the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: August, 2016


Bangkok, 15 August 2016

I’ve just finished a fascinating book about the peopling of Europe, entitled Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings, by Jean Manco. The book describes the various waves of people who have settled Europe, peacefully or not, from 40,000 BC to 1,000 AD.

One thread in the rich tapestry of the peopling of Europe is the trade networks which sprang up as neighbouring tribes traded whatever useful or interesting resources they controlled inside their territories. The really high-value resources could in this way travel very long distances from their point of origin, as people passed them on – at ever-increasing value, no doubt – to people further away from the original source. In an earlier post, I’ve mentioned the Stone Age long-distance trade in obsidian, which made excellent, sharp arrowheads. Gold, the subject of my next-to previous post, was also traded over long distances. Amber was another such material.

In the early days of Europe’s history, by far the richest source of amber was the Baltic coast of Poland (it probably still is), where nuggets of amber would wash up on the beach, broken off from the amber deposits on the sea bottom.
The biggest market for amber, on the other hand, and from time immemorial, were the civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament contains pieces of Baltic amber, for instance
while Heinrich Schliemann found necklace beads of Baltic amber in the Mycenaean tombs he excavated.
Thus sprang up several “amber roads”, trade routes which brought Baltic (and other Northern European) amber south.
The one that most interests me is the amber road which led from the general region of Gdansk down to the Roman provincial capital of Carnuntum on the Danube River (the Danube became the Roman Empire’s frontier in 9 BC), on down along the network of Roman roads to Aquileia in North-Eastern Italy, the terminus. This map shows, more or less, a detailed trace of this amber road.
I say “more or less” because while the route taken by the amber after the Danube River crossing is pretty clear – it followed the Roman roads down to the Italian peninsula – how it got to the Danube River from the Baltic coast is less so. There were just tracks through the forests and around the bogs in this part of Europe, and I’m sure every Germanic trader followed his fancy, depending on what else he was buying or selling along the way, as well as what the weather was like and who was fighting who. There seem to have been a few fixed points on the itinerary: Wroclaw (Breslau in German; the British historian Norman Davies, in collaboration with Roger Moorehouse, has written a fascinating biography of this city, Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City), the Moravian Gate (a pass between the Carpathian and Sudeten mountains, used since remotest antiquity as a passageway), and the Morava River which flows into the Danube just across from Carnuntum.

Once the raw amber arrived in Aquileia, it was turned over to workshops which turned it into desirable luxury products. Aquileia’s amber products were famous not just in the Italic heartlands but throughout the Roman world. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder – rather dismissively, it seems to me – says they were in demand among women only. He also says that amber was thought to have protective properties for illnesses of the throat, which might explain why so many of the amber products found in the Italian peninsula are pendants.

I have to say I’m not a big fan of amber, at least as used in modern jewelry. But I must admit that some of the amber pieces made in the Italian peninsula, both before its domination by Rome and after, are really very lovely. Here, in no particular order, are some pieces whose photos I found on the net. The first two are pre-Roman (Italic and Etruscan, respectively, to be precise)
while the remainder are from the Roman period; a number of them, if not all, were made in Aquileia’s workshops. This is Dionysius
while this must be Pan.
This is a perfume bottle
while this little set-piece is “Eros and a bitch”.
Lovely little pieces …

Let me go back a step now and explain my interest in this particular amber road. Or rather interests, for there are several. I first got to know about it, and the ancient amber trade in general, when my wife and I lived in Vienna. It so happens that Vienna is located close to Carnuntum. It always tickled me pink to think that Vienna, which gives itself such airs as the capital of the (defunct) Austro-Hungarian Empire, was once upon a time no more than a minor garrison town called Vindobona on the far edges of the much mightier Roman Empire. I’m sure officers and soldiers alike in little Vindobona looked with envy at their more powerful neighbour Carnunutum, which not only had the rich amber trade passing through it but also was the capital of the province. So many more important things went on there! The Emperor Marcus Aurelius chose Carnuntum as his base for three years during one of the periodic campaigns against Germanic tribes across the Danube River (he also wrote part of his famous Meditations there, a copy of which graces my bookshelves). Another Emperor, Septimius Severus, was also based in Carnuntum when governor of Pannonia, and he was proclaimed Emperor there by his troops. Carnuntum hosted a historic meeting between the Emperor Diocletian and his co-emperors Maximian and Galerius, to solve rising tensions within the tetrarchy. Among other things, the meeting led to freedom of religion for the Roman Empire. And on, and on.

In contrast, like in all garrison towns, probably nothing much ever happened in Vindobona (although Marcus Aurelius’s death there in 180 AD must have caused a ripple of excitement). W.H. Auden caught well the tedium of garrison life on the Empire’s frontier for the ordinary soldier, in his poem Roman Wall Blues. The poem is about another of the Empire’s frontiers, Hadrian’s Wall, but I’m sure the tedium was the same, whichever frontier you were assigned to.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

But I suppose Vienna had the last laugh. It still exists, whereas Carnuntum is now but a very modest pile of ruins, having been systematically sacked by Germanic tribes in the 4th Century (I suppose in a way the Germanic tribes had the last laugh too, after all the denigration they received from the Romans). Sic transit gloria mundi, as I am ever fond of repeating: “thus passes the glory of the world”.

This particular amber road also caught my attention because it gave me an alternative route to the ones we always took to go back to my wife’s home town of Milan: either head south out of Vienna over the mountains to Graz and then over more mountains to Klagenfurt and Villach, slip through the Alps at the Tarvisio pass, then speed past Udine down to Venice, whence turn right and make for Milan; or, head west out of Vienna towards Linz, then Salzburg, and then into Bavaria, turn left at the River Inn and enter Austria again, at Innsbruck turn left again and climb up to the Brenner pass, down the other side to zip by Bolzano and Trento, exit from the Alps at Verona, and turn right there to head for Milan. Now my wife and I could take a lower road (a considerable benefit when traveling in winter, when both the other routes can be unpleasant), as well as one steeped in history. Travelling along the ghosts of old Roman roads (all of which disappeared long ago) we would head south past the tip of Lake Neusidler, shared by Austria and Hungary, to Šopron and then Szombalethy, both in Hungary, on to Ptuj, Celje, and Lubljana in Slovenia, to finally slip through the Julian Alps at Gorizia and on to Aquileia, where we would need to finally get on the A4 motorway and speed on to Milan!

Great idea, except for one slight problem – time. There is no speedy highway linking all these towns, so it would take far longer to get to Milan. Since we were working, we couldn’t afford the time; we were always time-starved. But that will all change in a mere two weeks’ time, when I retire! Then, we will have all the time in the world, and I am determined to finally follow in the footsteps of the legions and pass through what were once the Roman towns of Scarbantia, Savariensum, Poetovium, Celeia, and Emona. There’s not much Roman left in them, though. Like Carnuntum, and like the terminal point Aquileia (of whose total destruction I wrote about in an earlier post), they were all thoroughly sacked and resacked by Germanic, Gothic, Hun, Lombard, Slav, or Hungarian war parties (or some combination of these) during the period of the “Barbarian Invasions” or the “Migration of the Peoples”, the Völkerwanderung (take your pick, depending on your ideological point of view).

I always feel a point of melancholy when faced with these moments of destruction in history. And it’s not just in the remote past. On the northern end of this amber road, tremendous destruction, of places but also of people, was wreaked a mere 70 or so years ago as first, German troops swept through on their way to enacting Hitler’s policy of lebensraum, expanding the living space of the Aryan, Germanic people at the expense of Slavic people, and then again, as the Soviet troops fought their way back to Berlin. Along with many other Polish cities, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Poznan, all sitting astride the amber route, were almost totally destroyed, their Jewish populations annihilated, their Polish populations much depleted, their industrial infrastructure stripped away. What a waste … so much human creativity swept away by the animal desire to destroy.

Raw amber on a Baltic beach:
Tutunkhamun’s breast ornament:
Amber necklace, Mycenae:
Amber routes map:
Amber road through Carnuntum:
Ram’s head, Italic, 500-400 BC:
Boar’s head, Etruscan, 525-480 BC:
Mask of Dionysius, Roman, 1st C AD:
Perfume bottle, Roman, Aquileia workshop, 2nd C AD:
Eros and bitch, Roman:,_Udine_-_Ancient_Roman_amber_Eros_and_bitch_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto,_May_29_2015.jpg


Bangkok, 10 August 2016

There was a time, not that long ago it seems to me, when we did not have all these electronic gizmos lying around the house. Now we suffocate in them. Between the two of us, my wife and I have two phones, one smart and one not smart at all, two tablets, one portable computer, one thingy that gives my wife her wifi (I use my phone’s hot spot), one power pack, one flat-screen TV, and one radio-cum-CD player. I’ll also throw in our two electric toothbrushes. I’m sure we are quite modest in our e-outlay. For instance, neither of us has ever had an iPod or equivalent blasting music in our ears through those tiny ear phones which are squeezed into your ears and guaranteed to make them ache after five minutes (mine certainly do). Nor have we ever had a game console with which to pulverize, mutilate, and generally annihilate the human race. Nevertheless, even with this very modest e-inventory, we suffer from a terrible problems: wires.

The biggest problem with all these e-products is that their batteries need recharging. So our living room floor is festooned with electric wires snaking this way and that, plugged into every available socket. In fact, since we don’t have that many sockets, we have to use several power strips, which add more wires to the confusion. And the worst of is that, since all these damned products seem to need recharging all the damned time, we drag a handful of wires and one or two power strips behind us when we move from the table to the couch.
I have to say, when I’m dragging my wires and their attached e-products around I feel like Marley’s ghost when he comes to frighten the bejeezus out of Scrooge on Christmas Eve.
“The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine merchant’s cellar. … The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door. … “It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won’t believe it.” His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. … The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; … The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”

Well, as you might imagine, I am not the only one to be irritated by this bloody nuisance of wires. Some of my readers may well feel the same wire-induced irritation. And of course the private sector, ever alert to new markets, has moved in. Companies have designed wireless chargers, which use induction coils to produce an electromagnetic field, which in turn can charge batteries. Don’t ask me anything more; I never understood electro stuff. Luckily, these new products can look pretty cool
although I do note that while there may be no wire between charger and e-product, there must be a wire between charger and wall socket – otherwise, how does it get the electricity which it so generously passes to the mobile, tablet, or what have you?

So other companies have come up with the idea of inserting the wireless charger into products which already have wires. Clever, no? For instance, take my favourite furniture shop, IKEA. “Our range of wireless chargers blend in beautifully with your home” their catalogue proclaims, “and can be placed where you need them the most. All without having to chase after outlets or hide messy cables.” Words after my heart! See, for instance, this clever lamp, which has a charger built into its base. And which has won some design award to boot.
IKEA has various other lamps as well as what I take to be bedside tables with these built-in chargers.
In case my readers suspect me of having shares in IKEA, I hastily add that there are many other furniture companies out there offering similar solutions. My crystal ball tells me that this is the future.

But then there is one thing that’s worrying me. Aren’t all these wireless chargers using the same technology as microwave ovens? Like I said, I don’t understand all this electro stuff, but it seems to me to be more or less the same. In which case, a houseful of wireless chargers will slowly be cooking us. My phone is already cooking my brain.


Marley’s ghost, by Alec Guinness:
RIGGAD lamp:
Other furniture with chargers:
Phone cooking brain:


Mandalay, 3 August 2016

A few weeks ago, I read of the death of an Indian money-lender, murdered by a couple of people to whom he owned money. It was a banal and sordid murder, no different from the hundreds of banal and sordid murders which occur every day the world over. If this particular one was splashed all over the front pages of many newspapers, it was because the unfortunate victim had earlier shot to global fame for purchasing … a shirt made of gold (an idea, I have to say, which I find pretty bling).
Ah, gold! That lovely, soft, malleable metal, which never rusts, which glows yellow like the sun. Which has been lusted after by so many through the ages. It sent the Conquistadors sailing half way round the globe to an unknown world, not to understand it but to rip the gold out of its heart.

It has sent hundred of thousands running to the ends of the world to feverishly pan it out of water or to hack it out of the ground
a gold fever which even today strikes men (but also now women).


But gold has also inspired artisans for at least six thousand years to make beautiful, beautiful objects. It is these lovely creations which I wish to celebrate today, not the ugly side of gold.

Given where this post started, my first inclination was to search on the Internet for examples of powerful potentates from the past who were discovered by archaeologists buried in shirts or tunics of gold. Alas, I found none, whether because my surfing skills are not up to the task or because even kings of old found this idea really too bling, or because archaeologists simply haven’t stumbled across such cases yet. The closest I got to it was jade burial suits used during China’s Han dynasty by members of the royal family; in some cases, the jade pieces of the suit were sewn together with gold wire.
But as I surfed the internet, looking for gold shirts from faraway times, I stumbled across a treasure hoard of ancient gold pieces, some found buried with kings, princes, and their consorts, others buried for safekeeping by their owners who, for some reason, never returned to reclaim them. For instance, I was completely smitten by some of the gold work that archaeologists have found in various Scythian royal tombs in Southern Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus region more generally. Look at this pectoral, from the 4th C BC!
Here’s a detail – see how fine the work is!
Or how about these two vessels, also from the 4th C BC. They were apparently a pair, with this one
sitting on top of the other.
Or this bowl, from more or less the same period.
Or this comb, from slightly earlier, late 4th C BC, early 5th C BC.
The articles I’ve read about these pieces suggest that they were not actually made by the Scythians but by Greeks, living perhaps in the Crimean region. Fair enough, but this Scythian deer plaque, from the 7th C BC, was surely locally made
as was this belt buckle from the same period.
Thracian kings, it seems, were also desirous to be surrounded by fine gold objects. Consider, for instance, Bulgaria’s Panagyurishte gold treasure, thought to have been owned by King Seuthes III and buried to hide them from marauding Celts or Macedonians. I show three pieces from the hoard, all from the 3rd or 4th C BC: two rhytons, or drinking horns
and a plate.
Again, the detail on these pieces is exquisite.

Mention of marauding Celts makes me look in the direction of the Northern European lands, where Celts were also known to hurriedly bury hoards of gold objects at the sound of approaching marauders. This beautiful spiral torc from 1st-4th C BC
was part of a cache of torcs found near Stirling in Scotland. This 70 BC torc instead was part of a hoard discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk, England.
This necklace, on the other hand, is a copy of a 6th-7th C BC original that was buried in Lorup, Germany.
I have to say, while I greatly admire the artistry that went into the Thracian and Scythian pieces, I instinctively empathize with the geometric simplicity of these Celtic pieces. “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” has always been my motto.

But that didn’t stop me from whistling when I saw some of the pieces that were made in what is now Iran. Look at this 8th-10th C BC cup, for instance, with its row of wild goats walking primly around it.
This must have been a popular design, because this cup from a later period (4th-5th C BC) has instead lions or tigers walking round it.
This 4th-5th C BC drinking cup holds its own to the two Thracian rhytons I show above
while this 3rd-4th C BC Janus-faced cup is a marvel to behold.

There are many, many other beautiful ancient gold objects out there, but I have to bring this little essay to a close. Let me finish with the oldest gold objects so far found. These are datable to the period 4,200-4,600 BC, and come from a necropolis in Varna, now Bulgaria’s largest city on the Black Sea. Compared to the pieces I show above, the objects in these tombs are quite modest in their design. What caught my attention was this reconstruction of one of the burials in the necropolis.
I suppose the man to whom this skeleton belonged was a grandee, and was laid to rest surrounded by all his worldly riches. But as I gaze at this skeleton, I cannot help but remember the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard. After musing over Yorick’s skull (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy …”), Hamlet turns to Horatio.

Hamlet: Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Horatio: What’s that, my lord?

Hamlet: Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?

Horatio: E’en so.

Hamlet: And smelt so? pah!

Puts down the skull

Horatio: E’en so, my lord.

Hamlet: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

Horatio: ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider.

Hamlet: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away;
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

India’s “gold man”:
“Conquista de Mexico”, Diego Rivera:
Gold prospectors, Klondike:
Modern gold prospectors, Colombia:
Jade burial suit:
Scythian pectoral, Ukraine, 4th C BC:
Scythian pectoral-detail:
Scythian vessel-top, 4th C BC:
Scythian vessel-bottom, 4th C BC:
Scythian bowl, 2nd half 4th C BC:
Scythian gold comb, Ukraine, late 5th-early 4th BC:
Scythian deer, end 7th C BC:
Scythian belt buckle, 7th C BC:
Thracian drinking horn-goat:
Thracian drinking horn-deer:
Ancient Greek plate (phiale):
Spiral torc, Scotland, 300-100 BC:
Celtic torc, Snettisham hoard:
Ancient wire necklace (copy), Lorup hoard, Germany, late Bronze Age, 700-600 BC:
Achaemenid cup-wild goats, 1000-1200 BC:*&pos=1095
Achaemenid gold cup, Kalardasht, 800 BC:
Achaemenid drinking cup:تاریخ،-فرهنگ،-همبود-13/persian-mythology-543-چاپ/برگه-3.html
Achaemenid Janus cup:
Varna man: