2,200-year-old altar found on Italo-Greek shipwreck

October 31st, 2014

Divers have recovered an altar that was used for on-board sacrifices from a 2,200-year-old shipwreck off the Aeolian Island of Panarea just north of Sicily. Such altars have been found before on land and one was discovered in the shallow Adriatic waters around the Croatian island of Hvar, but this is the first one to be found on a shipwreck.

The wreck was discovered in 2010 by researchers from Sicily’s Superintendent of the Sea Office using sonar and a remote operated submersible. The 50-foot ship, dubbed the Panarea III, and its cargo of amphorae were at a depth of 426 feet (130 meters), deep enough to keep it out reach of treasure hunters and naval traffic. The submersibles weren’t able to dive deeply enough to retrieve any objects from the wreck, so this year the Superintendent enlisted technical divers from the non-profit Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) to explore the site and recover a few artifacts. They also had the aid of two high tech submersibles with gripper arms.

They found a well-preserved wooden portion of the ship’s keel and recovered 16 artifacts — amphorae, pottery vessels, fishing plates and the altar — from the wreck, all of them in excellent condition. Divers didn’t realize what the altar was when they first saw it on the edge of the amphora field. It looked like a little pillar initially. When they blew away some of the accumulated silt, they found the bottom of it was mostly buried. About a foot in diameter at the widest point and three inches high, that was actually the top of the altar, a basin used to burn incense in ritual offerings. The base of the pedestal was found next to it. There are metal supports embedded in the base, probably the remains of fasteners to keep it from going overboard at the first swell. It’s engraved with three Greek letters (ETH) and there’s a decorative wave relief around the edge of the basin.

Archaeologists dated the objects to between 218 and 210 B.C. Because the cargo was mostly Greco-Italic jars but with Punic amphorae in the bow of the ship, archaeologists believe it was a Greek trading vessel that traveled between Rome and Carthage, possibly supplying the fleet of Roman consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus who was commander of Sicily from 214 to 211 B.C. These were dangerous times to be a merchant in the Mediterranean. The crew of the Panarea III had eminently good reason to bolt an altar to the ship’s deck and make copious sacrifices to the gods.

The Second Punic War started in 218 B.C. and while the most famous military encounters between Carthage and the Roman Republic involved elephants, alps, the Fabian strategy and pitched battles with body counts so disastrously high to this day they are ranked as among the most costly battles in human history, Carthage and Rome threw fleets of ships at each other too. Rome was rather more successful on water than they were on land in the first eight years, winning major naval encounters around Sicily and Sardinia.

Marcellus was successful on land as well, particularly when given command of Sicily. He besieged the city of Syracuse, then allied to Carthage and a powerful potential foothold for Hannibal in his struggle to conquer Italy, for two years (214 B.C. – 212 B.C.) by sea and by land. It took so long to take the city because it was ably defended by high walls and the ingenious inventions of Archimedes. After the Romans finally found a weak point in the wall and broke through, a soldier came upon Archimedes in his study and killed him despite Marcellus’ order that the great mathematician not be harmed.

The artifacts recovered from the shipwreck will be conserved and eventually put on display at the Aeolian Archaeological Museum of Lipari

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Sistine Chapel gets new LED lighting, climate control systems

October 30th, 2014

The Vatican debuted a cutting edge new LED lighting system in the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday. Designed and installed by the German company Osram, the new system features more than 7,000 light-emitting diodes mounted behind a cornice high up on the walls. It’s energy efficient, requiring up to 90% less electricity than the 1980s halogen lighting system it replaced while providing five to ten times more brightness.

Using a full complement of red, green, blue, warm white and cool white LED lights, the new system illuminates the complete color spectrum of the frescoes. It took four years of careful analysis by lighting designers, restorers and colorimetry experts to ensure the LEDs were set to properly light the original colors without altering their hue. They analyzed 280 points of the fresco pigments using a non-invasive system that illuminates the points with a calibrated light and measures the reflected spectrum. This highly accurate data served as the benchmark for the adjustments to the LED lights.

This is a huge change, beneficial to visitors and the long-term stability of the frescoes. The old system had eight 150 watt spotlights and two 1,000 watt projectors installed outside the chapel windows. They were big and hot, but because the windows were covered with semi-transparent plastic to protect the frescoes from damaging UV radiation, much of their light was absorbed before it made indoors. The end result was a perpetual low-contrast twilight which made the art harder to see and cast shadows on the works that were not spotlit. In a lesser chamber, this might not be much of a loss, but the works on the side walls of the chapel were painted by the likes of Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino.

The new LEDs and accompanying reflectors ensure that not only are Michelangelo’s immortal ceiling and Last Judgment now lit with a homogeneous, visually accurate and glare-free light, but all of the art of the Sistine Chapel is illuminated to its greatest advantage. The end result is exceptionally vivid color, brightness, readability and boosted optical effects from the foreshortening technique Michelangelo used. The impression conveyed is one of enhanced three dimensionality.

Preserving the paintings and improving the visitor experience were priorities in the installation of a new climate control system as well. When the old system was installed in the early 1990s, the Sistine Chapel was visited by fewer than two million people a year. That number has more than tripled since then, and six million sweating, breathing, stinking, dirt-tracking humans do a number on the environment in a closed space. The new air conditioning and filtration system, designed by Carrier, a part of United Technologies Corp., the same company that designed the first air conditioning system in 1993.

For two years engineers studied the climate inside the chapel, using the latest and greatest simulation tools to understand the movement of air, moisture and particulate matter in the space. I love this quote from Jackie Anderson, Senior Engineer at UTC: “Thinking about the Sistine Chapel and the air within it, it’s probably some of the most interesting air I will ever deal with.” Analysis of the issues required huge computational resources and resolving them took a great deal of ingenuity, especially since the final system had to be “church quiet,” nearly invisible and utilize pre-existing ductwork since obviously this is a historic building and you can’t just drill holes in it wherever.

There was a lot on the line. If the temperature, humidity, dust and pollutants could not be controlled, then the Vatican was going to have to take drastic action to preserve the paintings, ie, close the chapel to tourists, something it definitely did not want to do. Carbon dioxide levels were a most pressing concern. In 2010, curators found areas of the paint were developing a crusty white patina. Analysis of the white powder found it was composed of calcium carbonate and calcium bicarbonate deposits, probably formed when rising carbon dioxide levels and humidity moved through the plaster walls of the chapel. The white patches were removed easily with no damage to the paint, but the situation was a big red flag that the old systems were no longer able to control the elements.

The new air conditioning system has three times greater cooling capacity, twice as energy efficient, six filtration levels and 70 different sensors to monitor the numbers of visitors and the air quality. The room will remain perpetually at 77 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, with temperatures, ventilation and humidity levels adjusted according to the number of people in the chapel. The system taps into three security cameras to actually count the bodies in the room at any given time and then governs itself accordingly. It can be monitored from a computer, tablet or a smartphone.

The total cost of both lighting and climate control systems is estimated to be around $3.8 million. The companies donated their services, plus there was additional funding support from the EU.

This video lingers on the frescoes under the new lighting system:

Here’s a Carrier video about the new air system. There isn’t much detail about the technology, sadly, but there is that quote from Jackie Anderson and several cool glimpses of the simulations.

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50,000 artifacts found in tunnel under Teotihuacan temple

October 29th, 2014

When last we saw the tunnel underneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, the remote vehicle Tláloc II-TC had forged 65 feet ahead of the point where humans could tread and identified the presence of three chambers with its infrared camera and laser scanner. Wednesday Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced that archaeologists have reached a space just before the three chambers and have discovered there a massive cache of sacred objects.

The tunnel was discovered by chance in 2003 after heavy rains opened a hole more than two and a half feet (83 cm) wide in front of the Adosada platform, a 4th century structure inside the Citadel that faces the temple. Fifty feet under the hole, archaeologists found a tunnel almost 400 feet (120 meters) long. Excavations began in 2009, with initial explorations done with ground penetrating radar, laser scanning and two robots.

The technology was only the beginning. The tunnel was expertly sealed by the residents of Tenochtitlan in the second century A.D., filled top to bottom with soil and rocks. The heavy lifting was done by at least 25 workers at any given time, one of whom was Julio Alva, a descendant of 17th century Nahuatl chronicler Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, himself a direct descendant of Ixtlilxochitl I and Ixtlilxochitl II, rulers of Texococo, and of Cuitláhuac, the penultimate ruler of Tenochtitlan. Alva and his comrades worked tirelessly to remove 970 tons of earth and stone to make way for the remote vehicles and archaeologists to explore the tunnel.

INAH archaeologists have now reached the 103 point where they have encountered a space 13 feet wide and 26 feet long filled with an extraordinary wealth of objects: 50,000 artifacts, including organic remains perfectly preserved in the low oxygen environment. There are more than 4,000 wooden objects, bones and fur from large cats, beetle skeletons, more than 15,000 seeds from different plants and the remains of skin, possibly human, which will be submitted for laboratory analysis.

On the non-organic side are beautifully carved stone sculptures, four of them anthropomorphic figures two feet tall made from greenstone, scores of shells from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, imported Guatemalan jade, rubber balls, pottery, pyrite disks and a wooden box filled with dozens of elaborately engraved conchs. There are beads, complete necklaces, amber and dozens of obsidian blades and arrow heads.

All of these offerings were interred in the tunnel between 150 and 200 A.D., a period known as the Miccaotli phase when Teotihuacan’s plan was being vigorously altered with previous buildings taken down and new ones erected that would redesign the city. With no written records to go by, archaeological remains are invaluable to the study of Teotihuacan’s culture and history.

This space is 18 feet deep, and given its location close to the end of the tunnel in front of the three chambers, archaeologists think the explosion of artifacts is a strong indicator that there are significant burials in those chambers.

[Archaeologist Sergio] Gomez, who works for Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute, said he hoped to find a royal tomb at the end of the tunnel. “Due to the magnitude of the offerings that we’ve found, it can’t be in any other place,” he said.

“We’ve been able to confirm all of the hypotheses we’ve made from the beginning,” he added, saying ongoing excavations could yield more major discoveries next year.

Here’s a video that takes you down the tunnel and shows some of the highlights of the recent discoveries. There’s no narration but there is some music well worth muting.

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Brian Willson: Preserving History through Fonts

October 28th, 2014

Nestler's glorious handwriting in the Teschen Table bookletIn a post earlier this month about the Teschen Table, I waxed lyrical about the gorgeous handwriting of Carl Gottfried Nestler, the Dresden engraver who Johann-Christian Neuber commissioned to write the booklet that identified every mineral inlaid in the table top. “Someone needs to make a Nestler font,” said I, “because that handwriting deserves to be immortalized.”

As it happens, I knew of a someone who might just be able to accomplish such a noble feat. I have long been an admirer of the historical handwriting and typeface fonts created by Three Islands Press (3IP). When I finally get around to upgrading this site, 3IP fonts will feature prominently because they’re a) beautiful, b) meticulous and c) a history nerd’s ideal playground. On the off-chance that Mr. Nestler’s elegant hand might be of interest, I sent 3IP a message with a link to the Teschen Table story.

Much to my delight, 3IP founder and designer of my favorite fonts of all time Brian Willson answered me. He was intrigued by Nestler’s lettering, so much so that he envisions creating an organic hand and a complete text typeface from it. :boogie:

That project has to get in line, though, because Willson has other irons in the fire at the moment. Thankfully, he is extremely generous with his time and despite his insanely busy schedule, he agreed to sit for the second History Blog interview ever.

I told him that the first interview subject, the incomparable Janet Stephens, got famous a year after I posted her interview. Oh sure, it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her particular genius at decoding the Vestal Virgin’s incredibly complex Seni Crines hairstyle, but that’s no reason not to brag that I was there before the Wall Street Journal. The entirely unrelated correlation of interview and fame proved no incentive anyway. As it turns out, his work is already famous the world over, if not by name then certainly by sight.

* * *

Q: How did you first get the idea to create fonts from historical handwriting?
Thomas J. Rusk's handwriting, Texas Hero fontA:
Back in 1994, when I was doing a little graphic design and desktop publishing on the side, I had occasion for some reason to use a font that looked like old handwriting, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. So I decided to create one. At the time, my mom — a historical librarian — worked at The Center for American History at the University of Texas, so I asked if she could send me copies of any old letters she might find lying around. Within a week or two, she’d sent me photocopies of a whole bunch of letters written by famous early Texans like Sam Houston, Mirabeau B Lamar, Emily Austin Perry, and Thomas J Rusk. Rusk’s handwriting seemed the most legible and least peculiar of the bunch, so I chose to work with that.

[Texas Hero was the result.]

Q: What was the first handwriting font you created and when was that?
A:
The first handwriting font I created was also the first font I created — and it was not at all historical. The year was 1993. I was working either in the production or editorial department (I spent time in both) at a company that published trade magazines, and one of our art directors had some of the coolest hand-lettering I’d ever seen. I had by then experimented briefly with (then) Altsys Fontographer making logos and such and proposed turning her handwriting into a font. She agreed and drew out the alphabet on a piece of poster board. A few weeks (months?) later, I’d finished my first generation of the Marydale family. It’s what got me started in this whole wacky enterprise.

Q: Fonts were only a decade old in the early 90s, the province of computer manufacturers, software companies and visionary traditional typesetters like Monotype. Did you have any experience in graphic design or typesetting? How did you go from curiosity to execution? What tools did you use? How long did it take you to make the first one?
A:
I had absolutely no training in typography at all. Up until then I’d worked mainly as a journalist — but that career had, by the mid- to late-1980s, put me in close proximity with early Apple Macintosh computers, and I couldn’t stop playing around most evenings with programs like Adobe Illustrator and (then) Aldus Pagemaker. Just fiddling. Exploring. Learning things. Soon I was offering to design newsletters for a couple of local non-profits I belonged to, and before I knew it I actually had some paying graphic design jobs.

I’d guess it took me a couple hundred hours to make that first version of Marydale. I would scan each character very large, hand-trace it with Illustrator’s vector tools, import the outlines into Fontographer, and finish things up there. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing at first, but when you have a perfectionist streak you tend to keep banging away until you arrive at that “Voila!” moment. I had a bunch of those moments along the way, but I’m sure my font-making methods remain roundabout and inefficient. This all happened a year or two before the Web exploded on the scene, but I figured I’d release those first few fonts as shareware on CompuServe and America Online. I was pretty dang stunned — albeit pleasantly so — when checks started arriving in the mail. Which is pretty much all the incentive you need to keep going in a capitalist society like ours, ha ha.

Emily Austin Perry letter homeOver the years, as I’ve learned more about type design, I’ve repeatedly gone back and revised my early type designs — fixing inconsistencies, adding OpenType features, stuff like that. I now use FontLab Studio to create all my type.

Q: Did you think of it as a form of historical preservation from the beginning? Now that pen-to-paper writing has become increasingly rare as even the few remaining formal settings for handwriting like wedding invitations go virtual, has that added a sense of urgency to your work?
A:
Not at first. I thought of it as: 1) a really cool, fun, sometimes tedious form of play; 2) a way to provide new and interesting resources for graphic designers. But I couldn’t help becoming immersed in the content of the source materials — Emily Perry’s letters home, Sam Houston’s “talks” to his Native American compadres — and I began to understand and empathize with the kind of urgent devotion to communication that went into putting pen to paper back then. Ironically, of course, this whole crazy pursuit of mine quite logically coincided with a modern decline in the art of handwriting. Heck, these days cursive is rarely even taught in school. I never saw it coming, but in the past few years it’s dawned on me that my type work truly is a kind of an odd form of historical preservation.

Q: Do you deliberately set out to look for good font candidates or do you mainly stumble on them in the course of doing other things?
Page one of Rev. Samuel Clarke's letter, Schooner Script fontA:
Stumble. I stumble around a lot. I wander, I ramble, I play. The first few fonts, especially, came from random moments of, “Hey, cool!” Once I started getting interested in the historical stuff, though, I have tended to keep an eye out for interesting source documents — Schooner Script is the result of an off-hand query I made to the owner of a local antique shop, and Broadsheet came from some old newspaper pages saved by a dealer of ancient longcase clocks. While on a trip to England several years ago, I came upon a business specializing in antique maps and ended up buying a page of an early-18th century Atlas: Antiquarian Scribe.

But I’ve also made fonts on a whim or at the suggestion of a customer. An example of the former is Viktorie, modeled after the barely legible scrawl of a waitress in a local restaurant; an example of the latter is Douglass Pen, after I had my interest piqued by an actor who had portrayed — and therefore knew a heck of a lot about — the famous American abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass.

Q: What characteristics make for a good handwriting or historical typeface font?
A:
I’m not sure I know that answer to that, at least not generally. I’d say a modicum of legibility, for one. But beyond that I suppose just an interesting sort of look or flourish or expressiveness that strikes you, that at once (if subliminally) makes you wonder at the character and personality of the person who took pen to paper (or set the type) in the first place. For some reason I’m reminded of my Bonsai font, an interpretation of a flawed, topheavy letterpress job. I’ve often wondered if the printers noticed the problem and maybe thought, “Meh, it’s legible enough.” (I, for one, think it’s lovely.)

Q: You make a point of explaining where the font came from in all your descriptions. How important is the backstory — the author of the hand, the source of the writing — to you?
A:
Really important. Essential, to me — and, I think, to the folks who have licensed my fonts. I think humans generally have a keen curiosity about how things got the way they are and where things come from. Where we came from. Witness our interest in genealogy. Since we have fairly good memories, centuries of records at our fingertips, and brains that are prone to solving puzzles and imagining things, it’s no wonder that our thoughts turn to the preservation and illumination of the dim times that have gone before.

Emily Austin PerryQ: Do you have a favorite or favorites among the fonts you’ve made? What makes it/them stand out to you as particularly compelling?
A:
I think Lamar Pen is perhaps the best of my old handwriting fonts — at least the most elegant and handsome. (Note, though, that I am certainly not a fan of Mirabeau B Lamar, the second president of Texas, whose hand it simulates.) But I have a special fondness for Emily Austin. I believe this has a lot to do with the spirit of the woman herself, her expressiveness in her letters, how she wore her personality on her sleeve, so to speak, in the words and sentences she strung together. Emily was a product of her time, and her extant portraits show a strict and proper pioneer woman, but from all I’ve read she was a loving, thoughtful, motherly presence in the many lives she touched. Her descendants still celebrate her birthday every year down Texas way.

Q: I didn’t realize that you immersed yourself in your historical sources to the point of developing an understanding of their characters and lives, although from your description of Abigail Adams it’s clear you’ve read extensively enough to be able to discern different phases of her handwriting over the years. How thoroughly have you read the correspondence of Emily Austin, Frederick Douglass, Abigail Adams, Mirabeau Lamar and the other figures whose writing you have converted to fonts? Has there been a widely varying range of depth for each personage?
Picking out Emily Austin's lettersA:
I would say a fairly varied range. Ma sent me probably six or eight of Emily A Perry’s letters home from when she was traveling up East looking for a cure for her daughter’s spells and seizures. I had nearly that many of Lamar’s letters — and also a great reproduction of his journal on first traveling from Georgia to Texas in 1835.

I must confess: I didn’t read every page of that journal. Nor did I read all of Abigail Adams’s letters to John (or many of his to her) but rather found myself pausing every now and then while looking near at the shapes of letterforms and pulling back to find myself immersed in her words. Nor did I read every page of her son’s diary — which is no doubt a good thing, considering it spans some seventy years, because I’d probably still be reading!

Selecting an E of Emily'sI probably read about a half dozen of Frederick Douglass’s letters and a number of his written lectures. And come to think of it, I believe I only had three or four of Rusk’s letters on which to base Texas Hero. This is the first time I’ve actually gone back and reviewed this measure. Kind of funny how it all worked out.

Q: You eloquently describe the experience of becoming engrossed by the source material. Primary sources taught in school history classes are often transcriptions rather than images of the original documents. Sometimes the writing is hard to decipher otherwise, but if we posit legibility, do you think it would help draw students in if they had to read letters/reports/news stories the way they were read in their time? That might help keep the dying art of penmanship alive too, since forgetting how to read it is part and parcel of forgetting how to write it.
A:
I do certainly think it would help. There’s unquestionably more allure to original old — to a school kid, ancient — artifacts and documents than boring typeset transcriptions. In fact, I bet many kids would get a huge kick out of working to figure out how to decipher old handwriting. Trouble is, how many teachers would think it worth the bother? (It would so be worth the bother.)

Q: You’re read correspondence and diaries of notable figures, discovered obscure historical events like the dramatic destruction by water-and-quicklime fire of the Governor detailed in the letter that became Schooner Script, pored over antique maps, periodicals and rubbings of headstones. It seems to me that you’ve become a historian in the course of becoming a historical preservationist, all without remotely setting out to do it. Given how important the backstories are to you, have you considered writing more about them? I’m certain you have more than enough material for a fascinating book, a compendium of personal stories linked solely by great handwriting and texts.
Emily Austin font comes togetherA:
I’ve recently started an occasional blog about the vanishing art of penmanship, and I have so far tended to dwell on my historical adventures. I hadn’t really thought of a book, a compendium. You’ve piqued my interest!

Q: One of the aspects I love the most about your fonts is your inclusion of graphic elements like the ink blots of Remsen, the cartographic ornaments of Antiquarian and Terra Ignota and the printer’s flourishes of Broadsheet. Have you thought about using them as the kernels of complete, stand-alone historical icon sets? Because I am in a position to guarantee you at least one very keen customer.
Terra Ignota with cartographic ornamentsA:
I sure enough have considered of this. A while back I even started work on an ink-blots-only font but then got sidetracked by somebody else’s handwriting. Pen-and-ink blots, antique cartographic ornaments, old printer’s flourishes — hm, it might just work!

Q: How is your own penmanship? Doctor scrawl, Palmer method roundness, John Hancock big, serial killer cramped? Would you ever make a font of your own hand?
A:
I already have, so check for yourself!

[Spoiler: It's called Cedar Street and it's phenomenal. I heart the small caps so much I'd marry them.]

* * *

Brian kindly sent me images of his font-making process using Emily Austin as the example. One of the pictures was a page from Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You which I realized with a start used Emily Austin in the chapter headings! This is when I finally understood that Brian Willson’s work was already crazy famous, so my boasting was as superfluous as it was unjustified.

I asked him how Emily had gotten such an illustrious gig; did he have a font agent or publicist or something? He replied:

I’ve never heard of a font agent or publicist, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. From nearly the beginning, though, I’ve stumbled on my fonts “in the wild” — used on book covers, signs, packaging, and whatnot. (Still seems highly implausible, but there you go.) With Arthur Spiderwick, someone bought a copy of Emily Austin on my website and, in the field on my checkout pages asking how people found us, mentioned that book by name. Turns out the publisher had listed the font name in the credits. (I have no idea where they bought it, but likely through one of my distributors.) I immediately ordered a copy, of course.

On my 3ipfonts.com site, there’s a “sightings” page where you can see a few examples. (I haven’t updated it in a while.)

Actually, many of my customers over the years have sent me photos or links showing my fonts in use. They’re really nice to do that.

Lamar Pen as the signature of the Half-Blood PrinceThat sightings page is AMAZING. From a boat name in Penobscot Bay, Maine, to a package of crackers in Switzerland to the side of a U-Haul van, Brian Willson’s fonts are ubiquitous. They make appearances in blockbuster movies, best-selling books and chart-topping records too. That’s totally Lamar Pen playing the signature of the Half-Blood Prince in the sixth Harry Potter movie, and the “Dear John” on the cover of Nicholas Sparks’ eponymous novel is written in Schooner Script. Attic Antique is on the cover of Dave Matthews Band’s first studio album, Under the Table and Dreaming. Even Jimmy Kimmel got in on the action, using Texas Hero for his parody of Ken Burns.

It’s a testament to Brian Willson’s great selective eye and flawless execution that his historical handwriting and typeface fonts have spread so far and wide. I love to imagine what Emily Austin or Mirabeau Lamar would make of their writing starring in a Spiderwick Chronicles book and the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie. Willson isn’t just preserving history by creating fonts from beautiful and unique period handwriting; he’s proving that great penmanship remains relevant in the era of keyboard dominance.


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Last chance to see Royal Armoury arms in America

October 27th, 2014

For the past decade, the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, has had the unique distinction of being the only place outside of the UK to have a permanent exhibition of weapons and armour from Britain’s Royal Armouries. In fact, it was the first time any British national museum entered into a long-term collaboration with an institution outside of national borders. This arrangement was so special it literally required an act of Parliament to allow the artifacts to leave the country and create a Royal Armouries annex in America.

An assortment of more than 400 pieces of armature from the 11th century to the beginning of the 20th century have been on display on the third floor of the Frazier History Museum. While most of the artifacts are English, the Royal Armoury has amassed a collection of military and sporting weapons and armour from Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, India and more. The Frazier exhibition features selections from all over Europe.

The items — on loan from the National Museum of Arms and Armour — have been displayed at the Frazier since its 2004 opening in downtown Louisville. The Royal Armouries collection was a prize catch for Louisville philanthropist and businessman Owsley Brown Frazier, who founded the museum.

The formal agreement creating the collaboration was signed at the Tower of London in 2003.

Both sides said Friday the partnership has been a success, and said they looked forward to working together again.

“This pioneering arrangement has brought hundreds of our best objects, vivid exposure to English history, and aspects of our common story, to a U.S. audience,” Dr. Edward Impey, director general and master of the Royal Armouries, said in a statement.

The loan and the exhibition will end on January 4th, 2015. The Royal Armouries collection will return home and artifacts will be split between the Tower of London and the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Ten years ago they didn’t have the room to show the objects — that was one of the reasons the loan was beneficial to both parties — but recent renovations have increased the space at the Royal Armouries museums.

The Frazier has also undergone renovations and will be reconfiguring the third floor exhibition space in keeping with a shift in its thematic focus from weaponry to history, particularly the history of Kentucky and Louisville. The Royal Armouries display will be replaced with artifacts from the museum’s expanding permanent collection, including objects from the personal collection of museum founder Owsley Frazier.

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La Belle exhibit opens at Austin’s Bullock Museum

October 26th, 2014

The wreck of La Belle, one of explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle’s supply ships, is on view to the public now, 328 years after it sank in Matagorda Bay and 17 years after it was recovered from the sea floor.

When the 54-1/2-foot frigate went down in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 1686, it was packed with supplies to support a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi and a planned military expedition into Mexico. Neither of those two aims were achieved. When the wreck was found by Texas Historical Commission archaeologists in 1995, the bottom third of the ship’s oak hull was completely intact. To keep this marvel of preservation together, the recovery team built a cofferdam around the wreck, pumped out all the water and excavated the hull from six feet of mud. After two years, the excavation retrieved the remains of the ship and more than 1.6 million artifacts including 21,500 pounds of gunpowder, cannons, muskets, cooking vessels and navigational tools. Whole crates were found full of an enormous quantity of trade goods, including 1,571 brass Jesuit rings, 17,000 brass pins, 664 axe heads, and 618,000 glass beads strung together by color.

The ship’s hull was sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M where it was soaked in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces water in wood and keeps it from drying out or warping. After 15 years in PEG, the timbers were moved to a custom-built freeze dryer 40 feet long and eight feet wide where the process of drying them out without damage could be accomplished faster and cheaper.

This summer the timbers were transported from Texas A&M to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. On October 25th, reassembly of the hull began in full public view at the museum. Visitors can watch La Belle rise again and interact with the archaeologists, asking questions as they work.

More than 100 artifacts and a live-action reassembly tell a story that was lost at sea for 300 years. Discover what items 17th century French settlers thought were important enough to transport across the ocean to establish a new North American colony. Artifacts such as brass kettles, cooking utensils, and carpentry and farming tools shed light on both European domestic culture and future colony planning. Colored beads and other trade goods perhaps speak to strategies for interacting with American Indians. An iconic La Belle artifact, the bronze cannon, tells more than a military story. It was the carved dolphin handles, along with other cannon insignia, that helped historians determine that the wreckage they had discovered was indeed La Belle. A replica of the ship pinpoints where the artifacts were found during excavation. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, watch up-close inside the gallery as the ultimate artifact of the exhibition, the ship itself, rises again as experts reassemble the vessel, timber by timber.

Assembly is expected to be completed by May of next year, so you have seven months to see the ship come together before the hull is encased in a glass structure that will allow people to walk on the ship and experience the feeling of being on deck looking down into the cargo hold.


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13-angled stone found in Inca hydraulic system

October 25th, 2014

Archaeologists exploring a stretch of the Inca trail network of Qhapaq Ñan that passes through the archaeological site of Incahuasi have discovered a stone cut with 13 angles. The trail is vast, covering 30,000 kilometers and crossing six countries. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site this June, which has drawn new attention to the network from researchers, including the section in Incahuasi. While investigating the trail, the archaeological team found a hydraulic system with two masonry fountains connected to canals carved out of the mountain rock. It was one of those fountains that has a large 13-angled cut stone in the center.

Inca masonry is famous for its finely hewn polygonal stones that fit together without mortar like intricate jigsaw puzzles. Even today, half a millennium after they were constructed, many of these dry walls are still joined so perfectly you can’t pass a piece of paper between stones. The variety of shapes and precision cutting provided exceptional seismic resistance, hence their longevity even in earthquake-prone areas.

One particular polygonal stone has become a Peruvian icon: the 12-angled stone in a wall on Hatun Rumiyoc Street in Cusco. The wall is all that remains of the palace of Inca Roca, sixth Sapa Inca (ruler) of the Kingdom of Cusco, and the Stone of Twelve Angles has become a hugely popular tourist attraction. Its unique shape features in logos from beer to railroads.

The fame of the Hatun Rumiyoc stone lends a special cachet to the discovery of a stone with 13 angles. The city of Incahuasi was built in the mid-15th century by Túpac Yupanqui, the 10th Sapa Inca, to serve as a military and administrative center of the empire he expanded south along the coast. He called it New Cusco and deliberately evoked the power and glamour of the great Inca capital by building a smaller version of its monumental structures and planned grid of streets and squares.

The dry, subtropical desert climate required the construction of extensive canal and irrigation systems for agricultural purposes. Incahuasi is 3,800 meters (12,467 feet) above sea level and was strategically located next to the Viscacha River, the water source for irrigation of the whole valley. Two mountain springs fed the fountains. The water then traveled through the canal system carved from the mountain rock in zig-zag, straight sections and waterfalls that slowed down the flow of water on its descent to the Viscacha.

Archaeologists believe the water systems had more than just a practical use. They also held ritual significance. In Andean cultures, bodies of water were considered sacred places of origin. The Incas promoted this notion, emphasizing the symbolic importance of water management as a defining standard for community membership. In Incahuasi, the canal system invoked multiple sacred origins: the mountain springs feeding the fountains, the departure point of the Viscacha to water the valley, which, once the river descends to the coast, becomes an important tributary of the Pisco River.

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Restoration on unique Medusa mosaic almost finished

October 24th, 2014

The only known surviving opus sectile mosaic of Medusa is finally being restored five years after its discovery in the ancient Odeon theater of Kibyra, in southwest Turkey’s Burdur Province. The 1,800-year-old masterpiece of the mosaic arts was unearthed during an archaeological excavation in 2009, but on the advice of Culture and Tourism Ministry experts was quickly covered with five layers of sand and gravel to preserve from the elements it until proper treatment could be arranged.

At 36 feet in diameter and 14 feet at the widest point, it’s the largest mosaic still in situ in Anatolia. It is almost entirely intact, with an estimate 95% of its thin marble tiles still in place. Authorities are keen to keep it in its original context so visitors can enjoy the rare pleasure of seeing it the same way the ancients did rather than removed from its orchestra pit semi-circle and placed in a museum. The Kibyra Odeon could seat 3,600 people and was used for musical and theatrical events as well as serving as legal court and legislative chamber during the cold months when its roof made it the most comfortable structure in town suitable for public use.

Last year the Medusa mosaic was uncovered for the first time since its discovery to allow conservators to perform a detailed feasibility study. This year, the Culture and Tourism Ministry funded the restoration based on the recommendations in last year’s report. Regional archaeologists are working with an Istanbul conservation company to restore the mosaic. They’ve been working on it for two months and expect to continue for another month.

According to Düzgün Tarkan from the archaeology department of Mehmet Akif Ersoy University in Burdur, the mosaic has survived some very hard times.

He said they believed that the mosaic had suffered from a large fire in the ancient era. “In its original, it was covered with a wooden roof. This is why we believe that the timbers that fell during the fire burned the mosaic for days. The marble pieces that form the mosaic received great damage. Now we are merging them and the broken pieces are being attached to the mosaic.”

You can see in the images from last year’s study that there are areas where the opus sectile marble veneers are in fragments. That’s apparently the result of this devastating days-long fire that took down the wooden roof that once covered the Odeon. Some of the marble plaques that characterize the opus sectile style (as opposed to the small, regular squares of the opus tessellatum style) are just a single millimeter thick. It defies belief that all those shards remained in place so archaeologists could painstakingly piece them back together and reinstall them on site. Clearly Medusa’s petrifying visage really did protect her.

Once the mosaic is stabilized, it will be covered with a layer of glass (or a transparent material of some kind) to protect it from grubby tourist feet and hands, bad weather and all manner of other potential damage sources. That way visitors to the Odeon will be able to walk on Medusa’s face without hurting her.

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Replica of Vasa bronze cannon shot

October 23rd, 2014

In late 2012, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, home of the beautiful but unstable flagship of the Swedish fleet that sank a mile from the shore on its maiden voyage in 1628, put together a team to recreate one of the ship’s 24-pounder bronze cannons. Although Vasa went down in ignominy before it had a chance to make a name for itself, the light cannon that became known as the Vasa gun would be adopted all branches of the Swedish military as the standard artillery piece during the Thirty Years’ War. Sweden was the world’s largest exporter of cannon in the 17th century, and other European countries developed their own versions of the Vasa gun, so learning more about this particular weapon illuminates a far broader stage than just the ship or Swedish naval warfare.

The aim of the project was to make an accurate copy of the cannon and its accessories (mount, ammunition, powder, etc) and then fire it on range. The experiment would be documented with film, audio recordings, doppler radar and pressure monitoring to provide a wide range of data on the ballistic and tactical capabilities of the Vasa gun. Because Vasa was recovered in such excellent condition thanks to the cold, woodworm-inhospitable waters of the Baltic Sea, it was possible for the team to recreate every element of the weapon system, not just the barrel which is the only part that usually survives.

It took almost two years for the project to get to the firing stage. Designing and building the molds and fittings, testing the pour with an iron version first, composing the proper alloy, casting and curing the final product, was no small task. No detailed was spared to make it an exact replica, right down to the decorative motifs on the outside of the gun. The bronze 24-pounder was cast in November of last year. It is ten feet long, weighs 1.5 tons and the alloy is made of around 93% copper, 4-5% tin, and trace amounts of zinc and lead.

Here is video of the casting of the cannon at the foundry last November. The gentleman with the impressive beard is Tom Ward, a Boston sculptor and Fulbright scholar who has been documenting the creation of the replica in an outstanding blog on the Vasa Museum website which I highly recommend reading last page to first so you can see the insane amounts of work that went into this ambitious project:

It took another 11 months after that to get the cannon in proper firing order. On October 2nd, 2014, a Vasa gun fired for the first time in nearly four centuries. In this proofing run, the cannon shot four rounds, the largest of which used 3.3 kilos of powder to generate 10,400 psi of breech pressure and a muzzle velocity of 399 meters per second or mach 1.17. The ball doesn’t beat the speed of sound for long, however. Exponential drag slows it down very quickly.

On Wednesday, October 22nd, the official trials began, witnessed by 200 journalists, museum staff and members of the armed forces.

In this Swedish language video, you can see the cannon being muzzle loaded, details of the replica section of the side of Vasa‘s hull used for target practice, a nice glimpse of the gun and recoil after firing before the entire scene is obscured with smoke, and a close view of the hole left in the target. It’s quite a small hole, really, but it goes all the way through.

Here is film of the cannon being fired at different frame rates:

And here is the proverbial money shot, a detailed view of the cannon being fired at the target, a close-up of the hit, and the impact of the ball on the wood recorded on high speed film so when it’s played back you see every shard and splinter create almost a loose tornado effect. So, so cool.

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Lost Louvre portrait of Henry III found at auction

October 22nd, 2014

A late 16th portrait of King Henry III of France that has been missing from the Louvre since World War II was discovered about to go up for auction in Paris. A small work at eight by five inches, the painting was valued by the Ader-Nordmann auction house at only €400-€600 ($505-$758). One week before the October 17th auction, Pierre-Gilles Girault, assistant curator of the Royal Château de Blois, found out about the sale from a Henry III keyword alert he’d set up on a public auction search site.

The Château de Blois played a dramatic role in the bloody intrigues of Henry’s turbulent reign, and in 2010 the museum held an exhibition dedicated to the period, Renaissance celebrations and crimes, the Court of Henry III. When Girault saw the painting for sale, he recognized its rare iconography of Henry on his knees at the foot of the Cross and its unusual medium — oil on paper mounted on panel — as a work he had seen in a 1930s-era catalogue of the Louvre collection. The size was slightly different, however, so he thought it might be a contemporary copy. The museum was still interested in acquiring it to expand its Henry III materials. Even a copy of a realistic portrait of a king, whose life and reign were mired in Wars of Religion, depicted in such a heavy-handedly devout posture could well be worth the small purchase price. There are very few extant realistic portraits of Henry III, and they’re standard court paintings. This one ties Henry directly into the defining issue of his reign and of 16th century France.

Although as Duke of Anjou the Catholic Henry had played a major role fighting the Protestants in the French Wars of Religion — he was the leader of the army, defeating Hugenots forces in several battles and besieging the Hugenot city of La Rochelle — when he became king after the death of his older brother Charles IX, he took a more practical approach. With the Protestant army led by his younger brother François, formerly Duke of Alençon and now Duke of Anjou, besieging Paris, in 1576 Henry signed he Edict of Beaulieu which granted the Hugenots freedom of religion and major political concessions.

Henry I, Duke of Guise, didn’t take kindly to that. He formed the Catholic League, a coalition of French Catholic societies supported by the Pope and Philip II of Spain, to apply military and political pressure in favor of the eradication of the Hugenots. His efforts were very successful. Henry III was forced to fight both Protestants and Catholics arrayed against him, and he just didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off. He was forced to roll back the concessions in the Edict of Beaulieu and Peace of La Rochelle and give the League everything it asked for, including that the king pay its troops. From the Treaty of Nemours in 1585 through the end of 1588, Henry was king in name only. For a short while the Duke of Guise even took Paris, forcing Henry III to flee to the royal palace at Blois in May of 1588.

With his marriage childless, Anjou dead and his presumptive heir now the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, Henry III had good reason to fear not just for his throne, but for his life. It was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in August of 1588 that weakened the Catholic League and emboldened Henry III. In September, Henry called a meeting of the Estates General at the Château de Blois. In December, he invited the Duke of Guise and his brother Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, to the council chamber. The Duke was directed to join Henry III in the adjoining bed chamber where he was set promptly set upon by Henry’s loyal bodyguards, the Forty-five, who stabbed him to death at the foot of the king’s bed. The next day, the Cardinal of Guise met a similar fate in the castle’s dungeon. Henry’s formidable mother Catherine de’ Medici, horrified at the assassinations, died two weeks later and was buried at Blois since Paris was still held by Guise’s men. (Her body was later moved to St. Denis and would ultimately suffer the fate of all the monarchs of France buried there when in 1793 a revolutionary mob looted the cathedral and threw all the royal remains in an unmarked mass grave.)

This is why the painting of Henry III that embeds him, monarchical ermines and all, praying on the ground with human bones in the center of the apex of Catholic iconography, the Crucifixion, held such interest for the Château de Blois museum. Chief curator Elisabeth Latrémolière, in accordance with standard museum acquisition protocols, sought out expert opinions on the piece. Girault emailed the Louvre’s 16th century art curator and received an immediate response even though it was Sunday. The Louvre sent its people to examine the painting in person, and on October 14th, they verified by comparing it to the sole known pre-loss photograph of the painting taken in 1925 that it was the original work, gone missing more than 70 years ago under mysterious circumstances.

Ader Nordmann immediately withdrew the work as soon as the Louvre experts authenticated it. It was being sold as part of the estate of an elderly woman; nobody had any idea how she had acquired it or what winding road took it from the Louvre to the auction. The painting will be returned to the Louvre posthaste, but Elisabeth Latrémollière hopes the museum will throw them a bone and lend them the portrait for display at the Château de Blois. After all, if it weren’t for the Blois curators, the painting would still be lost, an unknown budget purchase in someone’s private collection.

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