The cavernous space was once above ground, the grand home of Emperor Nero, and considered one of the most magnificent palaces ever built. Its name, “Domus Aurea,” means “golden house.” It’s hard to believe it was once colorful and flooded with light. But now, modern technology is letting tourists peek into the past.
Two thousand years ago, this labyrinth, now underneath the city of Rome, was the sprawling home of Emperor Nero, stretching the size of three football fields. Today, tourists can explore it, but the colors, light and opulence of this ancient Roman villa were unimaginable until this month, when visitors could start using virtual reality headsets.
“You always try to imagine in your mind what it must’ve been like, and this helps tremendously,” said Tom Papa, a tourist from New York.
Virtual reality brings to life this important piece of history. Alessandro D’Alessio, the chief archaeologist here, explained how this place was buried following Emperor Nero’s death. [continue]
I am inordinately fond of red, so I did take notice when I found that somebody has written a history of the colour. The somebody is Michel Pastoureau, and the book is Red: The History of a Color.
The Paris Review has given us an excerpt: The Red of Painters. And here is an excerpt of the excerpt!
The late Middle Ages and the modern period have left us works by great painters that are particularly remarkable for their range of reds. Let us mention Van Eyck, Uccello, Carpaccio, Raphael, and later, Rubens and Georges de La Tour. But all artists seemed to love this color and tried to draw various tonalities from it. Accordingly they chose their pigments, taking into account not only their physicochemical properties, their ability to cover or make opaque, their resistance to light, and how easily they could be worked or combined with other pigments but also their price, availability, and—what is most disconcerting to us—the name they went by. Indeed we can observe in the laboratory that in panel paintings from the late Middle Ages, symbolically “negative” reds—those coloring the fires of hell, the face of the Devil, the coat or feathers of infernal creatures, and all impure blood of one kind or another—were often painted with the same pigment: sandarac, a resin lacquer more commonly called “cinnabar of the Indies” or “dragon’s blood.” Various legends circulated in workshops regarding this pigment, a relatively expensive one because it had to be imported from far away. It was believed to come not from a plant resin but from the blood of a dragon, gored by its mortal enemy, the elephant. According to medieval bestiaries, which followed Pliny and the ancient authors here, the inside of the dragon’s body was filled with blood and fire; after a fierce struggle, when the elephant had punctured the dragon’s belly with its tusks, out flowed a thick, foul, red liquid, from which was made a pigment used to paint all the shades of red considered evil. Legend won out over knowledge in this case, and painters’ choices gave priority to the symbolism of the name over the chemical properties of the pigment.
Unlike the dyers, the painters of the modern period hardly profited at all from the discovery of the New World or the settling of Europeans in the Americas. No truly new colorants resulted from these events. But Mexican cochineal, transformed into lacquer, allowed them to perfect a subtle, delicate pigment in the range of reds, superior to earlier lacquers from brazilwood or kermes for fixing a glaze over vermilion. Beginning in the sixteenth century, vermilion experienced a steady rise in popularity and its production became something of an industry, first in Venice, the European capital of color, and then in the Netherlands and Germany. It was sold in apothecaries, hardware shops, and paint stores, and even though it was more expensive and less stable than minium, it eventually contributed to that pigment’s decline. [continue]
A series of Stone Age palisade enclosures have been discovered in Denmark in recent years and archaeologists are still wondering what they were used for.
One of the latest additions is a huge construction, discovered by archaeologists from the Museum Southeast Denmark. The fence dates from the Neolithic period and seems to frame an oval area of nearly 18,000 square meters.
“It was actually somewhat overwhelming to experience that it is possible to reveal the traces of such a huge building from the Neolithic period. There are many suggestions for what they could’ve been used for, but to put it simply, we just don’t know,” says archaeologist Pernille Rohde Sloth who leads the excavation.
One of the most remarkable things about the fencing at Stevns is the way the entrances have been constructed. The fence is in fact built in five rows that extend outwards, and the opening in each row appears to be offset from the others. [continue]
The Tlingit and Haida, indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast (NWC), have used carved wooden hooks to catch halibut for centuries. As modern fishing technology crept into use, however, the old hooks practically disappeared from the sea. But they thrived on land—as decorative art.
The hook’s evolution from utilitarian tool to expression of cultural heritage is the subject of a paper by Jonathan Malindine, a doctoral student in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Anthropology. In “Northwest Coast Halibut Hooks: an Evolving Tradition of Form, Function, and Fishing,” published in the journal Human Ecology, he traces the arc of the hook’s design and how its dimensions have changed over time.
“I used to be a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and also lived in a Tlingit and Haida community,” Malindine said. “So, the intersection of fisheries and Alaska Native art has always fascinated me. These NWC hooks are really effective at catching halibut, and also are intricately carved with rich, figural designs. Between the technology and the mythological imagery, there’s a lot going on.” [continue]
When King Olaf Haraldsson gave up the old Viking gods to become Norway’s first Christian ruler, he fundamentally changed his society. Part of that legacy is the church he built in his capital city of Nidaros (now known as Trondheim), which was recently discovered at the construction site of a new office building. The church’s stone foundation is remarkably intact. According to Anna Petersén of the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, the nave, choir, entrances, and foundation of the altar are still in place. The church was dedicated to Saint Clements the patron of slaves and seafarers and a popular figure among observant Norse raiders. A series of radiocarbon dates shows that the church was built in the early eleventh century, which affirms historical descriptions. [continue, see photo of dig]
In the rugged Colorado Desert of California, there lies buried a treasure ship sailed there hundreds of years ago by either Viking or Spanish explorers. Some say this is legend; others insist it is fact. A few have even claimed to have seen the ship, its wooden remains poking through the sand like the skeleton of a prehistoric beast.
Among those who say they’ve come close to the ship is small-town librarian Myrtle Botts. In 1933, she was hiking with her husband in the Anza-Borrego Desert, not far from the border with Mexico. It was early March, so the desert would have been in bloom, its washed-out yellows and grays beaten back by the riotous invasion of wildflowers. Those wildflowers were what brought the Bottses to the desert, and they ended up near a tiny settlement called Agua Caliente. Surrounding place names reflected the strangeness and severity of the land: Moonlight Canyon, Hellhole Canyon, Indian Gorge.
To enter the desert is to succumb to the unknowable. One morning, a prospector appeared in the couple’s camp with news far more astonishing than a new species of desert flora: He’d found a ship lodged in the rocky face of Canebrake Canyon. The vessel was made of wood, and there was a serpentine figure carved into its prow. There were also impressions on its flanks where shields had been attached—all the hallmarks of a Viking craft. Recounting the episode later, Botts said she and her husband saw the ship but couldn’t reach it, so they vowed to return the following day, better prepared for a rugged hike. [continue]
Agile scientists equipped with 3D laser scanners have revealed the secrets of a hidden room, known as a “priest hole,” in the tower of an English Tudor mansion linked to the failed “Gunpowder Plot” to assassinate King James I in 1605.
A new study reveals how the secret double room was constructed in the tower of a gatehouse at Coughton Court in Warwickshire, as a hiding place for priests during the anti-Catholic persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Catholic priests faced execution as traitors under the English laws of the time, and they were often tortured to reveal their accomplices, according to Christopher King, an assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, and one of the lead researchers of the study. [See More Photos of the Secret “Priest Hole” at Coughton Court]
Despite being outlawed, many priests chose to [continue]
Want more? The National Trust has info on their Coughton Court site. The most interesting of those pages, I think, is One house, one family, one faith…. It gives an overview of the house’s history, and features a photo of the priest hole.
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]