Hunley begins five year caustic bath

May 10th, 2014

Last Thursday was the first day of approximately 1,825 days the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley will spend immersed in a caustic bath of sodium hydroxide and water. This a watershed step in the conservation of the 40-foot iron submarine, a long bath 14 years in the making. The caustic bath will first remove the concretion, the thick layer of hardened shell and sand that formed on the hull of the sub during the 136 years it spent on the floor of Charleston Harbor since it sank the night of February 17th, 1864. The concretion completely covers the outside of the sub, obscuring the damage that might answer the questions about how and why the Hunley sank after successfully torpedoing the Union warship USS Housatonic.

Michael Scafuri, Hunley archaeologist, said the concretion has been mapped, photographed and recorded with 3-D imaging to make sure they have every bit of information possible from the Hunley’s protective shell.

And now they are ready to see what lies beneath.

“Under that concretion is the possibility of new information about the attack,” Scafuri said.

With the shell and sand removed, Scafuri said scientists should learn more about the Hunley’s design and operations, and may be able to tell what caused the submarine to sink.

The solution of 99% water and 1% sodium hydroxide should begin to loosen the concretion within a few months, giving conservators their first look at the hull in the 14 years since the submarine was raised from the Atlantic seabed. Once the concretion is loosened, conservators will scrape it off the hull, a painstaking process that will take months.

After the scraping, the Hunley will settle in for the long soak. The sodium hydroxide has another important job to do: removing nearly a century and a half of sea salt from the iron hull. That’s the process that will take five years, with conservators regularly draining the 76,000 gallon tank of its 68,000 gallons of solution (large jugs of gravel and water in the tank displace 8,000 gallons) when it gets too salty.

There are risks inherent in this procedure. Sodium hydroxide is a dangerous chemical and this treatment has never been used on so large an artifact. The lab had to be retrofitted for the safety of the space and its occupants. It’s the only way to ensure the long-term stability of the submarine, however. It’s been in a tank of cold water since its retrieval, for 11 years in a custom truss that kept it at the same angle as its had been on the ocean floor, then upright for three years. The water, a mild electric current and the concretion have preserved the hull for these initial conservation stages, but eventually the iron will corrode if the salt isn’t removed.

Once the salt is completely extracted, the Hunley will be able to be displayed outside of a tank for the first time.

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Mysterious notes in 1504 Odyssey deciphered

May 9th, 2014

On April 24th, the University of Chicago Library announced a contest to decipher mysterious margin annotations in a rare edition of Homer’s Odyssey printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1504. This was only the second edition of the Odyssey in Greek ever printed (the first was published in Florence in 1488) and this particular example passed through many hands, several of which left marginalia in various languages on the pages.

The two-volume book is part of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana (BHL), a collection of rare early print editions of Homer’s works that was donated to the library in 2007 by Michael C. Lang. Lang had noticed that in the second volume of the 1504 edition there were handwritten annotations that had some French words mixed in with what looked like a shorthand. Researchers at the library weren’t able to crack the idiosyncratic script, so they opened it up to public at large with a $1,000 reward offered by Lang for the first person to identify and translate the code. People from all over the world responded to the challenge.

Less than two weeks later, we have a winner. The feat was accomplished Daniele Metilli, a computer engineer, archival science student and general lover of cyphers, with the help of French speaker and stenographer Giulia Accetta. He’s in Italy and couldn’t make a trip to Chicago to view the book in person, so the library sent him high resolution images of two pages from Book XI of the Odyssey that have the annotations in question.

Because the shorthand was mixed with French and because one of the notes contains a legible date of April 25, 1854, Metilli and Accetta started by investigating French shorthand systems that may have been in use in the mid-19th century. The earliest French shorthand methods were created in the 17th century, one by Jacques Cossard in 1651, the next by Charles Alois Ramsay in 1665. Neither of those systems matched the one in the Odyssey. They then turned to 19th century systems but none of those worked either.

It was an appendix in a 1792 book on stenography by Théodore-Pierre Bertin that pointed them in the right direction. The appendix included a table that compared a stenographic system invented by Samuel Taylor in 1786 to a “tachygraphy” (from the Greek word for “swift”) system for the French language invented by Jean Coulon de Thévenot in 1776. The notes in the Homer edition looked very similar to the tachygraphy in the table. Metilli and Accetta located a copy of Thévenot’s manual Tachygraphie des Français, an 1819 edition of Tachéographie ou Tachygraphie française by stenography professor N. Patey and two mid-19th century French translations of the Odyssey and got to work.

In Thévenot’s system, “every consonant and vowel has a starting shape, and they combine together to form new shapes representing syllables,” Metilli wrote. “The vertical alignment is especially important, as the position of a letter above or below the line, or even the length of a letter segment can change the value of the grapheme. This explains why most notes in the Odyssey shorthand are underlined—the line being key to the transcription.”

They were able to translate almost of all of page A and some of page B. The mysterious marginalia are French translations of Greek words and phrases, questions about the text, definition comparisons, corrected errors, the kind of notes someone who was studying Greek would take. Most people wouldn’t scribble their notes in the margin of a very rare, very expensive 1504 edition, however. Why not get a cheap mass market contemporary edition if you’re going to write all over it? Also, most people in 1854 weren’t using shorthand that was popular 50 years earlier. Cracking the code has yet to solve the mystery of who this eccentric annotator was.

In his report (pdf) on the deciphering of the marginalia, Metilli proposes three possible hypotheses: 1) the notes were written by a student, 2) by a teacher, 3) by a translator. If 1) were correct, you’d expect there to be more unnoticed errors in the notes. The other two possibilities would explain the competence of the translation, and 3) would be quite likely to be familiar with shorthand systems.

Metilli then had a bit of a coup de foudre:

The main edition of the Odyssey we used as reference was translated by Édouard Sommer and published by Hachette book by book starting in 1848. While transcribing the shorthand, we had noticed how the annotations sometimes seemed to use the exact same wording as the “argument analitique” found in that edition.

The Sommer translation is very accurate and close to the text, just like our annotations. The other translations of the time (Bareste, Leconte de Lisle) look nothing like it. So it finally came to me: which year did Hachette publish book XI of the Odyssey? Which year did the annotator write his notes? The same year: 1854. What if Mr. Sommer were our mysterious annotator?

Sounds downright plausible. It still doesn’t explain why in the world he used the Manutius edition, of course, but that’s some quality Nancy Drewing right there. One thousand dollars very well deserved.

I know from the wonderful responses to the World War I shorthand post that we have several shorthand pros in the house. Be sure to check out Metilli’s report because there are all kinds of details about the system and translated passages in there. You don’t have to read French to enjoy it.

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Newly deciphered Maya stele identify Bat kingdom

May 8th, 2014

The ancient Maya city of Naachtun is in the jungle of northern Guatemala just over half a mile from the Mexican border. Founded around 400 B.C. in the Preclassic Period, it was one of very few important urban centers in the region to not only survive into the Classic Period, but thrive. At its peak between 500 and 800 A.D., the city had a population of 20,000 people, multiple pyramids, grand public buildings, more than 40 inscribed stele and a massive palace complex spread out over four hectares. The total size of the site is at least 200 hectares, 50 of which were occupied by monumental public structures.

Its location between the great Maya rival powers of Tikal to the south and Calakmul to the north in modern-day Mexico gave the city great strategic importance. Whether they were fighting each other or trading with allied city-states, Tikal and Calakmul had to go through Naachtun, and the city profited ably. According to hieroglyphic inscriptions discovered at this site and others, Naachtun changed sides repeatedly during the Classic Period, an unusually flexible posture in a region that was highly polarized between the two main superpowers. That, along with its uniquely formidable defenses — walls 13 feet high made out of large limestone blocks — allowed Naachtun to prosper during centuries of war.

Its fortunes fell along with those of Tikal and Calakmul. The great regional powers began a precipitous decline in the late 8th century and Naachtun, which had flourished through the upheaval of the transition between the Preclassic and the Classic, declined with them. The city was abandoned around 800 A.D.

It was rediscovered in 1922 by American archaeologists and pioneering Maya scholar Sylvanus Morley. Sponsored by the Carnegie Institution, Morley searched the Petén Basin north of Tikal for lost Maya cities. He enlisted the expertise of the chicleros, the men who collect sap from chicle trees, offering them a bounty for any ancient ruins they told him about. Chiclero Alfonso Ovando had stumbled on the Naachtun site in 1916. He told Morley about it and Morley explored the site, mapping many of its structures and discovering 19 stele.

It was Morley who named the site Naachtun, “far stone” in Mayan, because of how remote and inaccessible it was. That inaccessibility has made archaeological investigations of the site infrequent and of short duration. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the actual Mayan name of the city was identified on a stela as Masuul, and archaeologists are still working on deciphering the stele that Morley discovered nearly a century ago.

Two of those stele have recently borne fruit. Newly deciphered hieroglyphics have revealed the name of the kingdom of which Masuul was the capital: the Suutz, meaning Bat in Mayan, kingdom. The Bat kingdom has been references in inscriptions found on other sites, including Tikal and Calakmul, but until now, archaeologists weren’t sure if it was a more of a regional designation with shifting capitals than a kingdom with a specific urban capital and ruling dynasty. The new text confirms that Masuul was the capital of the Bat kingdom and it was ruled by the Bat dynasty from the second half of the 4th century. (I love how much this sounds like a particularly awesome episode of the 1960s Batman TV series.)

The hieroglyphic texts also place Masuul in the middle of the momentous events of January 16th, 378 A.D., when Tikal was defeated by forces from Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan, a powerful city-state 30 miles from modern-day Mexico City, is almost 800 miles northwest of Tikal, but that didn’t stop general Siyah K’ak’ (Fire Is Born) from killing Tikal’s king Chak Tok Ich’aak (Great Jaguar Paw), conquering the city and installing the six-year-old king Yax Nuun Ayin (First Crocodile), son of a figure known in descriptive non-native glyphs as Spearthrower Owl who was probably the ruler of Teotihuacan. First Crocodile married a daughter of the displaced Tikal ruling family and started a new dynasty. According to the newly deciphered stele, Masuul was an ally of Teotihuacan during this battle for Tikal.

There’s a photo gallery here with the stele, some maps and some breakouts of the glyphs. The labels are in Spanish but you can at least make out the bat features.

EDIT: I originally identified Teotihuacan as modern-day Mexico City, confusing it with Tenochtitlan. Many thanks to Lon for the correction.

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Norton Simon Museum to return Bhima to Cambodia

May 7th, 2014

Almost exactly one year ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return a pair of 10th century statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Cambodian archaeological site of Koh Ker in the early 1970s. Seven months later, Sotheby’s, after two years of fractious negotiations and under pressure from the US Attorney, agreed to return a much larger 10th century statue of the warrior Duryodhana that was also looted from Koh Ker in the early 70s. Now, five months after that, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has agreed to return their own Koh Ker loot: a 500-pound sandstone statue of the hero Bhima, Duryodhana’s cousin and opponent in the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

The museum purchased Bhima in 1976 from New York art dealer William Wolff. It has been on display since then, labeled “Temple Wrestler.” Cambodia has had more than enough problems to deal with at home since the brutal civil war that claimed the statues of Koh Ker as victims, so it didn’t begin to pursue its stolen cultural patrimony until the past few years.

The museum has previously said that Cambodian representatives had seen the statue on display in California and had not raised any objections. In a statement on Tuesday the Norton Simon said it continues to have “a good-faith disagreement” with Cambodia over ownership of the Bhima, but after sending representatives to Phnom Penh in March to meet with government officials, it has “worked directly with Cambodia to come up with a mutually acceptable solution,” and agreed to give it back as a gift.

In 2007, the pedestals of the Kneeling Attendants and the feet of both Duryodhana and Bhima were discovered in the Prasat Chen temple of the Koh Ker complex by conservators from the German Apsara Conservation Project. Archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau of the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient (the French School of Asian Studies) made a study of the pedestals and feet, virtually matching them up to photographs of the statues. They fit like a glove, and indeed you can clearly see the chisel marks looters left on the ankles, knees and feet of these otherwise perfectly preserved 1000-year-old statues.

All four of these statues — the attendants, Bhima and Duryodhana — were part of a group that stood inside the western gopura, one of two monumental towers at opposite entrances to the Prasat Chen temple. The tableau depicted a famous scene from the Mahabharata wherein Bhima duels with Duryodhana under the watchful gaze of seven kneeling and seated attendants. Koh Ker, the new capital of the Khmer Empire under King Jayavarman IV, was founded in 928 A.D., and a whole new style of sculpture was conceived there. The statues of Bhima and Duryodhana were revolutionary for their time, the first freestanding, dynamic figures in Khmer art which had previously been characterized by bas reliefs and static pieces.

Here’s a wonderful computer recreation by the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient of the western gopura and its sculptures:

In an unusual, hell-freezes-over move, Christie’s has bought another one of the attendants from this statue group to return it to Cambodia. The auction house had sold it twice, once in 2000 and then again to an anonymous collector in 2009. Earlier this year, after an internal investigation of a five-year-old sale that apparently determined that the sculpture had been looted from Koh Ker decades earlier, Christie’s contacted the buyer and arranged to buy the statue back. Christie’s will now foot the bill to ship the piece to Cambodia.

That leaves two known statues Cambodian experts believe were looted from Koh Ker still in the United States, one at the Denver Art Museum and one at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Those museums are still in the denial phase right now, but last year so was the Met, the Norton Simon, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Now Christie’s is doing its own investigations and buying looted artifacts back from the buyers (who would ever have seen that coming?), so the arc of this particular history appears to be bending rather strongly towards justice.

[Cambodia's secretary of state] Mr. Chan Tani said that recovering all the statues from the Prasat Chen temple is a national priority. The goal is to reattach the statues to their pedestals, which were left behind by the looters, and place them all together in a special display area in the national museum.

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Lost Mendelssohn song found in US

May 6th, 2014

An unpublished song written by Felix Mendelssohn that has been lost for 142 years has been found in the United States. The signed manuscript was discovered by the current owner among his grandfather’s papers. The grandfather was a musician and a Mendelssohn fan, but we don’t know how this unique piece of music made it to the States into his collection.

The song is a short 29 bars for alto voice and piano entitled Des Menschen Herz ist ein Schacht (A Man’s Heart Is Like a Mine). Mendelssohn wrote it in 1842, using the second stanza of the Friedrich Rückert poem Das Unveränderliche for lyrics. The verses describe the human heart as a mine that can produce precious metals or more utilitarian materials but can’t give anything that it doesn’t contain already. Rückert’s poems were very popular with composers like Schubert, Brahms and Mahler. There are more than 120 musical pieces set to his poetry.

This piece was a private commission from Johann Valentin Teichmann, a manager of Berlin’s Royal Theater who had lived in the Mendelssohn’s Berlin home from 1828 to 1831 when Felix was 19-22 years old. The Mendelssohns were a highly literature, cultured family who hosted a salon for artists at their house in Berlin for many years. Teichmann was part of this cultural community and worked closely with artists, playwrights, composers for decades in his management role at the Royal Theater.

Teichmann appears to have been too enthusiastic about the song for Mendelssohn’s taste. The composer wrote him a pointed letter on May 3rd, a few days after he had delivered the musical manuscript, asking Teichmann not to share the song with anyone else “because I have written it only at your request and only for you.” The letter lets him off the hook about having shown it already to one person, bookseller Wilhelm Besser. Mendelssohn says since the cat is already out of the bag that Teichmann can go ahead and give Besser a copy of the piece.

Des Menschen Herz ist ein Schacht was never played in public, nor even published. It was only known to scholars from records of its sale at two auctions in Leipzig, one in 1862 and another in 1872. After that second sale, it disappeared from the record, only to crop up across the Atlantic nearly a century and a half later. The letter Felix wrote to Teichmann was found with the manuscript.

The owner has put the autographed musical manuscript and the letter up for auction at Christie’s in London. The pre-sale estimate is £15,000 – £25,000 ($25,320 – $42,200).

Whoever buys it, they won’t be able to keep it secret like Mendelssohn wanted. Now that it’s been rediscovered, the music is public record and has in fact already been performed. Alto Amy Williamson and pianist Christopher Glynn had the honor of playing Mendelssohn’s song for its first public performance on BBC Today:

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Unique early 5th c. hoard found in Limburg

May 5th, 2014

A unique hoard buried in the early 5th century in a field in modern-day Echt, in the Netherlands’ southern Limburg province, has been excavated by archaeologists from VU University Amsterdam. The first glimmers of it appeared in 1990, when a farmer working his field found two gold coins. He inadvertently dropped one of them and although he searched frantically, he couldn’t find it again. Twenty-four years later in early 2014, the farmer and his nephew returned to the find site armed with a metal detector. They discovered five more gold coins and alerted the authorities.

University archaeologists excavated the rest of the hoard, getting a rare opportunity to examine the full archaeological context of a late Roman gold treasure. In fact, this is the first hoard from this period of Netherlands history to be thoroughly documented by archaeologists. The hoard is composed of one gold ring, one silver ingot, nine fragments cut from at least three large silverware plates and 12 gold coins, the most recent of which date to the reign of Emperor Constantine III (407-411 A.D.). They are in mint condition, which suggests the hoard was buried soon after 411 since the coins never had the time to get worn by circulation.

The pieces of silver tableware are what is known as hacksilver, artifacts made of precious metals that were cut up to be used as currency. One edge fragment testifies to what high level tableware it came from. It has a beaded rim and is engraved with a gilded horse and rider. The rider holds aloft a spear and the horse appears to be rearing over a lion, so archaeologists believe it was part of a larger hunting scene. Extrapolating from the curve of the outer edge of the fragment, the dish it came from would have been around 28 inches in diameter and weighed nearly five pounds. This kind of tableware was often used as diplomatic gifts to client chieftains or local dignitaries with whom Rome wished to curry favor, see the Traprain Law Hoard from East Lothian, Scotland for a famous example.

This is the first treasure found in the Netherlands to have both gold coins and hacksilver. The latter testifies to the political and economic upheaval of the time when the hoard was buried. The reason Rome was sending out elaborately decorated, expensive tableware to the far reaches of the empire was to buy protection of the borders. A Germanic war leader would get paid in a gilded silver plate more than two feet wide, then he would cut it up for its silver value and either keep it or distribute among his soldiers just like they would any other currency.

The date of this hoard was a particularly dangerous time in the area. Many historians point to the year 406, the year of the Battle of Mainz, as the final nail in the coffin of Roman control of the Rhineland. Germanic tribes, among them the Alans, Suevi and Vandals, defeated the Franks and crossed the border of the Rhine into Gaul. Constantine III may not have been able to keep the migrating tribes out of Roman territory, but he did make some effort. Historian at the time record him distributing gold to Germanic chieftains so they would defend the Rhine border in absence of army regulars. A study of gold finds in the Netherlands support the contention, as there is a remarkable concentration of gold from the reign of Constantine III.

The owner of the Echt hoard may have been the recipient of one of these pay-offs. Constatine III was defeated in battle and executed by his successor, Constantius, in 411. In the subsequent crisis, the hoard owner may have felt the need to bury the shiny new coins and hacked up fancy silverware the former emperor had given him. He seems to have unloaded it on the gods instead.
 
Thanks to the in-context excavation, we know that the shallow pit in which the treasure was buried is the only place in the area where late Roman artifacts have been found. Other archaeological material has been found in neighboring fields, but not Roman pieces from the early 5th century. This indicates there was no settlement or human habitation of the area during that period. Instead, it seems the treasure was deliberately buried in this out-of-the way spot, a marshy, uninhabited lowland perfectly suited for a ritual burial. Had the hoard been buried with the intent of retrieval, it would have been found near a settlement some place where it could rediscovered with relative ease.

The hoard is now on display in the From Neanderthal to City Dwellers gallery of the Limburgs Museum in Venlo.

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Van Dyck self-portrait acquired by National Portrait Gallery

May 4th, 2014

In December of 2009, Sir Anthony van Dyck’s last self-portrait sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking £8,329,250 ($13,521,704) to collector Alfred Bader and art dealer Philip Mould. Painted in England by the artist shortly before his death in 1641, the portrait is considered one of the finest he ever made and it is almost certainly the only self-portrait likely to come up for public sale in our lifetimes. Before it was sold in 2009, the last time it was on the market was 1712. Even though van Dyck worked for 10 years in England, becoming the pre-eminent court painter and receiving a knighthood from his patron King Charles I, there were no Van Dyck self-portraits in a British public collection.

Thanks to a massive fundraising effort and the contributions of people from all over the world, the National Portrait Gallery has now broken the streak and acquired the 1641 self-portrait. It took a lot of doing. When the portrait came up for sale in 2009, the NPG did not have the funds to join in the raucous bidding that established the new record for a Van Dyck painting. In 2010, Bader and Mould offered the work to the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate for £9.5 million ($16,000,000). The museums put their heads together and tried to find a way to save the masterpiece for the nation, but even with a generous grant from the Art Fund, the total was far out of reach. None of the other possible grant sources were able to contribute, and with the economy still so sluggish, the NPG and Tate didn’t think a public fundraising appeal would be able to generate the millions of pounds necessary.

They would get one last crack at the apple. In 2013, Bader and Mould arranged a private sale of the portrait to mining and gaming billionaire, financier and art collector James Stunt, son-in-law of Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, for £12.5 million ($21,000,000). Stunt is British but for much of the year he and his wife live in the insanely huge Los Angeles mansion that once belonged to Aaron Spelling, so he had to apply for an export license to take the portrait to the US. Recognizing the unique importance of the self-portrait, the UK put a three-month export ban on it to give British institutions the chance to prove they could raise the money to buy it back for the nation.

This time the National Portrait Gallery launched a nation-wide fundraising appeal with the immediate goal of raising enough money by the time the export ban was set to expire in mid-February to buy them a little more time. Seeded with a £500,000 ($843,700) grant from the Art Fund and £700,000 ($1,180,000) from the NPG’s acquisition budget, the appeal took off. By the end of January, the effort had raised an impressive £3.2 million ($5,400,000), enough to prove they had a real fighting chance of raising the full sum if given enough time, and so the export ban was extended another five months.

In March, seeing the passionate involvement of the public in the ultimate disposition of the painting, Stunt decided to withdraw his export license application. The painting was then offered to the National Portrait Gallery for £10 million ($16,874,000), a generous boost to the fundraising effort.

“When I agreed to buy this great portrait I didn’t expect the huge swell of public opinion and the strength of emotion its export would generate,” said Stunt, who had planned to hang the portrait in his Los Angeles home.

He added that he had “carefully reconsidered” his position and hoped that his withdrawal, together with the reduced price, would see the appeal succeed.

His hope was not in vain. On May 1st, the National Portrait Gallery announced that the appeal had succeeded. Thanks to £1.44 million ($2,430,000) in donations from more than 10,000 individuals, plus £1.2 million ($2,025,000) donated by two private trusts and the coup de grâce, a £6,343,500 ($10,704,000) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Van Dyck self-portrait was saved for the nation. They also raised an additional £343,000 ($580,000) to fund a national tour of the painting.

The portrait, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, will remain there until August 31st. It will then be removed from public view while conservators assess its condition and experts research its history. Starting in January of 2015, the portrait will tour museums and galleries around the UK for three years.

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Louvre and Prado Mona Lisas as stereoscopic image

May 3rd, 2014

Two years ago, the Prado Museum in Madrid announced that a painting long thought to be a relatively unremarkable copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was actually painted contemporaneously with the original, likely by a student following the master as he drew and painted the portrait. Infrared reflectography found that the 18th century black overpaint obscured a hilly background almost the same as the original. When the black overpaint and varnish were removed from the Prado’s copy, further infrared and X-ray analysis found underdrawings and alterations from the tracing and all the way through the upper paint levels that matched those in 2004 scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa. That means from the initial sketches to the changes and corrections as painting progressed, the Prado copy followed along at each stage.

That’s not to say they’re identical, even underneath the cracked and yellowed varnish that darkens and discolors the original. Two German researchers studied both paintings, selecting landmark points (like the tip of her nose, say, or a particular feature in the mountains) and mapping the path from the landmarks to the observer’s sight line. These trajectories tracked perspective changes between the two versions.

They found that the background of the Prado painting, while virtually identical in shape, is 10% more zoomed in than the Louvre version’s. The expansion doesn’t follow a perspectival pattern you’d expect if the landscape were painted from life, which suggests the mountains in the background and the loggia right behind her were painted from a flat studio backdrop. The trajectories illustrated a number of perspective changes in the painting of the figure, particularly dense in Mona Lisa’s hands and head.

With the comparative perspective data, the researchers were able to calculate the positions of the canvases relative to the sitter and then they made a model of Leonardo’s studio during the painting of the Mona Lisa with Playmobil minifigs.

The original (labeled 1st) is further back and to the right of the Prado copy, and the horizontal distance between the versions is about 69.3 millimeters. The average distance between the eyes of Italian males is 64.1mm, a statistically insignificant difference which suggested to the researchers the possibility that the two paintings might have been deliberately positioned to be a stereoscopic pair which when viewed together give the impression of three dimensions

Carbon points out that Da Vinci “intensively worked on the 3D issue.” In addition, in inventory lists there were hints of the existence of two “Mona Lisa” paintings on his property at the same time, and that he owned colored spectacles, Carbon said.

This evidence “might indicate that he did not only [think] about the 3D issue theoretically but in a very practical sense in terms of experiments,” Carbon added. Also, when looking at the original colors of the two paintings the only real difference was in the sleeves, in which they are reddish in one version and greenish in the other. “This could be a hint to Leonardo’s approach to look at the two La Giocondas through red-green (red-cyan) spectacles,” he said, similar to those one might don to watch a 3D movie.

That’s a lot of speculation and there are significant counterpoints refuting this hypothesis. The hands work as a stereoscopic pair because the trajectory differences are horizontal. Most of the trajectories on the upper portion of Mona Lisa’s body like her face and hair have a vertical orientation. Still, Leonardo did write about binocular vision and depth perception, so it’s possible he had some idea there could be a dimensional payoff in the positioning of the two canvases.

You can read the whole paper here (pdf) to get the fully fleshed out argument with math and everything. It could all be pure imagination and it would be worth it for the minifig studio alone, as far as I’m concerned.

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London on film, now and then

May 2nd, 2014

Last year when I posted about Claude Friese-Greene’s rare natural color films of Britain in the mid-1920s restored and preserved by the British Film Institute, one of the commenters (hi Karen!) noted that she kept looking up locations in the period film on Google Maps to compare what they look like now to what they looked like 90 or so years ago. Someone else had a similar idea, only he kept to the same medium.

Short film director Simon Smith spent much of 2013 following in Claude Friese-Greene’s footsteps. Smith took modern versions of the Biocolour camera and with an impressive attention to detail, placed himself precisely where Friese-Greene had shot his scenes of London in 1927 at the end of his three-year cross-country journey. The result is a side-by-side before-and-after view of London in 1927 and in 2013.

The shooting angles are so well-matched, even where there are more street lanes or a completely different skyline. It’s remarkable how similar old and new London vistas are despite all the new construction.

Simon Smith didn’t stop at Friese-Greene’s film. Next he turned to another film in the BFI National Archive, Wonderful London, filmed in 1924 by Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller. Parkinson was General Manager of Master Films, a production company that focused on creating cheap, short melodramas, romances and action pictures until 1924 when the company folded. Parkinson and Miller had worked together before on Master Films’ 1922 anthology Tense Moments from Famous Plays, which I would dearly love to see because it sounds awesome.

(I would also do unspeakable things to see Parkinson’s unreleased 1928 The Life Story of Charlie Chaplin, a pictorial history of Charlie’s poor childhood on the streets of London. Parkinson shot the neighborhoods Chaplin grew up in, the schools he went to, old music hall artists young Charlie performed with, and contrasted them with his luxurious accommodations at The Ritz during his triumphant 1921 return to the London of his youth. Apparently the movie was never released because Chaplin got wind of it and prevented its distribution. The original film was discovered in the attic of one of Parkinson’s relatives in 1997 and sold at Christie’s for $28,552. As far as I can tell, whoever bought it has not published it. Boo!)

After Master Films went out of business, Parkinson and Miller focused on travelogue shorts, starting strong with Wonderful London, a series of 20 short films each about 10 minutes long that capture London’s lesser known attractions and non-touristy neighborhoods along with the famous sights.

This time, Smith went for a more unusual approach. Instead of the side-by-side, he embeds the 1924 film into the middle of the modern scenes he shot to match. It’s eerie and cool to see the modern world blend into the sepia world like someone opened a rift in space-time. I do miss the split screen in one way, though: I wish I could see the entirety of the 1924 footage instead of just a little chunk of it amidst the London of today.

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Exact 3D replica of King Tut’s tomb opens

May 1st, 2014

An exact 3D facsimile of King Tutankhamun’s tomb opened outside the entrance to the Valley of the Kings Wednesday. This ground-breaking approach to heritage preservation and sustainable tourism has been a long time in the making. Zahi Hawass was still in charge in November of 2008 when the Supreme Council of Antiquities approved a project to thoroughly document and reproduce three endangered tombs in the Valley of the Kings, those of Seti I, Queen Nefertari and Tutankhamun. Seti’s and Nefertari’s were already closed to the public due to their precarious conditions. King Tut’s was and is in grave danger from the changes in temperature and humidity caused by up to 1,000 tourists visiting the tiny burial chamber daily. For its own good, Tut’s tomb is going to have to be closed too, and in fact should already be closed. Only its value to the tourist trade is keeping it open right now.

Madrid-based Factum Arte, which as early as 2001 was studying the tombs and developing technology specifically for scanning them, began work on the tomb of Tutankhamun in March, 2009. Over the course of five weeks, the FA team scanned the walls, ceiling and sarcophagus using a low intensity red light laser 3D laser scanner that captures the surface at 100 micron resolution with 100 million independently measured points per square meter, the highest resolution ever reached on such a large scale. The mechanics of this scanner made it impossible to record the entirety of the cramped tomb with it, so a white light 3D scanner with a resolution of 250 to 700 microns was brought in to scan the entire burial chamber and sarcophagus. The space was then photographed using low level cold lights to take pictures of the reliefs at a 1:1 ratio. The last step was a close analytical observational study of the surface.

When the recording of the tomb was complete in May, Factum Arte took the data back to its facilities in Madrid where the team set to work analyzing the 3D data and the high resolution images, running routing tests and ensuring exact color matching using samples from the tomb. The reliefs were routed out of panels made from low-density polyurethane resin. The tiles were then put together in sections and cast with a rigid backing. The paintings on the tomb surface were applied with an adhesive transfer. The first attempt failed because the elastic material resisted settling into the 3D surface, so in 2012 the team devised a new thinner elastic material that is held in place with a low contact adhesive and then cured under pressure in a vacuum bag. The result was not only perfectly sealed, but the print quality improved significantly.

Meanwhile, political upheaval in Egypt blocked the final implementation of the plan. The facsimile tomb would be stuck in limbo in Madrid until November of 2012 when it finally made its way to Cairo to mark the 90th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The facsimile was set up in a covered outdoor space in Cairo’s Conrad Hotel. You can see the walls go up in this video:

Now the final stage of the project has been completed. The replica tomb of Tutankhamun has been built next to the house of Howard Carter at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

The replica tomb was so accurate that some Tutankhamun experts among the Egyptologists and dignitaries burst into tears while attending the opening in Luxor today.

“We are not talking virtual reality, it is a physical reality,” Mr Lowe told The Independent from Egypt. “To have an emotional response to something you know to be a copy is an extraordinary moment.”

The hope is that tourists will have the same reaction so they won’t mind having to make do with the facsimile when Tut’s real tomb is closed. There are great advantages to the replica, like museum-style information and the ability to get close to the surfaces. A replica of the pre-historic Lascaux cave in France has been a smashing success, attracting 10 million visitors since it opened in 1983, and it doesn’t have the benefit of high resolution, 3D laser-scanned reproduction. Egyptian authorities plan to ease into the replacement, keeping the original tomb open for now but gradually reducing the number of people allowed in.

A 30-minute special on the replica tomb will air on BBC2 Friday and BBC News Saturday. Here’s a video explaining the scanning and printing process from Factum Arte:

This is raw footage of the production of the replica, from software combining the laser scanning data with the digital photography to the printers carving out panels of the tomb with a router:

Here is a very long, silent video journey through the photographic data, but if you’d like to explore the high resolution photography of the walls without having to sit through all that, Factum Arte’s website has an excellent Flash viewer that allows you to zoom in wherever you’d like and even compare the photography to the laser scanned relief. Click the up arrow at the bottom of the window to navigate between the four walls, the pictures and the scans. The level of detail is truly something to behold.

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