Sunday, 28 July 2013

How to milk an auroch -- part one

Bos Longifrons on  a British
Celtic bucket mount. Image
Cow's head bucket mounts are a very familiar object in British early Celtic art. The mount connects the handle to the top edge of a milking bucket. In all but one example, the species of cow depicted is Bos Longifrons – often still called the “Celtic shorthorn”. In all examples, the cow's face looks out from the side of the bucket, and is best seen from that viewpoint. Most of these seem to date to the early first century AD.

British Celtic bucket mount which apparently depicts
the auroch. Circa 200 BC. In curent coll.
The single exception to the above is this example which differs in all points. First, the species appears to be Bos Primigenius, better known as the auroch. Aurochs are depicted in early cave paintings and are thought to have gone extinct in Britain during the Bronze Age, although they lasted on the continent until the seventeenth century. Caesar talks of them in his commentaries (VI, 28):

“... an animal somewhat smaller than the elephant, with the appearance, colour and shape of a bull. They are very strong and agile, and attack every man and beast they catch sight of. The natives [Germans]take great pains to trap them in pits, and then kill them. This arduous sport toughens the young men and keeps them and keeps them in training; and those who kill the largest number exhibit the horns in public to show what they have done, and earn high praise. It is impossible to domesticate or tame the aurochs, even if it is caught young. The horns are much larger than those of our oxen, and of quite different shape and appearance. The Germans prize them greatly: they mount the rims with silver and use them as drinking-cups at their grandest banquets.”

Much earlier, Herodotus (4, 183) is thought to have been referring to the auroch when he wrote “... the cows walk backwards as they graze; the reason for this habit is that their horns curve forwards – so much so that if they walk forwards as they graze, the horns stick into the ground in front of them, and so they move backwards.”

The second difference between this mount and the common sort is the way it is attached to the bucket: instead of being an appliqué facing outwards on the side of the bucket, the mount is attached so that the cow's head faces upwards where it would face the person using the milking bucket. This is an uncommon feature in early Celtic art: in a few examples, objects were decorated to be seen best by the person using the object, and not by another observer. This fact was first discussed by Sir Cyril Fox in Pattern and Purpose: A Survey of Early Celtic Art in Britain, National Museum of Wales, 1958, p. 23.

The mount is of bronze, 40 mm wide, 25 mm deep, and 20 mm high and with a smooth, black patina. It was found in the mid-eighties near St. Albans in Hertfordshire (the ancient Verolamium) in the territory of the Catuvellauni.

So did the Celts actually manage to tame the auroch at some point? Does this mount depict a real descendant of the wild auroch, or another species with some primitive features? In future episodes, we will look at these questions as well as modern attempts to bring back the wild auroch from its extinction.  

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The seal of Alexander the Great -- part two

Click to enlarge

Catalogue worksheet

Ancient Greece

Alexander III (The Great) 336-323 BC

Pb uniface seal, 18 mm, 10.1 g. circa 331- 305 BC

ALEXAN/DROU Lion advancing right on ground line.

Die engraver: Pyrgoteles

No find spot was recorded.

All of the evidence for this attribution will be covered in subsequent posts. This will include the epigraphy, iconography, style, history and legends. The dating of the seal given here starts with Alexander's arrival at Babylon, and ends with Kassander assuming the title of King in Macedonia. Prior to 305 BC, the coins are all in the name of Alexander, and it is safe to assume that this would also be true for official seals. Seals such as this were used for international correspondence by officials in the Alexandrine Empire

Monday, 15 July 2013

After the flood

John Lennon said that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. Yes, life does that. The series of events that has delayed my blog entries started with a new computer and new operating system. Like many people, I discovered that going from Windows XP home edition and 32 bits to Windows 7 Professional and 64 bits was not without its problems. Many applications and even documents just could not make the transition. Retrospectively, this was just a trifle. I got new software, learned how to use it and came up with some work-a rounds.

Then the flood hit. It was the most devastating flood in Alberta's history. We had a lot of rain in the Calgary area and the ground was sodden. At first, this seemed fortunate for all of the gardeners – this was the time of year when the last frosts had passed and everything was planted. Usually, there is little rain at that time and the seed beds have to be watered frequently. So rain is good. I even regretted not gardening any more – the conditions seemed perfect.

Artist friend Monte Christoffersen showing six
feet of river silt on the trees near the Elbow River
in Calgary
The problem was a weather system sitting in the mountains, moist air from the coast hit the Rockies and condensed causing heavy rain that just did not let up. The rivers swelled, the dam lakes filled and there was nowhere for the water to go in the Bow Valley but downstream to Calgary. Nothing could have prevented that. To the south of Calgary, the town of High River was devastated from the flood of its own river. 5,200 homes and businesses were damaged by the flood – many of them beyond repair. The town was uninhabitable and four of the five flood fatalities were due to that particular flood. The fifth victim was an elderly woman in Calgary who refused to be evacuated. She drowned in her own apartment. Although many parts of Calgary were also devastated, we have lots of high ground. I live 200 feet above the high water level, and walking around my neighborhood, there was no sign of anything wrong at all.

Downtown Calgary was without power and virtually a ghost town. Many houses and businesses in the flood plain of the Bow and Elbow rivers had flood levels of about six feet. The loss of property was almost unimaginable. Through it all, Naheed Nenshi, the Mayor of Calgary, soon became a folk hero by taking control of everything and helping to keep the morale high. The only complaints he received were from people telling him that he needed to sleep once in awhile!

Calgary has long been known as “the volunteer capital of Canada”, and in the face of such adversity, the volunteer numbers swelled. At first, travel was restricted. Various roads and bridges were closed and everyone was told to stay at home as much as possible for four days. The danger to life was extreme near the rivers. There was virtually no looting and Calgarians really came together even more than usual. Many other Canadians also came to help – even Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Party Leader, Justin Trudeau went to High River, literally “mucking in” with the other volunteers there.

Winston, 1999-2013
Although above the water, I was enmeshed in my own personal tragedy. Winston, my 14 year old Border Collie/ Black lab Cross had a series of fatal seizures and I could not get him to a vet. For those four days, I kept him as comfortable as possible. He could not stand or even sit up. He had no bladder or bowel control and was refusing food and water. After two days, I managed to get him to drink again. I put in 20 hour days just keeping him as clean and comfortable as possible. He responded well to this attention and was not in any pain. In that time he only whined a couple of times, stopping as soon as I stroked his back. On the fifth day, travel was again possible for me, and with my daughter and her husband, we took Winston for his last visit to the vet. He was the best dog I ever owned and was very popular with my friends and neighbours, many of them were amazed at his intelligence and abilities. He had been part of my family for 14 years and I miss him terribly.

After the flood and Winston's death, I was able to help out a friend a little with his flood damaged shop – fortunately, he only had a couple of inches of water and little stock was lost. He had also been temporarily displaced from his apartment but is back there now – even though the elevators won't be working for a few weeks and he lives on the sixth floor.

The flood could have been much worse. I knew this because in 1998/9 I drew the emergency “worst case scenario” flood maps for the Bow river. The biggest danger of all would have been a dam breach at Lake Minnewanka in the mountains. That lake is seventeen miles long and 466 feet deep. It has an earth dam. Usually, this is the strongest of all dam types, but if the water overspills the dam, then it will erode and the dam will fail. This fact was not released to the public, but the dam workers were able to release water from a spillway which caused far less damage. Had Minnewanka dam failed, there would have been two stories of water downtown and Calgary would have been uninhabitable for a long time.