Mandalay, 3 August 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet: Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Horatio: What’s that, my lord?

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

Horatio: E’en so.

Hamlet: And smelt so? pah!

Puts down the skull

Horatio: E’en so, my lord.

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

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

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

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


Beijing, 10 August 2013

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t really get this new fashion of tattooing – or inking, as the new lingo has it. When I was young, it was only the “Working Class” who sported tatts, and even then it was the more rootless among them who indulged: the sailors, the soldiers, the truck drivers, the criminals.

tattooed sailors

But more and more now, especially when summer rolls around and people disrobe, allowing views of parts of their anatomy which they cover the rest of the year, I am struck by how many, primarily young, people are tattooed. This happened to me again in Italy just a few weeks ago when my wife and I were on holiday there. Walking around the streets and on the beach, I was struck by the number of tattoos that flashed casually into view, worn by people who were manifestly not from one of the professional categories I’ve just listed.

tatuaggio in strada-2

tatuaggio spiaggia

Consider the stats. According to a survey quoted in an article in the Guardian, in the UK’s over-60s (the age group of which, alas!, I am nearly part) a little less than 10% have a tattoo, whereas in the 16-44 year-old group it’s nearly 30% – men and women combined. In the US, the figure climbs to 40% in this last age group. Tattooing is, as they say, going mainstream.

Of course, tattooing does have an honourable history. Our poor friend Ötzi, the Neolithic man found frozen to death in a glacier high in the Alps

otzi iceman

carried 57 tattoos, no less. They were mostly simple lines and dots, like these ones along his spine

otzi tattoo

and he probably had them done for some therapeutic value.

That was 5,000 years ago. 2,500 years ago, a Scythian chief who was buried in the permafrost was sporting considerably more elaborate designs on his arm.


while British children who didn’t stare out of the window while the history teacher droned on and on will know that when Julius Caesar made his military foray into the British Isles in 54 BC, he found people who liked to paint, perhaps to tattoo, themselves blue: “All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in the fight” JC tells us in his book Gallic Wars. So this is what my ancestors looked like …


For a history nerd like myself, it’s also fascinating to know that Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab who travelled up the River Volga and met the Vikings in their kingdom of Rus, described them as tattooed from “fingernails to neck”

The usual spoilsports, the Christians, came along and banned the practice of tattooing in Europe, seeing it as a pagan practice (to be fair, the Jews had prohibited it even earlier). So in Europe at least, tattooing died out until the late 1700’s, when James Cook – and his sailors – discovered New Zealand and the tattooed Maoris, and reintroduced the practice (more history nerdism: the English word “tattoo” was actually introduced by James Cook, who was anglicising the Polynesian word “tatau”). Here is a picture of a Maori chief from Cook’s period:

Maori Chief 1784

and a later one of another Maori chief, when the practice was dying out among them:

Tukukino maori-2

Not surprisingly, given the source of the reintroduction, sailors were at the vanguard of tattooing among the working class – by the late 1800s, 90% of the British navy was tattooed – but I have been astonished to discover that European royalty also had a penchant for getting inked. The very staid King George V

George V

sported tattoos of the cross of Jerusalem and a dragon, while two of his sons and a bunch of wannabe European royals followed suit. Even the British aristocracy was into the game. It seems that they liked to congregate in the drawing room after dinner and, over the port and cigars, show off their tattoos to each other.

So actually it was only us prim and proper Middle Classes who didn’t have tattoos …

OK, let’s step back now from the social class stuff which so permeates discussions of tattooing, and let’s ask ourselves these questions: Are tattoos pleasant to the eye? Does tattooing enhance a person’s beauty?

Let’s immediately forget about the little dolphins below the ankle (David Cameron’s wife) or the little sharks on the foot (Martha Swire, the Cathay Pacific heiress), or the little kittens on the bum (Emma Parker Bowles, niece of the other Parker Bowles), or the little stars spangled down the back (Rihanna)


These are just cute pictures. I don’t see how having them tattooed permanently on you enhances the look of your skin or of you in general, especially if the onlooker cannot, or can hardly, see them. I mean, I can’t ask the PM’s wife to lift her leg, or Emma Parker Bowles to drop her pants, so that I can take a better gander at their dolphins and kittens, now, can I? And if I can’t do that, why bother having them? I am looking at this from the perspective of beauty … titillating your lover is another issue.

Actually, I have a problem with the idea of tattooing any kind of picture on one’s skin. Look at this photo of Angelina Jolie:


Does it enhance Ms Jolie to have those pictures on her? Do those pictures look better on her skin than on a wall? Personally I think not, in both cases. Her arms just look dirty to me and the pictures do not get better by being on the curved surface of her arm.

So let’s focus on abstract designs, which is what the Maoris had on their faces, and the Samoans had on their nether regions:


Here’s a couple of photos of abstract designs, all on men I have to say, although I can’t see why they wouldn’t work on women:

Tattoo Designs-1

Tattoo Designs-2

Tattoo Designs-3

tattoo designs-4

tattoo designs-5

I really don’t like those heavy sleeves in the first picture (as you can see, I am picking up the language of the tattoo parlour), they just make the arms look dirty. As for the others, I guess they aren’t too bad, even allowing for the fine pecs, or whatever those muscles are called, which the models have in abundance. But do they really make the men (in this case) look more handsome? I’m not convinced; those are really strong, in-your-face colours and thick lines. Maybe thinner lines in more discrete colours, a fainter blue or red? Perhaps the Ancient Britons’ woad will make a come-back …

But at the end of the day (and this post), I really have to ask myself, if you don’t live in Samoa or some other nice South Sea island where you can go around all day more or less without any clothes on, so that your next-door neighbours can admire your designs as you walk by; if you live instead in coldish Europe where you’re covered in clothes all day, and where if you take them off in public they bundle you off to the nearest psychiatric hospital, what’s the point?

And why don’t we do it the way the Indians and others do it at weddings? Use henna, draw beautiful designs on yourself which are ephemeral

henna hands

and try out other designs at the next beach party: beach party, because you can take – most of – your clothes off and parade your new fancy designs which can be in more places than just your hands.

Just a thought.

And finally, with all due respect to the Maoris, please don’t touch your face. In 330 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great banned the practice of tattooing the faces of convicts, gladiators, and soldiers because, he said, the human face reflected “the image of divine beauty, and should not be defiled.” I couldn’t agree more.


Tatooed sailors yesteryear:
Tattoo on a street:
Tattoo on a beach:
Ötzi iceman:
Ötzi tattoo:
Scythian tattoo:
Maori Chief 1784:
Maori Tutukino:
George V:
Rihanna’s back tattoo:
Angelina Jolie’s tattoos:
Traditional Samoan tattoos:
Tattoo design-1:
Tattoo design-2:
Tattoo design-3:
Tattoo design-4:
Tattoo design-5:
Hennaed hands: