Friday, September 30, 2011

25. Croesus Coin (Turkey, about 550 BC)

Throughout the series, and throughout the British Museum, attention is paid to money, as stuff we make that tells an interesting story. Coins developed in the west at this point in the Lydian kingdom of western Turkey, and simultaneously in China; more on Chinese money later. Croesus was the king of Lydia during the period when coins replaced the old ‘measure the weight of precious metals’, and became fabulously wealthy because his government was the first one to issue coins. MacGregor points out that this is huge, and really the beginning of modern political thought--the issue of TRUST being so paramount, in state organization and in economics.

A government really only works if the governed trust that their government will work. Once the people give the government a vote of no confidence, everybody’s hosed. Similarly, money is about trusting (or not trusting, as it were) strangers. I want your product/service; you might give it to me, if you trust that I will make you a return product/service in a barter economy. That only works if there’s only 150 people in our world. If you don’t trust me, if you know you’re likely never to see me again, you still might give me your product/service if I give you money issued by somebody you do trust. Such as a powerful central government who has the drop on both of us. We saw this tremendous failure of trust a few years ago, as the recession got worse and worse. In my world, nobody wanted to do anything.

In any event, Croesus and his people came up with the idea of making these little portable coins, in standarized sizes and weights, of gold and silver; since those metals are typically found alloyed with copper or tin, it involved a chemistry problem of boiling them at high temperatures to sort out the different elements. Moving from chemistry class to myth class, Croesus, who was a real-life person, has always been mixed up in my mind with Midas, who’s a mythic character--the guy with the Midas touch, where everything he touches turns to gold so he can never touch another human being. Croesus got involved with myths in that he built the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (original inspiration for our statue of Diana in Seattle Opera’s Iphigénie en Tauride set, by Tom Lynch), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Iphigénie set, Diana statue at right, photo by Rozarii Lynch

Croesus also consulted the oracle at Delphi, which apparently people did in real life, not only in myth, to get the dire prophecy of how he’d be conquered by the Persians, which did in fact happen during his lifetime. So much for the Lydians.

One last thing about the Lydians--since they invented money, the root of all evil, the music historian in me loves the fact that the scale/mode known as “Lydian” (aka F, G, A, B, C D, E, F) prominently features the tritone, “diabolus in musica,” because the 4th of this scale (the B) is in fact an augmented fourth up from the root, F. Them Lydians are evil, I tells ya! Evil! But their music sure sounds cool, with its ever-present blue note.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

24. Paracas Textile (Peru, 300-200 BC)

I photographed this object while I was in the museum, even though the legend said it wasn’t on exhibit because it’s too fragile. I think I got it right. It’s rare for an archeologist to get to work with textiles, because usually they disintegrate. In this case, a piece of cloth that was used to bind/wrap a mummy, in ancient Peru way pre-Inca, survived, so we can enjoy the bizarre pattern of the weave. The fabric was made from the wool of llamas and alpacas, two of those glorious South American mammals that for some reason still never appear in a child’s farmyard set of toys--although I’ve seen a number of them out biking around western Washington recently). The dyes used to color the fabric come from diverse local sources such as the roots of plants (the dominant red color) or local mollusks (the cooler colors). And it takes lots of people to weave a complicated pattern like this one, so clearly whoever was buried with this as his mummy cloth was a bigshot. The mummification used by the ancients on the Paracas peninsula of Peru, wedged between the sea and the Andes, involved folding the corpse up and binding it once rigor mortis set in. Sounds pretty horrifying, but then I guess mummies always are.

Even more horrifying, perhaps, are the monsters depicted on the textile. My picture doesn’t show this very well, but their arms end in talons and they’re carrying daggers and severed heads. MacGregor’s Great Expert #1 (can’t remember her name, a fabric historian) vaguely pointed out that these people, like the Incas and Mayans and Aztecs who followed them, must have had lots of human sacrifice in order to ensure fertility and appropriate weather, although she didn’t give much evidence for this assertion. I’ve noticed that whenever archeologists or anthropologists want to explain why this or that ancient group practiced human sacrifice, they ALWAYS assume it had to do with fertility myths, i.e. that wherever human beings noticed the seasons they started killing each other as a way of regulating them. I wonder if it’s more complicated than that. I was a little more thrilled, when listening to the podcast here, to recognize MacGregor’s Great Expert #2, Zandra Rhodes, who I just recently worked with and who gave me, as an opening night gift, a framed, signed copy of one of her Anubis-head costume designs for Seattle Opera’s recent Magic Flute production. What a classy lady! Here she spoke more generally, with her signature enthusiasm, about how blessed she thought we all were that this amazing textile had survived.

Zandra Rhodes' award-winning costume designs for our Flute (photo by Rozarii Lynch)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

23. Chinese Zhou Ritual Vessel (China, 1100-1000 BC)

Gods, Ancestors, and the Mandate of Heaven in the Middle Kingdom.
This bronze vessel (see entry on the Jomon Pot, above) was made by a son to honor his dead father. The idea was, every few days, at least once a week, you brought food and drink and other gifts to the most recently dead generation; they, in the afterlife, would continue honoring their ancestors with part of what you gave them, as they had done all their lives while they were alive, and so on and on through infinity. It reminds me very much of the 33,000 gods of Hinduism, which developed into its current state thousands of years later, but has the same up-close and personal relationship with what’s being worshipped, i.e. a local god or an ancestor. In this case, as noted on an inscription on the bottom part of the vessel, the departed father was a conquering warrior of the Zhou (pronounced ‘Joe’) people, low-tech invaders from the steppes of central Asia who took over China from the Shang and began calling it the “Middle Kingdom,” i.e. in the center of the world between earth and heaven.

One of the things that’s interesting about the Zhou conquest of the Shang is that the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven” first became a big deal at this point in Chinese history. It’s the Chinese answer to the “Divine Right of Kings;” or perhaps it’s America’s goofy nineteenth-century idea about “Manifest Destiny.” Basically, the idea is that since we’re strong and in power, the gods/ancestors/powers must like us; therefore we should be able to do whatever we want. If you get conquered/ousted/pillaged/royally screwed over, that must mean that the gods don’t like you. The kind of reasoning that dehumanizes, to facilitate slavery and/or genocide. Superstitious immaturity, sanctified by state and religion...gotta love it!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

22. Sphinx of Taharqo (Sudan, about 680 BC)

Cultural Synthesis.
This intriguing object illustrates a melding of two cultures, Egyptian and ancient Sudanese (I believe the name of the area was Kush); it commemorates a brief period, during the 3000 years that Egyptian civilization dominated the area, in which the Kushites ruled the Nile from northern Sudan. This statue uses a familiar Egyptian image, the sphinx; but if you look carefully at its face (the lips, for example) you’ll see that ethnically the face is that of a black person from Sudan. (The Egyptians were Mediterranean/Semitic people, probably mostly with olive-colored skin.) The sphinx here represents the black Sudanese pharaoh, Taharqo. Since pharaohs had been shown on sphinxes for thousands of years, it was clever of the rulers to appropriate the familiar mythic imagery but use it to tell their own story, something akin to Christians telling the ancient Celts that you celebrate the solstice, in late December, and worship evergreen trees, because that’s the birth of our Lord Jesus, with the promise of eternal life in the dead of winter. We'll see this pattern of cultural appropriation and/or synthesis many times in this history; in fact, it's at the heart of what the British Museum is.

Monday, September 26, 2011

21. Lachish Reliefs (Iraq, 700-692 BC)

War & Refugees.
The Assyrians were a tough people whose kingdom/empire came to power for a time in the mideast between the Babylonians and the Persians. The British Museum has—in addition to the great five-legged Assyrian sphinxes, which Maurice and Scudder puzzle over during their duel of wills in E. M. Forster’s Maurice--several rooms full of relief carvings from Assyrian palaces. The Assyrians were big into carving marble walls in this way. I went on a little guided walking tour of the Assyrian rooms while I was in the museum, led by a charming docent, who was mostly interested in the artistry involved in the depictions of battle. It’s true, no World War II movie was ever as visceral or visually exciting as these Assyrian carvings, which (like King Den’s sandal label or Rameses II’s sculpture) are propaganda emphasizing the enormous power of the Assyrians. I particularly like how, in the battle reliefs, you see birds flying away from the battlefield with corpses and body parts; it’s all very “Ride of the Valkyries.” And, on an earlier trip to the British museum, I was also struck by the room full of Assyrian reliefs about lion hunting.

Behold our mighty king... he doth vanquish the wretched foe.

But what interested MacGregor the most, on his podcast, was the depiction of refugees. The Assyrian reliefs tell a story, left to right, across a long wall: the armies go to war, there’s a terrific battle, carnage and destruction and scavenger birds, and then long lines of prisoners are marched past the conquering king. In this case--the Lachish reliefs--the prisoners are Hebrews, and the story of this battle is told from the other point of view in the Old Testament. (Needless to say, the two versions of the story don’t agree on exactly what happened, each version trying to make its protagonists look good.)

A lady in my little tour group asked whether this was the story behind Verdi’s Nabucco, probably because these Assyrian reliefs are often used in publicity for traditional productions of the opera. I happen to know a lot about the origins of Nabucco (a pair of French playwrights wrote a play in the 1830s, loosely based on King Lear, which then inspired a ballet at La Scala in Milan; the cheap impresario had Temistocle Solera write a libretto on the subject because the impresario wanted to reuse the sets and costumes he had had built for the ballet. He offered Solera’s libretto to Otto von Nicolai, who wrote Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, and when Nicolai declined to compose the opera the impresario gave it to young Verdi. The Lear-themes and the refugee-themes captured his imagination, and a mighty career was launched), and so pressed for clarification on the differences between the Babylonians and the Assyrians. My sense is, the Assyrians were more badass, but I’m sure scholars spend a lifetime sorting out the differences--they overlap in time and location (I think the Assyrians were over a little earlier, and were a bit to the west). In any event, Giuseppe Verdi loved depicting MacGregor’s story, the human suffering of the chorus full of refugees. The three great Verdi choruses that leap into my mind are the opening of Don Carlos, where he starts with the suffering of the refugees because that’s going to dominate the choices made in the interpersonal drama by the principal characters later on; the awesomely potent and sad “Patria oppressa!” chorus from the revised Macbeth; and the very scene in this relief, captive prisoners being carted out in front of the conquering king, in the Triumphal March sequence in Aida.

Friday, September 23, 2011

20. Rameses II Statue (Egypt, about 1250 BC)

I love that MacGregor has an actor reading Shelley’s “Ozymandias” sonnet in this podcast. This statue is one of the best-known, most iconic, most impressive pieces in the museum; the first time I went there (in 2002) I snapped a photo of it from a slightly different angle (below). Apparently when it made its way back to England, around 1816, it was the first thing that made the British realize what ancient Egypt really was--the size, scope, scale, immensity of the statue. That poem was written at the time, as an ironic commentary on Napoleon, I’ve always heard, who failed to get this thing out of Egypt (his men may be responsible for the great big hole above the left breast). It was Belzoni, the Italian circus strong-man turned grave-robber in the service of the Brits, who arranged the reverse of what Rameses II was able to do, getting his men to put this enormous thing in place in a temple. Rameses did it because he was a PR whiz: make sure everybody knows your image, make sure that image represents you as strong and admirable, take credit for what you didn’t do, lie about your failures and claim they were victories…the whole kit and caboodle. And it worked, here we are 3000 years later still in awe of his statue. And still following the same basic principals of PR.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

19. Mold Gold Cape (Wales, 1900-1600 BC)

Meanwhile, more luxury in the middle of nowhere...
This very cool object was uncovered by some workmen in Wales in the 1830s; the skeleton of a smallish person was wearing it (a woman or a child, they say). It’s made of a thin layer of gold, pummeled out from the inside into the patterns you see here. I believe he said there’s a ping-pong ball worth of gold in this coat. As for the person who was buried, obviously a person of great status, it’s not clear if this was a woman or a child or what--but then again, in early societies like the ones up there, the ones that built Stonehenge and Avebury, you were more or less an adult when you were 10 and you were likely dead by the time you were 25. In Egypt, they lived to be older; but life was a bit rougher up north.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

18. Minoan Bull Leaper (Crete, 1700-1450 BC)

After the Stone Age comes the Bronze Age, if you name human history after the material from which we make our most important and fashionable tools. (Right now we’re in the age of petroleum products.) Before you get the swanky city-states of Greek legend and history, on Crete there’s the great flourishing of the Minoan civilization, about six centuries earlier; they had bronze, which is made by alloying copper and tin, both of which they must have obtained through trade. (Brass, FYI, is copper & zinc.) Although it’s a bit tarnished now (nothing compared to lots of bronze swords at the museum that have rusted and fallen apart), this statue of a guy leaping over a bull, in what was apparently a popular sport/ritual among the Minoan, is one of the coolest and most dramatic objects in the museum. It’s in their Minoan Room, which as you can see in my photo is mostly a lot of pots and amphoras. The Minoans had lots of stuff about bulls--MacGregor recites the great old legend of Minos, Pasiphäe, Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur in his podcast--and he speaks on the phone to a present-day bull-leaper from Spain, a rotador. Unlike a matador/picador, who tries to kill the bull, this kind of ritual will only injure the clumsy human who dares make the attempt.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

17. Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (NOT ON DISPLAY)

I didn’t see or photograph this object ‘cause they keep it in their special papyrus room...papyrus is much too fragile, and they're lucky there's any of it left at all this photo is from a Google Images search.) According to MacGregor’s podcast, it’s a long, fragile bit of papyrus that’s basically the book you study to pass the GREs, if you’re a well-to-do ancient Egyptian and you want a job as a civil servant. It had a funny title, along the lines of “How to answer all problems and make everyone forever happy,” and--like the cunieform writing tablet--is a testament to the need for bureacracy in a big state. And, one hopes, to the fundamental human drive for fairness, since that’s what all this is about. In any event, the maths aren’t particularly one knows whether the fancy Greek mathematicians got their stuff from the Egyptians or came up with it themselves. This is practical math, none of your fancy math.

Monday, September 19, 2011

16. Flood Tablet (Iraq, 700-600 BC)

This object is massively cool. It’s another ancient clay tablet with writing from Iraq, this one a passage from the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh (which I finally got around to reading, motivated by seeing this tablet). Fiction had probably already been around, as well as history, for thousands of years in an oral tradition; but with writing now you have the opportunity to scribble your fictions down so all can enjoy, and future generations of freshmen will have books to buy at the co-op for World Lit 101. But of course the real fun thing about this particular “Flood Tablet” is the story it tells, which is the chapter about angry gods who smite the people of the mideast with a flood, and animals go two by two into an ark, and so forth. Sound familiar? When it was first deciphered, a decade or so after Darwin’s Origin of Species, they were baffled, because this document was clearly written long before the earliest known version of the Bible...and seemed to be telling an earlier version of that well-known Bible story. "But in church, they told us that God dictated the book of Genesis to Moses!" "Did He just tell stories that were popular at the time, instead?" "How could something they said in church be wrong?"

In any event, I’m sorry I had put off reading Gilgamesh all this time, because it really does kick butt. It’s funny, sad, brief, powerful, very human, and--at least, on a first reading--doesn’t offer any easy answers.

Friday, September 16, 2011

15. Cuneiform Writing Tablet (Iraq, 3100-3000 BC)

Our greatest tool, invention, etc. is clearly writing; that’s what separates history from prehistory. One of the earliest pieces of writing they’ve got at the British Museum is this Sumerian clay tablet (actually, they have a whole room full of ‘em, but this one is on display), in which you read the boxes right to left and the little wedge-marks in the clay are pictograms, not quite letters. Meaning, once upon a time the picture looked something like what it stood for. It’s obviously a nice leap from pictograms to characters that stand for sounds, and MacGregor suggests that once that got started it happened very quickly. If you complain that clay is not as beautiful a writing surface as papyrus, or that Egyptian characters are prettier and the writing more appealing than Sumerian, sure, but papyrus disintegrates; the clay is still here. As for what’s on this tablet, it’s a bureacratic worksheet about how to divvy up your beer ration among your workers.

(By the way, I'm adding Tom Standage's "History of the World in Six Glasses" to my list of other fun syncretic histories to the right this case, it's really more the history of western civ in beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, coca-cola. Kind of a fun read, and lighter than the BBC/British Museum creation. The two histories intersect here, in ancient Mesopotamia, with the first documented use of beer, aka 'liquid bread'. They had it in the Fertile Crescent long before we got it up north in the Anglo-Germanic-Scandihoovian worlds which today seem so shaped by beer.)

Beer is still great (I happily biked past a recent Pacific NW local craft breweries' fair in Tacoma), five thousand years later. Although the bureacracy of beer is presumably still pretty dull. But as with King Den’s Sandal Label, the difficulty of maintaining big city-states demands dull bureacracy, and bureacracy demands writing: thus from agriculture comes cities, and with cities comes writing.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

14. Jade Axe (England, 4000-2000 BC)

Meanwhile, luxury in the middle of nowhere...
I’m not so sure why MacGregor included this Jade Axe in the program, apart from it’s being pretty beautiful. (Probably he wants to bring it home to England, every now and then...there's more of this to come.) This object is a ceremonial, high-status version of the kind of handaxe he studied in Podcast #3, the sort that enables travel. In this case, it was travel to the farthest reaches of the world--England, which had no great river valley civilization, indeed which until very recently was just a bunch of little villages, each with their own pub. They found this jade axe in Canterbury; what’s odd about that is that there’s no jade in England, and a French geologist identified the source rock way up high in the Italian Alps. So there’s trade and people who can afford unnecessarily high-status items for you!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

13. Indus Seal (Pakistan, 4000-2000 BC)

Peace and good plumbing!
Nobody knew anything about the Indus Valley Civilization, the big cities at Harappa and Moheno-Daro, until 1924; hitherto, historians and archeologists had known about the Nile and the Tigris/Euphrates. No one has yet figured out the writing of the Indus people, so we still don’t really know very much about them—for instance, on this little label-maker (used to make a mark on wax), are the glyphs at the top some kind of writing, or just decorative, and if so what do they mean? They haven’t found any tombs from this civilization, just the buried city locations, and from what I understand they’re remarkable mostly as wonders of urban planning. Huge, cookie-cutter housing developments (reminds me of some suburbs I know), good plumbing, hygiene, and bathing facilities all the way across, and no indication that “The wealthy live here, the poor over there.” Was it a civilization that wasn’t about dividing people up into high and low status? (How could such a thing exist? It hasn’t, since.) And why did they suddenly vanish? “Climate change,” say most authorities. Ah, mysteries…

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

12. Standard of Ur (Iraq, 2600-2400 BC)

Nearby, in the Mesopotamian world of the Tigris/Euphrates valley, grew similar structures; and what’s cool about this standard, which tells much the same story as yesterday’s sandal-label (“Look how big and powerful and central our great king is”), is it’s our first object made of many different components--and they come from all over the place. I believe the Sumerian/Mesopotamian city-states predate the Egyptian; it may be that MacGregor chose this particular piece, which isn’t from the beginning of Ur (although Den’s sandal label was at the beginning of Egypt) to illustrate the elaborate trade network they must have had to create it. (He'll be obsessed with trade for the rest of human history.) The different colors of stone each come from different regions: from Afghanistan, from the Gulf, and bitumen (petroleum) from Iraq to hold it all together. The other fun thing about this object is that it's an early cartoon; the animals pulling the chariot, in the lowest bar, start running as you follow them from left to right.

Monday, September 12, 2011

11. King Den’s Sandal Label (Egypt, about 2985 BC)

With agriculture comes the explosion of human population, along the great river valleys, and numbers of people far exceeding what we can deal with. I love this statistic about our brains having evolved, to the Stone Age, to deal with about 150 relationships, the average size of a Stone Age human’s social circle. Starting 5000 years back with the river valleys and modern cities, you get anonymity and huge numbers of people—even though, today, most people still maintain about 150 average real life (not Facebook) friendships. The question then follows, how to organize and control the huge numbers of people involved in a city? The illustration here shows the easy answer used by an early Egyptian pharoah: might makes right. The picture is political propaganda of the simplest, most powerful kind: the strong, good-looking king smiting his loser foe. It was found in King Den’s tomb, a label on his sandal, an etching/scrimshaw on ivory from the tooth of a hippo from the Nile. Thus from the river comes the city, with its human organization into strong and weak.

Friday, September 9, 2011

10. Jomon Pot (Japan, about 5000 BC)

Firing clay.
As a kid I remember thinking that all ancient people ever did was to make pots and smash them, since the vast majority of an archeologist’s work seems to deal with pots. Then, a decade ago, obsessing over the holy grail and Parsifal, I started paying attention to vessels of all kinds and have since found it a diverting field of study. MacGregor goes to Japan to give us the oldest pot in the British Museum, forged pre-agriculture by a Japanese people, the Jomon, who mostly ate fish and nuts. (The archeologists can figure out their diet because the bottom of this pot was never really cleaned, just plated over with gold leaf a few centuries ago and used to brew tea.) MacGregor speculates about how the ancients figured out what happens when you fire clay; must have been one of those weird accidents that changes everything, because nobody would do it on purpose. But once you have a clay pot, your life improves dramatically. Up to this point, you cooked in the fire itself, or toasted on sticks, or on leaves or woven baskets; but from the Jomon to Le Creuset a pot empowers a cook to eat a wider range of things (shellfish, for instance—this pot once cooked oysters) and to make delicious stews and soups. Note the hatching on the side of this unprepossessing item: since it was replacing baskets, and its users were accustomed to woven baskets, they had them lying around, they created a basket-pattern on the wet clay by molding it against extant baskets. New, but not too new. If it looked like a basket, at least people would be able to figure out what to do with it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9. Maya Maize God Statue (Honduras, AD 715)

This statue is out of sequence, chronologically, but it’s here because the point of it is that with agriculture, you start worshipping food. Organized religions come into being that help people make sense of the cycle: food sprouts, grows, flourishes, is killed and eaten, yet will grow again; humans are born, grow, flourish, yet die, and who knows after that—although most of us would like to believe there’s some kind of return. Besides, you are what you eat. If God made us in his own image, and we’re physically composed of the food we eat, then food is God, and should be worshipped. To make the point, MacGregor looks at a wonderful late Mayan statue, found in Honduras, but one of his experts points out that the worship of corn goes back to the Olmec and probably long before that, to when Americans first started domesticating corn, back at the beginnings of agriculture. Case in point, what I mentioned above—originally you had to work your tail off to make corn edible; we selectively evolved it to make the delicious summer treat of drop-it-in-boiling-water/enjoy/and-don’t-forget-to-floss. Corn is a great crop, wonderfully versatile (I grew up in the fertile cornfields of Michigan, where it’s “knee-high-by-the-4th-of-July”); kind of bland, but as MacGregor points out, the Central Americans figured out what to do with chili peppers about the same time, so corn’s blandness wasn’t a bad thing.

One other note about this statue: the head is too big for the body, but that’s because a whole series of these gods used to sit atop the entrance to a temple, were knocked over, and heads were replaced willy-nilly on different torsos. Who cares, they were all ears of corn.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

8. Clay Model of Cattle (Egypt, about 3500 BC)

MacGregor admits that this little statuette of four cows grazing, found in a tomb in pre-Pharaonic Egypt, isn’t the most exciting work in the Egyptian rooms at the museum. He chose it because, just like Gary Larsen and The Far Side, he’s really big on cows. Historically, it’s fun to think about the relationship between humans and cows pre-agriculture. When I was in neolithic England I kept reading about aurochs, wild cattle, big horned monsters our ancestors used to chase around. How on earth did they first domesticate them into the placid cud-chewers we all love and love to eat? Not sure. It happened in Africa, and the first thing they did was to ruin the north of the continent--which had been fertile grassland--by overgrazing it and making the Sahara. The Nile Valley, however, was hard to kill, and the benefits of domesticated cattle were enjoyed by Egyptians throughout the flourishing of their civilization.

By the way, it took a long time for us to evolve into and through the agricultural revolution. Sure, it’s nice to eat beef; but digesting lactose into adulthood? Quirk of evolution, and some people still don’t have it. Same with the grains we domesticated; we had to evolve to digest them, and we evolved them selectively for ones that best fit our requirements.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

7. Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine (Judea, about 11,000 years old)

This erotic little statuette, found near Jerusalem, can’t have had much practical function--this is art, or at least religious art. If, indeed, the sex act and/or love was an important part of the religion practiced by its creators. Contemporary research is correcting all the mid-20th century anthropo-/archeo-logical hogwash about cults of the great Mother Goddess, fertility, always preceding the war gods worshipped by patriarchal agriculturalists. A nice theory, but the reality is proving to be less tidy. With this statue, ancient artists depicted sex, and not necessarily for purposes of fertility; usually if that’s the case, they’re at least male and female. (In Avebury, where I went a few days after scouring the British Museum, for instance, the procession of huge Sarsen Stones snaking up from the river alternate diamond (female) and lingam (male), which many suggest must be a fertility thing; here's my photo with one of each kind:

Avebury, by the way, is much bigger and more mysterious than Stonehenge.)

But back to the Ain Sakhri statue. It seems simply to be two people wrapping each other round in fond and close embrace. Meaning: sex, for no purpose other than sharing pleasure and expressing your love for another person, is powerful and deserves celebration. Doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with ensuring next year’s harvest, or making more little workers to help reap it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

6. Bird-shaped Pestle (Papua New Guinea, 4000-8000 years old)

Mmmm...agriculture! That’s really what makes us who we now are. Again, disproving the old theory that it started in the Fertile Crescent (read: Iraq) and then spread slowly around the world, here’s a cooking implement from Indonesia, one of the many places where agriculture seems to have spontaneously developed, following the global warming after the last ice age. Modern theory says agriculture may have given us a competitive advantage over other species: we chose grains and roots that no other animal would bother to eat (wheat, barley, corn, rice, here in New Guineau yams and taro) because they were way too much work. With most of these grasses you have to smash each individual grain to get it out of its husk, and you have to mush the roots carefully. (Irrelevant sidebar: we saw the coolest, working, old-fashioned mill in Winchester, while in England on this trip.) Although you could have ground wheat into flour with this pestle, it was more likely used for seasonings, the way we use mortars and pestles today. MacGregor checked in with this Indian woman who’s a chef in London, who has an heirloom mortar and pestle her mother had given her before she left India; she speculated upon the special place a tool like this would have had in a family, the alchemical magic it could work, for instance, smashing up mustard seeds to release their full pungence. Reminded me of the chemistry lesson I had the night after wandering around the Museum, downstairs from Soho’s swankiest Indian restaurant, at its swankiest cocktail bar, and the brilliant cocktails this ambitious 20-something kid (who’s obviously been studying it for a long time) was putting together.

Friday, September 2, 2011

5. Clovis Spear Point (US, 13,000 years old)

The Americas.
This object isn’t particularly different than Wednesday's ax (it’s a little smaller, probably bound to the end of a stick and used in the hunt instead of your main tool for life, as was the case with those other objects). But it was found in the US, and thus tells the story of the spread of humans out of Africa and to all parts of everywhere. The theory is that the tool, and all it makes possible--clothing, shelter, a variety of sources of nutrition beyond what you can get with your claws and teeth alone--was our ticket out of wherever we evolved. During the Ice Age, huge amounts of what’s now ocean water were frozen, so land connected Russia to Alaska, and people (probably chasing yummy animals) spread to every corner of the giant supercontinent: Clovis is a location in New Mexico, where this little spear was first described, but similar items have been found from Newfoundland to Tierra del Fuego. MacGregor’s special guest in this program is a scholar who works for the Smithsonian, at NYC’s National Museum of the American Indian (nice museum down by the Battery, I’ve been there), who points out that native American creation myths never remember this crossing-from-Asia business, and many native Americans feel funny about it--as if they only legitimate way for humans to inhabit a place is for the gods to put them there. “So what?” I wanna say. Before the whites got here, many of these native tribes were pretty good stewards of the land, and that’s what counts. I once read a theory--I think it was in Joseph Campbell--about Polynesians getting to Easter Island, and thence to Peru, and spreading that way. But that theory seems to be completely discredited in this day and age.

In this podcast I was a bit more interested by what special guest Michael Palin had to say, about wanderlust being a primal human characteristic. It goes back to the battle between religions which are about the here-and-now, and religions which are about the ‘better place;’ you only move because you fantasize that there may be a better place. Even if there’s nothing really objectionable about where you are, maybe it’s just dull, you move in the hopes of something better (ie more interesting). Now there’s the most fascinating question I know: boredom, as a mental state, isn't exactly an emotion, more a dull grey void/absence of emotion; but its opposite, curiosity, is, I believe, as powerful an emotion, in terms of motivating human behavior, as fear or anger. And much more productive, for our race. How do we inspire that curiosity, and keep it going?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

4. Swimming Reindeer Statue (France, 13,000 years old)

Here it is: ice-age art, a completely non-functional object, not a tool, created before the last big bout of climate change. It’s a beautiful piece, a mammoth tusk carved to resemble a pair of reindeer swimming across a river. Much more complicated to make than the simple stone tools we’ve seen so far: for this you need to kill a mammoth, cut off its tusk with something mighty strong and sharp, carve this elaborately observed work of art with a tool that can give you fine detail, polish it with some poultice you’ve made from locally-found goo, and shine it with a leather hide. Why go to all that trouble? MacGregor calls upon Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to speculate about the origins of religion and art. Williams points out that unlike many important modern religions, which downplay the significance of the here-and-now and encourage worshippers to think about other worlds, this statue—like most primitive art—is verismo (as we call it in the world of opera), about the here-and-now world in which the artist lives. It may be that depicting elements of your world gives you (or makes you think you’ve now got) power over those elements, the way naming something gives you the drop on it—thus, in efforts to avoid hubris, the old Hebrew prohibition against naming God, or the Islamic prohibition against depicting creatures with souls. Many assume you make a statue like these reindeer, or paint the mammoth on the wall of your cave, in order to gain the power to kill it in the upcoming hunt. But that’s only speculation…could be they thought these animals were beautiful and loved ‘em.