Thursday, November 30, 2023

Cycladic "Frying Pans" as Mirrors

After the famous figurines,

the best known artifacts from the Bronze Age culture of the Cyclades are the enigmatic ceramic objects known as "frying pans." These were first discovered in 1898. The majority of known specimens come from the Cyclades, but others have been found elsewhere around the Aegean, including Crete, Euboea, and the mainland.

Quite a few of these have been found. They range in size from 12 to 30 cm across. Most are earthenware but a few are bronze.

These images show both sides, giving a better idea of the form.

But what are they? There have been many suggestions. They are certainly not frying pans, since they are elaborately decorated on what would be the bottom and show no burning or other signs that they were used for cooking. The suggestion that they were astrolabes seems very far-fetched, since they are not made with the necessary precision. The proposal that they were used for forming salt cakes in a standardized size fails because no two are exactly the same size. One early theory was that they are lids for larger vessels, but no such large vessels have been found. Someone tried to stretch a skin across one and use it as a drum, but it sounded lousy and anyway none of them show any evidence of ever having had skin stretched across them. So the reigning theory has been that they were trays, perhaps for formally serving some special food, or offering something to the gods, or for cosmetics.

Thanks to my old friend, the deranged blogger at Old European Culture, I just discovered a new theory about these that intrigues me: they are mirrors. This comes from an article published in 2008 by two Greek archaeologists, Dimitri Papathanassoglou and Ch. A. Georgouli. 

They tested the theory by filling the pans with various liquids and measuring how much light they reflected. They found that water did not work very well (upper images), but olive oil did (lower images). If the olive oil was blackened by adding charcoal (lower right), they got an excellent reflection in the right light. Fascinating.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023


The people of the Eurasian steppes have been setting up stone statues for at least 5,000 years. They are very hard to date, of course, but we know the one above is more than 4,000 years old because it was found in a burial mound of the Yamnaya culture.

They are spread from Ukraine to Mongolia. One of the common names for them, used in Ukraine and Turkey, is Balbals, which seems to come from a Turkic word for ancestor.

A large group in Ukraine are associated with the Scythians, but I'm not sure why.

This one, in Mongolia, has an inscription in Turkish that says it was erected by a man for his father; based on the style of the writing it has been dated to between 600 and 800 AD. Fascinating headgear.

Many have been moved; in Urkraine and Kyrgystant there are parks where groups of these have been assembled.

These speak to me of the wild, barbaric steppes, and I find them wonderful.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Chinese Government Rebuilds Mosques to Look More Chinese

Amazing feature at the Financial Times showing the architectural side of China's crackdown on Islam. Above, the Weizhou grand mosque before and after its Sinocization.

And Beijing's Doudian Mosque, before and after.

According to the FT, this has been done to more than a thousand mosques; others have simply been destroyed:

The government says the changes are to modernise the mosques and “harmonise” them with Chinese culture.

The rebuilding has also included the installation of surveillance cameras.


Muqi was a Chinese monk who lived from roughly 1210 to 1269 AD, during the southern Song dynasty. So far as we can tell he spent most of his life in a monastery in Sichuan, where he practiced the stripped-down form of Buddhism the Chinese call Chan, known in Japan and the US as Zen. Now he is known for his paintings, but he did not leave very many works and we don't know that he would have described himself that way.

He is in the news (Artnet, NY Times) because his most famous work, Six Persimmons, has traveled from its home in a Japanese temple to San Francisco for a brief show. This was originally painted into a simple scroll with other images, but a Japanese collector who bought it in the 1500s decided it was a masterpiece, cut it out, and gave it the masterpiece treatment. It became hugely famous for somehow embodying the minimalist spirit of Zen: the close attention to detail that allows us to see each fruit as a unique individual, combined with an almost cursory rendering that gives only the amount of detail we need to see the distinctions the artist saw. 

There are too many interpretations of this little composition for me to even list them, so it's probably best to think of the painting as a koan, one of those riddling phrases that serve as a starting point for Zen meditation.

As for Muqi's other work, this is Chestnuts, cut from the same scroll as Six Persimmons but not nearly as famous.

His other truly famous painting is this one, Guanyin, Crane, and Gibbons.

His landscapes look to me much more like more traditional Chinese work, although experts see some of the same minimalist spirit as in Six Persimmons.

I just learned recently that when Chinese intellectuals got to arguing with Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of them thought they had to answer allegations that China was not as spiritual as the Christian west. One of their responses was that Chinese spirituality showed in landscape paintings. These landscapes, they said, were their equivalent to western paintings of Christ on the cross. I found this to be an arresting thought; these landscapes all look kind of alike, just like crucifixions look kind of alike, because their main function was to inspire meditation along certain paths.

Monday, November 27, 2023

"Now and Then," by "The Beatles"

Some time in the early 1990s, Yoko Ono provided Paul McCartney with a cassette tape that John Lennon had recorded in their NY apartment in the late 1970s. In 1995 the three surviving Beatles went to work with the tape and produced two new songs, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love," adding backing vocals and instrumentation to the recording of John's voice. These were released as by "The Beatles" as part of  the Anthology project.

But the third song on the tape, "Now and Then," was a mess; the vocal was mixed up with a badly recorded piano and in 1995 it was judged not usable. But technology kept getting better, and Peter Jackson's team of audio engineers eventually figured out how to extract a remarkably clear track of John's voice. So Paul called Ringo and they got together and worked on the song, adding vocals and their own instrumentation, and then a guitar solo "in the style of" George, and then strings.

You can hear the resulting song here; there is also a video about the project that is interesting but is mainly a 12-minute justification.

Does the project need justification? Is this kind of amazing? Or is it instead a creepy pointer toward a future in which living musicians have to complete with the remastered, AI-processed, digitally recreated recordings of dead stars?

I can see the danger, but I can't get particularly upset about this project. It's so obviously a nostalgia trip, two old men and their aging fans trying to recreate their glory days; I can't imagine it will make much of a splash musically. It's a pretty ho-hum song, and the recovered vocal doesn't sound particularly good. And John really did record this, so his actual voice is there behind the final product in some form.

Deepfaking is a worrying thing for the future, but this project is very much about the past.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Meet Enkidu

Ever since our old dog Coraline died in 2020 there has been a difference of opinion in our family about getting a new dog. My wife and middle son were strongly in favor, and my eldest son was positive, but my youngest son and I were opposed. See, when we got Coraline, the pro-dog people listed above said they would walk her every day, but in fact they began slacking after just a few months and the duty fell to my youngest son and me. We said, you say you'll take care of a new dog, but we don't believe you. So, stalemate.

Then three weeks ago my middle son was driving through Pikesville, Maryland, an older inner-ring suburb of Baltimore, when he saw a puppy sitting forlornly by the side of a busy road. My son scooped the puppy up and brought him home. At that time he was about 3 1/2 months old and impossibly cute. He was wearing a collar but no tag. We had him scanned but he had no chip. We posted his picture on every lost-and-found dog board in Maryland, and on Pikesville Facebook groups, and made posters which we put up all over the neighborhood where he was found, but nobody ever called. So he seems to be ours. 

My son named him Enkidu, after the wild man who became Gilgamesh's friend; Kidu for short. One of the weird things about this episode is that he seems to be a real Labrador Retriever, and around here yellow lab puppies are selling for up to $2,000. He is growing at an astonishing rate, already a completely different animal than he was three weeks ago.

So, by some combination of divine providence, dumb luck, and my son's determination, a very sweet dog has joined our family.

Consider the Photocopier

From Mary Beard's review of the memoirs of historian Peter Brown, in the September 22 TLS:

Brown has a sharp eye too for how the practical everyday details of academic life have changed over his career and with what result. One unexpected hero in the book is the humble photocopier, a novelty which landed in Oxford in the late 1960s. As Brown explains, it had a transforming impact on teaching and learning. Lengthy notes and bibliogrphies could now be distributed to large lecture audiences (this was the origin of the "handout"). But, more important, group discussions of a whole new range of texts became possible. Even if there was only one printed copy of some little-known saint's life in town (penned up in some remote corner of the Bodleian Library), you could for the first time discuss it, face to face, with colleagues and students in a seminar, wherever you wanted, simply by photocopying it. This was a new intellectual world. Like the internet later (or the printing press before), the photocopier was instrumental in expanding the historical agenda.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Links 24 November 2023

Marie Bashkirtseff, The Umbrella, 1883

Triumphal article about the rise of mathematics in early modern Europe.

Dolphins stealing bait from crab traps.

Kevin Drum says anti-semitism is going mainstream on the American right, lots of talk about Jews conspiring to destroy the white race. I think this perfectly captures the irrationality of antisemitism; why, exactly, would Jews do this?

Artifacts melting from the Canadian ice; I always love seeing ancient bags, which remind us that being a hunter-gatherer involved carrying a lot of stuff around.

The latest version of America's determination to be miserable concerns economic rants on social media, especially TikTok, where people talk about a "silent depression." NY Times: "Never before was consumer sentiment this consistently depressed when joblessness was so consistently low." That isn't really true, but it does puzzle me to see so much negativity when inflation is coming down and employment remains robust. I think it ties back to something I have written about before, our utter lack of enthusiasm for the future.

Kevin Drum fills us in on the important details of OBM Circular A-4, which will change how government agencies do cost-benefit analysis.

What causes the red wine headache, a phenomenon people have talked about since the 4th century BC? A new study says an antioxidant found in grape skins messes with the way your body processes alcohol, creating toxic byproducts; sufferers have a genetic variant that damages their ability to handle those toxins. (NY Times, original study)

Pity the poor costume designer who had to create the uniforms and especially the hats for the new Napoleon movie, since star Joaquin Phoenix is a vegan who won't wear wool. (NY Times)

Tyler Cowen's list of the best nonfiction books of 2023.

Archaeologists delve into a nineteenth-century London workhouse.

Cool abstract sand art by Jim Denevan.

More on the galaxies spotted by the Webb Telescope that seem to be older than the universe: they also seem to have weird chemical compositions, with a lot of nickel, more than stars could have made in a few billion years by any mechanism we understand.

Promising new design for wind turbines.

College later in life: "From the 1930 birth cohort onwards around 20% of college graduates obtained their degree after age 30. . . . these so-called late bloomers have significantly contributed to the narrowing of gender and racial gaps in the college share." Via Marginal Revolution.

Photographing the Milky Way.

Clark Dunbar photographs American Indians in their powwow regalia.

Summary of the military situation in Ukraine as of November 21.

Reports that Russia is destroying and flooding coal mines in occupied eastern Ukraine.

RIP Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie; his Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (1975), which used medieval inquisition records to explore rural life in southern France, had a huge influence on me and remains a classic of microhistory. (NY Times, The Guardian, wikipedia)

November Morning

Taken on today's walk, not much sun getting down into the Patapsco Valley.

Only a few bits of color left, like these barberries.

In the garden, lingering mums and still-blooming roses.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Thanksgiving 2023

Things I am thankful for this year:

That all five of my children will be here for Thanksgiving dinner.

That an independent Ukraine still stands.

The survival of stories from thousands of years ago: Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Irish myths, the Vedas, and on and on. What a miracle that is.


Second Story Books.

That I live in a place that has four seasons, and leaves that turn color in the Fall.

The Webb Space Telescope.

Spelling Bee.

The cycles of the moon, and a sky full of stars.

That I am able to work from home most of the time.

That everyone close to me survived the pandemic.

That I have access to so much information, online and off, that I continue to learn new things every day.

My readers and friends.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Today's Place to Daydream about: Saint-Malo

Saint-Malo is an ancient fortified town that sits on a rocky promontory at the mouth of the Rance River, where Britanny meets Normandy. There was a Gallic town here, known as the Romans as Reginca or Aletum, but most sources say that town was inland on a more level site. 

The first documented occupation of the modern town's site was a Roman fort, part of the coastal defenses known as the "Saxon Shore." The Notitia Dignitatum of circa 400 AD says the fort was under the command of the dux of the Tractus Armoricanus and Nervicanus, that is, the Shores of Brittany and Normandy.

In the later 400s much of northern Gaul rebelled against Roman authority, an event we call the revolt of the Bagaudae or Bacaudae. This was a recurring phenomena in Gaul, first noted in 286 AD; the word seems to mean "fighter" in some Gallic dialect. The Bagaudae seem mostly to have been peasants who were sick of paying taxes to governments that were not defending them very well, joined by bandits and other riffraff. Anyway by the mid 400s we hear that the Bagaudae controlled large areas of northern Gaul, including much of Britanny. Local historians in Saint-Malo maintain that their tradition of piratical, anti-authority stubbornness began in this period, and when Saint-Malo declared its independence from France in 1590 one of their spokesmen claimed that they were continuing the tradition of the Bagaudae.

One thing we know certainly happened in the later fifth and sixth centuries was the migration of large numbers of Britons to Britanny, enough that they changed the name of the region and imposed their language across much of it. I think we have to imagine, though, that this domination was never complete, and that there were always many speakers of late Latin/early French in Britanny. "Pure" Breton culture is a modern myth.

One of the themes of the chaotic period of the empire's collapse was that many people moved from convenient locations to better defended hilltops or islands (e.g., Venice). This seems to have happend at Saint-Malo, with the main settlement moving away from the convenient but exposed location along the riverbank to the rocky promontory. This town was presumably mostly Breton, since it took its name from a saint who had emigrated from Wales.

The town existed in some form or another through the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, but I haven't been able to learn much about it. In 1144 the local bishop, sick of getting repeatedly chased out of his house during the never-ending fighting between the Dukes of Normandy and Britanny and the King of France, moved from the mainland out to the rock of Saint-Malo. When he arrived he declared his new home a sanctuary city – yes, that is an ancient thing – that would not extradite criminals to their old homes. 

This, maintains local tradition, was how Saint-Malo got started as a center of piracy. But so far as I can understand this, based on very limited online sources, the French kings of that period raised their navy in the same way as the English. That is, they allowed certain towns the right to attack the king's enemies and extract tolls from passing vessels in return for supplying a certain number of ships when the king needed them. (In England these towns were called the Cinque Ports.) Saint-Malo was thus a center of what we would call privateering, or licensed piracy, and it is certainly true that privateering had a habit of shading over into the illegal version. These days we love pirates, and Saint-Malo brands itself the Corsair City.

I cannot find any authoritiative statement on when the walls of Saint-Malo were built, but tourist sites say vague things about the 12th century. Perhaps at the behest of their newly resident bishop? The wall was certainly rebuilt after a major fire in 1661, and then enlarged and modernized in the early 1700s. The town needed its defenses, too, since English sailors made a point of attacking it every time conflict between England and France gave them an excuse.

The cathedral was also built after the bishop's arrival, in a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles. 

Given the narrow streets and tall houses of the city, it is hard to get a good view of the cathedral, but here is what I can find.

Lovely Gothic sculpture of the virgin.

The city's era of wealth began with the rise of Atlantic trade. The great merchant families of the town traced their lineages to the period, when ships sailed to Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. This means, of course, that Saint-Malo was much involved in the slave trade, and the trade in slave-grown sugar. But also the trade with Canada; Jacques Cartier was born there. (The undated map above was probably drawn in the early 1700s.)

In the 1500s the cities of Atlantic France went strongly Protestant, Saint-Malo among them. The Wars of Religion, I think, were the actual background to the city declaring itself independent in 1590, given that the Duke of Britanny was a staunch Catholic. The city certainly rejoined France in 1594 when the formerly Protestant Henry IV became king and issued the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing the right of Protestants to worship freely. The source I found did not say anything about this, but in the 19th century some French historians speculated that the Bagaudae revolt of 286 was a Christian revolt, which makes me wonder if the antiquary who brought up the Bagaudae in the context of the 1590 Protestant secession already had that idea. It isn't true – about 286, I mean – but sometimes that doesn't matter.

Saint-Malo remained prosperous through the 17th and 18th centuries; I believe many standing buildings were constructed in the 1700s. In the 19th century the city began to shift to its current role as a focus of tourism.

Then came World War II. Saint-Malo was of course occupied by the Germans, and then heavily fortified as part of their Atlantic Wall. The stone walls of the citadel were reinforced with concrete, the beaches mined and covered with obstacles. In early August, 1944, the Allies finally broke out of their Normandy beachhead, in particular smashing German defenses to the south, opening the way for a rapid armored thrust around the left flake of the German 7th Army, toward Paris. While the main American force drove east, the 8th Corps turned west to occupy Brittany. Saint-Malo was right in their path. 

On August 5, the Americans cut off the city and called on its defenders to surrender. The German commander, Colonel Andreas von Aulock, responded that he "would defend St. Malo to the last man even if the last man had to be himself". The Americans shrugged, brought up their artillery, called in a few hundred heavy bombers, and proceded to give Colonel von Aulock what he asked for. 

In the course of the assault, the old walled city was "almost completely destroyed." Most accounts say the damage was done by Americans shells and bombs, but among the strange things one can find on the Internet is this account of the battle by a very Catholic, very nationalistic Frenchman, who says most of the damage was done by Germans firing incendiary shells, I suppose just out of malice.

At any event, by the time the Germans surrendered on August 17, the city was wrecked.

In 1948, the French government decided that Saint-Malo would be rebuilt as close to its pre-war form as could be managed. (Note the numbered stones above, for dismantling and reconstruction.) I have not been able to find out anything about this decision. It seems like something De Gaulle would have been into, but all the sources I have found say that the inhabitants insisted on this approach:

The Malouis did not wish to feel lost in their new city; they wanted the new city to resemble the old as much as possible. The layout of streets, with their angles and their turns, should be conserved, since they protected against winds; above all, Saint-Malo should not become a car park.

Some sources say the reconstruction was completed by 1960, but on the other hand the cathedral spire was not rebuilt until 1972.

The stained glass in the cathedral was all lost, but was replaced with lovely works by French artisans.

The careful rebuilding seems to have been a good investment, since the city regained its status as a tourist mecca and still maintains it, providing the money to keep this splendid relic of the mercantile age standing on its proud Atlantic rock.