You could also call these selected items nonpareils or classical
exemplars. Naturally some are rare if not priceless; but they range all
the way down to a few bucks so feel free to get out your wish list. Here
it’s more a combination of significance and romance than monetary
value. And unlike the Holy Grail[s] of song and fame their existence is,
or at the very least was, undisputed.
By single categories:
Flora & Fauna
Treasure & Splendor
Libyan desert glass
In 1932 geologist Patrick Clayton, the same individual played more recently by
Julian Wadham in the film The English Patient, discovered deposits of a
chartreuse-colored glass in a remote area of the Libyan desert and managed to
lug back 50 kilograms of it.
|Libyan desert glass
(Tutankhamen c. 1323 bce)
|Photo: Jon Bodsworth
Normally it’s safe to assume that this sort of material is a form of
obsidian, a volcanic glass used since ancient times for various ornamental
purposes and to make super-sharp knives. Indeed there is some volcanism
in that area.
But Libyan desert glass is very different. While obsidian averages between 50%
and 70% in silica content, here we’re seeing about 98% which is equivalent to that of
modern glass. Also, we now know through cosmic ray track analysis that LDG is
about 28 million years old versus nine thousand or so for the nearby volcanoes.
If you rule out pre-human atomic warfare that pretty much leaves the heat of a
meteor impact as the culprit. Glassy fragments formed that way are called
tektites and you’ll find lots of them elsewhere in the world
— that New Age favorite Moldavite being an example. But LDG stands
alone in its chemistry, clarity and color. Clayton didn’t know this, but local
cultures going back thousands of years had also prized it. Note the scarab to the left.
Demand for a semi-obscure novelty like LDG from collectors and gemstone hobbyists is
modest, so at the moment you can pick up high quality rough for what comes out
to around $2000 per pound. My own favorite fantasy (I think it’s
safe to assume no one has tried this yet) is to melt several pounds together,
blend well, and cast from that a set of drinking glasses.
In 2006 a Boston Universiy team announced that a heavily
eroded circular formation now known as Kebira Crater may well have been formed
by the meteorite responsible for LDG. It’s about 23 km (14 miles) in diameter,
centered about 292 km (182 miles) due north of where the Egyptian and Sudanese borders intersect. Fire up Google Earth or the like
and fly to 24° 40’ north,
24° 58’ east if you’d like to take a look.
Most of us nowadays associate the word murrhine with that intricately
multicolored glassware from the Venetian island of Murano.
|Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto / CC
But the real murrhine was a mysterious semitransparent synthetic stone
that artisans fashioned into goblets and other tableware for the ultra-upscale
market. It started out as a liquid that they poured into a mold and either baked
or possibly left to harden exothermically on its own (like plaster of Paris or
Portland cement). But the formula got lost and forgotten sometime leading into
the Middle Ages and the finished articles were so rare and precious that we don’t
have any recognizable samples to analyze.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 ce) tells us in his Natural Histories “The chief merit of
[murrhine vessels] is the great variety of their colors, and the wreathed veins,
which, every here and there, present shades of purple and white, with a mixture
of the two; the purple gradually changing, as it were, to a fiery red, and the
milk-white assuming a ruddy hue. Some persons praise the edges of these vessels
more particularly, with a kind of reflection in the colours, like those beheld
in a rainbow.”
We also learn that although murrhine felt rather oily and emitted a
characteristic smell, its connoisseurs savored those qualities also. Roman statesmen
and other elites took enormous pride in their murrhines and dined and drank from
them especially when they wanted to put on the dog. Nero even smashed a couple to show
everyone who was boss. We know that crazed meteorite-worshiping, ostrich brain-eating
Heliogabalus was also an avid collector so this extends the treasure’s survival well
into the third century.
It’s quite possible someone will eventually dig up some shards of murrhine or glean
some more details from the literature (there’s an ample backlog of
carbonized first century scrolls waiting for restoration and decipherment, for
example) and then we’ll have a better idea how and from what it was made.
The Edwin M. Stanton Fancyback
Ah, yes, the days when money looked like money.
|Courtesy National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution|
This one dollar U.S. Treasury note of 1890 isn’t the rarest paper currency of that genre
— others exist in far shorter supply, such as the 1891 thousand dollar General Meade
that changed hands for $2.5 million in April 2013 —
but it’s quite widely acknowledged as the most legendary and as the most elaborately yet elegantly designed.
Despite posing the ultimate 19th century counterfeiter’s nightmare, the
Fancyback’s layout doesn’t even seem cluttered. Note the
enormous dimensional diversity among the various elements on the front side
and the overall squint-your-eyes density contrasts on the back. As with
most paper currency the stock was 100% cloth pulp made, in those days, by
grinding up scraps of cotton and linen purchased by the wagon load from rag
There would have been a devoted team of master artisans attacking a project
like this. Some would specialize in portraits, others in the lettering or
organic ornamentation, and finally engineering types who would design, build,
and operate the geometric lathes. Through elaborate systems of cams and
gears, these latter Spirograph-like devices drove engraving tools to cut the
rosettes and other fishnet-like embellishments.
Millions of Fancybacks were minted and circulated (a blacksmith in 1890
would make about $11 weekly), but it’s estimated that only 900 to
1300 exist today. Values nudge past $3000 for specimens in the very finest
Note: A textual sockdolager like this should represent the ultimate challenge
for an optical character recognition (OCR) application. Any takers?
The silent Messiah Stradivarius
Those fortunate enough to own stringed instruments
from the Baroque-era Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari workshops are
scrupulously fussy about who — if anyone — they allow to poke and prod them.
Although much of their vaunted superiority would seem to stem more from
cachet than reality (blind listening tests reveal them sonically
indistinguishable from many of their top-drawer peers), there
are many nuances in their physical makeup that do set them apart
and make them exquisitely responsive to their players.
|© Pruneau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0|
Back in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of press about the more finely
packed growth rings in the spruce and maple available to those makers,
owing to the Maunder Mininum’s reduced growing seasons between 1645 and
1715. Other articles have cited the effect of microbes eating away tiny
resonance-encouraging voids in the wood as it soaked in the Venetian lagoons
awaiting the sawyers, and the presence of finely pulverized grains of
quartz, calcite, aluminum oxide (white sapphire), garnet, and/or
other minerals in the varnishes.
More recently we’ve seen physics professor William F. “Jack” Fry
demonstrate how intimately attuned these makers were to the way various
twisting and pumping actions of the instrument’s body contribute
to its sound. They modulated the thicknesses of the front plates in
meandering patterns, and applied their varnishes in similarly uneven
coats, both to optimize these quiverings and to compensate for the
flexibility quirks of the wood that differed for
About 500 Stradivarius violins survive, but among them the
Messiah-Salabue from 1715 is unique. It was found unsold in Antonio
Stradivari’s workshop after he died in 1737, and since at least the
early 19th century it has scarcely if ever been played.
You’ll notice from the photo that the C-shaped rims at its waist show no
wear from errant bows and that it has no chin rest or E string tuner.
The idea here has been to preserve one Stradivarius in as pristine a
condition as possible so that violin makers and other researchers will
always have a sample to analyze. It’s on display on the second floor of
the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Flora & Fauna
Treasure & Splendor