First illuminated Bible restored in Ethiopia

July 6th, 2010

The monks at the Abuna Garima monastery in Ethiopia have always held that their 2 volume illuminated Bible were written in one miraculously extended day by Abba Garima, a Byzantine royal who founded the monastery, in 494. Dating analysis done in the 1960s, however, dated the book to the 11th century.

Illuminated page from the Garima GospelsIt wasn’t until very recently that radiocarbon dating done on several fragments of the goat-skin pages supported the monks’ version: the book dates to between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, making this the earliest known illuminated Bible, the second earliest scripture collection, and the oldest bound book where the pages and the binding were actually created for each other rather than old pages rebound into a newer binding.

New dating techniques have put the creation of the two books to somewhere between 330 and 650, making them a close contender to being the most ancient complete Christian texts. The only major collection of scripture that is known to be older is the Codex Sinaiticus, a copy of the Bible hand-written in Greek which dates back to the third century. Unlike the Garima Gospels, the Codex includes large chunks of the Old Testament, but the entire work is divided between museums and monasteries in Egypt, Britain, Russia and the USA.

The Garima Gospels, meanwhile, have been in one piece in the same place for the best part of 1,600 years, guarded by generations of monks from Muslim invaders, colonial conquerors and a fire in the 1930s which destroyed their church.

What has kept these volumes safe also makes conservation a bit of a challenge. The gospels are never allowed out the door, so when the Ethiopian Heritage Fund sent an Anglo-French team of specialists to help restore the brittle volumes, they had to bring the people and equipment up the side of a cliff to the monastery where they set up shop in the courtyard.

For [bookbinder and manuscript conservator Lester] Capon, who has been binding books for more than 30 years in the UK, the restoration work was a serious challenge “without any of the normal facilities in a European conservation unit”.

Forced to work outside, he had to be constantly on the look-out for a group of monkeys that seemed determined to cart the sacred book high up into the mountains.

An earlier conservation project in the early 1960s had resulted in some sections of the gospels being sewn together entirely. Mr Capon had to undo the stitches, take out each page, clean it and put it back in the right order. Jacques Mercier, a French expert on Ethiopian manuscripts, was on hand to ensure each page was put back correctly.

I love how vividly Capon describes the manuscripts’ shocking beauty and poor condition: “I’d seen photos when I was preparing for this work, but seeing this book in real life was astonishing. It was big – you could fell an ox with it – it was beautiful, the colours were vibrant. But the condition was poor. It had the look of a burst mattress.”

They only had time to restore the illuminated pages this time out. Next up, the Ethiopian Heritage Fund plans to restore murals in some neighboring monasteries and creating a small museum to display the Garima Gospels. That would be a neat off-the-beaten-track pilgrimage to make.


Caravaggio’s bones (maybe) and tourism

July 5th, 2010

Caravaggio's bones (maybe) ceremoniously returned to Porto ErcoleSaturday a few pieces of Caravaggio (maybe) were placed reverently on red velvet pillow in a crystal urn and carried to Porto Ercole on a tall ship in tribute to the final sea voyage that brought Caravaggio to Porto Ercole in 1610. Some fragments of his skull, a piece of femur, and part of the base of his spine were given a hero’s welcome by the crowd.

Some people, however, are less than gruntled at the spectacle and at the weak scholarship/shameless tourism-grubbing behind it.

“It’s a put-on that offends the intelligence of people,” said Vincenzo Pacelli, an art historian and scholar of Caravaggio’s final days, accusing the committee of perpetrating an urban legend.

Other critics suggested that as the Italian government seeks to exploit the economic potential of the country’s cultural resources, marketing is trumping serious study.

“In the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, this committee has concocted a compelling discovery thinking it will attract tourists,” said Tomaso Montanari, who teaches 17th-century art at the University of Naples. “It’s all very depressing.”

Since there was no solid DNA to compare, we really don’t know if it’s him. Then there’s the question of whether exhuming bones of dead luminaries is a worthy endeavor in the first place. After all, we still don’t quite know what killed him. Mr. Vincenti, the leader of the project, thinks Caravaggio died of lead poisoning from handling lead paints, the committee that ran the project pins it on sunstroke hammering his syphilis-weakened body.

Vincenti doesn’t bother to deny the drama is good business for the area. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Mr. Vinceti did not seem to be arguing on Saturday when he said: “It doesn’t end here, Tuscany and Lombardy are about to launch a cultural tourism initiative so that Caravaggio lovers can come to Italy and revisit the places where he lived. We need to promote the great wealth that Italy has in its art and culture.”

Hey, we all gotta make a living, amirite?


And now for a gif of Revolutionary flags

July 4th, 2010

It’s the fourth of July and I didn’t feel like writing, so instead I spent a few entertainingly obsessive hours collecting historical flags of these here United States when they were but a twinkle in some minuteman’s eye and sticking them together in an animated gif file.

Happy Independence Day!


Click here for a quick rundown of each flag plus a few post-Revolutionary ones, too.


Largest horse mass grave found in Netherlands

July 3rd, 2010

17th c. horse skeletons, Borgharen, NetherlandsArchaeologists excavating a site in Borgharen, south-east Netherlands, before construction have found a 17th century mass grave of 51 horses. It’s the largest known horse burial ever found in Western Europe, although there may well have been larger pits that have been scattered by unwitting farmers tilling the land.

The team was expecting to find prehistoric remains so the huge horse burial pit came as a surprise. The bodies showed signs of having been interred hastily; the skeletons overlap as if they’d been tossed in rather than carefully laid to rest. Radiocarbon dating on some of the bones date them to the 17th century, and if they were the remains of a cavalry charge gone bad, Netherlands in the 1600s offered plenty of opportunities for large war losses.

If the horses were killed in a battle, likely candidates include a fight in 1632 during the Eighty Years’ War, when Dutch rebels quartered in Borgharen repelled a surprise charge by the Spanish cavalry.

Another possibility is the 1673 siege of Maastricht by soldiers of French “Sun King” Louis XIV. That battle is considered a milestone in siege warfare, because of how the attacking French used zigzagging ditches to give their soldiers cover from the city’s battlements.

Both engagements were fought during the summer.

More horse skeletonsDozens of dead horses rotting in the summer sun might well inspire burial prompt to the point of sloppiness. Also, there were no bridles or saddles found in the pit, just a few horse shoes and a single stirrup. The horses are all around 4 years old, and since their dimensions and bone structures indicate they were used for riding, not as draft horses, it seems likely they were cavalry horses who were stripped of gear before burial.

One horse had a bullet hole in its skull right behind the eye socket, probably from having been put down after an injury.


Dr. Livingstone’s berry-ink letter deciphered

July 2nd, 2010

When famed explorer David Livingstone was stuck in the village of Bambarre, in what is now Congo, in February of 1871, he wrote his old friend Horace Waller on the margins of printed pages with an ink he concocted from local berries. We’re not quite sure how the letters were carried out of Africa since Dr. Livingstone refused to leave the continent and died in 1873, but they may have been carried to England by journalist Henry Stanley who found Livingstone in Bambarre just a few months after the letters were written and who is said to have uttered the immortal but probably apocryphal greeting “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Waller published a book of Livingstone’s diary a year after he died, but it was a highly sanitized volume which depicted Livingstone as the fearless hero. None of Livingstone’s illness and despair made it into the book. These letters present a whole new view into Livingstone’s hardships and depression, but the makeshift ink either faded almost to invisibility or soaked through the page, the paper got brittle, plus the cramped, convoluted script had made them all but illegible until now.

A team of scientists is using a variety of imaging techniques to scan each of the 140 letters and make them legible again.

The imaging technique accentuates the visibility of Livingstone’s ink while simultaneously suppressing the visibility of the underlying print (see picture). It does this by taking 12 separate images of each document, exposing it in turn to 12 different wavelengths of light, from blue ultraviolet, through the visible spectrum to infrared.

By feeding the stack of 12 superimposed images through image analysis software, algorithms pick out and best highlight the Livingstone text. “We get the 12 images that stack up in an image cube, and you can process this digitally,” says Michael Toth, head of the project, who has used the same technique to enhance other valuable ancient documents including the Palimpsest revealing Archimedes’s famous “Eureka” theory, parts of the US Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address condemning slavery.

Different light wavelengths bring out different parts of the text, Toth explains. So Livingstone’s ink disappears under infrared and becomes most distinct under blue.

Here’s a detail of the letter in natural light:

Livingstone's letter to Waller natural light

Here’s that same detail after the 12 images are superimposed:
Livingstone's letter to Waller, processed image

So far only one full letter has been deciphered, but the rest are all queued up for analysis. Right now you can read the full Livingstone letter with fascinating and helpful annotations here. Here’s a paragraph from the first page where after he complains about his friends not writing, he describes his unhappy circumstances:

Ten men here come from Kirk who like the good fellow that he is worked unweariedly to get them & goods off in the midst of disease and death – one gang of porters died quite off and five of my men perished by cholera – We get that from Mecca – letters preceded it thence saying it was coming – We do nothing to stop its hatching in Mecca Medina & Judda which annually become vast cesspools of abomination because the new political economy says let everything alone Formerly it went along shore now it comes inland – In our small camp here we lost 30 & how many Manyema no one knows – All the able bodied all off ivory collecting – if it had continued three instead of two months the camp would have been desolate – Fowls & goats fell first then cattle shivered and died & then men.

There’s a lot more where that came from. Read the whole thing because it’s an awesome buzzkill.

That site also has all kinds of information about the imaging techniques they used, the context of the letter, the letter itself. Eventually all 140 of the letters will be published on Livingstone Online, the primary online source of Livingstone’s writings.


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.


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.


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


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.


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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