Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Veiling the Dead? Argar to Taklamakan

Here's an intriguing topic.  I'll begin with two distant cultures and then pull 'the world's longest thread' to a hypothesis concerning the use of red pigments in ancient burials.

A study by Padilla et al 2012 looked at the distribution of funerary pigments in Argar Culture burials of Southern Spain.  While reading their paper I was reminded of a few Taklamakan burials, such as the one below.

Removing the red veil from a Taklamakan mummy (Youtube Link @ 42:34)
Some percentage of Taklamakan burials have painted faces, but in a few of those graves the whole face was also covered with a red cloth, as this elder, tiara-wearing woman and her immediate kinfolk.

Thousands of miles away in Almeria, Spain, quite a few Argaric men and women also seem to have been veiled with a red cloth.  The well-preserved, skeletized Argaric remains often contain residual red pigment, more often over the middle third of the face, but sometimes on the joints of women or in bands over the head.  (see Padilla et al, 2012, table 1).  The Padilla authors hypothesized that the mercury sulfide residue on the Argaric remains might have been the pigment of a cloth that long since disintegrated. 
Fig.13 Compiled overlay of Argar cinnabar residue (Padilla et al 2010  [Link])

The Siret Brothers Hypothesis (correction, pg 118) seems reasonable for Argar burials, especially if you interpret the marks on a few women's bodies as residue from clothing girds, such as garters and straps, suggesting a flowing garment cinched by these devices.*  Some men and women appear to have worn a red headband or headdress with apparent precursors in the Iberian Beaker culture (Doce and Lettow-Vorbeck, 2016) also (Blasco and Rios, 2010).  But importantly you can see that the face was often veiled in death, men and women above.

Late Mummies of East Central Asia, Victor Mair [Link]
The use of cinnabar or red ochre as a funerary pigment can be found across many Eurasian and American cultures over the millennia.  It was prominent in the Yamnaya culture and was a very prominent burial rite throughout much of the stone age [here] and [here], more likely coming in the form of a dyed shroud or blanket, but body painting and sprinkling are possible as well.  Other sources for red might come from oak lichens (litmus red), which are extracted by immersing the fungus in urine, and other plant based tints such as that of the Elder tree (more on this in part 2).  Really, the question is why do red pigments appear in graves, do they appear for the same reasons, and is the presence of pigment meaningful or are we seeing a misleading picture based on random things that survive decomposition?**

Luckily, some of these more recent prehistoric cultures fall right at the cusp of the earliest writing and Bronze Age religion.  So it's not too much of a stretch to compare our modern and proto-historic behaviors and look for superstitions that might inform our interpretation of these ancient rites.
A Roman Bride wearing the "Flammenum"
I suspect that Eurasian cultures have long practiced some variance of 'red cloaking' as a way to protect brides, gladiators and dead folks from "the evil eye" or the "eye of Ra/Horus".   Despite the fact that the evil eye is biblically opposite to God, who is good, some similarities might also be seen in the Passover or Final Judgement.  For whatever reason, be it pigment or blood, it was believed to shield people of a certain, unwanted 'seeing' attention.

The Evil Eye superstition is ubiquitous throughout the historical period and a mountain of objects suggest its presence in the concerns of prehistoric folk.  A majority of the Neolithic trinkets, amulets, talismans, oculos [1] [2], cornos, lunulae, boar's tusks, rowan crooks and blue-eye idols found across the prehistoric world could be convincingly categorized as devices for warding off the Malacchio.  Many similar objects such as nazars***, dzi beads, horseshoes, tassels and dingle-balls in modern history do exactly this.

A traditional Turkish bride
When it comes cloaking there are a variety of avenues to explore, but one of the more intriguing is the vestment found in many traditional bridal costumes.  In much of modern Eurasia you'll find traditional brides wearing red veils or red dresses.  You'll find it in Albania, Kosovo, Kurdistan, Morocco, Turkey, Armenia, Iran, India, Korea, Vietnam and China, and so on.

When and where is not so much important, but the point being that varying degrees of the color red is combined with similarly charmed accessories, such as wearing gold or painting amoeba eye motifs on the hands.  In some cultures, red wedding gowns are considered good luck, but perhaps a better understanding is that they are anti-bad luck.

Almost all Eurasian marriages include some sort of degaussing event apart from normal rites of passage (pass-through events).  But there are also other devices used for repelling bad luck, such as tin cans, bells, throwing stuff, breaking glass, breaking pottery, plates, etc.

Traditional Bridal Costumes (Pakistan, Nepal, China, India, Morocco, SE Asia(?)

In early history red bridal wear was common in much of pre-Medieval Christian Europe, and certainly in early historical Europe.  In classical Greece the climatic unveiling of a red-clade bride by her husband, the anakalypteria, is in some ways a forerunner of all European alter ceremonies.  The Roman flammeum was common among Roman brides for roughly the same reason, to hide from the evil eye.  Prior to the 16th century, most ethic Russian brides wore a red sarafan.  Virgin blue was a popular statement in Western Europe during the early Christian era, black in some areas, but red may have been the common dress of Roman era Celts as well.

Wedding in Kosovo (BlerimBalaj wiki)
Despite the white dresses of the post-Victorian Anglo-sphere, many 'fun' superstitions persist from an earlier time.  An important feature in Atlantic weddings is the inclusion of similarly dressed bridesmaids (bride impersonators) to confuse the peering curse of the Malacchio (Hanne Blank, 2008).  The bride is under wraps on wedding day, and certainly not seen by the groom until the veil is lifted.  Keep taking the wedding apart, and we quickly realize how much of our world is the old world repackaged.

This is part 1 which looks at how marriage traditions might give us some clues to why the Taklamakan woman had her face covered by a red cloth like some Argar burials.  Why do so many people have residual red pigment left on their remains extending deep in the Paleolithic?

I'll continue pulling this thread in Part 2 tomorrow!


"The Evil Eye" Alan Dundes, 1981 [Link]

"Beware of the Evil Eye, Volume 1" John Elliot, 2015 [Link]

"The Mummies of East Central Asia" Victor H. Mair [Link]

Gary Varner (2006) "The Mythic Forest, the Green Man and the Spirit of Nature: The Re-emergence.." 

Fig 1: B)  [Gomez-Merino et al, 2011]

"Why is Ochre Found in Some Graves"  National Museum of Denmark

Materias primas y objetos de prestigio en ajuares funerarios como testimonios de redes de intercambio en el Horizonte campaniforme, Liesau and Blasco 2012 [Link]

Ocre y cinabrio en el registro funerario de El Argar.  Padilla et al 2010  [Link]

*     In Southern Iberia, cinnabar (cinabrio) was likely the source for the majority of the red pigments throughout the Neolithic into the Phoenician times.  Luckily (or deceivingly), this doesn't decompose. It's possible that pigments or yarns were being processed at Perdigoes for export [here].  I thought before the high levels could have come from amalgamation and sluicing operations that poisoned the drinking water.  Something did.

**  and because HgS & Fe2O3 survive decomposition longer than other pigment choices, some caution is needed in the interpretation of funerary pigments.

*** An interesting thing about Nazars, and this is true for all Neolithic and Metal Age eye idols, is that the eyes are always blue, often inlaid with lapis lazuli.  Blue-eyed idols from Sumeria or Egypt are often mis-interpreted to represent actual blue-eyed people.  But the actual purpose of the idol is to ward off the evil-eye with a blue-eyed idol or amulet, such as a Nazar.  A more detailed explanation is given by the ancient Greeks for why blue-eyed people where spell casters.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thankerton Man

The young guy looks like a slacker.
Thankerton Man, Dundee University

I missed this reconstruction of an early Scottish Beaker as reported by the BBC in 2015.  He was about 5-11" or 180cm and buried in a stone cist. (see also)  If is cist #2 (GU-1117), then he is described as an unusually tall adolescent young man.

Caroline Erolin, quoted by the BBC, said: "Once we built the basic shape of his face we then looked at historical data to get a better idea of how a man would have looked at that time. For instance, we know they had the ability to shave."

Thankerton Man, Dundee University
I believe the carbon dates broadcast by news outlets (2460-2140 b.c.) are calibrated dates for the same GU-1117 in the Canmore database and referenced in a paper by Allison Sheridan, "Scottish Beaker dates: the good, the bad and the ugly".  In other words, he'd be among the earliest British Beakers.  Also, the right side of page 96 will give you something to anticipate as more Beaker and CW genomes are revealed (I'm personally curious of how 'Eastern' the Eastern Scottish Beakers will be and how this is reflected in modern Scots).  

See also the 3d "Thankerton Man" digital reconstruction via Biggar Museum.