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Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Here is a bronze ceremonial vessel called a fang ding from China’s Western Zhou period.  The vessel dates from the eleventh or tenth century BC—so it is probably from Shanxi or Shaanxi (which are the modern provinces located where the Zhou culture began). The ding was used for ceremonial food offerings, but it was also a status object which represented power and authority over the land.  It is covered with an enigmatic pattern known as a taotie, the true nature of which has perplexed and intrigued experts in Chinese art for centuries (or even millennia).  Most scholars believe that the markings are a stylized face—possibly the countenance of strange spirit beings encountered on shamanistic spirit journeys.  According to anthropologists there are extant hunter-gathering cultures which participate in such transcendental rituals—and craft similarly stylized faces (so I’m not making all this up—however anthropologists might be). The Chinese term for the decorative faces (or whatever they are)  is 饕餮 which apparently translates as “glutinous ogre” which seems like a very poetic and apt name for the weird powerful designs.

A different view of the same ding

A different view of the same ding

During the Shang dynasty (which preceded the Zhou period) the analogous ceremonial vessel was a wine container, but the founding king of Zhou was a strict moralist who believed the Shang had declined due to drunkenness and inebriation. Perhaps some of the shamanistic overtones of the bronze vessels vanished as the authorities reinvented dings as a symbol of authority rather than a portal to an altered state!

Flea Close Up (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

By showing how strange familiar things really are, the electron scanning microscope provides an uncanny window into a hidden realm.  To demonstrate this, here are some remarkable portrait photographs of humble fleas taken by various gifted microscopists.  In order to obtain these images, the photographers required not only large expensive electron microscopes (and the training to use them), but they also had to kill the fleas, dehydrate the bodies, and then coat the tiny corpses with microscopically thin gold plating!  Additionally it is necessary to place such specimens in a vacuum, since air molecules interferes with the electron beam.  But all of that preparation was worth it–look at the amazingly expressive flea faces!  Each of these characters could be a rapacious nineteenth century huckster, or a wimpy impresario bent on one last gasp of glory.  Among all of the insect world, I believe fleas might have the most interesting faces:

Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis (photo credit "Last Refuge")

Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Flea (photo by RBirtles)

Flea (Image by David Scharf)
What was this book about?

Of course even before the electron microscope, artists and illustrators have appreciated fleas’ distinctive personalities.  The image above is an illustration from a German children’s book from the nineteen forties which merits inclusion in this portrait gallery because of the detailed face of the tiny flea and because of the strangeness of the image.

Water Flea (photo by Jan Michels)

The final portrait here (above) is actually a water flea, Daphneia, which came up in my browser as an accident.  The water flea is unrelated to the insect fleas portrayed above except in the most cursory way: they are both arthropods.  The image was, however, too good to pass up–so I suppose this blog post celebrates intriguing portraits of things called fleas.  The water flea scan makes an interesting point about epigenetics–water fleas do not have a crested helmet (like the one in the photo) except when they live in the same ecosystem as tadpole shrimp.  Tadpole shrimp can pray on water fleas but find the shrimp with helmet shaped heads frightening or unappetizing.

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