Quotulatiousness

June 23, 2017

British and Irish Iron Age hill forts and settlements mapped in new online atlas

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the Guardian, Steven Morris talks about a new online resource for archaeological information on over 4,000 Iron Age sites:

Maiden Castle in Dorset. View of the west gate and ramparts (English Heritage)

Some soar out of the landscape and have impressed tourists and inspired historians and artists for centuries, while others are tiny gems, tucked away on mountain or moor and are rarely visited.

For the first time, a detailed online atlas has drawn together the locations and particulars of the UK and Ireland’s hill forts and come to the conclusion that there are more than 4,000 of them, mostly dating from the iron age.

The project has been long and not without challenges. Scores of researchers – experts and volunteer hill fort hunters – have spent five years pinpointing the sites and collating information on them.

[…]

Sites such as Maiden Castle, which stretches for 900 metres along a saddle-backed hilltop in Dorset, are obvious. But some that have made the cut are little more than a couple of roundhouses with a ditch and bank. Certain hill forts in Northumbria are tiny and probably would not have got into the atlas if they were in Wessex, where the sites tend to be grander.

Many hill forts will be familiar, such as the one on Little Solsbury Hill, which overlooks Bath. But there are others, such as a chain of forts in the Clwydian Range in north-east Wales, that are not so well known. Many are in lovely, remote locations but there are also urban ones surrounded by roads and housing.

The online atlas and database will be accessible on smartphones and tablets and can be used while visiting a hill fort.

H/T to Jessica Brisbane for the link.

April 12, 2017

Construction on the A1 near Catterick, North Yorkshire, reveals lost Roman settlement

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Rossella Lorenzi reports for Live Science on recent finds during roadwork on the A1 in North Yorkshire:

Excavations at Catterick earlier this year. The features on show are the foundations of ovens and hearths dating to the 4th century. © Historic England

Construction work to upgrade Britain’s longest road into a major highway has revealed a treasure trove of rare artifacts from one of the earliest and wealthiest Roman settlements in the country.

The findings include ancient shoes, cups, a rare silver ring, keys, a high-relief glass bowl and an elaborately carved amber figurine, archaeologists with the public group Historic England announced yesterday (April 6).

Archaeologists uncovered the artifacts in North Yorkshire along the A1, which stretches 410 miles (660 kilometers) from London to Edinburgh, Scotland, during a major project to improve the existing roadway. [See Photos of the Excavation and Roman Artifacts]

“It is fascinating to discover that nearly 2,000 years ago, the Romans were using the A1 route as a major road of strategic importance and using the very latest technological innovations from that period to construct the original road,” Tom Howard, project manager at the government agency Highways England, said in a statement.

[…]

The excavations have also led to the discovery of a major Roman settlement at Scotch Corner, one of the best-known junctions in the country.

Taking its name from an old Roman road called Scots Dyke, Scotch Corner links Scotland with England and the east coast with the west coast.

Right there, the archaeologists with the professional consultant group Northern Archaeological Associates unearthed the remains of a large settlement dating back to A.D. 60, thus predating settlements in York and Carlisle by 10 years.

April 4, 2017

Archaeological evidence of corpse mutilation in deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

A bit of gruesome post-death ritual from the middle ages in Wharram Percy:

Wharram Percy, aerial view © Wharram Research Project/Historic England

Archaeologists investigating human bones excavated from the deserted mediaeval village of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire have suggested that the villagers burned and mutilated corpses to prevent the dead from rising from their graves to terrorise the living.

Although starvation cannibalism often accounts for the mutilation of corpses during the Middle Ages, when famines were common, researchers from Historic England and the University of Southampton have found that the ways in which the Wharram Perry remains had been dismembered suggested actions more significant of folk beliefs about preventing the dead from going walkabout.

Their paper, titled A multidisciplinary study of a burnt and mutilated assemblage of human remains from a deserted mediaeval village in England, is published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Located in the Yorkshire Wolds, Wharram Percy was continuously occupied for about 600 years, and was probably founded in the 9th or 10th century, but had become deserted by the early 16th century as a result of gradual abandonment and forced evictions. The ruined church is the last-standing mediaeval building, beside it remaining the grassed-over foundations of two manors and about 40 peasant houses and their outbuildings.

Since 1948 the settlement has been the focus of intensive research, which has made it Europe’s best-known deserted mediaeval village, and in what may be the first good archaeological find regarding the practice, human remains from the site suggest the predominance of folk beliefs regarding revenants in 11th-13th century England.

March 16, 2017

Origins of the Silk Road

Filed under: Asia, China, Europe, History, Middle East — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I’ve been quietly fascinated by the ancient Silk Road trading route spanning from the Middle East to China since I first heard about it as a kid. (The most recent book I read on the topic, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, blended bits of the history of the route with the activities of European spies in the area preceding the start of the First World War.) At Ars Technica, Annalee Newitz summarizes some recent work in Nature that pushes back the origins of the Silk Road more than two millennia:

The Silk Road was a series of ancient trading routes that spanned Asia, reaching as far as the Middle East and Europe. Self-organizing and vast, it fell under the control of various empires — but never for long. The polyglot civilizations of traders who lived along its routes are the subject of legends, and more recently the Silk Road lent its name to an infamous darknet market. Historians usually date the Silk Road from roughly the 200s to the 1400s. But a new study in Nature suggests the trade routes may be 2,500 years older than previously believed and its origins much humbler than the rich cities it spawned.

Historical accounts of the Silk Road begin in China in the 100s, when the Han Dynasty used its many routes to trade with the peoples of Central and South Asia. Han soldiers protected the roads and maintained regular outposts on them, allowing wealth and knowledge to flow across the continent. Monks wandering the Silk Road brought Buddhism from India to China, while merchants brought spices, gems, textiles, books, horses, and other valuables from one part of the continent to the other. Great Silk Road cities such as Chang’an (today called Xi’an) and Samarkand grew fat on wealth from the routes that passed outside their walls.

But Washington University in St. Louis anthropologist Michael Frachetti and his colleagues wondered how people traversed the many difficult stretches of the Silk Road that switchbacked through the mountains of Central Asia. Even though these routes weren’t urban or under the protection of soldiers, people used them all the time to pass between Asia and the Middle East. We can see where these travelers camped at over 600 archaeological sites in the mountains. Writing in Nature, Frachetti and his colleagues describe how they had to devise a new approach to track the routes people took between these camps.

The problem was that previous scholars assumed people took routes that resembled what a “least cost” algorithm would draw — essentially the easiest path. This is “largely effective in lowland zones where economic networks and mobility between urban centers are consistent with ease of travel,” the researchers write in their paper. But those algorithms won’t work in the mountains, on uneven terrain that was often barren.

NHK and CCTV did a 12-part documentary on the Silk Road, with beautiful theme music by Kitaro:

Published on 18 Sep 2013

Camels plodding across the desert, and a sense of timelessness evoked by Kitaro’s theme music… NHK devoted 17 years to the planning, shooting and production of The Silk Road, which unearthed trade routes linking long-lost civilizations of East and West. A landmark in broadcasting history, this series told the story of the rise and fall of ancient civilizations.
The NHK Tokushu and China’s CCTV documentary series The Silk Road began on April 7, 1980. The program started with the memorable scene of a camel caravan crossing the desert against the setting sun, with Kitaro’s music and a sense of timelessness. It was the start of an epic televisual poem.

The first journey described in the series began in Chang’an (now Xi’an), at the eastern end of the ancient route. On 450,000 feet of film, the NHK crew recorded the path westward to the Pamir Heights at the Pakistan border and this material was edited to make 12 monthly broadcasts. In response to viewers’ requests that the series be extended to cover the Silk Road all the way to Rome, sequels were made over the next 10 years. Seventeen years after the program was conceived, the project was completed.

1) The Glories of Ancient Chang-An
Chang-An – China’s old center. The journey begins from Chang-An, current Xi-an that was more than 1,000 years a capital in China, and the melting pot of international influences.

February 27, 2017

“Dumb Norsemen go into the north outside the range of their economy, mess up the environment and then they all die when it gets cold”

Filed under: Americas, History, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Debunking the Greenland myth in the Smithsonian:

Those tough seafaring warriors came to one of the world’s most formidable environments and made it their home. And they didn’t just get by: They built manor houses and hundreds of farms; they imported stained glass; they raised sheep, goats and cattle; they traded furs, walrus-tusk ivory, live polar bears and other exotic arctic goods with Europe. “These guys were really out on the frontier,” says Andrew Dugmore, a geographer at the University of Edinburgh. “They’re not just there for a few years. They’re there for generations — for centuries.”

So what happened to them?

**********

Thomas McGovern used to think he knew. An archaeologist at Hunter College of the City University of New York, McGovern has spent more than 40 years piecing together the history of the Norse settlements in Greenland. With his heavy white beard and thick build, he could pass for a Viking chieftain, albeit a bespectacled one. Over Skype, here’s how he summarized what had until recently been the consensus view, which he helped establish: “Dumb Norsemen go into the north outside the range of their economy, mess up the environment and then they all die when it gets cold.”

[…]

But over the last decade a radically different picture of Viking life in Greenland has started to emerge from the remains of the old settlements, and it has received scant coverage outside of academia. “It’s a good thing they can’t make you give your PhD back once you’ve got it,” McGovern jokes. He and the small community of scholars who study the Norse experience in Greenland no longer believe that the Vikings were ever so numerous, or heedlessly despoiled their new home, or failed to adapt when confronted with challenges that threatened them with annihilation.

“It’s a very different story from my dissertation,” says McGovern. “It’s scarier. You can do a lot of things right — you can be highly adaptive; you can be very flexible; you can be resilient — and you go extinct anyway.” And according to other archaeologists, the plot thickens even more: It may be that Greenland’s Vikings didn’t vanish, at least not all of them.

H/T to Kate at Small Dead Animals for the link.

February 6, 2017

The “beer before bread” theory gains strength

Filed under: History, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The received wisdom about the transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies is that clans or tribes stopped being nomadic in order to grow crops and secure their food supply more consistently … that growing grain for bread was one of the strongest underlying reasons for the change in lifestyle. That theory is being challenged by researchers who believe the real reason was to produce grains for brewing instead:

The story of humanity’s love affair with alcohol goes back to a time before farming — to a time before humans, in fact. Our taste for tipple may be a hardwired evolutionary trait that distinguishes us from most other animals.

The active ingredient common to all alcoholic beverages is made by yeasts: microscopic, single-celled organisms that eat sugar and excrete carbon dioxide and ethanol, the only potable alcohol. That’s a form of fermentation. Most modern makers of beer, wine, or sake use cultivated varieties of a single yeast genus called Saccharomyces (the most common is S. cerevisiae, from the Latin word for “beer,” cerevisia). But yeasts are diverse and ubiquitous, and they’ve likely been fermenting ripe wild fruit for about 120 million years, ever since the first fruits appeared on Earth.

From our modern point of view, ethanol has one very compelling property: It makes us feel good. Ethanol helps release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain, chemicals that make us happy and less anxious.

To our fruit-eating primate ancestors swinging through the trees, however, the ethanol in rotting fruit would have had three other appealing characteristics. First, it has a strong, distinctive smell that makes the fruit easy to locate. Second, it’s easier to digest, allowing animals to get more of a commodity that was precious back then: calories. Third, its antiseptic qualities repel microbes that might sicken a primate. Millions of years ago one of them developed a taste for fruit that had fallen from the tree. “Our ape ancestors started eating fermented fruits on the forest floor, and that made all the difference,” says Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College. “We’re preadapted for consuming alcohol.”

[…]

Flash forward millions of years to a parched plateau in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. Archaeologists there are exploring another momentous transition in human prehistory, and a tantalizing possibility: Did alcohol lubricate the Neolithic revolution? Did beer help persuade Stone Age hunter-gatherers to give up their nomadic ways, settle down, and begin to farm?

The ancient site, Göbekli Tepe, consists of circular and rectangular stone enclosures and mysterious T-shaped pillars that, at 11,600 years old, may be the world’s oldest known temples. Since the site was discovered two decades ago, it has upended the traditional idea that religion was a luxury made possible by settlement and farming. Instead the archaeologists excavating Göbekli Tepe think it was the other way around: Hunter-gatherers congregated here for religious ceremonies and were driven to settle down in order to worship more regularly.

H/T to Tamara Keel for the link.

January 8, 2017

Secrets of the Dead: What Sank The Mary Rose?

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on Aug 13, 2015
Henry VİII’s and England’s most important battleship, the Mary Rose, sunk off the English coast in the Solent in the 16th Century.

Secrets Of The Dead – What Sank The Mary Rose?

December 28, 2016

QotD: The importance of fabric as a technological driver

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The ancient Greeks worshiped Athena as the goddess of technē, the artifice of civilisation. She was the giver and protector of olive trees, of ships and of weaving (without which there would be no sails). When she and Odysseus scheme, they ‘weave a plan’. To weave is to devise, to invent – to contrive function and beauty from the simplest of elements. Fabric and fabricate share a common Latin root, fabrica: ‘something skillfully produced’. Text and textile are similarly related, from the verb texere, to weave. Cloth-making is a creative act, analogous to other creative acts. To spin tales (or yarns) is to exercise imagination. Even more than weaving, spinning mounds of tiny fibres into usable threads turns nothing into something, chaos into order.

‘The spindle was the first wheel,’ explains Elizabeth Barber, professor emerita of linguistics and archeology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, gesturing to demonstrate. ‘It wasn’t yet load-bearing, but the principle of rotation is there.’ In the 1970s, Barber started noticing footnotes about textiles scattered through the archaeological literature. She thought she’d spend nine months pulling together what was known. Her little project became a decades-long exploration that turned textile archaeology into a full-blown field. Textile production, Barber writes in Prehistoric Textiles (1991), ‘is older than pottery or metallurgy and perhaps even than agriculture and stock-breeding’.

Of course, pottery and metal artifacts survived the centuries much better than cloth, which is rarely found in more than tiny fragments. That’s one reason we tend to forget how important textiles were in the earliest economic production. We envision an ancient world of hard surfaces much as we imagine the First World War in black and white.

But before there was gold or silver currency, traders used cloth. In the 20th century BC, the Minoan kingdom on resource-poor Crete swapped wool and linen for the metals that its famed craftsmen, represented by the mythical Daedalus, used to create their wares. In the pre-monetary trade of the ancient Aegean and Anatolia, writes the archaeologist Brendan Burke in From Minos to Midas (2010), textile production was of ‘greater value and importance … than the production of painted clay pots, metal tools, and objects carved from precious metals: everyone depended on cloth’.

Archaeologists often track fabric production by what is left behind. Huge numbers of spindle whorls (usually of clay) survive, as do the clay loom weights that held vertically hung warp threads in tension. By counting the clay weights left from his workshops’ looms, writes Barber, ‘we can calculate that King Midas of Gordion could have kept over 100 women busy weaving for him, which makes him more than twice as rich as Homer’s fabulous King Alkinnoos [Alcinous, from the Odyssey], who had 50. No wonder the Greeks viewed Midas as synonymous with gold!’

Virginia Postrel, “Losing the Thread: Older than bronze and as new as nanowires, textiles are technology — and they have remade our world time and again”, Aeon, 2015-06-05.

December 4, 2016

WW1 Archaeologists At The Site Of The First German Gas Attack I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 3 Dec 2016

A big thank you to the project team: Archaeological Revival of Memory of World War I: Material Remains of the Life and Death in Trenches of the Eastern Front and the Condition of the Ever-changing Battlescape in the Region of the Rawka and Bzura (1914–2014).

The project is funded by the Polish National Centre of Science and implemented by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences.

This is the first big video from our trip to Poland. In Bolimow, Polish archaeologists are digging in the former trenches of the Eastern Front. Here, the Germans used gas on a big scale for the first time. Polish soldiers were fighting each other on both sides of the front.

October 25, 2016

QotD: Viking weapons and combat techniques (from historical evidence and re-creation)

Filed under: Books, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I expected to enjoy Dr. William Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (Westholme Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59416-076-9), and I was not disappointed. I am a historical fencer and martial artist who has spent many hours sparring with weapons very similar to those Dr. Short describes, and I have long had an active interest in the Viking era. I had previously read many of the primary saga sources (such as Njal’s Saga Egil’s Saga, and the Saga of Grettir the Strong) that Dr. Short mines for information on Viking weaponscraft, but I had not realized how informative they can be when the many descriptions of fights in them are set beside each other and correlated with the archeological evidence.

For those who don’t regularly follow my blog, my wife Cathy and I train in a fighting tradition based around sword and shield, rooted in southern Italian cut-and-thrust fencing from around 1500. It is a battlefield rather than a dueling style. Our training weapons simulate cut-and-thrust swords similar in weight and length to Viking-era weapons, usually cross-hilted but occasionally basket-hilted after the manner of a schiavona; our shields are round, bossless, and slightly smaller than Viking-era shields. We also learn to fight single-sword, two-sword, and with polearms and spears. The swordmaster’s family descended from Sicilo-Norman nobles; when some obvious Renaissance Italian overlays such as the basket hilts are lain aside, the continuity of our weapons with well-attested Norman patterns and with pre-Norman Viking weapons is clear and obvious. Thus my close interest in the subject matter of Dr. Short’s book.

Dr. Short provides an invaluable service by gathering all this literary evidence and juxtaposing it with pictures and reconstructions of Viking-age weapons, and with sequences of re-enactors experimenting with replicas. He is careful and scholarly in his approach, emphasizing the limits of the evidence and the occasional flat-out contradictions between saga and archeological evidence. I was pleased that he does not shy from citing his own and his colleagues’ direct physical experience with replica weapons as evidence; indeed, at many points in the text, .the techniques they found by exploring the affordances of these weapons struck me as instantly familiar from my own fighting experience.

Though Dr. Short attempts to draw some support for his reconstructions of techniques from the earliest surviving European manuals of arms, such as the Talhoffer book and Joachim Meyer’s Art of Combat, his own warnings that these are from a much later period and addressing very different weapons are apposite. Only the most tentative sort of guesses can be justified from them, and I frankly think Dr. Short’s book would have been as strong if those references were entirely omitted. I suspect they were added mostly as a gesture aimed at mollifying academics suspicious of combat re-enactment as an investigative technique, by giving them a more conventional sort of scholarship to mull over.

Indeed, if this book has any continuing flaw, I think it’s that Dr. Short ought to trust his martial-arts experience more. He puzzles, for example, at what I consider excessive length over the question of whether Vikings used “thumb-leader” cuts with the back edge of a sword. Based on my own martial-arts experience, I think we may take it for granted that a warrior culture will explore and routinely use every affordance of its weapons. The Vikings were, by all accounts, brutally pragmatic fighters; the limits of their technique were, I am certain, set only by the limits of their weapons. Thus, the right question, in my opinion, is less “What can we prove they did?” than “What affordances are implied by the most accurate possible reconstructions of the tools they fought with?”.

As an example of this sort of thinking, I don’t think there is any room for doubt that the Viking shield was used aggressively, with an active parrying technique — and to bind opponents’ weapons. To see this, compare it to the wall shields used by Roman legionaries and also in the later Renaissance along with longswords, or with the “heater”-style jousting shields of the High Medieval period. Compared to these, everything about the Viking design – the relatively light weight, the boss, the style of the handgrip – says it was designed to move. Dr. Short documents the fact that his crew of experimental re-enactors found themselves using active shield guards (indistinguishable, by the way from my school’s); I wish he had felt the confidence to assert flat-out that this is what the Vikings did with the shield because this is what the shield clearly wants to do…

Eric S. Raymond, “Dr. William Short’s ‘Viking Weapons and Combat’: A Review”, Armed and Dangerous, 2009-08-13.

September 4, 2016

Our First Trip To WW1 Locations Was An Epic Journey I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 3 Sep 2016

Map of all the locations we went to: http://bit.ly/2bxRZCg

Indy & Flo talk about our first trip to original WW1 locations in Poland and Ukraine. The trip was a great experience for all of us and you will surely like the future episodes we will publish throughout the next months. Thanks again to everyone who made this possible.

June 20, 2016

Getting to L’Anse Aux Meadows

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

A few days back, “Weirddave” posted a little account of his recent visit to L’Anse Aux Meadows:

You can fly into Gander, but it’s expensive AF and you’ll have to make a jillion connections and live in airports for 2 days. Driving from the US means taking I-95 as far as it goes, then transiting New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to North Sydney. There you get on a ferry for an 8 hour trip to Port Aux Basque. Do it overnight and splurge for a cabin (trust me on this). Even then, you can’t get into Port Aux Basque if it’s too windy (a not uncommon occurrence in the North Atlantic). Our ferry sailed in a circle off Port Aux Basque for 12 hours until it was calm enough to go in, costing us a whole day (you don’t drive at night in Newfoundland because the island is infested with moose and you’ll hit one). There is no WiFi on the ferry.

From Port Aux Basque it’s 699 kilometers to L’Anse Aux Meadow, 699 kilometers of 2 lane highway with lots of potholes. If you love scrub pine and birch, you’ll be in heaven. It’s very pretty, and Gros Morne National Park, which you’ll go through about halfway, is gorgeous. The drive is miserable when it’s raining, and it’s always raining in Newfoundland. As a bonus it was 2 degrees C today. After you’ve seen L’Anse Aux Meadow ( a day at most ) you have to do it all over again going the other way. The local hootch is a rum called Screech that aspires to be Val-U-Rite. On the plus side, the locals are friendly, if occasionally unintelligible, and I ate 6 lobsters in four days, so yum.

If you find yourself in Newfoundland, you must go to L’Anse Aux Meadow. If you’re thinking of going, my advice would be to take an RV and make it a leisurely trip across the Maritimes. Take 2 weeks off and really enjoy yourself.

June 12, 2016

Discovering the “Pompeii of Peterborough”

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In The New Yorker, Charlotte Higgins describes the Bronze Age archaeological dig near Peterborough in the fens:

… from time to time, the soil pushes up clues, particularly in the fens, where the waterlogged earth creates anaerobic conditions that slow decay. One summer day in 1999, a local archeologist was walking at Must Farm, along the edge of a disused clay pit; at one time it was filled with water, but the water level had dropped enough to reveal some wooden stakes poking out. The Cambridge Archaeological Unit, which operates out of the university, an hour’s drive away, did some exploratory work and found, through radiocarbon dating, that the material dated from about 900 B.C. The site was monitored for several years, until Historic England, a government agency devoted to preserving the country’s heritage, began to press for it to be properly excavated. Last September, with funding from Historic England and the brick-making company Forterra, a team of about a dozen archeologists went to work.

Each day, they are making discoveries that are radically expanding the knowledge of Bronze Age Britain. The site is unparalleled in the U.K. for its wealth of artifacts and the pristine state of their preservation. Three thousand years ago, it was a settlement of wooden roundhouses, but life there ended abruptly: a fire tore through it, and the buildings collapsed, sank into the marshland, and were quickly entombed by silt and mud. “In archeology, very occasionally, there is the feeling that you have turned up just a week too late, that the people who were here have just moved on,” Mark Knight, the archeologist in charge of excavation at Must Farm, told me when I visited for a day in April. “This site has that feeling to it. Normally in Britain, when you dig, three thousand years of history seems manifest in the remains, because the most you tend to find is a few postholes and a potsherd. Here, somehow, the time span feels short. It’s so intact, so three-dimensional.” Inevitably, perhaps, the site has been nicknamed the Pompeii of Peterborough.

[…]

We stood on a low rise, and in the dip below us was a white tent about a quarter the size of a football field, erected to cover the archeological site and keep it from drying out in the harsh East Anglian wind. Knight led me down a path toward it. At the top of the slope, marking the present day, were fragments of bricks, rejects from the nearby factory. Farther down, he indicated a dark layer of earth. “This is Iron Age peat,” he said. And a few steps later: “This is where the sea came in, in the early Roman period, the first century A.D.” As we approached the tent, he said, “Now we’re down into the period where we’re excavating, around 900 B.C.—river channels. Can you see the shells of freshwater mussels?” Inside the tent, the excavation was being conducted two metres below the surface; had we been able to continue down another eighteen metres, to the level of the base of the quarry, we would have arrived at the Jurassic, a hundred and forty-five million years earlier.

From a viewing platform, we could look down on the whole excavation: a large, muddy, roughly rectangular area from which a number of wooden stakes poked up. Gradually, some of the stakes resolved themselves into the shape of a palisade that had once encircled the whole settlement. Inside this enclosure, I could make out individual objects—a human skull, the spine of a horse, something that looked like a woven-willow fence, the lips of pots, all half-buried. “There are some bowls,” Knight said. “There’s a wooden platter. There’s a big wooden trough. Over there, a storage vessel.”

Also within the perimeter of the palisade were three large shapes, each comprising a number of wooden rafters radiating unevenly outward from a central point, like the spokes of a broken umbrella. These were the collapsed roofs of the roundhouses. Several archeologists were working on excavating a fourth. They had already lifted and removed its roof timbers and were uncovering the dwelling’s contents, now compressed by three millennia of mud. They scraped with their trowels methodically, emptying the dirt into buckets that would later be sifted for small finds. One researcher, who looked to be in his twenties, wore a sweatshirt with the words “MY FUTURE LIES IN RUINS.”

March 14, 2016

Plumbing through the ages … in rural Maine

Filed under: Environment, Humour, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sippican Cottage continues the tale of the busted sewer pipe:

… The cable was going to come out of the pipe, and it was going to bring things out with it. You don’t visit Beelzebub’s Disneyland without exiting through the gift shop. Over one hundred years of other people’s foolishness could appear from that pipe. I jerked my thumb to indicate REVERSE, held on to the whipping cable to avoid a proper drenching, and prepared to be surprised.

Out they came. The feminine pennants snapped in the breeze from the yardarm stay of my drain augur cable. Dracula’s teabags. The things no man is supposed to buy at the Rite Aid. Tampons emerged like an army on the march.

Now, it’s not up to me to decide exactly how tough a tampon should be. Smarter men than I have determined that feminine hygiene products should be able to withstand a shotgun blast and an acid bath at the same time. It’s a given that they should be more durable than space shuttle tiles. Fall protection harnesses and parachute cord should be made from the little strings, if you want them to last. Kevlar? Pfffffftt. That’s OK for stopping a high powered round and all, but if you need real protection, head to Walgreens and sew a vest out of these babies.

Every length of the sewer cable is ten feet long, and each one appeared from the poop soup with twenty-five or so little Tampax ornaments whipping around from it. I took a pliers and grabbed each one as it emerged from the pipe, but they held on like grim death. Some were tangled four or five in a bundle. I was required to return the machine as clean as I’d found it, so they all had to be yanked from the cables. They fought like Japanese army holdouts in a cave.

We pulled out fifty feet of cable, and the little devils made a substantial pile at my feet. I shoveled them aside, and we sent the cable back down the pipe. The second round brought out more than the first trip down the pipe. I could have stuffed a futon with them. I’ve slept on a futon, if you can call that sleeping. I just assumed that’s what a futon is stuffed with. I could be wrong. It could be dead cats.

I quickly realized I wasn’t playing Current Events. The little pillows were ancient history. They didn’t say Johnson and Johnson on them. They just said Johnson, talk to the Old Man. These were bungs from the Baroque, Always from the Jazz Age, postwar Playtex, Tampax from the Tang Dynasty, Ottoman Empire occlusions, Seleucid sanitary napkins, and stopples from the Silurian. This was a museum, not a sewer system. I wondered if I could get some kind of grant to look them over and catalog them.

I began to suspect that hunter-gatherer societies had been flushing these things down my toilet. The former residents of my house must have invited people over to join in the fun. They probably ran ads in the Grover Cleveland Craiglist to come on over and flush your troubles away. It seemed like a determined effort to my eye.

My son and I went back and forth, fifty to sixty feet of cable at a stretch. I don’t remember how many times it took. When we were properly lulled by exhaustion and repetition, it finally came. The magic sound. It was the sound a nurse hears while walking down the hall in the nursing home late at night. A horrible gurgle, as the whole organism lets go and slides away to a better world. The poop in the pipe was gone.

November 29, 2015

Technological attempts to preserve Middle Eastern antiquities

Filed under: History, Science, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Ars Technica calls them the digital “Monuments Men”:

The student who proclaimed this idea is part of a new generation of cultural guardians who are starting to make a name for themselves around the world as the digital “Monuments Men.” Originally the Monuments Men were a group of people, most of them with a cultural studies background, who joined a special branch of the US Army for one reason only: to save and retrieve stolen art from the Nazis. The goal of the digital Monuments Men today is no less important: they want to save global culture from destruction.

As a member of CyArk, Davison is providing tech and knowledge to those on-the-ground experts. The non-profit organisation has dedicated itself to digitising the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Within five years it plans to scan 500 cultural sites in order to transform them into digital 3D models. So far that has worked out quite well — at least for easily accessible examples such as the Brandenburg Gate in Germany or ancient Corinth in Greece. In crisis areas, failed states, and autocracies this task is a lot harder.

The CyArk organisation uses just about every tool that high-technology has to offer: 3D scanners, drones of every size, 360-degree cameras, 3D printers, smart software, and virtual reality systems. It seems as if the idea is certainly causing some serious stir: over 250 ambassadors, government officials, experts, and activists from 35 countries attended CyArk’s annual conference in Berlin this year.

In countries such as Syria, Iraq, or Libya thousands are fighting against the ongoing destruction of historical sites. They are working against time, against the environment, against natural catastrophes, and most of all against war. Since ISIS (ISIL, Daesh) started its mass destruction of historical and religious sites, the threat has become bigger. Not a week goes by without a new YouTube video popping up that shows monuments being blown into bits and pieces or destroyed by hammer-swinging terrorists.

Davison and his students are supposed to respond to ISIS with a secret offensive—and they’ve got the support of industrial and political elites.

There are other groups with slightly different approaches to preserving what can be preserved even if only through crowdsourced images to help create 3D models:

Other groups of cultural guardian activists rely more on Internet communities than secret data-smuggling. “Project Mosul,” for example, named after the city of Mosul in Iraq, uses Internet crowdsourcing, letting users upload their photos directly. Project Mosul also uses pictures of places they find on Flickr. The more photos they find, the easier it gets for them to create a 3D model of an endangered site.

If critical information is missing, members of the community reconstruct the rest. Scientifically this isn’t 100 percent accurate, but it is better than nothing. “I lived in Jordan for eleven years, and the destruction from Syria came so close, I had to do something,” says cofounder Matthew Vincent. Now his platform processes pictures from all around the world, not only Mosul.

In another interesting development, some companies are upgrading these 3D models into full virtual reality environments. David Fürsterwalder just founded his startup, realities.io — a company that specialises in “virtual tourism.” “We need to bring those places back to life instead of just preserving them,” he explains. Fürsterwalder is convinced that we stand on the brink of a VR revolution: “This is not only something for the museum. It will bring virtual journeys to every living room.”

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