Sunday, October 30, 2022

Faces V

The Wray Figurine, Native American (Hopewell), 100 BC to 500 AD; John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Marie-Louise Pailleron, 1881; Pompey, later copy of a portrait done around 50 BC; Friedrich von Amerling, Man with a Beard, c 1870; Anthony van Dyke, self portrait, c. 1640; Leonor Fini, self-Portrait in a Red Turban, 1938; Rodin, one of the Burgers of Calais 1894-1895; Christina Robertson Portrait of Princess Zinaida I, c. 1842; one of the Terracotta Warriors from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, c. 210 BC; Horace Vernet, Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Gericault, c.1822-23.

More Fall

It has been a glorious Autumn in Maryland, the colors as vibrant as I can ever remember. These were all taken in my walks around my neighborhood.

Cookie decorating. No more trick-or-treaters in my house, but some Halloween traditions endure.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Headless Falcons and Roman Religion

Berenike was a classical town on the Red Sea coast of Egypt that served as Rome's gateway to India. The site has been known since the early 1800s, but the logistics of working there were so difficult – water had to be brought on donkeys from springs 5 miles away – that serious archaeology had to wait until the opening of a paved road in the 1990s. Work has been progressing steadily since 1994.

The latest news from Berenike concerns the discovery of a strange shrine. The site is in the northern part of the town, a district marked in red on the magnetic map of the town shown above.

View of the excavation. The upper two rooms were the shrine. The larger room to the right was the anteroom; the unexcavated area farther right was a large open courtyard. The inner sanctum was the room in the left upper left.

Plan.  Room BE19-130 was the anteroom (outer room) of the shrine, BE19-131 was the inner sanctum.

The ancient world was full of shrines, one on every block in some cities. What makes this one amazing is the density of evidence for ritual behavior. This deposit of cowrie shells buried on one corner of the anteroom.

And this pot in another corner, presumably once containing some sort of offering.

Looking from the anteroom into the inner sanctum, dominated by a pedestal altar, past the fallen lintel of the doorway.

The small "cubic" statue that was resting next to the altar. This resembles figurines from Meroƫ in Sudan, one small sign of the great openness and cultural blending of the Roman world. There was once Greek writing on front of the figure, but it was too damaged to be readable.

Near the altar was this small stele, which shows a royal worshipper (far right) approaching Harpocrates, a Romano-Egyptian god of secrets – Harpocrates is the smaller figure, second from right, holding a finger to his mouth in an ancient gesture of silence –and two other figures that could be several different Egyptian deities. The Greek text on the stele says, "It is improper to boil a head in here."

Really, that's what it says, and no, nobody else knows why, either.

But that isn't even the strangest thing about the shrine. On and around the altar were a few hundred small bones that turned out to come from three species of falcons: peregrine falcons, saker falcons, and common kestrels. The archaeologists thought that all fifteen falcons had all been lying on the altar when the shrine was abandoned. Which is really amazing, to find all those offerings still pretty much in place. The bones were jumbled, but one important part of the bodies was missing: there were no heads. So whoever these worshippers were, they honored their gods with offerings of headless falcons.

All of these falcons can be trained to hunt for people, but the archaeologists saw no clear sign that these were trained birds.

Plus there was an intact peregrine falcon buried in a corner of the inner room.

It's a remarkable assemblage, and a reminder of how much ritual religious activity went on in the classical world. Berenike had a full set of larger temples to more famous gods, including that great syncretic creation, Zeus-Serapis. But those larger, public rituals were not enough for some people. They also went into small neighborhood shrines like this one, where they enacted rites that reminded them of home, or felt more intimate, or allowed them to take a more prominent role, or whatever other reason impelled them to offer headless falcons in the room where it was forbidden to boil heads.

Above, stone fragment from Berenike's largest temple. Original archaeological article on the falcon shrine here. My general post on Berenike is here. 

Links 28 October 2022

Headdress from Sogdia, 300-500 AD

Vox ponders the strange deaths of 15 prominent Russian businessmen since the invasion of Ukraine.

Tolkien on fairy stories and "eucastrophe," his word for a sudden turn from disaster to salvation.

NYC mobster Anthony Zottola is convicted of having his father rubbed out in a murder-for-hire scheme; the key evidence included a conspirator who found out he was being cheated on the price and a long series of text messages from the conspirators laying out the plot. They did write in code but it was obvious to the jury what they really meant. (NY Times, CNN)

Winners and others from the Nature Conservancy photo contest, 2022. And the finalists in the comedy wildlife photography contest.

Study finds that air pollution (particulate matter) has significant impacts on the mental development of children, and that around 20 percent of the educational difference between black and white children in the US can be accounted for by greater pollution exposure.

So the UK finally has a nonwhite Prime Minister, but Rishi Sunak is a Brahmin, the son of a doctor, a graduate of Winchester (where he was Head Boy), Oxford, and Stanford, and a former Goldman Sachs banker; he then married a billionaire's daughter, quit his job and got into politics. Tell me what matters more in the modern world, race or class?

The big news about the new British cabinet is that it is the first ever Tory cabinet with no graduates of Eton. Anyone care to estimate what percentage of British adults have graduated from Eton?

Somewhat interesting essay by an Indian American woman on teaching the south Asian diaspora to a class full of Asian American kids. Young Americans are so determined to be oppressed.

The first paleogenetic study of a Neanderthal community suggests they were patrilocal, since more women were outsiders.

Rewilding in Spain, where so many people have left some rural areas that it was easy to find 850,000 nearly empty acres (350,000 hectares) for the reintroduction of wild cattle, horses, lynx, and other species. Note that the biggest threat to the trees in this area is logging for biomass energy production, which is utterly absurd and would not happen except that the EU counts biomass energy as carbon neutral.

Water tank and pipes uncovered in Roman villa, looks amazingly modern.

For the curious, and those who play a certain kind of game, here's a list of the gear soldiers should carry when investigating an underground tunnel complex.

The Wall Street Journal estimates that one million Russians have left the country since February 24. One of the top destinations, especially for tech workers, is Serbia. "Nearly 700 Russia-linked firms have opened branch offices employing thousands of Russians, and around 1,500 Russian citizens have set up new companies since February." Interesting that the "special relationship" between Russia and Serbia, which goes back to before Serbia became a modern nation, is still strong.

Short thread summing up the "alienation/belonging" theory of conspiracy belief.

The strange lives of freshwater mussels.

David Brooks takes note of the negativity of America and the world in the 2020s: news headlines are angrier and more negative, hit song lyrics are angrier and more negative, surveys find that people are less happy. (NY Times)

The US Dept of Defense is getting ready to issue a report debunking claims that UFOs spotted by pilots are alien spaceships. They think some are drones, others aerial trash. (NY Times)

Ukraine Links

This guy has been stuck in a trench for too long.

Short video showing a Ukrainian squad, accompanied by a tank, assaulting a small Russian entrenchment.

Long Reuters piece about what the documents captured in a Russian command post in Balakliya reveal about the state of the Russian army before Ukraine's September offensive: supply shortages, units at 20% strength, insubordination, etc.

Interview with Ukrainian soldier/poet Pavlo Vyshebaba, who remains positive and optimistic about the war.

Artilleryman Thomas Theiner lays out his wish list for NATO weapons acquisition, based on what he has seen in Ukraine. The list would not be cheap. The arms race between new ways of attacking (suicide drones, missiles, drone-guided artillery) and ways of defending (Hardkill Active Protection Systems, lasers) is accelerating.

Badly translated but gripping video in which a Ukrainian tanker relates a battle in the first days of the invasion.

Thread on Russian accusations that Ukraine is preparing to use a "dirty bomb."

Kyiv's top techno club reopens for one night.

Putin: "Ahead of us is the most dangerous and unpredictable decade since the end of WWII." 

More Russian infighting: Ramzan Kadyrov attacks Col. Gen. Lapin, blames him for Ukrainian successes, says he is "nowhere to be found."

20-minute video explaining Russia's capabilities in "seabed warfare" and how it might attack undersea cables and pipelines.

As of 7:00 AM EDT today, rumors are spreading that Ukrainian forces have broken through Russian lines south of Svatove and cut a key highway.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Politics and College

How people feel about university education is becoming one of the clearest divides between the parties in the US:

Since the late 1990s, college-educated voters have been moving towards the Democratic Party while voters without a college degree have become more decidedly Republican-leaning. . . . 

As this divide deepened, views on higher education became even more partisan. That has influenced how politicians talk about higher education, as well as their policy approaches to it. During his administration, Trump not only launched attacks on colleges, especially those he deemed elite — despite himself having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania — but began accusing them of spreading liberal propaganda. “Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education,” he wrote on Twitter in 2020.

In the FiveThirtyEight/PerryUndem/YouGov survey 51 percent of respondents agreed with the idea that “a college education is the best way to get ahead in the U.S.” But agreement differed significantly by respondent’s partisan affiliations: Seventy-one percent of self-identified Democrats agreed while 37 percent of self-identified Republicans did.

Respondents were also asked a series of questions to gauge how they felt about higher education. Fifty-seven percent of respondents disagreed with the statement “college makes you lose common sense,” while 37 percent agreed. Of those who agreed, 65 percent planned to “definitely” vote for the Republican candidate in the upcoming midterms, while 12 percent of those who agreed planned to “definitely” vote for the Democratic candidate.

More than 4 in 5 Republicans agreed with the statements that “most college professors teach liberal propaganda” and “high schools are trying to teach liberal propaganda,” compared with 17 and 16 percent of Democrats, respectively. Those who agreed with one of these statements generally also agreed with the other (90 percent). There weren’t huge differences in how people answered these questions based on level of education (except for people with postgraduate degrees). Instead, it was partisanship that mattered.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Dorothea Lange, Refugees on the Road in Texas, 1937

Lange titled these negatives "Flood refugee family near Memphis, Texas, bound for the lower Rio Grande Valley, where they hope to pick cotton. They are from Arkansas."

The Asyut Treasure

In 1909, somebody – entirely unclear who – found a large gold hoard in Egypt. It may have been at Tomet near Asyut, on the eastern bank of the Nile in central Egypt, but that information came from an antiquities dealer who got control of part of the collection, and some people don't believe it. 

What followed was an unseemly scramble by wealthy western collectors to snap up the pieces on behalf of their national museums, coupled with (it seems) an obscure and possibly violent struggle among various prominent Egyptians to get a piece of the pie. In the end collectors bought 36 pieces that the Egyptian dealers swore all came from the same cache. The affair was dubious even by the standards of 1909, and Egyptian authorities ended up promising that they would never let valuable antiquities be handled in such a nakedly commercial way again.

But as you can see, the frenzy was touched off because of the extraordinary nature of the finds. The 36 pieces date to late Antiquity, roughly 400 to 625 AD, and may have been somehow associated with the Byzantine imperial family. Some pieces bear the name of Constantinople or show the "genius" of the city, so they may have been made there. The date suggests they may have been buried at the time of the Arab conquest, which began in 639 AD. 

As to what a hoard of Byzantine imperial gold was doing in Egypt in 639, your guess is as good as anyone else's.

Twelve pieces ended up in Berlin, six at the British museum –including the chain above – and 18 at the Met in New York. (J. Pierpont Morgan was bidding for the New York interests.) 

The Met, incidentally, plays down the "Asyut Treasure" angle, which is unmentioned in the main text for these artifacts. You have to delve into the "provenance" section where you find "may have been found at Asyut." Not sure what they think they know about it, but anyway they seem skeptical of the whole story. Incidentally the provenance field is not searchable, so there's no easy way to find all eighteen pieces supposed to come from the hoard.

But so far as I can tell everyone agrees that these are real Byzantine works, so enjoy them, and ponder how they came to be made, and shipped to Egypt, and buried, and found again.