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Photos: Viaggio nei Fori
Special multimedia light shows will be enriching Roman history at the forums of Caesar and Augustus until November 11 this year.

Recently, I was talking to the amazing Margaret, who was diagnosed with my sister’s horrible cancer more than eight years ago and has never had a recurrence. She had just returned from volunteering with a Jesuit refugee organization in Rome and showing her nephew the sights of the city. She described how they were given access to a special Mass in the crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica, where recent archaeological testing suggests that Peter’s bones really were buried.

I thought of Margaret and her nephew as I read this article about a initiative to bring history alive for Rome’s many visitors.

Livia Hengel has a report at Forbes. “Rome is a city filled with cultural heritage. Every building, statue and column has a story to tell, but it takes a vast amount of knowledge to piece together the city’s nearly 2,800-year-old history. … Where do you even begin? …

“From video projections cast upon ancient walls and multimedia light shows to virtual reconstructions revealed through 3D visors, technology is being used to help tell the story of Rome in a more concrete and compelling way.

“A large part of this trend can be attributed to the pioneering work of Paco Lanciano, a Rome-born physicist with a passion for cultural communication and a keen understanding of the learning process. Namely: if you make education fun, it sticks. ‘You need to strike a balance between creating something spectacular to hold an audience’s attention while also helping them learn in the process,’ Mr. Lanciano tells me. …

“Together with Piero Angela, a leading Italian television host and science journalist, Mr. Lanciano designed an immersive multimedia visit of ‘Le Domus Romane’ within Palazzo Valentini over a decade ago – the first time technology was used to enhance an archeological site in the capital. During the virtual tour, visitors can see baths, furnishings and decorations brought to life through digital projections that enhance the archeological site without compromising it. …

“After the success of Palazzo Valentini, Mr. Lanciano and Mr. Angela worked together again to create Viaggio nei Fori, two popular shows that cast the stories of Emperor Augustus and Julius Caesar onto the ancient forums each evening during the summer months. These screenings have become a mainstay of Rome’s summer entertainment and are on view this year from April 21 to November 11 2019.

“Now Mr. Lanciano has turned his attention to an even more ambitious project with Welcome to Rome, a 30-minute introduction to the city, through a stirring film and 3-dimensional models of some of the city’s major landmarks. The show begins thousands of years ago when Rome is home to a handful of tribes scattered across its seven hills and takes the viewer on a journey through the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and then finally the present day. ‘It was quite a challenge to synthesize the story of Rome, but the feedback has been very positive,’ ” says Lanciano.

More at Forbes, here.

This summer’s light shows in Rome are available in eight languages: Italian, English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. (Gives you an idea of where the city expects most visitors to come from.)

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Photo: University of York
A UK lab is learning what the DNA in old books has to tell us about the past. Even the beeswax used in seals is rich with data, including the flowers that grew in that region year to year.

Do you know what set you on your career? As an oldest child, I spent a certain amount of time explaining things, and I liked making a school for my dolls. Although I ended up as an editor for many years, I started my worklife as a teacher and am now back to volunteer work as a teacher.

The scientist in the following story got launched on his passion after watching the movie Jaws.

Sarah Zhang writes at the Atlantic, “It was in the archives of the Archbishop of York that Matthew Collins had an epiphany: He was surrounded by millions of animal skins.

“Another person might say they were surrounded by books and manuscripts written on parchment, which is made from skins, usually of cows and sheep. Collins, however, had been trying to make sense of animal-bone fragments from archaeological digs, and he began to think about the advantages of studying animal skins, already cut into rectangles and arranged neatly on a shelf. …

“In recent years, archaeologists and historians have awakened to the potential of ancient DNA extracted from human bones and teeth. DNA evidence has enriched — and complicated — stories of prehistoric human migrations. It has provided tantalizing clues to epidemics such as the black death. It has identified the remains of King Richard III, found under a parking lot. But Collins isn’t just interested in human remains. He’s interested in the things these humans made; the animals they bred, slaughtered, and ate; and the economies they created.

“That’s why he was studying DNA from the bones of livestock — and why his lab is now at the forefront of studying DNA from objects such as parchment, birch-bark tar, and beeswax. … With ample genetic data, you might reconstruct a more complete picture of life hundreds of years in the past.

“Collins splits his time between Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, and it’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of -ologist he is. He has a knack for gathering experts as diverse as parchment specialists, veterinarians, geneticists, archivists, economic historians, and protein scientists (his own background). ‘All I do is connect people together,’ he said. …

“Collins began his scientific career studying marine biology, thanks to a formative teenage viewing of Jaws. He specialized first in marine fossils and, later, in the ancient proteins hidden inside them. This turned out to be a dead end. For the most part, the fossils were too old and the proteins no longer intact enough to study. He was forced to look at younger and younger material, until he crossed from paleontology into archaeology. He applied the techniques of protein analysis to pottery shards, in which he found milk proteins that hinted at the diet of the people who used those pots.

“Collins quickly realized that DNA held even more potential than ancient proteins, which can be ‘a blunt tool compared to DNA.’ The DNA of any single animal is, after all, a library coding for all the proteins their cells can make. …

“When Collins embarked on the parchment project, he gathered a team that included geneticists as well as archivists, bookmakers, and historians.

“It didn’t take long for the group to hit their first culture clash. In science and archaeology, destructive sampling is at least tolerated, if not encouraged. But book conservators were not going to let people in white coats come in and cut up their books. Instead of giving up or fighting through it, Sarah Fiddyment, a postdoctoral research fellow working with Collins, shadowed conservationists for several weeks. She saw that they used white Staedtler erasers to clean the manuscripts, and wondered whether that rubbed off enough DNA to do the trick. It did; the team found a way to extract DNA and proteins from eraser crumbs, a compromise that satisfied everyone.”

Read how the research evolved, here.

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In the remote Tarbagatai mountains, where Kazakhstan meets northern China, archaeologists have found an ancient treasure.

I have heard that the day-to-day life of an archaeologist is all mud and digging and measuring — not glamorous. But imagine having your efforts rewarded by unearthing a pile of gold! You don’t get to keep it, of course, but it must be a thrill to feel a sudden connection with artisans of thousands of years ago.

Natasha Frost writes at the History website, “Archaeologists have unearthed a cache of thousands of millennia-old pieces of gold jewelry in an ancient burial mound in Kazakhstan.

“The remote Tarbagatai mountains, where Kazakhstan meets northern China, was once home to the Saka. These expert horsemen were a nomadic people who moved across Eurasia through Iran, India and Central Asia for many hundreds of years—until they were conquered by Turkic invaders in the 4th century A.D. It’s believed these glittering objects may have belonged to members of their elite.

“Though many mysteries remain about the Saka people, their skill with metal is well documented. Among the finds are intricate earrings shaped like little bells, a necklace studded with precious stones, and piles of chains and gold plates. Tiny animals have been expertly wrought out of gold. The items show evidence of micro-soldering, a highly sophisticated technique for artifacts estimated to be as much as 2,800 years old. …

“Some 200 other burial mounds have [been] found on the fertile Kazakh plateau, which was regarded as a paradise by Saka kings. Few have been found with quite so much treasure, however, since widespread looting during the time of Peter the Great depleted many of the burial sites of their riches. Experts say that the area has become a focus for archaeologists, who hope to find other precious objects in other sites. …

“Local politicians are celebrating the discovery, which they say helps to inform them about their ancestors. ‘This find gives us a completely different view of the history of our people,’ former Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov said, in an interview with Kitco News. ‘We are the heirs of great people and great technologies.’ ”

More here.

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The Concord Museum has an exhibit on dollhouses right now, and I walked over to check it out. I’ve always liked dollhouses and even sought out one for Suzanne  when she was in utero.

At the museum, children were playing happily with the sturdy contemporary dollhouse they were allowed to touch, but I suspect the people most intrigued by the glassed-in displays from the Strong Museum and various private collectors were the adults.

The Concord Museum is a history museum, and so I was less troubled by the accurate recreation of inequality in the miniature scenes than by the lack of relevant commentary in the placards. I couldn’t help thinking, for example, that some of the black schoolchildren who pass through the museum might be troubled by one dollhouse and might appreciate some discussion of the life of the servants in the attic and kitchen. But the placard was silent about wealth, poverty, and the legacy of slavery.

Another aspect of social history that seems fundamental to a discussion of dollhouses involves the many women who created them as a hobby.

Women who had servants in the attic and the kitchen were not folding the laundry. They were not cooking or tidying up. They were not raising their children. They did not have jobs. In short, they had almost nothing useful to do — a recipe for depression.

I often wonder about the psychological constraints that kept such women from giving themselves permission to go out into the world, as Jane Addams or Beatrix Potter did, each in her own way.

If making exquisite little worlds at home gave the dollhouse creators and their friends and families pleasure, that is a great thing in itself. If it represents a determination to create something fine when hardly any meaningful activity was allowed, then that is an even greater thing.

The dollhouse exhibit is up through January 15. Related events may be found here.

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I had an awfully nice lunch yesterday, and I’d like to tell you about it. It involved two nonprofits — the mostly Caucasian conservation group Trustees of Reservations and the mostly African American community-outreach enterprise called Haley House.

The trustees had a really great idea recently to do meaningful art installations on a couple of their properties and chose one next to the Old Manse in Concord. The Old Manse is most often associated with 19th Century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, but the grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson was also a resident and saw the historic events unfold at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775.

Artist Sam Durant wanted to draw attention to the presence of slaves in the early days of Concord and launch a discussion, so he constructed a kind of big-tent meeting house, with a floor made of the kinds of materials that might have been in slave buildings.

The Trustees conferred with him on a series of “lyceums” that might bring races together at the site. They decided that at the first one, they would encourage races to break bread together and talk about food traditions.

From Haley House in Roxbury, they brought in a chef, a beautiful meal, and singer/educator/retired-nurse Fulani Haynes.

I ate a vegan burger, sweet-potato mash, very spicey collard greens and wonderful corn muffins. Also available were salad and chicken.

Haynes sang a bit and talked about the origins of Haley House, how it helps low-income people and ex-offenders and local children, teaching cooking and nutrition and gardening, among other things. She invited attendees to tell food stories from their early years, and several brave spirits stood up.

That participatory aspect of the activities helped to reduce the impression that African Americans were making entertainments for a mostly white audience (art, food, music entertainments).

I loved the whole thing and learned a lot. (For example, Grandpa Emerson had slaves living upstairs, and “the embattled farmers” who “fired the shot heard ’round the world” were able to go marching off because slaves were working the farms. I really didn’t know.)

African American artifacts are on display next door at the Old Manse. The art installation will be up until the end of October 2016.

More here.

Photos: Artist Sam Durant offers the crowd a new lens on history. The chef from Haley House keeps an eye on the African American cuisine. Fulani Haynes demonstrates how a food can become an instrument.

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I have decided that if Ireland ever names people as national treasures, it should include James J. Hackett of Moate.

Last night at the Kellys’ party, James clinked the glasses at the table and called everyone to attention. Then he recited Yeats’s poem “The Ballad of Father Gilligan,” preceding it with a little history and acting out all the parts.

The grandson of a man who taught Latin and Greek in a hedgerow school back in the dark days when the English forbade sending Irish children to school, James has taken it upon himself to preserve the culture. His ordinary conversation is a living history, and he is frequently dropping into poetry.

James’s book Days Gone By is written in the way he speaks when talking to friends or taking people on a tour of some ruin. Consider this sample.

“It was long past the witching hour when the poteen revellers came upon Kate resting on the puchann and in a most distressful state.* They took her along to the wake, where she related all her adventures. Great was the wonder and fear that was expressed at hearing this story, and needless to say, many a post mortem was held upon Kate Brambles’s account of the witches’ dance at the half way house in Ballylurkin Bog on the Hallow’een night that Tubbs Lanigan was waked.”

Recent chronicler of Ireland lore and customs Turtle Bunbury discovered James in Moate and has included him in one of his Vanishing Ireland books. Bunbury also features James on a Facebook page, which I hope to access as soon as Turtle accepts my friend request.

[Update: Turtle has just put my post on his page, here.]

You may recall that I blogged about James once before, here, at another time that he was visiting his Rhode Island cousin.

(*James says a “puchann” is a little hill in a bog.)

Photo: Suzanne’s Mom
James J. Hackett in New Shoreham. He made his own shillelagh of blackthorn. He also made one for John and mailed it to him with instructions on how to cure the wood.

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The Puritan thinker Roger Williams got fed up with the rigid Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and went off to found the state of Rhode Island and advocate for freedom of religion.

Recently Lucas Mason-Brown, a Brown University math major, worked with a small group of undergraduates to crack the shorthand code Williams used while making notes.

According to Martine Powers in today’s Boston Globe, here, translation of the notes was an achievement that had resisted scholars for centuries. No major insights about Roger Williams were revealed, but some were confirmed.

For example, the notes show that Williams was against baptizing Indian children — a new example of how adamantly he opposed pressure to convince anyone of any religious belief.

In an earlier AP article in the Herald Online, Erika Niedowski writes, “College history professor emeritus J. Stanley Lemons and others at Brown started trying to unravel the so-called ‘Mystery Book’ a few years ago. But the most intense work began this year after the university opened up the challenge to undergraduates, several of whom launched an independent project.

” ‘No one had ever looked at it systematically like this in generations,’ Widmer said. ‘I think people probably looked at it and shrugged.’

“Senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who has done the majority of the decoding, said his first instinct was to develop a statistical tool. The 21-year-old from Belmont, Mass., used frequency analysis, which looks at the frequency of letters or groups of letters in a text, but initially didn’t get far.

“He picked up critical clues after learning Williams had been trained in shorthand as a court stenographer in London, and built his own proprietary shorthand off an existing system. Mason-Brown refined his analysis and came up with a rough key.” Read more.

AP Photograph
The preface page of the Mystery Book from Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library. Lucas Mason-Brown, a senior mathematics major, helped crack a mysterious shorthand code developed and used by religious dissident Roger Williams in the 17th century. The handwritten code surrounds the printed text on the preface page.

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