Archive for the ‘Personal history and Occasional Observations’ Category

It was sometime in the mid-1980s, while visiting friends at the university where Ravi and I had once taught, that I told an anthropologist about important differences I noticed between the various countries where I was and had been living and working. I attributed the differences to the agricultural base, whether it was wheat-growing or rice-growing. We discussed my observations at some length and he included them in a footnote, crediting me, to an article he was writing for an anthropological journal. I had left academia in 1968, had become an expatriate wife and mother following Ravi from country to country as he followed his career. For myself, I did research projects, went back to school for two years with the kids, and finally, on a consulting basis, did evaluations of primary health care programs in developing countries. For a number of years I lived and did a rural-to-urban migration study in Turkey, a wheat-growing country. In India, broadly, the Northwest is wheat-growing, while the East and South are rice-growing. I had done health care related research projects in both the regions, and of course, had visited Ravi’s family across India, from Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, down to Bangalore. In rice-growing Indonesia, I worked in rural and urban contexts with Ministry of Health colleagues across Java, Madura, Sulawesi and Sumatra. (Somalia, where I lived and did research, was a tribal, pastoral nomadic society, like the Arab Bedouins, with yet another, quite different pattern of psychological-cultural characteristics.)

Woodcut by Piero Crescentio

Thrashing wheat in Delhi, at Humayun’s tomb

I told my anthropologist friend how different the wheat villages were from the rice villages and how the differences affected me.When I first lived in Turkey, in 1968, farming was still traditional, not very different from earlier Europe or northern India, rather like peasant farming. Tractors were still rare. The village was a compact settlement of a hundred or so households, maybe more, surrounded by wheat fields, pasture, fallow land, wooded areas. Travel time from one village to another was considerable. At the center of production was a man with his plow and an ox, mule or horse. (I wrote here on women’s role in the economy of a traditional Turkish town.) Inheritance was from father to son and women were outsiders who married into the family.

Planting rice

plowing the field

I first went to Bali in 1978 and after that, until 1994, to the other islands. As I  crossed Indonesia it was the nature of the farming more than the shape of the villages that caught my attention. Without actually studying the agriculture, it was obvious to me that rice farming is multi-phased and especially complex in the relationships required between farming households within the community. I describe Bali’s farming complex here   The man and his plow and bullock were there but as one part of the work sequence.

Women worked in the planting, weeding, harvesting, and they participated, at least in Bali, in the community’s agricultural decision-making meetings. (a photo of the woman’s blade for harvesting rice is here.) I read that in Java, descent is reckoned from both the father’s and the mother’s family line.

By habit, I view life from a sociological perspective but psychologists also have found differences between people dependent upon one or the other of the two basic food crops. (Maize/corn was the base in native American civilizations and the potato in South America.)  Psychologist Tim Talheim did research in China, on individuals in both the wheat-growing north and the rice-growing south. I found the results fascinating and relevant to my particular interests. Ordinarily, China had not been a culture I read or thought about but last year an archeological discovery having to do with amazing art lead me incidentally into months of acquiring background for understanding Indonesia. The discovery related to the 8,000 terracotta warriors that for millennia have kept watch over the tomb of China’s first emperor. Two of these remarkable statues had been shown in an art museum and I saw them. The Terracotta Army depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, in 210–209 BCE. Based on DNA evidence, archaeologists think Greek sculptors could have trained the local artists, indicating that the north China civilization, based on millet as its grain, had early-on contact with Indo-European culture via Central Asia and the northern steppe – and with growing wheat. Entirely separately, in South China, by 7500 BCE rice-based agriculture had developed along the Yangtze River.   Here for a map showing where rice, wheat, corn are grown in China.

migrations of Dai people

It was in the Yangtze River Neolithic based on rice, before the northern Han expansion, that the agricultural people of the S.E. Asia have their origins. They are the Austronesians, named for their language family. Genetic research shows that an ethnic minority in southern China, the Dai, are the people from whom the Indonesians are descended. Most likely their ancestors came from the region around the Tonkin Gulf, the homeland of the Dai, and migrated to Indonesia through the Vietnam corridor. (I previously wrote, based on linguistic theory, that the indigenous people of Taiwan were the original Austronesians. That now seems unlikely.)

Tim Talheim and his research team propose that a history of farming wheat makes cultures more independent, while farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. He reports that the northern Chinese seemed more direct, while people in the south were more concerned about harmony and avoiding conflict. They tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that those in rice-growing southern China were more interdependent and holistic-thinking than respondents in the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, they tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. Individualism is often considered a trait related to modernization but it did not fit the data. The wheat-growing/rice-growing differences persist with urbanization and modernization.

Quoting from the National Geographic article –  “To see if these agricultural differences led to contrasting psychological traits, Talhelm’s team recruited 1,162 Han Chinese students from around the country and showed them sets of three objects, such as a train, a bus, and tracks. When asked to pair two of them together, volunteers from rice-growing regions were more likely to choose holistic pairings based on relationships (train and tracks), while those from wheat-growing areas chose analytic pairings based on abstract similarities (train and bus).”

From a New York Times article, social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus asked people arriving at San Francisco International Airport to fill out a survey and offered them a handful of pens to use, for example, four orange and one green; those of European descent more often chose the one pen that stood out, while the Asians more often chose the one more like the others.

I wonder how Ravi would have chosen. His family was both north Indian and south Indian. Oddly, for example, for him a proper Indian main meal included both wheat chapattis and rice. I agonize over how to make a pair from the bus, train and tracks set. I am from a wheat culture but as a professional woman felt more at ease in rice culture countries, in cultures where even in the traditional sectors of the society women participated in public life. I will reflect more on this as I write about my experiences in Indonesia. One aspect that immediately comes to mind is my American habit of smiling at people in public and how this affected me, as a woman, in the various countries where I lived and worked. I describe that here.

Addendum — I wrote here of an important reality to remember when comparing paddy rice societies with the wheat societies I grew up in. My working in public health shaped much of how I understood each culture I lived in.


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Two years and some months ago I began a conversation with myself about an idea Ravi, my brilliant, charming husband, had presented to me when we were first married and he was still a graduate student newly arrived from Bombay. It had to do with a difference he had discovered on how Indians and Americans imagine the course of one’s life. He said Americans picture life as being on a trajectory beginning in childhood, rising to a peak in middle age, then declining into old age, and he contrasted this with the Indian view of a life lived in four stages. I set down here what he told me, with photos of him. (A photo of me in my fifties is here.) A traditional statement on the four stages of Vedic life, of Student, Householder, Post family and Sannyasa, is here.

Over time and with some thought, I developed a version of the stages of life model that made sense to me: The first stage is for learning; one is a student. The second is for family and work, the third dedicated to the community, and in the fourth stage one turns inward for reflection and peace of mind. I discussed the four stages here, elaborated it further here, and explored the psychological aspects of being in the fourth stage of life here.

When Ravi and I entered what he would have considered our third stage of life, at age sixty-five, we returned to the U.S. and moved into a house down the road from his brother. I explain, here, in considering where an expatriate goes to retire, why we went to this place and not elsewhere, but once having decided, I again launched into the time consuming process of setting up house and home for us. We were coming from twenty years lived in Paris where Ravi had been an haute fonctionnaire in an international organization and from where I had worked on a consulting basis with UNICEF, WHO and other international organizations in the planning and evaluation of rural primary health care projects in Turkey, India, Indonesia and once in the States. Not only had we returned to live in a medium size American city, it is a Southern city and I am a Midwesterner. Regional differences in America are not as pronounced as in other countries, but they are nevertheless real and I felt them. Ravi and I began our third stage of life, what Americans call retirees or senior citizens, while settling into a non-home place. After more than twenty years here it is still not quite home, but in the fourth stage of life maybe that no longer matters.

For more than a decade, until Ravi slide into his prolonged dementia, described here, I was active with various citizen groups concerned with community affairs, but while caring for him became disconnected from them. Currently, nice people invite me to join one or another senior citizens group and I decline. Invariably, I am at least a decade older than even the oldest of their members. I tell them my age and explain that although I am healthy, I am not a senior citizen, which I consider the third stage of life. I am elderly, in my fourth stage of life, and have already lived five years beyond my life expectancy. Generally, an explanation fails to interest them, so I let it be. Besides, I now think I should modify my version of the fourth stage of life.

I’ve been thinking, too, that I might anglicize “stages of life,” return to my anthropology days and use the idea of age grades, a universal in societies at all times and everywhere, one of the two basic principles for classifying individuals, the other being gender. In every society, one is either male or female and of a particular age grade, either a child or an adult or an elder, and this held until recently when, in the 1940s, Americans acquired a new, additional age grade. Adolescence, the transitional phase from child to adult, was transformed into “teenage” and a person of that age became a “teenager.” I was in my teens at time, totally unaware of being anything other than a high school student. My girlfriends and I were not  “Bobby Soxers” mad for Frank Sinatra, the forerunners of girls going crazy over the Beatles and other pop singers, but by the time I became an adult the teenage phenomenon was universally recognized. In their film on the history of youth, Matt Wolf and Jon Savage begin with “teenager” being an American invention, a way of viewing adolescence as a definable period of life with its own characteristics and not simply an early phase of adulthood.

In an email to a young friend, a woman in her early thirties, I mentioned that “teenager” had been invented when I was in my teens and she responded that for her generation it is the “twenty-something” and the notion of quarter-life crises. She had read and was fascinated by the book by Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now.”

My friend wrote that it would be interesting to delve into the sociological and psychological/physiological underpinnings allowing the advent of both age grades, and I agree. I was mother to three teenagers and remember vividly what that meant, as well as watching Ravi cope with being father to teenage boys when he himself had never experienced adolescence as an age grade. In those years, in the late 1970s into the ’80s, the neurological sciences had not yet revealed to us that during the teen and early twenty years the brain is changing, developing and not yet mature. I should have guessed it, though, simply from anthropological studies. In many societies, adolescent boys (but not girls) are given free rein to behave in ways not acceptable for either child or adult.

I also have memories from a study I did in the 1950s of a Mexican-American community and from living and working in the 1960s and onward in Mogadiscio, Ankara and across India. I observed changing perceptions of adolescence, of adolescents being considered as young adults, then because of social and economic change, and growing knowledge of the adolescent brain, the gradual introduction of a new age grade into society. But this is too complex to discuss here. I’ll return to it later.

Traditionally, all societies had three age grades: child, adult, elder, but I once read, long ago, in a study of traditional Eskimo life, of a family and their dog sled on the move, father controlling the dogs, mother and grandmother walking alongside, two small children riding. Finally, grandmother could not keep the pace and they stopped, built a small igloo for her to lie in until her final days while the family, in mourning, continued on in their search for food. In extreme circumstances, survival is not for the elderly.

In more settled communities, however, and throughout history, a number of individuals lived on into old age, preserving and transmitting knowledge through the generations. I wrote in the previous essays about ancestor worship and the leverage that gives elders in the family and the community. Here and here for life expectancy rates when estimating how many old people were around in different eras.

This article on life expectancy in the Middle Ages is equally fascinating.  It gives the age and the cause of death of adult members of the royal family of Wales in the 1100s and 1200s CE. Considering only those individuals who lived into adulthood, who survived the high death rates for infants and children, the median life expectancy for women was 42/43 years, and for men, 48/49 years. Six of the twenty lived to 50 years and beyond, two of them into their 60s and one woman into her 70s. By contrast, for ordinary people living in the villages, archeological evidence from their cemeteries shows no one living past 45.

What can I say about childhood as an age grade?  In my urban lifestyle, childhood is the time for learning, for enculturation, for play, and school attendance ideally beginning early, at age four or five years, and continuing into adulthood, for girls equally for boys. In other cultures, at least in the past, children begin by age six actually working for the family and the community. By puberty they are being initiated into their adult roles. An excellent description of childhood in preindustrial Europe is here. At that time, and until the era of modern medicine, about one third of the population would ordinarily have been under the age of 14.

Religious ceremonies mark the individual’s transition from child to adult. I am familiar with the Christian First Communion.

In literature the phase, Coming of Age, is used to designate the social rituals and often the personally significant experiences that mark a young person’s transition from childhood to becoming an adult. We have the coming-of-age story, the bildungsroman novel, and the coming of age movies.

Adulthood is the central and longest age grade. For men, adult activities vary enormously. They are what we know and read about as history. For women, until very recently, adulthood meant children and maintaining the family. In societies before or outside of modern economies, from menarche to menopause the typical adult woman was either pregnant or lactating, which are states during which she did not menstruate. If menstruating, she was confined for days each month in a woman’s hut. When cloth became available a woman could make a pad to catch the blood rather than go into hiding with a few other women. I came of age in a time and a place where commercially made napkins were available to use during menstruation and available toilet facilities allowed a woman to participate in public social life. I was free and tried to ignore the snide remarks boys made about a woman who annoyed them “being on the rag.” Here for a video of bright and active girls discussing how they manage menstruation in their modernizing lifestyle.

Despite all sorts of change in technology, the economy, the social system in countries around the world, urban and rural, until very recently, the lives of women remained essentially unchanged, limited to family roles – marriage, giving birth, rearing children, preparing food, keeping the home, engaged in outside work only when compatible with those fundamental responsibilities. In the private realm of life, in the home, in the women’s world, traditional life continued. Outside the home, in the public realm of men, life evolved and changed while women raised the children, instilling in them the traditional attitudes and values they would carry into adulthood. Thus, fundamental aspects of the culture persists through the centuries, even millennia, despite larger societal changes, and this has to intrigue anyone who reads history. One of my favorite examples of the persistence of culture is of Roman soldiers reporting on the women of Gaul spending so much time and trouble on their appearance. It’s the same impression I had of French women, and of the importance of their femininity, two thousand year after the soldiers had left Gaul. Or of Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s writing about democracy in the young country, America, and how his descriptions of American culture are recognizably American, even today. ….

However, a technology invented and distributed in the 1960s is changing much of that, making possible one of the most profound changes in human history. The reliable contraceptive has made possible the opening of non-family roles to women, of women participating more fully in public life. I was in my early thirties when the Pill came on the market. I felt it was a revolution in the making, and it is happening. It seems, for example, that Twenty-something is mostly about women in their twenties. What I read on-line is about a lifestyle concerned with work, clothing and appearance, dating, thinking about when to marry and have a child. All this is another matter, one to be explored in a separate essay.

Is Senior an American age grade? Perhaps. It generally means age 65 plus. If so, I’ve gone through it. I’m an elder in my fourth stage of life, creaky, slower, less sure-footed, more easily tired, but still relatively healthy. I count my blessings from having come of age when America was entering its most prosperous period ever and when medical science had advanced sufficiently to give me advantages over women barely a generation older than I. When, for example, my son was six years old and had strep throat the doctor prescribed an antibiotic and the illness was cured. For a friend some twenty years older than I, antibiotics were unavailable when her son at that age was similarly sick and she had to keep her active, lively boy quiet, out of school and in bed for months to ensure he would not develop rheumatic fever and a consequent damaged heart.  Wherever we lived, in the different countries, I could immediately identify the medical facilities and personnel we just might need. Dentistry improved enormously during my lifetime, especially through periodontal care, and I still have my teeth. When I was in my early twenties, older women told me that each baby costs the mother one tooth, or more.

So I continue on with life and expect I will eventually move into its last stage – fragility — when what I want, what we all want, is an ideal and totally unachievable ending to life on this earth, to fall apart all at once, as in an old poem, “The One-Hoss Shay” that I discuss here.

Years ago, being practical and to protect my children from the expense and trouble of caring for me, I took out insurance for palliative care at the end of life.  I read articles, as here, about how I will think and feel at that time, in that situation. I wrote here of Ravi’s ending, of the romantic love that took us into marriage, of how that love continued. I am in tears as I recall his last moments but he was at peace and that comforts me.


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For weeks I’ve been reading and learning Indonesian history, discovering all sorts of the intriguing things — then last week an article reminded me of something that interested me decades ago and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I simply had to follow through and find out what new had happened.

The article is “Discoveries May Rewrite History of China’s Terra-Cotta Warriors.”

terracotta-army-china-inspired-greek-art_1-770x437“The 8,000 terracotta warriors that have kept watch over the tomb of China’s first emperor for more than 2,000 years were the result of outside influence, new evidence suggests. Based on DNA remains found on the site, archaeologists think ancient Greek sculptors could have been on hand to train local artists – a find that could overturn centuries-old assumptions about contact between the East and the West before Marco Polo.”

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the Emperor in 210–209 BCE.

Terracotta Warriors Group, Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CaliforniaThousands of clay soldiers stand in trench-like underground corridors, positioned according to rank, each soldier a unique individual with his own facial features, expression, hairstyle, the higher ranking of them outfitted with full bronze battle gear. Weapons (swords, daggers, spears, arrowheads) are included. Originally the statues were brightly colored but when exposed to air the paint and lacquer flaked off.

terracotta-warrior-knellingterracotta-warriors-portraitI once saw two of the terracotta soldiers. It was in 1988 and I had gone to the Cleveland Museum of Art specifically to see its collection of Indian paintings, unaware of the exhibition being held, “The Quest for Eternity: Chinese Ceramic Sculptures from the People’s Republic of China.” As I remember, the two statues were placed high, on display, maybe near the entrance, and walking by them, looking up, I was stunned by their presence. A friend had been waiting for me. She came over and hurried us on. Oddly, I can still see the statues in my mind’s eye, but not the paintings. Later, thinking of them and being outside the States, I somehow thought the terracotta army was from the Shang Dynasty and read a bit about it as background, all of which I’ve forgotten. An image of the soldiers returns as I read of them again, and with new information, they are even more interesting.



bactria-and-gandhara-mapThe evidence for Greek artists having participated in creating the statues especially interests me. I knew of  Gandhara art, but this wonderful Greek-influenced statuary was much later, in the first and second centuries CE., too late for the terracotta statues.  Besides, I wondered why a civilization sophisticated enough to produce the terracotta marvels would need input from a far distant culture and one less advanced than itself. Curiosity would not stop nagging at me so I finally decided that with this question, plus the importance of Chinese influence on Indonesia and its culture, I really should take the time to learn something of China and Chinese history.

rivers-of-china-mapWhere to begin? I make sense of ancient civilizations by thinking in anthropological terms, beginning with the basic era, the Neolithic. It is a period of people living in villages, cultivating fields of a staple, usually a grain, with the hoe, raising domesticated animals, using stone tools, making pottery and weaving cloth. For China, the earliest known Neolithic was along the Yellow River c. 8500 BCE., based on millet and the pig. Silk was being produced by 5000 BCE.

By 7500 BCE a rice-based Neolithic had developed on the Yangtze River, but that is another part of China. I will return to it when writing about the origins of Indonesian culture.

The next historic era is the Bronze Age, meaning that within a landscape of farming villages there developed a military ruling elite and a religious elite who lived in cities, often walled cities, in palaces, surrounded by specialists and craftsmen, by servants and laborers while keeping control over the peasants who sustained them with food, goods and labor. The military protected their peasantry from raids and attacks by other rulers, and with the religious elite, served as the ultimate judicial authority. The invention of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, had made possible weapons more effective for warfare and axes and blades stronger and more durable than stone tools for clearing and working the land. Metal-working required new sorts craftsmanship, and since the ores are rarely found together, it created the need for trade and for traders, a new occupation of men, and some women, who ventured out beyond the community, in contact and negotiations with people in other societies.

In China, the smelting of copper was discovered early, c. 5000 BCE, in several Neolithic cultures. Tin ore is relatively rare but small deposits were found along the Yellow River, accessible to Bronze Age civilizations. The earliest was the Xia dynasty. c. 2070 – 1600 BCE, followed by the Shang dynasty, c. 1600 – 1046 BCE, the earliest dynasty for which there is archaeological evidence. The Shang dynasty, a period of small kingdoms, was followed by the Zhou dynasty, c. 1046 – 256 BCE, characterized as a feudal society, meaning one with a military hierarchy in which a ruler or lord offers mounted fighters a fief (medieval beneficium), a unit of land, with its peasants and natural resources included, to control in exchange for a military service. The individual who accepted this land became a vassal, and the man who granted the land become known as his liege or his lord.

qin-shi-huang-di-portraitstate-of-qin-mapQin Shi Huang Di, the man whom the terracotta soldiers were to serve in the afterlife, came to the throne of the kingdom of Qin in 246 BCE at the age of 13. Within 25 years his military forces had conquered all of the other Warring States and unified all of China under the Qin Dynasty. He was the First Emperor of China. During his rule he standardized coins, weights, and measures; interlinked the states with canals and roads; and is credited with building the first version of the Great Wall. He died in 210 BCE.

The Han Dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE, followed the Qin Dynasty. It ruled for four centuries and is considered a golden age in Chinese history. China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script is referred to as “Han characters

A good article on the Bronze Age with pictures of bronze artifacts is here.

The Iron Age, the era when iron objects were first produced, is a third archeological Age based on technology but less consistently related to a type of social organization.  Iron tool and weapon use began between c.1200 to 600 BCE, depending on the region and on when the knowledge was developed for smelting iron ore, removing impurities, and for steel, regulating the amount of carbon in the alloy. Other Iron Age innovations were the potter’s wheel, the rotary quern for grinding grain, and the wood lathe.

In the Mediterranean region, c. 1300 BCE, iron technology developed during a time of disorder and violence known as the Bronze Age Collapse. Trade routes for tin ore were disrupted and bronzesmiths responded by turning to the more abundant and accessible iron ore. Meteorite iron had been known and used for making swords. As the technology evolved, iron became cheaper, stronger, lighter and forged iron implements eventually superseded cast bronze tools and weapons. For some reason, the process seems to have been slower in China than in Europe. Nevertheless, in the Yellow River region during the Spring and Autumn Period, 722 – 481 BCE, farming was revolutionized by the use of cast iron tools and oxen to pull the plow. The food supply increased and population increase followed. Iron objects, such as handcuffs and collars for slaves or criminals, were found in Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb but the terracotta warriors’ weapons were bronze, not iron.

terracotta-army-china-inspired-greek-art_3The Chariot and four horses fascinates me. I have here a picture and discussion of a similar chariot and charioteer in India being taken into battle by four horses, possibly in the 4th century BCE.

From the Cleveland Museum of Art website —

“Some of the most famous ceramic horses are those found in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (reigned 221-208 BCE). In three separate pits, more than 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, and chariots and tens of thousands of bronze weapons (swords, daggers, spears, cross-bow triggers, and arrowheads) were excavated. They would have been brightly painted, though much of the color is now lost. In the center of the chariot, a chariot driver holds the reins in both hands. On either side of him are two chariot soldiers. Standing with their feet placed to balance their weight while the chariot is in motion, one hand holds the side-rail of the chariot the other a weapon. Since the charioteer has both hands on the reins, he cannot protect himself. He wears a special uniform with long-sleeved armor to protect his arms and hands and a high collar to protect his neck.”

From a Shang Dynasty archeological site

“The light chariot, with 18 to 26 spokes per wheel, first appeared, according to the archaeological and inscriptional record, about 1200 BCE. Glistening with bronze, it was initially a prestigious command car used primarily in hunting. The 16 chariot burials found at Xiaotun raise the possibility of some form of Indo-European contact with China, and there is little doubt that the chariot, which probably originated in the Caucasus, entered China via Central Asia and the northern steppe. Animal-headed knives, always associated with chariot burials, are further evidence of a northern connection.”

greco-bactrian-kingldom-200-bce-map-by-talessmanxian-mapIn later centuries, about 200 BCE, other Indo-European contacts, this time Greek artists from the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, today’s Afghanistan, traveling north of the Taklamakan Desert, arrived in Xi’an, Qin Shi Huang’s city, to show his artists the art and science of modeling the human body. Men of Bactria had already led expeditions into Xinjiang, northwestern China. The historian Strabo wrote: “they extended their empire even as far as the Seres (Chinese) and the Phryni.” Several statuettes and representations of Greek soldiers have been found north of the Tien Shan, and are on display in the Xinjiang museum at Urumqi.

Hand of the Maitreya, the future Buddha, Gandhara, 3rd-4th century CE

Hand of the Maitreya, the future Buddha, Gandhara, 3rd-4th century CE

How often in considering the history of this region of the earth we are led back to Alexander the Great. In 330 BCE, with an army of Macedonian and Greek soldiers, he invaded territory in today’s Afghanistan as part of his war against Persia. Greek soldiers settled down in this fertile realm, defeated enemy armies and founded the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. Although cut off from Europe, for three centuries they carried on with Greek culture. Greek was the language of government and the elite. One of their cities, Ain Khanum, excavated in 1970s, showed a complete Greek city with an acropolis, amphitheater, temples, and numerous statues. Their coins are among the most beautiful ever made. The Greeks of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, which included Gandhara, transmitted the art of sculpting human likeness to India, and most likely to Qin.

Quoting Lukas Nickel

Ancient Chinese records tell that 12 giant statues, clad in “foreign robes” “appeared in Lintao” in what was the westernmost part of China. (The word “Lintao” can also mean any place far to the west.) The records do not say how this appearance happened, who brought them there, or who exactly the statues depicted; they do reveal the statues were larger than life and so impressed Qin Shi Huang that he decided to build 12 duplicates in front of his palace by melting down bronze weapons that had been used for war. Thus, we know that he, unlike other ruling elites in China, knew of and favored a foreign mode of sculpture.

In separate pits near his mausoleum were found a few dozen statues of half-naked acrobats and dancers on which the sculptors attempted to render a bone structure, muscles and sinews to depict a person in movement. Further, “This comes close to an understanding of the human body that was employed at the time only in Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Europe and Asia.” Nickel argues that creating this sort of realistic sculpture is not something that a sculptor could learn without some practice, that it took the ancient Greeks centuries to master it, and “The creation of a believable human body preoccupied generations of Greek sculptors. It was a complex artistic and intellectual process that did not happen overnight.”

Researchers salvaged traces of European mitochondrial DNA from skeletons buried near Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, confirming the Greeks were there.

China had no tradition of building life-size figures with realistic details before the construction of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, and none since then.

I love the 1st and 2nd century art of Gandhara, much of it Buddhist. More on that in another essay.

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I continue to ponder over why Bali is so attractive to visitors, including myself.jawaharlal-nehru-and-rabindranath-tagore Jawaharlal Nehru called Bali “the morning of the world” when he visited Indonesia in 1950 and the poet Rabindranth Tagore said, “Wherever I go on the island, I see God.” But Bali is more than a beautiful landscape; the island is something of a Shangri La where outsiders want to live as well as to visit. And how did this come to be? I figured out the basics of Bali’s centuries old social and economic system, outlined here, and the impact of tourism here, then continued reading into the large and never ending literature on Balinese history until I felt I understood something of what made Bali different – and what that difference is, or was. Amazingly, I find myself engaged to the point where I cannot let go and move on to other places where I worked and was involved. I read about Bali and one memory after another occurs to me, of a similarity with another culture here or of a difference there, and I want to get it all down into writing.

For example, I read about how the Balinese organize their irrigation farming and community activities and encounter references to musyawarah, an Indonesian word I heard some thirty-five years ago in Java, and memories from even longer ago than that are revived.

Musyawarah is the name for a social process I first observed in the 1950s, and having no one word for what was happening, described it with phrases and sentences. I was studying the urbanization of a Mexican-American community of migrant farm workers, Spanish speaking, who were taking jobs and settling into a Midwestern city rather than return as usual to their home base at the Texas border. In my second year of being with them, a number of the younger women asked me to help them organize a woman’s social club for the community, and it became quite an experience for us all. Among other things, it was when I discovered my expectations for how a meeting should be run were a product of my Anglo-Saxon culture. In meetings as I knew them, if an issue arose and different points of view were expressed, the members held a discussion, then took a vote and the minority accepted the outcome, the majority view, as that of the membership. In our Mexican-American club, in our early meetings, when we needed to make a group decision we held a discussion and took a vote, after which those who lost the vote walked out of the meeting, emotionally if not physically, without comment, angering the majority and leaving each side with secret, and not-so-secret suspicions.

I could not understand what was happening, so Consuelo, my close friend, explained for me the factions in the community and the older women and their feelings. When I expressed the idea of the minority staying on and maybe later even persuading others to their point of view, it drew a blank with her. Obviously, the concept of the loyal opposition was not in their culture and to save our club we had to work around that fact. With another woman, we devised a set of procedures that suited our Mexican-American women; essentially, every group decision had to be discussed until we all agreed on the same thing. It was a time-consuming, tiresome process and sometimes resulted in an action so innocuous it meant almost no action at all, but we stayed together, had good times together and accomplished good works, such as persuading and helping Mexican-Americans get to the polls and vote during local elections, have their voice heard. It was the first time Spanish was heard in the municipal hall. Unusual for that community, our social club survived for years, for long after I had left.

I called the procedures we invented “talking to consensus.” With some added features it was “musyawarah,” the process for group decision-making used by the Balinese. In later years, I observed the same process being used elsewhere, in other cultures, in tight but stratified groups, as with medical teams. The discussion went on and on and on until finally the decision reached usually was what the top man (almost always a man) wanted anyhow, but at least everyone had a say and was heard, small concessions were made along the way to the hard-to-convince, no one lost face and everyone was responsible for the outcome of actions taken. Musyawarah became part of my personal vocabulary.

Another feature of Balinese society I think about is the way in which foreigners respond to the place of art in Balinese culture. I read here that  “Life in Bali is based on art. It’s so essential that there is no word for “art” in Balinese. It is difficult to explain the relationship that the Balinese have with art to someone who has never seen it. The Balinese carve, weave and paint beautiful objects for daily use – they become objets d’art in the most pristine sense of the word. The Balinese have a kinetic, green, tangible relationship to art.”

But — except for their highly productive agriculture in an unusually benign setting that allowed them far more leisure time for crafts and religious rituals than any other peasant society I know of, the Balinese are essentially like everyone anywhere else. It is a basic fact of life that peoples everywhere and throughout human history have “… a kinetic, green, tangible relationship to art.” Balinese art is folk art; people in all the societies I know and know about have folk art but rarely have a name for the artistic beyond the functional.

cave-art-aurignacianConsider early Homo sapiens painting on the walls of caves, c. 30,000 BCE, propitiating the spirits of animals they hunt and incidentally producing great art. In college, in my first anthropology course I was impressed with the beauty of ancient tools used by the hunters, like the Solutrean point in France, 22,000 years ago,

clovis-pointsand Clovis points in the Americas 13,000 years ago, beautiful beyond any functional requirement. In Neolithic villages with agriculture and domesticated animals, beginning some 12,000 years ago, craftsmen/women made tools and weapons, pots, baskets, cloth, objects for religious rituals, structures to live in, all useful and many pleasing to the eye. In towns and cities of the past,

a lady's needlework

a lady’s needlework

women with leisure handled cloth with care and imagination, adding beauty to ordinary useful items, and women today continue those crafts as hobbies, to sew and quilt and do embroidery as a craft and an art. Today travelers collect those lovely items people from traditional societies made for use; we display them in our homes and call them art.  (I wrote here about my collection of women’s artful craftwork. )

Why do I, and other people, find ordinary objects from traditional societies so much more attractive than things we have around us today? Could it be because through long experience with shaping and firing a pot, heating and hammering metal, weaving and decorating fabric, doing a dance, playing a musical instrument, singing ancient songs, performing a ritual, doing ordinary activities within the community, people naturally understood the materials and ideas from which they made things, things that “have stood the test of time.”acrylic-sofa-table-in-acrylic

We live today in a world of the continually new. When plastics, for example, came on the scene in the 1940s I found things made of it downright ugly, but gradually the nature of the material, its limitations and potentials, became better understood and now some items in plastic, such as a table made in clear acrylic, can be quite attractive. (but most aren’t)

My first encounter with folk art being collected, and sold, was in 1962, in Oaxaco, south Mexico. It was also the first time I was in a traditional peasant village. Ravi and I had driven to Oaxaca with our two small children to visit a friend, an anthropologist doing a study in the villages, and we stayed in the city with a middle-class family from the old urban elite.

black-ware-from-oaxacaThey were a family who had centuries-old ties with certain villages, probably a landlord-sharecropper relationship that modernization had severed. Nevertheless, the husband/father knew the villages and used his knowledge and love of the local craftwork to stock his popular tourists’ shop with relatively simple but exquisitely shaped and textured pottery. I was struck by the means through which he acquired the pots he sold. He found in the surrounding villages the potter he considered to be an artist as well as a skilled craftsman, agreed to buy every pot made for him and displayed for sale only those he thought had turned out well. The price and lifestyle differences between village, city and tourist economies allowed him to support the folk artist while running a business to support him and his family.

Balinese village economy remained intact into recent decades and the crafts never ceased being part of the farmers’ lives. Weaving, metal working, ceramics, painting, stone masonry, wood working did not move, as it did in Europe after medieval times, to the city to become the full-time occupations of independent craftsmen organized in guilds. In Bali, a highly developed, centuries old folk art remained in the villages, as if ready for foreign artists in the 20th century to discover and to set up artists’ colonies around them in Ubud and Denpasar. Here for a discussion of Balinese art after there arrived in Bali new materials and new ideas for creating works of art, plus outsiders to purchase the art.

In my very first hours in Bali in 1978, walking about in Denpasar, near my hotel in Sanur, a boy, maybe twelve years old, came along beside me, speaking English. He had across one arm a pile of paintings done on cloth and was trying to talk me into buying. bali-hanumanIt was my first time seeing Balinese art and the paintings of pretty girls he showed me I dismissed as overdone and touristy, bali-barongbut two paintings did catch my attention. On the way from Paris to Jakarta I had spent time with family in Delhi and naturally noticed the paintings with Indian themes, one of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and a second vaguely Indian. When I bought them the boy asked me if I would like to come to his village and meet his grandfather, the artist. Sadly, I could not arrange it. Ravi had the paintings framed and I keep the Barong hanging in my study. (I’ll try to do better photos of them.)

The dance and myth around the Barong is explained here. Here for a touristy but fun presentation in Ubud.

Temple_detail_in_baliThe Barong is a truly ancient myth, a male spirit in the likeness of a boar, a tiger, a serpent or a lion. The lion form is from the Gianyar Regency subculture; Ubud is located in Gianyar and therefore the lion Barong is most familiar to tourists. In an important ritual dance Barong protects the community against a powerful evil witch, Ranga, who is aided by Durga, Indian goddess of death. (I resist the temptation to do a psychological analysis of the myth.) Hanuman is part of the culture introduced through the India-influenced Majapahit Empire, beginning in the 1300s. He is in both the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Craftwork from traditional societies intrigues me. Over the decades I acquired, besides my collection of fabrics, things of copper, bronze and brass; baskets; some pottery; a few knives; a bow and quiver of arrows; an ancient handmade gun; a Dayak blowgun (but no kris) and other items, not really a collection, just things I enjoy seeing and thinking about. I will comment next on the Bali crafts and folk art.

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Oh my, not only is this a continuation, it is a correction. In a box of Indonesia photographs coming out of storage, there they were: photos from Makassar, twenty of them, some I had taken and others taken by Loung Ie, the student who became my interpreter and friend, assisting me as I crossed the major islands — Sulawesi, Bali, Java, Madura and Sumatra — to evaluate a nation-wide rural health care program. He was ethnic Chinese. I call him Loung Ie, but that was not the name he ordinarily used; he had a regular Indonesian name but at home his parents called him Loung Ie, so I did, too, except when we were in work situations with other people.

I now know I was in Fort Rotterdam and Loung Ie had to have taken me there to see it. Medical school indoor roomI have several photos of the buildings and grounds, which look in my snapshots much as they do in professionally taken photographs but the buildings shaggy and the grounds not so well manicured. Later I will post a few photos of Dutch colonial architecture. In the meantime, here is one room from somewhere at or near the medical school. This is the way to construct walls and roofs for being comfortable in that climate — shade and space for air to circulate.

professor and studentsObviously, I enjoyed being in the medical school with the professor, doctor, students and staff or would not have so many photos of them. Medical school outdoor roomThe open roofed area with the tables was typical of the indoor-outdoor spaces I later saw in homes and in public buildings. The man in the tan shirt, missing an arm, was an epidemiologist, remarkable in his knowledge and understanding of public health programs. I turned to him more than once to hear his views and seek his advice.

I had not gone alone from Jakarta to Makassar. The Ministry had provided me with a counterpart, a medical doctor who spoke English and knew his way around through the governmental bureaucracies. He was a charming man, always helpful. He arranged my contacts with government officials in the Provincial capital cities and accompanied me in the meetings when I was being informed about various aspects of the program. traditional transportationRegarding the photo, he liked using the beja, bicycle rickshaw, in the cities where they were available. I preferred taking the three-wheel cab, a modified motorcycle. In rural areas, where no sort of public transportation was available, a government vehicle usually took us from one official location to another. During stays in Jakarta, I walked from my guesthouse to the U.N. office building where I was based and to all the shopping I needed to do. Otherwise I took taxis. (except once had a motorcycle) Incidentally, along with the recovered box of photographs, I found my fieldnotes. In the first notebook, on the first page is a long list of words and phrases in the Indonesian lingua franca, Bahasa Indonesia, I would need to know. After the words for yes and no, the list begins with the numbers and I could still count to five before reading it.

Loung Ie's parentsFinally, I add photographs to my previous post on the site Loung Ie had told me was the remains of an ancient port. Makassar walled areaIt turned out to be of the Makassar Kingdom, not Portuguese. The photograph here to the left is of Loung Ie’s parents walking onto the site, probably from the ocean-side road. The next, unattractive as it is, I thought might be what remained of a gate or the entrance to a building. Makassar wall and meFinally, a picture of me standing at the wall on which I was sitting, on the other side, in a previous photograph. I do hope someone who knows and cares about Makassar will find this interesting and explain to me what these objects that caught my imagination thirty-six years ago really were.

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It was 1980 and I was in Makassar, then called Ujung Pandang, at the medical school and visiting government officials, being briefed on the Ministry of Health’s national rural health program I was to evaluate. I was in the city for three days and on later occasions returned only to pass through on my way to other places in Sulawesi, to its small towns and villages. Later I will post my photos of the towns and the very agreeable people. At the moment, though, I am thinking about my two photographs from Makassar. I had seen hardly anything outside the medical school and government offices, so when a student, a bright young fellow, speaking excellent English, invited me to his home, to meet his parents, and to take a walk around his neighborhood before catching the plane to Jakarta, I gladly accepted.

at MakassarAs he and I walked and talked, with me regarding him as a possible interpreter/assistant, I noticed nothing about the shops or buildings or much else worth comment, except that certain walls were marked by bullet holes, which I ignored. We were in a Chinese ethnic neighborhood; discussion of previous civic strife and politics had to be avoided. Besides, an odd, unkempt space with a European style monument caught my attention, and being told it was the remains of an ancient fort, I had to explore it. To me, ancient European in Asia meant Portuguese and I imagined this to have been a fort like those Vasco da Gama and his successors established on the Malabar Coast of India. at Makassar entranceThe name, Makassar, sounded vaguely familiar. I thought maybe, just maybe, it was because Ferdinand Magellan had come to Makassar and I wanted to believe it were so. I wanted to tell Ravi I had seen Portuguese influence in Indonesia similar to the Portuguese influence he discovered when the family moved to Bombay. It always amazed me that he had learned Portuguese and actually spoke Portuguese with the Brazilian students on our campus. On the plane out of Makassar I wrote to him about my abandoned Portuguese fort, unaware that on the very same day he was in Lisbon, Belem Tower in Lisbonat a conference, and he wrote to me from there, remembering the time we had visited Lisbon and the beautiful Belem from where the ships had sailed. I liked this image of us communicating between the two ends of historic events.

Subsequently, the program I worked in took me across Indonesia, experiencing the culture from the perspective of primary health care and the local community. I soon forgot this Makassar incident and the two photos ended up in a box with other snapshots of my life away from Ravi. He, not I, put together our family photo albums; only recently have I begun bringing out my Indonesia memorabilia, trying to make sense of that part of my life.

Indonesia map with Moluccas circledI now realize, alas, that my story of an ancient Portuguese fort was not based in reality. I had known a little of Magellan’s history. Indeed, he, like other Portuguese adventurers engaged in the highly lucrative, highly dangerous spice trade, had sailed in this territory, the future Indonesia, searching for the islands where the spices grew and also to gain any advantage he could against Arab, Chinese, Spanish and Dutch traders, and, of course, against local rulers and traders.

Remains of the Portuguese fort in Malacca

Remains of the Portuguese fort in Malacca

Magellan participated, 1511, in conquering the Malacca Sultanate (south of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, across from Sumatra) on the Strait of Malacca, the main shipping channel, to this day, between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. There they built their fort and established a base from which to trade, explore and control the competition.

From Malacca the Portuguese found their way to the Spice Islands, the Malukus, east of Sulawesi. Magellan, however, like Christopher Columbus, reasoned that by sailing west he could find a better, safer route and, being out of favor with the Portuguese power elite, persuaded the Spanish Crown to finance him. He sailed, with his five ships, across the Atlantic, down and through the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific on a horrific voyage and died at Cebu in the Philippines. One ship and 18 of the original 237 men returned to the harbor in Seville on September 6, 1522, three years after they had set sail. They had circumnavigated the globe. But relevant for me, Magellan never touched the Indonesia I came to know in Sumatra, Java, Madura, Bali and Sulawesi.

Makassar and the Portuguese

Makassar and the Portuguese

I learned from this excellent website a little of the Portuguese role in Makassar’s history. It was not about conquest. Instead, during the 1620s, Portuguese merchants, some 500 of them, were settled in the Kingdom of Makassar, trading in silk, cloves, textiles, sandalwood and diamonds, and on good terms with the Sultan; he welcomed them, allowed them to keep a community and build a church because they helped the economy and acted as allies against the encroaching Dutch.

However, in 1641 the Dutch conquered Malacca, gained control of the Strait of Malacca and drove out the Portuguese, many of whom moved to Makassar, increasing to over 2000 the number of residents in its Portuguese quartier.

In 1660 a Dutch fleet attacked Makassar and Fort Panakkukang. Apparently, its “defensive structures” was a simple dirt wall built in 1545 by Raja Tunipalangga. The conquering Dutch forced the Sultan to expel the Portuguese, which he did reluctantly. The Portuguese left Makassar over several years, moving to the Indonesian islands of Flores, Solar, Timor; Macau in China; Siam/Thailand; Batavia/Jakarta. I see on the map that a sub-district of Makassar, at some distance from the fort, is named Panakkukang.

Fort Rotterdam

Fort Rotterdam

I read, and see in photographs, that Fort Rotterdam, built in the late 1660s, is near, or at, the place in my two photos.

Fort Rotterdam

Fort Rotterdam

Again, I do not remember seeing anything resembling the buildings and grounds of the Fort. Given my lack of background in Dutch colonial history, I may have seen them and whatever was distinctive about them failed to register with me.

Except for Bali, which is special, and going in and out of Jakarata, Makassar was my introduction to Indonesia. By then I was living in Paris, explained here, and it was convenient for me to stop in India, visiting Ravi’s family, on the way to and from Jakarta, making a transition between the two cultures so close in time that I could not help but compare my experiences in each. In both India and Indonesia, my friends and colleagues were from that country, and although I enjoyed all of them equally, they were different from one another. What strikes me at the moment is that the British colonial past was far more evident in India than the Dutch colonial past was in Indonesia. (I have written at some length about the British influence on Ravi.) I was often struck by my Indian friends’ apparent lack of interest in preserving, even noticing, India’s ancient treasures, while in Indonesia friends and colleagues took me to see fascinating things from the Indonesian past. In Surabaya, on a Friday afternoon after work, someone secured a jeep and we went into the countryside to see a Majapahit ruin. In Bali, a friend took me to a remote mountain village where the original Balinese lived.  When I had meetings to attend in Bandung, a colleague arranged for us to take the train, perhaps making its last run, up past the green hillside rice terraces and palm trees, an unforgettable landscape, and after our meeting, not to the Dutch colonial town or a tea plantation but to the hall where the 1955 Bandung Conference had been held. In Bukittinggi they told me about the people whom the Dutch defeated, taking over an already developed area. And my memories of Yogyakarta … … I could go on and on. Indonesians were discovering their own rich history of complex, highly developed civilizations that flourished long before the Europeans arrived. That no one even mentioned Fort Rotterdam to me is understandable.

I will reexamine some of my experiences with working and being with friends in Indonesia and sort out the Dutch influences or lack thereof. I regret, for example, not having seen the Batavia part of Jakarta, and I will search for more information about the delightful guesthouse and lovely neighborhood where I regularly stayed when in Jakarta. An Indonesian anthropologist introduced me to it because she knew I would be comfortable there and not in a hotel.

Returning to my two photographs — They leave me puzzled. What are they picturing? Was I sitting on the Fort Rotterdam wall? What is the stele for? Maybe someone who knows will let me know. I love receiving additions and corrections on what I write. So – if you know something about the history of Makassar and about my photos, please share the information with me.

And go to the next post, here,  where I discover more photos and retrieve more memories … ….





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My expatriate life has left me with an odd assortment of interests and hobbies. Two came from living in Paris. Walking about, gazing into small shops selling things I had not known even existed, I discovered antique prints and the shop most agreeable for browsing among them. Hence my map collection. Having wandered into the world’s best stamp market, just off the Champs Elysees, I became a stamp collector. I love my maps and stamps but my deepest connection remains with the many pieces of cloth saved from the past, scattered around in the house and stored in the attic. A few items in my collection are described here.    I have ikat and batik from Indonesia; cashmere, silks, prints and embroidered cottons, woven belts from India; Persian prints; from Turkey, gorgeous embroidery on silk, a village carpet bag, but no felt cape worn by shepherds; bobbin lace from Belgium and Sri Lanka; perfectly printed silk scarves in abundance and lengths of wool, linen and cotton cloth traditional in various European countries, and of course, from Mogadiscio. The tapa cloth from Polynesia and mola from Central America were acquired while still in graduate school. One of the kilims and all the rugs are out and being used. Stored away are skirts and blouses from decades ago, beautifully made of beautiful cloth, several of which I cut and stitched myself. Occasionally I open the boxes and visit them. All this without mentioning the baskets brought home from living, working, visiting in lands where people still made baskets and used them daily.

Egypt Isis and NefetariAnd now I am thinking again of cloth and clothing. Archeologists found in Egypt, dating from 5,100 to 5,500 years ago, a linen dress, Egypt wall painting from tomb of Nefertari Thebesthe oldest known garment cut from cloth and tailored. It has a yoke with narrow pleats across the shoulders, long sleeves, V-neck, and the skirt, stitched down on the left side, sewn on to it.  Clearly, the dress had been worn; it was found turned inside-out, as if just taken off.Tarkhan dress

The usual dress in Egypt of the time was simply a loom width and length of linen, for men as a loincloth Egypt wall coverand for women a sheath worn either under or over the breasts. In the tomb paintings, and on clay figurines, what seems to be a strap, sometimes two, attached to a woman’s sheath may not actually represent a narrow length of cloth sewn onto the sheath. It may, instead, have been a convention for suggesting the mode of wrapping the dress; the strap has never been observed in a sculpture. Perhaps the style of wrapping intended is similar to that of women today

Nuer woman, Southern Sudan

Nuer woman, Southern Sudan

who speak a Nilotic language and live in the Upper Nile, in the region where the Egyptian civilization originated. The mode of wrapping is different from that of Somali women, shown here, from the Indian sari or the Indonesian sarong. In 1980 woman topless in BaliI took this photograph of a Balinese woman at work. My Indonesian colleague informed me that in the past Balinese women went bare-breasted and this elderly woman was keeping the traditional style instead of wearing the kebaya, the blouse, with her sarong.

Wall paintings, drawings and clay models found in tombs record the technology for producing a woman’s sheath and a man’s loincloth. They were painted and fashioned for the benefit of the entombed person’s afterlife, to provide detailed information on the proper way for life to be lived in the hereafter, Egypt flax linen productionincluding all the steps necessary for making the cloth, from planting, tending and harvesting the flax; to processing it into fiber; then spinning the fiber into yarn and weaving the yarn into cloth. Egypt Model of a workshop for spinning and weaving(A marvelous book on Egyptian textiles and the making of cloth, plus the making of writing material from the papyrus plant is “Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology” by Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, Cambridge University Press. Parts of the book can be read on-line.)

The Turkhan dress is from the earliest period of the Egyptian civilizations, but craftsmen/women were already in possession of a well-developed cloth-making technology that had been established during the Neolithic, an era in human history named for the sort of stone tools people used. In the Upper Paleolithic/Old Stone Age, beginning 50,000 years ago, stone tools were flaked from flint, obsidian or quartzite, suited for hunter-gatherers, then, beginning some 12,000 years ago, a new type of stone tool came into use, tools for the tending, harvesting and processing of crops, for cutting down trees, building structures. More broadly, the Neolithic/New Stone Age was the Agricultural Revolution, beginning primarily in the eastern Mediterranean. The Jericho Neolithic site is the most widely known. People cultivated the land, grew wheat and other grains, raised domesticated animals, and  settled down into large communities.

By 9,000 years ago the first crafts were being practiced: basketry, weaving and pottery. I suspect the innovators were women; these were activities done close to the residence, compatible with the continual childbearing and childrearing that engaged a woman from her first menstruation until menopause. Pottery, especially after the potter’s wheel, became a male craft, but in many societies spinning, and often weaving, remained with the women and continued to be done in the home. For the elite of ancient Egypt, the production of linen became organized into workshops, and as spinning and weaving became specialized occupations and refinements in the nature of the cloth followed, illustrated here from the graves of late antiquity. (For interesting drawings and an historical account of making cloth, here)

Little is known of the origins of cloth. Dating of societies and goods by archeologists, and much of their analysis, is based on tools and pottery because items made of stone and metal and pottery are likely to survive and features of their change through time can be observed and recorded.

Neolithic spindle whorl

Neolithic spindle whorl

Since cloth rarely survives through the millennia, the earliest evidence of it having been made is the presence of stone or pottery spindle whorls, and the earliest spindle whorls are found in archeological sites in Jordan, dating from the Late Neolithic, 9500 to 8000 years ago. Spinning is the twisting together of drawn out strands of fibres (originally from flax, wool, cotton, silk) to form yarn, and the original spinning, hand-spinning, was done with the drop spindle, a simple straight stick wedged into a hole in the center of a round weight, called a whorl. The yarn spun in the Jordan site was from flax fiber, maybe earlier from goat or dog hair. In museums with displays from ancient societies, inconspicuous little spindle whorls are included among the more interesting pottery, jewelry and weapons, but I always look for them; they represent the women’s side of the culture. I first saw one, from Çatal Höyük, in the marvelous Ankara anthropological museum. For an explanation of the spindle whorl, here.  (I have an Ottoman drop spindle. It has an elaborate pattern delicately carved into the wood.) For information on the Neolithic spindle whorl pictured above, here.  No looms survived the Neolithic. Weaving during the Neolithic and the nature of the loom is inferred from later looms and weaving, as is done here.

The world’s oldest piece of cloth, linen woven with hemp, 9000 years old, wrapped around a baby skeleton, was found in 2013 in the archeological excavation of Çatal Höyük, a Neolithic site in central Turkey. The cloth is finely woven, most likely coming from the eastern Mediterranean, and like obsidians and sea shells in Çatalhöyük, was acquired through trade.

Move forward to 5,500 years ago and the Tarkhan dress. It is tailored, with the yoke cut from a length of cloth.  This was the age of bronze tools, none of which could have been used to cut a pattern out of cloth; scissors date from the first century CE. To the rescue came a tool from the Paleolithic: a newly struck flake from a flint block, razor sharp and equal to the task. Straight cuts were by tearing and the shaped areas were cut by the skilled hands of a tailor using a Paleolithic stone blade.

Aurignacian split bone needleNeedles and pins were part of the dressmaker’s tool kit. The first known sewing needle, made of bone, is from southwestern France and dates from ca. 25,000 years ago. Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherers in this cold climate had clothing made with flaked tools for scraping flesh off the animal skin, for cutting and shaping the hide. They wore close-fitting pants and shirts, shawls, hoods, and long boots, undoubtedly cut and sewn by the women. (as with the Eskimo. See the 1922 great docudrama “Nanook of the North,” available on-line.) I know of no needles being recovered in the eastern Mediterranean or Anatolian Neolithic archeological sites.

Needles for sewing the Tarkhan dress were made of pierced fish bones, copper, bronze or silver. They were pointed at one end with an eye on other end or were flattened and sharp at one end, folded at other. Pins, and thorns, were used on clothing being worn but not for holding the cloth while cutting or stitching the dress.

The evolution of materials and technology fascinates me and I could continue on and on endlessly, but briefly –

Egypt the sumerians odijkThe Sumerian Bronze Age civilization of Mesopotamia was established some 6,000 years ago. Sumer worshipperBoth men and women wore sheepskin cloaks and sheepskin skirts, skin turned inside and the wool combed into decorative tufts, wrapped and held in place by pins. From about 4500 years ago, wool fabric replaced the sheepskin.

A fascinating read, here, is on the history of cotton. In India and in New World Neolithics and civilizations, cotton was independently domesticated and its fibers converted into fabric. Independently, also, the same tools were invented, including combs, bows, hand spindles, and primitive looms. The one image of Indus Valley Bronze Age clothing I have seen is the Mohenjodaro statue of the Priest-King with a tunic over his shoulder, in an elaborate fabric either dyed or with a woven pattern here.

The weaving of silk from silkworm cocoons has been known in China since 5,500 years ago. Intricately woven and dyed silk fabric, showing a well-developed craft, was found in a Chinese tomb dating from 4,700 years ago.

I return to thinking about my unsystematic, eclectic but much loved fabric collection and wondering what will happen to it when I am gone.

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