Friday, 24 October 2014

My house ― part one

Goya, "The sleep of reason produces monsters"



"My patient, being a scientist of today, was more than once seized by panic when he realized how much he was gripped by such thoughts. He was afraid of becoming insane, whereas the man of two thousand years ago would have welcomed such dreams and rejoiced in the hope of a magical rebirth and renewal of life."

C. G. Jung, Dogma and Natural Symbols

Goya's title of this print is frequently misunderstood. He had written of it: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” What a fertile quote that is. I can see it foreshadowing my own obsession with that, perhaps, unattainable balance between Mythos and Logos that could bring peace to the world. Thank you again, Emilio Valli, for the inspiration. It speaks too, to Jungian individuation and the fruitful relationship the "old man" had with Wolfgang Pauli, "the conscience of physics".

I was reading Dogma and Natural Symbols the day before yesterday and thinking that it might make the basis for a post about dreams. I was unsure, though, of what direction that should take: should I treat it like any other post; should I present it as a Gnostic text but with a little explanation? Perhaps I should find a balance in this, too. I still don't know. By the end of this series, though, we will find out.

The title says "My house", but it is a house that has entered my dreams, and which is based on a real house. I don't have a house. I live in a small suite with a coyote hybrid (coydog) and sometimes wonder where the next week's meals will come from. This is in keeping with the life of the private scholar as outlined by Robert Burton (1577-1640) in The Anatomy of Melancholy. I have been wealthy and I have been poor. Poor is best. It gives one time to think.

It was late in 1972 to early 1973 that I was staying at the Dolese Mansion in Oklahoma City. If you follow the link you can see the picture and read about it. Had you been walking by the house one weekend day at the time, you might have caught a glimpse of me reading Orwell's 1984 on the window seat behind the top floor window on the left. That was my bedroom at the time. During the week I worked at Pamela's antique/gift shop. Ironically, I have a terrible sense of personal chronology, but I remember that General Ne Win had phoned the house and told Ardith Dolese that Madam Ne Win had passed away some time earlier, so I was able to look up that date. I don't really live in a single, linear, sort of time. Carrie wanted me to write an autobiography, but I told her that my life lacked theatrical continuity. I have had too many "hats". Mrs. Dolese had bullied the general once, in London, to see a doctor when he was ill, and he credited that action as saving his life. Pamela Dolese, Ardith's daughter, became his god-daughter. If you read the linked article about the house you will learn about the local legend of the tunnel. That legend also became part of my dreams and is very important. The dreams, by the way, had nothing at all to do with the family or my time there. They had contacted a very deep part of my unconscious. There was only one dream, in fact, that contained an image of the interior of the real house.  But you will have to wait until Monday for the dream-cycles. Believe me, it will be worth the wait. It is a shame that the family does not still own the house, but I suppose that after the kids moved out it was just too big for two, and any staff. Estimates vary, but Pamela told me there were 52 rooms at the time.

I had met Pamela in Calgary at my 23rd birthday party. Jim, who was a friend of my friend Rob had brought her there after visiting the office I worked at where I happened to be doing something that day (it was a Saturday). He was looking for Rob, and had just flown in from Seattle. I invited him to the party because Rob was going to be there. She eventually married Jim. I think she made a good choice. More on Monday.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

"Faux amis"

Kilroy's nose was not here
Owner's name withheld by request
For decades, I have told people that what you think you are seeing on a Celtic coin might well be something very different. I have even seen an academic paper saying that Halley's comet was depicted on some Armorican coins (it is really an abstracted four-string lyre symbol).

Fragments of objects, too, are imagined to be fragments of different objects: a Georgian broken spigot handle from a barrel has been imagined to be a fragment of a Hallstatt sword chape. The owner of the object seen here had noticed one of my Celtic sword pommels and had seen the resemblance in the style of the head. It looks like a Celtic head with its limed hair doesn't it? The reverse design is also similar to a device seen below the chariot on early Cunobelin staters. Previously, he had wondered about some sort of "Kilroy was here" wartime trench art, but the fabric had looked like a much older coin. He noticed that it bore a slight resemblance to a type of  medieval coin depicting a hand on the obverse (Hand-heller) but the weight was very wrong. Had it been altered?  Was it some strange variation? Still, it seems to have been hammered around the edges, and that is not usual for coins. It was mystery and he sent me the image to see if I could make it out. It was like no Celtic coin I had seen.

I forwarded the image to Robert Kokotailo of Calgary Coin Gallery, and Robert knew right away that this strange edge always appeared on a certain series of Medieval coins. He told me that he had a book in his shop which listed them. As I was going to be meeting him at the shop later, he said  that I could check for it in that book (a German book on Medieval Polish coins). Sure enough, I found it within a minute of opening the book. It took me longer to find the book, though! The coin is of a Bishop of Prague and is very rare.

Even if its find spot had been recorded the identification would have been no easier without considerable knowledge, and Robert really knows his Medieval coins. Funnily, it might have even emphasized a Celtic connection.

Certain archaeo-bloggers who constantly criticize collectors and dealers are always very nasty. There have been times when even relatives and friends of dealers and collectors have been the victims of their ire. The person who owns this coin holds an important position and did not want his name associated with it for fear of being bullied. That could have brought trouble to even his organization. He did not want to have to deal with such evil people. I could certainly understand that. I do not have a Facebook page for the very same reason. I would not want to see my daughter or my friends harassed. I have been ignored by people whom I have asked about the find spots of certain Celtic objects because they have wondered if I was such a person attempting to trap them. So this coin has no recorded provenance because of the existence of such people. There is a little irony here, and more than one sort of "faux amis". So be aware, and do not get taken in by such people's lies.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Hello?

A neighbour and her daughter were called away for a few days on a sudden family matter, and she asked me if I could take care of her cat and her parrot and collect the mail, etc. I had done the same a couple of years ago. This involved me stopping by twice a day to feed and water them; to play with the cat a bit and to try to achieve some sort of détente with the parrot.

The other day, I was attending to the parrot when the following events took place over about two seconds:
  1. The phone rang.
  2. I wondered why there was a phone in the parrot's room.
  3. I could not see a phone.
  4. I realized that the sound was coming from the parrot.
Score one for the parrot.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The death of poetry?

After directing a friend to the pomo-generator, I noticed that its author has recently constructed a poetry machine generated with samples of adolescent poetry (shudder). My late wife, Carin Perron (Carrie to her friends) was a great poet. Now, of course, every spouse or parent says such things, but I do not exaggerate: she placed in the top three in the Bournemouth International Festival three years in a row in blind judging. The last year she won top place and all three of the prominent British poets who judged the entries then sent her copies of their books in appreciation. She decided that would be a good time to stop entering. She submitted far fewer poems for publication than most poets, but some of her poems appeared in prestigious journals of English literature. Her poem about Anne Morrow Lindbergh was read to its subject by a close friend when Anne was lying on her death bed (it was one of the winning poems). I intend to publish her complete works someday, even though her MS for the same was left unfinished.

"Mona"
 fantasy preparatory drawing
by Carin Perron
I will tell you how we first met, as it is pertinent to the topic. I had been acting in an experimental theatre piece produced by Charles Porlier called The Black Castle. It combined Gothic horror with audience participation and a set which was like a carnival haunted house on steroids. The audience were taken by the castle's tour-guide through a state of the art set with special effects and a number of professional actors. It was immensely popular and was held over for a second month. Charles is a prosthetic makeup genius and later worked on Robin Williams' Jumanjii. After helping to build sets and a few days in a minor role, I was promoted to one of the two actors playing the tour guide. The other tour guide was Scott McClelland  who is the epitome of the traditional carny and showman. I did quite well and one night Charles came to the dressing room to tell me to go outside and greet my fans who were waiting to see just me. The line-up stretched down the block. Scott and I had very different styles, competed with each other, but became great friends. I modeled my own character "Trelawney" after a combination of Robert Newton's Long John Silver and Gregory Peck's Ahab. I was a method actor and often found it difficult to get out of the role after the performance.

It was Scott's birthday party. As Scott was rather younger, most of the guests were quite young too, but his parents were also there. I kept noticing this girl who kept smiling at me but said nothing. She was younger than me, but older than Scott. I found it rather strange. I imagined that she was a younger friend of Scott's parents but she looked European and I thought that perhaps she did not speak English. After a while, she did approach me when I was in the kitchen to apologize for staring at me. She said "I thought you were a person whom I had been writing poems about for a few years". Sometimes, you make an involuntary movement. I took a sudden step backwards and bumped into the fridge. Desperate to show that she was not some sort of lunatic, Carrie then started talking about the technicalities of writing poetry and told me that she had been a teacher at Scott's high school. After the party, we went to an all night coffee shop and talked until dawn.

She wrote little about our family life, or herself for that matter, always wanting to look externally, but here's the poem she did write about our family. As per her wishes, I read it at her memorial service. She passed away after a three year battle with terminal breast cancer:

Domestic Epiphanies

It just doesn't get any better than this,
this slice of heavenly pie-in-the-sky, neatly cut
and lowered on noiseless and well-oiled wheels,

and I feel luckier than I deserve, relishing these homey times,
some quiet, some full of bustle, when the ordinary slips smoothly,
imperceptibly, into transcendent, crystalline moments—
in the twinkling of an eye,

and I sit quietly and watch from a distance,
and relive, in these wondrous tableaux, my childhood—
the way I always wanted it to be,

and I marvel at how little it takes
to set each perfect scene:

Three spoons in their communal plate,
three girls at the table, eagerly stand, hungrily
waiting for the first smooth hot mounds
of freshly-made pease porridge...

Or, my daughter, calling me to come and feel
her loose tooth, almost-but-not-quite ready to come out;

Later, after secret bustlings,
she ushers us to a low table set for two:
on a square of black felt, white coral ribbed like mushroom-gills,
a dried rose, two brandy glasses of milk—and in the dazzling sun,
a candle, just for show.

Or, going to bed, and Daisy, a kitten now half-grown,
curls up beside me, warm and soft and purring low,
looking up with lucid, intelligent eyes...

Or, with old friends in winter-time, among the comfort
of mulled wine, laughter, and slow conversation;

Or, just sitting sleepily, Saturday morning, at the smooth white
kitchen table, eating oatmeal, warm and sweet and milky,
and my husband turns on the radio,
and we listen to old songs on Max Ferguson,

eating the porridge, so wonderfully haunting and warm,
as it lies quietly in pools of cool milk,
and my daughter pronounces it delicious,
which it is, and I want it all to last,

and it does. The leftover dribble of milk on a saucer
is converged on by cats, sleek and gray and black and white,

and I float back to my own warm bowl,
wondering when this is all going to end,

but it doesn't end;

and I wonder if it's all this simple,
if Mona Lisa was simply happy at home,
with a good man, good children,
a lovely bright kitchen, and in back,
a quiet garden waiting for her;

Was she just happy to sit in the slanting, golden afternoon light,
and be painted, her plump hands shiny and smooth from making bread
and scrubbing tiles and folding sheets, fully content to just exist,
like a lovely thing, resting palm upon wrist, doing nothing
but sitting and not-quite smiling?

Did she feel lucky, too; was she glad of this special golden quiet,
knowing that nothing out there was any less happy than this;
knowing she had only to get up, and smooth out the folds
of her dark, simple dress, and walk down the long, sunny streets
towards home?

No matter; for there she sits, with that look of confounding content—
and I am she, a woman as pleased in her skin as a cat,
just happy to be where I sit, or happy to get up and smooth down my skirt
and walk the bright road towards home—


and it doesn't much matter which.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Scientific research on the recent Jersey Celtic coin hoard

A collage of Coriosolite stater images from
coins that had been in my own collection
When the news of the latest (predominantly Coriosolite) Jersey coin hoard reached me, I knew that someone would be contacting me. I know more about Coriosolite coinage and its cultural connections than anyone in the world. I reclassified them over a period of about ten years and my book on the subject was published by Archaeopress at Oxford in 2002 as part of their British Archaeological Reports (International Series). My first publication on the subject was in the Annual Bulletin of the Société Jersiaise in 1992 and was about some coins from a hoard found very close to the latest find. That article had been requested by Douglas Corbel of the Société Jersiaise. So I was not sure if I was going to be contacted by the Société, by the Jersey Museum, by a numismatist, or by an archaeologist who specialized in Celtic numismatics. When that contact came, it was from a surprising source: a forensic scientist. I could not have been more delighted.

Trefor Jones is a British forensic scientist who started out as a science teacher but later in life got a degree in forensic science and became a crime scene investigator (CSI). He is currently working on his M.Sc  at the high tech Cranfield University and has picked this hoard's materials issues as the subject of his degree. I had always thought of archaeological research as being (ideally) like investigating a "cold case" where all of the witnesses were long dead. Sadly, though, that ideal is not always met. The problem with archaeology is its "theory-ladeness" while numismatics does not really have theories, only methods, and the best numismatists also create methods that are tailored to the subject they are investigating. It is virtually impossible to teach numismatics as a university subject to any great level of competence without having university courses spanning twenty years or so. It epitomizes interdisciplinary studies. Theory also leads to deductive reasoning but science is inductive reasoning. This is what Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" did, deduction being a common misconception. Criminal investigation can include attention to just about every science short of theoretical physics ― the end result being a theory (who did what).

In April, Trefor emailed me to say that he had come across my research and the expert system that I had built to identify Coriosolite staters (that expert system had been one of the subjects included in a Ph.D thesis on artificial intelligence at Hofstra University and I had given some aid to its author in the nineties). He asked me for some further direction and later, having other reasons to visit Canada, decided to make a side trip to Calgary so that we could discuss his plans. As he was going to be staying just a couple of blocks from my friend Robert Kokotailo's coin shop, I thought it would be a good plan to meet him there and I thought, too, that Robert would also be able to contribute much especially about the coins' manufacturing process. Robert has a hypothesis about how the coins of my Series Y were struck that I feel has great merit, but it has yet to be tested. As a professional numismatist for many decades, Robert has studied and handled countless thousands of ancient coins and his knowledge goes beyond encyclopedic.

So, in early May, I set out to meet Trefor at Robert's shop. On the way downtown, I was wondering about Trefor's project. I already knew that the Jersey Museum had authorized his XRF analysis of some of the hoard coins and that Katherine Gruel had previously used Neutron Activation Analysis for just over eighty coins in a mainland hoard but its focus was the alloy and did not include some important impurities like Ni and Co which would have revealed if any British metal had been used in the composition (there were Coriosolite connections to the Durotriges metal refining at Hengistbury, Dorset at a slightly later date but pre-50 BC connections were less clear). That British fingerprint was not found by Peter Northover in his XRF analysis of seven Coriosolite coins, but as it seems that the alloys were prepared in small batches and also used some scrap metal, so few specimens would not eliminate the possibility. I imagined that Trefor might get to analyze about a hundred or so coins, but as I had expanded the previous classification of six classes to three series covering fifteen design groups, I was worried that the available samples might be too few in number to expand our knowledge that much. When I met Trefor, this was my first question. He told me that he would be starting with a thousand coins, and could get another thousand if necessary. My jaw dropped and I told him that those numbers were unprecedented. He had also showed me a number of "paper virtual coins" he had prepared from Rybot's drawn die reconstructions. This is exactly what I had done when I first started working on the coins in the mid eighties. I took this as good omen.

The shop started to get busier and with Robert unable to remain part of the discussion, Trefor and I headed over to the Ship and Anchor on  Calgary's trendy 17th Avenue for lunch. Over lunch, I mentioned my use of clustering patterns as opposed to using averages and what it had revealed to me saying that, with such a large sample available, it could verify what I had seen. Trefor rightly pointed out that it might also negate this idea too. I told him that this would not bother me and related a story about when I was working, long ago, in the short-lived numismatic laboratory at the Nickle Arts Museum at the university of Calgary. I had found a curious depression on an ancient Greek coin with some tiny crystals at its centre. Upon analysis these were found to be zirconium and I came up with a rather elaborate theory about how they got there. The following day, however, my theory got exploded. The other two people in the lab expressed their sympathy, but my reaction was to say that I thought it was all wonderful: I had built a model that was internally consistent yet absolutely wrong. It was a "Eureka moment" for me. It had reminded me a bit of Niels Bohr's resolution of the Einstein, Rosen and Podolsky paradox in the book I had been reading at that time.

That's the difference between pure research and academic empire-building; in the latter, it's always best to be right, but it is only with the former that being wrong can carry research forward. You do everything you can to get the result and leave no stone unturned. If you are then proven wrong, you get to add more material to your arsenal and you are off and running again. The poor saps who are only interested in being right might be left only with a dog-eared copy of a lecture to occupy their time before they are put out to pasture. Rightness can be an elusive goal in Celtic numismatics, that's why all of the late greats have been amateurs from Sir John Evans, through Commander Mack to Derek Allen and Henry Mossop.

Last week, Trefor emailed to say that all of the preparations have been made and now we are just waiting for the coins. If you allow it, this sort of research can lead you into unexpected areas and it is always best to follow where it leads you. I think that Trefor will be doing doctoral level research in this project and discovering new things and I hope that the M.Sc can be leveraged into a Ph.D, but I have no idea about how such things work. I left school at fifteen so it's all a "black-box" to me. One thing for sure: he's at the right university.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Amphipolis tomb mosaic

Painting of Hades abducting Persephone from
the tomb at Vergina currently attributed to be
that of Philip II                (public domain - US PD1923)
[This is an update to Kassander's tomb?]

A mosaic depicting the abduction of Persephone by Hades has been discovered at the tomb in Amphipolis. While the news report is claiming this as a revelation that the occupant is a member of the Macedonian royal family, I had already identified it as being built for such through its use of thirteen steps.

The same subject is depicted in a painting from a tomb at Vergina originally identified as that of Alexander's father, Philip II. Afterward, it was claimed to be of Philip III, but has recently been given back to Philip II.

The subject matter is typical of the Eleusinian Mysteries, however, Philip II is known to have been connected with the lesser-known Samothracian Mysteries where the same deities were referenced. Unlike the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Samothracian were open to non-Greek speaking people and this might signify that Philip II spoke the sparsely recorded ancient Macedonian language or was honoring his ancestors who did.

Although some reports are identifying the figure of Hermes in the mosaic in his role as psychopomp, his role in the abduction of Persephone was as a messenger for Zeus to both Hades and Persephone's mother, Demeter about freeing Persephone. (Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Demeter's nature and deeds)

While it seems more than likely that the Amphipolis tomb was originally built for Alexander the Great, he was not buried there (taken to Alexandria) and it still remains to be seen if the tomb is occupied by another person, or was used as a cenotaph.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Soft core terrorists and bottom-feeders

(public domain)
They are at it again. As soon as there is any armed-conflict, revolution, or terrorist activity anywhere in the world, the nationalist "cultural-property" terrorists and bottom-feeders, smelling flowers and hearing bird-song are all too eager to jump on the same band-wagon. "Illicit Trade Funds Terrorists" says the New York Times headline. The hard core terrorists kill and destroy property, while the soft core terrorists ride on their backs. They are working in unison. The real purpose of terrorism is to create dissent, hatred against certain groups or just general fear among the population. I was taught that by an RCMP Security Services (former Canadian domestic intelligence) agent after I had volunteered as an operative to help disband a newly-formed terrorist group.

This round revolves around ISIS whose iconoclasm seems somewhat at odds with the claims that they are profiting by removing artifacts from the danger zone into western collections where they will be preserved. Of course, the preservation of objects means nothing to any of the soft-core terrorists or their unthinking followers. Always, it is the destruction of sites that is mostly criticized. The typical response is parroted in one comment in the Times article by a "Casual Observer" with: "When antiquities are removed from the locations where the originated they become expensive decorative objects with almost all of their historical usefulness lost forever. ..." This fallacy was pounced upon at once by Bruce Leimsidor who nailed it so perfectly that I did a Google search for his name. I was not at all surprised to see Dr. Leimsidor's impressive credentials but was rather surprised, and pleased, to note that he is not a lobbyist and appears not to be a stake-holder in these matters. One does not reach such a station in life by being any mental slouch. He also, obviously, knows quite a bit about conflicts and refugees.

While the hard core ISIS terrorist despises religious idolatry, and the soft core "cultural-property" terrorist despises anyone who even likes antiquities, they do share an idolatry of  ideology.

But it is not just "cultural property" that is given as a source of funding and we hear about human trafficking, extortion, and so on. I have learned, though,  that the instigators of such conflicts cover their tracks rather well and actively direct blame elsewhere. Personally, I think that oil money is the most likely or major source of funding. There is no quick-fix solution to that, but we really should be doing much more to lessen our dependency on fossil fuels for political as well as environmental reasons.

If we are to lament about the current situation in the Middle East we should lament about the loss of lives  and such religious intolerance first (Muslims around the world are also victimized by these events). The destruction of monuments is bad, but their ruins will at least reveal the hatred and insanity of our time to future generations. Perhaps they will be more intelligent than us. I sure hope so.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Oak Island treasure

map: NormanEinstein
The new season of the History Channel's The Curse of Oak Island will start on November 4th. I have not been following it but I have seen two or three episodes. I was reminded of it when I noticed a news report about the Nova Scotia government ordering the searchers to pay for an archaeologist to be present. As the shows are recorded, we probably won't be seeing this archaeologist until the following season.

Oak Island has to be the most mysterious treasure legend in history. No one even really knows what might be buried there or who buried it. It has attracted famous people like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and has cost searchers millions of dollars and six lives.

Typical for such "historical mystery" shows is dialogue like: "Could it be that... and if so, does this mean that..." The first part of such a statement might be called a hypothesis, but add the second part and it all becomes media hype. Also, whenever an expert needs to be consulted about some detail, everyone boards a plane and flies across the Atlantic to talk with the person. Have they never heard of email or the phone?

One thing is certain, the treasure, whatever it might be, has not been found. I can't imagine that such a report would have been suppressed so as not to be a spoiler for the particular episode that shows the discovery. Can we hope, at least, to know what the treasure really is (if it does exist)? I guess we have to tune in to find out.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Burrough Hill Iron Age fort finds of chariot fittings

photo: Nev1
Archaeologists from the University of Leicester have just excavated a disused grain storage pit containing bronze chariot fittings and some iron tools that might be connected to horse-grooming.
Most of the finds are illustrated here. Although the date given in the BBC news report is 3rd - 2nd cent. BC, I think that 2nd - 1st cent. is more realistic.

The chariot fittings appear to have come from at least two different vehicles and might have been collected over a period of time by the person who occupied the house nearby. It seems that whenever someone died, their grain storage pit was emptied of its usual contents, but sometimes other items were were placed in it as part of the funerary customs.  There have been some unusual finds in such storage pits, like a raven with its wings pinned open (presumably the owner of the pit had died in battle), or a cow's head facing upward upon which garbage had later been piled (perhaps the owner had died from illness).

The linchpin and lipped terret are similar to what to have been found at Kirkburn (which might explain the date given as the famous sword from that site was old when buried)) and the strap junction and toggle-like mount have the same leaf patterns as is on a later (AD) strap junction in my collection and a slightly earlier strap junction from Arundel Park (dated ca. 50 BC - 50 AD.

Archaeologically excavated objects such as these are extremely rare. Most similar finds in Britain are strays, often found far from their place of manufacture. Perhaps the owner of the fittings had been a groom and had been given various bits and pieces by a grateful patron, but we can only speculate about such matters. Chariot fittings appear to have been made in "design suites" and not so mismatched.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Waiting for the locusts

Downtown Calgary
What's next? First we get the devastating floods of 2013, then about a month ago an unseasonal snowstorm resulted in the city having to collect more than 17 million kilograms of tree debris. Now, an underground fire in downtown Calgary on Saturday has resulted in 2,100 businesses and 5,000 residents being left with no electrical power until sometime between Wednesday and Saturday.

As always, Calgarians are offering all sorts of support to those residents in need of help.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A Celtic corvid ― part two

Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
In Greece, Isis became associated with Demeter and Aphrodite. The coin on the right is from Perinthos in Thrace dating from the mid 3rd to the early 2nd centuries BC and shows the jugate busts of Serapis and Isis. The coin below is from the same city during the first century AD and has the headdress of Isis on the reverse. The subject of the Gundestrup cauldron plate I showed yesterday is Demeter's discovery of Persephone in Hades and how the dead will live again just as life returns to the earth in the spring .

Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
Livy is well-known for inventing all sorts of stories about Roman heroism in his history, but perhaps the strangest story of all is how a crow came to help a Roman champion  fight a Celtic warrior. You can read the story in one of my earlier posts.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

A Celtic corvid ― part one

Female adult raven
photo: Bombtime
The corvidae family include crows, ravens, magpies and blue jays. You encounter members of this family almost everywhere, they are more intelligent than your cat or dog and besides their cawing warning cries, they seem to have a language (softly spoken) that they usually only share among themselves. They are mythological tricksters to the west-coast Indians, a role reserved by the coyote on the plains. In the ancient Celtic world, they are associated with the battlefield and death.

I am focusing on one of their appearances on the Gundestrup cauldron (illustrated below). For myths other than those I will include here, see the two-part article: The Raven and Crow of the Celts. For an account of their intelligence and interactions with us, see: Corvids: The Birds Who Think Like Humans, or watch the Nova presentation: A Murder of Crows.

Gundestrup cauldron plate showing corvids with outstretched
wings on each side of the female figure
On the central female figure of this Gundestrup cauldron plate, one arm is placed across her chest while the other is raised high and a small bird is perched on the hand. As with most of the animals on the cauldron the exact species is difficult to identify. The tail is distinctive, though, and its fanned out appearance could mean that the bird is a dove. This accords well with one of the myths concerning Persephone: when she was taken to Hades, her mother Demeter was distraught and searched everywhere for her. Persephone was a fertility goddess and her absence meant that everything was dying. Of course this is a seasonal myth and Persephone’s stay in the Underworld indicates winter. At that point there was no indication that she would ever return and that would mean the death of everything. Like Noah’s bird looking for dry land, Demeter sent a dove, and the dove found Persephone in her dark cave in Hades. There was an agreement reached with the ruler of Hades that Persephone would spend half of her time on earth and so life was saved from destruction. She thus becomes the goddess of rebirth. In the light of this explanation, the two figures lying across her chest on the cauldron can easily be explained. It is almost as if she cradles the fallen man and the dog although the figure of the man appears over her arm. She can give back life to man and beast alike.

 There are two figures positioned near the raised arm of the goddess: a smaller version, perhaps, of herself is seated on her shoulder. The small figure has her hair arranged in pig tails and wears a torc, just like the central figure. One arm of this figure rests over her abdomen: a gesture of pregnancy. Above this newly pregnant female, a hound or wolf flees in the opposite direction, its tail between its legs.

 A female figure stands on the other side of the goddess, arranging her hair, perhaps as a sign that she is about to embark on her journey back to the world, perhaps just to indicate her status as queen of Hades, or perhaps part of a myth now lost to us. There is distant connection, in this scene, to a Greek telling of the myth of Isis: she was searching for her son Osiris who had been entrapped, by his evil brother Set, inside a sacrcophagus that was cast into the Nile. When it came ashore in Byblos, Phoenicia, a sweet-smelling tamarisk grew around it. The divine king and queen of that place had the tree carved into a column for their palace. Isis, in disguise, waited by the well in Byblos until the queen’s handmaids arrived. Befriending them, Isis offered to braid their hair. As she did so she breathed a  wonderful scent upon them. The queen, on discovering where this scent came from, took Isis into her palace and made her the wet-nurse of her child. Isis gave the child, instead, her finger to suck on. Each night she placed the baby in the fire, so that the flames would burn away all that was mortal. Isis, in the form of a swallow, flew around the column that contained her son, and sang in lamentation. The queen, on discovering this bizarre scene one night, at once rescued the baby from the flames, thus preventing his immortality. Isis returned to her normal form and revealed who she really was. She asked the queen for the column and when her wish was granted she removed the sarcophagus that was embedded in it. Falling upon the sarcophagus, she let out such a cry that the unfortunate baby died from hearing the sound. Isis left by boat with the sarcophagus to return to Egypt, and came ashore one night in the Nile delta. Set happened to be hunting a boar, and came across the sarcophagus. He tore Osiris’ body into fourteen pieces and scattered the pieces far and wide. With some help from other deities, and again in her bird form, Isis managed to find all of Osiris parts save for his phallus, that had been eaten by a fish, and Osiris body was turned into a mummy. Isis fanned the mummified body with her wings and it came to life. From that time on, Osiris became the immortal ruler of the dead, and the dead became “the Osiris”.

The version of the story of Isis given here comes to us from Plutarch, who is 1st to 2nd century A.D. Egyptian versions omits the journey to Byblos, and has Osiris wash up in the Nile delta after being cast into the river. It would be a mistake to merely attribute the addition to the time of Plutarch: Egypt and Byblos had ties dating back to the Old Kingdom. Byblos was in Canaan -- the Greeks called it Phoenicia and everyone knows the wide trading contacts enjoyed by the Phoenicians. Egypt had long imported cedar from that area and a current runs from the Nile delta right to Byblos. An early Greek version of the Byblos part of the Isis myth comes to us from the Homeric hymn to Demeter. The stories are very similar, but in the hymn to Demeter the goddess is searching for her daughter Persephone, and these events take place in Eleusis and are part of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

To return to the cauldron panel: above the goddess, on each side of her head is a bird with wings spread wide. Their bodies face forward but their heads are turned toward each other. This posture is very similar to more recent depictions of heraldic eagles and their curved beaks lead some to suggest that it is the eagle that is depicted here. As a bird of Zeus, this could fit with his position of authority for what happens on earth but considering the context, I am sure that it is ravens or crows that are depicted. The beaks are neither raven nor eagle-like, but perhaps closer to the former, and the feet do not display the large talons associated with eagle. Furthermore, an Iron Age pit excavated in England had the skeleton of a raven at the bottom with its wings pinned in this very position. Another pit had the skull of a cow at the bottom and we could assume that both of these were sacrifices. The pits had formerly been used for grain storage, but appeared, afterward, to have been used only for refuse. Perhaps the former owner had died and his grain was divided among his heirs.

The overall meaning of the panel is that the goddess depicted spans two worlds: she inhabits the Underworld but she brings new life to the world above. She is a fertility goddess, but brings new life from death. We should not be too surprised at the many syncretistic threads illustrated by the panel. The prototype myths are both widespread and lost in the mists of time.

Tomorrow, a Thracian Isis and a tall tale from Livy concludes the article.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Thirty years of collecting early Celtic art

"Glastonbury" lead spindle whorl
The decorated lead spindle whorl to the right was the first piece of early Celtic art I bought. Because it cost me only ten dollars, I thought that it must be a very common object, but I could not find an illustration or even any mention of such a thing in the literature. I did discover that there was a similar form of a lead spindle whorl at Glastonbury Lake Village but it bore no decoration at all. Some British dealer had accumulated a number of later and common lead spindle whorls and a friend had spotted it among them and bought it for me.

My wife made a couple of gesso and gelatin casts using some of her slaked plaster and did a diagram of the design, and I took some photographs and we sent two identical packages to the British and Ashmolean museums. The British Museum package ended up with a Roman specialist who did not recognize the Celtic designs at all and she said it was common. The Ashmolean forwarded the package to Martyn Jope who was excited by the find saying that he knew of no other example other than the plain type at Glastonbury.

Over the years, I have obtained more rare or unique pieces of early Celtic art, some of them very important. Because of limited funds, most of my collection consists of extremely rare examples. You would think that this sentence makes no sense because people always expect the unique and rare to be expensive, but commoner articles are much easier to research and also are susceptible to having supply and demand dictate what sort of price anything should be. Many of my pieces were bought without proper attribution and thus cost me a lot less than might be imagined. I still can't afford much of the commoner stuff!

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Detectorists (BBC sitcom)

Metal detecting
photo: Portable Antiquities Scheme
I got to see the first episode of BBC's  new sitcom, "Detectorists", and I was not disappointed. I was pleased to see that no tremendously important object was found by the detectorists right away and that it showed the more typical finds that I remember from trying out a friend's metal detector ― such as a tab-pull from a pop-can. I did not even see any later on-line complaints from anti-detecting archaeologists explaining how it is the tab-pull's archaeological context that it is really important, how tab-pulls really belong to the people and not persons, or how the sale of tab-pulls is funding terrorism. Don't worry though, I'm sure that as soon as any of the characters discovers an ancient equivalent of the tab-pull then all these criticisms will start to appear.

For those who cannot see the show, it is (currently) on YouTube.