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I am greatly enjoying watching the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea…although thus far I am a bit underwhelmed by the United States performance overall.  Is our precipitous national decline already reflected in international sports, or are the Norwegians, Austrians, Canadians, and other hearty winter folk just having a good Olympics?  Only time will tell.

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At any rate, to celebrate the Korean Olympics (and put the ups-and-downs of history in perspective) I would like to feature a great treasure of South Korea in today’s post.  This is the gold crown of Seobongchong Tumulus, a spectacular gold Silla crown now housed at the Gyeongju National Museum. Gyeongju was the royal capital of the Korean kingdom of Silla which flourished from the mid first century BC to the eight century AD.  These crowns date from the fifth through seventh centuries. The exact nature of the crowns is unknown: ethnographers believe the magnificent shamanistic forms reflect a steppe influence (perhaps from Persia/Iran) but much about these crowns remains a mystery.  We aren’t even sure if they were worn by the living or if they were solely exquisite grave goods.

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The Scilla crowns were discovered in huge, nigh impregnable barrows which were only excavated in the 1920s.  The coffins of the Silla nobles were placed in deep pits lined with wood.  These were covered with dense clay and then with giant river boulders and then with a huge burial mound.  This particular crown is 30.7 centimeters (one foot) in height and 18.4 centimeters  (7.25 inches) in diameter. The headband is decorated with lovely abstruse leaf-shapes and bent jade ornaments called “gogok” comma-shaped curved jewels which are believed to be tied to bear worship (perhaps reflecting Japanese of Iranian influence).

Wikipedia blithely states that the crown reflects no Chinese influence and yet, “the right and left most branches, along with the middle branches of the five branches, are composed of the Chinese character 出 in three prongs. The tips of the branches are decorated with a budding flower ornament.” Hmmm—you will have to make up your own mind on that score (although finding anything anywhere in East Asia without some sort of Chinese influence is rare).  Scholars who believe that the crowns reflect shamanistic influences see a tree in the gold shape (which seems like a bit of a stretch…but they do remind me a bit of Zhou Dynasty bronze work which was heavily influenced by animism/shamanism , so judge for yourself).

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Silla began as one small state in the Samhan confederacies (loosely allied with Imperial China), but subsequently spread through the middle of the peninsula.  During its heyday (around when these crowns were made) Silla succeeded in conquering the other two great kingdoms of Korea and briefly unifying the peninsula, but a parasitic entrenched aristocracy sapped it of its vitality and devoured it from within (a decline which was hastened by sectarianism, schism, and civil war).  We still have these splendid crowns though…

Giant Short-Faced Bear (by Joseph S. Venus)

Giant Short-Faced Bear (by Joseph S. Venus)

With the possible exception of the polar bear, the brown bear is the largest land predator on Earth today—which brings up the question of whether there were larger bears alive in prehistory. Amazingly, the answer is a resounding yes!  The short-faced bear (Arctodus simus) lived in North America during the Pleistocene.  It ranged from Alaska down to the Gulf of Mexico.  The huge bears first appeared 800,000 in the past: yet they only died out 12,500 years ago (a time which coincides suspiciously with the proliferation of humans in the Americas).  The largest short-faced bears are estimated to have weighed up to 957 kilograms (2,110 pounds) and they stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall at the shoulder.02bear2

The short-faced bear derived its name from its broad squat muzzle—a feature which gave the bear an incredibly powerful bite.  Using these powerful jaws the bears could crack open huge bones and gobble up the marrow.  Yet short faced bears also had longer thinner legs and arms than living bears.  The combination of graceful runners’ limbs and bulldog-like muzzle has greatly perplexed scientists.  Was the bear a predator who ran down Pleistocene megafauna and then bit its prey to death, or was it a huge scavenger which wondered across the continent looking for carrion to crack apart with its ferocious jaws.  There is still not scientific consensus about the lifestyle of the immense bear, however what is certain is that the short-faced bear was one of the two largest mammalian land predators known to paleontology (the other contender for the title is the even-more-mysterious Andrewsarchus).

The fossilized skeleton of a short-faced bear at the (amazing-sounding) American Bear Center

The fossilized skeleton of a short-faced bear at the (amazing-sounding) American Bear Center

Sochi, Russia

Sochi, Russia

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia which is a city on the Black Sea near the Georgia border.   The games will be the first winter games to feature medals competitions in “Slopestyle” snowboard and skiing as well as snowboard parallel slalom.

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Of course the real competitions have already been held: namely the insane International competition to host the Olympics (which came down to a choice between Sochi, Salzburg, and Pyeongchang) and, more importantly, the competition to choose the official Olympic mascots.   You will no doubt recall that the 2012 summer Olympics mascots were “Wenlock and Mandeville”, two cyclopean alien robot monsters.

Wenlock and Mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville (sigh)

In an attempt to end up with less appalling mascots, Russia turned to the time honored Russian solution of…democracy (?).  Wow! The world really is changing.  A list of vetted candidates was drawn up and submitted to the public for consideration.  Some of the shortlisted design ideas included Matryoshka dolls, Dolphins, Bullfinches, snow leopards, hares, bears, a tiny anthropomorphized sun, and Ded Moroz (the Russian “Father Frost” who acts as Santa).

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the anti-establishment furry crowned toad (who was modeled after Futurama’s hypnotoad) was quietly omitted from the final list of candidates as was Ded Moroz, when it was discovered that, if he won, he would become the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee.

Sorry Ded, you must belong to the children of Russia

Sorry Ded, you already belong to the children of Russia

A telephone voting competition was held between the final mascot candidates and the three winners (the snow leopard, hare, and bear) became the official Olympic mascots.  Unfortunately the election was tainted with scandal when Russia’s elected leader and perennial strongman, Vladimir Putin announced that his favorite candidate was the snow leopard.  Subsequent to this proclamation, an immense number of phonecalls were immediately tallied for the snow leopard, which has led to charges of vote-rigging (so maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all).

The winners

The winners

The designer of the 1980 Moscow Games mascot Misha (a bear which nobody saw because of the U.S. boycott) has accused the designer of the Sochi bear mascot of plagiarizing his bear expression.  Certain political groups have also darkly hinted that the bear was chosen because it resembles the mascot of the United Russia political party (which is the dominant force in Russian politics).

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

So it seems only the snow hare and the Paralympic mascots (a snowflake girl and fireboy) are untainted by controversy.  I dislike admitting it, but to my eye, Putin was right and the snow leopard, although not native to Sochi, is the most compelling figure.  They are all pretty cute, so maybe this whole democracy thing actually works (despite the ghastly results we have been getting lately in America).

Better than Congress!

Better than Congress by a lot!

The coat of arms of Pope Benedict XVI

The coat of arms of Pope Benedict XVI

So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month?  While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms.  Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy!  Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot.  The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell.  The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit.  The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa):  this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.  The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing.  Maybe he is going to grade school?

This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post).  The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish…  Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.

Coat of Arms of Urban VIII

Coat of Arms of Urban VIII

Coat of Arms of Pious VI

Coat of Arms of Pious VI

 

Fifty years ago marked the height of the Cuban missile crisis.  The entire US military was operating at DEFCON 3–and Strategic Air Command had moved up to DEFCON 2 (a readiness condition which indicates that “nuclear war is eminent”).  As part of these protocols, the Air Force moved nuclear armed interceptor aircraft to smaller airports along the northern border in preparation for a Russian strike.

A F-106A with a Russian TU-95M

On the night of October 25, 1962, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center spotted a commando stealthily climbing over the perimeter fence to sabotage the base.  The guard fired at the intruder but missed all his shots. He then sounded the alarm.  The proper alarm rang at several nearby bases, but at Volk field in Wisconsin, the alarm system was wired incorrectly.  Instead of an intruder alarm, the klaxon for nuclear war sounded.  The pilots duly got in their F106-A jets (each of which was equipped with a nuclear rocket) and prepared to fly north for the last battle.

Just as the planes were taking off, a truck sped onto the field flashing its lights.  The false alarm had been caught in time and the interceptors did not launch.  Decades later the Air Force declassified documents relating to the incident.  The shadowy saboteur was revealed to have been a bear.

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The incident was quickly forgotten because it was only one of an astonishing number of near misses in the subsequent days of the crisis.  On October 27th, 1962 alone there were multiple live-fire accidents and misunderstandings: the world nearly ended several times that day.   That morning, a U-2F spy plane was shot down over Cuba by means of a Soviet surface-to-air missile and the pilot was killed.  Later that day a US Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft was fired on and one was hit by a 37 mm shell.  The US Navy dropped a series of “signaling depth charges” on Soviet submarine B-59 which was armed with nuclear torpedoes (however one of the three Soviet fire officers objected to launching the weapons).   Over the Bering Sea the Soviets scrambled their MIGs in response to a U2 spy plane and the Air Force in return launched their F-102 fighter aircraft.

After a bewildering storm of desperate diplomatic negotiations which were interspersed with apocalyptic bluster, the American and Soviet administrations began to back down from the confrontation.  The Kennedy administration dispatched negotiators to meet with representatives of the Soviet Union at Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant, and a deal was reached over the fortune cookies and chopsticks.   The Soviets removed their nuclear missiles from Cuba and America, in turn, pulled nuclear weapons out of Turkey and southern Italy.

It’s easy to look at the news today and feel a sense of despair about the world and its inhabitants, but it is worth looking back a half a century to the sixties when the world was a much more stupid and dangerous place.  Everyone drove giant unsafe cars with big fins.  Lobotomy was a common medical procedure.  China and India were actively fighting a war.  But, above all other concerns, the Soviet Union and the United States eyed each other beadily and prepared to destroy the world in response to a bear or a spy plane or an insult in a Chinese restaurant.

After the Cuban missile crisis ended, the STRATCOM stood down from DEFCON 2 on November 15, 1962.  Although the armed forces have returned to DEFCON 3—medium readiness— a few times since then (notably during the Yom Kippur war and on September 11th) the nation has never again gone to DEFCON 2.

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