best, and at worst a handy way in the door.

“Police are conducting an investigation and they arrested members of the museum’s security personnel,” Adnane Louhichi, general director of the National Heritage Institute, told Tunisia Live.

“All scenarios are considered, including the complicity of the museum’s security staff,” Louhichi said.

I hope it’s not too little too late, but the National Heritage Institute has alerted all law enforcement local and international, including border, customs and airport police and Interpol. The Ministry of Culture held an emergency meeting on Monday in the wake of the theft to determine what immediate steps they can take to protect Tunisian cultural patrimony. They will cooperate with the Ministry of the Interior to increase monitoring of museums and archaeological sites and give additional support to a joint national committee of the ministries of the interior, culture and tourism dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage.

Looting is a major problem in Tunisia, as thieves step into the void left by ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was adept at pillaging his own country of its fabulous history to decorate his family’s homes. Open-air archaeological sites are being illegally excavated at a precipitous rate, an estimated 5-10 new digs open every day. Museum burglaries have increased exponentially. Not even the National Heritage Institute itself is immune; a hoard of coins from Hannibal’s time and a number of Roman sculptures were stolen from its headquarters never to be seen again.

The statue is highly recognizable. It has been thoroughly published and there are no other copies known to exist. Its uniqueness makes it virtually impossible to sell, so keep your fingers crossed that someone is approach to buy it and turns in the thieves.

The Ganymede group was discovered in 1977 by University of Michigan archaeologists excavating a cistern under the sumptuous House of the Greek Charioteers in the ancient city of Carthage. The statue dates to the fifth century A.D. and is a remarkable example of pagan iconography adorning the homes of the wealthy in Roman Africa long after Christianity became the dominant religion. It was found broken in 17 pieces in a layer of 6th century debris. Archaeologists believe it once decorated the villa’s triclinium or formal dining room.

Once the pieces were put back together, an almost intact representation of Ganymede emerged, missing only his right ankle. In Greek mythology, Ganymede was tending a flock of sheep on Mount Ida when he was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle and made the immortal cup-bearer to the gods (also possibly Zeus’ lover). The sculpture depicts Ganymede wearing only his characteristic Phrygian cap and a cloak draped over his arm, standing with his right leg crossed over his left and his arm around his eagle friend/abductor/boss/lover. At his feet are an extremely adorable little goat and a protective little dog attacking the eagle.

Carthage was a Phoenician colony that became the dominant power in the Mediterranean until it was destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C. after the Third Punic War, then rebuilt as the capital of the Roman Africa province. Carthage was conquered by Vandals in 439 A.D., by the Byzantine Empire in 533 A.D. and by the fifth Umayyad Caliphate in 698 A.D. after which the city was destroyed again. The remains of the ancient city are now in a toney suburb of Tunis.

Ganymede’s casual, friendly stance suggests neither the fear in some representations of the kidnapping nor the sensuality of others. Except for the angry dog who clearly suspects the eagle is up to no good, the sculpture has more of an Orpheus vibe to it. This makes sense given that it was made hundreds of years after Carthage became one of the main center of early Christianity and Orpheus, who could charm all living things with his music, was one of the more popular pre-Christian mythological figures to be integrated into post-Christian art.

This sculpture is a fine example of the complexities of late Roman society. While Rome and Italy were in steep decline, the Western Empire was still functional in Africa. Carthage continued to produce wheat for export, continued to have a high standard of living with the quality consumer goods, minted coins and infrastructure like maintained city grids, aqueducts and public buildings that had collapsed or were on the verge of it in Italy. Christian Carthage, the home of Church fathers Tertullian and St. Cyprian, the city where the biblical canon was established at a council in 397 A.D., was pagan Roman too.


First day of the Somme in a 24-foot cartoon

Monday, November 11th, 2013

The Battle of the Somme began at 7:30 AM on July 1, 1916. At the end of that first day, 20,000 British troops were dead and 40,000 injured, the worst day in British Army history. The French, their numbers weakened by Verdun, had 1,590 casualties, the Germans 10,000-12,000. These horrific figures didn’t stop the battle. It would continue for another 140 days, finally ending on November 18th, 1916, by which time more than 1,000,000 men had been killed or wounded.

The opening day of what would become a months-long slaughter has been captured in a new way, as a single great panorama of chaotic action by cartoonist Joe Sacco.

In The Great War, acclaimed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco depicts the events of that day in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama: from General Douglas Haig and the massive artillery positions behind the trench lines to the legions of soldiers going “over the top” and getting cut down in no-man’s-land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse. Printed on fine accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet, The Great War is a landmark in Sacco’s illustrious career and allows us to see the War to End All Wars as we’ve never seen it before.

I think cartoon is an outstanding and sorely underestimated medium for history. Larry Gonick’s works have pride of place on my bookshelves and those of many friends and family who have received his cartoon histories as gifts from me. The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme takes a different approach because there are no dialogue or thought bubbles, no quips or goofy visuals. All 24 feet of this masterpiece are wordless views of people and actions depicted in the most historically accurate manner possible, in keeping with Sacco’s journalistic documentation of current conflicts in cartoon form.

Sacco studied uniforms, artillery, troop positions, even learned how to draw horses and lots of them to make the first day of the Somme come to life. He used a magnifying glass to get the most minute details of the background figures right. It took him eight months to finish this one drawing, double what he expected it take.

To get a small glimpse of the richness and breadth of what Sacco has accomplished here, see this annotated tour of a small section on Slate. Publishers WW Norton have also put together a brief documentary video about the book and author. I can’t embed it, sadly, but it’s very much worth viewing so please do click through.






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