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Oh gosh, October is really flying by this year. I guess we might as well jump to this year’s spooky Halloween topic right now so that we will be able to enjoy (?) these posts as we approach Halloween. Topics in previous years have included the undead, the mother of monsters, flaying, and dark clowns. This year we are returning to the classics and writing about cemeteries (but with an eye on the future as well as the past). Arguably this is a repeat of my 2018 “necropolis” series, but I was dissatisfied by how that panned out (even if I am still astonished and troubled by Vietnam’s “City of Ghosts“) so this year we will circle back to explore the emotional, political, and philosophical (and environmental) aspect of cemeteries and take a look at some amazing graveyards as well.

We will do all of that in subsequent posts of this series, but to start with, let’s just check out an amazing ancient cemetery! The ancient city of Hierapolis is located in what is now Turkey, but its “golden age” took place during the Greco-Roman period particularly from Hellenic times to the beginning of the Byzantine era. The true apogee of Hierapolis was during the heyday of the Roman Empire. The location has a famous hot spring with heated bubbling mineral water–and it is hard to imagine anything more appealing to the Roman mind than a giant natural jacuzzi (especially one right beside the Adriatic in the Hellenized heart of Asia Minor). Well-to-do Romans would retire to Hierapolis to enjoy the healing benefits of the baths and the services of doctors/quacks/healers/magicians of all sorts. The location was a sort of medical mecca of the Roman world. You should go look up the wonders of the Hieraplois baths and theater on your own. For the purposes of this article though, the other side of the medical industry is germane. When the ancient doctors could not help patients, the people who moved their seeking succor stayed permanently.

Like other Roman cities, Hierapolis was designed with the market, theater, and forum in the center of town–along with the baths and medical establishments (and a great colonnaded main street). Around the city center were shops, temples and the dwellings of the great. Farther from the center were more modest dwellings and artisan’s shops and workplaces. The city was surrounded with walls and immediately outside these walls, along each thoroughfare, were extensive cemeteries. Just imagine how creepy roman cemeteries were back in the day when all of the outcasts and footpads of town would haunt the dark mausoleums, columbariums, and tumuli! Like us, the ancient Romans also had their own extensive creepy pantheon of demons and monsters, but the Roman spooky realm was haunted by beautiful flesh-eating lamia, and grim owl-like strix (and headlined by dark gods like Dis Pater, Hecate, and Cronus).

Anyway, Hierapolis was wealthy, as were the citizens who came there to spend the remainder of their days, and thus many of the Roman tombs built there were beautiful and solidly built–and they are still there. The Roman elites commissioned lovely gardens of cypress, asphodel, and roses around their graves. Many of the stunningly beautiful carved sarcophagi which you will recognize from Latin textbooks or history articles about Rome are from Hierapolis (the best have been gathered together in a museum). Even if you are a stern, joyless Christian and find little to love about a bunch of pagan graves, Hierapolis is the also the final resting place of Philip the Apostle and it had a long successful turn as a Byzantine spa city as well.

Tomb of Philip the Apostle (or possibly Philip the Evangelical, depending on which Biblical archaeologists you believe)

Jupiter, the speaking oaks, a pigeon, and a mysterious goddess

As I read about the ancient world, one of the place names which keeps reappearing again and again is Dodona–the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the myth of the foundation of Dodona (which reputedly became a place of prophecy when a black dove with the power of human speech landed there). During the Greco-Roman era, the shrine was sacred to Zeus/Jove himself. The priests and priestesses of Dodona would listen to the noises of a grove of sacred oak trees. Not only did the leaves of these trees rustle in the wind but their boughs were hung with resonant bronze vessels (which banged and clanged like wind chimes). Although Dodona was sacred to Zeus in the classical era, it seems like it dates back to at least Mycenaean times (the mysterious palace-building city states of Mycenaean Greece preceded the Greek age by many centuries, and although they apparently shared some cultural and linguistic similarities, the cultures were not the same). It has been argued that the Dodona of Mycenaean times was sacred to the great goddess Gaia. Whatever the ancient traditions of Dodona were, they came to an apocalyptic halt around 1200 BC when disaster and invaders put an end to the palace civilizations. Sacred worship and divination reemerged there later in the new conventions of Archaic Greek religious style (all of which contributed to the Zeus versus Gaia mythology which is such a pivotal conflict in ancient Greek mythology).

There is something which I don’t understand at all. Its worldview is completely alien to me. Its language is the ancient, polysyllabic epic tongue of south Asia–high Sanskrit. Its moral philosophy is incomprehensible–weird asceticism and strict non-harm. I am speaking about Jainism–arguably the most ancient of the world’s major religions which are still practiced (although who can even say how old Jainism actually is?). Whenever I try to understand Jainism, my brain slips right off of it, like a crab trying to climb a frictionless diamond stupa.

So why am I even writing about Jainism, if I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand it? Why bring up an abstruse faith which has deflated down till it is only practiced by a thousandth of the world’s human population (if even that)? Well Jainism’s central tenant is breathtakingly sublime. Of all of the religious concepts I have come across, it is the most inhuman and numinous. This concept is known as Ahimsa (non-harm). Since everything I write about it keeps obtaining strange qualifiers and weasel words I will just steal Wikipedia’s excellent description:

The principle of ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) is a fundamental tenet of Jainism. It holds that one must abandon all violent activity and that without such a commitment to non-violence all religious behavior is worthless. In Jain theology, it does not matter how correct or defensible the violence may be, one must not kill or harm any being, and non-violence is the highest religious duty. Jain texts…state that one must renounce all killing of living beings, whether tiny or large, movable or immovable. Its theology teaches that one must neither kill another living being, nor cause another to kill, nor consent to any killing directly or indirectly. Furthermore, Jainism emphasizes non-violence against all beings not only in action but also in speech and in thought

If you read this and thought about it, and then your brain went “BUT!!!” then congratulations, we are on the same page. I don’t see how Jains can even eat, much less stay alive in a world of ceaseless competition (although in bygone eras Jains have actually known great prosperity as successful bankers and merchants). Yet the doctrine of Ahimsa also strikes me as ineffably beautiful (and not unrelated to the religious principles of noteworthy figures like Jesus and Guan Yin).

Anyway, I am not converting to Jainism or anything, but I dislike the profound ignorance that I have concerning this important faith. I am therefore going to try to sneak in a few short studies about what Jainism is and where it comes from. We will also look at Jain mythology (although Jainism also seems to lack the creator deities and dark gods which make other faiths so narratively satisfying). Maybe if we keep working on it, we can figure out what is happening in religious art like this:

Shu Masks (ca. 1050 BC) gold mask in foreground, bronze head in back

Here is a 3000 year old gold mask discovered in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdu (which are located in Sichuan (Szechuan)) in Southwest China. The mask was not made for humans but was meant to be worn by a bronze head which was also one of the numerous items deliberately interred in the pits by the Shu people back during the time of the Shang Dynasty. Although the Shang Dynasty is sometimes known as China’s first dynasty and is a time when the first definitive Chinese writings emerged (along with many of the typical hallmarks of Han civilization), the Shu kingdom was not part of the Shang civilization centered in Anyang (as explained by this nebulous yet informative map).

Uh, so who were the Shu people and why were they making these gorgeous stylized heads out of gold and bronze only to bury them among burnt offerings? Well that is a really good question which lacks a really good answer (although analogous instances of buried offerings and treasure in other cultures probably prove instructive). Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about the Shu society and artworks before, and this newly discovered gold mask does not add much to that previous account…except for beauty and wonder. Those will have to suffice until somebody digs up a more definitive answer!

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.


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).


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2021