Archive for November, 2015

Vermeer’s Little Street discovered

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The exact street in Delft that Johannes Vermeer depicted in his 1658 painting View of Houses in Delft, better known as The Little Street, has been identified. It’s the Vlamingstraat, at the current house numbers 40 and 42, and even though the original buildings are gone, it’s eerie how similar the modern scene is to the 17th century one even though the details are very different.

The Little Street can be regarded as “the earliest ‘portrait’ of the exterior of an ordinary house in northern European art”, according to Grijzenhout. It represents yet another indication of Johannes Vermeer’s innovation.

For nearly a century, scholars have debated whether The Little Street depicts a real pair of buildings or if it was conjured up in Vermeer’s imagination. The most widely accepted theory was that it represented a view from the inn owned by Vermeer, the Mechelen. His back windows overlooked almshouses in Voldersgracht, although the scene would not have been quite as in the painting so the artist must have produced his own interpretation. The almshouses were demolished in 1661 and a 20th century building now houses the Vermeer Centrum, which presents reproductions of the artist’s work.

University of Amsterdam professor of Art History Frans Grijzenhout tossed out the theory and found the site by consulting what some might consider a painfully mundane city record from 1667: the ledger of the dredging of the canals in the town of Delft, also known as the quay dues register. The register records the taxes paid by everyone with a canal-front home for the dredging of the canal and maintenance of the quay. Because homeowners only paid taxes for the canal works in front of their property, the ledger is meticulously precise about the width every house and alley between them, accurate to around 15 centimeters (6 inches).

Grijzenhout found a property on the Vlamingstraat, a lower-end neighborhood in eastern Delft, which had two houses 6.3 metres (about 21 feet) wide separated by two alleys about 1.2 meters (four feet) wide. Additional historical research, Google Maps data and analysis of the modern-day location confirmed that Vlamingstraat 40-42 fits. No other property in Delft matches the unique configuration in The Little Street.

The houses that stand on the site now were built in the late 1800s. The reason the painting and street today look alike even though the buildings are so different is that bricked entryway into the alley next to the house on the right. It’s a skinnier opening than it used to be thanks to the larger house on the left, but it is still recognizable.

Grijzenhout also discovered during his research that the house on the right of the painting was owned by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, Vermeer’s widowed aunt. She sold tripe and that alley next to her house was nicknamed the Penspoort or Trip Gate after her business. Vermeer’s mother and sister lived across the canal from the aunt, so this was a view he must have seen very many times. It’s even possible that the figures in the painting are family members; maybe that’s his aunt working in the doorway of her house. The personal connection explains why he selected this scene to paint. Out of the 35 known surviving works by Vermeer, just two of them are townscapes, both of them in Delft. The second is View of Delft (1660-1) and it’s more of a skyline scene. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

The Little Street and the discovery of its location are the focus of an exhibition running through March 13th, 2016, at the Rijksmuseum. After that, the exhibition will move to the Museum Prinsenhof Delft from March 25th through July 17th, 2016. The Museum Prinsenhof Delft is thrilled to host the first Vermeer painting to visit the city in 60 years, and for it to be a painting so important to the history of the city makes it all the more special. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the painting and then walk in Vermeer’s footsteps to the street itself. The museum is going all out to give tourists the full Vermeer experience, creating walking routes and a virtual reality app that will put people in the middle of Vermeer’s Delft.

Google Art Project has put together a neat virtual exhibition that combines high resolution views of the painting with Google Street View tours of the Vlamingstraat location.

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Roman coin hoard found in Swiss cherry orchard

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Farmer Alfred Loosli was walking through in his cherry orchard in Ueken in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau last year when he saw a green coin contrasted against the rich brown of the soil. At first the he assumed someone had lost it, but then he found another five. This July, Loosli poked a molehill under one of his cherry trees and found another 19 bronze coins. He asked his son to research the coins to see if they might be ancient, remembering that in 2013 a Roman settlement was discovered in the nearby city of Frick.

They called the authorities and in September canton archaeologists began to excavate the site. The excavation was kept secret to keep looters from interfering with the site when the archaeologists weren’t around, and it was productive beyond all expectations. By the end of the dig earlier this month, archaeologists had recovered 4155 Roman coins for a total weight of 33 pounds in just a few square meters. At least some of the coins were buried in cloth and leather bags and probably they all were only the bags have disintegrated.

The hoard in now at the Vindonissa Museum in Brugg where conservators are painstakingly cleaning the coins. Swiss numismatist Hugo Doppler has examined the 200 coins cleaned thus far and has identified them as Antoniniani minted by emperors Aurelian (270-275), Tacitus (275-276), Probus (276-282), Carinus (283-285) Diocletian (284-305) Maximianus (286-305). The most recent were minted in 294 A.D. They are in exceptional condition. Hopper believes they were taken out of circulation almost immediately after minting.

The Antoninianius coin is named after the emperor Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus) who first introduced the denomination in 215 A.D. as a silver piece worth two denarii, but because it only contained 1.5 denarii worth of silver, people raised prices and hoarded the coins causing rampant inflation. The Antoninianius became increasingly debased until by the reign of Emperor Gallienus in 268, the silver content was a meager 4%. Aurelian bumped it back up to 5%, but even that small boost was short-lived. At the end of the 3rd century, the Antoninianius was almost entirely bronze and considered worthless. People just threw them away.

The 200 coins from the cherry orchard hoard, however, are all of particularly high silver content, about 5% silver. Hugo Doppler believes the owner of the hoard deliberately chose the coins with the highest silver content because they “would have guaranteed a certain value conservation in a time of economic uncertainty.” In a rural area like Ueken, there would have been no banks to put valuables in, and the area was subject to several Germanic incursions. Burying bags of relatively high silver content coins underground was a reliable method of keeping the treasure safe.

Significant hoards like these have been unearthed many times in Britain, but are much rarer in Switzerland. Only four Roman coin hoards of more than 4,000 pieces have been found in Switzerland. Two were discovered a century ago; the third was found last year in Orselina, 150 miles south of Ueken near the Italian border.

The hoard will continue to be cleaned and examined. Doppler suspects there may be more exciting discoveries among the coins, like previously unknown mints and denominations. The hoard will eventually be put on public display at the Vindonissa Museum alongside other Roman artifacts discovered at the Frick excavation and elsewhere in the area.

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The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

If like me you’ve wept openly at StoryCorpsFriday broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition for the past decade, or at their beautiful animated shorts on PBS, you may have wondered how to go about recording the oral histories of your own loved ones. StoryCorps uses professional radio equipment to record and has a platoon of trained volunteers to facilitate the interviews. Interviews are recorded one at a time in the StoryCorps MobileBooth that travels the United States or in one of the permanent StoryBooths in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Atlanta.

Despite its limited geographical reach, StoryCorps has been able to record thousands of stories a year and now have more than 65,000 recordings from 100,000 participants. This Thanksgiving, they hope to at least double that figure in just one long weekend. Obviously they don’t have 65,000 sets of radio equipment and facilitators. This goal can only be achieved with new technology, and that’s what StoryCorps has created.

Every year the TED conference awards a $1 million prize to someone with “a creative, bold vision to spark global change.” StoryCorps’ founder Dave Isay was the winner of the 2015 Ted prize and his bold vision was the StoryCorps.me app, a smartphone app that anyone anywhere in the world with an Android and iOS device could download and use to record high-quality audio.

That vision has now become a reality. More than $400,000 of the prize money went to the development of the app; the rest was spent creating a dedicated website and adding server capacity so that interviews can be uploaded directly to the site. The free app extends StoryCorps’ range to the entire world.

Armed with a working beta of the StoryCorps.me app, anyone can participate in the Great Thanksgiving Listen. The project seeks to take advantage of a holiday where multiple generations of family and friends are locked together in a house with no way easy way out. The focus of the initiative is on working with high school teachers to encourage their students to record a grandparent or other senior family member during Thanksgiving weekend as part of their social studies, history, civics, journalism and political science classes. There’s a teacher toolkit (pdf) with instructions for students on how to plan and conduct the interview as well as the mechanics of recording and uploading the result. All interviews recorded this weekend will be uploaded not just to the StoryCorps website, but also the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

It’s not just for students, however. Anybody with a compatible device can take their shot at capturing the invaluable oral histories of a whole generation of elders. The app helps users prepare questions, find the best location for the interview, record the conversation on a mobile device, take a photograph to accompany the interview, share the completed recording with friends and family celebrating the holiday and finally upload the interview. It also provides editing tools. All recordings uploaded in the first year will be archived at the Library of Congress as well as on the StoryCorps.me website.

“In this time of great disconnect and division, we hope the Great Thanksgiving Listen will prove a unifying moment for the nation,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ Founder and President​. “We are excited to use the new StoryCorps app to bring the country together in a project of listening, connection and generosity. Together we will collect the wisdom of a generation and archive it for the future, while at the same time reminding our grandparents how much their lives and stories matter.”

Download the StoryCorps.me app here and start planning your interview now. If you haven’t watched or heard any of StoryCorps’ interviews, please check them out on StoryCorps’ website. The animations are here, the audio interviews here.

Here’s one example of the kind of profoundly meaningful oral history these conversations record:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/AA87JWa0bEw&w=430]

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Rich Western Han Dynasty cemetery unearthed

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Chinese archaeologists have unearthed the largest, most complete and best preserved Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.) cemetery near Nanchang, the capital of eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. The cemetery has only eight tombs, but they’re huge, covering 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet or about 10 acres). The largest tomb has a chariot burial with walls almost 900 meters (2,953 feet) long. Excavations of the site began five years ago but the discoveries were only announced earlier this month, with new finds still coming in.

The site is a city of the dead, with memorial temples, roads and drainage systems structured around the tombs. The tombs are the most intact Western Han yet found, their layout exceptionally clear. The chariot burial is exceptional. There are five chariots, each with four horses sacrificed in a funerary ritual, and more than 3,000 artifacts and fittings decorated with gold and silver. It is the only tomb found south of Yangtze River to have real chariots, or real vehicles of any kind, for that matter.

And that’s just the beginning of the wealth discovered in these tombs. The main tomb was found to hold more than 10 tons of Wuzhu bronze coins, more than two million individual pieces. The coins date to the reigns of three Western Han emperors: Emperor Wu (141-87 B.C.), Emperor Zhao (87-74 B.C.) and Emperor Xuan (74-49 B.C.). Most of the coins were in a pile, but archaeologists found six strands of 1,000 coins each. Ancient sources reference 1,000 low-value Wuzhu coins being strung together via the square hole in the center to create a larger denomination. Based on the documentary evidence, this monetary adaptation was thought to have started in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), but no archaeological evidence of it has been found before. The discovery of six intact groups of 1,000 coins strung together on hemp ropes confirms the historical sources and pushes back the date of the practice at least 600 years. To give an idea of the value, the ancient documents say that ten of the strings could be exchanged for one Jin (250 grams) of gold. Ten Jin was the total net worth of a middle-class family in the Western Han Dynasty.

So far, the excavation of the cemetery has unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts, including bronze mirrors, bells, cooking pots, wine vessels and two exceptional lamps shaped like geese with fish in their beaks which in addition to being beautiful are also practical. The candle was held in the mouth of the goose so that smoke would enter the goose’s body through the fish. The goose lamp’s belly would be filled with water and the trapped smoke would dissolve into it like a one-way bong. (The geese don’t exhale.) They’ve also found jade objects, wood tablets, bamboo slips and musical instruments, among them a se (a plucked zither with 25 strings), pan flutes and sheng (a mouth-blown reed pipe instrument). There are also terracotta figurines known as Kuregaku figurines depicting how the instruments were played.

Then there’s the lacquer screen. It was broken into vertical painted panels. One of the panels has a portrait of a man who archaeologists believe may be Confucius. If they’re right, it will be the earliest known portrait of Confucius found in China. There are pictures of the screen in situ here and video of it here. Fair warning: you can’t see the portrait at all. You can’t even tell it’s a screen, frankly.

But wait! There’s more! On Tuesday archaeologists struck gold, specifically, 25 gold ingots shaped like hooves and 50 large and heavy gold coins. This is the greatest amount of gold ever discovered in a Han Dynasty tomb.

While the identity of the dignitary buried in the largest tomb has yet to be conclusively established, archaeologists believe it was Liu He, the grandson Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.). Liu He did not take after his venerable and supremely competent grandfather. He reigned for a mere 27 days, from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C., before being deposed by the Dowager Empress Shangguan and court officials on 1127 charges of misconduct, most of them revolving around his sexing, feasting, hunting and all-around partying when he was supposed to be in mourning for his uncle, the deceased emperor. He was replaced by Emperor Xuan, the great-grandson of Emperor Wu, who had been raised a commoner after his father and grandfather died when the latter was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft against Emperor Wu.

Liu He was stripped of his titles after he was impeached, but in 63 B.C. Emperor Xuan was persuaded to make him the Marquis of Haihun which had the added advantage of shipping a potential rival away from the capital of his former principality (modern-day Jining) 900 miles south to the modern-day Jiangxi province. He died four years later in 59 B.C. The Haihunhou cemetery is named after the title, which in turn was a feudal descendant of a small kingdom that had once ruled the north of Jiangxi.

Lead archaeologist Li Xiaobin of the China National Museum, who has studied an impressive 4,000 Han Dynasty tombs, hopes the question of who the main tomb was built for will be answered when the sealed coffin in the central mausoleum is opened. If there’s a royal seal or jade accoutrements, that would identify the occupant as an emperor and may even identify him by name. If it is Liu He, it’s probable his wife occupies one of the other tombs and other family members or high-ranking nobles the remaining six.

The regional culture ministry has set up a number of laboratories so that researchers can examine the enormous quantity of artifacts recovered according to their relevant fields — archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, metallurgy, textile studies. Vice Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie wants the site to be excavated with an eye to a future application for the cemetery to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/Q5hy3D2rK3I&w=430]

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Second Lod mosaic found during construction of visitor center for first

Monday, November 16th, 2015

The Lod mosaic, one of the largest and most complete Roman mosaic floors ever found, was discovered by accident during highway construction in the Israeli city of Lod, 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, in 1996. The initial excavation revealed a floor 50 feet long by 27 feet wide with a series of kaleidoscopic mosaics depicting animals at hunt, great sea creatures and fish crowding ships, urns and floral garlands, birds perched on branches and small, individual birds and fish all framed with bold black lines, geometric shapes and intricate knots. The total mosaic covered 600 square feet and was composed of two million individual tesserae (tiles).

Pottery sherds and coins found littering the floor dated it to the early 4th century A.D., and while no other parts of the structure were found, archaeologists believe it was a private home whose frescoed mud-brick walls had collapsed onto the floor preserving the mosaics for 1,700 years. Different sections of the mosaic were installed at different times and designed by different artists. The three north panels — individual animals in hexagonal frames, the largest panel with smaller animal and hunting scenes in triangular frames around a central octagonal mountain hunting scene, the great marine scene — were made by one mosaicist. The two south panel with birds on branches and fish and birds in frames were made by another. The urn and garland panel between them was made by a third artist, the least accomplished of the three, and was likely the last one to be installed. It probably took around three years for the whole floor to be completed.

The exceptional beauty and rarity of find vaulted the mosaic to international fame. The mosaic was opened to the public for one weekend and during those two days 10,000 people came to see it. The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) didn’t have the budget to properly conserve such a huge masterpiece, so after that one weekend of public display, the floor was reburied for its own protection.

In 2009, a $2.5 million gift from the Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation gave the Israel Antiquities Authority the wherewithal to re-excavate the mosaic, lift it from the floor (they found footprints and drawing lines in the mortar bedding), clean it and conserve it for exhibition. The three sections of the north panel, the best preserved and most intricate design, toured the United States starting in 2010 and moved on to Europe in 2013. It is now at the Cini Gallery in Venice.

The donation also made possible the construction of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center, a museum dedicated to the mosaic built on the discovery site. The traveling panels were reinstalled in their original location and the building went up around the floor. The center was originally scheduled to open in late 2014, but that date was pushed back, and with good reason. Between June and November of 2014, IAA archaeologists surveyed an unexcavated area south of the previously unearthed mosaic in advance of construction.
The IAA announced Monday that during the survey they discovered another huge mosaic just yards away from where the first one was found.

The second Lod mosaic is 36 feet by 42 feet and is part of the same private villa. The newly discovered mosaic shares the same themes of animals at hunt, fish, birds, urns and floral elements, and is of outstanding artistic quality. This mosaic decorated the floor of the villa’s courtyard, while the first mosaic decorated the floors of several reception rooms where the homeowner would have entertained clients and guests. The courtyard was surrounded by porticos, covered walkways, with lines of columns supporting the ceiling, none of which survive, although numerous fragments of wall frescoes have been recovered.

This elegant, expensively appointed home was part of a wealthy enclave during the Roman and Byzantine eras. Founded by Canaanites around 5600–5250 B.C., the city of Lydda was destroyed by Rome during the First Jewish War (66 A.D.) and besieged in the Second Jewish War (115-117 A.D.) Much of the Jewish population was slaughtered and the Christian population increased significantly in the years afterwards. In 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus granted it city status and named it Colonia Lucia Septimia Severa Diospolis. It was the district capital and a regional center of commerce and government administration. The owner of the villa was part of the city elite, either an official or a rich merchant.

The site is bounded by modern buildings on the east side, so the entire home cannot be excavated. The new discovery will be incorporated into the visitor center.

For an in-depth examination of the first Lod mosaic and its significance, watch these videos compiled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First is a short film documenting the original find and the lifting of the mosaic in 2009. The next to are lectures given during the mosaic’s stop at the Met in 2011 about the discovery of the mosaic, the interpretation of its imagery and the influence of Rome on local art.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/ZSq5Xc29XPA&w=430]

[youtube=https://youtu.be/J8IW4y6xGUQ&w=430]

[youtube=https://youtu.be/CaqcSFc05-Q&w=430]

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Inca child mummy genome reveals lost history of South America

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

When a member of a mountaineering club first spotted what would prove to be the frozen mummy of an Inca child 17,400 feet up Argentina’s Aconcagua Mountain in 1985, he mistook it for a patch of grass. The other climbers, knowing grass didn’t grow at that altitude, checked it out and found not vegetation, but black and yellow feathers on the headdress of a young boy who had been sacrificed on the mountain 500 years earlier. With only part of the mummy exposed by erosion, the climbers wisely left it alone and returned to the city of Mendoza at the foothills of the Andes where they alerted archaeologist Dr. Juan Schobinger to the find. Fifteen days later, Schobinger and a team of volunteer archaeologists climbed the mountain and carefully excavated the mummy bundle.

This was a milestone in the history of mountain archaeology because it’s extremely rare that the professionals get to excavate the find before the people who discover it. Folks just can’t resist having a dig, sometimes because they were only up there in the first place looking for ancient treasure, as in the case of the El Plomo Mummy found in the Chilean Andes in 1954, or because they thought it was a recent death and called the cops, as in the case of Otzi the Iceman or out of simple curiosity.

The Aconcagua Mountain region in northwest of Argentina was once part of Collasuyu, the southern-most province of the Inca Empire. It was in this empire that lasted less than 100 years from 1438 A.D. until the Spanish conquest in 1532 A.D. that mountain sacrifices reached their apogee. The Incas built shrines at the peak of the highest mountains — Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia — and there practiced the ceremony of capacocha, the ritual sacrifice of children on occasions of great import like the death of an emperor or in the wake of a natural disaster. The children selected were the most beautiful and healthiest in the empire. They would be given narcotics and alcohol, taken to mountaintop shrines and either left to die of exposure or killed outright.

The Aconcagua child appears to have been killed by a blow to the head when he was about seven years old. The cold and dry of the Andean environment preserved his body, the two wool tunics he was wearing, the wool, hair and vegetable sandals on his feet, and multiple layers of cotton cloths and fiber cords wrapped around him, included the outermost wrap festooned with yellow parrot feathers. A total of 25 textiles were found in the bundle. Because the mummy was excavated with proper archaeological procedures, the exceptional preservation was maintained and additional objects were found in the fill underneath the child: six figurines, three human with clothes and feather accessories, and three stylized flames, one gold-plated and two made of Spondylus shell.

Preserved first by 500 years in a frigid and arid climate and then by careful archaeological practice — a replica is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Cuyo while the mummy itself is kept in a freezer at all time — the Aconcagua mummy was a rare pristine subject for interdisciplinary studies. Researchers found red dye, probably from the achiote tree, on his skin and a red liquid, also probably involving achiote, in his stomach. He’s been examined by medical doctors to determine cause of death, been subject to histological, microbiological, osteological, genetic and environmental analysis. He’s been X-rayed and CT scanned.

Now a team of geneticists has has mapped his mitochondrial genome, a first for any Native American mummy. In fact, not only is he the first Native American mummy whose full mitochondrial DNA has been successfully extracted, he’s the first for whom complete sequencing has even been attempted. Geneticist Antonio Salas from the University of Santiago de Compostela had high hopes that the Aconcagua mummy’s unique preservation conditions might have preserved enough of his DNA to be testable. A small sample of the child’s lung was tested — internal organs are less likely to be contaminated — and all 37 genes passed down from his mother were sequenced.

The boy’s pattern of genetic variations placed him in a population called C1b, a common lineage in Mesoamerica and the Andes that dates all the way back to the earliest Paleoindian settlements, more than 18,000 years ago. But C1b in itself is very diverse — as its members spread throughout Central and South America, smaller groups became isolated from one another and started developing their own particular genetic variations. As a result, C1b contains many genetically distinct subgroups. The Aconcagua boy’s genome didn’t fit into any of them. Instead, he belonged to a population of native South Americans that had never been identified. Salas and his team dubbed this genetic group C1bi, which they say likely arose in the Andes about 14,000 years ago. They detail their findings today in Scientific Reports.

When Salas combed through genetic databases, ancient and modern, he found just four more individuals who appear to belong to C1bi. Three are present-day people from Peru and Bolivia, whereas another sample comes from an individual from the ancient Wari Empire, which flourished from 600 to 1000 C.E. and predated the Inca in Peru. Clearly, C1bi is extremely rare today, but the fact that it has now popped up in two ancient DNA samples suggests that it could have been more common in the past, says Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a population geneticist who studies the Americas at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato and was not involved in the current work. If you sample just one or two individuals, “what are the chances that you pick the rare guy?” he says. “Most likely, you’re picking the common guy.”

It’s likely only so rare today because the Spanish and their diseases did such a thorough job of annihilating the native population. An estimated 90% were dead shortly after the conquest, and the rest interbred with Europeans, other Native American groups and Africans imported to the continent as slaves making the genes of modern Central and South Americans very distant indeed from the ones of their pre-conquest ancestors. The mummy’s DNA is frozen in time just as he was, providing us a rare window into past peoples. For instance, we know now that it took only 4,000 years for the earliest migrants to America to travel from Alaska to the Andes. The speed with which the continent was populated has been much debated, so this is very signficant new information.

Salas plans to go even further. He is working on mapping the complete nuclear genome of the Aconcagua mummy and when that’s done, he will turn his attentions to sequencing the genome of all the microorganisms in the boy’s digestive tract. That would lend new insight into the evolution of the microorganisms that live inside of us, helping us or actively trying to kill us.

You can read the full study here.

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Tour the British Museum online with Google

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

The Google Cultural Institute (GCI) and the British Museum have worked together to make it possible people all over the world to enjoy the museum’s many offerings from the comfort of their homes. So far 4,654 objects and artworks have been made available for our perusal. Google’s Street View cameras have trundled through the museum’s vast halls, so you can virtually walk through them from the second basement to the fifth floor, the largest indoor space yet captured on Street View. They’ve even captured the outdoors so you have a stroll around the beautiful museum building itself.

The British Museum has an excellent website with more than 3.5 million objects in its searchable database, 920,000 of them with one of more photographs attached. Many of the pictures are very good, but even the largest of them are modestly sized (the usual caveat regarding my obsession with high resolution photography applies, of course) and there are a significant number that look dated or are in black and white. It’s a wonderful thing, therefore, to have fresh images of thousands of objects in ultra high resolution courtesy of Google’s gigapixel cameras.

For example, the museum’s entry for the Admonitions Scroll, a Chinese painted silk handscroll more than 11 feet long from the 5th to the 8th century that depicts scenes from a 3rd century court poem, has 247 images. If you want to explore the details, you can go through the pictures one by one, but it’s tedious to have to go back and forth and the photo quality is less than satisfying. There are duplicates, old black and white shots and none of the pics I clicked on are more than 750 pixels wide. The scroll looks dingy, the painting dim.

Contrast that with the version on the Google Cultural Institute’s British Museum page. It’s a whole different viewing experience, like someone turned the light on in the room. You can see the whole thing in front of you at once. You can view the work in a depth of detail that you couldn’t possibly achieve in person unless your name is Steve Austin and they’ve made your other eye bionic too. You can see the weave of the silk, the individual hairs in the brushstrokes. It’s stupefying.

In addition to the objects from the permanent collection, there are also online versions of the museum’s temporary exhibitions, six of them right now with more to come. I’ve been pining to see Celtic Life in Iron Age Britain since it opened at the end of September. Gorgeous examples of Celtic metalwork, jewelry, objects of daily use and more are now viewable in detail online. It’s a curated online exhibit, not just a list of objects, arranged in a logical progression accompanied by explanatory notes. No Gundestrup Cauldron, though, sadly. It’s on the National Museum of Denmark’s GCI page, but not in gigapixel fun.

The collaboration between Google and the British Museum has also paved new territory for digital museum offerings. The Museum of the World microsite allows viewers to explore a timeline of artifacts divided into their continents of origin but then linked together by thematic connections. You swoop through time to a sparkly wind chimes sound effect while the objects load as polka dots, different colors for each part of the world — Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. When you click on one of the dots, you see a small thumbnail and the title of the object and lines radiate outwards connecting it to other objects. If you want to learn more, click again. The detail view has a text explanation of the piece, an audio description introduced by a narrator and expanded on by a relevant curator. Click on the picture to see it in high resolution. On the right side under the audio there’s a map so you can see where the piece came from and then a few thumbnails of related works if you’d like to skip directly their detail views.

I found it thoroughly engrossing. I scrolled all the way to the back of the timeline to the oldest artifact in the museum: a 1.8 million-year-old basalt chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It has only one connected piece — an 800,000-year-old Olduvai handaxe — by the related objects thumbnails take you far afield to an archaic Native American birdstone (1,000-1,500 B.C.) and an early 19th century Inuit ulu (a crescent-shaped knife). Once you get to the handaxe, the radiating lines proliferate.

You can browse by continent — just click the name and all the other dots will disappear, click it again for them to return — or by the themes listed in the menu to the right. Click the three squares in the upper left corner to cut the scrolling and jump to specific times.

Seriously this feature is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes. I would strongly recommend you only click on the first link when you have a nice chunk of time available, because there is no way in hell you’ll be able to stop once you get started. This is ideal lost weekend material.

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Two pieces of Roman sign found 122 years apart

Friday, November 13th, 2015

University of Reading archaeologists have discovered a fragment of a Roman inscription that matches a piece unearthed in 1891. Both pieces of the marble slab were excavated from the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum next to the modern village of Silchester in Hampshire. The first and larger fragment was discovered by the Society of Antiquaries of London which excavated the entirety of the town within the Roman walls between 1890 and 1909. The piece had two truncated lines of text, “IN” on the top row, “AT” on the bottom. It was added to Reading Museum’s Silchester collection where it has remained for nearly a century and a quarter. The second fragment was found by the university team in 2013 during the excavation of Insula III, a block of the Roman town, just 10 meters (33 feet) away from the find spot of the first piece. The second piece has only one truncated row extant inscribed with the letters “BA.”

While just a small piece of a marble slab, it’s of considerable archaeological significance on its own because it’s likely a remnant of a plaque erected on a building to commemorate its construction or the deity to whom the structure was dedicated. Archaeologists believe the dedication was broken when the building was destroyed in the middle to late 1st century A.D., and very little material evidence of the destruction of an important building has been found in Britain.

The fragment was analyzed by Oxford University’s Dr. Roger Tomlin, an expert in Roman inscriptions. He’s the one who made the connection to the first fragment, finding they were both inscribed with the same style and size lettering on a slab of the same material — Purbeck Marble, a limestone native to Dorset that was extensively quarried in Roman Britain — and dimensions. Tomlin believes they are adjacent pieces, that the “BA” comes after the “AT” on the bottom row of the first fragment to spell out the word “At(e)ba(tum)” meaning “of the Atrebates,” the Gallic founders of the town of Calleva in the 1st century B.C.

Despite this amazing occurrence there could be more revelations to come. The name of the building is yet to be revealed but previous work at Silchester has connected the site to the infamous emperor Nero, as well as queen Boudica who led a famous rebellion against the Roman Empire.

Professor Fulford added: “We now know what the bottom line of the sign reads – however the top line remains a mystery. It’s a tantalising thought that this might link to Nero himself who is known to have commissioned major building projects in Silchester. Our work to uncover the origins of Silchester continues next year — perhaps a name could emerge. It’s unlikely — but this story goes to show that when it comes to archaeology, anything is possible.”

Calleva was a fortified settlement or oppidium that was the Atrebates’ seat of power. Numismatic evidence suggests that it was something of a mini-kingdom first ruled by Commius, a chieftain who at first had been Julius Caesar’s ally in the conquest of Gaul but who then turned on him and fought with Vercingetorix in his revolt against Rome in 52 B.C. According to Caesar’s legate Aulus Hirtius who wrote the eighth and last book of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in 51 B.C. Commius finally struck a deal with Mark Anthony: he’d take his troublemaking ass out of Gaul on condition that he never had to see a Roman again. Anthony agreed and Commius crossed the Channel to Britain with a small group of followers.

It was that group which built the oppidium of Calleva. Coins have been found with Commius’ name and the names of his successors, so it seems Calleva was something of a city-state with him as its ruler. The Atrebates was added to Calleva’s name in a nod to its founders when the Iron Age oppidium was converted into a proper Roman town with streets on a grid pattern and solid stone walls after Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. The city was at a crossroads leading to important Roman urban centers, so it prospered and was known to have several large public buildings any one of which might have had a relevant inscription slab affixed to its walls.

Both inscription fragments will be on display in the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life through November 27th.

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Roman amphitheater found in Volterra

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Last July, workers on a waterway restoration project near the Diana Gate on the north side of the ancient Etruscan city of Volterra stumbled on the remains of two walls 20 meters (66 feet) long. Archaeologists from the regional Superintendency were observing the works and took over when the ancient walls were found. Extrapolating from the shape and direction of the structures already unearthed, they dug test trenches in two locations that would have more walls if the building were, as they suspected, an amphitheater. Lo and behold, they found exactly what they expected to find: two more masonry walls each ten meters long with a marked elliptical curve.

Calculating from the established curvature, the building is an oval 80 meters (262 feet) long by 60 meters (197 feet) wide, which is a pretty massive structure for people to forget ever existed. Volterra already has one Roman theater from the late 1st century BC, early 1st century AD that was discovered in 1950 by Volterran native son and historian Enrico Fiumi who was actually a trained economist, not an archaeologist, and whose excavation team was composed of patients from a local psychiatric hospital. The theater was partly dug into the side of a hill in Greek fashion and seated 3500. Some of the seats were found with the names of the most prominent local families, season ticket holders, if you will. A large section of the two-level skene (the building behind the stage) 50 feet high survives.

There is some mention in 15th and 16th century sources of an amphitheater in Volterra, but the writers were considered less than reliable on the details and thought to have been referring to the theater Fiumi discovered rather than a real amphitheater.

The discovery of the amphitheater caused a stir, but there was no funding to continue digging. The city had to go begging hat in hand to the local bank for sponsorship which thankfully they were able to secure. This September excavations resumed. Archaeologists found two rows of steps and additional architectural features were discovered: a large carved block that was part of the cryptoporticus roof and the base of an entrance arch. Like the ancient Etruscan city walls, these features are made of a porous sandstone native to the area called panchina which is soft and easy to work but hardens when exposed to the air.

“This amphitheater was quite large. Our survey dig revealed three orders of seats that could accommodate about 10,000 people. They were entertained by gladiators fights and wild beast baiting,” Elena Sorge, the archaeologist of the Tuscan Superintendency in charge of the excavation, told Discovery News.

By comparison, the Colosseum in Rome could seat more than 50,000 spectators during public games.

“The finding sheds a new light on the history of Volterra, which is most famous for its Etruscan legacy. It shows that during the emperor Augustus’s rule, it was an important Roman center,” she added.

Tuscany’s oldest continuously inhabited town, Volterra was an important urban center from the 6th century BC through the Renaissance, falling under the Roman sphere of influence in the 3rd century and under direct Roman control in the 1st century BC. Although there’s never been any doubt that it retained its cultural and political significance in the imperial era, the discovery of a second much larger public entertainment complex possibly from the 1st century A.D. indicates the city was more prominent and more populated than historians realized.

The goal of this fall’s excavation was very limited: analyze the remains to get a solid idea of what else is out there. With more data to work with, the archaeological team will be able to design a plan for a more thorough future excavation and a budget. Then they’ll have some figures to use when scrambling for more funding.

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Giving Andrew Ellicott his due

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

On November 12th, 1799, the first known record of a meteor shower in North America was written in the journal of a witness observing the Leonids from the deck of a ship in the Florida Keys. The occasion is marked in many an iteration of “This Day in History” entries, but in almost all of them there is a glaring error: the journal entry is attributed to Andrew Ellicott Douglass, an astronomer and founder of the modern science of dendrochronology who was born in 1867, 68 years after the Leonids put on such a spectacular show in the Keys.

The real observer of the 1799 Leonids meteor shower was Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor who was in Florida on assignment from President George Washington to ascertain the official boundary line between the United States and Spanish territory as negotiated in the Treaty of San Lorenzo.

Here’s his journal entry from November 12th:

About two o’clock in the morning I was called up to see the shooting of the stars (as it is vulgarly termed), the phenomenon was grand and awful, the whole heavens appeared as if illuminated with sky rockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel. They continued until put out by the light of the sun after daybreak. This phenomenon extended over a large portion of the West India islands and was observed as far north as St. Marys where it appeared as brilliant as with us.

The Leonids show up annually around this time and sprinkle light in the sky at the rate of about 20 meteors per hour, but every 33 years they put on a glorious light show with thousands of meteors per hour showering the sky. The 1833 storm was so strong at least 100,000 meteors, and maybe double that, streaked over North America in nine hours. The 1799 storm was just short of the peak of the cycle, but it was exceptionally strong nonetheless, which is why Ellicott hauled his cookies out of bed at two in the morning to see the show.

Although you might think the profession of surveyor would ensure Andrew Ellicott kept his eyes on the earth more than the skies, that his having made so meaningful a mark in the history of American astronomy was a fluke, in fact the line between heaven and earth, Horatio, was not so clearly demarcated. Jacques Cassini, son of astronomer Giovanni Cassini after whom the spaceprobe was named, was both astronomer and surveyor, having done the first triangulation of France and used the data to create the first scientifically rigorous map of France just a few decades before Ellicott saw the Leonids. Chemist Antoine Lavoisier, identifier of oxygen and hydrogen, also participated in surveys of France while watching the skies. Not coincidentally, Ellicott brought up Lavoisier’s theory that the atmosphere was composed of multiple elements right after seeing the Leonids. In the same November 12th journal entry, he wrote:

Many ingenious theories have been devised to account for those luminous and fiery meteors, but none of them are so satisfactory to my mind as the conjecture of that celebrated chemist M. Lavoisier, who supposes it probable that the terrestial atmosphere consists of several volumes, or strata of gaz or elastic vapour of different kinds, and that the lightest and most difficult to mix with the lower atmosphere will be elevated above it, and form a separate stratum or volume, which he supposes to be inflammable, and that it is at the point of contact between those strata that the aurora borealis, and other fiery meteors are produced.

Andrew Ellicott was renowned in his time for his great accuracy in surveying, determined in large part by his celestial observations. Born in 1754 to a large Quaker family of modest means in Pennsylvania, Ellicott fought in the Revolutionary War ultimately rising to the rank of major. After the war he worked with James Madison and David Rittenhouse continuing the survey of the Mason-Dixon line that had been abandoned during the conflict. He turned out to be really good at it. In 1786 he was commissioned to survey the western border of Pennsylvania, a meridian that is still today known as the Ellicott Line.

In 1792 Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson appointed Ellicott to survey the boundaries of the federal Territory of Columbia, which would be renamed the District of Columbia nine years later. That same year he surveyed the land that would become the city of Washington, then forming the nucleus of the Territory rather than the entirety of it. He worked with Pierre Charles L’Enfant on the plan of the city until L’Enfant pissed off the Commissioners overseeing the project enough to get the boot. Ellicott’s revised plan of Washington (which L’Enfant strenuously opposed) became the basis on which the capital was constructed.

In 1796 George Washington gave him the biggest assignment yet: surveying the border between Spanish North America and the United States. He spent four years travelling the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the Gulf Coast and into Florida, deploying impressive diplomacy and patience in his dealings with Spanish commissioners, and recording everything in his journal. Another one of his boundaries that is still called Ellicott’s Line remains today the border between Alabama and Florida.

After that bear of a job was done, he moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where, among other things, he taught Meriwether Lewis how to survey in preparation for his great expedition to the Pacific with William Clark. In 1813 he took a job as Professor of Mathematics at the Military Academy at West Point. His last survey was in 1817 when he helped establish the western border between Canada and the United States as defined in the Treaty of Ghent. Andrew Ellicott died of a stroke on August 28th, 1820.

The term surveyor appears nowhere in his obituary printed in the New York Evening Post of August 29th. His great professional gifts belong to the field of “practical Astronomy” in which he was “pre-eminent, both in the expert use of Instruments, and the accuracy of his calculations, which were the results of his observations. The reputation which he gained for those rare and peculiar acquirements, was evinced by the number and frequency of his appointments, both by individual states and the United States, for the purpose of adjusting such boundary lines as depended on the most nice Astronomical observations.”

The obit concludes:

The Geography of our country, in particular, is indebted to him for many interesting details, and descriptions of its unfrequented parts, as well as for the most accurate adjustment of the relative situation of particular places. By his death, science is deprived of a devoted admirer — the Military Academy of one of its best friends and most distinguished Professors — society of a benevolent & useful member, and his family of a tender husband and a kind and affectionate parent.

We should all wish for such a glowing and meaningful final assessment.

What a pity, then, that the record of this great man has been erroneously subsumed into the life of another. I suspect the error originated with History.com and then spread around in the usual pattern of Internet epidemiology. I have emailed the site to let them know of the mistake, but I’m afraid there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. Over much of the web, Andrew Ellicott will be denied his seminal astronomical observation, his rich contributions to the history and geography of the United States and even his very name while Andrew Ellicott Douglass, who has many genuine accomplishments worthy of This Day in History lists, will be taken out of his time and saddled with posthumous plagiarism of his own great-grandfather.

Yes, the name is not a coincidence or a distant tribute. Andrew Ellicott’s daughter Anne married David B. Douglass and they had a son named Malcolm. Malcolm Douglass and his wife Sarah Hale named one of their sons Andrew Ellicott after his illustrious great-grandfather.

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