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Here at Ferrebeekeeper, we have featured some very ancient crowns (like this ancient Greek funerary crown, the legendary grass crown, the polos, or the pharaoh’s crowns from Ancient Egypt).  All of these rich and venerable royal headdresses beg the question: what is the oldest crown we know about? As with most questions, the correct answer depends on how you define the terms of the question.  Is a crown a chieftain’s hat or an ornamental star-shaped thing made of precious materials or a very specific royal object made a very specific way?  We fed these queries into the Ferrebeekeeper crown algorithm, and it spat out this strong contender for the oldest crown: a copper-age headpiece from the Judaean Desert (by the Dead Sea in what is now modern Israel) which was discovered in 1961 as part of the mysterious “Nahal Mishar” Hoard.

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Dating to circa 4000 – 3500 BC, the crown is wrought of copper and features two vultures next to two strange  shamanistic portals (or that is how the shapes are generally construed, at any rate…maybe they are elderly flamingos next to peg boards.  Maybe this isn’t a crown at all! Perhaps it is a trivet or a potholder or something. The piece did not come with an explanation).   Based on the other objects in the hoard (pottery vessels, ossuaries, religious statues, and wands/scepters) it is believed that this crown was utilized in the funerary ceremonies for high status individuals.  However the Nahal Mishar hoard is still perplexing to archaeologists.  Their best guess is that is that the objects are the sacred regalia of a shrine at Ein Gedi, (a habitation site twelve kilometers away), but nobody really knows what most of the objects are or why they were hidden in a cave.  Just to add to the ambiguities of today’s post, here are some of the other objects (sans explanation, of course).

 

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Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring).  When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”).  The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be.  His armies smote the enemies of China.  He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City.  He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service.  Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter).  The peasantry was happy and successful.  Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished.  It was a glorious golden age for China.

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The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting

The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu.  During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…

Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter.  Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture).  The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”).  In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew.  In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter.  In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son.  In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).

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Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword

So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation.  Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk.  Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.

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This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere.  To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world.  The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide).  They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He).  The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols.  China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.

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Corona votiva de Recesvinto. Parte del Tesoro de Guarrazar. Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid.

Behold! This is the votive crown of the Visigoth King Reccesuinth. It is the finest piece from the fabled “Treasure of Guarrazar” a collection of 27 votive crowns, numerous hanging crosses, and various gold buckles and brooches which was discovered in a Spanish orchard in the 1850s. The treasure was manufactured by master jewelers and goldsmiths of the Visigoths during the 7th century AD. The pieces display a breathtaking combination of Byzantine and Germanic style. Nobody knows how they ended up in the orchard (which may have once been a graveyard or a fallen Roman ruin), although some people have speculated they were hidden there from the Moors. Although much of the treasure has vanished over the years (including an almost equally fine votive crown of King Suinthila) what remains is extraordinary—even after many of the pieces have vanished, the Treasure of Guarrazar is still the finest collection of early medieval votive crowns.

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Speaking of which, a votive crown is not meant to be worn. It is a treasure in the shape of a crown given to the church by a sovereign (or some other entity rich enough to be handing out jeweled crowns). These were hung above the altar of a church. In a way I is a sort of hanging sculpture–as is further illustrated by the “pendilla” the dangling ornaments hanging beneath the crown (a style which was also used in the medieval Crown of Saint Stephen). The letters among the pendilla spell out “RECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET“ (King Reccesuinth gave this). The dark blue stones are sapphires from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which illustrates that, even in the 7th century, trade was a global affair.

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.

Sarmatians_Map

The Sarmatians were a confederation of warlike steppe nomads who flourished on the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the 5th century BC and the 4th century AD (the Pontic-Caspian steppe stretches from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea). Archaeologists believe the Sarmatians were an Iranian people who worshipped gods of fire–a cosmology somewhat akin to that of the ancient Persian Zoroastrians.

An artist's reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

An artist’s reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

Perhaps you will notice that I have given Sarmatian culture a somewhat loose date range of about a thousand years, and placed them in a vague—but vast–geographic region approximately the size of North America’s Great Plains. This is because the Sarmatians are indeed mysterious. What is known about them comes from unreliable historical accounts from classical antiquity or from excavations of their kurgans (burial chambers covered with earthen mounds).

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Though built around an ancient Persian kernel, Sarmatian culture seems to have picked up elements from the diverse societies around the Pontic Caspian steppe. Sarmatian artifacts recovered from excavations betray influences from Scythian, Hellenistic, Roman, Siberian, and even Chinese sources. It is quite possible that the Sarmatians did not just pick up ideas from these cultures but assimilated people from them as well. Historians and archaeologists have been arguing about whether the Sarmatians were even a distinct culture at all, or whether it was many different peoples with different histories (hence the use of the word “confederation” in the original description up there at the top). What seems certain is that they were fierce horse-warriors. Some of them raided and traded whereas others settled down and picked up agriculture. Their ways of life endured—as did their political hegemony—until the great upheavals and migrations of the 4th century when they were wiped out/dispersed/intermingled by Ostragoth and Hun hordes.

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

I am going to leave the ins-and-outs of defining culture to anthropologists and instead show you a magnificent Sarmatian artifact which directly illustrates the remarkable syncretism of their world. Here is a Sarmatian diadem which was discovered at the Khokhlach kurgan (which was excavated near the modern town of Novocherkassk). The crown is a principle treasure of the Hermitage Museum–which does not lack for great treasures–but some of the details of its modern provenance have seemingly been muddled by the upheavals of modern Russian history (which seems appropriate).

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The golden headdress presents magnificent deer and ibex gathering around a central tree of life. A Hellenic-looking head carved of semi-precious stone has been incorporated as a centerpiece. The piece is studded with pearls and cabochons of amber and garnet. Ornate golden leaves hang down from it as pendants.

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The diadem is exquisite, but at first glimpse it seems to exist outside of human culture—like it came from some strange fantasy realm. Only by carefully studying its individual components does it suddenly take on a coherent historical identity of its own. I wish we knew more about the Sarmatians from written sources, but I feel we know a great deal about them, just by looking at this beautiful blended crown.

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Since serpents regularly shed their skins and emerge shining and fresh as though made anew, they seemed to Aztec mystics to transcend the dull cycle of aging. Likewise snakes’ ability to hide in the earth, swim in water, and climb high into the rainforest canopy made them a symbol of transcending physical boundaries: snakes were seen as liaisons of the gods capable of traveling through heaven, earth, and the underworld.  In fact many of the most important Aztec gods were snakes like Xiuhcoatl (the fire serpent), Mixcoatl (the cloud serpent), and Quetzalcoatl himself (the feathered serpent who acts as chief of the gods).

Here then, as a final post of 2013 and a first post of 2014, is an exquisite Aztec artifact:  a double-headed wooden serpent inset with a mosaic of turquoise, spondylus (thorny oyster), and conch shell.  Once upon a time the ornament had eyes (possibly of gold or pyrite which were affixed to the wooden serpent with gluey beeswax) but they disappeared at some point in the five hundred years since the object was made—and their absence might make for a stronger piece. The serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (the opposite side is unadorned and hollow).  It is made from wood from the Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) a tree with natural termite resistance long-used to make boxes, musical instruments, furniture, and fine carvings (obviously).

(Detail)

(Detail)

Really look at the carving for a moment, it was a sacred treasure of a mighty vanished civilization. It represents the nature of time: mighty and ferocious with unknowable divine attributes, but also regular and cyclical (and beautiful).  The double-headed serpent has no beginning or end. Like an ouroboros, or a figure-eight, it is a symbol of infinity—of time closing in on itself in an unending circle.

The Aztecs of course ended: their realm blew apart in fire, bloodshed, and smallpox.  Their greatest treasures were melted down for inbred Spaniards to wear as chains…or hung up on a wall at the British museum.   But of course the Aztecs are not really gone.  Their descendants are everywhere and their customs live on.  Likewise the living spondylus shell in the ocean is the descendant of countless millions of generations of evolving mollusks—changing color, shape, and temperament over the long eons.

I chose to highlight this this simple object because it unites so many of the topics on this site: snakes, color, art, trees, history, mollusks, bees (because of the wax), the underworld, and the heavens.  The double-headed snake represents the way in which many different ideas are enmeshed with each other and flow together, even as time relentlessly pushes us all onward.  Isn’t that what life is?

Best wishes for a very happy new year and, as always thank you for reading!

(Detail)

(Detail)

The Scythians, the wild horse-mounted warriors of the Steppes, sometimes ride onto these pages and off again, back into the billowing mists of Central Asian history.  Their name straddles myth and reality: the Scyths were there at the fall of the tower of Babel.  They were the children of Echidna and Hercules. They lived in a swath of land somewhere from Romania to Korea in a swath of time from 800 BC to 300AD.  They were Europeans with pale skin and blue eyes or Asians with dark slanted eyes.  They were fighters, shamans, traders, slavers, and peerless artisans. To Greeks they were the opposite of Greeks. To the Chinese they were the opposite of Chinese.

But really who were the Scythians? Well we don’t exactly know.  We have some partial answers to some of these questions, but “Scythian” was a word that was used in classical antiquity the same way we use “Gothic” today (indeed–the last Scythians, who played such a role in the histories written by Byzantine historians from the 2nd through the 5th centuries AD were literally Goths).  The word denoted an outlander from the steppes—an ideal of living rather than an ethnicity. Upon the Steppes, in the land the Greeks called Scythia, there were indeed pastoral tribes of equestrian herdsmen (who sometimes turned to war and plunder when circumstances were unusually bad or unusually good) but since they did not write it is difficult to untangle their history.  This society was made up of confederated tribes–which tended to specialize at different tasks (herdsmen, ploughmen, smiths, etc.). However above the other tribes were the warrior elites, the royal Scyths, who according to Herodotus, regarded the other tribes as little more than slaves.  These closely allied elites were formidable warriors. Without stirrup or saddle they rode horses to battle: even while mounted bareback they fought with composite bows laminated together from horn, hood, and sinew.

They don't really look super friendly, but maybe it's just a bad likeness.

The ruling Scythian warriors, or Royal Dahae, were inhumed in spectacular kurgans along with great hordes of treasure.  Much of what we know about the Scythians comes from these archaeological finds (and the rest mostly comes from Herodotus who was probably making a lot of it up).  A kurgan consisted of a great mound of earth over a central tomb constructed of sacred larchwood.  Animal or human sacrifices were draped over the outside of the tomb.  Inside the warrior elite lay in state with hordes of treasure.  Some of the most spectacular treasures known come from Scythian graves (which definitely deserve their own posting) and consist of golden statues depicting sacred creatures like lions, antlered reindeer, and gryphons. Kurgan tombs of the Scythian warrior elite contained weapons, armour, sumptuous clothing (woven of silk, gold, and hemp) and bowls of coriander seeds and cannabis–which was used in purification rituals and shamanistic rites.

Kurgan tombs from the Altai Mountains which stretch across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China

Although the Ancient Greeks might have looked down on the Scythians, numerous modern groups have claimed to be their direct descendants.  Among the peoples who have claimed or currently claim Scythian blood and heritage are the Ossetians, Pashtuns, Jats, Parthians, Poles, Picts, Gaels, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Scots, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and sundry Germans.  Like all such ancestral claims, many of these are disputed by scholars, nationalists, rivals and so forth (although Slavic people most certainly have Scythian ties).  Being American, I am inclined to think that anybody who wants to claim a particular ethnicity or heritage is welcome to do so, but perhaps that is my mixed Scythian blood talking!

Scythian Shield emblem (end of the 7th century B.C. Northern Caucasus from the
Kostromskaia kurgan, Gold)

The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient.  If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization.  But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence!  Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).

The Headdress of Puabi (ca. 2600 BC, gold)

It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses.  Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects.  Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic).  She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth. 

A picture of Puabi's crown/headdress as it was probably worn (i.e. over a thick wig)

The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”).  The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.

A reconstruction of the lyre (made with original pieces) from the British Museum

Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”).  The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers.  The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:

Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments

The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.”  I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.

Woolley's Diagram of the Tomb of Puabi

Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall.  Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time.  Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade.  At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.

An artist's reconstruction of the city-state of Ur

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