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The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient.  If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization.  But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence!  Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).

The Headdress of Puabi (ca. 2600 BC, gold)

It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses.  Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects.  Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic).  She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth. 

A picture of Puabi's crown/headdress as it was probably worn (i.e. over a thick wig)

The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”).  The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.

A reconstruction of the lyre (made with original pieces) from the British Museum

Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”).  The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers.  The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:

Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments

The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.”  I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.

Woolley's Diagram of the Tomb of Puabi

Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall.  Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time.  Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade.  At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.

An artist's reconstruction of the city-state of Ur

Kaali Lake, Estonia

Between 7500 and 2500 years ago, a space object composed of coarse octahedrite fell into Earth’s gravity well and broke into huge flaming pieces.  Although much of the object’s mass and velocity were lost passing through the atmosphere, a number of large pieces (with a total mass estimated to be about eighty tons) struck the Saareemaa island in what is now northern Estonia.  Since these fragments were traveling between 10 and 20 kilometers per second, a substantial amount of kinetic energy was released: the impact probably had approximately the same energy yield as the Hiroshima atomic bomb.  The area was inhabited by Bronze Age humans and those who were not incinerated must have been appalled when a ball of incandescent hellfire swallowed a whole forest with deafening thunder.

The impact formed the Kaali crater field.  Since the impact occurred so recently, the craters are still quite pronounced.  The largest crater has a diameter of 110 meters (330 feet) and contains a freshwater lake at its bottom.  The smallest crater (which I unfortunately could not find a picture of) is only about 10 meters across and a meter deep.

PAnoramic shot of Kaali Lake

As at Lake Lonar and the Great Serpeant Mound Crater, there is sacred architecture affiliated with the Kaali Crater field.  During the Iron Age, unknown masons constructed a 470 meter long stone wall around the lake. Since the body of water is nearly a perfect circle it looks deceptively small but, aas you can see in the picture at the top, the lake is actually large and deep. Kaali Lake has been a sacred lake for a long time and local reverence suggests that it still is. Additionally, numerous domestic animal remains from the area around the lake indicate that the area has been a sacrificial ground for thousands of years.  In fact some animal sacrifices date as recently as the 17th century—it seems that Estonia’s conversion to Christianity did not preclude some surviving pagan traditions.  Certain stories from Finnish mythology seem to relate to the lake: one tale relates how a trickster god stole the sun.  The virgin goddess of the air, trying to make manufacture a second sun let a flaming spark fall down—it drifted  into the forested islands south of  Finland and caused a great fire which humankind saved and used for heating, cooking,  and forging.

Here we are at the end of tree week—an event which isn’t real anywhere but on this blog and which I didn’t even realize was happening until now.  But don’t worry, I’ll be writing more about trees in the future.  I really like them. Anyway, to close out this special week I’m going to write about one of my very favorite trees, the yew.

Yews are a family (Taxaceae) of conifers. The most famous member of the family is Taxus baccata, the common yew, a tree sacred to the ancient tribal people of Britain and Ireland.  Although their strange animist religion was replaced by Christianity, a cursory look at the literature and history of the English, Irish, and Scottish will reveal that the yew has remained sacred to them–albeit under other guises.  The common yew is a small to medium sized conifer with flat, dark green needles.  It grows naturally across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia but the English have planted it everywhere they went (so pretty much everywhere on Earth).  Yews are entirely poisonous except for the sweet pink berry-like aril which surrounds their bitter toxic cone.  The arils are gelatinous and sweet.

The Fortingall Yew in Scotland

Yews grow very slowly, but they don’t stop growing and they can live a very long time.  This means that some specimens are ancient and huge.  The Fortingall yew which grows in a churchyard in Scotland had a girth of 16 meters (or 52 feet) in 1769.  According to local legend Pontius Pilate played under it when he was a boy.  This is only a legend: Pilate was not in Britain during his youth.  The Fortingall yew however was indeed around back in the Bronze Age long before the Romans came to England.  The oldest living thing in Europe, the yew is at least 2000 years old.  According to some estimates it is may be thousands of years older than that.  It was killed by lackwits, souvenir hunters, and incompetent builders in the early nineteenth century…except actually it wasn’t.  The tree merely went dormant for a century (!) before regrowing to its present, substantial girth.  It is one of the 50 notable trees of Great Britain designated by the Exalted Tree Council of the United Kingdom to celebrate their revered monarch’s Golden Jubilee.

The Llangernyw yew tree in Llangernyw Village, Conwy, Wales

As noted, the people of the British Isles loved yews but they loved their horses and livestock even more and objected to having them drop dead from eating the toxic plant.  This means that they planted the tree in their cemeteries and churchyards (or, indeed, built their churches around ancient sacred groves).  According to pre-Christian lore, a spirit requires a bough of yew in order to find the next realm.  Many English poems about death and the underworld incorporate the yew tree as a symbol, a subject, or, indeed as a character.  Aristocrats also had a fondness for yew because it could be sculpted into magnificent dark green topiary for their formal gardens.

Yews as topiary in the formal garden of Levens, Cumbria

The substantial military prowess of the English during the middle ages depended on longbows made of yew.   A good bow needed to be made from a stave cut from the center of the tree so that the inelastic heartwood was next to the springy outer wood.  This meant that yews in England were badly overharvested and the English had to continually buy yew from Europe. To quote Wikipedia “In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighboring trees.”

Like many toxic plants, the poisonous yew has substantial medical value.  The extraordinary Persian polymath Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’  (who is known in English as Avicenna) used yew to treat heart conditions in the early eleventh century—this represented the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drugs which finally came into widespread use during the 1960’s.  Today chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Docetaxel are manufactured from compounds taken from yews.  It is believed that the yew’s fundamental cellular nature might yield clues about aging and cellular life cycles (since the yew, like the bristlecone pine, apparently does not undergo deterioration of meristem function).  In other words, Yews do not grow old like other living things.

A final personal note: I naturally put a yew tree in my walled garden in Park Slope.  It’s the only tree I have planted in New York. It grows very slowly but it is indifferent to drought, cold, or the large angry trees around it. It will probably be the only plant I have planted to survive if I abandon my garden.

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