Multi-generational sound archaeology

I’ve spent the afternoon gainfully employed in digging through family archaeology in the form of old vinyl records. The oldest are my grandmother’s 78 rpm foxtrot party tracks from the 1920s. The newest are from the late 80s. Anyone else out there remember the disco single of the Star Wars theme? No? Well take it from me, laser pew-pews and the R2D2 bleep-blorps make outstanding samples.

I hope your gift-gifting-based holidays were as productively nerdy as mine. Happy Disco Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band Funk Day!

Happy Star Wars Cantina Band Disco Funk Day!

A jolly holly horror to you!

Here’s an early Christmas present for all you boys and girls, if you consider triggering a gamut of emotions from uncomfortable to sheer terror a festive gift.

"Twinkle, twinkle little star" ; Edison Talking Doll cylinder, brown wax ; Rolfs collection. Photo courtesy National Parks Service.I’ve posted several stories about the first “talking” dolls, the products of Thomas Edison’s infinite ability to find new markets for his technologies. They were 22″-tall cyborgs with metal torsos that held miniature versions of Edison’s phonograph. A crank on the back was turned to play the short songs engraved first on tin and then on wax cylinders. Even with pretty bisques faces, arms and legs and dressed in frilly finery, their weight, difficult operation and tendency to break made them unpopular with the target audience of young girls. Edison sold fewer than 500 Talking Dolls and many of them were returned due to defects, mainly scratched and eroded cylinders that no longer played.

With the wax cylinders easily damaged and the early tin cylinders easily deformed, surviving Edison Talking Doll cylinders were muted for decades. Technology eventually came to the aid of the history of technology when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California developed the IRENE-3D optical scanner capable of reading the surface of historical media without any contact. The first resurrected Edison doll recording was an absolutely chilling Little Jack Horner recovered from a tin cylinder in the collection of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. A distinctly less threatening Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star emerged the next year.

I’ve just stumbled on another six of them. Eight of the cylinders known to survive of the different rhymes spoken by the Edison Talking Doll (including the above-mentioned Little Jack Horner and Twinkle, Twinkle) have been digitized by the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts using the IRENE-3D scanning technology. They’ve all been uploaded to the National Parks Service website in both unrestored and restored versions.

My recommendations: Hickory, dickory, dock is thoroughly bloodcurdling, as is this second version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and Now I lay me down to sleep should ensure you never will again. The time you would have one spent sleeping peacefully you can while away by reading this fascinating Cultural History of the Edison Talking Doll Record. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page for each recording to browse photos of the associated dolls, mechanisms and cylinders.

Rubens’ handiwork restored to brilliance

London’s National Gallery has cleaned and conserved one of their greatest works by Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens. View of Het Steen in the Early Morning was dingy and yellowed from discolored varnishes applied by restorers 75 years ago. 

View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, before cleaning. Photo courtesy the National Gallery.

Look at it now:View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, after cleaning. Photo courtesy the National Gallery.

Rubens’ commissions were mostly portraits of aristocrats, altarpieces and large-scale historical, Biblical and mythological scenes, but he was also an art collector in his own right and a dedicated student of architecture. His townhouse in Antwerp, now known as the Rubenshuis, was extensively renovated and rebuilt based on his designs for both the exteriors and interiors.

His classical humanist education served him in good stead throughout his career, advancing him socially and professionally above the rank most artists, who no matter how elevated their clientele ultimately worked with their hands, were able to achieve. Habsburg patrons deployed Rubens on diplomatic missions when he travelled to other courts for art commissions. He was held in high esteem for his talents as an artist and as a diplomat, and was knighted by Philip IV of Spain in 1624 and Charles I of England in 1630.

In 1635, Rubens bought the Elewijt Castle, also known as the Castle of Het Steen, in the village of Elewijt 20 miles south of Antwerp. His acquisition of a landed estate was symbolic of his rise in status from artist to courtier and gentleman and he put brush to panel to capture his new demesne. He depicted his manor house and the bustle of activity — ox cart going to market, hunter and dog stalking birds — of a country estate shortly after dawn.

By then his phalanx of students at the workshop in the Rubenshuis had been executing commissions for more than two decades, all designed, overseen and finished by the master, but most of the hands-on work was being done by his employees. A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning is 7.5 feet wide and 4.2 feet high and all of it was painted by Rubens himself, probably to decorate one of the grand rooms of the Het Steen. And thus the artist became his own patron.

The discolored varnishes dramatically altered the Rubens palette, yellowing everything and eliminating the delicate warm gold accents from the sun against the white of the clouds. The contrast of the earth tones in the foreground against increasingly cool blues going backwards in the landscape was flattened as well. Now that it has been cleaned and the old varnish removed, Rubens’ original vision shines through.

Autopsy performed on lead cardiotaph

A heart-shaped lead urn found placed on the chest of a lead coffin buried in Flers, Normandy, has gotten an autopsy. The cardiotaph was discovered in 2014 during a preventive archaeology excavation in downtown Flers’ Place Saint-Germain, site of the former Saint-Germain parish church and cemetery. Two masonry vaults were unearthed, each containing an anthropomorphic lead coffin. The cardiotaph was on one of them. They date to the 17th-18th centuries.

It was a common practice in France from the Middle Ages to the 18th century for the elite to have the hearts of the deceased placed in heart-shaped containers and buried with their loved ones. This cardiotaph has no inscription, unlike the helpfully explanatory vital statistics found on the one holding the heart of the Knight of Brefeillac, and in 2015 both coffins were opened and excavated in the laboratory.

The skeletal remains found inside belong to adults. Their skulls had been sawn, indicating the bodies has been subjected to an embalming process typical of high-ranking personages, in this case likely the family of the Counts of Flers. Traces of organic remains — the scalp of one individual and textiles on the second — were also found. DNA samples were extracted from both individuals.

At the time, the cardiotaph was not part of the study. Researchers worked to develop an appropriate protocol to explore it and in September of this year, the cardiotaph was operated on. It was cut into with a small circular saw then pried open. Inside it was filled with a brown grainy substance that smelled vaguely of peppermint. The filling was removed revealing a mummified human heart at the center. Dissection found the atrial and ventricular chambers of the heart and collapsed arteries.

The DNA sample taken from the heart will be compared to that of the individuals in the coffins. It could belong to one of them, or they could be a familiar relationship.

Documentary research, started in 2014, completes the excavation. In particular, it makes it possible to put forward hypotheses for the identification of the deceased to whom the heart present in the cardiotaph would belong and on which the DNA analysis will be based. A reasoned inventory of mentions of discoveries of cardiotaphs (rarely studied from the point of view of the funeral rite of embalming) is paired with an inventory of multiple funerals. The latter are identified by references to the division of the body and the burial of the heart in regional and extra-regional archives.

The deepening knowledge about the family of Pellevé and of La Motte Ango, barons and then counts of Flers since the 15th century, makes it possible to link the individual wishes of the various members of the dynasty with the status, but also the place that they occupy in the lineage and in the networks of regional and Parisian powers. Archival research on their funeral wishes (choice of burial, modest or non-modest funeral wishes, categorically declared desire or refusal to open the body for embalming, etc.), compared to what was actually implemented by the living, allow us to understand practices common to the nobility in the modern era. The results obtained for the case of Flers are also compared with other European examples.

Through different funerary choices, the documentary study aims to understand the perception that the members of this family had of themselves and of the rank they held in their social sphere. Funerals are indeed an eminently individual and private choice (as diverse as there are members in a family), but also a collective one, in line with the common practices of the noble elite in the modern era. Beyond the biographical studies that are necessary to place the archaeological remains in their historical context, the examination of wills and funeral costs is a rich resource for understanding the issues and the context of funeral practices, choice of burial, with the choice of the treatment of the body until the funeral home.

1,400-year-old brick tomb found in Vietnam

A 1,400-year-old brick-lined tomb has been unearthed during construction of a drainage ditch in the commune of Xuan Hong, in central Vietnam’s Ha Yinh province. Workers discovered the arch structure of the tomb six feet under the surface in Village 2 of the rural commune and alerted the local heritage authorities.

The brickwork identifies it as a Han style tomb created during the rule of the Chinese Sui-Tang Dynasty (602-905). It is 13 feet long, three feet wide and four feet high, but the tomb was damaged during construction so what remains is only a part of it. The roof comes to a pointed arch formed by layers of bricks.

Some locals in the commune said they had found similar tombs in their gardens or during the process of building houses.

Many others said the same type of Han graves had been found in other localities in Ha Tinh.

The discovery of the ancient tomb in Xuan Hong Commune has created favourable conditions for archaeologists to study more about the Han tombs in Ha Tinh.

Han style brick tomb, ca. 1,400 years old. Photo by Bách Khoa. Detail of brick layers in arched dome of tomb. Photo by Bách Khoa.