Recreating Tullio Lombardo’s Adam after the fall

November 8th, 2014

On the evening of Sunday, October 6th, 2002, the medium density plywood pedestal supporting the 15th century marble statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo in the Velez Blanco Patio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art buckled. All 770 pounds, six feet three inches of Adam fell, hitting the ground hard and breaking into 28 large pieces and hundreds of small fragments. The head came off at the neck, the torso skidded across the floor, the right leg broke into six pieces, the left arm into seven. Nobody even heard the crash.

The catastrophe was discovered at 9:00 PM by a security guard doing his routine rounds. The emergency call went out to curators and conservators and the patio was cordoned off to allow for a forensic crime scene-level recovery of every little chip. The museum opened as usual on Monday, but nobody was allowed to photograph the disaster. The Met didn’t want the horror of the scene to be the image of the statue in people’s heads even after it was put back together. It took two days for the precise mapping of each fragment to be completed and all the pieces carefully bagged and tagged.

Extensive damage to a sculpture is any museum’s worst nightmare — stone is much harder to repair than canvas — and this case was a particularly spine-chilling one because of Adam‘s singular importance. Commissioned for the tomb of the Doge Andrea Vendramin (d. 1478) in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Venice, Adam was the first monumental nude carved in the classical style since antiquity. The tomb, inspired by ancient triumphal arches, was recognized for the exceptional quality of its statuary before it was even completed. Venetian historian Marino Sanuto the Younger wrote in his diary in 1493 that the Vendramin funerary monument “will surely be the most beautiful in the world because of the excellent statues which are there.” Lombardo’s Adam was placed in a niche next to the sarcophagus of the Doge in the center of the monument. A matching statue of Eve (once attributed to Lombardo but now thought to have been the work of Francesco Segala) was on the other side.

The monastery and church of the Servi were demolished in 1812 in keeping with Napoleon’s edicts ordering the suppression of religious orders. The Vendramin tomb was rescued and installed in the choir of the church of Saints Giovanni e Paolo, but Adam and Eve never made it to the new location. Times had changed, and the classical nudes were now deemed to be not in keeping with the seriousness of the Christian religion. They were replaced by two warrior figures.

The first man and woman were moved to the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi where they both remained until 1865 (Eve is still there today). That year the palace’s owner, Marie-Caroline de Bourbon-Sicile, Duchesse de Berry, daughter of King Francis I of the Two Sicilies and daughter-in-law of King Charles X of France, sold much of the contents of the palace at auction in Paris. Adam was acquired by collector Henry Pereire. After his death in 1932, it passed through the hands of a couple of dealers before being bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1936.

The Met was thrilled to have it. Art historian Preston Remington, who was curator of the Met’s Renaissance Art department at that time, described Adam as “the most distinguished of Tullio’s sculptures” whose “importance to the collection of renaissance sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum is paramount.” Besides, he noted, “aside from its archaeological interest, the Adam is a work of great beauty and lasting charm.”

Key to that great beauty and lasting charm was the unblemished smoothness of the carving, perhaps Adam‘s most famous feature. If he couldn’t be put back together with that flawless surface, it would be an incalculable loss. Monumental Renaissance statuary doesn’t come up for sale very often, or ever, really; finding something of equivalent historical significance would be all but impossible.

Initial prognostications were fairly optimistic: the damage was bad, but there were enough large pieces that conservators thought it could be fixed and returned to display in two years or so. That estimate was left in the dust. They decided to take a far more meticulous approach, studying every aspect of the reconstruction in detail before drilling holes in it and piecing it together with adhesives and pins. They stress tested the reversible organic adhesives to see if they could handle such a large statue. They discovered that fiberglass pins were better than metal ones because when they do break, they don’t take chunks of the marble with them. They used new laser imaging technology to create a 3D model so they could puzzle it out virtually before putting the physical pieces together. They even got a crappy copy of Michelangelo’s David and deliberately broke it in the same places Adam for testing purposes.

Instead of two years it took 12, but they were 12 years well spent. After all the work, all the research, was done behind closed doors, a secrecy that caused some comment as a new decade dawned with no publically visible progress, on November 11th, Adam is going back on display at the Met.

The story of the restoration is part of the exhibition. The statue, originally intended for a niche and therefore less worked in the back than in the front, will now be viewed in the round so people can see it the same way the conservators did. The Met has made some videos explaining the epic 12-year conservation project, and there will be an article about the process in the next volume of the Metropolitan Museum Journal (bookmark this page and check back for volume 49).

3D animation illustrating the order of assembly:

Time-lapse of the reconstruction:

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Yorkshire Hoards on Google Art Project

November 7th, 2014

The Google Cultural Institute and the York Museums Trust have joined forces to create an exhibition of hoards discovered in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Hoards exhibition gives audiences the chance to view buried treasure from the Bronze Age (1000 B.C.) to the Civil War (1650 A.D.). The entries are arranged in chronological order so you can take a virtual trip through Yorkshire history, and descriptions are accompanied by high resolution photographs and video.

Hoards were buried for different reasons in different periods. Bronze Age axe hoards, for example, were buried near bodies of water which suggests there was a ritual purpose behind it. Iron Age and Roman coin hoards are often indicators of unrest, earthly goods buried to keep them safe from danger until the owner could return. Some of them were clearly savings, however, the ancient version of stuffing it in your mattress. Valuables were added to over time, in those cases, instead of being buried in one fell swoop.

Hoards are a great way to explore a region’s history, therefore, because they’re concrete evidence of how people dealt with external threats, their religious practices, the geographic range of their connections, what kind of containers they used, etc. It’s also just cool to be able to zoom in on a great many beautiful artifacts and coins that haven’t previously been photographed in high resolution.

The York Museums Trust is also collaborating with Google to present an online highlight reel of one of their museum’s exhibitions: 1914: When the World Changed Forever, a World War I display currently enjoying great success at the York Castle Museum. Objects include a horse’s gas mask, weapons and an ingenious Zeppalarm device that connected to a home’s gas line and lit a light bulb and sounded an alarm when the gas company turned down the supply to dim the lights and warn of an impending dirigible raid.

The Google exhibitions are just the tip of the iceberg. The York Museum Trust has embraced digitization on a grand scale, placing 160,000 objects in its collections, thousands of which are not on public display, in a freely accessible online database. More than 50,000 of the entries include high resolution images of the objects, all of which are in the public domain so you can download them and use them as you wish. More photographs will be uploaded as they are taken.

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HMS Erebus ship’s bell recovered

November 6th, 2014

After the wreck of explorer Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, was found in September, Parks Canada researchers had only two days to explore the site before temperatures plunged below zero making diving impossible. The team made seven dives during those two days, filming, photographing and measuring the wreck as extensively as possible, but they didn’t want to disturb the interior so they only sent cameras inside and did not recover artifacts.

They were holding out on us, though, because one object was removed from the sea floor: the ship’s bronze bell.

The bell was found on the deck adjacent to the ship’s displaced windlass (a form of anchor winch), above which it was originally mounted. Since then, the bell has been undergoing conservation stabilization and additional research.

The bell is intact and generally in very good condition. Two embossed markings – introduced when the bronze bell was first cast – are evident on the artifact: a Royal Navy “broad arrow” indicating property of the British Government, as well as the date “1845.”

Ship’s bells hold a great deal of meaning. In addition to their practical purpose — they struck the half-hour day and night, and signalled the change of the watch — bells are symbolic incarnations of the ship. There’s a tradition in the Royal Navy that upside down bells are used as baptismal founts for sailors’ babies. The names of the baptized children are then engraved under the bell’s lip.

Given its symbolic and archaeological value, Parks Canada decided it would be more prudent to recover the bell instead of subjecting it to another long, frigid winter in the Queen Maud Gulf. It could conceivably be damaged by ice scraping the seabed, although it has survived 168 winters thus far without serious damage. Besides, a ship’s bell can provide essential confirmation of the wreck’s identity, and on a PR note, is an iconic symbol that makes a far more immediate rallying point than sonar scans.

As the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, puts it:

“The bell of HMS Erebus provides a tangible and compelling connection to the Franklin ships and is an important part of naval and Canadian history. The recovery of this important artifact is the crowning achievement for an incredibly successful 2014 search campaign that has captivated Canadians and the entire world.”

Still, the marketing coup had to wait. Parks Canada archaeologists wanted to examine the bell without public scrutiny and begin the process of stabilizing the find before making the announcement, which is why we’re only hearing about it six weeks after the bell was recovered. At first, the bell had to remain damp to keep it from corroding when exposed to the air. It was wrapped in bubble-wrap and kept humid during transportation to Ottawa.

The bell is now sealed in a tank of distilled water in an environmetally-controlled secure location at the Parks Canada conservation laboratory. The water is being tested daily to detect any changes in the artifact. Over the course of months, perhaps as many as 18 or more, the bell will transition from fresh water baths to chemical baths that will leach all the salt from its surface and protect it from corrosion.

One the bell is cleaned and stabilized, it may reveal additional clues that are currently not visible. It will eventually go on public display at a location yet to be determined.


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Witchmarks to protect James I after Gunpowder Plot found at Knole House

November 5th, 2014

Building archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) surveying Knole House, the stately Kent seat of the Sackville family, have discovered protective witchmarks carved on the beams of a room built to house King James I. The marks, checkerboard lines known as demon traps because the evil ones would follow the lines and get caught in them, and interlocking Vs that stand for Virgo Virginum and invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary, were carved by craftsmen in the beams and joists under the floor and on the oak fireplace surrounds in the Upper King’s Room.

Thanks to tree-ring dating, we know exactly when the marks were carved. The oak timber was felled in the winter of 1605-06 and was used while it was still green, which means the beams were in place by the summer of 1606 at the latest. Guy Fawkes and seven other conspirators in the plot to blow up the House of Lords during the Opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605, were hanged, drawn and quartered on January 31st, 1606. Fawkes had been arrested tending to 36 barrels of powder in the undercroft of the House of Lords just 12 hours before the explosion was set to go off, so the King and the entire ruling hierarchy of Britain came very close to annhilation and the memory of it was very fresh when the work was done at Knole.

The discovery answers a long-debated question about witchmarks. Some historians contend that they are carpenters’ marks used for practical purposes as installation guides, but the Knole timbers have both standard carpenters’ marks and witchmarks. Add to that the remodeling in anticipation of the King’s visit and the precise date in the looming shadow of the Gunpowder Plot, and the Knole marks are strong evidence that they were intended to play a supernatural protective role.

Their power never did get tested. All the construction, refurbishment and witchmarking was for nought as King James didn’t go through with his planned visit to Knole. Thomas Sackvillle, 1st Earl of Dorset, Lord High Treasurer and cousin of Queen Elizabeth I on her mother’s side, died in 1608 before the King’s visit, and his son didn’t have the clout in court to motivate James to keep Knole on the schedule.

Sackville acquired Knole House in 1566. His descendants (including his grandson Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, whom you might recall as Lady Anne Clifford‘s no-good first husband) have lived there ever since. They are still part owners of the estate, sharing it with the National Trust. The Trust is currently in the midst of the largest conservation project in Knole’s history, a multi-year $30 million restoration that is repairing and documenting the structure down to the individual beams. The MOLA team is recording the timber frame structure on behalf of the National Trust to provide essential information necessary to make the proper decisions on the conservation of the estate.

The showrooms are closed during the restoration, but the King’s Room will be open to the public for a special showing on November 20th and 21st. Visitors will have the chance to see the witchmarks before they are covered back up.

Speaking of the Gunpowder Plot, the earliest written report of the arrest and interrogation of Guy Fawkes is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale on December 9th. It’s a letter written by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, James I’s Secretary of State and spymaster, to Ralph Winwood, the English ambassador to the Hague.

Dated November 9th, just four days after the plot was discovered, it appears to have been written earlier as it still refers to Fawkes as John Johnson, the alias he had used when posing as co-conspirator Thomas Percy’s servant in order to rent a house next to the House of Lords. Fawkes insisted he was Johnson and had acted entirely on his own for the first two days of interrogations before escalating torture got him to confess his real name on November 7th, and the names of his co-conspirators on November 8th and 9th.

Cecil notes in the letter that despite the threat of the torture, “Johnson” insisted he acted alone and confessed solely to his own crimes from illegal practices of Catholicism to planning the destruction of the entire political hierarchy. They only got him to admit Percy was involved by claiming he’d already been captured and confessed. From the letter:

[Y]et could no threatening of torture draw from him any other language than this, that he is ready to die, and rather wisheth ten thousand deaths, than willingly to accuse his master or any other ; until by often reiterating examinations, we pretending to him that his master was apprehended, he hath come to plain confession, that his master kept the key of that cellar whilst he was abroad ; had been in it since the powder was laid there, and inclusive confessed him a principal actor in the same.

Robert Cecil sent copies of this letter to a number of ambassadors in Europe to enlist them in rumor control and to recommend they deploy a few men-at-arms in countries where the conspirators’ supporters might have been preparing military aid. You can read the full text of the letter to Sir Charles Cornwallis, British ambassador to Spain, in this 1905 book about the Gunpowder Plot. Spoiler: author Philip Sidney is no Robert Cecil fan. Check the footnote).

Cecil’s letter to Winwood was bought by the Harcourt family in the 19th century. They are now selling it. The presale estimate is £40,000 to £60,000 ($64,000 – $96,000).

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Madison’s Montpelier gets $10 million donation

November 4th, 2014

Montpelier, the Virginia estate of fourth President of the United States and Father of the Constitution James Madison, went through some tough times after his widow Dolley Madison sold it in 1844. Later owners, most prominently the du Pont family who bought it in 1901 and built on it extensively, developing it into a prominent equestrian facility. Marion du Pont Scott willed Montpelier to the National Trust for Historical Preservation upon her death in 1983. The Trust established The Montpelier Foundation, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to the management of the historic estate, and in 2003 the Foundation undertook a massive architectural restoration to return the mansion to the condition it was in when Madison retired there after the end of his second term as president in 1817.

The restoration was officially concluded on Constitution Day, September 17th, 2008, and was celebrated as one of the most ambitious, authentic restorations ever done in the United States. That was just the beginning, however. There was still a great deal more to be done to return the estate to its historical condition. James and Dolley Madison’s original furnishings were long gone, sold under the financial duress of Dolley’s widowhood or dispersed through the family and then out into the market. There are more Montpelier pieces in museums and private collections scattered around the country than there are in the historic mansion.

In the five years since the architectural restoration was completed, The Montpelier Foundation has dedicated itself to locating furniture, wallpaper, paint colors, accessories and any other relevant objects that if not the actual original pieces, at the very least are authentic to the period and similar or identical to things that would have been in the home in the 1820s, like the 18th century ivory chess set model on which Madison and Thomas Jefferson played their marathon games.

The goal is to restore everything, mansion and landscape, including the dwellings of the domestic slaves, to their appearance in Madison’s time. It’s a massive research project, requiring punctilious examination of the physical space — for example analyzing the window casings for hints of how the treatments were hung and excavating the grounds for evidence of the period landscaping — as well as documentary analysis. Researchers are going through tens of thousands of pages of documents, from letters to visitor descriptions to receipts to estate financial records and so much more, to get the full picture of what was in the house and how the estate as a whole functioned in the 19th century.

About $6.5 million have already been invested in the project. Several rooms are now furnished and excavations in the South Yard have found the footprints of the six structures where Montpelier’s slaves lived and worked. To get the project into the endzone, private equity billionaire, philanthropist and committed history buff David Rubenstein has donated $10 million to The Montpelier Foundation.

Rubenstein is deeply committed to preserving history for the nation and he puts his money where his mouth is. Last year he purchased the Bay Psalm Book for $14,165,000 to loan it to libraries all over the country before settling on one library to be the recipient of a long-term loan of the book. The year before that he donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument when it was damaged by a 2011 earthquake. After buying the only privately owned copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million, he loaned it to the National Archives and then gave them $13.5 million to build it a new custom display case.

Most of the donation, $6.5 million will go to the furnishing and restoration of the mansion’s interior. The priority areas are the South Passage entry hall, James’ mother Nelly Madison’s sitting and dining rooms, several upstairs bedrooms and their closet spaces, plus the cellar kitchens and work areas.

The South Hall used to be central hall of the original Georgian home from the 1760s. In Madison’s day, it was used as a secondary parlor and gallery space with an impressive array of art on the walls. It’s completely bare now, despite being the first stop on the daily tour. Nelly’s rooms are off the South Passage. The upstairs bedrooms are the Madisons’ primary bedchamber, guest and family bedchambers that once furnished will show visitors what a bustling, busy, active home it was. The closets will be stocked with linens and clothing, and the rooms furnished from bedding to seating to artwork to window treatments.

The cellar, which covers the entire footprint of the mansion, was the domain of Montpelier’s enslaved domestic staff. The space includes two kitchens, a wine cellar and multiple storage and work areas. The whole space is empty (the modern mechanical systems were moved to an underground vault during the architectural restoration). With Rubenstein’s donation, the Foundation will add interpretative elements that bring attention to the individual slaves who worked there, highlighting their personal histories and family links, their daily work on the plantation, how they traveled, their influence on Montpelier.

The rest of the donation, $3.5 million, will be dedicated to the reconstruction of the South Yard adjacent to the mansion. In Madison’s time, the South Yard had three duplex slave quarters (relatively comfortable housing for house slaves; the field hands lived in log and mud shacks next to the fields), two smokehouses and a detached kitchen. The kitchen, one of the duplexes and the smokehouses will be reconstructed and fully furnished to give visitors the chance to see where and how Montpelier’s enslaved community lived. The second duplex will be used as a classroom for student programs, the third for exhibition space on the slaves, field, house and skilled craftsmen, who kept Montpelier going.

Rubenstein wants to help make the estate more authentic. Montpelier could draw more visitors to learn about history, he said, if the house is fully restored and its slave quarters built out. It currently draws about 125,000 visitors a year. Last year, Rubenstein gave money to recreate slave quarters on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation.

“It’s this dichotomy. You have people who were extraordinarily intelligent, well-informed, educated; they created this incredible country — Jefferson, Washington, Madison — yet they lived with this system of slavery. Jefferson, Washington and Madison all abhorred slavery, but they didn’t do, they couldn’t do, much about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t deify our Founding Fathers without recognizing that they did participate in a system that had its terrible flaws.”

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“Arbeit Macht Frei” gate stolen from Dachau

November 3rd, 2014

In what is becoming a sickening trend, the wrought iron gate bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”) at the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp was stolen in the early hours of Sunday. There are private security guards on the premises, but the camp has no surveillance system, a deliberate choice to eschew the ugly association of constant monitoring.

Gabriele Hammermann, [Director of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial], said Monday. “We have irregular guard patrols six to seven times per night at the camp, but all of the former concentration camps in Germany have so far not installed cameras, as we do not want to make these locations once again a high-security facility in respect for the deceased.”

The theft happened while the guards were patrolling sometime between 11:45 PM Saturday and 5:30 AM Sunday. The thieves, and there had to have been at least two of them, scaled the outer gate to reach the wrought iron one, then removed the entire door that carries the slogan off its hinges. They then had the heft it back over the outer gate. Because it’s six-and-a-half-feet high, three feet wide and weighs an estimated 225 pounds, the thieves must have had a getaway vehicle.

Police and state security are investigating the theft. They have appealed to anyone who might have seen a vehicle or suspicious people in the area Sunday morning to come forward with any information. Authorities suspect it may be a politically motivated act by right-wing extremists, although a commissioned theft is certainly possible. It has happened before.

The large “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign above the entrance to Auschwitz was stolen in December of 2009 only to be recovered less than 72 hours later. The thieves were Polish men hired by Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Högström who claimed to have acted solely as a middle man but ultimately pleaded guilty to masterminding the theft and was sentenced to serve two years and eight months in a Swedish prison.

I think this theft is slightly less likely to have been a deranged collector because the sign is not actually original. Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by the Nazi government on March 22nd, 1933, less than two months after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30th. It was built on the site of an abandoned munitions factory on the outskirts of the Bavarian town of Dachau, 10 miles northwest of Munich, as a forced labour camp for political prisoners. One of those political prisoners, Communist Karl Röder, was ordered to craft the iron lettering by the SS in 1936. Röder’s sign was removed after the war. A replica was installed in its place when the memorial was created in 1965.

That does not diminish the symbolic significance of the theft. Dr. Gabriele Hammermann considers it a:

“deliberate, reprehensible attempt to deny and obliterate the memory of the crimes committed in this place. The assault on this relict of highly symbolic importance demonstrates a new dimension, since it is an attempt to demolish the memorial at its very core.”

More than 200,000 people — political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, gyspies, clergy, reistance fighters, POWs (mainly Poles) — from all over Europe were imprisoned at Dachau in its 12 years of operation. More than 40,000 died from starvation, disease, torture, executions and death marches before US Army forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Today Dachau has the most visitors of any concentration camp memorial in Germany, approximately 800,000 a year.

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Pharaonic temple found under house in Egypt

November 2nd, 2014

The remains of a 3,400-year-old temple from the reign of Tuthmose III (1479-1425 B.C.) have been found underneath a house in the Egyptian town of Badrashin 25 miles south of Cairo. It was discovered two weeks ago under shady circumstances. A group of seven men dug nearly 30 feet (nine meters) under their home, even going so far as to secure wet suits, oxygen tanks and diving masks so they could keep digging after they hit the water table. The Tourism and Antiquities Police heard about the clandestine dig and arrested the men for illegal excavation. They were detained briefly but had to be released because the area where they were digging was not a designated archaeological site.

It is now. The entire Hod Zeleikha neighborhood has been declared an archeological site and is now under the control of the Antiquities Ministry. The unauthorized amateur excavation has been replaced with an official dig by archaeologists from Egypt’s antiquities ministry and workers from the state-owned Arab Contractors Company. After pumping out the groundwater, the team discovered seven large limestone blocks engraved with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the bases of several columns and a piece of a colossal statue. The colossus fragment is 6.2 feet high and carved out of pink granite. It depicts a seated person.

The hieroglyphics date the structure to the New Kingdom period (1539-1075 B.C.) and at least some of the inscriptions date to the reign of the pharaoh Tuthmose III (1490-1436 B.C.). The reign of Tuthmose III is considered a golden age in Egyptian history. The stepson and nephew of pharaoh Hatshepsut, Tuthmose III was technically pharaoh from the age of two, co-ruler with his stepmother. In practise he didn’t rule until Hatshepsut died 22 years after they ascended to the throne. He ruled another 32 years after Hatshepsut’s death. Under his reign, the Egypt empire reached its greatest extent, from northern Syria to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in Nubia.

The recovered artifacts have been transported to Saqqara for conservation and study. Archaeologists hope the inscriptions and future discoveries will reveal more about the history of Egypt under Tuthmose III. The ministry plans to continue the archaeological survey of the site and excavate more of the temple.

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Cache of 17th c. luxury goods found in Dublin castle

November 1st, 2014

A hoard of 17th century luxury consumer goods was found hidden under the floor of a tower in Dublin’s Rathfarnham Castle. All the floors in the tower had been removed to construct an elevator shaft that would make the space wheelchair accessible (the work was monitored by an archaeologist since the castle is a National Monument). At the bottom of the tower underneath the 18th century stone floor, they discovered a large cache of what may have been garbage to the inhabitants of the castle, but would have been precious treasure to most people in their era and certainly in ours.

Because the cache was sealed by the floor, the hiding place had very little air circulating. It was also quite damp and muddy, which helped preserved organic matter as well as delicate artifacts like glass bottles and porcelain. It’s an impressively large collection. Archaeologists recovered them from the mud by the bucketful. The objects may have been hidden deliberately when the castle was under attack (which it was a lot in the mid-17th century), or they may have been set aside for washing and then forgotten about, or simply thrown away. Or maybe some things were stashed with the intention of retrieval while other items were dumped as trash.

A number of late 17th century glass wine bottles, all intact, were found, some of which still had their seals, marked with a date stamp of 1688 and initials AL for Adam Loftus. Glass wine bottles only began to be used in 1650, so we’re talking very early survivals here of very fragile material. Another rare survival is of an intact crystal drinking glass, about the size and shape of a lipped shot glass. The crystal is much thinner than the wine bottles, so very few of them have made it out of their time without breaking. Then there’s the mysterious corked glass vial that still has liquid inside, possibly a perfume or essential oil. Its contents will be examined in a laboratory.

There is a complete set of pottery ointment or cosmetic jars, possibly made in Italy, one of which still has ointment in it. They’re graduated in size so they can stack neatly one inside the other. Porcelain wasn’t produced in England until 1750. Before then, it had to be imported from the far east. The porcelain discovered at Rathfarnham Castle is Chinese. The maker’s mark on the base of one plate identifies it as from the 1660s.

Other assorted objects include a group of clay pipes, chamber pots, coins going back as far as 1602, jewelry, buckles, shoes, a rare foldable travel toothbrush and weaponry. A Cromwellian armour breastplate with a musket ball hole in the lower abdomen is the stand-out piece amidst the gun flints and musket balls.

The organic remains testify to some very fine meals enjoyed at the castle. There are pits from olives, cherries, peaches and plums, melon and grape seeds, hazelnuts, oyster shells, fish bones, bird bones and perhaps most excitingly, tea leaves. Tea was also introduced in the mid-17th century, so again we’re looking at a very early luxury import.

The artifacts tell a story about the early history of the castle and of the lives of the elite. Since the 17th century was a very tumultuous time of wars and rebellions, not a great many fragile artifacts have survived. Finding so many of them in one place is an archaeological gold strike.

Built in 1583, the castle was the country retreat of Adam Loftus, Church of England Archbishop of Dublin, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, co-founder and first Provost of Trinity College Dublin. After his death in 1605, Rathfarnham Castle passed to his eldest son Sir Dudley Loftus and then to Dudley’s son Sir Adam Loftus in 1616. The artifacts date to Sir Adam’s tenure and that of his sons Sir Arthur and Dr. Dudley Loftus.

As a Protestant English noble, Loftus was a target in the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the castle was besieged by Irish Catholic forces. Adam was imprisoned, but the castle held out and was garrisoned by Royalist troops from 1641 through 1647 when Dublin surrendered to Parliamentary troops in the English Civil War. The Irish Catholic Confederation allied with the Royalists in 1648 and by 1649, Dublin was the only Parliamentary city in Ireland. Cromwell arrived in Ireland in August of 1649. He was said to have stayed at the castle and held council there before the Sack of Wexford in October of 1649. Adam Loftus sided with Cromwell and got his property back, only to be killed at the Siege of Limerick in 1651.

Dr. Dudley Loftus, a prodigy who graduated from Trinity College at age 18 and became a noted expert in languages, inherited Rathfarnham Castle in 1659. He held it in less turbulent times until his death in 1695. In addition to his reputation as a scholar and linguist, he also had a reputation as a voluptuary whose fondness for fashion, pageantry and women was known in some excruciating detail thanks to the pamphlets he himself wrote about his exploits. God knows what shenanigans those oysters were in aid of.

The artifacts have been removed to a laboratory for cleaning and conservation, after which they will be exhibited somewhere, ideally in the castle itself. Please watch the video at this link to see the tower floor and a lovely little tour of the artifacts recovered.

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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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