Wednesday, November 30, 2011

68. Shiva and Parvati Sculpture (India, AD 1100-1300)

High medieval Hinduism!
Okay, this sculpture is one of my all-time favorites; it caught my eye on my first trip to the British Museum, nine years ago, and this time I wallowed in the chance to gaze at it again and drink up its beauty, its sexiness, its teeming mass of incident. There was a huge gallery filled with fascinating sculptures and artifacts connected with Hinduism and Buddhism, but this one is more than enough for me.

For MacGregor, this sculpture goes right to the heart of what’s baffling to most westerners about Hinduism: how can a religion both fundamentally advocate detachment, a belief that this world is not all there is, schools of asceticism, a seeking of release from endless reincarnation, redemption, as the ultimate goal; and at the same time also champion the senses, joys, stuff, pleasures of this world? As far as I understand it, British Evangelical Christian missionaries in the 19th century really pissed off the Indians by cultural warfare, seeking to campaign against and discourage the Hindu religion. In particular, they were fired up by the traditions of murder of infant girls (in some Northern regions, in some wealthy families, where additional girls would be a financial liability on a family); suttee, the tradition of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre (if it started with Madri wife of Pandu, in the Mahabharata, Brünnhilde and Isolde do it, too); and the Thugee business, which seems to be little more than a Hollywood fantasy. I’m sure that culturally, the Victorian British were also just basically up in arms when it came to a sculpture like this one, or the Tara from Sri Lanka we saw earlier (she stands a few feet away from her friends here in the big Asia Gallery).

Because this sculpture obviously revels both in the sensual pleasure of the beautiful bodies—what I’ve always considered the heart of the art form of sculpture—and the tenderness of their loving glance. MacGregor points out that Shiva’s bull is gazing with the same rapt adoration at Parvati’s lion, which you might be able to see a little better in the photo I took in 2002:

In Christianity, artists often get sentimental over the gaze between mother and child; but all three big western monotheistic religions assume a male god, and a kind of patriarchy which often seems to verge on misogyny. Don’t think that the Hindus were free of those characteristics, either...suttee and girl-slaughter are pretty extreme examples of patriarchal misogyny. But it’s refreshing that the Hindu concept of divinity involves both male and female, and involves male and female really into each other. Using a sculpture like this as an aid to devotion (MacGregor points out that people sometimes leave little lais of flowers, or candles, or offerings by these sculptures, since just because they’re in a museum doesn’t mean they’re no longer holy) would presumably dispose you to consider the sex you enjoy in your own life a sanctifying, godlike enterprise. And who’s to say it isn’t, in today’s world?

Before leaving this statue, I’ll mention that at this writing (several months, now, after my visit to the museum) I’ve just watched the long Peter Brook Mahabharata films again. Very beautiful, and any number of things about that story are completely baffling, as ever. In terms of the patriarchy and misogyny, yes, it’s interesting how much that has in common with Lord of the Rings and The Illiad, in terms of being basically a story about boys and war. Draupadi, wife of the five Pandavas, may be a role model for Indian women through all time...I gotta confess I don’t find her very sympathetic, she’s all about personal pride and revenge. Evaluating these characters morally, I feel like lumping her in with Duryodhana, the bad guy, who’s a weird little ball of hatred, resentment, and dissatisfaction. The moms, Kunti and Gandhari, are both fascinating characters, but I wouldn’t call either one a role model. Parvati, Shiva’s consort in this statue, is often linked in the myths to more terrifying, devouring mother figures, Durga and Kali. Who’s the ideal female role model in Hinduism? It must be Sita, in the Ramayana. But I need a refresher on her story.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

67. Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (Turkey, AD 1350-1400)

Fall of Constantinople. Here’s a fascinating object from a fascinating, although terrifying, period: with the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Orthodox Church, about to fall for good (after 1000 years in which they kept the 300 year-old name of ‘Roman Empire’ going!) in Constantinople, artists were busy at work making myths to bind the people together in the name of ‘what made us great, once upon a time.’ In this case, an icon—meaning a picture used in religious devotion—about icons, indeed about the last time that Constantinople was threatened by Islam in a big way. Back during the rise of the Abassids, in the 800s/900s, a wave of iconoclasm—“icon-smashing”—had made the news in Constantinople, where superstitious people assumed that the only reason the Moslems were winning over the Eastern Christians was because of the business about icons. “Thou shalt make no graven image,” but that entire church is based on these icons; and the Moslems were so serious about no representations, some of the Christians began wondering if that’s why God favored them. In the 800s it was big news for a while, but eventually the pro-icon people took control again, and somehow the Byzantines lived side-by-side with the Caliphates for another 500 years.

The end came for the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, when the Turks, who’d been steadily encroaching for a hundred years, finally took the city. We were there in ’01 for a wedding and went to Aya Sofya, once the main Eastern Orthodox Temple in the world, later a mosque, now mostly a tourist trap. It’s impressive and historically evocative, although from the point of view of architecture Sultan Suleiman’s magnificent Blue Mosque, just nearby, honestly made more of an impression on this tourist. Some of my photos from that trip:

My pals and I near a little pool in Topkapi Palace, home of centuries of Ottoman Sultans

My friend Julie is facing Haigha Sofia (aka Aya Sofya), with Suleiman the Magnificent (more on him soon!)'s Blue Mosque behind her.

The Blue Mosque is mighty impressive, perhaps the most beautiful building in Turkey.

Aya Sofya, which is about 1000 years older, has seen more wear and tear. It was the main Byzantine Cathedral for centuries--compare the mosaic icon here to the one in the podcast--and although the Ottoman's turned it into a mosque, in the 20th century that layer was peeled away so you can see the Christian imagery again.

But the fun part about traveling to Istanbul is going to the bazaar!

Monday, November 28, 2011

66. Holy Thorn Reliquary (France, AD 1350-1400)

St. Louis. In The Maltese Falcon, you get the classic Hollywood McGuffin, defined by Hitchcock as “something the characters in the story care about, but the audience doesn’t.” McGuffins have always been useful tools for screenwriters, and George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and their friends took it one step further when making their great Indiana Jones films; since the central character was an archeologist, he was always chasing around after some McGuffin, for no better reason than to put it in a museum, or a wooden box in some government warehouse, at the end of the story. “Soon we’ll have the slipper and can go home,” the Baker says to his wife in Sondheim’s masterpiece Into the Woods. “No more running around the woods looking for strange objects!” And Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows must be the apotheosis of this kind of story, where there’s this long list of objects and few of them have any genuine interest...they merely serve to propel the story along.

I blather about this here because this Crown of Thorns icon is certainly worthy of a film along the lines of The Red Violin. Theoretically, the Crown of Thorns they gave Jesus made its way to Constantinople, where it was a treasured relic of the Eastern Orthodox Church for many centuries. Then, when the Byzantines were in trouble because of the encroaching Turks, they pawned the relic to the Venetians, with whom they’d long been friends and enemies. France’s King Louis IX leaped at the opportunity to buy the crown from the Venetians, and so it came to France, where he had built the outrageously gorgeous Sainte-Chappelle, one of the most beautiful rooms on Planet Earth, to house it.

(The perfect king of medieval Christendom, Louis 9, later St. Louis, died on crusade; his crown of thorns is nowadays in Nôtre-Dame. During the 1200s, his period, France had the drop on England, fueling Plantagenet inferiority complex with this ‘relic gap’ because they had the crown of thorns and we didn’t!)

A thorn from the crown was given to the Duc de Berry somewhere along the way, before the Renaissance, who built this beautiful reliquary to house it. Later the entire reliquary ended up in the possession of the Hapsburgs, and it spent most of the early modern period in Vienna; a Jewish banker eventually gave it to the British crown, and that’s how the museum got it. They had it off exhibit the day I was there, so I photographed the poster explaining where it was instead.

And yet, the important thing here—unlike most of Voldemort’s Horcruxes—is that the thorns that pierced Christ’s head really have devotional power, millions of people think about them everyday. It’s like finding the holy grail, where the first few drops of the blood that’s at the center of the religion got started. Whether or not the relic is real, or has interesting adventures and peregrinations, there’s got to be something real about that much psychic energy.

Friday, November 25, 2011

65. Taino Ritual Seat (Domenican Republic, AD 1200-1500)

This Taino throne may be extra famous because apparently Christopher Columbus was respectfully given the opportunity to crouch on a seat just like this on one of his trips to the West Indies, were the Taino lived before they were exterminated. But MacGregor, for reasons which should be consistent with the rest of his interests, doesn’t have much to say about Columbus; instead, he takes the stool here more as a memorial to one of the many cultures that disappeared with the coming of whites en masse to the western hemisphere.

I don’t know much about the Taino, except that I seem to remember Howard Zinn opening his People’s History of the United States with an incredibly depressing story about native cultures driven to extinction and genocide in those decades after 1492. MacGregor here tells us that words such as hammock, canoe, barbecue, and tobacco come into our language from this culture in particular, which does give you the impression that they were lazy people who loved relaxing in an eternal summer (sign me up!). But industry is often overrated, and after all these years I still don’t know whether an industrious culture is by definition a better culture (that’s what they wanted me to think as I was growing up).

MacGregor tells us that the Taino perceived the world as having many invisible layers, that all our dead ancestors were all around us all the time, for example. So, by crouching over this chair (which is male—the genitalia on the underside are anatomically accurate, even if the creature’s shape is a little unusual) and taking drugs, the chief communed with spirits to find the answers to difficult questions facing the tribe. When Columbus crouched here, did he ask the question “Why do I destroy everything I touch?”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

64. The David Vases (China, AD 1351)

Pax Mongolica.
Here’s an interesting podcast which starts with etymology. Call it ‘china’ if you’re referring to the ‘fine china’ that you keep in your ‘china hutch’ because the industry became a big deal in medieval China; or call it ‘porcelain’ because Marco Polo, in first describing it to Europeans, used the Italian word porcellano=“cowrie shells” (yes, it really means ‘little piglet,’ but that was how Italians described cowrie shells) because the texture of porcelain was reminiscent of cowrie shells. What it really is, is a great example of vast intercontinental trade at work. The blue & white coloration of the finest, most traditional kind of china goes back to artistic tastes in medieval Iran. (MacGregor brings on a psychologist to say that blue & white may universally mean serenity and peace to human beings, too.) But in the 13th century when Genghis Khan’s Mongol Horde swept out of Mongolia to east and west, devastating huge parts of Eurasia and bringing a vast empire into brief being, that Islamic world of Iran/Iraq got incorporated into the east. (Historian's advice to the US Government: Genghis Khan was the last foreign power who actually won a war in Afghanistan. Unless you’re prepared to do what he did, get out now.) China became the heart of the Mongol empire, and that’s where Marco Polo met Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai, some decades later, a less bloodthirsty warlord who was apparently also a pretty good administrator. Because the Chinese were good at making porcelain—which requires firing clay at outrageously hot temperatures, so that it turns halfway to glass and thus becomes impermeable to water—and because of Kublai’s Pax Mongolica, vases like this were created in China and traded all the way to Iran. The industry kept going, and by the time the Europeans were ready to drink tea, they wanted blue & white china to drink it out of, too.

These beautiful works are known as the David Vases because they come from the collection of one Sir Percival David (Welsh, perhaps?) who has a huge room full of china tucked away on the 4th floor of the British Museum.

MacGregor began this podcast playing what sounded like a scratchy old LP of Richard Burton reading Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and concluded by conjecturing that Coleridge was sipping his laudanum, as he daydreamed that poem, on blue & white china.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

63. Ife Head (Nigeria, AD 1400-1500)

West African civilization.
This gorgeous sculpted head of a king of Ife, in what is now Nigeria, wasn’t unearthed until the 1920s, at which point Leo Frobenius, the German archeologist who discovered it, said it was proof that Greek culture originated on the island of Atlantis. The Atlantans must have sent some of their great artists and sculptors both to Greece, founding the great Greek culture that everyone knows and studies, and also to this part of west Africa, since, as everyone knew, the Africans themselves could never have come up with a great artistic masterpiece.

Wow. That’s all anyone can say. A scholar wrote that? I suppose it’s more a testament to the racism of the 1920s than anything else—the period that gave us the KKK, Porgy and Bess, and got the world ready for the Nazis. The US Civil War, in a funny way, increased racism, at least for a few generations, by ending slavery in name but not necessarily in practice. I think WWII did more to end it in practice, and at least get racism out in the open where everybody could see it. many other great archeological or artistic finds have gone nowhere because they happened at the wrong time?

In any event, MacGregor & friends have a nice podcast on this beautiful head, which as you can see is a masterpiece of realism and human character and also strongly stylized. One expert in African sculpture who speaks here says that it’s typical for a head, which is the seat of the soul/mind/etc. in the understanding of many of these groups, to take up a quarter of a sculpture of a person. They don’t know if there was a body attached to this particular head at any point. But if you’re familiar with any African sculptures, like the masks we’ve got at the Seattle Art Museum, you’re familiar with the kind of stylization referred to here—and with stylization in art, you never know if the artist COULD do a different style and just chose not to. If you assume that isn’t the case, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the artist with a distinctive stylization is inferior, a child scrawling its own drivel rather than appreciate the masters. I suspect that’s the real story of the early 20th-century fascination with African art, among modern artists (and hateful back-reaction on the part of the racist mainstream).

For Africans, artifacts like this head are of course hugely important in trying to get a sense of history, and thence self-identification. How do you know who you are, if you don’t know where you came from and what happened there? (Or, put another way: in The Two Towers Treebeard explains that he can’t say his name to the hobbits in Old Entish, the language he uses to speak to other trees, because his name is the story of his life, everything that has ever happened to him, every squirrel that’s ever run through his leaves, and thus merely to say his name would take hundreds of years.) The Ife Kingdom where this head was created didn’t leave us any writing, so we know very little about them, historically speaking. But you don’t create a masterwork of art like this without a strong, vigorous culture. A tantalizing glimpse of something mighty interesting going on there at one point.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

62. Hebrew Astrolabe (Spain, AD 1345-1355)

The convivenzia.
The beautiful astrolabe in this podcast, which features writing mostly in Hebrew but a bit in Arabic and also in medieval Spanish, gives MacGregor the opportunity to talk about the convivenzia, that wonderful Golden Age in medieval Spain when the three kindreds—Jews, Moslems, and Christians—lived together in comparative stability. All three groups preserved their own identities. I don’t believe there was much intermarriage, for example. But they also challenged each other to be their best, no monopoly on culture, here, and as a result there was a terrific flourishing of learning and good stuff like art, medicine, sanitation, etc. John Boswell, the great historian of same-sex unions in early modern Europe, had a book on the convivenzia, and gave a guest lecturer spot on it in a history class I took in college, many a long year ago. The astrolabe here is a pretty good example of the kind of learning and science/technology produced by such a forward-looking culture. MacGregor and his experts liken it to a smartphone, such as the one that created this blog (download my pictures and look at the metadata, you’ll probably find they were all taken in June of 2011 in London!) The astrolabe helped you figure out the time, your latitude & longitude, and various other astronomical and astrological calculations, drawn from Greek learning; MacGregor quoted an adorable letter, written by the adorable Geoffrey Chaucer, to accompany the gift of an astrolabe to his ten-year old boy, Louis, which explained how the device was to be used and pointed out that it might be a bit much for an intellect that that of the tender youth. And yet these kids nowadays are so much further along with the iPhones than we old geezers are!

The convivenzia lasted until the Reconquista, the “reconquest” of Spain by Catholics led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who drove out the Moslems and the (Sephardic) Jews, began the Inquisition, and, eventually, sent Columbus west and started the growth of the enormous Spanish Empire and the conquest of ‘New Spain.’ They did pretty well for at least a hundred years, until (say) Philip II and the Armada; after that, it seemed, they got bogged down with their colonies and European courtly politics. But MacGregor and indeed all of us must deplore their Reconquista, more than the Crusades a startling example of intolerant religion’s ability to destroy a terrific thriving culture. Could it happen here? Seems like it already is.

Monday, November 21, 2011

61. Lewis Chessmen (Norway?, AD 1150-1200)

The art of war.
MacGregor now jumps across the world to the Scottish Hebrides islands, where a famous chess set (you can buy a replica from the British Museum gift shop...or watch the life-size version kick butt on Harry Potter Part One), presumably created in Norway, turned up. He’s making another point about trade and the migration of cultures: here’s a board game, invented in India, the rules set down in Persia, built and traded and played way over on the other side of the world. Admittedly, it’s a great game, and wherever human beings engage in war they understand and get excited about chess. MacGregor plays some footage of Bobby Fisher, from the ‘60s, talking about how odd it is that the struggle between the US and Russia, the entire cold war, came to hinge on one game of chess.

One of the things that’s fun to follow is how chess pieces change from region to region and culture to culture—in India, the knights rode war elephants (where ours ride horses); in Persia, instead of a queen the king puts his vizier out in front of him (the queen, presumably, is off the board in his harem somewhere). Where modern chess sets have rooks, this Norwegian/Hebredian one has berserkers, the bear-hair-shirt wearing lunatics of Norse battlefields, driven mad by the furor teutonicus and their quest to die a death that will get them a quick Valkyrie-lift to Valhalla.

Friday, November 18, 2011

60. Kilwa Pot Sherds (Tanzania, AD 900-1400)

Indian Ocean Trade Routes!
Here are some pieces of broken pottery found on a beach in Tanzania. MacGregor uses them to make his point about trade, and the connections among cultures, because they’ve identified the origin of each individual piece: China (celadon pottery), Syria or Iraq, and a piece that was locally produced, here in East Africa, using imported techniques but local designs. That Indian Ocean is just a great big bathtub, and people and cultures and ideas slosh back and forth all over it. I remember feeling that way when I first spent some time in Honolulu, that it was a little like the drain at the bottom of the tub, that all the water in the Pacific, and all the muck floating in that water, eventually had to pass through this location.

Waikiki, with the rest of Honolulu and the military base in the distance. "You will never find a more wretched hive"...not even in Florida.

That sounds uncharitable. The names of the cities along the East African coast there on the Indian Ocean are well-known: Mogadishu, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, not to mention the Swahili language that developed there. Historically these places were closely connected with India and Indonesia because the way the winds work in that ocean, you dash across and then wait six months before they push you back the way you came. While you’re there, your cultures intermingle: people get married, share recipes, teach each other how to make pots, etc. It ends up being a great melting pot, a mixing bowl, albeit the eastern version: I think of the Arabian Nights/Gozzi-inspired opera Turandot, in which the princess in Beijing has recently hosted (and killed) suitors from Persia, Kirghiz, Samarcand, and other far-flung places. They may all seem exotic to us; what’s interesting is that they may also be exotic to each other, although within reach. It’s all relative, and anyway, once you get there, don’t you think it’d just be a beach?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

59. Borobudur Buddha Head (Indonesia, AD 780-840)

Java! Here’s a lovely head of the Buddha from the great ruined temple at Borobudur, on the Indonesian island of Java. I confess shame-facedly that I didn’t know about this temple, apparently considered one of the seven wonders of the world, before listening to this podcast. There you go, pushing back boundaries of what we know.

The Temple at Borobudur

MacGregor uses it because he’s interested here in trade in and around the world of the Indian Ocean, and 1200 years ago Indonesia was still a happening place. (Also, it sounds like he went there on vacation, because part of his podcast claims to have been recorded on location.) Buddhism, which got started up in northern India, of course spread around India and China and Japan, but it swept down through Sri Lanka and these places, too. There’s an irony—he remarked on it before—in advanced trade and fancy architecture making possible a glorification of a religion devoted to simplicity and nothingness.

The architecture of the temple itself is set up as a Buddhist journey; six square(ish) platforms topped by three round ones, and you journey up to the top as if you’re taking a quest in search of enlightenment. Apparently, it’s a pilgrimage site for Buddhists to this day. The whole thing is sprinkled with statues of the Buddha; the one in the British museum was brought back by Lord Raffles, who presided over the island in a brief moment of British ascendancy over the Dutch in the East Indies. Raffles apparently wanted to promote this site, and indeed all Javanese culture, back in the west as a worthy peer and alternate to ancient Greco-Roman civilizations. It seems like that work still continues. I’ll get there someday...MacGregor did.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

58. Bronze Mirror (Japan, AD 1100-1200)

Japan in Isolation!
What, you say? These don’t look like mirrors? They’re bronze and, at one time, were polished so that they worked as reflective surfaces; modern mirrors, using glass on top of a shiny reflective surface, didn’t evolve until Venice during the Renaissance. These objects had, as they still have, an evocative, mysterious power: there’s something magical about being able to turn light around, to look at yourself in reverse. In Japanese culture at the time, mirrors were used both for defense—shields, or ways of attracting good fortune—and feared because they might be portals for mischievous demons, or might bring about bad luck.

Historically, the thing that’s important about this episode is that Japan, situated way out at the eastern end of the inhabited world, has often cut off interactions with its big neighbors to the west (China and Korea) and established a policy of isolationism. Which then results in, I believe the word MacGregor used was, an extremely 'idiosyncratic' culture. When you’re isolated, you can develop in directions different than the mainstream; when everything is connected, bland homogenization is the result. If much of Japanese culture seems baffling or odd to an outsider, this geography, not to mention this geographically-inspired policy, is the reason.

Much, however, is familiar; good old human nature at work. These mirrors, for instance, are manifestations of a courtly, aristocractic culture, which, like all such courtly, aristocratic cultures all over the world, became obsessed with aesthetics. The tea ritual, which developed in Japan into this elaborate thing, isn’t about replenishing the body’s water supply—it’s about showing off your grace and refinement and beauty. These mirrors would have been used by aristocrats in such a culture as part of looking their best when venturing forth in public. MacGregor draws our attention to The Tale of Genji, a novel from this Heian period, which (like Gilgamesh) I’ve always promised that someday I’ll get around to reading. I know a little more about the later, Samurai period, mostly from watching Kurasawa films...there’s a lot to know.

One other fun thing about these mirrors: they were found in a pool in a temple quite a ways from Kyoto, which was the capital at the time. People came and tossed their mirrors into the pool for good luck, as we toss coins into fountains. Who knows the origin of this human obsession with dumping magical things into water? The Nibelung horde, in the old legends, lies at the bottom of the Rhine for years and years; Tolkien buries his Silmarils one in the deep, one in a volcanic crack in the earth, and the other transformed into the evening star, shining on Eärendil’s brow forever. I’m sure Ishmael opines at length on what this means, somewhere in Moby-Dick.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

57. Hedwig Glass Beaker (Syria, AD 1100-1200)

Here’s an item MacGregor uses to tell the extremely complicated story of the Crusades, which of course had good and bad in it, like everything. The received wisdom I got as a kid, from my “History for 16 Year-Olds” book, was that the Crusades were a) romanticized into this absurd fantasy about Arthurian chivalry and the brave knights of Christendom and b) a complete disaster for Europe and a blot on the checkered history of Christianity.

And yet, in reality, from the Crusades came productive opportunities for connection, as well, such as joint Christian-Moslem kingdoms along the eastern Mediterranean, which flourished for decades: trade, learning, love, good things as well as hypocrisy and lots of unnecessary smiting.

The item here is a glass cup belonging (or at least attributed) to a Polish queen from the 1200s, a saint who allegedly used this cup, or others like it, to transform water into wine. It’s one of those late medieval Catholic saints’ relics, like the toes and cowls and foreskins that were sold all along the route to the Crusades, like t-shirts with lame slogans in white-trash vacation towns, to gullible Christian believers. And yet, the funny thing about this beaker is, the Europeans didn’t have very good glass-producing facilities: this was made in Islamic Syria. You can tell from the decoration, done as a mold that was then pressed into the hot glass—it’s entirely Moslem in theme and character. Didn’t stop holy holy Hedwig from performing Christian miracles with the glass. Or is the trade, the connection between disparate groups, itself the real miracle?

Monday, November 14, 2011

56. Vale of York Hoard (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Like Hoxne and the Hinton Mosaic, here’s a bit of local English history, buried by somebody fleeing the latest wave of raiders. The Romans and Anglo-Saxons were often fleeing the Vikings; in this case, it was Vikings who had settled somewhere in northern England, fleeing somebody else (or maybe other Vikings). Most settled agricultural societies are vulnerable to these waves of organized bandits coming in to pillage and destroy—Huns, Vikings, Mongols (they’ve got a whole shelf of movies about these groups over at Scarecrow Video). What distinguishes the Vikings was their admirable seamanship, in addition to their bloodthirsty rapaciousness. As an enthusiast for Wagner operas, I’ve studied some of the literature and the pagan religion relevant here, and have traveled a very little bit in Iceland and in Denmark. But the culture is quickly confused, since lots of non-Viking groups worshipped the same gods, told the same stories, and were at war with the Vikings.

This podcast begins with a few strains of Vaughan Williams’ "The Lark Ascending" to set the scene of idyllic English countryside, the place where this northern father-and-son team were out metal-detecting (a common pastime in England, I guess) when they uncovered this hoard. Both are interviewed; they have fun northern accents, and speak a very little bit about their dramatic discovery. But what interests MacGregor the most is, as ever, how cosmopolitan these Vikings were. It’s well-known that their ships made it to Greenland and colonized Vinland in what’s now Canada. The hoard here also proves that their trade extended from the North Sea to the Baltic, the main waters of Scandinavia, and thence down the Volga into Russia; Kiev is basically a Viking city. And the other way, too, around Gibraltar and up the Mediterranean. They ran a big trade in slaves, exporting people from Eastern Europe (the “Slavs”) to the West and to the Islamic World. I can’t help watching any movie with Vikings in it, and I’m here to recommend two extremely silly movies about this period, The Long Ships and The 13th Warrior. I believe it’s a little hard not to be silly here, because the reality of the Viking world is uncinematically grim.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

55. Tang Tomb Figures (China, about AD 728)

Mandarin bureacrats!
First of all, these figurines are mighty cool, I remember being struck by them and taking a photo the first time I ever came to the British museum, nine years ago. Secondly, this podcast is extremely funny, because of an interview MacGregor did with the man who edited the Obituaries page of the London Times for ten years. The tomb figures in this exhibit were accompanied by a self-serving obituary which reminded this Obits editor of the fatuous letters he often received, “As I am not getting any younger, I thought I’d help you start a file on me...” where people would write these absurd things about themselves, the example he gave beginning with something like “Though a man of unusual charm...” (Say it with a well-educated British accent, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.) He made an interesting point, that obituaries really are the very first crack at writing history—what we did, the story of our time. People make the mistake of thinking they’re part of the grieving process, written for the benefit of friends and family; but those people can make their own memorials. The public obituary is for the historians.

Anyways, if you study these figures carefully you’ll notice that this grave includes two helpful (?) monsters, two porters, camels, and—I love this—two bureacrats. Apparently there’s so much paperwork in the afterlife, it was important to bring along your staff to take care of it for you. That, or else people in Tang China were so used to having that much bureacracy and paperwork, it seemed like the thing to do. So the next time you’re filling out some dumb form on behalf of the new dustbuster you just bought, remember the Tang mandarins.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

54. Statue of Tara (Sri Lanka, AD 700-900)

Sri Lanka!
MacGregor points out that this boddhisatva, brought to London by some British empire guy who took much of ‘Ceylon’ from the Dutch, was originally considered too erotic to exhibit. But it’s one of those Buddhist/Hindu things in which the sexiness of the figure, or lack thereof, has little to do with its religious significance. (She does kind of look like a Disney princess, no?) This is a solid bronze figure of Tara, who’s both a Hindu goddess and this powerful Buddhist figure for compassion. (Is it easier to be compassionate if you’re that sexy?) The statue comes from ancient/medieval Sri Lanka, which has been staunchly Buddhist longer than most of the world, and MacGregor points out how Tara goes back and forth between categories that aren’t necessarily opposing: Buddhist and Hindu, Sri Lankan and South Indian, Singhalese and Tamil, herself as Tara and herself as manifestation of her consort, a male boddhisatva named Avalokiteśvara. I suppose there’s a bit of that in being a boddhisatva in general, in that you reached nirvana but then pulled back, stayed in this world in order to help others find their way. An avatar of one of the gods? Something like that. In any event, the balancing duality is of course an interesting history for a country that is still torn apart by civil war.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

53. Lothair Crystal (France/Germany, AD 855-869)

Lotharingia/Lorraine; or, Justice in Europe.
Here’s an interesting object from post-Charlemagne Europe, a crystal glass cut with the story of Susannah and the Elders from the Old Testament—given to his unjustly accused wife by Lothair, one of Charlemagne’s three heirs. MacGregor’s implication, in the podcast, is that had Lothair succeeded in getting rid of his wife—instead of having to apologize for mistrusting her and to take her back, which he did with the gift of this crystal—European history would be totally different, because there would be Spain, France, Lorraine, and Germany instead of the countries we now know. (Belgium, and probably the Netherlands, would have been part of Lorraine.) The moral of the story: royal divorces are bad news, no matter which way they go.

Charlemagne had put together the biggest European kingdom/empire since the fall of Rome, by early 800. He was king of the Franks, ruled from what’s now France, and I believe his language was related to modern French. But like so many good-sized kingdoms briefly assembled by a powerful warlord, it fell apart soon after he died; he split it three ways among his heirs, France to Louis the Bold, Germany to Charles the Bald, and the middle stuff to Lothair the Cuckold. (I’m just making those names up.) Lothair said he was a cuckold because his wife hadn’t given him a male heir, which was going to give his neighbors a chance to snap up his land when he died or weakened; like Henry VIII, he was hoping to get rid of her and try again with another wife. His torturers even got her to confess she had committed incest with her own brother, that’s why the marriage had to be canceled. But she appealed to the pope, who told Lothair to take her back; and not being ready to go the whole Henry VIII route, he did so, making up with this gift. France and Germany ripped his kingdom apart and fought about it for the next 1100 years; his name survives in the Lorraine of Alsace-Lorraine, that is the Rhineland.

The Susanna story is about a woman who is falsely accused of being a lewd person, and how the crafty lawyer turns the tables on her accusers and defends her honor. Unlike the well-known opera on the story about McCarthyism, the real version is a courtroom drama, about law. MacGregor reads the gift of this crystal as being Lothair’s testament to his wife, to the pope, to all of Europe: law is mightier than any king or kingdom; the king must be subject to the law. Which was probably a new idea in Europe at the time; and one with quite a bit of traction.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

52. Harem Wall Painting Fragments (Iraq, AD 800-900)

Arabian Nights! I mean, the Abbassids.
Here’s an odd podcast, because really, when you look at the object, it’s a whole lot of nothing. ‘Fragments’ is right; they have a few bits of tile, not mosaic, just some porcelain-like substance that was on the wall of the swanky Caliph’s palace at Samara toward the end of the Abyssinian dynasty of the Islamic Caliphs, just before the year 900. You can see a couple of people’s faces, a horse, and something that looks like Islamic decorative style (see the gold coin of the Caliph from a century earlier, when the capitol was Damascus. It went to Baghdad, then to Samara, and eventually split up into lots of fragments); but there’s not much to go on here, and of course MacGregor just loves it. This kind of situation, where you don’t have much evidence and so really have to look hard and think hard to figure out what the story was, this is where intellectuals and academics of every stripe truly turn on.

For the rest of us, the important thing about this world is this is the setting of the Arabian Nights; the golden age of the Islamic Caliphate became the romanticized fantasy of the East, the Orient, Ali Baba and Sinbad, the Thief of Baghdad and Aladdin, Magic Flute and Turandot, and Hollywood schlock from The Garden of Allah to The Prince of Persia. One of my all-time favorite Arabian Nights fantasies was the first collaboration (I think) between Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite living writers, and P. Craig Russell, my favorite illustrator. In a Sandman story, Gaiman exaggerated the difference between the fantasy Baghdad, which Russell then illustrated up the wazoo, and the grim reality of modern Baghdad, which Russell gave us in a few, brief, spare, elegant panels.
Fantasy Baghdad from P. Craig Russell & Neil Gaiman's "Ramadan"

And yes, the history got really obscured; McGregor pointed out that after the Caliph moved from city to city, building gorgeous palace after gorgeous palace in Islam’s golden age, Samara went away but nothing much happened in Baghdad until Gengis Khan destroyed the city, razed it to the ground, four or so centuries later. (And since then, no one has conquered Baghdad...or Afghanistan, for that matter.) What would happen if we tried to inform our love and delight in the fantasy Arabian Nights world with a few more facts about the real Abyssinian dynasty?

The harem, for instance. It’s interesting and worth knowing that the women of the harem were comparable to geishas, as one of MacGregor’s experts points out here; trained to be well-rounded companions, musicians and dancers and sparkling conversationalists, so that when you came back to hang out at the harem, pleasure and diversion were the way of things. MacGregor is pretty up front about there being beautiful boys in a harem, as well as women, and there’s certainly plenty of male-male action in the Arabian nights, although in the ones I’ve seen (I certainly haven’t read the whole thing) it’s usually an evil wizard lusting after some pretty young thing. MacGregor theorizes that the wall fragments here were to be found in the harem, and originally depicted the kinds of people who’d be working there, the extra wives and eunuchs and so forth; he delights in the irony that images of those people (ie, not the ones in power) have not only survived, but emerged from the sacred hidden perfumed inner sanctum to be enjoyed here by all the world.

Monday, November 7, 2011

51. Maya Relief of Royal Bloodletting (Mexico, AD 700-750)

Mayans! Ancient American Savagery, Part Two. (Please go to the entry on the Moche Warrior Pot for Part One. More parts coming up when we get to Incas and Aztecs, keep your holt' on...)

This remarkable sculpture has a Mayan king and his queen—apparently it was a gift from him to her—and she’s pulling a thorny rope through her tongue, in a masochistic effort to cause herself pain. (See close-up.)

MacGregor can barely look at this object, you can tell from his podcast that it grosses him out and fascinates him in that upsetting way. Somehow, the queen’s suffering, her transcendental mastery of her own suffering, is borne in order to give her husband additional power. And indeed he was powerful, he reigned for 60 years in an out-of-the-way corner of Mexico. But you almost hear MacGregor going, “Now, I’m just a timid modern European...but what kind of a sick culture would not only allow this but make art out of it?”

I can’t really speak to the history, or even to masochism. But as one who grew up a coddled suburbanite, I can say that most of modern first-world life is effort spent to increase comfort and decrease discomfort. And it only goes so far. Eventually, you have to experience some discomfort, otherwise you aren’t really living life. This culture may have taken it to an extreme...but I wish somebody had told me that, when I was about 5, because I think I would have had an easier time maintaining my own health, etc. if I had really understood. It’s all there, in The Hobbit, the timid suburbanite who mostly doesn’t want any adventures because they’re deucedly uncomfortable and make you late for dinner. And then, once he toughens up a bit, finds out he can handle a lot of things he didn’t think he could survive.

Friday, November 4, 2011

50. Silk Princess Painting (NOT ON DISPLAY)

The Silk Road!
This unusual podcast, right at MacGregor’s halfway point, starts with him telling a cute story about a princess who smuggled silk-making technology away from her stingy father—in a large headdress—when she went to marry the prince of a distant kingdom, and that’s how they got the secrets of silk-making out of China. I couldn’t find the object in the museum, but MacGregor describes it as a little wooden panel with that story told, almost as a cartoon strip, as an aide for someone trying to recite it out loud. It’s a sweet story, reminiscent of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man (which he mentions) or, from my part of the world, that cute little scamp Raven stealing the light, which his greedy old grandfather keeps in a box in a box in an box and so on, so that the world is always dark and cloudy. Raven tosses the stolen sun up into the sky, creating summer in the Pacific Northwest; here’s that story, as told on a totem pole in Occidental Square in Seattle:

Well, the princess’s theft is more real, less cosmic, but it’s the same story. MacGregor’s version doesn’t tell us too much more about the characters or the significance of the theft. But I’m sure that, if/when it happened that silk-making technology escaped from China, it had economic significance for those concerned.

What MacGregor is really interested in, however, is the Silk Road—that fabled network of transportation, caravan routes, eventually train tracks, leading across the landmass, from Hong Kong to Istanbul. (Or...where does it go, exactly?) Yes, silk and other luxury commodities (such as frankincense from Yemen!) were traded on the great Silk Road, and over vast romantic distances; but the bulk of the traffic, like that on our highways, was more mundane and more significant—everyday items, stories, songs, practices, traditions. He likens the Silk Road to modern air travel, and even goes to Heathrow to get the sound of the busy airport on his podcast.

He also talks to Yo-Yo Ma, whose Silk Road Ensemble has put out some really snazzy albums over the past ten years. Ma is great, he’s poster-boy for the kind of cross-cultural bridge-building, integration project which is so dear to MacGregor’s heart, and I gotta confess I love it when he talks about the musician’s job as learning, learning, always learning. Yes, he says, we have to respect our traditions; but music is communication, it’s gotta be alive, and there are so many people to speak with, make music with, learn from. And MacGregor plays a little sting of his music. Ooo! Let’s go listen to some now.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

49. Roof Tile (Korea, AD 700-800)

This rather charming gargoyle dragon-face went on a roof at the corner or the end of a line of tiles; they were mass-produced, hand-sculpted, and like all gargoyles had the function of scaring away evil spirits. This tile is in the British Museum’s hard-to-find Korean room; one of MacGregor’s experts comments on the artistry here being extremely Korean, that is, a little unrefined but alive, vivid, as opposed to a fantasy Chinese roof-tile which would probably be more perfect but without quite so much heart. Not being one to indulge in such cultural stereotypes myself, I simply quote this one.

Historically, this period in Korean history was evidently an important point in terms of defining the nation as something that was distinct from Tang China and Japan, the two neighbors who have forever sought to swallow Korea up. However, today the city where this tile originated is claimed by South Korea as the center of Korean identity, so of course the North Koreans disclaim its role in their heritage. In the history of a city, the roof tile marks an important turning point—when they get rich enough to stop putting thatch on their roof and start using tile. Cities burn down a lot less frequently when they’ve got tile roofs. Thatch was cheaper (then—nowadays, in cute little villages around England, it’s picturesque, but bloody expensive) but much more temporary.

Above: adorable thatched roof we found on a house in the cute fishing village of Dragør, Denmark

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

48. Moche Warrior Pot (Peru, AD 100-700)

Moche! Ancient American Savagery, Part One.
This fascinating podcast starts with the fact that we all know the Aztecs and Incas, ‘cause they interacted with the Spanish during the Age of Exploration; we’ve even found about the Olmecs and Mayans, most of us. But nobody knows about the Moches, the civilization that had a big kingdom in pre-Incan Peru, about 200 BC to 600 AD. This little Moche warrior, like all things made by ancient cultures, is really a pot; it was found in a burial site, with lots of similar pots, and is really all anybody knows about the Moches. Their warriors apparently liked to bash people over the head with clubs. The pot is a complicated object, being hollow, and would have required several molds, painters, and skilled artisans to construct.

MacGregor has some evidence (he doesn’t name his source on this) that much Moche warplay was in the form of duelling, and whoever lost would then be sacrificed. He had a horrific list of the stuff they did to people when they sacrificed them, provided by a French archeologist who had uncovered a site where 70 or so men were gutted, drawn and quartered, beheaded, etc., and then the victor drank the blood of his vanquished enemy, perhaps from one of these pots. I wasn’t clear where he was getting all this information, but I suppose it’s consistent with what I’ve heard about the Mayans and the Aztecs...not to absolve how those civilizations were systematically eradicated by the Europeans, but that they were pretty nasty (though perhaps less imperialistic) groups themselves.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

47. Sutton Hoo Helmet (England, AD 600-700)

The story of this helmet has little to do with power and faith. But I was so glad to see it, because the previous time I had come to the British Museum it wasn’t on display. It acquired iconic status for me because it’s on the cover of my dual-language edition of Beowulf translated by Howell D. Chickering, which I had studied in college (though not Gilgamesh). And a few years ago, as we were driving from Aldeburgh down to Glyndebourne in pursuit of glorious opera, we had driven right past the Sutton Hoo National Trust site and I forced my friend to go in with me and take a look, where the archeologists have reconstructed this burial of an Anglo-Saxon king from East Anglia from the 600s:

The idea of the burial mound was of course familiar from the barrow-wights of The Fellowship of the Ring, and I’m happy to say I later got involved with lots of them out in the world of Wiltshire crop circles. Here I was, standing outside the Sutton Hoo mound (or a reconstructed one, so we could see what it was like):

Getting back to MacGregor, in his typically helpful way he points out that the king buried here was rich indeed, and connected to powerful trade routes, since there were materials in his grave that had come from India or Sri Lanka. (Doesn’t explain what those were.) It’s a ship burial, which was probably a Viking custom...though not as wild as the flaming ship put out to see, à la Tony Curtis in The Vikings: “Prepare a funeral for a Viking!” And because of the way the ship would have been buried on land, an acid bath presumably disintegrated the body that was buried there, along with other organic items. The helmet is in pretty good shape, all things considered; their helmet-ologists at the British Museum have built a reconstruction of what they think it might originally have looked like, and this one is exhibited nearby:

Anyway, the Sutton Hoo burial, unearthed in 1935, was definitely the northern version of King Tut’s tomb. It’s from that site that they learned most of what they know about the people who lived in England between the Romans and the Normans, the people that gave us Beowulf. MacGregor’s special guest here was the Irish poet and Beowulf translator Seamus Heany, who reads a bit of his own translation (I think it’s a passage where Hrothgar gives Beowulf a helmet as thanks for his having killed Grendel). I don’t know Heany’s translation; I’ve always been a bit puzzled that an Irish poet, who presumably draws his poetic ancestry from the Celtic tradition, would have this connection to the Anglo-Saxon, since they were the enemy. Although...the Anglo-Saxons were enemies of the Vikings, which is also a bit puzzling, since they would have spoken similar languages and worshipped similar gods. So I don’t know. Which is more English? Beowulf, a Christian poem about ancient Danes that became popular among the Anglo-Saxons in England; or the Arthur material, French poems about pseudo-historical Celtic/Roman folk that inspired a lot of readers a thousand years after the facts were all forgotten?