Thursday, February 21, 2013

Buried Treasure

You know about the state flower, and maybe even the state tree, but did you know California has a state fossil??

It's the saber-toothed cat… discovered right here in the Tar Pits of Los Angeles…!

Millions of years ago, during the Miocene Era, the Los Angeles area was an ocean basin. Today, this area is in the middle of downtown, and even though it is known as the Tar Pits, you won't find any 'tar' there - the dark, sticky substance responsible for so many trapped animals is actually asphalt, or low grade crude oil. Over the centuries, the marine plankton that died here became the large petroleum reservoir known as Rancho La Brea (Tar Ranch). This crude oil bubbles up from deep in the earth, and the lighter components evaporate off, leaving the heavy, tar-like substance. Anything falling into these pits, known as seeps, gets hopelessly trapped, and lucky for us, very well preserved. Hence, the La Brea Pits are one of the richest deposits of Ice Age fossils in the world.

These seeps have been trapping local animal and plant life for over 50,000 years, and so most of the fossils recovered have been from the Pleistocene, between 40,000 and 8,000 years ago. Due to this, the Page museum is home to most of the world's best Pleistocene vertebrate assemblages, also known as a Lagerst├Ątten (site), which means they are exceptional either in the quality of preservation or in the quantity of fossils.

From these plant and animal remains we can tell that life in the Los Angeles basin was cooler and wetter during that time period, however, many of the plants and animals found in La Brea are almost identical to current native species. A large number, though, fall within the 'extinct' category : camels, mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, and more. Also, an unusually high proportion of the fossil finds in La Brea are carnivores. 

Over 100 pits have been excavated in the site, producing over 600 species and over one million fossil bones! Visitors can see remains of Ice Age fossils, and can also observe active seeps, which occur not only in Hancock park itself, but, for several blocks in the area. The asphalt seeps up onto streets, into sewers, and under buildings, so beware! The bubbling asphalt seeps still trap many types of animals (and the occasional person!), especially during warm days when the asphalt is stickiest.

One of their newest and best sites, Project 23, happened because in 2006, the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) began work on a new underground parking garage.  While digging, 16 new fossil deposits were discovered, including the mostly complete skeleton of an adult mammoth.

 It was called project 23 because 23 boxes of material were saved from the construction's destruction. They were moved to the Pit 91 area for study, along with 327 more buckets of fossil material for Page employees to clean and sort through, which should take a while…

Southern California isn't the only place in the world with Tar pits… but that is another story for another blog…

See the rest of my photos here:

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Monday, January 28, 2013


"Oh painted vile in lurid hue
The snarling horse that waits for you…" 

Many of us loved and rode carousels as children, but did you know that America used to have the largest number of hand-carved carousels in the world?

During the 1860's, the popularity of the modern carousel movement in America created a 'Golden Age' of Carousels (from around 1880 to about 1930). There were many companies providing carousels for the growing demand, including: the Dentzel Company, Philadelphia Toboggan Company, M.C. Illions, Herschell-Spillman, Stein & Goldstein, and C.W. Parker. Most of these were named after the master carvers who began the tradition and founded the companies, so, despite its European origins, the most well-crafted carousels could be found here in the states. America could boast of being home to thousands of these beautifully crafted carousels, but today, only a few hundred remain, and the number continues to shrink. The 'Golden Age' ended due to the declining economy during the Great Depression. Many companies were closed, and many carousels were abandoned or destroyed...
SPILLMAN ENGINEERING was one of the companies that flourished during the 'Golden Age'. Herschell Spillman company changed its name to Spillman in the early 1920s and continued carving, however their style changed from menagerie carousels to those with only horses (see below).

This large carousel located in Griffith Park was built in 1926 by Spillman Engineering for San Diego's Mission Beach. It was in San Diego Expo until 1935 and then moved into its current location in 1937. It remains the only full-size Spillman Engineering carousel still in operation today. 

It features 68 hand-carved horses, four abreast, every one a 'jumper' (see terminology below).

It also has two chariots, which were 'benches' for people who did not want to ride a horse - also called lover's seats or gondolas.

The carving is extremely fine with rich details: jewel-encrusted bridles, draped blankets ornamented with sunflowers and lion heads...  and the horses tails were originally made with real horse-hair...! 

This Stinson 165 Military Band Organ is said to be the largest carousel band organ on the West Coast, with more than 1500 marches and waltzes.

This Spillman carousel was said to be Walt Disney's inspiration for Disneyland and the Disneyland carousel…!!

Carousel terminology:
"Jumper - describes a horse/figure that has all four feet off the carousel platform.  Jumpers are normally the 'moving' horses on a carousel (either suspended from the overhead or attached to a mechanism from underneath).   Another term sometimes used for a horse with all four feet off the platform is galloper."

"Outside Row - The outermost ring of any carousel contains the largest and most decorated figures.  This was because the outside row is the one most easily seen by spectators - so the horses intended for the outside row were the ones most heavily decorated.  Middle- and inside-row horses rarely show all the beautiful carving detail that an outside-row horse carries"

"Romance Side - The most highly-decorated side of a carousel horse.  Most carousel horses, especially outside-row horses, carried much more decoration on the side of the horse that was going to be seen by the public than on the side that faced towards the center of the carousel.  On American carousels, the Romance Side is on the right side of the horse - on English carousels, it is on the left.  The reason for this is the difference in rotation direction between American and English carousels."

"Menagerie Figure - Any carousel animal that was not a horse.  Some popular menagerie figures were tigers, lions, bears, deer, pigs, goats, giraffes, rabbits, and cats.  Some mythical creatures like the sea monster and hippocampus (front half of a horse and back half of a fish) were also found on carousels and would also be considered menagerie figures."

I, personally, did not see a difference in the quality and details on the inner row of horses verses the outer row (the 'romance side') - has anyone else noticed a difference...?? 

Preservation organizations like the National Carousel Association and the International Museum of Carousel Art have worked to preserve remaining carousels for future generations.

You can read more about their work on their websites:

National Carousel Association

Carousel News

International Museum of Carousel Art



Carousel terminology: Carousel Figures

Slideshow music: To The Shock of Miss Louise (Thomas Newman - Lost Boys Soundtrack)

Quote: Carousel (Siouxsie and the Banshees)

Merry Go Roundup
Brian Morgan

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cleopatra, still the Queen

It is terribly appropriate that my first blog is about Ancient Egypt - like so many people, I've always been fascinated with it - the culture, language, and its mysteries. This year, I visited the California Science Center's Exhibit, Cleopatra: The Exhibition.

The exhibition consisted of "the largest collection of Cleopatra-era artifacts from Egypt ever assembled in the U.S." (about 150 artifacts) that were found both under the sands and under the sea, preserved in various states, for us to admire now…

Most of the exhibit was well designed - I especially liked the backdrops that gave the artifacts an underwater vibe, as if they were still resting comfortably in the sea. 


Overall, their use of lighting to highlight the artifacts was quite effective (although sometimes it interfered with photography).


I found the running dramatic narrative on the 'audio tour' a bit cheesy and avoided it. As usual, I thought they should have covered more about the daily lives of the people, and how these artifacts fit into the living culture of Ancient Egypt.


They covered some aspects of Cleopatra's life that may not be as well known to most people (see below), and I enjoyed seeing glimpses into her world through these artifacts. 

Ptolemy XII

Two of the most fascinating artifacts on display were the "Naos of the Decades" and the head of Serapis!

The Naos of the Decades - Fragments of it were discovered over a period of years, in Aboukir Bay. It is the oldest known astrological calendar, which sheds light on the "origins of classical astrology, born in Egypt from a combination of assyrian astrology and the pharaonic concept of the calendar".

notice the differences in erosion on each section

Serapis! - A link to daily life, this God was created on order of Ptolemy the I to help unify Greeks and Egyptians under his rule. The God had a mixture of Greek and Egyptian attributes, and his cult spread rapidly throughout the lands.


It was interesting that they included some artifacts they weren't sure about ('we found this headless statue, and it could have been Cleopatra, maybe…').


Wonderful exhibit design, overall - definitely worth seeing! Check out the rest of my photos from the exhibit:

I also saw the IMAX film, Mysteries of Egypt, featuring fabulous cinematography of course, and a really good soundtrack ...not to mention, Omar Sharif..!!!

About Cleopatra:


Cleopatra VII became the queen of Egypt in 51 B.C.E. She was 18 (some sources say 17). Unlike so many Greek rulers of Egypt, she enjoyed perpetuating the religious traditions of Egypt, and often portrayed herself as Isis. She learned the language and helped preserve the culture. Her life was fascinating: the last of the Ptolemies, the last pharaoh of egypt... filled with scandal and mystery! Who else would love to see a well-researched series about her?? I know I would! 

Many of her enemies tried to destroy her both before and after her death, and the search for her tomb has gone on for many years, producing some fabulous artifacts from her life and times, as seen (above) in the exhibit. Although some believe they have finally found her tomb, she, herself, was not inside. Her mystery and legend live on, immortal... she remains a popular icon today... still the Queen of the Nile!

Read more: