Tag Archives: archaeology

The Venus Flytrap: Emotional Excavations

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Every now and then, a discovery occurs that reveals the imaginative or knowledge-based shortcomings of those who made it, or who first respond to it and shape how others view it. The Ishango bone unearthed in 1960, a baboon fibula with 28 markings dating to the late Stone Age, is a perfect example. The artefact has passed into modern feminist lore, with apocryphal stories of irate professors throwing their hands up in frustration, saying: “Think! Who owned this, if it was a calendar? Does a non-menstruating man need a calendar of 28 days?”. A related reference is a riddle which hopefully no longer challenges anyone: “A boy and his father get into an accident. Both require surgery. So why did the surgeon look at the boy on the table and say, ‘I can’t operate on him. He’s my son!’?”

To return to ancient objects, new information on the sprawling geoglyphs in southern Peru known as the Nazca Lines has excited researchers. The geoglyphs were created over 2000 years ago either by carving the ground, or forming images using piled stones. If seen from a great height, they reveal geometric designs and outlines of plants and wildlife, including numerous birds. Some among these birds are now believed to have been non-native, which lends itself to many theories.

But in these speculations is some condescension, including about how the geoglyphs were designed. It’s not like pre-colonial Peruvians had hot air balloons, went one throwaway remark. Well, to quote a meme illustrated with the Easter Island colossuses and various pyramids: “Just because white people couldn’t do it doesn’t mean it was aliens.” Perhaps there is extraterrestrial intelligence out there. More immediately provable is human contempt for the intelligence of other humans. We rarely appreciate the sophistication of those whose cultures (and populations) were systematically erased. Even when we don’t see the world as we were taught to, we often express our visions through inherited and absorbed vocabularies.

While meditating recently, I saw a vulture, and one of my most disagreeable beliefs about myself surfaced – that my ability to look others’ mortality in the eye is not what makes me a good caregiver, but is in actuality unsentimental and calculating. And then the creature’s message came forth: “The vulture waits not for death, but for sustenance”. Suddenly, this was as obvious as the symbolism I’d unthinkingly internalised. Afterwards, recalling the archaeological site of Catal-Huyuk, I read about vulture excarnation as a human pre-burial ritual and the prevalence of skeletons without skulls there. These are mysterious because they don’t fit satisfactorily into tutored worldviews. Practical explanations are given, like: this is because burials beneath the house would smell less if stripped of flesh. But does that engage the emotional? It’s bereavement we speak of, not the disposal of spoilt food.

That gender bias riddle in which a surgeon is prevented from operating on her son invokes medical ethics based on emotion. This is a rare acknowledgment of how reason, like art and ritual, is also emotional. What if every hypothesis got the heart involved, and that what we hold privileged as the mind included the vast province of the imagination?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 27th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Look At The Sky

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An antlered creature is trapped between two men – we know they are men not only from their smooth torsos but also from the penises that dangle between their legs, indicating their nakedness. The man on the right carries a spear above his head; the other holds a bow drawn taut. In the distance is a smaller creature, in its pose an air of dejection. Above them all are two objects – one of them only partially drawn, or partially obscured. Bulls-eyes from which lines radiate. Two suns? A sun and a supernova, is what experts believe. The rock carving that depicts this scene has just been discovered in the Burzahom archaeological site in Kashmir. The findings suggest that this may be the oldest surviving human artwork inspired by a supernova sighting.

These findings appear in a paper in the Indian Journal of the History of Science, and only get more marvellous. Hrishikesh Joglekar, M N Vahia and Aniket Sule posit a theory that’s inclusive of both archaeology and astronomy. They date the rock carving to 4,500 years ago based on a correlation with a supernova remnant, HB9. And they offer this possibility: the hunt recorded in the carving could have been celestial, for the map of the sky at the same time of the supernova’s explosion contained a remarkably similar picture. The antlered creature is the constellation Taurus, the hunter with the bow and arrow is Orion, and to the right are a hunter formed from stars of the constellation Cetus and the second animal – apparently a canine – from the constellations Andromeda and Pegasus.

Who do we marvel more: the scientists of today who put all of this together, or the woman or man who chiselled what they saw take place in the heavens one night in the Kashmir Valley so long ago?

And I wonder what it was that artist thought as she observed this. What – or who – were the stars to her? What did she believe she was seeing?

There are always stories and there are always theories. Here’s another possibility from science: morning sunlight reflecting on ice crystals, creating the optical illusion of a second sun. And then there are myths. In the Cheonjiwang Bonpuri of Korean shamans, two suns and two moons are created to appease the Rooster Emperors. The Atyal people of Taiwan tell a story about how a hunter had to shoot down one of the two suns in the sky because people could neither sleep nor grow millets. The Mayans had many stories of rivalling suns and moons. And then there’s mythical science: Erik Aspaug’s Big Splat Theory that suggests that our moon was a fragment spun from a newborn earth’s collision with another planet, and that it maybe even had a twin, which the scientist Corey S. Powell poetically names Endymion, lover of the moon goddess Selene.

Some years ago, the graffitied words “regarde le ciel” appeared around Paris. Look at the sky. Imagine if some of this graffiti survived, and sentient beings millennia from now discovered it. What would they think we saw? Would they also know that, too often, we didn’t remember to seek at all?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 11th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Story Only Of What Survived

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There are objects and there are stories, and sometimes the two entwine.  Museologists embark on projects of assisted storytelling: the history of the world in one hundred objects, the history of India in two hundred. The latter, still being curated and inspired by the former at the British Museum, will find the objects catalogued into nine “stories”. Nine ways of telling, then. Nine connections of dots.

The objects have gravitas: articles of public religion, preserved scripts, art pieces. But something feels missing, scrolling through. This is not the history of the world as I understand it; this is only an arrangement of facts. Of course, that’s a matter of perspective. But what has always spoken to me is silence. The true history of the world, as I encounter it, is in that which didn’t get told. In the British Museum’s project, for instance, we find the Ain Sakhri lovers, an 11,000 year old Israeli erotic sculpture. It doesn’t move me, but it reminds me of artifacts that do: the 6,000 year old Valdaro lovers, skeletons laid to rest with their limbs embracing, ceremonial flint blades along the thighs. Or more poignant still, the 4,800 year old pieta skeletons: a mother cradling her baby, her skull tilted in a gaze toward her child, discovered in Taiwan.

What I mean to say is: the story of only what survived, or even the only stories that survived, can never be the whole truth.

How would she have measured that life – that mother? What objects – what everyday mortar-pestle, what tooth relic of the firstborn, what period rag – evidenced it? Imagine tabling them for ourselves too: the synecdoches of a history of the self.

Weapons are among the objects in those museum curations of the history of humanity. Handaxes of white quartz, jadeite, basalt. They are beautiful, if we forget their use. And they remind me of a gemstone I gave someone because among its properties was the capacity to distil the darkness from drink. I hadn’t known yet that he was addicted to toxicity. That object belongs to him but its history belongs to me. There is the reverse too: a pendant I don’t wear because someone terrible owns the exact same one. Perhaps other people’s objects tell our stories too.

Years ago, inspired by Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present, I conceptualised an installation using absence. My absence, in fact. My departure from the country that was my home for 17 years, and all the things I left behind, not knowing that it was to be a permanent cleaving. What happened to that? Perhaps that artwork is a kind of object now, a question mark. For some reason, those photographs of workers on skyscrapers comes to mind suddenly: the way they posed dangling their legs over beams, eating lunch in high altitude without getting dizzy. Some things are like this. The frozen moment is best; all movement is precarious.

The object as narrative device. But that word’s the key I think. Device. Not a song, not a memory, not the way expressions flit across faces just long enough to tell the truth. A thing is only a thing.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.