September 23, 2015

Comparative Advantage and the Tragedy of Tasmania (Everyday Economics 4/7)

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

Published on 24 Jun 2014

What can a small, isolated island economy teach the rest of the world about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations? When Tasmania was cut off from mainland Australia, it experienced the miracle of growth in reverse, as the reduction in trade and human cooperation forced its inhabitants back to the most basic ways of living. In an economy with a greater number of participants trading goods and services, however, there are more ways to find a comparative advantage and earn more by creating the most value for others. Let’s join Bob and Ann as they teach us the “Story of Comparative Advantage” like you’ve never seen it before.

September 8, 2015

Liverpool’s mysterious Williamson Tunnels

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

On the BBC website, Chris Baraniuk covers what we know about the series of 200-year-old tunnels in Liverpool:

Of all the engineering projects that ever took place in the industrial centre of Liverpool – like the world’s first exclusively steam-powered passenger railway – the building of the Williamson Tunnels in the early 19th Century must be the most mysterious. The patron of the tunnels, tobacco merchant Joseph Williamson, was extraordinarily secretive about their purpose. Even today, no one is sure exactly what they were used for. Nor does anyone know for sure even how many of the tunnels there are, scattered underfoot beneath the Edge Hill district of Liverpool in northwest England.

Meanwhile, for centuries, the tunnels had been buried. They were filled in after locals complained of the smell – apparently the caverns were long used as underground landfills and stuffed with everything from household junk to human waste.

As time went by, the tunnels passed from knowledge to myth.

“A lot of people knew about the tunnels, but that was as far as it went – they just knew about them or heard about them,” explains Les Coe, an early member of the Friends of Williamson Tunnels (FoWT). “It was just left at that. But we decided to look for them.”


Those who have worked on the tunnels have now developed a new, somewhat more satisfying theory. Bridson points out a series of markings in the sandstone that he says are indicative of quarrying. There are channels to drain rainwater away from the rock while men worked, blocks out of which sandstone could be hewn, and various niches in the walls where rigs were once likely installed to help with extracting the stone, commonly used as a building material.

Bridson believes that before Williamson came along, these pits in the ground already existed. But it was Williamson’s idea to construct arches over them and seal them in. Properties could then be built on top of the reclaimed land – which otherwise would have been practically worthless.

If this was the case, then in terms of land reclamation, Williamson was way ahead of his time, says Bridson. The work may well have hastened the development of an area that, without this innovation, would have been left unused for many years.

Williamson also was enterprising in his design. Simply filling the trenches in would have taken too long in the early 1800s, thanks to the limitations of transport, so Williamson used arches instead. And as Bridson notes, he was doing it years before the great railway tunnels and bridges of England were ever built. The arches “are still standing 200 years on with virtually no maintenance,” he says. “Apart from the ones that have been damaged, they’re still as solid as the day he built them. So he must have known what he was doing.”

H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.

June 20, 2015

ISIS and the endangered archaeological sites of the Middle East

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Last month, Michael J. Totten described ISIS as “The Borg of the Middle East”:

ISIS has conquered Syria’s spectacular Roman Empire city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site long known affectionately as the “bride of the desert,” and in all likelihood is gearing up to demolish it. We know this because they’ve done it before. ISIS used hammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud near Mosul, and they did it on video.

“These ruins that are behind me,” said an ISIS vandal on YouTube, “they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”

Muslims have ruled this part of the world for more than 1,000 years. All this time, they’ve been unbothered by the fact that Palmyra, Hatra, and Nimrud include pagan monuments, temples, statues, and inscriptions that predate Islam. Only now are these places doomed to annihilation. ISIS is more belligerently Philistine than any group that has inhabited the region for a millennium. The only modern analogue is the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan with anti-aircraft guns, artillery shells and dynamite in March 2001, mere months before their al-Qaida pals attacked New York City and Washington.

This attitude toward history harks back less to the seventh century than to the twentieth, when Pol Pot reset the calendar to Year Zero after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, and when Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution murdered millions in the war against everything “old.”

Maamoun Adbulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told Reuters that the army carted hundreds of ancient statues away to safety, but of course the giant Roman columns and the museum itself aren’t going anywhere except, perhaps, underneath the jaws of ISIS bulldozers. “This is the entire world’s battle,” he said.

That’s how bad things are in Syria now. The mass-murderers, war criminals, sectarian gangsters, and state sponsors of international terrorism in Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime can plausibly tout themselves as the defenders of civilization. In this particular case and in this particular place, they’re right.

March 29, 2015

A Tour through Imperial Rome, circa 320AD

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

Published on 12 May 2012

A project between Khan Academy and Rome Reborn – with Dr. Bernard Frischer

March 21, 2015

Who was Sappho?

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

In the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn discusses our evolving views of the poet Sappho:

One day not long after New Year’s, 2012, an antiquities collector approached an eminent Oxford scholar for his opinion about some brownish, tattered scraps of writing. The collector’s identity has never been revealed, but the scholar was Dirk Obbink, a MacArthur-winning classicist whose specialty is the study of texts written on papyrus — the material, made of plant fibres, that was the paper of the ancient world. When pieced together, the scraps that the collector showed Obbink formed a fragment about seven inches long and four inches wide: a little larger than a woman’s hand. Densely covered with lines of black Greek characters, they had been extracted from a piece of desiccated cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like plaster that the Egyptians and Greeks used for everything from mummy cases to bookbindings. After acquiring the cartonnage at a Christie’s auction, the collector soaked it in a warm water solution to free up the precious bits of papyrus.

Judging from the style of the handwriting, Obbink estimated that it dated to around 200 A.D. But, as he looked at the curious pattern of the lines — repeated sequences of three long lines followed by a short fourth — he saw that the text, a poem whose beginning had disappeared but of which five stanzas were still intact, had to be older.

Much older: about a thousand years more ancient than the papyrus itself. The dialect, diction, and metre of these Greek verses were all typical of the work of Sappho, the seventh-century-B.C. lyric genius whose sometimes playful, sometimes anguished songs about her susceptibility to the graces of younger women bequeathed us the adjectives “sapphic” and “lesbian” (from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). The four-line stanzas were in fact part of a schema she is said to have invented, called the “sapphic stanza.” To clinch the identification, two names mentioned in the poem were ones that several ancient sources attribute to Sappho’s brothers. The text is now known as the “Brothers Poem.”

Remarkably enough, this was the second major Sappho find in a decade: another nearly complete poem, about the deprivations of old age, came to light in 2004. The new additions to the extant corpus of antiquity’s greatest female artist were reported in papers around the world, leaving scholars gratified and a bit dazzled. “Papyrological finds,” as one classicist put it, “ordinarily do not make international headlines.”

But then Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies — about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works. (“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration. Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage. The last is a particularly loaded issue, given that, for many readers and scholars, Sappho has been a feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both. “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.

March 10, 2015

Method to their vandalistic madness

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren on the ongoing organized vandalism of antiquities in areas under the control of ISIS:

Their opponents complain that, “Daesh terrorist gangs continue to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity.” I am quoting Iraq’s minister of tourism, who uses the Arabic acronym for the group that has apparently bulldozed the archaeological remains of Nimrud, on top of its other accomplishments. I’m sure the presidents of the United States and France, the prime ministers of England, Italy, and Japan, the chancellor of Germany and many other world leaders would agree with this sentiment. And let me add that these gangs have hurt my feelings, too.


The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III — thank God, removed to the British Museum more than a century ago — was found at Nimrud. It depicts, among foreign tributaries, Jehu, the ancient King of Israel, and is thus a direct transcription onto dated Assyrian limestone of what is also reported in our Bible. That was 841 BC: one of innumerable physical proofs of the historical veracity of what our children are taught to sneer at as “fairy tales,” in today’s jackboot-secular schools.

For more than a generation, now, the barbaric savages who teach in our post-Christian universities have been filling their heads with e.g. the malicious lies of the late Edward Said. They are drilled by these Pavlovs to drool, promptly, upon hearing the word “Orientalism,” and then woof, yap, and bay at “Western Imperialism,” like little attack poodles. This also hurts my feelings.

The bas-reliefs, the ivories, the sculptures — the colossal, winged, man-headed lions that once guarded palace entrances and were found in such a wonderful state of preservation — are, so far as they remained on site, or were retained in the Mosul Museum, now being smashed to bits on camera; or ground to gravel by heavy machinery beyond the local competence to manufacture or design. The “irony” here is that much of this sophisticated equipment, and probably even the mallets, were paid for by the profits from other archaeological objects which these Muslim fanatics, and their “moderate” enablers, have been selling in the international black market for art and antiquities.

Indeed: these videos of gratuitous destruction, which our media so generously promote, are probably designed to drive the prices up on the gems they have for sale; as, too, the beheading videos are intended to increase prices, and guarantee payment, on the heads of such other hostages as they may capture, from time to time. (I have noticed that many of the objects we see being smashed are actually plaster copies, of originals exported in the good old days. One must be familiar with practices in the bazaars of the Middle East to follow the many angles, in a culture that exalts low cunning.)

March 6, 2015

ISIS takes sledgehammers and drills to ancient artifacts

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

This makes me sick to my stomach:

ISIS destroys archaeological works 1

ISIS destroys archaeological works 2

ISIS destroys archaeological works 3

ISIS destroys archaeological works 4

These images and many more are screencapped from a propaganda video released by ISIS, reported by Conflict Antiquities:

It is notable that the Islamic State released this propaganda, to assert their religious purity through their commitment to cultural destruction, immediately after the were exposed for making a deal with Turkey and not destroying Suleyman Shah’s tomb.

Last June, it was rumoured and mistakenly reported that the Islamic State had ‘destroyed ancient masterpieces, including the rare Assyrian winged bull’ at Nineveh Museum. This time, they’ve done it — at Mosul Museum and the Nergal Gate to Nineveh [the Nergal Gate Museum at Nineveh]. You can stream or download the mp4 (or watch it on YouTube/YouTube archive).

But if, like other sensible people, you don’t want to boost the web traffic to their pornography of violence — which they try to advertise as Islamic although they also preserve “heretical”, “idolatrous” things as long as they profit from them — I’ve taken screenshots from the video for verification and analysis. Christopher Jones, at the Gates of Nineveh, has ongoing, historically-informed coverage of this and other destruction, including Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 1: the Assyrian Artifacts.

February 12, 2015

World War II Relics: Juno Beach

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

Published on 5 Feb 2015

National Geographic television series The Sea Hunters Relics exploring the history of World War II Juno Beach.

January 11, 2015

6th century Sicilian shipwreck yields 39 ingots of orichalcum

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

I’d only ever encountered mentions of orichalcum as a rare metal in Guild Wars 2, but it was a real thing, and an underwater archaeology team found 39 ingots of orichalcum just off the coast of Sicily near Gela:

Gleaming cast metal called orichalcum, which was said by Ancient Greeks to be found in Atlantis, has been recovered from a ship that sunk 2,600 years ago off the coast of Sicily.

The lumps of metal were arriving to Gela in southern Sicily, possibly coming from Greece or Asia Minor. The ship that was carrying them was likely caught in a storm and sunk just when it was about to enter the port.

“The wreck dates to the first half of the sixth century,” Sebastiano Tusa, Sicily’s superintendent of the Sea Office, told Discovery News. “It was found about 1,000 feet from Gela’s coast at a depth of 10 feet.”

He noted that the 39 ingots found on the sandy sea floor represent a unique finding.

“Nothing similar has ever been found,” Tusa said. “We knew orichalcum from ancient texts and a few ornamental objects.”

Indeed orichalcum has long been considered a mysterious metal, its composition and origin widely debated.

According to the ancient Greeks, it was invented by Cadmus, a Greek-Phoenician mythological character. The fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato made orichalcum a legendary metal when he mentioned it in the Critias dialogue.

December 16, 2014

Affluence and the rise of major modern religions

Filed under: Economics, History, Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:30

Colby Cosh linked to this article in Popular Archaeology, which discusses an interesting idea about what triggered the rise of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam:

It seems almost self-evident today that religion is on the side of spiritual and moral concerns, but that was not always so, Baumard explains. In hunter-gatherer societies and early chiefdoms, for instance, religious tradition focused on rituals, sacrificial offerings, and taboos designed to ward off misfortune and evil.

That changed between 500 BCE and 300 BCE — a time known as the “Axial Age” — when new doctrines appeared in three places in Eurasia. “These doctrines all emphasized the value of ‘personal transcendence,'” the researchers write, “the notion that human existence has a purpose, distinct from material success, that lies in a moral existence and the control of one’s own material desires, through moderation (in food, sex, ambition, etc.), asceticism (fasting, abstinence, detachment), and compassion (helping, suffering with others).”

While many scholars have argued that large-scale societies are possible and function better because of moralizing religion, Baumard and his colleagues weren’t so sure. After all, he says, some of “the most successful ancient empires all had strikingly non-moral high gods.” Think of Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Mayans.

In the new study, the researchers tested various theories to explain the history in a new way by combining statistical modeling on very long-term quantitative series with psychological theories based on experimental approaches. They found that affluence — which they refer to as “energy capture” — best explains what is known of the religious history, not political complexity or population size. Their Energy Capture model shows a sharp transition toward moralizing religions when individuals were provided with 20,000 kcal/day, a level of affluence suggesting that people were generally safe, with roofs over their heads and plenty of food to eat, both in the present time and into the foreseeable future.

November 18, 2014

Excavating the trenches of Flanders, 100 years on

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

In the Telegraph, Tim Rowley reports from Ypres:

In Flanders fields, dozens of men are digging trenches. From dawn to sunset, they force their shovels through the soil, even when the temperature plunges below freezing. When it rains, their clothes cling to their bodies. They were told it would be over by Christmas; now, they are not so sure.

This is Belgium, 2014, and the men are archaeologists, not soldiers – but in one regard their experiences are not so far removed from those of their forebears a century ago. The foes of the Great War have long been reconciled, but the weather is as harsh as ever.

“The cold is not the problem, it’s the rain,” says Simon Verdegem, one of the 30 archaeologists excavating land touched by only a plough for decades. “By the end of the day, our shoes are full of mud and we can’t walk straight because we slip all the time. And, this time, nobody’s firing at us.”

Verdegem’s great uncle fought on these fields 100 years ago. Now the 31-year-old is learning a little of the conditions he had to endure. “The first thing I do when I get home is take a shower and hang my clothes up by the fire. But they didn’t have the chance. They had to stay in a water-filled trench. I know how we feel after a day out here in the rain – we’re just miserable – and I can’t imagine it.”

All these years later, Belgium’s war wounds have still to heal. In the years following the Armistice 96 years ago today, vast mounds of earth were shovelled into the trenches. In the great cemeteries of Belgium, the row upon row of Portland stone stood as testament to the sacrifice of the men; the authorities were less keen to remember the inglorious squalor to which each side subjected the other.

If only that were so easy. For decades now, Flanders farmers have turned up a deadly harvest of unexploded bombs, shells and grenades. They all know the bomb squad’s phone number, and some have reinforced their tractors against explosion.

Yet archaeologists rarely get the chance to mine this rich seam of history. Under European Union regulations, they can only excavate these fields when there is an external threat to the artefacts buried beneath, such as a housing development.

Which is why Verdegem is so excited by this latest dig, the largest-ever excavation of First World War battlefields. Next year, Fluxys, a Belgian energy company, will lay a new £120 million gas pipeline across the country, snaking through 18 miles of land that formed the frontline for four years, as both sides inched from Ypres to Passchendaele then back to Ypres – each time, shuffling just far enough to bury their dead.

October 22, 2014

QotD: Ancient history

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

New interests and different locations are provided by an iPad app that gathers pages relevant to my interests, and lets me indulge particular subjects, like “Ancient History.” This gives me the impression I am learning something, and perhaps I am, but when you finish an article about Xobar the Cruel who ruled during the Middle Period of the Crinchothian Empire (140 square miles in modern-day Herzo-Slavbonia) you think “well, there’s something of which I was previously unaware, and let’s preen for a second about being the sort of person who cares about ancient history,” and then it’s all forgotten. It’s all the history of rulers, which means the history of cruelty, and the remnants of settlements, which means the history of floors and walls and tombs. I fault myself for not having a better grasp on the shadowy beginnings of civilization; it doesn’t snap into focus until the Greeks, and then you’re surprised because they have shoes and religion and government and traditions and the rest of the recognizable pillars that hold up the ceiling mankind builds to put some space between himself and the raging caprices of the gods above. Except for Egypt, where they were doing stuff for a long time, but it was weird.

James Lileks, The Bleat, 2014-04-01

October 17, 2014

Interesting discovery about the recent Anglo-Saxon gold find

Filed under: Britain, History, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 13:56

As far back as the seventh century, they had metallurgical tricks to make poor quality gold jewellery look far better:

Scientists, examining Britain’s greatest Anglo-Saxon gold treasure collection, have discovered that it isn’t quite as golden as they thought.

Tests on the famous Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon treasure, a vast gold and silver hoard found by a metal detectorist five years ago, have now revealed that the 7th century Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths used sophisticated techniques to make 12-18 karat gold look like 21-23 karat material.

Scientific research, carried out over the past two years on behalf of Birmingham City and Stoke-on-Trent City councils, which jointly own the hoard, has revealed that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had discovered an ingenious way of, metallurgically, dressing mutton up as a lamb. It appears that they deliberately used a weak acid solution – almost certainly ferric chloride – to remove silver and other non-gold impurities from the top few microns of the surfaces of gold artefacts, thus increasing the surfaces’ percentage gold content and therefore improving its appearance. This piece of Anglo-Saxon high tech deception turned the surfaces of relatively low karat, slightly greenish pale yellow gold/silver alloys into high karat, rich deep yellow, apparently high purity gold.

Archaeologists had never previously realised that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had developed such technology.

“We had no idea they were doing it,” said Dr Eleanor Blakelock, a leading British archaeometalurgist who carried out the tests on the Staffordshire hoard gold.

H/T to David Stamper for the link.

September 14, 2014

The Franklin Expedition discovery as a tool in Canadian claims to the Arctic

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:26

Canada has long claimed sovereignty over the Arctic islands and the waterways around them. The United States disputes that claim, saying that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been using the search for the Franklin Expedition to bolster Canadian claims, and the Guardian‘s Nicky Woolf reports disdainfully:

Apart from these findings, the fate of the expedition remained a mystery for almost 170 years – until this week, when the wreckage of one of the ships was found by a Canadian scientific team. Ryan Harris, one of the lead archaeologists on the expedition, said that finding the ship was “like winning the Stanley Cup”.

The official announcement of the find was made by Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada.

“This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” he said, in a bombastic statement to the press. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”

The certainty of the statement was perplexing to Suzanne Lalonde, a professor of international law at the University of Montreal. “I’ve been struggling with it – the way Prime Minister Harper announced the find as if there was a monumental confirmation of Canadian sovereignty,” she told the Guardian.

Canada’s position is that the North-West Passage is already Canadian. In an official statement to the Guardian, Christine Constantin, a spokeswoman for the Canadian embassy in Washington, said: “All waters of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, including the various waterways known as the ‘North-West Passage’, are internal waters of Canada … Canada’s sovereignty over its waters in the Arctic is longstanding and well established.

“No one disputes that the various waterways known as the ‘North-West Passage’ are Canadian waters.”

The routes usually taken to constitute the North-West Passage pass between Canada’s mainland territory and its Arctic islands.

September 9, 2014

One of the lost Franklin Expedition ships of 1845 has been located

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:47

In Canadian Geographic, an interesting find in the Canadian Arctic:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today the discovery of one of the shipwrecks of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845-48 British Arctic Expedition. At this time it is not clear which of the two ships, HMS Terror or Erebus, has been found because of similarities of the two vessels; however, the ship’s authenticity has been confirmed.

The discovery of the wreck was confirmed on Sunday, Sept. 7, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle recently acquired by Parks Canada. Details of where exactly the ship was found have not yet been released.

“I’m delighted to announce that this year’s Victoria Strait Expedition has solved one of Canada’s greatest mysteries,” said Harper in a release.

“I would like to congratulate and pay tribute to all partners involved in this year’s momentous Victoria Strait Expedition, including Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Government of Nunavut.”

And everyone’s a comedian:

BBC News linked this map, showing the approximate locations for the two ships when abandoned, plus the search areas:

Franklin Expedition search areas

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