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During the eighth century AD, as the Merovingian dynasty declined into a sad series of feuding puppet kings, the mayor of the palace became effective ruler of the Franks.  In 751 this arrangement was formalized by Pope Zachary who annointed Pepin the Short, formerly palace mayor (and puppetmaster of Childeric III ) as King of the Franks—the first of the Carolingians.  Pepin’s son Charles, known to posterity forevermore as Charlemagne, succeeded Pepin as king of the Franks in 768.  Charlemagne became King of the Lombards from 774 onwards (he conquered Lombardy as much to end his nephew’s pretensions to the throne as to rescue the papacy, but whatever), and as the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800 to his death.  Above is the crown of Charlemagne!  It was the coronation crown of French kings from its creation until 1775 when it was the coronation crown of Louis XVI.

Except…

That is clearly an engraving of the crown.  The real crown of Charlemagne is gone.  Like Louis XVI, it was destroyed during the French revolution.  Also, this was not the crown of Charlemagne per se.  Historians believe this crown was actually manufactured in the late ninth century as a crown for Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald (who was believed to have had long beautiful hair in real life).  Additionally there is some question about whether this even was the real crown of Charles the Bald or whether it was switched with a similar crown made for a queen at the end of the 12th century.  One of the two of them was melted down in 1590 by the Catholic League during the Siege of Paris.   It is unclear if the crown destroyed in the French revolution was the 9th century original or the 12th century queen’s crown.

There is a lot of duplicity in history, particularly involving crowns, the ultimate status items which invest their wearer with supreme authority.  Based on this black-and white illustration, it is a bit hard to tell what the precious stones of the Crown of Charlemagne are, but at least it is possible to clearly see the distinctive fleurs de lis (although admittedly, these were only added in 1180…)

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This is the guardian god Tutu.  Tutu is a god from the later period of Ancient Egyptian culture (indeed, the statue above may come from the Greco-Roman era…or even the Byzantine era of Egypt).  Tutu was a son of the mysterious and dangerous goddess Neith (a creator goddess from outer darkness) but he was more familiar and comforting than Neith: Egyptians thought of Tutu as a god who protected mortals from Neith’s other more dangerous children–demons and nightmares from the world of darkness.  Originally Tutu was a protector of tombs, but over the centuries he morphed into a guardian of sleep who protected slumbering commoners from nightmares.  I really like this statue because he seems like a friendly (but maybe slightly silly) dream guardian.  Although he has a cat’s body, his elongated torso makes me think of a dachshund  and his pudgy hangdog face reminds me of Rodney Dangerfield or some such sadsack comedian.  Let’s not even talk about the scorpions on his feet!

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But I guess any protection from nightmares is better than none, and Tutu was popular in his day, during the twilight fadeout of Egypt’s ancient gods.

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There’s exciting news in the, um, news: French archaeologists have discovered brand-new ancient ruins! The beautifully preserved Roman town were discovered in Sainte Colombe, a contemporary French town next to the Rhône River (as an aside, Sainte Colombe was named after a famous Baroque-era master of the viola da gamba). The ruins, which date back to the second and third century AD, are currently being excavated. So far the researchers have discovered the shops of various artisans and metal workers, a wine warehouse, a temple to an unknown deity, and two luxury houses which belonged to wealthy Romans. The ruins are being dubbed a new Pompeii, since fire caused them to be abandoned and forgotten until present (and left them much more intact than other such discoveries. I love Roman ruins and I am looking forward to seeing more of this ancient town!

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Here is a new flounder series picture I made called “The Lure of Tragedy.” It is meant to evoke Greco-Roman tragic theater, the heroic fish confronts a test of character to which it is inexorably drawn. the chorus sings in the background trying to contextualize the fish’s plight while the great jeweled fishhook of the summer sky indicates the portentous and universal nature of the flounder’s choices.

The work is made on ink and it is designed to fit my tragic Marsyas theater. The poor fish seems awfully familiar somehow.

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Everyone knows about the Oracle at Delphi—one of the most important sacred places of the classical world. Delphi was sacred to Apollo and it is where (in mythology) he slew the ancient giant python which vexed he and Artemis and donned the mantle of god of prophecy. However there was a much older oracle sight in the classical world. According to Herodotus it dated back to the second millennium BCE and Aristotle regarded it as the birthplace of the Hellenes (which is to say the origin point of the Greeks). It was arguably the second most important place of prophecy in the ancient Greek world. This was the great oracle at Dodona in Epirus. Archaeologists indeed date cult activity at the site back to the Mycenaean age. I found pictures of the great theater at Dodona (above) which is certainly awe-inspiring, and of the council house, where affairs of state were adjudicated, however I could not find pictures of the oracle. Perhaps it was a victim of Christian zeal, or maybe it just doesn’t photograph so well after 4000 years.
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The prophetesses of Dodona were known as peleiades (“doves) and they were priestesses of Zeus. Herodotus relates the myth of how their cult originated in the ancient depths of time:
“…two black doves [came] flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine. The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans (they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus. Such was the story told by the Dodonaean priestesses, the eldest of whom was Promeneia and the next Timarete and the youngest Nicandra; and the rest of the servants of the temple at Dodona similarly held it true.”

Long-time readers know I am interested in dove iconography: it is one of the shared aspects of Hellenic pantheism and Judeo-Christian imagery (sharp-eyed readers will also note that a sacred oak appears into the story). I wish I could have found an ancient vase with the Dodona story on it–but maybe it just didn’t translate into pottery. At any rate we will keep featuring these prophetic stories–they are leading up to an exciting surprise at the end of summer!
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Today’s post is taking us all the way back. We are going to the beginning of civilization ca. 3700–3500 B.C. when the first cities sprang up from the mud of Mesopotamia and the near East. This figurine is one of thousands and thousands which were found in Tell Brak, a vast mound which is what now remains of one of humankind’s first cities—an urban settlement which was built at around the same time as Ur and Sumer (although Tell Brak was in what is now–or recently was– Syria). Tell Brak is the name of the mound of rubbish, dirt, and artifacts where the ancient city once was—the original name of the city is unknown (although the city which sprang up nearby, after the destruction of the first metropolis, was known as Nagar).
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The urban inhabitants of Tell Brak loved these evocative little eye statuettes, but sadly we don’t really know what they are either. The best guess is that they were votive statues. Supplicants would leave them at the temple as a sort of offering for the god or goddess. An alternate theory is that they are simplified idols of Inanna–THE goddess of war, sex, and the planet Venus. The wide eyes are thought to betoken adoration or excitement or maybe the attentiveness of the gods. Sometimes there are multiple sets of eyes or smaller eyes beneath a larger pair. Some of the statues had ornamentation or even jewels.

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As you have probably surmised from this meandering speculation, we don’t really know what the eye statues symbolized or what reason people made them (although it was almost absolutely certain that they are religious). Whatever their original purpose was, I love them. I can’t think of a more evocative religious artform to come from a nameless early city. The simple haunting lines and wide-eyed knowingness of the unknowable mystery forms is exhilarating. You can practically feel them looking at you out the internet (to say nothing of when you are in an abandoned corner of the Met with other objects from 6,000 years ago…or on some mud hill in Syria). Ferrebeekeeper has long been fascinated by the art of the first cities…and by cities in general. I am going to be writing more about urban culture and meaning…and I will be featuring more art. So keep your eyes open!
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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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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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Let’s extend chicken week for one more glorious day with this exquisite ewer from Ancient China.  This stoneware chicken vessel was made in the 4th or 5th century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty—the the most empire-like entity to emerge from the chaos and wars of the Three Kingdoms period (some might note that the hideous Three Kingdom Phase of Chinese history contains many valuable lesson about what happens when great nations start to bicker internally and form strongly antagonistic regional factions).  The Jin dynasty was a pathetic broken shard of the glory that was the Han dynasty however they made fine chicken shaped ewers and this is one.  I particularly like the chicken’s little tube-shaped beak/spout, anxious eyes, and abstruse comb.  The piece is a sort or subtle celadon green with dark spots where dabs of iron oxide were deliberately sprinkled over the green glaze.

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