Massive illegal dumpsite found in Roman catacomb

February 9th, 2016

Roman police have discovered tons of refuse, everything from household trash to industrial waste, illegally dumped in the 2nd and 3rd century A.D. catacombs of Tor Fiscale, an archaeological park in east Rome. Situated on the Via Latina near the junction with the ancient Appian Way, the Tor Fiscale park is part of the vast Appian Way Regional Park. The small park is dense with archaeological riches. It is at the crossroads of six Roman and one Renaissance aqueduct whose arched galleries dominate the landscape alongside the 13th century tower that gives the park its name. It is replete with remains of ancient luxury villas, homes, tombs and underground caves dug out of soft volcanic tufa. Initially carved to quarry the stone, the caves were used by early Christians for gatherings and burials during the imperial era when the religion was viewed with suspicion and its adherents sometimes persecuted.

Authorities came to suspect something was rotten underground during an investigation of illegal car scrapyards and waste disposal rackets in the area. On January 26th, about 20 people — police officers, personnel from Italy’s Regional Environmental Protection Agency (ARPA), municipal workers and members of the archaeological speleology organization Sotterranei di Roma (Undergrounds of Rome) — worked together to explore miles of the underground tunnels. They found a shocking amount of waste, including old refrigerators, mattresses, electronics, tires, batteries, hundreds of bags of organic materials full of various molds that may have been used in the cultivation of mushrooms.

In one of the deepest tunnels, they found a veritable lake of greasy black goo that is likely used motor oil. On the surface alone this lake of hydrocarbon pollution covers about 200 square meters (2,150 square feet), and preliminary analysis found the lake is more than a foot deep, so the total volume of toxic filth in this one spot alone is something in the neighborhood of 800 cubic meters (28,250 cubic feet). At some points the vaults of the tunnel appear to be impregnated with the goop, suggesting it was dumped from above rather than transported deep into the caves. The team took samples of the fluid to identify it and they will examine the surface to locate the entry point. There will also be extensive testing to assess whether the oil has seeped into the water table.

After making the shocking discovery, police used drones to fully explore the network of bat-and-mice-infested tunnels to try to establish the extent of the dumping.

It is thought that local businesses and residents have been using the site to cheaply dispose of their unwanted goods for years. Police even discovered that unscrupulous dumpers had drilled shafts down into the caves from above, which they used as rubbish chutes to quickly dispose of their unwanted goods.

Authorities have closed the entrances to the caves on Via Demetriade and Via di Torre Branca, but of course that won’t stop people from using their homemade garbage chutes. The municipal police are investigating the case in the hopes of finding who is responsible, at least most recently, for this ruthless assault on Rome’s cultural history and environmental health.

Earliest evidence of fermentation found in Sweden

February 8th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating a 9,200 year-old settlement on the banks of the long-defunct Lake Vesan near the Baltic Sea coast in Sölvesborg, southern Sweden, have discovered evidence of a massive fish fermentation operation. They found pine bark and an incredibly dense concentration of fish bones, about 30,000 of them per square meter. Underneath the fish bone layer was an oblong pit dug into the clay soil. The pit was rimmed with five larger postholes and 32 smaller stakeholes.

The team looked to ethnographic studies of current circumpolar societies which rely on fish as their primary source of sustenance for comparison. They found that these fish-dependent cultures cope with large catches over a short fishing season by fermenting the fish. In a cold climate with a very short summer, there just isn’t the time to dry or smoke all the fish necessary to sustain life over the long winter. Some areas are too damp for drying to work at all. The cold climate has one major advantage: it is possible to ferment food without adding salt. Traditional circumpolar people like Inuits from Greenland, the Jawina in Kamchatka and the Karelians in Finland, don’t use salt. They dig holes in the ground, fill them with fish and cover the pits with animal skins, stones or earth, much like the people on the shores of Lake Vesan may have been doing 9,200 years ago.

Analysis of the remains suggests that fish had been fermented in that pit. The presence of a small number of wild boar and seal remains may indicate the Mesolithic fishermen wrapped the fish in animal skins that were then attached to the posts in the holes. The pit in that scenario provided air circulation underneath the fermenting fish. Once fermented, the flesh could be removed and the bones dumped into the pit. Another possibility is that the fish were in a pit lined with seal and boar remains (blubber and fat acidify the fish and aid in the fermentation process) and covered with pine bark. Pine bark is also acidic and would help ensure that the fish began to ferment right away rather than just rotting.

Using fine mesh sieves to sift through the soil and capture every tiny fish bone and calculating from the number of bones found at the site, the team discovered that at least 60 tons of freshwater fish from the lake, mostly common roach, were caught there. It’s the world’s earliest evidence of fermentation, and it has the potential to rewrite the timeline of the Early Mesolithic.

Traps to capture large numbers of fish and game have been found before from this period, large enough numbers that some form of storage would have been necessary. Without direct archaeological evidence of long-term and large-scale storage, however, the preservation of food has been seen as the province of more complex, sedentary Neolithic farming communities which have pottery, granaries and silos to attest to their long-term storage of grain. This new direct evidence of storage by fermentation in the Mesolithic indicates a more socially complex culture with previously unrecognized technological skill and adaptability to a rapidly changing environment.

The discovery is also an indication that Nordic societies were far more developed 9,200 years ago than what was previously believed. The findings are important as it is usually argued that people in the north lived relatively mobile lives, while people in the Levant – a large area in the Middle East – became settled and began to farm and raise cattle much earlier.

“These findings indicate a different time line, with Nordic foragers settling much earlier and starting to take advantage of the lakes and sea to harvest and process fish. From a global perspective, the development in the Nordic region could correspond to that of the Middle East at the time,” says Adam Boethius.

That’s not to say that this was a farming community. There is no evidence of cultivation of crops. The Nordic peoples of the Early Mesolithic were still foragers, but the scale of the fermentation indicates they may have been semi-sedentary, ie, mobile, but with a regularly maintained home base. Judging from the kind of game and marine life killed at what stages in life, the lakeside settlement was occupied most of the year, from late summer to late spring, particularly in the coldest part of the winter. That makes this site the earliest winter-summer settlement in southern Scandinavia and the earliest settlement of any kind on the east coast of Sweden.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Rare complete first edition 17th c. sex manual for sale

February 7th, 2016

Aristotle’s Masterpiece, not a masterpiece nor by Aristotle, was a manual of advice on sex, childbirth and infant care first published in 1684. Its anonymous author took the name of the famous ancient Greek philosopher to give his material an air of intellectual and scientific authority. Aristotle’s Problems, a book about health and sex in question-and-answer format published in 1595, had established the philosopher’s reputation for expertise on sexual matters even though again the author had only borrowed Aristotle’s name. By the early 17th century, the name “Aristotle” was popularly associated with sexual knowledge. The Masterpiece sought to piggyback off of that reputation. In truth it actually contradicted Aristotle’s theory of conception, proposing a two-seed mechanism whereby a man and woman each contribute generative material to create new life while the real-life Aristotle believed there was only one seed, the man’s, which planted a baby in the lady’s womb field.

The book is a compilation of the most sensationalized parts of two 16th century volumes, The Secret Miracles of Nature (1564) by Levinus Lemnius and De conceptu et generatione hominis (1554), a midwifery manual by Jakob Rüff. It was one of almost two dozen books about midwifery printed in the wake of the great success of Nicholas Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives, published in 1651. What made the Masterpiece stand out in the crowd was its promise of advice on “the act of copulation” on the very title page. The more conventional midwifery texts were not so direct. In keeping with the finest tradition of sex sells, Aristotle’s Masterpiece became a bestseller for centuries, reissued in two more versions with additional material from later books and going through hundreds of printings in Britain and the United States. The 1728 version went through more printings than all the other books on midwifery combined and was still in print well into the 20th century.

The inclusion of woodcuts yoinked from French barber surgeon Ambroise Paré’s 1573 treatise Of Monsters and Prodigies first published in English in an edition of his Works in 1634, played a part in the book’s success. Again the title page made it clear what readers could expect to find within: woodcuts of naked ladies and “monsters,” babies born with various anomalies. The title page woodcut was of a hairy woman and a black child, both the result of their mothers having seen something that imprinted on their fetuses during pregnancy or the moment of conception. The hairy lady’s mother while pregnant with her had beheld an image of John the Baptist wearing animal skins. The picture was imprinted in her mind on her developing fetus, resulting in the monstrous birth of a hirsute baby girl. The black child was, ostensibly, the son of two white parents who had a picture of a black man hanging in their bedroom. The mother happened to glance at it while having sex with her husband, and the result of that copulation was a black baby.

It was a tricky thing, this conceiving of a healthy, non-monstrous child. Allowances had to made for women’s colder humours, allowances which fortuitously required husbands actually take the time to excite their wives before getting to the business of insemination. Here’s some advice on foreplay justified by old-timey nonsense science.

When the husband cometh into his wives chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behaviour, and allurements to venery: but if he perceive her to be slow and more cold, he must cherish, embrace, and tickle her, and shall not abruptly, the nerves being suddenly distended, break into the field of nature, but rather shall creep in by little and little, intermixing more wanton kisses with wanton words and speeches, handling her secret parts and dugs, that she may take fire and be in flames to venery, for so at length the womb will strive and wax fervent with a desire of casting forth its own seed, and receiving the mans seed to be mixed together therewith.

But if all these things will not suffice to inflame the woman, for women for the most part are more slow and slack into the expulsion or yielding forth of their seed, it shall be necessary first to foment her secret parts with the decoction of hot herbs made with muscadine, or boyled in any other good wine, and to put a little musk or civit into the neck or mouth of the womb, and when she shall perceive the flux of her seed to approach, by reason of the tickling pleasure, she must advertise her husband thereof, that at the very instant, time, or moment, he may also yield forth his seed, that by the concourse or meeting of the seeds, conception may be made, and so at length the child formed and born.

The first edition of Aristotle’s Masterpiece was published by John How and, as printed on the title page, was “to be sold next door to the Anchor Tavern in Sweethings-Rents in Cornhil.” How registered it with the Stationers Company, an early version of copyright protection which allowed registrees to block publication of their works by unlicensed publishers, but he was unable to prevent pirated copies from getting out there almost immediately. Printers both anonymous and named cranked out copies starting within the first year of its initial publication.

Because it was considered a dirty book with all the sex talk and the naked hairy ladies and four-armed children, it wasn’t overtly sold by booksellers although most of them surreptitiously kept copies under the counter for the client in the know. It was sold by traveling peddlers, in general stores and, as stated in the first printing, in or next to taverns. Never officially banned, publication and sale of the book should in theory have been stymied by Britain’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857 and the 1873 Comstock Law which prevented its sale through the mail in the United States. By then it had such a long record of under-the-table printing and sale that it’s unlikely these hard to police laws had much of an effect on the book’s distribution.

Despite its wide popularity over the course of centuries, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is a rare book today. Out of more than 250 known editions published, very few intact copies have survived. Printed on cheap paper and thumbed through with much vigor, they were prone to heavy wear and having pages torn out. There are less than a dozen of the first edition known to survive, and most of them are incomplete. Two complete copies have recently appeared at auction. One of them sold at Bonhams in 2014 for $32,743, the other sold at Bonhams in 2015 for $29,105.

Now a third complete copy has come on the market. It will be sold at Dominic Winter Auctioneers on March 2nd. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-15,000 ($14,500-22,000). My favorite part is that the cover of this copy was made from a recycled land deed.

The incomplete deed used for the covers in this copy appears, from the partially visible text, to be a title deed from 30 January [1686], and relates to property owned by George Speke [1623-1689, English politician. Speke was a Royalist during the English Civil War, but after the Restoration became MP for Somerset and an early Whig supporter in Parliament.]

I like to think George Speke donated his old paperwork to the cause of naughty book printing.

No mammoth at the 1951 Explorers Club dinner

February 6th, 2016

Founded in 1904 by a group of explorers, naturalists and journalists including Adolphus Greely and Frank Chapman, The Explorers Club held annual black tie banquets in New York where members supped on exotic foods while speakers regaled them with tales of that year’s adventures. The 47th Explorers Club Annual Dinner (ECAD) held on January 13th, 1951, at the Hotel Roosevelt was a particularly epic event which featured a buffet of woolly mammoth, thawed from the Alaskan permafrost and served to the exploring elite alongside bison steaks, cheese straws and ice cream cake roll Buche Roosevelt.

Here’s how one attendee, Herbert B. Nichols, described the evening’s fare in an article for the January 17th, 1951, issue of the Christian Science Monitor:

Chief attraction at the smorgasbord was a morsel of 250,000-year-old hairy mammoth meat such as Teddy Roosevelt feasted on in Alaska years ago. It originally was intended that this delicacy would be sought for in quantity as the main dish of the evening, but the dinner committee found the cost per plate would be $495.74 [about $4,500 in today's dollars] (the price of raiding nature’s original “deep freeze” by hydraulic mining in the Valley of the Yukon on the chance of finding some).

This part of the menu was about to be canceled a few weeks ago when the Rev. Bernard Hubbard, better known as the “Glacier Priest,” told the committee about his own private stock at a place called Woolly Cove on Akutan Island. … Thanks to his generosity in “sharing the wealth,” we all had a taste of the rarest mammalian tit-bit on earth.

The Glacier Priest was not the first explorer to claim to have a line on mammoth meat. A French explorer in 1872 said he and his team had subsisted entirely on “mammoth meat, broiled, roasted and baked” when they were in the frozen wilds of Russia. The team of scientists from St. Petersburg who excavated a mammoth frozen in the cliffs above the Beresovka River in 1901 were said to have supped on mammoth steaks. A later investigation by I.P. Tolmachoff found the edibility of the Beresovka mammoth was questionable. Apparently, “the flesh was so fresh and appealing that dogs devoured every piece thrown to them,” but when it came to human consumption, “although some of flesh recovered from the cadavers were ‘fibrous and marbled with fat’ and looked ‘as fresh as well-frozen beef or horsemeat,’ only dogs showed any appetite for it; ‘the stench…was unbearable’.” The taste was no better. One scientist had a nibble on some of the meat and promptly threw it up.

There was a widespread notion that these mammoths discovered in the frozen parts of the world died and were instantly preserved in a block of pristine ice. In fact, they died, were eaten by scavengers, decayed and were eventually enveloped in the permafrost, which is not a fantasy glacier from a bottled water commercial but soil that has frozen solid. The Beresovka mammoth wound up in the cliffs because the carcass was caught in a landslide. Omaha Steaks it ain’t.

The 1951 Explorers Club Annual Dinner became quasi-legendary and inspired many future exotic food selections at subsequent banquets. While the focus today is less on extremely rare/extinct foods and more on sustainable but very much off-the-beaten-track options, the annual dinner still prominently features the weird and gross like fried tarantulas and goat-eyeball martinis. (I hope someone had the decency to raise one of the martinis and say “Here’s mud in your goat’s eye.”)

The question of what was actually eaten at the famous 1951 dinner is still an open one, however. Mammoth wasn’t officially on the menu, just “prehistoric meat.” It’s possible that the mammoth thing was a misunderstanding perpetuated by confused guests and press reports like Nichols’. To determine what really was eaten that night, a team of Yale University researchers turned to the one known sample taken from the dinner now in the mammal collection of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The source of the sample was Explorers Club member and Bruce Museum director Paul Griswold Howes who hadn’t been able to attend the dinner but asked for some leftovers to exhibit at his museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The dinner’s organizer, Wendell Phillips Dodge, sent him a sample labeled Megatherium, an extinct South American giant ground sloth, not a mammoth. It remained at the Bruce Museum until 2001 when it was absorbed into the Peabody Museum collection.

Yale anthropology professor and Peabody curator Eric Sargis enlisted graduate students Jessica R. Glass and Matt Davis to study the specimen. Glass, a PhD candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology, sought to extract and test DNA from the sample. Davis, a geology and geophysics student, focused on archival research. The Explorers Club helped fund the study via an Exploration Fund Grant and gave the team access to its records.

Adalgisa Caccone, a senior research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a co-author of the study, helped guide the DNA analysis at Yale’s Institute for Biospheric Studies, Center for Genetic Analyses of Biodiversity. “This was an interesting challenge, in part because the meat had been cooked,” Caccone said. “This was the first time I looked at the DNA of leftovers — very precious leftovers.”

Glass was able to extract DNA, purify it and conduct mitochondrial gene sequencing. The results matched the genetic profile for green sea turtle.

Meanwhile, Davis found an item in the Explorers Club archives that pointed in the same direction. It was a published statement from Dodge soon after the banquet, joking that he may have discovered a “potion” that turns green sea turtle into giant sloth meat.

It wasn’t just a point of curiosity about the famous dinner. Had the sample actually been Megatherium discovered in Alaska, it would have expanded the known range of the species by more than 600%. Instead it’s just a bit of ropy old leftover green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) soup.

The study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE. It’s a pretty great read, especially the discussion section which delves into the confusion between mammoth and Megatherium and suggests the mammoth rumor was largely a mistake in the Nichols article that became enshrined in public memory despite its inaccuracy. The appendix about the bone marrow from a fossilized horse (Equus alaskensis) served at the 65th ECAD is not to be missed.

Researchers to seek DNA in USS Houston trumpet

February 5th, 2016

The USS Houston, a heavy cruiser that was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite ship, was the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet not once but twice. FDR visited it no fewer than four times, logging thousands of miles of travel on board. It was even retrofitted with special elevators and handrails for the President’s disability. The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast, as the USS Houston was known, saw its last action in a battle against a Japanese invasion fleet of 12 ships the night of February 28th, early morning March 1st, 1942. It was already hobbled from a previous action and was heading to safety in Australia alongside the HMAS Perth when it stumbled on the Japanese ships in the Sunda Strait, which separates the islands of Java and Sumatra and the Java Sea from the Indian Ocean.

The Japanese fleet was in the process of landing troops on Java’s Banten Bay when the Houston and Perth walked in on them. Hopelessly outgunned and outmanned, the Perth went down first in the wee hours of March 1st. Then the Japanese ships trained all their firepower on the Houston. Finally three torpedoes struck it at once and the cruiser sank taking 650 sailors and Marines down with her, among them 11 members of its 18-man swing band. Its 368 survivors were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

The wreck of the Houston is now 100 feet underwater just off the west coast of Jakarta. The Perth lies about three miles away. Both wrecks are official military graves and interfering with them in any way is illegal. Authorities do allow non-intrusive sport diving of the wrecks, however. They even encourage it because recreational divers are often the first to notice when something is wrong or missing. In 2013, 68-year-old Australian diver Frank Craven was diving the wrecks with a group when he noticed an incongruous trumpet amidst the piles of shell casings. With some vague notion that he might return it to the United States, Craven violated the sanctity of the site and illegally removed the trumpet and brought it to the surface.

A week later, the trumpet drying and corroding in dangerous non-conservation conditions, Craven contacted John K. Schwarz, head of the USS Houston‘s Survivors’ Association, and offered to give the trumpet to the association. Schwarz explained that removing anything from the wreck is illegal and they could not accept the object. He suggested Craven fess up to the Navy which Schwarz did right away, apologizing for his ill-conceived act. He arranged the return of the trumpet through a US Naval Attaché in Canberra, Australia.

In December of 2013, the trumpet and a ceramic cup and saucer Craven had also removed arrived at the Naval History & Heritage Command Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) in Washington, DC. After several months out of the salt water that had preserved it for seven decades, the trumpet needed immediate treatment to keep it from further corrosion. It was placed in a customized alkaline solution of deionized water to leach out the corrosive salts causing the oxidization of the trumpet’s copper and steel body. When the water became saturated with salts from the trumpet, it was replaced with fresh solution, an ongoing process that will continue until there are no salts left to leach out.

Three years later, the trumpet still spends most of its time in the bath, but its condition has stabilized enough that conservators can take it out to perform additional conservation tasks like removing patches of oxidization with a scalpel. Here is video of Navy conservator Shanna Daniel performing that task on the trumpet from the USS Houston:

Also part of the UAB’s brief is documenting and researching the instrument. They have discovered the trumpet’s serial number which allowed them to track its manufacturer: the C.G. Conn company of Elkhart, Indiana. Researchers hope to go further than that and maybe identify which sailor once played this trumpet. One of the 11 members of the band to lose their lives the night of the Battle of the Sunda Strait was trumpet player Severyn “Steve” Dymanowski of Gary, Indiana. Three other trumpet players — George Galyean, Albert “Hap” Kelley and Walter Schneck — who survived the sinking of the Houston were taken prisoner. They all survived the war but passed away in the 60s and 70s, alas. The trumpet could have belonged to any one of them, although the mother of pearl buttons suggest this was the expensive private instrument of a professional musician rather than Navy-issue equipment, which would make bandleader George Galyean and Hap Kelley the likeliest candidates.

The only way to narrow it down further is a very long shot.

There is “the possibility of examining the interior of the [trumpet's] valves and potentially locating some DNA remains of the individual who played the trumpet,” [Navy senior conservator Kate] Morrand said in a recent interview at the Navy Yard.

It’s a long shot, but the theory is that the owner may have left his DNA when he took it apart to clean it. And, sealed in when he reassembled it and then by seven decades of marine encrustation, the DNA may still be there, Morrand said.

“If we could recover DNA, and if there are descendants that we could match with … [we could] identify who the owner of the trumpet was,” [UAB head Robert S.] Neyland said. “It kind of pushes the technology and pushes the science … but it would be pretty exciting.”

It pushes it to the breaking point, I’d think, but hey, who’d have thought they’d find Richard III under a parking lot.

Once the trumpet is fully stabilized and no longer needs to live in its bath, it will go on display in the National Museum of the U.S. Navy‘s exhibit dedicated to the USS Houston.

UK wants to keep Lawrence of Arabia’s robes and dagger

February 4th, 2016

A magnificent presentation dagger and set of silk robes that belonged to T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, have been placed under a temporary export bar by UK Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. The silver-gilt dagger was a gift from Sherif Nasir, cousin of Emir Faisal, given to T.E. Lawrence in 1917 after the victory of Arab Revolt at the Battle of Aqaba in Jordan. There’s a fictionalized version of the capture of Aqaba and the presentation the dagger in David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia.

The robes are a champagne silk zebun with a matching waistcoat meant to be worn under the full-length abayeh. The zebun is lined with white cotton and has cotton ties at the waist. The vest has a delicately embroidered brocade button trims. They were made in Mecca or Medina before 1919. Lawrence is depicted wearing the robes in a 1919 oil on canvas portrait by Augustus John.

He wore both the garments and the dagger when he posed for Lady Kathleen Scott, sculptor and widow of Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, for a statuette she entitled Blonde Bedouin. Lawrence was a national hero after World War I, a dashing figure who sat for many artists. Lady Scott was the first and last woman among them. She noted in her diary that she wrote asking him to pose for her and he replied on February 2nd, 1921, that he’d be glad to even though he’d been subject to the scrutiny of so many artists he wasn’t sure there was anything left for her to capture.

“Seriously if you want an object, I’ll agree with pleasure: only it won’t be a good speculation: it won’t sell afterwards: and my face isn’t so-to-speak virgin. [...] [R]eally the features are quite worn away with so much study of them.

If you do do it, please hold me as a model, and not as ‘the most romantic figure of the war’ (American film-artist). I’m tired of the lime light, and am really not stagy at all, and not ever going to be a public figure again. It was a war effort, imposed, involuntary. Don’t do me as Colonel Lawrence (he died Nov. 11. 1918) but because my shaped head suits your whim.”

A week later, Lawrence was posing in his Arabic clothing in Lady Scott’s drawing room. He sat for her a total of three times, which was enough to utterly charm the artist. She described him in her diary as “an entrancing child” and declared herself to be suffering from an “acute attack of Lawrencitis.” She became friends with his siblings and even lived with his mother Sarah for a short time.

T.E. Lawrence left the robes and dagger with Lady Scott after his departure for the Cairo Conference on February 28th so she could use them to finish the statuette. He didn’t mean for her to keep them forever. On August 28th, 1922, he wrote a letter gently nudging to her return the gear. “There’s a little artist wants to do an Arab picture, & has asked me for kit … Do you think you could provide me some from your store?” If she responded there’s no record of it, and by 1929 Lawrence was yearning at least to get the dagger back. He wrote in a letter to Lionel Curtis dated February 22nd, 1929, that he was “daggerless and near naked” because he had lost two of his three prized daggers and sold the third. He told Curtis: “I will try and see Lady Hilton Young [Lady Scott married Edward Hilton Young, the future 1st Baron Kennet, in 1922] and ask tactfully if she thinks the silver one is hers or not.”

Tact may not have been the approach to take, since it definitely didn’t work in 1922. Whether he contacted her or not, the robes and dagger remained with Kathleen Scott and her descendants until 2015. The family lent the objects out twice: once for a National Portrait Gallery exhibition on T.E. Lawrence, once for an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. They were only put up for auction last summer after the death of Elizabeth Young, 2nd Lady Kennet, in 2014. The dagger sold for $191,713 and the robes for $19,563 at the same Christie’s auction last July.

The buyer asked for an export license, but with this being the only Lawrence dagger left in private hands and with the artistic prominence of the artifacts, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended export be barred to give British institutions the chance to raise the money and keep the robes and dagger in the UK.

RCEWA Chairman Sir Hayden Phillips said:

“Although the depiction, in the film Lawrence of Arabia, of Lawrence leading a sweeping camel charge across the desert into Aqaba in 1917 is probably a romantic exaggeration – stunning though it is – the taking of Aqaba from the landward side, with the help of Auda Abu Tayi, leader of the northern Howeitat, was an extraordinary feat and marked a crucial turning point in the campaign.

“The dagger was presented to Lawrence by Sherif Nasir in gratitude for Lawrence’s leadership and as a spontaneous mark of respect. The robes and dagger together form a crucial part of the images of Lawrence in painting, sculpture and photographs; and they are therefore an integral part of his life and our history.”

Anyone who wants to keep the set in Britain has until April 1st, 2016, to raise £13,000 for the robes and £127,000 for the dagger (prices include VAT), or at least to show a serious effort in that direction. If it looks like they have a chance of raising the money, the Culture Minister can extend the deadline to July 1st, 2016. After that, the license will likely be issued and the dagger and robes will leave the country.

Van Gogh Museum’s exceptional French print collection online

February 3rd, 2016

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam first got into the French turn-of-the-century prints when it bought 800 exceptional examples from a German private collection in 2000. Since then the museum has made a point of acquiring more outstanding pieces. There are just under 1,800 French prints from 1890-1905 in the Van Gogh Museum now, but they are almost never displayed because light exposure is so dangerous to them. As of today, 1,739 French fin de siècle prints from the Van Gogh Museum’s collection have been uploaded to a dedicated website where we can see them but light cannot harm them.

The reason the Van Gogh Museum has made a point of collecting French prints is that they’re very relevant to Vincent Van Gogh’s aesthetic, artistic interests and the milieu in which his art evolved. Printmaking really took off in France in the second half of the 19th century. Before then, prints were copies of well-known artworks, an inexpensive way to for the general public to have a faithful rendition of the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo in their homes. Printmaking evolved into a valid artistic medium in its own right when French artists explored the possibilities of the form in a creative and engaging way. The Japonisme trend played a significant role in this shift, because the Japanese had such a rich tradition of artistic woodblock printing as evinced in the work of masters like Hokusai and Suzuki Harunobu.

Many of the greatest artists of the second half of the 19th century had print collections and experimented with lithography and printmaking in their own work. Prints appeared in the public and private spaces of Paris as posters, magazines covers, menus, theater programs, sheet music and books. The medium allowed artists to get their work out there on a large scale, to cross-pollinate with other art forms and even to control the supply and demand of their own output by deliberately creating limited editions coveted by the buying public.

Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, so most of the prints in the collection were made after his death when the rage for printmaking in France reached its apex, but he and his brother Theo followed closely the explosion of printmaking in the fin de siècle. Both collected prints from their friends and contemporaries. The Van Gogh Museum’s print collection begins where Vincent’s collection began and then moves forward connecting the next generation of artists to those who influenced them.

Those connections are at the core of the Van Gogh Museum’s new online exhibition of the print collection. The French Printmaking homepage opens with a group of thumbnails. Click on one and take the plunge, or if you click on “Discover the prints” on the left side to get to a larger assembly of tiled prints. Those tiles of print thumbnails hover behind any individual print you chose to click on as well. Once you’ve clicked on one print, four themes appear at each corner that connect this print to others in the collection. Themes include the publisher, medium, technique, salient features of the print, subject, pattern, and on and on. The Van Gogh staff have assigned an astonishing 1,300 themes to the print collection, which makes it a browser’s paradise.

This approach gives a unique glimpse into the richness of the printmaking community of fin de siècle Paris. You can get an instant understanding of how artists shared the same printers, influenced each other in everything from the paper used to the visual motifs. When click on a print, you can see it’s stats, but there is no detailed paragraph or two explaining the setting, author, etc. that you might expect to find. Instead, the print and its contents are described by keywords, each of them hotlinks to more works in the collection that can also be described by those keywords.

I like me some words, so I was glad to see more than a group of descriptors when I clicked on individual themes. They’re full of information, links to more information, even a list of resources for further reading on your own. It’s a marvelously flexible and user-friendly system and so very highly conducive to lost weekending. And oh, the resolution. The beautiful, perfect, gloriously high resolution. It makes me feel kinda funny, like when we used to climb the rope in gym class.

Ancient First Nations’ clay may kill drug-resistant bacteria

February 2nd, 2016

History steps in again to help fight the terrifying scourge of a post-antibiotic world in which even the smallest infection can cause death and entire fields of medical technology — organ transplants, device transplants, cosmetic surgery — are left undefended against the onslaught of pathogens. Last year there was the very promising study of a salve from the 10th century Anglo-Saxon home health remedies volume Bald’s Leechbook which was found to slaughter Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Now researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have found a glimmer of hope in the antimicrobial properties of a local clay from Kisameet Bay, British Columbia.

The 400,000 ton clay deposit developed in the bay about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. The people of the Heiltsuk First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Kisameet Bay, have used the clay for medicinal purposes for centuries. They take it internally for illnesses like ulcerative colitis and duodenal ulcers, and externally for problems like burns and phlebitis.

Studies from the 1940s onwards have found that Kisameet clay is different from your garden variety kaolinite or bentonite clays. It has a low mineral content in which the mica-like mineral biotite dominates. There’s also a flourishing community of up to 3,000 different taxa of microbes living in the deposit, among them Actinobacteria which may have an antimicrobial effect on non-local microbes.

The UBC research team wanted to see how the Kisameet Bay clay would deal with a panel of the scariest pathogens, the ESKAPE strains of bacteria.

The so-called ESKAPE pathogens — Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacter species — cause the majority of U.S. hospital infections and effectively ‘escape’ the effects of antibacterial drugs.

“Infections caused by ESKAPE bacteria are essentially untreatable and contribute to increasing mortality in hospitals,” said UBC microbiologist Julian Davies, co-author of the paper published today in the American Society for Microbiology’s mBio journal.

The collected samples of 16 ESKAPE strains from hospitals and a wastewater treatment plant in Vancouver. Each sample was grown in vitro and each exhibited multidrug resistance. The resistant cells were then suspended either in plain water or in a solution including desiccated Kisameet clay particles. The team tested the samples at regular time intervals — 0, 5 and 24 hours — to see if the clay was reducing the number of detectable pathogens and how long it took to do so. The results were pretty bloody amazing.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the effect of Kisameet clay on six of the pathogens in the study. The y-axis is the concentration of pathogens in the sample. The x-axis is time. The ^ next to the bars is an indicator that zero viable cells could be recovered.

The study also found the clay has antifungal properties and shows the same antibacterial properties even when no actual mineral particles are extracted. An aqueous extract works as well, which means the active ingredients that are doing such a fine job of beating up resistant bacteria could be removed from the clay and used in medical preparations.

This research is funded in part by a corporation with a dog in the hunt: cosmetics concern Kisameet Glacial Clay which plans to market the clay’s healing properties. The good news is the UBC researchers won’t have to beg for spare change to staff their project like the University of Nottingham study of Bald’s eye salve was forced to do, but I’ll be very curious to see their results repeated by third parties with no connection to clay sellers. Also in vivo tests are essential.

Read the full study here.

Swiss return 2 sarcophaguses, 45 boxes of Etruscan art to Italy

February 1st, 2016

The Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva returned two priceless earthenware sarcophaguses and 45 boxes of exceptional Etruscan artworks to Italy last month. They were found where tens of thousands of looted ancient artifacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are usually found: in a giant warehouse at the Geneva Free Ports. They had been there for 15 years, stashed in the time of man’s innocency when looters, smugglers, middlemen and their brothers and sisters in the high-end antiquities market could do whatever the hell they wanted in Switzerland and nobody would question them.

Oh, if the walls of those warehouses could talk, what tales they would tell! Unique treasures fresh from the illegal dig, mud and salts still caked on the surface, files and Polaroids of even more unique treasures, many of them already in the hands of major museums, “Swiss private collection” ownership histories so blatantly fake they would make a seven-year-old forging a sick note from his mother stare in awed wonder at the sheer brazenness of it.

This particular smuggler’s cove was discovered after Italian authorities asked the Swiss to look for an Etruscan sarcophagus illegally excavated and thought to have been smuggled out of the country into Switzerland. The request, made in March of 2014, launched a search of the warehouse. The sarcophagus they were looking for wasn’t there, but a lot more was.

A search led by prosecutor Claudio Mascotto, from the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva, at the Geneva Free Ports revealed an unexpected treasure. Two rare sarcophaguses of Etruscan origin – their lid representing a man and a woman lying – were found in a warehouse, as well as many other invaluable archaeological remains. The antiques had been stored there for more than 15 years, registered under the name of an offshore company.

The prosecutor ordered the seizure of the sarcophaguses first, then extended the decision to all items, considering their suspected illegal provenance. Among these are bas-reliefs, vases and fragments of decorated vases, frescos, heads, busts, and several other votive or religious pieces.

An expert examined the artifacts and determined they were likely looted from the central Italian regions of Umbria and Lazio which were Etruscan territory in the first millennium B.C. Investigators from the Carabinieri Art Squad were able to establish a connection between some of the artifacts and the tomb robbers whose shenanigans had sparked the initial investigation.

The legal machinery of Italy and Switzerland agreed that the objects should be returned to Italy, but the repatriation process was delayed by an appeal from the warehouse owner who wanted to keep the goods until he got paid for 15 years worth of storage. Why he had been so saintly as to allow a decade and a half of unpaid bills is unclear.

The press release from the Geneva Prosecutor’s Office didn’t name the person who filled the warehouse with ancient treasure, referring to him only as a “former high-profile British art dealer, whose name has been linked in the past to the trading of several looted antiquities throughout the world.” That’s Robin Symes. Here’s a quick summary of the Symes saga I wrote ages ago, but to make a brief overview of a long story even shorter, for many decades Symes was the antiquities dealer to the rich and famous and the biggest museums in the world. The champagne lifestyle of chauffeured Bentley and homes in London, New York, Athens and the Cyclades islands came to an abrupt end when his business parter and long-time companion, Christo Michaelides, died in an accidental fall in 1999. The subsequent lawsuit from the deep-pocketed Michaelides family drove Symes into bankruptcy and, thanks to his inability to stop perjuring himself for one second, jail.

While the lawsuit was ongoing, Symes lived in Geneva where he could stuff untold ancient artifacts into Free Port warehouses. Some of the key lies he told on the stand, in fact, were about his warehouse activities. He told the court that he had five warehouses in Geneva holding his inventory when in reality he had 29 of them spread throughout London, New York and Geneva.

Symes, whose current whereabouts are unknown, cannot be prosecuted in Italy because the statute of limitations has expired, but this repatriation could have a chain reaction that puts pressure on the UK to return more than 700 disputed artifacts being held by the Symes’ liquidator. Objects in dispute have turned up on auction catalogues and in 2010 the Home Office instructed the liquidator to sell 1,000 pieces from Symes’ estate to settle his exorbitant tax bill. Italy complained vociferously and the sales were withdrawn, but the question of what to do with Symes’ stolen lucre is still unsettled. If Switzerland, which only ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 2003 and was the pivot point for this illegal traffic for decades, can send Symes’ loot back to Italy, the UK should certainly feel the heat.

Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa restored

January 31st, 2016

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, has received a thorough cleaning and restoration, the first cleaning in 20 years. There were water stains from a leaking window and layers of black grime from dust accumulation, smog and other airborne pollutants. Now the bright white Carrara marble shines like it did when Bernini first polished it in 1652. Restorers also found something previous interventions overlooked: stucco and paint added to part of the travertine base to make it blend into the background of the chapel walls. Those additions have been removed, restoring to the base, which is not the usual geometric pediment but carved to look like a rising swirl of clouds, its original balance.

The statue of Christian saint and mystic Teresa of Ávila captured at the moment of religious ecstasy brought on by an angel in the course of repeatedly piercing her heart with an arrow is considered one of the great masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque. It was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro of the patrician Venice family who had chosen Santa Maria della Vittoria as his burial site and wanted it significantly gussied up. He hired Bernini to design the entire chapel with the Saint Teresa group as the centerpiece because Santa Maria della Vittoria belonged to the Discalced Carmelites which was also Saint Teresa’s order.

Bernini, the leading sculptor of the age and internationally famous years at this point, was taking smaller private commissions from noblemen like Cornaro because he was between papal patrons. Pope Urban VIII, an avid art collector and a major patron of Bernini’s who gave him the most important public jobs like the construction of St. Peter’s Square, had died in 1644 and the new Pope Innocent X, wasn’t a fan. Bernini only got one public job under Innocent, the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. He got back in the papal graces with the election of Pope Alexander VII in 1655. The creation of Teresa and the chapel took up a good chunk of the interregnum, from 1647 to 1652.

Saint Teresa was still a fresh face on the saint scene, having died in 1582 and been canonized in 1622, but she had been renown and revered in life thanks to her mystical writings. Bernini’s sculpture depicts a famous episode from her life, an ecstatic vision of the exquisite pain of God’s love. We have Teresa’s own description of this ecstatic vision in Chapter 29 of her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus:

I saw close to me toward my left side an angel in bodily form. I don’t usually see angels in bodily form except on rare occasions; although many times angels appear to me, but without my seeing them, as in the intellectual vision I spoke about before. This time, though, the Lord desired that I see the vision in the following way: the angel was not large but small; he was very beautiful, and his face was so aflame that he seemed to be one of those very sublime angels that appear to be all afire. They must belong to those they call the cherubim, for they didn’t tell me their names. But I see clearly that in heaven there is so much difference between some angels and others and between these latter and still others that I wouldn’t know how to explain it. I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away; nor is the soul content with less than God.

Bernini followed her description very closely, sculpting the beautiful young cherub with the arrow poised to thrust into Teresa’s welcoming chest. Teresa’s face is the very picture of bliss, a sensual, erotic, lip-parted expression that has been copied and sketched by artists ever since. Bernini carved the whole sculpture out of a single piece of marble, playing with texture and thickness to give the draping of the clothes a natural softness. The areas where the marble is thinnest are almost translucent. The cloud base serves as Teresa’s fainting couch and symbolizes the support of the divine granting her this vision. On the walls of the chapel are two trompe l’oeil theater boxes in which the most illustrious members of the Cornaro family, including Cardinal Federico Cornaro and Doge Giovanni I Cornaro, watch and discuss Teresa’s ecstasy like so many pervie Statlers and Waldorfs.

Behind the sculpture are rays of gilded stucco which glow in the light of a hidden round window Bernini cleverly installed behind the aedicule (the architectural pediment that tops the sculpture). It acts like a natural spotlight, and the yellow stained glass elements are like gels that warm up the color of the light. It was this window, also known as the oculus, that was leaking, letting in the rainwater with its large sampling of the city’s particles. Restorers resealed it so it’s again watertight.

The restored chapel was officially presented to the public on November 26th, 2015.

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