Friday, November 23, 2012

Woodblock Printing and Space-time Beetle Maps

On Printsy we have several artists making prints about the insect world. But, I thought I'd share an interesting story about how art history and woodblock printing in particular has allowed one scientist, Blair Hedges, a professor of biology at Penn State University, to map wood-eating insects and their distribution in space and time, from 15th to 19th century Europe. The image is a Renaissance woodcut art print, 'The Rich Man' by Cornelis Anthonisz (1541), showing printed wormholes (owned by the Rjiksmuseum, Amsterdam) - the very database he was able to mine. He showed that two species of woodboring beetles "met along a zone across central Europe like a battle line of two armies" by using the "wormhole record". These insects, which produce different sized holes in wood, left traces in the blocks used by artists to make their prints. Luckily for him, by producing the prints, the artists were also making a record of exactly which holes had already been made in a given piece of wood, at a given time (since prints are dated), since the exit holes made by these insects were inked and printed. It is also generally well-known where an artist was living and working. Thus by examining and measuring the size of more than 3,000 printed wormholes in works of art and books spanning five centuries, from 1462 to 1899, he produced a space-time map of beetle distributions.

Who knew that woodboring beetles were relief printmakers?

He points out that the research is not only a new tool in evolutionary biology and could be used to map wood-boring beetles in other regions, but that it could be a new method for art historians who need to identify the age or origin of woodblock prints and books which contain them.

You can read more here or listen to this fun interview with Dr. Blair (the last 7:45 of the third section) on the CBC Radio show As It Happens.

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