Archive for November, 2016

17th c. Danish bishop’s turd identified

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

A piece of poo recovered from a latrine in Aalborg, Denmark, has been identified as the likely product of the colon of 17th century bishop Jens Bircherod. It was excavated from the latrine of the Aalborg bishop’s palace when the structure was demolished in 1937 for construction of Budolfi Square in the city center. The stool was of no interest to archaeologists at the time — poop studies have only recently come to be appreciated as the motherlode of information they are — but it was embedded in a broken bottle. The bottle and some Delft porcelain were put in a cardboard box and stored at the Moesgaard Museum. Researchers came across the historic turd while doing research on the thriving immigrant communities of Early Modern (1450-1650) Aalborg, Aarhus, Elsinore and Nya Lödöse.

Cherry pits and one hazelnut were visible with the naked eye, but detailed archaeobotanical analysis of the crap discovered the pooper’s diet was varied and high quality. It was replete with seeds, nuts, cloudberries, blackberries, peppercorns and exotic fruits like figs and grapes. The cloudberry, imported from Norway, is the earliest found in Denmark. The pepper was imported from India and was a luxury good.

The smoking gun was the presence of buckwheat. In late 17th century Denmark, buckwheat was almost exclusively grown on the island of Funen. Bishop Jens Bircherod was born in Odense, Funen’s main city and the site of another most excellent poop discovery, in 1658.

“It all fits nicely with the bishop who lived in that house from 1694 to 1708,” says Jette Linaa, from Moesgaard Museum in the Danish city of Aarhus.

The general diet for the people of Aalborg at that time was gruel, cabbage, pork and beef but buckwheat was particular to the island of Funen, some 200km (125 miles) away.

“He had a typical upper-class diet, he was part of the upper class,” she told the BBC.

Bircherod also refers in his diaries to his “opulent dinners.” As part of the team’s research into the immigrant community of Aalborg, they found a German-owned pharmacy which had the city’s largest stock of pepper and figs and held the monopoly on the sale of herbs and spices. Only the wealthiest people in Aalborg could afford to purchase its wares, the city’s nobles, political office holders and its bishop among them. Other people lived in the bishop’s mansion, of course, including his wife and children, so it’s possible the poop was contributed by someone else in the household, but the buckwheat signature points to the man himself, and the fanciness of the diet likely excludes the servants.

The research team is elated by the feces they’ve found. This one bishop’s turd lends new insight into the international lifestyle of the prosperous residents of the city in the late 1600s. Before, they only had documentary sources to go on. The poop is concrete archaeological evidence of how the products of international trade wound up on the tables of Aalborg’s elites. They plan to study the contents of two other Aalborg latrines to flesh out the picture even further.

Export barred on “Indian Manner” tapestry by mysterious weaver

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

John Vanderbank the Elder (his son would become a successful society portrait artist), was born in Paris to a Huguenot family. Religious conflict drove him out of France, first to Holland and then to England where he set up shop as a tapestry weaver. The Vanderbank workshop on Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, was the premier tapestry manufacturer of the late 17th and early 18th century. From 1689 until 1717, he was Yeoman Arras-maker to the Great Wardrobe, meaning he was the official tapestry-maker for the royal family.

Influenced by Indian textiles, Chinese porcelain and Japanese lacquer, tapestries known as “Indian Manner” were all the rage at the time. India didn’t refer to the subcontinent in any literal sense; this was a mish-mash of vaguely Asian elements, plus Turkish and European themes. Indian Manner tapestries were characterized by multiple colorful scenes set against a dark field, with smaller animal and floral motifs at the top and larger scenes approaching the bottom.

Today Vanderbank tapestries are found in some of Britain’s stateliest homes and in museums like the Victoria & Albert, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. Because Vanderbank’s workshop was so dominant in English Indian Manner tapestries of his time and because he often reused his more popular designs, making changes in size and placement of motifs based on the wishes of his clients, most tapestries in this style have been attributed to him or his workshop.

Then there’s the mysterious Michael Mazarind. There is exactly one known Indian Manner tapestry signed by M. Mazarind, formerly in the collection of Henry McLaren, 2nd Baron Aberconway. Edith Standen noted in her seminal 1981 study (pdf) of Indian Manner tapestries that Mazarind is “a weaver otherwise totally unknown.” She went on to state: “Until more information comes to light about Mazarind (even his name is puzzling), any interpretation of these facts must remain extremely tentative, but he was evidently closely connected with Vanderbank and, like him, was probably not English.”

Despite how very cautiously worded her association of Mazarind with Vanderbank was, it stuck. Enough so that when a buyer recently purchased the tapestry in a private sale, he applied for an export license on the grounds that it did not qualify as a national treasure under the Waverly Criteria because it is not closely connected to Britain’s history, is not of particular aesthetic importance because it’s been altered over time and it is not of outstanding significance for the study of tapestries because there are other Vanderbank tapestries in UK public collections.

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) disagreed. In researching the tapestry to determine whether to recommend the granting of an export license, they found that in fact Michael Mazarind was not Vanderbank’s associate, but rather his competitor. He had a workshop of his own, identified from parish rate-books as occupying a space on Portugal Street (now Piccadilly) between 1696 and 1702. The cartoons he used to make the tapestry were not retreads or copies of Vanderbanks, but entirely original.

RCEWA member Christopher Rowell said:

“This beautiful blue ground tapestry, with an equally unusual border of Chinese inspiration, dates from the late 1600s and is the only one to bear the woven signature of the mysterious Michael Mazarind, who was a rival of the more well-known London tapestry weaver, John Vanderbank. This type of ‘Indian’ tapestry depicting a Chinoiserie fantasy paradise in Cathay, with courtly and hunting scenes, was devised for the court, but soon became more broadly popular. Saving the tapestry for the nation will allow specialists to study it in detail and help to reconstruct Mazarind’s contribution to tapestry production in early-Georgian London.”

Following the RCEWA’s recommendation, Culture minister Matt Hancock has placed a temporary export bar on the tapestry. The bar will give British institutions until January 19th, 2017, to raise the £67,500 purchase price. If there is an indication of a serious effort to raise the money that just needs more time, the bar may be extended until April 19th, 2017.

Pristine cartonnage sarcophagus found in Luxor

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Thutmose III, the 18th Dynasty pharaoh who ruled for 54 years (1479- 1425 B.C., the first 22 years as co-regent with his stepmother Hatchepsut) and whose military conquests greatly expanded Egypt’s empire. Because of his extraordinary successes on the battlefield, he is known as Egypt’s Napoleon. His mortuary temple at Al-Deir Al-Bahari in Luxor on the left bank of the Nile was built above a Middle Kingdom necropolis and there are tombs and structures from multiple periods on the site. As a result, excavations have revealed a fascinating cross-section of architecture, funerary environments, housing and artifacts that provide a unique glimpse into more than a thousand years of life and death in ancient Thebes.

The Temple of Millions of Years of the Pharaoh Thutmose III project is a joint mission of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and the Academy of Fine Arts Santa Isabel of Hungary of Seville, headed by Spanish Egyptologist Dr. Myriam Seco Álvarez. Its ninth field season started this fall and the team excavated a tomb on the exterior of the temple’s southern wall. Inside the tomb archaeologists discovered a cartonnage sarcophagus in pristine condition.

The wooden outer coffin was badly damaged, but the delicate the plaster and linen sarcophagus within is painted in brilliant colors and the decoration is almost entirely intact. Cartonnage is easily destroyed, even in the hot, dry desert environment, often by insects. Other tombs excavated at the temple site had little left of their cartonnage sarcophaguses because termites had feasted upon them. Extensive looting in antiquity also damaged the coffins and mummified human remains in the destructive search for easily saleable artifacts.

Álvarez said out that the cartonnage includes its almost complete polychrome painted decoration and inscriptions with some of the most characteristic symbols and elements of the ancient Egyptian religion.

Among these inscriptions are solar symbols, the protective goddesses Isis and Nephthys with spread wings, hawks and the four sons of Horus, executed in artisanal quality of the highest order.

According to Myriam Seco Álvarez, inscriptions suggest the cartonnage sarcophagus contains the mummy of a royal servant named Amenrenef. It’s not clear what his duties were, just that he was attached to the pharaoh’s household. He must have been a person of high rank and wealth because the painting is the work of the best and most expensive artisans. Preliminary analysis indicates the tomb dates to the Third Intermediate Period (1070-712 BC), so he would not have been a servant of Thutmose III’s. The team hopes to discover what possible connection he made have had with the long-deceased pharaoh that caused him to be buried adjacent to the temple. Since they have his name, they are hoping to find references to him in other documentary or archaeological sources.

The investigation into Amenrenef will begin only after the excavation season closes and the immediate conservation needs of the sarcophagus are met. The coffin will also be scanned to determine the condition of the mummy within, and, fingers crossed, to discover more information about Amenrenf from inscriptions and/or artifacts buried with him. Hopefully they will also find out more about his physical condition — age, health, possible cause of death.

When conservation and the investigation into its owner is complete, the splendid cartonnage sarcophagus will likely go on display at the Luxor Museum.

Renewed Circus Maximus reopens after 6 years

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

According to Livy’s account of early Roman history in Ab Urbe Condita, the first iteration of the Circus Maximus was built in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills by Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome, in the 6th century B.C.

Then for the first time a space was marked for what is now the “Circus Maximus.” Spots were allotted to the patricians and knights where they could each build for themselves stands – called “ford” – from which to view the Games. These stands were raised on wooden props, branching out at the top, twelve feet high. The contests were horse-racing and boxing, the horses and boxers mostly brought from Etruria. They were at first celebrated on occasions of especial solemnity; subsequently they became an annual fixture, and were called indifferently the “Roman” or the “Great Games.”

There’s no archaeological evidence for this (or for much of an anything else to do with the putative kings of Rome, for that matter). The low-lying area would have been subject to regular flooding and was probably farmland. A drainage system would have made it possible for the field to be used for horse races, but the wooden stands were temporary and rebuilt many times. Permanent wooden seating was built in 329 B.C.; the first stone seating (for senators, of course) was built in the 190s B.C.

It was Julius Caesar’s ambitious building program that developed the Circus Maximus into something more akin to our image of it. He built stands on both sides down the full length of the track, with the trackside seating reserved for senators. Equites (knights) got the next rows and the plebs got the nosebleed seats. There were shops under the galleries where sports fans could get a bite or place a bet. It was all still wood, though, and was seriously damaged by fire in 31 B.C. and the great conflagration of 64 A.D. during which Nero so notoriously strummed the lyre. The stone Circus Maximus as we know it now was built by Trajan in the first years of the 2nd century and commemorated on a bronze sestertius minted from 103 to 111 A.D. At its largest, it was 600 yards long and 140 yards wide and could seat a quarter of a million people.

When I lived in Rome in the 80s, the Circus Maximus was open, but there wasn’t much to see. You could picnic on the grassy slopes which once held stone and wood bleachers, go jogging, walk your dog. At night it was something of a shady place frequented by the demimonde, as it were. More recently it’s been a venue for concerts and other public events. It was basically a large oval field with some bits in the middle and at the ends. In 2009, the city initiated a program of excavation and restoration to create an archaeological park worthy of such a great icon of the Eternal City. While excavations will continue, the newly revived Circus Maximus is now open to visitors.

The excavation has uncovered many artifacts and structures long obscured by the overgrowth. Archaeologists have found more than 1,000 bronze coins, fragments of gold jewelry, and perhaps most excitingly, the bottom of a glass goblet with the image and name of a horse engraved in gold. Named after the legendary king of Alba Longa, descendant of Aeneas of Troy and grandfather of Romulus and Remus, Numitor the horse holds a golden palm branch in his mouth, attribute of the goddess Victory. This is the first time any kind of horse-related artifact has been found at the stadium which held chariot races for 1,000 years. The image of Numitor the lucky horse will be the new logo of the Circus Maximus.

A wealth of architectural remains have been revealed on the Palatine end of the track. Visitors will now be able to walk two stories of galleries: the lower one that senators walked to reach their trackside seats and the upper one the plebs used to reach their bleachers. From there, they can walk along the paved road unearthed during the recent excavations which features a large water trough made of travertine slabs. They can see the latrines used by the same ancient audience members, and the shop fronts, brothels, money changers and betting parlors underneath the galleries.

The Torre della Moletta, the 12th century tower built by the powerful Frangipani family as part of a fortification system that extended up the Palatine, has been restored and a new staircase added to the interior so visitors can climb to the top of the tower and enjoy a spectacular view of the Circus Maximus. In the hemicycle behind the tower, large marble fragments of the ancient structure discovered during the excavations have been tidily arranged in the grassy space: steps, cornices, column capitals, thresholds of shops, marble columns and the architectural elements of the triumphal arch of Titus discovered last year. Some of the bronze letters of the inscription dedicating the arch to Titus’ conquest of Judea — previously known only from a 9th century transcription — were found during the excavation, a wonderful surprise given how much ancient bronze was melted down in the Middle Ages.

Archaeologists plan to continue excavations. They are hopeful that something of the ancient spina, the central strip that in its heyday boasted two Egyptian obelisks, an altar to the gods and the lap counters (first egg-shaped, later dolphins) so memorably portrayed on the screen in Ben Hur, might still slumber under the earth. Maybe the remnants of the original track or drainage system are down there 30 feet underground. Any discovery at all from the archaic era would be a massive archaeological bonanza.

The Circus Maximus will be open to tourists (tickets cost three to five euros) every day from now through December 11th. After that it will be open on weekends only, weekdays by appointment.

Rare early Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery found

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

A rare early Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery has been discovered in an extraordinary state of preservation in Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. Funded by Historic England, Museum of London Archaeology experts excavated the site in advance of the creation of a conservation lake and flood defense system that will leave it fully submerged. The site is already quite soggy, thanks to the high water table of the river valley, which is why the graves in the cemetery have been so incredibly well-preserved. The alkaline water combined with the acidic sand of the area to create a perfect storm for the survival of organic remains.

There are six plank-lined graves, the earliest known examples in Britain, and an unprecedented 81 treetrunk coffins dating to the 7th-9th century A.D. Early Anglo-Saxon coffins and wood-lined graves very rarely survive. Usually all archaeologists have to go on are the stains left in the soil by the long-decayed wood. The plank-lined graves were lined with finely hewn timbers and the body laid within. More planks were then placed on top to create a coffin-like enclosure.

While treetrunk coffins have been discovered before, mainly in the 19th century, this is the first time they have been professionally excavated using modern archaeological methods. The coffins were dug out from oak trees cut in half lengthwise. Bodies were placed in the hollowed out center of one half, then the second half of the oak was placed on top to act as a lid. This was a labour-intensive process that would have taken one man an estimated four days to complete. Treetrunk coffins have been found in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon graves as well, so their presence in this early Christian cemetery may suggest a syncretic combination of old and new religious traditions.

There is considerable evidence pointing to this being a Christian burial ground. The graves each have wooden markers and are aligned from east to west, both Christian traditions that are not seen in pagan burials. They also lack grave goods which were an important part of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon funerary practices. Archaeologists discovered the remains of a timber structure on the site that they think may have been a church or chapel, an extremely rare find from this period.

When the cemetery was in use, the site was on a busy river crossing in the kingdom of East Anglia. There is virtually no documentary evidence from this period of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia, so such a rich, well-preserved site is an invaluable source of information to archaeologists and historians.

The discovery is shedding light on a previously unknown religious site and the fascinating lives of this early Christian rural community. Continued research and scientific testing, in the form of ancient DNA, stable isotope and dental calculus analysis, will help to develop biographies for the people buried and paint a picture of the people who lived here. Archaeologists hope to be able to say more about where these people came from, whether they were related, and what their diet and health were like, once research is complete.

The timber will be subjected to dendrochronological analysis to give us a more precise date range. Once the remains have been studied and conserved, they will be kept at the Norwich Castle Museum.

Roman pot filled with lamps found in Switzerland

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the site of a Roman fort and civilian settlement in the northern Swiss city of Windisch have unearthed an unusual hoard: a cooking pot filled with lamps, each containing a single bronze coin. What is now the Zürcherstrasse, one of Windisch’s busiest streets, in the first century A.D. was the defensive wall of the Roman legionary camp of Vindonissa. It was established in the province of Germania Superior around 15 A.D. and was occupied by various legions until 101 A.D., after which it was integrated into the civilian settlement. The ancient town was inhabited through the 5th century.

The Aargau Canton archaeology department has been excavating the site south of Zürcherstrasse where a multi-use development with underground garage will be constructed, since 2013. They’ve discovered the remains of defensive earthworks, well-preserved stone buildings, fireplaces, a latrine pit and a deep brick shaft.

It was in the brick shaft that archaeologists found the pot, the kind of quotidian vessel the legionaries at Vindonissa would have used to cook their food, entirely intact and in exceptionally good condition. Inside were 22 oil lamps. They too were implements used by regular people in their daily life. They were filled with oil and lit at the spout end. Produced in enormous quantities and sold all over the empire, the lamps were often decorated on the top side with designs which would glow in the light. The lamps collected inside the pot are decorated with a variety of motifs: a flower, the moon goddess Luna, a winged Cupid, a defeated gladiator, a lion, a peacock, even an erotic scene.

An as, a bronze coin that was lowest value currency in the early Roman Empire, was placed inside each lamp. Almost all of the coins date to 66 and 67 A.D., a range that fits the style of the cooking pot and lamps. Because asses were of such low value, their inclusion in this odd assemblage is likely symbolic.

“What astonished us was the quantity and the combination of coins and lamps,” said Aargau cantonal archaeologist Georg Matter.

“We suspect this is a ritual burial,” he said, but stressed that was only speculation since there haven’t been any other comparable discoveries.

The pot also contained charred fragments of animal bones, ruling it out as a urn for human remains.

“The intentions behind this burial are puzzling at the moment,” added Matter.

The pot has been fully excavated in the laboratory, the lamps catalogued and photographed. Next on the schedule is examination of the coins by numismatic experts and the analysis of the bone fragments.

Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II found behind portrait of Lenin

Monday, November 14th, 2016

In the summer of 2013, the administration of St. Petersburg’s Primary School No. 206 called in the experts at the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy to restore a portrait of Lenin that had a substantial damage to the canvas. In the larger than life-sized portrait (nine by six feet), Lenin looks pensively off to the side. Behind him is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the citadel and prison built by Peter the Great which became a symbol of Tsarist oppression akin to the Bastille, and the domes and golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the church where all the Russian Tsars from Peter the Great on were buried.

There were multiple holes in the bottom left of the portrait. Restorers noticed a piece of boot on the other side of the canvas showing through the tears. When they removed the frame to examine the back, they found a painted over portrait of Tsar Nicholas II by Ilya Galkin Savich, a painter who was a favorite at the Imperial court. He painted Nicholas the year before he ascended the throne, at least twice immediately after he became Tsar Nicholas II, plus his wife the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. The newly rediscovered portrait was commissioned the year of Nicholas’ coronation to hang in the assembly hall of the Merchant Society’s Petrovsky Trade and Commercial School. Portraits of Peter the Great and Tsar Paul I, later destroyed by the Soviets, also hung in the assembly hall.

After the 1917 Revolution, the Trade School was turned into an elementary school. In 1924, artist Vladislav Izmailovich was commissioned to paint over the portrait of the last Tsar with a new portrait of Lenin. Izmailovich was a classically trained artist who studied at fine arts in St. Petersburg, Rome, Paris and Berlin. He lived in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century where he painted landscapes, genre scenes and was in demand as a portraitist. Izmailovich also painted decorative interiors at private homes of the wealthy and was hired to restore paintings at St. Michael’s Castle, a former royal palace converted into the army’s engineering school, and at the sumptuous Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo.

His work for the moneyed elites, up to and including the royal family, did not harm his artistic career after the October Revolution. Prominent Marxist figures became subjects of his portraits. He made one of the first portraits of Lenin, a pastel in 1918. Other portrait subjects were founder of the German Communist Party Karl Liebknecht in 1918, a year before he became a socialist martyr in the failed Spartacist uprising, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, in 1920, and national heroes like chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and Leonid Govorov, defender of Leningrad during World War II. Izmailovich also painted historic scenes and landscapes, managing to survive many a purge and vanishing commissar to work until just before his death in 1959 a few months shy of his 87th birthday.

It’s fascinating to think that this survivor secretly saved a portrait of the Tsar, disguising it instead of destroying it. He painted the portrait of Lenin on the reverse side, painted over the Tsar until the portrait of Nicholas was thoroughly hidden. Izmailovich used layers of greyish-white water-soluble paint that not only allowed future restorers to remove it without damaging the original painting, but actually preserved the original work.

The decision to go through with the restoration process was kicked off by an initial X-ray result, in which “we were shocked, almost to the point of humor, to discover Czar Nicholas II’s head nearly exactly the same size and placement as Lenin’s,” confirming their suspicions that there was a completed full-size portrait beneath the water-soluble paint. The restoration experts used baby soap and water to wash the paint off and reveal a “remarkably intact and preserved” portrait of Czar Nicholas II, signed by the Russian artist Ilya Galkin Savich.

Ms. Pozeluyeva and other experts at Stieglitz believe that in 1924, Izmailovich painted over the Czar Nicholas II work — still in its frame — as an urgent act of “protection” and “sympathy for the Imperial era.”

Izmailovich’s secret tsarist leanings created a unique art work: a massive double-sided formal portrait of two leaders of diametrically opposed regimes painted by two different artists at different times.

After three years of restoration, the double portrait is going on display at the end of the month at the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy. It will be displayed on a stand with no glass case impeding visitors’ full experience of this remarkable canvas.

Curtain Theatre stage, secret passageway revealed

Sunday, November 13th, 2016

The remains of the Curtain Theatre, the Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch, north London, where Shakespeare’s Henry V and Romeo and Juliet were first staged, were first discovered by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in October 2011 during an exploratory excavation in advance of developement. Built in 1577, the Curtain was the second purpose-built public playhouse in London (The Theatre was the first), and the main staging venue for the plays of Shakespeare between 1597 and 1599. After that it was supplanted by the famous Globe Theatre, and the last recorded play at the Curtain was performed in 1622. Over time the exact location was lost until the MOLA team found it on (or rather under) Hewett Street.

The Curtain was believed to have been dismantled during the Commonwealth — Puritans weren’t keen on the rowdy entertainments of the public theater — but a much wider open-area excavation this year has found that in fact the theater was likely repurposed into a tenement. That has proven a great archaeological boon, because while all that remains today of the Globe and the Rose, two theaters on the South Bank famed for having staged Shakespeare’s plays, are bits and bobs of stonework from the foundations, there’s enough the Curtain left to paint a rich picture of the Elizabeth playhouse, and much of what they’ve found has entirely upended expectations.

Historians previously thought the Curtain was a polygonal structure with a thrust stage, like the more famous theaters that followed it. Archaeologists discovered that in fact it was rectangular building with a rectangular stage. The stage was 14 meters (46 feet) long and five meters (16 feet) deep, a very unusual proportion that may have made it possible to field larger numbers of players for Shakespeare’s busy battle scenes. That means that the prologue of Henry V, which alludes to the theater as a “wooden O,” must have been written after the play’s premier at the Curtain, perhaps for later performances at the Globe. Under the stage archaeologists found the remains of a tunnel that was accessed by doors on either side of the stage. Actors would have used it to exit from one side of the stage and enter from the other side out of view of the audience.

There are remains of brick walls, 1.5 meters (4’9″) at the highest, and even part of the sloping yard made of compacted gravel where the people with the cheapest tickets, known as groundlings, stood in front of the stage. Between the standing room and the more expensive seats in three sides of timber galleries, the theater could accomodate 1,200 people.

Archaeologists have found artifacts like clay pipes, wine bottles, glass beads, a comb, and one tiny broken piece of clay that looks like an egg cup but is the bottom of a bird call, perhaps used for sound effects in plays like Romeo and Juliet where the song a bird interrupts the lovers in their marriage bed. They’ve also found a group of green glazed knobs and a few sherds from money boxes.

Throughout findings, we’ve also been able to tell that The Curtain Theatre is one of earliest Elizabethan playhouses where people actually paid money to see performances and be entertained. We know this because fragments of ceramic money boxes have been found. These fragments are a really exciting find because the pots would have been used to collect the entry fees from theatregoers and then been taken to an office to be smashed and the money counted. This office was known as the ‘box office’, which is actually the origin of the term we still use today!

The Curtain Theatre has been covered now with sand and a protective membrane to keep it secure while the mixed-use development of retail, office space, homes, a park and a performance area is built around it. The new development will be called The Stage, appropriately enough, and has been redesigned in light of the discovery to display the archaeological remains of the Curtain in the new cultural and visitors center.

Conserving The Death of Buddha

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

The depiction of the death of the Buddha surrounded by the inconsolable grief of beings, human and animal, who have yet to achieve enlightenment and the detachment from earthly desires, has a long, rich tradition in Asian art. Hanabusa Itchō’s version, painted in 1713 during the Edo period, is done in the animated, dynamic style characteristic of his work. He was known for his keen observation of daily life and for biting parodies, one of which got him exiled for 12 years when he chose the mistress of the shogun as a subject for satire. He returned to Edo in 1710 after the death of shogun he’d offended, and quickly picked up where he’d left off.

His The Death of Buddha was hugely famous during the Edo period. It belonged to a Zen temple in Tokyo which is believed to have displayed it once a year during Nehan-e (Nirvana Day), the Buddhist holiday celebrating the death of the Buddha and his passing into Mahaparinirvana, for more than 150 years. Pilgrims traveled to the temple just to see the painted scroll as viewing it was believed to be good karma.

The ownership history has a gap between 1850 and 1886. At some point before the latter date, it was acquired by Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor at Tokyo Imperial University who was an avid art historian and collector of Japanese art. In 1886, he sold his entire collection to Boston doctor Charles Goddard Weld (former Massachusetts governor William Weld is a scion of the family) conditional on its eventually going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where Fenollosa had attended art school. Weld bequeathed it to the MFA Boston after his death in 1911.

The scroll hasn’t been on view since 1990 for its own protection. A massive piece at six feet wide and 10 feet tall, it’s the largest scroll in the museum collection and conservation for such a large, delicate piece is extremely challenging. Adding to the logistically difficulties, the scroll hasn’t been remounted since 1850 when it was still at the Zen temple in Tokyo. Because scrolls have unique pressures — they’re rolled, mounts regularly fail or being to tug, tear and pull at the painting — they’re usually remounted every century or so.

The museum began planning the complex conservation of The Death of Buddha three years ago. Active conservation began in the spring of this year in the MFA Boston laboratory. Four conservators, two from the MFA Boston and two from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery which has an exceptional collection of Asian art and is currently being renovated allowing East Asian painting experts Andrew Hare and Jiro Ueda to join in the conservation of one the great scroll paintings of the Edo period. It is truly a conservation dream team. Three of the four, lead conservator Philip Meredith and both of the Freer experts, did the traditional ten-year apprenticeships at registered conservation studios required by Japanese government regulation for the conservation of Japan’s cultural patrimony. Meredith was only the second westerner to complete the decade-long apprenticeship.

In August, the scroll and conservation team moved to the Asian Painting Gallery to give the public the rare opportunity to watch the painstaking work in progress in an exhibition called Conservation in Action: Preserving Nirvana. The scroll had to be dismantled from mount screws to linings to silk borders. After cleaning, consolidation, crease flattening, removal of old linings, replacement with new linings and the reassembling of every part, the scroll must be stretch dried on a custom karibari drying board 18 feet long.

It’s in the home stretch now, but conservation still proceeds apace. Visitors to the MFA Boston galleries can view the team at work until January 16th, 2017. The rest of us can get a glimpse into this extraordinary labor of love and expertise in the following videos.

A fascinating overview of the conservation process:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/pHfv1Jz0OXc&w=430]

Timelapse video of the conservation team applied temporary facing to the painting:

Here the team applies layers of protective paper, humidifying the work and removing the temporary facing. Then they turn it face down and remove old linings from the creases so that they can brush out the creases and re-flatten the painting.

In this last timelapse video, the conservators remove all the old lining paper from the back of the painting, lifting it with bamboo sticks and tweezing off the fibers that remain. They replace the old lining with fresh Mino washi, a traditional Japanese mulberry paper that is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, adhered with wheat starch paste.

Beer recreated from 18th c. shipwreck yeast

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Conservators at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia’s largest regional museum, have used samples of what is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving beer to create a modern brew from 18th century microorganisms.

The bottles were discovered in the shipwreck of the Sydney Cove, a small merchant vessel carrying alcohol, food, textiles and livestock from Calcutta to Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney) in 1797. On February 9th, the ship was caught in a storm and began to take on water. The captain decided to deliberately ground the Sydney Cove on the shore of Preservation Island, Tasmania. The full crew survived and after stashing all the cargo they could salvage, 17 of them set out for Port Jackson in the ship’s longboat, becoming the first Europeans to cross the Bass Strait between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Their bad luck held, however, and they got into another wreck off Ninety Mile Beach, Victoria, a full 400 miles from their destination. They had to walk the coast all that way to finally reach Port Jackson. By the time they got there in May, only three of the 17 were still alive.

The eighth oldest shipwreck in Australian waters, the Sydney Cove was rediscovered in 1977 and excavated by marine archaeologists from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service from 1991 to 1994. They recovered 26 glass bottles of beer from the ship’s hold, as well as bottles of wine, brandy and gin. The artifacts were sent to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery where two samples were drawn from one of the beer bottles and kept in storage.

Museum conservator David Thurrowgood found a forgotten sealed bottle of beer from the shipwreck two years ago. As a chemist, he was intrigued at the prospect of investigating microorganisms that might still be living in the beer. He extracted a sample with a syringe but found no critters alive. The two samples drawn in the 1990s, on the other hand, were more productive. Thurrowgood and a team of experts from Australia, France, Germany and Belgium were able to revive five strains of yeast from the samples, and several different species of bacteria.

DNA testing of the yeast strains found they are related to yeast found in beers brewed in Trappist monasteries. Researchers also plan to analyse the DNA of the other microbes discovered in the samples to discover more about pre-Industrial diets.

“People talk about autoimmune diseases and other issues [relating to] the fact that we have quite a clean diet today, whereas in the past we had a diet full of microbes,” Thurrowgood said. “This is one of the few chances we’ve got to actually test those microbes, and actually see what they were.”

Meanwhile, one of the yeast cultures drawn from the Sydney Cove beer has been used to create a new batch named Preservation Ale after the island where the ship ran ground. They used an English beer recipe from the late 18th century to recreate a brew as close as possible to the original.

“It’s got quite a sweet taste — some people have described it as almost a cider or fresh taste — which has come from the yeast,” said project leader David Thurrowgood….

The researchers also uncovered a historical account of a celebrated English beer from the time that was known for its sweet, cider-like flavor, similar to the beer brewed from the reanimated yeast.

“That was quite a surprise, but having found that reference, and to have that particular taste come out in the beer … it showed that the beer did actually have a distinctive taste at the time that we’re only rediscovering now,” Thurrowgood told Live Science.

Only a few bottles have been brewed for research purposes, so for now there’s no chance of the public getting a sip of this cider-like beer. Several companies have expressed interest in making a brew for wider public consumption, however. Meanwhile, researchers plan to study the wine and other alcohol found on the shipwreck. They will examine the red wine to compare it to modern red wine and to study any microorganisms within.

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