28 January 2009

Laser Scanning the Hung-e Azhdar Rock Relief

Why laser scan a rock ?

This extraordinary relief is carved on a huge limestone boulder at the cliff edge of a remote, not to say 'hidden' valley in the rugged mountains of northeastern Khuzistan [at the southwestern edge of the Iranian plateau, sharing a border with southern Iraq (= the big red blob on the map, below right)]. In ancient times, this was the heartland of Elymais, sometimes a small empire, more often a vassal to more powerful states.

At the time this relief was carved, Elymais was under Parthian rule.

Or was it?

Well, yes and no. As so often, scholars differ.

Look closely at the relief. You'll see that it is divided into two very different compositions -- and carved in entirely different styles. So, the question is: does this relief record a single historical event? Or are two different happenings accidentally fused together by craftsmen too lazy to smooth away an earlier unfinished relief?

What and When?

In the absence of inscriptions, the relief can only be studied through the images themselves. We'll start with the easier bit.

There's no doubt that the four standing figures on the right -- all pictured frontally in the Parthian manner -- belong to the Parthian period and were sculpted some time between the 1st and 3rd century AD. They wear the long tunics and baggy trousers of local Elymaid bigwigs. The tallest of the standing figures is clearly the main subject of the relief. He is the largest figure, topping the horseman on the left by almost a head. His prominent weapons and the gesture of the left hand on the sword hilt shows that he is a warrior prince, surely an independent ruler. And I think he must be one of the last Elymaid kings, for the mass of rounded, puffy curls on either side of his head also appears on Elymaid coinage at this time (left), before the kingdom is finally and forever vanquished. That would date him to the end of the 2nd or 3rd century AD

The King of Elymais (for so we must think of him) and his retinue seem to greet the man on the horse -- who is, in turn, followed by a single attendant. Both horseman and attendant are in profile view. These are the only figures among all of the Parthian rock reliefs pictured in profile.

Who is this rider? He wears a diadem tied at the nape of the neck with long fluttering ends, a symbol of kingship worn by Elymaid, Parthian, and Seleucid rulers. So we know he's a king -- but where is his homeland? The profile head with short hair and a naturalistic, bearded face suggest a Hellenistic Greek portrait so strongly that the entire relief has been dated in the 2nd century BC by comparison with coin portraits of Mithradates I (171-138 BC). Mithradates was the first 'Great King' of Parthia, who conquered Elymais in about 140 BC -- temporarily only, as it reappeared a few decades later as an independent kingdom (lasting on and off until its conquest by the first Sassanian king, Ardashir).

In close-up, this is how they compare.

I'm not convinced by the resemblance (although it's possible, of course, that after 300 years his exact image was lost). For example, the sculptor has carefully depicted a heavy necklace (a torc) around the rider's neck, a detail that never appears on Mithradates' coins but sometimes on coins of his successors. Perhaps the sculptor substituted the image of a later Parthian ruler for that of the 'Great King'. But what brings him to Elymais? The bird with a wreath and a palm branch flying towards the horseman (visible on the close-up, below left) is a clue. This is a Roman victory symbol (based on the Roman eagle) which becomes common on Parthian coins from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The bird could apply to either Mithradates I or II, both of whom were victorious in Elymais.

But, wait a moment. A second bird is flying toward the Elymaid king -- and he's pictured a head taller than his presumed conqueror. I suppose we could imagine that the horseman is not an historical character but meant to be more than human -- a deified or heroized early king. Whether human or super-human, he's badly out of proportion: his head is much too large. That may suggest that the head was copied from another source and clumsily attached to a ready-made body.*

And, then, there's his horse.

The prancing horse with arched neck and raised foreleg is a Greek image which spread throughout the Near East during the Seleucid period. This stallion (quite clearly male) has the short, clipped mane and high flowing tail of Greek horses. His bridle ornaments and fluttering ribbons, too, are very un-Parthian.

If the rider is heroized, his mount might be too. Could he be copied from Bucephalos, the famous horse of Alexander the Great? He does look a bit like a marble statue; doesn't he? In which case, we are certainly in the realm of myth or legend.

Anyway, why would an Elymaid ruler in the later Parthian period order a relief which shows him greeting or venerating a mounted figures also embellished with borrowed Roman victory motifs?

With the decline of Parthian power, Elymais was again independent and relatively powerful. The tall standing figure could be a nameless, late Elymaid king paying homage to his real or imagined ancestor in order to stress the legitimacy of the local dynasty's rule. That assumes, of course, that he had at hand suitably ancient images which -- with a bit of cut and paste -- served as a model. And that he was sophisticated enough to adorn this long-ago king with the correct trappings of his own era.

I don't think so.

Whichever way you look at it, the arguments are tortuous.

Enter lasers.

The whole story depends, of course, on the left and right sides of the relief being contemporary. Naturally, there are two opposing views about that. The carving in the two halves of the scene looks different. Some argue that the horseman is sculpted in higher relief than the standing men. This may only be an illusion based on a swelling in the rock surface which makes the horse seem in higher relief than the tallest standing figure. So, if the entire relief was indeed executed at one time, the stylistic differences have no chronological significance.

Lasers should settle the question, or so we hope. A study now underway will allow a detailed examination of the sculpted surface and precise measurement of the carving’s depth at different points of the scene, and should shed light on the carving techniques of all the figures.

The Iranian-Italian Joint Expedition in Khuzistan: 1st Campaign (March 4 - 12, 2008)

The sculpted surface of the boulder (above, left) was divided into 34 squared sectors. About 15,000 markers were placed on the surface to allow the scanner to recognize its position in a 3D model. Note that the scanner itself never touches the surface of the rock, so the process is non-destructive.

Vertices have been located on the ground by a GPS receiver and by traditional topographic method, while 70 ground control points, placed on the sculpted surface (below) are located to define a network. This network has 4 main vertices, while the ground control points orientate the frames acquired by the laser scanner and the digital photogrammetric camera.

The acquired frames were merged to create a 3D digital model of the rock relief consisting in 7.692.104 points, with an accuracy of 0.2 mm approximately [ I like that approximately!].

A specific software has been created to analyse these data. This software manages all the elaborated files: traces of tools on the sculpted surface, differences in the depth of the carving, and the natural conformation of the rock will be examined in order to verify whether there are also differences in the carving technique and evidence of re-sculpting in the two halves of the relief.

The first results (reported on 5 December 2008) look like this:

It's the best image ever. The contradictions in iconography and style are perfectly clear. Isn't science grand!

-- Do we have our answer?

-- No, not yet.

Tune in for the results of the second season -- coming next month.

* This idea does not hold water (in my opinion) since the attendant on foot behind the mounted figure -- although possibly unfinished -- also has an overly large head. It seems more a stylistic trait than a copying error.

References: I have made much use of T.W. Kawami, Monumental Art of the Parthian Period in Iran, Leiden, 1987.

21 January 2009

Entropa Rules OK

Entropy + Europa = Entropa

While the eyes of the whole world were fixed on Washington D.C., I was also following the Entropa brouhaha in the capital of Europe. In case the drums and trumpets of the American inauguration drowned out the noise of this second installation, let me explain.

Entropa (left) is now on display at the normally dull and grey European Council building in the centre of Brussels. It's an artwork that lampoons all 27 EU national stereotypes, which has caused some countries to throw a fit. Others are unusually quiet.

Entropa portrays Bulgaria as a Turkish squat-down toilet, France is out on strike, Lithuania has three statues urinating on Russia, and my beloved Netherlands sinks beneath the waves (below, right) with only the towers of minarets poking through -- to the tune of wailing muezzins. Oh, and by the way, the United Kingdom is that empty space at the top left-hand of the work: in short, absent entirely -- exactly as Eurosceptics have always wished.

This is undoubtedly the first exhibition in the history of EU Council art displays to cause a diplomatic incident, the usual intent being to get by unnoticed and avoid criticism at all costs. In truth, so successful have they been before the current Czech presidency that I don't know anyone who has even heard of such an art event in Brussels. Until now!

Entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system

The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency for the first six months of 2009, thought it had commissioned a joint work from 27 European artists -- one from each EU country, a cute (if fuzzy) idea.

But it turned out to have been entirely completed by the notorious Czech artist David Černý and two of his mates. Mr Černý, 41, first gained fame in 1991 by painting a memorial to a Soviet tank in Prague a shocking pink (the then Minister for National Defence offered hasty official apologies to the Soviet Embassy), while his spoof sculpture of Saddam Hussein preserved in formaldehyde has been banned in two countries.

Art Attack

Entropa is subtitled Stereotypes are barriers to be demolished, in accord with the Czech EU Presidency motto of "Europe without barriers". The Czechs boasted that the artwork, based on an outline of each country, would speak where words fail.

Er, I wonder what that German autobahn (right) is saying....

According to the artist's proposal, alongside the Italian entry (the map of Italy with nine footballers) is the legend "It appears to be an autoerotic system of sensational spectacle with no climax in sight." And next to the alleged British entry, an Airfix kit of Europe (where there is now a blank space): "this improvement of exactness means that its individual selective sieve can cover the so-called objective sieve."

If that gobbledegook was not enough to warn the Czechs, they have only themselves to blame.

The Czech Presidency is keeping its collective head down. The Deputy Prime Minister, however, bravely stated that "in today's Europe there is no place for censorship. I am confident in Europe's open mind and capacity to appreciate such a project."

His confidence was soon tested.

International Incidents

The Polish piece recreates the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, with the U.S. Marines and Stars and Stripes replaced by Catholic monks erecting the rainbow flag of the Gay Rights movement. Or are they a gaggle of gay priests? Hard to tell. Still, the public in Poland appears to be largely in favour, with 64% considering it "spot on" and only 13% thinking it "an insult to Polish people", according to an on-line poll.

The Romanians, seeing their country turned into a Dracula Disneyland, hauled in the Czech ambassador to complain (I want to know if they bit his neck).

Slovakia, the truncated half of once Czechoslovakia, is portrayed by what looks like a strangled sausage. Rubbing salt into the sausage, it is tied up in the Hungarian tricolour -- a reference to a little ethnic spat between the two EU lands. Slovakians officially claim that it resembles a wrapped-up corpse. The Foreign minister lodged a formal protest, calling it an offence to the Slovak nation.

But most peeved (if that's the word I want) is Bulgaria. The country's ambassador wrote undiplomatic letters of complaint to the Czech EU presidency and the EU foreign policy chief demanding that the sculpture be taken down before the official launching. The first secretary for the Bulgarian office to the EU, said:

“I cannot accept to see a toilet on the map of my country. This is not the face of Bulgaria.”

Individuals outside the government as well expressed outrage about the image:

It is one thing portraying, say, France as a country on strike, but quite another to show my homeland as a toilet. That is downright wrong.

Point taken. Though the French might not agree.

An EU Compromise

EU officials expressed concern. One said: 'This is very provocative for an official building and does not seem to have been properly discussed in the appropriate forum."

The Czechs were bloody but unbowed:

What we approved was a blank map; we decided not to censor anything. When we saw the finished work, we thought it might be too much. That remains to be seen. At any rate, it is an expression of freedom, we decided not to censor it.

Until they did.

Yesterday, as the hands of the clock moved towards midnight, Brussels bureaucrats came up with one of their famous half-way measures: they decided to leave the piece in place but decorously covered it with a black cloth. A map of Bulgaria was pinned to it in case you didn't know what was hidden from view.

What was that famous axiom about Entropy?

The algebraic sum of all the transformations occurring in a cyclical process can only be positive, or, as an extreme case, equal to nothing.

11 January 2009

The Ara Pacis in Colour!

From the aptly named Roman blog, eternallycool, this stunning news:

Last week, the Comune di Roma treated the eternal city to a full-colour illumination of the front of the Ara Pacis or Altar of Peace.

As part of an actor-led tour that dramatically recounted the stories of Romulus and Aeneas in order to explain their presence on the front of the Ara Pacis, lights were used to superimpose dazzling colours onto white marble facade of the altar. The goal was to give visitors an idea of the monument’s appearance at the time of its dedication in 9 BC.

Though the altar is all-white now, scholars agree that such monuments — as well as sculptures — were once brightly coloured. Thus, vivid blues, greens, yellows, and reds characterized the illumination.

Vatican Museums Director, Antonio Paolucci, who co-organized the project, said that the projected colours were chosen based on traces of paint recovered from the monument in the 1930's, such as red ochre and gold leaf.

The Ara Pacis was built in celebration of the end of the civil wars and the advent of peace under the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.

Though the colour projections were a temporary holiday event, organizers say they hope to make the demonstration a permanent part of Ara Pacis Museum in December 2009.

Reproduced under eternallycool's generous Creative Commons License

09 January 2009


Three Minor Mysteries of a New Tomb

This is all that is left of the body of Queen Sesheshet -- a skull, legs, pelvis, and scattered bones, once carefully wrapped in linen. Sesheshet was the mother of Teti, first pharaoh of the 6th Dynasty (r. 2323 - 2291 BC).

Her new pyramid was found at Saqqara last November. Although now topless, it had once been as high as a five-storey building.

As Zahi Hawass (Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities) whooped:

You can discover a tomb or a statue, but to discover a pyramid, it makes you happy. And a pyramid of a queen -- queens have magic.

Still, after digging down through 7 metres (23') of sand to reach the pyramid, archaeologists must have been miffed when they spotted a gaping vertical shaft already dug through its upper structure -- evidence that the pyramid had been robbed in antiquity.

Yesterday, the archaeologists, too, entered the tomb.

Inside a spacious burial chamber (22-m [72'] long and 4-m wide), they discovered the queen's granite sarcophagus, some six tons in weight. A team of workers spent five hours lifting its heavy lid. Sadly, her disarray and paltry adornments showed that the robbers had been there first. Only some gold finger wrappings had been left behind. It had been thoroughly ransacked.

Mystery # 1

Who put the lid back on the sarcophagus, and why?

Mystery # 2

Was Sesheshet an Uppity Queen, or not?

To be honest, almost nothing is known about her. Her husband's name -- and, thus, the father of the new king, is unknown. Her estates under the title King's Mother are mentioned in the tomb of the early sixth dynasty vizier Mehu. That title points to her being a royal mother but hardly suggests (as reported on some sites) that she ever ruled as pharaoh herself.

Rather, she was said to be instrumental in enabling her son to gain the throne and reconciling two warring factions of the royal family. Teti's chief wife, Queen Iput, was probably a daughter of the last king of the 5th Dynasty, Unas -- and one can easily imagine that Sesheshet had a hand in arranging the marriage. Marriage to the previous king's daughter legitimized Teti's rule but that doesn't mean that his accession was peaceful. A less than easy transition is suggested by his Horus name, Seheteptawy, which means, "He who pacifies the Two Lands".

The rest of the story is just as murky (to say the least).

Mystery # 3

Was Sesheshet the "Queen Who Had No Hair?"

A Queen Mother named Shesh is mentioned in the Ebers medical Papyrus, the most important Egyptian pharmaceutical record to have survived (ca. 1550 BC, although its content is undoubtedly much older). It tells us how to make the very same hair-restorer that Queen Shesh had used herself!

Another remedy to make the hair grow , prepared for Shesh, the mother of his Majesty, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Teti the justified

The remedy was made from the claw of a dog, the hoof of a donkey, and some boiled dates.

This was a fairly unpretentious hair-restorer for a great queen but her celebrity endorsement undoubtedly popularised it. If that didn't work, however, another sure-fire remedy for baldness advised the sufferer first to recite this invocation to the sun god:
O Shining one, thou who hovers above!
O Disk of the Sun!
O Protector of the Divine Neb-Apt
and then swallow a mixture of burned prickles of a hedgehog immersed in oil, fingernail scrappings, and a potporri of honey, alabaster, and red ochre.

Hair still falling out? Stir up and rub on the scalp “the fat of a horse, a hippopotamus, a crocodile, a cat, a snake and an ibex. Then mix in the tooth of a donkey crushed in honey.” Just collecting the ingredients would be a fairly hair-raising business, which might have been the general idea.

Did any of this help Queen Sesheshet? We don't know, but I suggest that the archaeologists now going through her tomb with a fine-tooth comb keep an eye out for plaits and fringes of false hair. A hair-piece might have supplied the deficiency rather better than brew of dogs' claws and donkey's hoof had done.

Not really uppity -- but she might have set the fashion for Egyptian wigs.

Update: 20 January 2009

Mystery #1 is solved! Elementary, my dear Shesh: the early reports of the sarcophagus having been opened by the tomb robbers turns out not to be the case:

The thieves entered through a tunnel from the top, because they couldn't get through the main entrance, said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities

Fortunately, Seshseshet's mummy was inside a granite sarcophagus with a six-ton lid,* so the thieves left the body and its decorations of gold jewelry untouched.

They didn't open the sarcophagus; they were using their hands, said Hawass, whose team used heavy machinery to remove the lid.

Here's a close-up of Seshseshet's mummy. It certainly doesn't look 'untouched' -- but I'm more prepared to believe that something horrible happened to her during embalming than that the thieves lifted the lid with their hands ... and then carefully replaced it.

* Surely it's the sarcophagus that weighs 6 tons, not the lid by itself!

My thanks to Talking Pyramids for signalling the update.

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