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Today we present one of the treasures of the Louvre—a duck shaped cosmetics kit from a tomb at Minet el-Beida—a Levantine city which stood beside the ancient harbor of Ugarit (which is in what is today (or was yesterday) Syria). One of the pegs is a pivot and the other is a clip. By pulling one out, the lid can be swung opened to access the powder or ointment within.
The duck was carved out of Hippopotamus ivory by a master craftsperson of long ago. It was made in Ugarit in 1300 or 1200 BC—roughly contemporary with Mycenaean civilization. There were civilizations ringing the Mediterranean in this era—Hittites, Amorites, Mycenaeans & Cretans, Ilrians, Trojans, Etruscans, and Cimmerians. They traded with distant cultures like the Harrapans and Iberians. To the south was the great kingdom of Egypt. Indeed, this duck is a creation made possible by the flourishing trade of this era. It is of African ivory, but was made in Ugarit.
Around 1200, mysterious barbarian hordes from the west swept away this entire world. These “sea people” swamped each kingdom in turn and swept it away—until the Egyptian army commanded by the god-king Ramses III (first pharaoh of the 20th dynasty) halted their advance around 1180. Alas, Ugarit was destroyed and burned to the ground by the uncouth barbarians who had no care for trade, however we still have this exquisite makeup duck to remember the city of traders and priests and farmers and charioteers. With its enigmatic expression and wide shocked eyes, there is something sad about the duck, but there is a comic playfulness too.
I wonder if 3300 years from now our cities and lives will be boiled down to a single tragicomic plastic makeup kit in an unvisited room in a museum in a yet unfounded city. It is a disturbing thought.
A popular luxury item of the ancient Mediterranean world was the unguentarium–a little glass container which contained perfume, salve, balm, or suchlike precious unguents (the purpose is right there in the name, people). Today we would probably keep such cosmetics or medicines in a hermetically sealed plastic containers vacuum sealed by machines with metal or foil tops, but the Romans did not have such materials or technology. In order to keep their basalms fresh, they used the glassblower’s art. The jalop was put in the container during manufacture and the glassmaker sealed it in.
In order to use such a material, the buyer would snap the glass and break the seal (and alas, the vessel). Dove-shaped unguentariums (or whatever the English plural of that word is) were particularly popular because the shape was beautiful and effective. A user could break the beak for getting small amounts or snap off the tail if she wanted to use all of her lotion at once. Additionally, doves were sacred to Venus–a particular favorite goddess of the Romans. I wonder what sort of lubricious lotions and potions were in these lovely glass doves. In some cases we could perhaps find out. Some of these were never broken by the people they were made for, now dead for more than a thousand years. We could break them and find out what the contents were with our machines…but after so long it seems like an unimaginable shame.
Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)
When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees. The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia. Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood. Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.
The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood. The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.
Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse. By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range. Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.
Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height). However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.
Ok, I apologize for this week. A friend of mine generously agreed to teach me 3D computer assisted design on Thursday, and I had a cold last night and just fell asleep after work–so there were only a measly 3 posts this week! To make up for it, I will put up this week’s sketches tomorrow in a special Sunday post—so tune in then (and bring all of your friends and loved ones too!) but first, here is a rare Saturday post–a weird jeremiad about guilds.
“Guilds” you are saying,” didn’t those die off in the middle ages? We live in a glistening modern world of opportunities now!” Actually, guilds didn’t die at all—they have morphed and proliferated in ways both beneficial and detrimental to society. We should think seriously about this and ask whether the ambiguous benefits of guild outweigh their unfair anti-competitive nature.
First let’s quickly go back to the Middle Ages when there were two competing ways of learning professional trades. You could go to a guild, where weird old men made you do sit on a bench and do menial tasks for twenty years while you competed in pointless status games with your cruel peers (and underwent fearsome hazing). Assuming you survived all of this, you became part of the guild, and participated in its quasi-monopoly on trading fish with the Baltic, making oakum ropes, scrivening, alchemy, accounting, or whatever. Savvy readers will see the roots of the AMA, the Bar Association, and even our great universities and trade schools (and maybe our secondary schools) in this model.
The other way was the master/apprentice system. This is now most familiar to us through wizards, kung fu warriors, artists, Jedi, and other fictional characters—which is to say it has not proliferated in the modern world. A wise master would take a favorite student under his/her wing and teach them the ropes. This system had the advantage of being better and faster than the guild system—it can truly foster rare genius– but it had all of the Jesus/Peter, Jedi/Sith, father/son problems familiar to us through fiction. Namely the master frequently held on too long, became evil, started giving sermons in the wilderness, or otherwise went bad: or the apprentice decided they did not want to wait but were ready to paint naked ladies instead of mixing paint…or to enchant brooms or to fight the howling serpent gang.
During the nineteenth century, law and medicine were learned like gunsmithing, coopering, and hat-making: through apprentices. It worked fine for law but not for medicine (although I am not sure 19th century medicine was worthwhile anyway). Today we have universities and professional schools controlling all the ways upward in society (provided you have adequate money and have passed through endless mandarin-style standardized tests). It is making society sclerotic. Anybody who has spent time in a contemporary office will instantly recognize the parochial narrow-minded professional mindset encountered at every turn. We have a society made up of narrowly educated reactionaries monopolizing each profession. Time to open things up a bit with a different model. The apprentice system worked well in the past. Let’s try it again (and get rid of these smug gate-keeping professional schools in the process).
Frankly I suspect that Doctors alone should have guilds. It is the only discipline important enough and complicated enough to warrant the stranglehold protectionism of a professional association. The great medical associations make use of master/apprentice-style relationships later on in a doctor’s training anyway, and they have proven themselves responsible guardians of their sacred trust in numerous other ways. Lawyers, florists, morticians, artists, clowns, accountants, underwater welders, actuaries and other dodgy modern professionals should compete through the open market. If you want to be a businessman find a businessman and train with him until you know enough to defeat him in open business combat. If you want to be a florist or a computer programmer, find a master florist or a master programmer. Disciplines like geology and engineering could keep pseudoscientists and frauds out of their ranks with continuing brutal tests.
Of course it is possible that this whole post is merely an angry reaction to troubles in my own extremely subjective profession, art. Contemporary art schools are thoroughly worthless in every way. Back during the 50s and 60s, a bunch of doofy political theorists took over and hijacked art (which has many unpleasant similarities to political theory…but which is not political theory). Art has been a meaningless game of celebrity and identity-politics ever since. It is sadly devoid of the master craftsman aspect which once made it great. I didn’t learn art at a famous art school. I learned from a great master painter…who went a bit bonkers and moved off to China to practice veganism and sit on a mountain. That is the way things should be! This business of going to Yale or RISDI needs to be thrown on history’s scrapheap.
Here is an amazing giant sea serpent sculpture by the Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The 130 meter long artwork is made of aluminum and is appropriately titled Serpent d’Océan (“Sea Serpent”). The sculptor completed the piece in 2012 for the Loire “Estuaire” festival. He erected the monumental work at the mouth of the Loire River where the great waterway empties into the Atlantic Ocean–just west of the port city of Nantes.
The head of Serpent d’Océan lies just above the high tide mark and its tail is just below the low tide boundary. Thus, every day the serpent goes from being mostly submerged to mostly on land. At low tide, art enthusiasts can walk around the piece and see it close up like a museum specimen. At high tide it takes on a mythical supernatural character as it appears to writhe through the waves.
The artist Huang Yong Ping designed the serpent to straddle all sorts of boundaries. It is neither at sea nor properly on land. Likewise it lies where river meets ocean and the ecosystem is neither fully marine nor riverine. The serpent is a metal sculpture designed to look like a living skeleton of a mythical creature. The sculptor himself self-identifies as neither entirely Chinese nor French: he used myths from both cultures to inform his sculpture. Indeed the serpent takes on even more facets when considered in the light of world trade (where monsters–real and imagined–abound). Additionally, as a youth, Huang studied with the French master of artistic ambiguity Marcel Duchamp. Most of Huang’s artworks blur the lines between art and non-art (though, like Duchamp, he tries to stick to the former category).
The artist has expressed his hope that, as the sculpture ages, various tidal plants and animals will begin to colonize it and live within—or atop–the metal creation. As seabirds build their nests there and living amphibious beasts hide and feed within the snake, it will stretch across even more boundaries.
Yesterday I cooked a savory chicken pie using an ancient recipe and it came out really well. Although it has carrots, cream, mushroom, potato, boiled chicken, caramelized onion, and peas, the dominant taste is a subtle flavor which is simultaneously sweet, medicinal, and delicately evocative of some eastern paradise. The secret ingredient is one of the strangest and most important commodities in human history—nutmeg, the ground nut from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans.
In the middle ages, nutmeg was a rare and precious ingredient. Only a small cadre of Muslim traders knew where the spice was actually from and, after laboriously carrying it across or around the Indian Ocean, they sold it to the Venetians for substantial sums (whereupon the Venetians sold it to everyone else for exorbitant sums). The European age of exploration was ostensibly launched in order to find the mysterious “Spice Islands” where nutmeg was from (a pursuit which had long ranging side effects, such as the European rediscovery of the Americas and the rush towards global colonial empires).
Even though the search for nutmeg kicked off an age of exploration, it was not until 1512 that the Spanish finally discovered where all the world’s nutmeg was coming from: the Banda Islands located East of Sulawesi in the middle of the Banda Sea. The Islands were thereafter contested by traders until the Dutch gained an upper hand in the 17th century. The Dutch used this monopoly to bolster their brief ascendancy to global superpower. During the height of Dutch power, nutmeg was taken to Holland and stored in a giant warehouse in order to keep the price artificially high.
As the English began to command mastery of the seas, they inevitably fought the Dutch for control of world trade. The Second Dutch-English war, a battle for global maritime supremacy, was fought in the Caribbean, the North Sea, at the mouth of the Thames (and, on all the oceans of the world, via privateering). The war was fought over the global trade in slaves, fur, tobacco, and, above all, spices. Although English privateers scored initial successes, the war became a disaster for the English when the Dutch raided their home port of Medway at the mouth of the Thames and burned their war fleet (an event which is still regarded as the worst disaster in the history of the English navy).
In the treaty of Breda, which ended the war, the English received the colony of New Amsterdam—thereafter named New York, whereas the Dutch claimed the greatest prize: exclusive control of the Banda Islands (and the sugar plantations of Suriname). Thereafter the Dutch crushed hints of sedition on the Banda Islands by means of brutal executions and they led war raids on nearby territories to extirpate any nutmeg trees which had been grown or transplanted elsewhere in Indonesia.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the English used their naval supremacy to take over the Banda Islands and break the Dutch monopoly. They exported trees to numerous tropical colonies (which is why Kerala and Granada are now famous for nutmeg production). Colonial America was hardly exempt from the nutmeg craze, but because of colonial antagonisms, nutmeg was not always available at affordable prices. The state of Connecticut became famous for unscrupulous tradesmen who would carve nutmeg seeds out of similarly colored wood and thereby earned its nickname “The Nutmeg State” (i.e. a haven for fraud) which seems appropriate given the number of wealthy financiers who live there.
So much for the history of nutmeg production and distribution—what about the demand? What was the reason for all of this desperate search and strife? Nutmeg was popular as a spice and tonic since ancient times when it was used by Greeks and Romans (if they could get it). During the era after the crusades it became de rigueur among aristocrats and its status only grew during the age of exploration. Wealthy gentlemen would carry nutmeg grinders on them, and hand grind nutmeg into alcoholic punches and hot drinks. Nutmeg was baked into the fanciest pastries, pies, and cakes. The red avril covering the nutmeg seed was ground into a separate spice named mace which is used in more delicate dishes. As well as being used in desserts and drinks, nutmeg was used in Indian curries, eastern medicine, and at the apothecary. The fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans held a druglike sway over the wealthy classes around the globe.
It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a powerful psychoactive substance which acts as a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). MAOIs prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, a mysterious class of neurotransmitters which play an unknown but critical role in emotion, arousal, and cognition (indeed pharmaceutical MAOIs are one of the more useful classes of antidepressants). In tiny doses myristicin is harmless or tonic to humans (although even in small doses it is deadly to many animals including some of our best beloved domestic friends) yet upping the dosage quickly causes nausea, seizures, splitting headaches and powerful weird hallucinations. Every generation, the press rediscovers nutmeg as a drug and creates a moral panic, although all but the most reckless drug users are put off by nutmeg’s bitter taste in large doses—or by the ghastly descriptions of nutmeg’s physical effects.
Indeed, the modern world has found more potent flavors (and better psychoactive powders). Nutmeg has been relegated to grandma’s spice rack and it really only comes out during the holidays as a critical flavor in eggnog, pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and gingerbread. This is a shame because, in small quantities nutmeg is delicious in savory dishes (like my pot pie and my favorite lasagna). The flavor has a strange power—an intoxicating deliciousness which invades the brain and gives nutmeg dishes an irresistible quality. Believe me, because as I finish writing this, I am also finishing off that addictive pot pie (and I believe I am also starting to feel more chipper)…
I’m sorry to post two duck posts in a row, but events in the art world (and beyond) necessitate such a step. On September 27th (2013), Pittsburgh , PA became the first U.S. city to host Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant floating rubber duck statue. Actually the rubber duck now in Pittsburgh is only one of several giant ducks designed by Hofman for his worldwide show “Spreading Joy Around the World,” which launched in his native Amsterdam. The largest of the ducks, which measured 26×20×32 metres (85×66×105 ft) and weighed over 600 kg (1,300 lb) was launched in Saint Nazaire in Western France.
Hofman’s statues are meant to be fun and playful. His website describes the purpose of the giant duck project simply, “The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.”
A list of his sculptural projects reveals that he has the generous and delighted soul of a toymaker. A few example are instructive: he erected a large plywood statue of a discarded plush rabbit named “Sunbathing Hare” in St. Petersburg, a concrete “party aardvark” in Arnhem (Holland), 2 immense slugs made of discarded shopping bags in France (they are crawling up a hill towards a towering gothic church and their inevitable death), and many other playful animal theme pieces.
Not only do Hofman’s works address fundamental Ferrebeekeeper themes like mollusks, art, mammals, and waterfowl, his work hints at the global nature of trade, and human cultural taste in our times. With his industrially crafted giant sculptures and his emphasis on ports around the world, Hofman’s huge toys speak directly to humankind’s delight with inexpensive mass-market products. The art also provokes a frisson of horror at the oppressive gigantism of even our most frivolous pursuits).
Today we return to China, the incandescent heart of global world trade. The Chinese economy has emerged from the mud, blood, & chaos of the 19th and 20th century to become a world-straddling giant. GDP has grown at rates of 5% to 10% (or more) per annum, year after year. Entire giant cities are springing up, seemingly overnight. Roads, airports, canals, and railroads are being rolled out like carpet. The Chinese are magnificent, invincible, beyond the ordinary constraints of destiny! Yet (as you might have noticed) outside of China, there is an international financial crisis going on. One wonders how the Chinese economy, which is still based around selling socks, buckets, and cheap plastic crap goods to everyone in Europe and the United States is coping with the huge declines in demand from those sectors.
But let’s put such a question aside for now. That was all back-up information to the real subject of today’s post: walnuts! Walnuts are edible seeds from trees of the genus Juglans (a word which means “acorn of Jove” to honor the virility and fecundity of the king of the Roman pantheon). Walnuts are interesting plants in all sorts of ways. Both the wood and nuts are commercially important. The trees conduct extensive chemical warfare against other plants. There are dark and captivating myths concerning walnuts in cultures from East Asia to the Mediterranean to North America. However, we will have to address the fascinating botanical aspects of walnut trees in a future post, because right now there are more immediate concerns: a speculative bubble for actual walnuts has formed in China and the nuts have become the focus of intense price inflation.
In China, walnuts have long been a popular plaything. Handling the seeds is thought to increase blood flow, and the wealthy have long regarded walnuts as a status symbol. An article from Reuters (which is apparently a real article rather than a satirical joke) underlines the Chinese affection for walnuts by interviewing an ardent collector and enthusiast:
The bigger, older and more symmetrical, the better, says collector Kou Baojun in Beijing, who owns over 30 pairs of walnuts, most of which are over a century old and have taken on a reddish shine from years of polishing in the palm. “Look how well these have aged. Playing with these kinds of walnuts isn’t for ordinary people,” Kou said.
Like tulips in 17th century Holland, Chinese walnuts (particularly ancient, symmetrical, or large specimens) are trapped in a speculative bubble. Chinese bankers, investors, and speculators have been pouring money into building up light industrial production capacity and driving exports to the rest of the world. As international trade withers, it is unclear how to reallocate all this money. Ordinary Chinese investors have been fleeing the Chinese stock market because of widespread economic uncertainty, flagging exports, and because all-too-familiar shenanigans have made it difficult to invest in equities without being fleeced. As this great river of capital backs up and flows elsewhere, strange markets are created, such as the thriving bubble market for dubious and or mercurial cultural objects like special gourds, esoteric teas, rare tropicl hardwoods, and, yes, walnuts. A pair of particularly fine antique walnuts was recently listed (on a walnut trading site) for a price equivalent to more than $30,000.00.
The Chinese central government is desperately trying to “cool” the economy, but, in the mean time, people see walnuts appreciating in value by 200% and they can not resist the lure of easy money (even if they are literally investing in common nuts which grow on trees). Cynical economists have speculated that the central government does not care about such frothy markets, since the craze for esoteric cultural items is at least not causing rampant inflation in food or energy prices, but those with a historical mindset have to wonder how this bubble is going to pop.
Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain. Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties. At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).
Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time. During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace. The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.
During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins). The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.
Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art. Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism. Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on. A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand. Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats). Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.
This blog has featured replicas of two ancient sailing ships–the Greek trireme Olympias and the Norwegian Viking ship Dragon King Harald—however the prettiest modern replica of an ancient ship is a reconstruction of a much older vessel. The ship Min of the Desert was hand built by 4 men and 2 teenage boys in the modern Hamdi Lahma & Brothers shipyard in Rashid, Egypt (which was called Rosetta in classical times). The builders used traditional tools and original techniques to craft the Min after a sea-going Egyptian trade ship from 3500 years ago.
Archaeologists know a great deal about the boats which sailed the Nile–since they have the actual ships (which were preserved in tombs in order that Pharaohs could sail in the next world). However sea-faring ships were not preserved in the same way and only trace evidence from underwater archaeological sights survives. To build the Min, the modern shipwrights looked to river ships from tombs for technique, but they looked at ancient Egyptian art for a design. A 3,500-year-old bas relief from the pharaoh Hatshepsut ‘s funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes, provided the basic design for the Min of the Desert.
The ships pictured on the bas relief were trade ships which participated in Hatshepsut ‘s trade expedition to Punt, which took place in the ninth year of her reign (Hatshepsut was a lady pharaoh who lived in the 15th century B.C. and reigned as the fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty). From the time of the old kingdom onward, Egyptians had launched expeditions to the land of Punt, a kingdom rich in gold, frankincense, myrrh, and exotic timber. Numerous ancient Egyptian sources mention Punt (which was a trade destination for the Egyptians for over a thousand years) but none actually mention where it is—apparently everyone back then just knew. The actual location has eluded Egyptologists for 150 years. To get to Punt, ships were carried in pieces across the desert to the Red Sea port of Saww. Then the vessels sailed on the Red Sea…to where? Modern day Somalia and Arabia are the best guesses, but the issue remains in doubt.
When completed Min of the Desert measured 20 meters (66 ft) long and nearly 5 meters (16 ft) wide with a cargo capacity of about 17 tons. Held together entirely by mortise-and-tenon joints, the ship proved to be surprisingly seaworthy and fast. Sailors rowed the Min in to position to raise the sail (a labor which required substantial physical strength) and then traveled along at speeds between 5 and 9 knots. The ship handled 25 knot winds and 3 meter swells with ease. The modern sailors were surprised by the excellence of the 3500 year old ship.