Face Jugs

On one episode of the PBS show History Detectives, April Hynes of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania brought in a small ceramic jug to be evaluated by antiques experts.  It was discovered in the 1950’s by her grandfather, a plumber working in Germantown, Pennsylvania, who thought it might be an Indian piece, so he took it home.  It has remained with the family ever since.

The jug is about 6” tall, with a greenish-brown glaze. (See photo) Its most striking feature is the face on it.  The eyes are round and staring, and the mouth is open, exposing clenched teeth.

face jug

In the course of the show, experts from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and art historians examining the piece concluded it was not an American Indian artifact.  Instead, it was very similar in size, design, and glaze to jugs made in the 1850’s and 1860’s by slave potters on Edgefield County, South Carolina plantations.

Jekyll Island and The Wanderer incident

Many of those slaves were brought from the Congo through ports in Angola and imprisoned on slave ships bound for North America.  Some of those who survived the voyage were “processed” through Jekyll Island, off the coast of Georgia and worked on plantations on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, including the Edgefield plantations.

face jekyll-island club

Ironically, Jekyll Island is today a lovely place, home to upscale vacation resorts, like the one in the photo above.  Its blood-soaked history has been largely ignored.  The Jekyll Island Club Hotel “Island History” handout dedicates a short paragraph to the 19th century, saying:

“Slaves were imported to pick cotton, which was the primary agricultural product on the  island during this time.  The U.S. government banned the importation of slaves in 1807, but smuggling still continued.  On November 29, 1858, The Wanderer unloaded 409     slaves on Jekyll Island, one of the last cargoes of slaves imported into the United States.        Those involved in the activities of the Wanderer were indicted by the federal             government.”

face The Wanderer oil painting, Blue World Web Museum

The racing yacht The Wanderer refitted as a slave ship, shown in the oil painting above.

That’s the end of the 19th century history section.  But what the Jekyll Island Club Hotel piece fails to include is that the slave traders were never convicted, despite three attempts by the federal government.  Outcry over The Wanderer slave trading trials helped fuel anti-slavery sentiment in the north, including support for the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.

In yet another bizarre chapter of its history, in 1859, The Wanderer, which was not a standard slave trade ship, having been built as a racing yacht originally, was apparently taken on one more slave trading voyage after the trials, despite the fact that slave trading had been illegal for fifty years by then.  However, near the coast of Africa, the first mate led a mutiny, set the captain out to sea in a small boat, and returned the ship to Boston.  During the Civil War, the U.S. government seized the ship and used it as a gunboat in the blockade of the South.

face Farnum Further, J. Egbert Farnum, (photo, left) who had been a hot-headed, hard-drinking officer on The Wanderer on its infamous 1858 voyage, later regretted his part the affair and headed north after being acquitted.  When the Civil War broke out, he signed up with the Northern Army to make amends.  He later suffered nineteen bullet wounds and two saber wounds.

The ship’s story sounds like a movie plot.

 

But back to the strange little pot uncovered near Philadelphia.

In the PBS show, David Barquist, curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, confirmed what April Hynes had discovered – that face jugs were generally associated with slave potters in Edgefield County, South Carolina.  Barquist went on to say that only a dozen or so of the original face jugs have been discovered.  Most are now in museums or private collections. (The one pictured below right is from the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum.)

face jug, Milwaukee art museum

The grimace and green-brown ash glaze are typical of face jugs made in Edgefield during the 1850’s and 1860’s.  Jim McDowell, a potter who continues the face jug tradition using 19th century techniques he learned from his Jamaican ancestors, showed how the face would be created and attached to the jug.  When he was asked how the jugs were used, McDowell said they probably were not used to carry water.  Instead, they were used as grave markers since slaves were not allowed to erect stone markers.

Indeed, shards of face jugs have been found in slave burial grounds.

Fusion of Old and New Beliefs – Ancestor worship, Voodoo, and Christianity

The face jug featured in the show carries a long cultural tradition behind it.  It represents West African beliefs put into a form outsiders could not recognize – or forbid.  It served as more than a grave marker to people who were not allowed to erect grave markers.  Face jugs became containers for holding and guarding a precious connection with the past.

Wyatt MacGaffey, author of Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular, explains that power comes from the land of the dead, and in precolonial times, was present and available for use in minkisi: fabricated items that provide local habitations for the dead, throuface Nkisi Nkondi, power figure, early 19th century Congogh which the powers of such spirits are made available to the living.  Minkisi typically include clay, stones, or grave dirt.  A Nkisi, singular form of Minkisi,  power figure from the Congo is pictured, left.)

 

Thus, the jug, especially when it contained dirt from the grave, became a powerful item, very similar to the ritual baskets popular in parts of West Africa, which contained teeth, hair, or bone fragments of the dead person.  These items link the dead to the living, making an unbroken lifeline, which would have been especially important to people who had been wrenched away from their homeland.  The ancestors, as represented by the face jugs, are then part of life and ceremonies, and can be consulted on matters of importance.  Also, they lend considerable strength.

Spirit objects

It seems clear that these small jugs were portable representations of the dead and their power.  As Gary Dexter, an Aiken, South Carolina potter and historian remarked, “Obviously, this [the face jug] was the single most important cultural item they had.”

The big question for the people in the TV show was how the face jug wound up near Philadelphia if it was made in South Carolina, 700 miles away.

The Underground Railroad

If the jug was owned by a slave, which seems to be the case based on studies of other jugs of similar size, design, and construction, it could have been carried north during the owner’s attempt to escape to free territory.  Philadelphia was a hub for those trying to get to Canada and freedom.  (See map below, which shows Philadelphia as part of one route.)

face underground-railroad-map

The Underground Railroad was a series of safe shelters for runaway slaves.  They were often private homes run by people who abhorred slavery and sought to help as many slaves as possible escape that fate.  The Lemoyne House in Washington, Pennsylvania was one such stop.  The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME church in the United States, was another.  In Germantown, the area of northwest Philadelphia where the face jug was buried, there were several safe houses.  The whole area was predominantly anti-slavery, mostly due to the influence of the Society of Friends (Quakers), so if escaped slaves could get there, chances were good they could find a place to rest.

Finding the pot buried in Germantown points to the owner being an escaped slave.  Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing why the precious artifact was buried, so the story remains unfinished.

 

 

face antique memory jug on Etsy

“Memory bottles”

The influence of slave-made face jugs spread far beyond the slave communities.  In the 1800’s, memory bottles or “spirit jars” became popular across North America.  A thick layer of putty, lacquer, plaster, clay, or cement added to the bottle or jug held the various charms, mementos, and decorations that were reminiscent of the deceased loved one.  Some of them look surprisingly like the African spirit figures of long ago.  (A Midwestern “memory bottle” is on the left, an African Nkisi figure on the right in the photos below.)

face memory jug, buttons     face male Nkisi figure with strips of hide

Memory bottles enjoyed a Renaissance in the 1950’s and 60’s, especially in the Midwest and Appalachia, crossing racial lines.  Currently, both E-bay and Etsy do a lively business in both antique and modern memory bottles.  The one on the left (below), advertised on Etsy, seems to have its own bizarre power.   The one on the right was made in memory of a member of the clergy.

face memory jug   face clergy memory jug on etsy

Death, power, and memory combined: the legacy of the original face pots.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Bradley, Eric. “10 Things You Didn’t Know about Memory Jugs,” 24 February 2011, Antique Trader,  http://ww.antiquetrader.com/articles/feature-stories/ten_things_about_memory_jugs

“Destination Freedom: Traveling PA’s Underground Railroad Pennsylvania,” Visit PA, http://www.visitpa.com/articles/destination-freedom-traveling-pas-underground-railroad

“Face Jug” episode of History Detectives, Season 8, episode 8, PBS, 2010 www.pbs.org/historydetectives

“Face jug,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Face_jug

“Germantown, Philadelphia,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germantown_Philadelphia

“History of the African-American Face Jug” The Black Potter: Face Jugs and Functional Pottery, http://www.blackpotter.com

Hynes, April. “Farnum,” The Wanderer Project, 15 June 2012, https://thewandererproject.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/farnum/

“Island History,” Jekyll Island Club Hotel, http://www.jekyllclub.com/about-us/island-history/

MacGaffey, Wyatt.  Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular.  Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000.

“Matt Jones Pottery – Face Jugs,” http://jonespottery.com/face-jugs/  This source includes photos of grotesque face jars that are little more than racial slurs made into pottery, but it also includes some modern face jugs that carry on the African tradition.

“Nkisi,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nkisi

“Nkisi Nkondi, Kongo people,” Central Africa: Democratic Republic of the Congo, KHAN Academy, https://khanacademy.org/humanities/art-africa/central-africa/democratic-republic-of-the-congo/a/nkisi-nkondi

Osborne, John, reporter. “In Charleston, South Carolina, all charges in the Wanderer slave ship case are dropped,” report on federal trial of J. Egbert Farnum and others, as recorded in Tom Henderson Wells’ book, The Slave Ship Wanderer.

“Reliquary Guardian Figures,” Central African Art: A Personal Journey, from the Lawrence Gussman Collection, http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/journey/guardian.html

Richman, Jeff. “Green-Wood Connections Everywhere!” Green-Wood Historian Blog, 29 October 2009, https://www.green-wood.com/2009/green-wood-connections-everywhere-2/

“Ritual Pottery from Togo and Benin,” Arte Magica Galerie, http://www.artemagica.nl/Ritualpottery

“Slave Pottery: Face Jugs” US Slave (blog), http://usslave.blogspot.com/2012/05/slave-pottery-face-jugs.html

“South Carolina Plantations: Edgefield County, SC Plantations,” SCIWAY: South Carolina Information Highway, http://south-carolina-plantations.com/edgefield/edgefield-county.html

“The Underground Railroad: A Well-Kept Secret,” ArtSmart Indiana, http://www.artsmartindiana.org/resources/ugrr.php

“Underground Railroad Map,” American Historama, http://www.american-historama.org/1829-1841-jacksonian-era/underground-railroad-map.htm

“Unusual Vintage African Mask – Republic of Congo, for sale on Quintessentia, http://www.quintessentia.com/art/africana/unusual-vintage-african-mask-republic-of-congo-9.html

“Vodun (aka Voodoo) and related religions,” Religious Tolerance: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, http://www.religioustolerance.org.voodoo.htm

“Wanderer (slave ship)” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanderer_(slave_ship)

Well, Tom Henderson.  The Slave Ship Wanderer.  Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1967.

“West African Vodun,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_African_Vodun

“Wooden Nkongi Fetish Statue,” from the Pinterest board “Togo” https://www.pinterest.com/angsor1/togo

 

 

Musical Stones

When I was hiking on Exuma Cay in the Bahamas, I came across a number of flat stones marked with chalk circles.  On top, inviting the passer-by to experiment, were two oblong striker stones.  The flat stones were musical.  The chalk circles marked the best places to hit the stones for clear tones covering most of a scale.  This is exactly what ancient people found – unexpected musical stones.  Except where I found them entertaining, they found them endowed with magical power.

Ringing Stones

Tanzania has several ringing stones.  One is a free-standing stone in Serengeti National Park that’s been struck so many times it has cup-marks in different spots.  Its use by the native people is unclear though it might have part of rain-making ceremonies.

Discovering the cup-marks as musical place holders brings something new to the discussion of cup-marks, which are easily the oldest and most common form of rock art in the world.

music Tanzania rock, Wayne Jones

Photo by Wayne Jones

Ringing Rocks County Park, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, USA gives another interesting example. The most famous part of this park is the seven-acre field of boulders that sing. The Lenape Indians considered the area sacred, but it was acquired by the Penn family in 1737.  In 1895, Abel Haring, president of the Union National Bank, purchased the land.  Apparently he also saw some extraordinary value in the parcel; he refused an offer to sell the land to manufacturer who wanted to quarry the blocks.  Haring eventually donated the land to Bucks County.  The protected area now includes 128 acres.

Interestingly, the Lenape Indians left marks on the singing stones (See photo, right) much like those in other parts of the world.music Ringing Rocks, Lenape

Southeastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey are home to over a dozen ringing rock boulder fields.  While some have been obliterated by development, others have been carefully protected and now enjoy a community of supporters and researchers.

 

Gongs

Single stones have been used as gongs all over the world.  Usually, they are suspended and struck to make a single loud sound. Occasionally, multiple gongs are used at once, as shown in the photo from Ethiopia (below).

music Ethiopian_Lithophones_with_Stand,_Monastery_of_Na’akuto_La’ab_ by A. Davey

Lithophones

Lithophones are larger versions of exactly what I found in the Bahamas: a series of stones, either balanced on a frame or suspended from a bar, that produce specific tones when struck.  It’s the ancestor of our xylophones and marimbas.

Interestingly, many ancient sounding stone sites also include rock art images.   In 1956, archaeologist Bernard Fagg noted that rock gongs in Birnin Kudu, Nigeria also had cave paintings nearby and guessed that the two were linked in some way.  M. Catherine Fagg has continued the research at many sites world-wide.

In Azerbaijan, the caves of Gobustan include a rock which emits a deep resonating sound when struck.  Rock art images in the cave depict dancers.

India has many ancient sites that include ringing stones.  In Sangana-Kupgal, hundreds of petroglypmusic Kupgal 2hs decorate ringing rocks.  When the rocks are struck near the carvings, the stones emit a loud, musical tone.  (See photos, left and below)music Kupgal

 

Some of the bigest lithophones come from VietNam, where the instrument still enjoys considerable popularity.   In 1949, a French archaeologist named Georges Condominas came across a set of 11 tuned rocks, which he took to be very old, in the central highlands where the M’nong people, originally from Malaysia, lived.  Condominas took the stones back to France, and they now live in the Musee de l’homme in Paris.

Vietnamese lithophone

As it turns out, the area is rich in lithophones, and their popularity has spread throughout the country.  You can now listen to quite lively and tuneful performances.  My favorite is on YouTube, at     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCHno2kftVU.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge photo by Angeles Mosquera

Photo by Angeles Mosquera

Perhaps the largest and most famous lithophone of all is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.  According to recent research, about five thousand years ago people moved the giant bluestones, weighing about four tons each, at least 140 miles from a site in Wales to their current home on Salisbury Plain.  We have little information about these people, their reason for undertaking this Herculean task, or their plans for the stones once they’d reached the plain.  Most research on Stonehenge has concentrated on its astronomical features, including the stones’ alignment with the solstice.  However Stonehenge may well have been more than a visual wonder.  In recent experiments, British archaeologists found the stones have a distinct ring, not thud, when hit with a hammerstone, and that each stone has a different tone.  They described the sounds as something like wooden or metal bells, which brings up the idea of church bells and all of their different functions in an area.  Indeed, the Welsh village of Maenclochog (translated as Stone Bells) used Bluestones as church bells up until the 1700’s.  Marks on the Stonehenge bluestones indicate they were struck repeatedly, though we do not know the reason.

Dr. Rupert Till, an archaeoacoustics expert, maintained that based on his experiments, Stonehenge would have had extraordinary acoustics that included overlapping echoes.  He suggests listeners could have achieved a trance state by listening to music played within the circle.

Stalactites and Stalagmites

Some cave formations are also emit sounds when struck.  Their location within a cave serves to amplify the sound.  The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (USA) is a perfect example.  As early as 1878, the musical properties of the stalactites in Luray Caverns were well known.  Guides played folk tunes on the stalactites to the delight of visitors.  The 1906 postcard from Luray Cavers shows people playing the stalactites with hammers.

music Organ_and_Chimes_-_Caverns_of_Luray_Va_1906_postcard

The resemblance of a row of 37 tonal stalactites to a pipe organ inspired Leland W. Sprinkle to build the Great Stalactite Organ in 1955, which now uses a keyboard and a series of rubber mallets that strike the stalactites.  While this is certainly a commercial venture, it’s a modern reflection of the same awe the ancient people must have felt when they heard the amazing sounds.  It’s worth listening to one of many YouTube recordings of the organ being played in the cave. A recording of “Moonlight Sonata” is included in the reading list.

Echoes

Perhaps because ancient people did not understand sound the same way we do, they attributed special powers to the stones themselves.  Some singing stones gave voice to the spirits or the ancestors.  The most powerful of these were the places where spirits spoke back through echoes.  Sound-reflecting surfaces were often viewed as animate beings or as abodes of spirits.

Echo singing

In some cases, magic singing, which is singing with the echoes, was practiced, a skill which indicated a supernatural power.  This practice was carried over into medieval churches, where echoes were explained as accompaniment by a choir of angels.

The sound of water and rock

Ancient people often viewed boundary sites as especially powerful.

music Glosa rock art, Finland

In Finland, rock art has often been associated with water features. (See photo, above)  Antii Lahelma, Finnish rock art expert, has noted in her paper “Hearing and Touching Rock art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual” that most of the rock paintings she’s studied were associated with ancient water courses.  She claims the rock art images are more than visual, that they celebrate the meeting of worlds, the sound of water on rock.  They need to be touched and heard as well as seen.

In Alta Vista, Mexico, Tecoxquin people still visit ancient petroglyph sites as water’s edge to leave offerings. Note the petroglyph on the rock on the left.

music rock art Mexico

 

We are limited in our understanding of ancient sites by our tendency to put perception in rather clearly limited boxes.  It’s art or it’s music or it’s religion.  Increasingly, what we’re finding is a world that encompassed all of those things seamlessly.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Indians made ‘rock music,’ BBC News. 19 March 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3520384.stm

Amos, Jonathan.  “Stonehenge design was ‘inspired by sounds’” BBC News, 5 March 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-17073206

Fagg, M. Catherine.  Rock Music.  Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1997.

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Stalacpipe_Organ

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ: Moonlight Sonata” (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsKUUn29tSs

“Historical,” from Lithophones.com, a comprehensive list of countries with known musical stones.  http://www.lithophones.com/index/php?id=2

Keating, Fiona. “Scientists recreate ancient ‘xylophone’ made of prehistoric stones,” IB Times, 15 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/scientists-recreate-ancient-xylophone-made-prehistoric-stones-1440455

“Kupgal petroglyphs,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kupgal_petroglyphs

“La Pietra Sonante,” Pietro Pirelli, musician (video).  Powerful ringing sound! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5Q5bW3bYMM

Lahelma, Antii.  “Hearing and Touching Rock Art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual,” Academia. http://www.academia.edu/2371980/hearing_and_touching_rock_art_ Finnish_rock_paintings_and_the_non-visual/  A very interesting paper.

LeRoux, Mariette and Laurent Banguet, “Cavemen’s ‘rock’ music makes a comeback,” The Telegraph, 17 March 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/10702186/Cavemens-rock-music-makes-a-comeback.html

“Litofonos.” Piedras que hablan…con musica.  (video) www.youtube.com/watch?v+qY1L–irW70

“Musical Stone, Namibia,” http://www.namibian.org/travel/archaeology/musical-stone.html

“A Mystifying Experience: The Alta Vista Petroglyphs,” A Gypsy’s Love blog, agypsyslove.com/2001/07 – photo of Alta Vista glyphs

“Ringing Rocks,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringing_rocks

“Ringing Rocks: A Geological and Musical Marvel,” It’s Not that Far: Great places to see and things to do near Eastern Pennsylvania, 10 September 2010, http://www.itsnothtatfar.com/2010/09/ringing-rocks/

“Rock gong,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_gong

Schultz, Colin.  “Stonehenge’s Stones Can Sing,” Smithsonian.com.  10 March 2014.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news-stonehenges-stones-can-sing-180950034/?no-ist

“A short introduction to musical stone,” from Lithophones.com.  http://www.lithophones.com/index/php?id=45

“The Sky at Night,” BBC 2-minute video about drums at a model of Stonehenge, 5 July 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01ccpsp

“Swakop River, Namibia (video – a little windy but interesting) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrlPxT4MS8.

Tellinger, Michael.  “Stone Xylophone.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aG-e7zGq3Y

Tellinger, Michael.  “Stones that ring like bells.”   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uX2P8utjk3A

Waller, Steven J.  “Archaeoacoustics: A Key Role of Echoes at Utah Rock Art Sites,” Utah Rock Art, Volume 24

Waller, Steven J. “Rock Art Acoustics” – a very extensive collection of information about sites and research.  https://sites.google.com/site/rockartacoustics/

Overthrowing Old Theories

We’ve long thought of ancient people as a little (or a lot) less sophisticated than we are.  Maybe the March of Progress illustration is to blame, but we see the folks who came before us as kind of dull-witted.  I mean, they didn’t have iPhones, right?

Worse is the assumption that they also lacked intelligence and emotional complexity, even language.  This despite extensive evidence to the contrary, including new finds at Blombos Cave in South Africa, including engraved red ochre blocks, ochre mixing kits, shell beads, as well as bone and stone tools dated 70,000 to 100,000 years ago!

Let’s take a boat

And why do we assume that our ancient ancestors had to walk everywhere when evidence of their boating ability abounds?

Humans crossed open sea and reached Australia by boat 50 – 75,000 years ago. (Kimberly rock art shown in photo)

Homo kimberley-hand-stencil 40,000 kya

Thomas Stasser and Eleni Panagopoulou’s work on Crete uncovered stone artifacts over 130,000 years old.  Their conclusion: modern humans were not the first to sail the Mediterranean.  Neanderthals, or perhaps even earlier hominins arrived before them.

Homo map Crete at center

Map of Mediterranean – Crete at center

Even earlier evidence points to hominins’ ability to sail.  Homo Floresiensis, the so-called “Hobbit People” for their diminutive size, braved treacherous deep sea waters to reach the island of Flores in what is now Indonesia.  Some artifacts on the island are 800,000 years old.

England enjoyed at least four waves of colonizers, starting 800,000 years ago.  The Boxgrove site on the southern coast yielded the oldest hominin remains: a leg bone and two teeth from what might be Homo heidelbergensis, considered the ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

But in the Americas

On the other hand, the peopling of the Americas is always described as a plodding migration of humans along a single path.  According to the theory most often taught in school, Ice Age hunters followed big game across what was then the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, known as Beringia.

It wasn’t a new theory.  Jose de Acosta of Spain first proposed it in 1590.

The Smithsonian vs. Clovis First

The Smithsonian Institution has had an interesting relationship with Clovis First.  Although the first “Clovis” point was discovered in 1906 by George McJunkin, a self-educated African-American cowboy and former slave, it didn’t come to the attention of the Smithsonian until the 1920s when Jess Higgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, found a similar point embedded in an extinct bison. In the 1930s more points like these were discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, which gave its name to the famous lithic style.  The theory that grew out of these finds stated that the first Americans came across the Land Bridge from Asia and from there spread throughout the Americas.

Ales Hrdlicka, taking over from William Henry Holmes at the Smithsonian, used his considerable influence to squash any research into the Clovis theory.  But the evidence kept piling up that modern humans were in North America at the same time as mammoths and Ice Age bison, about 13,000 years ago.

clovis_continent_647kb

The Paleoindian Database of the Americas map above shows the distribution of Clovis points found in North America.  The highest concentration is in the middle south.

So the push was on, with renegade western archaeologists pitted against the stodgy Eastern establishment.  The theory eventually proved so popular that it was accepted as dogma.  In a strange turn of events, anyone who questioned Clovis First was ridiculed by the archaeological establishment.  Its force became so strong that any study that produced results conflicting with it was considered flawed.  Scientists learned to ignore results that didn’t fit the model.

Thousands of maps like this one, courtesy of Bing, were created, presenting an over-simplified and probably incorrect picture of the peopling of the Americas.

Homo beringamigration

Over the years, finds that conflicted with Clovis First kept coming in.  Clovis points are concentrated in the southeastern part of the USA, not the west, as would be expected from the Clovis First migration theory.

In yet another strange turn-around, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History now claims there was never any evidence of Clovis points originating in Siberia.  He now claims that the points are Solutrean, and the colonizers came from northern Spain to the eastern coast of North America.

And now to South America

When Tom Dillehay came up with a date of 14,800 years ago for the Monte Verde site in Chile, the archaeological community, in a fit of collective panic, said they simply couldn’t accept evidence that refuted their favorite theory.  No site in South America could predate the opening of the ice sheets in North America.

Homo monte-verde-chile

CREDIT: KENNETH GARRETT/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY, 1997 TOM D. DILLEHAY, STANDING, AND MARIO PINO LEADING A SCIENTIFIC TEAM THAT FOUND EVIDENCE IN MONTE VERDE IN CHILE THAT HUMANS HAD BEEN IN THE NEW WORLD 1,300 YEARS BEFORE PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT. 

And now, Dillehay has published a new paper in PLOS One, with dates from a different section of the Monte Verde site, establishing human presence there 18,500 years ago.

This brings up the possibility that the direction of the migration arrow in the old model was dead wrong.  Maybe people showed up in South America and then moved north.

upside-down-americas-250x300

But here’s the strangest part of this odd drama:  Why, when we accept seafaring relatives in the Mediterranean as far back as the Neanderthals – maybe farther – can’t we accept seafaring explorers who arrived in the Americas?  Not just coastline huggers.  True seafarers, excellent navigators from the South Pacific.

Maybe they were outlaws or people who got lost at sea.  Or maybe they just had to see what was out there.

PTLI new cover

That’s the premise of the second book in my series, Past the Last Island.  A group of explorers, driven away from their homeland by natural disasters, purposely sets out into the open ocean to find whatever lies beyond the edge of the world.  I believe that’s a human trait.  It’s what took us to the moon and someday, I hope, to Mars and other planets.

If we grant the people from long ago the same intelligence and complexity we value in ourselves, we open up new possibilities in our history, and our collective story becomes that much richer.

 

(The next big shake-up in the ancients’ world is going to come from China. Stay tuned.)

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Blombos Cave,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blombos_Cave

Bower, Bruce. “Ancient Hominids Took to the Seas,” Science News, 27 November 2012, news.discovery.com/human/evolution/ancient-hominids_sailors_seas.htm

“Clovis: Why the Controversy?” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/clovis.html

Curry, Andrew. “Finding the First Americans,” The New York Times, 19 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/who-arrived-in-the-americas-first.html

Dillehay, Tom, and others. “New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile,” PLOS One, 18 November 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141923.

Dixon, Jim, “Vicariant models for the initial colonization of North America,” People Colonizing New Worlds, 1st Harvard Australian Studies Symposium, 17-18 April, 2009

“First Americans arrived 2500 years before we thought,” New Scientist, Daily News, 24 March 2011, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20287-first-americans-arrived-2500-years-before-we-thought?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref+online-news

Gugliotta, Guy. “When Did Humans Come to the Americas?” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-did-humans-come-to-the-americas-4209273/

“Homo Floresiensis,” Human Origins, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis

Jones, Tim. “100,000 Year-Old Incised Ochre Found at Blombos Cave,” Anthropology.net: Beyond bones and stones, 12 June 2009, http://anthropology.net/2009/06/12/100000-year-old-incissed-ochre-found-at-blombos-cave/

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks Weblog, 19 November 2015, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reiews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html

Mann, Charles C. “The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-clovis-point-and-the-discovery-of-americas-first-culture-3825828/?no-ist

Meltzer, David. “Why don’t we know when the first people came to North America?” American Antiquity, 54(3), 1989, 471-490.  (This article is interesting but out of date.)

Map of Clovis points distribution, PIDBA, Paleoindian Database of the Americas, web.utk.edu/~dander19/clovis_continent-647kb.jpg

“Neanderthals May Have Sailed to Crete,” Discovery.com, 13 December 2012, newsdiscovery.com/history/archaeology/Neanderthals-sailed-Mediterranean-121115.htm

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquer Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest, National Geographic, 17 February 2010,  news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/

Simmons, Alan. “Extinct pygmy hippopotamus and early man in Cyprus,” Nature, 333, 09 June 1988, 554-557, hhtp://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v333/n6173/abs/333554a0.html

“Upside-Down Map of the Americas” Peregringo blog, http://peregringo.com/?attachment_id=315

Wayman, Erin. “The Top Five Human Evolution Discoveries from England,” Smithsonian Magazine 25 July 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-top-five-human-evolution-discoveries-from-england-6792571/

Wilford, John Noble.  “On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners,” The New York Times, 15 February 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/science/16archeo.html

 

 

 

Neanderthals

Poor Neanderthals.  No matter how many wonderful things we learn about them, they remain our lesser predecessors, dismissed as stupid and coarse.

Neanderthal man

The problem began with their discovery.  In 1856, workers in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany came across a skull that looked human, except it had a prominent brow ridge, large eye sockets, and a flattened cranium.  Thick fossilized bones were discovered nearby.  At first, experts thought the bones belonged to humans with rickets.  They explained the flattened head by suggesting it had been deformed by repeated blows.

After the Neander valley find, scientists realized similar bones had already been uncovered in Belgium in 1829 and Gibraltar in 1848.  Thus, they decided the bones represented a sub-set of humans who suffered from rickets, a vitamin D deficiency that results in the softening and distortion of bones.  (Curiously, several Neanderthal skeletons do show evidence of severe arthritis.)

Anglo Irish geologist William King suggested the name Homo neanderthalensis, based on the location of the German find.  (This blog post uses both Neanderthal and Neandertal since both terms are in common use.) He decided Neanderthals were incapable of complex thought.

Historical context

While many people in 19th century Europe accepted the Biblical story of creation, in which God created all creatures at once, some scientists had already questioned it.  They knew some species, like the dinosaurs, had gone extinct, so there must be some mechanism for the progression of species.  In 1809 Jean Baptiste Lamarck published Philosophie Zoologique, in which he argued that nature is governed by certain laws that lead to a progression of more advanced types of organisms through environmental change.  While his theories were seen as quite radical, they stirred a good deal of debate.

In 1859 (only three years after the Neander valley find), Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection.  He pointed out that more young are born each year than can survive.  Those with an advantage, something that allowed them to be more successful in their environment, were more likely to survive and reproduce.  Since longer-necked giraffes could reach higher branches, they got more to eat, so they would be healthier.  They could chase off rivals, mate, and reproduce.  Those offspring were more likely to inherit the longer neck.  In the case of the famous finches in the Galapagos that now bear his name, he saw that various finch species had developed different beak shapes in order to better access and process their selected foods.

Knowing that The Descent of Man, his treatise on human evolution, would shock those who believed in the Bible creation story, Darwin held off publishing it until 1871.  In this, he argued that all life forms, including people, evolved from simpler ones. He used the metaphor of the tree.  While a tree may have many branches that grow from the same roots, some survive and grow while others shrivel and die.  He suggested that far back in time, apes and humans shared a common ancestor.  Some, like the Neanderthals, did not thrive.   Darwins_tree_of_life_1859

 

In the public imagination, those two works combined in the simplified format of “Survival of the Fittest.”  Neanderthal Darwin's theoryOr “Only the strong survive.”  That provided a reason that Homo sapiens survived and Homo neanderthalensis didn’t: we were clearly better, stronger, brighter, more inventive, more adaptive, and definitely prettier. Or so it seemed.

 

 

From 1899 – 1905, a Croatian paleontologist named Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger assembled a huge collection of animal fossils, stone implements, and Neanderthal bones he found on Husnjak hill, near the town of Krapina.  He made careful, extensive notes about the stratigraphy, geology, hydrology, and paleoclimatology, in an era when many others simply dug up bones.  He felt these hominids, whom he named Homo primigenius (later known as Homo neanderthalensis) were the ancestors of Homo sapiens.

Unfortunately, his studies were eclipsed in Europe by the discovery of a Neanderthal skeleton at La Chapelle aux Saints, in France.  But more about Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger later.

The Boule image

In 1908, after the discovery of the skeleton of an old Neanderthal man, along with remains of wooly rhinoceros, reindeer, ibex, hyena, bison, and wild horse at Neanderthal illustrationLa Chapelle aux Saints, Marcelline Boule, the influential French paleontologist, concluded that the Neanderthal was brutish, bent-kneed, and did not stand fully upright.  The illustration  he had made by Frantisek Kupka (pictured on the left) shows a hairy gorilla-like figure with opposable toes.

 

All of this makes sense, I suppose, given the rise of “Survival of the Fittest” theories and the search for “The Missing Link.”  The public loved it.  The powerful but brutish ape-man appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 story, “The Lost World,” and later in H. G. Wells’ 1921 story “The Grisly Folk,” in which Neanderthals are hideous, primitive cannibals.

Neanderthal King Kong

The most famous personification of the brutish ape-man is King Kong, who was described as “neither beast nor man.”  The original film (1933) sets up Kong as the King of Beasts on Skull Island, an island lost in time, where giant dinosaurs roam.  Kong is captured and taken to New York, where he’s exhibited as the Eighth Wonder of the World.  Things do not go well, and Kong winds up being shot down by airplanes as he climbs to the top of the Empire State Building in an attempt to abduct (or protect) Ann Darrow, a white woman in a filmy dress. (Photo, right)

 

The concept proved so popular, it reappeared many times, including Son of King Kong, King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives, and the most recent King Kong (2005). (In the Peter Jackson remake, Kong is a silverback gorilla, not an ape-man).  More King Kong films are in the works, including Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla vs. Kong.

King Kong, or something very similar, even wound up in a Superman comic (pictured, left).

Neanderthal Titano-Kong

Boule’s theories about Neanderthals and the terrible illustration that accompanied them still stick in the public mind, even in the face of contradictions.  Recent studies have shown that Neanderthals had a robust build and a larger brain than Homo sapiens.  A 2007 study of the Neanderthal genome in several individuals, led by Carles Laleuza-Fox and published in Science, suggested that Neanderthals had varied skin pigmentation and eye color, just as modern humans do.

 

And no language

When I was in college, one psychology class used a textbook titled The Difference in Man and the Difference It Makes.  One of its theses was that only Homo sapiens had complex speech.  That was part of what separated us from the other animals.  This despite the evidence from whales and dolphins of varied, complex, even regional vocal patterns.  Doesn’t matter.  If we can’t understand them, they don’t count.

So it’s not surprising that experts decided that Neanderthals didn’t have complex language skills.  As a matter of fact, Neanderthals were often dismissed as mute.  But the fact is the Neanderthal hyoid bone, which was used as evidence of their lack of language is, according to new research, “virtually indistinguishable” from our own.  A study published in PLOS ONE showed that Neanderthals used their vocal tract the same way modern humans do.

“By analyzing the mechanical behavior of the fossilized bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that includes the intricate internal structure of the bone, “Stephen Wroe, one of the authors, said. “From this research, we can conclude that it’s likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought.”

 

 

So what is true about Neanderthals?

They spread out over a very large area, from North Africa around the entire Mediterranean up to the ice sheets that covered northern Europe.  They arrived sometime around 250,000 years ago, though some sources say “proto-Neanderthals” arrived far earlier – up to 600,000 years ago.

Neanderthal sites map

They are closely related to modern humans, differing in DNA by only 0.12%.

They co-existed with modern humans for 2500 to 5000 years, depending on the location, and interbred with them.  Most of us carry between 1% and 4% of Neanderthal DNA, though the parts we share vary.

They started making stone tools about 300,000 years ago.  By 170,000 years ago, they had a sophisticated tool set.

They practiced burial rituals and apparently cared for their wounded.

They lived in social communities and built buildings and watercraft, probably crossing the Mediterranean Sea as early as 110,000 years ago.

They were skilled hunters, able to bring down deer, reindeer, ibex, even aurochs.

They dried fresh meat

They also cooked their vegetables.

They painted on cave walls and used personal adornment.

They went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago, at the start of a very cold period in Europe, about the time modern humans arrived.  Theories explaining their extinction vary widely.

 

necklace, eagle talons

The eagle talon necklace

Back in 1899, Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger (Remember the paleontologist from Croatia?) discovered a very rich Neanderthal fossil site near Krapina.  His many specimens (hundreds of bones and teeth, over 800 stone tools, over 2000 animal remains) were subsequently stored in the Department of Geology and Paleontology at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb.  One of these finds was a set of polished eagle talons.  A 2015 study by Davorka Radovic and others, published in PLOS ONE, shows that these eight talons from Krapina, dating to 130,000 years ago, show clear signs of human manipulation (cuts and polishing).  The authors note in their abstract:

“These features suggest they were part of a jewelry assemblage, – the manipulations a consequence of mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet.  An associated phalanx articulates with one of the talons and has numerous cut marks, some of which are smoothed.  These white-tailed eagle bones, discovered more than 100 years ago, all derive from a single level at Krapina and represent more talons than found in the entire European Mousterian period.  Presence of eight talons indicates that the Krapina Neandertals acquired and curated eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose.   Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans.  These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neandertals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe, extending ornament production and symbolic activity early into the European Mousterian.”

Since other Neanderthal sites have included twisted fibers, it’s reasonable to suggest that Neanderthals strung together the eagle talons in a pattern consistent with the wear on the talons.

Neanderthals had an eagle talon necklace 130,000 years ago!

 

Perhaps it’s time we gave the Neanderthals an image makeover.  They certainly deserve it.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“A Tree of Life for Gene Flow within Species,” Charles Darwin’s 1837 sketch, Scientific Blogging, Science 2.0, http://science 20.com/news/articles/tree-life-gene-flow-within-species-100622

Begun, David (ed.) A Companion to Paleoanthropology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

D’Anastasio, Ruggero, Stephen Wroe, and others, “Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implication for Speech in Neanderthals,” PLOS ONE, 18 December 2013, http://jounrals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082261#references

“Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragutin_Gorjanovi%C4%87-Kramberger

Graham, Ruth. “Our lost cousins, the Neanderthals,” The Boston Globe, 13 February 2015.

Hawks, John.  “Infographic: Field guide to Pleistocene hookups,” from John Hawks’ blog, 21 December 2013, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/humor/field-guide-pleistocene-hookups-2013.html

Hogenboom, Melissa, Science reporter.  “Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests,” 20 December 2013, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25465102

“Homo Neanderthalensis,” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Human Origins, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-neanderthalensis

“King Kong,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Kong

Lalueza-Fox, Carles and others, “A Melanocortin Receptor Allele Suggests Varying Pigmentation among Neanderthals,” Science, 318, 1453-5.

Lents, Professor Nathan H.  “Did Neanderthals Speak?” on The Human Evolution Blog, 9 February 2015, http://thehumanevolutionblog.com/2015/02/09/did-neanderthals-speak?

“Marcellin Boule,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org.Marcellin_Boule

Martinez and others, “Human hyoid bone from the middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain)” Journal of Human Evolution, January 2008, 118-124, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004724840700139X

McKie, Robin, Science editor. “Why did the Neanderthals die out?” The Guardian 2 June 2013, http://www.the guardian.com/science/2013/jun/02/why-did-neanderthals-die-out

Mintz, Zoe. “Did Neanderthals Speak?  60,000-Year-Old-Hyoid Bone Is ‘Virtually Indistinguishable’ From Our Own,” International Business Times, 3 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/did-neanderthals-speak-60000-year-old-bone-virtually-indistinguishable-our-own-1559113

Morelle, Rebecca, Science reporter.  “Hunter-gatherer European had blue eyes and dark skin,” BBC World Service, 27 January 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25885519

“Neanderthal,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal

“Neanderthal Man,” Sheppard Software. http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Eruopeweb/factfile/Unique-facts-Europe15.htm

“Neanderthals Made Jewelry with Eagle Talons,” Archaeology magazine, 11 March 2015, http://archaeology.org/news/3077-150311-croatia-neanderthal-jewelry

“New Dates for Italy’s Neanderthals,” Archaeology magazine, 5 November 2015, http://archaeology.org/news/3858-151105

“Paleogenomics Lab, Group members,” http://www.ibe.upf-scic.es/research/research-labs-lalueza-fox.html

Radovcic, Davorka, and others, “Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina,” PLOS ONE, 11 March 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0119802

Spencer, Frank (ed.) History of Physical Anthropology, vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1997.

 

 

El Castillo: Wonders and Questions

El Castillo Cave

El Castillo Cave in northern Spain is famous for containing the oldest cave art in Europe: a red disk that was painted on the cave wall at least 40,800 years ago, perhaps as long as 42,000 years ago.  These dates caused a major uproar because it’s just about the time modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) are thought to have arrived in Western Europe.  Before then, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) occupied the area.  So debate rages about whether the red dot was the work of our Neanderthal cousins, modern humans, or perhaps a hybrid of the two.  The latter is certainly a possibility; we now know the two races/species interbred. Or perhaps the meeting of the two lines of hominins released a flood of new creativity on both sides.

You can find a good introductory video, “Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain,” on YouTube.  It also shows how close the quarters are inside some sections of the cave.

The cave also contains many very old hand stencils, the oldest of which are at least 37,000 years old.  Just for reference, the oldest paintings in Chauvet Cave in France are 32,000 years old, and the famous Lascaux Cave paintings are about 20,000 years old.

El Castillo gallery of disks

People are drawn to contests determining the first and the oldest, so most of the attention given to El Castillo has been directed at the very old dots and hand stencils.  Two of those tested are marked on the photo.

But El Castillo’s value is more than just its antiquity.

hand el-castillo-handprints

The 13,000 year span

Experts once considered the drawings made on the walls of El Castillo the product of a single time period – about 17,000 years ago.  This somewhat arbitrary date was assigned because they thought France had the oldest cave art, so any cave in Spain had to be younger than Lascaux Cave in France.  When scientists were able to date the art by dating the calcite deposits that had formed over the top of it, they were amazed at its age.   And its range.

The oldest, the red disks, are over 40,000 years old.  Some may be 42,000 years old.  But some disks are far younger, at 20,000 years old.

The disk and hand print that were analyzed by Pettitt, Pyke, and Zilhao are marked with numbers on the sketch below.

Some of the hand stencils, mostly near the front and middle sections of the cave, were apparently painted more than 37,000 years ago, but some of the more recent hand stencils are 24,000 years old.

The animal figures painted over the hand stencils are generally more recent than the stencils, in some cases by thousands of years.

So the artwork in the cave was created over thirteen thousand years. Thus, it’s impossible for us to make a single assumption or interpretation about all the paintings in the cave.  The space, though probably considered very powerful and important, may have served very different purposes over those years.  What’s interesting is the ancient artists’ decision to continue to mark the cave, often using the same imagery, and in some cases to mark right over the top of earlier signs.

 

The Panel of the Hands

One of the most intriguing sections of the cave is the Panel of Hands, located far back in one leg of the cave.

Print

el_castillo_sketched

The stenciled hands included in it were created by placing a hand over the rock and blowing a mixture of red ocher and water over it.  The slurry was held either in the artist’s mouth and blown out directly over the hand, or in a clam shell. (Several shells, mixing stones, and hollow bird bones were found on site.)  When researchers attempted to recreate the process of creating a hand stencil, they tried two methods: they blew out a mixture held in their mouth for some and for others they used two tubes, one inserted in the slurry and one held in the mouth.  The passage of air from the mouth tube over the slurry tube creates a vacuum that then allows the slurry to be sprayed over the hand.  Those of you old enough to remember artists’ fixative blowers before aerosols will be familiar with the process.  As the Dick Blick art supplies site explains, “Place the short tube in your mouth and the long tube in the bottle of fixative.  Blow gently and evenly, aiming at your drawing.  This atomizer can also be used to spray watercolors and thinned acrylics for special effects.”  (In the photo below, a modern artist uses an atomizer for special effects.)

When experimental archaeologists attempted to replicate the hand stencil technique with two hollow bird bones forming the atomizer, they found it El C atomizer in usedifficult to master. Archaeologist Paul Pettitt reported that using the two tubes to spray the slurry left them light-headed.  Many heard a persistent whirring or whistling noise in their ears.  It’s not hard to see how this would have added to the impression of entering a different world.

 

Who left those hand prints?

el castillo hand

Another interesting discovery colors our view of this panel.  Older interpretation was that the hand prints were those of men seeking success in the hunt, but research now shows that three-quarters of the hand prints and stencils in the caves of France and Spain were made by women.  Dean Snow, who analyzed hundreds of hand stencils in eight caves in France and Spain, showed that the hand prints carry a distinct signature.  Women tend to have ring and index fingers of the same length.  Men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers. Snow’s data showed that 24 of the 32 hands in El Castillo were female. Their reasons for making the prints remain a mystery.

The semi-circle of dots

Another curious feature of this panel is the semi-circle of dots on the far right.  Several scholars have interpreted this as a representation of the Northern Crown constellation (Corona Borealis).  It’s a fascinating theory.  (I admit this whole section is sheer speculation but fun!)CoronaBorealis

El Castillo seven dots, drawing after Anati, 1991
In northern Spain, the Northern Crown constellation is visible in the night sky from spring to fall.  Since El Castillo seems to have been occupied only during those seasons, it would make sense to include it as a sort of seasonal marker.  If that’s true, it shows an impressive level of sophistication in our relatives so long ago.

el_castillo_sketched

 

If you want to push that theory, you could point to the position of the Northern Crown on the far right and see the vertical line of hands as the standing Milky Way, as the sky would have appeared in the spring. The line of hands across the middle would cross the center of the sky in early May.
The dark curved bands would appear at the base of the Milky Way, just about where Cassiopeia would be.

Addendum, January 2016

There’s something about the El Castillo Frieze of Hands that I can’t let go.  I thought initially that the Northern Crown constellation was notable enough to include in the post, though of course it is speculation.  However, I now think that the entire panel, perhaps excluding the bison drawings, relates directly to the summertime night sky.

The section marked with the heavy red lines that resemble a boat looks like the summer position of the constellation Cassiopeia. It appears, about 9:00 PM, as an uneven “W” in the summer and an uneven “M” in winter, while it appears to stand on one leg during spring and fall.

Above it rises the Milky Way, with the three stars of the Summer Triangle marked near the top, the most conspicuous asterism in the summer sky, made up of the brightest stars from the constellations Aquila, Lyra, and Cygnus.

star chart 1

With Cassiopeia in the position marked, this would be a mid-summer star scene, typical of about 9:00 PM in July.

In the drawing shown earlier, the somewhat enigmatic figure in the center of the panel could refer to a number of constellations or combinations of them.  If it is Perseus to the Pleiades, that angle would be typical of a later summer sky, late August or September.

Finally, the only times the Northern Crown would look the way it’s painted on the far right of the panel (arms pointing up) would be in spring or fall (March and October).  The constellation appears in the spring and disappears from the night sky in the fall.

The three constellations would then reference three different times during the summer.

It’s fascinating to consider the possibility that our ancestors so long ago not only understood the patterns in the stars and their relationship to the seasons but could reproduce them deep inside a cave.

Forgive me if I’ve stepped into the land of speculation.  This one wouldn’t stay quiet.

 

The Bison

Interestingly, at least eight yellow bison figures were painted over the top of the stenciled hands in the Frieze of Hands.  More appear in other sections of the cave, often painted in black.  The bison images are remarkably similar – showing the same rump and single hind leg, large hump and (often partial) head with two horns, as if they all followed the same template.  They appear at the top of the vertical line of hand stencils in the photo on the left, and over the left and central portions of the horizontal line of hands.  In the image below, lines of yellow ocher descend from the bison’s mouth, as if it’s bleeding.

El Castillo bison2

While experts once thought the hand stencils on this panel were a way for hunters to spiritually connect to the bison, perhaps to ensure success in the hunt, current research shows the people who used the cave didn’t eat bison.  Mostly they depended on deer for meat.  As the famed anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out, “Animals were chosen [for representation] not because they were ‘good to eat’ but because they were ‘good to think.’”

Besides, the bison were painted later than the hands – in some cases, much later.  The hands aren’t touching the bison.  The bison are crowding out the hands, or superseding them.

Bison also appear prominently in both Chauvet (France) and Altamira (Spain), as well as Las Monedas, Buxu, and El Pendo.  Rather than a form of hunting magic, the bison image, which seems very similar from one site to another, might have represented a spirit power, in particular a male power in a female cave.  The figure on the left is from El Castillo.  The one on the right is from Buxu Cave (Spain).

El C. buxubison

The Bison Man

This bison spirit idea is supported in El Castillo by the “Bison Man” figure.  Deep in the recesses of the cave is a carved stalactite figure known as the Bison Man.  It seems to show the figure of a bison standing upright or climbing a cliff.  There’s a nice YouTube video of the Bison Man at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdbMAZgC7VA showing not only the carving of the bison but also the shadow effect when a light is shined on the whole formation, transforming it into a bison-human moving through the cave.  The photo (left) does not show the figure very well.  Start with the hind leg, toward the bottom of the photo.  Then follow the standing figure, which looks as more like a wolf hybrid than a bison to me.  The body uses the natural form of the rock and emphasizes it  with black drawing.

El C. Bison Man 2

The Bison Man figure is reminiscent of the Sorcerer figure in the back of Chauvet Cave (France), which combines both male and female characteristics, and the Sorcerer figure in Trois Freres Cave (France) which combines features of reindeer, bison, bear, horse, and human male.  It would be interesting to find out the date for Bison Man and compare that to the dates of the bison drawings.  If indeed the bison is the mark of a particular cult or group, it would seem logical for those people to put their symbol over the top of earlier ones, just as the horse and mammoth figures were superimposed on earlier animal forms in Chauvet.  Or the way Roman Catholic Spaniards in Peru built their churches on top of Inca stonework.

The Techtiforms

There’s much to learn from the drawings made so long ago in El Castillo cave, including the meaning of the bizarre abstract figures, called techtiforms, that appear at the base of the vertical line of hands and other places in the cave, each time accented very definitely. (Photo, right.)El Castillo boats

These forms are usually explained away as drawings of boats, maps, buildings, corrals, or simply the product of hallucinations or shamanic trance.  But they obviously had a very specific meaning and great importance.  That’s why they were repeated and emphasized.  Perhaps findings in other caves in the area will help us understand.  The drawing from Buxu Cave shown in the photo  (below left) seems to suggest an animal form, maybe a horse, but it’s hard to tell. I suspect that as we make more discoveries, we’ll get a better idea of what these diagrams mean.

El C. Buxu ideograph horse

Studying these very old drawings reminds us that our ancestors were far more sophisticated than we guessed.

If it turns out that at least some of the El Castillo artists were Neanderthals, the evidence of their art should help revise the negative image of them we’ve held for so long.

 

 

 

 

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alphecca, jewel in Northern Crown,” Wikipedia, http://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/alphecca-norathern-crowns-brightest-star/

Borenstein, Seth. “Spanish cave paintings shown as oldest in the world,” USA Today, 14 June 2012, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/scienc/story/2012-06-14/cave-paintings-spain/55602532/1\

“Buxu Cave,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/buxu.html

“Claude Levi-Strauss,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_1_%C3%A0vi-Strauss/

“Corona Borealis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Borealis/

“El Castillo Cave,” Don’s Maps (an excellent source), http://www.donsmaps.com/castillo.html

“First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human,” Wired, 14 June 2012, http://www.wired.com/2012/06/neanderthal-cave-paintings/

“Fixative atomizer,” Dick Blick Art Supplies catalog

Garcia-Diez, Marcos.  “Ancient paintings of hands,” BBC Travel photos of El Castillo

Garcia-Diez, Marcos, Daniel Garrido, Dirk L. Hoffmann, Paul B. Pettitt, Alistar W. G. Pike, and Joao Zilhao, “The chronology of hand stencils in European Palaeolithic rock art: implication of new U-series results from El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain), Journal of Anthropological Sciences, Vol 93 (2015) 135-152.

Hughes, Virginia.  “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?”  National Geographic News, 09 October 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131008-women-handprints-oldest-neolithic-cave-art/

“A journey deep inside Spain’s temple of cave art,” BBC Travel, www.bbc.com/trael/story/20141027-a-journey-deep-inside-spains-temple-of-cave-art

“New Research uncovers Europe’s Oldest Cave Paintings,” The New Observer, 24 September 2013

“The Night Sky,” the original 2-sided planisphere (star guide), copyright 1992, David Chandler

“Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain: El Castillo Cave, Cantabria,” a video available on YouTube, with English subtitles, https://www.youtube.com

Rappenglueck, Michael. “Ice Age People find their ways by the stars: A rock picture in the Cueva de el Castillo (Spain) may represent the circumpolar constellation of the Northern Crown,”  Artepreistorica.com, http://www.artepreistorica.com/2000/12/ice-age-people-find=their-way-by-the-stars

Rimell, Bruce. “El Castillo – Formative Image from the Upper Palaeolithic,” Archaic Visions, http://www.visionaryartexhibition.com/archaic-visions/el-castillo-formative-images-from-the-upper-palaeolithic/

Sanders, Nancy K.  Prehistoric Art in Europe. Yale University Press, 1995.

Subbaraman, Nidhi. “Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women,” NBC News 15 October 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/science/prehistoric-cave-prints-show-most-early-artists-were-women-8C11391268

Zim, Herbert, and Robert H. Baker.  Stars: A guide to the constellations, sun, moon, planets, and other features of the heavens.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.  Still a cute book.

 

Cave Art

Jean Clottes, the French cave art expert, has written several books, including one on Chauvet Cave and one entitled Cave Art, an imposing coffee-table sized book with beautiful full-page color illustrations.  However, it’s curious that a book with the title Cave Art is really about only three caves in France:

Chauvet, (35,000 – 22,000 years ago)

Lascaux, (22,000 – 17,000 years ago) and

Niaux, (from 11,000 years ago).

That list may be understandable in that the author is French and most familiar with French cave art in these areas.  However it’s misleading and perpetuates a misconception.

cave art, Altamira UNESCO

At first glance, it seems to be a glaring omission of Spain’s notable cave art, especially that of Altamira, El Castillo, and other sites.  Altamira cave paintings are so impressive that the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.  One section of the ceiling of Altamira cave is shown in the photo (left).

   ROCK El Castillo disk

El Castillo Cave (Spain) contains the oldest cave paintings known in Western Europe, with a red disk dated to 40,800 years old – perhaps the work of our Neanderthal cousins.  That’s at least 8,000 years older than the oldest dates from Chauvet Cave in France.  The photo on the right shows negative hand prints and a red dot visible in the lower left – the famous disk.

 

But Clottes omits more than Spain.  He leaves out the rest of the world!

In his introduction to Cave Art, Clottes defines art as “the result of the projection of a strong mental image on the world, in order to interpret and transform reality, and recreate it in a material form.”  Thus, he says, older marks, like circles, spirals, and crossed lines cannot be considered art.  I wonder if he’s strolled through a modern art collection lately.

He dismisses African and Australian art as hard to date and therefore not worth considering.  He omits Indian and Indonesian cave art entirely.  Even Eastern European finds like Pestera Coliboaia cave art in Romania, the oldest cave art in Central Europe, doesn’t merit a mention.

Then he moves on without apology:  “So while we can be sure that European Paleolithic art was not modern man’s first artistic endeavor, it is without a doubt the best known and best researched form of ancient art.  This is due in part to complex economic and historical factors – Europe is rich, and its Paleolithic art has been studied for well over a century – but also, and perhaps especially, because its spectacular imagery still appeals to our modern sensibilities.”

That’s the argument, in a nutshell.  And its endless repetition helps perpetuate the erroneous idea that art originated in Europe because, well, you know, Europe is the richest and the best.  And by Europe, he means France.

The truth is that French cave art is probably the most extensively studied but not the oldest or even the most sophisticated cave art in the world.  Instead, it shares many themes with other cave art sites around the world and fits easily into the world cave art collection.

Consider these examples:

Maros Cave, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia 

rock pig deer Indonesia

 

Currently, cave art found in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia has been dated to over 40,000 years old. (If you’re keeping score, that’s competing with Europe’s oldest.)  The red ochre paintings were dated by examining the calcite deposits that had formed on top of the drawings, on the theory that the paintings had to be at least as old as the material that covered them.  Paintings include human figures, wild animals, and many hand stencils, one of which, when tested, was found to be 39,900 years old.  Next to that print is a drawing of a pig, found to be 35,400 years old.  They are currently the earliest known handprint and the earliest known drawing of an animal.  Interestingly, scholars have known about these drawings since the 1950’s, but the images were dismissed as being no more than 12,000 years old because that was the date they had assigned to human migration to the island.  This sort of constricted thinking, in which the data must fit the model, is a continuing problem in archaeology.  The image in the photo (left)  is fragmented by deposits laid down on top of it.  The animal is facing right.  Its narrow nose is fairly easy to spot.  Its little hind legs are also easy to see.  A stenciled hand print is visible below the pig’s shoulder.

 

Australiarock art Kakadu, Australia

Some cave paintings in Arnhem Land feature the Genyornis, a giant emu-like bird considered extinct for over 40,000 years.  Rock shelters in the Northern Territory provided homes for people as far past as 50,000 years ago.  They left behind drawings of fish (photo, right), turtles, possums, and wallabies, but few images have been dated. Geologist Bruno David noted, “We don’t have the dated art itself, but we’ve found the tools that were used to make the art.  For that reason, we rightfully assume that Australia has pigment art going back to when people first came here which is close to 50,000 years ago.”

 

The charcoal drawings at Nwarla Gabarnmang have been dated to 28,000 years old.  A drawing of the Rainbow Serpent in the Northern Territory was found to be 23,000 years old.  All of these would then be older than the famous paintings in Lascaux Cave in France.

One of the problems with dating Australian aboriginal rock art in some areas is the practice of renewing sacred drawings: painting over images to increase their power.  While the practice is completely understandable, it makes dating the images very difficult.

India

rock art India Bhimbetka_rock_paintng1

Evidence found in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India indicate they were inhabited by hominins for over 300,000 years; some experts claim more like 700,000 years.  That would make the most ancient residents Homo erectus.  Some cupules and an engraving discovered in the 1990s were dated to 290,000 years old!

This adds more evidence to the argument that art came before modern humans.

The earliest Bhimbetka paintings known at this time have been dated to 30,000 years old (Photo, left).  That’s close to the dates for Chauvet Cave, the oldest rock art site in France.

 

South AmericaPedra Furada rock art

Pedra Furada, the controversial early site in Brazil, has been dated to between 32,000 and 48,000 years old.  Some experts claim 60,000 years old.  Rock art there, including images of animals, has been dated to at least 12,000 years old.  The image on the right may show a mother deer and baby, as well as a smaller figure, perhaps a frog or turtle.

Cueva de las Manos in Patagonia (Argentina side) has handprints dated to 13,000 years ago.

 

Mongolia

rock art, Mongolia

Khoit Tsenkheriin cave in Mongolia has paintings dating back to the Upper Paleolithic Period (20,000 – 15,000 years ago).  In one corner of the cave, overlapping symbols and animals painted on the ceiling and wall include lions, elephants, sheep, ibexes, ostriches, and antelopes, camels. Often, the animals’ horns, humps, and necks are exaggerated, just as they are in the more well-known cave art of Lascaux, roughly its contemporary.

 

 

Commonality

Even more interesting than the range of ancient rock art is the number of curious commonalities.

Stylized animals

rock Rhinocéros_grotte_Chauvet

rock rhinocoliboaiasm

Often the creatures painted on cave walls are not animals commonly hunted for food but fearsome, powerful beasts.  Typically they are painted in profile, with exaggerated but recognizable features.  The head, horns, neck and shoulder sometimes stand in for the whole animal.  The wooly rhino from Chauvet Cave (left) is remarkably similar to the painting from Pestera Coliboaia cave in Romania (right).

 

rock Chauvet bison

The bison paintings are also similar.  The painting on the left is from Chauvet Cave, France, while the figure on the rock bison, Coliboaia Cave, Romaniaright is from Coliboaia Cave, Romania.  Interestingly, both images give a sense of movement in the front legs.  The Romania image uses the natural curve of the stone.  The French image uses a kind of animation effect where multiple front and back legs give the sense of motion.

 

 

 

The hand stencil

The most universal image in cave art is the hand print and the negative hand stencil.  The print was made by applying pigment to the hand and pressing the hand against the stone.  The stencil was made by placing a hand on the rock and blowing pigment over it, leaving the negative image of hand.  In many sites, both techniques are employed.

These positive and negative hand prints appear all over the world, including sites in India, Borneo, Australia, Africa, Europe, North and South America.

rock cueva de las Manos 2  

 

Here is a sampling from  Cueva de las Manos (Patagonia, Argentina – far left), Sulawesi (Indonesia second from left), and Canyon de rock hands BorneoChelley, Navaho Nation (third from left)

 

handprints Canyon de Chelley

 

 

 

 

 

 

rock El Castillo hands and dots

The panel of hands and dots on the lower left is from El Castillo Cave (Spain).   The ones on the right are from Indonesia.  The two panels are about the same age: 37,000 years old.rock art Indonesia hands

 

For ancient people, a handprint might have been a registry: “I was here,” an ancient form of marking (or “tagging”).  Several hand prints might mark the presence of a group.  Multiple prints in the same spot might increase the energy of that place and reinforce the power of the group.  The hand print proclaims participation, even if it is with the rock surface itself, just as you might touch a sacred relic or a photo of a long-lost friend or relative.

 

The handprint is still very important in our culture.  In some hospitals, a baby’s hand and foot prints are recorded immediately after birth. As they grow up, children love putting their handprints on – everything!  Maybe your toddlers put handprints along your clean wall because the desire to mark a place with their hands is embedded in them.  It’s part of being human.

Children's colorful hand prints on black background for texture and design

In a local high school I noticed a large paper sign covered with hand prints, apparently from students who had agreed not to drink and drive after their senior prom.  The photo of chalk hand prints on a blackboard (left) brings out the sense of energy that the collective prints generate.

If you’re a famous movie star, you get to leave your hand and foot prints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by the Chinese Theater.  Then you’ve really made your mark. (See photo, right)

rock hands - Walk of Fame, Chinese Theater

 

 

 

Rather than perpetuating the myth of art beginning in Europe, we should be celebrating the wealth of our heritage as humans all over the world.  We are, as far as we know, the only species to make art (and orchestral music and space flight).  We need to keep exploring rock art sites, especially in areas that are currently being lost to rising ocean levels, so we can learn as much as possible about these treasures.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Aboriginal rock art – how old is it actually?”  Ask an Expert.  ABC Science, Brad Pillans and Keith Fifield’s talk about dating cave art.  http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/10/09/4102916.htm.

“Ancient Art of Kakadu,” Australia.com, http://www.australia.com/en/places/kakadu/nt-rock-art.html

Balter, Michael. “Romanian Cave May Boast Central Europe’s Oldest Cave Art,” Science Magazine,   http://news.sciencemag.org/erope/2010/06/romanian-cave-may-boast-central-europes-oldest-cave-art

Bryner, Jeanna. “In Photos: The World’s Oldest Cave Art,” Live Science, http://www.livescience.com/48199-world-oldest-cave-art-photos.html/

“Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain,” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage List, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310/

“Cave painting,” Wikipedia (a very good article), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave-painting

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  London: Phaidon Press, 2008.

Clottes, Jean.  “Paleolithic Cave Art in France,” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.badshawfoundation.com/clottes

“Cueva de las Manos: A Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” http://www.patagonia.com.ar/circuits/587E_Cueva+de+las+Manos

“El Castillo Cave Paintings” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/castillo-cave-paintings.htm/

Ghosh, Pallab, Science Correspondent, “Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art,” BBC News, 8 October 2014,   http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29415716/

“Hand Paintings: Hand Paintings in Rock Art around the World”  The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/hands/

“Handprints on blackboard” photo, celestecotaphotography.com

“History of India,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/History_of_India/

“Khoit Tsenkheriin cave,” Mongolian Cave Research Association, http://www.mongoliancave.com/CaveEng/2

“Madhya Pradesh,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madhya_Pradesh/

“Oldest Rock Art,” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art.  http://www.visual.art.cork.com/prehistoric/rock-art.htm/

“Pestera Coliboiaia – Coliboaia Cave Rock Art,” Central Europe’s oldest cave paintings discovered at Coliboaia Cave, Don’s Maps (a fabulous source)  http://www.donsmaps.com/index.html#sites

“Prehistoric Hand Stencils,” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art, Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/hand-stencils-rock-art.htm/

Thompson, Helen, “Rock (Art) of Ages: Indonesian Cave Paintings are 40,000 Years Old,”  Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rockart-ages-indonesian-cave-paintings-are-40,000-years-old-180952970/?no-ist

Vergano, Dan. “Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art,” National Geographic News, http://news. Nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141008-cave-art-sulawesi-hand-science/

Vergano, Dan. “Q&A: Cave Art Older, More Widespread than Thought, Archaeologist Says,” National Geographic News,  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141010-cave-art-indonesia-alistair-pike-questions-science/

Wilford, John Noble.  “Cave Paintings in Indonesia May Be among the Oldest Known,” The New York Times, 8 October 2014,   http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/science/ancient-indonesian-find-may-ival-oldest-known-cave-art.html/

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life image is very popular today.  It’s found on T-shirts, jewelry, drawings, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures, the French 2-euro coin, and many beautiful tattoos.

If someone asked you to draw the tree of life, you’d probably draw a tree trunk rising in the center, surrounded by spreading branches.  Maybe you’d draw a circle around the image, or perhaps the foliage tree of life trivetwould create a circle.  If you drew a Tree of Life like the one on the trivet pictured on the right, which is identified in a sale catalog as a Tree of Life, what makes it a Tree of Life rather than just a tree?

The answers are varied because the image has many forms.  The one on the trivet is a very plain variety. Others tree Julia's Needlewordshold many animals in their branches, including those that never live in trees (like deer or lions) or contain elements that don’t go with the tree, like giant flowers. Or very stylized branches and foliage, like those pictured in the drawing (right).tree Yggdrasil ultime IIby Bog Viking

Often, the image contains a clear pairing of opposites, such as the foliage fan contrasting with the root fan.  Or the presence of the sun and moon.  Or a bird in the branches and a snake in the roots.  In the tattoo illustration on the left, an eagle perches in the tree top while the dragon/serpent controls the lower part.

tree yggdrasil_and_dragon_by_tattoo_design-d7652i2

In many of the examples you’ll find on this post, the Tree of Life features male and female elements.  The trunk is an upright rod (male) while the branches form a fan or circle (female).  Sometimes the whole design is enclosed in a circle.  It’s a symbolic glorification of the union of opposites.

In some cases, the tree itself is simplified into a series of lines, but the intent is the same.  These are examples from Persian rug designs and from ancient Assyria:
tree Persian carpet patternstree Assyrian bas-reliefs

tree of life celtic nordic belt buckle, ebay live_fast (13205)

Some Tree of Life images quite clearly indicate sexual union of humans, but the symbol is usually far more universal.  It illustrates the pairing of opposite forces that engenders creation in all of nature.  Thus the flowers and animals appearing in its branches. The fine pressed paper design by Kevin Dyer uses the oak tree, sacred to the Druids, to illustrate the pairing of opposites that results in new life, represented by the acorn cradled in its roots.tree of life cast paper by Kevin Dyer

While the tree is often generic, as in the trivet, sometimes it’s a specific species, such as an oak (Celtic) or an ash (Nordic), an almond tree (basis for the menorah), a Ceiba (Maya), a Ficus (India), flowering yucca (Anasazi), or a wild plum (The Koran).  In other areas, an ear of wheat, a corn plant, or a thistle might be substituted.  Most of the time, the male (rod) /female (circle) balance remains.

tree thistle by Devin Dyer

In other examples, the tree is a mirror image, combining the power of positive and negative opposites, forming an arboreal yin and yang.

tree of life Paradign Shift

History

tree petroglyph, Naquane, ItalyBecause the Tree of Life is a very old symbol, it’s had many variations over thousands of years and probably many different meanings.  Certainly, the graphic elements of the rod and circle are some of the oldest known images found carved in stone.  The example on the left is from Italy, but similar figures appear all over the world.tree pictograph interior pictograph BC,Canada The rock art figure from British Columbia, Canada, on the right, shows a figure rising out of the combined rod and circle elements.  The stone carving  in the center is from Galicia, Spain.rock art, Spain

While we don’t know what meaning the carvers attached to those images so long ago, we can interpret some of the more recent uses of the same image by asking the descendants of the carvers.  In some cases, the flowering of the combination of male and female is cosmic, as in the union of the earth and the sun, or Scan_20150622personal, as in this petroglyph from Crow Canyon, New Mexico.  The humpbacked Ye’i known as Ghanaskidi bears a sack full of seeds, decorated with feathers.  Similar to the Hopi kachina Kokopelli, he seduces the girls and then offers them gifts. He’s associated with harvest and abundance, increased fertility in humans, plants, and animals.

tree Huichol goddess of lifeThe peyote-driven yarn painting created by the Huichol Indians (Mexico) shows Tacutsi, the Goddess of Life,  giving birth to everything that lives.

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Trees

In some creation stories, the tree was literally the source of life, in that people, plants, and animals emerged from it.   In the Nordic epic, the Edda, the first couple: Askr and Embla, were created from ash and elm trees.  Ancient Indian tales mention a giant Ficus (fig) tree that granted wishes and immortality.  In Germanic myths, apple trees guarded by dragons grew the fruit of eternal youth.  Remains of apples found in a burial site in Sweden, dated to 1500 BC, seem to reinforce this idea.

tree Pakal 2The famous tomb lid of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, in Palenque, Mexico, shows the dead Maya lord being reborn as the young Maize God on the Tree of Life.   Unfortunately, bizarre theories explaining this as the figure of an alien astronaut have become so widespread that people fail to see the very consistent Maya imagery used in the carving.  Pakal, who died as quite an old man, is dressed as the young Maize God.  His position is typically used to show a baby.  He lies just above the gaping jaws of the Underworld, but above him rises the cruciform World Tree that unites the three worlds.  At the top the creator god, Itzamna, perches.  Like the kernel of corn, he must be buried in order to be reborn.  This idea is reinforced by the turtle shell ornament he wears on his chest, a reference to the world being born out of the split back of a turtle.  Around the edges are images of the sun, moon, and stars.

Spirit Trees

Many groups around the world believed that dead people’s souls returned as trees.  Tree worship was common Sacred tree, Japanin many areas in the distant past and persists in some areas to this day.  The photo on the right shows an honored spirit tree in Japan.

 

Modern religious application

Because the Tree of Life was a powerful and popular symbol, it was incorporated into the monotheistic religions that replaced older animist beliefs. In ancient Babylonia, the Tree of Life was called Ea, and the fruits of it bestowed eternal life.  This is perhaps the source of the Old Testament Tree of Life growing in the center of Paradise. Judaism also incorporated that image in the menorah and the Kabbalah Tree of Life.  The Koran includes mention of the Sidra or Tuba tree, which grows in the center of Paradise.

tree  Christ crucified  on treeInterestingly, the male/female dynamic that was so central to older representations of the Tree of Life was often played down or replaced by the central figure of the faith, who became the sole generative force.  In the image shown on the left, the tree of life image was used to represent Christ’s crucifixion on the cross (tree) as the source of life in the world.

In some cases, ancient tree worship combines with modern religious beliefs, as in the icon tree pictured on the left.  It also includes the idea of the tree rising out of the waters of life.

icon tree

The Labyrinth

The new labyrinth is a revival of a very old symbol that provides yet another dimension oftree labyrinth the Tree of Life.  Like the most abstract versions of the Tree of Life, it is a rod (the only path in) and a number of circles (which must be navigated in ritual stages), with a six-petal flower at the center of the circle and end of the rod.  In this case, the flowering is personal and spiritual, rather than sexual or universal.  The pattern pictured on the right is most commonly used in contemporary labyrinths.  It’s based on the design in the Cathedral of Chartres, France, built in 1220 AD, though the earliest surviving labyrinth was found in a rock carving in Sardinia, dated to 2500 BC.  Others were found in Crete, Syria, Greece, and Egypt.  At one time, walking the labyrinth was a popular spiritual exercise.  And it’s coming back into favor.  Over fifty turf labyrinths are currently found in England, Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Sweden.   The Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California has been so successful that church leaders had to make portable versions to take to other locations.  Dr. Lauren Artress, who spearheaded the effort to establish the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, notes in her book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth, that the Chartres labyrinth references the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as elements of the whole that one enters when walking the labyrinth.  How interesting that the ancient sense of wholeness, including the sky world, is now popular among church goers in San Francisco!  Many people have said that the experience of walking the labyrinth was transformative and included an element of the feminine and spiritual that they felt had disappeared from the Christian church.

tree turf labyrinth The photo on the left shows an open-air version of the labyrinth. Unlike a maze, the labyrinth does not involve solving puzzles.  The path is very straightforward, can be walked at any pace, and can be used as a guide to meditation.

 

 

So the trivet, the item we saw initially as the Tree of Life, is actually a stripped-down version of an ancient symbol.  It’s lost most of its sexual and spiritual elements, yet it retains something of its history and power.  That’s why it’s so popular.  tree of enlightenment, heaven on earth silks

tree CrowsFeaters Art wire tree amd agate
tree of life steel drum art from Global Crafts

Sources and interesting reading:

Amadi, Reza T.  “Symbolism in Persian Rugs,” Manuscripta Orentalia, vol. 3, no. 1, March 1997. http://www.islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/articles/Ahmadi-a997-mo-03-1-Symbolism.pdf

Artress, Dr. Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool.  New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.

Bonaguida, Pacino di, “Tree of Life” painting of the crucified Christ, from the Galleria dell’ Accademia, Florence, Italy

Bjornson, Anthony, “The World Tree or Tree of Life,” norsespirtualism.wordpress.com

Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS), “Images of Ancient Iran: Achaemenid Dynasty (550 – 330 BC) Metalwork and Glass, Golden Décor Piece,” RezaAbbasi9.jpg

Collyer, Chris.  “Tree of Life Rock: Bronze Age Rock Carving”  http://www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/treeoflife.htm

“Conventional trees of Assyrian bas-reliefs” (Figure 63), www.sacred-texts.com

Davidson, H. R. Ellis.  Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.  Reprinted by Penguin Books, 1990.

Diaz, Gisele, and Alan Rodgers (ed) The Codex Borgia. New York: Dover Press, 1993.

Drawing of Pakal’s sarcophagus lid, Palenque, Mexico, http://www.utexas.edu

Fage, Luc-Henri. “Rock Art of Borneo,” interactive image, from Hands across Time: Exploring the Rock art of Borneo, books.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0508/feature2/zoomify/index.html

Kagedan, Binyamin, “Menorah: History of a Symbol,” JNS.org.  Httyp://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2013/9/23/menorah-history-of-a-symbol

Kim, Jimi, “Yggdrasil” by lazysongwriter, traditional art painting, fc01-deviantart.net

“Labyrinth,” Blanton-Peale Institute and Counseling Center, http://www.blantonpeale.org/labyrinth.html

“Labyrinth: The Walking Prayer,” http:..www.emu.edu/seminary/labyrinth

Lechler, George, “The Tree of Life in Indo-European and Islamic Cultures,” Ars Islamica, Vol.4 (1937) 369-419.

Nuttall, Zelia (ed).  The Codex Nuttall: A Picture Manuscript from Ancient Mexico. New York: Dover Press, 1975.

Rock art, Navajo petroglyph of humpbacked Ye’i, Crow Canyon, New Mexico, from The Serpent and The Sacred Fire by Dennis Slifer

Rogers, Richard A. “Rock Art: Indigenous Images, Historic Inscriptions and Contemporary Graffiti,”  documentaryworks.org/stories/rockart.htm

Saward, Jeff.  “Historic Turf Labyrinths in England,” Labyrinthos, Labyrinths and Maxes Resource Centre, Photo Library and Archive, http://www.labyrinthos.net/turflabuk.html

Slifer, Dennis.  The Serpent and the Sacred Fire: Fertility Images in Southwest Rock Art.  Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000

“The Tree of Life,” Learning about Rock Art, http://www.angelfire.com/trek/archaeology/tree.html

“The Tree of Life” Symbol Dictionary: A Visual Glossary, http//symboldictionary.net?p=34

“Tree of Enlightenment mandala” from Heaven on Earth Silks, www.etsy.com/listing/182211309/treeofenlightenment

“Tree of Life,” Carpets Auction – LAVER KIRMAN

“Tree of Life,” cast paper art by Kevin Dyer

“Tree of Life,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life/

“Tree of Life in Oriental Rugs,” www.capethomeca.com

“Tree of Life mandala,” from Heaven on Earth Silks, www.etsy.com/listing/117394192/tree-of-life-mandala

“Tree of Life Meaning,”   http//www.treeoflife.net.au

“Tree of Life” steel drum art, Global Crafts, Haiti

“Tree of Life Teachings: Living with Passion, Heart and Purpose,” http://www.treeoflifeteachings.com/tree-of-life/

Tree of Life trivet (wood) from Oxfamshop.org.au

“Yggdrasil Art, Yggdrasil,” th05.deviantart.net

Wire Tree of Life on Agate, CrowsFeather Art, on Etsy

Chauvet Cave

In 1994, three cave explorers were surveying a cave in the Ardeche region of southern France when they discovered another cave nearby.  That cave, now world-famous, carries the name of the lead explorer: Jean-Marie Chauvet.  More than 400 meters long, it features several “rooms” or sections covered in amazing paintings, some of which have been found to be between 30,000 and 33,000 years old.  The famous paintings in France’s Lascaux Cave, in comparison, are about 20,000 years old.  The Chauvet dates were so old that many archaeologists refused to believe them even after artifacts had been tested repeatedly.  That’s because Chauvet art challenged a long held theory that art “progressed” or developed greater sophistication as modern humans developed.  Thus early art should be primitive, minimal, and naïve.  Instead, Chauvet art showed great power and inventive design effects.

Chauvet Cave Layout

Chauvet Cave is a 400-meter (1312’) long network of galleries and rooms divided by very narrow sections. A landslide 26,000 years ago completely sealed off the cave, preserving its contents until its discovery in 1994.  So when we study the images of the cave provided by Jean Clottes, Werner Herzog, and the French Ministry of Culture we see exactly what the ancients – and some wild animals – left behind.

Several rockslides closed the original opening.  When Jean-Marie Chauvet, Christian Hillaire, and Eliette Brunel found the current opening, they had to squeeze through a very narrow space that led to a deep shaft.  Eliette Brunel, the only woman in the group, went first, climbing down to the large chamber that now bears her name.  When she saw drawings on the wall, she cried out, “They have been here!”  Indeed they had, though the artists and the viewers had missed each other by an almost unimaginable stretch of time.

Brunel Chamber

In the Brunel Chamber, an ancient artist must have felt the mineral flows on one wall looked like a mastodon, for the form has been outlined in red ochre. The mastodon is one of the central animal forms in the cave decorations.

This chaBrunel Chamber red panelmber also contains a striking panel of red dots made by coating a hand with red ochre and pressing it against the wall.  To the right of the red dots is a section with red dots and lines that seem to pour out from a central fissure in the rock.  The cruciform symbol appears several times on the panel (photo, left).

chauvet brunel bears

Farther along in the Brunel chamber is a panel of three bears drawn in red ochre (photo, right). Almost every drawing in the front half of the cave is done in red.  Drawings in the back of the cave are done in black.

Like most of the figures in the cave, these feature a clear head, shoulder and top line while legs are merely suggested.

Also in the Brunel Chamber is an animal form made of dots – handprints actually, all from the same artist.  Together they make up another mammoth.

The Red Panels Gallery

chauvethyenaandpanther2sm

The eastern wall of this gallery holds several panels of hand prints, dots, and red figures of a bear/hyena and a panther (photo, left).  Note the similarity in drawing style to the bears pictured above, especially in the treatment of the face and the added smudging or stumping around the eye ridge and nostril.

The Cactus Gallery

The most prominent features in this section are a red mammoth painted on a hanging u-shaped formation (photo, right) and a red bear on the wall (photo, left).chauvet cactus mammoth

chauvet cactus red bear

Note the similarity of the style of the bear drawing with the previous bear and hyena drawings.

Past the Cactus Gallery, the cave abruptly narrows, the floor drops and the ceiling drops, making a tight passageway that forms a natural boundary between the two sections of the cave.  The art is also divided by this point.  The front section is almost exclusively painted in red figures and forms.  From footprints left behind, researchers know that men, women, and children visited the front section. The back chambers, including the monumental panels painted in black, are very different and may have had far fewer visitors.

The Back of the Cave

The Hillaire Chamber

The Hillaire Chamber has a deep depression in the center, about ten meters (32’) in diameter and four meters (13’) deep.  The walls around it feature over a hundred paintings as well as engravings of a horse and a mammoth, (shown in photo, left) and an owl.  Some other engravings to the left of the horse have been scratched out.

chauvet hillaire horse and mammoth

The most famous panel in this chamber is the one featuring a collection of horses, rhinos and aurochs (photo), as well as fainter marks that might have been earlier figures.  According to researchers who have recreated the order of painting, the horse heads are the most recent addition to the panel.  Next to the group is a fissure in the rock, so the horses seem to be emerging from it.

Chauvet horses and rhino

On the left wall is a panel of horses as well as a pair of cave lions. The horse heads in this panel seem to be drawn by the same artist as those on the other panel, or at least in the same style.  The lion heads show especially delicate shading work and stippling around the muzzle.

 cave lion pair and horses

Researchers have recreated the sequence of strokes involved in painting the lions.  See photo below.

chauvet cavelionstumping

Also in this chamber is a panel of drawings of aurochs, bison, horses, and others – all done in brief outlines with none of the shading or power of the previously mentioned panels.

The Skull Chamber

This section gets its name from a cave bear skull left on a prominent rock.  Over 3700 cave bear bones were found in Chauvet Cave, thought to belong to at least 190 different individuals.  (The next most common was wolf bones, belonging to six individuals.)

The End Chamber

Beyond the Megaloceros passage is the End Chamber, which contains some of the most astounding art panels in the cave.  A young mammoth was drawn over older figures of rhinos.  Three lions, using the same shading and stippling pattern as the earlier ones, were drawn over earlier figures.  Multiple rhinos appear on one side of a crevice while what looks like a pack of lions chases bison and other animals on the other side of the crevice.  A single horse appears in a scraped-clean recessed area (photo below left).  The photo on the right shows the whole section, complete with the phallic protrusion described below and the hole on the cave wall.

chauvet end chamber rhinosbisonimg285sm


chauvet end chamber

Thechauvet bisonwomansm most enigmatic part of the End Chamber, and indeed the whole cave, is the V-shaped rock formation mentioned above.  It’s painted with the head of a male bison and the pubic triangle and leg of a woman that seems to fade into a lioness painted on the flat section (See photo, left).  It’s often called the Sorcerer.  Though its function is unknown, it certainly encourages comparisons with the androgynous Spirit Master of western US cave art.  Yahwera, as the spirit master is known, keeps all the animals inside the earth and then releases them through a crack or crevice.  People mark the location of the portal to the Spirit Master’s cave with hand prints and drawings on the rock.

Past the End Chamber is a small area known as the Sacristy, which contains only the figure of a mammoth drawn in black with tusks emphasized by engraving.

What do these images mean?

Doodling

There’s always some expert who claims ancient people were incapable of abstract thought; therefore anything they produced must be simply doodling, without any specific meaning.  It’s hard to believe these people actually looked at the images in the photographs.

Hunting Magic

Some experts claim the cave paintings were a form of hunting magic.  Hunters drew images on the walls to increase their luck in the hunt.  The problem is that most of the animals on Chauvet’s walls weren’t animals the people hunted. And, unlike the images in Lascaux Cave, these animals do not appear with arrows piercing them. Often they appear to be emerging from cracks in the cave wall, or in the case of the End Chamber, from the depth of the cave itself, like a womb of life presided over by the androgynous figure of the Sorcerer.

The Brilliant Crazy Ones

David Whitley, in his book Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief, argues that amazing ancient cave art is the work of one or more individuals we would call mentally ill. Specifically, he suggests bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.  These mood disorders, he says, provide the springboard for creativity.  He backs up his argument with studies of shamans who endured mental illness and through their struggles were able to experience the mythic creation of the world.  He claims that in the case of Chauvet, the enlightened crazy ones “used art to permanently materialize their spirit contact.  They created something in the real world [art] to illustrate what was in fact unreal.”

While I don’t rule out enlightened crazy artists, I think the process of art creation in Chauvet was more gradual that that thesis implies.  The art in Chauvet was an on-going process.  The first stage covered two thousand years!  Newer artists painted over older work.  Sometimes they purposely scratched out older images.  Older images tend to be simpler line figures without varying intensity of line or shading while the most recent work is very sophisticated indeed. But then, the later artists had a great gallery of previous work to study.

Neanderthals?

Studies of the earliest cave art at El Castillo Cave in Spain, dated to over 40,000 years old, revealed the strong possibility that the first artists to leave their marks on the cave walls were Neanderthals.  They left red dots and series of lines as well as two figures clearly resembling fish.  Perhaps the impetus for the great art of Chauvet and later Lascaux in southern France came from the folks who lived in the area for thousands of years before Homo sapiens sapiens.

Trance

Other experts, following the lead of David Lewis Williams, show that a trance state, brought on by fasting, drugs, repetitive sound, light deprivation, or even the toxic air inside the cave could have resulted in the impression that the mineral deposits on the walls were indeed animals coming out of the rock.  This idea is backed up by the outlined mammoth shape in the front half of the cave.  Trance was and is critical to religious practices in many parts of the world.  Through trance, shamans – people especially in tune with the spirit world through their constitution and their training – can bridge the gap between the world of spirits and the world of people in order to restore balance between them.

In many parts of the world caves are still seen as portals to the Underworld, powerful places that form a passage between worlds.

These theories may in fact overlap.  Perhaps inspired by the claw marks bears left on the walls, early residents left their own marks.  Later, visionary individuals may have understood the cave as a place to contact the spirit world.  These people and those who believed them would want to touch the walls that formed the only barrier between them and the otherworld. They would want to put their mark on the cave, to become part of it.  Later, the cave might become so powerful in local society it had to be claimed for a specific group and covered with their symbols. As that power shifted, so did the symbols.

Competition

Even among the most recent works in Chauvet, there seems to be some competition involved, perhaps by individual artists, clans, villages, or other groups. In the Skull Chamber, older red hatch marks were covered with an ibex drawing which was later scratched out and a reindeer added.  The mammoth outline is often drawn over older rhinos. A mammoth has been included in various parts of the cave (including the front and far back) over earlier images. Lions are often drawn over older figures (including on the feline panel in the End Chamber), but the most common over-draw is the horse head, occurring often as a head scratched right over the top of other figures or as the suggestion of a whole body, such as the figure in the Niche of the Horse in the End Chamber, which was drawn over a scraped area.  Other older red figures were effaced, along with a series of dots.

Several of the charcoal drawings seem to have been made by the same master artist who didn’t hesitate to cover or replace earlier works.  In the photo, it’s clear that the artist has scraped the left panel clean to make a stronger contrast between the white background and the black charcoal.

chauvet sectorofhorses

The mammoth artist seems to have a different style entirely but also “tagged” many different areas in the cave.  This artist tends to use only an outline, sometimes of the head, shoulders, and front leg, and sometimes the whole body.  The very last image in the cave is just such a figure.  (See photo, right)  The young mammoth was drawn first in charcoal, then the tusks were emphasized by engraving.

chauvet sacristy mammoth

Competition among artists may have also driven rapid developments of style.  The fully shaded horse heads and lion figures make a far more powerful statement than the smaller outlines of earlier efforts.

Conclusions

It may be difficult to explain how the ancient people perceived these cave drawings, but one conclusion is easy: The paintings in Chauvet Cave should show how absurd the whole Social Darwinism/March of Progress theory really is.  Obviously, the development of humankind is not a slow and steady march toward greater ability and sophistication, with modern humans at the top of the mountain.  Our distant ancestors had art, culture, and abstract thought 30,000 years ago!

While the cave is closed to the public to protect its contents, you can visit a replica that is now open near the cave.  Or check out the French Cultural Ministry’s map of Chauvet Cave at http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/arcnat/chauvet/en/   It provides an overview of the cave shape as well as an interactive display of the paintings, human artifacts, and animal remains in each section.  It’s worth seeing!

Sources and Interesting Reading:

Balter, Michael, “Did Neandertals Paint Early Cave Art?” Science/AAAS/News, 14 June 2012, http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/06/did-neadertals-paint-early-cave-art

“Chauvet,” French Ministry of Culture site, http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/arcnat/chauvet/

“Chauvet Cave (ca.30,000 BC)” Hellbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chav/hd_chav.htm

“Chauvet Cave,” Don’s Maps, www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html   – This is an excellent source for photos of the paintings and maps of the galleries!

“Chauvet Cave Paintings: Prehistoric Murals, Ardeche, France: Discovery, Significance, Cave Layout,” Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/chauvet-cave-paintings.htm

Clottes, Jean. Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times. University of Utah Press, 2003

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  Phaidon Press, 2010.  This coffee table book has fabulous full-color photos of very famous and some less famous European cave paintings and engravings.

“Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardeche,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage List, http:whc.unesco.org/en/list/1426

Herzog, Werner. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (film) 2011, IFC Films

Hitchcock, Don, “Floor Plan of Chauvet Cave,” from Philippe et Fosse (2003) with additional text from Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, by Jean Clottes (2003)

“Introduction to the Chauvet Cave,” Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/chauvet_cave_paintings.php

“Prehistoric Colour Palette: Paint Pigments Used by Stone Age Artists in Cave Paintings and Pictographs” Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/artist-paints/prehistoric-colour-palette.htm

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic, 14 June 2012, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614-neanderthal-cave-paintings…

Thurman, Judith “First Impressions: What does the world’s oldest art say about us?” The New Yorker 23 June 2008, http://www.newyorker/com/magazine/2008/06/23/first-impressions

Whitley, David.  Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009.

Photos: Photos from the French Ministry of Culture’s website are credited to Dominique Baffier and Valerie Ferugio.  Other photos come from Don’s Maps Chauvet post, at www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html  Some of the photos on his post come from Jean Clottes and his team, some from National Geographic photographers.

Angels

According to an Associated Press poll taken in 2011, 77% of Americans believe in angels. While the majority of the believers identified themselves as active Christians, about 40% of those who said they believe in angels admitted they never attend religious services. The poll continues the findings of a 2006 poll which indicated that more than three out of four Americans believed in angels.

These statistics look even more shocking when you put them next to declining numbers of church goers. While Gallup polls put regular church attendance in the USA around 40%, studies by church leaders show the numbers are far lower. In 2004, actual counts of attendees in orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline, and evangelical) indicate only 17.7% of church members attended services on any given weekend.

So angels seem to be thriving even though churches are not. While there are many reasons for the decline in church attendance, this post is more interested in why angels are doing so well.

 

The Many Breeds of Angels

If you lined up the various kinds of angels next to each other, you’d hardly recognize them as related. That’s probably because they were born of very different cultures and times.

The Christmas tree angel

The most common angel around Christmas is a slim, winged, feminine, masculine, or gender-neutral figure with a beautiful face and a long flowing robes.angel Carnegie_Museum creche

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Nativity scene in 1223, using a cave near Greccio, Italy and real people to re-create the story of the birth of Jesus and the visitation of the Magi. The display proved so popular that other cities soon copied the idea, sometimes using statues instead of people. Within a hundred years, every church in Italy featured a nativity scene. Wealthy individuals set up their own Nativity scenes, using rich fabrics for the statues and increasing the number of figures until the scene became a mini-city witnessing the birth of a new king rather than the arrival of a poor child whose mother was forced to give birth in a stable.

Angel from Met crecheSince the artists did not have much of a physical description to go by in creating the angels, they used the same elaborate robes for the angels as they gave to the people in the scene. Italian aristocrats of the 1200s were fashion peacocks, combining the Greco-Roman flavor of the Renaissance with sumptuous fabrics, many layers, long trains, and gold thread. The angels were therefore dressed in very impressive robes. The only difference was the wings.

 

Today, Christmas angels are typically shown in the same flowing outfits they were given back in the 1200s. Since those now look more like dresses, the angels have gotten increasingly feminine-looking, often including swirling hair to go with their swirling robes.

 

The Guardian Angel

One of the most common and popular angel images is the guardian. While not featured prominently in the Bible, these are the angels most people believe in. According to a survey of 1700 people of various faiths by Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, more than 50% of all adults surveyed, including 20% who say they are not religious, believe they have been protected by a guardian angel. In some cases, these are loved ones who have died but make their presence known to the living through subtle signs and warnings. Messages from guardian angels might be seen in a comment from a passer-by, a song, the appearance of a particular animal, a strange coincidence, a particular smell, even a natural phenomenon like a strange cloud or a rainstorm while the sun is shining. A guardian angel can take many forms, including a winged figure similar to the Christmas angel, a being of pure light, or a human figure.

religion, angels, guardian angel, oil print, 19th century, protecting, child, children, kid, kids, girl, boy, playing at abyss,

Guardian spirits have a very long history in human culture. The being of pure light and the winged guardian figures appeared in  Genio_romano_de_Ponte_Puñide_ancient Sumer, Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Phoenicia, Hittite Empire, Cyprus, and other early Mediterranean civilizations. One interesting predecessor of the guardian angel is the ancient Roman guardian of the household, a protective spirit who was enshrined in the kitchen, atrium, or garden. The photo shows a sculpture of a household protective spirit from ancient Rome, though it wouldn’t look out of place in a garden alcove today.

In the early 20th century, the guardian angel often looked more like a mother (or sometimes father) figure. Sentimental cards published in the early 1900s featuring angelic, usually female figures protecting their young charges from dangers like a steep cliff or rickety bridge or thunderstorm became so popular they were copied endlessly. They’re now part of our cultural dictionary of images. The image shown on the left is typical.

Newer versions might update the image, but the function remains the same: protection from harm, guidance along angel its-a-wonderful-lifethe right path. In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clarence, the male angel (shown in the photo, right) who saves George Bailey from killing himself, hopes he’ll get his wings by helping George turn his life around. This reinforces the concept that humans can become angels. “Teacher says, ‘Whenever a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,’” George Bailey’s daughter says, so the audience knows the meaning of the bell ringing at the end of the movie.

Guardian angels may be male or female, according to the media. In “Angels in America,” Emma Thompson plays an angel ministering to AIDS victims. In “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996) Denzel Washington plays an angel without wings giving advice to both the preacher and his wife. Still a guardian, though.

In the long-running TV series “Touched by an Angel” (1994 – 2003) the main figure was the angel Monica, who, like Clarence, was trying to work her way up the angel hierarchy by helping people who face great challenges or difficult choices.

angels in the outfield screen-shotIn “Angels in the Outfield” (1994), a boy prays for a father and a winning season for the worst team in the league. An angel, played by Christopher Lloyd in a baseball cap (“Just call me Al”), grants his wish and converts a lot of unbelievers in the process. This is perhaps the most appealing version of the guardian angel: one who intervenes, using extraordinary power for the greater good. (Photo, left)

So guardian angels, no matter their form, are protectors, guides, helpers – powerful beings with people’s best interest at heart. Their popularity is not surprising.

 

The Valentine’s Day Angel

'Ready; aim...'The most common angel we see around Valentine’s Day is a pudgy baby boy with tiny wings: Cupid. He’s mischievous but cute, corpulent in a luxurious and vaguely sensuous way. He’s armed with a bow and arrow, ready to strike the heart of an unsuspecting person, making that person fall in love. Even the expression “fall in love” reflects Cupid’s work. Imagine the poor victim explaining the change: “It was an accident. I was just walking along, minding my own business when suddenly I stumbled and fell in love.” Sort of like falling in a hole. The idea of Cupid striking with his little bow is a way to explain the sometimes random quality of sexual attraction. The cartoon by Elmer Parolini is a perfect example.cherubs by Raphael

While Cupid is called a cherub, and thousands of his kind decorate walls and ceilings of castles, not to mention thousands of Valentine’s Day cards, in fact the cherubim, according to Christian church teachings, are terrifying enforcers. They were the ones wielding flaming swords and barring the gates of the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were thrown out. So how did they change? Once again, blame the Greeks and the Romans – and the Renaissance, when everything Greek and Roman came back into vogue in Europe. The Greek god Eros, from the Greek word for desire, was the son of Aphrodite (goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality). While Eros (Cupid to the Romans) was originally seen as a teenage boy, his image changed to a baby boy when he was transferred to Renaissance Europe.  Cherubs by Raphael, shown.

Other baby angels

angel with racoonCupid may be cute but he’s dangerous. Other baby angels are much more benign. Perhaps because of the widespread belief that a baby who dies very young becomes an angel, there are currently many examples of cute baby or toddler angels with little wings. Sometimes they hold a baby animal, like a deer or bunny or raccoon. Sweetness, youth, and innocence are the main qualities of these angels.

 

 

The angel of death

angel-City_Of_AngelsMany people believe an angel appears to take the spirit of the dying person to the next life. One example of this angel in modern media is Seth, the angel played by Nicholas Cage in the movie “City of Angels.” He and his cohorts, all wingless and wearing black trench coats, stand around Los Angeles, unseen by the humans passing by, waiting for the ones who are dying. At the moment of death, the angel becomes visible to the dying person, telling him or her not to be afraid, that the angel will be their guide to the afterlife. In this sense, he is a classic angel of death, Azrael in Islam, similar to the figure of the Grim Reaper in folklore. In ancient Greek myth, Charon ferried the dead across the river Styx to the Underworld. Angels of death act carry out their jobs as directed.

However, in City of Angels, Seth is impressed by the doctor’s efforts to save the dying man. When he sees how upset she is at losing the patient, he tries to comfort her, but she can’t see him, so he becomes visible. He subsequently falls in love with the doctor, played by Meg Ryan, so much so that he wants to give up being an angel and become human. Even though their time together is very short, he says after her death that the love he felt was worth giving up everything else. This of course brings up lots of very interesting but unanswered questions.

 

The Mismatched Twin Angels

You know them: the caricature good and bad angels that sit on opposite shoulders, whispering opposite advice on how to handle a difficult decision. The winged angels  good and bad angel and the horned devil, right there, one trying to convince you to do the right thing and the other persuading you that the wrong thing would be a lot more fun. The little devil later takes the blame for mistakes. “The devil made me do it,” or “I didn’t really mean to do that.”

Some early Christian books, like the Shepherd of Hermas (140 AD) show angels competing for the heart of a man. Christopher Marlowe made the idea popular in his play Doctor Faustus (1592), when a good angel and a bad angel offer the main character opposite advice.

Now they make an easy graphic to show a person struggling with an ethical dilemma.

 

The Fallen Angelangel Lucifer by Nagy Rebecca

One of the most powerful stories, at least as told by John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost, is the battle of the powerful angel Lucifer against God. He and his minions challenge God for ultimate power. When God crushes Lucifer and sends him to the lake of burning sulfur forever, Lucifer replies: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” Another of his famous lines is: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” What makes Lucifer, or Satan, so attractive is his ferocious belief in himself. Milton’s image of the beautiful but damned figure ruling from his throne in Hell became very popular. Even today, images of the Fallen Angel retain a sense of glory twisted by jealousy and lust for power. He is the Prince of Darkness.

In the drawing by Nagy Rebeka, Lucifer is shown after the fall. The script on his clothing is a quote from “Paradise Lost”: “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, /Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost. / Evil be thou my good/….Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”

 

The Sword of Righteous Power

angel MichaelLucifer’s nemesis is the warrior archangel, usually Michael, clothed like a Roman centurion and wielding a sword of flame. He is the spiritual warrior, leader of the Army of God, angel of righteous battle.  In the sculpture shown on the left, Michael battles and apparently vanquishes Lucifer, shown as a dragon.

The Messenger

By far the most common function of angels in the Bible is relaying messages. Two famous examples are the angel appearing to Abraham, telling him not to kill Isaac, and the angel appearing to Mary, telling her she is to give birth to a son to be called Jesus, as appears in the Fra Angelico painting shown.angel appearing to Mary

 

Why angels?

So we have a strange mix of images – cute, cuddly kids, fleshy baby boys, elegantly coiffed and robed women, stern, powerful men armed with formidable weapons. And the angels’ functions are just as varied – messenger, warrior, protector, transporter of the dead, advisor. Some are good, some bad, some male, some female, some non-gender specific.

Some, like Cupid, are clearly secular, not religious.

Some are not included in any religious dogma. A friend of mine said she went to a bingo game one night and was surprised to see two elderly ladies put out a series of old photos on the table in front of their seats. “I always bring them,” one answered when my friend asked. “They’re my angels. Plus I bring my good-luck charms.”

Why are angels important?  Why is their popularity growing?  Here are my thoughts:

They represent a spirit power in a secular world, a spiritual presence granted to all who want it, inside or outside the bounds of traditional religious faith. They connect people to a wider, unseen, more beautiful and more  powerful world.

People want a guardian who will protect them from the dangers that threaten them.

They want the strength of a righteous army to fight the evil they know lives in the world.

They also want a way to understand that evil, to give it a form and a reason for being.

On a personal level, they want a metaphor for their own ethical struggles and failures.

They want something sweet, kind, and innocent when all they see is pain.

They need Cupid to understand the mystery of sexual attraction.

Angels answer all of these needs.

Angels are the antidote to a sad, lonely, spiritually-undernourished world.

No wonder they’re so popular.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Angel,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel

“Angel on vaulted sacristy of St. Mark” painted by Melosso da Flori (1438-1494) http://www.sacristies-of-the-world.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Mellozzo-da-Flori/

“Angel with raccoon and bunny,” Antiques Navigator, http://www.antiquesnavigator.com/ebay/images/2011/320764497908.jpg

“Archangel Michael slaying Satan as a dragon,” (photo) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/Michael4.jpg

“Bronze genius depicted as pater familias (1st century CE), photo, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genius/

“Cupid,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid (a very good article)

“Exhibition objects,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/christmas-tree

Foster, Jill and Sadie Nicholas, “Meet the women who talk to angels: Even felt that someone’s watching over you? A survey reveal 41 percent of us believe in heavenly guardians,” The Daily Mail (UK) 23 December 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.k/femail/article-2252593/

“Genius (mythology),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genius/ (a very interesting article)

Harris, Dan, “Most American Believe in Guardian Angels,” ABC News, 18 September 2008, http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=5833399

“History of Angels,” Angels &Ghosts, http://www.angelsghosts.com/angel-history

Holy Bible, New International Version, 1973

“Inanna, the Burney Relief, Old Babylonian, c 1800 BCE,” Wikipedia, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/98/Lilith/

Kau, Stephen. “Does an Angel of Death Exist?” Christianity Malaysia, 22f March 2013, http://christianitymalaysia.com/wp/angel/

Joyner, James, “More Americans Believe in Angels than Global Warming,” Outside the Beltway, 8 December 2009, http://www.ousidethebeltway.com/more-americans-believe-angels-than-global-warming/

Martin, Therese, “The Development of Winged Angels in Early Christian Art,” SerieVII, Historia del Arte, 2001

“Poll: Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels,” CBS News, 23 December 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-nearly-8-in-10-american-believe-in-angels/

Metropolitan Museum of Art, angel from the Christmas crèche display (photo) http://www.artfixdaily.com/images/fl/dec8_Met/tree985x1500.jpg/

Nagy Rebeka, drawing of Lucifer after the fall, “I Sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,” The Midnite Lounge, http://the-midnite-lounge.blogspot.com/2012/12/12/

“Nativity Scene” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativiy_scene

“Neapolitan presepio at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (photo) http://upload.wikimedia.org/Wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/19/Carnegie_Presepio.JPG/

Parolini, Elmer (cartoon) “Ready; aim…” http://lowres.jantoo.com/romance-dating-eros-cherubs-love-cupid’s-arrow-cupid-209000273/

“Shoulder angel,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoulder_angel

Stinekey, “Oh, My Pop Culture Supernatural Beings: Angels in Pop Culture,” 20 October 2013, Lady Geek Girl, https://ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com/2013/

“Touched by an Angel” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touched-by-an-Angel/

“The Truth about angelic beings: What does the Bible really teach about angels?” Christian Answers, http://christiananswers.net/q-ach-acb-t005.html

Teotihuacan Discoveries

 

Teotihaucan maskBig news in the archaeology world: In 2003, torrential rains exposed the mouth of a previously unknown tunnel near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, in central Mexico.  Feathered Serpent excavation

Now, more than a decade later, researchers have reached the end of the 340’ (103m) tunnel (illustration) that runs about 60’ below the Temple. Finds from the tunnel (including the figure shown in the photo, left) include engraved conch shells, amber fragments, mirrors, greenstone statues, earspools, seeds, worked stone, beads, bones of animals and humans, mysterious clay spheres coated with a yellow mineral – over 50,000 pieces in all.  The photo (below) shows the outside of the structure.   A section added around 400 AD obscures the original façade (photo) featuring the feathered serpents that gave the structure its name.  Archaeologists debate the significance of the figures.  One set seems to be a realistic serpent while the other is a more blocky stylized creature sometimes identified at Tlaloc, the storm god.  However, Karl Taube, Mary Ellen Miller, and Michael Coe have said it is more likely a “war serpent” or “fire serpent.”  At one time, the circles were filled with obsidian pieces that would have caught the sunlight.

Teo feathered serpent  Teotihuacan Facade_of_the_Temple_of_the_Feathered_Serpent

Many people label the new finds in the tunnel under the temple extravagant, gruesome, mysterious.  Yet, when viewed next to earlier finds from Teotihuacan and those of other cities in the area, the new discoveries seem very consistent.  It’s their purpose that remains a mystery.

 

What is Teotihuacan?

Teotihuacan, Maya, Olmec, Mixtec

Teotihuacan is a world-famous archaeological site north of Mexico City, known for its massive pyramids, its precise layout, and the mystery surrounding its birth, its death, and a lot of what happened in between. We don’t know exactly who started this city around 150 BC, why these people embarked on an almost constant monumental building effort from 150 BC to around 250 AD, or what led to the sacking and burning of the city around 550 AD.

Teotihuacan View_from_Pyramide_de_la_luna

 

Adding to the mystery is the lack of any written records. Either the people who burned the city also burned any written materials, or there simply weren’t any. It’s hard to imagine people designing and building such precise, massive structures without a written record, but none have appeared so far in the excavations.

 

At its height, the city center covered 19 square miles (32 square kilometers) and served a population of 25,000 to 150,000, depending on what source you read, making it the largest city in the Western Hemisphere at the time. Its military power and cultural influence spread throughout central Mexico, out into the Yucatan Peninsula and down into Guatemala.

On the other hand, Teotihuacan also borrowed from earlier and contemporary cultures in Mexico, especially the Olmec, Maya, and Mixtec. The very deliberate, celestially aligned design of earlier Olmec cities like La Venta and Tres Zapotes, with clusters of mounds and central plazas, found its greatest expression in Teotihuacan.

Olmec mask

Olmec masks like the one in the photo (left) provided inspiration for the artisans of Teotihuacan.  The one shown in the photo (right) came from the newly excavated tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Teotihuacan mask  Olmec greenstone masks and figures were a few of many cultural features absorbed into the Teotihuacan culture.

Maya and Mixtec cosmology from contemporary cities also found its way into Teotihuacan culture, as did the value placed on items like fine ceramics and greenstone.

 

 

But whatever earlier cities contributed to Teotihuacan, the Teotihuacanos exaggerated. Pyramids became gigantic. The Pyramid of the Sun, (photo, below) the most massive building on the site, stands 233.6’ (71.2 m) tall, and 733.2’ (223.5 m) long and wide, a huge, commanding construction even today. With its decorative plaster coating and top-most temple long gone, it now has the severe look of a multi-national corporate headquarters, a symbol of complete, collective, threatening, and unemotional power.

Pyramid of the Sun

The whole site was so impressive to the Aztecs who moved into the area 600 years after Teotihuacan was abandoned that they considered it a holy place, a place where gods walked. Even the Spanish conquistadors didn’t destroy it. Its major damage has come from looters, both private and institutional, and from the ravages of time.

 

Spiritual Beliefs

Murals painted in upper class Teotihuacan living areas have provided important clues about the people’s spiritual beliefs, especially veneration of a figure often called the Great Goddess, who is associated with the sacred mountain visible from the site, called Cerro Gordo (Fat Mountain), as well as water flowing from the mountain, rivers and rain, fertility and new growth.

Teotihuacan-Great_Goddess

In the mural shown, the central figure (and the only one shown in the frontal view reserved for deities) has a bird face/mask with a strange mouth that might represent an owl or a spider. Out of the green feather headdress a twisting plant grows – perhaps a hallucinogenic morning glory vine. Circles (sometimes interpreted as mirrors), spiders and butterflies decorate the vine. Flowers sprout from its tips. Birds appear, some with sound scrolls, which probably indicate songs. From the figure’s outstretched hands, drops of water fall. Her torso splits into curling rolls filled with flowers and plants. From the bottom, under an arch of stars, seeds fall toward the border, which is a series of waves carrying stars and underwater creatures.

The figures shown in profile on the right and left of the Great Goddess carry what look like medicine bundles/offerings in one hand. From their other hand water emerges, as well as a cascade of seeds and circles. The entire background is a deep blood red.  Karl Taube has related the circles to mirrors that appear in the creation story in which the sun shoots an arrow into the house of mirrors.  The serpent, then released, fertilizes the earth.  Thus, he argues, the serpent appears on the façade of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent surrounded by a headdress of mirrors.

Teotihuacan Tepantitla_Mountain_Stream_mura

The panel below the picture of the Great Goddess shows bands of water emerging from a mountain around which red, blue, and yellow human figures swim, interact (sing? dance?) and float among butterflies while plants sprout along a snake-like band of water. Interestingly, for a city known for its militarism and bloody sacrifices, the scene looks idyllic.

Some experts suggest that the Great Goddess figure was borrowed from the earlier Olmec figure recorded in a petroglyph at Chalcatzingo that shows a woman seated in a cave from which water flows. Outside the cave, maize plants sprout as male rain falls. (Photo, left; illustration, right)

Chalcatzingo petroglyph   Chalcatzingo_Monument drawing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Others point to the Maya water deity Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, rain, surface waters, weaving and childbirth, sometimes called the Midwife of Creation. (shown as a young woman in the illustration).

Maya Ixchel MaidenIn her role as Mother Goddess and weaver, she set the universe in motion through the movement of her drop spindle. She was also called the Spider’s Web because she caught the morning dew in her web and made the drops into stars. However, she had two sides: the young woman and the old crone. She was both healer and destroyer, bringing about the destruction of the third creation through a terrible flood and then helping to birth the new age.

Of course, all of these interpretations have their detractors.  Karl Taube interprets the entire site as an exaltation of sacred war. He says the circles found in the caches are related to the mirrors worn by warriors as well as to the house of mirrors  from which the creator serpent originated in the creation story. The bodies found in the offertory caches might be captive warriors. His theory,  however, doesn’t explain the significance of the murals.

Aztec water goddess ChalciuhtlicueInterestingly, the later Aztec water goddess Chalchiuhtilicue, who presides over running water and aids in childbirth, shares many features with the figure in the Teotihuacan murals painted hundreds of years earlier.  (The figure in the photo is from the Codex Borbonicus.)

 

New Finds

So back to the amazing new discoveries –

The excavated section of the newly excavated tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent has 18 walls scattered throughout the length of the tunnel in a zigzag pattern, which archaeologists believe were used to seal off the tunnel on previous occasions. So this same route had been used many times before for some purpose, yet this was the last time. After this offering was placed, the tunnel was purposely filled and sealed.

Teotihuacan tunnel

Gomez feels going down the tunnel and leaving offerings probably had a ritual purpose. The original city was built over a four-chambered lava tube cave. In Mesoamerican cultures, caves were considered portals to the Underworld and the places of emergence at the time of creation. Perhaps, Gomez said, the trip into the tunnel provided the ritual power needed for a new leader. (Photo shows recent discovers in the tunnel, including greenstone figures in the foreground, dozens of conch shells, and plain pottery.  Lower left is a close-up of the two figures in the background; lower right is a close-up of the shells and pots.)

Greenstone figurinesConch shells and pots

Or the trip into the tunnel could have been a pilgrimage, a way to make contact with powerful spirit forces. Following the pattern evident in so many religious rituals around the world, the supplicant may have offered sacrifices in order to recognize the gods’ power and to seek their help.

 

A Survey of Discoveries

Back in 1982 and 1989, mass graves were found under and near the same Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The sites, dated to the period the temple was constructed, about 150 AD, included 137 people who’d been sacrificed with their hands tied behind their backs. They were accompanied by cut and engraved shells from the Gulf Coast (150 miles away), obsidian blades, slate disks, mirrors, ear spools, and a greenstone figurine with pyrite eyes. A hundred years later, people left very similar offerings in the tunnel.

In 1999, a burial site was discovered within the Pyramid of the Moon. That site yielded 150 burial offerings, including obsidian blades and points, greenstone figures, pyrite mirrors, conch and other shells, and the remains of eight birds of prey and two jaguars. Again, these are very similar offerings.

The male buried in the tomb under the Pyramid of the Moon was bound and executed, which seems to make it a sacrifice rather than a memorial. All of the human bodies found so far have been sacrificed. Some were decapitated, some had their hearts removed, others were bludgeoned to death. Some wore necklaces of human teeth. Sacred animals were also sacrificed: jaguars, eagles, falcons, owls, even snakes.

The 2014 discoveries, like the others, have been extravagant and gruesome. Some of the precious objects discovered in the tunnel include arrowheads, obsidian, amber, four large greenstone statues, pottery, dozens of conch shells, a wooden box of shells, animal bones and hair, skin, dozens of plain pottery jars, 15,000 seeds, 4,000 wooden objects, rubber balls, pyrite mirrors, crystal spheres, jaguar remains, even clay balls covered in yellow pigment (shown in photo).  And some came quite a distance – conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico, jade from Guatemala, rubber balls from Olmec or Maya sites.

Teotihuacan yellow orbs

While this team, like the earlier ones, hopes to find a royal burial, as of this moment, they haven’t. So far, this too seems to be an offertory cache. The difference is that this moment doesn’t mark the building of a new pyramid; it marks the effective end of construction. Some event required this extravagant offering. While some think this cache might be the remains of a huge feast marking a great funerary and sacrificial ceremony, a tunnel 60’ underground seems an odd place for a celebration.

The timing suggests the event was more than the death of an old ruler or the ascension of a new ruler who needed the spiritual trappings of leadership. It looks as if the city faced a crisis – perhaps weather changes, disease, internal strife, or some other threat. At this critical point, they might have turned to the Great Goddess, the one responsible for life and death and new life, to help revive the old strength that defined Teotihuacan. Indeed, the murals featuring the Great Goddess as the provider of joyful, abundant life were painted about the same time.

According to Mary Ellen Miller’s book The Art of Mesoamerica, “Constant rain and water crises at Teotihuacan exacerbated the difficulty of building and maintaining the city. The preparation of lime for mortar and stucco requires vast amounts of firewood to burn limestone or seashells, and the more Teotihuacan grew, the more the surrounding forests were depleted. With deforestation came soil erosion, drought, and crop failure. In response, Teotihuacan may have erected ever more temples and finished more paintings thus perpetuating the cycle.”

Whether this environmental degradation from both drought and flood was the crisis that precipitated the offering or only part of it, we don’t know. However, if crops failed, the power structure would soon fail as well.

A Similar Case

In 1200 AD, a terrible drought in what is now Arkansas (USA) drove people to bring their precious stone pipes, engraved shell cups, stone maces, projectile points, and colorful woven tapestries to the site of a new mound to be constructed. They chanted and sang and danced and said prayers after they built high walls and a domed roof around the offering chamber. “They gathered at Spiro,” George Sabo, director of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey said, “brought sacred materials, and arranged them in a very specific way in order to perform a ritual intended to reboot the world.”

Perhaps that’s also what the Teotihuacanos tried to do.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Archaeologists Make Incredible Discoveries in Tunnel Sealed 2000 Years Ago,” Huffington Post, 30 October 2014, http://huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/30/mexico-archaeologists-tunnel

Castillo, Edward. “Mexico Archaeologists Explore Teotihuacan Tunnel.” Sci-Tech Today, 3 November 2014, http://www.sci-tech-today.com/story.xhtml?story_id=010000ZQKM7K

Dvorsky, George. “Incredible New Artifact Found in 2,000 Year-Old Mexican Tunnel,” http://archaeOre.kinja.com

“Façade of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Teotihuacan),”  Wikipedia.com

“Great Goddess of Teotihuacan,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Goddess_of_Teotihuacan

Hearn, Kelly, “Who Built the Great City of Teotihuacan?” National Geographic, 1996-2014, http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/teotihuacan-/

“Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Mexico, 1 – 500 AD” and “Teotihuacan: Mural Painting,” 2000 – 2014, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/

“In Pictures: Relics discovered in Mexico’s Teotihuacan,” BBC News: Latin American and Caribbean, 28 October 2014 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-29828309

“Ixchel” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ischel

John Cabot University, Rome, “The Art of Teotihuacan,” AH 142 class materials, http://ah142group2.blogspot.com/

Lunday, Elizabeth, “Rethinking Spiro Mounds,” American Archaeology, Fall 2014, 26-32.

Lorenzi, Loretta. “Robot Finds Mysterious Spheres in Ancient Temple,” Discovery News, http://new.discovery.com/history/archaeology/mysterious-spheres

Meyer, Karl E. Teotihuacan. New York: Newsweek Book Division, 1973.

Miller, Mary. The Art of Mesoamerica, from Olmec to Aztec. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) Proyecto Tlalocan, photos.

Noel, Andrea. “Thousands of Precious Objects Unearthed in Ancient Mexican City of Teotihuacan,” https://news.vice.com/article/thousands-of-precious-objects-unearthed/

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omec#Trade (an excellent article!)

“Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan,” United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage Convention, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/414

“Pyramid of the Sun,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_of_the_Sun

“Robot Uncovers Ancient Burial Chamber beneath Teotihuacan Temple,” Huffington Post, 28 April 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/28/robot-teotihuacan-temple

Schuster, Angela M. H. “New Tomb at Teotihuacan, Archaeology, 4 December 1998, http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/mexico

Taube, Karl A. “The Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Cult of Sacred War,” latinamericanstudies.org/Teotihuacan/Temple

“Teotihuacan,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teotihuacan

“Teotihuacan Great Goddess,” (photo) Wikipedia, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons

Tepantitla Murals, including the Great Goddess panel and the Mountain Stream panel, from Wikipedia Commons, http://upland.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/Tepantitla

Vance, Eric. “New Artifact-Filled Chambers Revealed under Teotihuacan,” Scientific American, October 2014, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-artifact-filled-chambers-revealed

“Wagner Murals,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wagner_Murals