A physician’s job has always been to heal the sick and give advice on how to stay healthy. There were medical treatments, to be sure – leeching, purging, and my personal favorite – eating ground up powdered mummies. Yes. You read that correctly. For thousands of years, eating the ground up mummified remains of long-dead embalmed human beings was considered good medicine. That’s what they taught at them ancient medical schools. The demand for powdered mummies was so great that sometimes hucksters would simply grind up dead beggars and plague victims and sell them as mummies.
The history of medicine is the history of the placebo effect. This mummy-eating practice died out in the 16th century was was replaced by other equally useless procedures – such as the lobotomy to cure mental illness. Hey, let me shove this ice pick through your eyeball and mash up parts of your brain like I’m mashing a potato. The inventor of this procedure received the 1949 Nobel Prize for Medicine. This was the cutting edge of medicine circa 1949. Any criticism of this mashed-brain strategy could be legitimately met by “Did YOU win a Nobel Prize, buddy?”
“The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” says Sugg. The answer, at first, was Egyptian mummy, which was crumbled into tinctures to stanch internal bleeding. But other parts of the body soon followed. Skull was one common ingredient, taken in powdered form to cure head ailments. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate. And King Charles II of England sipped “The King’s Drops,” his personal tincture, containing human skull in alcohol. Even the toupee of moss that grew over a buried skull, called Usnea, became a prized additive, its powder believed to cure nosebleeds and possibly epilepsy. Human fat was used to treat the outside of the body. German doctors, for instance, prescribed bandages soaked in it for wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was considered a remedy for gout. [continue]
Most people regard hierarchy in human societies as inevitable, a natural part of who we are. Yet this belief contradicts much of the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens.
In fact, our ancestors have for the most part been “fiercely egalitarian”, intolerant of any form of inequality. While hunter-gatherers accepted that people had different skills, abilities and attributes, they aggressively rejected efforts to institutionalise them into any form of hierarchy.
The environment for sleep itself changed dramatically between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, Ekirch writes, going from straw pallets on the floor to wooden frames with pillows, sheets, blankets, and mattresses filled with rags and wool. Sixteenth-century clergyman William Harrison recalled people in his childhood sleeping with “a good round log under their heads, instead of a bolster” and wrote that pillows “were thought meet only for women in childebed.”
Still, when beds were introduced people took to them eagerly. Quoting historian Carole Shammas, Ekrich writes that we might think of the early modern era as “The Age of the Bed.” Beds were the first and most valuable piece of furniture families acquired, accounting for a quarter of the value of a modest household. They were also often infested with bugs and shared by several people. [continue]
It is hard to imagine Eric Bloodaxe and other feared Viking kings and chieftains wearing blue linen underwear. However, if the research carried out at the University of Bergen is correct, we should get used to the idea.
Textile fragments from Viking graves in the counties of Rogaland, Sogn og Fjordane and Hordaland in Western Norway have now been analyzed.
Research carried out by textile conservator Hana Lukešová and professor of nanophysics Bodil Holst at the University of Bergen has produced remarkable results: Vikings did use linen underwear, often dyed blue. [continue]
A study by archaeologists has revealed certain people in medieval Yorkshire were so afraid of the dead they chopped, smashed and burned their skeletons to make sure they stayed in their graves.
The research published by Historic England and the University of Southampton may represent the first scientific evidence in England of attempts to prevent the dead from walking and harming the living – still common in folklore in many parts of the world.
The archaeologists who studied a collection of human bones – including the remains of adults, teenagers and children excavated more than half a century ago, and dated back to the period between the 11th and 14th century – rejected gruesome possibilities including cannibalism in times of famine, or the massacre of outsiders. The cut marks were in the wrong place for butchery, and isotope analysis of the teeth showed that the people came from the same area as the villagers of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire – a once flourishing village which had been completely deserted by the early 16th century. [continue]
Skulls buried in a half-circle, facing southeast. A decapitated skeleton, with its head buried between its thighs and the feet cut off. Skeletons where the skulls have been removed and heads buried separately, upside down.
These might sound like the ingredients of a Hollywood horror movie, or perhaps a pagan ritual, but they are not. Instead, they are all examples of ways that Norwegian society from 500 years ago tried to guarantee that criminals and other bad people got the punishment they deserved, not only on Earth but also in the eternal afterlife.
All of these examples have been excavated over the last 20 years in Norway from an area southwest of Oslo, in a town called Skien. Archaeologists recognize an area in the town as one of first Christian burial grounds. Later, the same area was a place where criminals were executed. [continue]
A Heiltsuk village site on B.C.’s mid-coast is three times as old as the Great Pyramid at Giza and among the oldest human settlements in North America, according to researchers at the Hakai Institute.
The excavation on Triquet Island has already produced extremely rare artifacts, including a wooden projectile-launching device called an atlatl, compound fish hooks and a hand drill used for lighting fires, said Alisha Gauvreau, a PhD student at the University of Victoria.
The village has been in use for about 14,000 years, based on analysis of charcoal recovered from a hearth about 2.5 metres below the surface, making it one of the oldest First Nations settlements yet uncovered. Dates from the most recent tests range from 13,613 to 14,086 years ago.
“We were so happy to find something we could date,” she said. What started as a one-metre-by-one-metre “keyhole” into the past, expanded last summer into a three-metre trench with evidence of fire related in age to a nearby cache of stone tools.
“It appears we had people sitting in one area making stone tools beside evidence of a fire pit, what we are calling a bean-shaped hearth,” she said. “The material that we have recovered from that trench has really helped us weave a narrative for the occupation of this site.” [continue]
Long before the advent of agriculture, hunter-gatherers began putting down roots in the Middle East, building more permanent homes and altering the ecological balance in ways that allowed the common house mouse to flourish, new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates.
“The research provides the first evidence that, as early as 15,000 years ago, humans were living in one place long enough to impact local animal communities—resulting in the dominant presence of house mice,” said Fiona Marshall, study co-author and a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s clear that the permanent occupation of these settlements had far-reaching consequences for local ecologies, animal domestication and human societies.” [continue]
The unknown victim, nicknamed Ötzi, has literally been in cold storage in her museum for a quarter-century. Often called the Iceman, he is the world’s most perfectly preserved mummy, a Copper Age fellow who had been frozen inside a glacier along the northern Italian border with Austria until warming global temperatures melted the ice and two hikers discovered him in 1991.
The cause of death remained uncertain until 10 years later, when an X-ray of the mummy pointed to foul play in the form of a flint arrowhead embedded in his back, just under his shoulder. But now, armed with a wealth of new scientific information that researchers have compiled, Inspector Horn has managed to piece together a remarkably detailed picture of what befell the Iceman on that fateful day around 3300 B.C., near [continue]
While popularised by Guillaume Apollinaire’s wonderful Calligrammes from 1918, the art of making images through the novel arrangement of words upon the page can be traced back many centuries. Some of the earliest examples of these “calligrams” are to be found in a marvellous 9th-century manuscript known as the Aratea.
Each page of the Aratea has a poem on the bottom half — written by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus and translated into Latin by a young Cicero — describing an astronomical constellation. This constellation is then beautifully drawn above the poetry; the drawings however are themselves made up of words taken from Hyginus’ Astronomica. The passages used to form the images describe the constellation which they create on the page, and in this way they become tied to one another: neither the words or images would make full sense without the other there to complete the scene. Also, note the red dots on each picture: these show where the stars appear in the sky. [continue, see illustrations]
What the scientists found surprised them. While the Roman and Hunnic elites were at war, regular people living on the margins of these two empires were able to coexist, even cooperate. Bones buried in the same cemetery carried signatures of dramatically different lifestyles — some bore evidence that their owners were farmers, others had traits of nomads. Some bones suggested that the individual was born into a roaming tribe but later settled down; others indicated the opposite lifestyle change. [continue]
In the 13th century A.D., the city of Acre on Israel’s northern coast was a key stronghold for embattled European Crusaders defending Christianity in the Holy Land. But in 1291, a vast Egyptian army of some 100,000 soldiers led by the new Mamluk sultan overran the Crusader garrison there and razed the city. Now, marine archaeologists have discovered a long-lost ship that met its watery end in the crescent-shaped bay off the city’s harbor. Carbon dating of the ship, and the cache of gold coins found inside, suggests the wreck dates to the siege of Acre, as Christians made a desperate attempt to flee the city and their knights made their doomed last stand. [continue]
The most radical shakeup of the dinosaur family tree in a century has led scientists to propose an unlikely origin for the prehistoric beasts: an obscure cat-sized creature found in Scotland.
The analysis, which has already sparked controversy in the academic world, suggests that the two basic groups into which dinosaurs have been classified for more than a century need a fundamental rethink. If proved correct, the revised version of the family tree would overthrow some of the most basic assumptions about this chapter of evolutionary history, including what the common ancestor of all dinosaurs looked like and where it came from. [continue]
Saltopus, kids. saltopus. There was a creature called a saltopus!
Thanks to Khurram Wadee for posting this article on Diaspora, which is where I found it.
As a collective civilization, we’ve made some strides in how we care for the poor and frail but, even in the 21st century, the indigent are often relegated to both anonymous lives and anonymous deaths. So when scientists were able to re-create the life of a man who lived 700 years ago from his remains, it offered a tremendous insight, not just into his life, but into the lives of the countless impoverished citizens of medieval England.
This face—and the man—are known by the clinical and cold moniker Context 958, one of several hundred buried corpses exhumed from graves behind the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, around 2010. The subject was presumed to have been a ward of the hospital or church, likely poor and/or ill, at the time of his death in the 13th century. [continue, see photos]
Travelers to distant lands have always known that risk is an inevitable part of the adventure. And from ancient times they invented ways to mitigate that risk. Medieval English guilds established funds to provide for their members in the event of accident when they were abroad. Fifteenth-century pilgrims would ensure themselves against captivity. For a certain payment, the insurer would agree to ransom the traveler should he be captured by pirates or Arabs.
As travel expanded, individual traveler’s insurance took on the form of a bet on their own survival – a broker would take a specific amount and agree to pay it back with substantial interest if the traveler returned. The risks of travel were so high that it was usually assumed impossible to purchase insurance that would pay out to someone else if the traveler did not come home. [continue]
After the Reformation, Norway’s Olav Haraldsson was no longer supposed to be worshipped as a saint. An Icelandic drinking horn offers some clues on how the saint’s status changed over time.
Drinking horns were considered valuable objects, and were imbued with great symbolic value in the Middle Ages. Among other things, it was said that these kinds of horns came from the foot or claw of the fabled griffin. Drinking horns often had names, and were status symbols and collector’s items. Some were stolen and many ended up in princely cabinets.
“Mediaeval drinking horns are scattered in collections throughout northern Europe. They were coveted collectibles. Mediaeval art often remained in churches until it went out of fashion or was removed due to errors in iconography, whereas drinking horns ended up in princely collections and cabinets and have kept their status to the present day,” says Associate Professor Margrethe Stang, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Art and Media Studies. [continue]
How did gold rush miners get a good night’s rest? If they were lucky, a roadhouse or inn had beds with Pulu mattresses.
The early roadhouses had either cots or if they had ‘mattresses’, they were stuffed with straw or dried moss and sometimes feathers or curled hair. These were expensive to import because of the tariffs.
An entrepreneur got the idea that Pulu would make a great substitute because there was no import levy on it and also it was soft and cheap. Pulu was from a tree fern known as the hapu’u pulu in Hawaii. The young fronds (fiddleheads) of these tree ferns are covered with a bronze-coloured silky floss called “pulu”. Ancient Hawaiians had long used pulu.
From the late 1850s to the 1880s over 4 million pounds of pulu were shipped in bales, to be used primarily for stuffing mattresses, pillows, and upholstery. Fortunately, this stopped when people realized that [continue]
I went off to see what pulu fronds look like, and found this image at Wikimedia Commons. (Click on the image if you’d like to see a larger version. Oh, and thanks to photographer Tom Burke for sharing it under a Creative Commons license.)
Instant Hawaii has more photos, and a bit more information about this tree. They note:
As the young shoots uncurl they have a fine golden hair that is very soft, almost like velvet. This hair is called pulu and it was collected in the 1800’s and used commercially as stuffing for pillows and mattresses. The remnants of an old pulu factory can still be seen on the Napau Crater trail in the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
Well, that was fun to learn about. What’s in your mattress? Probably a bunch of synthetic stuff that’s been treated with fire retardants and other chemicals, unless you’ve gone out of your way to find an alternative. If you happen to be looking for an alternative mattress filling now, I think you can strike pulu off your list!
Later, a fad for hermits swept 18th-century England. It was believed that hermits radiated kindness and thoughtfulness, so advertisements were placed in newspapers for “ornamental hermits” who were lax in grooming and willing to sleep in caves on the country estates of the aristocracy. The job paid well and hundreds were hired, typically on seven-year contracts. Some of the hermits would even emerge at dinner parties and greet guests.
Where do I sign up for that? Live in a cave on a good salary, and attend dinner parties? Now that I could do. I’d have to dress down, though.
I’ve come across dozens of interesting things to share with you lately, but I’ve also been quite short of time. So here are a whole bunch of things I think you’ll like, all at once, for your weekend reading pleasure.
I’ve thought of doing this for a while now: occasional posts full of linky goodness. But a pleasing name for such postings failed to suggest itself to me, and so I was thwarted. This morning, though, the name arrived in my brain. This is An Exaltation of Links. Because why should the larks have all the fun?
Archaeologists from Egypt and Germany have found an eight-metre (26ft) statue submerged in groundwater in a Cairo slum that they say probably depicts revered Pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.
The discovery – hailed by Egypt’s antiquities ministry on Thursday as one of the most important ever – was made near the ruins of Ramses II’s temple in the ancient city of Heliopolis, located in the eastern part of modern-day Cairo.
“Last Tuesday they called me to announce the big discovery of a colossus of a king, most probably Ramses II, made out of quartzite,” the antiquities minister, Khaled al-Anani, said at the site of the discovery.
The pharaoh, also known as Ramses the Great or Ozymandias, was the third of the 19th dynasty of Egypt and ruled for 66 years, from 1279BC to 1213BC. [continue]
Around 4,000 years ago, a man, a woman and a child were laid to rest in a barrow beneath a massive 50-ton slab of basalt on a hillside in the Hula Valley. Offerings in ceramic pots were laid by their sides, and above their heads mysterious symbols were etched into the stone.
This enigmatic discovery, detailed in an academic article published in PLOS ONE on Thursday, upends our understanding of a little-understood dark age in the Levant following the collapse of Early Bronze Age cities.
Their grave of boulders stacked to form a crude table, known by archaeologists as a dolmen, was one of a vast field of tombs recently excavated by archaeologists in what is now northern Israel. The multi-chambered barrow the three skeletons were found in, however, stood out from the rest. [continue]
It is not immediately clear what drew Marcus Selmer (1819 – 1900), a Danish portrait photographer, to spend most of his life working in Norway. He trained as a pharmacist in his native Denmark, and was working in a chemist owned by his uncle when he discovered daguerreotype photography. He experimented with this new technology in his spare time and began sending his pictures in to local exhibitions. In 1852, Selmer travelled to Norway, to visit some of his uncle’s family in the city of Bergen. He never returned.
He soon found work as a photographer in Bergen and, within a year, was able to establish his own studio. This became the first permanent photographic studio in Bergen, as few photographers who visited would stay all year round. Photographers often visited Bergen in the summer, hoping to capture the fjords and mountains that surround the area, but, as they needed good light for their work, the dark and cold weather had driven most of them away by the time winter rolled around. Selmer ingeniously built his studio almost entirely out of glass, allowing enough light into the space, which enabled him to continue working throughout the year.
Selmer’s work quickly became well-known throughout Norway. He sold many books of his photographs, and sold individual images to the press and the burgeoning tourist industry, before eventually being appointed the royal photographer in 1880. Although his career was varied, Selmer is primarily remembered today for his portraits of local people in national folk costume, as shown here. These photographs depict the customs, traditions and culture of the Norwegian people, and reflect Selmer’s interest in his adopted home. One of Selmer’s most notable portraits is of a local folk hero named Ole Storviken. [continue, see photos!]
To see more of Marcus Selmer’s photos, visit these sites:
In the first study of its kind, archaeologists have identified the garment a body was buried in between 4950 and 4800 BCE in the Mediterranean, discovering details down to the embroidered design of seashells lining the jacket.
The body, belonging to an adult man between 20 and 50 years old and estimated to be 1.67 metres (about 5’5″) tall, was buried in the 5th Millennium BCE in Avignon, southern France. The grave was first excavated in the 1970s, but has now gone through modern laboratory scrutiny to reveal the nature of the clothes the man was buried in, according to a paper published in the Journal of Field Archaeology.
The garment had sophisticated embroidery, with 158 conical seashells – of the species Columbella rustica – arranged in lines on what was thought to be a jacket or tunic. They are arranged in patterns, either all pointing up, all pointing down, or alternating in pairs. [continue]
An apparently ordinary rabbit’s hole in a farmer’s field leads to an underground sanctuary said to have been used by devotees of a medieval religious order – but is everything what it seems?
According to local legend, the Caynton Caves, near Shifnal, in Shropshire, were used by followers of the Knights Templar in the 17th Century.
Located less than a metre underground, they appear to be untouched structurally.
Their original purpose is shrouded in mystery, but Historic England, which describes the caves as a “grotto”, believes they were probably built in the late 18th or early 19th Century – hundreds of years after the Templar order was dissolved. [continue]