Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The Wonders of Creation and the Singularities of Painting

  • A Study of the Ilkhanid London Qazvini (Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Art)

    by Stefano Carboni

  • Paperback: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Edinburgh University Press (11 Feb. 2020)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1474461395

Al-Qazwini's Wonders of Creation is one of a handful of extant illustrated codices produced under the Mongols of Persia. Al-Qazwini collected, edited and assembled a large body of literary works into a single text that reflects the cultural world of a medieval Arab encyclopaedist. In this lavishly illustrated volume, Stefan Carboni analyses the manuscript's miniatures, discusses the 368 paintings that illustrate the codex, and includes a partial critical translation of the related Arabic text. The codex contains a copy of a cosmographical text written in Arabic in Baghdad towards the end of the 13th century. The cosmography represents a physical description of the world arranged from the outer spheres of the universe, where the throne of God, the Angels and the Planets are located, down to Earth where the Peoples living in the Islands of the Oceans, the Mineral, the Vegetal and the Animal Kingdoms are described throughout the text. About the series: Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Art offers readers easy access to the most up-to-date research across the whole range of Islamic art, representing various parts of the Islamic world, media and approaches. Books in the series are beautifully illustrated academic monographs of intellectual distinction that mark a significant advance in the field.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Uzbekistan: The Road to Samarkand

  • by Yaffa Assouline (Author), Laziz Hamani (Photographer)

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Assouline Publishing (February 26, 2020)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1614288917

At the heart of Central Asia lies a land where colossal mountains and sweeping valleys sleep under a blanket of lush greenery. Crowned with golden palaces and wondrous monuments, the architectural landscape of the region is so rich with detail, the structures have been said to mirror the heavens themselves. One of the few destinations on Earth where imagination aligns with reality, Uzbekistan flourishes with unparalleled scenery and unforgotten traditions. The towns and cities are like ‘open museums’, each edifice offering a unique and intricate aesthetic, each a testament to diverse cultural influences and diverse periods of history. Nature and architecture have a unique relationship, seemingly inspired by each other, as if they were trying to to outdo each other with their beauty. Discover the beautiful colors, textures and flavors of this incredible culture and journey through the cities of the Silk Road and the lands of Alexander The Great with stunning original photography by Laziz Hamani.

Visualizing Dunhuang

  • Seeing, Studying, and Conserving the Caves 

    Publications of the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University 


    17 Nov. 2020

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (17 Nov. 2020)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691208166

A beautifully illustrated study of the caves at Dunhuang, exploring how this important Buddhist site has been visualized from its creation to today. 
Situated at the crossroads of the northern and southern routes of the ancient silk routes in western China, Dunhuang is one of the richest Buddhist sites in the world, with more than 500 richly decorated cave temples constructed between the fourth and fourteenth centuries. The sculptures, murals, portable paintings, and manuscripts found in the Mogao and Yulin Caves at Dunhuang represent every aspect of Buddhism. From its earliest construction to the present, this location has been visualized by many individuals, from the architects, builders, and artists who built the caves to twentieth-century explorers, photographers, and conservators, as well as contemporary artists. 
Visualizing Dunhuang: Seeing, Studying, and Conserving the Caves examines how the Lo Archive, a vast collection of photographs taken in the 1940s of the Mogao and Yulin Caves, inspires a broad range of scholarship. Lavishly illustrated with selected Lo Archive and modern photographs, the essays address three main areas
-Dunhuang as historical record, as site, and as art and art history. 
Leading experts across three continents examine a wealth of topics, including expeditionary photography and cave architecture, to demonstrate the intellectual richness of Dunhuang. Diverse as they are in their subjects and methodologies, the essays represent only a fraction of what can be researched about Dunhuang. The high concentration of caves at Mogao and Yulin and their exceptional contents chronicle centuries of artistic styles, shifts in Buddhist doctrine, and patterns of political and private patronage-providing an endless source of material for future work. 
Contributors include Neville Agnew, Dora Ching, Jun Hu, Annette Juliano, Richard Kent, Wei-Cheng Lin, Cary Liu, Maria Menshikova, Jerome Silbergeld, Roderick Whitfield, and Zhao Shengliang. 
Published in association with the Tang Center for East Asian Art, Princeton University

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Mystery of unique 2,100-year-old human clay head

with a Ram's skull inside!
Modern fluoroscopy identifies sheep bones inside the Tagar culture death mask.

X-ray technology of the period indicated something was unusual about the bones inside the clay head - but could not reveal more. Picture: Vyacheslav Porosev, Instutute of Nuclear Physics, SB RAS
The discovery of the magnificent clay likeness of a young man in the Shestakovsky burial mound No 6 has long intrigued Russian archeologists.
Among cremated people this elegant mask of, perhaps, a handsome warrior immediately stood out as a remarkable find when it was first unearthed in Khakassia in 1968 by Professor Anatoly Martynov.
X-ray technology of the period indicated something was unusual about the bones inside the clay head - but could not reveal more. 
‘There are skull bones and a small hollow space, which, however, does not correspond to the inner size of the human skull but is much smaller,’ noted the prescient Martynov in 1971. 
Then - and later - opening the clay head was deemed impossible since it would destroy this ancient relic. 
‘It was suggested that there was a human skull inside. It was of course quite surprising to see instead a sheep’s skull.’ Picture: Evgeny BabichevInstutute of Nuclear Physics, SB RAS
Almost four decades later scientists returned to the mystery of this man from the Tagar culture which is known for its elaborate funeral rites, for example the use of large pit-crypts containing some 200 bodies which were set ablaze. 
As scientist Dr Elga Vadetskaya had observed, the heads of the dead were covered in clay, moulding a new face on the skull, and often covering the clay face with gypsum. 
So the expectation was - in deploying new technology on the man’s death mask - that the bones inside, though small fragments, would be human.
But they were not. 
The research was led by Professor Natalya Polosmak, from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, and Dr Konstantin Kuper, of the Institute of Nuclear Physics, both in Novosibirsk, and part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 
Clay head from Shestakovo burial

Clay head from Shestakovo burial
The man ‘could have got lost in the taiga, drowned, or disappeared in alien lands’. Pictures: Mikhail Vlasenko
‘I had been working with Natalya Polosmak on other research, and she suggested checking this head because they could not simply look inside - and were puzzled,’ explained Dr Kuper. 
‘It was suggested that there was a human skull inside. It was of course quite surprising to see instead a sheep’s skull.’
What made these ancient people fill human remains with a ram's remains?
In the article for the magazine Science First Hand Professor Polosmak offers two options but also acknowledges that ‘as this is the only such case so far, any explanations of this phenomenon will undoubtedly contain, alongside the elements of uniqueness, elements of chance’.
Professor Anatoly Martynov
Professor Anatoly Martynov unearthed the head in 1968 in Khakassia. Picture: Kemerovo State University
She believes the Tagar people ‘may have buried in this extraordinary manner a man whose body had not been found’.
She surmises that the man ‘could have got lost in the taiga, drowned, or disappeared in alien lands’.
For this reason he was ‘replaced with his double – the animal in which his soul was embodied’ and in this was sent to the afterlife alongside the remains of his fellow humans.
‘This must have been the only way to ensure the after-death life of a person who had not returned home.
'Archaeologists know a number of such burials, referred to as cenotaphs, which have no human remains but may contain a symbolic replacement. As the latter, an animal could have been used.’
Head prepared for fluoroscopy
Clay head prepared for fluoroscopy at the Institute of Nuclear Physics, SB RAS. Picture: Vyacheslav Porosev, Instutute of Nuclear Physics, SB RAS
Her other theory for the ‘false burial’ is that it may have been done to give the man ‘a chance to have a fresh start, a new life in a new status.
‘Instead of a living man whose death was staged for some reason, an animal – a sheep in human disguise – was offered.’
One thing is clear: for ancient people the ram had a great significance. 
'What does the sheep’s skull hidden under the clay covers depicting a man’s face tell us? What is it, an accident? Or was the animal the main hero of ancient history?
'The latter hypothesis seems justified. A ram (sheep) is among the most worshipped animals of old times. Initially, the Egyptian god Khnum was depicted as a ram (later, as a man with the head of a ram).’
200 mummified bodies in burial mound at Belaya Gora
Remains of 200 mummified bodies found in one of the Tagar burial mounds at Belaya Gora. Picture: A. Poselyanin
A third version has been proposed by Dr Vadetskaya in her book 'The Ancient Yenisei Masks from Siberia’  after studying elaborate burial rites of ancient people during this Tesinsk period.
Her work was based on research of other archaeologists but also had fascinating input from forensic experts.
She believed the burial rite had two stages - the first of which was putting the dead body in a ‘stone box’ which then went into a shallow grave or under a pile of stones for several years.
The main goal was partial mummification - the skin and tissues decomposed, but tendons and the spinal cord persisted. 
Then the skeleton was taken away intact and was tied by small branches. 
Tagar clay head pictured by Anatoly Martynov

Tagar clay head pictured by Anatoly Martynov
Clay head pictured in 1968. Traces of the ropes and sticks, which were used to attach the head to the "funeral doll", visible on the back of the head. Anatoly Martynov
The skull was trepanned and the rest of the brain was removed. Then the skeleton was turned into kind of ‘doll’ - it was wrapped around with grass and sheathed with pieces of leather and birch bark.
Then, according to Dr Vadetskaya, they reconstructed ‘the face’ on the skull. 
The nose hole, eyes socket and mouth were filled with clay, then the clay was put onto the skull and the ‘face’ was moulded though without necessarily much facial resemblance to the deceased. 
Often this clay face was covered with a thin layer of gypsum and painted with ornaments. 
She suspected that these masked mummies went back to their families pending their second, bigger funeral. 
This might have been for some years: there is evidence that gypsum was repaired and repainted. 
Head with clay modeled face

Head with clay modeled face

Head with clay modeled face
Faces molded on the skulls were often covered with thin gypsum layer painted with ornaments. Pictures: Elga Vadetskaya, The State Hermitage Museum
She wrote: ‘For some mummies the wait was too long. They decomposed, so only the heads were left to be buried. 
‘In some cases even the head did not survive. Then they had to recreate the whole image of the deceased one.’
She believed that this was the case with the mysterious human sheep skull.
The ram remains were used to replace the real human skull of this ‘mummy doll’ lost or destroyed during the decades between the two funeral rites. 
According to Vadetskaya, a large pit was dug for these ‘Big' funerals.
Elga Vadetskaya
Doctor Elga Vadetsakaya. 
A log house was erected and covered with birch bark and fabrics. 
Many such human remains were put inside, and the log house was with the remains of dead were ignited. 
The log house was partly burned down and often the roof collapsed. 
The pit-crypt burial was then covered with turf and earth and formed a mound. 
In this particular case there were relatively few human remains - no more than 15, yet in others the number could rise into the hundreds. 
So - there are three main theories. 
Perhaps future scientists will gain access to more elaborate technology to examine this death mask and unlock more secrets about this extraordinary find.