Evidence for Donkey Polo in Ancient China

An interesting archaeological find was reported earlier this year from western China where the excavation of a noblewoman’s grave has provided evidence for the use of donkeys for games of polo by elite women in the Tang dynasty.

The sport of polo was popular among the Chinese aristocracy in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Literary sources document that women played as well as men, and that, even though donkeys were typically associated with low social status as pack and farm animals, they were also favored by the elite for playing polo. The excavation of the tomb of a Tang noblewoman, Cui Shi, for the first time offers archaeological evidence to support the written accounts.

Although polo has traditionally been played on horseback, the authors of this study, led by archaeologist Songmei Hu, mention that donkeys may sometimes have been preferred because their natural response to stress and danger, something a polo match would frequently present, is different. While horses, as herd animals, have developed a sensitivity to commotion among nearby animals and tend to respond by fleeing, donkeys, with a more solitary history, are less perturbed by the kinds of chaos that a polo field might present.

The authors identified the remains of at least three donkeys in Cui Shi’s tomb. For animals more traditionally connected with the peasantry than the elite, this was an unusual find for the grave of a woman whose family moved in the higher circles of the imperial aristocracy. But the family’s status was also connected to polo: written sources document that Cui Shi’s husband, Bao Gao, was promoted by the emperor to the rank of general on the strength of his skill in the sport. The bones of the donkeys themselves also show signs that they may have been used for playing polo, as they show patterns of growth reflecting strong and sudden stresses, such as animals suddenly starting, stopping, and changing direction on the polo field would experience, rather than those typical of animals used for carrying burdens or pulling carts.

This find is both an example of how archaeological and literary evidence can support one another and a view into the lives of elite women in ancient China who weren’t content to let the men have all the fun of donkey polo!

Image: Tang dynasty polo players via Wikimedia (tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, Qianling Mausoleum, Xi’an; 706 CE; wall painting)

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A Striking Greek Gods Photoshoot

Here’s a beautiful new imagining of the Greek gods, “20 Dioses y Diosas para 2020,” photographed by Ana Martinez and styled by Mario Ville. This photoshoot combines ancient ideas, modern fashion, and imaginative graphics with Black models taking the roles of the gods. You can see the full set of photos at N20.

A few of my favorites:

Juana Mum as Hera

Lewis Amarante as Poseidon

Ruben Baika as Apollo

I appreciate how these images combine classic symbols such as Apollo’s lyre and Poseidon’s trident with modern dress and accents. I wish the artists had chosen to use color for the clothing rather than just white, since ancient images of the gods were brightly colored, not the plain white marble we are used to seeing now, but there’s no denying how strikingly the white garb sets of the models’ dark skin. I also enjoy seeing versions of some of the less well-known gods like Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and Eris, goddess of discord.

This photoshoot is another example of how effectively the ancient Greeks crafted their mythology and its visual language in ways to be flexible enough to allow for many new interpretations and to be accessible to a broad and diverse audience.

Images by Ana Martinez via Neo2

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Now It Is Time to Drink!

If you’re feeling celebratory today, here’s a little verse from the Roman poet Horace to put you in the right mood. Horace was celebrating the defeat of Marcus Antonius in the last phase of the Roman republic’s long-running civil wars of the first century BCE (although, for political reasons, focusing most of his scorn on Antonius’ Egyptian ally, Cleopatra). But you can drink and dance for whatever is making you happy today!

 Now it is time to drink! Now with liberated feet
dance upon the earth! Now the sumptuous
feast of the gods
can be spread, my friends!

Before this, the time was not right to bring the good Caecuban wine
up from the ancient cellars, not while the insane queen
schemed to bring death and ruin
to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,
drunk with vain hopes
of sweet
victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.1-12

(My own translation)

Enjoy!

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 2

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took some time finding its legs, and season 2 is still pretty wobbly. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

  1. “The Homecoming” – 5
  2. “The Circle” – 4.5
  3. “The Siege” – 6
  4. “Invasive Procedures” – 4
  5. “Cardassians” – 2
  6. “Melora” – 2
  7. “Rules of Acquisition” – 3.5
  8. “Necessary Evil” – 5
  9. “Second Sight” – 2
  10. “Sanctuary” – 2.5
  11. “Rivals” – 2.5
  12. “The Alternate” – 1
  13. “Armageddon Game” – 4
  14. “Whispers” – 6
  15. “Paradise” – 1
  16. “Shadowplay” – 5
  17. “Playing God” – 4
  18. “Profit and Loss” – 2
  19. “Blood Oath” – 5
  20. “The Maquis, Part 1” – 4
  21. “The Maquis, Part 2” – 5
  22. “The Wire” – 6.5
  23. “Crossover” – 5
  24. “The Collaborator” – 6
  25. “Tribunal” – 2
  26. “The Jem’Hadar” – 6

In all, not a great second season. The average rating is a meager 3.9, and there are no standout episodes like season 1’s “Duet.” You can tell that the actors were still growing into their roles, and the writers were still figuring out how to balance the optimistic, episodic tradition of Star Trek with the morally complicated ongoing stories they wanted to develop.

We have two episodes at the bottom of the barrel: “The Alternate” and “Paradise,” both rating only a 1. “The Alternate” promises some interesting development for Odo’s backstory when the crew finds remains of a similar being in ancient ruins, but only delivers a bog-standard fathers-and-sons-with-a-bad-relationship story. “Paradise” similarly promises a critique of the Federation’s techno-uptopia when Sisko and O’Brien crash on a planet where their technology doesn’t work, but delivers only a manipulative extremist who loves to give interminable monologues. These may be the most disappointing examples, but a lot of other episodes this season have interesting ideas in them that they can’t manage to do anything good with.

The best episode of the season is “The Wire,” at 6.5. In this episode, we learn more (but less than it seems) about the mysterious Cardassian tailor, Garak. While this episode has its weaknesses, it blossoms in the nuances of Andrew Robinson’s performance as Garak the erstwhile spy, by turns ingratiating, crabby, frightened, playful, and remorseful as he dangles hints of his past life just out of reach of the doctor who is trying to help him cope with a hidden addiction.

But if this season doesn’t have much to offer in the way of great episodes, it does lay a lot of the groundwork for the seasons to come. Important elements of the ongoing narrative are established or developed, like the Maquis resistance movement in the Badlands, the post-occupation chaos of Bajoran politics, the return to Classic Trek‘s “Mirror, Mirror” alternate universe, and the slowly growing menace of the Dominion in the gamma quadrant. Just as importantly, it sets up some of the important character and relationship growth that would become the heart of the series. Doctor Bashir and Chief O’Brien’s friendship first stretches its legs this season, as does Dax’s history with Commander Sisko. Recurring characters like Garak and Rom begin to come into their own.

Season 2 is not the best that Deep Space Nine has to offer, but it lays the foundation for the greatness that is to come.

Image: The operations crew at work, from “Playing God” via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Of Course There’s a Full Moon on Halloween in 2020

There’s no shortage of frightening things in 2020. This is the year that gave us a horrible global pandemic and the stressful new routines of physical distancing that come with it, murder hornets, double hurricanes, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, locust swarms, and the most agonizingly awful US election cycle in my lifetime, to name only a few. With all of these awful things overwhelming our usual means of coping, it’s natural that people will look for ways of blowing off steam.

Holidays that let us shed some of the usual rules of polite society are one way people can get a break from the stresses of life. “Festivals of reversal,” as they are sometimes called, can be a psychological release as we get to leave ourselves behind for a day and become someone else. Halloween is one of the best examples of such a holiday for much of modern US culture, a day when the normal rules are relaxed, when adults get to be childish and children get to take candy from strangers.

This year, Halloween falls on a Saturday. What’s more, that night will have a full moon providing plenty of light for nighttime revels. In an ordinary year, that combination would set us up for some wild shenanigans on Halloween night. I’d be stocking the candy bowl and keeping an eye out for mischievous young hooligans.

But this is no ordinary year. This year, big parties and nighttime rule-breaking are more than just a neighborhood nuisance; they could spread deadly disease, overwhelm already stressed hospital systems, and leave a death toll in their wake. Halloween 2020 presents a concentrated version of the dilemma that has dogged us all year: the things we need most to psychologically endure this crisis—distraction from the reality around us, uninhibited human contact, an escape from stringent social rules—are the very things that prolong the crisis and make it more deadly.

I sympathize a lot with anyone who feels like they need the little vacation from daily life that Halloween offers, but I’m frightened of the consequences. Stay spooky, everyone, but stay safe, too.

Image: Grinning Halloween lantern by Kim Støvring via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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How Not to Study Linguistics

The Greek historian Herodotus recounts a tale about a rather dubious experiment in linguistics supposedly carried out by the Egyptian king Psammetichus.

The point of the experiment was to find out what people or nation in the world was the oldest. It was based on the assumption that the oldest culture’s language would be the language that people who had never heard spoken language before would speak. Further, Psammetichus assumed that the invention of this original language could be artificially recreated. The result of these mistaken assumptions is a bit of a comedy of errors. Here’s how Herodotus tells the tale:

When Psammetichus could not find out by inquiry what people were the oldest, he devised the following plan. He took two newborn children at random and gave them to a shepherd to bring up among his flocks, with orders that they be raised in such a way that no one should make any sound in their presence, that they stay in a lonely hut, and that he should regularly bring his goats there so they could drink their fill, and attend to their other needs. He did these things, and Psammetichus commanded him to notify him at once what word first burst forth from the children, once they had left behind the meaningless babble of infants. And it did indeed happen. When the shepherd had been taking care of the children for two years, once when he opened the door of the hut and went in, both of them fell upon him stretching out their hands and crying: “Bekos!” At first, the shepherd took no notice of what he had heard, but when he kept hearing the same word on his repeated visits, he began to pay attention to it. He sent word to the king, and when ordered, brought the children before him. When Psammetichus heard it for himself, he investigated what people called something “bekos,” and from his investigations he learned that it was the Phrygian word for bread. Taking this fact into consideration, the Egyptians acknowledged that the Phrygians are older than they are.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.2

(My own translation)

As should be obvious (and probably was to Herodotus’ audience), the experiment was in fact a failure. When the children exclaimed “bekos” at the shepherd’s arrival, they were not producing an actual word but simply imitating the bleating of his goats, the only sound they had heard another living creature produce. The fact that Psammetichus did not realize this (and had not accounted for it in designing the experiment) makes this whole story a joke at his expense. The punch line of the joke may be a little lost on a modern audience: the Phrygians were a people who lived in inland Anatolia and spoke a language related to Greek. Phrygians were stereotyped by the ancient Greeks as ignorant country bumpkins. For the Egyptians—proud of the antiquity and sophistication of their culture—to be forced to yield the title of “most ancient people” to the Phrygians was a deflation of their cultural pretension.

Although Herodotus claims to have heard this story from Egyptian priests, like more than a few of the stories he tells about Egypt it sounds more Greek than Egyptian. Specifically, it sounds like a Greek joke told at the Egyptians’ expense. Greeks and Egyptians had close and friendly relations in Herodotus’ day, but it was a relationship in which the Greeks were definitely the junior partners. Egyptians liked to celebrate the antiquity and wisdom of their culture, and we can understand if Greeks occasionally got a bit fed up with being looked down on. This story uses language was a way of turning the tables to suggest that not only were the Egyptians not as ancient a culture as they liked to claim, perhaps they were not as wise, either.

On, of, and about languages.

More Silly WoW Battle Pet Names

A while ago Eppu shared some of her best silly names for her battle pets in World of Warcraft. In that same spirit, here are a few of mine. (Be warned: some terrible puns ahead.)

First, let’s start with my Erudite Manafiend, which is name Garkthyn. “What’s so silly about that?” you might be wondering. Well, Grakthyn accompanies my warlock, whose voidwalker is called Grak’thyk. You could say they’ve been through thyk and thyn together. (Don’t worry—it gets worse.)

Male Turkeys (which are the ones who display their fan of tail feathers like this) are called toms, which is all I’m going to say about why mine is named Bombadil.

My Fossilized Hatchling is named Boneyparts. (Yes, that’s a Napoleon reference.)

When there’s something strange in the old barn yard, who ya gonna call? Goatbuster! (Ghastly Kid)

My Lurking Owl Kitten is called Hootenanny, because why not?

The Anubisath Idol stands with its hands poised ready to strike. Why else would I call mine Idol Hands?

Some of my pets are named in Finnish. My Sinister Squashling is named Kauhea Kurpitsa, which is Finnish for “horrible pumpkin.”

Another one is Lentokone, my Ancient Nest Guardian. This pet is a mechanical type that can temporarily turn into a flying type. “Lentokone” is the Finnish word for airplane, but litterally it means “flying machine,” which felt appropriate.

Maybe someday Dark Whelpling will grow up to be another Smaug, but for now it’s just a Smig.

Got any good pet names you want to share?

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

A Huron/Wyandot Glengarry Cap

This decorated hat was created by an indigenous North American Huron/Wyandot artisan around 1840. It is made of wool, silk, and moosehair, worked using traditional techniques, but patterned after the Glengarry-style cap of the Scottish highlands and decorated with a Victorian floral motif.

Hats and other decorated objects like this one represent a complex interplay of cultural, artistic, and economic influences. Indigenous artisans from Iroquoian, Wabenaki, and other native nations had long created trade goods intended for exchange with European settlers and adapted to European tastes. In the nineteenth century, indigenous creators took advantage of the growth of a tourist industry around the Great Lakes region to market a broader range of wares combining forms that white customers would recognize and find useful, like this Glengarry cap, with decorative schemes that appealed to Victorian sensibilities while preserving traditional techniques. Such objects were created in a combination of traditional and modern materials, such as moosehair and leather combined with wool, silk, and glass beads.

The creation and sale of these goods—often produced by female artisans—provided both a means of preserving traditional artistic methods and a valuable economic resource to indigenous and First Nations peoples at a time when other opportunities in white-dominated American and Canadian society were hard to find, and indigenous cultures were often suppressed, sometimes violently.

Image: Glengarry-style cap via Metropolitan Museum (Metropolitan Museum, New York; c. 1840; wool, silk, and moosehair; unknown Huron/Wyandot artist)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 1

With everything that’s going on this past year, we’ve been looking for comfort rewatching, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine offers a special kind of comfort. While the show was “dark and gritty” by the standards of the 1990s when it came out, it has a Star-Trekian humanity and optimism that we need right now. 2020 makes us appreciate the message of: “We’re all a little messed up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to make things better. The world’s a little messed up, too, and fixing it isn’t easy, but it is possible.”

Here’s how we rated season 1.

  1. “Emissary” – 8.5
  2. “Past Prologue” – 5
  3. “A Man Alone” – 4
  4. “Babel” – 6
  5. “Captive Pursuit” – 4
  6. “Q-Less” – 1.5
  7. “Dax” – 4.5
  8. “The Passengers” – 5
  9. “Move Along Home” – 2
  10. “The Nagus” – 5.5
  11. “Vortex” – 2
  12. “Battle Lines” – 3
  13. “The Storyteller” – 3
  14. “Progress” – 4
  15. “If Wishes Were Horses” – 3.5
  16. “The Forsaken” – 7
  17. “Dramatis Personae” – 4.5
  18. “Duet” – 9
  19. “In the Hands of the Prophets” – 8.5

It’s a rocky start to the series. Despite a strong opening, a strong closing, and some good episodes along the way, the average episode rating is only a pretty weak 4.8. Much of this season is spent establishing the main cast of characters and the unique place of Bajor and its history with the Cardassians in Star Trek‘s universe. Much of what we love about Deep Space Nine—the ongoing story, the relationships among the characters, the recurring cast of side characters—is still just being built here.

The worst episode of the season is “Q-Less” at 1.5, Next Generation‘s omnipotent pain-in-the-ass Q’s lone appearance in DS9. Clearly intended as a bridge to ease TNG fans into the new series, for established DS9 fans like us it just feels pointless and out of place. The shaggy dog story of “Move Along Home” and “Vortex,” an early attempt to develop Odo’s character that is hampered by a truly abysmal guest performance, both rate pretty low as well, at 2.

At the other end of the scale “Emissary,” the premiere, and the finale “In the Hands of the Prophets” are both standouts, at 8.5. “Emissary” does an excellent job introducing us to the main characters and to the world of the station and Bajor, graced with a powerful performance by Avery Brooks as Commander Sisko, still carrying the trauma of losing his wife Jennifer. “In the Hands of the Prophets” adds a new level of complexity to the Bajoran story and introduces some important new recurring characters. One of the great things in DS9 is its villains: the smug Cardassian Gul Dukat and the sanctimonious Bajoran Vedek (later Kai) Winn could have been flat one-note villains in lesser hands, but Marc Alaimo and Louise Fletcher give them a depth and nuance that holds up against the stellar performances by the main cast.

The quality of the acting shines in the season’s best episode as well: “Duet,” at 9. At its heart, it is a fairly simple story as Major Kira tries to prove that a mild-mannered Cardassian filing clerk is actually a wanted war criminal in disguise. Most of the episode is just two people in a room talking to each other, but every moment of that dialogue crackles with energy. In a modern tv landscape where writers think they have to kill off characters, concoct shocking twists, and splurge on special effects to keep viewers interested, “Duet” is a master class in how you write compelling drama.

Another delight of season 1 is seeing some of our favorite side characters in the early stages of their growth. Garak, the mysterious tailor, is intriguing from his first scene, long before his dark history as a secret agent unfolds. We also see Rom and Nog in the early stages of their transformation from bumbling idiot and conniving miscreant to bumbling sweetheart and upstanding Starfleet officer.

Got any favorite memories from DS9‘s first season? Share in the comments!

Image: Deep Space Nine season 1 cast via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.