Thursday, February 19, 2009

Getty produces fascinating new video about Spanish polychrome painting techniques


Today on Twitter, the Getty Museum posted a link to a new article and excellent video they produced about Luisa Roldán and how her sculpture of Saint Ginés de La Jara was created. The video is about twelve minutes long and reveals fascinating details of the process.

I was fortunate to have viewed and photographed [Image left] this marvelous sculpture several years ago on my first visit to the Getty. I was astounded by the particularly lifelike depiction of the flesh and veins. I almost expected the saint to look down at me as I framed my image on my camera's LCD screen.

The technique, called encarnaciones, involves applying "thin layers of glue and gesso, followed by a pinkish beige layer of oil paint for the skin and blue to suggest the veins." Painter Tomás de los Arcos, La Roldana's brother-in-law, then applied a translucent coat of pinkish beige oil paint over the figure's veins, and added reddish highlights on the knuckles.

Of course when you enter the exhibit space, the first thing that catches your eye is the dramatic glint of gold on the saint's robe. The painter created the look of genuine brocade using a technique called estofado, in which one paint layer is scratched through to reveal another layer of contrasting color or material below.

Estofado was used extensively in Spain to depict rich embroidery and brocade on sculptures. The statue's garment was covered in gold leaf and painted over with brown paint, then incised in intricate patterns to reveal the brilliant burnished gold underneath.
La Roldana evenutally became the court sculptor for both Charles II and King Philip V. Other examples of her work, like the sculpture at right, may be viewed on this Spanish site.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ancient Bead with Brahmin script points to 5th century BC Buddhism in Thailand

As someone who is fascinated by miniatures, I couldn't help but be intrigued by this article about Dr Bunchar Pongpanich, secretary of the Suthee-Rattana Foundation in Nakhon Si Thammarat, who collects ancient beads in Thailand. His collection is now being exhibited at the National Discovery Museum. I also noticed that his collection includes a Roman aureus inscribed with Antonius that a local villager unearthed.

Dr Bunchar said he was directing a tsunami relief operation in Krabi's Khlong Thom district when a villager came across the tiny object and handed it to him for examination.

"The engraved script on the pendant was made in a dialect called Brahmin that was used from the reign of King Ashoka [c 265 to 238 BC] up to the 5th century of the Buddhist Era [1st to 2nd century BC]," said Dr Bunchar.

Even though the meaning of the script remains a mystery, he said, it is potential evidence to mark the arrival of Buddhism in this region at that period.

"That may tell something about Suvarnabhumi. We know that Buddhism arrived in the region at that time but archaeological evidence that has been found in the country dates back only to the 9th century. But this bead dates farther back, to the 5th century."

He also found several other ancient signs used by Buddhists before the creation of Buddha images, including a tiny bead called Tri Rattana.

HISTORY: Beads of various origins and periods at the exhibition. They were loaned by Dr Bunchar Pongpanich of the Suthee-Rattana Foundation.

The bead, despite its importance, remains largely unknown to Buddhists, he said.

"Due to its peculiar, shoulder-like design, some villagers call it a 'doll bead'. I called it a 'frog bead' which did not make any sense," he said.

It was not until he met a French archaeologist who studied beads in Khao Sam Kaeo in Chumphon in 2007, that he realised that the bead, which is made of several kinds of stones including rock crystal and carnelian, signified the Three Gems of Buddhist beliefs.

"People don't recognise it largely because they look at it upside down. The round design at the bottom is a lotus, which is dhamma, the middle part is dharmachakra, the wheel of law, and the flame at the top is the spread of Buddhism."

Dr Bunchar said he then returned to the Suan Mokkh sanctuary and went through a note written by Phra Buddhadasa during his trip to India in 1955. "His note showed that the revered monk had seen this type of bead in that country and already knew of its meanings. I noticed also that the Tri Rattana sign is a motif of some of the walls of Suan Mokkh buildings."

After years of prohibited excavation, new finds in Moenjodaro


I first learned about Moenjodaro many years ago in my very first archaeology class where it was presented as an example of a city that had to be abandoned because of wholesale environmental destruction. I notice, though, that the current article in Mohenjodaro in Wikipedia does not venture to speculate on a particular cause for its decline.

"The Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300–1700 BC, flowered 2600–1900 BC), abbreviated IVC, was an ancient riverine civilization that flourished in the Indus river valley in Pakistan and north-west India. Another name for this civilization is the "Harappan Civilization."

The Indus culture blossomed over the centuries and gave rise to the Indus Valley Civilization around 3000 BCE. The civilization spanned much of what is now Pakistan and North India, but suddenly went into decline around 1900 BCE. Indus Civilization settlements spread as far south as the Arabian Sea coast of India in Gujarat, as far west as the Iranian border, with an outpost in Bactria. Among the settlements were the major urban centers of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, as well as Lothal.

[Image - The so-called "Priest King" wearing what is now a Sindhi Ajruk, ca. 2500 BC. National Museum, Karachi, Pakistan]

The Mohenjo-daro ruins were one of the major centres of this ancient society. At its peak, some archaeologists opine that the Indus Civilization may have had a population of well over five million.

To date, over a thousand cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the Indus River valley in Pakistan and northwestern India." - Wikipedia

I was intrigued to read that Moenjodaro had public baths, like the Romans almost 3,000 years later:

At its height the city probably had around 35,000 residents. The buildings of the city were particularly advanced, with structures constructed of same-sized sun dried bricks of baked mud and burned wood.

The public buildings of these cities also suggest a high degree of social organization. The so-called great granary at Mohenjo-daro as interpreted by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1950 is designed with bays to receive carts delivering crops from the countryside, and there are ducts for air to circulate beneath the stored grain to dry it. However, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer has noted though, that no record of grain exists at the "granary." Thus Kenoyer suggests that a more appropriate title would be "Great Hall."[8]

Close to the granary, there is a building similarly civic in nature - a great public bath, with steps down to a brick-lined pool in a colonnaded courtyard. The elaborate bath area was very well built, with a layer of natural tar to keep it from leaking, and in the centre was the pool. Measuring 12m x 7m, with a depth of 2.4m, it may have been used for religious or spiritual ceremonies.

Within the city, individual homes or groups of homes obtained water from wells. Some of the houses included rooms that appear to have been set aside for bathing, waste water was directed to covered drains, which lined the major streets. Houses opened only to inner courtyards and smaller lanes. A variety of buildings were up to two stories high.

Being an agricultural city, it also featured a large well, and central marketplace. It also had a building with an underground furnace (hypocaust), possibly for heated bathing. - Wikipedia

Apparently, the last major excavation of Moenjodaro was conducted in 1964-65 by Dr. G. F. Dales.

After this date, excavations were banned due to damage done to the exposed structures by weathering. Since 1965, the only projects allowed at the site have been salvage excavation, surface surveys and conservation projects. Despite the ban on major archaeological projects, in the 1980s, teams of German and Italian survey groups, led by Dr. Michael Jansen and Dr. Maurizio Tosi, combined techniques such as architectural documentation, surface surveys, surface scraping and probing, to determine further clues about the ancient civilization
A team of archaeologists working on a drain to flush out rainwater from the DK-G area of an explored part of Moenjodaro found some ancient artefacts and cultural objects. Wikipedia

These latest findings were only the result of a $10 million UNESCO project to protect the site from flooding.

"Rainwater stagnates in several parts of the world heritage site every year, causing causes immense damage.

Well-defined structures of old drains were discovered along with certain old artefacts during the digging.

We had gone just half a metre down the level of surface of the old structures in the DK-G area and found the material of cultural value, The Dawn quoted Moenjodaro director Qasim Ali Qasim, as saying.

An object called elliptical lid was also found and according to Moenjodaro curator Irshad Rid, it was something new for archaeologists.

He said that prior to this digging no such object had been found at any site of the Indus Valley civilisation.

The curator said E. J. H. Mackay did last excavation of the site between 1927 and 1931. Since then, he said, no excavation in this portion had been done.

He said that the new finds could be related to the late period of Moenjodaro.

Rid said that the elliptical lid might have been used for keeping holy water or ceremonial water. A miniature used for keeping medicines was also discovered at the site, the curator said." - Thaindian.com

There is an excellent collection of Quicktime VR panoramic images of Moenjodaro on the World Heritage Site.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Unopened sarcophagus found near Djoser's pyramid

Although Imhotep was mentioned in this article as the architect of the Step Pyramid, no one is suggesting that this cache of mummies may be part of Imhotep's burial site that has been sought for decades.

Archaeologists have discovered dozens of mummies and several sarcophagi in a tomb estimated to be more than 4000 years old, says the Egyptian ministry of culture.

The find was made at Gisr al-Moudir, west of Egypt's first ever pyramid at Saqqara, the step pyramid of Djoser built by architect Imhotep in around 2700 BC, the ministry says in a statement.

"The tomb dates from the era of the sixth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, about 4300 years ago," says Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass.

"Thirty mummies and skeletons were discovered, including a wooden sarcophagus that has been sealed since the pharaonic era in the burial chamber at a depth of 11 metres."

Four other stone sarcophagi and another wooden one were also found in the tomb. Twenty of the mummies were stored in niches.

The mud-brick tomb commemorates a priest who was also a choir leader, says Hawass.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching Company's new course, "Making History: How Great Historians Interpret the Past" looks fascinating!

I was quite excited to see this new course offering, taught by Dr. Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College, from The Teaching Company. I like to read the accounts of ancient historians whenever I can but I always try to keep in mind the political and cultural influences that tend to skew the "eye-witness" perspective of these ancient minds. I will share some of my course discoveries with you when I get a chance to watch this new series on DVD. I will have to wait until I finish Experiencing Rome: A Visual Exploration of Antiquity's Greatest Empire though, as I am prepping for my March 12 trip to Rome at the moment.

Making History is on sale now for only $69.95 on DVD although you can also order it on audio CD, audio cassette, or MP3 download. I opted for the DVD version because it includes over 800 maps and images.


History is not truth.

While it forms the backbone of our knowledge about the world, history is nevertheless only a version of events. History is shaped by the interpretations and perspectives of the individual historians who record it.

Consider:

  • Sallust, writing his dark history of Rome to rail against the political corruption he saw consuming the empire—while artfully concealing his own role in it;
  • John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, writing about church history to discredit the Catholics and legitimize the reign of Elizabeth I;
  • David Hume, penning his massive History of England with the deliberate goal of creating a potboiler that will earn him a fortune.

What, then, is the motive and the vision of the historian? How do historians create their histories? And what role does the historian's viewpoint and method play in what we accept as truth?

These questions underlie a history lesson of the most revealing kind.

In Making History: How Great Historians Interpret the Past, award-winning scholar Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College takes you inside the minds of our greatest historians. Over 24 intriguing lectures, he challenges you to explore the idea of written history as it has shaped humanity's story over 2,000 years. Told through enthralling historical anecdotes, the course travels deep into mankind's fundamental desire to record and understand the world, to shed new light on the events and experiences of yesterday, and to use the past as a window onto the present and the future.

History: The Art of Discovery

"History is more than merely a pile-up of facts or a chronicle of the past," notes Dr. Guelzo. "It is an art—and a very complicated one at that. And like the others arts, it has techniques and perspectives, some of them old and long-since retired, some of them in violent conflict with each other."

The actors in this art of discovery are the great historians themselves, from the ancient Greeks to our own time. You look through the eyes of our civilization's greatest historical minds to ponder why they conceived and wrote history the way they did.

In key sections, you explore the seminal thinking of these men:

  • Herodotus, considered by many the first history writer, who replaced the epic imagination of Homer with istorieis, or inquiry
  • Livy, the author of a 142-volume didactic history of Rome that spanned three continents and seven centuries
  • David Hume, who framed English history with an evolutionary vision of economic, political, and intellectual freedom
  • Edward Gibbon, whose monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forged a complex picture of epic collapse and decay

Beneath the Surface of Written History

With Professor Guelzo's penetrating perspective, you examine the processes that create accepted views of historical events. As you take apart the elements of history writing, you discover how the great stories of the past were chosen and how they were interpreted.

In considering the key choices the historian makes, you uncover the ways in which understanding how history is written is crucial to understanding historical events themselves. You also explore how the version of history you accept reveals much about you as an individual and as a member of a community.

The journey rewards you with an unforgettable insight into our human heritage and the chance to look with discerning eyes at human events in their deeper meanings. Anyone with an interest in history, philosophy, or intellectual history will find these lectures a far-reaching meditation on the evolution of historical thought.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Laurence Hutton's "Undying Faces" mesmerizing


I want to thank Laurence Hutton for commenting on my post about the recreation of Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming program "Stealing Lincoln's Body". He pointed me to his blog highlighting famous life and death masks, entitled "Undying Faces". I was mesmerized as I looked at faces of people I had read about but only seen in painted portraits, as they lived, for the most part, before the age of photography.

[Image left - Vice-admiral Horatio Nelson life mask, 1800, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London]

I was particularly interested in the life mask of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, commander in Britain's most famous naval victory at Trafalgar. I have always found Lord Nelson to be a very handsome man. I certainly understand why Emma Hamilton found him so attractive and have even collected historical figures of him (my favorite is a portrait doll by English artist Ann Parker. I was gratified to see that he was as handsome in reality as he has been portrayed in art.

[Image right - Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott]

It is not surprising that Lord Nelson had a life mask made of himself. He was, apparently, quite vain, according to an assessment of his personality in Wikipedia:

Nelson was regarded as a highly effective leader, and someone who was able to sympathise with the needs of his men. He based his command on love rather than authority, inspiring both his superiors and his subordinates with his considerable courage, commitment and charisma, dubbed 'the Nelson touch'.[206][207] Nelson combined this talent with an adept grasp of strategy and politics, making him a highly successful naval commander. However, Nelson's personality was complex, often characterised by a desire to be noticed, both by his superiors, and the general public. He was easily flattered by praise, and dismayed when he felt he was not given sufficient credit for his actions.[208] This led him to take risks, and to enthusiastically publicise his resultant successes.[209] Nelson was also highly confident in his abilities, determined and able to make important decisions.[210] His active career meant that he was considerably experienced in combat, and was a shrewd judge of his opponents, able to identify and exploit his enemies' weaknesses.[206] He was often prone to insecurities however, as well as violent mood swings,[211] and was extremely vain: he loved to receive decorations, tributes and praise.[212] Despite his personality, he remained a highly professional leader and was driven all his life by a strong sense of duty. - Wikipedia
Of the Civil War-era death masks in Mr. Hutton's collection, I found the cast of Ulysses S. Grant to look the closest to his portraits in paintings and on our currency. Of course, in his case we have a photograph to compare with it.

[Image left - death mask of President Ulysses S. Grant]

I thought the death mask of Robert E. Lee reflected a sad end to a once great warrior.

His face seemed more elongated and emaciated than portraits I have seen of him.

[Image right - Death mask of Confederate General Robert E. Lee]

Of course, that is the problem when looking at a death mask. It is created at the end of life after, in many cases, wasting illnesses. In Lee's case:

"On September 28, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke that left him without the ability to speak. Lee died from the effects of pneumonia, a little after 9 a.m., October 12, 1870, two weeks after the stroke, in Lexington, Virginia. He was buried underneath Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University, where his body remains today. According to J. William Jones' Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, his last words, on the day of his death, were "Tell Hill he must come up. Strike the tent," but this is debatable because of conflicting accounts. Since Lee's stroke resulted in aphasia, last words may have been impossible. Lee was treated homeopathically for this illness.[42]" - Wikipedia
It's as if you can see the profound sadness on his face, even in death, for the effects of his surrender at Appamatox and the brutal "reconstruction" that followed.

"Lee attended a meeting of ex-Confederates in 1870, during which he expressed regrets about his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, given the effects of Republican Reconstruction policy on the South. Speaking to former Confederate Governor of Texas Fletcher Stockdale, he said:

Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people [Yankees] designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.[39]- Wikipedia


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Digital Modeling combined with Still image texture maps used to bring Lincoln to life

I received an update about the upcoming special "Stealing Lincoln's Body" that shows a little more detail of the process used to bring Lincoln to Life using a combination of digital modeling from a life mask of Lincoln with still images of Lincoln that provided texture maps for wrinkled skin, hair, etc. I wish I could sit down with the animators and watch each step of the process!

Monday, February 02, 2009

New Museum to Showcase Jin War Chariots

With all of the spectacular archaeological finds made in China since the 1980s it is difficult to choose the most important - and the finds just keep multiplying each year. I have been fortunate to have seen a traveling exhibit of the terracotta warriors and hope to see them in situ one day. Now it looks like I need to plan to include this new museum showcasing the fabulous Jin war chariots of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1120-781 BC), like the one shown here, in my itinerary!

[Image - life-size model of a Zhou Dynasty "4 Horses 3 men" War Chariot in the China's People's Revolutionary Military Musuem in Beijing]

In the remote village of Yangshe on the banks of the Yellow River, Chinese archaeologists are little by little bringing an ancient culture back to life after nearly 3,000 years. The vast cemetery they are excavating belonged to the rulers of the Jin state, which is finally emerging in all its remarkable diversity in what is now northern China's Shanxi Province. It is a discovery that in most countries would excite the entire scholarly community, but in China it is just one in a string of startling finds.

At the Yangshe dig, the outstanding feature is a large pit containing 48 chariots and 105 horses that were buried with a Jin ruler particularly noted for his military campaigns during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1120-781 BC).

The find is the largest horse and chariot pit dating from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-256 BC) so far found in China and predates the terracotta warrior tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang, by more than 600 years, Ji said.

Among the finds are ceremonial carriages exquisitely painted with red lacquer and which include finely crafted doors with bronze hinges. Armoured war carriages protected by bronze plates are also among the finds.

"We believe the chariots and horses were the actual cavalry used in the military campaigns of the Jin leader," Ji said. "So far we have counted at least 105 horses, which we believe were drugged and buried alive as some of their heads were erect and others had their legs bound," he added.

The state of Jin existed as part of the Zhou Dynasty, which was divided into western and eastern periods.

The Jin cemetery was first discovered in 1992, but funding for major excavations only began in 1996.

Since then all 19 tombs have been excavated with the dig of the largest horse and chariot pit alone taking four years, Ji said.

Coinciding with the discoveries, archaeologists in China are seeing funding on a scale they could only have dreamt of a few years ago. "The Museum of the State of Jin, which begins construction in March, will sit on top of the horse and chariot pit and is expected to be opened by 2010," he said.

The 100-million-yuan (13-million-dollar) museum will house a treasure trove of bronze and jade artifacts from all 19 tombs of the early Jin rulers and their wives.