Earliest known winery found in Armenia

January 11th, 2011

Armenian Bronze Age wine press, ca. 4100 B.C.A team of archaeologists from UCLA excavating the cave in Armenia where the earliest known leather shoe was found have discovered the world’s oldest known winery. The facility includes a wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation vats, storage jars, drinking vessels and the organic remains of wine production and ingestion: vines, skins, seeds and wine-soaked pottery shards.

Preserved by a roof cave-in and a top layer of sheep dung that sealed the cave so effectively that organic materials like leather and grape vines survived in excellent condition, the residue on the pottery shards was radiocarbon dated to between 4100 and 4000 B.C., making this winery at least 1,000 years older than any previously known wine-making apparatus. Chemical analysis on the stained shards confirmed the present of malvidin, the pigment that makes red wine red and stains your carpet.

This is the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production,” said archaeologist Gregory Areshian of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years,” he said.

The prehistoric winemaking equipment was first detected in 2007, when excavations co-directed by Areshian and Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan began at the Areni-1 cave complex.

In September 2010 archaeologists completed excavations of a large, 2-foot-deep (60-centimeter-deep) vat buried next to a shallow, 3.5-foot-long (1-meter-long) basin made of hard-packed clay with elevated edges.

The installation suggests the Copper Age vintners pressed their wine the old-fashioned way, using their feet, Areshian said.

The grape juice sluiced from the stomping basin into the vat where it was left to ferment. Once fermented, wine was stored in jars. Since the cave complex was a burial ground, it’s likely the wine was used for ceremonial purposes rather than quaffed in public house camaraderie.

The presence of a wine-making operation of this scale also suggests grape cultivation. The vat would have held 14 to 15 gallons and wild grapes don’t produce near enough fruit to necessitate such large vessels. According to biomolecular archaeologist and ancient wine expert Patrick E. McGovern, DNA studies of cultivated grapes indicate an Armenian/Georgian origin, so finding an early winery in the mountains of Armenia fits with the biological evidence.

We can’t know what it tasted like, of course, but McGovern notes that the grapes used in the Areni cave winemaking installation might have been similar in flavor to the ancestors of the Pinot Noir grape. They might have added tree resin for preservation purposes, though, and resin has a very noticeable taste, so the Areni wine might have tasted more like today’s Greek retsina than a nice, dry Pinot Noir.


Edwin Booth’s remains may testify to John Wilkes’

January 10th, 2011

Junius, Edwin & John Wilkes Booth in Julius CaesarDescendants of renowned Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth want to exhume his body so that his DNA can be compared to the DNA from the remains of the man who died in the Garrett farm barn after being shot by federal troops chasing the assassins of President Abraham Lincoln. Why, you ask? To confirm that John Wilkes Booth is buried in John Wilkes Booth’s grave.

We know the man who died in a barn as John Wilkes Booth, presidential assassin, Edwin’s brother and a far less successful actor, but a conspiracy theory posits that John Wilkes Booth never died in the barn, that the man buried in Wilkes’ grave was someone else entirely who was just bringing Booth his papers only to get killed by federales in the Garrett barn. Wilkes, this theory has it, escaped West changing his name multiple times and ultimately dying by his own hand (he took strychnine) in Oklahoma in 1903.

One of Edwin Booth’s descendants, Joanne Hulme, was told by her mother that it was a family secret that Wilkes had escaped, but the main source of the story is a book published in 1907 by lawyer Finis Bates. In The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth : or, The First True Account of Lincoln’s Assassination, Containing a Complete Confession by Booth, Bates described meeting a man named John St. Helen in Texas in 1873. Although a tobacco merchant, St. Helen was adept at reciting Shakespeare, and one time when he thought he was going to die, he confessed his secret. Later he filled in all kinds of detail, like that the leader of the conspiracy was none other than Vice President Andrew Johnson himself.

David E. George's embalmed corpseSt. Helen and Bates parted ways shortly thereafter, but when one David E. George died in Enid, Oklahoma in 1903, papers on him asked that Finis Bates be notified. When he arrived, he recognized the arsenic-embalmed body as that of his old friend John St. Helen. (The corpse would go on to have a far more successful entertainment career on the sideshow circuit than John Wilkes had ever had in the theater.)

Bates says in the book that he didn’t believe St. Helen’s confession at first, but there is a record of him writing to the War Department in 1900 offering to deliver Lincoln’s assassin alive if they’d pay him the $100,000 reward they posted in 1865. Since that reward had already been paid to the men who trapped Booth in the barn, the War Department declined.

The book was roundly ridiculed when it was published, but various versions of the wrong body theory have continued to spread, including on shady History Channel “documentaries.” In 1995, another of Edwin Booth’s descendants Lois Trebisacci asked to exhume Wilkes’ body to put the question to rest once and for all.

In 1995, a judge in Baltimore denied her request to exhume the remains of the man believed to be John Wilkes Booth in an effort to confirm his identity, her attorney, Mark Zaid of Washington, said yesterday. He said the cemetery objected to an exhumation, even though he had secured permission from 26 living relatives.

“The family was as much interested in disproving [the escape] theory as they were in proving it,” he said by phone.

Since that avenue is closed off, the interested parties now want to go about it in a roundabout way: by exhuming Edwin Booth’s body and comparing the DNA to bone fragments from the barn assassin preserved at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. and the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

The family’s attorney Mark Zaid plans to file an exhumation request for Edwin’s body, interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, early this year.


Blackbeard artifacts at NC museum for quick exhibit

January 9th, 2011

A collection of 122 small artifacts recovered from the wreck of the presumed Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship which ran aground near the Beaufort Inlet in the Inner Banks of North Carolina in 1718, are on display now at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.

The exhibit originated on December 18th at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort where all the recovered QAR artifacts are kept, then moved on to the Museum of History on January 7th. It will close on January 30th, so anyone in the area should hightail it to the show.

Among artifacts displayed is a part of a handblown blue-green window pane believed to have been in the captain’s quarters. A brass buckle that may have fastened a belt or a bandolier full of weapons will be exhibited. Brass scale weights for weighing reale silver coins will be on view; the reale weights were necessary because the smooth-edged coins could be filed or chiseled down (giving rise to the term “chiseler”), thus devaluing the coins.

A brass quillon block with gold gilding and a blade fragment from a small hunting sword will also be exhibited. The ornate scroll work and fancy handle design were unusual for pirate gear, so the sword may have been acquired on some adventure. It was recovered in 2007 and has been conserved and readied for display.

The wreck thought to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in the Beaufort Inlet in 1996 during dredging operations. Retrieval of artifacts has been slow and deliberate to ensure preservation, but still tens of thousands of pieces have been recovered. That’s just a small fraction of the total, though. Experts at the state-funded QAR Project expect to have something like 700,000 pieces when the retrieval and preservation is all said and done.


19th c. gondola on display at National Gallery of Art

January 8th, 2011

One of the oldest surviving Venetian gondolas is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The 37-foot-long craft will welcome visitors to the upcoming Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals exhibit, which opens February 20th.

Moran family take the gondola for a spin on Hook Pond, East HamptonBuilt around 1850 in traditional style, probably by the now-defunct Casal boatyard, it was purchased in Venice by Hudson River School artist Thomas Moran from gondoliere Giovanni Hitz in 1890. Moran brought it back to his home in East Hampton where he and his family would take it for picnics on Hook Pond.

The gondola—according to the manager of the hotel where the Morans stayed during the 1890 visit—had once belonged to the poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Whether or not Moran actually believed the story—which may have provided further incentive for him to bring the boat back to the summer residence in East Hampton, New York—he was certainly amused enough to recount the tale to friends and visitors to his studio.

The arrival of the gondola at Hook Pond, East Hampton, drew local attention and was written about in the East Hampton Star on September 13, 1890. The paper described a small party who “enjoyed a sail around the pond on that novel craft” steered by George Fowler. Moran had hired Fowler, a Montauk Indian, in the belief that he could apply his knowledge of the canoe to the similarly shaped gondola. Moran, his family, and friends spent hours enjoying the gondola. For Moran, it was a token of his beloved city of Venice.

Moran gondola on display at entrance to Canaletto exhibitOver time the boat sprang multiple leaks and began to degrade. Moran had it rebottomed, but eventually he just kept it in two separate parts (the hull and the felze, a detachable cabin) in outbuildings on his Hamptons house. When he died in 1926, his daughter donated the gondola along with her father’s papers, correspondence and pictures to the East Hampton Library. They kept the gondola on the front lawn for almost three decades, until finally in 1950 they awoke to the reality that this was not how you conserve a delicate and rare 100-year-old boat.

The gave it to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, who not only put it on display in proper preservation conditions in their International Small Craft Center, but also took the extraordinary step of sending the vessel to the traditional Tramontin family boatyard in Venice in 1999 for a full restoration using authentic Venetian gondola construction techniques. In a lovely moment of historical serendipity, the eldest Tramontin had been an apprentice at the Casal boatyard in his youth.

Here’s some footage of the gondola on display at the Mariners’ Museum and being gingerly lifted by cranes into a truck for transportation to the National Gallery of Art.


London’s oldest structure found on Thames foreshore

January 7th, 2011

Mesolithic timber pileResearchers from the Thames Discovery Programme have found six 6000-year-old timber piles on the foreshore of the Thames under the shadow of the MI6 building. It’s not certain exactly what their function was, but they were part of a structure built during the Mesolithic period at what would have been the river’s edge. Now they’re only visible at low tide because river levels have risen over the past 6000 years.

The timbers were found during a survey in spring of 2010 but the find was kept secret until it could be fully documented without interference. Artifacts dating to around the same period as the piles were found on the site, as well as some Stone Age pottery.

Near the timbers, late Mesolithic stone tools, including a fine tranchet adze (a woodworking tool), were also discovered, as well as slightly later Neolithic pottery of two distinct types. The area may have been a significant, named place continuing through centuries or even millennia. It is only 600 metres downstream from the Bronze Age timber-built bridge or jetty (c. 1500 BC) which hit the headlines in the 1990s.

Archaeologists from the Thames Discovery Programme made the discovery as they investigated the area as part of a continuing project to record archaeological and historical remains on the foreshore. With support, help and advice from English Heritage, alongside the Museum of London and the Geomatics team from Museum of London Archaeology, a detailed survey was carried out, radiocarbon dates obtained for the six piles, and specialist analysis of the artefacts and environmental evidence performed.

More artifacts or pieces of the structure may well turn up in the future. The site’s location right at the lowest tide level make it highly susceptible to the effects of tidal scour and river traffic. Things get sucked out then slapped back down.

Of course, that’s also a source of site degradation, as is the constant development of the Thames shore. A new Combined Sewer Overflow is scheduled to open just a few feet away from the timbers.

Vauxhall Mesolithic timber site, low tide


Gold Rush village found under San Fran parking lot

January 6th, 2011

19th c. doll found under San Fran parking lotArchaeologists excavating the parking lot near the corner of First and Minna streets in downtown San Francisco, part of the future site of the ambitious new Transbay Transit Center, have discovered a large number of artifacts dating to 1848 and shortly thereafter.

The area was a working class enclave of shopkeepers’ homes between sand dunes. The variety of the pieces is testimony to how many people traveled to San Francisco from all over the country after the 1848 gold strike at Sutter’s Mill to make their fortunes.

“This working class came from all over. Eleven feet down, there was tableware manufactured in Philadelphia and coins not minted as money that also came from Philadelphia,” lead archeologist Heather Price said. “And from the ground surface all the way to 12 feet below, we found fancy serving platters … and many, many liquor bottles.”

19th c. plate depicting bear-baiting Twelve feet down, Price said, they found pieces of a tent that roaming miners might have used on their way up to Gold Country.

“The supercool stuff was 12 feet deep,” she said. “We got down to just immediately after the Gold Rush, like 1850 and maybe even late 1840s.”

At that time, the shoreline of San Francisco Bay was about 1½ blocks away. Then the 1906 earthquake and fire pulverized the homes, and the sand was leveled for industrial development.

The artifacts will be preserved, catalogued and stored at a lab for the foreseeable future. The new Transbay Transit Terminal Project, an enormous development covering more than 22 city blocks, plans to install new high speed rail lines around a Grand Central Station-like 1 million-square-foot hub called the Transbay Transit Center. Once the center is built — it’s scheduled to open in 2017 — the artifacts may go on permanent display there.

William Self Associates has done many of the required preliminary excavations to ensure the new construction doesn’t completely annihilate historical sites. They’ll be conserving the artifacts and planning the exhibit in the Transit Center as well as any additional museums within the TTT area.

San Francisco harbor bristling with merchant ships, 1850-1851


Norman Rockwell mural returns to Agriculture Dept.

January 5th, 2011

Who knew state Departments of Agriculture were such hotbeds of artistic controversy? Last week the Georgia agriculture commissioner said he’d remove murals depicting slavery. Now the Vermont agriculture commissioner is delighted to welcome back a Norman Rockwell photographic mural depicting Vermont’s most famed agricultural product. “Maple Sugaring in Vermont” is a black-and-white picture of men working maple trees around a sugar house. One of those men is Norman Rockwell himself.

Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont in 1939 and became fast friends with Chairman of the Vermont Sugar Makers Association, Colonel Henry Fairfax Ayres. The good Colonel was a World War I hero who retired to Vermont in 1937, invented new devices and processes that revolutionized maple sugaring, and was instrumental in getting grading standards for syrup enacted by the legislature. He rejoined the military after Pearl Harbor, retiring again in 1945 due to an injury he received on a PT Boat raid.

Agriculture commissioner Roger Albee views Norman Rockwell mural on Dept. of Ag's wallIn 1947, he commissioned his friend to make the 5-by-7-foot mural which Ayres then lent to the state for display.

The mural hung in the lobby of the state Agency of Agriculture building in Montpelier for years. In 1987, the state lent it to the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont because building renovations had displaced it.

At the Rutland museum, it came to anchor an exhibit popular with foliage-viewing visitors and Rockwell buffs. The state never sought to reclaim it.

But last year, Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee — who knew of the loan from twin brother Ronald, who held the agriculture secretary job before him — began making inquiries at the museum.

The museum refused to return it. They had had it on prominent display for 23 years, after all, and they were hardly keen to amputate it off of their collection. They asked that the state demonstrate proof of ownership, so Allbee took up the issue with the state attorney general’s office. They researched the ownership issue, locating archives, witnesses and contacting Ayres’ grandson who offered to sue the museum if they continued to refuse to return the mural.

Last week, the dam broke and “Maple Sugaring in Vermont” was returned to the capital where it now hangs in the second-floor hallway of the Department of Agriculture building. The museum is bereft; curator Rachel Lynes-Bell calls the transfer “a tragedy” for them.

For an excellent online archive Norman Rockwell’s work, from Saturday Evening Post covers to preparatory sketches and pictures, see the official Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. I particularly enjoyed this featured archive of his work on The Gossips, one of his most popular Post covers (and possibly the inspiration for Timex Social Club’s classic Rumors video).


Antioch mosaics depict lost Menander scenes

January 4th, 2011

Classics experts examining four recently discovered mosaics in the ancient city of Antioch have discovered that all of the pieces depict lost scenes from plays by fourth century B.C. Greek playwright Menander.

Menander is known to have written over a hundred comedies. His work was extremely popular in the ancient world, but by the 19th century, all that was left of his plays were fragments quoted in other books. It wasn’t until the 20th century that large parts of six of his plays were found in papyri, mummy linings, palimpsests and manuscripts. Only one of them is complete.

The mosaics were found by Ömer Çelik, a staff archaeologist at the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Antakya during a recent excavation. He contacted a friend at the University of Cincinnati and she contacted Classics Professor Kathryn Gutzwiller to enlist her expertise in ancient literature in trying to decipher the images depicted in the mosaics. It was Gutzwiller who identified them as Menander scenes.

Three scenes depicted in the mosaics are from plays that have been entirely lost, and the last scene is from a play that has survived in part, but is missing the scene in the mosaic.

The mosaics, which were found in ancient Antioch and date to the third century AD, represent scenes in “Women at Lunch,” “Girl Whose Hair is Shorn,” “Sisters Who Love Brothers” and “Possessed Girl.”

“The importance of these mosaics is two-fold. One, they help us to reconstruct each of the four plays. Two, they illuminate significantly the tradition of illustrating Menander and reveal variations in the illustrations of the plays.”

Antioch mosaic depicting Menander scene from "Sisters Who Love Brothers" Antioch mosaic depicting scene from "Girl Whose Hair is Shorn"

They’re also important additions to the rich history of mosaic art uncovered in Antioch and environs. Over the centuries, earthquakes and Persians have ensured that very little of the ancient Hellenistic and Roman city survives. Between 1932 and 1939 an excavation team from a group of prestigious institutions like the Louvre and Princeton sought to uncover the remains of large structures like Constantine’s Great Octagonal Church. They failed utterly.

What they did find, however, was an enormous number of large, intricate mosaics in the floors of ancient villas and baths. Most of those mosaics are now on permanent display in the Hatay Archaeological Museum. There’s a fantastic collection of pictures of the museum’s astonishing mosaic collection on this page.


Tiffany’s Daffodil Terrace rebuilt in Florida

January 3rd, 2011

The Daffodil Terrace at Laurelton Hall before the fireWhen Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Long Island estate Laurelton Hall burned down in 1957, scavengers flocked to the site to scoop up whatever they could find. Hugh McKean, a personal friend of Tiffany’s who had lived on the estate as fellow-in-residence, and his wife Jeannette took away large chunks of the 84-room house. What they didn’t salvage on the spot, they spent four decades locating and buying from sales, auctions and owners.

The reconstructed Daffodil Terrace on display at the Met, 2006They founded the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida to house the Laurelton Hall pieces and the rest of their collection of Tiffany objects. Most of the collection remained in storage until 2006, when the Morse Museum collaborated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to unpack the pieces and put them together for a temporary six-month display.

Detail of Daffodil Terrace columnThe reconstructed Daffodil Terrace, so named because its columns are topped with long-stemmed glass daffodil capitals, was the centerpiece. As soon as the Morse board members saw it at the Met, they realized they couldn’t just pack it back up once the exhibit was over. So the Morse spent $5 million building a new 6,000-square-foot wing to house the Daffodil Terrace and the 250 other Tiffany pieces in the collection.

Construction is done and the new wing is scheduled to open on February 19th. The new gallery was designed to mirror the flow and placement of Laurelton Hall, and to emphasize Tiffany’s characteristic blurring of indoor and outdoor spaces.

The Daffodil Terrace will be displayed in a glassed-in alcove to recreate the feel of the original outdoor space.

“It’s bathed in natural light for the first time since it was taken from the estate,” said Catherine Hinman, the museum’s director of public affairs.

As it did at Laurelton Hall, the terrace flows directly into a recreation of the estate’s dining room, which includes a nearly 14-foot high mosaic mantelpiece, 25-foot long Oriental carpet and a suite of six leaded-glass wisteria transoms.

The adjoining living room features four leaded-glass panels depicting the four seasons, which won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and five turtleback-glass hanging lamps.

The Morse Museum website has set up a webcam in the Daffodil Terrace gallery. Right now it just looks like grainy security cam footage, but I’ll try again tomorrow when the alcove should be bathed in natural light.

The living room gallery, Morse Museum


Last roll of Kodachrome film developed

January 2nd, 2011

Kodachrome filmDwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, developed the last roll of Kodachrome film on Thursday. As digital photography took over and developing outlets closed en masse, Kodak announced in June of 2009 that after 74 years of iconic success, they would no longer produce the development chemicals necessary to print Kodachrome negatives. Dwayne’s Photo got a special dispensation. Kodak ensured that as the only shop left not just in the United States but in the world, they would receive the chemicals through the end of 2010.

Kodachrome was the first successful mass-produced color film process. It created a rich depth of color and warm light which made it a favorite of videographers and photographers, peaking in the 1960s. Paul Simon even wrote a song about it whose lyrics include, “They give us those nice bright colours. They give us the greens of summers. Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.”

Or not so sunny, as the case would have it. Abraham Zapruder shot his famous footage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Kodachrome film.

Before the deadline loomed so prominently, the store was developing an average of 700 rolls of film a day, which is a remarkable amount considering the dominance of digital. The end of an era stimulated a huge final rush of people bringing in every roll they’ve had lying around for decades.

In the last weeks, dozens of visitors and thousands of overnight packages have raced here, transforming this small prairie-bound city not far from the Oklahoma border for a brief time into a center of nostalgia for the days when photographs appeared not in the sterile frame of a computer screen or in a pack of flimsy prints from the local drugstore but in the warm glow of a projector pulling an image from a carousel of vivid slides.

In the span of minutes this week, two such visitors arrived. The first was a railroad worker who had driven from Arkansas to pick up 1,580 rolls of film that he had just paid $15,798 to develop. The second was an artist who had driven directly here after flying from London to Wichita, Kan., on her first trip to the United States to turn in three rolls of film and shoot five more before the processing deadline.

The artist, Aliceson Carter, 42, was incredulous as she watched the railroad worker, Jim DeNike, 53, loading a dozen boxes that contained nearly 50,000 slides into his old maroon Pontiac. He explained that every picture inside was of railroad trains and that he had borrowed money from his father’s retirement account to pay for developing them.

Is it weird if I hope that he’s able to digitize that collection some day?

National Geographic Afghan girlThe last roll of film Kodak made they gave to photographer Steve McCurry, the author of the famous portrait, shot in Kodachrome, of an Afghan girl with piercing green eyes that was on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. He shot pictures in New York and India on the roll and took it to Dwayne’s Photo in person for development.

His wasn’t the last roll to be developed, though. That honor went to Dwayne’s owner Dwayne Steinle, but first he had to fish out a camera that actually worked, because, o tempora o mores, he himself uses a digital camera these days. He took pictures of the town in the last week of Kodachrome, leaving the last space on the roll for a group photo of all of Dwayne’s Photo’s employees standing in front of the store wearing custom printed t-shirts to mark the moment: “The best slide and movie film in history is now officially retired. Kodachrome: 1935-2010.”





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