Saturday, May 26, 2018

Beginning of Summer in the Garden

Valencina de la Concepción: Copper Age Spain

Valencina de la Concepción is a town in southwestern Spain that sits on top of an amazing archaeological site dating to between 3000 and 2000 BCE. That covers the beginning of the Bronze Age, dated in Spain to around 2200 BCE, and the preceding Copper Age or Chalcolithic period. One of the many famous artifacts from the site is this carved slate owl, which now serves as the emblem for the town.

A lot of archaeology has been done here, probably more than on any other site of that period in Spain. But the site is huge and very complex. Estimates of its size range from 300 to 450 hectares, or 750 to 1100 acres. Much of the archaeology has been of the "rescue" type, that is, archaeologists hopping in after another pit full of bones was turned up while somebody was digging a foundation or utility trench. (Remember there is a modern town on top of the site.)

It seems to be a running joke among Spanish archaeologists that the community at Valencina de la Concepción consisted entirely of pits and ditches; by one estimate there should be around 40,000 in the whole site. Some of them have burials in them – at least 134 skeletons have been recovered from the site – while others do not. In general, there is not much difference between the pits and ditches that contain skeletons and those that do not. But a great deal of ordinary domestic trash has been found on the site, which certainly makes it look like people lived there.  That is, the place was obviously a site of great ritual importance, but it was also a town. Like Jerusalem, say.

The most famous elements of the site are two megalithic tombs known as La Pastora (the shepherdess) and Matarrubilla.  These are "Tholos" constructions, that is, a long tunnel led to a round burial chamber. The gallery at La Pastora is 140 feet (43 m) long. Recent studies of the mass of radiocarbon dates from the site suggest that these tombs were built between 2700 and 2500 BCE. La Pastora was thoroughly looted a long time ago, so not much is known about it contents. Matarrubilla was excavated in 1910, and reported finds include gold, ivory, and "green stones."

In 2007 a truly extraordinary find was made in Valencina de la Concepción: another tholos. This one had collapsed in the distant past and had not been completely looted, and it held wonderful things. Excavation went on until 2010, and detailed analysis of the finds is just now coming out.

This tomb seriously needs a cool name, because the archaeological publications refer to it as "Structure 10.049 of the PP4-Montelirio sector" and none of the newspaper accounts I have seen suggest it has any other. It was probably built between 2850 and 2700 BCE. (reconstruction above)

Within the main chamber was the burial of one male "prince" and about two dozen other people. Their skeletons had been disturbed and not all of the burials in the crowd could be properly analyzed, but news accounts from the time of the excavation reported that all were women. The latest statement from the excavators is that two are teenagers, while the rest all are between 20 and 35 years of age; 15 are women, and five could not be identified.

The prince had an astonishing collection of artifacts, like this crystal dagger with an elephant ivory handle and belt plate.

Crystal arrowheads

And a crystal spear head. So a complete set of crystal weapons.

The subsidiary tomb contained a single male, 17-25 years old. An elephant tusk was laid above the young man’s head. Other finds include a set of twenty-three flint blades and several ivory artifacts.

DNA study of the skeletons is under way, so we should soon know if this really was a prince and a retinue of women, and perhaps a lot of other things. It's an extraordinary site, from the time when, it seems, princely dynasties first established their hold on western Europe. Amazing.

Ivory figurine from Valencina de la Concepción

Centrists and Democracy

In polls, support for democracy has been declining in both the US and Europe. You might think the ones turning against democracy were extremists of the right or the left, but no:

I suppose this is because self-declared centrists include a lot of people who think the solutions are obvious and it's only partisan bickering that keeps us from enacting them. Which is why I prefer "moderate" as a label for myself; I don't think the solutions are obvious or always in the middle.

Friday, May 25, 2018


Every once in a while a little story comes along to remind me how hard the people who make to the top of most fields work. This is a memory of novelist Philip Roth:
I remember when Philip Roth told me he’d stopped writing fiction. He was talking with my wife and me, and — looking honestly happy and relaxed about his new situation — he said, “Now I can have a glass of orange juice in the morning and read the newspaper.” And I remember thinking, You could have had your orange juice after “Portnoy’s Complaint” or “The Ghostwriter,” that you probably earned at least a scan of the A-section by book 10 or 12 or 14. . . .

Philip once told me about finishing a novel, and how, with a new book under his belt and nothing to do, he’d walked out the door of his Manhattan apartment to the American Museum of Natural History, a few steps away. He’d strolled around the displays and told me that, standing in the museum’s Hall of Ocean Life, he’d gazed up at the giant model of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling and thought, “What am I supposed to do, look at a whale all day?” And so he went back up to his apartment and started writing again.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Roderick Mead

Roderick Mead (1900-1971) was an American painter and lithographer who spent much of his life in Carlsbad, New Mexico. St. Michael and the Dragon, 1939.

Horned Animals, 1954

The Creation of Eve, 1942

The Edge of the Sea, c. 1960.

The Seventh Angel Revelations XVI

The Standard 21st-Century Advice, Royal Wedding Edition

Our contemporaries never, ever get tired of saying this.

Reconstructing the Ishtar Gate

Behold the famous Ishtar Gate from Babylon, built by Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned 605-562 BC) and reconstructed in Berlin's Pergamon Museum. If you're like me, you may have wondered how authentic this is. Because, let me tell you, nothing comes out of the ground looking like this.

Incidentally that is actually just the front part of the gate; the back part was too big to ship to Berlin.

Babylon was excavated from 1900 to 1917 under the direction of Robert Koldewey of the German Oriental Society. In 1912 Koldewey wrote a book about his work so far, which was translated into English and is now free to everybody at I read the whole thing, and my post on the overall story of the Babylon excavations is here.

While I was reading Koldewey's book I paid particular attention to the account of the Ishtar Gate, which gets a whole chapter, with another for the processional way that led to it. That was actually the place where Koldewey began his excavations, and it was fragments of blue enameled brick he found on the surface that made him particularly want to dig in Babylon. I discovered that while, of course, the whole thing did not emerge from the ground intact, quite a lot of it did.

Koldewey's section through the gate. As is often the case with archaeology, we have a very clear idea of the shape of the foundation, and in this case this walls have been preserved to a remarkable height.

But that still doesn't get us to the top; how did Koldewey know what the tops of the walls and towers looked like? So far as I can tell, he did not. Archaeologists can often guess at the height of walls from the amount of rubble, but at Babylon the upper layers had been mined for bricks for 2,000 years, so that would not be very reliable. And sometimes you can tell a lot about a building from particular cut stones or shaped bricks, but that does not seem to be the case at Babylon, where the bricks were all made to standard shapes and sizes.

There are Assyrian reliefs that show Mesopotamian city walls, and some of them look like the walls that Koldewey gave to Babylon, so maybe he got the idea from these. I suppose it is also possible that in the mass of rubble that surrounded the gate there were big chunks of still-mortared brick forming at least one of the crenellations, but if so Koldewey doesn't mention it. (Nebuchadnezzar's masons used a sort of asphalt for their mortar, made with tar that oozed out of the ground over what are now famous oil fields.) Come to think of it, Babylon had miles of walls, so it would not be at all surprising if such a chunk survived somewhere. Perhaps the answer is buried somewhere in Koldewey's final excavation report.

Koldewey did learn in great detail about the sculptures of the gate and the processional way that led up to it, and in fact he found dozens of nearly complete versions. This is a Sirrush, a "walking serpent," the beast sacred to Marduk; excavation photo, drawing from Koldewey's book, and as displayed in Berlin.

Bulls. Notice that these are made of molded bricks, so that all are identical, or at least all the ones walking in the same direction. Koldewey thought that each started with a sculpted original, and the molds for the bricks were made by pressing clay against it. That would be a tricky process, but given that Nebuchadnezzar II built like a madman through his whole long reign, almost all in brick, the brickmakers of his time were probably as expert as any before or since.

And one of the lions from the processional way.

So the reconstructed gate is 90% original about halfway up. Above that it may be largely imaginary, although it is built of original Babylon bricks. The wonderful sculpted animals are as real as anything you see in a museum. I come to the end of this exploration of Babylon feeling reassured more than worried; Koldewey and his crew did an amazing job, and the maps on which all our reconstructions of Babylon are based are as good as it gets. The tops of the buildings are a lot less certain than the bottoms, but that is just always the case in archaeology.


When you feel perpetually unmotivated, you start questioning your existence in an unhealthy way; everything becomes a pseudo-intellectual question you have no interest in responding to whatsoever. This whole process becomes your very skin and it does not merely affect you; it actually defines you. So, you see yourself as a shadowy figure unworthy of developing interest, unworthy of wondering about the world – profoundly unworthy in every sense and deeply absent in your very presence.

– Ingmar Bergman

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Iglesia de la Compañía, Arequipa, Peru

Built by the Jesuits, 1590 to 1698. Above, the famous entrance.


Overall view. The style of this church was very influential, and several others were built in the next century in this Indianized Baroque idiom.

In the cloisters.

Side entrance, now closed off.

Interior, including the gold-covered altar.

Ceiling of a side chapel.

St. James in glory.

Lovely photo from this blog, which has many more images and some history.