Free online course on the archaeology of Portus

April 12th, 2014

Researchers from the University of Southampton have been excavating the ancient man-made harbour of Portus in modern day Fiumicino, 20 miles southwest of Rome, since 1998. In collaboration with experts from the British School at Rome, the University of Cambridge, and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, they have explored the warehouses of Septimius Severus, the imperial palace, cisterns, an amphitheater, a massive shipyard, a bath complex and more.

The Portus Project website describes the immense historical significance of this site.

Portus (Fiumicino) was the maritime port of ancient Rome and, together with the neighbouring river port at Ostia, was the focus of a network of ports serving Imperial Rome between the mid-1st century AD and the 6th century AD. It was established by Claudius in the mid-1st century AD, enlarged by Trajan, and subsequently modified during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The port began to enter a period of slow decline from the late 5th century AD onwards, although it was the scene of a major struggle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic troops during the Gothic wars (AD 535-553).

Portus was critically important for supplying the city of Imperial Rome with foodstuffs and materials from across the Mediterranean from the 1st century AD onwards. It also acted as both a point of export for supplies and products from the Tiber Valley to the north of Rome, and a major hub for the redistribution of goods from ports across the Mediterranean. It must also have acted as a major conduit for people visiting Rome from around the Mediterranean.

Now the University of Southampton is giving all us little nerd urchins (nurchins?) a chance to do more than press our faces against the glass. It’s offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the archaeology of Portus. The course is open to everyone free of charge and will include access to all the Portus Project’s research data so that students can explore the nuts and bolts of Portus and the archaeological process.

On this course you will chart a journey from the Imperial harbour to its connections across the Mediterranean, learning about what the archaeological discoveries uncovered by the Portus Project tell us about the history, landscape, buildings, and the people of this unique place. Although the site lies in ruins, it has some of the best-preserved Roman port buildings in the Mediterranean, and in this course you will learn to interpret these and the finds discovered within them, using primary research data and the virtual tools of the archaeologist.

Largely filmed on location at Portus, the course will provide you with an insight into the wide range of digital technologies employed to record, analyse and present the site. In addition to the lead educators, our enthusiastic team of student archaeologists will support your learning.

To register click here, fill in your name and email address and check the privacy policy and code of conduct boxes. The course starts on May 19th and is divided into six week-long classes. Once it’s open, you can go through the whole program in a weekend, if you want, or you can stretch it out longer than six weeks to suit your schedule. There are discussion modules with technology that allows you to follow particular learners. There’s a handy dandy Twitter hashtag (#UoSFLPortus) to carry on the conversation on social media. There are quizzes, scored tests and what looks like some really awesome homework.

So how about it? Shall we take a Roman archaeology class together? :boogie:

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Canoe thought to be 250 years is 1,000 years old

April 11th, 2014

New radiocarbon dating results have found that a Native American dugout canoe discovered in Lake Minnetonka southwest of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1934 is nearly 1,000 years old, making it the oldest dugout canoe ever found in Minnesota. It was thought to date to around 1750 and even though it was in excellent condition it wasn’t considered an archaeological superstar. That’s all changed now.

The canoe was discovered by Helmer Gunnarson and his brother Arthur when they were building an extension to their dock on the North Arm of Lake Minnetonka in August of 1934. It was a record dry year — the water level was seven feet below normal — and the shoreline had receded significantly. While sinking a dock piling 90 feet from the shore, Helmer and Arthur encountered an obstacle about a foot under the lake floor. At first they thought it was a log, but when they dug it out and dragged it to shore, they saw it was a dugout canoe. They noted it was in excellent condition, preserved by years under the silt and several feet of lake water.

The Gunnarsons reached out to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society to examine the canoe, but wound up donating it to the Minnesota Archaeological Society, who generously gifted their father Gustave with an honorary membership in response. The MAS loaned the canoe for display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Minneapolis Public Library and exhibited it at the Walker Art Gallery along with some of their other artifacts. In 1961, they sold it to the Western Hennepin County Pioneer Association museum in Long Lake, Minnesota, who added it to the museum’s eclectic collection of artifacts including a moose once shot by Theodore Roosevelt.

It was in its display in a hallway of the WHCPA museum that Maritime Heritage Minnesota archaeologists Ann Merriman and Chris Olson first encountered the canoe. They secured a $9,000 grant from the state to radiocarbon date and study the Lake Minnetonka canoe and seven other canoes discovered in Minnesota. The study did turn up some bad news. The canoe has deteriorated over time. The ends are frayed and the sides lower than they used to be. There is a long crack that splits the craft’s entire 11-foot length, a crack that was not there in 1934 as historical pictures confirm. Fragments of wood have come off and litter the hull.

The good news is those fragments made sampling the wood for typing and dating a simple matter of picking up a few of them. The radiocarbon dating found the wood sample dates to 1025-1165 A.D., the Final Late Woodland Period of the Woodlands Culture. The report of the Maritime Heritage Minnesota study has now been published and can be read in its entirety here).

Now that the canoe’s true historical value has been identified, it must be properly conserved to prevent further deterioration.

In Long Lake, the canoe that once was relegated to a corner is now the museum’s centerpiece — fitting, since it’s about 6 miles from where it was discovered. The museum will rope it off and enclose it in a glass case with updated details about how rare and old it is.

“We’ll never loan it again, especially now we know what it is,” [Russ Ferrin, the volunteer who runs the Pioneer Museum,] said.

It’s not just newfound fame for an ancient artifact but also for the small museum. Founded by pioneers 107 years ago, the nonprofit is housed in an old school building. It’s run by Ferrin and other volunteers, and admission is free when it’s open for four hours on Saturdays.

“It is [the main attraction] now,” Ferrin said of the canoe. “We hope it will draw visitors.”

I’ll add that I hope it draws lots of donations too, to ensure it can be kept in a humidity controlled environment and properly conserved for future generations.

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Iron Age mint found in Leicester

April 10th, 2014

An archaeological survey on the site of future construction in Leicester, central England, has unearthed evidence of an Iron Age mint. More than 20 Iron Age coin molds have been discovered at the Blackfriars site since excavations began in January, so large a number that it strongly suggests the site was a mint used by the local British tribe, the Corieltavi, who had their capital at Leicester.

What makes this find particularly exciting is that Leicester is just 15 miles west of Hallaton, the village where a massive treasure including 5,296 British silver and gold coins, 4,835 of them from the Corieltavi tribe, was discovered in 2000. It’s the largest group of Iron Age British coins ever found in Britain. Roman coins and coins from other British tribes were also found at Hallaton, along with a Roman cavalry parade helmet, silver bowls, jewelry, the remains of 400 pigs and several dogs. The site was an open-air shrine in use between 50 B.C. and 60 A.D., with the valuables interred as offerings to the gods.

Given that the British coins found at Hallaton make up 10% of the total number of British Iron Age coins ever discovered, it makes sense that there would be a nearby source, like, say, a Corieltavi mint in Leicester. The molds don’t have reverse images to identify the kinds of coins struck. They were dated to the early 1st century A.D. thanks to fragments of high status pottery recovered from the ditch where the first coin mold was found.

The site appears to have been an enclosure in the British Iron Age. There were at least two distinct phases of Iron Age activity, followed by at least three phases of Roman activity. Most of the structural remains come Roman phases of occupation, starting with a residential townhouse. There are foundations and partial walls, no floors, but the remains of mosaic tesserae and painted plaster that indicate the house was highly decorated and therefore expensive. There was also a colonnade, as evidenced by surviving column bases. The walls were thick and supported by buttresses so it must have been a building of considerably size.

Inside the building evidence of burning and of a kiln over multiple floor layers suggest at some point this building was dedicated to industrial use, perhaps the production of roof and floor tiles. Several tiles have been found bearing the adorable signs of why they were discarded.

The team also found a Roman tile in the northern half of the site, with what appear to be dog paw imprints embedded in the ceramic.

Nick said: “When tiles were made in Roman times, they used to get local clay and leave it out in the sun to dry and pets and animals used to escape across them leaving these kinds of imprints – it was quite a common thing to find.

“We’ve also found some floor or roof tiles with sheep or goat prints here as well.”

Also one with what may be cat prints judging by the size, shape and the absence of visible claws.

Much of the masonry and columns were lost over time, probably repurposed in the Middle Ages for construction of the Blackfriars Priory. There are several instances of medieval construction features cut into the Roman archaeology, plus the remains of medieval pottery and cesspits.

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National Museum’s Viking Ireland video series

April 9th, 2014

The National Museum of Ireland has put together a wonderful video series based on their Viking Ireland exhibit. It’s a tour of Viking history in Ireland as seen through some of the artifacts on display. Each of the eight videos is short and eminently digestible, a sort of capsule history on topics like Viking swords and trade. It also makes you want to go to the museum something fierce, which is obviously the entire point, so job well done, National Museum of Ireland!

The first video is about the Viking battle axe. The stars are three axe heads found together in 2013 in a boat in Lough Corrib, Galway, that date to the 11th or early 12th century. They are three different sizes and, thanks to the survival of small parts of the cherry wood handles still attached to the axe heads and other wood fragments from the rest of the handles, researchers are able to hypothesize that the two smaller ones were probably wielded by one hand, while the largest was probably a two-handed weapon. They’re late enough in date that they almost certainly belonged to Irish warriors, not Vikings. It was the Vikings who brought the battle axe to Ireland. Before that they had axes tools, built heavy to help split wood, but the Viking weapons were designed to be light and sharp, with the maximum amount of cutting edge for minimum amount of weight.

Next is the Viking sword, a more expensive weapon than the axe and every warrior’s most prized possession. The video focuses on a sword discovered in the River Shannon near Banagher in 2012. It dates to between 925 and 975 A.D. The blade may be of German manufacture while the hilt was made in Scandinavia. The coolest part of the video is the X-rays of the sword which gave conservators information about which areas needed work and provided more details about manufacture like the use of silver wire in the hilt.

The Viking Wealth & Trade video has some neat shiny stuff like some pretty huge penannular brooches that were both status symbols for the men who wore them and a means of portable wealth. I loved the set of woven silver cones found in a cave in Kilkenny. They aren’t very heavy in silver so they were purely decorative rather than a potential source of bullion. They were probably attached and hung as tassel from the edges of cloth and worn by a woman.

It was Vikings who introduced coin to Ireland. Before they came Ireland was a barter economy, with cattle as the primary currency. The Vikings were introduced to coin by trade with the Byzantine Empire and Arabic merchants and by plundering the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which minted coins starting in the 7th century. The video shows one of the first coins struck in Ireland, a silver penny from 995-997, struck in Dublin by King Sitric Silkenbeard.

The Viking Women in Ireland video is a little thin on details. You see some beautiful ornaments found in graves from pre-Christian burials — large oval brooches used to fasten straps of traditional Scandinavian pinafore with glass bead chains strung between them. The highlight for me is a whalebone plaque similar to the one unearthed in Lilleberge (see this post) which the British Museum speculated might be used for food service, but the National Museum of Ireland thinks were used in textile production, maybe to stretch linen or other fabrics, in conjunction with a glass smoother.

Arrival of Vikings & Beliefs is centered on remains and artifacts found in burials in Islandbridge, Dublin, the largest Viking burial site outside of Scandinavia. Featured is a skeleton buried with a sword and spearhead, one of the earliest preserved Viking burials in Ireland. There’s also a splendid collection of swords, axes, spearheads and bosses from shields excavated from the 19th century on. Islandbridge excavations are still making new discoveries, including early single-edged sword from the 9th c., a spearhead, ringpin and the human remains of male 18-20 who grew up outside of Ireland and came to the island a couple of years before his death.

The Irish & the Vikings video is about how the two cultures came together. The Vikings created an urban commercial culture with Dublin as the center of trade and manufacture, while the Irish remained rural and agricultural, living in small groups on crannogs and in ringforts. The presence of urban Viking settlements provided new markets for Irish agriculture, cattle, leather, wool. There are some fabulous surviving textiles in the video.

Despite their disparate living arrangements and cultures — the Irish spoke a different language, had different legal and political systems — there was significant overlap in the material culture as the Irish quickly adopted Viking weapons, tools, jewelry. Not to be missed at the 2:51 mark is the Hnefatafl gaming board, a Chinese checkers or draughts sort of game with pegholes in the board decorated in Viking style.

Also striking is the late 10th c./early 11th c. slave chain found near Ardakillen crannog in County Roscommon. There was slavery in Ireland before the Vikings, mainly prisoners of war, but the Vikings made it into a thriving industry. They set up slave emporiums in Dublin, tapping into a vast trade network that meant an Irish war captive could end up anywhere from Scandinavia to north Africa.

Daily Life in Viking Ireland looks at the two best preserved Viking settlements: Dublin and Waterford. Because the environment is water-logged, the most exceptional organic remains have been found, like bedding that is still green after 1,000 years. Through a scale model drawn from a Dublin excavation, you see the dawn of the European town design, the six different types of houses, the layout of streets and defenses. Artifacts show the daily life in these towns. Pieces of of walrus bone and tusks were worked there, and there was a huge amber trade. More than 3,000 pieces of Baltic amber from the Viking era have been found in Dublin, the second greatest amount of amber found in Europe.

It’s not just about Vikings and the Irish. There’s an amazing leather scabbard at the 4:13 mark that was made by an English man. We know this because he so generously engraved his name on it: Edric me fecit (Edric made me). Around 4:50 you get an awesome tour of tools — his own and ones for other trades — made by a Dublin blacksmith, including the earliest datable spurs and stirrups in Ireland.

Last but not least is the Legacy of the Vikings in Ireland. By the 10th century, the Viking settlers had intermarried with the Irish and the hybrid Hiberno-Norse brought together Viking and Christian design elements. The Crozier of Clonmacnoise looks like a stylized Viking horse head. The Shrine of the Cathach, a decorated gold box meant to hold a 6th century Irish psalter thought to have been written by Saint Columba himself, is inscribed with the name of its maker: Sitric Mac Maghe (no idea if I’m spelling that correctly), a Scandinavian first name and an Irish family name.

Then there’s the jaw-dropping beauty of the Cross of Cong, a processional cross from the 12th century that was created to hold a fragment of the True Cross. It’s an outstanding example of the late Viking Urnes art style which features stylized animals in combat with snakes symbolizing the battle of good against evil.

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Oldest message in a bottle found by Baltic fishermen

April 8th, 2014

When Konrad Fischer, skipper of the Maria I, found a brown bottle in his net while fishing in the Baltic off the city of Kiel in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, he figured it was just a common beer bottle and went to throw it back into the sea. One of his crew members stopped him, noticing that there seemed to be something inside. They opened up the bottle — the porcelain cap was crumbling anyway — and found a Danish postcard rolled up inside. There was writing on the postcard but much of it was too faded to read. The only clearly identifiable elements were a message written in German asking that the card be sent to an address in Berlin and two five-Pfenning stamps to pay for postage.

The postcard was dated May 17th, 1913, just two months short of 101 years before it was fished out of the sea, which makes it the oldest message in a bottle ever found. The previous record holder was found in 2012, almost 98 years after it was sent. Excited by its advanced age, Fischer brought the bottle and its message to the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg where researchers set about finding out more about the sender.

The address in Berlin led them to identify him as Richard Platz, the son of a baker who was 20 years old in 1913. He was hiking on the Baltic coast with a nature appreciation group when he threw the bottle in the sea. Platz was just 54 when he died in 1946. He was survived by two daughters, Gudrun and Sieglinde, neither of them still living. Berlin genealogist Veit Godoj was able to locate Sieglinde’s daughter, one Angela Erdmann, now 62, who was born six years after her grandfather’s death.

On March 13th, Godoj contacted Erdmann and told her they’d found a message from the grandfather she never knew. Deeply moved by the discovery, she immediately called her cousin Dagmar Born who has been researching the family history for some years. Born sent her cousin a number of Platz’s documents, letters and photographs. The handwriting on the letters confirmed that he was indeed the author of the message in the bottle. It’s possible the bottle has a family connection as well, since his wife, Ella’s father owned a brewery.

The whole family is excited by the find. Erdmann says it has brought them closer together as they look into the family history. They plan to go visit the bottle and message currently on display at the International Maritime Museum until May 1st. After that, researchers will take it out of public view to work on deciphering the faded text.

Its ultimate fate is unknown at this time. The finder Konrad Fischer owns it now, and he has only loaned it to the museum. He could sell it or keep it once he gets it back.

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18th c. gilded French salon reopens in San Francisco

April 7th, 2014

After 233 years, eight moves including one transatlantic and one transcontinental, and a meticulous 18-month conservation, the Salon Doré reopened Saturday at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. The long strange journey of this gilded room began in 1781 when it was created as the formal receiving room for the Hôtel de La Trémoille, the palace of Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy, duc de la Trémoille and his wife Marie-Maximilienne, Princesse de Salm-Kirbourg, on rue Saint-Dominique in Paris’ fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood where many of the old aristocracy had town homes.

The paneling (boiserie in French) was neoclassical in design, with 15-foot gilded Corinthian pilasters framing four arched mirrors and four large doors. It was similar in style to the 18th century neoclassical decoration of the Hôtel de Salm, which was built on the Rue de Lille for Marie-Maximilienne’s relative Prince Frederick III, Fürst of Salm-Kyrburg, between 1782 and 1787. The Hôtel de Salm is now the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur. The Legion of Honor building in San Francisco which now houses the Salon Doré was designed to be a 2/3 scale replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur.

The de la Trémoilles suffered greatly during the French Revolution. They were dedicated royalists, very close to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In 1789, Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy, Marie-Maximilienne and their eldest son Charles Bretagne Marie fled France, with father and son joining the émigré army assembled by Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, in Coblenz, Germany. Charles Bretagne’s wife Louise-Emmanuelle de Châtillon, whom he had wed the same year the Salon Doré was built, would not leave Marie Antoinette’s side. She was arrested after the fall of the Tuileries palace on August 10, 1792, because she refused to testify against the queen. In September she managed to make a break for it, leaving the country in disguise and joining her husband in England. Two of Jean-Bretagne-Godfroy and Marie-Maximilienne’s sons were guillotined at the peak of the Terror in 1794.

By the mid-19th century, the Hôtel de La Trémoille belonged to the Marquise de Croix but he didn’t get to enjoy it for long. In 1877, the house was demolished during the third phase of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. Haussmann himself was no longer in charge by then, having been fired by Emperor Napoleon III in 1870 under pressure from Republican opponents in Parliament. The emperor died in 1873 and despite the intense opposition to Haussmann’s renovations when the Napoleon III wanted them, four years later the Third Republic picked up where he left off and finished remodeling of Paris into a city of wide boulevards and elegant squares. The rue Saint-Dominique where the Hôtel de La Trémoille stood became part of today’s Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The Marquise de Croix stripped the paneling off the walls before the demolition and had it installed in a first floor room in her new home, the Hôtel d’Humières on the rue de Lille. In 1905, this historic mansion also met a painfully premature demise and apartment buildings were constructed in its place. Again the Salon Doré’s boiserie was saved and in 1918, it was installed as the “French salon” in the Italianate mansion of financier Otto Kahn on East 91st Street in New York City.

The mansion was sold shortly after Kahn’s death in 1934 to the Convent of the Sacred Heart and is now schoolhouse to some very lucky middle and high school students. The Salon Doré was not part of the deal. It was stripped yet again and sold to the Duveen Brothers art dealership where it was installed a showroom in the firm’s Fifth Avenue gallery. In 1952, Duveen sold the room to steel magnate Richard Rheem who hired the French decorating firm Decour to install the salon in La Dolphine, his mansion in Burlingame, California.

In 1959, Rheem donated the Salon Doré to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. At the time, the museum had a policy against period rooms, but they changed it solely to accommodate the beautiful and historic Salon Doré. It was installed in 1962 and the Legion of Honor became the proud owner of one of the finest examples of French neoclassical interior design in the world. The path wasn’t smooth yet, however. In 1990 the boiserie was stripped once more as part of a major seismic retrofit of the building. When it was reinstalled, it was in a different room minus the parquet floor, ceiling, windows and two of the four doors.

All the moves and reinstallations had left the room far from its original configuration. The museum didn’t even know the proper history of the salon because the Duveens had lied about its provenance to connect it to a more famous palace and architect and presumably charge a higher price for it. Martin Chapman, the museum’s curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, recognized the importance of the room and decided to thoroughly research it so it could be restored to a more period accurate condition.

In 2013, the room was closed for a full refurbishment. The paneling was removed for restoration of its carved elements and gilding. Watch it come down in this time lapse video:

“The aim of this project has been to reinstate this paneling as an architectural entity as well as recreating its program for furnishing based on the 1790 inventory of the room. It was also to provide a full picture of how these salons functioned in the years before the Revolution swept away the culture of the ancien régime and to understand the essential relationship between the furniture and the interior architecture,” said Martin Chapman.

In order to achieve this extensive restoration project, a laboratory was set up in an adjacent gallery that could be viewed by visitors to the museum. In this space, up to 16 specialists worked on the carving and gilding under the direction of Fine Arts Museums’ head objects conservator, Lesley Bone, and the Museums’ conservator of frames and gilded surfaces, Natasa Morovic. The furniture’s upholstery was researched and executed by Xavier Bonnet of Atelier Saint-Louis, Paris. The silk incorporated in the room was woven by Tassinari and Chatel in Lyon, France to a design matched to an 18th century document in that city’s Musée de Tissus et des Arts décoratifs. The trimming by Declercq was laboriously made using traditional techniques and designs derived from 18th century models.

You can see the gilding restoration in this video:

And the master carver doing his magic in this one:

Cutting edge technology worked side-by-side with traditional crafts. Conservators used 3D printer to recreate the missing cradle of an 18th French century clock for the Salon Doré.

The restored panels were installed according to the original floor plan in a new room with period appropriate parquet flooring donated by French antiques dealer Benjamin Steinitz, a coved ceiling, windows and new lighting. Some of the furniture and accessories (a chandelier, three Sèvres vase) came from the Legion of Honor’s collection. Other pieces — a large mirror, a console, chairs — were purchased from various antiques dealers in Paris.

The end result is nothing short of exquisite.

“The Salon Doré will be the only pre-Revolutionary Parisian salon in the United States displayed with its full complement of furnishings. Returning the room to its original glory and revealing its initial purpose, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco present the Salon Doré as an example of how a period room can engage a 21st century audience,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Hasan Niyazi, a fine blogger and even finer person

April 6th, 2014

I first encountered Hasan Niyazi’s blog Three Pipe Problem in May of 2010 after he emailed me through the contact form. He said lovely things about my blog, a kindness that I would come to learn was entirely characteristic of this generous, open-minded, curious and warm man, and asked me for feedback on his own even though after less than six months of posting he already had far more traffic than I did.

My review was basically a drawn out version of “wow, what a great blog.” I loved how he viewed contemporary pop culture through an art historical lens, like in his incomparable videogame review A Medici Assassin in a Digital Renaissance: Assassin’s Creed II, his post on Donatello’s David which points out the influence of the piece on manga and game design, and in his riveting recaps and analyses of the first two seasons of the Showtime series The Borgias.

I was also impressed by how in depth his posts were while never feeling dense or requiring any effort to finish. Although my average post length had increased significantly from my early days of two sentences, a link and a blockquote, at the time I still kept things short unless I had a specific assignment like a contest entry or if I’d been drawn down a historical rabbit hole. Hasan’s fearless if-you-build-it-they-will-come willingness to pursue his interests as far as they took him inspired me to take a plunge into longer, more research-intensive pieces a little more often.

It was his passion for art history, especially that of Renaissance Italy and Raphael in particular (we had a lovely Raphael geekout in the comments of this post), that shone through in every post. He was a scientist by education which grounded his writing in a rigorous, evidence-based approach, but there was nothing dry or mechanical about it. The title of his blog was a Sherlock Holmes reference from The Red Headed League:

“As a rule,” said Holmes, “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify. But I must be prompt over this matter.”
“What are you going to do, then?” I asked.
“To smoke,” he answered. “It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”

Like Holmes, Hasan took his time to unravel Gordian knots with deliberation and thoughtfulness rather than just cutting through them, bringing together his scientific background and love of art in all forms to illuminate a subject in a way that appealed to professional art historians as much as to teenagers touring the Louvre. From an email he sent me a few years back:

I had a 15 year old Belgian kid write to me the other day – explaining how he’d been in Paris with his family and on a Louvre Tour. When they passed the Pastoral Concert [a painting currently attributed to Titian but previously thought to be by Giorgione and whose authorship is still debated], the tour guide just gave the standard description about it. The kid questioned him about the attribution to Varro and how the figures are not a mystery at all if you’ve read Varro. Rather than get angry, the tour guide bought him one of those expensive catalogue books and encouraged him to pursue his interest in the field. Wow!! All because he read my article [Titian and Giorgione: ethereal picnic with a difference].

Hasan Niyazi died unexpectedly on October 28th, 2013. To celebrate his love of art history and his commitment to open online access to art historical resources, bloggers who knew and loved him have dedicated entries to him today, the 531st anniversary of Raphael’s birth and the 494th anniversary of his death. It’s a wonderful collection of work that you can find listed here.

The Three Pipe Problem blog archives will remain as a testimony to the brilliance of his intellect, the generosity of his spirit and wide-eyed wonder at the beauty in this world.

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Byzantine monks used asbestos under wall paintings

April 5th, 2014

Ancient sources tell us that asbestos was used in antiquity for its fireproof properties primarily in textiles and candle wicks. The 2nd century Greek geographer Pausanias in Book I, Chapter 26 of his Description of Greece describes a golden lamp in the temple of Athena that burned all year on a single wick made of “Carpasian flax, the only kind of flax which is fire-proof.” Pliny the Elder dedicates a whole chapter of his Natural History (Book XIX, Chapter 4) to incombustible linen napkins woven out of asbestos fibers.

It is generally known as “live” linen, and I have seen, before now, napkins that were made of it thrown into a blazing fire, in the room where the guests were at table, and after the stains were burnt out, come forth from the flames whiter and cleaner than they could possibly have been rendered by the aid of water. It is from this material that the corpse-cloths of monarchs are made, to ensure the separation of the ashes of the body from those of the pile.

Pliny says the Greeks call these fibers asbestinon, meaning “inextinguishable.” He believes they grow in the heat of the Indian desert, not realizing that the fibrous substance is actually a mineral rather than a plant.

Asbestos continued to be used in the Christian era. Marco Polo mentions Tartars using a cloth made from fibers dug out of a mountain that whitens in fire, and the 10th century Persian geographer Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, aka Ibn al-Fatiq, in his Concise Book of Lands records how clever scammers in Jerusalem sold Christian pilgrims little chunks of asbestos as pieces of the True Cross. The fact that they burned without being consumed by fire was seen as proof of authenticity. In the early 1800s, physics professor Jean Albini made a fireproof suit out of asbestos cloth and took it on a tour of Europe.

The use of asbestos in construction, however, has no such pedigree. That has been thought to be a relatively recent development of industrialization, first implemented in the late 19th century. Researchers from UCLA have discovered that Byzantine monks on Cyprus beat them to the punch by 700 years or so. Underneath 12th century wall paintings in the monastery of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos the UCLA team found a layer of chrysotile (white asbestos) in the finish coating of the plaster.

The researchers weren’t looking for asbestos. They were analyzing the paintings using an impressive panoply of technologies, among them infrared, UV and X-ray fluorescence imaging, and microsamples examined by scanning electron microscopy and gas chromatography mass spectrometry, to determine whether the materials changed over time. It was one of those microsamples, taken from an 1196 wall painting of the Enthroned Christ, that revealed the presence of chrysotile.

The sample was taken from the red frame of the book Christ is holding and consists of four layers: a dark brown top layer that was likely a varnish, an intense red cinnabar paint layer, the asbestos-rich orangey layer, and underneath them all, a plaster layer made mostly of plant fibers. Researchers believe the chrysotile was used to enhance the red cinnabar layer.

“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study, published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision — they must have understood the properties of the material.”

The closest asbestos mine was in the mountains about 40 miles inland from the coastal monastery. The monks, like their leader St. Neophytos, sought isolation in their monastery, so they weren’t likely to have traveled inland personally. They likely took advantage of a regional trade network to purchase their materials.

Although asbestos has only been found under that red cinnabar layer thus far, the UCLA team plans to return to the monastery to examine more of the wall paintings, and to look for asbestos that may have been missed in previous studies of other Cyprus wall paintings.

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Forster Flag, oldest known American flag, for sale

April 4th, 2014

The 1775 Forster Flag, the oldest surviving American flag known, will be going under the hammer at New York City’s Doyle auction house on April 9th. It’s not the Star and Stripes we know as the American flag today, of course. It’s a red silk flag with 13 short white stripes in the canton (upper left quadrant of the hoist). What gives is the “oldest known American flag” title is that it’s the earliest surviving flag that was deliberately designed to represent the nascent United States with 13 white stripes, one for each of the 13 colonies. It’s also the only remaining Revolutionary War flag still in private hands. Since the remaining 29 Revolutionary War colors belong to museums or other institutions, it’s likely that this will be the last chance for one to come up for public sale. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the pre-sale estimate is $1,000,000 – $3,000,000.

The current owner is the Flag Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and research of flags. They bought it in January of 1975 from Constance Knight Hodgdon, a descendant of the first owner, Samuel Forster of Manchester, Massachusetts. Forster was a successful merchant who was active in local politics and, as hostilities between the colonists and the British escalated leading to the expansion of the militia units, was elected Lieutenant of the Manchester Company, First Regiment of Militia, Essex County. That was in December of 1774.

On April 19th, 1775, the British Army marched towards Concord to confiscate a cache of weapons. Thanks to a very famous midnight ride by a certain Boston silversmith, the militia of Concord and Lexington had been alerted to the impending arrival of the regulars. The first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington in the early morning. The British troops then advanced on Concord only to be repulsed by the Minutemen. By the time the Manchester Company reached Medford, 12 miles east of Concord, the British had already retreated. The company stayed in the area for five days just in case the redcoats returned.

According to Forster family lore, the red silk flag was captured from the British at the Battle of Lexington on April 19th. The cross of St. George was in the canton (the upper left quarter). That symbol of Britain was cut out and replaced with a square of red silk. Thirteen buff-colored bars representing the original colonies were then stitched onto the canton, six on one side and seven on the other.

Samuel Forster returned to Manchester where the company would remain, guarding the coastal towns from British naval attacks. The Forster Flag, now the company’s colors, benefited greatly from this assignment. Other regimental colors suffered from constant hoisting and lowering and battlefield damage. The few military colors that did survive, by long tradition were carefully preserved and handed down as precious mementos of regimental history.

The Forster Flag descended to Samuel Forster’s son, Israel (1779-1863), a prominent citizen of Manchester and a major in the War of 1812, whose stately home on the town’s main street, built in 1804, still stands today. A canton of white and blue stripes from a second flag found there is now in the collection of the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Early newspaper accounts report that the Forster Flag was on loan to the Massachusetts State House in Boston when Samuel’s brother, Israel, died in 1818, and that the younger Israel (Samuel’s son) had a difficult time retrieving it, since “state authorities … were for a time disposed to cling to it.” After this, the Flag descended through further generations of the Forster family, who held it for a total of two hundred years.

And they treated it right. The flag shows some wear along the hoist, but that’s just proof it was actually flown. It comes with a pair of tassels and a dress sash which may or may not be original but have certainly been with the flag for a very long time. Unlike the Star-Spangled Banner, the Forster Flag was saved from souvenir hunters subjecting it to death by a thousand cuts. Nobody recycled it for its lovely crimson silk. Nobody hung it outside in the weather or exposed it to the color-leaching rays of the sun. Nobody tried to restore it in some destructively ham-fisted fashion. The Forster-Knight family preserved it flawlessly for 200 years.

The Flag Heritage Foundation picked up where they left off, preserving it in ideal conditions for the next 39 years. It is the most valuable flag in their collection now and they’ve only decided to part with it to help endow the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. It’s a noble cause.

This collection is a vast and unique library and archive documenting flags and their history. It includes the holdings of the Flag Research Center, created in 1962 by Dr. Whitney Smith, who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the subject. The collection contains thousands of books, charts, pamphlets, serials, clippings and flags, as well as many associated objects. Including considerable research materials related to American history and Americana, with detailed information about the development of our national and state flags, as well as those of every foreign country, the collection is widely considered the greatest of its kind in the world.

The Forster Flag will be on display at Doyle New York (175 East 87th Street) this weekend and Monday. After that, it will be available for viewing by appointment only until the auction on Wednesday.

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New York Public Library puts 20,000 maps online

April 3rd, 2014

The New York Public Library, in addition to having a glorious Beaux Arts main building, has a vast collection of historic images. More than 800,000 images are available for perusal in its Digital Collections, an invaluable resource on the history of New York. I would have made much use of it in this blog but high resolution images are only available for a fee of at least $50 apiece which is rather pricey for works out of copyright.

This has bummed me out for years, so when I read that the NYPL was releasing more than 20,000 digitized maps, I assumed that we’d only be to view these cartographical works in versions too small to appreciate the details, which is bad enough with pictures of people or buildings but is infinitely worse with maps. Something something ass u me, because the entire collection can be viewed in exquisitely high resolution on the website and can even be downloaded! All you have to do is create an account free of charge on the NYPL’s Map Warper site and once that’s done, you see an Export tab on each map entry from which you can download the high resolution file.

Fair warning: the Map Warper takes ages to load, or at least it has for me at various times over several days. Everything I’ve accessed has eventually loaded without errors, but it took minutes. I suggest opening it in a new tab to wait out the load time. Once you have your account, be prepared to wait again for the maps to load. From the comments on the NYPL’s blog entry announcing the release, it appears to be your basic birthing pains and they have top men on it. Top. Men.

In any case, gems like these are worth the wait.

We’ve been scanning maps for about 15 years, both as part of the NYPL’s general work but mostly through grant funded projects like the 2001 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funded American Shores: Maps of the MidAtlantic to 1850, the 2004 Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded Building a Globally Distributed Historical Sheet Map Set and the 2010 NEH funded New York City Historical GIS.

Through these projects, we’ve built up a great collection of: 1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic United States and cities from the 16th to 19th centuries, mostly drawn from the Lawrence H. Slaughter Collection; a detailed collection of more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian empire created between 1877 and 1914; a collection of 2,800 maps from state, county and city atlases (mostly New York and New Jersey); a huge collection of more than 10,300 maps from property, zoning, topographic, but mostly fire insurance atlases of New York City dating from 1852 to 1922; and an incredibly diverse collection of more than 1,000 maps of New York City, its boroughs and neighborhoods, dating from 1660 to 1922, which detail transportation, vice, real estate development, urban renewal, industrial development and pollution, political geography among many, many other things.

One of the neatest features the Map Warper offers is the ability for members to rectify a map, meaning overlay it as accurately as possible over a modern digital Google Map using control points on both maps. Here’s a handy tutorial on how to rectify:

And here’s a before and after of a particularly warp-heavy map from sea to shining sea:


I love this one of New Orleans because the 1860 map is basically identical to the modern map only of course the city boundaries have sprawled much further afield now:


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