Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 5)

The pyramids were built to protect the bodies of the pharaohs.  They contained a burial chamber and then numerous false tunnels, false doors, and even a false burial chamber to throw off grave robbers.  Several light shafts, lining up with star positions in the sky, were also made.  Now, all of this had to do with the very strict and superstitious religious system of the Ancient Egyptians; they believed this life was not nearly as important as the next life; that when you died, your soul (called the "Ba") would leave your body, but after a while, both the Ba and Ka (your soul and "essence") would return to live in your body in the afterlife.  For this reason, the Ancient Egyptians believed that the body had to be kept perfectly intact after death.  So, they created an elaborate process of embalming to preserve the bodies of the pharaohs (among other people buried with them): mummification.  Here's how it works:
First the internal organs are taken out and mummified individually.  Because Egyptians believed the soul came from the heart, the brain was not necessary for the afterlife.  It was removed through the nose.  These organs are then put into Canopic jars to accompany the body.  The jars (naturally) were decorated and even carved to resemble the figures of some of the different gods.  The baboon-headed Hapy guarded the lungs; the human-headed Imsety, the liver; the jackal-headed Duamutef, the stomach and upper intestines; the falcon-headed Qebehsenuef, the lower intestines; …and so on.  These jars were believed to be necessary for the soul's rebirth ('cause you need organs, and that's just how it is).  An opening of the mouth ceremony is performed on the mummy so that the Ka had a place to enter the body.  (The pharaoh's body would provide a home for the Ka in the afterlife).  Then the body is anointed with oil and wrapped in strip bandages.  It is placed in a Sarcophagus (a stone coffin) and then all sealed up.  The stone coffins were often carved in the deceased's likeness—in case the body was damaged, the Ka would have somewhere else to live.
Treasures and other provisions (including food and water) were buried with the mummy for it to have in the afterlife.  Honey (a natural preservative) that was found in Ancient Egyptian burial sites was still good.  In addition to being buried with inanimate provisions, the pharaohs were frequently buried with their wives, servants, slaves, and even pets.  It was not uncommon that the pharaoh's wife was either put to death or else buried alive with her husband—and the same with the royal servants and attendants.  They had to be kept in the burial chamber for the soul's reawakening, to accompany the pharaoh in the afterlife.  Eventually, shabtis, or ushebtis, took their place as the Egyptians came to believe that an image could represent the object.  Ushebtis were small figurines to represent the pharaoh's wife, slaves, etc., and they could accompany the mummy in the tomb, rather than the real people.  This explains why there are so many images carved and painted on the walls of tombs.  Yes, that's right: the Ancient Egyptians believed that inanimate objects would could come to life and serve the pharaoh in the tomb.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 4)

Before pyramids, Ancient Egyptian tombs were small mounds made of mud-brick, called Mastabas, which were then stacked on top of each other to form stepped pyramids, resembling the basic structure of a Sumerian ziggurat.
The kind of Ancient Egyptian pyramids with which we are most familiar were built on stable square bases and covered with polished, white limestone.  The three greatest pyramids are those of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure.  The largest pyramid of them all, built for the pharaoh Khufu, covers thirteen acres, and the five largest cathedrals in the world could fit inside it.
…And the great Sphinx was built in Khafre's likeness (the head—not the lion body).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 3)

At around 1,630B.C., Egypt was overrun by a population of Asiatic people called the Hyksos, who had been settled in northern Egypt for some time.  The Hyksos easily conquered the grand empire with horses and chariots as well as a handful of other advanced weapons and military techniques.  For over a hundred years the Hyksos ruled Egypt until the Egyptians caught on to the new inventions, made their own chariots, and took back their land, in addition to some neighboring areas in c. 1,570B.C., marking the beginning of the New Kingdom.
It was Amenhotep III who helped Egypt rise to its peak.  Thebes became the capital of Ancient Egypt and was said to be the most magnificent city in the whole world.  This illustrious empire lasted until 332B.C., when Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the land, and in 30B.C., Egypt became a Roman province.
That is an overview of the history; now for a better look into the art, architecture, and culture…

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 2)

            Ancient Egypt was divided into two regions: Upper and Lower Egypt.
Notice something unusual about the names of the regions?  …Yeah, that's not because the Ancient Egyptian cartographers were having an opposites day.  The Nile River—which, as you know, was the center of pretty much all provisions for the Ancient Egyptian culture—flows northward, making the southernmost end of the Nile upriver; hence, the Upper Egyptian region is south on a map.
For 3,000 years a pharaoh ruled over Egypt.  During that time, the nation saw three kingdoms: the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms.  These were divided into dynasties, or a period during which a single family provided a succession of rulers.  And these dynasties were so mindful of keeping the family bloodline "pure" that royalty could not marry outside of the immediate family.  (That's right: incest).
The first pharaoh of a long line of 31 dynasties that ruled both Upper and Lower Egypt was Menes.  The Palette of Narmer (Menes) depicts the pharaoh defeating his enemies.  Yet again we see hierarchic scaling being used to show the pharaoh's absolute authority and importance.
The Old Kingdom crumbled after 500 years when the country was split up into states.  The Middle Kingdom takes place around 2,050 to 1,800B.C.—a 250-year period of law, order, and prosperity.  During this time the nobility in Thebes gained control and unified both Upper and Lower regions of the country.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 1)

            Somewhere around 5,000B.C., prehistoric hunters settled in the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  These people changed from food gatherers to food producers; instead of having to hunt for their food, they raised their own animals.  Instead of using caves for shelter, these people made more permanent residences of mud, bricks, or reeds; and as settlements became permanent, they also became more populated.  Villages became towns which then took over other neighboring villages and became cities that eventually formed into kingdoms.  Welcome to Ancient Egypt.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ancient Middle Eastern art (pt. 3)

The Neo-Babylonian Empire followed the Assyrians in the seventh century B.C. in modern-day Iraq and Syria.  The most famous art to come out of this time period is the Ishtar Gate, a gargantuan wall of blue glazed bricks, decorated with murals of animals.  Ishtar was the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of love and fertility.  The word Easter is actually a derivative of the name for this pagan deity (hence Christian pastors pushing the agenda of a name change to Resurrection Sunday).
The Persian Empire follows the Neo-Babylonian, c. 539-331B.C. in modern-day Iran, and led by such kings as Darius and Xerxes (familiar names to Old Testament readers).  Again, many relief carvings and architecture displaying the king's authority.  No wonder Israel complained for a king; all other cultures at that time were deifying kings in their art.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ancient Middle Eastern art (pt. 2)

Circa 900-800B.C. we have the Assyrian empire, the art of which also frequently employed hierarchic scaling to assert political or spiritual authority in their culture.  Triumphant battle scenes and overly-romanticized representations of military victories could be considered the first propaganda stunts in art history.  If one word could summarize the idea which the Assyrians were relating through their artwork—the one concept being promoted and glorified by all the massive brick and stone carvings, and the one characteristic these people were priding themselves on having attained much of already and were seeking constantly to grow in—the word is: predominance.
A common symbol of the Assyrian empire is the guardian deity, the lamassu, which was a being with the body of a bull, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a human.
Such a mythic creature still makes frequent appearances in pop culture today.  In the Disney movie Aladdin, we see an enormous gold lamassu in the Cave in the Wonders.
In Star Wars, Lama Su is the prime minister of the planet Kamino.
…And so on.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ancient Middle Eastern art (pt. 1)

            There is a plethora of various Middle Eastern art that follows, which I haven't studied too in-depth at all, unfortunately.  So the following is a shamefully generalized overview of thousands of years of history, wars, civilizations, and cultures.  Here are some highlights.
            The Sumerians thrived before 4,500B.C., in Sumer (southern Italy).  The Sumerians are credited with inventing the first written language: cuneiform, which uses wedge-shaped characters.  The most famous work of literature written in cuneiform is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which can be found at your local Barnes & Noble booksellers store (I love product placement).  Sumerian art includes statues that were crafted and left for religious worship, as offerings to their gods.  Ziggurats, which were stepped mountains made of dirt, also became popular during the Sumerian civilization, and there are several still standing today.
The Sumerians were succeeded by the Akkadians, a Semitic people, the king of whom, by 2,340B.C., controlled Sumer (the entire region between the Mediterranean and the  Persian Gulf).  From the Akkadian empire we see art like the Stele of Naram-Sin, a limestone relief commemorating a military victory.  Hierarchic scaling is the feature element here, as the gigantic-looking Akkadian king literally tramples over the dwarf-like, conquered bodies of his enemies.
A time of Neo-Sumerian civilization followed, which was then succeeded by the Babylonians.  The Tower of Babel is estimated by archaeologists to have been in construction before c. 3,500B.C., and King Hammurabi is believed to have ruled around 1,800B.C.  The Babylonians, too, made steles, and much of their art was based on punishment for certain crimes, since Hammurabi was famous for his Code of Laws, which was a series of 282 laws inscribed in a stele in cuneiform.  The code stresses punishment for violating the laws, and the punishments are not at all flippant or superficial (i.e., an eye for an eye).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Prehistory (pt. 6)

As prehistoric humans continued to build temporary shelters, they moved progressively to more permanent settlements.  The onset of permanent settlements marks the Neolithic Period, which scholars will say comes after the Ice Age (Great Flood replacement).  The three things that mark the Neolithic Period the most are: (1) permanent, year-round settlements, (2) the maintenance of herds of domesticated animals, and (3) an organized system of agriculture.  In lieu of risking dangerous and sometimes fruitless hunts, prehistoric man realized how to herd animals, raise them, and keep them (Adam tended animals in the Garden; but that was different—that was not for food).  And as herds of animals don't usually get along very well inside a small cave, the settlements moved out to the open.
Megaliths were constructed during this period.  Megaliths were large monuments created from huge stone slabs.  They were most common in Western Europe as early as 4,000B.C.
The most famous megalith is Stonehenge in England.  Stonehenge's purpose has been widely debated, especially since the recent discovery there just last year (2010).  The site was probably used for religious rituals; then in 2008 historians found evidence that it was probably actually a burial site; and there are those who stick by the theory that it was built in alignment with the stars to tell time or predict seasons.  Whatever it was used for, scholars are still baffled (and I along with them) by how prehistoric man, without any but primitive tools, could have transported these massive stone blocks—some 17 feet tall and over 50 tons—across distances of up to 260 miles.  And how did they raise the blocks into position?  Stonehenge uses post and lintel construction—huge beams support crossbeams, or lintel.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Prehistory (pt. 5)

Next is a very interesting piece of sculpture.  This is a figure made from Limestone, four and three-eighths inches tall, and was discovered in Willendorf, Austria in 1908.  It later earned the name Venus, after the Roman goddess of Love.  Why would they do this?  Historians were sending a message that this figure was associated with religious belief; that it represented an ideal of womanhood; and that it was one of a long line of images of "classical" feminine beauty.  In a short time, hundreds of other, similar sculptures from the Upper Paleolithic Period were also called Venus.  This is the Venus of Willendorf.
First of all, the sculpture is small and portable.  Prehistoric people were nomadic, and had no business fashioning grandiose, lifelike sculptures that were too heavy or bulky.  The Venus is small.
The next thing I notice is that she has no clearly defined head.  This is because—according to the views of ancient, "ideal" womanhood—the head of a woman was unimportant.  Survival of the species depended upon a woman with wide hips and other physical features conducive to fertility and child-bearing.  So the Venus is…corpulent, shall we say?  Perhaps this is all that prehistoric man cared about (I voice the opinions of scholars and historians—I, personally, doubt it).  Again, this figurine is hypothesized to have been made either as a model to which woman should seek to attain.
There is another interesting theory that basically runs along the same lines but explains it better.  An experiment was conducted by Professor Ramachandran of UCSD in which baby seagulls were collectively presented a series of colored tongue depressors.  A mother seagull's beak features a red coloration.
The baby gulls peck at their mother's beak, which acts as their source of food during their growth and development.  A tongue depressor was painted yellow, to mimic a mother gull's beak, and when it was presented to the gull chicks, the chicks did not react.  A second tongue depressor with a red stripe painted on it was presented to the chicks, and a reaction followed.  This showed that the chicks respond to the red coloration of the mother's beak, not necessarily to the mother's beak or the mother at all.  The red line, to the chicks, was the source of food.  A third tongue depressor with three red lines was presented, and the chicks responded more wildly than before.  This Herring Gull Theory illustrates how, as we tend to focus on the parts of objects that matter the most, artists tend to exaggerate feminine features of beauty.  When we get to Greek art, you'll see how artists tried to craft the perfect human form even if it meant stressing some features to impossible degrees.
            Likewise, the Venus of Willendorf over-accentuates the feminine features to (hypothetically) gain the most ardent reaction.  So you see that, from the start, women are objectified in art.  L

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Prehistory (pt. 4)

…How do historians date these works?
There are two main methods to determining the age of the cave art.  The first is to use the surrounding earth layer to arrive at a date (chemically test how old the dirt is).  The second is to use a process called radiocarbon dating, and it examines organic (once-living) objects found near the artifact.  In principle, I'm told it works this way: basically all living organisms contain a certain amount of Carbon 14.  After an organism dies, the Carbon 14 loses its radioactivity at a known rate.  By finding how much radioactivity is left in the charcoal, or carbonized bones, etc., one can arrive at an estimate of how old it might be.  As I mentioned earlier, these paintings survived throughout history because of their safe, protected location in the backs of caves, away from the harmful effects of wind and rain.