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Earth’s oceans today are defined by the disasters and exigencies of the past. When you dip a net in a shallow tropical sea it does not emerge from the waves seething with conodonts…because they died out completely during the Triassic. You could fish from the beach every night from now until the sun burns out and never catch another belemnite nor see an Archelon drag her 5 meter carapace from the sea to lay her eggs. Past disasters (and the constant ebb and flow of evolution) have removed some of the core cast from the great drama. Yet the oceans are vast: sometimes we find that an organism known only from fossils and presumed long lost has been swimming around the Comoro Islands or living in an ancient grove in Hubei. Today’s post involves a “living fossil” of this sort, but this creature was presumed lost for longer than the lobe-fin fishes or the purple frog.

This is a fossil monoplacophoran, a strange ancient superclass of single shelled mollusks which thrived in the ancient oceans of the Palaeozoic (or earlier) but then was known only through fossils. I can understand if you are shrugging about some primitive snail/limpet thing–but, my friend this is no gastropod–it is an entirely different class of mollusk which was presumed to have died out 380 million years ago. A look at the (long and complicated) taxonomy of monoplacophorans on Wikipedia is like looking at a World War I cemetery (extinct taxa are noted with a funereal superscript cross).

Monoplacophoran Diagram

Yet, scientists came to discover that not every name on the list had a cross. The monoplacophorans never fully died out. They just moved to the bottom of the oceans and stayed there for the long ages as continents drifted across the world and dinosaurs came and went. As mammals scurried out of burrows and across the world, the monoplacophorans lived their ascetic lives upon the floor of the ocean. They are still there right now, as you read these words! If you look at a picture of the colorless gray ocean bottom, you will see colorless gray ovals–the monoplacophorans (their very name makes them sound like some implacable cthulu-ish monk)

Living Fossil: Tiny mollusc makes big impression on marine biology world |  Inner Space Center

It is funny to me that ancient fossils in 400 million year old rocks were more accessible to scientists than the bottom of the ocean up until about the time I was born. Yet, since then, the bottom of the ocean has become closer as humankind’s ever-grasping arms have become longer. Lately our robot probes have reported a bit of summery warmth at the cold ocean bottom. And mining cartels are eagerly pushing to vacuum of nodules of precious ore upon the distant seabed. I truly wonder if we could look 380 million years into the future whether we will still find these tough little eremites still going about their business in the crushing depths? Or will the field of taxonomical crosses finally be complete, with these ultimate living fossils turning into yet another victim of our insatiable appetite?

In all of our explorations of crowns and crown jewels, we have barely addressed the most famous crown jewels of all–those of the United Kingdom. Ferrebeekeeper posted about the giant dark spinel in the imperial state crown (aka “the black prince’s ruby“) and about the crown of the Tudor kings–which was destroyed back in the 17th century–and that is about all we have said about the most famous royal regalia. The reason for the paucity of posts is that the crown jewels of the United Kingdom were themselves destroyed in 1649 at the order of Oliver Cromwell, a puritan anti-monarchist who seized control of England and had no use for such things. Interestingly, this was (at least) the second time that all of the crown jewels were lost: in 1216 Bad King John somehow sank all of the previous crown jewels (and most of the treasury) in the Wash River (we will explore that humorous catastrophe in a future post).

Anyway, the real point of all of this is that although Cromwell destroyed all of the golden crowns, jeweled scepters, ancient magic swords and whatnot, he did not quite destroy all of the crown jewels. A single metal item from the ancient medieval royal collection of England survived the meltdown and is now the oldest item in the crown jewels (although the Black Prince’s ruby (which was sold and later returned) is pretty ancient too). The sacred coronation spoon of the ancient kings of England survived the Commonwealth. As the crown jewels were being torn apart and melted by stern religious zealots, there was apparently a spoon enthusiast (?) in the crowd. This Mr. Kynnersley bought the ancient coronation spoon for 16 shillings.

The first mention of the coronation spoon was in 1349, but even then it was said to be “of ancient form” so the true age and origin of the spoon are lost in history (although experts surmise that it is from the 12th century). The coronation spoon is decorated with monster’s heads and ornate medieval scrollwork. It was probably originally used to mix water and wine (a critical component of drinking in ancient times which ensured that the imbiber neither died of dysentery nor blacked out from alcohol poisoning). If you squint a bit, the spoon has quite a lot of resemblance to a modern bartender’s mixing spoon.

As far as I can tell, the spoon is too famous and special to be photographed, but there are many high quality drawings and reproductions of it. I wonder how this spoon will fare during the next 800 years of royal history, or will it fall victim to a new King John or another Cromwell somewhere down the line?

Always stalking around the edges of Ferrebeekeeper we find those enigmatic horselords of the ancient steppe, the Scythians! The classical Scythians were nomadic people (or peoples) who dominated the Pontic steppe between 700 and 300 BC. Since they existed just beyond the outermost fringes of Greek civilization (and since they were charismatic yet completely un-Greek) they loomed large in the ancient Hellenic imagination–and cast their thrall over all of the subsequent scholars who have looked to ancient Greece for inspiration and explanations. Thus we have weird stories of Hercules (the ultimate Greek hero) sleeping with the ultimate monster to beget the Scythians, or tales of how the Scythians were the ancestors of the Scottish (although I guess all human beings are pretty closely related). Anyway, for the Scythians, none of this mattered–what mattered were their beloved horses, which were always at the center of their rituals, trading, fighting, and just about every other part of their lives (indeed it seems like domesticated horses might have come from the part of the world which became Scythia). Thus, today, I wanted to show you a historical recreation of how Scythian horses were arrayed for rituals or for battle (see the image at top). We have found ample Scythian equestrian gear preserved in the old cold barrows which dot the steppe. Recently some Scythian enthusiasts reconstructed how it might have looked with original colors on a steppe horse of yore. Obviously this equipage is not stupendously practical, but it truly is stupendous! I am going to have to look around to see if I can find some more artworks of Scythian horses!

This may be the world’s oldest known representational artwork– a red ochre painting of a warty pig recently discovered in the Leang Tedongnge cave of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The full work is actually three pigs–two pigs fighting (?) while one pig watches from a distance, but the fighting pigs have been effaced by scores of millennia, whereas the bystander pig has somehow avoided the elements as well as the fray.

Archaeologists believe the painting is 45,000 years old, an extraordinary age in dealing with human artifacts. They arrived at that number by means of measuring the decay of infinitesimal amounts of uranium in mineral deposits formed on top of the image (this methodology is not without drawbacks and controversies, but remains the go-to mechanism of dating for 45,000 year old non-carboniferous artworks). Sulawesi is the world’s eleventh largest island. Because it is located at the nexus of three small and two giant tectonic plates it resembles a squashed asterisk. Homo Erectus found a home in Indonesia as early as 2 million years ago, but Homo Sapiens reached the island, around the time this painting was made, 45,000 years ago. Modern Austronesian people (who make up the majority of Indonesia’s living population) only arrived 2000 years ago.

The pig portrayed here is interesting as well! It is a Celebes Warty pig (Sus celebensis), a medium sized pig which was originally native solely to Sulawesi. The warty pig is the only pig species to be domesticated other than Sus scrofa, the Eurasian wild pig, which probably makes up 99 percent (or more) or the world pig population. Clearly such pigs were of enormous importance to the first homo sapiens of Indonesia–a nearby cave painting from 43.900 years ago (previously the world’s oldest known representative artwork) shows spear-wielding humans approaching pigs and small buffalo. Yet, as with all art, the full reasons behind the creation of the work remain elusive. What is certain is that it is rather good! In addition to an expressive sense of lively movement, the pig has true character and personality. Just look at its hungry face!

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Ancient Clam Shell Jewelry from Prehistoric Israel

Intriguing archaeological news from Qafzeh Cave, a prehistoric burial site located at the bottom of Mount Precipice in Israel.  The anatomically modern human remains found interred in the cave are 92,000 years old–among the oldest Homo Sapiens remains discovered outside of Africa.  However the cave did not just contain ancient skeletal remains–indeed the upper levels of the cave (which is to say, the younger/newer layers) were filled with stoves, stone tools, animal bones and all manner of campsite detritus.  Yet, we are interested in the layers below the ancient graves which predate them by tens of thousands of years.  In these strata, anthropologists discovered the shells of Glycymeris bivalves, carried from the Mediterranean Sea 35 kilometers away.

The shells bear evidence of having been prepared (perferrated/polished) and hung on wild flax string.  Some shells even had ochre stains on them.  These were special adornments–jewelry–for the humans who dwelt in the Lower Galilee region of Israel 120,000 years ago.  They are striking in their lack of obvious utility, and are among the first cultural artifacts known.

Alas, we can not know the precise meaning which these adornments had for the hunter-gatherer folks of prehistoric Galilee, but, based on everything we know about subsequent humans we can certainly make intelligent guesses. The shells were ornaments which indicated status.  They could also have indicated group identity or reflected personal beliefs of the wearer.  Another nearby cave had shells from 160,000 years ago–which must also have been carried by ancient humans to that site.  Yet the 160,000 year old shells had no perforations or marks of wear from string.  Somewhere between 120,000 and 160,000 years ago we made some real leaps forward in terms of string and accessories!  It doesn’t surprise me that the phylum Mollusca was involved (obviously clams had been important to us as food and tools for tens of thousands of years before we discovered their use as stringed body ornaments), yet I do find it worthy of comment.

Here at Ferrebeekeeper, we have featured some very ancient crowns (like this ancient Greek funerary crown, the legendary grass crown, the polos, or the pharaoh’s crowns from Ancient Egypt).  All of these rich and venerable royal headdresses beg the question: what is the oldest crown we know about? As with most questions, the correct answer depends on how you define the terms of the question.  Is a crown a chieftain’s hat or an ornamental star-shaped thing made of precious materials or a very specific royal object made a very specific way?  We fed these queries into the Ferrebeekeeper crown algorithm, and it spat out this strong contender for the oldest crown: a copper-age headpiece from the Judaean Desert (by the Dead Sea in what is now modern Israel) which was discovered in 1961 as part of the mysterious “Nahal Mishar” Hoard.

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Dating to circa 4000 – 3500 BC, the crown is wrought of copper and features two vultures next to two strange  shamanistic portals (or that is how the shapes are generally construed, at any rate…maybe they are elderly flamingos next to peg boards.  Maybe this isn’t a crown at all! Perhaps it is a trivet or a potholder or something. The piece did not come with an explanation).   Based on the other objects in the hoard (pottery vessels, ossuaries, religious statues, and wands/scepters) it is believed that this crown was utilized in the funerary ceremonies for high status individuals.  However the Nahal Mishar hoard is still perplexing to archaeologists.  Their best guess is that is that the objects are the sacred regalia of a shrine at Ein Gedi, (a habitation site twelve kilometers away), but nobody really knows what most of the objects are or why they were hidden in a cave.  Just to add to the ambiguities of today’s post, here are some of the other objects (sans explanation, of course).

 

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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s most popular posts of all time was a short essay on the kingly crowns of ancient Egypt: the hedjet, the ancient white (vulture) crown of upper Egypt; the deshret, the red (bumblebee) crown of fertile lower Egypt; and the khepresh, the blue battle crown worn by the pharaoh when he mounted his war chariot to smite the kingdom’s enemies in person!  Immediately below are some little refresher pictures to show these three crowns (plus, if you want to know more about them, you could always read the original article).

This is already a lot of crowns, especially considering that the three were combined in various ways (and mixed with various other royal regalia) for sundry ceremonial purposes–and yet there were other crowns in ancient Egypt worn by beings even more important than the pharaoh.  Today’s post concerns a prime example–the “atef”, the ostrich crown of Osiris.  In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Osiris played a central role as the first pharaoh, the king of the underworld and the lord of death, rebirth, agriculture, and mummification.   His all-important story (death at the hands of his wicked brother and reincarnation thanks to his loving wife) was the central myth of ancient Egypt, which informed people about the afterlife.  As a pharaoh and the eternal ruler of the underworld, Osiris wore a kingly crown, but the underworld is neither upper nor lower Egypt (nor is it a battle as such) and so the atef crown of Osiris is a whole different crown–a knobbed version of the white hedjet of upper Egypt with symbolic rainbow ostrich feathers rising around it.  There is a schematic digital representation of the atef at the top of the post, and here is a 3300 year old painting of it:

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Osiris portrayed on a wall frieze from the tomb of Nefertari (c. 1295-1255 B.C.)

The two ostrich feathers respectively symbolized truth and justice (the nearly identical feather of Maat is one of the most important religious symbols of Egypt–with a nearly identical meaning).  The bulbous central crown was sometimes pictured as a classic white hedjet (as in the image from Nefertari’s tomb above) and sometimes portrayed as a rainbow hedjet surmounted by an astrological-looking cardioid of gold and midnight blue (as in the crown Osiris wears below).

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“Wow” you are probably thinking.  “There were so many crowns in ancient Egypt! Were there still more?”  Of course there were!  However the answers start getting murkier as we move to other rulers (and other crowns).  Come back to Ferrebeekeeper to find out more (or, you know, Google it, and find out all you can bear to know.

 

 

 

 

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9,000 year old Neolithic limestone mask found in the Judean desert

We are coming up to Halloween and, as always, we will have a special week of horrifying posts concerning a theme topic (like flaying, the undead, or the monstrous brood of Echidna).  Before we get there, though, let’s take a peak back through time to look at some of the other faces that our forbears decided to put on in the ages before “Joker” or “It”.  The greatest masks are astonishing sculptures, but they were more, too–masks lay at the crux of ancient cults and ancient drama.  We will never truly know what the makers of that first mask up there were doing with it 9000 years ago (human sacrifice?), nor will we know what the Etruscans wanted with their Charun-like mask (human sacrifice?).  We truly can’t know what the mysterious Moche wanted with their mostrous mask (human sacrifice?), and sadly, I couldn’t find out about the Bornean & Congolese masks.  Yet on a deeper level we do know: our hearts tell us what each of these masks is about as surely as we can read a line of emoticons on a phone or know to jump away from a striking cobra.  Some things are instinctual even for humans.  Although I am sure an ethnologist would chide me, it is hard not to look through the empty eyes of masks, both sacred and profane, and see the familiar dark places always within the human heart.

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Borneo Mask Indai-Guru Mask Borneo, Iban Dayak

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Kumu Mask: Congo/Central Africa

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Etruscan mask in Archeology Museum in Cagliari.

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Moche Mask, Peru, 6th-7th century AD, Silvered copper, shell

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I am extremely sorry that my posts have been so thin on the ground for the last fortnight.  I don’t have very good excuses for last week (although maybe the brain-melting heat wave which swept through the region provides some cover), but last night there was a blackout in Brooklyn, and there was no way I could write anything in the digital realm!  Being cast back in time made me reflect on the world before the internet and electricity.  Specifically I became fascinated by non-electrical lamps (which you never really think about until you need them).

Although I filled up my darkened house with LED tea candles and glowsticks, other peoples have not always had recourse to such safe options–like the Romans, who were forced to rely on candles, fires, torches, and their favorite night time standby, the oil lamp.  Ferrebeekeeper has touched on how the symbols and visual culture of Ancient Rome do not always make sense to us today…and indeed today’s post offers a powerful example of that.  Oil lamps came in all sorts of shapes and sizes (some of them seem to have been commemorative, or tourist trap items), but one of the absolute favorite lamp shapes was a foot.  These oil foot-lamps were sometimes bare and sometimes super ornate, but most often they are wearing handsome sandals.

So, why are these things shaped like feet?  Trying to research this question on Google resulted in me being whisked to various strange theological explanations of the Book of Romans by Dr. Lightfoot!  I was hoping that this was the foot of Mercury or something, but I never did get to the bottom of what is going on.  Speaking of which, the best hint I got was that the lamps may have been placed at the bottom of a mural so that the painting glittered in the darkness…which is to say these were the original and literal footlights.  This makes no sense to me, but it is sort of a modern English pun, I guess.  Perhaps it was a pun or a satisfying visual cue to the Romans as well.

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Roman Foot Lamp with Sphinx Handle (Excavated in Libya, manufactured ca.1st century AD) Pottery

Whatever the case is, I love the feet!  These lamps are truly satisfying to look at, so maybe the Romans were on to something (they got roads and aqueducts right, after all).  If anybody wants to make a new old-style lamp company I am opened to that.  Also, if there are any classics majors out there who could explain this, please help us out in the comments!  I am unhappy with the “footlight” explanation and I long for a real understanding of what is going on with these charming feet!

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Roman Imperial Foot-Lamp (Ca. 3RD-4TH Century A.D.) bronze

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The Euthydikos Kore, ca. 500 BCE

I have been fretting about the post I wrote last week concerning the polos, a minimally-adorned cylindrical crown which was worn by certain goddesses of the Greek pantheon.  One of several mysteries about the polos is how it went from being normal (?) feminine headwear of the Mycenaean world to something worn only by goddesses from the 5th century onward.  Mycenaean civilization was swept away by cataclysm around 1100 BC.  The 5th century occurred in, um, the 5th century BC. So was anybody wearing these things during the intervening 600 years? It is as though one noted that Western women of the early 15th century AD wore hennins but nobody wears them now except for magical fairytale beings (which, come to think of it, is completely true).

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There is no fashion guide of Archaic Greek ladies’ style to answer this question, but we do have a mighty trove of data in the form of korai statues.  The kore was a sort of idealized statue of a perfect Greek maiden wearing heavy draperies and an enigmatic empty smile (“kourai” is the plural of the word “kore” which means “maiden”).  There are many of these statues in existence, since the Greeks apparently presented them to great temples as a sort of religious tribute (and as a status competition between leading citizens).  Additionally the statues were esteemed by collectors of subsequent ages so they didn’t suffer the same level of destruction as some other sorts of statues from two-and-a-half-millenia ago.

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Kore of Lyons (540s BC, Athens)

Unfortunately, contemporary classics and art scholars have some big unanswered questions about the korai statues.  Were they meant to represent goddesses outright?  Some kore statues have garb or items which were later regarded as symbolic of divinity (like the polos, as seen in the “Kore of Lyons” above).   Yet, the statues have a somewhat different tone than votive statues of the proud goddesses of ancient Greece.  They are softer and less assertive than the goddess statues and, even though the korai represent perfect female beauty as construed by an Archaic-era Greek sculptor, the statues are less concerned with fertility and nudity than are goddess statues.  Perhaps they are statues of a transitional goddess such as Persephone or Semele (both of whom had mortal aspects).  Another school of thought holds that they are divine attendants which embody general maidenly ideals–as would a group of priestesses or votaries.  This explains why they sometimes have divine accoutrements but lack more specific iconography or identification.  There is also a school of thought that the statues are simply “maidens” from a time when the more rigorous traditions of the Greco-Roman pantheon were coalescing.

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So I have failed to answer any questions about the polos (maybe there is a reason nobody talks about these things), however we have looked at some lovely statues from a looooong time ago and we have learned something about the figurative sculpture of Archaic Greece in the era leading up to the Golden Age.   This in turn is relevant, because the Kourai (and their male counterparts the kouros/kouroi statues) are arguably the main antecedent to Western figurative sculptural arts.  European Sculptors have lingered for long centuries in the shadow of Ancient Greece.  Whatever these statues are, we are indebted to them.

 

 

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