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Shu Masks (ca. 1050 BC) gold mask in foreground, bronze head in back

Here is a 3000 year old gold mask discovered in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdu (which are located in Sichuan (Szechuan)) in Southwest China. The mask was not made for humans but was meant to be worn by a bronze head which was also one of the numerous items deliberately interred in the pits by the Shu people back during the time of the Shang Dynasty. Although the Shang Dynasty is sometimes known as China’s first dynasty and is a time when the first definitive Chinese writings emerged (along with many of the typical hallmarks of Han civilization), the Shu kingdom was not part of the Shang civilization centered in Anyang (as explained by this nebulous yet informative map).

Uh, so who were the Shu people and why were they making these gorgeous stylized heads out of gold and bronze only to bury them among burnt offerings? Well that is a really good question which lacks a really good answer (although analogous instances of buried offerings and treasure in other cultures probably prove instructive). Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about the Shu society and artworks before, and this newly discovered gold mask does not add much to that previous account…except for beauty and wonder. Those will have to suffice until somebody digs up a more definitive answer!

Buried among today’s ghastly news stories was an interesting micro-nugget of potentially good news: the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Lab in California managed to trigger a 1.35 Megajoule reaction by firing an ultraviolet laser array into a tiny target of nuclear fuel. Now Doc-Brown-style engineers/mad scientists might scoff at that number since 1.35 Megajoules is about the same amount of kinetic energy as in a Con Edison Truck rolling down a gentle hill. However the National Ignition Facility is meant to test colossal forces in tiny, manageable packages (it is putatively designed to model the extreme temperatures and conditions of nuclear weapons without requiring actual nuclear testing).

The real purpose of the National Ignition Facility is to try to leapfrog the moribund engineering quest for usable fusion energy. I wrote an overly optimistic piece about the place over a decade ago and have barely heard anything about it since then aside from a story about how they finally got their laser array to work right back in 2012. To briefly recap the methodology of this process, here is a simplified description. Scientists fire a burst of extremely intense energy through the futuristic laser array for 20 billionths of a second. This energy is theoretically meant to vaporize a small gold capsule containing deuterium and tritium. If lasers strike the gold correctly, the disintegrating gold releases a high-energy burst of x-rays which compact the capsule and force the hydrogen isotopes to fuse. On August 8th, for the first time, this process mostly worked and the reaction actually yielded 70% of the energy used to fire the lasers (an enormous improvement from the previous 3% maximum which had been the benchmark for years).

Apparently the breakthrough involved improving the size, shape, and microscopic surface preparation of the capsule (classic engineering stuff!). Nuclear engineers are quick to point out that the result still leaves us a long way from figuring out how to produce the clean abundant energy which humankind desperately needs to solve our (rapidly growing) problems and needs. Yet they also have a long-absent glint in their eyes and a new spring in their step. This is real progress in the search for a goal which has proven maddeningly elusive. Let’s keep an eye on the National Ignition Facility, and, maybe, just maybe this would be a worthy place to spend some more of our national budget.

Sometimes when my mind has been hopelessly corrupted by the pointless drudgery of my dayjob (a syndrome which, alas, also impairs efficacious blogging) I like to look at the exquisite golden objects from Indonesia which are on display at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. Through some strange accident (which almost certainly involved vast fossil fuel wealth) the Houston museum has the finest collection of Indonesian gold outside of Jakarta. We have seen some of these otherworldly status objects here on Ferrebeekeeper before, but today’s golden crown suits my taste even more than previous selections. Unfortunately, the Houston museum’s collection is poorly explained, and the internet simply identifies this as an ancestral gold crown from the Moluccas circa 15th to 17th century. Why are the greatest beauties always so mysterious?

The Moluccas (AKA Maluku) are a pretty mysterious place in their own right, having been continuously inhabited by humans since the first great migration out of Africa 80,000 years ago (dates may be subject to variance!). As Austronesian, Melanesian, and eventually Malay (and then, in historical times, Chinese and European) people traveled through the great ecological and cultural crossroads, all sorts of ideas became mixed together. This headress though is not 100% alien… it has certain similarities to some of the Balinese carvings I have seen–which is to say it comes from a Hindu cultural tradition coming southwards from Malaysia and South East Asia. There are shades of the fantastical headdresses of the apsaras here! Yet I don’t see this piece as completely Hindu or southeast Asian either. The ornament and the figures have a vigorous & sumptuous aspect which strikes me as thoroughly Indonesian. Whatever the case, I could look at this enigmatic crown all day! If anyone out there knows anything about it (or even has any speculative ideas like mine above) I would love to hear from you!

Meleager, the mythological hero who slew the Caledonian boar was famously accursed by fate, but beloved by ancient Greek artists and poets. As it turns out, this fixation outlived the ancient classical era. In the modern world, the matchless hunter is now beloved by taxonomists and biologists! Not only are turkeys and guineafowl both named after the Caledonian prince, but one of the strangest and most peculiar looking fish from the strange and peculiar order Tetraodontiformes is also named for poor Meleager.

Behold the guineafowl pufferfish, Arothron meleagris, a fish which lives in tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This solitary puffer browses on corals and other suchlike invertebrates of the reef. Although they can grow up to half a meter (20 inches in length) and can swim very precisely and maneuver nimbly they are not strong swimmers, nor are they especially camouflaged (although their strange outline and spotted bodies help them blend in). If it really gets in trouble though, Arothron meleagris is a pufferfish and they can expand into a disconcerting spherical scary face which seems much larger than the fish itself.

Each of those chic spots is not just a dot but also a coarse bump, so they are further protected by a kind of sandpapery armor. Interestingly, guineafowl pufferfish come in three color varieties, deep purple brown with white spots, yellow with black spots, and a piebald mixture of yellow & dark brown with both black and white spots. Accounts vary as to whether the fish change color as they go through life or whether different specimens belong to one of the three types for life. Although I feel that Meleager’s name is suitably tragic for any fish in our dying oceans (particularly coral reef fish like the guineafowl puffer which are simultaneously hunter and hunted), tracing how the fish got the name involves a transitive leap. In mythology, Meleager was killed by his own mother after slaying his uncle in a quarrel (she used a sort of dark magic and was so horrorstruck that she immediately died herself). Meleager’s sisters were so consumed by cacophonous weeping that the gods took pity on them (???) and turned the women into guineafowl. Guineafowl are named after Meleager because of their strange lachrymose wails, however they are also spotted and stippled. Ichthyologists named the fish after the bird because both share white spots on a dark brown background (we will overlook the gold form for present).

Yet even if they got their name through a roundabout way, there is something anguished and otherworldly in the countenance of the guineafowl pufferfish which speaks to me of the odd popeyed expressions of tragic masks. Perhaps I will let this fish’s looks do the talking on behalf of Earth’s oceans today.

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Mustang Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2017) Wood and Mixed Media

I got wrapped up working on a strange allegorical fish sculpture and failed to write a post today, so here is a sculpture which I built a few years ago which captures the wild freedom of the west (in, um, the form of a sleek predatory pleuronectiform).  The wheels, the running horse, and the fish all connote mobility and streamlined speed.  The mustang is emblematic of North America, but horses were actually introduced to the continent by Spaniards in the early 16th century.  Equids actually originated in the Americas (back in the Eocene, of course) but through the vicissitudes of continental drift, land bridges, speciation, and extinction they died out here and became quintessential Eurasian animals (we’re not even going to talk about zebras).  My favorite parts of this sculpture are the bend wooden components (which were a pain to steam and glue) and the 1970s rainbow of caramel, cream, and gold colors.  it is one of my favorite fish sculptures…but I am still trying to figure out exactly what it means.

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Behold!  Here is the Tiara of Saitaferne, a crown of gold acquired by the Louvre in 1896.  The crown is wrought from a gold sheet and features gorgeous Greek youths surrounded by vines and birds.  A Greek inscription on the headdress reads “The council and citizens of Olbia honour the great and invincible King Saitapharnes.” According to classical lore, Saitapharnes was a Scythian king who menaced the Greek colony of Olbia (on the northern tip of Sardinia).  The colonists had to bribe him to leave with precious tribute, including this crown.  The crown was a sensation in France (and greater Western Europe) when it was purchased for 200,000 gold francs and precipitated much admiration for the matchless craftsmanship of antiquity.

Except…the object is a complete forgery.  It was made in 1894 by Israel Rouchomovsky, a master goldsmith from Odessa, on commission from antiquities dealers Schapschelle & Leiba Hochmann.  They told Rouchomovsky that the object was for a friend who was a classical archaeologist and they provided Rouchomovsky with detailed instructions as to how to make the tiara.

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Israel Rouchomovsky

When Rouchomovsky learned about the deceptive sale to the Louvre, he was aghast and he traveled to France to explain what had happened.  Museum experts refused to believe that he had wrought the crown, until he incontrovertibly proved that he was the responsible goldsmith.  The revelation led to disgrace for the Louvre’s experts but it made Rouchomovsky a sensation and he became an esteemed art nouveau jeweler in Europe.

The crown itself is now held in the Louvre’s secret archives of shame and and disgrace, but it makes periodic reappearances at exhibitions of famous forgeries.  Like the Meidum Geese (which snookered Ferrebeekeeper), the Tiara of Saitaferne raises difficult questions about the meaning of artworks and how their value is contingent on when and by whom they are made.  Such questions are becoming more prominent in contemporary art (which has become deeply fixated on political questions of identity and diversity) but, as you can see, the underlying issues are ancient.

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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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