Archive for February, 2014

Unusual Aztec dog burial found in Mexico City

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating underneath an apartment building in the Aztacapozalco neighborhood of Mexico City have unearthed an unusual group burial of 12 dogs dating to the Late Post Classic period of Aztec history (1350 to 1520 A.D.). Although dog burials are not in and of themselves uncommon in Aztec culture, these are unusual because they stand alone. Previous canine remains have been found in conjunction with human remains, or coupled with an important structure as sacrificial offerings. So far, archaeologists have found no human burials or building connected to any of the dogs.

In the Aztec religion, dogs played important roles is rituals and mythology of the underworld. Dogs acted as guardians and escorts for their masters’ souls as they traveled to the underworld. The deity Xolotl, often depicted as dog-headed, created a dog specifically to aid the dead in their voyage. It was the Xoloitzcuintli, also known as the Mexican hairless dog, that Xolotl gave to humanity instructing them to guard the dogs during life in exchange for the dogs guiding them through the nine levels of Mictlan, the main underworld destination. Dogs also played a less sanctified role in Aztec culture: as a dietary protein supplement.

The remains were found between 4.2 feet and 5.5 feet under street level in a pit 6.5 feet square. They are in good condition, skeletons almost entirely intact and articulated. They don’t appear to have been laid to rest in any particular pattern or orientation, but they were buried all at one time on their sides. No artifacts were found in this pit. Ceramics discovered in other trenches around the dog burial provide a contextual date. Their black geometric designs on orange pottery identify the pottery as Aztec III style, household goods that were ubiquitous in Late Post Classic Mexico.

Michael E. Smith, an anthropology professor at Arizona State University who was not involved in the project, said the discovery is important because it is the first such find.

“This is not the first time a burial of a dog has been found, but it is the first find where many dogs were carefully buried together, in a setting that is like a cemetery,” Smith said.

[Archaeologist Rocio] Morales Sanchez said they will need to dig deeper to see if there are other items that could help them find out why the animals were buried in that area.

Smith said it will be important to see the results of the analysis of the bones.

“That work will tell us about the breed of these dogs, and it may tell us how they were killed,” he said. “The full significance of the finds is rarely obvious at time of excavation; the analysis will give the full story.”

Osteological examination suggests these were common dogs, ie mutts, rather than one of the native pure breeds like the small Techichi and the hairless Xoloitzcuintle. The Techichi have unmissable short legs that none of the 12 dogs have and the Xoloitzcuintle lose their premolars in adulthood. The buried dogs were all adults at the time of death with full sets of teeth.

There’s some excellent footage of the excavation in this Spanish language video:



One-cent stamp could cost $20 million at auction

Monday, February 17th, 2014

The rarest stamp in the world, the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, is going up for auction in a dedicated evening sale at Sotheby’s New York office on June 17th. The pre-sale estimate is $10 million to $20 million, either of which would blow away the previous record for a single stamp set by the Swedish Treskilling Yellow when it sold in Zurich for $2.3 million in 1996.

Printed in black ink on magenta colored paper, this simple stamp was an emergency issue. British Guiana, on the northern coast of South America, had been a British colony since the Napoleonic Wars. Originally three separate colonies — Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice — it was united as a single colony in 1833. It was almost 20 years before British Guiana began to receive regular shipments of English postage stamps manufactured by Waterlow & Sons. When one of those shipments was unavoidably delayed in 1856, postmaster E.T.E. Dalton commissioned the printers of the Royal Gazette newspaper in Georgetown to run off a contingency supply of stamps: one-cent magentas, four-cent magentas and four-cent blues.

The one-cent magenta is an octagonal stamp one by 1.25 inches in dimension. It is printed with the image of a three-masted ship in the middle with the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return) above and below the ship. Postmaster Dalton was apparently unimpressed with the issue, believing them susceptible to forgery. To thwart any attempts to forge the stamps, Dalton had post office workers initial every stamp. The one-cent magenta going up for auction was initialed E.D.W. by the postal clerk E.D. Wight.

Very few of the small emergency run of stamps from a remote colony survived. There are a few examples of the four-cent stamps left, but only one of the one-cent. This sole survivor was rescued for history by a 12-year-old boy. L. Vernon Vaughan, son of a Scottish family living in British Guiana, discovered the stamp in 1873 amidst a group of family papers. He was an amateur stamp collector already, and although he didn’t recognize the stamp’s rarity, he did recognize that it was a stamp he didn’t have in his collection yet. He cut the stamp out and put in his album.

Shortly thereafter, Vaughan sold the stamp to another local collector, Neil McKinnon, for a few shillings. In 1878, McKinnon sent the stamp to Glasgow, Scotland for inspection by experts. From there he sold it to a Liverpool dealer Thomas Ridpath who recognized what a rare and precious piece it was. Ridpath sold it for £150 to Count Philippe la Renotière von Ferrary, a stamp collector of near legendary status who at one point owned both the One-Cent Magenta and the Treskilling Yellow.

Ferrary’s left his vast philatelic collection to the Postmuseum in Berlin after his death in 1917. After World War I ended, the collection was seized by France as part of German war reparations and sold off piecemeal, very much against Ferrary’s wishes (he had wanted his magnificent collection to stay together forever and even willed the museum an endowment to care for the stamps in perpetuity). The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta was sold at auction in 1922 to textile magnate Arthur Hind for a then world record price of $35,000.

That set the course for every other auction of the One-Cent Magenta. The next time it came up for auction was 1970, when it sold to a consortium for a record $280,000. Ten years later it sold at auction for yet another record: $935,000. The buyer was John du Pont, ornithologist, naturalist, amateur sports enthusiast, heir to the du Pont chemical fortune and an avid stamp collector. The last time it was on public display was 1986, when du Pont allowed it to be exhibited at the Ameripex ’86 International Stamp Show in Chicago.

Ten years after that, John du Pont shot his friend, 1984 Olympics champion wrestler Dave Schultz, and killed him. He was found “guilty but mentally ill” of third degree murder. He was sentenced to 13 to 30 years at a minimum security prison in Pennsylvania. In 2010, he died still incarcerated. It’s his estate that is now selling the stamp.

The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta will be traveling to London and Hong Kong this spring, its first public exhibition in 28 years. Then it will return to New York for its special night in June.


3,600-year-old “feathered coffin” found in Luxor

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

A joint Spanish and Egyptian archaeological team excavating the area around the tomb of 18th Dynasty official Djehuty in the Dra Abul-Naga necropolis on Luxor’s west bank has unearthed a beautifully preserved wooden sarcophagus decorated in an elaborate feather design. This coffin type is known as a Rishi coffin, rishi meaning “feathers” or “wings” in Arabic. Anthropoid wooden coffins shaped like humans with linen-wrapped bodies painted in feathers first appeared in 13th Dynasty (1803 – ca. 1649 B.C.), but the oldest ones surviving date to the 17th Dynasty (ca 1600 – 1550 B.C.). Archaeologists believe this coffin dates to around 1600 B.C.

The range when feathered coffins were in regular use is known as the Second Intermediate Period (1800 -1550 B.C.), a turbulent time when the Canaanite Hyksos invaders ruled the eastern Nile Delta and the central monarchy was too weak to assert its control over local governments. According to the Spanish National Research Council’s (CSIC) excavation team leader José Manuel Galán, “This style of coffin is rare because it was in use for only a short period of time when Egypt was not unified. Thus, very few have been found in its original place and have been well documented in the archaeological context.”

This is the 13th season of excavations in the north section of Dra Abul-Naga where Djehuty, overseer of the treasury of Queen Hatshepsut (ca 1470 B.C.), was buried. This year’s work began in January. The team found three burial shafts, the first two of which had been broken into in antiquity. The third burial shaft was dug four meters (13 feet) into the bedrock ending in a chamber that was found still sealed with uneven mud bricks. When excavators removed the bricks, they discovered the rishi coffin inside.

The coffin is two meters (6’6″) long, 50 centimeters (20″) wide and 42 centimeters (16.5″) high. It was discovered intact with the paint colors still brilliant. The feathers drawn on the lid represent Maat, the Egyptian creation goddess of truth, order and law, who weighed the soul of the dead against an ostrich feather to determine whether they would reach the afterlife. The sarcophagus is painted to look like the body is being wrapped in paid of wings, like Maat, who is sometimes depicted with feathered arms, is holding the deceased from behind in a protective embrace.

A funerary inscription stretches from the chest of coffin lid to the foot. It prompts offerings to a man named Neb, presumably the inhabitant of the coffin. His full name and exact titles have yet to be deciphered, but he was a high ranking official of the 17th Dynasty. The mummy is still encased within the sarcophagus and appears to be in good condition.

This finding, along with others conducted in the same area, confirm that Dra Abu el-Naga was where were buried the members of the royal family and their courtiers Dynasty XVII, 1600 B.C. A little known period and at the same time, key to understanding the origin of the Egyptian empire, and the structure and functioning of the administration in the new capital city of Thebes.

For more about the Djehuty Project, including excavation diaries for each season and photo galleries (almost all of which is in Spanish), check out the website.


Richard III’s genome to be sequenced

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

The course of our Richard III nerdathon last Saturday did not run smooth, I’m afraid to say. I’ll just tear off the band-aid and state up front that the recording of the colloquium is as messed up as the live stream was. Right now, it doesn’t look like there is much of anything salvageable. St. Louis University’s Jonathan Sawday was kind enough to confirm the sad news in the comments. He apologized too, because he is a scholar and a gentleman, not because whatever went wrong was his fault.

We shall have to feed our Richard III habit with something else, like, say, that a team led by University of Leicester geneticist Dr. Turi King will attempt to sequence the full genome of Richard III and of Michael Ibsen, his relative down the female line from Richard’s sister Anne of York. All they may have in common is in their mitochondrial DNA, but there’s always a chance they share other genetic links.

There’s a chance all of us share some genetic connection to Richard III, and we’ll get the chance to check it out for ourselves once the sequencing is done. Richard’s full genome will be posted online for scholars to study and the rest of us to geek way out over. He will be the first identified historical figure to have his genome sequenced.

Analysis of Richard III’s genome will allow insight into his genetic make-up, including susceptibility to certain diseases, hair and eye colour, and as the genetic basis of other diseases becomes known, these too can be examined for. It is also expected to shed light on his genetic ancestry and relationship to modern human populations. In addition, next generation sequencing technologies will allow the researchers to detect DNA from other organisms such as pathogens. Whole genome sequencing from Otzi the Iceman found the first known human infection with Lyme disease, for example.

Turi King is particularly interested in looking for DNA evidence of a predisposition to scoliosis. Since there are no surviving contemporary portraits of Richard III — the oldest were painted 40 or 50 years after his death — whatever information they can find regarding his appearance and physical traits will be an interesting confirmation or denial of the dead king’s posthumous press.

The sequencing project is being funded to the tune of £100,000 ($165,000) by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and Alec Jeffreys, the genetics professor at the University of Leicester who developed genetic fingerprinting. It will done at the University of Leicester and in collaboration with Professor Michael Hofreiter at the University of Potsdam.

Although the question of where to reinter the remains has become a thorny one thanks to the legal challenge brought by the Plantagenet Alliance, a group of distant relatives of Richard’s who believe he should be buried in York rather than in Leicester, the king’s remains and all the samples taken from him will have to be buried sooner or later. Once they’re gone, there will be no going back to get a second look. Have a fully sequenced genome will provide new information well into the future. As scientists identify more genes and determine which are responsible for any given feature, researchers will be able to return to the recorded genome to find them there.

Here’s Turi King giving a brief introduction to the genome sequencing project:


Here’s Leicester’s pitch to keep Richard’s body in the city where he was buried:

The next movement on the burial issue will be a judicial review at the High Court in London March 13th.


A4s together one last time for The Great Goodbye

Friday, February 14th, 2014

After smashing attendance records at The Great Gathering, the reunion of all six surviving A4 Class Pacific steam locomotives held at the National Railway Museum in York last July, Bittern, Dominion of South Africa, Dominion of Canada, Sir Nigel Gresley, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mallard, holder of the world land speed record for steam locomotives, will come together one last time for The Great Goodbye at the National Railway Museum in Shildon.

2013 was a banner year for the A4s. Mallard reached the record speed of 125.88 miles per hour on July 3rd, 1938. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the locomotive’s still unmatched accomplishment, the four A4s in museums in the UK were restored and refurbished. The two remaining were shipped back from Montreal, Canada, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, in an immensely complex operation, giving train lovers a chance to see the six A4s refurbished to original condition and all together for the first time.

The six were on display together at The Great Gathering in York from July 3rd to July 17th before splitting up for events around the country. They regrouped at York on October 26th for The Autumn Great Gathering where, among other events, students from York College bathed the A4s in beautiful colored lights for the Locos in a Different Light display. There are some beautiful pictures of the A4s looking even more like works of art than they do just being themselves in this Flickr album.

Also not to be missed are this National Railway Museum blog entry about the Heritage Painting team that restored Mallard — I love the picture of it in its somber matte black war time livery — and this entry summarizing the highlights of Mallard‘s 75 years.


The year of the A4s is coming to a close now, sadly. The Great Goodbye opens Saturday, February 15th and lasts just a week, closing on Sunday, February 23th. Exhibit hours are 9:30AM and 5:00PM and admission is free. If it’s anything like the other Great Gathering events, crowds will flock to see the locomotives so expect lines. All the special photography events and four of seven curator talks are already sold out, but there are still tickets available for the formal Gala Dinner on February 21st (book online here).

There are no firm dates yet because it will depend on weather conditions, a very tricky proposition right now in England which is suffering from horrendous floods, but some time this Spring or Summer, Dominion of Canada will return to the Canadian Railway Museum, in Saint-Constant, a suburb of Montreal, and Dwight D. Eisenhower will return to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay. The chances of them ever crossing the Atlantic again are slim to none.


Ichthyosaur fossil captures oldest reptile live birth

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

University of California, Davis, paleontologists have found the oldest fossil to capture a vertebrate live birth. The specimen contains the fossil of Chaohusaurus, a Mesozoic marine reptile that is one of the oldest ichthyosaur species, and her three babies in the process of being born. It is 248 million years old, about 10 million years older than any other such fossils. The particular moment captured also strongly suggests that, contra the traditional view, live births in Mesozoic aquatic reptiles first evolved on land rather than in the sea.

The fossil was discovered in the lab attached to another fossil, a predatory fish called Saurichthys, that had been excavated from a quarry in south Majiashan, Chaohu, Anhui, eastern China. The two were separated by layers of mudstones; they were not alive at the same time. Because nobody realized mother and her babies were there when Saurichthys was collected, the mother is missing her skull, the front of her body and the end of her tail. Paleontologists were able to estimate her length and dimensions comparing her to more complete specimens that have the same size vertebrae and pelvic bones. Her body was about a meter (3’3″) long and her skull about 12 centimeters (4.7″) long.

Fortunately, most of the birthing action was captured and the bones are very well preserved. There are three offspring in the fossil frame: one neonate, its body largely underneath the mother’s, one embryo inside the mother’s body cavity and one literally in the middle of being born, with the head outside of the pelvic girdle and the body still inside. Very rarely for an embryonic fossil discovery, the two embryos have clearly articulated skulls, and the one mid-birth even has 23 upper teeth and 16 lower teeth preserved.

“The reason for this animal dying is likely difficulty in labor,” said Ryosuke Motani, lead study author and a paleobiologist at the University of California, Davis. Motani believes the first baby was born dead, and the mother may have died of a labor complication from the second, which is stuck half-in, half-out of her body. “Obviously, the mother had some complications,” he said.

The embryonic skulls are pointing towards the mother’s tail and it’s highly unlikely that all the embryos were in breach position. That means Chaohusaurus were born head first, a feature of live births on land since having the head come out first in water would result in high rates of suffocation. This is why marine mammals today are born tail first.

That’s not to say that this particular family tragedy occurred on land. All evidence, including the fish fossil it was found with, suggests it was a marine birth. What it means is that live birth evolved from land-lubbing ancestors of Chaohusaurus rather than having evolved after the reptiles moved into the sea full time. By the Middle Triassic, ichthyosaurs like Mixosaurus had embryonic skulls that faced the mother’s head, which means they were born tail first, an adaptation that must have developed in the water.

Being in the middle of this evolutionary process may have made birth a particularly dangerous proposition for Chaohusaurus, leading to high infant mortality and attendant danger for the mother. That’s speculative, however, until more fossil evidence is found to support it. Perhaps we’ll be lucky and there will be additional information on the question found in one of the more than 80 new ichthyosaur fossils found in the south Majiashan fossil quarry.

The paper on this fascinating and poignant discovery can be freely read online in the journal PLOS ONE.


Medieval Scandinavian runic code cracked

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

University of Oslo runologist K. Jonas Nordby has cracked an obscure runic code called jötunvillur. Nordby studied the 80 or so coded runic inscriptions that have been discovered in Northern Europe. Out of those 80, nine were written in jötunvillur code which dates to the 12th or 13th century. One of the nine turned out to be a miniature Rosetta stone. Carved on stick found at the old Hanseatic wharf in Bergen, southwest Norway, the inscription features the name of two men, Sigurd and Lavrans, written in both standard runes and jötunvillur.

Each rune has a name. For instance, the rune for “u” is named “urr,” and the rune “m” is named “maðr.” By studying the Sigurd and Lavrans stick, Nordby discovered that the jötunvillur code worked by replacing the rune sign with the last sound in the rune’s name. As you can tell from the two examples, however, many runes end with the same sound, so jötunvillur is very difficult to read unless you have a handy straight rune original right next to it. You have to guess and re-guess to try to make sense of the code, which is why despite the code mechanism now being exposed, the other eight examples of it still haven’t been translated, although Nordby thinks two of them might also be inscribed with proper names: Thorstein on one and Einar on the other.

Because of how difficult it is to read and the prevalence of names, Nordby believes jötunvillur wasn’t used to send secret messages, but rather as an educational tool to teach people the runic alphabet. It was meant to be written, not read, an exercise to help people learn the rune names. There were no schools that taught runes; it was a system passed down from person to person, and what better way to teach it than to make it fun, a game or a code to crack.

Henrik Williams, a professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Scandinavian Languages and a Swedish expert on runes, says that Nordby’s discovery is important.

“Above all, it helps us understand that there were more codes than we were aware of. Each runic inscription we interpret raises our hopes of soon being able to read more. This is pure detective work and each new method improves our chances,” says Williams.

He agrees that the codes could have been used as a tool for learning runes. But he is uncertain how big a role this would have played in the learning process. In any case, Williams thinks the codes were used for much more than communication.

“They challenged the reader, demonstrated skills, and testify to a joy in reading and writing.”

The most commonly used was digit code which divided the alphabet into a matrix of three rows and six columns. The coded figures had a vertical bar with small diagonal ones on either side. The number of bars on the left side of the symbol indicated which row the rune was in; the number of bars on the right side identified the column. Most of the other codes use Caesar Cipher, a relatively simple system named after Julius Caesar who is said to have used it to communicate with his military officers. It just shifts the letters three of four places to the right.

There is a great deal of playfulness evinced in the rune codes that have been cracked. A challenge to decipher the code is a frequent message. They also played with the format itself, hiding runes in the beards of carved figures or in the decoration of an altar. Some appear to be riddles. They’re games, brain teasers, like medieval Scandinavian Sudoku more than magical incantations or secret communications.

They do that job well, too, as Henrik Williams’ reaction to the recently cracked code underscores:

“But personally I think jötunvillur is an idiotic code, because whoever made it chose a system that is so hard to interpret. It’s irritating not being able to read it.”

I know that irritation well. I bet he stabs the crossword with his pencil when he can’t complete it.


1,000 bodies from state asylum found in Mississippi

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

During construction of a new road on the grounds of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson last year, workers unearthed multiple graves containing deceased residents of the Mississippi State Insane Asylum, a state hospital built in 1855 and closed in 1935. Between November and March, crews digging out the subsoil to make sure it was solid enough to support the road unearthed 66 bodies in pine boxes. The coffins were about six feet long, as you would expect, but much thinner than normal human width because they were compressed by the weight of the soil. There were no grave markers identifying the burials.

Experts from the state archives and the Mississippi State University anthropology department removed and documented the remains. They will study the bones for two years, doing isotope analysis of the teeth to determine what kind of food they ate, and therefore where they lived, as children, before reburying them in a UMMC cemetery used for donated anatomical remains and previous archaeological discoveries.

The number of bodies found at the road site made the excavation and reburial possible while still allowing the road to be built. That is not the case with the most recent discoveries. Soil testing on locations slated to become a parking lot, the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge (an $11 million project) and the Children’s Justice Center have found evidence of 1,000 bodies and probably more than that. Since each reburial costs about $3,000, that would add a whopping $3 million to the budget, money they don’t have. It puts a lot of pressure on the UMMC to find new locations for these construction projects, but they’re doing the right thing and leaving Asylum Hill and its many dead free from development.

The Mississippi State Insane Asylum was a cutting edge facility when it opened in January 8th, 1855. It was the first state institution for the mentally ill in Mississippi. Before its construction, people deemed insane were kept locked up in the attics and basements of family homes, or chained in jails and prisons. It took almost a decade for the asylum to be built, after appropriation struggles in the legislature and a five-year yellow fever epidemic delayed construction.

It was designed by architect Joseph Willis who patterned it after the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum, built in 1848 according to the Kirkbride Plan, an all-encompassing holistic approach to the treatment of mental illness conceived by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a Quaker physician and a lifelong advocate for the curability and humane treatment of the mentally ill. The Mississippi State Insane Asylum was the sixth Kirkbride Plan asylum built in the United States, and the first in the South.

Kirkbride was a co-founder of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII), the organization that in 1921 would become the American Psychiatric Association. He had an enormous influence on how mental illness was treated in second half of the 19th century, thanks largely to his book On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane with Some Remarks on Insanity and Its Treatment, first published in 1854. You can read a digitzed copy of it on the U.S. National Library of Medicine website.

The Kirkbride Plan was an incredibly detailed approach to the construction of mental institutions that would best benefit their patients. He detailed the optimal standards for everything from the staggered design of wings to building materials to the landscaping of the grounds to ventilation and drainage systems. Kirkbride asylums were designed to be large, bright, airy buildings on estates of at least 100 acres to provide inmates with pleasure grounds and land to farm. Kirkbride promoted “moral treatment,” based on the idea that pleasant environs, outdoor work, social interaction, cleanliness and edification of the mind were more effective at curing mental illness than harsh confinement and medical treatments like bleeding and purging.

From On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals:

A hospital for the insane should have a cheerful and comfortable appearance, every thing repulsive and prison-like should be carefully avoided, and even the means of effecting the proper degree of security should be masked, as far as possible, by arrangements of a pleasant and attractive character.

And it can’t be crammed full of beds either. Again from Kirkbride’s book:

All the best authorities agree that the number of insane confined in one hospital, should not exceed two hundred and fifty, and it is very important that at no time should a larger number be admitted than the building is calculated to accommodate comfortably, as a crowded institution cannot fail to exercise an unfavorable influence on the welfare of its patients.

That 250 figure is the maximum number of patients he calculated could be visited daily by the chief medical officer. Anything more than that and the man in charge would have to delegate and that almost inevitably meant a steep decline in conditions. Those 250 residents would be divided into eight classes of mental illness. Each class would get its own ward, and since the sexes were segregated, there were 16 total wards with an average of 15 patients. Each ward should be outfitted with a parlor, a dining room with dumb waiter, a speaking tube leading to the kitchen, a corridor, single rooms for patients, larger rooms for patients who needed their own special attendants, small dormitories with a connected chamber for a group attendant, a clothes room, a bath room, a wash and sink room, a water closet, an infirmary, two works rooms, a museum and reading room, a school room, drying closets, a forced ventilation system along with a natural ventilation system that allowed “fresh cool breezes” to pass through the wards.

When the Mississippi asylum opened, it had a mere 150 inmates, well-within Kirkbride’s maximum. During the Civil War, in 1863 the asylum was taken over by the 46th Indiana Infantry Regiment who used the inmates’ pleasure grounds and vegetable gardens for fortifications, embankments and to supply their troops. Under Reconstruction, African-American patients were first admitted and in 1870 the inmate population doubled to 300. The death rate was contained at around 21 per year, and the state legislature compelled the asylum trustees to visit once a week.

With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the legislature stopped giving a crap, funds dried up and the asylum went into a steep decline. When Dr. Thomas J. Mitchell was appointed superintendent in 1878, he found conditions “verging on what the original Bedlam must have been like.” It took a major fire and the death an inmate before the state appropriated funds to install electrical lights and connect the asylum to the city water system (as opposed to the pestilent and drought-prone ponds that were its sole source of water before then) in 1894.

Additions and repairs were made, but not sufficient to keep up with the increase in admissions. By 1920, the Mississippi State Insane Hospital (so renamed in 1900) had 1,670 inmates. By 1930, the number of residents had increased to 2,649. Obviously the Kirkbride Plan was no longer. Finally conditions were so atrocious that in 1935 the hospital was closed and the patients moved to the new state hospital in Whitfield where it remains to this day.

The old asylum was demolished and in 1954, the new University Medical Center was built. Evidence of burials from its asylum days has turned up on occasion, not always handled with the proper respect. In 1990, 20 headstones were reportedly thrown in a gully. A few years after that workers installing a laundry steam line found 44 unmarked graves. Considering how many thousands of poor wretches lived and died in that asylum over the years, the entire campus is a likely cemetery.


The first film of a New York City snowstorm

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Mired in a winter that keeps insisting on snapping back to sub-freezing temperatures and traffic-clogging snow and ice, it warms the cockles of my frozen heart to see the first film footage of New York City during a monster snowstorm. It was filmed for the Edison Manufacturing Co. on February 17, 1902, by Edwin S. Porter, a groundbreaking director who pioneered techniques like dissolves, cross-cutting and close-ups. It records a view of Madison Square, back when Madison Square Garden was actually on Madison Square, buried under massive snowdrifts.


Those are the New York Fire Department’s horse-drawn engines trying to negotiate the snowy terrain. You can see the trolleys trying to keep on schedule, a myriad dedicated pedestrians, carts hauling large barrels of what I assume are spirituous beverages but really could be anything, the snow-covered statue of William Seward and the luxurious Fifth Avenue Hotel, once host to US Presidents and crowned heads of Europe but in decline by the time the film was shot. The always awesome Bowery Boys think the beams at the end of the film are a glimpse of the construction site of the iconic Flatiron Building which would be completed just a few months after the film in the summer of 1902.

I think my favorite part is the hansome cab that appears horse-first at 1:24. Patented by Joseph Hansom in England in 1834, by the end of the 19th century these small, fast, highly maneuverable carriages were ubiquitous in cities like London and New York. Cab is short for cabriolet, the type of carriage, and when automated taximeters were added to calculate fares, the hansomes became known as taxicabs. That low little one-horse carriage is the progenitor of the yellow cars that are ubiquitous in New York today. You can see in the film that the era of the hansome cab was already winding down in 1902. By the 1920s, motor vehicles had taken over.

Edison titled the film “New York City in a Blizzard,” but he was being dramatic. The storm didn’t actually rise to the blizzard level. Although this snowstorm produced crazy drifts up to five feet high, on the whole New York City wasn’t actually hit that hard. Winds of 40 miles an hour and deep snow caused traffic, train and shipping delays, but there were no major accidents which is impressive considering you can see the horses struggle to keep their footing in the film. Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees, keeping the snow relatively wet and conditions bearable. The blizzard of March 1888 saw temperatures drop to six degrees below zero, winds of 60 miles an hour and two feet of snowfall. Compared to that, the 1902 storm was a cakewalk. Connecticut and the rest of New England were hit much harder.

The year after he shot the snow storm, Edwin S. Porter would move very far beyond the shots of daily life and secure his place in film history by directing the seminal picture The Great Train Robbery.


Important early Seurat drawing acquired by the Getty

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

When you think of Georges Seurat, you probably picture his pointillist masterpieces like A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, but in his tragically short life (he died during a diphtheria epidemic when he was just 31 years old), Seurat produced far more drawings than he did paintings. Along with La Grande Jatte, he made six other large-scale paintings, 60 smaller paintings and oil sketches, some of the latter preparatory to the monumental pieces. There are about 500 surviving drawings, plus four sketchbooks from late teens and early 20s when he was in art school and just after he left. (You can see selections from those notebooks in this online exhibit MoMA created to accompany their 2007 show of Seurat’s drawings.) Stripped of the intense color and brushwork of his Pointillist pieces, Seurat’s drawings showcase his development as an artist, his understanding of light and dark, his use of lines, cross-hatching, paper and pencil textures to create images that can be both realistic and sometimes verging on abstract.

Georges Seurat was born to well-off parents in Paris in 1859. He began drawing at an early age; his first extant drawings were signed and dated 1874, when he was 14 years old. Recognizing his talent but unwilling to let him bypass a conventional education, in 1875 his parents sent him to the Ecole Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin, a small neighborhood art school run by sculptor Justin Lequien, while he finished high school. There the focus was on copying the classics, drawing from lithographs of old masters and plaster casts of ancient sculptures. He was entirely competent at it, but there was little sign in these highly formal early forays of the innovator Seurat would soon become.

His secondary schooling completed, in 1878 he passed the entrance exam of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and continued his instruction under Henri Lehman. Lehman’s pedagogical approach was similar to Lequien’s, focused on drawing live models, after antique sculptures, old masters and French Baroque and Neoclassical works. Drawings survive from Seurat’s school days that are copies after Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Ghiberti, Perugino, Holbein, Poussin and Ingres, among others. He seemed poised to follow the well-worn path towards conventional success in the French art world of the late 19th century: pass exams, exhibit, win prizes, go to Rome to study the classics in person, return to snag commissions from the government and wealthy patrons.

Then he took a detour. Eighteen months in to his studies at the Ecole, he left to do a year of military service. In November of 1880, he was released but he didn’t go back to school. His formal education was over. Seurat rented a little studio apartment, drew informal sketches of the people and landscapes of Paris and environs, spending two years concentrating on black and white drawing. That’s not to say he rejected his schooling. He may have chafed under it and rebelled, but you can see the student of ancient sculpture in the still postures of La Grande Jatte, and the Renaissance copyist in his embrace of light and dark.

He would later describe this period to Belgian symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren: “Little by little he told me about his beginnings, his apprenticeship with Lehmann, his school years, the whole story of efforts soured by routine and outmoded practices. Then how he found himself, personally, through studying others, through lessons and rules, the way one discovers unknown stones beneath stratifications of land and soil.” That voyage of self-discovery, of integrating his schooling with his own vision and study of color theory, is key to our understanding of the Post-Impressionist pioneer he grew into.

One of the earliest drawings to show Seurat’s movement away from idealized antique forms into his own personal style is Mendiant Hindou (Indian Beggar), drawn ca. 1878, either the end of his studies at the Ecole Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin or the beginning of his time at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It sold at a Sotheby’s auction on Thursday for $3,971,644 including buyer’s premium, far, far exceeding the pre-sale estimate of $130,512 – $195,768. Instead of disappearing into an anonymous private collection, this important transitional piece has found a new home in that most deep-pocketed of museums, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The Getty has no Seurat paintings, but it does have three other significant drawings the artist made in the early 1880s.

Indian Beggar represents a critical turning point in Seurat’s approach to figure drawing, towards a more distinctive style that employs gradations of light and shadow to define the form and mood of his subjects.

In the drawing, the subject, an old man, sits with his face turned away from the viewer, shoulders slumped, with folds of skin rippling down his stomach. Delicate effects of light and shadow are achieved through soft, rubbed, and repeated strokes and cross-hatching.

The addition of Mendiant Hindou gives them an important capsule collection. and I hope will inspire them to display all four of the works together so visitors can see the progression of his work.





February 2014


Add to Technorati Favorites