100-year-old photo negatives found in Scott’s hut

December 30th, 2013

Conservators with the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust have discovered a box holding 22 century-old photographic negatives frozen in a block of ice in explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s supply hut at Cape Evans, Antarctica. Scott built the cabin during his ill-fated last expedition to the South Pole (the Terra Nova Expedition, 1910-1913) that would claim his life. He didn’t leave the pictures behind, though. The photographs were taken during Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party, part of the 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The crew was there in advance of Shackleton on a depot-laying mission to ensure the explorer would have regular supply stops along his route to the South Pole. Ten of them wound up stranded on Ross Island after the team’s ship, the Aurora, blew out to sea on an ice floe during a gale in May of 1915.

The Antarctic Heritage Trust has been documenting and restoring Scott’s hut, thus far conserving more than 10,000 objects. The exposed but unprocessed cellulose nitrate negatives were found earlier this year clumped together in the darkroom used by Terra Nova Expedition photographer Herbert Ponting. Recognizing this conservation conundrum required the work of a specialist, the Trust sent the negatives back to New Zealand and commissioned Wellington photographic conservator Mark Strange to undo the Gordian Clump.

He painstakingly peeled the nitrate layers apart, cleaning them and removing copious mold, revealing 22 photographs from the Ross Sea Party taken between December 1914 and January 1915, just four months before the stranding on Ross Island. The Aurora is in several of the pictures, and others were taken from her although she is not visible. Strange was able to rescue them sufficiently so that New Zealand Micrographic Services could scan them. The digital scans were then converted to positives.

The images look otherworldly, even ghostly through the splotches, scratches and mold-stained edges, but the Antarctic Heritage Trust researchers were able to identify locations and people among the eerily beautiful stretches of footsteps in snow and nearly featureless horizons of ocean and sky. There are shots of Hut Point Peninsula, Tent Island and Big Razorback Island in McMurdo Sound, taken from the deck of the Aurora. One of them captures Alexander Stevens, the Ross Sea Party’s chief scientist and geologist and an apposite handsome model, standing on the deck with land and iceberg contrasting in the background. He’s in another picture on board the ship too, standing next to a stack of Shell Benzine cases on the left.

Trust executive director Nigel Watson:

“It’s the first example that I’m aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era. There’s a paucity of images from that expedition,” Watson said.

Trust researchers have not been able to confirm the identity of the photographer. Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith was the Ross expedition’s photographer, so in all likelihood it’s his work. Unfortunately Spencer-Smith did not survive his stranding. The Aurora limped into Dunedin, New Zealand on April 3rd, 1916. It needed extensive repairs and refitting and there was no money to do it. Finally the Australian, New Zealand and British governments funded a rescue mission and the Aurora set off, with Shackleton himself on board albeit not in command, to recover its crew. By the time the Aurora returned to Cape Evans in January of 1917, three of the ten crew members left behind had died, the photographer among them. He was buried on the Ross Ice Shelf.

You can leaf through the pictures on the website of New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust.

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DNA may help explain Bronze Age couple burials

December 29th, 2013

Dozens of burials in the southwestern Siberian village of Staryi Tartas have been found with human remains posed in pairs facing each other. The rare couple burials are among 600 graves dating to between the 17th and 14th centuries B.C. from the Bronze Age Andronovo culture. Although some subsets of the nomadic Eurasian cultural family cremated their dead, others are well known for inhuming them in crouched positions. The discovery that gave them their modern name, in fact, was a number of burials found in the village of Andronovo, southern Siberia, in 1914.

Unlike the Lovers of Valdaro and the so-called Romanian “Romeo and Juliet”, these burials are not necessarily romantic pairings. Some are of children, some are one adult and a child or children. Some are face to face, some are spooning, some are on their backs holding hands.

The grave goods help identify the burials as from the Andronovo Culture, but don’t provide any specific information about the deceased. Grave goods include pottery decorated in geometric patterns including swastikas, metal artifacts and weapons, bone arrowheads, even a very rare stone casting mould used to make metal jewelry. (The Andronovo were expert metallurgists who mined copper and tin and made bronze artifacts from them. As the migrated, they are thought to have brought metal working techniques with them.)

With little hard data to go on, speculation about the significance of the funerary arrangements is rife. The women paired with men could have been sacrificed after the death of the man, for example, as in some Scythian burials. It could have been a form of posthumous or ghost marriage, a practice seen in many cultures from Asia (China, India) to Africa (Sudan) and Europe (France during World War I). Alternatively, bodies could have been added over time and carefully positioned with the previous resident(s) of the grave instead of interred simultaneously. The symbolism could be more familial than romantic, an homage to the burgeoning importance of the nuclear family unit.

Researchers are hoping DNA analysis may illuminate the relationships between the buried and thus answer some of these questions.

“[W]e need to firstly establish unequivocally the kinship of those who were buried,” said Professor Molodin [of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences] referring to the necropolis close to the confluence of the rivers Tartas and Om. “Until recently archaeologists had no such opportunity, they could establish only the gender and age. But now as we have at our disposal the tools of paleogenetics, we could speak about establishing the kinship.” […]

“For example, we found the burial a man and a child. What is a degree of their kinship? Are they father and son or….? The same question arises when we found a woman and a child. It should seem obvious – she is the mother. But it may not be so. She could be an aunt, or not a relative at all. To speak about this scientifically we need the tools of paleogenetics.”

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3,000-year-old bronze trove found in Chinese tomb

December 28th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating a tomb complex from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 B.C.) in Baoji, Shaanxi province, northwest China, have unearthed 44 pieces of bronzeware and two pieces of pottery, a trove of national importance. The tomb was discovered in June of this year by villagers working the land. They alerted the authorities and state archaeologists have been excavating the site since August.

The bronzeware is divided among eight niches. The quantity of the bronze vessels and the system of niches they inhabit make it a very rare discovery that gives archaeologists a unique chance to study the burial practices of the early Western Zhou period. The pieces would have had a variety of uses — cooking, food storage, holding water or alcoholic beverages — The sheer numbers of bronzeware and their elaborate, delicate decoration point to this being the tomb of a nobleman, someone of great wealth and social standing in the area.

Lead archaeologist Wang Zhankui hopes the inscriptions on the bronze vessels once translation may identify who was buried in the tomb.

Last year, a Western Zhou-era tomb discovered in Baoji was found to contain a rich collection of bronze vessels as well, albeit less than half the number discovered here. One of the containers was still sealed. When archaeologists shook it, they could hear liquid sloshing inside which led to a speculative frenzy declaring it the oldest wine ever found in China. That was a hasty reaction, but the presence of what is probably some sort of alcoholic beverage in the vessel was of particular historical note given its burial with another bronze piece: a square piece three feet long called a “Jin” which was inscribed with admonitions against the excessive consumption of alcohol.

This is a recurring theme in early Western Zhou bronzes. A ding (a bronze cauldron on feet now in the National Museum of China) made during the reign of King Kang (1020 – 996 B.C.) bears an inscription to his minister Yu attributing the fall of the Shang Dynasty to alcohol and the rise of the Western Zhou to its prohibition.

In the Shangshu or Book of Documents, a collection of historical speeches and sayings by rulers from four dynasties up to the Western Zhou, includes an Announcement about Drunkenness, purportedly made by King Wen of Zhou, the titular founder of the Western Zhou dynasty although in fact it was his son who carried out his father’s plans and finally overthrew the decadent Shang Dynasty. King Wen directly blames the Shang king’s alcoholism for the fall of his dynasty:

“I have heard it said likewise, that the last successor of those kings was addicted to drink, so that no charges came from him brightly before the people, and he was (as if) reverently and unchangingly bent on doing and cherishing what provoked resentment. Greatly abandoned to extraordinary lewdness and dissipation, for pleasure’s sake he sacrificed all his majesty. The people were all sorely grieved and wounded in heart; but he gave himself wildly up to drink, not thinking of restraining himself. but continuing his excess, till his mind was frenzied, and he had no fear of death His crimes (accumulated) in the capital of Shang: and though the extinction of the dynasty (was imminent), this gave him no concern, and he wrought not that any sacrifices of fragrant virtue might ascend to Heaven. The rank odour of the people’s resentments, and the drunkenness of his herd of creatures, went loudly up on high, so that Heaven sent down ruin on Yin, and showed no love for it – because of such excesses. There is not any cruel oppression of Heaven; people themselves accelerate their guilt, (and its punishment)).”

He is very keen, therefore, to ensure his own people do not fall victim to the dangers of spirits.

King Wen admonished and instructed the young nobles, who were charged with office or in any employment, that they should not ordinarily use spirits; and throughout all the states, he required that such should drink spirits only on occasion of sacrifices, and that then virtue should preside so that there might be no drunkenness.

And should admonishment not suffice, then sterner measures are in order.

“If you are informed that there are companies that drink together, do not fail to apprehend them all, and send them here to Zhou, where I may put them to death. As to the ministers and officers of Yin who were led to it and became addicted to drink, it is not necessary to put them to death (at once); let them be taught for a time. If they follow these (lessons of mine), I will give them bright distinction. If they disregard my lessons, then I, the One man, will show them no pity. As they cannot change their way, they shall be classed with those who are to be put to death.”

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1000-year-old vineyards found in Basque Country

December 27th, 2013

Archaeologists from the University of the Basque Country have unearthed the tell-tale signs of viticulture dating to the 10th century at the archaeological site of Zaballa, in the Álava province of Basque Country, northern Spain. Zaballa is one of 300 rural settlements in the Álava region that were deserted hundreds of years ago. It’s the one that has been most thoroughly excavated and published.

Discovering the history of this remote, rural site is a challenge because there is very little written documentation and few surviving structures or archaeological materials. The only stone building was the 10th century church while peasant dwellings have long since disappeared. Not even pottery has been found because there was a general dearth of such daily use items in the archaeological record of the Basque Country during the early Middle Ages compared to other periods. Recent agricultural use of the land has also damaged the site.

This discovery, therefore, is of particular interest to archaeologists since it provides new information about the way the land was used and provides a glimpse into the unrecorded social history of its occupation.

“Archaeo-botanical studies of seed remains found in the excavations and pollen studies have provided material evidence of the existence of vine cultivation in a relatively early period like the 10th century,” explained [Juan Antonio Quirós-Castillo, director of the University’s Cultural Heritage and Landscapes Research Group]. This evidence is also supported by the metal tools discovered and which had been destined for this very use, and the study of the agrarian spaces, “which owing to the nature of the crop spaces built and the agrarian practices developed, they are not compatible with cereal crops but they are with vines,” he added.

Zaballa was occupied beginning with one small farm in the 6th century. That developed into a peasant village in the 8th century. An aristocratic family appears to have taken control in the second half of the 10th century, marked by the construction of a stone church in the village center. This is confirmed by the scant documentary evidence we do have of Zaballa written in 1087 that describes a monastery, probably the nearby Saint Tirso monastery, founded by lordly Castilian family of Tello Muñoz. The village was soon rebuilt in the neighboring valley while around the church large silos were built to collect the percentage of the peasants’ agricultural product claimed by the ruling family. The silos suggest grain cultivation. The discovery of the earlier vineyards points to a major reorganization of Zaballa’s planting culture.

There are no other buildings found in the area that indicate the presence of the family in the area in the 11th and 12th centuries, just a hoard of 30 coins and some jewelry from the late 11th century, so it seems likely that the lords were absentee landowners. In the 13th century the village was partially abandoned as the aristocracy streamlined its agricultural output, possibly to increase revenues during an economic downturn. Some of the population probably moved to the new towns growing in the region. By the beginning of the 15th century, Zaballa was under the control of the monastery of Badaya and within a few decades the monks evicted the remaining villagers so they could reorganize the land under their own rules. That was basically the end of the human occupation of the settlement, except for a short spurt at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century.

Almost all of this information is the result of archaeological study, and even though it seems like a relatively obscure pursuit given the tiny size of the settlement and its long-since abandonment, it paints a portrait of people who lived and worked in the area for nearly a thousand years but never made it into the historical record.

In Quirós’ view, these microhistories constitute small windows into the past that allow one to analyse relatively complex historical processes directly, bottom upwards, “in other words, to see how the peasant community itself gradually adapts to the political and economic changes that take place in the medieval era and later.”

What is more, the analytical study of these places of production allows one to abandon those more traditional points of view of history which “conceptualize the high medieval periods as a time of technical simplification, as a meagre period in economic terms, since they point to considerable social and economic complexity. Specifically, it has been possible in these studies to see that there are various important moments in the Basque Country, 5th to 6th centuries and 10th to 11th centuries, which were decisive in the construction of our landscapes.”

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British Library releases 1 million images

December 26th, 2013

The British Library has released more than one million high resolution images scanned from public domain books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries on their Flickr account. Scanned as part of a digitization collaboration with Microsoft that began in 2008, the images illustrate a vast range of topics from literary classics like Charles Dickens novels to anthropological studies, travel guides, histories, song collections, children’s books and ever so much more. Even those decorative swirls that separate chapters and fancy initial capitals made the cut.

Each image is tagged by author, date of publication and book title, so if opening one picture inspires you to see every other image in the book, say, just click the link at the bottom of the description and you’ll see them all. Another link at the bottom of the description will show you every image in the collection published that year. That’s just the beginning, though. Starting next year, the British Library will tap into crowd powder to add details, new classifications and, hopefully, research inspirations.

We plan to launch a crowdsourcing application at the beginning of next year, to help describe what the images portray. Our intention is to use this data to train automated classifiers that will run against the whole of the content. The data from this will be as openly licensed as is sensible (given the nature of crowdsourcing) and the code, as always, will be under an open licence.

The manifests of images, with descriptions of the works that they were taken from, are available on github and are also released under a public-domain ‘licence’. This set of metadata being on github should indicate that we fully intend people to work with it, to adapt it, and to push back improvements that should help others work with this release.

There are very few datasets of this nature free for any use and by putting it online we hope to stimulate and support research concerning printed illustrations, maps and other material not currently studied. Given that the images are derived from just 65,000 volumes and that the library holds many millions of items.

Since the images are public domain, they can be used without conditions. At the very least it’s a huge free stock collection that I can envision coming in very handy for everyone from graphic designers to parents looking to make an extremely nerdy coloring book for their kids (or themselves; coloring is the best). The British Library wants to know how people are using the pictures and they’ve offered their enthusiastic collaboration with any project readers may devise. You can Email or tweet them with any questions or ideas.

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Vasari’s Last Supper back together after 50 years

December 25th, 2013

In 1546, the Florentine Murate Convent commissioned painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari to make a monumental painting of The Last Supper. The final panorama was more than 21 feet long and 8 feet tall, made out of five poplar wood panels. Despite its unwieldiness, the painting has lived a peripatetic existence, moving around to various locations until in the early 19th century it settled in Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce. It was there that it met its greatest foe: the great flood of 1966.

Just a few blocks from the banks of the Arno and at a lower elevation than much of the rest of the city, Santa Croce was hit first and hit hardest by the flood. The high point of the flood, more than 22 feet, was in the Santa Croce area. Water flooded the church’s cloister, the crypt and the Museo dell’ Opera in the refectory. In addition to the Vasari Last Supper, the museum held one of the great masterpieces of 13th century art, the Crucifix by Cimabue, one of only three surviving crucifixes by the artist whose break from the stylized conventions of Italo-Byzantine design was a major influence on the Renaissance humanists that would follow him. It was flooded to Christ’s halo.

Santa Croce remained under water for more than 12 hours, longer than anywhere else, saturating wood panel paintings like the Cimabue and Vasari’s Last Supper. Things only got worse when the waters receded. The muddy water, thick with debris, diesel oil, naphtha and sewage, dragged paint off the surface of art works (the Crucifix lost 60% of its paint; staff literally sifted through the water and mud to recover any fragment of the original paint they could) and coated it with scum. The wood under Vasari’s painting was the consistency of a sponge after its 12 hours underwater. The primer layer of gesso underlying the painted surface absorbed so much water that the paint lost adherence and began to peel and flake.

In order to dry The Last Supper as quickly as possible, museum staff had to separate the five panels making up the piece and coat the surface with rice paper to keep the paint attached. Even so, the wood contracted as it dried and the surface cracked in multiple places. It took restorers 10 years to put the Cimabue back together again. The Vasari was so devastated they didn’t even try. They stored it in a cool place with controlled humidity and just waited until the technology and funding made conservation possible.

It was a long wait. A 44 year wait, to be precise. In 2010, the Getty Foundation awarded a $400,000 grant to Florence’s prestigious restoration institute, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, to conserve The Last Supper and train a new generation of panel-painting conservators to replace the current generation who are due to retire within a decade. Unlike canvas painting restorers, panel work requires a detailed understanding of carpentry and the function of wooden supports. Two experts, Ciro Castelli and Mauro Parri, came out of retirement to work on this project. The former began working as a conservator a few months after the flood and he personally participated in the efforts to stabilize and conserve some of the most damaged paintings.

Seven conservators of varying experience have been learning from and collaborating with the old pros. Together they worked out a structural solution based on Vasari’s original innovative support structure. Because the cloistered sisters of the Murate Convent did not want Vasari and his assistants working among them for however long it would take them to finish the piece, Vasari was compelled to make the panels portable and joinable. One of his unusual cross-supports is still in place. This served as a model for the conservation team who were able to stabilize the panels and rejoin them for the first time in almost 50 years.

The team also focused on removing the rice paper covering the surface and cleaning the disgusting flood detritus from the paint. They found much to their delight that most of the original paint had survived. The estimated paint loss is 20-30%, which while horrendous is nowhere near as bad as they feared it would be. Conservators even found a previously unknown inscription noting an earlier restoration, like much earlier, like 1594, less than 50 years after The Last Supper was painted.

Superintendent of the OPD Marco Ciatti:

“The Vasari painting was the last major work damaged in the Florence flood to undergo treatment, and the conservation challenges were so complex that we only recently had the technology to begin treatment. When you consider the condition of the panels when treatment started, the current state of the Last Supper—visible again as a single, monumental artwork—is truly miraculous.”

Now that the surface has been stabilized, the flaking paint re-adhered, next on the agenda is restoration of the paint. That’s expected to take at least another two years, at the end of which Vasari’s The Last Supper will go back on display, hopefully in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood that almost destroyed it.

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Happy belated Sigillaria!

December 24th, 2013

This is going to be a shamelessly short entry due to the yearly flurry of present and nog-related activities. Thankfully, the University of Reading has done all the work for me. Classics professor Dr. Matthew Nicholls, developer of Virtual Rome, a digital model of the ancient city, has compiled a neat rundown of the ancient sources on the Roman festival of Sigillaria. Held on December 23rd, Sigillaria was the culmination of a week of Saturnalia celebrations, a day of gift-giving and quaffing the questionable wine combinations that Romans were so fond of.

Quality of presents varied enormously. The traditional present for the Saturnalia was some nuts – not unlike old fashioned handful of walnuts in a Christmas stocking. Martial mentions ‘gifts given and received’ some of which sound rather familiar.

“Fish-sauce, jars of honey, bottles of wine, toothpicks, a pencil case, perfume, a flask encased in wicker-work and clothing – even an item that sounds like an ugly but warm Christmas sweater…a ‘shaggy nursling of a weaver on the Seine, a barbarian garment … a thing uncouth but not to be despised in cold December … that searching cold may not pass into your limbs … you will laugh at rain and winds, clothed in this gift’.

Uncouth compared to a toga, perhaps, but surely no worse than a tunic, albeit a fuzzy one. Besides, if it comes from the a weaver on the banks of the Seine, that makes it couture by default. Anyway it’s the thought that counts, right? Right!

“It’s warming to hear that the festive spirit was alive 2000 years ago. Martial tells us that the quality of a friendship can’t be measured by the value of the gifts, and even tells recipients of his cheap presents that he’s been ‘mean’ to save them the expense of buying something expensive in return (Ep. 5.59: ‘people who give much, want to receive much in return’). Simple presents were a token of friendship.

In Epigrams Book 13 and Book 14, Martial makes long lists of what presents to give during the winter festival. The range is vast, from knives to hatchets to nuts to toothpicks to letter-writing parchment to a golden hair pin to pomatum, a hair pomade (spot the etymology) the Germans used to redden their barbarous locks. That’s not the only hair dye on the list either. There are plenty of items Martial would have given his friends that we give today.

Then there’s all the food. Did you put barley water and large-headed leeks under your tree for the kiddies this year? If you did, I hope you survive to tell the tale.

Happy belated Sigillaria, all!

[youtube=http://youtu.be/PXtcri5diuM&w=430]

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Thousand-year-old trepanned skulls of the Andes

December 23rd, 2013

UC Santa Barbara archaeologists excavating the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas, Peru, have unearthed the remains of 32 people whose skulls bear the tell-tale signs of 45 different trepanations. Nine out of the 32 had more than one hole drilled or cut into their skulls. The burials date to the Late Intermediate Period (ca. 1,000-1,250 A.D.), a time of great upheaval following the collapse of the Wari Empire.

“For about 400 years, from 600 to 1000 AD, the area where I work — the Andahuaylas — was living as a prosperous province within an enigmatic empire known as the Wari,” [UC Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin] said. “For reasons still unknown, the empire suddenly collapsed.” And the collapse of civilization, she noted, brings a lot of problems.

“But it is precisely during times of collapse that we see people’s resilience and moxie coming to the fore,” Kurin continued. “In the same way that new types of bullet wounds from the Civil War resulted in the development of better glass eyes, the same way IED’s are propelling research in prosthetics in the military today, so, too, did these people in Peru employ trepanation to cope with new challenges like violence, disease and depravation 1,000 years ago.”

Earlier studies have found that trepanation was frequently used in response to blunt force wounds. One noted that holes were drilled over or next radiating fractures from trauma in 44% of cases, and that figure may be low because the trepanation could easily obscure the evidence of blunt force trauma if the damaged bone was all removed. It follows, therefore, that times of conflict would see an increase in cranial surgery simply because there are more wounds to be treated.

That’s not to say that there blunt trauma was the only condition trepanation was prescribed for. Any cranial affliction from an infection to swelling to a persistent headache could be dealt with via skull drilling surgery. Not everyone was a candidate, however. There was a cultural taboo in the Andahuaylas against trepanning the skulls of women and children. Out of the 32 skulls found, 25 of them are male and only three female (there are four adults whose gender could not be established.)

The skulls Kurin’s team found displayed a variety of different trepanation techniques: scraping, cutting and hand drilling. In some cases they were administered post-mortem and are clearly experiments just like cadaver studies in med schools today.

“As bioarchaeologists, we can tell that they’re experimenting on recently dead bodies because we can measure the location and depths of the holes they’re drilling,” [Kurin] continued. “In one example, each hole is drilled a little deeper than the last. So you can imagine a guy in his prehistoric Peruvian medical school practicing with his hand drill to know how many times he needs to turn it to nimbly and accurately penetrate the thickness of a skull.”

It’s a fascinating picture:

The top inset photograph is of the side of the skull where a previous trepanation had been successful enough to allow bone regrowth. So this fellow had it done, it worked for at least a time, then when he died he left his body to science (or science just took it) and became a drill depth tester.

A mummified skull provided a glimpse into the treatment. It has a scraped trepanation on the posterior right parietal bone that was in the process of healing at the time of death. This area has no long hair, unlike the rest of the scalp, and under a microscope it looks cleanly cut. The fellow shaved or was shaved to keep the wound site clean and free of infection. He also has a small second hole, this one bored into the bone, on his forehead. It’s in an area associated with migraine pain, just the kind of thing you might to drill a hole in your skull to treat. There is no post-surgical bone growth, so either the patient did not survive the surgery or he too was a port-mortem experiment. There are, however, the remains of a dark substance over the bore hole, a thick sludge with a finger print embedded in it. Archaeologists believe it may be the leftovers of an herbal poultice.

The group of skulls has already proven a treasure trove of information, and will likely yield more in the years to come. It is the largest well-contextualized collection of trepanned skulls in the world. There are plenty of holey crania in museums and institutions, but they were gathered a century ago under conditions that would make any archaeologist today shudder. There is little information about the sites where they were discovered and all-important contextual issues weren’t investigated or recorded.

But thanks to Kurin’s careful archaeological excavation of intact tombs and methodical analysis of the human skeletons and mummies buried therein, she knows exactly where, when and how the remains she found were buried, as well as who and what was buried with them. She used radiocarbon dating and insect casings to determine how long the bodies were left out before they skeletonized or were mummified, and multi-isotopic testing to reconstruct what they ate and where they were born. “That gives us a lot more information,” she said.

“These ancient people can’t speak to us directly, but they do give us information that allows us to reconstruct some aspect of their lives and their deaths and even what happened after they died,” she continued. “Importantly, we shouldn’t look at a state of collapse as the beginning of a ‘dark age,’ but rather view it as an era that breeds resilience and foments stunning innovation within the population.”

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Terrifying new facial reconstruction of Robespierre

December 22nd, 2013

Philippe Charlier, forensic pathologist and indefatigable researcher of historical medical conundrums, and Philippe Froesch, facial reconstruction specialist with Visual Forensic in Barcelona, Spain, have created an intense facial reconstruction of French Revolutionary leader Maximilien de Robespierre. The main source for the image is a plaster copy of a death mask Madame Tussaud claimed* to have made from his decapitated head after he was guillotined on July 28th, 1794.

Froesch used a hand-held scanner to create a 3D computer model of the face. He then added details to the smooth-faced model, like the more than 100 pockmarks caused by a bad case of smallpox he suffered 30 years before his death when he was a boy of six. The eyes were a particular challenge because the closed eyelids didn’t leave an impression in the plaster so they were drawn on. Using an FBI technique that allowed him to calculate the eye size and position from marks left on the mask by the corneas, he was able to correct the crude eyelid line. (There are some pictures of the eye work on the Visual Forensic website.)

The end result is very far from the mild face conveyed in his portraits:

Portrait artists were then and are now notoriously heavy-handed with the painterly Photoshop, and the uncertainties of the French Revolution would have made it a very bad idea to cross someone who could easily have you decapitated, but damn yo, if this reconstruction is the real deal, I hope Robespierre paid those painters generously.

Charlier and Froesch also studied contemporary accounts of Robespierre and those coupled with the newly reconstructed face, suggested a possible diagnosis for the illness known to have afflicted him.

Several clinical signs were described by contemporary witnesses: vision problems, nose bleeds (“he covered his pillow of fresh blood each night”), jaundice (“yellow coloured skin and eyes”), asthenia (“continuous tiredness”), recurrent leg ulcers, and frequent facial skin disease associated with scars of a previous smallpox infection. He also had permanent eye and mouth twitching. The symptoms worsened between 1790 and 1794. […]

The retrospective diagnosis that includes all these symptoms is diffuse sarcoidosis with ophthalmic, upper-respiratory-tract (nose or sinus mucosa), and liver or pancreas involvement.

Sarcoidosis is a rare autoimmune syndrome where granulomas (collections of immune system cells) develop in any number of organs. Symptoms include all the ones mentioned above and a slew of others. The skin can be affected too, causing nodules or lesions that last several weeks. Treatment these days is corticosteroids, but Robespierre died 80 years before the disease was identified by Sir Jonathan Hutchinson and 160 years before the introduction of prednisone. His treatment would have been more along the lines of bleeding and dietary changes.

The reconstruction has not gone over well with Robespierre fans, for some reason.

When the first 3D images emerged earlier this month, far left politicians denounced it as a plot to make their hero look evil.

“These days, with 3D, heroes are derided and tyrant kings are magnified … A sad era,” wrote Alexis Corbiere, a Paris official and member of the Leftist Front, which is among many to view Robespierre as a champion of social justice.

*Some historians think Madame Toussaud lied about the authenticity of the mask to promote her work, that the Revolutionary authorities would have had no interest in preserving Robespierre’s visage and would want to bury him and the rest of the daily pile of bodies as soon as possible. However, the Terror leaders did commission her to make death masks of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and many other notable victims of Madame Guillotine. There’s no reason to assume they’d be inimical to the very idea of preserving the faces of whoever they deemed enemies of the Revolution. Masks of aristocrats and Terror victims were paraded through the streets.

The original of the mask is in Madame Tussauds London. The copies Froesch used are from the Granet Museum in Aix-en-Provence and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. They were commissioned by artist and phrenologist Pierre Marie Alexandre Dumoutier who amassed a large collection of casts as part of his fascination with the bumps on people’s heads.

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Riace Bronzes back on display after four years

December 21st, 2013

The Riace Bronzes, the pristine pair of 5th century B.C. Greek bronze warriors discovered off the coast of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, in 1972, have gone back on public display after an involuntary hiatus of four years. At 4:30 PM Italian time, Culture Minister Massimo Bray officially opened the doors of the Palazzo Piacentini, home of the National Museum of Reggio Calabria, allowing the invited guests to view the splendid Bronzes, vertical again for the first time since 2009. The doors will open to the general public tomorrow.

The museum building was designed in the late 1930s by Fascist favorite architect Marcello Piacentini and was in fairly good condition but needed extensive renovations to expand and modernize the space and update the facilities and technology. The Bronzes are world-class artifacts, unique and famous all over the globe. A lot of work was necessary to make the Palazzo Piacentini suitable for the crowds of people who would visit the statues if they could. It was also in desperate need of anti-seismic retrofits to ensure the safety of its precious contents in a city that has been virtually leveled by earthquakes at least a half-dozen times since antiquity.

To make way for the refurbishment, in 2009 the Riace Bronzes were removed from their bases and gingerly transported to the nearby Palazzo Campanella (see the video in this entry for footage of the painstaking transportation process), seat of the Regional Council of Calabria, where they were placed on their backs in a climate-controlled glassed-in space. There experts were able to take advantage of the opportunity to study, test and conserve the statues. That opportunity was only supposed to be two years long, but budgetary problems and a million other delays got in the way of the museum’s renovation. While Palazzo Piacentini continued to be indisposed, the Bronzes, Reggio Calabria’s greatest tourist draw, were indisposed along with it.

In their newly renovated hall, the statues now stand on new anti-seismic pedestals which anchor the statues to the floor even as they allow them to move by balancing the floor the Bronzes stand on over four spheres of marble. A system of counterweights ensures the statues will be able to remain standing on their pedestals should an earthquake strike. A handsome Carrara marble casing surrounds the pedestal.

Their idealized musculature is set off to its best advantage by a new lighting system and the reopening of windows that had been bricked up years ago. A state-of-the-art climate control and air filtration system ensures that the many artifacts from Magna Graecia (Greater Greece, the collective term for Greece’s southern Italian colonies) on display in the museum and in particular the Riace Bronzes are kept free of contaminants and in proper climactic conditions.

Other changes to the museum building include the addition of a roof restaurant with a beautiful view of the Straits of Messina, a new great hall for temporary exhibitions, a conference hall, a library and an underground level for storage of artifacts. The internal courtyard just beyond the entrance doors has been topped with a glass roof over an airy steel structure (it’s the first tensegrity roof in Italy) to create a new lobby from which visitors can see the Bronzes in their dedicated hall in the distance. They’ll get to see them up close in all their glory at the end of the route through the museum.

The renovation isn’t quite finished yet. Work on the roof, the conference hall and some of the other new spaces continues. The complete museum is expected to be open for business in April of next year, but considering that this was all supposed to be finished in 2011 in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the unification of Italy, I’d take that date with a grain of salt. At least the Riace Bronzes and many of the other ancient treasures of the museum are back in public view where they belong. As recently as last month the talk was they wouldn’t be back until the new year at the earliest.

It’s all the more important that these masterpieces of Early Classical Greek art have a permanent, stable home because the odds of them traveling again are basically nil. They are so delicate, especially in the solder joints, that any movement at all is a major risk to their integrity. Both warriors have braces on their left arms, the ones bent at the elbow that probably once held spears, to relieve the stress on the joints. When the Bronzes were moved from the Palazzo Campanella two weeks ago, it took one hour to transport them less than a half a mile. Extrapolate that speed, and they would have to leave now to make it to Milan by 2015.

Not that Reggio would let them go even if they could. The region has hard a time of it lately, between the economy and the struggle against the pervasive ‘Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate (last fall the entire Reggio city council was dismissed for suspicion of ‘Ndrangheta infiltration), and the return of the Riace Bronzes is seen as a rebirth of Reggio and of Calabria as a whole, a fresh start with a focus on the regions rich cultural patrimony bringing in much-needed tourist revenue.

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