Best sphinx head from 1923 Ten Commendments found

November 29th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed another piece of colossal scenary from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic silent movie The Ten Commandments from the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach, California. At least one filmmaker, enthusiasts, nature conservancy advocates and archaeologists have been looking for the fabled set since 1982. DeMille claimed to have deliberately destroyed it after filming wrapped to keep it from being used by copy-cats to get their movies to look as good as his without having to spend the Croesonian budgets studios allowed him. He said he had it dynamited to smithereens and bulldozed the remains into a trench.

A few bits and pieces were indeed found by filmmaker Peter Brosnan in 1983, who had to do assiduous research to even find the general area where this landmark film was shot. While there was a small flurry of interest from the Hollywood community when the first discoveries were made, the next shiny thing came along to distract potential moneyed supporters and Brosnan spent the next 30 years looking for more of the set and trying to raise funds to finish a documentary about the search that he’d been filming since 1982.

In 1998, Brosnan’s organization teamed up with a nature preserve advocacy now known as the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and together they were able to recover more pieces of the set. DeMille had not in fact dynamited it, it seemed. There would have been evidence of that in the fragments, damage, scatter pattern, etc. He just broke the whole thing down and buried it and then the harsh elements did the rest, turning all that plaster and balsa wood to dust. Leave it to him to spin a yarn featuring a big dramatic action sequence complete with pyrotechnics when describing striking a set.

The pursuit of the fabled lost land of Fake Movie Egypt picked up steam in the second decade of the 21st century. An archaeological dig discovered the head of one of the 21 plaster sphinxes (originally each one was 12 feet tall and weighed five tons even though they were hollow) that DeMille used to line the dramatic corridor leading to the main gates of “The City of the Pharaoh,” a vista he borrowed from the Avenue of Sphinxes that connects the temples of Karnak and Luxor. The archaeologists were not able to transport the head so they reburied it hoping the sands would preserve it, but the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes are not Luxor. They’re at the beach, after all, and there’s a saltwater marine layer that blocked the adhesion of the expoxy archaeologists had coated the plaster in for its protection. When they returned in 2014, the head had fallen to pieces. They were able to find another of the The City of the Pharaoh sphinx heads nearby that year, and that one was successfully recovered and conserved for display at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

In October of this year, archaeologists finally returned to the site. (Funding in an unending migraine, hence the irregular digs.) The excavation was very brief, from October 23rd through November 4th, but the team made a big find even in that brief window: a 300-pound piece of the head of another one of the plaster sphinxes, the largest and best preserved yet.

“The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs,” said Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

What makes the recent find significant is its size and how well-preserved researchers found it.

“The majority of it is preserved by sand with the original paint still intact,” Jenzen said. “This is significant and shows that we’re still learning unexpected facets to film historical movie production, such as the fact that objects in black-and-white films were actually painted extremely intense colors.” […]

The sphinx head, which is about 5 feet by 8 feet, is currently being stored so it can dry out for a few months before art restorers can get to work preserving the artifact.

“It”s 94 years old and has been buried near the beach for that long; it is wet. If you think of the drywall in your house buried for 94 years at the beach, that is the consistency of the material we are working with,” Jenzen said.

Sphinx head removed from the sand to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center for conservation. Photo courtesy the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

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Iron Age cauldrons discovered at feasting site

November 28th, 2017

A team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) has unearthed an unprecedented collection of Iron Age metal artifacts at Glenfield Park in Leicestershire. The excavation took place in the winter of 2013/2014 in advance of construction of a large-scale warehouse and distribution center on the site which was known to have had Iron Age remains from a small excavation in the 1990s and occasional discoveries after that by field walkers. What nobody knew was the size, extent and age of the Iron Age occupation.

The team focused on a four-hectare area dense with features characteristic of an Iron Age settlement — roundhouses, enclosures, postholes, pits — located at the north end of the development site. The trenches dug by ULAS archaeologists revealed that the full size of the settlement was almost 12 hectares in area and was inhabited throughout the Iron Age and Roman era. The ULAS team also unearthed metalwork, and lots of it: 11 metal cauldrons, either complete or all but, several ring-headed dress pins, an iron involuted brooch, a cast copper alloy horn-cap that may have been part of a ceremonial staff or mace.

The cauldrons are the stand-out discovery. It is the only second multiple cauldron Iron Age find in Europe, the farthest north on mainland Britain and unique in the East Midlands area. The combination of metalwork is entirely unique; nothing of this range and variety has been found before.

Most of the cauldrons appear to have been deliberately laid in a large circular enclosure ditch that surrounded a building. They had been placed in either upright or inverted positions, before the ditch was filled in, suggesting that they were buried to mark the cessation of activities associated with this part of the site. Other cauldrons were found buried across the site, suggesting that significant events were being marked over a long period of time as the settlement developed.

The cauldrons are made from several separate parts, comprising iron rims and upper bands, hemispherical copper alloy bowls and two iron ring handles attached to the upper band.

They appear to have been a variety of sizes, with rims ranging between 360mm and 560mm in diameter, with the total capacity of all cauldrons being approximately 550 litres, which illustrates their potential to provide for large groups of people that may have gathered at the settlement from the wider Iron Age community of the area.

John [Thomas, director of the excavation and ULAS Project Officer] said: “Due to their large capacity it is thought that Iron Age cauldrons were reserved for special occasions and would have been important social objects, forming the centrepiece of major feasts, perhaps in association with large gatherings and events.

“The importance of cauldrons as symbolic objects is reflected in their frequent appearance in early medieval Irish and Welsh literature, which has been drawn upon in studies of Iron Age society. They are rarely found in large numbers and, with the exception of a discovery in Chiseldon, where 17 cauldrons were found in a pit, there have been few excavated examples in recent years.”

Ritual depositions of objects used for ceremonial banquets appears to have been a common practice in Iron Age Britain and Europe, and the cauldrons would have been very important, very expensive, essential parts of the feast preparations which made them worthy candidates for deposition after the feasting was over.

Because they were in such fragile condition, the cauldrons were not fully excavated in situ, but raised en bloc still encased in the soil in which they’d lain for thousands of years. Before the painstaking excavation of the soil blocks in laboratory conditions could begin, the cauldrons were sent to the hospital, Paul Strickland Scanner Centre in Middlesex, which had CT scanners large enough to fit the massive metal-stuffed soil blocks.

The scans gave archaeologists a roadmap to follow when excavating — the orientation of the cauldrons, their sizes, fragment placement — and a glimpse at even more exciting possibilities, namely evidence of decoration, something that is very rare on metalwork from this period. One of the complete cauldrons has a raised stem and leaf decoration on the iron band near the handle, a motif that is reminiscent of the “Vegetal Style” of Celtic art from around the 4th century B.C. One of the smaller copper alloy bowls appears to have a domed rivet or raised boss decoration.

Conservation and excavation of the cauldrons will be taking place at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), and things are already looking promising.

Liz Barham, Senior Conservator at MOLA said: “Already we have been able to uncover glimpses of the detailed histories of these cauldrons through CT scanning, including evidence of their manufacture and repair, and have identified sooty residues still clinging to the base of one of the cauldrons from the last time it was suspended over a fire. During the upcoming conservation we hope to discover much more about the entire assemblage. If we’re lucky, we may even find food residues from the last time they were used – over 2000 years ago.”

This video gives a brief overview of the site and the discoveries, including clips of the first cauldron’s CT scan.

This one focuses on the CT scans of the cauldrons:

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Clark acquires politically daring portrait of child

November 27th, 2017

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is renown worldwide for the size and quality of its Impressionist collection. Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, was highly discriminating in the pieces he chose to buy. He was entirely self-taught and relied solely on his own excellent taste, the input of a few trusted dealers and of the opinions of his wife Francine, a French-born actress who he described as his “touchstone in judging pictures.” The result was a collection of such depth that it eclipsed in quality the collections amassed by his wealthier contemporaries.

He kept it all on the down low, collecting for decades in the background, never publishing, promoting or displaying his artworks until th opening of the Clark Art Institute in 1955. Out of nowhere, it seemed, and set in a small college town in the remote Berkshire Mountains, one of the greatest private collections ever pieced together exploded on the scene. The Impressionists, the main focus of Sterling and Francine Clark’s acquisitions after 1920, made the most lasting impression overall, but the Clark also has a phenomenal collection of paintings from the 14th century through the 19th, decorative arts, Remington bronzes, porcelain and British and American silver.

Its location next to Williams College was not a coincidence. From the beginning, the Clarks evisioned the museum not just as a venue for the display of their flawless collection, but as a hub of art historical research and education. The museum sponsors the college’s world-class art history graduate program have developed a truly symbiotic relationship that has produced curators and directors who have worked in the greatest museums in the country and internationally.

Alexandre Jean Dubois-Drahonet (French, 1791-1834), Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde, 1817, Oil on canvas, 59 x 39.6 in. Clark Art Institute, 2017.2.The Clarks’ judiciously ecclectic approach has continued in the museum they founded. The permanent collection has grown significantly since 1955 as the Clark Art Institute very selectively acquires pieces to flesh out certain areas, time periods and subject matters. One of its latest acquisitions is the Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817) by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet, a French portraitist who may not have the highest name recognition today, but who was preeminent in his field and specialized in studies of military uniforms, several of which are now in the collection of Windsor Castle. Purchased at auction this past April for $295,500, far above its pre-sale estimate, it is a full-length oil on canvas painting of a boy dressed in full Napoleonic military uniform.

The striking garb and composition of the portrait is a tribute to Achille’s father, Baron Jean-Baptiste Deban de Laborde, a First Empire Hussar who was died in combat at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. His son was just one year old at the time. Seven years later, he sat for a portrait wearing a child-sized version of his father’s uniform with its characteristic silver frogging and wee tasselled hessian boots. The youth leans on a ceremonial sword his father was given as an award for bravery as squadron leader at the Battle of Marengo in 1800. His sabre and its scabbard are on the floor on the lower right. Pinned to the velvet drapery in the upper left of the painting is the late baron’s 1804 Légion d’honneur medal, among others. On the couch behind Achille are Jean-Baptiste’s plumed shako cap and sabretache (a pouch worn on cavalrymen’s belt). The cap bears the number 8, Jean-Baptiste’s hussar regiment.

“This beautiful painting enhances the Clark’s collection of early nineteenth-century portraiture,” said Olivier Meslay, Felda and Dena Hardymon Director. “It invites a close comparison to the Jacques-Louis David portrait Comte Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne-d’Aynac (1816) that is in our collection, and provides a poignant juxtaposition between a Napoleonic war hero and a child honoring one who was lost on the battlefield.”

Dubois-Drahonet primarily worked as a portraitist but also produced a number of studies of military uniforms. His work was notable for its clean lines and a command of light similar to that of his contemporary Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Drahonet exhibited at the Salon from 1812 to 1834 and was awarded a medal in 1827. The portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde combines Drahonet’s talent for portraiture with his detailed knowledge of military uniform and accoutrements.

“The Dubois-Drahonet and David portraits were created within one year of each other, and both represent bold statements of Napoleonic support in a time of staunch anti-imperial sentiment,” said Esther Bell, Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator. “David was living in exile when he painted comte de Turenne. In painting such a daring portrait memorializing a soldier with a distinguished military career under Napoleon, Dubois-Drahonet and his patrons were taking a political risk.”

They took it twice, in fact, because that same year Achille’s older brother Edouard-César Deban de Laborde was also immportalized in a portrait by Dubois-Drahonet. The son and heir is even more elaborately kitted out in uniform as he wraps a garland of flowers around the laurel-crowned marble bust of his noble but sad father. When he grew up, Achille, like his father, chose a military career. Also like his father, he rose to the rank of colonel, although not in the Hussars but the Fourth Cuirassiers Regiment. When his brother Edouard died without issue in 1851, Achille inherited his father’s title too.

After it was bought from a Belgian private collector by the Clark, the Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde spent a few months getting some love from the experts at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. They found it in exceptional condition, its canvas, stretchers and frame all original. It just required a thorough cleaning, the removal of a discolored varnish layer (not applied by the artist) and a few fill-ins here and there of small spots where the paint had flaked off over the years. After 65 hours of conservation work over the course of weeks, the beautiful portrait was ready for primetime. It is now on display at the Clark with other early 19th century works.

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Repton Viking camp is larger, older than realized

November 26th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed weapons fragments, artifacts and the remains of workshops from a 9th century Viking camp next to St Wystan’s Church in Repton, Derbyshire. The University of Bristol team discovered the objects in the garden of the Vicarage adjacent to the church and were able to date by them precisely to the winter of 873-4, thanks to the application of cutting edge technology to retest bones from a mass grave found a few feet from the new dig site in the 1980s.

Archaeologists had long suspected that there might be a Viking camp there because it’s in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: The Great Army “moved from Lindsey to Repton and there took winter quarters” in 873. They relieved the King of Mercia, Burghred, of his heavy crown and took his kingdom. They let him keep his head, at least; he was simply expelled from Mercia. A location on the River Trent seemed likely. River access is probably one the main reasons they moved to Repton and set up a camp for the winter in the first place; the presence of a large and wealthy monastery on the banks of the Trent that contained the tombs and mortal remains of several Mercian kings was another good incentive.

In 1975, archaeologists excavating near the church on the banks of the Trent for the Viking camp site referred to in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thought they’d found what they had been seeking. They unearthed the remains of a medieval D-shaped enclosure built after the monastery. Dig co-leaders Professor Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle thought the enclosure and artifacts indicated this was indeed the Repton Viking Camp. The only problem was finding hard evidence of it. For a Viking camp, it was uncharacteristically tiny at about 1.5 hectares in surface area. Other Great Army camps are far larger, like the one at Torksey which is 26 hectares in area.

Additional archaeological explorations of the site in the 1980s made another major discovery: a mound containing a mass charnel grave with the remains of more than 300 people. Researchers believed them to be Vikings killed in battle, but radiocarbon testing dated the remains in the 7th or 8th centuries, so at least a century too early to be part of the Great Army.

In pursuit of fresh information regarding the size of the camp, University of Bristol doctoral candidate Cat Jarman and Professor Mark Horton of the University’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology picked a location on the west side of the enclosure and just outside of the boundary to see if there were other structures or other evidence of Viking occupation.

Geophysics, including ground penetrating radar, revealed structures including paths and possible temporary buildings.

Excavations showed these to be gravel platforms that may have held ephemeral timber structures or tents with deposits including fragments of Saxon millstones and a cross fragment from the monastery.

Associated were broken pieces of weaponry, including fragments of a battle-axes and arrows, and evidence for metal working. Also found were substantial numbers of nails, two of which had roves, the particular feature of Viking ship nails, as well as several lead gaming pieces. These are of a type that has been found in large numbers at the camp in Torksey and appear to be specifically connected to the early Viking armies.

Cat Jarman … said: “Our dig shows there was a lot more to the Viking Camp at Repton than what we may have thought in the past. It covered a much larger area than was once presumed – at least the area of the earlier monastery – and we are now starting to understand the wide range of activities that toonok place in these camps.”

As significant as they are, artifacts and structural remains alone could not provide archaeologist with the date evidence they needed. It was the bones from the charnel mound, found a few yards north of the most recent excavation, that stepped up to the plate. It’s not the 1980s anymore, and radiocarbon dating technology is more advanced and precise today than it was then. It also requires far smaller samples. We also have stable isotope analysis now which allows researchers to determine from levels of certain isotopes in the teeth where a person was born and raised, what kind of food he or she ate and more.

Jarman’s latest and greatest radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis results found that not only are the bones 9th century, but they died in the winter of 873-4, just when The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the Vikings set up camp in Repton. They also found a direct connection between the remains of the workshop and the charnel mound.

The remains were placed in a deliberately damaged Saxon building along with Viking weapons and artefacts.

The building also contained evidence of use as a workshop by the Vikings before it was converted into a charnel house.

The Bristol team located a path linking their workshop area and the charnel house, further strengthening the link between the two.

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LoC acquires, digitizes rare Mesoamerican map

November 25th, 2017

The Library of Congress has acquired an extremely rare manuscript map created by the Nahuatl people of Mexico in 1593. The Codex Quetzalecatzin, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec, is one of very few manuscripts by indigenous Mesoamericans survive unburned, largely because it wasn’t part of the immense literary patrimony of pre-Hispanic cultures that was considered “demonic” because of its hieroglyphics, but rather the product of the Relaciones Geográficas, an extensive mapping project of colonial Spanish America ordered by King Philip II the late 16th century. Surveys sent to colonial authorities in every territory had to be filled in with a range of demographic, geographic, topographic and cartographic information, complete with an accurate and to-scale map of the area. The maps and much of the information on them were made by indigenous people based on local knowledge.

The codex maps southern Puebla from Ecatepec, today a suburb of Mexico City to the church of Santa Cruz Huitziltepec and across the provincial border into northern Oaxaca. It’s drawn in iron gall ink and painted in watercolors on paper. It is rich with hieroglyphics, colorful and compelling drawings and text labelling people and locations in Spanish and in romanized Nahuatl. While we don’t know the name of the artist/s and writers who made the Codex Quetzalecatzin, it does include unique geneaological information about an important local family — several generations of the Nahuatl “de Leon” family from 1480 through 1593 — and the interweaving of indigenous and Spanish cultures in the century after Christopher Columbus.

[T]he Librarian stated: “The acquisition of the map, because of its relevance to the early history of the European contact with the indigenous people of America, makes an important addition to the early American treasures at the Library of Congress, including the Oztoticpac Lands Map and the Huexotzinco Codex. It’s a rare document of world history and American history in general.” […]

As with many Nahua, indigenous group, manuscript maps of the period, the Codex Quetzalecatzin depicts the local community at an important point in its history and the iconography that makes up the map reflects some Spanish influence.

“The codex shows graphically the kinds of cultural interactions taking place at an important moment in American history,” said John Hessler, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection for the archaeology of the early Americas of the Library of Congress. “In a sense, we see the birth of what would be the start of what we would come to know as the Americas.”

Hessler added: “The codex relates to the extent of land ownership and properties of the family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are portrayed on the manuscript. With Aztec stylized graphics, the map illustrates the family’s genealogy and its descent from Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480 was the major political leader of the region. It also shows churches, some Spanish place names and images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish law and rule.”

In the codex, certain features that point to indigenous authorship include pre-Hispanic stylistics, such as symbols for rivers, roads and pathways, and hieroglyphic writing. The marginal notations with alphabetic writing utilizing the Latin alphabet and the names of some of the indigenous elites, such as “don Alonso” and “don Matheo,” are clues to its colonial era composition. This is evidence that some indigenous people enjoyed the Spanish title “don” and had been baptized with Christian names.

The LoC has digitized the map and uploaded it to its website, which in case you haven’t seen it yet is one of the greatest photographic archives on the Internet and has been for years, long before other institutions got on the bandwagon of making high-resolution images available online to the general public. It’s so great, in fact, that I couldn’t even upload the full image to this article because it’s so gloriously gigantic my server can’t handle it. I mean, of course I uploaded a gigantic version, but it’s less than half the size of the original behemoth. Behold it in all its grandeur here.

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A Black Friday sale actually worth spending money on

November 24th, 2017

In a shocking development, there was one single advertisment in the avalanche of Black Friday gimmick sales spam currently suffocating my email inbox that is actually worth sharing with people of the history nerdly persuasion. I’ve written before about Exhibition on Screen productions, films capturing the background and execution of blockbuster art exhibitions. I’ve only had the opportunity to watch one of them on the big screen, but if I’d had my way, I would have watched them all. The distribution is just very limited is all.

For one day only, ie, today, Friday, November 24th, every film in stock on their website is 50% off. Some of them are on DVD and only available in PAL format so they won’t work in most players in the US. Many of them are digital downloads which are a) easily viewed anywhere in the world, and b) cheap as hell. I’m limbering up my clickin’ finger because there’s going to be a lot of compensatory binging in my near future. I might be amenable to burning them as a stocking stuffers, but I make no guaratees.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, Michelangelo – Love and Death, The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them, The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch, Girl with a Pearl Earring – and other treasures from the Mauritshuis and Leonardo from the National Gallery London will all be mine. Oh yes. They will be mine. For less than $3.50 a pop.

My one crushing disappointment is that their Domus Aurea documentary is out of stock. You would not believe how little material is out there about the recent restoration and new virtual reality exhibition of Nero’s Golden House. The site doesn’t have a bookstore and the general bookstore had diddly squat about the palace beyond a few cheesy pages in a tour book that didn’t even begin to touch on all the new archaeological information and technology.

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Any trouser-clad women in your old family photo albums?

November 23rd, 2017

For those of you in who celebrate it, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving full of good times, good food and only slightly deranged arguments that stopped well short of fisticuffs. I have family history on my mind today, thanks in large part to my father taking a moment before we gorged on a wide selection of fine viands to note that the house had been in our family for 106 years and Thanksgiving had been celebrated in it that whole time. His mother grew up there and even when she got married and had kids of her own, they always went to her parents’ house for TG. My father remembers fondly going every year as a child and youth when his grandmother hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Now that my parents live there, they have carried on the century-old tradition with great verve. Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday and they make a real production out of it every year.

Family lore always make me happy, so before the tryptophan knocks me unconscious more thoroughly than any fisticuffs ever could, I feel compelled to encourage you to check out Women in Trousers: A Visual Archive, a Cardiff University project that is collecting and digitizing images of daring, hard-working, all-around badass women who wore a variety of transgressive bifurcated garments from bloomers to Edwardian trouser skirts where you barely tell there are trousers under there to wide-legged jeans from the 40s. The archive is populated with all kinds of images — drawings, illustrations from periodicals, photographs of women on the job, advocating dress reform or simple in costume — from the mid-19th century to the 1960s. While the imagery focuses on the wearing of trousers, the project’s brief is a wider one: women’s social and political history and the evolution of dress reform in Britain, Europe and America.

The archive is already a fantastic browse but it is still far from finished, and the authors have appealed to the public to submit any photographs and stories they might have of women in their families wearing pants. The ones that have been uploaded so far are universally grand. The Land Girls from WWII are probably my favorites because of how cheerful and tough they were, but I love the ones on ski trips, on the boardwalk and in plays just living their lives and having a blast.

I’m going to go through my grandmother’s old black paper albums and look for a picture I remember seeing as a child of my great-grandmother — a Connecticut Yankee in the most authentic sense of the word who could shoot a rattlesnake through the eye from 100 yards, canned everything that wasn’t nailed down and used an outhouse until the very end of her long life. She was tough as nails but smiled constantly, always had a twinkle in her eye and a funny story for her great-grandkids. She also had a cast iron hand-pump that was the sole source of water inside the house. I was fascinated by it because it seemed like something in a play or on Little House on the Prairie, totally outside my experience and oh man the water was so, so cold. And rusty. She washed in it every day, bless her bulletproof hide.

I hope I can find that pic of her wearing pants because I would love to add her distinctiveness to the archive. With the holidays coming up, now’s a great opportunity to rifle through dusty closets and drawers for photographic evidence of the kickass trouser-clad women in your family. It would be worth it just for the conversations that the pursuit might stimulate, especially with the senior members of your clan.

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Fancy chariot and horse burial found in central China

November 22nd, 2017


Archaeologists have found four ancient chariots and the remains of nearly 100 horses buried in a tomb in Xinzheng City, Henan province, central China. The chariots date to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) and one of them in particular is an exceptional example of a luxurious vehicle with all the bells and whistles of the era. It’s huge, 2.56 meters (about 8’5″) long and 1.66 meters (about 5’5″) wide, and was elegantly appointed with bronze and bone decorations. The chariot has set a new record as the largest ancient horse-drawn vehicle discovered in Xinzheng City, which is saying something because more than 3,000 tombs have been unearthed in the area, including chariot and horse burials.

Scientists believe the tomb may have belonged to a noble family of the Zheng state (806–375 BC), which was a vassal kingdom that governed this part of central China during the Zhou dynasty (1100–221 BC). […]

The leader of the dig, Ma Juncai, told Xinhua that no written records have so far been uncovered at the site, making it unclear who the burial pit belonged to, but archaeologists think it likely to have been the funeral site for a Zheng lord.

The site was first excavated in 2001. Two pits were revealed by the dig back then, but work was interrupted for 16 years until archaeologists were finally able to return to the location and pick up where they left off in February 2017. Over the nine months they’ve been excavating, archaeologists have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 90 horses in addition to the four chariots. Pit 3 is the largest of the three tombs, and boy did they need the space. Dig leader and Henan Province Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology archaeologist Ma Juncai estimates there are at least 100 horses buried here, but there could well be more. She believes there are more chariots yet to be unearthed as well.

A number of bronze artifacts have also been discovered in Pit 3. Archaeologists hope a thorough study of the bronze pieces will shed new light on the technological prowess and manufacturing methods of the period. They also hope the bronze artifacts might reveal more information about who was buried in the tomb, their social status and fill in some blanks about Zheng-era funerary practices.

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John Quincy Adams would have slain on Instagram

November 21st, 2017

In a long, eventful life filled with accomplishments, John Quincy Adams often gets the credit for the one thing he didn’t do: being the first President of the United States to be photographed. That record goes to William Henry Harrison, poor sod, who had his picture taken around the time of his inauguration in 1841. Thirty-one days later, he was dead of a fever. (Legend has it he delivered his interminably long inaugural address without a coat thereby “catching cold” which developed into pneumonia and killed him. Now we know that the weather cannot infect you with disease — pathogenic microorganisms do that job — but it makes a good story so it has lingered as the dominant account of how the shortest presidential term of office came to such an abrupt end.) Adams was the second resident of the White House to photographed, albeit many years after his first and only term as President. It was in 1842 and only reprints and copies of that image and the Harrison portrait are known to survive today. The originals are lost.

That’s why there was so much excitement earlier this year when the news broke that an original daguerreotype of Adams taken by photographer Philip Haas at his studio in Washington, D.C. in 1843 emerged from the obscurity of attic clutter to the bright lights of Sotheby’s. It was the earliest known surviving original photographic portrait of a US president. Bidding was not surprisingly fierce and there was much rejoicing in the history nerddom when the National Portrait Gallery announced a few days after the auction that they had placed the victorious bid.

You wouldn’t know from how rare these original plates are, but as it turns out John Quincy Adams was a bit of a camera whore (said in reverent awe, Mr. President’s ghost, not disrespect). Louis Daguerre presented his new technology to the public in 1839, so when Adams sat for his first portrait in 1842, the process was still in its infancy. In March of 1843, he had another portrait taken, his first by Philip Haas. Then he went back Haas’ shop a week later to have the portrait redone because none of the ones from the first session came out right. His diary entries on those dates reveal his fascination with the “camera obscura” device and how it worked.

Getting his picture taken by top society photographers became a regular thing for John Quincy. In September of 1842, six months before he first visited Philip Haas, he sat for photographer John Plumbe at his Boston gallery, then again at Plumbe’s studio in D.C. three more times all in 1846. The second of these four sessions took place on February 14th, 1846. The former President noted in his diary that he went to “Plumbe’s Daguerreotype office” where they took two shots of him: “a full face and a profile, both quite successful.”

The reference in Adams’ diary was the only evidence of the existence of the “quite successful” profile picture by John Plumbe. If it was published, printed, reproduced or in another way disseminated we don’t know about it.

How is there a profile image of President John Quincy Adams published right here in this humble blog then, you boldly but fairly query? It’s not a print, reprint or a copy, though. (Okay it’s a digital copy. You know what I mean.) It’s the original plate shot and developed by Plumbe. It just randomly turned up recently at a Paris antiques market, was spotted by someone with a good eye, got conserved, appraised and authenticated by top experts and it’s all over but the spending.

It’s a quarter plate Daguerreotype in a burgundy-glazed leather case lined with purple silk and velvet. The brass matt is stamped “Plumbe” and cover of the case is embossed with a basket of flowers design that case was one of Plumbe’s signature motifs. The compartment that holds the plate has a paper liner that reads “Manufactured at the Plumbe National Daguerrian Depot, New York.” And the portrait itself is undeniably John Quincy Adams’ mutton-chopped mien in noble profile.

The 1846 Plumbe daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams will be offered at Heritage Auctions’ Americana sale on December 2nd with a pre-sale estimate of $50,000. HA has a strong web component; you can bid early online and the bids are already up to $25,000. Given the results of the last auction where a John Quincy Adams portrait went far and beyond all pre-sale expectations, $50,000 could be surpassed within minutes.

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Biography of Chinese inquisitor found in 13th c. tomb

November 20th, 2017

Rear wall of the coffin chamber in née Wu's tomb. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.Archaeologists have discovered a double tomb of a lord and lady of the southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) in China’s southeastern Zhejiang province. The tombs were unearthed at a contruction site in Qingyuan County in 2014 but the findings have only now been published in English in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics, a translation of the Chinese-language archaeology journal Wenwu (Cultural Relics) which first published the discovery in 2015.

The two tombs date to the early 13th century and we are fortunate enough to know the identities of both the people buried within. One of the two tombs, Lord Hu Hong’s, had been broken into by looters in the distant past and so had been stripped of its valuables and grave goods. Only a smattering of porcelain with a decorative elephant motif survived the artifact raid. Thankfully the grave robbers weren’t interested in the kinds of things that most enthrall archaeologists today because they lack the showy obviousness and saleability of “treasure”, so they left behind a stele with a long biographical inscription detailing Lord Hu Hong’s many accomplishments. Perhaps they didn’t want to piss off the deities by going against the expressed wishes of the deceased whose life history, according to the inscription, “has been inscribed on this stone to be treasured here, in the hope it will last as long as heaven and earth!”

Jar with elephant knob found in Hu Hong's tomb. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.The other tomb held the remains of Lord Hu’s wife née Wu. She too had an extensive bio carved in stone but the inscription is too worn and damaged to be readable at the moment. The good news is the looters missed her tomb, so it still contains some of the luxurious objects — gold earrings, gold and silver hairpins, gold combs, and a crystal disc that looks streamlined and elegant like something you’d see in a high-end jewelry shop today. Like her husband, she too was interred with a porcelain vessel decorated with an elephant motif. Archaeologists found a large quantity of mercury residue inside née Wu’s tomb, likely an attempt to preserve her body that failed spectacularly.

Hu Hong bore the title “Grand Master for Thorough Counsel,” a position he filled ably for the southern Song emperors.

He and née Wu lived at a time when China was divided between two dynasties, with Hu Hong serving the southern Song dynasty that controlled southern China, according to the researchers who described the findings. […]

Gold and silver tokens found in née Wu's tomb. The gold piece was also legal tender issued by the emperor. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.Apparently, he showed “outstanding talent” as a child in school and, in 1163, passed a competitive series of government exams to get a junior position in the government according to the inscription found in Hu Hong’s tomb. He then rose gradually through the ranks. His career got a boost in 1179, when he agreed to serve on the southern Song dynasty’s northern borders. In 1193, the government recognized him as “best county magistrate of the year,” the inscription says.

As the “investigating censor,” Hu Hong prosecuted the “treacherous and the heretical” in 1195, the inscription says. He was made a military commissioner in 1200 and was charged with defeating a group of rebels. “At the time, the Yao tribes were rebellious, and he stamped the rebels out,” the inscription says. Today, the Yao live in China and Southeast Asia.

In his final years, Hu Hong was growing critical of his own government, and retired not long after 1200. “He knew that he was beyond his prime and insisted on retiring. Had he kept being outspoken, he would have been pushed out,” the inscription says.

“Although worried about current affairs and concerned with the moral decline of the time, and though he could not easily let go, he no longer had the energy to fight and serve,” the inscription says. He died in 1203, and his wife died in 1206. Their tombs were built side by side. Hu Hong and née Wu had two sons, three daughters and two granddaughters, the inscription says.

I like how the inscription just lays out the politics of the situation: he quit before they could fire him. At least he got to enjoy his three short years of life after retirement.

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