USS Monitor turret conservation ramps back up

May 10th, 2016

Conservation of the 120-ton revolving gun turret of the USS Monitor, raised from the protected wreck site off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on August 5th, 2002, is ramping back up this month after years of painful budgetary restrictions that saw the conservation staff reduced by half and left the massive remnant of the ironclad vessel in limbo. A year-long fundraising push has generated $1 million in donations which has allowed USS Monitor Center conservators to start a two-month campaign on the turret.

The gun turret is kept in a 90,000 gallon tank in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, filled with an alkaline solution of sodium hydroxide to preserve and desalinate the metal. Every Monday until the middle of July, the tank will be drained (it takes four and a half hours to drain the whole thing) so conservators can work on it. They will clean it thoroughly, inside and out, using small chisels, hammers, dental drills and air scribes (miniature compressed air jackhammers) to remove layer upon layer of concretions.

Conservators will also attempt to remove the nut-guards, shields that covered the nuts to keep them from flying out should the turret be subject to artillery fire. The exposed walls will then be excavated for small artifacts pinned there when the ship capsized and sank on New Year’s Eve, 1862. A number of discoveries have been made before behind the shields, including a monkey wrench, a bone-handled knife and a silver table spoon with the initials “SAL” engraved on the handle that researchers believe belonged to Third Assistant Engineer Samuel Augee Lewis, one of 16 crewmen who went down with the ship.

Once the cleaning and archaeological work have been completed, the turret’s newly exposed interior and exterior walls will be scanned through a 3-D photogrammetry process in order to record the progress of the electrolytic reduction and descaling treatments.

The sensitive images also may enable the conservators to uncover hidden clues imprinted on the turret’s exterior during the Monitor’s milestone clash with the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads in March 1862, as well as its confrontation with Confederate shore batteries at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River two months later.

So discerning is the data gathered by the technique that it could provide the exact depth and circumference of both seen and unseen indentations made by enemy shot, bolts and shells, Hoffman says.

The tank will be filled up every Friday to preserve the turret over the weekend, then it all starts over again Monday. When this project is completed in mid-July, the tank will be filled back up for another long-term treatment. In total, conservators expect treatment to take 15 years before the turret can be safely exhibited in the museum without the protection of its tank, fresh water and alkaline solution. The $1 million raised is a fraction of the projected total cost of the full conservation. That’s more along the lines of $20 million, so the museum is continuing to raise funds.

One brilliant fundraising approach will be taking place over the next few months while the tank is empty during the week. For a price of 100 tax-deductible dollars a person, the USS Monitor Center’s director, historian John V. Quarstein, will lead visitors through the museum exhibition and the Batten Conservation Complex, the largest marine archaeological metals conservation lab in the world which contains the three largest pieces of the USS Monitor encased in massive conservation tanks: the vibrating side-lever steam engine, two XI-inch Dahlgren shell guns and their gun carriages, and the largest and most famous of them all, the gun turret. Visitors will have the chance to handle some of the artifacts recovered from the turret, and best of all, they’ll be allowed to go inside the drained turret tank. Waterproof boots at least eight inches high are required. Now that’s a killer gift idea for the history nerd who has everything. To schedule a tour (15 people at a time, max), contact Hannah Piner at hpiner@MarinersMuseum.org or call (757) 952-0465.

To follow the conservation project as it proceeds, check out the USS Monitor Center’s outstanding blog with entries written by the conservators doing the work. The museum’s website also has webcams trained on the three tanks so you can see the conservation as it happens.

Iron Age chamber used as trash chute by Victorians

May 9th, 2016

A subterranean chamber recently discovered on Mainland, Orkney, turns out to have been discovered by the Victorians first, and they filled it with rubbish. The entrance to the structure was found by Clive Chaddock on his land near the Harray Manse. A horticulture professor at Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, Chaddock called his colleagues from UHI’s Archaeology Institute to investigate. Two weekends ago, the Archaeology Institute’s Martin Carruthers and county archaeologist Julie Gibson examined the find.

The structure is an architecturally impressive well or a souterrain, an underground gallery used neither as a tomb nor for religious purposes. Their exact purpose is unknown. They are associated with settlements, so could have been used for food storage or perhaps a place to hide when the going got tough topside. The Orkney Islands have several notable souterrains, among them Castle Bloody, a souterrain mound on the island of Shapinsay with several passageways leading to a central chamber, a multi-chambered one at East Broch in the island of Burray and another chamber near the Harray Manse.

This one has a short entrance gallery with a low ceiling which leads to partially corbelled square chamber. Comparison with similar structures suggests it dates to the Iron Age. The chamber is fully roofed, but in the 19th century it was exposed and used as a trash chute. Its full depth is obscured by a pile of rusted iron kettles, buckets, glass bottles and even imported French mustard jars. Whoever found it didn’t document it, and eventually it was closed back up and forgotten again.

Martin Carruthers spoke to the Archaeology Institute’s excellent blog about the archaeological double-whammy.

The chamber appears to be entirely constructed from coursed masonry with no bed-rock or glacial till apparent as some Iron Age souterrains and wells do. There are no uprights or pillars present inside the chamber, which makes this structure feel like one of the so-called wells more than a classic souterrain or earthhouse. The steep drop-off between the passage and the chamber also encourages the idea that there may well be a steep flight of stairs leading down into the chamber. The chamber might be really quite deep underneath all the Victorian, and perhaps earlier, in-fill.

As you can see from the images there’s so much Victorian material it probably represents quite an academically interesting collection in its own right. We might be tempted to think that later periods are so well-understood and documented that it isn’t worth thinking about this detritus archaeologically, but actually its often the case that the domestic habits of later periods are often overlooked in many mainstream histories and documents. The Victorian rubbish is potentially a neat snap-shot of someone’s (perhaps one of the Manse’s Ministers) domestic waste of that era and may be full of insight about the habits, tastes and practices of a Nineteenth Century Orkney house- with a real social history value. What’s more, it’s also an interesting insight into a recent intervention in an Orcadian souterrain/well that we had no previous knowledge of. So it’s also noteworthy that here we have an example of another prehistoric underground building that was clearly known to locals, for a time, but didn’t make its way on to the official archives, and helps make the point that there are likely to be so many more of these sorts of structures still to be found in Orkney.

The site has been sealed again and will be monitored for the time being. Keep an eye on the Archaeology Orkney blog for future updates (and for its general awesomeness).

Rare image of Jewish man found on 13th c. pottery fragment

May 8th, 2016

A fragment of 13th century pottery unearthed in Teruel, Aragon, eastern Spain, has been identified as a rare depiction of a Jewish man. The fragment was discovered in 2004, one of thousands that were squirreled away for later documentation. It was catalogued in 2011 but the image was only recognized as a Jewish figure this year by archaeologist Antonio Hernandez Pardos. This is a very rare find. Most surviving images of Spanish Jews from the Middle Ages are illuminations in Haggadot or Christian prayer books.

Unusual for pottery decorations from that period, which mostly featured geometric shapes or depiction of flowers, the Teruel fragment shows the lower part of the face of a bearded man wearing a frilled gown that Pardos was able to trace back to Jewish iconography from the period. [...]

The research by Pardos suggests the fragment was part of a work performed by the earliest known potters of Teruel, who were possibly commissioned by a Jewish resident of the area.

Founded in 1170 by Alfonso II of Aragon on the border between his kingdom and Muslim Spain, Teruel flourished during the second third of the 13th century after King James I of Aragon conquered Xarq-al-Andalus, the Levante or eastern region of the Iberian peninsula. Under James I’s relatively enlightened rule, Jews and Moors moved from less tolerant climes and settled in Teruel. The earliest documentary evidence of Jews living in Teruel dates to 1258 when James I confirmed the Jewish community’s tax obligations to the crown. The first written reference to actual members of Teruel’s Jewish community comes 11 years later. It mentions Dueña del Cano and her late husband Samuel Najarí, an important money lender who was one of the crown’s top creditors.

Jews in Teruel thrived in the 13th and 14th centuries, engaging in a variety of trades, particularly weaving and dealing wool. Several prominent Jewish scholars lived in Teruel. Things took a dark turn at the end of the 14th century. A delator (informer or denunciator) arrived in 1385, presaging the pogroms and riots of 1391 which spread through Spain like wildfire and resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews and forced conversions of thousands more. That bloody year was a turning point for Jews in Christian Spain. More and more laws were enacted against them, prohibiting money-lending, commerce with Christians, wearing the same clothes as Christians and forcing them into walled Juderías. Many Jews fled south to the more tolerant areas of al-Andalus. The Jewish community of Teruel was diminished but survived until 1492 when the last bastion of Muslim Spain, the Emirate of Grenada, fell and all of Spain’s Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity or expelled from the realm.

The small fragment of pottery is of outsized significance because despite the distinctiveness of the Jewish community in medieval Spain, with its unique legal status, designated living areas and particular religious/cultural traditions, there are few clear markers of Jewishness in the material culture. There’s no immediately identifiable Jewish architecture like there is Islamic architecture, no immediately identifiable ceramic tradition distinct from Christian or Islamic crafts. The exception is in objects of religious meaning and ritual purpose, but everyday things with an unmistakable Jewish identity are very rare in any period, all the more so in the first few decades of Jewish presence in Teruel.

This lacuna widened into a chasm during the Spanish Civil War when Teruel was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Fought over three months from December of 1937 through February of 1938, the Battle of Teruel devastated the city, subjecting it to constant artillery barrages and aerial bombardment. Tens of thousands of people died before the Nationalists finally won. Large sections of the medieval center of the city were destroyed, and what had once been the Jewish Quarter was all but leveled.

The war-damaged areas were extensively developed in subsequent decades. The Jewish Quarter was rediscovered in 1978 when the ruins of a building abutting its central square and three menorahs were unearthed. The structure was built in the mid-14th century when the neighborhood was going through a third phase of improvement. The large cellar built on powerful masonry arches discovered in 1978 was initially believed to be a synagogue because of its impressive size and strength. The Jewish Quarter wasn’t fully explored archaeologically until 2004 when a major urban renewal project in the plaza area provided the first opportunity for a proper archaeological survey of the site. The excavation revealed several layers of pottery fragments which gave archaeologists new insight into the evolution of the neighborhood in the 13th century, from the perspective of both use and production of ceramics.

There are boxes full of fragments from this excavation that haven’t been studied yet. Pardos expects there are more happy surprises to be found in there. His study of the fragment has been published in the journal Sefarad and can be accessed free of charge here (Spanish language pdf).

New Kingdom mummy found with animal, flower tattoos

May 7th, 2016

During the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale’s 2014-2015 dig at Deir el-Medina, archaeologists found a female mummy with extensive tattoos of animals and flowers. The mummy dates to between 1300 and 1070 B.C., which makes her the first mummy from Dynastic Egypt with non-abstract figural tattoos. Her artwork wouldn’t be out of place in a modern tattoo shop. She has lotus blossoms on her hips, cows on her left arm, baboons on her neck and Wadjet eyes, also known as the Eye of Horus, on her neck, shoulders and back.

“Any angle that you look at this woman, you see a pair of divine eyes looking back at you,” says bioarchaeologist Anne Austin of Stanford University in California, who presented the findings last month at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Austin noticed the tattoos while examining mummies for the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, which conducts research at Deir el-Medina, a village once home to the ancient artisans who worked on tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Looking at a headless, armless torso dating from 1300 to 1070 BC, Austin noticed markings on the neck. At first, she thought that they had been painted on, but she soon realized that they were tattoos.

Aware of studies like the recent multispectral photographic imaging scan that discovered previously unknown tattoos on Ötzi the Iceman, Austin examined the mummy under infrared lighting with an infrared sensor. She found more than 30 tattoos, several of which were on skin that was too darkened by the mummification process for the ink to be seen with the naked eye. Working with Cédric Gobeil, director of the French mission at Deir el-Medina, Austin photographed and digitally reshaped the tattoos to see what they looked like on living flesh, before the skin was shrunk and shriveled by mummification.

All of the tattoos are religious symbols. Cows represent the goddess Hathor; the lotus was a symbol of rebirth associated with Osiris; baboons represent Thoth. Wadjet of eye fame was one of the earliest Egyptian deities, later split into various gods including Hathor who, in one version of the mythology, restored Horus’ left eye after Set tore it out. It was a protective symbol against evil. It’s possible that the woman was a priestess, singer and/or musician in the service of Hathor and that the tattoos on the throat and arms were meant to strengthen her performance and connect her to the gods.

Judging from the degree of fading, the tattoos appear to have been made at different times. This may be an indicator of increasing status in her religious community; the greater the seniority, the more tattoos. Alternatively, they have been her way of expressing her religious fervor, and given how painful the application must have been, it would have demonstrated very great dedication indeed.

There are no known written records from ancient Egypt that mention tattooing, but there is iconographic evidence in wall paintings and figurines. There’s a faience bowl in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden from around the New Kingdom (1400-1300 B.C.) that depicts a lute player with a pictogram of the god Bes on her thigh and a v-shaped dot grouping on her chest. The Louvre has a piece from the late Middle Kingdom (ca. 2033–1710 B.C.), a faience figurine of a nude woman wearing a belt of cowry shells, her body adorned with groups of dots that may or may not represent tattoos, but are very similar to the dots and dash groupings found on mummies of the period. These kinds of figurines have traditionally been known as Brides of the Dead (this is a misnomer as some were placed in the tombs of women and others weren’t found in tombs at all) and are believed to be guarantors of sexual success and fertility in the next life.

The earliest Egyptian mummies with identifiable tattoos have the same kind of patterns seen on the Brides. The first examples were unearthed in the late 19th century, most famously at Deir el-Bahari in 1891. French archaeologist Eugène Grébaut discovered the mummy of a woman named Amunet who was a priestess of Hathor in the 11th Dynasty (ca. 2134-1991 B.C.). Her body was tattooed with diamond-shaped patterns of dots on her right thigh, matrices of dots under her sternum and above her navel, and a multiple rows of dots forming an elliptical pattern that covered her abdomen from leg to leg. This tattoo is particularly relevant to fertility because during pregnancy it would have stretched and grown to give the pregnant belly the appearance of being wrapped in a net, likely a protective symbol.

In the New Kingdom, pictographs of the gods were added to the abstract dot and dash patterns. Pictographs of the war goddess Neith have been found on mummies of women dating to around 1300 B.C. Tattoos of Bes, protector of mothers, children and the household, have been found on the thighs of dancers and musicians. Bes danced, sang and made noise to scare away evil spirits, so it’s a reasonable connection. These mummies date to the 4th century B.C. and were the oldest known non-abstract tattoos in Egypt before the recent discovery of the figural tattoos on the mummy from Deir el-Medina.

That’s one of the reasons the find is so exciting. Another is that the archaeological record of Egyptian tattoos is patchy at best. Tattoos can be very hard to spot on darkened and wizened mummified flesh, or they can be lost to decay. Besides, we’re no longer in the giddy, reckless days of late 19th century, early 20th century Egyptology when archaeologists loved to unwrap mummies, often in front of crowds. Nowadays mummies are kept wrapped as a matter of course. Technology like CT scanning allow examination in great detail without the invasive and destructive interventions of yesteryear. It can’t read tattoos on the surface of the skin, however, so keeping mummies wrapped makes documenting tattoos impossible.

With the great success of infrared imaging on the Deir el-Medina mummy, perhaps the large gaps in the record can be at least partially filled by examining mummies that were unwrapped back when that was trendy, or whose wrappings have been lost. All of the Egyptian mummies with tattoos discovered thus far have been female. Was the art form the exclusive province of women, or have we just not found the tattooed men yet? There is artwork that suggests men had tattoos too. A thorough IR analysis of the mummy record may at long last answer the question.

Ancient inscription with horse racing rules found in Turkey

May 6th, 2016

A 2000-year-old tablet inscribed with the rules for horse racing has been discovered in the Beyşehir district of Konya Province, central Anatolia, Turkey. According to Selçuk University history professor Dr. Hasan Bahar, this is the only tablet ever found that details rules of the sport that had a massive following in the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. Other sources mention horse racing, but don’t get into the rules.

“There are horseracing rules on the tablet. It says that if a horse comes in first place in a race it cannot participate in other races, while another horse of the winning horse’s owner also cannot enter another race. In this way, others were given a chance to win. This was a beautiful rule, showing that unlike races in the modern world, races back then were based on gentlemanly conduct,” Bahar also said.

That may be overstating the case somewhat. Ancient equestrian sports had many of the same features of modern ones — multiple heats and races in a day, careful breeding of horses, publically published bloodlines, on and off-track betting — including scandals like doping and contractual disputes. Both chariot and mounted horse racing were often brutal, resulting in injury and death to horses and drivers/jockeys. Then fandom was very far from gentlemanly as well. Supporters of the four factiones of the chariot race (Reds, Blues, Whites, and Greens) regularly faced off against each other in violent riots. The Nika Riots of 532 A.D. lasted a week, killed tens of thousands and burned half of Constantinople to the ground.

The tablet is part of a monument known as “Horse Rock” to the locals after the relief of a horse carved into the rockface. It was a funerary monument dedicated to Lukuyanus, a beloved jockey who was likely buried in the “grave room”, a small chamber next to the horse relief with a columned entrance. The grave room is devoid of remains now so we don’t know much about Lukuyanus other than what’s on the inscription. It opens: “Lukuyanus The Warrior, Died Before Getting Married. He is Our Hero.”

Since he died before marriage, he was likely a young man when he met his end, but he lived long enough and had enough success on the track to earn him dedicated fans who built him such a handsome and on-topic final resting place. Fan-funded funerary monuments for sports heroes have proved rich sources of historical information before, thanks to their elaborate inscriptions of victory statistics and laments about referee error leading to death.

The monument is near the site of an ancient hippodrome in mountains that were sacred to the Hittites. The Romans may even have built a hippodrome on this spot to bless and be blessed by the Hittites’ holy hills.


Sometimes what glitters is turtle soup

May 5th, 2016

When researchers surveying a new railway tunnel being constructed in Delft, Netherlands, saw a yellow gleam, at first they thought it might be gold. In fact it was a tin can wrapped in a brass sleeve that still shines gold in color if not in material. The brass wrapper has a repoussé label identifying it as “Preserved foods, W. Hoogenstraaten and Sons, purveyor, turtle soup, Leiden.” W. Hoogenstraaten and Sons changed its name in 1900, so the can has to date from 1860 to 1900.

An old, damaged tin can may not seem like much of an archaeological discovery, but in its day this product was very high-end, hence the fancy metalwork label. Turtle soup was a refined food, even when canned, the kind of product only found in the pantries of the wealthy. It had been a staple on the menus of the most exclusive eateries and catered affairs since the 18th century. It was on the menu at the celebration of King William III’s 70th birthday in Amsterdam on April 23rd, 1887.

In the US it was a popular dish for elite even before there was a United States. John Adams recorded eating it several times at the Continental Congress. Other Founding Fathers including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, were members of a club, the Hoboken Turtle Club, dedicated to eating turtle soup. It made regular appearances at Fourth of July celebrations in the 19th century. President Abraham Lincoln served it at his 1861 inauguration and President William Howard Taft had it as often as possible when he was in the White House from 1909 to 1913. It was so desirable in the Victorian era and so out of reach for people without an unlimited budget that mock turtle soup became a thing. A nice, cheap calf’s head was used in place of the amphibian flesh.

It wasn’t just a delicacy for gourmands, however. Turtle soup was believed to have medicinal properties. Famed Swiss doctor Samuel-Auguste Tissot had a high opinion of turtle soup, even though it proved incapable of curing the effects of one of the greatest ills ever to afflict the human body: masturbation. In his 1760 treatise Onanism: on the Diseases Caused by Masturbation, Tissot described ejaculation was a kind of epilepsy, a violent spasm that expelled more than mere semen, leaving the body weakened and the brain and nervous system dangerously debilitated. Masturbation caused gout, headaches, apoplexy, blood in the urine, nervous disorders and pretty much everything else. One of his unfortunate patients, a college student, masturbated so much he gave himself tuberculosis. His loud, hard coughs, a classic symptom of onanism, woke up the neighbors.

He was frequently bled, doubtless to relieve his sufferings. A consultation of physicians was called; they prescribed turtle soup and a return home, as he was a native of Dauphiny, and promised him a perfect cure. He died two hours later.

Apparently not even turtle soup could counter the pernicious effect of wanking (or of draining the blood of a late-stage tuberculosis patient).

Tissot’s prescription was widely endorsed, even directly cited by the purveyors of fine viands. Turtle soup was the house specialty at Julien’s Restorator, established in 1793 as one of the first restaurants in Boston, which billed itself as a spa-like health resort where the convalescent would find a restful environment and proper nourishment. Julien’s advertised the soup in the papers emphasizing its ostensible curative abilities.

Turtle soup. Much has been said on its efficacy in purifying the blood by Tissot in his celebrated dissertation on the subject, and by Buffon, the great naturalist, who discovered the beneficial nature of amphibious animals. Those who use this soup must not expect that it be made strong with spice, but from ingredients clear and light.

Many celebrated physicians have recommended it. … As the first establishment of a restorator in Paris was not for Epicurians — but for the benefit of those invalids who stood in need of light substance, nourishing and strengthening to their stomacks, it was recommended for the purpose by the Academy in Paris. Citizens of the above description are invited to call and try the virtue of Julien’s turtle soup.

Turtle soup is illegal in Europe now because the main ingredient is an endangered species. It can still be found on US menus made from freshwater or farmed turtles — it’s a standard in Cajun cuisine wherein, unlike at Julien’s Restorator, it’s definitely “made strong with spice” — but generally speaking the taste for it faded after World War II. That raggedy tin can in Delft truly captures a bygone era.

Lost Boethius songs played again after 1,000 years

May 4th, 2016

Music that hasn’t been heard in hundreds of years was performed for the first time in almost a milennium at Pembroke College Chapel, University of Cambridge, on April 23rd. The concert was the culmination of years of research into medieval music notation which reconstructed lost melodies in a collection of songs drawn from philosopher Boethius’ great work The Consolation of Philosophy.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a senator and consul of Rome born in the late 5th century to a patrician family, young Boethius was given an exceptional education, rare at that time even among the scions of wealthy, noble families. He distinguished himself at an early age, holding a number of important offices under Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. In 523, it all came crashing down when he was arrested for treasonous conspiracy with Byzantine Emperor Justin I against Theodoric. He was jailed for a year during which he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. He was executed in 524, but his work far outlived him and became a seminal influence on medieval philosophy.

Boethius also happened to be an accomplished mathematician and musician, and wrote another hugely influential treatise on the subject, The Principles of Music, which was still consider the essential text on the mathematics of music as late as the 18th century. Setting the Consolation, Boethius’ most famous work, to music, therefore, was a natural pursuit for medieval scholars. An 11th century manuscript in the Cambridge University Library known as the Cambridge Songs is a collection of texts that were in use at the Canterbury Cathedral Priory at the time. At the back of the book are some Boethian texts and a few of the famous Carmina Burana poems set to music.

The symbols representing the musical notation, called neumes, recorded the melody, not the pitch, and instead of having a one-to-one correspondence between notation and sound, the neumes relied on the aural traditions and memories of the musicians to fill in the details of a melodic outline. Those traditions died off in the 12th century and without the essential contribution of musicians’ knowledge, the music recorded in early medieval manuscripts became unreadable.

Cambridge University’s Dr. Sam Barrett has spent 20 years studying neumes and reconstructing the lost knowledge that made the songs playable. An important piece of the puzzle was a leaf from the Cambridge Songs with Boethius songs that was cut out of the manuscript by a German scholar in the 1840s. He donated it to a Frankfurt library where it remained unremarked upon until 1982 when it was recognized as purloined by historian Margaret Gibson and returned to Cambridge. This rediscovery of this one page was of major import to Barrett’s work because its density of notations allowed him “to achieve a critical mass that may not have been possible without it.”

“After rediscovering the leaf from the Cambridge Songs, what remained was the final leap into sound,” [Barrett] said. “Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem. The traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory that once supported them. We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes.”

After piecing together an estimated 80-90 per cent of what can be known about the melodies for The Consolation of Philosophy, Barrett enlisted the help of Benjamin Bagby of Sequentia — a three-piece group of experienced performers who have built up their own working memory of medieval song. Bagby, co-founder of Sequentia, is also a director of the Lost Songs Project which is already credited with bringing back to life repertoires from Beowulf through to the Carmina Burana.

Over the last two years, Bagby and Barrett have experimented by testing scholarly theories against the practical requirements of hand and voice, exploring the possibilities offered by accompaniment on period instruments. Working step-by-step, and joined recently by another member of Sequentia, the harpist-singer Hanna Marti, songs from The Consolation of Philosophy have now been brought back to life.

Alas, there is no recording of the April 23rd performance online that I could find. I’ll update the post when there is. Meanwhile, here are two all-too-short excerpts of the reconstructed music. The first piece is played by all three members of Sequentia, from left to right Benjamin Bagby, Hanna Marti and Norbert Rodenkirchen, the second by Hanna Marti and Norbert Rodenkirchen.

Ruins of ancient air conditioning found in Kuwait

May 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an ancient air conditioning system in a 7th-8th century structure on Failaka, a Kuwaiti island in the Persian Gulf. Researchers from the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) and Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters excavating the Nestorian Christian village of Al-Qusur discovered the foundations of a stone tower with a complex system of canals inside.

“According to a preliminary analysis, it’s a unique so-called windcatch-tower, utilising an ingenious interior cooling system based on the flow of air, caught by openings in the tower superstructure,” [SAV Archaeological Institute director Matej Ruttkay] claimed.

Windcatchers work by evaporative cooling. Heat converts water to vapour which takes heat with it as it evaporates, just like sweat does for the body. The technology is commonly associated with traditional Persian desert architecture used all over the Middle East today, but there are versions of windcatchers going back to the 19th Dynasty of Pharaonic Egypt (ca. 1300 B.C.). Paintings on Egyptian tomb walls depict roof ventilators that pulled out warm air by suction, but that system is insufficient for the greater heat of the Persian Gulf.

The Failaka tower enhanced the cooling power of the windcatcher by passing the air over the below-ground water canals into the living spaces of the palace, lowering the temperature of the air dramatically. Modern versions of this system have been clocked cooling the interior of a home to 25°C (77°F) when the external air is 40°C (104°F). It’s a sophisticated approach, impressive for the time and location, and as far as the archaeologists who found it know, is the oldest of its kind ever discovered.

Failaka was first settled around 2000 B.C. by Mesopotamians from Ur who ran a trading concern from the island. By 1800 B.C., the Mesopotamians had either left or been escorted off the island by the Dilmun civilization, which at the height of its power encompassed modern-day Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and coastal Saudi Arabia. The Dilmunites were maritime merchants who controlled trade in the Persian Gulf. Strategically located at the entrance to Kuwait Bay with an easily defended coastline and native sources of water, Failaka was an important hub of their network. They built extensively on the island, constructing a large temple and nearby palace over the ruins of the old Mesopotamian structures. The construction was imposing. The temple was 60 feet square supported by massive limestone columns made of blocks that had to be imported from the mainland, evidence of how prosperous the Dilmunites were, how significant the Failaka settlement was to them and how big and strong their ships were to make such imports possible.

In the 7th century B.C., Mesopotamians under Nebuchadnezzar II returned to Failaka and remained there until the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire after the death of the last king, Nabonidus. Then the Greeks took a turn. Alexander the Great and his successors controlled the island from the 4th to the 1st century B.C.

A Nestorian Christian community settled the island starting in the 5th century. The village of Al-Qusur was in the fertile center of Failaka. Today bounded by marshland, when the Nestorians lived there it was fertile agricultural land with tidy irrigation systems and easy access to the sea. Two churches have been found dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, along with a number of modest courtyard homes and farmsteads. The peak of Failaka’s Nestorian era was the 7th and 8th century. The settlement was abandoned in the 9th century.

The Kuwaiti-Slovak Archaeological Mission has been exploring Failaka since 2004. This season’s aim was to use field excavation, geophysical surveys, aerial photography and 3D modelling to discover the largest structure in Al-Qusur. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams, finding a palatial building dating the 7th-8th century A.D. that was previously unknown. Its architecture of stone masonry foundations topped with mud brick walls is relatively well preserved and its dimensions far eclipse those of the more than 140 settlement structures that have been found at Al-Qusur since it was first excavated in the 1970s. Also it had air conditioning.

Artifacts found in the palace include ceramic and glass vessels, stucco and tile stamps with Christian symbols and Byzantine coins. The latter helped narrow down the date of the find.

Ethiopia’s oldest wall paintings to be conserved

May 2nd, 2016

The church of Yemrehanna Kristos in northern Ethiopia was commissioned by and named after a priest-king of the Zagwe dynasty who ruled from about 1087 to 1127. The church was built in the early 12th century in the late Azumite style inside a cave facing northeast on the side of Mount Abuna Yosef in the Lasta Mountains, the church is as beautifully situated as it is remote. The town of Lalibela, later capital of the Zagwe kings of Ethiopia and famous for its rock-hewn churches, is just 12 miles away, but until 15 years ago, Yemrehanna Kristos took a day’s hard ride on a mule to reach. Recently a dirt road was built from Lalibela making the church accessible to 4WD vehicles. Even with a proper Jeep it still takes an hour and a half to get there.

Yemrehanna Kristos was a major site of pilgrimage, especially for people on the verge of death. Inside the cave behind the church are the bones of an estimated 10,000 people who journeyed from everywhere around Ethiopia and as far as Egypt and Syria to die at the holy site. Monks and priests live in the cave, some in a second building beyond the church, others sleeping on woven cots in the open cave.

The building itself is one of the best-preserved late Axumite churches in the country. The walls are made of timber beams alternating with white plastered stone which give them a striped look. The windows are covered with intricately carved wooden lattices. The design of the church’s interior is a simple central nave with an aisle on each side, divided by masonry pillars and arches. Every piece of wood on the inside of the church is painted. The ceilings are decorated with polychrome painted geometric designs. Scenes from the Bible are painted on the walls.

These murals are the oldest surviving wall paintings in Ethiopia, but they weren’t even published internationally until 2001 because between the layers of dirt on the surface and the darkness of the interior of the cave, they’re hard to see.

The figurative images are mainly New Testament scenes, many of which are now barely legible because of an accumulation of dirt. They include a depiction of the arrival in Egypt of the Holy Family, who are welcomed by an angel. Mary rides a donkey, with Joseph walking behind, carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders. The wooden ceiling is decorated with 17 painted medallions of animal motifs: wild beasts, birds, an elephant, a winged creature, a scorpion and a dragon. Other wall paintings have geometric designs.

The murals and church are in dire need of the tender attentions of conservators. Earthquake tremors have weakened the structure, putting cracks in the walls and damaging the priceless decoration. Previous inexpert and undocumented attempts at restoration have coated the murals with a layer of varnish, now darkened, and a rough cleaning attempt left brush marks on the surface.

Last fall, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. State Department Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to fund an 18 month-long structural analysis of the church, interior and exterior. Laser scanning and motion monitors will hopefully pinpoint the source of the movement in the building and identify areas of top concern. The WMF will work with the Ethiopian Heritage Fund (EHF) on the project.

The initial investigation will include in-situ microscopy, along with ultra-violet and infra-red examinations. Paint samples will be tested, partly to determine the original pigments and media used and to identify added materials. There will be small-scale cleaning trials, to test which materials should be used. Monitoring sensors will be installed to record temperature and humidity changes. A separate team from the University of Cape Town will undertake a laser scan survey to create a three-dimensional data model of the church and cave, to map structural movement.

Once they have the data, they will conserve the paintings for the first time under contemporary professional conditions. If all goes well, conservation will begin by October of this year and continue through early next year. The objectives will be to stop the paint from flaking and to clean the murals thoroughly.

Vatican’s Gallery of Maps restored

May 1st, 2016

The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums contains the largest cycle of cartographic paintings ever created. The gallery on the west side of the Belvedere Courtyard connects the Sistine Chapel to the Tower of the Winds and is 120 meters (394 feet) long, longer than a football field and 20 feet wide. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling soars three storeys above the floor. The walls are covered practically floor to ceiling with frescoed maps of all the regions of Italy.

The Gallery of the Maps was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII so that he could travel the length of Italy without having to leave the apostolic palace. Dominican friar, mathematician and cartographer Ignazio Danti was placed in charge of the project. (Danti was also on the committee that reformed the Julian calendar, correcting its ancient miscalculations by cutting out 11 days so October 4th, 1582, was followed by October 15th, 1582, after which the new Gregorian calendar, named after the Pope, kept up with astronomical time.) During the course of 18 months from 1580 to 1581, Danti and his team — Flemish artists Matthjis and Paul Bril and Italian Mannerists Gerolamo Muziano and Cesare Nebbia, Giovanni Antonio Vanosino da Varese and Ignazio’s brother Antonio Danti — painted 40 large-scale map frescoes of every region in Italy (plus Avignon, on account of it was owned by Popes for four centuries from the Babylonian Captivity until the French Revolution).

The maps are extraordinarily detailed and accurate renderings of Italy in the late 16th century. Following Danti’s meticulous cartographic cartoons, the painters stuck to what they knew was there. If there was something they weren’t sure about, they left it out. While they included traditional decorative figures like putti, sea monsters and Neptune and conflated historical elements like Roman ships with contemporary ones, the maps themselves. The topographical precision and perspective are extraordinary, lending these maps an almost 3D-like realism. Valleys, hills, lakes, even individual streets are all recognizable. Moving from southern Italy to the north, the east side of the room was painted with maps of regions that face the Adriatic Sea and the Alps; the west side featured regions facing the Tyrrhenian. Danti said that walking this corridor was like walking up Italy on the spine of the Apennines.

Every regional map is accompanied by a smaller view of its most populous city. Where you exit the gallery today are maps of Italy’s four major ports — Genoa, Venice, Ancona and Civitavecchia — and two views of the entire peninsula — ancient Italy and new Italy. At today’s entrance are maps of the minor islands and two momentous battles that were still fresh news when they were painted: the Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, both won by the Holy League.

The ceiling vaults are painted with the patron saints of the various regions (Saint Ambrose for Milan, Saint Mark for Venice) and with important/miraculous scenes from Italian history (Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hannibal and his elephants, the baptism of Constantine, Pope Leo I persuading Attila the Hun to withdraw from Italy, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa meeting with Pope Alexander III, etc.) each covering the space above the maps of the locations where the events took place.

The next Pope to put his hands on the maps was not so keen on accuracy. Pope Urban VIII ordered a “restoration” in 1630 that just painted over details that had gotten blurred over the 50 years since their creation. A fresco depicting the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria was painted over just because it was so high up on the wall it was inconvenient to repair. Born Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban also had his family’s symbol, the bee, added to the maps wherever possible, if not advisable. (It was Urban VIII who stripped the bronze off the roof of the Pantheon to make cannon and Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica, giving rise to the satiric pasquinade “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini,” meaning “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.”)

Six million people a year walk down this hall, bringing dirt, moisture and the vibrations from hundreds of millions of footballs with them that caused the plaster to lift from the walls and covered the brilliance of the original paint under layers of dust. Between that and the unfortunate past restorations, the frescoes were in dire need of attention. In 2011, the Vatican reached out to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the Vatican Museums’ cultural patrimony, for help in funding a new restoration of the paintings that would rescue the plaster from impending doom and return works to their former splendour.

The restoration was sponsored by the California chapter of the Patrons. Half of the $2.4 million budget was donated by one Patron; the rest was raised through a map adoption program, with each Patron adopting an individual map and funding its restoration at either the $35,000 or $70,000 level. Because the maps are so extensive and so detailed, some patrons had the unique opportunity to adopt a map that with a connection to their family histories, for example the Castignano family adopted the map of Sicily because it included the hometown of their immigrant forebears, a tiny hamlet that barely registers on other atlases, while the Stanislawskis adopted the map of Umbria because of a family history of devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.

Art restorer Francesco Prantera and his team of experts began work in September of 2012. They anchored the plaster to the wall with an organic glue, and then set to treating the frescoes. They divided each map into 64 sections, the same sections the original artists used to paint them in the 16th century. Each of the sections was covered with special tissue-thin paper to absorb the old yellowed glue from a 19th century restoration. When the paper was peeled off, the newly vibrant color was protected with an adhesive made from a Japanese red algae called funori. Because the product is so expensive (one gram will run you 100 euros), the diagnostic laboratory of the Vatican Museums made their own extract directly from the imported seaweed. The restoration team then cautiously filled in areas of paint loss, reproducing the original materials used by the artists. The stucco was made from an ancient Roman recipe. The paints were all natural and free of chemicals.

The restoration took just under four years, double what it took Danti’s team to paint the Gallery of Maps in the first place. It has been open to the public this whole time. On Saturday, April 23rd, the Patrons were given a private showing of the restored Gallery.

There are some good views of the Hall and details of the restoration in progress in this Italian language video. The narration mainly gives a quick rundown of the history you’ve just read so I won’t repeat it, but you’ll find my translation of the interesting comments from Maria Ludmilla Pustka, head restorer of the paintings and wood artifacts of the Vatican Museums, below.

Maria Ludmilla Pustka: “The restoration of a work of art can be more complex than the original execution, and the great team we put together to make this restoration happen quickly had to use a very interesting, modern methodology that approaches a biorestoration. Thus nature itself has provided us with the proper materials for a better conservation.”

Narrator: “The restoration, which focused on the precarious condition of the plaster layer and the look of the painted surfaces, has also brought to light surprising discoveries.”

Pustka: “Every map has its own secret. Among the secrets, one new discovery was a coin of Urban VIII that was found inside a stucco relief, attesting to its date of manufacture. We also found a number of signatures from the original artists and past restorers.”

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