Thousands of years of mummies

July 1st, 2010

The Detmold Child, Peruvian mummy, 4504-4457 B.C.“Mummies of the World,” the largest exhibit of mummies ever assembled, premieres today at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. A hundred and fifty rarely-seen human and animal mummies and associated artifacts from Peru, Chile, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland and Egypt, and ranging in date from 6,000 B.C. to the 18th century, will tour the United States for the next 3 years. It’s not just an extraordinarily large and eclectic collection of mummies, but a hands-on, interactive display of the scientific tools used to study mummies today in a non-invasive, respectful manner.

“It’s a matter of understanding the big wide world of mummification and how it works,” said Heather Gill-Frerking, director of science and education for the exhibition. “People will see things that they’ve never encountered before.” [...]

Each mummy, the scientists say, has a story. And with the advent of new technology, such as CT scans and DNA analysis, these histories can be revealed without harm. CT scans in particular are considered the gold standard in mummy research, providing remarkable three-dimensional records that allow researchers to see details such as heart defects, tumors and evidence of respiratory infections like tuberculosis.

“We can essentially do a virtual unwrapping of the mummy,” said Gill-Frerking, also scientific research curator of the German Mummy Project. Unlike Victorian “unwrapping parties,” this procedure provides valuable information about the mummies’ insides without damaging them.

Other scientific tools covered are DNA analysis, X-Rays and radiocarbon dating. There are touch screen kiosks explaining all these methods of studying mummies, a high-powered microscope you can look through to examine a mummy’s tooth, and samples of what mummies feel like. They don’t use actual mummy skin, though; it’s a reproduction. Their very careful to ensure the mummies are treated with consideration and respect. In fact, the descendants of one of the mummies (Baron von Holz, an 17th century nobleman found in the castle crypt who is thought to have died in the Thirty’s Year War) were actively involved in the study and display of their ancestor.

The exhibit also explores the different ways corpses become mummified. The classic movie-style Egyptian wrapped mummy is represented, of course, but so are natural mummies created in well-ventilated, dry environments or in counter-intuitively mushy ones like peat bogs.

Mummies of the World will be at the California Science Center from today through November 28th. After that, it tours for 3 more years, but I can’t find a schedule. I’ll keep looking.

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Custer’s last flag for sale

June 30th, 2010

George Armstrong Custer, taken 1860-1869There wasn’t much left of the 7th Cavalry that Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer so boldly and so incompetently led into battle against the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne near the Little Bighorn River in what was then Montana on June 25, 1876. The Lakota and Cheyenne picked the field virtually clean of artifacts and military regalia after their victory.

Three days later, all that remained of the 210 of the troops under Custer’s command were being collected by a burial detail. Sergeant Ferdinand Culbertson found a tattered flag under one of the bodies. It was a silk swallow-tail American flag known as a guidon, and Sgt. Culbertson folded it up and slipped it into his pocket. A few years later he gave it to one Rose Fowler, who eventually moved to Detroit and in 1895 sold it to the Detroit Museum of Art for $54. Here’s a fascinating contemporary write-up (pdf) of the the flag’s history from the March 1895 edition of Detroit Free Press.

The Detroit Museum of Art is now called the Detroit Institute of Arts and they’ve decided to sell the guidon at Sotheby’s this fall. In 1895 the museum was a curio cabinet of sorts, with all kinds of different pieces on display. The Detroit Institute of Arts, however, is exclusively an art museum now and they’re trying to build a world-class art collection in a sluggish economy. As important a historical artifact as this flag is, it’s not on-topic for DIA, and Sotheby’s $2-5 million estimate is the equivalent of 1-2 years of DIA’s acquisition budget. With this one sale, they can at least double, probably triple, and very likely quadruple + the amount they spend purchasing art in a year.

7th Cavalry guidon from the Battle of Little BighornThat estimate is probably a lowball. The last flag of major US history import was a Revolutionary flag captured by the British at the battle of Bedford in 1779. It brought a record price for military relics when it sold for $12.3 million in 2006. Obviously the Little Bighorn flag is a hundred years younger, but Custer’s Last Stand has become such a legendary part of the American story, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the guidon broke the record.

John Doerner, chief historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said he believes the flag is stained with the blood of a fallen soldier and that the banner belongs to the American people.

“It was an act of courage and bravery,” said Doerner, a 20-year veteran of the National Parks Service.

“To lose the colors was really something that a soldier would give their lives [to prevent],” he said.

Doerner is helping oversee events for the battle’s anniversary this weekend at the national monument, where visitors will hear symposiums and view re-enactments. He is hopeful that a benefactor will purchase the flag and loan it to a national museum.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument owns the only other 7th Cavalry guidon to have survived the battle — known as the Keogh guidon — but it’s in very poor condition and is too delicate for permanent display. It was just on public view 5 days ago, in fact, for the anniversary of the battle, but it returned to conservation storage the next day. Here’s hoping the Culbertson guidon manages to find its way into the public patrimony too.

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Police bust stolen Caravaggio, art thieves

June 29th, 2010

Ukrainian and German police forces collaborated to bust a ring of international art thieves who were attempting to sell a stolen Caravaggio painting to a German collector in Berlin.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Anatoly Mogylyov said that investigations have linked this gang to 20 other major art thefts in the Ukraine, and 20 suspected members of the gang have been detained there. The ministry is filing for extradition of the alleged thieves arrested in Germany.

The German newspaper said police in Germany detained three Ukrainian nationals and a Russian when they attempted to hand over the painting to the buyer.

The painting was brought to Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century. It was long believed to be a copy of a Caravaggio, but the authenticity of the work was established in 2005 while the canvas was on exhibit in Spain.

Soviet experts had declared it authentic in the 1950′s, but the attribution was still questioned until it went on tour in 2005. It was restored in 2006, although from the looks of it it’s going to need a whole new round of tender loving care after how the thieves manhandled it.

The painting, known as “The Taking of Christ,” or “The Kiss of Judas,” was stolen 2 years ago from the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine. The thieves broke into the museum through a window at night, removed the glass pane shielding the canvas and cut it out of the frame, all without setting off a single alarm. It was major loss to the museum and to the Ukraine. It was their only Caravaggio and the single most valuable painting in the country, worth tens of millions of dollars.

There is another copy of the same painting in Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland. It too is thought to be in Caravaggio’s hand, but it’s hard to say.

'The Kiss of Judas', Caravaggio, 1602

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1st c. Thracian chariot excavation on display

June 28th, 2010

Four-wheeled chariot and horses, 1st c. ThracianThe excellently-preserved Thracian chariot found in the village of Karanovo in November 2008 is going on display where it was found. The entire excavation site is part of a new archaeological complex called “The Eastern Mound – Chariot and Tomb of a Thracian Aristocrat from 1st Century AD.”

The four-wheeled wooden chariot, its intricately carved bronze plating and fittings, plus the skeletal remains of two horses and a dog have been preserved in situ instead of being removed to a museum. Thracian chariots were often buried with up to eight horses and their elaborately decorated bridles. The bronze plating features scenes from Thracian mythology, like the god Eros, a jumping panther and a mythological animal with the body of a panther and the tail of a dolphin.

Four wheeled chariots are a very rare find, and this one is particularly notable because of the large diameter of the wheels: 1.2 meters, almost 4 feet. The Thracian nobleman himself was also found buried with his chariot, the animals and some wooden and leather goods thought to be horse harnesses. It’s not clear from the article whether he’s still on site along with the non-human remains, but I doubt it.

The new complex was ceremonially opened by Deputy Culture Minister Todor Chobanov on Saturday, but it seems to have been sponsored by private corporations. I’m not surprised, given that the original dig was granted a total budget of $12,500 from the Bulgarian Culture Ministry.

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Looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins getting bad again

June 27th, 2010

Looted Sumerian tomb near DhahirNot that it ever got supergreat. Since the invasion, there hasn’t been anything like sufficient security at the many sites of archaeological importance in Iraq. Coalition forces had been doing some policing, however, and containing the worst of the excesses seen in 2003. That was before the drawdowns began, and although police were supposed to be trained to replace them, the government has not made them a priority. The result is the devastatingly predictable recurrence of looting.

The looting today has not resumed on the scale it did in the years that immediately followed the American invasion in 2003, when looters — tomb raiders, essentially — swarmed over sites across the country, leaving behind moonlike craters where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian cities once stood.

Even so, officials and archaeologists have reported dozens of new excavations over the past year, coinciding with the withdrawal of American troops, who until 2009 conducted joint operations with the Iraqi police in many areas now being struck by looters again. The antiquities police say they do not have the resources even to keep records of reported lootings.

Here in Dhahir, the looting is evident in the shattered bits of civilization — pieces of pottery, glass and carved stone — strewn across an expanse of desert that was once a Sumerian trading town known as Dubrum.

The bowls, vases and other pieces are destroyed and discarded by looters who seek gold, jewelry and cuneiform tablets or cylinders that are easy to smuggle and resell, according to Abdulamir al-Hamdani, a former antiquities inspector in Dhi Qar Province. The nearest city, Farj, is notorious for a black market in looted antiquities, he said.

“For me, for you, it is all priceless,” he said, “but for them it is useless if they can’t sell it in the market.”

Antiquities police headquarters in BaghdadThe antiquities police force was supposed to have over 5,000 troops on the ground by now. They have 106, barely enough to protect the Ottoman mansion that houses their headquarters. The antiquities board, which has a lot more to fund than just the security force, asked for a budget of $16 million this year, but they got $2.5 million.

There’s no money, no personnel, and even when the prime minister himself orders more police on the ground, nothing comes of it. Then there’s the corruption of local government and law enforcement which gives looting operations easy access to archaeological sites. It’s a nightmare, and there’s no awakening in sight.

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Harald Bluetooth’s royal palace found in Jutland

June 26th, 2010

After centuries of speculation, Danish archaeologists think they have found the royal palace of 10th century king Harald Bluetooth, famed king, conqueror and Christianizer of Denmark and Norway. (Yes, the wireless technology invented by Swedish company Ericsson is named and logoed after him.)

Excavations in the Jelling complex in southern Jutland have uncovered the remains of 10th century wooden structures. Jelling is the site of several royal burial mounds and of rune-engraved monoliths, one of which is marked with an inscription from Harald dedicating it to Gormr, his father, and Thyrvé, mother. Gormr is considered the first king of Denmark.

Mads Dengsø Jessen, the archaeologist from Århus University who led the dig said four buildings from Harald’s time had been discovered at the site. The buildings are characteristic of those built at round fortresses known as Trelleborg.

‘This tells us that we have uncovered a large complex, and the strict geometrical construction is a typical example of Harald’s work,’ Jessen said.

Archaeologists have yet to identify the remains of Harald’s royal hall, but Jessen believes they can be found under the existing Jelling Church, where the remains of a large wooden building were discovered on a previous dig.

Archaeologists had speculated that the wooden building was a church but because of its location in relation to the newly uncovered longhouses, Dengsø Jessen thinks that it is almost certainly Harald Bluetooth’s royal hall.

The palisaded enclosure around these four buildings is huge. Archaeologists say that it’s six times the size of Amalienborg Palace, the 18th century royal palace complex in Copenhagen.

excavating Jelling

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Infant mass burial in Roman villa in England

June 25th, 2010

Yewden villa excavation in 1912The Yewden Villa in the Thames Valley was extensively excavated in 1912. Archaeologists at the time determined that it was a high status Roman villa occupied during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. The artifacts, pottery and human remains uncovered at the site were packed into 300 boxes and stored at Buckinghamshire County Museum, then the site was reburied and allowed to revert to a wheat field.

Although the site remains a field today with no visible Roman structures, the stored boxes and the detailed field reports of head archaeologist Alfred Cocks have recently been rediscovered. Archaeologists today, however, are interested in an aspect that aroused little comment a hundred years ago: the skeletons of 97 infants found buried on the grounds of the villa.

Infant skeleton found at Yewden villaIt’s common to find a few burials at villas, and since infant mortality was so high, children are often among them. But to have nearly a hundred bodies in a residential area is unheard of, especially when all of them are around the same age: neonates. The best way to tell how old an infant was when he died is to measure the bones, which can pinpoint the age of the baby to within 2 weeks. All of these babies died at around 40 weeks gestation, so right at birth.

If they had died of natural causes, it stands to reason there would be a variety of ages among the remains. The sameness strongly suggests mass infanticide. Archaeologists now think that all these babies may have been the children of a workforce on the site and thus deliberately killed.

Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers said: “The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel.”

With little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels, explained Dr Eyers, who works for Chiltern Archaeology. [...]

“There is no other site that would yield anything like the 97 infant burials,” said Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology, who has been investigating the finds.

Prostitutes in Roman brothels were often slaves, so by law their children would also have belonged to the master, and given the business model, they would be very likely to get pregnant on a regular basis. Another less likely theory is that the building was used as a imperial supply depot. Many writing implements were found on the site indicating a literate workforce, and there were a large number of kilns used for drying corn. If many of those workers were female, they might have had to kill their babies to keep their jobs.

Cock’s 1921 report (World War I interrupted its publishing) described the grounds as “littered” with the remains of babies, but no markers seem to have been left for them.

“A few were laid at length, but the majority were evidently carried and buried wrapped in a cloth or garment, huddled in a little bundle, so that the head was almost central, and the knees above it,” the report said.

“As nothing marked the position of these tiny graves, a second little corpse was sometimes deposited on one already in occupation of a spot, apparently showing that these interments took place secretly, after dark.”

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Oldest known images of two apostles found in Roman catacomb

June 24th, 2010

Richly decorated burial chamber of St. Tecla catacombThe oldest known images of apostles Andrew and John have been found under layers of white calcium deposits in the 4th century catacombs of St. Tecla in Rome.

That’s the same catacomb where wall paintings of Saints Peter and Paul were discovered last year. There are earlier images of Peter and Paul extant, but only as part of group paintings. These are the earliest known solo portraits of Peter and Paul, and the portraits of Andrew and John predate the previous oldest-known representations by a century.

“John’s young face is familiar, but this is the most youthful portrayal of Andrew ever seen, very different from the old man with grey hair and wrinkles we know from medieval painting,” said project leader Barbara Mazzei.

Discovered in the 1950s and as yet unseen by the public, the St Tecla catacomb is accessed through the unmarked basement door of a drab office building, beyond which dim corridors packed with burial spots wind off through damp tufa stone.

They’re part of a group of elaborate, richly colored paintings which suggest the catacomb housed a noblewoman. The image of a bejeweled woman dressed in elegant clothing standing with her daughter between two saints is painted in one of the arches. Archaeologists believes she was the owner of the catacomb and patron of its arts.

Roof painting of Christ the Good Shepherd with corner icons of four apostlesBesides the apostles, there are paintings of Christ as the Good Shepherd, a nude Daniel with lions at his feet, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Peter drawing water in the Mamertine prison, Mary and the three Wise Men, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and more. The paintings are set against saturated red and black backgrounds, colors often associated with imperial Roman art.

We wouldn’t know these colors existed if it weren’t for a new restoration technology. When archaeologists first opened the catacomb in 2008, the walls and ceilings were all covered in white. The closed and moist environment inside the catacomb created thick deposits of white calcium carbonate inches thick in some places. The incrustations were removed by a laser which can be calibrated by color, so archaeologists programmed it to remove only the white calcium carbonate. The laser stopped precisely at the colored paints which revealed the magnificent richness of the work without any fear of damaging it.

In the past restorers had to scrape the calcium off with brushes and scalpels. To ensure that they didn’t scrape off any of the paint, they had to keep a layer of white film obscuring the art. The laser procedure is just as painstaking, mind you, because they have to do it one pinpoint at a time, but the precision of the tool opens a whole new world of possibilities for restorers.

The four apostles are an unusual combination. Peter and Paul are together a lot, of course, especially in Rome where they both died, but Peter, Paul, Andrew and John don’t often get depicted together. The fact that all four were depicted in individual medallions around the central figure of Christ the Good Shepherd suggests that they were devotional icons, not just narratives, of the four most important apostles of the era. These paintings could well have been models for later representations; they lend insight into the dawn of apostle worship in early Christianity.

The catacombs will not be opened to the public — they are too delicate to cram hundreds of moist, secreting, respiring bodies into — but some the pontifical commission may allow the occasional small group to get a private tour.

St. Peter icon on the ceiling of catacomb of St. Tecla St. Paul icon on the ceiling of catacomb of St. Tecla St. Andrew medallion on the ceiling of catacomb of St. Tecla St. John icon on the ceiling of catacomb of St. Tecla

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Historical grotesque and anatomical model show

June 23rd, 2010

Model showing structure and tissue of human headThe Wellcome Museum in London is putting on an exhibit of historical anatomical models used to teach in the days before actual human bodies for dissection became legal, widely available and refrigerated, and titillate crowds at carnivals and grotesque museums. Exquisite Bodies features rare pieces in ivory and wood from the 17th and 18th centuries, and layered paper models from anatomy books of that period, but the primary focus are the wax dissection models that became all the rage in the 19th century. Victorian audiences loved them some guts, lumps, lesions and naked ladies, and if they could get all of them in one then that was certainly worth the price of admission.

Many of these museums and their exhibits were destroyed by police and the suddenly appalled, so many of the pieces on display are extremely rare. Some of them were collected in the early 20th century by Henry Wellcome, founder of the trust that operates the museum; some of them come from private collections around Europe. Many of the most fabulously lurid pieces are from the Roca Museum in Barcelona which survived in the red-light district of that city until 1935.

Anatomical Venus, late 19th c.Especially arresting are supine naked women, known as “anatomical Venuses”, made from the 18th century onwards. They were constructed of wax, wood or ivory so that their stomachs could be opened and internal organs displayed, usually including a pregnant uterus. Most have beautiful faces resembling traditional images of the Madonna, and luxuriant real hair. Although originally modelled for private collections, when any scholarly gentleman’s study would include scientific instruments and anatomical treatises, some were also made to educate medical students. [...]

Draw aside the crimson velvet curtains of the side alcoves, and you expose ever more striking things: human genitalia in extreme stages of disease modelled in flesh-coloured wax featuring real pubic hair, for instance. Whether these are intended to terrify the viewer into virtuous living or offer a curious form of titillation is open to debate.

Dissection of babies heads by Joseph TowneOh, I’m quite sure we’re capable of both at the same time. There’s a great deal of artistry involved in some of these models. Joseph Towne was a famous model maker who created highly detailed wax dissection models for Guy’s Hospital his whole life. He won awards for his remarkably realistic, genuinely tragic characters — see the dissected baby brains on the right, for example — and his paranoia was legendary. He stuffed wax in the keyhole of his basement workshop so nobody could steal his prize wax coloring technique.

For a anatomically correct and disturbingly graphic (syphilis lesions eating away at people’s faces, for instance) slideshow of the exhibit, click here. For a curator-guided tour of the exhibit, watch the video below.

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Stolen Descartes letter returns home to Paris

June 22nd, 2010

Stolen Descartes letter, dated May 27, 1641In January of this year, Erik-Jan Bos, a Dutch scholar working on a book of famed French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes’ correspondence was surfing the web when he found a reference to Descartes in a manuscript collection at Haverford College. He contacted John Anderies, the Head of Special Collections at Haverford, and after putting their heads together they realized that Haverford had an authentic unknown letter in Descartes’ own hand, and not just any letter, but a pivotal letter he wrote to close friend Father Marin Mersenne about his soon-to-be-published Meditations on First Philosophy.

The letter had been donated to the college in 1902 by Lucy Branson Roberts, widow of Charles Roberts, Haverford Class of 1864 and avid autograph collector. What Roberts didn’t know when he bought it (nor did his widow know when she donated it) was that the letter had been stolen by Italian nobleman, scholar and notorious, shameless thief Count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja when he served as secretary of the Committee for the General Catalog of Manuscripts in French Public Libraries at some point during the 1840s.

When Haverford president Stephen G. Emerson was told about the purloined Descartes letter, he didn’t even hesitate. On February 11th, coincidentally the anniversary of Descartes’ death 360 years earlier, he called Gabriel de Broglie, Chancellor of the Institut de France, and offered to return the precious artifact. Broglie accepted with alacrity, invited Emerson to Paris to return the letter in person and receive a 15,000 euro prize on behalf of the Institut, which has been trying with limited success to reclaim the 72 Descartes letters Libri stole from its collection for a century and a half.

Today, Emerson returned the letter to the Institut and Broglie gave him a check.

In a formal ceremony in the Institute’s timbered library, Chancellor Gabriel de Broglie thanked Haverford’s president Stephen Emerson for the “integrity and honesty” of his gesture, which will bring to 17 the number of Descartes letters held by the Institute. The letter was apparently stolen by Guglielmo Libri, an Italian count and mathematician who amassed a huge collection of purloined manuscripts in the mid-19th century.

“Your university will eradicate the bad memories that Libri left in our institution,” Mr de Broglie said at the ceremony.

Haverford has decided to use the award money to purchase new historical documents and finance future studies in France by college students and faculty.

This story put a lump in my throat when I first read about it a few months ago (thank you, Clutch) and it still does now. It also puts a fog of rage in my head over what a rat bastard that Libri son of a bitch was. The Guardian has an article about the swath he cut through French literary collections and how high on the hog he lived from the profits of his iniquity.

Count Guglielmo Libri, scholar and rat bastardHis love and knowledge of books were recognised when he was appointed Inspector of Libraries, tasked with cataloguing valuable works. Instead of documenting them, however, he began stealing them.

Tipped off about his imminent arrest, Libri fled once more – to England, bringing with him around 30,000 books and manuscripts in 18 large trunks, including works by Galileo and Copernicus. Although found guilty of theft by a French court and sentenced in absentia to 10 years’ in jail in 1850, Libri enjoyed the high life in London, funded by selling the stolen tomes.

He returned to Italy to die in 1868. Learning of his death, the French government requested the return of some of the manuscripts and offered to buy back those that had been sold. Some were returned, but tens of thousands of other precious stolen works simply disappeared.

Eighteen trunks of manuscripts blatantly stolen from public institutions and still being sold at auction and secreted away in collections all over the world to this day.

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