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There are 19 ancient burial mounds in the Russian village of Devitsa.  Archaeologists opened up one of these 2500 year old tombs and you will never believe what they found inside!

Or, well, uh, actually you will believe the contents if you read the news headlines…or are a fan of ancient Greek history…or just follow Pontic steppe archaeology in general (or even read the title of this article), but that doesn’t make the discovery any less extraordinary.  Devitsa lies north of the Black Sea (beyond the borders of present day Ukraine) on the great rolling temperate grassland of Eurasian steppe.  Many cultures have passed through the region over the millennia, but the graves date back to the time of the Scythians–nomadic horse-mounted warriors whose fierce culture flourished between the 8th century and the 3rd century BC.  The Scythians were not exactly an empire–more a lose confederation of wandering tribes (probably of Iranian heritage), but they controlled a hefty swath of Central Asia from the borders of ancient China all the way to the shores of the Black Sea, where they abutted Greek colonies.

The regimented and hierarchical (and patriarchal!) Greeks were scandalized and fascinated by the savage freedoms of the Scythian way of life.  The Greeks looked down on the “barbaric” mounted warriors, yet they also looked up to them.  Greek writing exoticized and romanticized the free-riding Scythian lifestyle and Greek thinkers, writers, and artists incorporated elements of Scythian culture into Greek mythology (and into the Greek weltanschauung).  One of most widely known of these Greek fixations was with “the Amazons” the women warriors of classical mythology.  Amazons were so prevalent in Greek writing and art that the world’s biggest river–in South America!–was later named after the warrior women (and it is rumored other huge modern entities also bear the name).  Historians and scholars have long argued about the extent to which these myths were based on real world exemplars–which brings us back to the tomb excavations at Devitsa.  The most recently opened tomb contained the mortal remains of four Scythian warrior women of different ages.  The graves of a young women (aged 20-25) and of a teenage girl (aged 12 or 13) had been despoiled by robbers, but the graves of two older high-status women (one woman in her early thirties and a woman who died between 40 and 50) were undisturbed.

These latter graves yielded not just iron hooks and weapons but also glass jewelry, a bronze mirror, and a finely wrought gold headdress of gold and iron alloy (pictured above).  The Greeks may have made up a lot of things–like the tale of how Scythians descended from the union of the greatest Greek hero and Echidna, an infamous lady monster–but it seems like fierce and headstrong warrior women were a real phenomena which the Greek colonies of Asia Minor dealt with on a regular basis.  The coast of the Black Sea is the first known location of viniculture and goldsmithing.  The Scyths also seem to have brought cannabis to the classical world via Thrace.  Ancient Greece and the Scythians were at least as closely entwined as Herodotus made them out to be.  It makes one wonder what innovations really came from whom!

 

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The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt was the first great flowering of Egyptian civilization when the architectural and cultural trends which we regard as characteristic of Ancient Egypt became all pervasive.  It was also a glorious golden era of ancient human culture and the accomplishments (and some of the individual figures) of the era are still well known.   Although the Fourth Dynasty  (2613 to 2494 BC) is perhaps the most famous period of the Old Kingdom thanks to the enormous pyramid shaped tombs which were built then, the subsequent Fifth Dynasty (2494 BC–ca. 2345 BC) was also an era of enormous wealth and success which witnessed a great expansion of trade and cultural connections (thanks to the development of large ocean-going boats).

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A painting in Khuwy’s tomb displaying the graceful boats and gifted sailors of the 5th Dynasty (Ministry of Culture of Egypt)

All of this is back story to this amazing archaeological discovery which opened to the public earlier this year.  This is the tomb of Khuwy, a Fifth Dynasty nobleman who seemingly had some sort of close connection to Djedkare Isesi, the penultimate pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty.  The tomb was discovered near Saqqara, a vast necropolis just south of Cairo in early spring of this year (2019 AD).  Since the tomb was undisturbed for all of those centuries, the colors of the paint upon the wall are particularly fresh and vibrant (especially the reds greens and yellows).

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Seated Khuwy accepting offerings

The L shaped tomb consists of a passageway to an antechamber. Beyond the antechamber lies the main chamber which features a painting of the seated Khuwy accepting offerings (above) such as the tasty cuts of beef which cattle farmers are cutting off of a slaughtered spotted cow in this vivid painting from 4300 years ago (below).  The mummified Khuwy was present as well, along with canopic jars containing several of his favorite internal organs, however the jars and the mummy were broken.

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So who exactly was Khuwy and how was he related to Pharaoh? Why are the paintings in this tomb executed in a fashion (and with fancy pigments) usually reserved for royalty?  What happened to Khuwy’s mummy and why isn’t there a picture of that wrapped-up spooky fellow in this October blog post?  The answers are not known yet but archaeologists (and others) are working on solving these ancient mysteries and Ferrebeekeeper will be sure to report if and when the secrets are revealed.

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Shaanxi is one of the ancient cradles of Chinese civilization: indeed at various points of  Chinese history it has been the center of China.  The former Chinese capitals Fenghao and Chang’an were both in Shaanxi.  Can you imagine how exciting it would be to be an archaeologist in a place with such a long rich cultural heritage? Well, in our era of instant news, you don’t have to imagine!  Archaeologists of the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology just finished excavating a cluster of 12 ancient tombs discovered beneath a village in the province.  The tombs date back to the Sixteen Kingdoms period of Chinese history (304-439 AD), a chaotic time of collapse when small kingdoms fought each other in endless internecine wars.  Some of these kingdom were led by (gasp!) non-Han peoples of proto-Mongolian and Turkic ethnicity and cultural artifacts from the era often betray a curious mix of Chinese and steppe characteristics.

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To quote archaeologynewsnetwork, “The tombs are laid out in two rows, and each tomb consists of a tomb passage, a door and a path leading to the coffin chamber, according to Liu Daiyun, a researcher with the academy.”  The whole complex is thought to belong to a single family, but the exact relationships between the ancient bodies therein interred will not be known until DNA analysis is complete.

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The photos in this blog show earthenware pieces which were found within the tombs.  The little sculptures bring to life a world of farm and family from 1500 years ago (such sculptures were meant to bring the most important aspects of life to eternity with the departed…and in a way they have worked.  Keep that little earthenware pig in your mind! He will be important  the very near future.

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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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It is hard to imagine a color most beautiful than the color green. It is the color of fertility, of mystery, of life itself (which, unless you are an undersea tubeworm, depends on photosynthesis). Green is also the color of Islam. Today is June 8th and I have a short post about a long and complicated subject. June 8th of the year 632 (common era) was the day that the Prophet Muhammad died in Medina in his wife Aisha’s house. Other principle figures of major world religion died in the distant past, or ascended bodily into heaven, or underwent other mysterious supernatural transformations. Muhammad’s end was not like that. He died at a real date and in a real place and he was buried where he expired—in Aisha’s house next to a mosque. Islam subsequently became a mighty force in the world, and the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina grew into an enormous edifice swallowing up the original house and grave. Muhammad’s final resting place, however is only marked by a somewhat austere green dome (which was built by the Ottoman Turks, many centuries after the time of the Prophet).
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Somewhat shamefully, my feelings about Islam fluctuate greatly based on extraneous circumstances, however I have always liked the green dome enormously on aesthetic grounds (indeed it has become a symbol of Medina and of Islam itself). It is a lovely shape and captivating color. The dome’s touching mixture of subdued grandeur and human scale has protected it from those who have wished to replace it with a grander edifice, and from those who wish to replace it with austere nothingness. The Wahhabi version of Islam, which is ascendant in Saudi Arabia right now, inclines towards the latter view, and some Wahhabi religious scholars have called for the razing of the green dome (an act which would infuriate other Islamic sects). The kings of Saudi Arabia love gaudy finery but they detest antiquities (which speak of a more cosmopolitan and permissive Arabia which existed before their absolutism and their oil-soaked personal opulence). Throughout Saudi Arabia, elegant old buildings have vanished to be replaced with monstrous modern travesties. I wonder if the double-edged sword of Wahhabi asceticism/Saudi decadence will claim the green mosque in the same way it has hollowed out the revelations of Muhammad.
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Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists).  Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history.  One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty.  The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red).  These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago:  laying out fine clothes and setting the table.  One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch.  The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.

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The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries.  Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”).  Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires.  The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea.  To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument.  But look at these amazing paintings!  Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.

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The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right.  The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life.  Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines.  If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.

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These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.

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Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

I was a bit hard on China in yesterday’s post about toxic sludge left over from refining rare earth elements (I was actually angry at myself for not being a natural businessman, not at the Chinese for ruining the Earth with industrial poisons). Today, therefore, let’s cleanse our palettes by looking at some exquisite treasures which were found in a medieval Chinese tomb! The grave was discovered by construction workers in Nanjing in 2008, but is just now being showcased to the world. It belonged to “Lady Mei” a noblewoman who died in 1474—just 18 years before Columbus discovered the new world. Lady Mei was 45 when she died. Her epitaph reveals that she was a concubine who was married off to the Duke of Yunnan when she was an “unwashed and unkempt” maiden of 15. Lady Mei outshone the Duke’s two senior wives by bearing a son, but her biography also indicates she had a lively mind and no small share of strategic and political genius. Reading between the lines, it seems like she ran the Duke’s vast household (and possibly Yunnan) for twenty years (during the strife and court turmoil of the feuding Zhengtong and Jingtai Emperors and the mad incompetence of the Chenghua Emperor no less).

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

You can read what is known about Lady Mei’s fascinating life here, but for today’s purposes let’s look at some of the otherworldly jewelry found in the tomb.

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Ming dynasty art is my favorite Chinese art! The artists of the Song dynasty were more inventive (and perhaps had greater raw talent). The artists of the Ching dynasty had a more eye-popping palette and crafted designs with more ornate flourishes. The artists of the Tang dynasty were more cosmopolitan and outward looking. The artists of today certainly know how to make ugly wretched junk which celebrates the dark magic of marketing. But the artists and artisans of the Ming era were unsurpassed at finding perfect proportions and color combinations. They blended the diverse regional and international elements from around all of China into a perfect lavish synthesis of styles which is instantly and indelibly Chinese.

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (“lotus petal” decorations and Sanskrit in gold with sapphires, rubies, and one turquoise. (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Look at how Central Asian decorative motifs mix with Southern Asian religious designs all within a rubric of ancient patterns from the Yangzi heartland! The bold yellow of the jewels is perfectly matched by the equally rich colors of carved rubies, sapphires, cats’ eyes, and turquoises.

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei's Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei’s Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Each of the pieces of jewelry looks like something the queen of heaven could be wearing in a Chinese myth. These pieces are hairpins, bracelets, and a perfume box, but they have the splendor and unrivaled workmanship of crowns. Indeed, Lady Mei might as well have been a sovereign. Contemporary Yunnan has approximately the same population as contemporary Spain. The Yunnan of Lady Mei’s day was likewise probably about the same size as Spain just before it unified and took over the Americas.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

It is astonishing that these treasures have been lying in the earth, waiting for some developer to build a supermarket or condominium. Lady Wei’s opulent grave goods are exquisite—the undying glory of Ming craftsmanship still dazzles like nothing else.

Tomb of the Leopards (ca. 450 BC)

Tomb of the Leopards (ca. 450 BC)

The Etruscans might be my favorite painters of the ancient Mediterranean world: their frescoes are filled with animals, feasting, music, fruit tress, dancing, and magic. Every gesture and brushstroke of their ancient paintings still conveys unique vivacity and joie de vivre. Even the scenes of death and violence have a sensuous and winsome beauty. When one looks at their tomb paintings from more than two millennia ago, the air seems to fill with the strange music of shepherd’s pipes and long-gone lyres. Perfumes fill the tombs and the classic world comes to life. In the days before Rome rose to power, the unknown artists of Etruria laid out an epic banquet and anyone who loves splendor, pleasure, and loveliness may still sit down at their feast.

Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, (ca. 480-470 BCE)

Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, (ca. 480-470 BCE)

The dancing musicians at the top of the post and the mixed company of men reclining at a great funeral banquet are from the tomb of the leopards in Tarquinia (which is found in the great Necropolis of Monterozzi). The guests dine al fresco among flowering vines and fruiting trees. They wear wreaths and drink deep in memory of their friend. At the right corner, one of the diners holds up an egg—the timeless symbol of resurrection and regeneration.

Three headed serpent from "the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot" (Necropolis of Pianacce)

Three headed serpent from “the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot” (Necropolis of Pianacce)

Here is a chthonic serpent monster from the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot. Look at how much personality the stylized snake heads have as they contemplate the dark god driving a chariot through the underworld (which is on the opposite wall). The purple color, red crests, and un-snakelike beards are all inventions of the artist.  For all of its and technical beauty, Greek art—even during the Hellenistic period has a kind of stiff formalism. Art historians are fond of attributing western art to the Greeks, yet I think that Giotto, Titian, and the masters of the Italian Renaissance may owe a greater debt to the Romans, who in turn took their painting and their concept of beauty and pleasure from the Etruscans. We are still sitting at their feast.

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

It is thirsty work being a deity of the underworld (what with all of the legions of the dead, the dark serpent gods, and whatnot)!  That is why today we are celebrating the Ancient Egyptian brewer for the gods of the afterworld.  The eminently respectable Mr. Khonso Im-Heb who lived (and died) during the Ramesside period of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1,292–1,069 BC) was the head of granaries and chief of brewing for the vulture goddess Mut.   We know all of this because a team of Japanese archaeologists working in the Thebes necropolis (in the Egyptian city of Luxor) just discovered the beautifully preserved tomb of Khonso Im-Heb as they were working on the tomb of an 18th-dynasty royal official.

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offeings from their son

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offerings from their son

An article on CNN described the excitement the tomb’s discovery has engendered among archaeologists and officials:

Egypt’s antiquities minister Mohamed Ibrahim described Khonso Em Heb as the chief “maker of beer for gods of the dead” adding that the tomb’s chambers contain “fabulous designs and colors, reflecting details of daily life… along with their religious rituals.”

The antiquities ministry has put tight security on the tomb (political tumult in Egypt has proven dangerous for the country’s cultural heritage) so archaeologists are looking forward to carefully and methodically studying the beautifully preserved site and discovering more about the life and times of Khonso Im-Heb.  So far, only photographs of the tomb’s painted walls have been released to the public, but the vibrant paintings of daily life are astonishing.

The Goddess Mut

The Goddess Mut

It should be mentioned that in Ancient Egypt, beer was immensely popular with all classes of people, but it was not exactly the crisp tasty concoction of today.  Ancient Egyptian beer was a crude barley or millet-based fermented beverage which was drunk with a long straw (in order to bypass the dense scum which floated to the top of the beverage).  Presumably the vulture goddess liked it that way!  It seems like Khonso Em Heb died as a very successful man.

 

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)
Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Today we have a special treat: a painting of six geese from the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat at Meidum.  Nefermaat was the eldest son of the first wife of the pharaoh Sneferu (who founded the fourth dynasty– the greatest dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom).  As the pharaoh’s oldest son, Nefermaat acted as vizier of Egypt, the prophet of the goddess Bastet, and the bearer of the royal seal.  Nefermaat’s own son Hemiunu was the architect of the great pyramids of Egypt!

Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

canvasThis extremely beautiful painting was crafted somewhere between 2600 and 2550 BC by an unknown artist or team of artists who carved out the shapes of the geese in a wall and then filled in the hollow outlines with colored paste.  For four and a half thousand years, the group of geese has kept its lifelike vibrancy. Discovered by the great French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette in 1871, the masterpiece is now in the Cairo museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a reproduction of the painting and their website explains the original context of the piece:

The geese were depicted below a scene showing men trapping birds in a clap net and offering them to the tomb’s owner. While it is not uncommon to find scenes of fowling in the marshes in Old Kingdom tombs, this example is one of the earliest and is notable for the extraordinary quality of the painting. The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.

The geese in the painting are commonly known as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) which are members of the Tadorninae–the shelduck-sheldgoose subfamily (which means they are not exactly geese, taxonomically speaking).  Egyptian Geese are 63–73 cm long (25-29 inches) and they range through most of sub-Saharan Africa and up the Nile valley.  Domesticated by the ancient Egyptians in the depths of antiquity, the birds were also kept by the Greeks and Romans.  There are feral populations in England and the United States (where Egyptophiles keep the fowl as ornamental birds!).

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

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