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carthage

From 600 BC until 146 BC Carthaginian civilization vied with Greco-Roman civilization to control the Mediterranean in a series of increasingly bitter wars.  Ultimately Rome was completely victorious in the great contest: the Carthaginian territories in North Africa and Iberia became Roman territories and the city of Carthage was destroyed and the ground sowed with salt.  Rome sat about effacing Carthaginian language, culture, and art from the world.  To this day nobody can figure out what was actually normal in Carthaginian civilization and what was a crazy bitter smear campaign by the Romans.

Bust of the goddess Tanit found in the necropolis of Puig des Molins. 4th century B.C. Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza (Spain

Bust of the goddess Tanit found in the necropolis of Puig des Molins. 4th century B.C. Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza (Spain

But no matter how greatly the Romans tried, they could hardly destroy everything left over from a vast ancient civilization, and so we have actual Carthaginian artifacts and artworks today.  In fact there are many of them, and they tend to be very bizarre and beautiful–but it is difficult to find consensus on what they represent and how they were used.

Bust of the goddess Tanit found in the necropolis of Puig des Molins. 4th century B.C. Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza (Spain

Bust of the goddess Tanit found in the necropolis of Puig des Molins. 4th century B.C. Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza (Spain

That is the loose background for these terracotta statues from the Iberian Peninsula from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC.  Back then, Spain was not just Carthaginian territory–in fact it was the top secret source of most of Carthage’s vast wealth–which came from tin mines (tin was a raw material for the bronze which held classical antiquity together).

"Dama de Ibiza" widely considered to be Tanit (ca. 3rd century BC from Ibiza)

“Dama de Ibiza” widely considered to be Tanit (ca. 3rd century BC from Ibiza)

These statues seem to be the great goddess Tanit, the dark queen of the heavens. Tanit and her ram-god consort, Ba’al-Hamon, were the principal divinities of Carthaginian civilization.   Tanit seems to have evolved from fierce warrior sky goddesses like Astarte (who once was Ishtar at the dawn of civilization) and especially the Ugaritic goddess Anat. Anat was a bloodthirsty and horrifying goddess—myths about her involve all sorts of impaled entities, seven-headed serpents, oceans of blood, fire, grinding up of bodies and such like dark elements (Ugarit was an ancient port in Syria).

pmolins

Tanit seems to have been a dark goddess as well and she was probably the focus of Carthaginian child sacrifice, assuming such a thing existed and was not a Roman propaganda invention (scholars are fiercely divided about child sacrifice in Carthaginian culture, although I am inclined to side with the archaeologists who believe that it happened).  You are beginning to see some of the historiographic problems that Carthaginian scholars and art historians face!

puigmolins

Whatever the case, the sculptures are magnificent and they certainly suit a dark enigmatic sky goddess who thirsts for blood.  Look at Tanit’s crown of celestial vegetation and her almond Babylonian eyes! Sometimes when I fall into a strange humor I look at Carthaginian art online and try to grasp what it meant as I enjoy its sinuous lines, mocking smiles, and leonine power, but it always eludes me and ends up filed in my head as a near-eastern cypher.  I’ll try to feature some more of it—you’ll quickly see what I mean. In the mean time enjoy (?) Tanit, bloodthirsty sky goddess.

One of the Terracotta Soldiers from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (ca. 200 BC)

In the spring of 1974 a group of farmers digging a well in Shaanxi China about one and a half kilometers (1 mile) north of Mount Li stumbled into an amazing find. A life-sized army of terracotta soldiers numbering over 8000 was entombed in the immense necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who lived from 259 BC – 210 BC.  However the story of the despotic Qin Shi Huang (one of history’s most remarkable figures) and his extravagant mausoleum will have to wait.  This post is not about the cruel emperor or his terracotta army, but is rather about the colors found on the terracotta figures, which were originally lacquered with a rainbow of bright colors– pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white, and lilac.  One of the pigments discovered by archaeologists was Han purple, a manufactured pigment which was in use in China from about 1200 BC to 220 AD.  The secret to making Han purple was lost in antiquity and could not be rediscovered until modern spectroscopy helped chemists rediscover the materials used.

A Modern Reproduction of how the figures originally looked--although no two were painted the same (Credit: British Museum/C Roth)

Many scholars believe that Han purple was accidentally discovered by Taoist alchemists seeking to create synthetic jade.  The compound was a barium copper silicate which was fired for long periods of time at temperatures around 900-1000 °C.  The compound was probably produced in kilns north of the city of Xian (which was once known as Chang’an and was the capital city of China during the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties).

Modern Han Purple Pigment

Han Blue was a dark bluish purple/indigo.  It became more purplish over time as the barium copper silicate deteriorated and red copper oxides were formed.  The pigment was used for beads, ceramic vessels, paintings, and for octagonal pigment sticks (which may have had a ceremonial value in their own right).

Han purple had a very similar companion compound–Han blue—which was also a barium copper silicate.  Because of certain quirks of chemistry, Han blue was more lightfast than than Han purple and had fungicidal properties to boot.  This allowed Han blue to last for the long centuries, whereas Han purple is now known mostly from faded traces. Han purple was not fungicidal and compounds (namely oxalates) produced by certain long-lived lichen caused the pigment to turn into light blue powder.

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