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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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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…

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Childeric was a Frankish king who was born in the middle of the 5th century AD and lived to around 480 AD.  He was the son of Merovech (after whom the Merovingians were named) and the father of Clovis I who united the Franks and was thus arguably the first king of France. Childeric has an interesting life with lots of weird seductions and thrilling battles against the Goths, however these cinematic aspects of his career scarcely concern us here… instead we are talking about the tomb of Childeric which was discovered in 1653 in what is today Belgium. The 12th-century church of Saint-Brice in Tournai was built close to Childeric’s grave (although who knows if this was by design or by accident?). Childeric’s grave was filled with rich treasures of 5th century Frankish craft, which were given first to the Hapsburgs who presented the find to Louis IVX (who, as the apogee of absolutist monarchs, was somewhat unimpressed with the pieces and kept them in his library rather than his vault).

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The treasure of Childeric’s tomb included a golden bull, some coins, a signet ring, and other such precious odds and ends.  The real highlight of the collection however were 300 golden insects inlaid with garnets (these mysterious jeweled bugs were most commonly regarded as bees) which were sewed onto the monarch’s grave cloak.  These bees inspired the bees of Napoleon (who was looking for insignia which was symbolic of France but which was not the fleur-de-lis of the Bourbons).  Unfortunately, the vast majority of Childeric’s bees were stolen and melted down during a break-in during 1831.  Only two of the splendid red and gold bees remain.  Fortunately we still have the engravings which were commissioned by Leopold William, governor of the Austrian Netherlands (the aristocrat to whom the treasures of Childeric’s grave were first presented).

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Two years ago, the world astronomy community first directly detected gravitational waves when two black holes collided.  The ability to “listen” to gravitational wave noises has now come in extremely handy as the international astronomy community witnessed (or “detected”?) a new category of astronomical event—the “kilonova”! This August (2017) astronomers around the world observed two neutron stars in a nearby galaxy collide in a high energy event which distorted spacetime and was detected via both the media of electromagnetic radiation and gravitational waves.

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Neutron stars have 10 to 20% more mass than the sun—but all packed into a ball with 15 kilometers of diameter—about the size of a city.  It has been postulated that two of these super dense monstrosities can spin into each other in a bizarre high energy event, but such a thing was never properly detected and observed…until August 17.  You can listen to it here!

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These events actually happened 130 million years ago during the early Cretaceous, but it took the gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation 130 million years to cross from the nearby galaxy where they were observed (this galaxy is located in the southern constellation of Hydra).

The idea that most (or all?) of the universe’s extremely dense metals such as gold and platinum came from neutron stars is a fairly recent concept.  It was largely theoretical and seemed a trifle…preposterous (since neutron stars are not exactly everywhere to fall into each other) yet the recent kilonova has proven the concept and has provided a bonanza of information for astronomers.  Of course it has provided a literal bonanza too—the universe now has the equivalent of several earths worth of newly created gold and platinum. Admittedly that vast treasure trove is 130 million light years away in the southern sky—yet that still seems closer than the Federal Reserve Depository or some Swiss vault.

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This is the Essen crown. A magnificent crown of gold (alloyed with silver) carved and/or cabochon jewels and natural pearls. It is the oldest surviving lily-formed crown and it has been in the possession of the Essen Cathedral/monastery practically forever. Despite its great beauty and obvious historical interest, I have not written about it because we don’t actually know much about it and because its long existence has been somewhat dull. During the early 20th century scholars speculated that it was the childhood crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, a scion of the Ottonian line which ruled the Holy Roman Empire after the famous Carolingians. The story runs that young Otto gifted the crown to Essen at the end of the 10th century (ca 999 AD) where it was fitted upon the brow of a statue of the Virgin.
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Modern scholarship and careful analysis by historically-minded jewelsmiths have cast doubt on this theory, however, and now it is believed that the crown was made in the early 11th century specifically as a votive crown for the statue of the Virgin. Since it did not represent worldly power (and since it was well-guarded) it passed long uneventful centuries there without lots of murders, thefts, or possession by Jimmy Carter. Even if the history is somewhat dull, the crown is certainly not. It is very lovely to look at and represents an apogee of Saxon goldworking. I hope its appearance (or otherworldly ancient power) moves you even if its story of sitting around a church for 900 years is not necessarily so exciting.

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When I was a five-year old child, my whole family went on a trip out west.  We traveled from Utah up through Wyoming, Boulder, and Idaho.  My parents rented a big taupe car, but my grandparents, my uncle, and my cousin all had trucks with campers (my cousin even had a CB radio!). It was amazing fun and the undiluted beauty of the mountains and the joy of family time made up for the long days of being trapped in a car with leg cramps from running up and down said  mountains.  Many are the storied adventures we had…and the western legends have grown in the telling.  A particular favorite is the tale of how my grandfather and my uncle obtained a special blacklight so they could spot uranium ore (which was at a great premium in the seventies).  They turned the light on in some forsaken midnight desert and not only did they discover a shocking number of scorpions EVERYWHERE, they also found huge mounds of uranium ore in immense abundance—a multi-million dollar strike!  But when they picked up the precious ore it was soft and friable, and when they fumbled their flashlights on, it turned out to be cow manure covered with a fungus that glows under black light….

At any rate, among all of these travel yarns, a story shines out in my mind as being unusually important.  Sadly the story paints me as a callow & greedy brat, but it is still worth recounting, because of the tremendous lesson embedded in it like a razorblade in a mallomar.  My great grandmother was traveling with us on the trip.  She would switch between vehicles and share her stories of the days before airplanes, motorcar, great wars, or radios.  It was wonderful to have her with us and I feel incredibly lucky that I got to know her and hear her stories, however some of her folk traditions caused…trouble…when I attempted to apply their mythical wisdom to the real world.

For example: we were camped in some paradisiacal glade in Wyoming, when  I found a winsome wildflower with little golden anthers  (in my memory, this flower looks like a cross between a mimulus and a columbine, but who can say what it really was) and I rashly picked one for grandma.  She was delighted by it and she said, “if you leave these out overnight, the fairies will turn them to gold” Just what I would have done with whole bushels of gold was somewhat unclear, but I was a tourist out west where every little tourist-trap is all about GOLD, plus I had some heady ideas from old-fashioned chivalric tales of dragons, knights, and kings.

I began making an altar of flower heads, when my mother, a modern woman with an abiding love for nature (and for rules) found me decapitating unknown wildflowers in a park in order to transmute them to gold via fairy magic.  This was the beginning of a stringent & powerful LESSON concerning (A) the nature of endangered plants, (B) wise environmental stewardship, and (C) national park rules.  I tried to interrupt the flow of the moral lecture with the puissant rejoinder that “Great Grandma says the fairies will transform them into gold!” However this did not have the desired effect.  In fact, in addition to learning about wildflowers in national parks, I also learned that (D) the mythical wisdom of beloved superannuated ancestors does not overrule parental fiat (or park rules). Not at all.

Of course there is only one truly ironclad rule in life, which all other things must pay obeisance to…and that is the primacy of what actually happens.  I assumed that after that long-ago summer night had passed I would have a great rock heaped with gold which would convince my mother that she was wrong and great grandma and I were right.  However, sadly, in the pink dawn light when I went out to my flat mudstone to look at the gold (maybe I would share some with my parents so they could see how foolish they had been) all that was there were a bunch of mangled wildflowers which I had mutilated with my lust for gold. Come to think of it, this was a real lesson about world history too, I guess.  Anyway it was obvious that dealing with the fairies is tricksy.  Dealing with reality is inexorable.  I killed a bunch of potentially endangered wildflowers for a pretty lie.  I felt so ashamed.  I still do.

After the fairy gold incident, the other supernatural entities in my life started to fall like big jeweled fabulated dominoes. The Easter Bunny was always pretty suspicious anyway—a magic rabbit who hands out chocolate malt balls (a confection which my mom and nobody else likes)?  Soon he was gone, never to hop back.  I learned to read, and I read up on UFOs and monsters: it became perfectly obvious to a second grader that they were all hallucinations of stressed or otherwise addled people.  It wasn’t long before Santa himself, the great undead demigod of winter and giving was exposed…well, not as a fraud (I still have some of his wonderful toys) but certainly not exactly real in the way that you and I are, gentle reader.  All that was left was the big bearded guys–the sort who flout the temple rules of the Pharisees or build allegorical gardens with forbidden trees–and the curiosity of adolescence (and knowledge of astronomy, biology, and history) put an end to them except as symbols.  It’s a humorous story…but it isn’t so funny when I see my roommate wishing away her life on horoscopes and homeopathy or look at the NY Times and catch a glimpse of what ISIL is up to.

Everywhere, still, I find people who believe in the fairy gold despite the irrefutable evidence of the dawn.  I almost didn’t write this because I was afraid somebody would push a wildflower towards extinction so they can make their car payments.  What are we going to do? How are we going to make our way to Venus (or anywhere other than extinction) in a world where fairy gold is still so much in circulation, even if nobody has ever seen a single speck?

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Isabel II was queen regnant of Spain from 1833 until 1868, when she was forced out by a somewhat muddled coalition of Spanish liberals and republicans.   Her reactionary reign was a long series of palace intrigues, military conspiracies, and church meddling.

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During the 19th century, there was a fashion for European sovereigns to commission small easily wearable coronet-style crowns (a fashion which was greatly promoted by Queen Victoria, the foremost monarch of the day).  Queen Isabel commissioned this beautiful little yellow crown of diamonds, gold, and topazes.  When she was forced out by the “Glorious” (but ineffective) revolution she took the crown into exile with her in Paris, however she willed it to the Atocha Chapel. If my sources are to be believed (and they are internet sources…so maybe they shouldn’t be) the little coronet is still used to adorn the church’s votive statue on high feast days.

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Icon of the Crucifixion (Andrea Pavias, second half of 15th century, egg tempera and gold on wood)

This blog traditionally presents a beautiful crucifixion painting for Good Friday.  This year’s selection comes from a somewhat different artistic tradition than the paintings of previous years.  This is Andreas Pavias’s Icon of the Crucifixion, a Greek icon painted in the style of Byzantine art.  The beautiful and troubling image was created at the end of the 15th century, in the years following the fall of Constantinople.  After more than a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire had finally died, yet for a while longer, in Greece and in the Slavic near east, the Byzantine artistic tradition lived on and had a final glorious flowering. This crucifixion is not about realism in the same way as works by Durer and Mantegna (who were painting at the same time).  The action takes place in an otherworldly golden space filled with stylized angels.  The Romans soldiers have been replaced by Turks.  The holy family and the saints and disciples are all dressed as Byzantine nobles.  Each group of figures enacts a drama from the passion: yet the action has the stylistic quality of an elaborate didactic illustration (or even a modern pictographic work of media—like a video game) rather than the sumptuous realism of Renaissance Italy. Yet the work is no less magnificent because of this quality.  Indeed the seething angular forms give it an alien intensity well suited to the subject.

Cast your eyes around the icon and take in the details!  The sun and moon have shrunk to little gold faces the same size as the countenances of the angels which fill the sky. Turkish executioners are breaking the legs of the two robbers to either side of Jesus—an act of “mercy” which allowed the brigands to die more swiftly. Yet Christ continues to suffer on, nailed to the monumental jet black cross dripping with blood.  On the left, little resurrected figures awaken from Golgotha to eternal life.  On the right, the profane throw dice for Jesus’ divine raiment.  Between them, a fissure opens up at the foot of the cross.  It snakes down into the black depths of hell where writhing demons wait.

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Today we feature a special treat from the ancient world. This is the Arimaspi Calathos, a gold headdress for a priestess of Demeter, goddess of grain, agriculture, and fecundity. It was crafted in the second half of the 4th century BC by master Greek goldsmiths out of thirty sheets of fine gold plate hammered into shape and cunningly joined together (plus some enamel and other bits). The headdress is commonly known as “the fighting griffins calathos” for the magnificent eagle-headed mythical beasts on it. The central griffin is proudly uninterested in fighting, but its two companions rip into Greek women who are sinking to the ground beneath the onslaught. I can’t find any images of the remaining crown, but it looks like it is probably similarly violent and enigmatic. Greek jewelry was beautiful, dark, and interesting: you never see celebrities these days wearing anything featuring griffins killing lots of people.

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The piece was found during excavations of the Bolshaya Bliznitsa burial mound, a funerary complex for the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria. Phanagoria was the largest city of the Greek colony on the Taman Peninsula, which separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea. The Greeks founded a trade colony there in 543 BC in order to trade with the Scythians and the Sindi (and perhaps with people from much farther to the east as well. Judging by the hats worn by their priestesses, it was a good place to trade, although the imagery of the votive crown suggests that it was also a life of robust competition and fearsome struggle.

Gold Headdress-The Arimaspi Fighting Griffins Calathos -Greek work-Second half of the 4th century BC

Mastiff Bat Vessel (Moche, 50-200 AD North Coast, Peru, Earthenware)

Mastiff Bat Vessel (Moche, 50-200 AD North Coast, Peru, Earthenware)

Longtime readers will remember that Ferrebeekeeper has a great fondness for the magnificent art and pottery of the Moche, a civilization noted for sophisticated agriculture, ultra-violence, and, um, magnificent art and pottery. The Moche lived in the rich coastal lands of what is now northern Peru. In the past we have written about their art of sea monsters and human sacrifice, and of waterfowl. Today we look at Moche bat-themed art.

Crescent-Shaped Ornament with Bat, C.E. 1 - 300 (from the Brooklyn Museum)

Crescent-Shaped Ornament with Bat, C.E. 1 – 300 (from the Brooklyn Museum)

Double lobed whistling bat sculpture (Ca. 450 - 800 A.D.) the bat makes a chirping/whistling noise when water is poured out and air is blown in

Double lobed whistling bat sculpture (Ca. 450 – 800 A.D.) the bat makes a chirping/whistling noise when water is poured out and air is blown in

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Gold Bat Ornament (Moche)

Gold Bat Ornament (Moche)

Bats were beloved subjects of much pre-Colombian art (I owe everyone a post about the bat in Aztec art and myth). Although they were great artists, the Moche were scary people who were always sacrificing and garroting and flaying (more about that next week) and excarnating and hanging corpses everywhere. Yeesh… Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bats of Moche art are scary creatures with grimacing monster teeth and near-human expressions of malice and grief.

Early Intermediate (Moche IV), Mochica Molded stirrup-spout vessel, A.D. 500–700 Ceramic with red and white slip North coast, Peru

Early Intermediate (Moche IV), Mochica Molded stirrup-spout vessel, A.D. 500–700 Ceramic with red and white slip North coast, Peru

Moche IV ceramic stirrup spout bat form effigy vessel

Moche IV ceramic stirrup spout bat form effigy vessel

Sadly we don’t know precisely what place the bat held in Moche mythology. In fact we don’t know anything about Moche mythology except what we can intuit visually. However there are lots of bats to visually interpret and it seems like a safe bet that they had a chthonic underworld meaning (as they do in Western art and culture). These bats are demons and monsters born of the dark night-side of the human spirit.

Moche Vessel (Early Intermediate period) Bat demon

Moche Vessel (Early Intermediate period) Bat demon

Probably Moche (?) AD 200-500

Probably Moche (?) AD 200-500

All of these grimacing fanged bats with bared claws and anguished eyes make me think of the Moche people themselves—caught up in their centuries-long game of bloody worship and savage status. I wish I could help them, or even understand them, but they are gone. All we have are their skeletons and their beautiful dark art.

Moche - Pair of Gilt Bat Appliques. Loma Negra, Peru.

Moche – Pair of Gilt Bat Appliques. Loma Negra, Peru.

Gold Nasal Ornament with bat (Moche)

Gold Nasal Ornament with bat (Moche)

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