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Who Ya Gonna Call? (Ghost Edition)

The House of Broken Plates from One Hundred Ghost Tales,
Katsushika Hokusai, (1760–1849); woodblock print; color on paper; S2004.3.210

The five ghosts from the published designs of a series titled One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku monogatari) reflect an Edo custom of telling ghost tales in the dark. The ghosts are among the eeriest of Hokusai’s commercially published prints, and they express Hokusai’s interest in imagining the supernatural world, which began in his youth with a print of a haunted house.

Here, a woman’s head with a serpentine neck made up of a stack of dishes represents the ghost of Okiku, whose master threw her into a well because she had broken his favorite dish. At night the sound of smashing porcelain and a voice counting “one, two, three…” emanated from the well.

Happy Halloween from Freer|Sackler. And try not to break any dishes…

Posted by in From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment

Nomads and Networks in the Field: Magneto and Magnetina

Magnetometer survey in a field northwest of Tuzusai with Joerg (foreground) and Claudia (background).
Peak Talgar is in the rear.

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Throughout the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan, on view in the Sackler until November 12, 2012, Claudia will share tales from her ongoing fieldwork with us on Bento.

The Munich Magneto Mob, as geophysicist Joerg Fassbinder and PhD student Lena Kuhne have dubbed themselves, have almost completed a magnetometer survey of the areas surrounding Tuzusai. “Magneto”and “Magnetina” spent a week conducting magnetometer measurements over two fields near Tuzusai in search of underground architectural features.

The device they use is called a Total View Magnetometer, which measures the magnetism below the surface. Digitized as negative or positive values, the composite readings create a magnetogram. An experienced geophysicist like Joerg has read so many magnetograms he is able to easily identify old stream channels, ditches, palisade fences, and even ovens or fireplaces.

We have learned a lot from Joerg. He has let us set the lines in each of the grid units, shown us how the magnetometer works, and even given us lectures on the physics associated with the earth’s magnetic field. He has told us about working on the Nazca Lines in Peru. It is so close to the Equator there that the magnetic anomalies are almost negligible, yet in Kazakhstan there are high levels of magnetism, even more so than in his native Bavaria, which is further north in latitude. He says that this changing magnetic field is a problem that the German mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss thought would be solved in the 19th century, yet two  hundred years later we still don’t know the answer.

In the photo above you see Magneto with his home-designed magnetometer, one of the most accurate ones in existence. The wooden parts are held together by parcel tape and can be broken down into smaller parts to fit into a suitcase. The magnetometer itself weighs about 18 kilograms (40 lbs). Imagine walking with the magnetometer taking readings every meter for a 40 X 40 m (131 x 131 feet) unit. We have calculated that Joerg and Lena walk 1.6 km (1 mile) for each grid they measure.

Their surveys, combined with the research done by the geomorphologists, might begin to tell us whether the Iron Age folk at Tuzusai and the neighboring areas redirected stream channels for irrigating their crops, and how they might have terraced certain areas of the settlement. It will be very helpful when all our specialists come up with results from their disciplines that can be used to make the “big picture” of life in this region.

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Food for Thought: Melons, Mangoes, and Mughals

In “Babur Receives a Courtier,” by Farrukh Beg, the emperor is seen with a bounty of melons before him.
(opaque watercolor and gold on paper, S1986.230)

Although our recent exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran has now closed, many of the images can be viewed in great detail online. Michael Rendelmann, curatorial intern at Freer|Sackler, takes a look at the rich Mughal paintings in terms of a different kind of palate.

Throughout the reign of the Mughals, fruit occupied a special place in court culture as well as on the court’s table. Fruit served not only as a foodstuff, but also as an omnipresent statement of who the Mughals were and how they viewed their relationship with their Indian subjects. Fruit was an edible yardstick of civilization, the cultivation and appreciation of which was a key indication of civilized culture.

Mughal elites famously spent lavishly to grow or import exquisite fruits. Gifts of fruit were a matter of protocol in the upper echelons of Mughal society, and formed an unspoken language of diplomacy. While the Mughal love of fruit remained constant, the varieties consumed and the status ascribed to them tell the story of how a dynasty that emerged in Central Asia became Indian.

Babur, the first Mughal emperor, was raised on a Central Asian diet that placed tremendous emphasis on the many fruits that passed through the region. In the markets of Samarkand one could purchase sweet apples, lush melons, and a bounty of other fruits from the region’s orchards. Above all other fruit, the melon was most prized by Babur’s people, for whom the fruit was synonymous with home.

While he was conquering northern India, Babur lamented the paucity of the fruit available in his new kingdom. He had melons of Central Asia rapidly transplanted in India, but during Babur’s lifetime, these had limited horticultural success. To the homesick Babur, the fruit was a means of connecting with his long-lost homeland; according to the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he wept upon tasting one.

By the time Jahangir ascended to the Mughal throne, 75 years after the death of Babur, a great deal about the formerly nomadic conquerors had changed. The relatively austere fare of Babur’s day had given way to an exotic cuisine that drew from every corner of the vast Mughal Empire. Fruit still occupied a prized place at the table and in ceremonial exchanges, but the available produce had changed dramatically. While later Mughals looked to the fruits of their homeland as a nostalgic statement of their heritage, they were far removed from the nomads of Central Asia. Indeed, the melons over which Babur had wept were now forced to share the table with a variety of new produce, such as the Indian mango, for the favor of the court.

Jahangir may have been a descendant of Babur, but for him, Central Asia was only a story, a homeland to which he was a stranger. India was his home, and the mango, not the melon, his fruit of choice. While Babur had dismissed the mango, Jahangir praised it, declaring that “notwithstanding the sweetness of the Kabul fruits, not one of them has, to my taste, the flavor of the mango.”

In this painting, “Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas,” the dish to Jahangir’s left bears traditional Central Asian fruits such as apples, grapes, and a melon. The dish to Jahangir’s right bears more exotic fruits such as oranges, lemons, pineapple, bananas, and of course, mangoes. (F1942.16a)

The bounty of fruits arrayed before Jahangir in the image above reveals a great deal about the trajectory of Mughal court culture. Babur and his melons tell the story of a conquering warrior ruling over an alien land. Babur drew comfort from seeking to replicate the flavors of home, to which he always looked back longingly. Conversely, the cosmopolitan Jahangir had truly “gone native” in his new homeland of India. His love of the exotic and the new told the story of a new Mughal, no longer at home riding across the plains of Central Asia, but dining on the riches of the empire in the lush gardens of India.

Posted by in A Closer Look, South Asian and Himalayan Art | 3 Comments

Making History: Google Teams Up with Freer|Sackler

Alice Roosevelt Longworth in a rickshaw in 1905. Freer|Sackler Archives.

With today’s launch of the Google Cultural Institute, following last year’s Art Project, the Freer|Sackler became the first Smithsonian museum to partner with Google in both. The Cultural Institute provides visitors the chance to see close-up views of largely unseen archival materials—including letters, photos, videos, and manuscripts—relating to some of the most important events in the 20th century. David Hogge, head of the Archives at Freer|Sackler, tells us what it was like to work on the project.

For the past few months I have been working with staff of the Google Cultural Institute to create an online presentation of one of my favorite recent acquisitions, the Alice Roosevelt photographs of the 1905 Taft Mission to Asia—a three-month diplomatic trip that transformed the United States’ diplomatic and military presence in Asia.

When I was approached for ideas on how the Archives could collaborate with Google on topics relating to 20th-century history, my first thought was to focus on the Alice Roosevelt collection. It has an abundance of imperial portrait photographs, which richly illustrate relations between the US and East Asia in the early 1900s, as well as the critical role of photography in diplomatic encounters.

Google staff were enthusiastic, and worked with us to add our data and images into their new online “Curation Tool.” While still rough in places, the tool promises to a powerful and user-friendly system for non-techies like me to create well-designed, image-rich presentations online.

In the coming months we plan to complete telling the tale of Alice Roosevelt’s travels in the following chapters: San Francisco and Hawaii, Japan, Philippines, Hong Kong, China, and Korea. In the meantime, take a look at Imperial Exposures, our online photographic exhibition on the 1905 mission.

Posted by in A Closer Look, From the Archives | No Comments

Nomads and Networks in the Field: At a Galloping Pace

Horses in paddock at Panfilova horse farm.

Horses held great importance in steppe culture. At our dig site, the majority of the animal bone remains have been identified as sheep and goats, followed by cattle and then horses. Yet we know from the spectacular protomes on the Issyk Golden Warrior’s headdress and the splendid belt plaques that horses played an important symbolic role, and may have been the most prevalent of the domesticated species at Tuzusai.

When Kyra Lyublanovics, a PhD candidate from Central European University (Budapest, Hungary), arrived on Saturday to spend a month with us as our resident zooarchaeologist, she asked if there were any horses in Poselok Alatau. I am sure that in our fast-growing village there are still one or two people living on the outskirts who might own a horse. Then I remembered the Panfilova Hippodrome, where the president’s horses are kept, located in the collective just 4 km (2.5 miles) north of Alatau. On Sunday we took a ride in Kolya’s old orange Moskvich car to the hippodrome. Sure enough, there were beautiful horses in the stables and grazing in the vast pasturelands.

If there is a single idea that has dominated steppe culture from the Eneolithic period (4000 BCE) onward, it has been the hunting, herding, and eventually the riding of horses. In the late 1990s, when archaeologists David Anthony and Dorcas Brown examined the molars of horse teeth from the steppe sites, they saw microscopic evidence of bit wear, suggesting the presence of horseback riding more than six thousand years ago on the northern steppes of Kazakhstan. A recent article stated that DNA studies of horse populations now corroborate the archaeological evidence showing that horses were first domesticated in the steppe areas of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Whether horses were first used for riding or as traction animals remains to be proven.

Kyra riding one of the original Turkoman horses known as Alytn teke at the Panfilova Hippodrome.
These horses are the Central Asian version of Arabian horses: fast, light, and strong.
This particular horse is carmello, a truly beautiful riding horse that is white with blue and white eyes.

Yet there is no doubt in my mind that horses, whether or not they were dominant in people’s diets during the first millennia BCE, certainly had a major symbolic importance. For example, some of the sacrified horses found in Berel Mound No. 11 are splendidly clothed in leather masks with ibex horns, suggesting their mythical nature.

We are very excited to have Kyra here to analyze the animal bones. Her work will provide data that can be compared to the glorious and splendid depictions of the role that horses played in steppe society.

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan remains on view at the Sackler Gallery through November 12, 2012.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | No Comments