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The Results Are In: This Mysterious Painting Is a Rembrandt

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Image Credit: Het Mauritshuis, YouTube

For eight years, researchers at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands, have made it their mission to discover who really painted Saul and David. When the museum was given the work in 1946 after the death of its original owner, they were under the impression that it was painted by Rembrandt. But in 1969, Horst Gerson, a German-Dutch art historian and expert on the 17th century Dutch painter, questioned the painting's provenance in his book Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings. Recapping his thesis for The New York Times, Nina Siegal wrote that his book suggests Saul and David "was the work of one of the master’s pupils, because 'the painterly execution is superficial and inconsistent' and he didn’t 'recognize Rembrandt’s touch in it.'"

After the book's publication, the museum replaced the original attribution plaque next to the painting with one that said "Rembrandt and/or Studio." 

But recently, through the combined efforts of the Mauritshuis museum, Delft University of Technology, and the University of Antwerp, the museum was finally able to re-attribute the painting to its legendary creator. The team employed a number of different technologies, including X-ray fluorescence analysis, in order to isolate elements in the paints' pigments. In this way, they were able to differentiate between the original paint and the layers added on top during restoration efforts. They were then able to remove these top paint and varnish layers, bringing the painting back to its intended—rather than a completely stripped—state. 

Next, the researchers matched the original primer's pigments with those known to be used by Rembrandt's studio. They also determined that the painting "is in fact made up of 15 different pieces of canvas; three main parts—the Saul, the David, and an insert of a copy of an old painting in the upper right corner plus strips all around the edges," explained Emilie Gordenker, the museum's director. According to Siegal, the slices down the middle and through the center were cut during the 19th century so the painting could "be sold as two Rembrandt portraits" and then within "the next 40 years, it was sutured back together with pieces of an entirely different canvas, and layered with paint to cover up its scars." 

Ultimately, a panel made up of restorers, curators, Rembrandt scholars, and Gordenker were able to declare that Rembrandt did indeed create Saul and David.

The story behind the eight-year long investigation will be featured in a new exhibit opening tomorrow, titled "Rembrandt? The Case of Saul and David." 

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 New Ancient Ships Found at the 'Shipwreck Capital of the World'
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The number of wrecks discovered at the "shipwreck capital of the world" continues to grow. According to Haaretz, the latest find adds eight new wreck discoveries, bringing the total up to 53 sunken ships in a 17-mile stretch off the coast of Fourni, Greece.

As Mental Floss reported, in 2015 archaeologists working off the coast of Fourni identified 22 shipwrecks dating back to 700 BCE—already an historic find. But additional dives conducted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the RPM Nautical Foundation have continued to yield new discoveries. Nine months later, in June 2016, the Fourni Underwater survey turned up 23 more ancient, Medieval, and post-Medieval shipwrecks in the area with the help of local fishermen and sponge divers. The latest expedition took place in June 2017.

Divers inspect and survey an ancient amphora near the shipwreck site.

The Fourni archipelago, consisting of 13 tiny islands, never hosted a sizable town, but it was an important stopping point for shipping routes between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and on to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. The area may have been a hotspot for ships seeking safe harbor from violent storms in that part of the Aegean Sea, as Peter Campbell of the RPM Nautical Foundation told Haaretz. It wasn’t an entirely safe destination for merchant ships, though; it was also a pirate haven.

Some of the latest wrecks found include a ship from the Greek Classical Period—around 500 BCE to 320 BCE—carrying Greek amphorae (ceramic jars), a Roman ship with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, and anchors dating back to the Archaic Period (800 to 479 BCE). Researchers found more stone, lead, and iron anchors all the way up to the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until the 15th century.

Two conservationists sit at a table working with shards of ancient pottery.

The ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean (and the dangers of ancient seafaring) have made the area a fertile ground for millennia-old shipwrecks even outside of Fourni. As recently as 2016, divers off the coast of Israel stumbled upon a 1600-year-old merchant ship filled with Roman artifacts. In 2015, Italian divers discovered the wreck of a 2000-year-old ship carrying terra cotta tiles in deep waters near Sardinia.

The Fourni project is still ongoing, and researchers plan to conduct a fourth season of underwater surveying in 2018. Once the project completes a full survey and documentation of the area, the researchers may consider excavating some of the wrecks.

[h/t Haaretz]

All photos by Vasilis Mentogianis courtesy the RPM Nautical Foundation

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J. P. Oleson
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science
Time Has Only Strengthened These Ancient Roman Walls
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J. P. Oleson

Any seaside structure will erode and eventually crumble into the water below. That’s how things work. Or at least that’s how they usually work. Scientists say the ancient Romans figured out a way to build seawalls that actually got tougher over time. They published their findings in the journal American Mineralogist.

The walls’ astonishing durability is not, itself, news. In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder described the phenomenon in his Naturalis Historia, writing that the swell-battered concrete walls became "a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger."

We know that Roman concrete involved a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, seawater, and chunks of volcanic rock—and that combining these ingredients produces a pozzolanic chemical reaction that makes the concrete stronger. But modern cement involves a similar reaction, and our seawalls fall apart like anything else beneath the ocean's corrosive battering ram.

Something else was clearly going on.

To find out what it was, geologists examined samples from walls built between 55 BCE and 115 CE. They used high-powered microscopes and X-ray scanners to peer into the concrete's basic structure, and a technique called raman spectroscopy to identify its ingredients.

Microscope image of crystals in ancient Roman concrete.
Courtesy of Marie Jackson

Their results showed that the pozzolanic reaction during the walls' creation was just one stage of the concrete toughening process. The real magic happened once the walls were built, as they sat soaking in the sea. The saltwater did indeed corrode elements of the concrete—but in doing so, it made room for new crystals to grow, creating even stronger bonds.

"We're looking at a system that's contrary to everything one would not want in cement-based concrete," lead author Marie Jackson, of the University of Utah, said in a statement. It's one "that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater."

The goal now, Jackson says, is to reproduce the precise recipe and toughen our own building materials. But that might be harder than it sounds.

"Romans were fortunate in the type of rock they had to work with," she says. "They observed that volcanic ash grew cements to produce the tuff. We don't have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made."

We still have a lot to learn from the ancient walls and their long-gone architects. Jackson and her colleagues will continue to pore through Roman texts and the concrete itself, looking for clues to its extraordinary strength.

"The Romans were concerned with this," Jackson says. "If we're going to build in the sea, we should be concerned with it too."

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