13 December 2011

Whose Christmas Is It Anyway? (Updated)

Two gods were born on 25 December, to wit, Sol, the Invincible Sun (Sol invictus) and the ascendant Christ.

Whose day was it, really?

The 12th century Syriac bishop, Jacob bar-Salibi, had this to say: 

It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.
What the good bishop imagined was that, during the last years of paganism, the cult of Sol remained so popular that the Church Fathers could only neutralize its celebration on the [traditional] winter solstice of December 25th by setting the birthday of Christ on that very same day.  In other words, they snatched the day and, sooner rather than later, Christ trumped Sol.

The great classical scholar, Franz Cumont, had no doubt that this was what had happened.  In his monumental Mysteries of Mithra, he declared it "certain that the commemoration of the Nativity was set for the 25th of December, because it was at the winter solstice that the rebirth of the invincible god [Sol], the Natalis invicti [birth of the Invincible (Sun)], was celebrated. In adopting this date, which was universally distinguished by sacred festivities, the ecclesiastical authority purified in some measure the profane usages which it could not suppress." (195-196)*

This view is now almost universally accepted; but is it true?

Obviously, we don't really know the date of the birth of Jesus Christ.  The gospels do not say and the early church didn't much care about his physical birth.  Until the Church Fathers got around to settling such questions in the 4th century, there was a grab bag of guesses.  According to St Clement of Alexandria (2nd C):
There are those who have determined [the day] of our Lord’s birth; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Emperor Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20]... Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].
Clement dismissed such dates out of hand.  Instead, his own calculations showed that Christ was born on November 17, in the year 3 BC.  A century later, a  God-inspired theologian announced that Christ, the new "sun of Righteousness", was born on March 28 since the Creation began with the spring equinox (= March 25] and the Sun was created on the fourth day.  So that was that (or so he thought).  Before long, however, another learned priest calculated that the birth date was April 2 in the year 8 AD -- 5500 years to the day after the Creation, as he had worked it out himself.  And then, of course, there were many who celebrated 8 January (Epiphany), still Christmas day in many Orthodox churches.

But no one had yet suggested December 25th. 

It is only with the famous Calendar of Philocalus (a list of the early bishops of Rome and Roman festivals) written in 354 AD  that we find, given for the year 336, December 25: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae, "Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea".

Flashback to 274 AD and Sol, the Invincible Sun

The Roman cult of Sol existed from the earliest history of the city until at least the time when Christianity became the exclusive State religion (380 AD).  The notion that the sun was divine was in Roman eyes a matter of visible fact rather than faith. As a divinity, the sun was clearly due divine honours.  He had at least four temples in Rome. We know of cult statues, as well as public feasts at one time or another on August 8th, 9th, and 22nd, October 19th - 22nd, and December 11th and December 25th.

The curious thing is that December 25th was the sole festival of Sol to fall on an astronomically significant date.  Obviously the new sun is 'born' on the winter solstice when the days will start to lengthen but what exactly did the pre-Christian Romans celebrate on that date? 

Enter Aurelian, conqueror of Zenobia

Obverse: Radiate bust IMP C AVRELIANVS AVG
Reverse: Sol standing, hand raised in salute, seated bound captives

Although Sol was favoured by emperors before and after Aurelian (r. 270-275 AD), there is no doubt that Aurelian intentionally elevated the sun-god to become one of the top divinities of the empire. Earlier priests of Sol had been generally from the middle ranks of Roman society, simple sacerdotes in a lower class public cult.  Aurelian raised them to the level of pontifices, an office now filled by members of the senatorial elite. To be a priest of Sol was now a top prestige post.

In the year 274, to celebrate his victory over Zenobia, Aurelian inaugurated the festival of the Sun-god in Rome. The god he had in mind was Sol Invictus, "the Unconquered Sun", but the god he had in hand was Bel-Helios of Palmyra. When the emperor had destroyed Zenobia's city the previous year, he despoiled the Temple of Bel: Aurelian, we are told, removed from this temple the statue of Bel-Helios to a new home in Rome.

He built a temple for the god on the eastern Campus Martius, today between the Via del Corso and the Piazza San Silvestro (so Bel may still be lurking under the church of San Silvestro in Capite). Something of this huge temple remained on the site until at least 1629 when Giovanni Battista Mercati made this haunting etching (above left) of its ruins.  The temple incorporated eight splendid porphyry columns most probably transplanted from a temple in Palmyra; three centuries later these were transported by Justinian to Constantinople, to adorn his new church of St Sophia.

Mosaic of Sol in a four-horse chariot
Aurelian established special Games in honour of Sol to be held every four years and kicked off the event with 30 chariot races.  It was widely assumed [and I, too, assumed: see my post on S. Silvestro in Capite] that these games were held on December 25th.  According to the Calendar of Philocalus, 30 chariot races took place on that day to celebrate the Natalis Invicti, that is, the birth of the Invictus (the 'Invincible' [One]).  This feast, then, must have been the festival that the Church fathers wanted to displace with Christmas in their brilliant counter stroke against a dangerous pagan rival.  Besides, there was already a pervasive use of the sun as metaphor for Christ in early Christian writings (e.g. the True Sun, Sun of Justice, etc).   Christ came even closer to Sol with some of his early images resembling those of the Sun-god in his sky chariot (compare Sol above left, with Christ, below left).

It makes perfect sense.  And, nowadays, there is almost unanimous agreement that this is what happened: the church hijacked Sol's birthday.

The problem is: we may have the story backwards. 

So whose Christmas is it?

A recent doctoral dissertation by S.E. Hijmans at the University of Groningen (NL) takes a fresh look at whole kit and caboodle.*  The new Dr Hijmans is the first to have noticed that there is absolutely no evidence to show that the Games of the Sun founded by Aurelian ever took place on December 25th.  On the contrary, no feast day for Sol is mentioned on that day until 80 years later in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian the Apostate in his Oration to King Helios (the Sun).
In short, while the winter solstice on or around the 25th of December was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedates the celebration of Christmas, and none that indicates that Aurelian had a hand in its institution.*
In fact, the Calendar lists a festival of Sol that was celebrated in 354 AD from 19-22 October culminating in an unparalleled 36 chariot races (instead of the standard 12 or 24 races at this time) -- an extravagance which seems to suggest not an annual festival but a rarer quadrennial event; thus, these are likely to be the Games dating back to Aurelian.  Those games, first held in 274 AD and then every four years, would indeed have been celebrated in 354 (Philocalus' Calendar) and in 362 (Julian's Oration).  So, if the Christians had wanted to take over Sol's most important festival, that should have been the multi-day games celebrated on 19-22 October.  

But hang on a moment!

The Calendar also says that chariot races were held for the Sun on December 25th -- so which is it?  Well, the calendar doesn't quite say that.  It lists 30 races run that day in honour of Natalis Invicti; that is, the birth of the Invincible (or Unconquered) ....  


While Invictus is a common epithet for Sol (but not only for Sol), the word is not followed by any name telling whose natalis is being honoured.  Whether celebrating the birth of a god, an emperor, a hero, or even an event, a name is always given -- except this one time.  This is an odd omission for a time-honoured feast. 

Christ as Sol in Mausoleum M in pre-4th C necropolis under St Peter's, Vatican

In other words, the entry for December 25th in the Calendar of 354 may be a later insertion into an existing template for the calendar.  While astronomically important, the date of the winter solstice is never elsewhere associated with the Sun-god.  So one has to wonder if the festival for Sol on 25 December was actually quite new.

There is a real possibility that the day was not dedicated to Sol until after the bishop of Rome first celebrated Christmas on that date in 336 AD -- a pagan reaction to a Christian feast, perhaps, rather than vice versa.

If Sol were the copycat (and not the other way round), this would explain why December 25th was the only festival of Sol to fall on an astronomically significant date.

This doesn't tell us when the Natalis Invicti of December 25th entered the Roman calendar, but it does appear to have overlapped (at least after 336 AD) with the celebration of natus Christus in Betleem Judeae on the same day.  The Church fathers were, of course, aware of the cosmological significance of December 25th as winter solstice.  That alone may have made it the most logical date to serve as the birthdate of Christ.  The sun played a role in the Roman world as a divine cosmic body and Christians could deal with the heavenly body, sol, whose cosmic nature, higher order, and reality was undeniable, without necessarily dealing with the pagan god, Sol.  While they were aware that pagans called this day the birthday of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and probably did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.

At the very least, this new way of looking at the evidence casts doubt on the contention that Christmas was instituted on December 25th in order to counteract a popular pagan religious festival.  Christ didn't have to trump Sol after all.  Sol wasn't even in play.

Enjoy your holidays with a clear conscience.

And Happy New Year to all. 

Updated 22 December 2011

More images of Aurelian's Temple of the Sun in Rome discovered by Roger Pearse (Thoughts on Antiquity).  Not much is left but you get a good idea of its original immensity..

*  S.E. Hijmans, Sol: the Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, diss. Groningen, 2009; esp. Chapter 9.

Main sources: S.E. Hijmans, Sol: the Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome.  I have also made us of Roger Pearse's posts on Franz Cumont, Mithras and 25 December at Thoughts on Antiquity


Upper left: Silver disc of Sol Invictus. Roman, 3rd century AD. From Pessinus (Bala-Hissar, Asia Minor). British Museum GR 1899.12-1.2,  Photo credit: Jastrow via Wikipedia

Left: Bronze figure of Sun-god, Roman, 3rd century AD.  Photo credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum,  GR 1865,0712.17

Centre: gold coin (aureus) of Aurelian.  Photo credit: Tataryn77 via Wikipedia

Below left:  Etching by Giovanni Battista Mercati of the ruins of Aurelian's Temple of the Sun in 1629, from the series Some Views and Perspectives of the Uninhabited Places of Rome. Photo: The Amica Libary

Lower left:  Sol in a 4-horse chariot (quadriga), Roman mosaic in Bonn Rheinisches Landes Museum.  Photo credit: petrus agricola.flickriver

Lowest left:  Mosaic of  or Apollo-Helios Detail of vault mosaic of Christ as Sol in the Mausoleum of the Julii. From the Mid-late 3rd century necropolis under St. Peter's in the Vatican.  Photo credit: Leinad-Z via Wikipedia

10 December 2011

What's In A Name?

O you who carries off the souls of the living, O you who cuts off shadows,
O all you gods who are over the living, come, bring you Osiris-Nesmin's soul to him*

This prayer was written in Egyptian hieroglyphics on the outer coffin (left) of a priest named Nes-Min ('He belongs to [the god] Min') who died around the year 300 BCE, was embalmed, and his mummy placed within.  'Nesmin' is a common name in this period -- not a name associated with the elite but with men of the middling sort.  Let's say, the kind of men who are soon forgotten.

Now, thanks to some fine forensic work in Belgrade, this particular Nesmin will long be remembered: he's not any more an anonymous mummy or a name without a history but, once again, an individual with an identity -- and even his own 'photograph'. After all, how do you identify a person today?  With a name, sex (M or F), age, place of birth, father's/mother's name, profession, race, citizenship status, and a portrait photograph.  

Our Nesmin's now got it all. 

But that's not how he started out.  Actually, he's been hanging around Belgrade Museum since 1888, one small part of a mass of looted material that came from the necropolis of Akhmim, a town some 200 km downstream of Luxor, once known for its colossal temple dedicated to Min, god of fertility.  Literally tons of illegally excavated stuff was put on the market in the 1880s and ended up scattered in museums throughout the world.  

For the next 104 years, no one even bothered to read his name.  He was in and out of storage, sometimes put on show but more often ignored.  Not a lucky mummy, his coffin was opened and his body displayed just in time for the outbreak of World War I.  When the Austro-Hungarian Danubian flotilla shelled Belgrade, they hit the museum, shattering his glass case (left).  Maybe he was lucky after all: he went back into storage, broken glass and all, until the coffin was finally reopened for scientific study in 1993.

Philosophers to the rescue

In that year, Prof. Branislav Andelkovic of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, started a systemic, multidisciplinary, non-destructive research project that is still ongoing.  'The Belgrade Mummy', as it was then known, got the works: X-rays, bacteriological studies, DNA analysis, and, finally, Computerized Tomography (CT) scanning.  Still, it was only in 2005 that they discovered his true name.  Not all of his information was preserved on the coffin.  With really good luck, a limestone stela from Akhmim, also dated ca 300 BCE (Cairo CG 22053) happens to fill in the gaps: the owner of both stela and coffin is Nesmin, son of Djedhor (father) and Chay-Hathor-Imw (mother), grandson of Wennefer, great grandson of Djedhor. 

Nesmin's Identity Card

Name: Nesmin
Sex: male (confirmed by X-ray and DNA)
Date of Birth: ca 350 BCE (he was about 50 when mummified)
Place of Birth: Akhmim (confirmed by the stela)
Father's Name: Djedhor (on the stela)
Mother's Name: Chay-Hathor-Imw (both coffin and stela; an unusual name which confirms that coffin and stela belonged to the same man)
Profession: sma priest, a priest responsible for dressing the divine cult statue
Height: about 165 cm (X-ray)

And then his personal portrait

Forensic facial reproduction was used to reproduce, with the highest possible degree of accuracy, how Nesmin looked when he was alive.  The 3-D digital reconstruction method began with a CT scan of Nesmin's skull. The skull's 'architecture' is the most important determinant of a person's facial features. 

Once a skull model is made, a dataset for tissue depth is selected, based on Nesmin's sex, age, height, life-style and living environment.  Since, even today, we don't know for certain the anthropological race of the ancient Egyptians, a more generalized tissue depth was chosen for that factor.  Next, virtual pegs representing tissue-depth markers were located in crucial points of the skull.  Musculature and tissue was then added and built up following these markers. 

The fleshy features of the nose, lips, and eyes are also extrapolated from the skull, and the texture and colour of the skin added last.  In Nesmin's case, art from the era in which he lived gave added insight into skin and eye colour as well as his 'hair style' (bald as a billiard ball) -- because Egyptian priests are shown with cleanly-shaven heads. 

So, this is Nesmin's portrait as painted by computer with the important aid of human reconstruction artists.  Forensic artists have to deal with a number of unknowable variations (e.g. facial fatness, ear shape, wrinkles), but the final reconstruction produces a clear enough similarity so that, if you met Nesmin coming down the street, you'd think you already knew him from somewhere, at least by sight.  A little bit, perhaps, like first meeting one of your Facebook friends in person. 

Nesmin's last secret

Tucked under his left arm, still literally under wraps, X-rays show a thick papyrus roll written in a fine clear hieroglyphic hand.  This is Nesmin's personal copy of the Book of the Dead.  The exciting project now is to unroll and translate this 'book'.  Perhaps the text will contain more of the very rare prayer (top of this post) that the priest chose for his outer coffin :
Bring Osiris-Nesmin's soul to him that it may unite with his body, that his heart may be glad, that his soul may come to his body and to his heart. 
Induct his soul into his body and into his heart, provide his soul with his body and with his heart.*
And this, I'd like to think, is what the Belgrade researchers may have done for him.

*Spell 191 R, Book of the Dead (translation T.G. Allen)

The major source is B. Andelkovic & J. Harker, "Identity Restored: Nesmin's Forensic Facial Reconstruction in Context", UDK7.032 (497.11) 902:004, announced on ANE-list 9 December 2011.  A free download is available here: http://www.anthroserbia.org/Content/PDF/Articles/a52344c33d504835b5511c5aa6332198.pdf


Top left: Coffin of Nesmin on display in the Archaeological Collection of the University of Belgrade.  Photo: eKapija, Belgrade

Middle: The Belgrade Museum's mummy room after the Austro-Hungarian bombardment (1914).  Photo via  serbianforum

Below: Phases of Nesmin's forensic facial reconstruction, frontal view and side view.  Photo: Andelkovic & Harker, "Identity Restored: Nesmin's Forensic Facial Reconstruction in Context" (@link above), Fig. 1, Fig. 2 (facial reconstructions ©Joshua Harker info@joshharker.com.

26 November 2011


A tribute to Lynn Margulis, evolutionary biologist, 1938-2011.

"Lynn Margulis is an example of somebody who didn't follow the rules and pissed a lot of people off. She had a way of looking at symbiosis which didn't fit into the popular theories and structure. In the minds of many people, she went around the powers that be and took her theories directly to the public, which annoyed them all. It particularly annoyed them because she turned out to be right."*

Why the devil is symbiosis so annoying?  While other biologists believed that species only diverge from one another, she claimed that, no, species formed new composite entities by fusion and merger.  She took rather a longer view.

The First Three Billion Years

“Evolutionists have been preoccupied with the history of animal life in the last 500 million years,” Dr. Margulis wrote in 1995. “But we now know that life itself evolved much earlier than that.  The fossil record begins nearly 4,000 million years ago!  Until the 1960s, scientists ignored fossil evidence for the evolution of life, because it was uninterpretable."

I know that my readers are will be champing at the bit for Zenobia's interpretation of the "uninterpretable".   But before I am led into interpretation, let's review the background.

Darwin vs Mendel

Darwin claimed that populations of organisms change gradually through time as their members are weeded out, which is his basic idea of evolution through natural selection.  Mendel, who developed the rules for genetic traits passing from one generation to another, made it very clear that while those traits re-assort, they don't change over time. A white flower mated to a red flower has pink offspring, and if that pink flower is crossed with another pink flower the offspring that result are just as red or white or pink as the original parent or grandparent. The genes are simply shuffled around to come out in different combinations, but those same combinations generate exactly the same types.

Neo-Darwinism attempts to reconcile Mendelian genetics -- which says that organisms do not change with time -- with Darwinism, which claims they do. The neo-Darwinists square this circle by saying that variation originates from random mutation, defining mutation as any genetic change.  Mutation was thus touted as the source of variation -- that upon which natural selection acted .  

Of course, inherited variants do appear spontaneously but they have nothing to do with whether or not they're good for the organism in which they appear.  It is known from many experiments that, for example, even if fruit flies are isolated completely from X rays, solar radiation, and other environmental upsets, spontaneous mutations will still occur.  But the result of such mutation is always sick or dead flies.  No new species of fly appears — that is the rub.  Everyone agrees that such mutagens produce inherited variation.  Everyone agrees that natural selection acts on this variation. 

The question is: From where comes the useful variation upon which selection acts? Does natural selection operate at the level of the gene, the organism, or the species, or all three?

In the beginning there were single cells and micro-organisms

Zoology, according to Lynn Margulis, is simply three billion years too late.  Animals  (including, of course, people) arrive very late on the evolutionary scene.  Thus, they provide little real insight into the major sources of evolution's development.

In cell evolution, on the other hand, the great event was the appearance of the membrane-bound nucleated (eukaryotic) cell — the cell upon which all larger life-forms are based. Nearly forty-five years ago, Margulis argued for its symbiotic origin: that it arose by associations of different kinds of bacteria. Her ideas were generally either ignored or ridiculed when she first proposed them.  Now, symbiosis in cell evolution is considered one of the great scientific breakthroughs.

From bacteria to bugs

For more than a billion years, the only life on this planet consisted of bacterial cells, which lack nuclei. They looked very much alike, and from the human vantage point seem boring.  However, bacteria are the source of reproduction, photosynthesis, movement — indeed, almost all the interesting features of early life.  

The criteria that we use for species of animals and plants and fungi simply do not apply to bacteria:
Bacteria are much more of a continuum. They drop their genes all the time. It's like going swimming in a swimming pool, going in blue-eyed and coming out brown-eyed, just because you've gulped the water. That's what bacteria do, all the time. They just pick up genes, they throw away genes, and they are very flexible about that.

Say you have a bacterium like
Azotobacter. This is a nitrogen-fixing bacterium. It takes nitrogen out of the air and puts it into useable food. Nitrogen fixing is a big deal. It takes a lot of genes. If you put a little something like arsenium bromide in a test tube with these organisms, and put it in a refrigerator overnight, lo and behold, the next day the cells can't do this any more, they can't fix nitrogen. So by definition you have to change them from one genus to another.

I'll give you another example:
E.coli. It's a normal inhabitant of the human gut. If you put a particular plasmid into E.coli, all of a sudden you have Klebsiella and not E. coli. You've changed not only the species, but the genus. It's like changing a person to a chimpanzee. Can you imagine doing that, putting a chimpanzee in the refrigerator, and getting him out the next morning, and now he's a person?

Mitochondria and More Stuff

Mitochondria are wriggly bodies that generate the energy required for metabolism. To Margulis, they looked remarkably like bacteria.  There were parallel examples in all plant cells. Algae and plant cells have a second set of bodies (chloroplasts) that they use to capture incoming sunlight energy in photosynthesis.  Chloroplasts, like mitochondria, bear a striking resemblance to bacteria. She became convinced that chloroplasts and mitochondria evolved from symbiotic bacteria — specifically, that they descended from cyanobacteria, the light-harnessing small organisms that abound in oceans and fresh water.

Margulis spent much of the rest of the 1960s honing her argument that symbiosis was an unrecognized major force in the evolution of cells. Needless to say, no one believed her.  The manuscript in which she first presented her findings was rejected by 15 journals before being published in 1967 by the Journal of Theoretical Biology.  After ten years of research, she produced a book called the Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, with additional evidence to support the theory.  Even under contract, it was rejected by Academic Press. Finally, in 1970, the revised work was published by Yale University Press as Symbiosis in Cell Evolution.

Now, it is orthodox biology to argue that symbiotic events had a profound impact on the organization and complexity of many forms of life.  Nucleated cells are more like tightly knit communities than single individuals. Evolution is more flexible than was once believed. 
Symbiosis is a physical association between organisms, the living together of organisms of different species in the same place at the same time.  From the beginning, I was curious about these unruly genes that weren't in the nucleus. The most famous of them was a cytoplasmic gene called "killer," which, in the protist Paramecium aurelia, followed certain rules of inheritance. The killer gene, after twenty years of intense work and shifting paradigmatic ideas, turns out to be in a virus inside a symbiotic bacterium. Nearly all extranuclear genes are derived from bacteria or other sorts of microbes. In the search for what genes outside the nucleus really are, I became more and more aware that they're cohabiting entities, live beings. Live small cells reside inside the larger cells.
Her contention is that "symbiogenesis" — long-term symbioses that lead to new forms of life — has occurred and is still occurring.  Symbiogenesis, as she proposed, is the result of long-term living together — staying together, especially involving microbes -- and that it's the major evolutionary innovator in all lineages of larger nonbacterial organisms.

Dr Margulis argued that the eukaryotic (nucleated) cell -- which includes all the cells in the human body -- appeared because of symbiogenesis, that is, though a transformation of what started out as a parasitic infestation of one cell by another

"The long-lasting intimacy of strangers

It may have started when one sort of squirming bacterium invaded another — seeking food, of course. But certain invasions evolved into truces; associations once ferocious became benign. When swimming bacterial would-be invaders took up residence inside their sluggish hosts, this joining of forces created a new whole that was, in effect, far greater than the sum of its parts: faster swimmers capable of moving large numbers of genes evolved. Some of these newcomers were uniquely competent in the evolutionary struggle. Further bacterial associations were added on, as the modern cell evolved.

This hypothesis was a direct challenge to the neo-Darwinist belief that the primary evolutionary mechanism was random mutation. 

The theory undermined significant precepts of the study of evolution, underscoring the idea that evolution began at the level of micro-organisms long before it would be visible at the level of species. Symbiosis, she argued, was a more important mechanism; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing.

"Gaia is a tough bitch"

Dr. Margulis was also, somewhat controversially, a supporter of James E. Lovelock, whose Gaia theory states that Earth itself — its atmosphere, the geology and the organisms that inhabit it — is a self-regulating system, maintaining the conditions that allow its perpetuation.  In other words, it is something of a living organism in and of itself. She agreed with a weaker version of this theory:
In the early seventies, I was trying to align bacteria by their metabolic pathways. I noticed that all kinds of bacteria produced gases. Oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, ammonia — more than thirty different gases are given off by the bacteria whose evolutionary history I was keen to reconstruct. Why did every scientist I asked believe that atmospheric oxygen was a biological product but the other atmospheric gases — nitrogen, methane, sulfur, and so on — were not?
Lynn Margulis, wearing her National Medal of Science Award
Earth, in her view, is an ecosystem, one continuous enormous ecosystem composed of many component ecosystems.

Cooperation or Competition

Lynn Margulis never made an issue of being a woman in science.  Still, it can't be entirely coincidental that her work stressed cooperation over competition as a major factor in evolutionary history, something still difficult for men of science to handle.  That may be why the "survival of the fittest" and "nature red in tooth and claw" crowds are still so dug in.  The extraordinary thing, surely, is that what began as competition evolved into what is fundamentally a cooperative arrangement.  That's its beauty.  Of course, it doesn't show that cooperation is the norm or that cooperation is always good or that it's always possible:
The problem is NOT "competition versus cooperation". Those words are totally inappropriate for life. The language of life is metabolic chemistry. Even bankers and sports teams have to cooperate in order to compete. It's crucial to realize that it doesn't matter what team you're on, when you compete, even in sports where the term is valid, you still cooperate!
The last word in the debate, as always, belongs to Prof. Margulis: 
The Gaia hypothesis is a biological idea, but it's not human-centered. Those who want Gaia to be an Earth goddess for a cuddly, furry human environment find no solace in it.  They tend to be critical or to misunderstand. They can buy into the theory only by misinterpreting it. Yes, Gaia will take care of itself; yes, environmental excesses will be ameliorated, but it's likely that such restoration of the environment will occur in a world devoid of people.
Lynn Margulis was not shy about expressing her opinions. Her in-your-face, take-no-prisoners stance was pugnacious and tenacious. She was impossible. She was wonderful.*** 

She died last week after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. More than just the world of science will miss her.

Updated 28 December 2011

Chinese Fossils Shed Light On Evolutionary Origin of Animals from Single-Cell Ancestors

From ScienceDaily news 22/12: Evidence of the single-celled ancestors of animals, dating from the interval in Earth's history just before multicellular animals appeared, has been discovered in 570 million-year-old rocks from South China.

Left: 570 million year old multicellular spore body undergoing vegetative nuclear and cell division (foreground) based on synchrotron x-ray tomographic microscopy of fossils recovered from rocks in South China. The background shows a cut surface through the rock - every grain (about 1 mm diameter) is an exceptionally preserved gooey ball of dividing cells turned to stone. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Bristol)

Lynn Margulis would have loved this news.

* W. Daniel Hillis, The Third Culture; quoted by Susan Mazur, Scoop, 16 March 2009.

** Daniel C. Dennett, on Edge.Org.

*** John Brockman, on Edge.Org.

This post is dedicated to my room-mate  from my Oxford days, the immunologist Dr Dr Susan Carson.

Major sources for this post: Edge obituary 11/23/2011; the History of Evolutionary Thought, Berkeley: Lynn Margulis; Bruce Weber, Obituary, New York Times, Nov. 24, 2011; Suzan Mazur, Interview on Scoop: Lynn Margulis: Intimacy Of Strangers & Natural Selection, 16 March 2009; Astrobiology Magazine, Part II: We are all microbes, and Part III: Bacteria don't have species.


Top left: via Edge.orghttp://edge.org/conversation/lynn-margulis1938-2011

Centre: Endosymbiosis: Lynn Margulis, Berkeley.edu

Middle left: via Scoop

Lower left:  Paul Hosefos/The New York Time

10 November 2011

The Weirdest Little Emperor of Rome

My review of The Crimes of Elagabalus:  The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor, a new book by ancient historian and aspiring novelist Martijn Icks*, appears today in the Times Higher Education.

Here's what I wrote:

The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor

10 November 2011

Tch, the young in those days...

Judith Weingarten on whether a teenage ruler's antics were as depraved as we've been told

This is a serious, stimulating study of Elagabalus (also known as Heliogabalus), who should be ranked with the likes of Nero and Caligula in the Roman notoriety stakes.  From his fevered worship of an exotic Syrian sun-god (Elagabal, from whom he got his nickname), to presiding over child sacrifices and his insatiable sexual appetites, Elagabalus is a dream to write about.**  As Martijn Icks says: "Even if only a fraction of these tales is true, Elagabalus must have been one of the most intriguing and unusual characters ever to sit on the Roman throne."

But is even a fraction true?  Except for his devotion to Elagabal, almost certainly not.  Of course, that is no reason not to retell the stories of his sexual depravity, orgiastic rituals, male and female lovers -- we know two boyfriends by name, one of whom he "married", along with a trio of female spouses that included a Vestal Virgin -- and the fact that he wore make-up, dressed in female clothes and prostituted himself.  The sources are insistent: in just four short years (AD218-222), Elagabalus turned Roman virtues upside down.  He was 14 years old when he became emperor and 18 when the Praetorians murdered him and threw his body, along with that of his mother, into the sewers.

Elagabalus claimed to be Emperor Severus' grandson and the bastard son of Caracalla, who had been assassinated a year earlier, presumably by the usurper Macrinus.  The boy was pushed forward as a legitimate scion of the Severan dynasty by his grandmother, the ultra-wealthy Julia Maesa (sister of Severus' wife, the recently deceased Empress Julia Domna).  More Julias are at hand: Julia Soaemias, Elagabalus' mother, and Julia Mammaea, her sister and the mother of the boy who replaced Elagabalus in AD222.  Icks has little time for the Gang of Julias, although literary sources are unanimous that Maesa was the real power behind the throne, and it seems certain that she was supported, first in rebellion and then in the rule of her grandsons, by senators of Libyan and Syrian origin, all Severan appointees.

It is highly unlikely that decisions made in the name of Elagabalus were actually taken by the boy.  If there is one thing he did do personally (presumably besides sex), it was the worship of his Syrian sun-god.  He had been the god's high priest in Syria and the cult moved with him to Rome.  In AD220, the Senate voted him the title "Most magnificent priest of the invincible sun-god Elagabal", which took precedence over the time-honoured "Pontifex Maximus" (the priestly title claimed by emperors from Augustus onwards), just as the new god replaced Jupiter as head of the Roman pantheon.  The emperor's role in this new religion led to gross misunderstandings and ultimately to his downfall.

Instead of representing the best of "Roman values", the emperor was an "Oriental".  He wore the garb of a Syrian priest, a long-sleeved tunic down to his feet that was easily confused with female dress; and he made up his face and danced around the altar to the sound of cymbals and drums.  As he was circumcised, gossips claimed that he wished to castrate himself, in further proof of Oriental effeminacy.  Indeed, the list of un-Roman offences ascribed to the ruler nicknamed "the Assyrian" is almost endless.  On a practical level, too, the demands of his god left him no time for state affairs.  Before long, Maesa put her other grandson, Alexander Severus, into the breach.  The Praetorians did the rest.

The second half of the book takes us on a tour of Elagabalus' reception through the ages.  Needless to say, a sex-mad evil Oriental tyrant did not get a good press, whether dressed up by German academics ("The late revenge of the Semites on Greco-Roman culture, whose chains it had silently worn for centuries") or French psychiatrists ("As the victim of a neuropathia dominated by a quasi-unconscious exhibitionism, he would probably have ended in dementia").  But for the Decadent movement, as Icks recounts, the worm turned and Elagabalus would become an alluring androgyne and an artist: "For artist he had been!  The greatest of his time and many others, without doubt."

In the 21st century, he's a strong but gentle gay guy, a Michael Jackson-like pop star, or, in the words of graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, "Heliogabolus [sic] was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks."

The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor
By Martijn Icks
I. B. Tauris, 288pp, £22.50
ISBN 9781848853621
Published 15 September 2011

*Click here for the author's webpage  (in Dutch).  Dr Icks follows in the literary footsteps of the greatest of Dutch novelists, Louis Couperus (1863-1923), whose decadent novel Heliogabalus (published 1905-06) imagined the rise and fall of this weirdest of emperors.  Decadent, he certainly was: "the priest of the sun who desired to be a man and a woman in one, because that would make possible [his] mystical union  with the androgynous deity.  In the novel, the Rome of Antiquity was presented as one huge brothel.  Heliogabalus desires a beautiful death, but ends up in a slaves' latrine.  The emperor is portrayed as the epitome of beauty, but at the same time he enjoys the sacrifice of children -- he is simultaneously a Beauty and a Beast." [from Jacqueline Bel,  "Louis Couperus, the Dutch Oscar Wilde", in (P. Liebregts, W. Tigges, eds.) Beauty and the Beast, 269.

** Zenobia has not been remiss in posting about the emperor Elagabalus either.  In fact, he features in four posts, first with a focus on his mother and grandmother in 'More Uppity Women: the Four Julia's (Part III)' and 'the Four Julia's (Part III) ... Continued; and, then, an inimitable pair, 'The Curious Case of Elagabalus' Beard', and 'Hairiness Makes the Man' .

23 October 2011

A Muscular Christian in Palmyra

Palmyra [Tadmor] 1872, 1874
Like a shrinking beauty, Tadmor sits in solitary grandeur behind her own desert mountains: and those who would see her in her calm retreat must leave the beaten tracks of tourists, and cross "the great and terrible desert."

During ten years, I had seen many tourists arrive at Damascus, eager as devotees to gaze on this queen of ruins ; but owing to the expense, danger, and general hardships of the journey, few of the multitude had been permitted to look upon her beauty. Of these few, fewer still had free leisure to become acquainted with all her charms.
I may consider myself the most fortunate of tourists, in that I twice succeeded in visiting Palmyra under the most favourable circumstances.... I shall take my readers by my latest route, through a region seldom explored.
So begins the account of the Reverend William Wright, a Presbyterian missionary  in Syria and a perfect example of 'muscular Christianity', that late Victorian British breed of manly men "going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other."

Eastern Gate, Damascus
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland had sent him to Damascus in 1865 as Missionary to the Jews.  Any Church which sought the salvation of the Jews was, they thought, bound to prosper. But, as always, the Jews were not very interested in being converted, and so instead Wright concentrated on bringing education to the poor.

Unlike many other missionaries, he believed that educating people in mathematics, geography, and Arabic was as important as studying the Bible.  He believed in education for women, and was proud that he had Moslem, Druze and Christian children sitting side by side in his classrooms.

When he returned to Britain, he published An Account of Palmyra and Zenobia with Travels and Adventures in Bashan and the Desert.  The first edition of this rare book has just been reprinted (with original photographs and engravings).* The Rev. Wright assures us, "This book was written partly in the saddle and partly in the tent, and almost wholly amid the scenes and adventures which it describes. It should therefore not be lacking in local colour."  

Truly, the missionary brings the world of late Ottoman Syria to life.  And these were dangerous times. 
During that spring [of 1874] the Bedouin plundered the whole eastern borders of Syria. Caravan after caravan with Baghdad merchandise was swept off into the desert.  Spearmen, like swarms of locusts from the east, spread over Jebel Kalamoun, and having slain the shepherds, and stripped any men or women who fell in their way, drove before them all the flocks and herds of the region.

Feeble fanaticism held sway in the city, and absolute anarchy reigned in the rural districts ; and so great was the terror of the peasantry, that, though they were actually starving, they could not move from their villages, except in large armed bodies, and even thus they sometimes fell a prey to the Ishmaelites.

In this state of the country, I had almost given up my [plan], when two daring explorers, the Honourable C. F. P. Berkeley and wife, arrived in Damascus. Coolness and courage had carried them safely through Petra and Karak, and all the trans-Jordanic regions, where they were sometimes beset with savage and furious mobs. Their faces were set towards Tadmor [Palmyra], and the prospect of danger only gave a keener zest to the projected tour. The season was already far advanced for making the journey to Palmyra, and so we resolved to start at once. 
Wright's Account tells the wonderful story of his lengthy stay among the ruins of Palmyra and his later travels in the Bashan (the rough and rocky basalt terrain nowadays known as the Hauran).  It is partly a tale of adventure, partly of his missionary efforts, and partly of his own archaeological research -- for the good reverend was also a  fine linguist and could read ancient inscriptions in Palmyrene Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, Hittite, and Egyptian Hieroglyphs as well as, naturally enough, Greek and Latin.**

It was not, however, a great time to be travelling in Syria.  The Ottoman empire in its dotage was corrupt and violent. Heavy Turkish taxes on the peasants led to famine whereupon the Bedouin attacked and robbed those who remained. As Wright comments, "These spoilers follow on each others heels, and that which the Turkish caterpillar leaves, the Bedouin locust devours."

He also gives a vivid account of a caravan raid.  The Bedouin he describes are very different from the desert dwellers of romantic fiction.  What had happened was this:

The caravan was conducted by the hardy villagers of Jebel Kalamoun, who were bringing provisions for their families from the Euphrates, and they had, besides, Persian carpets, and tobacco and other valuable merchandise for Damascus.... [W]ith the first onset, the Bedouin cut off and captured a number of stragglers. The remainder of the caravan was then drawn up in a circle, and the camels were tightly bound together in a living rampart, from behind which the villagers fired on their assailants.

The Arab force consisted of about twenty horsemen, accompanied by forty dromedaries, each carrying two armed riders.  The Bedouin ... galloped round and round the circle, making a feint here and an attack there, till the villagers were weary of rushing round their rampart, and their ammunition was exhausted. Thus they continued hour after hour, till near sunset, when a wounded camel staggered and fell, and broke the line.  Quick as lightning, the Bedouin rushed in at the breach, the camels started off in all directions, and the active horsemen, with their flashing spears, decided the victory in a few minutes.

The Bedouin took possession of, and carried off, all that the caravan contained—120 loads of butter and an enormous number of donkeys, mules, camels, horses, and arms, valued at £ 4000. In addition to this they stripped all the travellers, and left them naked in the blazing desert. They even stripped the dead. 

Not surprisingly, in the face of such dangers, Wright recruited a large company of guards from the irregular Syrian police and some Turkish soldiers for his journey to Palmyra.  Despite some close calls on the road, all was not glum.  We get a glimpse of his crew being attacked by a mischievous mule.

The gentleman in the pith helmet is the Rev. William Wright.  His unsheathed sword does not impress the mule who is swinging about three 30-foot [10 m] ladders to its own great delight:
A Turkish soldier who had got a [ladder] punch in the back, rushed up valiantly to chastise the "father of ladders," as the mule was called; but before he reached the object of his wrath a sweep of the ladders unhorsed him, to the great amusement of all the spectators. 
They resumed the march to Palmyra. As they approached, ruins on surrounding hilltops rose into view, and beyond the final pass, they could see the tops of the colonnades within. Perhaps there is no view of Palmyra which gives so much excitement as this.

On the left, the yellow mountains towered over [the city]; and on the right, green gardens of palm and olive surged around it.  On the outer side, these gardens are girt by the desert, which stretches away to the horizon, smooth as the sea, and the yellow sands, which shimmer golden in the sunlight, are flecked by the silver sheen of extensive salt lakes
They begin their descent, thrilled with expectancy and delight.
As we swept through the pass, Tadmor lay beneath us; and its ruins, which seemed graceful and fantastic as frostwork on glass, stretched out for more than a mile before us, and ended in the massive Temple of the Sun.
This is what the missionary saw: 

As we approach it in front, we see, over the patched and broken walls, columns standing, and leaning about at every angle, as though the temple enclosure were a huge lumber-yard of columns. Around the outer wall is a deep ditch, and the entrance is reached by a raised causeway flagged with broad stones, among which I recognized a panelled stone door. The sheikh and a crowd of his people are sitting on stones in the gate. Camels and mules pass in and out, and women with jars of water on their heads, and babies on their shoulders.

Within, we find the whole area of the temple filled with clay-daubed huts, so that we can only get an idea of the place by climbing over them. We pass on straight to the Holy of Holies, which we explore with our handkerchiefs held to our noses, for the inmost shrine is the cesspool of the community.

We hurry out to the fresh air; but it is not fresh, for all the offal and filth of the houses are flung out into the narrow lanes, and lie rotting in the sun. Wherever we go among these human dens there reek filth and squalor, and the hot pestiferous atmosphere of an ill-kept sty.
Of course, the intrepid Doctor of Divinity does not lose heart.  Look up, dear sir, look up!

Towers of Death

He next tackles the lofty funeral towers. The long ladders carried by that obstreperous mule were hauled to the towers along with stout ropes and grappling-irons.  Earlier travellers had been unable to explore the structures due to lack of such equipment.

Even so, it looked daunting:

I shall never forget the consternation with which I first saw the tomb-towers. There they towered up to heaven, more than one hundred feet [30 m] high, most of them horribly cracked and toppling over; even the stones seemed rotten. And was I to throw a grappling-hook over those lofty pinnacles, and commence slack-rope practice up those "bowing walls," which were only waiting for an excuse to fall ?

But what's the use of being a muscular Christian if you don't give it a try? The towers turned out to be surprisingly accessible.
We began quietly with the smallest towers, and proceeded steadily to the largest, and in less than three hours of hard work, we had thoroughly explored them all. I stood on the top of every tower, and we had only twice recourse to the ladders; and even then I think we might have dispensed with them. The ropes were used for measuring, and the grappling-irons were not used at all.
Immense treasures, especially works of art, were alleged to have been found in such tombs, but any such valuables were long gone: 
I can now assure all those who sighed to explore the upper stories of the tomb-towers, and whose imaginations revelled in their undisturbed treasure, that the highest recesses had been ransacked before I scaled them, and that nothing remained but a few mutilated mummies and a great number of bones and skulls.
Zenobia in Palmyra

Like most other 19th century learned gentlemen, Wright had great faith in the credibility of the Roman historians.  He had read them all, in Latin and Greek, and believed implicitly what they told him about Zenobia, her womanly graces and accomplishments, her vast learning and martial bearing.  In addition to the historians, Wright was able to read the Palmyrene inscriptions, several of which mentioned Zenobia and her warrior husband, Odenathus.  With slight scepticism, he also adds information culled from what he calls 'the living tradition' of Sitt Zeinab (Lady Zenobia), the tales told by the current inhabitants of Palmyra -- as if these impoverished Arabs were direct descendants of Zenobia's people:
For much of the traditions to which I attach weight, I am indebted to the late Lady Ellenborough, who spent a great deal of time at Palmyra, and busied herself in weaving together the local stories regarding the great desert queen. Chiefly from this source I derived my information regarding Zenobia's military camps, and the routes by which her armies marched to meet Aurelian.
With this grand story in mind, he begins his search for the statue of Zenobia. He offers the workmen a 5-piastre reward if they can find her head.
And how the descendants of the proud Tadmorenes delved in the debris of the beautiful city for the head of the illustrious queen that once ruled the East, and set at defiance the Romans! The diggers strained every nerve and muscle to secure the reward!

Suddenly, while on a ladder examining inscriptions, Wright hears a tremendous yell burst from the excavators, a shout of triumph, "We have got the head of Sitt Zeinab!" shouted the chief of the party, holding a large stone in his hands. It was the head of a Palmyran lady with carefully folded turban (left) which had clearly been broken off a statue.  She wore a broad jewelled band across the forehead, and other bands extended from the middle of the forehead downwards toward the ears, with jewels in each. The head was not as grand as Wright expected, and it was considerably battered.
I was reconciling myself to it with the reflection, that perhaps, like heroes generally, the heads of female statues are less impressive on close inspection, when another yell of triumph ... made the ruins of old Palmyra resound again.  Nothing like it had been heard since the day that the Tadmor cavalry, with Zenobia in glittering armour at their head, drove [the Persian Emperor] Sapor the Great, across the Euphrates.

My excavators, seeing that I was pleased with their find, as I was tenderly removing the sand of ages from the folds of the turban, and doubtless thinking that I ought to be encouraged, had delved deeper and brought to the surface the female head of another statue (left).
There are circumstances, as the Rev. Wright wryly remarks, under which one may have too much of a good thing.

In the end, he was left with the tantalizing inscription  honouring Zenobia and her missing statue that he had been copying while his workers searched for the head -- which is virtually all we still have of her even today.  From his translation of the Palmyrene:
The statue of Septimia, the daughter of Zabbai, the pious and just queen, The Septimii Zabda, General-in-Chief, and Zabbai, General of Tadmor, Excellencies, have erected it to their sovereign, in the month of Ab, the year 582 [= August 271 A.D.]
and in Greek:
Septimia Zenobia, the illustrious and pious queen.

* My warm thanks to Dr Maria Nilsson, currently resident in Luxor, Egypt, for bringing this reissue of Wright's Account of Palmyra and Zenobia to my attention.  I also thank  the publisher, Forgotten Books, for generously offering a temporary free download in e-book form (unfortunately, this offer has now expired). The text with better quality illustrations is available free of cost at University of Washington's Electronic Text Archive but without the charm of reading Forgotten Books' classic reprint.

For the earlier visit of Robert Wood and his friends James Dawkins and John Bouverie to Palmyra in 1750-1753, see the post at The Lure of the East; and the work of their Italian artist and architect in A Short Tribute to Giovanni Battista Borra

** Rev. Wright was an active member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology and of the Palestine Exploration Fund and author of several highly serious books. From 1876 he was Editorial Superintendent of the British and Foreign Bible Society, where his aid to translators of the Revised New Testament was of the highest value. He died on July 31st, 1899. Obituary here.

Illustrations: all from University of Washington,  Electronic Text Archive. By kind permission and in accordance with their requirements.

26 September 2011


As an archaeologist, I love it when the present intersects with the past -- or, even better, when the past erupts into the present -- so I'll go a bit off topic today and tell you about a fantastic new exhibition by the Dutch artist Gerti Bierenbroodspot.  Since I'll be helping the artist install the show, there won't be any other postings until after the opening.

The Presence of the Past: Lost Archaeological Worlds 

2 October 2011 - 31 December 2011

It opens next week at Castle (in Dutch, Slot) Zeist.

What's a modern artist doing in the Baroque country palace of Count Willem Adriaan van Nassau (Slot Zeist)?

It happened like this.

When Bierenbroodspot was shown around the palace built by the bastard Count (for such he, sadly, was), she saw a suite of rooms -- ungilded, unembroidered, and unsilked, a great rarity in the lavish palace -- and pictured in her mind's eye the bare bones of an archaeology in the making.  It would be a place, no less, where the gold of her own paintings would find an inspired home. 

So, first, she transformed three stately 17th century rooms into an imagined excavation ground. 

Sand and rocks from the desert frame treasures brought back from her travels in the Middle East and North Africa.  

The visitor peers into a pyramidal case set on stilts, 1.60 m high (5'3"), and higher still in the next room, and the next, so you see the peaks rising as you pass from room to room.  Each is filled with tumbled masonry and shattered stones, sculptures thrown together haphazardly by time and history.

These are the milestones marking her journeys across Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and the trouvailles of a decade's habitation in an old caravansarai -- her own 'high place' -- above the site at Petra in Jordan.*   

Now picture yourself walking into an undiscovered tomb just as the sun first strikes what is fallen in the dust some millennia ago.  Look up: those are the storied places picked out on the walls, pinpoints of light in the darkened rooms, Bierenbroodspot's paintings inspired by voyages in these magical lands. 

Out of the chaos of happenstance, the works of art come into the blinding light.

The Emperor's Dream, tempera on canvas, 3.5 x 2.0 m [11.5'x 6.6']: Bierenbroodspot 2011
Imagine, now, reversing the arrow of time, as if looking through the Hubble telescope, and the distant past is transformed into a future space.  That is Bierenbroodspot's wondrous world, full of revelation, amazements, and mystery.  These are the living, dreaming spaces that Bierenbroodspot recreates in The Presence of the Past.

Paintings and sculpture: some nitty gritty background

Bierenbroodspot’s paintings are grounded in gesso (liquid lime mixed with Arabic gum) which dries to a hard fresco-like surface. Underlayers of green umber and dark blue indigo give the canvas as much a sculptural as painted texture. Gold mica flakes and black mica flakes are worked in layers of paint and scraped with a palette knife. 

Bierenbroodspot uses gold as a colour, gilding in a way never done before. The gold is translucent, not glittering, a colour like an unearthly strong yellow ochre.

Just as the artist is bringing a more sculptural quality into her paintings she is painting her sculpture, as the ancients did, breaking down the barriers between dimensions. 

Stones of white or flushed palest rose alabaster absorb the colours: murex purple, red sand, lapis lazuli, oils of ultramarine or emerald green, metallic paints (iridescent silver or bronze). Bierenbroodspot says,

My stones must pulsate with life – it does not matter any more what form, what style: only the material and the magic is a personal choice.
Bronze Sculptures

Bronze casting is a technical affair in which at least four or five different specialists take part: and most modern sculptors usually leave it all up to them -- they don't even watch while their bronze statues are being made.

Arslantepe (SE Turkey), Painted bronze, 2010
But she does.  Bierenbroodspot is at home with the sounds of chisels and the clanging hammers of burr-removers, the smells of hot wax, hot metal, stearine, fish glues, acids, and plasters.  She puts her own varnishes onto plaster moulds with mysterious markings and seams:

It is that thread of mystery -- the alchemy of the bronze process that is unchanged over time.
The artist transforms something silent and vanished into what is marvellous and beautiful. This is a parallel world, a place that may once have existed in time, been inhabited and gone. Descending through layer and layers of time, the one appears in the light of the other. They fit together perfectly. And together, they become something totally different.

Time Travel in Blue

As a backdrop to the exhibition, a film of the artist's theatre performance, Time Travel in Blue (previewed earlier this year at the Park Theatre, Alphen a/d Rijn) will be shown in the cinema at Slot Zeist.** The event features Bierenbroodspot, composer/cellist Ernst Reiseiger, percussionist Alan Ganga-Purvis, and Senegalese singer Mola Sila, with fashion-diva Fong Leng as the goddess Inanna. 

More Time Travelling With the Artist

A new book by Bierenbroodspot, The Presence of the Past, has just been published by Bekking & Blitz (specialist publishers of museological and historical works) to coincide with the occasion of the exhibition at Slot Zeist.  

I've swiped this text from the book's back cover:

This is the live journal of Dutch artist Gerti Bierenbroodspot’s journeys into the timeless ancient world.

Bierenbroodspot brings her ‘iconic landscapes’ to life with hundreds of new, unpublished photographs of her years living and working in the deserts of Egypt, Libya, and Syria, and at her caravanserai beside the rose-red city of Petra in Jordan. These are pictures of her Time Travels, the objects and adventures and dreams that she takes with her into her studio. 

160 pages, full-colour, published October 2011 

And, finally, a sneak preview....

Memories of Libya

A second art adventure will take place in Amsterdam when Bierenbroodspot opens her show, 'Memories of Libya' at the Morren Gallery.

These are her contemplative memories of travels in pre-revolutionary Libya and the many weeks spent in her makeshift studio opposite the entrance to Lepcis Magna.  The ruined city was for her like a giant sculpture-garden, a paradise of carved stone, giant in proportions and symmetry. Granite columns with white marble Corinthian capitals cast dark shadows onto crumbled walls clad in slabs of swirling onion-skin (cippolini) marble....

16 October - 20 November 2011.
Prinsengracht 572, Amsterdam

*Bierenbroodspot was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1999 (Order of the Netherlands Lion) as the latest in the line of great Dutch artists who travelled and worked in the East. King Hussein of Jordan made her a Knight of the Hashemite Kingdom in recognition of her contributions to European-Jordanian relations (1995). She is also an honorary citizen of the city of Baalbeck in Lebanon.

** Director Erik de Goederen, Blikvanger Produkties, Linschoten.


Upper left: photo credit Michiel1972 at nl.wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

Paintings and sculpture © Bierenbroodspot


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