Precise date of Porta Nigra in Trier identified

January 12th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the precise date of the Porta Nigra, the majestic Roman gate in the ancient city walls of Trier that is the largest ancient city gate north of the Alps. Researchers have determined conclusively that the Porta Nigra was built in 170 A.D. Up until now it was only possible to estimate a date range, a fairly broad one at that of between 150 and 320 A.D. Later modifications obscured the original structure, and while there are date markers on some of the sandstone blocks in the western tower, they are incomplete.

Its massive size also suggested that it was built at least in part to fend off regular attacks from Germanic tribes during the turbulent 3rd century like other large, highly fortified gates from the period. The city walls of Trier (Colonia Augusta Treverorum) were built during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) which was relatively peaceful. The battles Marcus Aurelius fought against Germanic tribes were east of the Danube. Trier was way west of the hot zone. There wouldn’t have been an obvious need at that point to build a gate with such extensive defensive features. The need, it turns out, was probably the sort of motivation that often underpins monumental construction: to convey the power and prestige of the city.

It was trees that made this discovery possible, trees, water and the science of dendrochronology (tree ring analysis). In the fall of 2017, archaeologists seeking to answer the question of when the gate was built dug a deep cylindrical shaft at a site adjacent to the Porta Nigra where the ancient walls (demolished by shortsighted wretches after the unification of Germany in 1871) once stood. The site was carefully chosen because the Mosel River flowed through it in Roman times. The team hoped the waterlogged substrate might have preserved timbers used in construction of the gate.

At first they came up empty. Then to their jubilation they found two planks and a round piling, but it was a very tempered, serious archaeologically skeptical jubilation because not every piece of wood can be tree-ring dated. In fact it seemed their worry was well justified. The wood looked good from the outside, but were so soft that couldn’t even take the necessary samples. Freezing the pieces helped, making it possible to take a cross-section and get some partial information, but you need more that a piece of a tree to calculate the exact year it was felled. The dendrochronological gods were on their side, however, and the scientists found a small piece of park on one of the timbers that completed the annual tree ring record.

“This is a milestone in the history of the city of Trier,” said the director of Trier’s Rheinisches Landesmuseum, as the results of the findings were made public on Friday. […]

Mechthild Neyses-Eiden explains to Culture Minister Konrad Wolf how the preserved wood was used for dating. Photo by Th. Zühmer.The fact that the ancient oak wood that was found could be dated to the winter of 169/170 AD was a “stroke of luck,” said Mechthild Neyses-Eiden, an expert in dendrochronology — the science of three-ring dating — who led the research at the Trier museum. At the time, wood was used for construction immediately after being felled, she explained.

Trier was founded by Augustus Caesar in 16 B.C., but very little is known about the first couple of centuries of its existence. (The orgy of destruction after unification didn’t help.) Finally getting a firm date for the Porta Nigra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an iconic symbol of the city, helps sharpen an otherwise very hazy picture.

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Penn Museum training loot-detecting dogs

January 11th, 2018

The Penn Museum is deploying one of nature’s highest precision weapons, the canine olfactory sense, in the fight against artifact looting. The museum, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the nonprofit Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research are working together on a project that will train dogs to detect and protect smuggled artifacts.

No longer a matter of local desperadoes trying to make a quick buck, artifact smuggling is big business now, generating an estimated four to six billion a year in blood-drenched profits for the criminal and terrorist organizations.

“[K-9 Artifact Finders is] an innovative way to disrupt the market in illicit antiquities, and that’s really what needs to happen to slow down the pace of looting and theft in conflict zones,” consulting scholar for the Penn Museum and 2000 Penn doctoral graduate Michael Danti said. “Currently, art crime, that means fine arts, antiques, antiquities, is usually ranked as the fourth or fifth largest grossing dollar criminal activity in the world on an annual basis.”

Danti said terrorist organizations often use stolen cultural artifacts to fund their operations, deliberately destroying them and using them for propaganda and “click-bait.” He added that high-profile groups like the Islamic State have continuously done this, setting a precedent for other similar organizations to employ the same techniques.

The K-9 Artifact Finders program is still in the initial setup phase at this point. The plan is divided into three parts, much like Caesar did to Gaul. To narrow down the almost impossibly broad range of smells associated with cultural heritage objects, trainers will focus on the Fertile Crescent which has been devastated by war, instability and increasingly professional organized criminals that treat the area’s immense cultural patrimony like their personal piggy bank. Penn Museum’s world-class collection of Mesopotamian artifacts will be invaluable in this pursuit.

Four dogs from the Working Dog Center’s, carefully selected for their noses and temperament, will learn to distinguish between up to three types of newly excavated objects. Once the dogs have completed the scent imprinting and recognize what they’re supposed to look for, the trainers will teach them to distinguish between different subsets of odor.

[Penn Vet professor Cynthia] Otto said there is a special procedure to introduce the smell of artifacts to dogs without compromising the artifacts.

“Our main training approach will be to use cotton balls and let the artifacts and cotton sit together in a closed non-permeable bag. That way the odor from the artifacts is absorbed by the cotton and we don’t have to risk damage to the artifacts,” Otto said. “We will also train the dogs to ignore the odor of the plain cotton and other things that might be similar but not the actual artifact.”

The second phase will be on-the-ground testing and the third a demonstration program that would give customs officers the tools to train their own K-9 units to find smuggled artifacts. Phases II and III don’t have all the funding they need yet. To make a tax deductible donation to help get the program from theory to practice, click here.

There are a lot of unknowns about this ground-breaking idea, like whether it’s even possible for dogs to distinguish between artifacts and things that smell like them due to a shared environment or what have you. I bet it is. One should never underestimate the power of the canine nose, and the anti-looter squad wouldn’t be the first dogs used in aid of archaeologists. Migaloo, a very good girl from Brisbane, Australia, was trained to detect human remains of archaeological age. Cadaver dogs have been around a long time, but Migaloo was the first to have the nose and the training to detect ossified remains, not decaying flesh. She found 600-year-old skeletal remains buried eight feet underground during one her tests.

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First book remains found in Blackbeard’s ship

January 10th, 2018

Conservators at the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab in Greenville, North Carolina, have discovered something they never expected to find on a shipwreck: paper, wadded up into a plug and stuffed down the barrel of a breech-loaded cannon, one that would have been fired by men under the command of infamous English pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. The Queen Anne’s Revenge was the flagship of his fleet. It ran aground in the treacherous waters of the Inner Banks of North Carolina in 1718 and was discovered in 1997.

The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources (NCDCR) conservation team have been cleaning, conserving and documenting artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck site off the coast of Beaufort Inlet since 2006, and committed to full recovery of all the archaeological materials in 2014. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of objects, 280,000 of them recovered before the decision was made to leave no Blackbeardiana behind. It was during the course of this ambitious project that the paper was found in the cannon.

These fragments survived 300 years on the coastal seabed of North Carolina because they were protected by being balled up tight in a confined space. The wadding and cannon coffin kept them from dissolving into nothingness. In that context, the waterlogging was the key to its preservation rather than a means of destruction.

That’s not to say that the paper was in tip-top shape and could be read like a Kindle. The QAR Lab’s artifact conservators teamed up with paper conservation experts, art conservators and scientists to do examine the mass. Upon closer examination, conservators found that the plug of sodden paper were all that was left of a book, tiny fragments of pages at the most the size of a quarter. Still, there was faint text still legible on some of the fragments.

With such small snippets to work with, researchers had to spend months investigating the source of the pages. They were finally able to identify it as the 1712 first edition of A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World by Captain Edward Cooke.

As the prolix full title indicates, the book documents Captain Cooke’s voyages undertaken in 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711. It’s a journal of routes, weather patterns, notable events, an atlas with current maps of coastlines, details on native flora and fauna and histories of the countries and their residents. The notable events have something of a recurring theme: the taking of “prizes,” meaning the overt and unrepentant assaults on Spanish treasure galleons along the Manilla route. Cooke talks about it constantly, which ships they took, when and where. It’s really something of pirate’s manual to despoiling Spanish shipping, truth be told, complete with essential navigation details of relatively fresh date. I can see why Blackbeard’s crew would be into it. The feeling would not have been mutual.

Cooke’s book was a “voyage narrative” describing his adventures on an expedition made by two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which sailed from Bristol, England in 1708. The expedition leader was Captain Woodes Rogers, who also published an account of the expedition, and who was later sent in 1718 as Royal Governor to rid the Bahamas of pirates.

Voyage narratives were popular literature in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, inspiring new voyages both real and fictional. Both Cooke’s and Rogers’ works describe the rescue of Alexander Selkirk from an island on which he had been marooned for four years. Selkirk’s story became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, “Robinson Crusoe.” Although books like these voyage narratives would have been relatively common on ships of the early 18th century, archaeological evidence for them is exceedingly rare, and this find represents a glimpse into the reading habits of a pirate crew.

This unique find from the wreckage of Queen Anne’s Revenge provides archaeological evidence for books carried on ships in the early 18th century, and adds to our knowledge of the history of Blackbeard’s flagship and those who sailed her. The historical record has several references to books aboard vessels in Blackbeard’s fleet, but provides no specific titles; this find is the first archaeological evidence for their presence on QAR.

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2,500-year-old dragon bed pieced back together

January 9th, 2018

Dismantling, cleaning, conserving and coating the largest the expanse of medieval glass in the UK took a decade. Piecing together a single lacquer bed frame took almost two. The dragon bed was unearthed in 2000 from a tomb complex on Commercial Street in downtown Chengdu, capital of China’s southcentral Sichuan province, but it was not arranged for ease of interpretation. It was in pieces, various sections of it placed in multiple coffins. First the archaeologists had to locate every part — 45 in total, the largest more than 10 feet long, the smallest about eight inches long — and then they had to immediately conserve the water-logged wood to ensure it didn’t dry up, shrink, crack and suffer irremediable paint and lacquer loss.

For 10 years, from 2000 until 2010, the wood parts were kept underwater for their own protection. In 2010, the dehydration process began. The bed pieces were soaked in a combination of chemicals that replaced the water content with an air-stable waxy substance similar to the way PEG was used in the preservation of the Mary Rose. This stage took four years. Next was a very slow drying stage that according to national regulations must be carefully monitored to ensure there is no more than 5% shrinkage. The conservators at the Cultural Relics and Rehabilitation Center of the Chengdu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology managed to keep the shrinkage rate even lower than that, 3%.

Once dried and stabilized, the bed was ready for reconstruction. The problem was that it was hard to even know where to start, like a thousand piece jigsaw without a map on the underside of the box lid. Then the ghosts of Shu spoke to the engineers and conservators through little engraved icons near each joint. They look like a child’s line drawing, not proportional or to scale, more like symbols on a Mahjong set, but each symbol near a mortise has a match near a tenon. Fit the joints with the matching symbols together and you have yourself a 2,500-year-old dragon bed.

All told, it has taken 17 years, but they finally accomplished it. The lacquer bed is one majestic piece again, 2.55 meters (8.37 feet) long, 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) wide and 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) high. Named after the cinnabar dragons that decorate its long sides, the bed is the largest, oldest ancient lacquer bed ever discovered in China, and it is exceptionally well-preserved, with all of its original mortise and tenon joints still in fine functioning order.

“Parts of the bed were scattered in a number of boat-shaped coffins at the time of the discovery, and it took archeologists and their staff 17 years to restore the bed to its original form to the best of their ability, using various techniques,” said Xiao Lin, who heads the restoration department of the institute.

“Based on its structure and patterns, the bed is very likely to have been used by an ancient king of Shu State, who ruled the region in the early Warring States period 2,500 years ago,” said Yan Jinsong, an archeologist who headed the excavation work of the tomb complex. “The signs that makers left on the bed are highly related to the language used in the Shu State, offering new and valuable clues to archeologists keen to decode the mysterious ancient language.”

According to later chroniclers (all of whom were keen to connect their emperors or rulers with mythical godlike power figures of the distance past), the Bronze Age Shu culture has legendary antecedents going back thousands of years. There isn’t any archaeological evidence connecting the Shu to, say, the “Yellow Emperor,” but there are remains of settlements and artifacts dating as early as 2,000 B.C. By the 5th century B.C., the Shu kings were firmly established and founded Chengdu as their new capital. It’s around this time that the dragon bed was made, like for one of the Shu kings or princes. They didn’t have long to enjoy it. The Shu kingdom was conquered by the state of Qin in 316 B.C. during the Warring States period and victorious Qin general Zhang Yi rebuilt Chengdu.

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Restoration of York Minster’s Great East Window complete

January 8th, 2018

A decade after it began, the restoration and reinstallation of the Great East Window of York Minster is complete. The window was design by master glazier John Thornton of Coventry in the first decade of the 15th century. It only took him and the gifted assistants in his workshop three years, from 1405 until 1408, to design, cut and execute the sweeping, majestic richly colored vista of Biblical scenes from the Creation of the world in Genesis to the end of it in the Book of Revelation. He was paid £56 by the Chapter of York for this masterpiece.

Composed of 311 individual panes, the Great East Window is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the UK. Experts believe it also the largest depiction of the Apocalypse in the world. It survived German bombs in World War II, something Thornton’s windows in Coventry Cathedral were unable to do because while they were taken down for their protection and technically made it through the Blitz, they were stored haphazardly with no references whatsoever to their original configuration and so could not be pieced back together.

The window panes were last conserved after World War II, so a thorough refurbishment was very much in order. The Great East Window conservation became a key component of the York Minster Revealed project. In 2008, the experts at the York Glaziers Trust dismantled the window, taking down all 311 panels and removing them to their restoration lab. For five years, every individual piece of glass, large or small, was painstakingly studied, cleaned, conserved and examined in the Bedern Glaziers Studio where visitors could see the conservation team at work. Broken pieces and ones misplaced in previous conservation efforts were fixed. The latest and greatest protective coating was applied to keep the newly refreshed colors from fading or suffering damage from UV rays.

The cost of the restoration was £11.5 million, much of it contributed by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Between 2011 and 2017, conservators spent a cumulative 92,400 hours working to repair and protect the window for future generations. Halfway through, in 2015, the first half of the restored glass panels (157 of them) were returned to the window. Visitors could see the revived color in situ again. Gradually the other 154 panels were returned to their original locations in the Tracery and Old Testament areas.

The last of the 311 panes was installed on Tuesday, January 2nd, ushering in a very auspicious New Year. It was money and time very well-spent. The revived Great East Window is so pristine and vivid now it’s much easier to follow the complexity of the Biblical narrative, and the pioneering use of technology will be a template for future glazing restorations at York Minster and beyond.

Sarah Brown, Director at York Glaziers Trust, said: “This has been a once in a lifetime project for the team and it’s a huge privilege to be part of this milestone in the Minster’s history.

“The Great East Window is one of the great artistic achievements of the Middle Ages, a stunning expanse of stained glass of unparalleled size and beauty in Britain. The work undertaken as part of this project will ensure this masterpiece is preserved for hundreds of years to come.”

The Dean of York, The Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, added: “It’s a triumph to have the Great East Window complete once again and we look forward to seeing it in all its glory when the scaffolding is removed and the project formally completed in the spring.

“Its completion marks the start of a multi-million pound campaign in partnership with the York Minster Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to provide state-of-the-art protective glazing to all 128 of our medieval stained glass windows.

“It will take us 20 years to achieve this but the environmental protection will stop the corrosion and decay caused by the glass being exposed to the elements, buying us much needed time for vital conservation work which will preserve the irreplaceable windows for generations to come.”

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The Making of a Roman Silver Cup

January 7th, 2018

In 2014, the Getty Museum was fortunate enough to be allowed access to one of the world’s greatest Roman treasures: the silver hoard discovered by a farmer ploughing his field in Berthouville, Normandy, France, in 1830. An unprecendented assemblage of silver-gilt objects that epitomize the best Roman silversmithing had to offer, the plates, bowls, cups, pitchers, statuettes are crafted with high relief details, scenes from mythology and elaborate designs that were probably the dining set of an incredibly wealthy Roman. Inscriptions by the donor, one Quintus Domitius Tutus, dedicating them to the Gallo-Roman version of the god Mercury indicate they were later used for ritual purposes and deliberately buried, but first they were likely used to set a fabulously splendid banquet table.

Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D. Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D. Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D.. gold det. Photo courtesy the JP Getty Museum.

The Getty Villa in Malibu played host to Berthouville’s most famous citizens starting in December 2010 as part of a collaboration with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to employ its own greatest assets — the deep bench of conservation experience and know-how — to conserve and restore the objects. They had been roughly handled in the initial cleaning back in the olden days of the 19th century, so they needed cleaning, restoration and punctilious research to revive their shine. The work Getty conservators did uncovered a great deal of new information about how Roman silversmiths worked and how 19th century restorers worked.

Because of their aid in restoring these precious objects, the Getty was given the sole opportunity to exhibit the treasure and other fine silver pieces from the collection of the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville ran from November 2014 through August 2015. It was the first time the Berthouville treasure has ever been allowed to leave France and very possibly the last.

I wrote about the exhibition at the time, but I missed the very cool YouTube video showing how Roman silversmiths would have created one of the exquisite cups in the treasure. There’s also a cool 3D rotating view of the Mercury statuette that is one the stars of the Berthouville show.

The video quality on this one leaves something to be desired, but the content sure doesn’t. It’s a lecture by Getty antiquities curator Kenneth Lapatin on the background of the Berthouville Treasure.

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Unique Roman game board found in 4th c. tomb in Slovakia

January 6th, 2018

The accidental discovery of a 4th century burial in Poprad, Slovakia, in 2006 made national and international headlines for the exceptional richness of the find. Poprad, in the foothills of the High Tatra Mountains in northern Slovakia, is famed as a resort town and for its beautiful historic center, but this tomb was found by construction workers on a job site in an industrial area, not the historic center. Finding a tomb with a yew wood bed lined in sheets of silver was an unexpectedly thrilling surprise.

The individual buried was found to be a young adult male about 30 years old at the time of his death. He was born in the area where his body was interred, but he spent significant stretch of time in the Mediterranean. The tomb dates to around 375 A.D., just a few years before from Rome’s withdrawal west of the Danube and the end of the formerly friendly relationship between empire and the German tribes who inhabited what would become modern-day Slovakia.

Archaeologists think he may have served in the Roman army which was then hurtling towards disaster under pressure from barbarian migrations, both voluntary and Hun-driven, and dependent on the outer provinces and beyond for soldiers and mercenaries. He wouldn’t have been an infantry grunt. He was too wealthy and clearly a member of the elite of his own society. He was a person of rank, a prince or nobleman, the kind of person the Romans paid through the nose to fight for them as foederati, leaders of irregular units composed largely of their own men. The Visigoth king Alaric was one of those, until the emperor wouldn’t give him the command and lands he demanded so he sacked Rome to the bone not once, not twice, not thrice but four times. So was Childeric, King of the Franks.

If he did fight for Rome, that would explain his movements, his valuables, and one very special artifact found in his tomb: his game board. In a tomb full of shiny treasures and rare preserved organic objects like a wood desk, the discovery of the rectangular board with a proliferation of small incised squares and a few playing tokens of green and white generated enormous excitement. The type was unknown to the archaeologists and even after years of assiduous research, it is still something of a mystery.

“There were plenty of board games in ancient times with many variants, but reconstructing the playing technique is a very complicated process that only top experts can solve,” said the deputy of director of the Archaeological Institute in Nitra, Karol Pieta, as cited by the SITA newswire. Pieta lead the research on the tomb in Poprad. […]

“There has been not a playing board of similar type in Europe yet,” said Pieta for SITA. Games of this type were found in Greek and Roman temples on the floors or in the streets of ancient towns, carved into stone pavement. This portable wooden board game from Poprad is unique.

The team enlisted the aid of those experts, Ulrich Schädler, director of the (absolutely charming) Swiss Museum of Games on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Excited by the find, he was eager to get a closer view of the game and went to Slovakia to study it in person. His report is nothing short of glowing.

“The board game from the tomb of the German prince in Poprad is a great discovery and contribution to the history of games in Europe. It’s the best preserved ancient wooden board game that has been found to the north of the Mediterranean Sea. Together with Roman glass playing pieces it was apparently a prestigious object that documented contacts of the dead with the Roman world,” said Schädler, as quoted by SITA.

An analysis of the playing pieces revealed that it is ancient glass from the east Mediterranean, probably from Syria. “So the game was apparently brought from the territory of the Roman empire to under the Tatras,” added Pieta for SITA.

The game board will go on display at an exhibition dedicated to the contents of the tomb later this year at the Podtatranské Museum in Poprad.

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Largest early world map stitched together virtually

January 5th, 2018

The largest known early map of the world has been digitally stitched together into one single glorious panorama of exotic far-flung lands and mythical creatures. This virtual parturition births into the world the cartographic baby of Urbano Monte, a 16th century geographer who created the planisphere in 1587. The 60-page manuscript covered depicted all the known world from the North Pole to the much conjecture but still unknown Terra Australis way down south. The 60 manuscript pages when put together to create the complete top-down view of the earth Monte envisioned are 10 feet by 10 feet, the largest early non-mural map known.

That’s not its only intriguing attribute. It’s a North Polar projection, aka an azimuthal equidistant projection which accurately positions landmasses along global meridians. While there are a few examples of the form before Monte’s planisphere, his use of the North Polar projection in this map was a major step forward and later cartographers borrowed from it liberally. He drew every part of the map by hand on those 60 sheets, labelling every land mass, every hill, every dale, every river, country, ship and coastline, practically every tree. There are charts that record the length of days and nights during the year, the strength of the sun’s rays at different times, a lunar eclipse, a wind chart and many tidy explanations of geographic nomenclature and concepts. It is unreal, and I’m not just saying that because of the mutant fish monsters and mermen living it up in the Terra Austraulis Ignonita, which appears to have basically been Vegas before Bugsy Siegal.

It was this information dense by design. Monte included information on weather, topographic data, the amount of daylight, and tons more because he wanted it to be the complete resource for the learned statesman, a scientific planisphere that was to be secured in a wood panel and revolve above the heads of viewers via a pin through the North Pole, a slowly turning planet, if you will. The revolving map was another innovation of Monte’s.

Unfortunately he never did put the manuscript sheets together and create his great masterpiece. The masterpiece has remained bound in Italian sheep leather for 430 years. (There are two other manuscripts known, one with missing areas, the other a later one of 64 pages.) Making Urbano Monte’s dream come true is now possible without destruction, as long as you have the expertise, resources and dedication to put in the many hours of work takes. The David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford University recently acquired the manuscript and has been digitizing its pages. They’ve done a spectacular job and the end result is an online resource that allows visitors to zoom in to enormously high resolution images of each page as well as to see a digital composite of the pages in their proper order, assembled just the way Monte instructed on one of the pages of the planisphere. There’s a top-down view of the 10×10 square map, several reprojections that map the virtual map on to the globe, as a Mercator projection, etc. Every label is easily readable thanks to the zoom, resolution and Monte’s elegant, clear-as-a-bell handwriting. It’s a digital masterpiece of an analog masterpiece.

When we georeference Monte’s map and then re-project it into Mercator projection we immediately understand why he used the north polar projection instead of Mercator’s: Monte wanted to show the entire earth as close as possible to a three-dimensional sphere using a two-dimensional surface. His projection does just that, notwithstanding the distortions around the south pole. Those same distortions exist in the Mercator’s world map, and by their outsized prominence on Monte’s map they gave him a vast area to indulge in all the speculations about Antarctica that proliferated in geographical descriptions in the 16th century. While Mercator’s projection became standard in years to come due to its ability to accurately measure distance and bearing, Monte’s polar projection gave a better view of the relationships of the continents and oceans. In the 20th century air age, the polar projection returned as a favored way to show the earth. Monte would have been pleased to see a modern version of his map used in the official emblem of the United Nations.

That is totally cromulent map. Imaging making something even remotely that accurate with colored pencils and 60 sheets of paper (well, sheepskin). You must browse through every page of this map and zoom way in to the spot all the animals, monarchs on thrones, irate mermen, even the aritst himself in not one, but two self-portraits. It’s too good not to be enjoyed in all its glory. Then you can pay homage to the master by seeing it look incredible connected as he had intended it to be 430 years ago. It’s been a long time in coming.

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Wellcome acquires elegant portrait of luxuriously bearded woman

January 4th, 2018

The Wellcome Collection, the free museum and library founded by pharmacist and medicalia collector Sir Henry Wellcome is surely one of the most wide-ranging, fascinating and vibrant museums in London. It has just added another gem to the millions: an oil painting of Barbara van Beck, a 17th century artist and business woman who made a splash in European and British high society thanks to her talent, grace and hairiness, largely the last of these.

Van Beck had hypertrichosis or Ambras syndrome, a genetic condition that cause thick hair growth in places where it doesn’t normally grow on humans. Barbara’s long, silky chestnut hair covered her face, from forehead to nose to chin. Combined with her fine figure and excellence on the harpsichord, her concerts and performances were a big draw, attended in theaters and drawing rooms instead of the dingy carnival sideshows “bearded women” would be relegated to in later centuries. Her condition made her stand out — people loved to see her the juxtaposition of biological oddity, fashion plate and accomplished lady — but it was her ability to perform artistically as well as socially that garnered her such appreciative and well-heeled audiences.

Diarist John Evelyn records attending one such performance in London in his entry of September 15, 1657:

I saw the hairy woman, twenty years old, whom I had before seen when a child. She was born at Augsburg, in Germany.
Her very eyebrows were combed upward, and all her forehead as thick and even as grows on any woman’s head, neatly dressed ; a very long lock of hair out of each ear; she had also a most prolix beard, and moustachios, with long locks growing on the middle of her nose, like an Iceland dog exactly, the color of a bright brown, fine as well-dressed flax. She was now married, and told me she had one child that was not hairy, nor were any of her parents, or relations. She was very well shaped, and played well on the harpsichord.

She worked consistently for decades, was a bona fide celebrity and widely depicted even long after her death. The Wellcome has five prints of van Beck already in its collection. Engraver Richard Gaywood’s 1656 portrait of her standing by a harpsichord, her hands posed delicately on the keys, was widely circulated and copied by later artists. The newly acquired oil painting predates Gaywood’s engraving by 10 years or so. It is the first painting of van Beck in the Wellcome Collection and is of very high quality.

“We don’t know who painted the portrait, or where, when or for whom, but the point of it is Barbara’s dignity,” Angela McShane, Wellcome’s research development manager, said. “This is a beautifully executed high-status painting. She is not portrayed as a freak as the Victorians would have described her – as I often say when lecturing, you can blame the Victorians for most things – but as a woman with great self-possession and presence, painted at a time when she would have been viewed, as Evelyn saw her, as wonderful, a natural wonder.”

“There is nothing titillating about her low-cut dress either, though we might now see it that way. She is dressed is in the highest fashion of the day and contemporary viewers would have recognised that.”

That is a tribute to her gifts and perseverance. Her life could have easily taken a very different path. Barbara van Beck was born Barbara Ursler in Augsburg, Bavaria, in 1629. As Evelyn alludes to, by the time she was eight years old her parents were exhibiting her in traveling shows, but either did not neglect her education or she used her wits to get one herself by whatever means were on offer. As an adult she was highly cultured, spoke several languages and had traveled extensively.

Barbara Van Beck etching by R.S. Kirby, 1813. Photo courtesy the Wellcome Collection.It was also fortunate timing. Given how people with such visible conditions were often treated before and after her (called demons, ostracized, made to live in squalor, put on display like zoo animals from cradle to coffin), Barbara van Beck was lucky to have been born during a window of time starting in the late 16th century when monarchs, aristocrats and high society developed a keen interest in anomalous configurations of the human body. It was part of the cabinet of curiosities ethos, collecting oddities of biology, minerology, archaeology, geology. If it was deemed exotic, some king wanted to display it. Indeed, it is eminently possible that the oil painting of van Beck was commissioned for one of those aristocratic collections, perhaps even the most famous of them all.

[The condition] was named for Ambras castle in Innsbruck, where Ferdinand II, the archduke of Austria, had created a famous cabinet of curiosities – still open to the public – which included portraits of people with unusual medical conditions such as hirsutism. The portrait of Van Beck is of such high quality that McShane wonders if it could have been in the collection at some point after Ferdinand’s death.

“We know nothing of Barbara’s life after that meeting in London. She disappears from history. There is no reason why she wouldn’t have had a normal lifespan. If you survived to 10 years old, you were highly likely to make it to 60. There must be more records of her out there somewhere, a research project waiting for somebody.”

The portrait is not yet on display. It needs some love of the cleaning and conservation type which the Wellcome Collection staff are currently giving it. The plan is for the work to go on public display early this year. It will also be a featured player at the Culture of Beauty conference at the Wellcome later in 2018.

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“Templar Stone” found to predate Templars

January 3rd, 2018

A stone long believed to be a medieval artifact associated with the Templar Knights has been revealed to be older, cooler and to bear no relation to the military order of monks. The stone is one three long burial slabs with faint carvings on the surface that now reside outside the Inchinnan Parish Church in Renfrewshire, Scotland, next to a group of 10 slabs known as the Templar Stones. Originally located in the kirkyard of the defunct All Hallows Church, a Templar church in the 12th century, the stones were believed to date from around that time and the carvings to something mysteriously Templar-related.

The Templar Knights have long been associated with secrets and mysteries — strange rituals, intrigues and depravities, and lots and lots of money. Founded in 1119, the Knights Templar gained great renown as crusaders, but the vast majority of them never picked up a weapon. A bookkeeping ledger was more their speed and they built a banking business that counted the highest authorities secular and ecclesiastical as clients. That’s all fine and dandy when you’re winning battles, carousing unsupervised and reputedly engaging in occult and mysterious initiation rituals. Not so much when you look like God has forsaken you because you lost the Holy Land. That’s when the order became a target for a very crowned, very truculent, very determined enemies who happened to be in debt to them up to their eyeballs. The Templars had accumulated so much wealth and power in the world of high finance that in 1307, seeing an opening in the escalating rumors of weird initiation rites, King Philip IV of France arrested, tortured and executed all the Templars he could find. He also confiscated their ample stuff and prevailed upon the Pope to officially disband the order. This is how kings get their enormous debts written off.

All Hallows Church continued on after the demise of its founding order in different hands. The church was rebuilt repeatedly, the last time in the early 20th century, and the burial stones remained in place. It was only in 1965 when the last All Hallows was demolished to make room for the runway tarmac of Glasgow Airport that the Templar Stones were moved to the nearby Inchinnan Parish Church where they still abide 50+ years later.

It was this connection to All Hallows Church that inspired the discovery that at least one of the engraved stones was not what people had thought it was. Digital graphic recreation experts Spectrum Heritage, in collaboration with the Inchinnan Historical Interest Group (IHIG), have been working on a creating a digital 3D reconstruction of the last All Hallows. They sifted through archives, records, blueprints, old artworks, photographs, anything that might give them some data to create an accurate model. As part of the project, IHIG arranged for a community archaeology dig manned by volunteers from seniors to children to excavate the site of the former All Hallows.

Before it was a grassy patch underneath the flight path of jets, the site of the long-gone All Hallows Church was the location of earlier religious structures itself. The Inchinnan Old Parish Church was built there in early Middle Ages and dedicated to St. Conval, founder a monastery believed to have been established in the area around 600 A.D. and whose body said to have been buried in the church.

As a part of the ‘St Conval to All Hallows’ community archaeology project, Clara Molina Sanchez (Spectrum Heritage) has been using a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on the burial stones to bring out the worn detail which is no longer visible to the naked eye. Megan Kasten (a PhD student from the University of Glasgow) has been studying the many carved stones at Govan Old church and wanted to compare these with the stones at Inchinnan. Earlier this month she examined the 3D models from Inchinnan closely and to her surprise noticed that one stone had a cross on the top third of the stone and faint panels of interlace. […]

This discovery adds to the existing three large carved stones decorated with crosses, carved animals and interlace that are characteristic of a group of sculpture that is typically referred to as the ‘Govan School’ of carving. These stones date to the 9th to 12th century when All Hallows, along with Govan and Dumbarton Rock, were places of burial for the elite of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. […]

All the stones have decorations and/or inscriptions, which are generally not visible to the naked eye. To make these carvings visible, two different digital documentation techniques were used. Firstly, photogrammetry was used to accurately capture the shape of the stones. In this case, the colour of the biological growth makes it harder to see the details on the surface, but, by ‘deactivating’ it, the different carvings of swords, crosses and inscriptions can now be seen.

The second technique, RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging) is a multi-image technique that provides very detailed information on the surface of a material. RTI files allow the user to explore the surface of the material virtually with different lighting conditions. In this case, a Virtual RTI was created from the photogrammetric models. And to do that, a digital dome made up of 93 lights was placed over the 3D models, thus creating an image for every light. These images were processed, which in turn produced an RTI file for each one of the stones. This made it possible to obtain information about the stones’ decorations that can also complement the photogrammetry itself. The combination of both techniques has been proven to be a very valuable tool to unveil details of the surface invisible otherwise to the naked eye.

There is very little material in the archaeological or historical record about the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Any information we can glean from new technology to recover knowledge lost, eroded by time and the elements, will make it possible to paint a broader, more accurate historical picture of this little known period.

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