Friday, December 30, 2022

Links 30 December 2022

Moche ritual garment, Peru,  4th Century AD

Google search trends for 2022.

Medieval cats. You may have heard that they were considered demonic or witchly, but really almost all of our depictions show them as pets or mouse-hunters.

Cut marks on 300,000-year-old bear bones suggest that Neanderthals skinned this bear to use its pelt for warmth.

The global supply chain mess, which was at its peak between October and December 2021, has resolved itself and we are back to a normal level of backlogs and delays.

The role of zero-sum thinking in American politics, confused essay but the topic is interesting to think about. For example, black Americans are more likely to believe that one person's gain is another's loss than white Americans.

In the NY Times, yet another call for the federal government to save rural America, for which we need a "policy renaissance", a "coherent federal rural policy," and "bold policy ideas." What those ideas might be, sorry, no clue. The notion that the government could somehow save all the fading towns in rural America is simply absurd. As the article notes, construction of a prison near one Pennesylvania town did nothing to reverse its decline.

Last week's blizzard dropped 43 inches of snow on Buffalo and has killed at least 27 people; the city experienced blizzard conditions for 37 hours straight, which may be a record, although nobody seems to have kept tract of that statistic.

The origin of Chicken Tikka Masala is disputed, although everyone agrees that it originated in Britain sometime between 1960 and 1980. One of the claimants to the creation was Pakistani chef Ali Ahmed Aslam, who ran a restaurant in Glasgow; he died this week.

How a community of Nubians brought to Uganda as mercenaries eventually became Ugandans.

Geolocation is becoming amazing.

Impossible colors.

And a cool color illusion.

A trick for beating the AIs that usually beat top human players at Go. It is important to note that even AIs that are generally strong and smart may have exploitable weaknesses like this. It is also important to note that humans also have exploitable weaknesses.

Houses on Lake Erie iced in after holiday blizzard.

Ukraine Links

Summary of the military situation after ten months: "All other factors remaining constant, the Russian military will struggle to recover offensive potential."

Russian blogger has some thoughts on artillery shell usage. And a video in which Wagner mercenaries complain that they have no ammunition, along with obscene abuse of the Ministry of Defense.

In a long post, Russian fighter Topaz says most of the mobilized soldiers are useless and the ammunition shortage is becoming critical.

Stories told by captured Russian soldiers about miserable conditions in the Russian Army.

Last week Putin raised the prospect of a negotiated peace in Ukraine, but then Lavrov made it clear that "negotiations" means Ukraine must accept Russia's territorial gains and demilitarize, or else "The issue will be decided by the Russian Army."

And Dmitry Medvedev's list of "predictions" for 2023. A lot of Russians seem to spend their time fantasizing about the collape of the West.

Twelve-minute combat video from Ukrainian special forces unit Kraken, includes treatment and evacuation of the wounded.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Antoine Oleyant and Drapo Vodou

Double Bossou; Bossou Ashadeh is a loa, the spirit of the deceased Dahomean king Tegbessou

Antoine Oleyant (1955-1992) was a famous maker of Drapo Vodou, or Vodou Flags. Like most things about Vodou –Voodoo, Voudon, etc. – the flags have a mixed origin. The form was copied in the 18th century from European flags, but the art style of the oldest surviving pieces clearly comes from Africa. Just where in Africa is disputed, but experts see elements that derive from the Ghana-Benin area and from the Congo. The images mainly represented the Iwa of Haitian religion, which combine the attributes of African gods with those of Christian saints. Modern flags use a lot of sequins, which people say began in the 1940s when some Haitian artists saw a Brazilian carnival troop perform in sequinned costumes.

The cross of Baron Samedi

The flags were made to be carried in the processions that are a key part of Vodou rites; these were mainly processions in a circle around the temple or outdoor worship site, not covering much distance, since after all when Vodou arose it was illegal and had to be kept secret. They were supposed to attract the attention and favor of the Iwa.

Damballa, one of the great loa, sky father and creator of life; traditionally he was associated with a white serpent, but this image also assimilates him to Jesus the shepherd

In the 1950s, collectors from North America and Europe began taking an interest in the flags and offering to buy them. Haitians responded by making them for sale. These days people say there is a strict division between drapo servis, made for use in rites, and flags made for sale or as works of art. One difference is that drapo servis are always square; another is that art flags have a much wider variety of subjects. But the drapo servis have also evolved in recent decades to use a lot of sequins and to have elaborate borders and so on, so I am skeptical that the division is strictly adhered to.

Baron Samedi, Lord of the Dead, Ruler of Cemeteries

Antoine Oleyant was part of a generation of flag makers who tried to elevate the form to an expressive art. He was eventually able to earn a good living from making flags, and these days they sell for up to $10,000. He was born in the mountain village of Plaisance du Sud but moved to Port-au-Prince as a teenager to train as a sculptor. He began making drapo Vodou in the 1980s. 

Another Cross of Baron Samedi; this measures 32x43 inches (81x109 cm), which is about standard for these works


Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Hurricanes and Past Climates

Hurricane tracks, 1851-2020

One of the main models used to predict how rising CO2 levels will impact the climate finds that rising temperatures should lead to more and more powerful hurricanes in the North Atlantic. Not all models show this, which we'll come back to in a minute, but anyway this connections is widely believed. After every hurricane somebody says that it was caused or worsened by climate change, and you can usually find people saying that things never used to be this bad. Is that so?

We have pretty good written records of hurricanes going back to the 1930s, and less good written records going back to 1851. These records do seem to show that 2000-2020 was a bad period. Of course 2022 was one of the weakest hurricane years on record despite being very warm in the North Atlantic, but nobody thinks the correlation is exact. But for something with such a big year-to-year variation, 90 years of data is not very much.

As it happens we have several methods we can use to estimate hurricane frequency and strength going back centuries. Hurricanes stir up the ocean floor and throw sand in crazy ways, and by coring into the bottoms of certain normally sheltered coves, or into "blue holes" in the Bahamas, you can find a record of how much sand was tossed around by storms at various times in the past. What do they show?

Hurricane proxy records from the Bahamas

The most studied place is the Bahamas, because it sees a bigger percentage of Atlantic hurricans than anywhere else. And Bahamanian records show that the past 150 years has been a relatively quiet period. If there is any correlation with temperature, it is negative; the Little Ice Age saw strong and frequent hurricanes, the Medieval Warm Period fewer and weaker ones.

Here are some other series from other locations, which as you can see show quite a bit of variation. But only one, a compilation of New England records, shows that the current period is a bad one for hurricanes.

This does not mean that climate change is a hoax etc., it just means that the climate is fiendishly complex and more atmospheric CO2 does not seem to correlate in a simple way with more storms. As to why cooler temperatures might correlate with fewer hurricanes, the author of the article from which I got all this data has a theory:

The compiled Bahamian records document substantially higher hurricane frequency in the northern Caribbean during the Little Ice Age, around 1300 to 1850, than in the past 100 years. 

That was a time when North Atlantic surface ocean temperatures were generally cooler than they are today. But it also coincided with an intensified West African monsoon. The monsoon could have produced more thunderstorms off the western coast of Africa, which act as low-pressure seeds for hurricanes.
So maybe the strength of the monsoon is more important than temperature, or maybe it is something else we know nothing about.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Llullaillaco, an Inca Burial in the High Andes

Besides their other talents, the Inca were remarkable mountaineers, able to climb the highest of the Andes and build things on top. That's Llullaillaco in the picture above, a volcano that rises to 22,109 feet (6,739 m). On top is the world's highest archaeological site. 

That site (above) is the burial place of three young people who were offered in sacrifice in a rite called capacocha. This word, rendered into Spanish with numerous spellings, seems to mean something like "royal obligation." The Spaniards wrote about it gleefully, of course, because nothing makes your enemies seem more evil than sacrificing children. But the Spanish sources make it clear that this was not a common thing. The only cases they knew of were performed after the deaths of Inca rulers or disasters like major earthquakes, and our sources say that it could only be done with the approval of the Inca himself.

The site was discovered in 1999, and the excavation was quite a feat. Just climbing up to the top of a 22,000-foot mountain is an achievement, let along spending two weeks there making a careful excavation. The site consisted of a platform made of gravel, surrounded by a stone retaining wall. There was no other marking of the burials, which had to be found by digging out the gravel. The three victims were a young woman about 14, a girl about 5 who is known as the Lightning Girl because she was struck by lighting and burned sometime after being buried, and a boy, also about 5. Wikipedia has pictures of the mummies if you want to see them; it surprises me that the display of the mummies in a purpose-built museum has not been more controversial, but I guess Peru is different from North America.

The victims were buried with lavish grave goods. The young woman wore this feather headdress, which has the same form as those worn by senior Inca officials and priests. You can see that the preservation is extraordinary.

Some of the items found near the Lightning Girl; notice the sandals, which were not on her feet. Small bags containing food and coca leaves were also placed with the burials.

One of the figurines, made of silver, llama wool cloth, and feathers, 23 cm tall (9 inches). 

Llama figurines buried near the young woman.

And a gold figurine buried near the girl.

Since the initial publication of these finds a lot of science has been thrown at them. We know that the victims were heavily drugged with alcohol and cocaine when they died, and that they had been taking a lot of cocaine for months before they were carried up the mountain. Their diets seem to have gotten much richer in their final months, with a lot more meat than they had eaten before; this confirms accounts saying the victims were treated with great respect before their deaths. They were not related. Spanish accounts say that the children were selected for their physical perfection, and that noble families from across the empire competed to have their children chosen, because of the honor it conferred on the family.

It is hard to imagine what any of this was like. First, the priests travelling the kingdom looking for suitable victims, a twisted version of those fairy tales in which they were seeking out a bride for the prince. Then the preparation of the victims, with a carefully chosen diet and a daily program of religious rituals lasting months. Meanwhile, men climbed to the mountaintop to build the platform and prepare the graves. 

At last the procession to the mountaintop, carrying the drugged children and the offerings, accompanied by music. Not much had to be done to kill the victims; at 22,000 feet, just leaving them on the ground scantily clad did the trick, if they had not died on the way up. Dead or dying, they were placed in the prepared graves, their gifts around them, and gravel piled over them. Their work done, the men marched back down the mountain toward warmth, oxygen, and lives that went on.

Sunday, December 25, 2022


Ocucaje is a district in southern Peru, in the desert strip between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. This is one of the driest places in the world. People were able to live there by combining irrigated agriculture, using rivers than run from the Andes down to the sea, with fishing in the extremely rich offshore waters. These days the area is wine country that sells "sun, sea, and wine" to tourists.

One of the main local centers of habitation surrounded the Hacienda Ocucaje, where the local Patron used to live and maybe still does. In 1901 an archaeologist named Max Uhle spent two months excavating in several cemeteries near the Hacienda. He shared his finds with the owner, and also purchased some other cultural materials from a local dealer. Apprised to the great value of what was buried around their fields, the owners turned to commercial archaeology as a way to supplement their incomes. Once Uhle was gone they returned to the cemeteries and began looting them. This seems to have been on a rather small scale until 1941, when an antiquities dealer name Pablo Soldi recruited a large crew and went at the job systematically. He had the contacts to move the pieces onto the global market, and they were scattered around the world. Because the place is so dry, and the cemeteries were placed in the desert beyond the cultivated fields, the preservation was extraordinary. The most valuable artifacts recovered were feather art like this panel and the headdress at the top of the post.

The tombs were rectangular constructions of adobe brick. The bodies had been exposed until they withered mostly away, and the mummified remains were wrapped into cloth bundles. The bundles were then decorated with feathers and covered with cloth. The tombs date to between 350 and 50 BC. Since then archaeologists investigating settlement sites have shown that around 350 BC the people of this region began leaving their small villages and congretating in walled towns; there is other evidence of warfare around that time, so that was probably what drove people to begin living behind walls.

Here is a mummy bundle cover or face now in the Met. Some of the best artifacts from Ocucaje ended up there or in the Textile Museum in Washington, DC.


Forehead ornament.

But feathers weren't the only remarkable finds. There was also, cloth, like this mantle.

And this border, which is one of the later finds, dating to the first century BC.

There were also remarkable ceramics, like this set, all from one tomb. Love the vessels shaped like feet. The fish shape is an orca, a common design element in the region down to contact.

Ceramic trumpet, in the Met.

Numerous vessels and some textiles depict the "Ocular Being," so-called because of the exaggerated face with staring eyes. Some carry trophy heads, like this one, and some have snake-like appendages with additional heads and eyes, like this one. If you look closely at the red mantle above you can see a bunch of these. Nobody knows what this is or what it might mean.

Ceramic motifs.

And pots from the late period, including a monkey effigy.

Its an amazing array of finds, especially considering that for the past 1500 years this has been a backwater where nothing much ever happened. Two millennia ago, things were different, and this small desert district was dominated by dynamic leaders who built new towns and extened their economic reach over the Andes to the districts where the birds who grew these feathers lived.


Ancient Peruvian Ceramics: the Nathan Cummings Collection (1966).

Peruvian Featherworks (2012)

Trafficking Culture

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Angels from Colonial Latin America

St. Michael, Cuzco School, c. 1700

Master of Calamarca, Archangel with Gun, c. 1700. 

Two more angels by the Master of Calamarca, a Bolivian artist who may have been José López de los Ríos, but if so we still know little of de los Rios beyond his name. All of these angels are in the church of Calamarca and date to around 1700.

Juan Correa, Virgin of the Apocalypse, c 1689. Incidentally there is no Virgin in the Apocalypse of John, just a "Woman of the Sun" who is pursued by a dragon that wants to eat her child. In medieval and early modern Europe it was widely believed that this was Mary, and the story became a common subject for paintings. So not exactly an angel, although usually painted like one; an orthodox Mary doesn't have wings any more than Jesus would. The imagery of the Virgin of Guadalupe as it developed in Mexico owes much to earlier paintings of the Woman of the Sun/Virgin of the Apocalypse.

Here is another version, by Miguel Cabrera, c. 1760. You can see from a painting like this that the wealthier centers in Latin America, like Mexico City, developed painters who worked in a strongly European style and were just as good at it as Europeans. Working out from there you encounter work that is less and less like the polished European Baroque and more like folk art; but there is not a sharp break, just a wide gradation.

Here is another angel from the Cuzco School of colonial Peru. This is one kind of painting that is very much alive, and there are still painters in Peru who identify as part of the Cuzco School. Or at least whose dealers use the term in selling to Americans.

And another. What I like about these is the cultural blending, the Mestizo-ness I wrote about in a book review recently. There is a vast discourse about these paintings that focuses on to what extent they represent Native artists adopting European themes and styles and to what extent they represent some kind of defiance or appropriation. You can certainly see a strong strain of "God is ours as much as yours" in many works. I find them fascinating, another way people have taken a tradition passed on to them and made it their own.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Paul-Albert Besnard

Paul-Albert Besnard (1849-1934) had an almost boring career, absolutely typical for a French artist –École des Beaux-Arts, apprenticeship with a leading artist, Prix de Rome, studio in Paris – in but he left some very fine paintings.  (Madame Roger Jourdain, 1885)

His training was all in the academic vein but in 1880 he gave all that up for Impressionism and an obsession with color. As in this bit of Orientalism, The Favorite.

Zebus,  done during a trip to India.

Love this portrait of Francis Magnard. I feel like I've met him.

The sculptor Rodin.

Besnard did a bunch of wall paintings for public buildings in Paris, including a set for the Hall of Marriages: Spring and Winter.

And one more portrait, Camille Barrère.