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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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A popular luxury item of the ancient Mediterranean world was the unguentarium–a little glass container which contained perfume, salve, balm, or suchlike precious unguents (the purpose is right there in the name, people).   Today we would probably keep such cosmetics or medicines in a hermetically sealed plastic containers vacuum sealed by machines with metal or foil tops, but the Romans did not have such materials or technology. In order to keep their basalms fresh, they used the glassblower’s art.  The jalop was put in the container during manufacture and the glassmaker sealed it in.

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In order to use such a material, the buyer would snap the glass and break the seal (and alas, the vessel).  Dove-shaped unguentariums (or whatever the English plural of that word is) were particularly popular because the shape was beautiful and effective. A user could break the beak for getting small amounts or snap off the tail if she wanted to use all of her lotion at once.  Additionally, doves were sacred to Venus–a particular favorite goddess of the Romans.  I wonder what sort of lubricious lotions and potions were in these lovely glass doves.  In some cases we could perhaps find out.  Some of these were never broken by the people they were made for, now dead for more than a thousand years.  We could break them and find out what the contents were with our machines…but after so long it seems like an unimaginable shame.

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Today amidst the internet flotsam and jetsam, there was a post about archaeologists discovering this exquisite mosaic in Şanlıurfa, Turkey.  There are two male and two female figures surrounded by beautiful decorative frames of interlocking geometry.  It is not known who the figures are–perhaps we will never find out–but look how expressive and amazing these ancient portraits are!

What is now the Turkish town of Şanlıurfa was once Edessa, capital of the kingdom of Osroene.  The city has an ancient and complex history, but between 100 AD and 600 AD (which is the rough age estimate for this mosaic)  it was a vassal state first to the Parthian Empire and later to the Roman Empire, before becoming part of the Byzantine Empire.  Later on, in medieval times, Edessa would be taken by the Sassanid Empire, the first Caliphate, the Crusaders…and on and on and on.

However this mural seems (to me) to be an artwork of Osroene, where the Syriac dialect first developed. Syriac literature and culture flourished there.  These people lived and died and were buried in rocky tombs (which were then buried beneath the Castle of Urfa and forgotten…till now.

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