Sunday, February 16, 2020

Altamira and portable art

Last week we viewed the paintings of Altamira, also called the "Spanish Lascaux." Discovered too early by a father and daughter (who caught his attention by saying, "look, Daddy, oxen!") Saultola was ridiculed by leading prehistorians. The paintings are too colorful, too wonderful to have been made by Paleolithic artists--they must be fakes. This was typical of scholarly thought of the time, because believing the paintings were real would have turned theories of what prehistoric humans were capable of upside down.

We also examined the lifestyles of the people who painted the caves of southwestern France and northern Spain. Contrary to popular belief, these people were not just "big game hunters," but mobile foragers who made full use of available plants, small animals, birds, and fish to feed themselves. They also fashioned stone and bone tools, many decorated with pigment and incised designs, and had a complex system of geometric signs (National Geographic video on sign interpretation).

Whether the signs constitute an early form of language or writing is very much up for debate, but some signs--especially the red dots used on certain rock formations and near the end of passages clearly had meaning. Did the dots mean "great acoustic space," or "don't go any further, the cave gets dangerous"? No one knows.

One student sent me a video on the evolution of language, which discusses a theory that the key difference between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens is that the latter had full speech capability and that this gave modern humans a survival advantage over Neanderthals. The video is intriguing but does not take into account the most recent discoveries of Neanderthal capabilities for abstract thought and representational art. And scholars disagree about how much Neanderthals could speak: their vocal tracts were sufficiently developed for a range of one-syllable sounds which, when combined with geometric signs on painted walls and decorated objects, could have communicated a range of ideas.

More (New Scientist article 2016) on geometric signs and work of Genevieve von Petzinger

Monday, February 10, 2020

More Paleolithic Fun

In week 2, we looked at the Ice Age environment for cave paintings in Europe. Climate data (from pollen analysis and oxygen isotopes) shows considerable variation in temperature and humidity as the glaciers advanced and retreated. Also, southwestern France and northern Spain, the locations of the caves we are studying were for the most part ice-free.

 Altamira ceiling

The environment was rich with large and small fauna, plants, and fish (for those living near the coast), so it makes sense that people of the Paleolithic did actually have some leisure time to spend making art--both portable and wall art. To get a good sense of the full range of living creatures, it's important to look at both kinds of art (many animals depicted on small rock plaques and carved bones are not the ones commonly seen in the cave paintings).

The stars of our class so far are European Neanderthals who were living and painting in Spain at least 65,000 years ago. A host of recent articles in newspapers and journals attest to Neanderthals' capabilities in managing fire, cooking, preparing pigments, and painting animals and symbols on cave walls.

Great video on Neanderthal capabilities in Spanish caves.

Article on Neanderthal fire starter
Another book I have found extremely useful: Journey through the Ice Age (1997), by Paul Bahn and  Jean Vertut

Monday, February 3, 2020

Art and Archaeology of Stone Age Europe

I am teaching a course this month at our local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute with 100 students who are aged 50 and better!

The topic was inspired by a National Geographic trip to the Paleolithic painted caves of France and Spain two years ago.

Lascaux painting.jpg

Lascaux: aurochs (oxen), horses, and deer

The class explores European cave art, especially the art from painted caves in southwestern France and northern Spain. What are the limits of the evidence, and what can we learn from cave paintings? Do the paintings represent the spiritual world instead of daily life? What is the relationship between painted animals, shamanism, and subsistence? Did women create some of the paintings? Which caves were also used as meeting places and trade centers? Other topics will include portable art, the use of fire for lighting, heating, and cooking, and how people moved across the landscapes of early Europe and the Americas.

Here is a Nat Geo video with a great introduction to the painted caves of France. 

An Australian named Don Hitchcock has created an amazing website about Paleolithic sites all over Europe, with quite a lot of other information! This was important for me since we were not allowed to take photographs during most of our trip (the caves that are still open needed to have their paintings protected from bright lights and the CO2 of thousands of visitors).

Here are two of my favorite books on the subject:

Paul Bahn, The First Artists: In Search of the World's Oldest Art (2017)

Paul Bahn, Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe (2007).

I will post more images and websites in the next three weeks.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Two new audiobooks!

I am thrilled to have two of the Flora Garibaldi Art History mysteries now available as audiobooks.
The first one is Burnt Siena, in which Flora discovers her Sienese conservation firm is involved in criminal practices:

The second is Catacomb, in Flora and her policeman boyfriend organize an international search for lost World War II art under the city of Rome:

Both are narrated by the talented Carrie Coello through, and both have new covers produced by Carrie's graphic designer husband, Ben Coello! Both books are available through Amazon, Audible, and ITunes.

For any author who has thought about doing audio editions but has not yet done it, I had a great experience with Audible/acx and would be glad to chat about it.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Botticelli Caper is published!

The third mystery in my Flora Garibaldi Art History series, The Botticelli Caper, just appeared for sale on Amazon (as of September 1), in both trade paperback and ebook.
During my last trip to Italy with my daughter Emily, we visited the Uffizi in Florence. While Emily gazed at famous paintings and sculpture, I was busy studying unmarked doorways, security cameras, and guard placement to further the following plot:

“Conservator Flora Garibaldi discovers that several paintings in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery have been replaced by clever forgeries. Where are the original artworks, and who’s in charge of the smuggling operation? Flora’s efforts to help the police make her the target of a criminal mastermind and murderer.”

How could this happen? Today the Uffizi is a modern, well-protected museum. However, I deliberately set my story about ten years ago when the old palace that houses the Uffizi was undergoing the latest in a long series of renovations (security systems being revamped, lots of workmen coming and going, construction and packing materials always underfoot, etc.). When you also know that the Uffizi is connected by a tunnel to another palace on its north side and (via a famous bridge) to another palace on its south side, my plot becomes more plausible.

My other book news is the production of my novel Burnt Siena (the first Flora mystery) as an audiobook. Authors who retain their audio rights can produce their own audio editions through Audible/ACX (the audiobook wing of Amazon). Thanks to an amazing narrator, Carrie Coello, the process has been both fun and enlightening. Here is the audio cover (created by graphic designer Ben Coello):

The audiobook will be available on Amazon by mid-September.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

New Editions of Earlier Books

Recently I received the rights back on two of my novels, The House of the Sphinx and The Bootlegger's Nephew from my former publisher Hilliard and Harris. Using Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon, I created new covers and trade paperback and ebooks for each title. Here they are:

This cover was produced using my own painting (watercolor and Prisma pencil). It was a painting class assignment: paint two views of the same object on the same piece of paper. I made the eyes as sinister as possible:) 

This cover uses a photograph of my grandmother Edith from the 1920s. Although the book title has "nephew" in it, the protagonist's daughter plays a larger role in the story. The new edition also includes a historical supplement about east central Illinois during the 1920s.

Both books are available in ebook format as well as paperback.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Dead Sea Scrolls Revisited

Image result for dead sea scrolls images public domain
Recently I taught a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), with the subtitle The Intersection between Archaeology and Religion, at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Illinois. It was a marvelous experience due to my wonderful co-teacher, Janet E. Guthrie, and the mature, alert, curious students at Olli.

Course descriptionThe discovery and interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls radically changed our understanding of biblical archaeology, the development of the Bible, and the history of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Who were the people of Qumran? How did their beliefs and practices differ from those of other Jewish sects of the first and second centuries BCE? What does archaeology tell us about the scroll librarians and how they lived? What is the relationship between the scrolls and the Bible? This four-week class, taught by a retired archaeologist and a retired pastor, will explore the historical and archaeological context of the scrolls, the lifestyle of the people who wrote them, and the implications of these ancient documents for religious history. 

Here are some of our resources for anyone who wants to explore this fascinating topic:


Note:  The best starting places for learning about the scrolls are the overview by James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today and the edited volume Davies et al., The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Collins, John J.  The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013.  A volume in the Lives of Great Religious Books series.  Includes an Appendix identifying “Personalities in the Discovery and Subsequent Controversies.”

Davies, Philip R., Brooke, George J., & Philip R. Callaway, The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Flint, Peter W. & James C. VanderKam, eds.  The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment.  2 volumes.  Leiden: Brill, 1998 & 1999.

[Josephus]. The Works of Flavius Josephus (translated by William Whiston), available online through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
For a detailed description of the Essenes, see The War of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 8.  Jewish sects are also discussed in Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1.

Lim, Timothy H. & John J. Collins, eds.  The Oxford Handbook of The Dead Sea Scrolls.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Magness, Jodi.  The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002.

Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (2012). 

Martinez, Florentino Garcia.  The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English.  Second Edition.  Leiden: E. J. Brill & Grand Rapids, MI: Wm Eerdmans Publishing, 1996. 

Ulrich, Eugene.  The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible.  Leiden: Brill, 2015.

VanderKam, James C.  The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012.

VanderKam, James C.  The Dead Sea Scrolls Today.  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010.

VanderKam, James C.  An Introduction to Early Judaism.  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001.

VanderKam, James & Peter Flint.  The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity.  San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002.

Image result for dead sea scrolls images public domain  The caves near Qumran where many scrolls were found

WEBSITES (the best of the best)

**Israeli Department of Antiquities: Includes photos of scrolls, detailed information, lots of resources. n.b.: this website includes scrolls from other caves south of Qumran (a larger corpus than we dealt with in this course)

**Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Includes a Virtual Tour of the settlement of Qumran led by archaeologist Jodi Magness

Library of Congress exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls, with a very useful glossary:


The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls
Images and summaries of scrolls
The Great Isaiah Scroll

Scroll fragments from Cave 4


Qumran as Fortress
Poor Health at Qumran
Animated map of rulers of ancient Middle East
Fake DSS at the Museum of the Bible
High-Tech and DSS
Articles on the DSS in the Biblical Archaeology Society library (you may have to join BAS to access these, but it is well worth it. Lots of material on biblical archaeology in general)

My mystery novel set in the Dead Sea region, but with different texts (the Gnoststic Gospels) at the heart of the story:

Two archaeologists race to find an ancient manuscript in Israel before Christian fanatics destroy it. More about the novel.  Author website: