Unsigned and undated, inventory number 779 hangs behind thick glass in the Louvre’s brilliantly lit Salle des États. A few minutes after the stroke of nine each morning, except for Tuesdays when the museum remains closed, Parisians and tourists, art lovers and curiosity seekers begin flooding into the room. As their hushed voices blend into a steady hivelike hum, some crane for the best view; others stretch their arms urgently upward, clicking cell-phone cameras. Most, however, tilt forward, a look of rapt wonder on their faces, as they study one of humanity’s most celebrated creations: the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci.
Photo of engraved ochre from Blombos Cave, courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Christopher Henshilwood.
Virgin Galactic describes astronauts as “the world’s most exclusive club.” I know this because I recently downloaded the company’s brochure, and spent many happy minutes fantasizing about what it would be like to lay down $200,000 and take out a membership. Virgin Galactic, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is the space tourism company dreamt up by Sir Richard Branson, the former record-store owner who has racked up such a vast personal fortune that he is now ranked the fourth wealthiest person in the UK. Branson wants spaceflight to be a pleasant, zenlike experience—rather like a supersonic spa.
Banished are the days of adrenalin-infused terror when NASA strapped husky young farm boys to the back of faulty rockets. The Virgin Galactic journey begins in serenity in the New Mexico desert, in a spaceport designed by the architectural firm of Foster + Partners (the name says it all). Read More.
This story begins in darkness—darkness both literal and metaphorical. On a dripping wet day in 1952, an archaeologist stood in a small dank corridor deep inside a pyramid known as Temple of the Inscriptions, in the old Maya city of Palenque. In the shadows ahead, a massive triangular stone door blocked his way. For four field seasons, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier and his Maya crew had cleared tons of rubble and fill from steep steps leading down inside the pyramid. The archaeologist had no idea where the steps would take them, only a persistent thought that it could be somewhere important.
The crew struggled another two days with the door, finally shifting it enough for a man to squeeze sideways past. As Ruz moved beyond it, he shone a flashlight into the void. “It was a moment,” he later wrote, “of indescribable emotion.” Read more.
Photo: Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque by tato grasso
According to his discharge papers, he stood five feet, eight inches tall. He had a pale complexion, brown hair, blue eyes, two moles on his back, his sole distinguishing marks. In June 1918, he was discharged from the British Army with a disability received in the Great War–a sadly innocent term that people used before they became accustomed to slaughter on an industrial level. Read More
On the taxi ride there, I felt a little ill. The long, sleepless flight to Lima, a dodgy lunch that was coming back to haunt me, and the abrupt swerving and lurching of the taxi through the congested streets of the Peruvian capital—all seemed to be taking their toll. By the time I and my companions clambered out at the Puruchuco Museum and filed into a small backroom to meet the director, I was certain I was in for a long, queasy afternoon. Then I spotted two old notebooks lying on the table.
To read more, please click here.
Yesterday, Science magazine posted my article on a contentious new study on the ancient forests of the Amazon. To read more, please click here.
My article on a very cool new discovery from the Maya world appears today on the website of Science. To read it, please click here.
This story of a golden crown with an exquisite golden plume caught my eye yesterday. Actually, it did far more than catch my eye. It brought to mind a relatively little-known chapter in the history of the Inca Empire—the fierce conquest of the proud and wealthy chiefs of highland Ecuador, nearly a thousand miles away from Cuzco.
But before I get to that, let me tell you first about the crown. It comes from a royal tomb in or near the small Ecuadorian town of Chordeleg, a place where the Cañari people once buried their greatest chiefs and nobles. In 1854, someone digging in the site—someone I haven’t been able to track down, so possibly a curio collector—discovered this Andean masterpiece. What happened next is unclear, but in 1862, the president of Ecuador sent the crown as a present to one of the greatest queens of the day, Victoria, soon after the death of her beloved Albert. Perhaps this Latin American statesman was a sentimentalist and meant to cheer her up. In any case, the queen’s officials duly logged it into the royal collection at Windsor Castle. And there it remained until another British queen, Elizabeth, prepared to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
To mark the grand occasion, curators planned a major exhibition of the queen’s royal treasures in Edinburgh. The gold crown from Ecuador fit the bill perfectly, but no one knew much about it, though some had described it as a symbol of the Inca Empire. Was it really? The queen’s curators called in the experts, who proceeded to conduct metallurgical studies and stylistic analyses. These revealed a surprise. The crown wasn’t Inca at all: it was likely the work of a Cañari goldsmith. And this raised two different scenarios. Quite possibly, the goldsmith fashioned it for a wealthy Cañari chief in the early 1400s. Or perhaps he designed it later in the century for an Inca king. Such rulers, after all, delighted in donning crowns adorned with the plumage of tropical birds. Read more…
For the past two weeks, I’ve been riveted by an annual spectacle played out in an arena seating 22,547 of the most rabid tennis fans in the universe. The U.S. Open in New York City is one of the world’s four great tennis tournaments, and each year as the glorious days of summer begin to fade, I spend my evenings perched in front of the television, marvelling as David Foster Wallace once did at “the liquid whip” of Roger Federer’s forehand and “the human beauty” of a sport played at an almost godlike level. But beneath all this wonder and awe is something a little baser — a grim fascination that has its roots in something much, much older.
Tennis at its highest level is a sport of barely controlled aggression. It pits two rivals in a huge arena, all alone, without coach or spotter, sometimes for hours on end, sometimes nearly deafened by the roar of hostile fans, until one finally walks off the court as victor. Tennis at its best is not just about coolness under stress or selecting the right shot at the right time. At the very heart of these matches is the desire of one player to master another, to slowly strip away a strength to reveal a weakness, to grind down confidence and to break an opponent one punishing point at a time. It is a form of gladiatorial combat, nothing more, nothing less.
For the rest, read The Last Word on Nothing.
Photo: Statue, Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, courtesy Frank M. Rafik