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Once again, the hours of the day have flown by me.  In order to illustrate this point I am going to feature some beautiful antique timepieces from the 16th century, the first century of watchmaking.  The first watches originated in 16th century Germany.  A hundred years earlier clockmakers had invented the mainspring movement, and by the 1500s, there were clocksmiths with sufficient skill to miniaturize this apparatus into miniaturized timepieces meant to be worn.  This first generation of “watches” were really more like pendant clocks meant to be worn (how much else does Flava Flav owe to reformation-era Germany?).  These pendant watches only had an hour hand (often behind a heavy lid of glass or crystal).  They needed to be wound twice a day and they were not very reliable (sometimes losing multiple hours in a single day), however they became popular with the aristocracy because of the eternal love of novel cutting-edge technology and because they were human-made portable accessories which moved on their own—a wonder in that age.

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The first generation of watches were heavy and ostentatious—more like mechanical jewelry than modern chronographs.  The disk shape familiar in personal timepieces for the last half millennium was not yet standard (or even achievable) and so all sorts of novelty shapes prevailed.  Thus the first generation of watches featured all sorts of gilded ticking eggs, books, astronomical bodies, animals, fruit, flowers, insects (look at that crowned queen bee watch!), body parts, and religious symbols. These are a bit strange to modern eyes but they are also refreshing in our age of ubiquitous sleek black tablets. I suppose these are really the great great great grandparents of all of the personal devices which define this era. Yet looking at the strange clunky shapes of these precious odd mechanical survivors is refreshing too.  Imagine if your mechanical death’s head was off by several hours and didn’t beep intrusive emails at you all day!

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Our week of dark art continues apace…hopefully you aren’t too overwhelmed by the vistas of beauty and horror…yet…MWAHAHA… Today we feature an image from a living artist, Santiago Caruso, an Argentine illustrator who is well-known for creating unique artworks for horror literature.  Gustave Doré and Alfred Kubin have passed on their great reward, but Santiago is very much in the world of the living, so I am just going to post the one sample image above and recommend that you look him up or, better yet, go to his web gallery (so he gets the traffic for himself).  The picture above shows the mind as a haunted cabinet of curiosities–a conceit which appeals to me greatly. Among the oddities on display are a cornucopia, a snake skeleton, and a twisted dark duck, but clearly there is more in the cabinet…and more which might be in the cabinet.  The Latin epigram is from the great dark masterpiece of silver-aged Roman literature The Golden Ass.  Roughly translated, it says “That which nobody knows about almost did not happen.”  It makes one wonder what skeletons are in this ghastly closet (as though that was not already the foremost thought in everyone’s head as our ghastly election enters the homestretch).  Go check out Santiago’s other work (although some of it is pretty NSFW) and think about the strange curiosities in your mental cabinet…if you dare…MWAHAHAHA.

Vanitas with Skull (Hendrick Andriessen, ca, 1600-1650, oil on panel)

Vanitas with Skull (Hendrick Andriessen, ca, 1600-1650, oil on panel)

Here is a simple but extremely lovely small still life painting by Hendrick Andriessen, a Flemish Baroque painter who specialized in “vanitas” paintings.  The entire composition is designed to remind the viewer how transient human life is.  The fragile pipe stems are easily broken (and tobacco’s pleasure is brief and tainted).  Each lovely cut flower withers away, The quivering flame is blown out…and nothing represents the dreadful onrushing nature of death like a human skull.  At the apex of the composition is a fragile bubble ready to burst.

As summer ends, this composition seems fitting in many ways (for example it was my birthday this past weekend).  Additionally, the bubble has symbolic significance in other realms than art.  We all knew the China bubble had to pop…..

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

Today we have an extremely special treat to counteract the treacle of yesterday’s fluffy movie review: it’s the skull of a Viking king complete with a period crown! Hooray! The skull is what remains of King Erik IX who ruled Sweden from 1156 until 1160 when a political misunderstanding resulted in his head violently flying off his body (admittedly with some help from a large man with an axe). Well, at least that is what we think happened…no historical records have survived from Erik’s reign so all we have are myths, legends, and archaeological evidence (like this bitchin’ skull and crown).

The skull and crown from a different angle

The skull and crown from a different angle

Like many Swedish royals, Erik IX seems to have hailed from Götaland (which is to say he was a Geat)! Erik claimed the throne in 1150 while Sverker the Elder was still king and the two men bitterly contested the throne. In 1156 some mysterious party ordered the murder of Sverker on Christmas day and thereafter Erik was the uncontested king until he himself was murdered while attending mass at Uppsala. Uppsala had long been the center of political and spiritual life in Sweden and it was once the site of a huge temple to the old gods (which stood surrounded by sacrificed human beings and the barrows of ancient kings), however in Erik’s era Christians were taking over and there was already a church at Uppsala in 1160.

The cathedral at Uppsala today

The cathedral at Uppsala today

A fair amount of whitewash seems to have been applied to Erik by Christians who were still in the process expunging the ancient pagan faith from Scandinavia. Additionally his son Knud was fighting for the throne with the Sverkers and shamelessly mixed together facts and legends about Erik to consolidate his position. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that Erik IX formalized Swedish law and led an invasion/crusade against the pagan Finns. Today Erik IX is known as Eric the Lawgiver, Erik the Saint, and Eric the Holy. His severed head is on the coat of arms of Stockholm.

 

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

Although Erik was never formally recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, his skull and crown have long been held in Uppsala cathedral. Historians and archaeologists opened the casket in April of 2014, and the contents will go on public display in June. The crown of Erik is made of gilded copper inset with semi-precious jewels.

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It is unclear whether the subject of today’s post actually exists.  That would not be such a shocking statement if this article concerned angels, true innocence, or honest politicians, but I am not writing about such abstract concepts–instead I am writing about a large ruminant animal from the bovine family!  The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is closely related to other bovines such as the aurochs, the wisent, the yak, and the zebu.  The creature was discovered by taxonomists only two decades ago, in 1992, in the remote Annamite mountains, a heavily forested range which runs along the sweeping curve where Vietnam meets Laos and Cambodia.  Unfortunately the biologists did not find any live specimens of the animal, but they discovered three saola skulls in the houses of local hunters.  An exhaustive three month hunt for the living creature turned up nothing.

A Man holds a Saola skull in Bolikhamxay Province (near the Laos/Vietnam border)

And yet saolas were subsequently spotted—and even hunted—by local mountain residents after that.  In 2010 a live male was captured by villagers, but the creature expired before scientists and veterinarians could reach him.  Scientists and rangers have occasionally captured pictures of saolas by means of remote hidden cameras, but the forest animals are so furtive and remote that we only know what they look like, not how they behave (although mountain people call them “the polite animal” because they are said to be so reserved and calm).

A male Saola photographed by hidden camera in 1999 (William Robichaud)

Saolas are dark brown with a fetching black strike running diagonally along their back and white slashes on their feet and faces.  Not nearly as large as wisents and zebus, adult saolas stand only about 85 cm (3 feet) tall at the shoulder they weigh approximately 90 kg (about 200 lbs). The most noticeable feature of the rare animals are their large antelope-like horns which curve slightly backward and grow to half a meter (1.5 feet) in length.  The saolas look like they descended from a common ancestor of antelopes, bisons, and cattle (although they are more closely related to the latter two creatures than to antelopes).  Based on their small teeth, saolas are browsers who nibble on tender shoots and berries (as opposed to grazers like cows).

A female Saola captured in 1996. She was apparently very gentle and trusting but she only survived a fortnight in captivity.

The first paragraph of this post was mercifully disingenuous:  the saola almost certainly walks the green earth even as you read these lines.  However the saola population is ridiculously tiny: the world population is estimated to be between a dozen and 250 individuals.  The government of Vietnam has mounted a spirited defense for the phantasmagoric ruminant by creating wildlife refuges and trying to educate native people not to hunt the last specimens, but deforestation and accidental trapping keep taking a toll (most saolas are captured in traps meant for other creatures).  It is possible that, like the wisent, the saolas will again flourish, but more likely we discovered them only to lose them again forever.

Andrewsarchus Skull at the American Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 1923, Kan Chuen Pao unearthed an enormous skull from the baking Gobi desert of Mongolia.  Pao was a member of a paleontology expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, a world famous explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who, during the course of his career, rose from being a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History to being its director.  The skull they found was an enigma—the creature was a mammal with immensely powerful jaws but blunt peg-like teeth. No substantial bones were found other than the skull sans jaw (nor have any further specimens ever been discovered). The skull was discovered in sediments deposited during the late Eocene, the sweltering summer epoch when most extant mammalian orders evolved, so it is probably 36 to 40 odd million years old.  Andrews was immediately of the opinion that it was a huge carnivore, but what sort of creature was it really?

A toothy hairy model of Andrewsarchus

The creature was named Andrewsarchus mongoliensis in honor of Adrews and his expedition.  Andrewsarchus may have been the largest mammalian carnivore ever (although short faced bears might have been larger).  The one skull, currently in New York, measures 83 cm (33 inches) long and 56 cm (22 inches)wide–which suggests the animal may have been 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall at the shoulders.  Such a creature could weigh more than 1000 kg (2200 lb).

A drawing of Andrewsarchus with a large ninja to explain scale (Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur)

But Adrewsarchus may not have been a carnivore:  ever since the beginning of the jazz age, Paleontologists have argued about the monster’s diet.  Andrewsarchus lived along the coast of the eastern Tethys Ocean, a sea which was dried out and destroyed when the Indian subcontinent barreled into Asia during the late Eocene/Early Oligocene.

A Delightful Andrewsarchus model/toy produced by Bullyland

Some scientists believe the creature was a hunter which captured the giant land animals of the time. Other scientists believe the animal was a scavenger which lived on the rotting carcasses of primitive whales and beached sea turtles.  Another group feels that the creature fed on huge beds of shellfish, and a final school holds that the animal was even larger than believed and was at least part-herbivore!

An unpainted model of an athletic hunting Andrewsarchus (as envisioned by Paleocraft)

The taxonomy of Andrewsarchus is equally confusing.  The great skull was initially classified as a giant creodont (an extinct order of alpha-predators which share an ancestor with today’s carnivore).  The first scientific paper about the creature by great paleontologist and…um, eugenicist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, states, “An outline sketch of the skull was sent in a letter to the Museum, from which Dr. W. D. Matthew immediately observed its real affinity to the primitive Creodonta of the family Mesonychidae.”

Later scientists have been less certain about lots of things than Osborn was and Andrewsarchus’ place in the mammalian family is now unclear.  A consensus is emerging that the great creature shared common ancestors with the artiodactyls (like hippos, deer, and pigs).  Perhaps its heritage provides insights into the link between the artiodactyls and their close (yet oh so distant) cousins the whales.

A digital Andrewsarchus pensively gnawing a bone beside the Eastern Tethys (from BBC’s “Walking with Beasts”)

Whatever the case is, these giant hoofed creatures with their immense powerful maws must have been amazing and terrifying to behold.  Their fate seems to have been sealed as the Tethys closed and the Gobi basin dried out, but, whenever I think of the harrowing deserts of Mongolia and China, I imagine their fearsome toothy spirits towering over the other strange ghosts of that haunted place.

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