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Ancient ‘imaginary creatures’ artifacts fascinate

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the Hundred-Handed
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« on: March 22, 2015, 03:31:02 pm »

Archaeology | Ancient ‘imaginary creatures’ artifacts fascinate

 Sunday March 22, 2015 5:06 AM

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Last month, workers excavating a site for a fiber-optic box in the village of Newtown in Hamilton County uncovered a remarkable artifact associated with an ancient American Indian burial.

The circular ornament is called a gorget and is made from marine shell and engraved with an image of a fantastic creature that Bob Genheimer, the curator of archaeology for the Cincinnati Museum Center, has described as similar to a griffin. It has the head of a Carolina parakeet or turtle, the tail of a panther and wings.

Supernatural beings appear in the art of all cultures. In fact, the oldest known figurative sculpture in the world is a mammoth 40,000-year-old ivory carving of what appears to be a human with a lion’s head. It was excavated from a cave in Germany.

Jill Cook, senior curator at the British Museum, has written that “such a being may be an ancestor, a god, an actor, a myth, a legend or a fantasy.”

Workers digging a foundation in Newark in 1881 excavated a similar human/animal combination from the remnants of a 2,000-year-old mound.

The “Shaman of Newark” is a small stone sculpture of a human wearing a bear’s head and bear paws. This human-bear figure cradles a decapitated human head in its lap.

Spanish archaeologists Eduardo Palacio-Perez and Aitor Ruiz Redondo argue in a recent issue of the journal Antiquity that all of our attempts to interpret what they refer to as the “imaginary creatures” depicted in ancient art are compromised by hidden biases and assumptions, including the idea that this imagery can be encompassed by the western concept of “art.”
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the Hundred-Handed
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« Reply #1 on: March 22, 2015, 03:31:34 pm »

They note that in the early 20th century, anthropologists interpreted representations such as the lion man as “more or less realistic representations of masked dancers or sorcerers.” Now, however, anthropologists recognize that non-Western, indigenous societies believe that there is an inter-connectedness between humans and animals and that they “are capable of transformation and adopt different forms in different contexts.”

I long have assumed that the Newark figurine was a straightforward and more or less naturalistic depiction of a medicine man wearing bear regalia, but maybe it’s something else entirely.

It certainly is a powerful representation of the inter-connectedness of bears and humans and appears to show in an almost cinematic fashion a transformation from human-to-bear and bear-to-human.

Palacio-Perez and Ruiz Redondo conclude that such imaginary beings are “the product of a shared collective imagination,” which was “transmitted amongst individuals and groups.” Therefore, even if the meanings of “imaginary creatures” are forever elusive, they still can provide important information related to “shared behavioral patterns, social dynamics and territorial relationships."

I agree, but I think these representations of supernatural beings have more to offer us than that.

In her book Ice Age Art, Cook acknowledges that although “we cannot read the thoughts transcribed” in this imagery, it certainly allows “our imaginations to race and our intellects to wrestle with facts and theories that are part of our own negotiation with our past and our place in the world."

Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection.
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