Archive for November, 2019

Let the meming commence

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

The Nationalmuseum in Stockholm has acquired two self-portraits by French painter and Very Big Deal on the Internet, Joseph Ducreux. If you don’t know his name, you know his face and forefinger, internationally famous stars of the archaic rap meme.

Already established as a portraitist to the Parisian bourgeoisie, Ducreux got his big break in 1769 when he was commissioned to make a miniature of 13-year-old Maria Antonia, Archduchess of Austria so her prospective husband, the Dauphin of France, could see what she looked like before they met in person. The future Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were pleased with the result and Ducreux was made a baron and appointed First Painter to the Queen.

It was in the 1780s that Ducreux began to experiment with a new, highly expressive style of self-portraiture. He used his face and body to explore how character and personality can be depicted through exaggerated postures and facial expressions, even costumes on occasion. By the end of the decade, his mischievous self-portraits were well-known as among the best exponents of physiognomy.

Despite his popularity among the aristocracy of France and deep connections to the royal family in the waning days of the Ancien Regime, he managed to turn Revolutionary enough to survive unscathed. After spending some time in London in 1791, he returned to Paris and, helped by his good friend and foremost painter of the Revolution Jacques-Louis David, he painted and drew portraits of moderate leaders like Mirabeau, Antoine Barnave and Pierre Manuel. In 1793 he sketched the last portrait of the deposed King Louis days before his execution and upon his return to Paris, from not-so-moderate leaders including the Jacobin triumvirate of Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just and Georges Couthon.

There are few facts about Ducreux’s activities during this brief period [in London in 1791], but we know that he exhibited portraits and self-portraits at the Royal Academy of Arts, including two that were called Surprise mixte [sic] with Terror and Surprise, respectively. Most likely, one of the portraits that Nationalmuseum has now acquired was a later version of the first of the two aforementioned works that had been exhibited in London. The facial expression of the artist is permeated with exaggerated surprise mixed with terror, as shown in his large eyes, gaping mouth and dramatically extended right hand. There is no doubt that these works are self-portraits, but their titles, which describe emotions, such as surprise, show that they were also intended to focus on physiognomy as a phenomenon, in itself. […]

By August 1791, he once again exhibited his work in the Salon in Paris. One example is a work that the catalogue calls Silence, which is currently in the collection of the Spencer Museum of Art in Kansas. Ducreux’s expressive oil portraits, however, were met with both praise and scorn, but regardless garnered a great deal of notoriety, which, in turn, increased the demand for additional works of this sort. Nationalmuseum’s Silence is probably a later version by Ducreux of the work exhibited at the Salon. The artist is portrayed with a powdered wig, a top hat and a brown coat. As often was the case, some of the powder is seen on the artist’s shoulders and coat collar. The portrait depicts his upper body in profile, but the head is turned to the viewer. His right index finger is lifted to his mouth to clearly communicate the need to keep silent.

Ducreux’s interest in physiognomy reflects his time and can more generally be indicative of the favourite scientific theme of the Enlightenment. By combining an expressly physiognomic perspective with a self-portrait, this work may well be viewed as having laid the foundation for new directions in portraiture. This is in no way any kind of caricature, but neither does it any longer have anything of the formal and serious nature of traditional portraiture. Ducreux has attempted to capture in himself, facial expressions that we can see every day, on people, in general. It is perhaps not at all surprising that one of Ducreux’s self-portraits of this type has now become a popular on-line meme, which, in itself, shows this artist’s timeless playfulness and desire to experiment.

Self-portrait Le Silence by Joseph Ducreux, ca. 1790. Photo courtesy the Nationalmuseum. Self-portrait Le Surprise by Joseph Ducreux, ca. 1790. Photo courtesy the Nationalmuseum.

Joseph Ducreux died in 1802 of a suspected stroke. He was 67 years old. His fame faded after his death, until the mystical forces of Internet macros brought him to a prominence he could never have imagined achieving in life.


Confirmed: Dingwall stone is Pictish cross slab

Monday, November 11th, 2019

The Pictish symbol stone reused as a headstone in the 18th century that was discovered at an early Christian site near Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands has been confirmed to be an extremely rare cross slab. Found during a North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) survey of a cemetery now on private land, the stone was embedded in the topsoil and partially covered by vegetation. NOSAS member Anne MacInnes spotted a foot carved on the surface and her fellow members confirmed it was a Pictish symbol stone. They reported it to the Highland Council archaeologist and the slab was excavated and safely removed.

When the stone was first found, it was reverse side up, the name and date of the deceased inscribed on the upper left corner. There was no cross on the exposed side, and because the back was coated with soil, when the slab was lifted archaeologists couldn’t see whether there was a cross carved on the other side either. Until they cleaned it, they wouldn’t know if it was one 350 or so extant symbol stones or in the much more elite club of 50 Pictish cross slabs.

Now that it has been cleaned and dried, the cross on the obverse is clear, but that’s not the only notable feature. The intricate cross is flanked on both sides by toothy beasts who, with massive canines and lolling tongues, face each other over the top of the cross. The fanged serpent-like creatures are unique in the iconography of Pictish carving. The imagery on the reverse of the stone — oxen, an animal-headed armed warrior, a double disc, a z rod symbol — are traditional Pictish symbols seen on other cross slabs.

It is believed to have been carved around 1,200 years ago, during the period when the Picts were becoming Christianised. […] This find has been described as being ‘of national importance’ by experts, as it is one of only 50 complete or near-complete Pictish cross-slabs known, and one of the first to be found on the Scottish mainland for many years. It is also the first object of this type found in this location and therefore suggests that the site dates back much further than was previously thought.

The cross slab needs further conservation and repair before it can be put on display at Dingwall Museum in Easter Ross. Most of the work will be funded by grants, but the NoSAS and The Pictish Arts Society have started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the remaining £20,000. With £12,208 raised from 106 supporters, the campaign is at 61% of the target.


Alan woman buried with Roman jewels found

Sunday, November 10th, 2019

A grave containing the remains of an Alan woman lavishly adorned with Roman jewelry has been unearthed in the Zayukovo-2 burial ground in Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia’s North Caucasus region. She was found in a group grave, probably a family tomb, along with three other men. Artifacts found inside the graves date it to the 1st century or early 2nd.

“She had two rings on her fingers manufactured with the use of quite a complex technology,” said archaeologist Anna Kadieva, head of an expedition at Zayukovo-2 burial site.

Ms Kadieva said the fact the jewelry was Roman-made is “beyond any doubt.”

She added: “It is quite expensive for the time, and priceless for the barbarian world because there was no glass production in the North Caucasus back then.”

The beads on her shoes were made of glass but also contained an orange-colored mineral called carnelian that is part of the Quartz family.

She also wore two rings on her fingers manufactured with the use of quite a complex technology. Each of them was cast from transparent white glass with golden fibers from the same material, with a dark glass installation in the middle[…]

The woman was also discovered wearing a bright violet amethyst medallion as seen in this picture. The team say this would have been ‘priceless’ for the region as they had no glass blowing technology at the time

Archaeologists think she was the wife or close family member of an important warrior or chieftain. The sheer density of expensive imported jewelry is evidence of significant wealth, and may represent a trend among the elite Alan warrior class of gifting Roman jewelry to their nearest and dearest. Or maybe she was just lucky.

One of the men in the grave with her was buried with accessories indicating he was a warrior. A fibula of the Aucissa type, a hinged brooch with a high semi-circular arched bow that attached to a foot. The type is named after the word “AVCISSA” inscribed over the hinge of most of these fibulae. It is the maker’s mark of a workshop that mass-produced them starting in the 1st century A.D.; Aucissa fibulae have been found most often in the graves of Roman soldiers.

The deceased was also buried wearing two Roman buckles in silver and bronze, one on each shoe. A horse bridle with cheek pieces attached to the ends of the bit found in the grave was also of Roman manufacture. It’s possible these were spoils of battle, but archaeologists believe it’s more likely this was a local warrior who fought for Rome.

In the 1st century, the Alani migrated westward to the Pontic steppe and settled north of the Caucasus. Incursions south into Sarmatian territory in the foothills of the Caucasus resulted in cultural interchange seen in the funerary practices. Some of the Alan burials in  Zayukovo-2 have Sarmatian features as well as their own culturally distinctive ones.


17th c. wreck may be Vasa’s sister ship

Saturday, November 9th, 2019

Two wrecks of 17th century warships, one of them believed to be the sister ship of King Gustav II Adolf’s flagship Vasa which famously sank less than a mile from the dock on its maiden voyage on August 10th, 1628, have been discovered in the Swedish archipelago in a strait outside the town of Vaxholm.

“When I came down as the first diver… I saw this wall 5-6 metres high and I came up and there was a massive warship,” diver and maritime archaeologist Jim Hansson told AFP, adding that “it was a thrilling feeling”.

The wrecks are in good condition, preserved in the cold, brackish waters of Lake Mälaren. Not the kind of condition the Vasa is in, salvaged from Stockholm bay in 1961, but that’s to be expected because unlike their ill-fated cousin, these ships actually served in Sweden’s navy, fought battles, and were deliberately scuttled at the end of their topside lifespan to serve in their watery graves as defensive spike strips to damage any enemy ships seeking to attack Stockholm through the straight.

Henrik Hybertsson, the Dutch master shipwright who made the Vasa at the Stockholm navy yard, was commissioned to build four ships in total, two larger ones with 135-foot keels (Vasa and Äpplet) and two smaller ones (Kronan and Scepter) with 108-foot keels. Archaeologists think one of the two newly-discovered wrecks may be Äpplet as it appears to match Vasa in design and size. It was laid down in 1627 and launched in 1629.

The divers took wood samples of the ships which will be sent to a laboratory for dating.

“Then we can even see where the timber has been cut down and then we can go back and look in the archives and I think we have good chances to tell exactly which ship this is,” Hansson said.


Dive the sunken basilica of Nicaea

Friday, November 8th, 2019

The ancient early Christian basilica that sank into Nicaea’s Lake Ascanius (modern-day Lake Iznik) in the 8th century has opened as an underwater archaeological museum for visitors to explore using specialized diving equipment.

The basilica was spotted during an aerial photography survey of Iznik in early 2014. The mission was to make a thorough inventory of the historical sites in the city, and the structure in the lake with its unmistakable basilica floorplan was clearly visible from above.

The church, built in the 4th century, was dedicated to Saint Neophytos who had been martyred in 303 A.D., just 10 years before the Edict of Milan proclaiming religious toleration in the Roman Empire was issued by emperors Constantine and Licinius. It was built on the shore of Lake Ascanius on the spot where he was said to have been killed.

The basilica became a site of pilgrimage in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, but it was felled by a catastrophic earthquake that devastated Nicaea in 740 A.D. Since its rediscovery, underwater archaeologists have been excavating the site and have found evidence of visitors from distant lands — a memorial stamp of the Scottish knights who are believed to have been the first foreign pilgrims to the church of Saint Neophytos — as well as artifacts predating the construction of the basilica. Coins from the reign of  emperor Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161 A.D.) indicate the site may have had a pre-Christian temple or public building (like, oh, say, a basilica whose basic architectural plan formed the core of the Christian churches that took their name).


First-ever mammoth trap found in Mexico

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

A 15,000-year-old mammoth hunting trap has been discovered in Tultepec, a town 25 miles north of Mexico City. This is first discovery of a deliberate trap set by humans to capture mammoths (as opposed to natural traps like swamps which humans also took advantage of) and judging by the number of bones found, it was a raging success. In nine months of excavations, archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have recovered 824 bones from 14 of the Pleistocene giants.

A very rare almost complete skeleton of a Columbian mammoth was discovered by accident during sewer construction in another neighborhood of Tultepec in December 2015, so when INAH was alerted that crews working on the municipal landfill had found massive bones on January 29th of this year, archaeologists were deployed to excavate the remains. The context of the 2015 discovery indicated the mammoth met its end at human hands after getting stuck in the mud. The bones were mostly disarticulated, with only the largest (skull, pelvis) found in the proper anatomical relationship to each other, suggesting the animal was butchered. The newly-discovered mammoth bones were also disarticulated, but in a marked difference from the previous find, the excavation revealed vertical cuts in the archaeological layers. The cuts formed two trenches five and a half feet deep and more than 80 feet in diameter. The walls go straight down at an almost 90 degree angle. Stratigraphic analysis dates these pits to 14,700  years ago, thanks to the tell-tale five inches of ash from the eruption of the Popocatepetl volcano that took place then.

Archaeologists also discovered the molar of a horse, the mandible and two vertebrae of a camel, but there’s no evidence those animals were hunted. The size of the pits and the huge number of mammoth bones found inside them make it clear that these traps were meant specifically to catch mammoth. INAH archaeologist Luis Córdoba Barradas believes the two pits were not isolated, but part of a line of traps that would allow hunters to maximum their results and minimize labour. Chasing megafauna into a trap is risky, exhausting business. With a series of traps, they didn’t have to pull all their mammoths in one basket, so to speak. Should one change direction at the last minute away from the trap, the hunting party could try again directing it to the next one.

The bone evidence confirms this was an organized, thorough system that made the most of every catch. The ribs were used as cutting tools to butcher the animals, an ulna believed to have removed subcutaneous fat. The skulls are often found upside down, an indication that the community ate the animals’ brains, and a hefty meal they would have made at up to 25 pounds a pop.

There is also evidence of ritual or at least reverent treatment of the remains. One specimen, of which two-thirds of the bones have been unearthed, was arranged in an unusual configuration: his scapulae stacked and placed on the left side of the skull, a dorsal vertebra between the tusks, and embracing this tableau the 10-foot-long curved tusk of another mammoth. The bones of this individual bear a mark from a previous attack and the left tusk is shorter than the right because it broke and regrew. This suggests the hunters had knew of this one particular mammoth, had battled him before and perhaps positioned his remains as a means of paying their respects.

The skeletal remains of the 14 mammoths found at the site will be transported to the Museum of the Mammoth in Tultepec where the one excavated in 2016 is currently on display. Mineralized bones can be surprisingly delicate, so they will have to be carefully conserved and stabilized before going on display.


Today in People Are the Worst news

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

On the night of Sunday, November 3rd, three complete and utter douchebags strapped a tree trunk to the hood of their car and rammed through a medieval side door of the UNESCO World Heritage Oloron-Sainte-Marie cathedral in southwest France. Once inside, they cut through steel bars protecting the chapel using a power grinder to create a large enough opening to go through. The sparks thrown by the power tool ignited a curtain in the chapel, but thankfully nothing else burned. They then smashed the display case glass and emptied it of its contents: gold chalices, monstrances, crosses, an 18th century nativity scene and a precious set of white and gold liturgical garments donated to the Bishop of Orlon by Francis I of France (r. 1515-1547). The church’s collection of vestments from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were found dumped unceremoniously in a pile on the floor. A statue and vase that were not stolen appear to have been deliberately vandalized.

These objects survived the orgy of anti-religious and anti-monarchical iconoclasm that saw so much of France’s cultural patrimony destroyed during the French Revolution. They are of inestimable historical value and were being kept in very fine condition by the church. The textiles were recently treated and being kept in conservation conditions.

The attack took place around 2:00 AM Monday. A neighbor heard the ruckus and reported it shortly before 2:30 AM. The gendarms and mayor arrived on the scene quickly, but the thieves had already escaped with the loot. They left the car which was damaged in the ramming behind and fled in a second vehicle. Props to the sturdiness of medieval wood doors for inflicting a small hit of instant karma on those jackasses.

The collection was insured, but authorities won’t comment on the assessed value because they don’t want the thieves knowing anything about what the objects might be worth. There is CCTV footage capturing the assault. The perpetrators were wearing hoods so their faces were not recorded. Police are looking at their arrival and departure on the footage to track where they might have gone.

The church is technically no longer a cathedral. Once the seat of the Bishopric of Orlon until its suppression in 1801, today it is the Church of Sainte-Marie even though it’s still commonly known as the Orlon cathedral. Built originally in the 12th century, much of the church was rebuilt over the centuries after riots, fires and the 16th century Wars of Religion took their toll. The 13th century nave, 14th century sacristy (where the thefts took place), 14th century choir and apse, 15th-16th century side chapels remain, but its crowning glory is the original 12th century Romanesque portal carved by an artist known solely as the Orlon Master who would begin his career and there before setting up shop in Spain. The church was granted World Heritage status in 1998 as part of a group of significant sites along the ancient pilgrim Route of Santiago.


Minoan Purple production found on Crete

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

That famous dark red/purple dye so prized by ancient Mediterranean peoples for its depth of color that only increased with time is still known today as Tyrian purple because it was produced and traded extensively by Phoenicia and its colonies.  Archaeological evidence points to the Minoans as having beaten the Phoenicians to the punch by centuries. An excavation on the islet of Chryssi in eastern Crete has unearthed remains of an early Minoan-era dye production facility.

The purple dye was manufactured by extracting the secretion from the hypobranchial gland of murex sea snails. The carnivorous molluscs release a bromine compound when attacked, so dye could be extracted by poking and prodding the snails, thus keeping them alive for further production. Much more common, however, was the destruction of the snails and removal of the gland. It was resource-intensive, time-consuming and, according to ancient chroniclers, eye-wateringly smelly work that required processing literally thousands of murex just to produce enough dye for even a single stripe like one on the toga praetexta worn by Roman magistrates.

The Chryssi settlement was inhabited from 1800-1500 B.C. and evidence of murex processing, including stone tanks used to farm the sea snails, have been found in structures from the early end of the range. The most recent excavations of a later building from ca. 1500 B.C. revealed murex shells were used in the construction of its walls.

The large building, B2, is relatively simple in architectural features with focus on practical elements like work surfaces, stoves, slab staircases. Stone tools and pottery types used for cooking and storing food have been recovered from the building. Workmanlike or not, the contents of the dwellings were expensive, high-quality pieces including precious metals, gemstones, copper pots and talents.

It contained a golden ring, 26 golden beads and a golden bracelet, a silver bead, 5 copper ones and a copper ring sling along with a large number of glass beads of various shapes, four of the so-called Egypt blue, 10 from lapis lazuli, one from amethyst and 20 from carnelian, a seal made of agate with the picture of a ship that its stern had the form of an animal’s head and a stone amulet with the shape of a monkey.

In 2019’s excavations another ‘treasury’ was unearthed that included a big saw and three vases, all made of copper. Their total weight was 68 kilos. It is one of the largest found on Crete so far. Inside a vase, they also found part of a talent made of tin.

This is only the second tin talent found on Crete.

The newly-discovered evidence indicates the building was used by people involved in the production and trade of purple dye. Wealthy, but a mercantile rather than a ruling elite.


Graffiti marking start of WWI found on stable door

Monday, November 4th, 2019

An old stable door carved with graffiti marking the day World War I began has been discovered near Quadring in Lincolnshire. Archaeologist Neville Hall was recording historic architecture in the Fens for a barn conversion when he came across the poignant record of life from the Lost Generation at the cusp of their agonizing losses.

Carved deep into the wood is W W A R/ AUG 2 1914. (The article says Aug 4th, the day Britain declared war on Germany, but unless my eyes deceive me, that’s definitely a two in the photograph.) On August 2nd, German forces crossed into Luxembourg and gave Belgium an ultimatum: let the German army invade “protect” it from a French invasion. Belgian neutrality had been agreed to by Britain, Germany and France in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and Britain had pledged itself to declare war on anyone who violated the principle of Belgian neutrality.

August 2nd was also the day the war, technically not yet begun, claimed its first two casualties, one French, one German. Lieutenant Albert Mayer, was on a reconnaissance mission just over the border in France; Corporal Jules-André Peugeot commanded the patrol group who caught him. An exchange of fire killed Mayer instantly; Peugeot died of his wounds later that morning.

It makes sense that the two youths who carved their initials in the door would see August 2nd as the war having begun before hostilities were formally opened in a declaration of war two days later. It’s also evidence that the graffito was carved on the actual day as it happened rather than having been added in hindsight.

The two young men have been identified, thanks to those initials. They were neighbors and must have been playmates as kids, carving drawings of a horse, a classic child’s version of a house  — a square topped by a triangle — that may have been a barn or stable as the horse is tethered to it, a bicycle, two ploughs as well as their initials.

“With help from the farm’s previous owner, we have been able identify the children  who created the graffiti – William Bristow and John Leusley – and trace the poignant story of their families during the war,” said Ian Marshman, historic environment officer at Lincolnshire County Council.

William was the youngest son of the family who then owned the farm, whilst John Leusley was the eldest son of the landlord of the pub next door. Both boys survived the war, but not unscathed.

It is believed that William stayed to help his widowed mother and elder brother Fred on the farm, producing vital food supplies exempting him from conscription. Meanwhile, John served with the Cheshire Regiment and was injured in France.

John served as a private, deploying after 1915. His records indicate he was entitled to the Victory Medal (awarded to all who left their native countries to serve abroad) and the British War Medal (awarded to all who entered a theater of war).

While he and his old friend came home alive, John’s brother, Private Richard Leusley, was reported killed in action on the Western Front on January 1st, 1918. The winter of 1917-1918 saw a lot of brutally futile action due to the French and British governments and commands insistence on extending the 100 miles of French front held by British forces. They wanted to push it 40 miles deeper into German territory, Richard’s body was never recovered. He is listed among the missing on the British Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing outside Passchendale, Belgium. Thankfully the youngest Leusley brother, William, survived his war.

Ian added: “For us, this is an amazing discovery and a real reminder of what Lincolnshire childhoods – of horses, bicycles and making your own fun – on the eve of war.

“The door will be preserved by the descendants of the Bristow family, but the research on the farm and graffiti will be added to the county council’s Historic Environment Record, where it will be available to future researchers.”


Stolen Revolutionary War-era rifle recovered

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

A rare 1775 rifle made that was stolen from a museum display in 1971 has been returned to its rightful owners. Manufactured by master gunsmith Johann Christian Oerter near what is now Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the firearm was on display at the Valley Forge Museum of American History in Valley Forge State Park when someone crowbarred open the supposedly theft-proof case and made off with the five-foot-long rifle on the morning of October 2nd, 1971. A visiting Boy Scout was the first to notice the empty case a few hours later and alert the staff.

The number of signed and dated rifles from the Revolutionary War era known to exist today is vanishingly small. Born in Fredericksburg a member of the German-speaking Moravian community, Oerter was one of the premiere gunsmiths of the period. He engraved his name, the date and “Christian’s Spring,” the town where the weapon was made,  on top of the rifle’s long iron barrel. Someone else who was probably the first owner carved “W. Goodwin” on the rifle’s wooden stock. The museum is researching the name to find out more about who W. Goodwin was.

The guns proved instrumental in the American war effort, allowing colonial soldiers to shoot more accurately and from farther away than their British counterparts, who carried smooth-bore muskets. Some scholars credit the colonists’ ultimate victory to the more advanced firearms carried by their troops. […]

Known for their elaborate silver and brass wire inlays and carved decorations, Oerter’s firearms are recognized by arms scholars as some of the finest and most important of the period.

The rifle the FBI returned Friday is only one of two signed and dated examples of Oerter’s work known to still exist. The other, housed in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, was given in the early 1800s to the future King George IV, then the Prince of Wales, by a British cavalry officer who served in the war.

The flintlock rifle disappeared for 50 years until it came into the hands antiques dealer Kelly Kinzle last year. He got the rifle at a barn sale and assumed it was a fake. Upon closer examination, however, he realized it was the real deal. His lawyer made the connection between this Oerter rifle and the one stolen at Valley Forge in 1971. They alerted the FBI’s Art Crime Team who, together with city and county police, investigated the reemergence of the artifact seeking to trace its path and identify the perpetrator of the original crime.

The owners, the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution (PSSR), acquired the rifle in 1963. They loaned it to the Valley Forge Historical Society to exhibit at their museum, whose collection forms the core of the new Museum of the American Revolution. When the rifle was restored to the PSSR, they arranged to put it back on display (albeit in an facility with a tad more rigorous security). It will make its public debut in the special exhibition Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier on Wednesday, November 6th, and will remain on display through March 17th, 2020.





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