You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2017.

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Today we present one of the treasures of the Louvre—a duck shaped cosmetics kit from a tomb at Minet el-Beida—a Levantine city which stood beside the ancient harbor of Ugarit (which is in what is today (or was yesterday) Syria).  One of the pegs is a pivot and the other is a clip. By pulling one out, the lid can be swung opened to access the powder or ointment within.

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The duck was carved out of Hippopotamus ivory by a master craftsperson of long ago.  It was made in Ugarit in 1300 or 1200 BC—roughly contemporary with Mycenaean civilization.  There were civilizations ringing the Mediterranean in this era—Hittites, Amorites, Mycenaeans & Cretans, Ilrians, Trojans, Etruscans, and Cimmerians.  They traded with distant cultures like the Harrapans and Iberians.   To the south was the great kingdom of Egypt. Indeed, this duck is a creation made possible by the flourishing trade of this era.  It is of African ivory, but was made in Ugarit.

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Around 1200, mysterious barbarian hordes from the west swept away this entire world.  These “sea people” swamped each kingdom in turn and swept it away—until the Egyptian army commanded by the god-king Ramses III (first pharaoh of the 20th dynasty) halted their advance around 1180.  Alas, Ugarit was destroyed and burned to the ground by the uncouth barbarians who had no care for trade, however we still have this exquisite makeup duck to remember the city of traders and priests and farmers and charioteers. With its enigmatic expression and wide shocked eyes, there is something sad about the duck, but there is a comic playfulness too.

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I wonder if 3300 years from now our cities and lives will be boiled down to a single tragicomic plastic makeup kit in an unvisited room in a museum in a yet unfounded city.  It is a disturbing thought.

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I saw some jonquils getting ready to bloom and it made me happy and excited.  I am ready for spring.  Winter was mild until the end but it has really been lingering around and we need spring flowers.  Jonquils are domesticated ornamental flowers descended from are a specific sort of daffodil: “Narcissus jonquil.” They have dark green, tube-shaped leaves (compared to other types of daffodils which have flat leaves).  They tend to be smaller and their central tube is flared and flattened like a little saucer or cup.  There are so many sorts and I hope to see them all within a few weeks!

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In most Romance languages, the word for the pale red color pink comes from the same word as rose (the flower).   In English, however, the most common word for this pale red color is now “pink”—which was originally the common name of a little garden flower with a frilled edge–the dianthus.  The usage of the word “pink” to describe the pale reddish color became standard in the late eighteenth century, but before that the word described the flower–and occasionally idiomatic expressions which involved the flower.  Coincidentally English borrowed the name of the flower from Dutch, since, even in the middle ages, the Dutch were apparently the flower merchants of northern Europe.

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To further complicate this story, in the 17th century, “pinke” was a name for stil de grain yellow–a pigment which was traditionally manufactured from unripe buckthorn berries.  This yellow pigment was also known as yellow madder and it was mixed with natural blue substances to make murky greens.

So not only is it possible that pink does not exist as a color (or, at any rate, bright bluish pinks like magenta do not seem to exist naturally but are a trick of the brain) it also seems that the name for pink has fundamentally changed nature over the course of time.

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It is a confusing color with a confusing nomenclatural history, but it is still very beautiful.

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Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists).  Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history.  One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty.  The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red).  These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago:  laying out fine clothes and setting the table.  One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch.  The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.

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The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries.  Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”).  Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires.  The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea.  To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument.  But look at these amazing paintings!  Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.

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The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right.  The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life.  Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines.  If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.

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These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.

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I wanted to do a short post about a snake from my childhood: Heterodon platirhinos, the eastern hog-nosed snake.  This snake is a harmless fossorial colubrid snake which lives from New Hampshire to Minnesota and ranges from the southern parts of Canada down to northern Florida.  It lives in woodlands and dense meadows where it burrows in sandy and loamy soil and hides in leaf litter hunting for its favorite prey—amphibians–especially toads.

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The hog-nosed snake is mildy poisonous, but its fangs are in the back of its mouth (the better to grip struggling toads) and its venom is not harmful to humans.   The snake is incorrectly known as a puff adder because, when threatened, it hisses, puffs itself up, and flattens its neck out like a little cobra.  Do not confuse the hog-nosed snake for a real puff adder, Bitis arietans, a deadly viper indigenous to Africa south of the Sahal.

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The hog nosed snake also has another theatrical trick for evading predators: it plays dead with such gusto that it begins to reek of death, expels foul slime, and even bleeds from the mouth.  The snake is so very convincing at looking dead that, when I was a boy-scout, we were warned not to harass the entertaining little reptile lest it harm itself with its zeal(although perhaps this was mere PR for the master thespian).

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“He was so young….Whyyyy?”

The hog-nosed snake is also very cute, with beautiful ruddy leaf patterns, a blunt little nose and eyes at the front of its head.  I haven’t seen one in decades—I wonder how they are doing out there in the woods of southern Ohio.

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On this day, March 22nd in 1871, William Woods Holden was the first governor in the United States to be impeached and removed from office.  His story is a reminder of what happens when pure partisan rancor becomes the norm in unhappy eras of American politics.

Before the American Civil War, Holden was a newspaper publisher who tried (unsuccessfully) to steer North Carolina on a Whiggish course towards peace.  Additionally, he politically opposed the Confederate government during the war, and so, after the rebellion was finally crushed, Andrew Johnson appointed William Woods Holden as provisional governor of North Carolina.  He lost the special gubernatorial election of 1865, but was returned to power at the head of the Republican ticket in 1868. Unlike other southern governors, Holden instituted aggressive policies to curtail the Ku Klux Klan. In 1870 he called out the state militia to crack down on the Klan which had assassinated a republican state legislator and lynched a black policeman.  The governor declared martial law in two counties and temporarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus for certain suspected Klan members.

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This upheaval became known as the Kirk-Holden war and it resulted in a severe political backlash during November of 1870 (1870 was an election year).  The North Carolina election that year was marred by vote tampering, voter suppression, and outright violence, and the Republicans lost their legislative majority (back in those days, the Democrats were the party of bigotry, intolerance, oppression, and cruelty).

After the election, William Woods Holden was impeached and removed from office in in a vote which hewed exactly to party lines.  The Democrats took full control of North Carolina and moved the state away from the Reconstruction-era civil rights reforms championed by Holden (who went into self-exile in Washington DC, where he again worked on a newspaper).  However, history is a long, strange affair and William Woods Holden was fully pardoned and exonerated by unanimous vote of the North Carolina state legislature…in 2011.

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Today’s news was filled with bluster and foolishness to such an extent that I am just going to disregard it all for the moment and write a throw-away humor post about consumer goods.  Presumably we can work on restoring science, democracy, and art to humankind at some later point when I am less tired from work.

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It has been widely noted that honeybees have been disappearing from the world.  Although this problem was exacerbated by climate change, invasive varroa mites, and disease, the main problem is the overuse of neonicotinoid pesticides, which take a terrible toll on hymenopterans in general and are especially hard on eusocial bees (which extensively rely on elaborate organization, communication, and teamwork).

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This past week, General Mills, the maker of Cheerios decided to cash in on this tragedy, with a marketing campaign in which “BuzzBee” the cartoon bee who is the mascot of HoneyNut Cheerios has likewise gone missing.  The firm is distributing packets of “wildflowers” with their cereal so that children can help out our beleaguered insect friends by planting bee friendly gardens.   It is a bit unclear how wisely or carefully the flowers in the packets were chosen, but I am generally a fan of flower gardening and this sounds like a potentially fun promotion (although I have a suspicion there will be a lot of people who end up disappointed by the “Diving Dolphin” nature of cereal box seeds).

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Although he comes from a rogues’ gallery filled with monsters, addicts, and leprechauns, the Honey Nut Cheerios bee was a fairly amiable cereal mascot: he was sort of good-natured and slightly anxious bee who wanted you to experience “one honey of an O” with his delicious sugary cereal (which really is pretty good).

Yet I tend to regard BuzzBee not as a victim of colony collapse disorder as of poorly thought-out branding.  He seems like he was created by a room full of MBAs without a particularly good grasp of hymenopteran life cycles.  Notably, the honey nut bee was clearly male—even though male honey bees are stingless drones of limited utility to the hive. It seems unlikely that he would ever obtain reproductive success hanging around human kitchens (fertile queens tend to be found and courted in harrowing aerial circumstances), however people also do not tend to use agricultural pesticides in their kitchen, so Buzz most likely did not die of neonicotinoids:  more likely he was a victim of starvation, winter, or possibly a bee-eating predator such as a lizard or a bear.

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And if Buzz did manage to get his act together and find an unfertilized queen, then we will certainly never see him again!  Reproductive consummation proves fatal to drones.

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No doubt, General Mills is hoping to bring Buzz back in the style of Coke Classic with much fanfare and, um, marketing buzz, however, I hope that when they do so, they stop and think about actual bees.  To my mind, a honeybee mascot would be much more powerful if it was a formidable queen bee or, even better, a group of terrifying clone sisters who all speak the same thoughts in the same hive voice.  That would truly be an appropriate image for the group-think world of brand marketing.  Also it would leave an indelible impression on the mind of today’s youth, the same way “Crazy Cravings” scarred a group of children with his disturbing need for Honeycomb.  Crazy Craving taught all of us how giant corporations would like us to be, maybe the fact that GM is so willing to disappear the friendly face of its sugar cereal for a bit of tawdry publicity will remind us afresh of the world they are trying to build.

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Every year when the month of March rolls around, Ferrebeekeeper writes about Irish mythology. It is a dark cauldron to sip from, but the taste has proven to be all-too addictive.  We have explained leprechauns (and returned to the subject to ruminate about what the little imps really portend).  We have written about the sluagh–a haunted swarm of damned spirits in the sky.  I have unflinchingly described the Leannán Sídhe, a beautiful woman who drains the blood of artists into a big red cauldron and takes their very souls (which should be scary—but the immortal nightmarish wraith who eats the hearts of artists and bathes in their blood is an amateur at tormenting creative people when compared with the title insurance office where I work during the day), and we have read the sad story of Oisín the bard, who lived for three gorgeous years in Tír na nÓg with the matchless Niamh…ah, but then…

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Hey, speaking of Ireland and bards what is with that big harp which appears on everything Irish?  Is it just…a harp? Well, I am glad you asked.  There are some who say that the harp of Ireland is indeed just a harp, albeit a harp which represents the proud and ancient tradition of bardic lore passed down from the pre-Christian Celts.  There are others though who claim it IS the harp of Oisín, which was lost somewhere in his sad story (set aside in a in a spring grove as he leapt onto the white horse behind Niamh maybe, or left across the sea in Tír na nÓg…or dropped from withering hands beside an ancient churchyard…or safely hidden forever in the hearts of the Irish people ).  But there is an entirely different myth too.

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Some people say the heraldic harp of Ireland was originally the Daghda’s harp.  Daghda was a warrior demigod (or maybe just an outright god) famous for his prowess, his appetite, his thirst…and apparently also for his amazing music.  His harp could enchant people to brave deeds in battle…or to sleep in accordance with the Daghda’s mood.  But once, before the Battle of Moytura, his harp was stolen by Formorian warriors who hoped to thereby steal the magic confidence, esprit, and bravery which the harp gave to the Tuatha de Dannan.

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Daghda was a different man without his harp, and so he searched long and wide to find the secret stronghold where the Formorians had it hung upon the wall.  He managed to sneak into the castle, but before he could get away, he was discovered and the entire Formorian army advanced on him.

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Ah, but the Daghda had his harp back.  First he played a song so hilarious that the entire host of his enemies stopped advancing on him to howl with mirth, however, as soo as he stopped playing, they stopped laughing and made for him. Immediately Daghda started playing a song of terrible sadness, and the Formorians’ eyes filled with tears and they began to wail inconsolably.  This held them a bit longer, but alas, when he stopped playing, they stopped crying.  The great multitude almost had him, when he decided to play a lullaby–shades of Hermes and Argus!  Daghda did not sing the formorian warriors to their death, as soon as they were properly asleep he stole off, but the trick of fighting with art and music instead of swords has stayed in the irish heart—to the extent that it had become the national seal.

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The harp has changed in this story—and it has changed on the coat of arms too.  Once, in the time of the Irish Kingdom it was a winsome bare-breasted woman-harp, but today it is a meticulous historical recreation of an ancient medieval Irish harp.  I wonder what it will look like in the future?

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For years my most popular blog post was about leprechauns…so I need to make some Saint Patrick’s art pronto!  However before we get there, here are some weird green flounder artworks to lead up to the holiday.  Spring is almost here, even if the thermometer says otherwise.  Some kelly green artwork should remind us of that fact (even if flatfish are not traditionally spring green).

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