How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teaching child visitors how to write their names using an unfamiliar or antique alphabet is a favorite activity of museum educators, but Dr. Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian medicine and magic, has grander designs.

His employer, the British Museum, has over 130,000 tablets spanning Mesopotamia’s Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire “just waiting for young scholars to come devote themselves to (the) monkish work” of deciphering them.

Writing one’s name might well prove to be a gateway, and Dr. Finkel has a vested interest in lining up some new recruits.

The museum’s Department of the Middle East has an open access policy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and personal with a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extremely personable Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform consists of three components—upright, horizontal and diagonal—made by pressing the edge of a reed stylus, or popsicle stick if you prefer, into a clay tablet.

The mechanical process seems fairly easy to get the hang of, but mastering the oldest writing system in the world will take you around six years of dedicated study. Like Japan’s kanji alphabet, the oldest writing system in the world is syllabic. Properly written out, these syllables join up into a flowing calligraphy that your average, educated Babylonian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rustle up a popsicle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth sticking with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some naturally occurring cuneiform inspired him to write a horror novel, which is now available for purchase, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Begin your cuneiform studies with Irving Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Mental Floss

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight premieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Visit an Online Collection of 61,761 Musical Instruments from Across the World

The study of musical instruments opens up vast histories of sound reverberating through the centuries. Should we embark on a journey through halls of Europe’s musical instrument museums, for example, we should soon discover how limited our appreciation for music history has been, how narrowed by the relative handful of instruments allowed into orchestras, ensembles, and bands of all kinds. The typical diet of classical, romantic, modern, jazz, pop, rock, R&B, or whatever, the music most of us in the West grow up hearing and studying, has resulted from a careful sorting process that over time chose certain instruments over others.

Some of those historic instruments—the violin, cello, many wind and brass—remain in wide circulation and produce music that can still sound relevant and contemporary. Others, like the Mellotron (above) or barrel organs (like the 1883 Cylinderpositiv at the top), remain wedded to their historical periods, making sounds that might as well have dates stamped on them.

You could—and many an historian has, no doubt—travel the world and pay a personal visit to the museums housing thousands of musical instruments humans have used—or at least invented—to carry melodies and harmonies and keep time. Such a tour might constitute a life’s work.

But if you’re on a budget or your grant doesn’t come through, you can still tour Europe’s musical instrument museums, and two museums in Africa, from the comfort of your home, office, or library thanks to MIMO, Musical Instrument Museums Online, a “consortium of some of Europe’s most important musical instrument museums” offering “the world’s largest freely accessible database for information on musical instruments held in public collections.”

The enormous online collection houses, virtually, tens of thousands of instruments from over two dozen regions around the globe. (There are 61,761 instruments in total.) Find an Italian Basse de Viole (above) from 1547 or an ornate Egyptian darabukka (below). And, of course, plenty of iconic—and rare—electric guitars and basses.

You can search instruments by maker, country, city, or continent, time period, museum, and type. (Wind, Percussion, Stringed, Zithers, Rattles, Bells, Lamellaphones, etc….) Researchers may encounter a few language hurdles—MIMO’s about page mentions “searching in six different languages,” and the site actually lists 11 language categories in tabs at the top. But users may still need to plug pages into Google translate unless they read French or German or some of the other languages in which descriptions have been written. Refreshingly consistent, the photographs of each instrument conform to a standard set by the consortium that provides “detailed guidelines on how to set up a repository to enable the harvesting of digital content.”

But enough about the site functions, what about the sounds? Well, in a physical museum, you wouldn’t expect to take a three-hundred-year-old flute out of its case and hear it played. Just so, most of the instruments here can be seen and not heard, but the site does have over 400 sound files, including the enchanting recording of Symphonion Eroica 38a (above), as played on a mechanical clock from 1900.

As you discover instruments you never knew existed—such as the theramin-like Croix Sonore (Sonorus Cross), created by Russian composer Nicolas Obukhov between 1926 and 1934—you can undertake your own research to find sample recordings online, such as “The Third and Last Testament,” below, Obukhov’s composition for 5 voices, organ, 2 pianos, orchestra, and croix sonore. Obukhov’s experiments with instruments of his own invention prompted his experiments in 12-tone composition, in which, he declared, “I forbid myself any repetition.” Just one example among many thousands demonstrating how instrument design forms the basis of a wildly proliferating variety of musical expressions that can start to seem endless after a while.

via @dark_shark

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How the Ornate Tapestries from the Age of Louis XIV Were Made (and Are Still Made Today)

“Time is the warp and matter the weft of the woven texture of beauty in space, and death is the hurling shuttle.”

— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

For the uninitiated, the warp are the plain vertical threads of a weaving or tapestry, through which the colorful, horizontal weft threads are passed, over and under, on wooden needle-shaped bobbins (or shuttles).

As Beatrice Grisol, Head Weaver at Paris’ venerable Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins remarks, in The Art of Making a Tapestry, above, weavers must possess a love of drawing and an abundance of imagination in order to translate an artist’s vision using silken or woolen threads.

21st century designs are more contemporary, and dying equipment more precise, but Les Gobelins’s weavers’ process remains remarkably unchanged since the days of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

As in the 17th-century, giant looms are strung with white warp threads, in readiness for the threads expert dyers have colored according to the artist’s palette.

The colored weft threads are stored on spools, and eventually portioned out onto the bobbins, which dangle from the backside of the tapestry, as the weaver works her magic, constantly checking her progress in a mirror reflecting both the project's front side and a print of the original design.

It’s worth noting that the pronouns here are exclusively feminine. The lavish tapestries decorating Louis XIV’s court hinted at years of unsung labor by highly skilled craftswomen. Tapestries were the ne plus ultra of princely status, a testament to their owner’s erudition and taste. Louis XIV amassed some 2,650 pieces.

That’s a lot of bobbins, and a lot of hard-working female weavers.

Witness the transformation from artist Charles Le Brun’s 1664 study for the figure who would become the seated youth in The Entry of Alexander into Babylon

…to the fully realized oil on canvas rendering from 1690…

…to its incarnation as a tapestry in the Sun King’s court:

Speeding ahead to the 21st-century, Les Gobelins appears to rival Brooklyn’s Etsy flagship as a pleasantly appointed, well lit, and highly respected Temple of Craft.

View some of the highlights of the Getty Museum’s 2016 exhibition Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV here.

Or grab your heddles and plan an in-person visit to La Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Periodic Table of David Bowie: A Visualization of the Seminal Artist’s Influence and Influences

Mick Jagger ...

Dada poet Tristan Tzara

Chairman Mao…

What do these 20th-century icons have in common?

Correct! They’re also all elements on artist Paul Robertson's Periodic Table of Bowie.

The late musician David Bowie was a skin-shedding chameleon, and a remarkably stable isotope. His creative influences were varied.

Robertson's table debuted in 2013 as part of the Victoria & Albert David Bowie is exhibition, three years before rock's seminal Starman exited the planet. Following a 12-city tour, it's taking its final bow at the Brooklyn Museum.

“I’m not an idiot,” the artist confided in an interview. “I know that people are mostly interested in it because it’s David Bowie. But I think it’s still a valid artwork.”

In addition to positioning such influences as collaborator John Lennon, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and former roommate Iggy Pop as atomic numbers, Robertson's table allows for artists who came after.

"Fly My Pretties Fly (Thank You. We'll Take It From Here)" includes Lady Gaga, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, and fellow dandy, Morrissey, while Bowie's 90s-era costumer, designer Alexander McQueen and artist Jeff Koons hold down "History Is a Choice the Future Decides Upon."

Fittingly, author Oscar Wilde appears in the Hydrogen slot.

Buy a print of the Periodic Table of Bowie here.

Explore David Bowie is in person at the Brooklyn Museum through July 15.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Download 150 Free Coloring Books from Great Libraries, Museums & Cultural Institutions: The British Library, Smithsonian, Carnegie Hall & More

A news alert for fans of coloring books.

You can now take part in the 2018 edition of #ColorOurCollections–a campaign where museums, libraries and other cultural institutions make available free coloring books, letting you color artwork from their collections and then share it on Twitter and other social media platforms. When sharing, use the hashtag #ColorOurCollections.

Below you can find a collection of 20 free coloring books, which you can download, print, and color until you can color no more. Also find a complete list of 150 coloring books over at this site maintained by The New York Academy of Medicine Library.

To see the free coloring books offered up in 2016, click here. And 2017, here.

The image up top comes from The British Library.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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“The Artist Project” Reveals What 127 Influential Artists See When They Look at Art: An Acclaimed Video Series from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photographer Nan Goldin’s celebrated series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency would likely have sent portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron reeling for her smelling salts, but the century that divides these two photographers' active periods is less of a barrier than one might assume.

As Goldin notes in the above episode of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online series, The Artist Project, both made a habit of photographing people with whom they were intimately acquainted.  (Cameron’s subjects included Virginia Woolf’s mother and Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.)

The trust between artist and subject is evident in both of their work.

And both were roundly criticized for their lack of technical prowess, though that didn’t stop either of them from pursuing their visions, in focus or not.

Other participants in the six season series, in which artists discuss their influences, chose to zero in on a single work.

John Baldessari, who chafes at the “Conceptualist” label, has been a fan of Social Realist/Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston since high school, when he would tear images of early works from his parents’ Life magazines.

His admiration for Gustin’s nightmarish Stationary Figure reveals a major difference in attitude from museum goers sneering that their kids could have painted such a work. Baldessari sees both the big picture—the idea of death as a sort of cosmic joke—and the sophisticated brushwork.

Cartoonist Roz Chast chose to focus on Italian Renaissance painting in her episode, savoring those teeming canvases’ creators’ imperfect command of perspective and three dimensionality.

Mayhaps she is also a fan of the Ugly Renaissance Babies Tumblr?

The maximalist approach helps her believe that what she’s looking at is “real,” even as she grants herself the freedom to interpret the narrative in the manner she finds most amusing, playfully suggesting that a UFO is responsible for The Conversion of Saint Paul.

Other participants include Nina Katchadourian on Early Netherlandish portraitureNick Cave on Kuba cloths, John Currin on Ludovico Carracci's The Lamentation, and Jeff Koons on Roman sculpture.

The series also spawned a book, The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look At Art.

See a list of all artists and episodes in the Artist Project here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She tackles artist Jules Bastien-Lepage in New York City this Thursday, when Necromancers  of the Public Domain reframes his biography as a variety show, Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Discover the Japanese Museum Dedicated to Collecting Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

It says something about the human brain that we so often see the shape of human faces in inanimate things — and that we feel such amusement and even delight about it when we do. If you don't believe it, just ask the 618,000 followers of the Twitter account Faces in Things, which posts images of nothing else. Or go to Chichibu, Japan, two hours northwest of Tokyo, where you'll find the Chinsekikan, a small museum that has collected over 1,700 "curious rocks," all 100 percent organically formed, about a thousand of which resemble human faces, sometimes even famous ones.

"The museum’s founder, who passed away in 2010, collected rocks for over fifty years," writes Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft. "Initially, he was drawn to rare rocks, but that evolved into collecting, well, strange rocks — especially unaltered rocks that naturally resemble celebrities, religious figures, movie characters, and more.

These days, the founder's daughter keeps the museum running, and it has been featured on popular, nationwide Japanese TV programs." It has also, more recently, become a subject of CNN's internet video series Great Big Story, which highlights interesting people and places all around the world.

The Chinsekikan stands in walking distance of a local river rich with rocks, where we see the museum's proprietor Yoshiko Hayama performing one of her routine searches for wee faces staring back at her. "To find rocks, we walk step-by-step," she says. "If we walk too fast, we won't find them." She explains that a proper jinmenseki, or face-shaped stone, needs at least eyes and a mouth, reasonably well-aligned, with a nose being a rare bonus. Only decades of adherence to these standards, and hunting with such deliberateness, can yield such prize specimens as a rock that looks like Elvis Presley, a rock that looks (vaguely) like Johnny Depp, and a rock that looks like Donald Trump — though that one does benefit from what looks like a pile of thread on top, of a color best described as not found in nature.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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