Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Rock Art of Val Camonica

The Val Camonica is a valley in northern Italy that is mysteriously full of petroglyphs. I have long been fascinated by the rock art found in certain Alpine valleys, always places where few people actually lived, and I mentioned Val Camonica on this blog back in 2011. Then last month my elder daughter and I were exploring the amazing warehouse of Second Story Books in Rockville, Maryland when I stumbled on a book I had never heard of: Camonica Valley by Emmanuel Anati (1961, French edition 1960). Anati was a French scholar who led the major effort to document and understand these carvings, carried out mostly between 1954 and 1958. In four years Anati's team recorded nearly 600 carved rocks bearing more than 20,000 images, an extraordinary document of the past.

Of course one of the biggest challenges in understanding rock art is figuring out how old it is. Anati's team made a lot of progress by documenting hundreds of places where later carvings were superimposed on earlier ones. (See above; the original isn't much clearer, which is the point.) They also compared the images to rock art from other parts of Europe, to objects and images from Mycenaean Greece, and to what was known about the prehistoric past of the Alps. They believed that the carvings began around the beginning of the Bronze Age or perhaps in the very late Neolithic, around 2200 BC. Many were made in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and a few as late as 500 BC, since there are a couple of texts in Etruscan. There is quite a bit of guesswork in any such chronology but I am impressed by the work Anati's team put in and am willing to put provisional trust in their conclusions.

The oldest carvings, as you would expect, include a lot of animals. This is the oldest tradition of figurative art, connected by many people to hunting magic. The Greek myths show us that hunting remained prominent in Mediterranean religion and ritual long after farming and fishing became the main food sources, so the prominence of hunting scenes in Bronze Age rock art is hardly surprising.

Anati glosses this image as "a herd of deer pursued by an ox-headed god with a double lance, standing on a horse hobbled as always when bearing a god."

Another challenge of interpreting rock art is guessing which assemblages are random and which are scenes intended by the carvers. There were a limited number of suitable boulders near the sacred sites, which is why there are overlapping carvings. A good example of an ambiguous scene is above. (Notice the daggers, a common symbol from the late Bronze Age.)

There are also several hybrid figures like this stag man, variously interpreted as gods, spirits, or priests. I connect them to the very old European tradition of donning animal or monster costumes at certain holidays.

One of the puzzles of European rock art is the prominence of scenes widely seen as representing sun worship. Not that there is anything weird about sun worship, it's just that older European myth preserves essentially none of it. It is not prominent in Indo-European lore, nor was it a big deal among the Neolothic Anatolians who brought farming to Europe. (Think about Çatalhöyük, lots more bulls and vultures than sun symbols.) According to Anati, it dominates the earlier religious scenes at Camonica. A "horned god" figure emerges later, and toward the end of the series we see what looks like a warrior hero figure, perhaps like Hercules or one of the other semi-divine heroes so prominent in stories from the Iron Age. 

Anati notes that the largest gatherings depicted on the rocks are all scenes of religious worship; he calls this a procession.

This early scene is called The Wedding. Notice the very ancient Neolithic symbol of the bull's head at the far right, below the couple.

Later carvings depict a diversity of human acts. Including war, of course.

But also craftwork. Here are two looms.

Smiths at work; the lower one appears to be wearing a headdress like those shown on many priests. This may be a literal hat or may be a sign that something divine or magical is taking place.

Constructing a wagon.

Several labyrinths  of the Troy Town type are known. Notice that this one appears to have a face in the center.

Anati thinks this represents a being, shown more fully on this example, which he connects to the myth of the Minotaur.

My favorite images are the ones that show houses. It's hard to know exactly how to interpret these but they certainly have multiple stories, with stairs or ladders to the upper levels. There are also drawings that seem to be schematic representations of small towns, with scratches that may represent property lines or the layout of fields.

These carvings are a wonder, an extraordinary window into the ancient past, and Anati's book is a treasure house for anyone who finds them fascinating.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Marcus Aurelius in Yorkshire: the Ryedale Hoard

Back in 2020, a metal detectorist unearthed a small group of Roman objects now called the Ryedale Hoard. After several twists and turns it now seems that a wealthy enthusiast has bought the objects and placed them with the Yorkshire Museum.

The bust, which is 5 inches (13 cm) tall, depicts emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180 AD. It has a socket in the base for attachment to a rod or scepter. The horseman may depict the god Mars, who was often shown in this way. The partial horse was the handle of a key. One theory is that the hoard represents items associated with the imperial cult that were ritually buried once Marcus Aurelius was no longer in power.

To me the most intriguing object is the plumb bob. 

The best guess is that it was part of a land surveying instrument called a groma. The Romans were a little obsessed with surveying. The word "groma" was also used for the center point of a military camp or town, laid out working from that point. The building of perfectly rectangular camps and perfectly straight roads was a symbol of Roman power; surveying the land was part of ruling it. You could imagine that this might lend magical associations to surveying, and that surveying instruments might end up being used for divination or casting spells. Sadly I can't find any evidence that this was so. But it certainly makes sense that a groma might be part of the gear deposited in a temple to a warrior emperor like Marcus Aurelius.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Early Summer in the Garden




Whatever these are – I have no idea.

A glimpse of the little wildflower meadow in the back yard.

First peonies.


Links 20 May 2022

Rembrandt, Child Learning to Walk, c. 1656

If you're wondering where I've been, I've had Covid, along with three of my children. I was miserable for a few days, but for the past week I have been mainly weary. Slow recovery continues.

Freddie de Boer essay on his miserable experience as a graduate student in writing studies: "You can’t generate a shared commitment to creating knowledge when no one has any interest in a common set of academic concerns."

Scott Siskind discusses the lavender extract Silexan as a treatment for anxiety, says it has promise.

Should we call the Neolithic temple builders of eastern Turkey a "civilization"?

Lisa Nilsson's extraordinary work in paper ("quilling"), Grand Jardin.

Freaky 3-minute ad for US psychological warfare soldiering.

Interesting Catholic review of a book about sex by a radical feminist.

The crazy story of Jane Stanford, wife of Stanford founder Leland Stanford, probably poisoned by one of her servants, although this was never proved. Review of a new book at the NY Times, Stanford magazinewikipedia.

Time spent in outer space has serious impacts on the brain.

The latest from Norway's melting glacier is this perfectly preserved arrow.

Forest growing in a giant Chinese sinkhole.

A ray of light in Azovstal, May 14

Ukraine Links

Teaser for a documentary on Ukraine's anti-fascist football hooligans, now battling Russia in the front lines. Of course they used to spend their time fighting against Ukraine's right-wing football hooligans. Now both fight the Russians. Which explains why warrior societies tolerate a lot of bad behavior from young men.

Institute for the Study of War report on the infamous attempted river crossing.

With Russian troops pushed back out of artillery range, life is returning to Kharkiv. The administration celebrates by planting flowers

Old ad for the Ukrainian ground forces, translated into English, with a hymn to the shovel.

Weirdly compelling 3-minute video of two Ukrainian soldiers trapped in a trench by heavy fire.

The latest from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: "We are shocked by the scale of Russophobia out there.”

Tire guy Trent Trelenko goes highbrow, says that Russia is due for a "Lanchester square law curve collapse." He says the Lanchester square law uses differential equations to analyze two armies in competition, and that the trend lines predict complete collapse of the Russian army in late June. He says his earlier prediction that Russia would run out of trucks to support offensive operations has already come true and explains the stalling of their offensive.

The EU idea of a real burn: asked about Russian comments concerning Ukraine's entry to the EU, spokesman Oleh Nikolenko said, “Russia has not reached historical development high enough to reflect on European values.” 

Igor Girkin proclaims that Russia's Donbas offensive has failed.

On the other hand Russia forces attacking from Popasna have made their most significant progress of this offensive so far.

Russian defense journalist Mikhail Khodaryonok calls for realism on Russian state television, says Russians must recognize that their situation is bad.

Analysis of a captured Russian document on losses from the 1st Guards Tank Army as of March 15, showing nearly as many vehicles lost as men; it seems that in the initial invasion these units had a lot of men just walk away from vehicles that got stuck in the mud.

Interview with the mayor of Odesa, formerly a pro-Russian politician in bed with Moscow gangsters, now a patriotic stalwart. Putin used to have a lot of allies in Ukraine, but now most have turned against Russia.

The basic strategy of Ukraine is "corrosion."

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Ukraine's Million Man Army

Ukraine's defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov made some comments last week that caught my attention. He said that in preparation for a "new, long phase of war" Ukraine will arm a million soldiers. The equipment for this huge army will come from foreign weapons and "stimulating Ukrainian producers." Reznikov also echoed some comments made by President Zelensky, that Ukraine will keep fighting until it takes back every square inch of its territory.

First, I wanted to note how hard it is to actually destroy a modern industrial economy. Russia has struck many of Ukraine's older, larger defense factories with missiles, doing heavy damage to them. But reports indicate that Ukraine's overall production of arms is rising rapidly. Items I have seen mentioned include helmets, bulletproof vests, and small-arms ammunition. We know that Ukraine continues to manufacture its own drones and missiles as well. Just as in World War II, it is proving very difficult to disarm any nation by bombing its factories. Most industrial production can be dispersed among many small facilities with only a small loss in efficiency.

Second, this business of raising a million-man army to fight for every square inch of land makes me queasy. I of course fully support Ukraine's war against Russia's perfidious invasion, which only gets more disturbing as time goes on. The theft of tens of thousands of Ukrainians, including children, strikes me as a new level of atrocity.

It is nonetheless possible for even a just war to turn to evil. 

Consider this scenario: in a few months, Russian advances have completely stopped, while Ukraine continues to make incremental reconquests in some areas. With Ukraine mainly on the offensive, the casualty ratio has reversed, with Ukraine suffering most combat losses. Russia signals its willingness to make peace with only modest territorial gains. Ukraine insists on pushing forward until every square inch of its territory is recaptured, no matter the cost.

You can say, Ukraine is a democracy, that's their call, but as with any nation in a terrible war the right of dissent has already been curtailed and this could easily go further.

What would the west's responsibility here be? Public support for providing more arms would probably fade; in fact I think Biden sought such a big package now because he knows that getting additional support will grow increasingly difficult. Emanuel Macron already seems to be thinking about this scenario, positioning himself to broker a peace once the two sides are fought out. 

But suppose Ukraine fights on anyway, supported by the old Warsaw Pact states. How far would this have to go, with how many losses, before it came to seem worse than occupation? Thinking back to World War I, most of us do not have fond thoughts about the French commanders who sent tens of thousands to their deaths to drive the Germans away from Verdun. There is a horror to even the most necessary war.

Obviously I am getting far ahead of events, and there are much more immediate worries. But some of the words I am hearing bother me, and it does sometimes happen that even a very good goal turns out to be not worth the cost.

NASA FIRMS and the Battles along the Seversky Donets River

One of the new tricks that allows civilians to track the fighting in Ukraine is NASA's FIRMS system, which uses satellite data to automatically track fires around the world. Observers have noted that the system recognizes heavy fighting as fires. This isn't perfect, of course, and there are also natural fires in Ukraine even in the middle of a war. But as I said observers have found a pretty good correlation.

These four images, from May 12 to 15, show the "fires" identified by the system in eastern Ukraine. You can see in this first image intense fighting all along the Seversky Donets River, reflecting fighting over the river crossings that we have already discussed.

That fighting peaked on May 12, then declined.

Reaching a pretty low level yesterday and today.

As Szopen pointed out in a comment, there are lot of questions about what exactly happened at these crossings, including the scale of Ukrainian losses. But the FIRMS data confirms very heavy fighting, and nobody seems to be claiming any major Russian advance. Heavy Russian losses have been confirmed by some generally pro-Kremlin sources, such as Igor Girkin and telegram accounts associated with the Wagner Group. So that there was a battle, in fact a series of battles, seems certain, and the front line seems not to have moved much.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Links 13 May 2022

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of Dr. Boucarda, 1928

A chance sighting of a Renaissance cipher at an antiquarian book fair inspires a short article about Lady Mary Wroth, England's first female author of fiction.

Sinn Fein wins the most seats of any party in Northern Ireland elections. They are not the majority but at this rate they soon will be. Anybody know why the leaders of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland are all women?

Smithsonian article on Ann Axtell Morris, pioneering female archaeologist in the US Southwest.

Using fracking technology for green power, in the form of deep geothermal wells and deep underground pumped water electricity storage. A MIT report of 2006 said that the only obstacle to economically viable geothermal power was better drilling technology, and thanks to the fracking boom that technology now exists.

How Jamaican slaves supplemented their clothing, and their dignity, with lacebark.

Victo Ngai's fantastic illustrations.

Was it cotton (and slavery) that generated US economic growth in the 19th century? This study finds that "slavery and the shift of the slave-owning South to cotton production early in the century had relatively little effect on growth for the nation as a whole." 

Some cool finds in the necropolis of a farming settlement in Normandy, 560-240 BC.

First photograph of the glowing dust cloud surround the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Using soldiers' graffiti to study early modern ships in East Africa.

Th pandemic was a disaster for college students: less learning, less engagement, more cheating, more dropping out. This is partly because many professors relaxed requirements or lowered standards. So we now face the question: can we bring standards up to where they were? Or are students unwilling to do it? (NY Times

Ukraine Links

Above, one of history's strangest press conferences, featuring Charles Michel of the EU, Oleksiy Reznikov (Ukraine’s defense minister), and Denys Shmygal (Ukraine’s PM). The veteran Ukrainian reporter who posted this says he can't even tell who is who.

Russian Victory Day salads.

The religious split within Orthodox Christians that parallels the political conflict between Ukraine and Russia. (Washington Post)

Social media offensive from Ukraine, featuring a very amusing video.

A telegram channel associated with the Wagner Group says Russia must declare a mass mobilization or they will lose the war; hundreds of thousands of additional troops are needed.

The US supplies Ukraine with something called the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System.

Ukraine's drone force Aerorozvidka is destroying Russian tanks with obsolete Soviet anti-tank grenades. More on drone-dropped weapons here.

Interview with Andrei Soldatov, a journalist with lots of contacts within Russian security services, about the "blame game" in Russia. Soldatov says the Russian army's line is that they need many more resources because they are really fighting a war against NATO, and some officers are frustrated that they can't inflict losses on NATO in return.

Many European leftists have take a pacifist line on the war in Ukraine, but not British Labour leader Jeremy Corbin. His main beef with UK policy toward Ukraine is that the UK is not taking in more refugees.

And what did Justin Trudeau do in Ukraine? Help Zelenskiy give a medal to Patron the impossibly cute bomb-sniffing dog.

Twitter thread describing an interview with a Finnish volunteer in Ukraine. He says they are more comfortable in Ukraine than NATO soldiers because in NATO they assume they will have air superiority and are freaked out by aerial attacks, whereas Finns have always assumed the Russians would rule the skies and train accordingly.

Interview with urban warfare expert John Spencer. He says there is no radical change in warfare, and tanks are still essential. He also says the current Russian offensive will "culminate" within weeks without reaching their goals.

The Donetsk Peoples Republic announced the loss of 1,536 killed since February 24, along with 6,217 wounded. Officially the DNR military only had 20,840 members when the invasion began.

Men in war: "I talked to a Ukrainian soldier on the front lines near Kharkiv today on the @walter_report. I asked Roman how morale in his unit was. He said it was great because his commander had told them they would all get a chance to kill Russians—and now they all had."

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

One Small Battle in Ukraine

On May 8, a Russian attempt to bridge the Seversky Donets river near Bilohorivka in Donetsk Oblast was defeated by Ukrainian forces, a single action in one day of fighting out of more than two months of war. But look at the scale of losses here.

Just from these drone photographs people have counted seven T-72 tanks, 31 BMP and MT-LB infantry fighting vehicles, five other armored vehicles, six trucks, and a work boat, plus the bridge itself. Note that if the turret is missing that means the ammunition in the vehicle exploded, killing the entire crew. Surely over a hundred men died here, perhaps many more than that, in this one small battle that probably lasted no more than a few hours. This is why most western experts say the Russian offensive is not sustainable and will run out of steam soon.

According to Ukrainian reports, most of this damage was done by artillery. Presumably it was guided by drones or forward spotters. Both sides can bring this kind of firepower down on any force that masses in the open.

Supposed Ukrainian account of the battle here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Donbas and Kursk

Fascinating briefing from the Austrian military, in German with English subtitles. The briefer compares the attempted Russian encirclement of Ukrainian troops in the Donbas with the German operation at Kursk in WW II, and finds that all the factors that led to Russian victory at Kursk also apply to the current fighting in the Donbas. In particular:

  • Both the Russians in 1943 and the Ukrainians today had exact prior knowledge of where they would be attacked;
  • Both defending armies prepared layers of defensive positions in advance; and
  • Both the Russians of 1943 and the Ukrainians today fight with "dogged determination"