From the bones of giants


One day in 1443, a mason chiselled the letters “A. E. I. O. U.” on a giant bone which hung from the gates of the bustling city of Vienna.

The mason was not making sure they never forgot their vowels (although it is a pretty snazzy way of remembering). These letters were the motto of Emperor of Austria, Fredrick III: “All Earth is our [Austria’s] Underlying”. What greater statement than to inscribe the great Emperor’s motto onto a leg bone of a humungous being. This enormous bone, thought to have once belonged to a giant, was discovered when building St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. It was hung on the city gates, known as ‘Giants Gates’.

This was of course not the leg bone of a giant. It was a mammoth femur. For centuries bones of mammoths (and other beasts) have been used in rather creative ways with their true identity…

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Joseph Leidy’s atrocious baby


American lion reconstruction by Sergiodlarosa via Wikimedia Commons American lion reconstruction by Sergiodlarosa via Wikimedia Commons

Talk about the American lion today and most people will think you mean the cougar (Puma concolor), a beautiful, lithe predator sadly extinct from most of the Eastern United States, but still doing well in the west, and in South America. However, talk to me about the American lion and we can discuss something a little more exciting: Panthera [leo] atrox! Back in the Pleistocene, lions were “top cat” and had a greater range than puny Homo sapiens: Spain, Siberia, South Africa, Syria were all home to lions (Panthera leo) or cave lions (Panthera [leo] spelaea). So too was North America. Here, a unique subspecies/species had been present since at least the Sangamon interglacial (130-120ka BP) cut off from other lion populations by the thick wall of ice that covered most of Canada. Fossils of…

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Epitaph Tablets – Honoring an 18th Century Korean Decedent

The Dearly Departed

This winter I spent a transcendent morning in the wondrous Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet in Paris.  I was in heaven, enjoying ancient art from many Asian nations, including this unbelievably cool Chinese sculpture of  the bodhisattva Guanyin “with 1000 arms and 1000 eyes”.

When I wandered into the Korean art section, a reporter and her cameraman asked whether they could interview me for their Korean language tv show.  I assured them that I know nothing about Korean art, but they were so sweet and persistent that I ended up answering their questions (very ineptly).  Mostly I talked about the Arts of Korea room that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998.  I am pretty sure that I sounded like a moron.

This weekend I finally had a chance to re-visit the Arts of Korea room at the Metropolitan to learn what I should have said in that…

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Artists and Prophets

Strange Flowers

Trade Fair Palace Oh Schiele

A young man, seen in profile, is leaning back in a cane chair with a robe cast over its side. He has thick wavy hair and holds a palette in one hand, in the other a long, thin clay pipe set at the same angle as his outstretched right leg, his foot an impatient blur. The man is regarding a half-length portrait set upon an easel, turned to face the viewer; the subject is an evidently important personage of advanced years, white-whiskered and copiously bemedalled.

This sepia photo, dated 1874, is the earliest image in the outstanding exhibition Artists and Prophets. Having originated in Frankfurt, it is currently showing in Prague’s Trade Fair Palace, which is neither fair nor a palace, and has seen no trading since the modern block was repurposed as an offshoot of the National Gallery (it has a great café though). The young man…

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