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World History Archives - varnamvarnam
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Tag Archives | World History

Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

(via IMDB)

In Southern France, the Ardèche River flows through a spectacular landscape. Surrounding the river are white limestone cliffs, covered with vegetation, rising up over hundreds of feet. Over the river runs the Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, a natural arc like the one at Arches National Park. The cliffs on either side of the river are perfect places for hiking and that is what Jean-Marie Chauvet and his two friends, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire were doing in December, 1994 when they chanced on a narrow entrance within the cliffs.

When you enter through this obscure shaft which was hidden for twenty millenia, you reach a dark cave with high ceiling where there is not much to see. If you have seen any Ramsay Brothers or Ram Gopal Varma movie, this is the point where you scream and run as fast as possible. Fortunately Chauvet and his friends explored the caves and as they went through the network of chambers they saw not just animal bones or stalactites, but undulating cave walls painted with spectacular animal images. And they were 30,000 years old.

Some of us may enter Mt. Athos, but we will never enter the Chauvet Cave. The cave is closed to public. But then if the French culture minister is a big fan of your movies you may get the once in a life time opportunity to film inside the cave. This is how the Bavarian film maker Werner Herzog (Aguirre) got permission to make this 3D documentary. But even then there were too many restrictions. The crew had to minimal (3 people). They had to use only hand held cold lights and always stay on the narrow walkway. They would be allowed inside only for a few hours every day. Despite such restrictions, the result is a spectacular film.

Since the cave was naturally sealed by a landslide for more than 20,000 years, it is like walking into a time capsule. The walls are filled with drawings of horses, bisons, lions, bears and mammoths. In one depiction, there are a bunch of animals running and to give the impression of running, the artist chose to depict the animal with multiple legs, similar to how you do in modern cartoons. You can call them the precursor to animation. Drawn during the period when Neanderthal man roamed alongside humans and Europe was covered with glaciers, the images are lifelike. They seem to be telling various stories: of fighting and mating and of hunting and movement.

The sequencing takes us in through that cliff-face door, away from sunlit faces and landscapes and down the torchlit shaft leading to the cave’s long chambers. These stretch back some eight hundred feet. The cave’s miracles of geology—the extravagance of its glittering stalagmites and calcite curtains—surpass those of the Pont d’Arc outside. But the chambers also have undulating walls, and it was on these that the ancient artists chiefly worked. We are given a foretaste of their images: we exit; we return to this item, to that; we leave again. “It is a relief to go outside,” Herzog explains: inside the caves we get to feeling “as if we were disturbing,” as if our distant ancestors’ eyes were still upon us. But finally we surrender to the flow of their art, immersed at length in the interplay of torchlight, rippling cave flanks, scorings, charcoalings and red ochre.[Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

But there are no human depictions.

One thing, though: There’s a partial depiction of a female, the lower part of a female body, somewhat embraced by a bison. It’s very strange that this motif reappears 30,000 years later in some etchings of Picasso—the Minotaur and the female.But why no human beings? You see depictions of human beings 20,000 years later, 18,000 years later, at the beginning of Neolithic times. By the end of Paleolithic—during the Magdalenian epoch of Paleolithic culture—that’s where you start seeing human depictions.[Werner Herzog Finds at Least Three Dimensions in the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

The documentary also reveals the amount of care taken by the French to protect the caves. This has not been developed into a tourist site because the visitors’ breath could bring mold on the paintings like what happened in Lascaux. Even the scientists stay on the narrow metal path so as not to plant their foot prints next to the 20,000 year print of an extinct cave bear. For tourists, they are planning a replica site nearby.

(via Wikipedia)

The other impressive thing is the research that has been done in these caves. Every inch has been laser scanned and specialists have looked at every artifact. Near the opening there is a wall with hundreds of hand prints and they belonged to a man who had crooked fingers. Deep in the caves, researchers found another painting which was done by a man who too had crooked fingers. The Chavuet painters used torches and some of them rubbed those flames against the cave walls leaving 28,000 year old charcoal fragments. A surreal moment is when Herzog tells us about two sets of foot prints: one belongs to a bear and the other to a child. Did the bear eat the child, or were they friends or were the foot prints made thousands of years apart? Again, we don’t know.

What makes this a non-boring documentary is Herzog’s commentary. His imagination is quite wild. Standing in the silence, looking at the art, he says one can hear one’s own heartbeat and the sound track switches appropriately. The cave paintings remind him of Fred Astaire’s dancing with the shadows and we get a visual from Swing Time. Then he gets the most wonderful characters to explain the past: a circus employee turned archaeologist, a scientist who walks in reindeer skin, a perfume maker who sniffs for smells in caves. These are very unique Herzog touches.

This is probably the only documentary I have seen in a theater and it was worth it.

Furthur Reading:

  1. What does the world’s oldest art say about us? The New Yorker article that inspired Herzog.
  2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), NYTimes Review
  3. Werner Herzog Finds at Least Three Dimensions in the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  4. Herzog on Fresh Air
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Trading Hubs of the Old World – Part 1

  1. Lime plaster fragments found in Dhuwelia (Eastern Jordan), around 4000 BCE had remains of a cotton fibre attached to it. The only place from where that particular sample of cotton could have come was Baluchistan[1].
  2. Some time after 2334 BCE, Sargon of Akkad boasted about ships to India lying in his harbor[1].
  3. After 2000 BCE, Indian cattle reached Africa and lived up to their name: the humped cattle. [2]
  4. On July 12, 1224 BCE, Ramses II, one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs died. When he was mummified, the priests put a couple of peppercorns from Kerala up his large bent nose[3].

In “Hubs of Medieval trade” (Pragati, June 2009), Ullatil Manmadhan wrote about the maritime trade networks in the Indian Ocean which between 1000 – 1500 CE transported goods, religion and culture from East Africa to Egypt to Arabia to India through ports like Calicut, Fustat and Ormuz. But many millennia before this — before the urban dynasties of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Harappa — there existed a maritime network which linked Africa to India via Arabia.

Cotton
(Cotton)

There are few issues when you go that far back in time: we don’t have historical records, remnants of trade artifacts, or representation of those activities in art.  While travelers like Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta left us narratives of their travel, we don’t have that luxury while dealing with this period.

In the absence of the written record, the story has to be constructed from genetic studies, studies of plant and animal dispersal, and by archaeology.  For example, much of the domesticated plants and animals in Arabia originated outside Arabia: cattle was introduced from the Near East and donkey from Egypt. Regarding plants it is possible that the date palm in Arabia probably came from the Indian Sugar Date Palm or from Iran around 5000 BCE.

The history of this trade network starts in 6200 BCE for a reason. In the time period between the rise of farming communities and the peak of Harappan civilization, 6200 BCE was a dry period. Following this dry period sea levels rose and water was released from various lakes into the Atlantic and Red Sea affecting the coastal sites. Thus if coastal communities existed before that period, the evidence is hard to find.

The evidence for coastal communities come from shell middens, which are shell mounds. Shell middens can reveal a lot of information about human activity including the food they ate. Some of these mounds were the place where the village would dump garbage and some times contained evidence of house hold goods. The Greeks called the beach dwellers Ichthyophagi — mainly to the stump the finalists of the National Spelling Bee — and after 6200 BCE, there is a rise shell midden sites around Arabia.

Once coastal communities were established, the next step was maritime trade. But sea faring was not an easy task: the sailor, besides having knowledge of the currents, also had to  be an expert in navigating past shoals and reefs. They also had to know when the wind blew north so that they would not waste time traveling south. 

Arabian people of this period knew about ocean traveling; the remnants of a boat was found near Kuwait and this boat which was made from reed bundles, tied with rope, and sealed with bitumen had barnacle impressions on it. This site, which could be dated to 5500 – 500 BCE, also had a painted disc showing a sailing boat[4]

The Egyptians used boats even earlier; there has been evidence of boats on the Nile dating to the 7th millennium BCE.  Egyptian trade started around 5000 BCE and maritime trade a millennium later. This was the time around which the Persian Gulf and Red Sea trade started as well.

India enters into this network around the fourth millennium BCE. Archaeologists in Dhuwelia, a seasonal hunting site  in Eastern Jordan found cotton thread embedded in lime-plaster. Cotton is not native to Arabia and that particular species could have come from only one place in the world: Baluchistan, where it has been cultivated since the fifth millennium[2]. But it is not clear if this prized good was transported via a land route or on a boat to the Persian Gulf. One thing is clear;to reach Dhuwelia one has to travel through the Euphrates valley[3]

Sargon
(An Akkadian ruler, probably Sargon)

After the mid-fourth millennium BCE, the world changed. The urban civilizations of the Old World started rising – in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in the Indian subcontinent. These civilizations maintained records which reveal more about the trade networks and the maritime activities. This is the time when places like Dilmun (Arabian Mainland or Bahrain), Meluhha (Indus), Punt (somewhere in Africa) came into existence in records.  With the rise of urban societies, the goods started traveling farther and trading networks developed. 

By this period, the Egyptians moved from reed to wooden boats and started using the sail. Like the 14th century Ming emperor who sent out huge fleets for prestige and power, the fourth millennium BCE Egyptians too started doing the same. Like Zheng He’s fleet, these ships too were spectacular and went around acquiring exotic goods. Wood was imported; there were break throughs in sail-rigging; the Egyptians were soon making sea voyages to Punt. 

By the time of Mature Harappan, there is evidence of direct trade between the participants. Around this time the Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2279 BCE) boasted[1]

The ships from Meluhha
the ships from Magan
the ships from Dilmun
he made tie-up alongside
the quay of Akkad

Another Sargonic tablet mentions an Akkadian who was the holder of a Meluhha ship and a seal mentions a person who was a Meluhha interpreter. Indus seals — the ones we have been applying the Markov model on — too start appearing in Mesopotamia.>(To be continued)

Notes:

  1. Coming in Part 2: trade with Mesopotamia and East Africa
  2. The primary source for this article is a recent paper: Shell Middens, Ships and Seeds: Exploring Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade and the Dispersal of Domesticates in and Around the Ancient Arabian Peninsula by Nicole Boivin and Dorian Fuller.
  3. Images from Wikipedia
Comments { 2 }

Hatshepsut and Mistress of the Lioness

Photobucket
Thutmose III and Hatshepsut (via Wikipedia)

Recently the Public Radio Station in Boston had a one hour discussion on one of the rare female pharoah’s of Egypt — Hatshepsut (1479 to 1458 B.C.E.) — who ruled 150 years before Akhenaten, the monotheist pharoah. National Geographic had a cover story as well.

Though a woman, in one temple carving she is shown born as a boy. She would also walk in a striding pose, like males instead of keeping the legs close together, like other Egyptian women. Some statues depicted her with a beard. It was as if she was trying to convince the world that she was male. Her motivation for doing so is known.

Her mummy was discovered almost a century back, but remained unidentified. She was called KV60a.

KV60a had been cruising eternity without even the hospitality of a coffin, much less a retinue of figurines to perform royal chores. She had nothing to wear, either —no headdress, no jewelry, no gold sandals or gold toe and finger coverings, none of the treasures that had been provided the pharaoh Tutankhamun, who was a pip-squeak of a king compared with Hatshepsut.

And even with all the high-tech methods used to crack one of Egypt’s most notable missing person cases, if it had not been for the serendipitous discovery of a tooth, KV60a might still be lying alone in the dark, her royal name and status unacknowledged. [The King Herself]

Hatshepsut was not the first woman to rule Egypt, but she ruled more than all other women — for 21 years. She erected four granite obelisks at the temple of Karnak. This animation takes the viewer from eastern Karnak across the sacred lake to the shrine of Thutmose III, who would succeed Hatshepsut.

After her death, around 1458 B.C., her stepson went on to secure his destiny as one of the great pharaohs in Egyptian his­tory. Thutmose III was a monument maker like his stepmother but also a warrior without peer, the so-called Napoleon of ancient Egypt. In a 19-year span he led 17 military campaigns in the Levant, including a victory against the Canaanites at Megiddo in present-day Israel that is still taught in military academies. He had a flock of wives, one of whom bore his successor, Amenhotep II. Thutmose III also found time to introduce the chicken to the Egyptian dinner table.

In the latter part of his life, when other men might be content to reminisce about bygone adventures, Thutmose III appears to have taken up another pastime. He decided to methodically wipe his stepmother, the king, out of history. [The King Herself]

While Egypt had other female Pharoah’s, it was believed that Caanan had only male rulers. But now a recently found plaque depicts an image of the first female “king” of the region.

The plaque itself depicts a figure dressed as royal male figures and deities once appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art. The figure’s hairstyle, though, is womanly and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers — attributes given to women. This plaque, art historians suggest, may be an artistic representation of the “Mistress of the Lionesses,” a female Canaanite ruler who was known to have sent distress letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt reporting unrest and destruction in her kingdom. [Was A ‘Mistress Of The Lionesses’ A King In Ancient Canaan?]

This lady, a contemporary of Akhenaten, is displayed in male iconography as well. she is dressed as a male and archaeologists think she too ruled as a king.

See Also: Hatshepsut gallery in National Geographic, Digital Karnak: Animations from UCLA of the Karnak temple.

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The origins of Crucifixion and Resurrection myth

In the early days of Christianity, the practice was to appropriate pagan practices and celebrations. The Roman emperor Constantine presided over the First Council of Nicaea and it was there that Dec 25 was picked as the birth date of Yeshua. During those times, two important pagan festivals were celebrated – the first one starting on Dec. 17 honored Saturn, a major Roman deity of agriculture and harvest and the second one starting on Dec 25, celebrated the birth of Mithras, the Persian god of light. Constantine combined both and we now have Christmas.[Dec 25, 326 CE | varnam]

Now it turns out that even the story of crucifixion and resurrection has a pagan connection. According to Valerie Tarico, “it is an historicized version of a very ancient myth from Mesopotamia.” In the Sumerian tradition it is called “The Descent of Inanna” and “The Descent of Ishtar” in the Babylonian version.

Let’s start with the first part of the myth. Inanna and Jesus both travel to a big city, where they are arrested by soldiers, put on trial, convicted, sentenced to death, stripped of their clothes, tortured, hung up on a stake, and die. And then, after 3 days, they are resurrected from the dead. Now there are, to be sure, a number of significant differences between the stories. For one thing, one story is about a goddess and the other is about a divine man. But this is a specific pattern, a mythic template. When you are dealing with the question of whether these things actually happened, you have to deal with the fact that there is a mythic template here. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t a real person, Jesus, who was crucified, but rather that, if there was, the story about it is structured and embellished in accordance with a pattern that was very ancient and widespread.[Valerie Tarico: Ancient Sumerian Origins of the Easter Story]

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New Exodus Theory

Then comes the major event of the parting of the Red Sea. It seems the Hebrew word, Yam Suf was mistranslated as Red Sea while it actually means Reed Sea. Instead of looking for the sea scholars should have been looking for a lake. Based on the new evidence, the film makers find the location of the Reed Sea, a lake currently dried up, due to the Suez Canal. Again, the parting of the lake is attributed to the seismic activity.[Exodus Decoded (1) | varnam]

Besides this, archaeology too has not found any evidence of the Exodus, in the scale mentioned in the Bible.

That is one of the conclusions of the two hour NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets, which aired on PBS on Nov 18th. This conclusion is not revolutionary; it has been suggested before, most recently by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist.

The Exodus, the most repeated story in the Hebrew Bible immortalized by Charlton Heston, suggests that about six hundred thousand men and their families escaped Egypt and reached the promised land. A century of archaeological work has found no such evidence but has found that during the time of the Exodus, dated between the Merneptah Stele (1275 B.C.E) and the Zayit Stone (1208 B.C.E), the promised land, Canaan, had just 25 settlements with 3000 – 5000 inhabitants.[Bible’s Buried Secrets (1/2) | varnam]

Still that has not prevented people from coming up with theories of the partition of the Red Sea.

Accepting the biblical account as a “possible ‘qualitative’ description of an event,” Florida State oceanographer Doron Nof set out to investigate whether the parting of the Red Sea is “plausible from a physical point of view.” Using a common phenomenon called wind set-down effect, he found that “a northwesterly wind of 20 m/s blowing for 10-14 h is sufficient to cause a sea level drop of about 2.5m.” Such a drop in sea level, Nof speculates, might have exposed an underwater ridge, which the Israelites crossed as if it were dry land. Although the event is plausible, Nof estimated that the likelihood of such a storm occurring in that particular place and time of year is less than once every 2,400 years.[La scienza e i miracoli dell’Esodo]

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