The tale of how an amateur archaeologist’s hunch led him to uncover a lost medieval town and spend £32,000 of his own money to buy the land, would stand to be the archaeological discovery of any year. On the border between England and Wales, the site of the medieval town of Trellech reveals much about a tumultuous period of history – and how the town came to be lost.
A fearsome dragon was featured in medieval Scandinavian and Germanic legends about the hero Sigurd/Siegfried. The story is the centerpiece in the epic saga Niebelungenlied, in which the Siegfried kills Fafnir, who had been transformed into a hideous dragon by a powerful curse.
In the legend, Fafnir guarded a hoard of golden treasure. The dragon was so huge that the very ground shook when he walked. At Drachenfels (“Dragon Rock”), Konigswinter on the Rhine, a large statue of a typical dragon lurks near the ruins of a castle built on the summit of the hill in about 1150. A cave below was believed to be Fafnir’s lair.
According to the story, the hero Siegfried tracked the Dragon to his lair, by following a trail of the dragon’s enormous footprints sunk deep in the earth.
Notably, conspicuous fossil trackways of two types of massive dinosaurs are found in Germany. In 1941, the German paleontologist H. Kirchner speculated that observations of Triassic dinosaur tracks in sandstone near Siegfriedsburg in the Rhine Valley of western Germany might have been the inspiration for the legend about the dragon Fafnir’s footprints. [continue]
In a lowly tavern in an English town in the 1580s, a group of men met to organize the assassination of their monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. The head of the operation, Anthony Babington, planned to rescue and crown Mary of Scotland, an alternative heir to the English throne who had been imprisoned in the castle dungeon for 20 years. He detailed the plan to Mary as a cipher—a secret note in code— and snuck it to her in a shipment of beer. But Mary had no idea that his note had been opened and then resealed by a double agent posed as a courier, who was waiting for her reply. When Mary wrote back, the agent exposed the plot, and both she and Babington were executed.
Long before NSA surveillance, Queen Elizabeth had her own “Watchers,” a network of agents who intercepted letters, cracked codes, and captured possible dissenters to protect the crown in secret. The queen’s network of spies formed the original surveillance state in the U.K., and she started it for good reason. [continue]
Wouldn’t she be envious of the state’s spying apparatus now! So much easier when you can just snoop up on all electronic communication.
Inuit who live in Greenland experience average temperatures below freezing for at least half of the year. For those who live in the north, subzero temperatures are normal during the coldest months.
Given these frigid conditions, anthropologists have wondered for decades whether the Inuit in Greenland and other parts of the Arctic have unique biological adaptations that help them tolerate the extreme cold.
A new study, published on Wednesday in Molecular Biology and Evolution, identifies gene variants in Inuit who live in Greenland, which may help them adapt to the cold by promoting heat-generating body fat. These variants possibly originated in the Denisovans, a group of archaic humans who, along with Neanderthals, diverged from modern humans about half a million years ago. [continue]
Archaeologists have discovered the earliest known garden in the Pacific Northwest—and it was underwater. The site, about 30 kilometers east of Vancouver, Canada, on land belonging to the Native American group Katzie First Nation, was once part of an ecologically rich wetland. It was divided into two parts: one on dry land, where people lived and built their homes, and one that was underwater. In the underwater section, people had arranged small stones into a [continue]
Researchers are documenting Sahtu Dene caribou fences in the Northwest Territories, marking a physical record of Indigenous history in the area.
Tom Andrews, an archeologist with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, is documenting a kilometre-long wooden fence believed to have been used about 100 years ago in the Sahtu region.
“It’s a real smart hunting strategy that’s probably been used for thousands of years,” Andrews said.
Hunters used the fence to corral caribou, making it easier for them to hunt them in large numbers. [continue]
Since the turn of the 20th century, scientists have examined how humans around the world name colors in an attempt to answer one question: Does our language shape our worldview, or does our worldview shape our language?
Hannah Haynie, a postdoctoral associate at Colorado State University, teamed up with Yale University linguist Claire Bowern to find out. Their study analyzed a sort of evolutionary tree built from massive data found in field notes, dictionaries, and 20th-century records. The tree visualizes how color names potentially changed over time in the Pama-Nyungan language family, a group of indigenous Australian languages dating as far back as 6,000 years.
“It’s just like how, if you look at genes in people, you can look back at how they were transmitted along a tree,” Haynie said. “This brings a bunch of different sciences together to look at how language, our minds, and our world interacts together.” [continue]
Just back from a walk in the cold rain, during which my rain jacket soaked through. Maybe a salmon-skin coat would be better? This article from From Hakai Magazine has me wondering: The Secret Language of Salmon Skin Coats.
Along the lower reaches of the Amur River, where the water empties into the Pacific Ocean, the climate—unlike most of Siberia—is wet. To keep dry, the indigenous Nivkhi shrugged on fish skin coats like the one pictured here. These ingeniously constructed coats are a testament to the people’s holistic approach to natural resources; they also tell the story of a worldly culture and a wild place.
A merchant working for a trading house in Vladivostok, Russia, collected this coat sometime between 1874 and 1898. Adolf Wassiliwitch Dattan, an imperial commercial agent with the German firm Kunst and Albers, amassed hundreds of indigenous artifacts over the years he was stationed in the Amur region. He donated his collections to several European museums, including the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden, Netherlands, where this example of Nivkhi artistry is on display.
Fish skin is light, flexible, strong, and easy to work—the Gore-Tex of its day. Matchless as rainwear in milder seasons, layering fur close to the skin kept people cozy in winter. A Nivkhi woman—for only women sewed—prepared 100 salmon skins for this particular coat. She would have scraped away the flesh before washing the skins in salt water (women keeping the craft alive today use soap), then drying and beating the skins before piecing together the coat with thread fashioned from fish skin or sinew. “When it gets wet, [the thread] expands and fills the hole made by the needle, making the seams watertight,” says Cunera Buijs, the museum’s curator of Arctic regions. “It’s so clever.” [continue]
Do you think there would have been any lingering fish scent?
An Atlas Obscura article makes it clear that the Victorians were insane.
Indeed, in the early years of Queen Victoria’s rule, Christmas rivaled Spring Break for sheer bawdiness and self-destruction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bonkers Victorian parlor game of Snapdragon.
Traditionally played on Christmas Eve, players of Snapdragon must find themselves a broad, shallow bowl, and then prepare to risk their health. Into this bowl should be poured two dozen raisins. If raisins are hard to come by, almonds, grapes or plums will suffice. You should then pour a bottle of brandy into the bowl so that the raisins bob up and down like drowning flies. Place the bowl on a sturdy table, turn the lights down low, and then, with appropriate panache, ignite the brandy.
To play Snapdragon, arrange your family and friends around the blazing bowl so that their faces are lit in a demonic fashion and then, one by one, take turns plunging your hands into the flames in order to try and grab a raisin. If you can accomplish this, promptly extinguish the flaming raisin by popping it into your mouth and eating it. [continue]
If family relations have become slightly fraught over Christmas, you may be looking for a game involving rather more explicit violence, in which case you’ve come to the right paragraph: Moriarty is the game you’re after. [continue]
That article has lots more you’ll want to read.
Christmas parties these days are pretty tame events, all in all.
Prehistoric people may have cooked wild grains and plants in pots as early as 10,000 years ago, according to new evidence.
Scientists say the food was “a kind of porridge”, acting as the staple diet when there was no meat from hunting.
The pottery fragments were found at two sites in the Libyan Sahara, which was then green and fertile.
The ability to prepare plants and grains in pots would have been a big advance at the time.
Dr Julie Dunne, of the University of Bristol, said: “This is the first direct evidence of plant processing globally, and, remarkably, shows that these early North African hunter-gatherers consumed many different types of plants, including grains/seeds, leafy plants and aquatic plants.” [continue]
A recipe for a very merry Christmas drink for 17th century monks, beginning with ten pints of brandy, has been rediscovered by a Durham university academic, in the archives of Ampleforth Abbey in north Yorkshire.
The recipes – there were two similar versions, one for a punch, one for a drink known as “shrub” – were written down for English Benedictine monks who were in exile in France after the dissolution of the monasteries. Both were flavoured with orange and lemon peel, with added sugar and water, and involved days of steeping and mixing the ingredients. [continue]
(This is something I blogged about many years ago. At the end of this post, I’ll explain why I’m re-posting it now.)
The Sixth Century builders of Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral still standing in Istanbul, discovered cement with earthquake-resistant properties 1 300 years before anyone else, a research team revealed on Wednesday.
Hagia Sophia, built as a church and subsequently turned into a mosque, still stands only because its creators discovered the cement.
Many of the surrounding buildings have long since succumbed to the ravages of time, including earthquakes, according to a report in the New Scientist.
The structure has withstood quakes of up to 7,5 on the Richter scale, according to the team, headed by Antonia Moropoulou from Athens’ National Technical University.
Meanwhile, Great Buildings Online has a page about Hagia Sophia, which includes photos (this interior shot is particularly nice) and information about the building. The site points out that “The church was built 532 to 537 and the dome replaced in 563 after an earthquake.”
I guess Hagia Sophia’s builders hadn’t figured out how to earthquake-proof a dome.
Now all of that stuff in the box above was published on Mirabilis.ca on November 14th, 2002.
For a variety of sad and annoying reasons, archives from this long ago aren’t available on Mirabilis.ca anymore. So the blog post above has been unavailable for about eight years – maybe more. But there’s an incoming link from some other site that links to the Hagia Sophia post here, and people have been clicking that link for years and years. They wind up on a 404 page, and then they search the site. So there are searches here, every single day, for Hagia Sophia. After all these years!
OK, searchers, here you are. The content in the box above is what you came for. I put there just for you.
It must be startling to look out of your window and see a centuries-old church rolling by. Even more so if you are in communist Romania in the 1980s, where news is state-controlled and everyday items rationed. And yet, between 1982 and 1988 almost a dozen churches, as well as other buildings, were moved hundreds of metres in order to save them from destruction, as dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu went about radically redesigning the heart of Bucharest, the Romanian capital.
That a communist country would go out of its way to save churches is strange enough, but the method of saving them, when other countries would probably have tried to dismantle the buildings and reassemble them elsewhere, makes the achievement all the more impressive.
“We were awestruck at those operations, comparing them with the landing on the moon for a country like Romania,” says Valentin Mandache, an architectural historian who witnessed the moving of several of the churches when he was still a young student.
At the centre of it all was Eugeniu Iordăchescu, a civil engineer who had the radical idea to place whole buildings on the equivalent of railway tracks and roll them to safety. [continue]
A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region’s tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization. Many decided to stay.
At the city’s apex in 1100, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in North America, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below. Flanking Monk’s Mound to the west was a circle of tall wooden poles, dubbed Woodhenge, that marked the solstices. (…)
To find out what happened to Cahokia, I joined an archaeological dig there in July. [continue]
Red is simply sensational and its dominant place in today’s world of colour owes much to events that took place many thousands of years ago. One of humankind’s earliest observable activities was their decorative use of colour – in fact, it is one of the things that makes us human. And we can track down red’s hold over us by tracing the way artists got their colour over time – from animals, vegetables and minerals.
Most animal reds are hidden within creatures – like blood – and are not on open display. The excavation of Neolithic burial sites has turned up jars filled with dull-coloured dried insects, kermes, which have a brilliant hidden red that was used as textile dye. It was also a Neolithic food colouring and the colour red is still associated with health today.
Another insect, cochineal, was also harvested for its red and, when Europeans colonised the New World, cochineal, or “grain”, was one of their most cherished prizes. Thousands of tons of insects were shipped across the Atlantic, in a trade second only to silver. Cochineal was also used as a food colouring and, after being unfashionable for some decades, it is now coming back thanks to the unfortunate side-effects of artificial food-colourings. [continue]
New research led by the University of Southampton shows Neanderthals kept coming back to a coastal cave site in Jersey from at least 180,000 years ago until around 40,000 years ago.
Wow. Now there’s a place I’d love to visit.
As part of a re-examination of La Cotte de St Brelade and its surrounding landscape, archaeologists from Southampton, together with experts from three other universities and the British Museum, have taken a fresh look at artefacts and mammoth bones originally excavated from within the site’s granite cliffs in the 1970s. Their findings are published in the journal Antiquity.
The researchers matched types of stone raw material used to make tools to detailed mapping of the geology of the sea bed, and studied in detail how they were made, carried and modified. This helped reconstruct a picture of what resources were available to Neanderthals over tens of thousands of years — and where they were travelling from. [continue]
James Webber took up barefoot running 12 years ago. He needed to find a new passion after deciding his planned career in computer-aided drafting wasn’t a good fit. Eventually, his shoeless feet led him to the University of Arizona, where he enrolled as a doctoral student in the School of Anthropology.
Webber was interested in studying the mechanics of running, but as the saying goes, one must learn to walk before they can run, and that—so to speak—is what Webber has been doing in his research.
His most recent study on walking, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, specifically explores why humans walk with a heel-to-toe stride, while many other animals—such as dogs and cats—get around on the balls of their feet.
It was an especially interesting question from Webber’s perspective, because those who do barefoot running, or “natural running,” land on the middle or balls of their feet instead of the heels when they run—a stride that would feel unnatural when walking.
Indeed, humans are pretty set in our ways with how we walk, but our heel-first style could be considered somewhat curious. [continue]
If you’ve been a Mirabilis.ca reader for years, you might remember this post from 2008: You walk wrong. The article quoted there was part of what convinced me that the “expert” advice we generally receive about footwear is all wrong. (Article summary “It took 4 million years of evolution to perfect the human foot. But we’re wrecking it with every step we take.”)
In the morning of March 10, 1860, a crowd of several hundred New Yorkers looked up curiously at a long cloth chute dangling from the top of City Hall. The tube was supported by ropes along its sides, with one end fastened to the top of the building and the other held by people on the ground. “Through this bottomless bag the persons in danger are expected to slide,” reported Scientific American in its March 10 issue.
A group of adventurous boys and men slid daringly through the chute, the spectators both relieved and amused when they reached the ground in one piece.
That one doesn’t sound too bad, eh? We’ve seen the modern equivalent. But wait’ll you see the illustration for a “winged fire escape invention”. And this, oh this:
B.B. Oppenheimer’s 1879 patent for a fire escape helmet would have included a wax cloth chute, about four to five feet in diameter, attached in “a suitable manner” to the head. “A person may safely jump out of the window of a burning building from any height and land without injury and without the least damage on the ground,” Oppenheimer wrote. To soften the impact, his invention also featured overshoes with thick elastic bottom pads. [continue]
New genetic research from an international team including McMaster University, University of Helsinki, Vilnius University and the University of Sydney, suggests that smallpox, a pathogen that caused millions of deaths worldwide, may not be an ancient disease but a much more modern killer that went on to become the first human disease eradicated by vaccination.
Well, how cool is that?
The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, raise new questions about the role smallpox may have played in human history and fuels a longstanding debate over when the virus that causes smallpox, variola, first emerged and later evolved in response to inoculation and vaccination.
“Scientists don’t yet fully comprehend where smallpox came from and when it jumped into humans,” says evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, senior author of the study, director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and a researcher with Michael G. DeGroote Institute of Infectious Disease Research. “This research raises some interesting possibilities about our perception and age of the disease.”
Smallpox, one of the most devastating viral diseases ever to strike humankind, had long been thought to have appeared in human populations thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, India and China, with some historical accounts suggesting that the pharaoh Ramses V -who died in 1145 BC — suffered from smallpox.
In an attempt to better understand its evolutionary history, [continue]
If you have the slightest interest in medical history, medieval images, or just plain cool and fascinating stuff, go read The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man at The Public Domain Review. Article summary:
Sliced, stabbed, punctured, bleeding, harassed on all sides by various weaponry, the curious image of Wound Man is a rare yet intriguing presence in the world of medieval and early modern medical manuscripts. Jack Hartnell explores this enigmatic figure’s journey through the centuries.
The article includes fantastic images and all sort of interesting information.
Taking stock of the ship’s cargo and figuring out how it sank has been arduous. “Unlike a lot of underwater excavations, we didn’t start out being able to use digital imaging because we started in 1968-69,” says Susan Katzev, wife of Michael Katzev (who died in 2001). “We did it photograph by photograph, many hours of our photographer diving every morning, every afternoon to record the thing two-dimensionally.”
Using this research, full-scale replicas of the ship were built, starting in 1985. These vessels helped test ideas about ancient maritime activity and about the wreck itself—how its cargo was packed, for instance. (Katzev’s team learned that linen soaked in melted beeswax became too brittle to be an effective cover over the ceramic amphorae, which were used to store wine. Goatskins soaked in water overnight and tied with twine around the neck of the amphorae, though, were more effective: The skins didn’t leak.) But replicating ships and amphorae is expensive, and even with the physical replicas, there were still hypotheses about how the ship sank that proved impossible to test. What the researchers really needed was a virtual, 3D model that could be loaded with cargo and sunk repeatedly in the safe waters of a digital simulation. [continue]