Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ancient Viking Troop Carrier

  • 28 Dec 2012
  • The Guardian
  • Maev Kennedy

Rebirth of the Viking warship that terrorised Europe

Ancient troop carrier rises from depths of history and heads for British Museum

When the sleek, beautiful silhouette of Roskilde 6 appeared on the horizon, 1,000 years ago, it was very bad news. The ship was part of a fleet carrying an army of hungry, thirsty warriors, muscles toned by rowing and sailing across the North Sea; a war machine like nothing else in 11th-century Europe, its arrival meant disaster was imminent.

Now the ship’s timbers are slowly drying out in giant steel tanks at the Danish national museum’s conservation centre at Brede outside Copenhagen, and will soon again head across the North Sea – to be a star attraction at an exhibition in the British Museum.

The largest Viking warship ever found, it was discovered by chance in 1996 at Roskilde. It is estimated that building it would have taken up to 30,000 hours of skilled work, plus the labour of felling trees and hauling materials. At just over 36 metres, it was four metres longer than Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose built 500 years later, and six metres longer than the Viking ship spectacularly recreated as Sea Stallion, which sailed from Scandinavia around Scotland to Dublin in 2007.

“This ship was a troop carrier,” said Gareth Williams of the British Museum. It was built some time after 1025 when the oak trees were felled, and held 100 warriors taking turns on 39 pairs of oars if there was not enough wind to fill the square woollen sail. They would have been packed in tightly, with little room for supplies except a minimal amount of fresh water – or ale or mead, which would not have gone stale as fast – and dried salt mutton.
It would have been an uncomfortable journey, but short: they did not need to carry much as their ship could move startlingly fast – Sea Stallion managed an average speed of 5.5 knots, and a top speed of 20 knots. Once they landed, the warriors could forage with ruthless efficiency, as many a coastal community or wealthy monastery discovered.

The ship would probably not have come alone. “There are records in the annals of fleets of hundreds of ships,” Williams said. “So you could be talking about … up to 10,000 men suddenly landing on your coast, highly trained, fit, capable of moving very fast on water or land.” Such luxury ships were fabulously expensive to build and a devastating display of power, Williams said.

The dates suggest Roskilde 6 may have been built for King Canute, who according to legend set his throne in the path of the incoming tide, to prove to his courtiers that even a monarch could not control the force of nature. At the time the Vikings were consolidating their power from temporary raiders to permanent invaders.

With all the original timbers fitted into a steel frame that will recreate its full length and form, the ship will be the centrepiece of Viking, an exhibition opening at the Danish national museum in June, before being transported to London to launch the British Museum’s new exhibition space in 2014. It will travel in two containers, by freighter and lorry.

The vessel was found by accident when an extension was being built to the Roskilde ship museum in Denmark, itself built to hold an earlier find of Viking ships that had been deliberately sunk to narrow the fjord and protect the approach to the town, the old royal capital of Denmark.

In 1996 archaeologists watching the construction work discovered huge timbers in the new foundations, some chopped in half by the piling. It proved to be a treasure trove of nine ships, of which Roskilde 6, almost half of which was recovered, was the most spectacular. The timbers stayed in storage while the museum worked out what to do, until the exhibition provided the opportunity for full conservation.

The original Roskilde ships are displayed in a purpose-built ship hall, but could never travel: the timbers look solid but might shatter like glass. When excavated, the sodden timbers of Roskilde 6 would have disintegrated into a heap of dust if left exposed to air. National museum conservator Kristiane Straetkvern managed the project, which has been drying timbers up to 10 metres long far more slowly than the older techniques, then replacing the lost moisture with synthetic resin, leaving them lighter but stable.

The exhibition will display finds from across Scandinavia and from deep into the countries they penetrated wherever a river could carry their shallow draft ships – as far inland as Lichfield in England, deep into Russia, to Byzantium in the east, where Vikings fought as mercenaries on both sides, and beyond. Objects from 12 countries will demonstrate that Vikings were traders, farmers, fishermen, and superb craft workers in timber, bone and metal.

The Roskilde team are now experts on recreating ancient ships, regularly commissioned to build them. One day they hope to recreate a full-size, ocean-going replica Roskilde 6, and send it across the sea to awe rather than to terrorise the coasts of the British Isles.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mayan Calendar

Mayan calendar is only part of rich legacy


The most precise and sophisticated calendar ever created is only one of the legacies of the ancient Maya, who also left their mark on the arts, architecture and cooking, experts say.

The Mayan "Long Count" calendar says an era of more than 5,000 years ends on December 21 -- doomsday for some but a reason to rejoice for many others in Mexico and central America, where the civilization once flourished.

Millions of tourists are expected in the region on Friday to celebrate with fireworks, concerts and other spectacles held at more than three dozen archeological sites.

"The Mayan calendar is not just a matter of counting seconds, minutes and hours," Guatemalan anthropologist Alvaro Pop, a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told AFP.

Students learn about the Maya at the Museum of National Identity in Tegucigalpa on December 14, 2012. The beginning of a new Mayan era on December 21 will be marked with celebrations throughout southern Mexico and Central America.

The calendar also represents a model showing "the movements of celestial bodies and the way it affects human life in a cyclical manner," Pop explained.

That expertise enabled the ancient civilization to detect the influence of celestial bodies on tides, births and plants, he noted.

But the contributions of the ancient civilization -- which reached its peak between the years 250 and 900 -- far transcend their understanding of the stars, touching on everything from architecture to textiles to food.

The Mayas were the first to grow corn, some 3,000 years ago. Today, it remains the main staple in cuisines across the region.

The Mayas were also among the first to use and grow cocoa and, according to some, they came up with the idea of chewing chicle, a natural gum from a regional tropical evergreen tree and the precursor to chewing gum.

The Mayas and their descendants, notably in Guatemala, are also known for their multi-colored fabrics, which "represent the most beautiful and explosive expression of life on the continent and in the world," according to Pop.

Their civilization is also noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas.

In total, the Mayas spoke 36 languages throughout their history and in different regions. Many of these, which feature very elaborate grammatical structures, are still spoken in indigenous communities.

The Popol Vuh, the Mayan holy book, is the most concrete example of that rich linguistic heritage. The mythological book explains the creation of the world, particularly of the Quiche people, one of the many Mayan ethnic groups.

According to Costa Rican anthropologist Ana Cecilia Arias, Mayan architects, who built imposing pyramids, and their descendants also made significant contributions, notably by helping design churches in the region.


Today the ruins of major urban and religious centers such as Chichen Itza in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras and Tazumal in El Salvador stand as shining examples of Mayan architectural knowhow.

Perhaps the more important legacy of the Mayas is human -- millions of ethnic Mayan descendants today live in central America, mainly in Guatemala and Mexico.

Most try to maintain the customs and traditions inherited from their illustrious ancestors even though they are often mired in poverty and face social exclusion.

The "Pompeii" of Japan

Remains of man in armour found at 'Pompeii of Japan'


The remains of a high-caste man wearing armour who was buried by hot ash -- possibly as he tried to calm the wrath of an erupting volcano -- have been found in an area known as the "Pompeii of Japan".
Archaeologists say they have unearthed the well-preserved body of a sixth-century man who had apparently turned to face a flow of molten rock as it gushed through his settlement.

"Under normal circumstances, you would flee if pyroclastic flows are rushing toward you and bringing waves of heat. But this person died facing it," said Shinichiro Ohki, of Gunma Archaeological Research Foundation.

"Maybe, if he were someone of a high position, he might have been praying, or doing something in the direction of the volcano and attempting to appease its anger," Ohki told AFP on Monday.

The remains, along with a part of an infant's skull, were found in the Kanai Higashiura dig in Gunma prefecture, roughly 110 kilometres (70 miles) northwest of Tokyo, at the site of the volcanic Mount Haruna.

The find comes from an area known to enthusiasts as the "Pompeii of Japan" a reference to the Roman city near modern-day Naples buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79.

The body is clad in a relatively sophisticated kind of armour made by craftsmen who bound small iron plates with thin leather strips, which would have represented the latest technological import from the Korean Peninsula.

It may have been brought to Japan after the practice of horse riding was introduced in the late fifth century, Ohki said, adding that the armour was much more sophisticated than the single-plate type common in the period.

"It indicates the person wearing it was someone of a high position, like a regional leader," Ohki told AFP, adding studies would be carried out to see if the man was related to occupants of ancient tombs dotting the region.

Archaeologists will also examine the bones to determine whether the man and the child were related.
"If possible, we would like to study their DNA. Were they related? Why and how did they die there?" Ohki said.

Pharaonic Whodunit

A papyrus representation of the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses III

Scientists solve 3,000-year-old pharaonic whodunit

PARIS — An assassin slit the throat of Egypt's last great pharaoh at the climax of a bitter succession battle, scientists said in a report on a 3,000-year-old royal murder.
Forensic technology suggests Ramses III, a king revered as a god, met his death at the hand of a killer, or killers, sent by his conniving wife and ambitious son, they said.
And a cadaver known as the "Screaming Mummy" could be that of the son himself, possibly forced to commit suicide after the plot, they added.
Computed tomography (CT) imaging of the mummy of Ramses III shows that the pharaoh's windpipe and major arteries were slashed, inflicting a wound 70 millimetres (2.75 inches) wide and reaching almost to the spine, the investigators said.
The cut severed all the soft tissue on the front of the neck.
"I have almost no doubt about the fact that Ramses III was killed by this cut in his throat," palaeopathologist Albert Zink of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Italy told AFP.
"The cut is so very deep and quite large, it really goes down almost down to the bone (spine) -- it must have been a lethal injury."
Ramses III, who ruled from about 1188 to 1155 BC, is described in ancient documents as the "Great God" and a military leader who defended Egypt, then the richest prize in the Mediterranean, from repeated invasion.
He was about 65 when he died, but the cause of his death has never been clear.
Sketchy evidence lies in the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, which recorded four trials held for alleged conspirators in the king's death, among them one of his junior wives, Tiy, and her son Prince Pentawere.
In a year-long appraisal of the mummy, Zink and experts from Egypt, Italy and Germany found that the wound on Ramses III's neck had been hidden by mummified bandages.
"This was a big mystery that remained, what really happened to the king," said Zink of the study, published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
"We were very surprised and happy because we did not really expect to find something. Other people had inspected the mummy, at least from outside, and it was always described (as) 'there are no signs of any trauma or any injuries.'"
It is possible that Ramses's throat was cut after death, but this is highly unlikely as such a practice was never recorded as an ancient Egyptian embalming technique, the researchers said.
In addition, an amulet believed to contain magical healing powers was found in the cut.
"For me it is quite obvious that they inserted the amulet to let him heal for the after-life," said Zink.
"For the ancient Egyptians it was very important to have an almost complete body for the after-life," and embalmers often replaced body parts with sticks and other materials, he said.
The authors of the study also examined the mummy of an unknown man between the ages of 18 and 20 found with Ramses III in the royal burial chamber.
They found genetic evidence that the corpse, known as the Screaming Mummy for its open mouth and contorted face, was related to Ramses and may very well have been Prince Pentawere.
"What was special with him, he was embalmed in a very strange way.... They did not remove the organs, did not remove the brain," said Zink.
"He had a very strange, reddish colour and a very strange smell. And he was also covered with a goat skin and this is something that was considered as impure in ancient Egyptian times" -- possibly a post-mortem punishment.
If it was Pentawere, it appears he may have been forced to hang himself, a punishment deemed at the time as sufficient to purge one's sins for the after-life, the researchers said.
History shows, though, that the plotters failed to derail the line of succession. Ramses was succeeded by his chosen heir, his son Amonhirkhopshef.

Turner Exhibition

  • 18 Dec 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Masterpieces from an artist who knew his worth

Turner’s art was revolutionary and he ensured it would be remembered, writes Sonia Harford.

‘He was very strategic as an artist. From very early on he was conscious of constructing his identity in the public realm.’
Jane Messenger, curator
Turner lashed to a ship’s mast witnessing a mighty storm is one of art’s enduring and epic tales. Legend has it the artist conceived his masterpiece Snowstorm amid the swirling chaos of snow and sea – a genius suffering for his art. However, the art curator Jane Messenger sets us straight.
‘‘It didn’t actually happen – but it goes to the myth of the artist and his passion, in capturing the fierce energies and the wrath of nature.’’

With his grand romantic vision, Joseph Mallord William Turner boldly revolutionised 19th-century British art. He is quintessentially British, and London’s Tate Gallery is synonymous with Turner’s legacy.

So distinctive is his style, most of us think we can spot a typical Turner several galleries away. Yet a major exhibition coming to Adelaide and Canberra next year, Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master, reveals there’s much more to the Turner myth than snowstorms and Britain’s maritime might. (In fact, we won’t see the monumental Fighting Temeraire or The Slave Ship in Australia – those belong to other collections.)

Messenger, co-curator of the Adelaide show and curator of European and North American art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, says Turner went to great lengths to create a complete picture of his work. Wealthy and successful towards the end of his life, he bought back paintings from patrons or refused to part with them, bequeathing them to the nation.

‘‘He was very strategic as an artist,’’ she says. ‘‘From very early on he was conscious of constructing his identity in the public realm, and how he would be written into history.’’

Given the value of the bequest, London’s Tate Gallery is revered as the custodian of Turner’s work, and it also shapes the narrative of the artist’s life. We’ve had the legend – the Australian exhibition charts the man in full.

‘‘What distinguishes this show is that it’s only through the Turner Bequest that this comprehensive story can be told, of his development from precocious young man to the visions of a dying old man,’’ Messenger says. ‘‘We return to his time and follow him as he paints and sketches his way through life.’’

The Turner exhibition, a centrepiece of the Adelaide Festival and a winter blockbuster at the National Gallery of Australia, will have more than 100 oils, watercolours and sketches, some never exhibited. They will soon be on their way to Australia, including Peace – Burial at Sea, with its bright flame slashing the dark shadows; and a favourite of Messenger’s, Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons, in which the work of man – embodied in a tiny cottage – is threatened by the crushing forces of nature, snow plummeting and exploding in the landscape.

While Turner’s style seems overly familiar – elemental, heroic sweeps of light and air – his subjects vary widely from sublime natural scenes to gloomy, backlit castles. Sea monsters haunt Turner’s oceans and historical stories glow from the canvas. The exhibitions will emphasise the breadth of a life’s work, the extraordinary arc from the tranquil to the turbulent.

From the start, a young and brilliant Turner, awarded a Royal Academy fellowship at just 26, emerged with lyrical landscapes – described by the art historian Simon Schama as places ‘‘of almost narcotic serenity’’. This, he says, was the ‘‘pleasureseeking, public-pleasing Turner that gently stroked the selfsatisfaction of Regency England’’ and became a wealthy man.

Turner had modest origins – the son of a barber in Cockney London – but the early promise he showed flourished at the Royal Academy and commissions flowed in. The Australian shows have a large collection of Turner’s later works, with their intense atmospheric charge.
Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master will be at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, from February 8 to May 19 and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, from June 1 to September 8.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tunnels beneath Roman Baths

  • 12 Dec 2012
  • The Guardian
  • Tom Kington Rome

Glimpse of manic Roman perfection – and cleanliness

Restored tunnels beneath the baths at Caracalla give insights into ancient skills

In the middle of a patch of grass amid the ruins of the Caracalla baths in Rome, there is a staircase that takes visitors deep into the ground to a world resembling the lair of a James Bond villain.
Photograph: Chris Warde-JonesThe excavated network of underground passageways under the baths of Caracalla was also home to a separate ancient structure, a pagan temple, the largest Mithraeum in the Roman Empire, dating to 212 AD
“This is our glimpse at maniacal Roman perfection, at incredible hydraulic technology,” said archaeologist Marina Piranomonte, as she descended and waved her arms at a network of tunnels, each measuring six metres (20ft) high and wide.

The baths, on a sprawling site off the beaten track in a city crowded by monumental attractions, hold their own against the nearby Circus Maximus, its shattered walls standing 37 metres high, recalling its second century heyday when it pulled in 5,000 bathers a day.

But for Piranomonte, it is the three kilometre, triple-tiered grid of tunnels that lies under the site – the first tract of which will open for visits this month – which really shows off how seriously the Romans took their sauna time.

An army of hundreds of slaves kept firmly out of sight of bathers scurried along the tunnels feeding 50 ovens with tonnes of wood a day to heat water surging through a network of underground channels that arrived via aqueduct from a source 60 miles away. Below that, massive sewers, which are now being explored by speleologists, flowed towards the Tiber.

“It’s the dimension and the organisation that amazes – there is no spa as big as this anywhere in the world today,” said Piranomonte.

Upstairs, Romans would kick off a visit with a session in one of two gyms, then enjoy a sauna and a spell in a hot tub in the 36 metre (120ft) wide, domed caldarium – slightly smaller than Rome’s Pantheon. The tepidarium then beckoned, before a cool down in the frigidarium, a space so elegant its design and dimensions were copied at Union station in Chicago.

To complete the experience, a pool 50 metres long and a garden complete with lending library flanked the baths. “The emperor Caracalla was cruel, but he built beautiful things,” said Piranomonte, who is charged with the site’s upkeep.

A thousand years after it was built, the ghostly ruins of the massive buildings were overgrown and abandoned. “Because it was on the outskirts of Rome, no one built on top of it and the tunnels were simply forgotten, probably sealed by undergrowth,” she added.

Following their rediscovery at the end of the 19th century, Mussolini strengthened the tunnels when he decided to stage operas amid the ruins overhead, but Piranomonte was less than impressed with his handiwork.

“Look at the rain water trickling through; that’s Mussolini’s bricks leaking while ours are fine,” she said, pointing to the perfect Roman brick arches disappearing into the gloom.

The reopening of a short stretch of the tunnels on 21 December caps a clean-up of the baths. The opera, which used the remains of the caldarium for a stage and kept a stage-set workshop in one of the saunas, has been shunted back into the gardens.

A €450,000 (£360,000) restoration also resulted in the reopening this month of an underground temple at the baths, linked to the tunnel network and dedicated to Mithras, the deity whose popularity soared just before Christianity took hold in the Roman empire. Entering the temple, which boasts black-and-white floor mosaic and is the biggest of its kind in the Roman empire, Piranomonte points to a frieze of Mithras holding a globe but missing his head. “Probably taken off by the Christians,” she said.

A chamber flanked by space for spreading out on during banquets centres on a large pit where a drugged bull was placed on a metal grill and butchered. Below the grill is a small niche where an initiate to the cult would crawl to be drenched with litres of bull’s blood. “It was a cruel cult, for men only, so you understand why Christianity got the upper hand,” said Piranomonte.

Emerging from the temple, the archaeologist pauses before what she describes as her favourite part – an authentic Roman roundabout. A large arch leads to the entrance of the tunnel network, where carts carrying tonnes of logs would queue to feed the ovens. Now fully restored, the tunnel starts with a roundabout that circles a guard’s kiosk to stop traffic jam.

“A Roman spa with a roundabout,” said Piranamonte, “That I find really fascinating.”

Monday, December 10, 2012

William Henry Fox Talbot Archive

  • 10 Dec 2012
  • The Guardian
  • Maev Kennedy

£2.2m bid to stop Britain losing archive of father of photography

In 1839, a country gentleman stood up to address the Royal Society about some experiments he’d been conducting at home – and ended up capturing the world. William Henry Fox Talbot, an amateur scientist who had been pottering about with lenses, wooden boxes and chemicals had found a way to capture photographic images on paper.

“So much that we now take for granted in the 21st-century world came from that night,” said Richard Ovenden, the deputy director of Oxford’s Bodleian Library which launches a £2.25m bid this week to acquire an archive of Fox Talbot’s life and work – including some of the first photographs ever taken, and the first taken by a woman.

The bid, which the Bodleian an hopes will attract a National Heritage ge Memorial Fund grant for just under half f the cost, is supported by photographers, rawith including Martin Parr, and historians.

“We are now bombarded with images, we carry whole libraries rle of images around in mobile phones, but all of that, the internet, ternet, Flickr, YouTube, goes back to o Fox Talbot,” said Ovenden.

The archive tracks how within a few years of that talk at the Royal Society, the craze for photography spread across the world, and Punch was full of cartoons toons of people be being held in clamps for long enough to have their portraits taken. Fox Talbot p published the first book illustrated with w photographs, The Pencil of Nature, including many taken in Oxford, just five years later.

Recently bought bo from the family by a New York Yor dealer, the archive holds Fox Talbot’s Ta earliest records, as well as family papers such as a letter le he wrote to his mo mother when he was six in which he wrote sadly ““come to me, you have been away three weeks and six days”. There are records from Lacock Abbey, his Wiltshire home, now owned by the National Trust, records of his time as an MP, his own photographs, and hundreds of images he acquired from other pioneers.

There is also a rather dull image of four lines of verse by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, a family friend. It was made by shining sunlight through the original manuscript on to a piece of treated paper. Ovenden believes it was made by Fox Talbot’s wife, Constance, and so is the first photograph by a woman.

“The archive shows that she was caught up in the excitement of the discovery as early as 1839, and was virtually elbowing him away from the developing table, making her own experiments,” he said.

Parr was shocked to hear there was any question of the archive leaving the UK permanently. “The very notion of this leaving the UK, just defies belief, and the only possible explanation is that the underappreciation of photography in the UK, is still here in a very disturbing way,” he said. Colin Ford, the first director of the National Media Museum in Bradford, said there could be no doubt about the archive’s importance. “There is still much research to be done on all this – perhaps particularly in the non-photographic areas.”

Fox Talbot spent the rest of his life defending his claim to be the father of modern photography. His images, fixed as negatives on chemically treated paper, and capable of multiple reproduction as positives on paper, vied with a rival process perfected by Louis Daguerre, the French artist and physicist who had announced his own unique images fixed on silvered copper plates only a few weeks earlier.

“The arguments are as old as photography itself,” Ovenden said, “but undoubtedly Fox Talbot was the inventor of the negative, and it was his process which won out and led to the development of all modern photography on film. It is hard to overestimate his importance.”

Mughal Masterpieces

  • 10 Dec 2012
  • The Independent
  • Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, London NW1 (01937 546546) to 2 April

The emperors strike back

Indian art began to flourish 500 years ago when East met West. Adrian Hamilton marvels at the masterpieces of the Muslim Moghul dynasty in a wonderful new show at the British Museum

The British have always had special regard for the Mughal Emperors, who ruled India from 1526 t o 1858. They were intelligent, cultured and tough – all virtues in the eyes of Westerners who came to India, awestruck by the luxury of the imperial court and the extent of its conquests.

Ivory model of Akbar Shah II with musicians

It’s not an admiration, it should be said, shared by most modern Indians, who tend to dismiss their rule as just one more foreign incursion in a history of many millennia. Nor did British respect last a moment longer than the Mughal’s failure to support the British in the uprising of the Indian Mutiny. Tried, condemned and exposed to public gaze, the last Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, was sent to a pathetic exile in Burma in 1858, where he died four years later.

In the meantime, the British amassed a host of visual and literary treasures, not least from the imperial library itself, to be shipped back to England for study and display. The British Library has more than its fair share, a great deal more indeed than I’d ever suspected. They are as good as anything in India itself and, if sometimes reading the origin of these works, one feels it a qualm of conscience, it is arguable whether the Indians themselves would treat them any better in view of their disregard for Islamic culture.

The Mughals were emphatically Muslims, with varying degrees of abstemiousness. They were of Turkish origin, powerfully influenced by Persian culture and, at least in the reign of Akbar the Great, tolerant and interested in other cultures. All these strands are on show here, most spectacularly in the miniatures and manuscript of the first century of their rule. Although the British Library tries to make this a story of a dynasty as much as show of art, and puts the case for the late flowering of Mughal culture in verse as in painting in the 18th and early 19th century, there is no doubting where the masterpieces lie.

Akbar, third in line of the rulers, gathered together in his court artists and craftsmen from Persia, Central Asia and the Hindu kingdoms of India. Painting was his passion. Dismissing the strictures of Islam against representation and display, he commissioned illustrated works of poetry, epic and family history as well as translations of the Hindu classics from an imperial studio of the finest artists of his time.

The resulting output was a style, Persian in source and expression, but broader, earthier than its models. It’s fascinating to see in the illustrated manuscripts how Hindu colouring and naturalism begin to make their mark on royal patronage, and how too the arrival of Christian missionaries and merchants, bringing with them the prints of Western masters, introduced new ideas of perspective and figuration.

The portrait in profile was an Indian tradition. But the Mughal artist made it their own with an exquisite concentration on detail and mood. To the Persian taste for decorative detail and jewel-like colours, they added the deep greens and browns of India’s jungles and forests. Against the hierarchical compositions of traditional court art, they now introduced Western imagery and composition.

The curators would try and herd you into themes and subjects – Christian subjects, family histories, science and medicine and religion. It works in a didactic sense but the real pleasure is to see how the younger artists coming into the imperial studios began to break free of conventions, loosen their
apace. The Library has a touching brush drawing of Akbar with eyes concentrating downwards, and a series of pictures of his nobles commissioned by the Emperor towards the end of his reign.

With Shah Jahan and his eldest daughter and son, Princess Jahanara and Prince Dara Shikoh, arts reached their most confident peak. Dara Shikoh, one of the most cultured and sympathetic figures in Mughal history, is represented by pages from a beautiful album of pictures he collected and presented to his beloved wife. His name was blotted from the book when he was usurped and executed by his brother, Aurangzeb, in 1659.

Aurangzeb was an enemy not only to his brothers but to the artists whose work he no longer commissioned and to Hindus whose temples he destroyed. Ascetic, orthodox and intent on expanding the frontiers of his empire, he spent most of his half-century reign (1658-1707) fighting the Muslim sultanates on the Deccan and died still in the field in 1707. He was buried, according to his wishes, in an open grave paid for out of the income from caps sewn by himself and sold anonymously in the bazaar.

Thereafter, Mughal power and wealth declined as the Europeans extended their hold. The 19th century certainly saw a revival of energy in painting and the arts, but it was not in the studios of a bankrupt court but in works commissioned by the Maratha princes and the British East India figures such as James Skinner of Skinner’s Horse fame.

The Western influence is stronger, the perspective and scale more pronounced and the colours more forceful. A splendidly boisterous long

picture, The Procession of the Mughal Emperor Akbar II Through Delhi to the
Idgah, from around 1815-1825 shows a scene more realistic but a good deal less disciplined than similar public occasions a couple of centuries before. Topography makes its appearance as do street scenes, in answer to a Western market. The skill is still there, but the sense of an art bent on excellence has gone in a market now dominated by Western demand.

The British played no small part in that decline. But they also, as this exhibition attests, played a large part in the preservation of the glorious culture that once was. A wonderful exhibition, if at the end a melancholic one.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mystery of the Missing Island

    • 5 Dec 2012
    • The Sydney Morning Herald
    • Nicky Phillips

    Librarian’s search finds sighting of the island that is not there

    THE mystery of when and how a phantom island in the Pacific came to be first marked on a map may have been solved by a New Zealand librarian.
    Lost and found . . . the outcrop known as Sandy Island was marked on a map printed in 1908 that has been found in New Zealand. The mapped area is north-west of New Caledonia.
    On November 22, Fairfax Media reported that an island known as ‘‘Sandy Island’’ on Google Earth and navigational charts did not exist, after a team of University of Sydney scientists found nothing but open water where the land mass should be.

    After reading a story about the ‘‘undiscovered’’ island, Shaun Higgins, a pictorial librarian at the Auckland Museum, trawled through ancient maps and charts at his workplace for clues on the origin of the mystery island.

    On an admiralty chart dated 1908, Mr Higgins found what he was looking for: a dotted circle labelled Sandy Island.

    ‘‘It has the same shape as [on] Google Earth, but it’s dotted,’’ said Mr Higgins. ‘‘It could have been dotted because it was an unidentified hazard.’’

    The chart names a ship called Velocity as discovering the island in 1876.

    When museum staff wrote about the chart on their blog, a member of the public posted a comment saying the Velocity was a whaling ship that had been captained by J.W. Robinson and which sailed from Hobart on April 12, 1876 and returned on March 20, 1877.

    The post, which cited an article in the Hobart Mercury from 1877, went on to say: ‘‘Captain Robinson reported that he left [Hobart] on the 15th April, 1876 and proceeded to Cato’s Bank, where whales were seen once during a gale of wind.

    ‘‘Shortly after this, the vessel sprang a leak, which kept on increasing, and a course was shaped for the Chesterfield group, where an anchorage being obtained, the leak was partially stopped.

    ‘‘While there, an anchor and chain were lost in a heavy gale, and the brig then went to Solomon Islands, anchoring in Mackira Bay, San Christoval [San Cristobal]. This gives the Velocity in the area of ‘Sandy Island’ in 1876,’’ it said.

    An 1879 edition of the Australia directory produced by the admiralty hydrographic department also refers to the island: ‘‘In 1876, the master of the whaler Velocity reported that while cruising on the eastern side of the Chesterfield and Bampton reefs, he observed heavy breakers in lat 19’ 50’ S long, 158’ 50’ E.

    ‘‘The master of Velocity also reported a line of sandy islets as extending about north and south along the meridian of 159’ 57 E, between lat 19’7 S and 19’20 S,’’ it said.

    As the whaler would have mapped its positions using a sextant and compass, the ship’s co-ordinates could have been wrong, Mr Higgins said.

    ‘‘They could have been further west, where there are reefs,’’ he said.

    Given the type of ship that claimed to have sighted the island, it was unlikely the marking was a deliberate mistake introduced by a cartographer to catch out copyright infringements, Mr Higgins said.

    ‘‘The primary function of whalers was to look for whales. I think any responsible captain when they spot something would mark it down, particularly at this time in the Pacific where whalers were often first explorers in an area,’’ he said.

    Mr Higgins said it was possible the Velocity may not be the original source of the Sandy Island error, but it would take an exhaustive search to review every ancient map.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fairfax Photographic Archive

  • 4 Dec 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

History etched in glass: priceless images go to National Library

IN AN AGE when photographs are shot, finessed and circulated to millions of people within seconds, Australia’s rarest collection of photojournalism is an evocative insight into another time.
Photos: Wolter Peeters; Marco Del Grande; Fairfax ArchivesAnother age . . . librarian Ellen Fitzgerald packs glass plate negatives at the Fairfax archives in Alexandria, top left; Martin Place, 1911, above; billy cart races and street children, below.
Not just into the events of that time – Depression-era dole queues, the first Anzac Day march, bustling life on Sydney’s streets – but also into the intricate art of glass plate photography that was common a century ago.

More than 13,000 glass negatives forming the Fairfax Archives Glass Plate Collection were donated to the National Library of Australia on Monday.

The photographs, taken by Fairfax photographers between 1908 and the mid-1930s, will be restored and put into digital form in a partnership between Fairfax Media, the National Library and the government’s National Cultural Heritage Foundation, which contributed $425,000.

The library’s director-general, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, said the collection was particularly significant for Australians’ understanding of the early 20th century.

‘‘These images are special because they provide a complete archive of photojournalism during the era . . . There are no comparable newspaper photo archives,’’ Ms Schwirtlich said.

The director of information services at Fairfax Media, Chris Berry, who has led the project over the past three years, said the goal was to preserve the images for all Australians.

‘‘A lot of the stories are familiar ones, but the vivid nature of the glass plates brings them to life,’’ Mr Berry said. ‘‘In the chase for tomorrow’s news, sometimes the history and cultural value of things is not always apparent.’’

Mr Berry said the cataloguing process would provide an opportunity to properly appreciate the collection. The collection is expected to be available online from mid next year.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Beachside History

  • 1 Dec 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Treasure trove of pictures casts a new light on beachside history

Sydneysiders black and white have long cherished the sea, writes Rick Feneley.

WHILE their coachman waits in a horse-drawn cart, the Allen children build sandcastles with their mother, Ethel . . . on Bondi Beach. It is Bondi as we don’t recognise it: pristine dunes but no hoons, no cafes, no G-stringed promenaders and not a real estate agent within cooee.

Photo: Photo Arthur Wignam Allen/ State Library of NSWDressed for winter . . . the Allen children, wearing stockings, shoes, hats and coats, in July 1901.
The only hint, in the distance, is the chimney from the North Bondi sewage outfall. It is 1901, the year of Federation.

Arthur Wigram Allen’s picture of his family is among a treasure trove of old and new photographs in a book that presents Sydney’s southside beaches in a whole new light – through the sands of time.

The actor Jack Thompson and the Aboriginal MP Linda Burney will launch Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore – Sydney’s Southern Beaches, by John Ogden and Cyclops Press, at Hazelhurst Gallery at Gymea on Saturday.

While the book is rich with the post-colonial evolution of beach life – the neck-to-toe bathers of the 1880s, the Beach Belles and the Mermaids of the early 1900s, the cliffside cave dwellers near Kurnell in the Depression years – its persistent thread is the indigenous history of the coast.

Ogden, in his companion book last year on the northern beaches, hails the ‘‘true saltwater people’’ of the Eora, Dharug and Dharawal nations. 

Challenging misconceptions that Aborigines feared the sea, he writes: ‘‘Theirs was a canoe culture. It is estimated that the fruits of the sea and estuaries provided up to 80 per cent of the Eora and Dharawal diet. They . . . were known to dive off rock ledges into the surf and emerge with lobster and abalone.’’