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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Anglo-Saxon ring engraved with Christian and pagan symbols

April 2nd, 2014


The Saffron Walden Museum in Essex has acquired a rare Anglo-Saxon gold ring engraved with a combination of Christian and pagan symbols. The ring was discovered in 2011 by metal detectorist Tony Carter in Uttlesford, Essex, and was declared treasure. In order to buy the ring and four other gold and silver artifacts discovered in the area, the museum had to raised £60,000 and £7,500 in donations. Since the grants were matching funds, the donations were necessary for the whole plan to come together. The campaign was successful and now all five pieces are going on display in a new showcase starting April 5th.

The ring, dubbed the North-Essex Ring, is the centerpiece of the new display. It’s a gold signet ring with a rectangular bezel and a heavy hoop 26.6mm in diameter at the widest point. It weighs a total of 20.1 grams and its composition is 92-94% gold, 5-6% silver and the rest a copper alloy. The square bezel and broad hoop are a Frankish form — for comparison see this Frankish ring from approximately the same period unearthed in the Mulsanne, France, and now in the British Museum — but the decoration on the North-Essex Ring is distinctly Anglo-Saxon.

On the bezel is engraved a belted male figure, possibly naked despite the presence of the belt. There is no visible clothing like the male and female figures on the Mulsanne ring wear. The man is holding a bird in one hand and a staff topped with a cross in the other. Above his head is another bird, bigger and more detailed. Both of the birds have curved beaks, indicating they’re birds of prey and the detail in the larger one identifies it as a Style II design, a zoomorphic style in which whole animals are depicted in an elongated, stylized fashion. Some of the pieces from the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial are decorated in Style II.

The decoration and ring style date the piece to around 580-650 A.D., a period when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Essex and East Anglia were first introduced to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent Augustine, a Benedictine monk who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission to convert King Æthelberht of Kent in 597 A.D. The combination of pre-Christian North European motifs and the Christian crossed staff makes the ring an extremely rare example of religious syncretism from this transitional period.

Another of the five objects secured by the Saffron Walden Museum is also a rare example from a transitional period in British history, albeit a much later one. It’s a gold ring from the 16th or early 17th century. The band is decorated with circular medallions in which are engraved scenes from the passion of the Christ. This imagery is Catholic, but from a time when people had to hide their adherence to Roman Catholicism to save their necks.

They don’t have a religious significance, but there are two historically significant gold coins in the new collection. They’re Gallo-Belgic class four gold staters struck in the Somme area in northwest France in the mid-2nd century B.C. Both of them are quite worn, one of them bent along the edge, indicating they were in circulation for some time before winding up in the ground. Very few class four gold staters have been found in Britain, and these are the earliest ever discovered in the district.

The last two artifacts are a silver hooked tag from the 9th century A.D. decorated with stylized animals that once held niello accents although the black enamel is long gone. (it’s known as Trewhiddle-style decoration) and an identified silver object with engraved niello animal figures from the 8th or 9th century.

All of the artifacts will be on display together starting April 5th. The museum has made a replica of the North-Essex Ring available so visitors can handle it and appreciate its size and decoration in person, which I think is a nifty idea that more museums should incorporate in their exhibitions.

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Barrels of 700-year-old poop found in Denmark

April 1st, 2014

Archaeologists excavating I Vilhelm Werners Square in Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown of Odense, Denmark, are delighted to have found barrels full of medieval excrement. Poop is a boon to modern archaeology because it can tell us more about the daily lives of past people than golden treasures, and this particular poop is very well preserved thanks to having been buried in an oxygen-poor environment.

The content of the barrels was immediately identifiable from the odor which was still pungent after 700 years in barrels under layers of the city. The first round of analysis found that 14th century Odensians were fans of raspberries, as well they should be. Scientists also found fragments of moss, leather and fabric all of which are thought to have been used as toilet paper. (Moss toilet paper? Would it have been, like, a clump attached to soil? How does it stay intact otherwise? Because if the structural integrity issue was dealt with, I imagine moss would make a pretty comfortable tp.)

Markings on the barrels indicate that they were not initially used as latrines. An anchor carved on one suggests it was used to transport or store herring, a major source of trade for medieval Odense. The barrels themselves are generally in good condition, which makes sense because you wouldn’t want to recycle a busted barrel for use as a cesspit. Containment is key to sewage management.

The poop barrels were unearthed last year. Continuing excavations on the site this year discovered even more barrels in an unusual configuration. Three barrels were stacked on top of each other and strapped together with strong wicker. At the base of the pit archaeologists found a mat of reeds and a pipe system made of recycled roof tiles. It seems this was a homemade water well, with the pipes used to draw water into the barrel well and the reed mat as a filter to keep sludge out of the water. On each side of the barrel stack are the remains of pillars, probably used to hold aloft a small roof to project the well water from bird poop or leaves or any other such contaminants.

The well is also from the 1300s and may have originally been in the courtyard of a home. It could also have been part of a beer brewing apparatus. Near the well archaeologists found a store of partially germinated barley, a key supply for beer making.

The Werners Square area is thought to be the oldest area in Odense, settled from at least the 11th century, and possibly as early as 988 when historical sources claim a bishopric was established there. The first recorded bishop, Reginbert, was sent to Odense by King Canute the Great in 1020 or 1022. The excavation, which began in 2013, hopes to reveal the earliest days of Odense going back to King Canute’s day. Preliminary studies found the remains of one of the oldest datable streets from around 1100.

The dig, which is the largest in the city’s history, is open to visitors every Tuesday and Thursday at 1:00 PM. The archaeologists’ workshop is also open to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3:00 PM. I wonder if there were visitors present when the fragrant poop barrels were discovered.

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Stolen Renoir on display at Baltimore Museum of Art

March 31st, 2014

Sixty-two years after it was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art, Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine is once again on display in the museum’s galleries. The little 5 1/2″-by-9″ landscape, reputedly painted by the Impressionist master for his mistress on a linen napkin at a cafe on the shores of the Seine in 1879, first made the news in 2012 when it was put up for auction by a woman (later revealed to be one Marcia “Martha” Fuqua) who claimed she bought it at a flea market for $7 in a box lot along with a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll. That story soon turned out to have more than a few gaping holes which were exposed when a Washington Post reporter discovered evidence in the archives of the Baltimore Museum of Art that the painting had been stolen from the museum on November 17th, 1951.

The sale was canceled while a federal court decided who owned legal title to the painting. Possible contenders were the museum, Fuqua and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company which had paid the museum $2,500 after the theft. The insurance company declined to pursue their own claim because they believed that the Renoir should return to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In January, the court decided that even if Fuqua was an “innocent owner” who had no idea the painting was stolen when she acquired it, a thief cannot pass title to a new owner, innocent or otherwise. The landscape was going back to the museum.

Since then, BMA conservators have treated the work — it was in excellent condition and only needed a surface cleaning — to prepare it for its triumphant return. On March 30th, The Renoir Returns exhibition opened to the general public. Paysage Bords de Seine is on display with more than 20 other important pieces bequeathed to the museum by collector and benefactor Saidie Adler May. A dedicated collector of Impressionist and early 20th century art, Saidie Adler May left her entire collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, but this is the first time, believe it or not, that the museum has dedicated an exhibition to Saidie May’s donations. Works from the May collection by Mondrian, Klee and Miró join the Renoir in the two-gallery show. May’s own artwork also gets display space next to the masterworks.

Earlier articles said that according the records of the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris, the painting was purchased by Herbert L. May, Saidie’s estranged husband, in 1926. According to the BMA’s press release about the exhibition, however, Saidie and Herbert bought the painting together in November of 1925. Museum researchers discovered a diary in which she wrote about her acquisition of the Renoir. She bought it from Bernheim-Jeune along with an oil sketch by Georges Seurat, paying $2,000 for both. The diary entry and the original receipt of the purchase are part of the exhibition, as is the Seurat.

Researchers also found evidence supporting the linen napkin story.

New research conducted by the BMA’s conservation and textile departments confirms part of Saidie May’s story about Renoir painting the landscape on a linen napkin at a restaurant on the Seine for his mistress. Since Renoir was not married at the time, there is no conclusive information about the identity of his mistress, but the surface of the painting is in fact a linen damask with an elaborate geometric weave. It was unusual for painters to use this type of fabric as a background, but very common for table linens of that period. It turns out to have been a good choice, as linen increases in strength when wet and is smoother than wool and cotton.

As for what happened to the painting between 1951 and 2012, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting answers any time soon. The FBI has closed its investigation because they don’t have enough evidence to arrest someone for the theft or even for knowingly possessing stolen goods. There are too many contradictory stories to pin anything on anyone.

One key witness, and possible suspect, was Martha Fuqua’s mother Marcia Fouquet. She was an art student in Baltimore in 1951 and had at least one friend who worked at the museum. Borders and family, including her son Matt, recall seeing the painting in her home in the 80s and 90s. The FBI did interview her before her death in September of 2013, but didn’t actually ask her if she was involved in the theft or even if she had the painting hanging in her home. Special agent in charge of the investigation Gregg Horner says: “I did not ask her about the Renoir. I did not feel that the timing was right. She’s a very interesting lady, very well-educated. We had a nice, pleasant conversation. I talked to her in general terms about her art.” He never followed up with her because of her precipitous decline in health (she was 85 years old and had cancer). “Given her illness,” Horner said, “I didn’t think it was appropriate.”

I am completely perplexed by this. It’s not idle curiosity, after all. He’s an agent investigating a crime. What is the point of interviewing a witness/suspect IF YOU DON’T ASK THEM ABOUT THE CRIME? I mean, a pleasant conversation about her art? Bizarre.

Anyway, there’s a silver lining to the theft, because now there’s this crazy adventure to add to the history of the painting and the museum is poised to take full advantage of the little landscape’s new notoriety (don’t forget to buy the magnet at the gift shop!). It’s also brought Saidie Adler May’s invaluable contributions some well-deserved and belated recognition. The Renoir Returns runs through July 20, 2014.

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Wadsworth Atheneum acquires Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait

March 30th, 2014

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest public art museum in the United States, has acquired a rare self-portrait of Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was the leading lot in Christie’s Old Master Paintings auction on January 29th. With a pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million, the painting failed to meet the reserve and did not sell at the auction. Christie’s then offered it to the Wadsworth Atheneum which last December received a $9.6 million donation from the Charles H. Schwartz Fund for European Art earmarked for the acquisition of pre-19th century art. The final price the museum paid has not been released, but curator Oliver Tostmann says it was significantly less than the low estimate of $3 million.

Self-Portrait as a Lute Player is the first work by Artemisia Gentileschi in a New England museum. It’s also the first painting in the museum’s Baroque Italian art collection that was done by a woman. It will join works by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, and by Caravaggio, the great innovator of the age who was a strong influence on Artemisia’s mature work. Orazio is represented by a painting of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621-24), a subject that Artemisia returned to repeatedly in what may be her most famous and dramatic works. The Wadsworth Atheneum’s Caravaggio is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy painted in 1594.

The Morgan Memorial Building, home of the Wadsworth’s European collection, is currently in the last two years of a five-year refurbishment project so Artemisia’s Lute Player won’t be on display right away. When the building reopens in Fall of 2015, she will be the centerpiece of the inaugural exhibition. The premier members of the museum’s Society of Daniel Wadsworth will be given a special preview of the work this spring (you can join, but it’ll cost ya $2,500.)

One of no more than three known self-portraits that are thought to have been painted by Artemisia Gentileschi (the others are Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting in the Royal Collection in London and the Allegory of Inclination, a fresco on the ceiling of the art gallery in Casa Buonarroti in Florence) is probably the most recognizable), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player was painted around 1616-1617 when Artemisia was 25 years old and had just been inducted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first woman ever to be accepted into that august assemblage of artists.

Her patrons included Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, a great-nephew of the great Michelangelo, and Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It’s likely that the latter commissioned Lute Player since it appears in the inventory of the Villa Medici at Artimino in 1638, only 20 or so years after it was painted. The inventory describes it as “A picture on canvas 1 1/2 braccia high and 1 1/4 braccia wide in a black frame bordered in gold, the portrait of Artemisia playing a lute painted by her own hand.” (A Florentine braccio is 58.4 centimeters, which would make the portrait 87.6 cm x 73 cm when in fact it’s 77.5 x 71.8 cm, but it was probably trimmed by idiots over the centuries. You can see the bottom edge crops the arm and lute awkwardly.)

Her success at the Florentine court was unprecedented for a woman and was all more astonishing considering the personal horror that brought her to the city. In 1611, when she was 17 years old, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father’s and full-on psycho stalker who had already raped at least two women (his sister-in-law and one of his wives, the latter of whom disappeared and was probably murdered by bandits Tassi hired). The rape trial lasted seven months and all except a few final pages of the transcripts have survived. Artemisia, per standard legal practice in the Papal States at that time for all woman who accused someone of rape, was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she wasn’t lying. Tassi was convicted but only served eight months in prison after the judge pardoned him.

Even though Tassi’s testimony — denials coupled with completely fictitious claims about Artemisia’s purported promiscuity which fit handily into the blame-the-victim template that still haunts the halls of justice today — was blatantly false and widely seen as such, the scandal of the trial generated so much malicious gossip against her that a few months after Tassi’s conviction, she was hastily married to Pierantonio Stiattesi, a mediocre Florentine artist, and left Rome with him to start afresh in Florence where she supported them with her commissions. Her husband proved to be a deadbeat who ran up huge debts and forced her to leave Florence with creditors baying for blood. She dumped the bum and moved back to Rome in 1621 without him.

Her immense gifts have been recognized by art critics from the beginning, but for many centuries the rape trial overshadowed her talent. It was 20th century feminist analysis that brought Artemisia Gentileschi back into the spotlight to take her rightful place among the greatest artists of her era.

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What is this hinged imperial white jade piece?

March 29th, 2014

An imperial white jade object from the 18th century that is as mysterious as it is beautiful will be going up for auction at Bonhams next month. Made for the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796), sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the piece is made out of two hollowed rectangles that are connected to a central triangle via two hinges. They hinges work, allowing the rectangles to move from laid out straight to fully vertical.

The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging yet technically flawless piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.

The ancient bronze that inspired this piece was described in the 1751 catalog of the imperial bronzes as a “Han Dynasty ornament,” which means they had little idea what it was for either.

The Qianlong Emperor was a passionate collector of art. His agents would buy up entire private collections from people who had fallen in hard times or whose descendants didn’t want to be associated with them because they had taken the wrong side during the wars of the Qing Conquest. There are thousands of jade pieces in the imperial collection and almost all of them were acquired or commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor.

Although he was an artistic polyglot who welcomed the fusion of Chinese and Western styles (the famous bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac were made during his reign), the Qianlong Emperor saw himself first and foremost as the keeper of China’s artistic heritage. His collection of ancient bronzes was unparalleled, as was his collection of antique paintings. An incredibly prolific poet in his own right, he adopted a practice of the Song dynasty emperors and inscribed his poems on paintings in the collection.

That desire to integrate the glorious past of China’s cultural heritage and its glorious present as incarnated by him may be key to identifying the purpose of the hinged jade object. There is another hinged white jade piece similar to this one which is engraved with an imperial poem.

The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.

That’s not to say this was its original purpose. The Han bronze may have had a whole other significance to which the Qianlong Emperor ascribed his own meaning.

The piece is estimated to sell for £200,000 to £300,000 ($333,000 – $500,000), but the market for Chinese antiquities is insane right now so those numbers could go increase geometrically. The auction catalog is not available yet. They’re usually released four weeks before the auction, so if you’d like to leaf through it, check this page the last week in April.

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Piece of cake from 1924 Vanderbilt wedding found

March 28th, 2014

A 90-year-old piece of cake from the wedding of Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt to John Francis Amherst Cecil on April 29, 1924, has been rediscovered and donated to the Biltmore House collection. The small sliver of fruitcake, that most enduring of cake varietals, was found by Frederick Cochran when he was going through a trunk he inherited from his aunt Bonnie Revis, formerly a cook at Biltmore House. It was in a tiny beige box stamped “Biltmore House” on the lid.

Cochran looked inside and saw what he thought was a piece of cheese (fruitcake looks cheesy after a century, it seems). He called Biltmore House and reported his find. Biltmore Museum Services collections manager Laura Overbey went to Cochran’s home to examine the artifact and bring it back to the great estate in Asheville, North Carolina. She recognized the box from the two distinctive monograms on either side of the “Biltmore House” on the lid as those of Cornelia Vanderbilt and John F. A. Cecil, which marked the box and its contents as originating at their huge society wedding.

As far as she knew, however, there was no cheese gifting at the Vanderbilt-Cecil wedding. It wasn’t until she overheard a couple of conversations that she was able to put the pieces together.

Back at Biltmore, one of Overbey’s coworkers happened to be talking about “how a friend had found a piece of Grover Cleveland’s wedding cake” — and she realized what she likely had in the pretty little box. Even more coincidental, as she walked into the office of her director, Ellen Rickman, to tell her the news, she heard an oral history to which Rickman was listening, about Cornelia’s nuptials.

“Right as I was coming in the door, this gentleman (on the recording) is saying he remembers getting a small box of fruitcake for the wedding,” Overbey said. Thus it was that an interview done in 1989 helped a collections manager in 2014 to identify a piece of cake from 1924.

In the interview, an elderly Paul Towe, whose father worked at Biltmore in the 1920s and ’30s, recalled attending Cornelia’s wedding as a small boy. His sister, Sarah, was a flower girl, and he remembered that “everybody got a little white box with their name on it with a piece of fruitcake.”

That would explain why Bonnie Revis had a sliver of the cake, because it was widely distributed to all the staff and attendants, and she was cook from 1924 to 1935 (coincidentally almost exactly the duration of the Vanderbilt-Cecil marriage). Cornelia’s late father George Vanderbilt (grandson of railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt) and her mother Edith Stuyvesant Dresser were deeply involved in the Asheville community and employed hundreds of people at the estate. When Cornelia, only child of George and Edith, married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, third son of Lord Cecil and the Baroness Amherst of Hackney, direct descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, the entire town assembled outside All Souls’ Church to watch the couple and 1,000 guests arrive and depart.

Many workers at the Biltmore Estate were guests or actually part of the wedding. When the newlyweds left the church arm in arm after the ceremony, they and the wedding party walked through an arch of crossed flowering branches held by 44 children of Biltmore Estate staff. The youngest, Polly Ann Flower, greeted them at the end of the arch wearing a little white Cupid outfit.

There are no records surviving of what kind of wedding cake was served, but fruitcake was traditionally the groom’s cake, so it’s like this sliver was carved off John Cecil’s cake rather than whatever massive confection served as the primary wedding cake. It was made by Rauscher’s, identified by a stamp inside the bottom of the box, a bakery in Washington, D.C. George and Edith had a home on K Street in D.C., and Cornelia was staying there when she met Cecil. He was ten years older than her and an accomplished diplomat. When they met in 1923, he was the first secretary at the British Embassy and part of a group of highly eligible men known in D.C. society as the “British Bachelors.” Cornelia and John hit it off right away, announcing their engagement just a few months after they met.

John Cecil resigned his position before the wedding, choosing instead to focus on the management of the Biltmore Estate. It became his life-long vocation. He continued to live at and manage Biltmore until his death in 1954, twenty years after his divorce from Cornelia. She, on the other hand, got married to an English banker in 1949 and moved to England where she spent the rest of her life. John and Cornelia’s sons took over management of the estate after John’s death, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil running Biltmore Farms (the successful dairy farm branch), his younger brother William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil taking on the Biltmore Estate, including the house and vinyards he planted. Their children manage the estate today.

As for the piece of cake, it is now in the freezer, for historical rather than culinary preservation purposes. It is still inside its original gift box, protected by several nested Ziploc bags.

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Christian tattoo found on 8th c. Sudanese mummy

March 27th, 2014

Researchers have discovered a unique Christian tattoo on the inner thigh of a mummy unearthed in a cemetery along the banks of the Nile in Sudan nine years ago. The woman, who was 5’2″ tall and between 20 and 35 years old at the time of her death, was wrapped in a linen and wool shroud and buried around 700 A.D. The arid heat of the desert naturally mummified her, preserving some soft tissues like skin and internal organs. The skin of her inner thigh is so well preserved that the ink is still visible to the naked eye, but it’s quite faint. It wasn’t until last year when the mummy was given a CT scan at a London hospital and photographed with infra-red reflectography that British Museum archaeologists were able to identify the tattoo as a monogram of the letters Μιχαήλ, meaning Michael.

This is an exceptionally rare find. It’s the first tattoo of any kind found from this period in the Nile Valley. Michael was the patron saint of Christian medieval Sudan, so his name is invoked frequently in inscriptions. The monogram, which stacks the letters of Michael’s name so it looks almost like an upside angel, has been found engraved on stele and in graffiti on churches from that time, but this is the first tattoo of the symbol ever discovered.

The purpose of the tattoo is, of course, unknown, since the only person who could tell us has been dead for 1,300 years. I imagine it had much the same purpose as religious iconography has in tattoos today: expressing reverence, faith, or asking for the intercession of the saint. It could also have been a protective invocation, in the same way that words from the Christian gospels were used to ward off evil in the 12th century Makurian crypt found at the archaeological site of Old Dongola, Sudan.

I wasn’t able to found out where precisely she was discovered — the Nile runs through all of modern Sudan and there are many archaeological sites along its banks — but my best guess is that it was one of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project excavations which focused on several medieval Christian cemeteries threatened by the construction of a dam at the Fourth Cataract (the most impassable of the Nile’s rapids). The opening scene in the Telegraph’s video looks like the Fourth Cataract where the rapids have carved out several small islands, some of which have Christian cemeteries. If that is the location, it’s south of Old Dongola, but still in the Kingdom of Makuria.

It is not clear who did the tattoo in ancient Sudan, and whether it was visible to other natives.

High up on her inner thigh, it may or may not have been out of view. And for all its scientific expertise, the British Museum admits to being unclear as to what exactly was the fashionable length of skirt worn by an ordinary Nile dwelling female in AD 700.

I don’t see her inner thigh tattoo being designed for public display. It seems like a deliberately private location no matter how short skirts may have been in Sudan 1,300 years ago. It’s going to be on public display now, though. This mummy is the youngest of eight from various periods in the Nile Valley that will be features in the British Museum’s Ancient Lives: New Discoveries. The show runs from May 22nd through November 30th and will use interactive technology to tell the stories of these eight people’s lives and deaths.

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Pharaoh Claudius erects pole for fertility god

March 26th, 2014

Researchers from Swansea University in Wales and the KU Leuven University in Belgium have identified a carving of Roman emperor Claudius as a pharaoh participating in an ancient ritual for the fertility god Min on the western wall of the temple of Shanhur about 12 miles north of Luxor. The temple dates to the Roman era. It was first built as a temple to Isis under Augustus but the carvings on the western and eastern exterior walls, 36 on each, were all done during the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.).

The carvings were first exposed during an archaeological excavation in 2000-2001. Before that they had been covered by a mound of soil that obscured and protected the exterior temple walls, leaving the carvings in excellent condition. In the decade or so since they lost the protection of the mound, the carvings, made on lower grade limestone that is highly susceptible to erosion, have unfortunately been weathered so they’re much harder to make out now. The Swansea-KU Leuven team began recording and translating the exterior wall carvings in 2010.

It’s scene 123 on the western wall that is the stand-out piece, both in terms of preservation and historical significance. It depicts Claudius doing the ritual of the raising of the pole for Min, the Egyptian god of fertility and power. This ritual is ancient, going back 4,300 years to the Old Kingdom, which we know from the 32 extant scenes of the pole-raising that have been found. What makes this one so special is not just the involvement of Clau-Clau-Claudius (if you haven’t seen I, Claudius, please do so immediately; there will be a test), but the fact that the inscriptions include a precise date when this particular ritual took place. It’s the only one of the 32 that does.

The scene shows Claudius garbed in pharaonic regalia. He wears a complex crown known as the “Roaring One” made out of three rushes embellished by sun discs and solarized falcons. The rushes are flanked by ostrich feathers and perched on ram horns. He carries two ceremonial staffs in his left hand and a scepter in his right. The accompanying inscription identifies him and dates the ritual:

King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Tiberios Klaudios
Son of Ra, Lord of the Crowns, Kaisaros Sebastos Germanikos Autokrator
Raising the pole of the tent/cult chapel for his father in month 2 of the smw-season (Payni), day 19.

Min stands across from Claudius, facing him. He holds a flail and wears a double feather crown with sun disc. As is customary for this fertility god, he also sports a magnificent erection. Behind him is his cult chapel and between him and Claudius eight men enact the ritual by climbing four poles propped against a central a pole topped by a crescent moon.

The inscriptions and iconography suggest that by performing this ritual, Claudius assumes the formidable characteristics of Min:

[Words spoken by Min (or Min-Ra)… Lord of?] Coptos, Lord of Panopolis (Akhmim), who is on top of his stairway,
[…] King of the gods, strong sovereign, who captures
[…] who roars when he rages, lord of fear,
[…] the one who brings into control the warhorses, whose fear is in the Two Lands,
[…] about whose beauty one boasts, who inflicts terror/scares away with his strength.

He’s not roaring with rage at Claudius, though, thanks to the pole-raising. By executing the ritual, Claudius keeps the cult of Min alive and asserts his power over “the (southern) foreign lands” which, according to the inscription, Min gives to him.

The inclusion of a date indicates that this ritual event actually happened, although Claudius himself was not present in person. He never went to Egypt. A priest probably acted as his proxy, something that was common even in the pharaonic era since the king couldn’t possibly be present for every ritual.

There’s another Claudius-Min ritual carved in the exterior eastern wall. In this one Claudius makes an offering of lettuce to Min and Horus the Child. The lettuce symbolizes Egypt’s crops which will be made abundant thanks to Min and his prodigious endowment.

[Take for] you the lettuce (|‘n) in order to unite it with your body (or phallus) and lettuce in order to make procreative [your] phallus

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1940s Chicago in living color

March 25th, 2014

A rare color film of Chicago made in the 1940s was discovered at an estate sale in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago by a professional film colorist, fortuitously enough. The canister was labeled “Chicago Print 1″ which was intriguing enough to entice Jeff Altman to spend $40 to buy the film even though nobody at the sale knew what it was or what kind of condition it was in.

The film turned out to be a 32-minute tour of the city sponsored by the Chicago Board of Education with footage of everything from the glamour of the Wrigley Building to the manufacturing plants of the South Shore. Street scenes are interspersed with dramatic aerial footage shot from United Airlines planes. It was in good condition but needed some color adjustments which its new owner just happened to have the skills to make.

Chicago – A Film from the Chicago Board Of Education from Fading Dyes on Vimeo.

The city looks great — the aerial views of the lakefront are particularly breathtaking — and I’m a sucker for that fabulously stentorian narratorial tone that was so prevalent in publicity films and newsreels from the 1940s. The shots of the L moving through skyscrapers (around the 3:50 mark) look like something from Metropolis.

There are no references in the footage or narration to what the specific purpose of the film was, probably attracting tourism or maybe new businesses, which would explain the unusual coverage of the industrial areas of the city. The Board of Education has so far been unable to locate any records of the production in their archives, but the date can be extrapolated from what we see and hear. The sad fate of that wonderful narrator is a key piece of evidence.

It’s unclear exactly when the video was produced, but portions of it seem to have been filmed in 1940s, judging by the models of cars and what seems to be a marquee for the 1945 Humphrey Bogart film “Conflict.”

The video was likely released between January 1945 and September 1946, as John Howatt, credited as the board’s business manager, was elected to the post on Jan. 8, 1945, while narrator Johnnie Neblett died on Sept. 15, 1946, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Lauren Huffman.

The 1945/6 is confirmed by one of the comments on Vimeo points out that you can see the USS Sable aircraft carrier anchored on Lake Michigan. It was decommissioned at the end of 1945 and broken up for scrap in July 1946.

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