Archive for the ‘archeology’ Category

The Illustrious Client

June 10, 2018

Meditations on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Sherlock Holmes spars with a nasty cad who is trying to cajole a lovely young heiress into marriage in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” One of the plot vehicles in this case is the fact that Baron Adelbert Gruner, the nasty cad, is also a famous collector of antique Chinese porcelain. He had even published an influential monograph on the topic.

To successfully execute the case, Dr. Watson has to overnight assume the role of a porcelain connoisseur in order to, well, you’ll have to read the story. Suffice it to say that the hapless Watson is found out in short order. Hi-jinx ensue.

Of course, such a fate would befall anyone given the task of becoming a porcelain “expert” in one night – even with the help of Wikipedia and Siri. The rarified environment of the high end antiques market is replete with extremely knowledgeable people for whom not just the history, but the provenance, market value, and current availability of highly desirable objects is of utmost concern. Without these collectors’ efforts there would be precious few museum collections for today’s poor struggling potters to visit in their own endless search for inspiration and edification.

But let’s return to Baron Gruner. “A complex mind, all great criminals have that. Cool as ice, silky voiced, and poisonous as a cobra. He has breeding in him – a real aristocrat of crime, with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it.” The wise old adage that ‘one should always except the present company’ is as relevant here as it is anywhere. And checks and balances have evolved over the years to keep transactions as clean as possible. Yet this spectacularly evocative description confronts us with a glimpse into a compromised and complicated issue.

Regardless of today’s honest brokers and good intentions, the trade in expensive and rare antiques from exotic places ever evokes an ignoble, shadowy tinge of past grave digging, historical site despoiling, smuggling, and outright pillaging. But don’t take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s word for this. Just ask any of your archeology friends.

Readings:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Garden City Books/New York. 1930.

The Plundered Past. Karl Ernest Meyer. MacMillan Publishing Company/New York. 1977.

All The Best Rubbish. Ivor Noel Hume. Harper/New York. 1974.

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Fate

January 13, 2014

Instead of ranting on the travails of redware mugs, and by extension all pottery,we offer the musings of a guest contributor.  Benjamin Franklin’sA Meditation on a Quart Mugg” was originally posted on July 19, 1733.  (Presented here in redacted form because Ben could go on once he got up to speed.  For the brave of heart, see this entry’s Comments for the full Meditation.)

Wretched, miserable, and unhappy Mug! I pity thy luckless Lot, I commiserate thy Misfortunes, thy Griefs fill me with Compassion, and because of thee are Tears made frequently to burst from my Eyes.

How often have I seen him compell’d to hold up his Handle at the Bar, for no other Crime than that of being empty; then snatch’d away by a surly Officer, and plung’d suddenly into a Tub of cold Water: Sad Spectacle, and Emblem of human Penury, oppress’d by arbitrary Power!

How often is he hurry’d down into a dismal Vault, sent up fully laden in a cold Sweat, and by a rude Hand thrust into the Fire!

How often have I seen it obliged to undergo the Indignities of a dirty Wench; to have melting Candles dropt on its naked Sides, and sometimes in its Mouth, to risque being broken into a thousand Pieces, for Actions which itself was not guilty of!

How often is he forced into the Company of boisterous Sots, who say all their Nonsence, Noise, profane Swearing, Cursing, and Quarreling, on the harmless Mug, which speaks not a Word!

…And yet, O Mug! if these Dangers thou escapest, with little Injury, thou must at last untimely fall, be broken to Pieces, and cast away, never more to be recollected and form’d into a Quart Mug. Whether by the Fire, or in a Battle, or choak’d with a Dishclout, or by a Stroke against a Stone, thy Dissolution happens; ’tis all alike to thy avaritious Owner; he grieves not for thee, but for the Shilling with which he purchased thee!

If thy Bottom-Part should chance to survive, it may be preserv’d to hold Bits of Candles, or Blacking for Shoes, or Salve for kibed Heels; but all thy other Members will be for ever buried in some miry Hole; or less carefully disposed of, so that little Children, who have not yet arrived to Acts of Cruelty, may gather them up to furnish out their Baby-Houses: Or, being cast upon the Dunghill, they will therewith be carted into Meadow Grounds; where, being spread abroad and discovered, they must be thrown to the Heap of Stones, Bones, and Rubbish; or being left until the Mower finds them with his Scythe, they will with bitter Curses be tossed over the Hedge; and so serve for unlucky Boys to throw at Birds and Dogs; until by Length of Time and numerous Casualties, they shall be press’d into their Mother Earth, and be converted to their original Principles.

Reading

http://www.historycarper.com/1733/07/19/a-meditation-on-a-quart-mugg/

Movie Night

February 27, 2011

Several thousand years before anyone knew there would be an Oscar Awards Ceremony, or even a film industry, there was animation.  Well, really there was pottery.  More specifically, there was an earthenware goblet discovered in Shahr-e Sūkhté, also known as “The Burnt City,” an archeological site in southern Iran dating back over 7,000 years.  Archeologists who dug up the goblet in 2008 estimate it to be about 5,200 years old.

It seems the people who made and used this goblet were a peaceful group (to date, not a single weapon has been discovered there).  The Burnt City was huge at a time when cities were pretty new.  The locals spent their time weaving and inventing stuff.  Like backgammon, rudimentary brain surgery, and how to insert a glass eye into the eye socket of a very tall woman.  And animation.

The goblet’s slip decorated rim consists of a series of gazelles alternating with idealized trees.  Researchers transcribed the goblet’s imagery along a continuum so all the way around could be seen at once.  This methodology is often done on many types of pottery, from pre-Columbian to modern, to better study iconography.  The results look like an intentionally repeated representation of a single gazelle leaping up to eat something off of a tree.  This imagery was put on an mpeg file so it could be played as an animated “film.”  The results are fascinating.

Obviously, nobody today can know the intentions of the potter.  But it isn’t hard to imagine someone getting the idea for an animated sequence.  Story telling as fodder for imagery has been around as long as there have been pots to decorate.  So a cartoon about a gazelle?  Why not?

Link:

http://www.cais-soas.com/News/2008/March2008/04-03.htm

The First Pot Made in America

May 27, 2009

A story circulates about how pottery began: “Once upon a time a caveman coated reed baskets with clay.  When the baskets no longer served he threw them away.  Some baskets landed in the fire.  When the reeds burned off the fired clay remained.  Seeing the hardness of the fired clay, the caveman got an idea…”

An entertaining image.  But pottery’s historical beginnings are far more complex, and more fascinating.  Pottery “began” in different places at different times for a different reason in each locale.  In the America’s, evidence points to a surprising birth (or at least ‘first’) place: the Brazilian Rain Forest.  Over 7,500 years ago, people of the Mina culture were making small bowl shapes resembling the later “tecomate” or cooking dish.  Some of these first pots are plain, others are elaborately incised.  Even at this early date the Mina people knew to temper their clay with sand or ground shells to improve thermal shock.  In fact none of the excavations done so far have dug down to the earliest inhabited layers.

Who were these people and what were they doing?  Nobody can say.  Later inhabitants of the area seemed to use similar bowls to create intoxicating brews for ceremonial and trade reasons. 

Recognizing these people’s accomplishments might not assist in marketing wares today (unless you’re into intoxicating brews).  But I believe that any attempt to understand the family tree to which we as potters and as humans belong leads to an intrinsic benefit: Respect for our craft and our family.

Readings:

The Emergence of Pottery.  Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies. Barnett and Hoopes, ed.s.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 1995.

1491.  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Charles C. Mann.  Knopf/New York.  2005.