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There are 19 ancient burial mounds in the Russian village of Devitsa.  Archaeologists opened up one of these 2500 year old tombs and you will never believe what they found inside!

Or, well, uh, actually you will believe the contents if you read the news headlines…or are a fan of ancient Greek history…or just follow Pontic steppe archaeology in general (or even read the title of this article), but that doesn’t make the discovery any less extraordinary.  Devitsa lies north of the Black Sea (beyond the borders of present day Ukraine) on the great rolling temperate grassland of Eurasian steppe.  Many cultures have passed through the region over the millennia, but the graves date back to the time of the Scythians–nomadic horse-mounted warriors whose fierce culture flourished between the 8th century and the 3rd century BC.  The Scythians were not exactly an empire–more a lose confederation of wandering tribes (probably of Iranian heritage), but they controlled a hefty swath of Central Asia from the borders of ancient China all the way to the shores of the Black Sea, where they abutted Greek colonies.

The regimented and hierarchical (and patriarchal!) Greeks were scandalized and fascinated by the savage freedoms of the Scythian way of life.  The Greeks looked down on the “barbaric” mounted warriors, yet they also looked up to them.  Greek writing exoticized and romanticized the free-riding Scythian lifestyle and Greek thinkers, writers, and artists incorporated elements of Scythian culture into Greek mythology (and into the Greek weltanschauung).  One of most widely known of these Greek fixations was with “the Amazons” the women warriors of classical mythology.  Amazons were so prevalent in Greek writing and art that the world’s biggest river–in South America!–was later named after the warrior women (and it is rumored other huge modern entities also bear the name).  Historians and scholars have long argued about the extent to which these myths were based on real world exemplars–which brings us back to the tomb excavations at Devitsa.  The most recently opened tomb contained the mortal remains of four Scythian warrior women of different ages.  The graves of a young women (aged 20-25) and of a teenage girl (aged 12 or 13) had been despoiled by robbers, but the graves of two older high-status women (one woman in her early thirties and a woman who died between 40 and 50) were undisturbed.

These latter graves yielded not just iron hooks and weapons but also glass jewelry, a bronze mirror, and a finely wrought gold headdress of gold and iron alloy (pictured above).  The Greeks may have made up a lot of things–like the tale of how Scythians descended from the union of the greatest Greek hero and Echidna, an infamous lady monster–but it seems like fierce and headstrong warrior women were a real phenomena which the Greek colonies of Asia Minor dealt with on a regular basis.  The coast of the Black Sea is the first known location of viniculture and goldsmithing.  The Scyths also seem to have brought cannabis to the classical world via Thrace.  Ancient Greece and the Scythians were at least as closely entwined as Herodotus made them out to be.  It makes one wonder what innovations really came from whom!

 

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We think of the statues of Ancient Greece as glistening white marble, yet they were beautifully painted in a rainbow of colors to imitate life.  So too, the poetry of the ancient Greek world was meant to be performed to music…maybe Sappho and Pindar had more in common with the Beatles, Slim Shady, and Bob Dylan than we think (although I, for one, will never accept that bad Nobel prize).  Unfortunately, the music of the ancient classical world has always been elusive.  We know how deeply the ancients praised its lyrical form and its emotional depth.  We even have extensive descriptions and directions of musical pieces, complete with comprehensive explanations of tones, scales, and meter.  In a few cases we have the notes themselves, there are extant scores for tunes which show each noise to be made in the fashion of modern music (albeit with a different notation).   Yet these aids have never been good enough to make musical recreations which were compelling.  The oddball classicists who tried to perform the songs from the ages of Athens and Alexander, succeeded only in making discordant and unpleasant harmonies.  Either the musical archaeologists were doing it wrong, or worse, the ancient world had a tin ear (and the sweeping rhythm of the poetry and art makes this seem unlikely).

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A new project has come together to try another stab at ancient Greek music.  The researchers and musicians based the heart of their work around recently discovered auloi which were found in superb condition.  The aulos was the “twin flute” of antiquity—actually a double reed instrument something like a twin oboe.  The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, slaves, and entertainers (as opposed to the expensive lyre which was the instrument of aristocrats, academicians, and such).  Although i have never heard it, the aulos is important to me because of the story of Apollo and Marsyas, a myth which is very dear to me (and instantly familiar to all artists who hear the story).

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Using these ancient auloi, musical scholars and musicians have exhaustively reviewed the ancient notes and commentary.  They have poured effort into understanding weird ancient musical terms like “mode, enharmonic, diesis.”  They read the poetry and they practiced…and, yes, they invented and guessed and made things up with their imaginations (which surely is the greatest magic of art, anyway).  I will let you read about their amazing methodologies on your own, but the upshot is you can listen to a closer (?) approximation of ancient Greek music.

[Imagine that Youtube clip was playing here: I would update my wordpress plan to make this possible, but it would cost $48, which would cause me to go bankrupt]

I am not sure I am fully convinced.  In my head, the aulos sounds more like a cross between a nightingale, an oboe, and a small shepherd’s bagpipe—sad and haunting and sweet with a faint hint of something crass.  In this clip it sounds like a vuvuzela making love to a giant hornet.  However, who am I to judge?  My ideas of musical beauty may have been forever compromised by the peerless euphony of 19th century music.  Maybe the clip is closer to the historical truth than I would like to imagine. Whatever the case, the new ancient songs are still worth listening to—they are alien, yet familiar, and not without a certain majestic ceremonial quality. And, best of all, the scholarship, the research, and the musical craftsmanship provides us with another step closer to recreating the ancient melodies that haunt us in poems and in dark myths.

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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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