Monday, 29 February 2016

Celtic coin forgeries: conclusion

Carl Becker, 1772-1830, forgery of Pertinax denarius (top)
with the genuine Roman coin of the same type (bottom)
photos: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
While Celtic coins have been faked far less than Greek and Roman coins, they present a very different problem in their detection: an artist working in classical styles usually reflects something of the present time. The result looks classical and ancient, but when we see a Renaissance forgery today, it carries a Renaissance look about it, and a nineteenth century forgery can now look nineteenth century. The coins that are forged today with cut dies, and not pressure cast will carry something of our own perceptions of classical art to future generations. The further away from the period of the forgery, the more obvious this effect becomes.

Celtic coins that are not in the classical styles present a problem as they are not of an artistic style that we emulate today, and there are only two ways to detect a forgery : from analytic methods such as the observation of minute details in comparison with known genuine examples, or metallurgical or metrological methods, or that gut feeling that comes when one has handled enough genuine coins of the period.  Our unconscious minds are recording everything, but is is only upon some sort of stimulation that this information comes into our consciousness. A year or so ago, there was a British Celtic coin type that became fairly plentiful in dealer's catalogues. The very first one I saw, bothered me. I felt that it was a modern forgery, but I could not explain to anyone what made it a modern forgery. I started to compare it with other examples and that is when I discovered that there had been a small number of them offered for sale in recent years. When I saw that each one of them had exactly the same details visible on the coin (unusual for many Celtic coins which are often off-struck and you have to look at a number of them to see the complete design), I was confident in my original assessment. A good forger only copies what is seen and knows better than not to invent part of a design as it will never be quite right.

Finally, I took all of the photos to my friend Robert Kokotailo of Calgary coin who has handled tens of thousands of ancient coins over many decades and also personally collects and studies forgeries. I told him that I was sure the coins were all fake but could not explain what gave them away. He took one look at the inscription on the coins and told me, "In every ancient coin I have seen that has beading in the ends of the lines of the letters, the die engraver cuts these dots first to use as a guide for the lines of the letters. On these  coins, all of the beads were done after the letters were engraved". Then it became obvious to me too.

Novice collectors should familiarize themselves with the coins they want to collect even just by looking at illustrations in books before they start to buy their coins. Do not rely on certificates of authenticity, these are often used as a confidence trick to prevent buyers from being suspicious, but do buy from dealers who have a good reputation in the trade and will refund your money if anything turns out to be false (and some forgeries are very clever and can fool even seasoned dealers). Anything can be faked, and that includes provenance and find-spot information. Some ways to tell bad fakes are simple: a lost wax-casting of an ancient struck coin will feel soapy to the touch because the presence of raised bubbles and these bubbles can also be found in the smallest of lines of a pressure-cast forgery such as in the inscriptions of the silver coins of Syracuse. It might take a microscope, however, to see these bubbles in a good pressure cast fake. Most modern coin forgeries are of relatively modern coins: There are Chinese "copies", for example, of eighteenth century American dollars that are made very skilfully. With ancient forgeries of Celtic coins, the question is more "Are these really fakes or some sort of token?" Finally, do not take any web-page feedback as an indication that all is safe: many people can be fooled by fakes and will give positive feedback.

Tomorrow, an amusing example of journalistic(?) hype.

John's Coydog Community page

Friday, 26 February 2016

Celtic coin forgeries: part three

Gold-plated copper alloy core of an Iceni stater, the gold foil scored with a
cross. Amusingly, it was found near Fakenham, Norfolk
What does the cross cored into the gold foil of this plated stater tell you? You might well say that it means that the coin is no good; a forgery and that by exposing the copper beneath, no one else would be fooled by it. After all, we mark a wrong answer with an X to mean false. We even call forgeries of coins "false". Wait a minute, though, human nature being what it is, a coin that is discovered to be false or substandard in any way usually gets spent very quickly. It is called Gresham's law; bad money drives out good. Even if we ignore this, what would be the exchange rate of a gold-plated stater?

The photographer of the coin saw a cross and not an X because of the way the obverse side of the coin is aligned, but we have no way of knowing how the die cutter aligned the obverse design of the coin. Was it seen as a cross composition or as an X?

Celtic "ritual" spoon
photo:  © Trustees of the British Museum

The object on the left is commonly known as a Celtic ritual spoon, and most of them bear this cross design. The term "ritual: is applied because we know nothing of the original function of these objects. Perhaps they are not ritual at all and were used in some sort of divination. This would not be a ritual application in any prehistoric society, it would be a practical application as there was no separation of the practical and the religious. That separation is a more modern concept.

The cross as a symbol is also used elsewhere in Celtic iconography such as this Coriosolite coin, where the design might also double as the pole and either yoke or swingle-tree of a chariot, but it can also be aligned as an X and can be enclosed within a circle or a rectangle. The Medieval Celtic cross where a smaller circle is superimposed at the junction is probably an example of syncretism and we also see many examples of ancient religious sites that have been adapted by later religions. So we can better assume that the cross cut into the foil of the plated stater was not a symbol of it being false but that it had been used as a sacrifice. (I would not say "offering" because that assumes a recipient and there is no evidence for such in any prehistoric Celtic site). That the sacrifice was carried out at a religious site and that such religious sites were utilized by religions who did make offerings to some god or another is a non-sequitur which fails to understand the processes and purposes of syncretism. The lack of such specificity can result in something like "Chinese whispers" where, after successive alterations, sheer nonsense is written.

"Excluding hoards, only 29% of gold find locations are demonstrably sites (and many of the coins are plated), as against nearly 80% for the other metals. Most gold was evidently deposited away from settlement, although there is a general emphasis on the major river valleys and the coastal strip which may reflect the overall population density and/or the continental origin of much of it. Many finds, however, are actually from wet places, almost certainly deposited in or beside the water, as much prestige metalwork also was."
 Colin Haselgrove, Iron Age coins and archaeology, in Celtic Coinage Britain and Beyond, BAR British Series 222, 1992, p.128
We also have to take into consideration that there will, of course, be more examples of such sacrifices where there were more people. In modern times, people frequently go for picnics in the country but you will find much more evidence for picnics in a city park than you will at any random spot in the countryside.

I find it interesting that the over all distribution patterns for Celtic coins in Britain is the same for that of brooches, and that brooches are often found broken (in ancient times, not just by the plough) just as earlier sacrifices of swords etc. are bent in similar depositions. This is taken to mean that they were either "ritually killed" or were being prevented from being re-used. Some gold-plated copper alloy cores of coins have their foil nicked to show the internal metal. Also, many of the dies used in these plated coins are the same as those used in non-plated examples and I once owned a plated Iceni Freckemham stater which was not only by the same die cutter as an unplated example, but also showed stylistic evolution so the die cutter was working on dies used for plated and non plated coins at the same time. It seems very likely that the plated coins were intended to deceive. That so many plated gold coins exist and that these coins primary uses were as military pay or for securing allegiances would strongly suggest that they were not forgeries at all. You really do want to annoy anyone with a weapon in their hand, or someone you hope to help rid you of your enemies some day. The use of less valuable sacrifices is in order with later religious practices where the symbol was the thing. The way of determining authenticity and metal value in an economic sense was with chisel cuts (called "test-cuts") into the fabric of the coin to reveal the internal metal  Instead of these plated coins being forgeries, I argue for a greater usage as religious/social tokens.

I will be back with more in this series on Monday. Forge ahead and have a genuinely great weekend.

John's Coydog Community page

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Celtic coin forgeries: part two

(Celtic Coin Index Online images - click to enlarge)

One of the most interesting examples of reported modern forgeries of Celtic coins is British B2 and thanks to open access, you can read the original paper where the series was published as being new (before its condemnation): Michael Mackensen, Eine neue Serie britischer Goldstatere, Jahrbuch für Numismatik und Geldgeschichte, Band 23, 1973.

This post does not attempt to determine if the series is a modern forgery, it only addresses the criteria that can be used in this and other series to make such a claim. The given reason for the condemnation of B2 is that the coins contain alloying amounts of zinc. I am at a disadvantage here in that when i became interested in this matter, I found two analyses of coins in the series and the alloys where somewhat different in each. Unfortunately, this was in the eighties and I no longer have these records. Still, it is not vital to my argument and was just something that made me wonder about the claims of them being fake at the time. I do remember, though, working out the percentages of zinc and discovering that if the zinc had been added in the form of brass (copper/zinc alloy), it was certainly of "low brass" rather then "high brass" the terms refer to the amount of zinc possible in the alloy. The former was only what existed prior to the seventeenth century. Low brass was called orichalcum by the Romans, and in coinage it makes its first appearance on coins of Julius Caesar. Although no genuine Celtic coins have been discovered which were made from low brass as early as Caesar, the reason cannot be be given for the B2 coins being forgeries because it uses the absence of evidence fallacy. We are constantly finding new things in the subject of Celtic coins, even entirely new types and alloys (such as the Corieltauvi scyphate issue). B2 could, however, be forged in modern times if the forger decided to use quite a number of Roman orichalcum coins to prepare the alloy. That he would deliberately use zinc would be bizarre as it would make their authenticity suspect at once.

Forgeries are made to deceive, and not to arouse suspicion, so this should be one of the criteria used in detecting them. It is insufficient to say that something is fake because it does not correspond exactly to what is already known, instead we should ask "is this a genuine forgery", in other words is it being a labelled a forgery because of what the forger did, instead of what he failed to do according to some arbitrary law applied to an obviously incomplete sample. All archaeological samples are incomplete as they refer to what had survived up to the point of discovery and not what had originally existed.

Of course, a forger can make mistakes and that is how real forgeries are discovered, but I have seen too many examples of something being condemned on the basis of a faulty reason to be suspicious of "rule-based" condemnations. I have also made several thousand dollars by buying an advertised forgery that I was sure was genuine. The down side is of that sort of thing is that once an object has been reported as a forgery, it loses value regardless of whether it is later determined to be real even when its original condemnation can be demonstrated to be due to an error in research at that time.

Die links for B2 from Mackensen, 1973
Another suspicious aspect is the pattern of die-links. I can neither abrogate nor confirm from the illustrations what Mackensen says about part of the order determined through his observation of modifications and the cleaning out of a clogged die because the illustrations are not good enough for me to tell even when I increase the gamma. We should wonder, though, about a couple of things with this pattern of die links: It seems to me that the link symmetry is rather "contrived" with obverse dies A, B, and C in how the reverses each omit one internal link; and the reuse of dies can be caused by bringing back into service, a die considered to have been worn or damaged. A great example of this is with the Armorican series Xn where you see really badly crazed dies being reused. With that series, however, the links are all over the place and show no regular patterning as would be expected by trying to use dies long after their "best before date". So from these factors, I do suspect a deliberate intention to deceive.

Does this prove that B2 is a modern forged series? Not at all. Series Z (formerly of the Coriosolites, but which I have reattributed to an issue of Viridovox of the Unelli), is, in one sense a fake series. It was constructed from dies that mimicked the stylistic evolution of the Coriosolite series, but the design changes were completely arbitrary. To any modern person this would mean nothing, but the people in that time and place were aware of such things and it was important to them: they had a need for change and originality in design that was more marked than it is was among other tribes, although you can see almost token attempts at it in some Corieltauvi and Trinovantes coins. It is also expressed in one of the Irish stories regarding the design of a shield. Viridovix' issue was a hurried one and was paid out to rather inferior troops who would have been easier to fool. These coins are also known by their careless manufacture. So it is entirely possible, on the basis of the published information, that B2 was made some time after B and was intended to mimic B .

As I said in yesterday's post, the condemnation of forgery should be attended with ample demonstrations taking a number of factors into consideration, and from the actual coins or by directed enlargements of their details. By not using such factors, and by repeating sloppy research, all that happens is that bad research gets perpetuated through the belief in expert statements which fail to quote the reasons for such decisions. As one archaeologist told me after I published a drastic revision about a published Irish site, and referring to the original publication: "We all just took it for granted".

Tomorrow, contemporary forgeries.

John's Coydog Community page

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Celtic coin forgeries: part one

Two alleged Dobunni forgeries top: EISV; bottom: ANTED.
A Google alert I received yesterday brought me to an interesting article about the successful prosecution of an Ebay seller who sold a Celtic coin knowing it to be a forgery. If you follow the link, you will notice that the coin was illustrated by a very blurry photograph. I suppose it is possible for a seller to use a blurry photograph quite honestly, but it would not be wise and alarm bells should ring when such a photograph is given in an ad. The subject of Celtic coin forgeries is more interesting than forgeries of most other sorts of ancient coins because there is a lot we do not know, for sure, about genuine Celtic coins.

Take the two coins on the right, for example. The data in the Celtic Coin Index says only that each obverse die is the same. It thus becomes a circular argument with the implied assumption that such a condition could not exist. If we assume that the names on inscribed Dobunni coins are of rulers who reigned consecutively then the argument is stronger than if we assume that these were all contemporary individuals who had coins struck to purchase troops or political support. The composition of  the gold alloys of several individuals are not  different enough to be sure of any gradual debasement over time and such a gradual debasement, in itself, is also an assumed criterion based only on general trends, but one which has exceptions.

Perhaps there were other criteria that are not mentioned in the data (a fault in itself), but if not, then it is a case of what I call "a single rule condemnation" which does not answer to the validity of the rule, itself. The best studies of suspected forgeries take a number of factors into consideration which, together, can reveal a statistically significant result. Robert Van Arsdell demonstrates this very well in the following articles:

Modern Celtic Fakes 1 – Cast forgeries of Durotrigan silver staters

Modern Celtic Fakes 2 – Haslemere Silver: some diagnostics

Modern Celtic Fakes 3 – Haslemere Die Dressing Errors

Modern Celtic Fakes 4 – the best Haslemere forgeries

Modern Celtic Fakes 5 – Haslemere vs. the legendary forgers

Modern Celtic Fakes 6 – an "obvious" fake'

Modern Celtic Fakes 7 – the Haslemere Forger improves his work

Modern Celtic Fakes 8 – Replicas

You will notice, in these articles, that the high magnification photographs are the very antithesis of the blurry ebay photograph shown in the news article. I am not saying that you should never buy something on the basis of a blurry photograph, just that you should be aware of the risks in doing so. Don't be fooled by certificates of authenticity, either. Many people will not examine a purchase any further, making the dangerous assumption that a seller would not give such a certificate unless the object was genuine and as described. It is often used as a protection from prosecution or a PR ploy. I have bought a number of examples of early Celtic art that came with such certificates and were certainly not as described. Did I ask for a refund? Of course not: what I actually bought was far rarer and more valuable than what it was described as being.

Some people might think that buying something with a recorded find spot or a previous chain of ownership will protect them. This is another dangerous assumption. Finds have been reported falsely for a number of reasons and actual archaeological sites have even been "salted" with fakes to give the type credibility. Also, some fakes have fooled many people for a long time. I cannot say whether the Dobunni coins I illustrate here are fakes because the pictures are photocopies of photographs. All I can do is to question the given criteria.

These records, however, can be updated and a new development in the Celtic Coin Index online is that I can authorize a password-protected site where you can actually edit the records and provide further information of any sort.Just contact me at john (at) (I give the email in that form so as to make it less likely to be machine-copied) and I will check with William, my tech-guy to make sure he is not still tinkering with that feature.

Tomorrow: are the British B2 gold staters fakes or an example of the "single-rule condemnation"?

John's Coydog Community page

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Van Gogh and a strange coincidence

Von Gogh's bedroom
Reading Explorator last Sunday, I found a link to this news story about a digital reconstruction of Van Gogh's bedroom. Evidently, the walls were not painted blue but purple, but he used carmine lake (red) to add to the blue to get purple. The dye-based pigment had faded

The BBC news report was dated the very day that I started my two part series on my digital reconstruction of the Mona Lisa where the problems were not just the yellowing but the use of rose madder lake, another dye based red pigment.

Not synchronicity, just weird.

John's Coydog Community page

Monday, 22 February 2016

18th & 19th century Celtic coin illustrations

This clip of a plate from an eighteenth century edition of William Camden's Britannia reveals its own age far more that the age of the coins. The heads portrayed would seem more typical of eighteenth century tokens than Celtic coins and the the applied and uniform beaded borders bear no resemblance to virtually any beaded borders on Celtic coins. As an example of eighteenth century illustration it is not bad, but the artist made no attempt to even mimic the styles and appearance of the original coins

While Charles Knight's Old England: a pictorial museum of regal, ecclesiastical, municipal, baronial, and popular antiquities, is thought to have been published around 1860, the clip from one of its illustrations to the left is most likely very early nineteenth century and possibly pre-Regency. It lacks the charm of the Camden illustration, and although it does a better job of showing what the coins look like, the cross-hatched fields give a certain amount of flatness and confusion to the images. I tried to make the illustration a little more interesting by giving it a background to match the colour and texture of one of the blog elements

Things improve considerably in this clip of an illustration of some of the Coriosolite coins from the Jersey 5 hoard, discovered in 1820 and published as Les Médailles Gallo - Gaéliques. Description de la trouvaille de l'Ile d' Jersey par Le Baron de Donop in 1838,. Donop recreates what is seen although he sometimes confuses striking faults with aspects of the design. In his book he tries to interpret the art but with little success, finding eastern influences that do not exist.

Finally, we come to the illustrations by F. W. Fairholt, FSA in the book that marks the real start of British Celtic coin studies: The Coins of the Ancient Britons, 1864, by John Evans, FSA, FGS who was also one of the fathers of modern archaeology. I photographed the illustration of one of the coins in his collection this morning. My copy has neither foxing nor yellowing to the plates.

Evans, Plate D4 coin
photo:  © Trustees of the British Museum
While not perfect, there is no difficulty in matching  the actual specimen from the the illustration to the actual coin now in the British Museum. (I rotated  the obverse quite a bit to give it a closer alignment to the illustration). Fairholt omits die flaws and sticks to what is part of the design. In the twentieth century, coins were usually photographed in black and white because of the fugitive nature of the dyes in printer's inks, but in the digital age, pixels do not fade and colour is more possible to use.

John's Coydog Community page

Friday, 19 February 2016

The mystery of the silver bracelet

click to enlarge
Curiosities can be irresistible, so when I stopped by a friend's shop and saw this silver coin bracelet I had to buy it. You might well wonder why someone who has been around collector's coins for more than half a century would be interested in such a thing: I was not shopping for a gift; I do not wear jewellery of any kind, let alone women's jewellery; and I have worked at an antique jewellers in London's west end, so this humble little bracelet was unlikely to impress. It was not expensive: I only paid for the value of the silver, but getting a bargain played no part in my decision to buy it. There was no great rarity among the coins, and besides, they were all damaged by the jewellery mounts and so would have little interest to a coin collector.

All but one of the coins were British and from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The exception was a Napoleon Bonaparte half franc of 1812. It would have been one of the two most valuable coins on the bracelet had it not formed part of the clasp, The other was a William and Mary shilling of 1693. The other coins were very common: A Charles II threepence of 1679; an Anne shilling of 1709; a George II sixpence of 1757; A George III shilling of 1787 (of the commonest variety at that); and a Victoria young head sixpence of 1887. The coins were not arranged by their dates: the central coin was the exceptionally common George III shilling and the others were balanced out by their sizes and by which way the monarch's heads faced, save for Napoleon, who faced Queen Victoria when the bracelet was closed.

I did wonder why James II, Georges I and IV,and William IV were absent. Were there, originally, when the bracelet belonged to a much larger woman? Were they present on a matching set of earrings and a pendant? The bracelet was neither British nor French. It had two, mostly illegible marks on the clasp beneath Napoleon, but what must have been the maker's mark was not listed among French silversmiths. The other mark was barely visible and mostly damaged by file marks. It was fairly well-made: the jump-rings were apparently deliberately oval and were silver-soldered shut; the box-catch was typical and well made and the safety chain was hand-made and had silver-soldered links. Had it been British, it would have had  marks on the other part of the box-catch.

None of this aroused my curiosity, though. What I found most curious, and why I bought it, was that the wear on the British coins followed the pattern one would find in a hoard of coins. Taking into consideration the relief of each coin, the wear was gradually more extreme going toward the oldest coin. The Victorian sixpence had only about ten years wear, so the bracelet was made sometime around the end of the nineteenth century or later. But the wear was not consistent with coins in circulation at the same time: There was a Royal Mint report in Victorian times about badly worn silver coins of thirty to forty years old being in circulation, and the recoinage of 1816 was due to the lack of silver coins in circulation, the shortfall being made up by the silver tradesman's tokens which many people collect today. You might think, then, that the coins had been part of someone's collection. The problem with that theory is that while most of them were common coins, the conditions were not consistent with the collection of some young boy who would be easily able to purchase a close to mint example of the George III shilling, but could afford, at best, a really badly worn William and Mary shilling or Napoleon half franc. The condition of the pre-bracelet coins can be estimated, not from the obverses which all have extra wear from usage and the coins rubbing against things (paper will wear metal more that you would think. In days gone by, female file clerks were always having to get their rings re-tipped).

In modern collections of people with no really strong interest, you do see, like most of these coins, only the commonest examples, but whatever is somewhat expensive to buy in the collector's theme is usually either absent or is represented by an example in really dreadful condition. All of the coins have about twenty to fifty years normal wear on them yet their dates span just over two hundred years. Perhaps they were mostly rejects from some collection (although the William and Mary shilling and the Napoleon half franc would be more likely sold, to buy more coins), or coins from an early twentieth century dealer's junk box, but the last idea does not really explain the William and Mary shilling: while the obverse appears very worn, the portraits, being jugate, are in very low relief. The less worn reverse has every detail. What little of the reverse of the Napoleon coin can be seen has having virtually no wear and would be at least nearly extremely fine. The wear on all of the coins is mostly post-bracelet. Perhaps the coins were all bought at different times and some of those times were leaner than others. There are explanations that mostly, but not completely, make sense and we could come up with  a number of very fanciful explanations such as some place where money circulated very slowly, indeed, or a family that had a habit of putting away a coin to celebrate a particular event and then these were passed down to the following generations. No explanation can be proven or even given too much credit past some strange sorts of happenstance and constellations of good fortune and little knowledge. The bracelet does, however give something to ponder or fantasize about. That is why I bought it.That, and because its ultimate fate would have been the melting pot. Perhaps my granddaughter might like it when she is older.

Have a mysterious weekend.

John's Coydog Community page

Thursday, 18 February 2016

New photograph of the seal of Alexander the Great

(click to enlarge)
For the catalogue worksheet for the seal, now with this photo, see:
The Seal of Alexander the Great -- part two.

Part one is the background story and introduction
Part three is on the epigraphy;
Part four is on the iconography
Part five has the legend that surrounds the type, and some afterthoughts

Having recently bought a new camera (Nikon CoolPix S3700) after my old Olympus died. I have been replacing a few pictures on the blog. In some cases, I have not got around to replacing all examples of a a specific picture, but this one is only shown once. The small size of the seal and its dark colour made it difficult to get a good image (with attempts made with three different cameras, including one done by someone else on a fairly good Canon DSLR). The problem was never just the camera, it was the lighting and the background, and of course, tiny dust and fabric particles.

This time, I cleaned and dried the deal carefully to remove only the modern particles and not to affect the patina in any way, then I took more than a dozen photographs with different lighting at different angles; at different distances from the lens; and on different coloured backgrounds. Some of those were deleted right away while others underwent a more judicious review and and some further processing. The winner was the one above, although a particle floating in the air did find its way onto the seal on my copy stand and can be seen as the tiny white line at the bottom edge. Most of it was cropped out when I selected the image and anti-aliased the edges to five pixels. I also placed the selected image on a neutral grey background to bring out the (post-processed) colours which I had colour-matched in diffuse daylight. The biggest problem with the lighting was the getting glare on parts of the image. A dark charcoal grey turned out to be the best background, but I had to prepare the selection area by increasing the gamma considerably to find the edges, then I overlayed an unaltered copy onto the selection and floated the selection with the replaced image as  you cannot exactly go back without losing something. It all took three graphic programs Because the most modern one could "speak" to the oldest one (Fauve Matisse) and the third one (less ancient) acted as "translator". Most of the real work was in Fauve Matisse which does not work on anything later than Windows XP

The old version
Whenever I can afford it I will get a decent Nikon digital SLR with a proper macro lens and then I will replace the  photo yet again, but the tiny Nikon CoolPix did a surprisingly good job.

John's Coydog Community page

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Science, evolution and creationism

A selection of Darwin's finches

“I have stated, that in the thirteen species of ground-finches, a nearly perfect gradation may be traced, from a beak extraordinarily thick, to one so fine, that it may be compared to that of a warbler.”

Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

To celebrate Darwin's 207th birthday a week ago, National Academies Press offered a selection of their titles on evolution. One that especially caught my eye was Science, Evolution, and Creationism, 2008, by the Committee on Revising Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Sciences; Institute of Medicine; and National Academies. It is offered as a reasonably-priced paperback or e-book and a free PDF download.

Beautifully designed and illustrated it, of course, is written from the scientific perspective and the chapter Creationist Perspectives, rightly, does not treat the subjective as an alternative science but as examples of bad science. Information on how science and religion are not in competition is covered, somewhat briefly in the chapter: Frequently Asked Questions and with directions to Additional Readings. It thus takes a far more gentler approach to this subject than I do as I see Creationism, in all of its forms as bad religion. Any sort of Fundamentalism, Christian or otherwise, is not fundamental at all but is Modernism in religious garb.Such ideas would have been seen as very strange, indeed, by the founders and first followers of these religions.Still, Zen-like shock techniques might not be to everyone's taste.

The first two chapters: Evolution and the Nature of Science and The Evidence for Biological Evolution are  very interesting and contain many fascinating examples. I highly recommend it.

As a companion volume, they are also offering Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science by the Working Group on Teaching Evolution, and the National Academy of Sciences, 1998, which is aimed more at educators and community leaders and which also addresses the Creationism controversy. It is available both as a paperback and a free PDF download, but not as an e-book. I can imagine that the latter volume, in communities where the matter is of some controversy, could make way for the former volume to be used by students.

John's Coydog Community page

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Refreshing Mona Lisa: conclusion

Colour adjusted Mona Lisa with lips tinted

"A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth"
John Singer Sargent

It was with trepidation that I attempted to digitally restore the lip colour to Mona Lisa. It is one thing to make global changes to a photograph of a painting, but changing a part can never be completely accurate. I made many attempts and was not satisfied with any of them. This one was less unsatisfactory than the rest. With what must be an imperfect task, you can, at least, make sure that steps that you do have some control over are done properly. I am fairly sure that da Vinci would have used rose madder in a glaze for the lips, So I went to Winsor and Newton's website and found this example of the colour which also shows the white paint tube. I copied the photo and then adjusted the colour from the tube near where I wanted to sample a pixel of a deep tint to a reference white. Having got the colour, I made an overlay for the lips at 30% transparency and mimicked the glaze at the edges by anti- aliasing them to 5 pixels. As this overlay changed the value from the source image by 2% on a specific pixel I sampled, I then made that adjustment and the image was finished. I used ColorPilot and Fauve Matisse for this work.

Rubia tinctorum, Common Madder.  photo: H. Zell
Eastlake, in the quote I gave yesterday, mentioned da Vinci's use of lakes and black in painting flesh. The Old Masters would use rose madder lake for tinting lips and the blush on a cheek. A lake is actually from a dye rather than a pure pigment and is precipitated on (usually) a metallic salt to create a pigment. Genuine rose madder is a very beautiful colour, transparent, and of the colour of a Burmese ruby, it looks like liquid ruby as it comes out of the tube. It has only two drawbacks: it costs £29.20 for two and a half tablespoons and it is fugitive (fades in light). The latter is why you do not see it in the flesh tones and lips of the Mona Lisa. The lips are delineated, somewhat, so can be colour adjusted to an approximate level of accuracy, but the size and shape of any blush to the cheeks could only be guessed. Today, we have a permanent, synthetic, Alizarin red which is a lightfast substitute for rose madder.

"Mona", a fantasy of a preparatory Mona Lisa drawing.
by Carin Alizarin Perron (Garth Wright collection)

My late wife was fascinated by da Vinci's Mona Lisa and had planned to paint several copies of it. When she changed her surname to her maternal name of Perron (Daniel Perron was a direct ancestor and a seventeenth century colonist in Quebec), she also changed her middle name from Anne to Alizarin (after the pigment). Her nom de plume in her religious writing was Jesse Ancona which was derived from the Italian for a gessoed panel. She had made  several panels in preparation for her Mona Lisa copies and that included making the authentic final gesso ground for the panels from plaster which she slaked (rotted) herself. This (then inert) plaster would be mixed with rabbit's skin glue (she was allergic to cow-hide glue) to make the final gessoed panels  From the coarse gessso grosso to the silky gesso sottile , she followed Cennino Cennini's method. I used to help her in the production of the gesso.
Sadly, she did not live to do any of the copies.

A few years ago, there was an elaborate digital method devised to restore the Mona Lisa's colours. The image on that page and the larger one on their website might be a result of an over-eager web page graphic artist and not representative of the actual colours produced, but the colours are clearly wrong: you  can see that there is a strong purple tint to the flesh tones and the colours seem overly saturated. I am also skeptical of the method. The large number of layers in the glazing technique with each one affecting what lies below it, and the fact of various changes to the pigments over the centuries including the very fugitive rose madder, makes, I think, any automated method suspect. It is more important to take into consideration da Vinci's methods and skills along with the fact that he worked on this painting, obsessively, for years. I find it hard to believe that (if the graphic colours are even approximately correct) he would have used so much blue tinting over the entire painting to give such a purple tone to the flesh colours. To me, it makes it look like a poor photograph of a copy.

Compare the results with the copy of the Mona Lisa in the Prado (on the left) and then compare the Louvre Virgin of the rocks with the London version.. For many years, the London version was thought to have been a copy and that d Vinci only helped with the hands of the Virgin. Now it is considered (by the National Gallery where it resides) to be an earlier version entirely by da Vinci. The clumsiness of the infant's hands makes me skeptical of that too. There is something sublime about less controversial paintings like the Mona Lisa and the Louvre Virgin of the rocks that show no trace of the the more illustration art-like copies and overly saturated restorations. With everything, I think that taking flesh colours as paramount can give us the closest approximations of the original, pre-varnished paintings.

Tomorrow, another development in the teaching of evolution in U.S. schools

John's Coydog Community page

Monday, 15 February 2016

Refreshing Mona Lisa: part one

My colour adjustment of the Mona Lisa (reducing yellowing)
click to enlarge

I often repair or adjust old pictures that I use on this blog, doing such things as reducing the age-yellowing of paper, taking out stains, repairing tears and so on. Sometimes, I adjust the colours so that they look better with other images on the page. A few days ago I thought I might attempt to restore the Mona Lisa to something close to what da Vinci might have seen while working on it. I also thought that this must have been attempted before but did not look for examples as I did not want them to influence me in any way. It was obvious to me that severe yellowing has occurred on the painting as skies are  rarely green, but the criterion I picked was to lessen the yellow just until I saw no trace of it on the whitest part of the skin. I thought that da Vinci would have wanted no trace of yellow in that area. In doing so, I first noticed that the skin tones became very natural looking and she started to look like a real person and not someone close to death from jaundice.

This is the source image I used which had been adjusted to be close to the colours of the painting in its current state. You can also click on it to see it at about the same size as my adjustment (mine slightly cropped in selecting it).  da Vinci, himself, was  worried about yellowing: he used walnut oil instead of linseed oil and would tint his glazes to counteract the effect of age-yellowing. Charles Lock Eastlake, in Materials for a History of Oil Painting, Vol. I, 1847, explains his techniques and concerns:

"With all his sense of the advantages of the new process, Leonardo participated in the dread of oil which was so common among the Florentines. He preferred nut oil, as less coloured than that of linseed, and took infinite pains to extract it in the purest state. He appears at one time to have believed that not only this but all the fixed oils could be rendered perfectly colourless; but he must have found that, after all such precautions, time ultimately deepened their hue. He distilled these oils in the hope of obtaining a less changeable vehicle, with no greater success. With better promise of attaining his object, he confined himself to certain colours in the earlier stages of his pictures, with a view to couteract the subsequent yellowing of the oil. He prepared, and even completed them (their final glazings excepted), in a purplish tone, and thus provided by anticipation a remedy for the evil which he dreaded. With the exception of the Adoration of the Magi, in which the fainter shadows are greenish, there is scarcely a picture by Leonardo, whatever stage of completion it may have reached, which does not exhibit this more or less solid purplish preparation, varying from an ink-colour scarcely removed from grey — as in the Mona Lisa, as in the " Vierge aux Rochers " at Charlton, and as in an unfinished head in the gallery at Parma — to the almost violet hue of the Holy Family in the gallery of the Hermitage at Petersburg. De Piles remarks that the carnations of Leonardo incline for the most part to the colour of wine-lees, and that a violet colour predominates in his pictures; Rumohr notices the same tints in the head of Ludovico Sforza in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, and in other examples. Leonardo himself, describing a mode of painting with gum-water, recommends the use of lake and black among the colours for painting the shadows of flesh, the darker shades being strengthened with lake and ink. It appears, both from the unfinished Adoration of the Magi, and from Leonardo's writings, that he preferred a yellowish ground or priming. This was the opposite hue to his dead colour, as his dead colour was again the opposite to the mellow tone which glazing and time would give. On the same principle the tempera painters dead-coloured their flesh green, that the carnations might look fresher, and the Venetians prepared a sky with cream colour as a ground for blue."
When I had finished, I was surprised to see the grey sky, but I noticed that the blue of the water appeared very natural and the redness in the earth was a dead ringer for the Italian ochres of the siennas and umbers. More importantly, I noticed all of the subtle colours in the grey of the sky. The glazing technique, which  uses multiple layers of tinted oil often only a few molecules thick allows for such subtle variations and the the Venetian painters, especially, favoured the  juxtaposition of grey and colours: the former adding great luminosity to the latter. I think that da Vinci had borrowed that effect quite deliberately. I can demonstrate the effect of the glazing technique with the following graphic:

The colour chip on the left is RGB: 255,0,255; next to it is the same colour with its transparency adjusted to 50% and it overlays a chip that is 0,255,0. I have selected the area of the overlay and you can see that it is 127, 128, 127 which is as close as you can get to the mid-range in an RGB system of 255 for each colour. Creating well over 16 million different colours, this is a mathematical system which has nothing at all to do with human colour perception which is far more limited. The colour wheel, a relatively modern (18th. century), and thoroughly unscientific construction, was unknown in da Vinci's day. In the modern system, opposite colours are considered "complementary" so red:green, violet:yellow, etc. At the very least, it is a poor choice of words because if you paint a thin line of red against a background of green, the vibratory effect can almost set your teeth on edge. What you are actually seeing is discordance, something like the wrong note being played in a familiar piece of music. My late wife, Carin Perron, was working on a new colour system that was based on normal human perception: we see different ranges of colours with greater or lesser strengths. We evolved that way. Other creatures can see colours we do not, so that, in itself, reveals the subjective nature of the colour wheel: wavelengths move down into infra red or upward into ultra violet but they never circle back on themselves in nature (coincidentally, in an invented colour system). What Carrie ended up with, geometrically, was a "colour egg" so the actual complement of green was not red but had moved toward the violet. This is how da Vinci started his paintings, using green and violet over the ground (which in his case was not white, but a creamish colour). da Vinci worked on the basis of perception and not theory.

The subtleties in the thicknesses of  each of his glazes, something unavoidable, anyway, when dealing with only a few molecules, gave da Vinci the effect of  very lively greys and this, also, is enhanced through simultaneous contrast in human perception. If you are very colour perceptive, you might see variations in the warmness and coolness of the grey overlay in the graphic above. Yet, wherever you place the colour picker, the results will be the same. Colours are not 100% reproducible on a monitor. If the overlay is not neutral grey, you should adjust your monitor's colour. When I used to design new colour scheme in RGB for eventual printing, I had to actually work blind, with many trial printings to get them exactly right and colours cannot be designed mathematically, either, because of the human perception factor. When a large corporation tried to reverse engineer the colours of the maps I was doing for them rather than paying for mine, they gave up after a year because it cannot be done.

I will conclude tomorrow with the nature of the lakes Eastlake speaks of; what has faded in the painting; another effort to adjust the colours of the Mona Lisa; and a copy of the Mona Lisa that is thought to represent da Vinci's original colours. Of course, I will be somewhat critical of these!

John's Coydog Community page

Friday, 12 February 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: conclusion

The Book Hunters, Gordon Grant, 1909 (repaired)

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”

 Nicholas Murray Butler, 1862-1947

There is an old joke about a conversation between two doctors at a cocktail party:

First doctor: "I used to be an ear, nose and throat doctor but now I am a nose specialist."

Second doctor: "Really? Which nostril?

Ancient Celtic society and art was dramatically different from that of the Greeks and Romans even though there had been some artistic borrowing from the Greeks. The differences confused the Greeks and Romans of their time and as our current society has borrowed so much from the classical civilizations it can similarly confuse us when we attempt to frame questions from within our own cultural background. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Celts were largely a non-literate society and this places them in the protohistorical category. With prehistory, we lose sight of the individual and study man more as a tool-making creature and the shift from talking about Celts to Iron-Age people delivers with it the same lack of humanity.

The age of specialization reflected by academic structures with its fashions in theories moves us even further away. Even though some rather pathetic attempts are made to have interdisciplinary conferences, most people attend only what interests them. The best scholars do take an individual approach and draw information from whatever sources they believe might benefit their research and because of the scant amount of reliable information on the ancient Celts, such people are frequently drawn to this subject as it presents the sort of  intellectual challenge needed by those with a passion. Martyn Jope was such a person, and was noted for having no interest in academic power-building.

One of the most ignored subjects in studies of the material past is psychology, and with it goes both art and mythology. Since Jung, psychology, art and mythology have been closely associated, but sometimes those subjects can be weakened by too little attention to the material past and there is something of a divide between the extraverted material and the introverted psychic (or Logos and Mythos). Fortunately, that divide is not impenetrable and the greatest discoveries are always made through collaborations between the two. This hold true in all subjects.

We have all heard that by not studying history we are are in danger of repeating it, but the same can be said about psychology: by not examining the unconscious we are in danger of projecting it.  One of the latest fashions in writing about the Celts (especially when they are referred to as "Iron Age") has been "identity and power". The phrase did not originate in Celtic studies, but it has been greatly proliferated by such.
The Google Books n-gram above might be somewhat misleading: the phrase "identity and power" before about 1997 was mainly used to refer to personal identity and power (sometimes referring to a deity). Toward the latter part of the range there was an increasing usage where it referred to contemporary minority groups, and close to the end it was expanded more along nationalistic lines. In any case, the number of occurrences in any year prior to 1997 was very small. I see in this, a movement of interest away from the individual toward more collective social groupings. This might (and probably should) alarm many people.

As a term with which to describe La Tène art, it is not only useless but it does not serve to properly describe any modern art-movement at all. While people might display the latest art to "keep up with the Jones's" or impress others with their wealth, none of these factors ever were the cause of the art movement, itself. We saw a movement away from the academy toward human emotion and away from absolute power to greater democracy with the Romantic Rebellion. While, today, we might be tempted to focus on the power issues because of the current psychological shift, the real impetus was a shift in the world view. These things go in cycles: Greek classical art was replaced by Hellenistic art and became less idealized and more humanized. In this series, I have strived to find meanings in the art and shown how ideas developed and proliferated through syncretism. Expanded contacts can revitalize old ideas.

graphic by TeeKay
We should also take a more critical look at academic fashions, and this is where the psychological part comes in. As "identity and power" answer nothing about human agency in the creation of a new art movement, they are thus "weasel words". Wolfgang Pauli might have said "it's not right, it's not even wrong": it has nothing at all to do with the questions we seek.  However, if we think about academic power building, then the phrase "identity and power" can be seen as a psychological projection: it isolates such an academic as a member of an elite, and it furthers his or her career by jumping onto a band-wagon. Thus the exceedingly steep rise on the n-gram makes more sense. Of course, another fashion will follow and the use of "identity and power" will go the way of fins on cars or macramé pot-holders. Only honesty and passion has any lasting power.

Have a multi-disciplinary weekend.

John's Coydog Community page

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: pre-Roman Celtic Society, part twelve

Cernunnos bust and inscription from the Pillar of the Boatmen, Parisii, early 1st cent AD.

Yesterday, I gave a crash course in using mythological subjects in early Celtic research and illustrated it with coins, an antiquity and a painting. Using ancient objects in researching the ancient Celts is most often done in a very slipshod manner based on "it looks like, so it must be" rather than a proper art-historical analysis. The "cultural property" meme has had the unknowing psychological effect of associating objects with locations instead of people. For example, the Gundestrup cauldron is believed by archaeologists, to have been made in Thrace because it is of Thracian workmanship. If there had been any analytical thought about the matter it would have soon been realized that, in the ancient world, artists were eager to associate themselves with wealthy patrons, regardless of where such patrons resided. The Gundestrup cauldron was made by Thracians who were working in Italy. This is evident from the models they used to copy a number of devices such as the Italian situla on the procession plate and the Italian style of the hippocamps (taken from a helmet decoration) which are very different from Thracian depictions of hippocamps. The imagery of the cauldron mixes Celtic and Greek mysteries themes and includes icons of Celtic battles in Italy including Taras and Herakleia (under Pyrrhus). All of these things give a possible range of dates starting with the defence of Taras and ending with the expulsion of the Celtic patrons from northern Italy, so I give the approximate date as ca. 275-200 BC.(but most likely more toward the earlier date). I also identified an Augustan revival of the native Thracian style which is represented by phalerae from the Sark and Stara Zagora hoards. Silver phalerae were popular presentation pieces in the time of Augustus and his Thracian puppet-ruler Rhoemetalces I who was eager to stress his Thracian culture (probably under directions from the emperor). The Stara Zagora hoard also contained silver cups of the Augustan period.

Cernunnos with torc and ram-headed serpent on the Gundestrup cauldron
The need for geographical associations could only link the Danish find spot with the imagined Thracian place of manufacture through the perambulations of the Cimbri and this, in turn, linked the Celtic Scordisci tribe as the Celtic patrons, because of their proximity to Thrace even though the Celtic iconography is very clearly associated with objects in present-day France. despite the fact that the native Thracian style had been extinct for about two hundred years prior to that event, the effect of the meme was so powerful as to have that fact ignored. There were other unnoticed clues, too: the Roman styles evident in the phalerae show that any object always shows signs of the time it was made; the chased background on the phalerae is far more open and slipshod than is seen on the earlier Thracian native style; and the native style never incorporated any classical style, only classical subjects. In Thrace, the classical styles reached their height of popularity during the time of Lysimachus who died in 281 BC. At that time, the native styles became rather provincial and it is no small wonder that those artists were eager to find a more receptive market, just as Italian artists were looking more toward Lysimachus court for their patronage. The Celts were ideal patrons. They were very wealthy and more interested in symbolic art than the late classical styles.Northern Italy, under the Etruscans had attracted artists from as far as Asia Minor (fleeing from Persian rule) for hundreds of years. Some of their devices, ultimately, were adapted by the Celts in the Rhineland.

Celtic chain-mail hook depicting ram-headed hippocamp
The ram-headed serpent held by Cernunnos on the Gundestrup cauldron is referenced by this ram-headed hippocamp in my collection. It is a Celtic chain-mail hook probably of the early third century BC, and I bought it from a bijouterie in Champagne. The shop, selling mostly modern jewellery, had a small antiquity collection (probably from an estate purchase) of mostly Celtic coins of the area along with a few Roman coins and this hook which was unidentified. It is common, in early Celtic art, for motifs to be recombined within their regions or carried elsewhere through the movements of people. In this case, the ram-headed hippocamp is in association with the typical Marnian scroll.

In Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, Routledge, 1992, Miranda Green (p.89) gives the distribution of images of Cernunnos, in Romano-Celtic Europe:
"Images of the antlered deity occur, for the most part, on stone monuments. Their distribution is mainly in north central Gaul, but they appear in western areas, as at saintes and even in south-west Britain, at Cirencester. The tribes with whom Cernunnos was most popular included the Sequani, Aedui, Bituriges, Arverni, Santones, and Namnetes."
Cernunnos at Val Camonica, Italy.
photo: Luca Giarelli (cropped and tonal curves adjusted)
For his origins, however, she tracks him back to this example of rock-art at Val Camonica, Italy which dates to the fourth century BC. In this area, stag images are especially common. She describes him as having a torc on each arm and with a horned serpent. The figure of Cernunnos has his arms in the orans position as is commonly seen with the upper parts of facing figures on the small plates of the Gundestrup cauldron where they are mostly holding matched emblems in each hand.

There was a Celtic presence in northern Italy before the large movements of troops to the area in the fourth century BC. and the La Tène religion and art style has its genesis in that region. Thus, I find it quite likely that this was also where Cernunnos originated. For him to be adopted by the Celts, however, he must have had some sort of correlate in their homeland. Celtic statuary in northern Gaul, is restricted to the Roman Imperial period, so we would not expect anything earlier than that by way of images and it is also possible that his Celtic correlate existed only in lore and had not been a mainstream deity of the indigenous people. The Celtic coin imagery, also, dates after the Val Camonica pictograph so all we can say for certain is that something resonated with the Celts when they saw the the stag imagery at Val Camonica and it inspired this petroglyph with its Celtic torcs and religious connotation on account of the orans postion of the arms. The other Celtic imagery on the Gundestrup cauldron is later seen on coins of those areas that had recruiting bases for the Italian campaigns. Much of this imagery being eastern Armorican in its motifs and includes that of the Redones and the Aulerci Cenomani.. That imagery, too, has its genesis in the Rhineland area  where it undoubtedly also received impetus from northern Italy.

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