Tour the British Museum online with Google

November 14th, 2015

The Google Cultural Institute (GCI) and the British Museum have worked together to make it possible people all over the world to enjoy the museum’s many offerings from the comfort of their homes. So far 4,654 objects and artworks have been made available for our perusal. Google’s Street View cameras have trundled through the museum’s vast halls, so you can virtually walk through them from the second basement to the fifth floor, the largest indoor space yet captured on Street View. They’ve even captured the outdoors so you have a stroll around the beautiful museum building itself.

The British Museum has an excellent website with more than 3.5 million objects in its searchable database, 920,000 of them with one of more photographs attached. Many of the pictures are very good, but even the largest of them are modestly sized (the usual caveat regarding my obsession with high resolution photography applies, of course) and there are a significant number that look dated or are in black and white. It’s a wonderful thing, therefore, to have fresh images of thousands of objects in ultra high resolution courtesy of Google’s gigapixel cameras.

For example, the museum’s entry for the Admonitions Scroll, a Chinese painted silk handscroll more than 11 feet long from the 5th to the 8th century that depicts scenes from a 3rd century court poem, has 247 images. If you want to explore the details, you can go through the pictures one by one, but it’s tedious to have to go back and forth and the photo quality is less than satisfying. There are duplicates, old black and white shots and none of the pics I clicked on are more than 750 pixels wide. The scroll looks dingy, the painting dim.

Contrast that with the version on the Google Cultural Institute’s British Museum page. It’s a whole different viewing experience, like someone turned the light on in the room. You can see the whole thing in front of you at once. You can view the work in a depth of detail that you couldn’t possibly achieve in person unless your name is Steve Austin and they’ve made your other eye bionic too. You can see the weave of the silk, the individual hairs in the brushstrokes. It’s stupefying.

In addition to the objects from the permanent collection, there are also online versions of the museum’s temporary exhibitions, six of them right now with more to come. I’ve been pining to see Celtic Life in Iron Age Britain since it opened at the end of September. Gorgeous examples of Celtic metalwork, jewelry, objects of daily use and more are now viewable in detail online. It’s a curated online exhibit, not just a list of objects, arranged in a logical progression accompanied by explanatory notes. No Gundestrup Cauldron, though, sadly. It’s on the National Museum of Denmark’s GCI page, but not in gigapixel fun.

The collaboration between Google and the British Museum has also paved new territory for digital museum offerings. The Museum of the World microsite allows viewers to explore a timeline of artifacts divided into their continents of origin but then linked together by thematic connections. You swoop through time to a sparkly wind chimes sound effect while the objects load as polka dots, different colors for each part of the world — Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. When you click on one of the dots, you see a small thumbnail and the title of the object and lines radiate outwards connecting it to other objects. If you want to learn more, click again. The detail view has a text explanation of the piece, an audio description introduced by a narrator and expanded on by a relevant curator. Click on the picture to see it in high resolution. On the right side under the audio there’s a map so you can see where the piece came from and then a few thumbnails of related works if you’d like to skip directly their detail views.

I found it thoroughly engrossing. I scrolled all the way to the back of the timeline to the oldest artifact in the museum: a 1.8 million-year-old basalt chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It has only one connected piece — an 800,000-year-old Olduvai handaxe — by the related objects thumbnails take you far afield to an archaic Native American birdstone (1,000-1,500 B.C.) and an early 19th century Inuit ulu (a crescent-shaped knife). Once you get to the handaxe, the radiating lines proliferate.

You can browse by continent — just click the name and all the other dots will disappear, click it again for them to return — or by the themes listed in the menu to the right. Click the three squares in the upper left corner to cut the scrolling and jump to specific times.

Seriously this feature is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes. I would strongly recommend you only click on the first link when you have a nice chunk of time available, because there is no way in hell you’ll be able to stop once you get started. This is ideal lost weekend material.


Two pieces of Roman sign found 122 years apart

November 13th, 2015

University of Reading archaeologists have discovered a fragment of a Roman inscription that matches a piece unearthed in 1891. Both pieces of the marble slab were excavated from the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum next to the modern village of Silchester in Hampshire. The first and larger fragment was discovered by the Society of Antiquaries of London which excavated the entirety of the town within the Roman walls between 1890 and 1909. The piece had two truncated lines of text, “IN” on the top row, “AT” on the bottom. It was added to Reading Museum’s Silchester collection where it has remained for nearly a century and a quarter. The second fragment was found by the university team in 2013 during the excavation of Insula III, a block of the Roman town, just 10 meters (33 feet) away from the find spot of the first piece. The second piece has only one truncated row extant inscribed with the letters “BA.”

While just a small piece of a marble slab, it’s of considerable archaeological significance on its own because it’s likely a remnant of a plaque erected on a building to commemorate its construction or the deity to whom the structure was dedicated. Archaeologists believe the dedication was broken when the building was destroyed in the middle to late 1st century A.D., and very little material evidence of the destruction of an important building has been found in Britain.

The fragment was analyzed by Oxford University’s Dr. Roger Tomlin, an expert in Roman inscriptions. He’s the one who made the connection to the first fragment, finding they were both inscribed with the same style and size lettering on a slab of the same material — Purbeck Marble, a limestone native to Dorset that was extensively quarried in Roman Britain — and dimensions. Tomlin believes they are adjacent pieces, that the “BA” comes after the “AT” on the bottom row of the first fragment to spell out the word “At(e)ba(tum)” meaning “of the Atrebates,” the Gallic founders of the town of Calleva in the 1st century B.C.

Despite this amazing occurrence there could be more revelations to come. The name of the building is yet to be revealed but previous work at Silchester has connected the site to the infamous emperor Nero, as well as queen Boudica who led a famous rebellion against the Roman Empire.

Professor Fulford added: “We now know what the bottom line of the sign reads – however the top line remains a mystery. It’s a tantalising thought that this might link to Nero himself who is known to have commissioned major building projects in Silchester. Our work to uncover the origins of Silchester continues next year — perhaps a name could emerge. It’s unlikely — but this story goes to show that when it comes to archaeology, anything is possible.”

Calleva was a fortified settlement or oppidium that was the Atrebates’ seat of power. Numismatic evidence suggests that it was something of a mini-kingdom first ruled by Commius, a chieftain who at first had been Julius Caesar’s ally in the conquest of Gaul but who then turned on him and fought with Vercingetorix in his revolt against Rome in 52 B.C. According to Caesar’s legate Aulus Hirtius who wrote the eighth and last book of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in 51 B.C. Commius finally struck a deal with Mark Anthony: he’d take his troublemaking ass out of Gaul on condition that he never had to see a Roman again. Anthony agreed and Commius crossed the Channel to Britain with a small group of followers.

It was that group which built the oppidium of Calleva. Coins have been found with Commius’ name and the names of his successors, so it seems Calleva was something of a city-state with him as its ruler. The Atrebates was added to Calleva’s name in a nod to its founders when the Iron Age oppidium was converted into a proper Roman town with streets on a grid pattern and solid stone walls after Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. The city was at a crossroads leading to important Roman urban centers, so it prospered and was known to have several large public buildings any one of which might have had a relevant inscription slab affixed to its walls.

Both inscription fragments will be on display in the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life through November 27th.


Roman amphitheater found in Volterra

November 12th, 2015

Last July, workers on a waterway restoration project near the Diana Gate on the north side of the ancient Etruscan city of Volterra stumbled on the remains of two walls 20 meters (66 feet) long. Archaeologists from the regional Superintendency were observing the works and took over when the ancient walls were found. Extrapolating from the shape and direction of the structures already unearthed, they dug test trenches in two locations that would have more walls if the building were, as they suspected, an amphitheater. Lo and behold, they found exactly what they expected to find: two more masonry walls each ten meters long with a marked elliptical curve.

Calculating from the established curvature, the building is an oval 80 meters (262 feet) long by 60 meters (197 feet) wide, which is a pretty massive structure for people to forget ever existed. Volterra already has one Roman theater from the late 1st century BC, early 1st century AD that was discovered in 1950 by Volterran native son and historian Enrico Fiumi who was actually a trained economist, not an archaeologist, and whose excavation team was composed of patients from a local psychiatric hospital. The theater was partly dug into the side of a hill in Greek fashion and seated 3500. Some of the seats were found with the names of the most prominent local families, season ticket holders, if you will. A large section of the two-level skene (the building behind the stage) 50 feet high survives.

There is some mention in 15th and 16th century sources of an amphitheater in Volterra, but the writers were considered less than reliable on the details and thought to have been referring to the theater Fiumi discovered rather than a real amphitheater.

The discovery of the amphitheater caused a stir, but there was no funding to continue digging. The city had to go begging hat in hand to the local bank for sponsorship which thankfully they were able to secure. This September excavations resumed. Archaeologists found two rows of steps and additional architectural features were discovered: a large carved block that was part of the cryptoporticus roof and the base of an entrance arch. Like the ancient Etruscan city walls, these features are made of a porous sandstone native to the area called panchina which is soft and easy to work but hardens when exposed to the air.

“This amphitheater was quite large. Our survey dig revealed three orders of seats that could accommodate about 10,000 people. They were entertained by gladiators fights and wild beast baiting,” Elena Sorge, the archaeologist of the Tuscan Superintendency in charge of the excavation, told Discovery News.

By comparison, the Colosseum in Rome could seat more than 50,000 spectators during public games.

“The finding sheds a new light on the history of Volterra, which is most famous for its Etruscan legacy. It shows that during the emperor Augustus’s rule, it was an important Roman center,” she added.

Tuscany’s oldest continuously inhabited town, Volterra was an important urban center from the 6th century BC through the Renaissance, falling under the Roman sphere of influence in the 3rd century and under direct Roman control in the 1st century BC. Although there’s never been any doubt that it retained its cultural and political significance in the imperial era, the discovery of a second much larger public entertainment complex possibly from the 1st century A.D. indicates the city was more prominent and more populated than historians realized.

The goal of this fall’s excavation was very limited: analyze the remains to get a solid idea of what else is out there. With more data to work with, the archaeological team will be able to design a plan for a more thorough future excavation and a budget. Then they’ll have some figures to use when scrambling for more funding.


Giving Andrew Ellicott his due

November 11th, 2015

On November 12th, 1799, the first known record of a meteor shower in North America was written in the journal of a witness observing the Leonids from the deck of a ship in the Florida Keys. The occasion is marked in many an iteration of “This Day in History” entries, but in almost all of them there is a glaring error: the journal entry is attributed to Andrew Ellicott Douglass, an astronomer and founder of the modern science of dendrochronology who was born in 1867, 68 years after the Leonids put on such a spectacular show in the Keys.

The real observer of the 1799 Leonids meteor shower was Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor who was in Florida on assignment from President George Washington to ascertain the official boundary line between the United States and Spanish territory as negotiated in the Treaty of San Lorenzo.

Here’s his journal entry from November 12th:

About two o’clock in the morning I was called up to see the shooting of the stars (as it is vulgarly termed), the phenomenon was grand and awful, the whole heavens appeared as if illuminated with sky rockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel. They continued until put out by the light of the sun after daybreak. This phenomenon extended over a large portion of the West India islands and was observed as far north as St. Marys where it appeared as brilliant as with us.

The Leonids show up annually around this time and sprinkle light in the sky at the rate of about 20 meteors per hour, but every 33 years they put on a glorious light show with thousands of meteors per hour showering the sky. The 1833 storm was so strong at least 100,000 meteors, and maybe double that, streaked over North America in nine hours. The 1799 storm was just short of the peak of the cycle, but it was exceptionally strong nonetheless, which is why Ellicott hauled his cookies out of bed at two in the morning to see the show.

Although you might think the profession of surveyor would ensure Andrew Ellicott kept his eyes on the earth more than the skies, that his having made so meaningful a mark in the history of American astronomy was a fluke, in fact the line between heaven and earth, Horatio, was not so clearly demarcated. Jacques Cassini, son of astronomer Giovanni Cassini after whom the spaceprobe was named, was both astronomer and surveyor, having done the first triangulation of France and used the data to create the first scientifically rigorous map of France just a few decades before Ellicott saw the Leonids. Chemist Antoine Lavoisier, identifier of oxygen and hydrogen, also participated in surveys of France while watching the skies. Not coincidentally, Ellicott brought up Lavoisier’s theory that the atmosphere was composed of multiple elements right after seeing the Leonids. In the same November 12th journal entry, he wrote:

Many ingenious theories have been devised to account for those luminous and fiery meteors, but none of them are so satisfactory to my mind as the conjecture of that celebrated chemist M. Lavoisier, who supposes it probable that the terrestial atmosphere consists of several volumes, or strata of gaz or elastic vapour of different kinds, and that the lightest and most difficult to mix with the lower atmosphere will be elevated above it, and form a separate stratum or volume, which he supposes to be inflammable, and that it is at the point of contact between those strata that the aurora borealis, and other fiery meteors are produced.

Andrew Ellicott was renowned in his time for his great accuracy in surveying, determined in large part by his celestial observations. Born in 1754 to a large Quaker family of modest means in Pennsylvania, Ellicott fought in the Revolutionary War ultimately rising to the rank of major. After the war he worked with James Madison and David Rittenhouse continuing the survey of the Mason-Dixon line that had been abandoned during the conflict. He turned out to be really good at it. In 1786 he was commissioned to survey the western border of Pennsylvania, a meridian that is still today known as the Ellicott Line.

In 1792 Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson appointed Ellicott to survey the boundaries of the federal Territory of Columbia, which would be renamed the District of Columbia nine years later. That same year he surveyed the land that would become the city of Washington, then forming the nucleus of the Territory rather than the entirety of it. He worked with Pierre Charles L’Enfant on the plan of the city until L’Enfant pissed off the Commissioners overseeing the project enough to get the boot. Ellicott’s revised plan of Washington (which L’Enfant strenuously opposed) became the basis on which the capital was constructed.

In 1796 George Washington gave him the biggest assignment yet: surveying the border between Spanish North America and the United States. He spent four years travelling the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the Gulf Coast and into Florida, deploying impressive diplomacy and patience in his dealings with Spanish commissioners, and recording everything in his journal. Another one of his boundaries that is still called Ellicott’s Line remains today the border between Alabama and Florida.

After that bear of a job was done, he moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where, among other things, he taught Meriwether Lewis how to survey in preparation for his great expedition to the Pacific with William Clark. In 1813 he took a job as Professor of Mathematics at the Military Academy at West Point. His last survey was in 1817 when he helped establish the western border between Canada and the United States as defined in the Treaty of Ghent. Andrew Ellicott died of a stroke on August 28th, 1820.

The term surveyor appears nowhere in his obituary printed in the New York Evening Post of August 29th. His great professional gifts belong to the field of “practical Astronomy” in which he was “pre-eminent, both in the expert use of Instruments, and the accuracy of his calculations, which were the results of his observations. The reputation which he gained for those rare and peculiar acquirements, was evinced by the number and frequency of his appointments, both by individual states and the United States, for the purpose of adjusting such boundary lines as depended on the most nice Astronomical observations.”

The obit concludes:

The Geography of our country, in particular, is indebted to him for many interesting details, and descriptions of its unfrequented parts, as well as for the most accurate adjustment of the relative situation of particular places. By his death, science is deprived of a devoted admirer — the Military Academy of one of its best friends and most distinguished Professors — society of a benevolent & useful member, and his family of a tender husband and a kind and affectionate parent.

We should all wish for such a glowing and meaningful final assessment.

What a pity, then, that the record of this great man has been erroneously subsumed into the life of another. I suspect the error originated with and then spread around in the usual pattern of Internet epidemiology. I have emailed the site to let them know of the mistake, but I’m afraid there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. Over much of the web, Andrew Ellicott will be denied his seminal astronomical observation, his rich contributions to the history and geography of the United States and even his very name while Andrew Ellicott Douglass, who has many genuine accomplishments worthy of This Day in History lists, will be taken out of his time and saddled with posthumous plagiarism of his own great-grandfather.

Yes, the name is not a coincidence or a distant tribute. Andrew Ellicott’s daughter Anne married David B. Douglass and they had a son named Malcolm. Malcolm Douglass and his wife Sarah Hale named one of their sons Andrew Ellicott after his illustrious great-grandfather.


The First Book of Fashion

November 10th, 2015

University of Cambridge historian Dr. Ulinka Rublack, author of the excellent Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, and Maria Hayward have published a unique 16th century manuscript documenting one German accountant’s daring and elegant forays into personal style. The Klaidungsbüchlein, or “book of clothes,” is the ancestor of every fashion blog, Instagram and Tumblr and it slays them all.

Matthäus Schwarz was born in Augsburg on February 20th, 1497, the son of a wine merchant and innkeeper. Even as a teenager Schwarz showed an interest in fashion, realizing how quickly trends came and went. That understanding would inspire him to meticulously record what he wearing, when and why, noting his age down to fractions of years. After learning bookkeeping through apprenticeships in Milan and Venice, as soon as he returned to Augsburg in 1516 he got a job as a clerk with Jakob Fugger, the head of one of the richest, most powerful mercantile, mining and banking firms in Europe. Schwarz quickly worked his way up, becoming head accountant by the age of 23.

That same year he began to document his outfits, keeping a style blog in the form of illuminated manuscript. He commissioned local artist Narziss Renner, then just 19 years old, to reconstruct 36 images of him from birth through his early 20s based on detailed descriptions and old drawings. Renner then made tempera portraits of each important outfit going forward, while Schwarz made notes on the date, his age and the occasion.

Schwarz took pleasure in gorgeous, expensive clothes, but they were also an important form of self-expression for him. He was successful at his job and made good money, but he wasn’t rich. He was a middle class burgher, but he spent all of his discretionary income on clothes and was involved in every aspect of the design. There was no prêt-à-porter and if there had been Schwarz still would have gone for the couture. This wasn’t just a foppish indulgence. He put on a sartorial display as a means to better himself socially. His grandfather Ulrich had pulled himself up by his bootstraps, rising from common carpenter to guild leader to mayor of Augsburg only to be charged with corruption by opponents of greater wealth and status. He was convicted and hanged in 1478, a stain on the family reputation that Matthäus, like his father, felt keenly. The right kind of clothes were essential to Matthäus’ hopes that he might regain the ground lost by his grandfather’s disgrace.

It worked. He caught the eye of Ferdinand, brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who invited Schwarz to his wedding. When Charles returned to Germany after a nine year absence and he and Ferdinand were in Augsburg for the Imperial Diet in 1530, Schwarz commissioned six extremely intricate outfits he hoped would please them. Schwarz’s employer Jakob Fugger was very close to the emperor, having spent huge sums to help secure his election to the office, so Schwarz wasn’t just a nameless face in the crowd. A devout Catholic in a region rent by the religious conflicts of the Reformation, Schwarz telegraphed his support for the emperor and the Church by his choice of colors. In 1541 he and two of his brothers were ennobled.

Renner and Schwarz worked together for 16 years. After that, Schwarz kept going, employing other artists, including one from Christoph Amberger’s studio, to paint his looks until 1560 when he was 63 years old. By then he had 75 pages of parchment with 137 portraits of himself, including the first secular nude since Albrecht Durer’s. It was a bold nude, too, with both front and back views and an unstinting self-assessment: “That was my real figure from behind, because I had become fat and large.” His son followed in his father’s footsteps, although he was less prolific and his styles less colorful.

Schwarz had the manuscript bound in 1560 and while it was basically a personal account, he appears to have shown it to a select audience. Over the years word got out because in 1704 Sophie of Hanover, granddaughter of James I and mother of George I of England, borrowed the manuscript and had it copied by scribe J.B. Knoche. She kept a copy and gave another to her to her niece Elizabeth Charlotte of Orléans, sister-in-law of King Louis XIV of France. Sophie’s copy is now in the State Library of Hanover.

The original is in the collection of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, one of the oldest museums in the world. The book is so fragile that even scholars very rarely get to see it, and then only with two trained curators gingerly turning each page. Before now, most of the color photos of the manuscript were taken from the Hanover copy. The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthäus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg is the first, and given the caution with which the manuscript is treated very possibly the last, edition to publish all the original images in color. Since the copies have notable errors in coloration that Schwarz would have been appalled by, having a full color record of the delicate original is a precious thing.

The First Book of Fashion is available in hardcover and EPUB eBook from the publisher and in hardcover and Kindle from Amazon. If delayed gratification is not your bag, you can peruse Mr. Schwarz’s analog Instagram in this pdf which is a scan of the Hanover copy. The picture quality isn’t great, though.

Two years ago, Dr. Rublack collaborated with Tony award-winning costume designer and dress historian Jenny Tiramani, who also collaborated on the book, to recreate one of Schwarz’s most dramatic and politically significant outfits: a gold and red silk doublet over a fine linen shirt with yellow leather hose he wore for the 1530 return of the emperor. Watch this video documenting the recreation because it’s awesome. Even just putting on the outfit is crazy complicated. Oh, and killer codpiece too.

The First Book of Fashion includes a pattern for the gold and red outfit, just in case you want to try your hand at recreating such a glamorous Renaissance look.


14th c. birch bark letter found in Moscow

November 9th, 2015

Russian archaeologists have unearthed a letter written on birch bark in Moscow’s historic Zaryadye district close to Red Square. The archaeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences found the letter 13 feet below street level in a layer with more than 100 small and large artifacts dating to the 14th century.

The first birch bark letters were discovered in 1951 in Novgorod, preserved in its heavy, waterlogged clay soil. Letters were scratched on the inner, trunk-facing side of the birch bark sheet using a stylus made of iron, bone or bronze. The letters were dated with a combination of stratigraphy (dating of the layers in which they were found), dendrochronology (tree ring dating) and palaeography (handwriting analysis) and linguistic analysis (examining the features of the text). They range in date from the 11th through the 15th century.

The vast majority are letters from private individuals detailing the minutiae of their lives. Some are petitions of peasants to their lords. Some are debt lists, but since they open with the imperative “Take” it’s probable that they too were letters, probably of instruction on collecting the enumerated debt. One very special group of birch bark letters appear to be lessons and doodles. There are 17 drawings and notes by a young boy named Onfim. He lived in the 13th century and was around six or seven when he drew scenes of men on horseback, knights in battle, even himself as a fantastical beast next to alphabet and writing exercises. It’s a remarkable testament to a how highly literate this society was at all economic strata.

Since that first discovery in 1951, more than 1000 birch bark letters have been found, almost all of them in Novgorod. The second greatest number, 45, were found in Staraya Russa, a town 60 miles south of Novgorod. Only nine other cities can claim birch bark letter discoveries. None were found in Moscow until 1988. It took 20 years before a second and third were unearthed at the foot of the Kremlin. None of those three quite followed the Novgorod standard. Moscow 1, as the 1988 find was dubbed, was a draft or copy of a property deed or claim. Moscow 2 had a small inscription that was hard to make out. Moscow 3 was a very long inventory of property of a Muscovite prince and it was written in ink, not scratched with a stylus. (Only two of the thousand plus Novgorod letters were written in ink.)

That makes Moscow 4, the newly discovered piece, the first true Novgorod style birch bark letter found in the city. Like the overwhelming majority of the Novgorod ones, this is a private letter. The strip of bark has the smooth surface and carefully cut edges indicating it was specifically prepared for use as stationary. Each letter is printed very clearly and distinctly along the length of the fibers, as they are in Novgorod. The other Moscow letters were written against the grain.

The letter is a sad one. Addressed simply to “Sir,” it tells of the writer’s misfortunes while traveling to Kostroma, a city 217 miles to the northeast that was part of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The writer was detained along with a certain Yuri and his mother by someone “who had the right to do so.” This person, likely an official of some kind, took 13 bel (a relatively small denomination of currency in medieval Russia) from them and then another three. Finally the author had to pay 20 and a half bel more to buy their freedom. The total of 36.5 bel was a signficant amount of money back then. Since it appears the captor had legal rights, this may have been the repayment of a debt with extra tacked on for interest.

Every Novgorod birch bark letter find is exciting, but the rarity of a Moscow find and the precise printing of this letter make it of particular interest to archaeologists. It will be conserved to ensure its long-term survival and studied further at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Most of the birch bark letters have been uploaded to an online database. The website is down right now but it was working earlier. From what I could gather when it was up, it hasn’t been updated for a while so it’s not quite a complete record. Still, you can photographs of each letters in high resolution, plus transcriptions and translations.


Earliest church in the tropics unearthed in Cape Verde

November 8th, 2015

A team of archaeologists from the University of Cambridge has unearthed the remains of the first known Christian church in the tropics on the Cape Verde island of Santiago. The church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição was built around 1470, shortly after the Portuguese discovered the island, out of wood. What the team has found are the remains of an expansion of the church from 1500 with masonry walls and an interior decorated with vibrant colored tile imported from Lisbon.

Documentary evidence pointed to the location of the first church, so in 2007 the team dug test pits and found foundations and a significant burial ground. With the support of the mayor and the Cape Verde government, archaeologists were able to return this season and fully excavate the site.

“We’ve managed to recover the entire footprint-plan of the church, including its vestry, side-chapel and porch, and it now presents a really striking monument,” said Christopher Evans, Director of the CAU.

“Evidently constructed around 1500, the most complicated portion is the east-end’s chancel where the main altar stood, and which has seen much rebuilding due to seasonal flash-flood damage. Though the chancel’s sequence proved complicated to disentangle, under it all we exposed a gothic-style chapel,” he said.

“This had been built as a free-standing structure prior to the church itself and is now the earliest known building on the islands — the whole exercise has been a tremendous success.”

The Cape Verde archipelago was discovered in 1456 by Alvise Cadamosto, an Italian explorer hired by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal to explore the west coast of Africa. The islands were uninhabited. There weren’t any mammals at all, in fact, or trees. They were, however, conveniently located in the Atlantic 350 miles off the coast of Africa, which would soon make the archipelago an important platform for the transatlantic slave trade. In 1462 the Portuguese founded the first permanent European settlement in the tropics on the Cape Verde island of Santiago. The island and its capital, the city of Ribeira Grande (modern-day Cidade Velha), flourished from the trade in human flesh both economically and culturally, becoming the second richest city in the Portuguese empire and developing through the mixing of European and African cultures into the first Creole society.

The city declined rapidly in the 18th century after it was sacked by the French pirate Jacques Cassard in 1712. He gutted Cape Verde so thoroughly that, according to his memoirs, he had too much loot to fit on his eight ships and had to leave some of it behind for fear his fleet would sink from the weight. Ribeira Grande never recovered from the Cassard blow. When the slave trade was outlawed in the 19th century, the economic engine of the city died. Necessary maintenance was abandoned and the hill wash carried down into the city by seasonal floods was left to accumulate. The capital was moved to the town of Praia and Ribeira Grande became a sleepy village.

Nossa Senhora da Conceição followed this pattern, falling into disuse around 1790. The archaeological remains from its heyday, however, give us a unique glimpse into the early history of the island. The discovery of the tombstones of dignitaries like mid-16th century town treasurer and slave trader Fernão Fiel de Lugo confirm the existence of people who while known were enveloped in an aura of legend. An estimated 1,000 people were buried under the floor of the church before 1525, an incredible density of information about the dawn of the first Creole society.

Preliminary analysis of samples shows that about half the bodies are African, with the rest from various parts of Europe. An excavation is being planned to collect data for isotope analysis of more bodies to learn more about the country’s founding population and its early slave history.

“From historical texts we have learned about the development of a ‘Creole’ society at an early date with land inherited by people of mixed race who could also hold official positions. The human remains give us the opportunity to test this representation of the first people in Cabo Verde,” said Evans.

Watch this video for an overview of the history of the city and for great footage of the excavation of the church.


Burial vaults found under Washington Square Park

November 7th, 2015

Workers installing a new water main on Washington Square Park East last Tuesday discovered a burial vault probably dating to the early 19th century. Work stopped and Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants were called in to examine the vault at the intersection of Washington Square Park East and Washington Square Park North and carefully excavate the surroundings. They immediately discovered a second vault parallel to the first.

Cameras dropped into the vaults found the chambers are about the same size — 8 feet deep, 15 feet wide and 20 to 27 feet long — with fieldstone walls and barrel-vaulted brick ceilings. The interiors are whitewashed and have a wooden door at one end. The first vault has jumbled skeletal remains of maybe 10 individuals. The second holds about 20 intact wooden coffins.

Numerous coffins, perhaps two dozen, covered the floor of the vault. Some were in disarray but others looked to be in a fine state of preservation. Smaller coffins attested poignantly to the burial of children, when it was not uncommon for families to suffer the loss of their youngest members.

More helpful to historians than anything, perhaps, many of the coffins bore lozenge-shaped ornamental identification plates that will — once they are decipherable — help [Alyssa Loorya, President and Principal Investigator of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants,] and others put names to the skeletons; and with the names, context; and with context, new stories of old New York.

With space at such a premium, Manhattan is replete with built-over burials. In fact, the what is now Washington Square Park was first acquired by the city specifically for use as a graveyard. It was farmland in the late 18th century, outside the confines of the city. In April of 1797, the New York City Council bought 90 lots, the eastern two thirds of the future park, for use as a potter’s field, a public burial ground for the indigent. Its brief was expanded every time New York was hit with a yellow fever epidemic (there were four major outbreaks during the lifetime of the cemetery). Victims’ bodies were buried in the potter’s field outside of the city for sanitation purposes. Historians estimate that more than 20,000 people were buried there between 1797 and the cemetery’s closure in 1826.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that human remains have been found before during work at the park, starting in 1890 when the foundations were dug for the Washington Square Arch. Architect Stanford White stopped work to document the bones, gravestones, pieces of coffins and one relatively intact coffin. Since then individual graves had cropped up on occasion when the city had cause to dig in the Washington Square Park area, but when in 1965 Con Edison workers broke through an intact burial vault at the northeast corner of the park (the same location where the vaults were found last week), nobody had seen anything like it. The remains of three partially burned coffins and 25 individuals were found in that vault.

There is cartographic evidence from the early 19th century that a large plot extending across the northeast corner of the park from Washington Square Park East to Washington Square Park North and several adjoining blocks belonged to the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Pearl Street Church and Cedar Street Church, both Presbyterian, are each known to have had small cemeteries carved out of the larger lot. The Cedar Street Church cemetery was the larger of the two. It is now the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church which has kept excellent records going back to 1808, so it may be possible to identify one of the names on the coffins, should they have been part of the Cedar Street congregation.

All construction work at the site has been halted. By city policy, all burials must be left in place and intact. The water main project is now being redesigned around the vaults.


Synchrotron X-ray imaging virtually opens mystery box

November 6th, 2015

A badly corroded box found in a 17th century tomb has been virtually opened by powerful synchrotron X-ray imagining and its contents revealed in exceptional high resolution. The box and its contents are not so portentous, archaeologically speaking, but the phenomenal quality of the imaging opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

The metal box was found in one of more than 1,500 tombs unearthed under the old Saint-Laurent church which is now the Grenoble Archaeological Museum. The site has been in use since the 4th century when it was a cemetery outside the ancient city. Starting with a cruciform church in the 6th century, buildings were constructed on top of the remains of earlier buildings in four known stages. The current Saint-Laurent building is a 12th century Romanesque church that was deconsecrated in 1986 and converted into the museum.

The crypt from the 6th century church was discovered in the basement of the Romanesque church in 1803 and subsequent excavations peeled back layers to reveal burials from the 4th through the 18th century. This one church and its environs encompass a complete history of Christian burials over an astonishing 16 centuries. Modern archaeologists have been exploring the burials for the past 20 years, taking the unique opportunity to study the evolution of Christian funerary traditions spanning 1600 years.

More than 2,000 artifacts have been discovered in the tombs, many of which are on display in the museum which beautifully weaves the open excavated crypts into exhibition space. The box was found buried next to a body in a group of 195 graves from the 17th centuries. It’s a tiny piece — just 4 centimeters (an inch and a half) in diameter — and is so fragile conservators decided to restore it only to the point of stopping the oxidation process that was eating away its metal. Because corrosion had worn a hole in the lid, they could see that there were three round coin-like objects inside, but couldn’t make out any further details.

The museum reached out to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) team to scan the box using synchrotron X-ray phase contrast micro-tomography.

This technique, which can be likened to a highly powerful medical scanner, is capable of producing high resolution 3D images of the inside of a sample in a non-destructive manner. “It was only supposed to be a small feasibility study to produce an image for an exhibition. However, the results were so astounding that it turned into a full scale research project”, says Paul Tafforeau who carried out the experiments and produced the 3D images of the box.

The scanner found that the “coins” inside were actually clay religious medals. There were also two pearls inside the box. The medallions were stuck together and in bad condition, but the synchrotron X-ray was able to virtually separate them and make a 3D virtual model so crisp and detailed it has to be seen to be believed. Behold:

The imaging is far better than anything we can see with our puny human eyeballs so markedly inferior to those of any cephalopod. We now know that there are two identical medals sandwiching a different one between them. The middle medal, which has the most surviving detail, depicts Christ on the cross with two figures — probably Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary — standing on either side. The other side of the medal shows Christ wearing the crown of thorns, rising from the tomb with one leg out of the coffin and holding the standard of the Resurrection and Victory.

The other two medals were both more damaged, but fortunately in different places so it was possible to use the image of one medal to fill in the blanks on the other. One side shows the baptism of Christ and bears an inscription from John 1:14 VERBUM CARO, FACTUM EST (“And the word was made flesh”). The other side is a Nativity scene, with the Magi bringing gifts to the baby Jesus on Mary’s lap. The inscription is a verse recited during the Stations of the Cross: ADORAMUS TE, CHRISTE ET BENEDICIMUS TIBI (“We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee”).


“World’s greatest cat painting” sells for $826,000

November 5th, 2015

Images of cats have gone viral long before the Internet, or even the computer, was a thing. A 19th century painting of cats that drew crowds and critical accolades in the analog era sold at Sotheby’s Tuesday for $826,000, almost three times the high pre-sale estimate.

My Wife’s Lovers is a monumental 6-by-8.5-foot oil painting weighing 227 pounds, so heavy Sotheby’s had to construct a special wall to display it during the preview period. It was painted by Austrian artist Carl Kahler who specialized in horse racing scenes and had never painted a cat before he went to San Francisco in 1891. There he met Kate Birdsall Johnson, a wealthy philanthropist, art collector and animal lover who had begun buying fancy Angora cats during her travels in Europe in the 1880s and never stopped.

Mrs. Johnson invited Carl to Buena Vista, the Johnsons’ country estate near Sonoma and home of the oldest winery in California, still in operation today. (It wasn’t actually a working concern in the decade plus the Johnsons lived there as they had no interest in wine production, but as aficionados of art and architecture, they did ensure the preservation of the original press house and winery so the estate could return to its proverbial roots after World War II.) There she commissioned him to make a portrait of 42 of her cats and Kahler got to work. He spent close to two years sketching individual cats in their many and varied postures.

Lore has it that the painting was given its exquisite moniker by Kate’s husband Robert, but that can’t be true because he died in March of 1889 in Paris after a sudden illness struck him while he was traveling abroad. I imagine the name was Mrs. Johnson’s idea, a tribute to her beloved husband, doubtless inspired by something he had often said about her feline companions. It reads to me like an old inside joke between a long and happily married couple.

The painting was finished by the spring of 1893. Justifiably proud of her cat colony captured in all their dynamism and character by Kahler’s brush, Mrs. Johnson loaned My Wife’s Lovers for exhibition in the California Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It went on display in the Women’s Department (yeah, I know) and was a smash hit with the crowds. From the Final Report of the California World’s Fair Commission

The pictures on the walls were numerous, and embraced novel and meritorious works of art. Probably the one that attracted the most attention was a large canvas painted by C. Kahler, and owned by the late Mrs. Kate E. Johnson of San Francisco, the title being “My Wife’s Lovers.” It contained figures of forty-two large Angora cats, being only a fraction of the total number in possession of the owner, and represented these household pets in every conceivable attitude of playfulness.

Kate Birdsall Johnson only had a few months to enjoy her pets’ fame as live art models. She died on December 3rd, 1893, of pneumonia. Sotheby’s lot information says she left $500,000 in her will for the care in perpetuity of her cats, but that’s not correct. Her will was published in the paper when it was filed for probate a week after her death, and there is no half million dollar bequest.

~ Tangent time! ~

Kate Johnson’s will opens with a sweet nod to her father-in-law:

Thanking God for his undeserved mercies and acknowledging my grateful affection for my friend and father-in-law, the late George C. Johnson, through whom I am enabled to make the following gifts, I ask all who may receive them to pray for the repose of his soul.

George C. Johnson’s soul may well have needed those prayers, primarily because of the way he made the fortune that Kate so graciously and devoutly bequeathed. A Norwegian immigrant, he first came to northern California in 1850 as captain of a ship carrying US Army food stores into the epicenter of the California Gold Rush of 1849. He sailed up the Sacramento River to its tributary the Feather River and stopped in Nicolaus, California, where he settled in waiting for further orders. Two years later, the army sent Major Richard Livingston Ogden, quartermaster of the Department of the Pacific, to track Johnson down. He found the ship permanently moored, draped with awnings, and Captain Johnson on deck swinging in a hammock while his wife rocked in a rocking chair.

Ogden inspected the cargo, consisting mainly of barrels of salt pork, and found it no longer suitable for army consumption, or human consumption, really. So naturally he ordered it sold at auction where it was bought for a dollar a barrel. By George C. Johnson. Johnson rinsed the rust and stink off the pork, repackaged it and sold it in Marysville, a Gold Rush boom town, for $16 a barrel. He used the profits to invest in a San Francisco hardware business which was hugely successful, soon becoming the largest hardware company on the Pacific Northwest coast. By the end of the decade he was consul for Norway and Sweden and acting-consul for Denmark to the Port of San Francisco.

George died in 1872, leaving his estate of an estimated $3 million to his only son Robert.

~ End Tangent ~

By the time it got to Kate, the estate was worth around $2 million, much of it in property. She willed that a third of it be donated to the Roman Catholic Church for the purpose of building a free hospital for “all sick women and children of the poor, without regard to religion, nationality or color.” Mary’s Help Hospital took years to get off the ground, then more years to get back on its feet after the 1906 earthquake, but eventually Kate’s legacy was honored and the hospital still exists today as Seton Medical Center.

There is no reference to Kate Johnson’s cats in her will. Apparently at the time cats had no legal designation — livestock qualified as personal property, but not pet cats — and therefore could not be explicitly provided for in her final will and testament. There is, however, a significant bequest of $20,000 to Helen Shellard “a maiden schoolteacher,” as the San Francisco Call describes her. Later articles note that Miss Shellard, a distant relative of Kate’s, had agreed while Kate was still alive to care for her cats after her death. Kate Johnson put the $20,000 bequest in her will specifically so Helen could afford to take on her many cats. Twenty thousand dollars in 1893 money is worth about $525,000 today, but that’s not where Sotheby’s got their spurious figure. They got it from an inaccurate 1949 article in the Shamokin News-Dispatch which also went wildly overboard with the total cat numbers. The papers at the time of her death claimed she had 200 cats; by 1949 that figure had grown to 350.

Mrs. Johnson didn’t have hundreds of them, though, not even close. On February 1st, 1894, when Helen was finally able to sort out the technicalities and rescue the by-then neglected cats from Buena Vista, there were 32 of them. Given that, I strongly suspect the 42 cats in Kahler’s painting were the full complement of Kate’s cats in 1893. Mind you, 32 was more than enough for Miss Shellard’s modest Telegraph Hill home to accommodate. She had to evict two tenants, screen in a porch and some of the yard to make room for the Johnson cats.

As for the painting, it led an exciting life after Mrs. Johnson left this one. It was purchased at her estate sale in 1894 by Ernest Haquette, a French-born art dealer who hung the painting in his Palace of Art gallery and cafe’, an innovative combination which made it a hot spot for the city’s social and business elite to enjoy elegant meals and cocktails for lunch and hugely expensive art any time. It was the best museum in the city before the de Young or SFMoMA were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

In 1906, the Palace of Art burned to the ground in the raging inferno that leveled whatever parts of the city were still standing after the earthquake. My Wife’s Lovers was hanging in the gallery at the time, but it somehow survived the conflagration. It was acquired by another gallery owner and passed through several hands over the decades. In the 1940s it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Julian of Julian Art Galleries who put it on tour culminating in a cat show at Madison Square Garden. Again Mrs. Johnson’s cats were a smash hit and more than 9,000 prints of the painting were sold spurring Cat Magazine to dub it “the world’s greatest painting of cats.”

The anonymous California buyer who just spent $826,000 to buy it was directly inspired by its past popularity: “I purchased My Wife’s Lovers by Carl Kahler based on my mother’s fond memories of the image. I bought a print of it for her, and it hung in her living room until she passed away at 91. Its California history made it all the better.”





November 2015
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