Quotulatiousness

October 22, 2014

QotD: Ancient history

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 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 Russon @ 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 Russon @ 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 Russon @ 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

September 3, 2014

Hand-to-hand combat is “viciously sexist”

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:55

In many video games, especially MMOs, you can do the same kind of combat with a male or female avatar (in other words, from a gaming perspective, the differences are literally cosmetic). This is not a reflection of physical reality, although it is a nod to sexual equality in other areas. That being said, it is silly to pretend that before gunpowder came along to diminish the advantages that upper body strength confers in hand-to-hand combat, women could be equally effective in combat. ESR calls bullshit on a recent article that goes out of its way to imply that half of Viking warriors were actually female:

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at tor.com. It’s complete bullshit.

What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.

There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.

[...]

Supporting this, there is only very scant archeological evidence for female warriors (burials with weapons). There is almost no such evidence from Viking cultures, and what little we have is disputed; the Scythians and earlier Germanics from the Migration period have substantially more burials that might have been warrior women. Tellingly, they are almost always archers.

I’m excluding personal daggers for self-defense here and speaking of the battlefield contact weapons that go with the shieldmaidens of myth and legend. I also acknowledge that a very few exceptionally able women can fight on equal terms with men. My circle of friends contains several such exceptional women; alas, this tells us nothing about woman as a class but much about how I select my friends.

But it is a very few. And if a pre-industrial culture has chosen to train more than a tiny fraction of its women as shieldmaidens, it would have lost out to a culture that protected and used their reproductive capacity to birth more male warriors. Brynhilde may be a sexy idea, but she’s a bioenergetic gamble that is near certain to be a net waste.

Firearms changes all this, of course – some of the physiological differences that make them inferior with contact weapons are actual advantages at shooting (again I speak from experience, as I teach women to shoot). So much so that anyone who wants to suppress personal firearms is objectively anti-female and automatically oppressive of women.

August 30, 2014

That’s not vintage wine. This is vintage wine.

Filed under: History, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:31

Storing a few old bottles in your cellar? Not as old as these bottles:

Israel isn’t particularly famous for its wine today, but four thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age, vineyards in the region produced vintages that were prized throughout the Mediterranean and imported by the Egyptian elite.

Last summer, archaeologists discovered a rare time capsule of this ancient drinking culture: the world’s oldest known wine cellar, found in the ruins of a sprawling palatial compound in Upper Galilee.

The mud-brick walls of the room seem to have crumbled suddenly, perhaps during an earthquake. Whatever happened, no one came to salvage the 40 wine jars inside after the collapse; luckily for archaeologists, the cellar was left untouched for centuries. [In Images: An Ancient Palace Wine Cellar]

Excavators at the site took samples of the residue inside the jars. In a new study published today (Aug. 27) in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers describe what their chemical analysis turned up: biomarkers of wine and herbal additives that were mixed into the drink, including mint, cinnamon and juniper.

[...]

The residue from all 32 jars sampled in the study contained tartaric acid, one of the main acids in wine. In all but three jars, the researchers found syringic acid, a marker of red wine. The absence of syringic acid in those three jars may indicate that they contained some of the earliest examples of white wine, which got its start later than red wine, Koh said.

The researchers found signatures of pine resin, which has powerful antibacterial properties and was likely added at the vineyard to help preserve the wine. Scientists also found traces of cedar, which may have come from wooden beams used during the wine-pressing process.

The researchers noticed that the cellar’s simplest wines, those with only resin added, were typically found in the jars lined up in a row against the wall near the outdoor entrance to the room. But the wines with the more complex additives were generally found in jars near a platform in the middle of the cellar and two narrow rooms leading to the banquet hall next door. Koh and colleagues believe the wine would have been brought from the countryside into the cellar, where a wine master would have mixed in honey and herbs like juniper and mint before a meal.

As for the taste, Koh said the ancient booze may have resembled modern retsina, a somewhat divisive Greek wine flavored with pine resin — described by detractors as having a note of turpentine. (Koh said he and his colleagues usually hear two different kinds of remarks about the ancient wine: Some say, “I would love to drink this wine,” while others say, “It must have just tasted like vinegar with twigs in it.”)

February 23, 2014

Winter storms uncover a “Welsh Atlantis”

Filed under: Britain, Environment, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:54

A story in the Express about waves from recent storms having uncovered a previously unknown ancient forest on the shores of Cardigan Bay:

Gales stripped the sand from a beach at Borth in Ceredigion, West Wales, revealing the remains of a 6,000-year-old forest.

A picture of the same spot taken before the storms shows a strip of pristine sand.

The ancient oaks and pines date back to the Bronze Age.

They were discovered by Deanna Groom and Ross Cook from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

Miss Groom, a maritime archeologist said: “The site around Borth is one where if there’s a bad storm and it gets battered, you know there’s a good chance something will be uncovered as the peat gets washed away.

“It’s regularly monitored and that’s why we went to have a look there again now to see if anything new had emerged.”

The ancient remains are said by some to be the origins of the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod, a mythical kingdom now submerged under the waters of Cardigan Bay.

It has been described as a “Welsh Atlantis” and has featured in folklore, literature and song.

H/T to Elizabeth for the link.

Update: Elizabeth also sent a link that shows that ancient oak stumps aren’t the only things being uncovered by the waves:

The latest hazard caused by this winter’s devastating storms and floods has been revealed by police — unexploded bombs.

The storms that have ravaged and reshaped parts of the British coastline have led to the discovery of wartime shells long-buried on beaches.

There are also fears that flooding along the Thames will erode riverbanks, leading to the discovery of bombs dropped on the area by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

Police say that high tides and huge waves have either exposed devices or brought them closer to the surface.

Further storms and flooding are expected today as a new front moves in from the Atlantic. The Met Office has issued three severe rain warnings and gusts of wind are expected to reach 70mph.

The Environment Agency also still has 48 severe flood warnings issued across the UK following what the Met Office has described as the wettest winter on record.

Now walkers are being urged not to touch unidentified metal objects but to alert police to their finds instead.

In South West England and West Wales, which bore the brunt of the storms, six devices have been handled by bomb disposal units in six weeks.

The Navy’s Southern Diving Group said it had received a 20 per cent increase in reports of unexploded bombs since January.

A 100lb Mk XIX Second World War British anti-submarine mine was found by surfers at Watwick Bay, Haverfordwest, while a rare First World War German mine surfaced on a beach near the popular Cornish resort of Newquay.

January 23, 2014

Investigating the “Grand Slam” of 1945

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:48

In the Independent, David Keys talks about the Grand Slam, the largest conventional bomb of WW2:

The 70 ft deep and 130 ft diameter crater which Grand Slam created in the New Forest on 13 March 1945 - with the target building in the background (Crown Copyright)

The 70 ft deep and 130 ft diameter crater which Grand Slam created in the New Forest on 13 March 1945 – with the target building in the background (Crown Copyright)

The final secrets of Britain’s largest-ever conventional weapon of war are being ‘unearthed’ by archaeologists.

Geophysics experts are using ground-penetrating radar and other high tech methods to ‘x-ray’ the ground, in a remote area of the New Forest in Hampshire, to shed new light on the most powerful top secret World War Two weapon test ever carried out in the UK.

The weapon – a bomb designed by the British aircraft and munitions inventor, Barnes Wallis, and codenamed ‘Grand Slam’ – was almost 26 foot long and weighed 22,000 pounds, substantially bigger than any other wartime explosive device ever developed by Britain.

The New Forest test is historically important because it heralded an expansion in the crucial strategic air offensive against key infrastructure targets in Nazi Germany. The first RAF bomber command Grand Slam sortie got underway within hours of the successful test of the bomb.

Four geophysical techniques – ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, electrical resistivity and electrical resistivity tomography – are being used by the archaeologists to assess the damage done to the large concrete target building which has lain buried under a vast mound of earth for the past 66 years.

December 20, 2013

Why we know so little about the Maya

Filed under: Americas, History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:56

David Friedman is running a seminar called “Legal Systems Very Different from Ours” and one of the students in the seminar chose to do her paper on the Mayan legal system … or at least what we can deduce from the various sources. We don’t have a coherent view on many aspects of the Mayan culture, but he identifies the key sources that can be drawn from:

1. Modern Archeology.

The advantage is that one can dig up ruins, artifacts, other physical remains of a civilization and date them. Physical objects, unlike written texts or oral tradition, can’t lie or be mistaken.

The disadvantage is the problem of interpreting what you find — which may well depend in part on what you expect to find. As Chesterton pointed out, future archaeologists might conclude that the 19th century English believed the dead could smell things, as shown by the evidence of flowers in grave sites.

2: The oral traditions and current practices of the descendants of the Maya civilization.

The advantage of that source of information is that there are lots of people who are bilingual in one of the Maya languages and a modern language, so anthropologists who interview them can avoid the problem of making sense of an ancient language and an extinct system of writing.

The disadvantage is that we do not know how much of what current Maya believe about events in the distant past is true, nor to what degree current institutions preserve the institutions of the distant past.

3. A book written in Spanish by a 16th century Spanish Bishop describing his observations shortly after the conquest.

The advantage is that it is written in a language we can read, using a writing system we can read, based on first hand observation.

The disadvantages are, first, that it is first hand observation by a single observer of a society very different from his own, and second that the observer had serious biases that may well have affected what he observed and recorded. [...]

September 16, 2013

British battlefields and the belated preservation effort

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:02

In History Today, Julian Humphrys talks about the late start in preserving and interpreting the battlefields in Britain:

Few would disagree that battles have played a significant part in Britain’s history. The Norman Conquest after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 caused enormous social, political and cultural change; De Montfort’s victory at Lewes in 1264 led to the earliest forerunner of Parliament; Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314 helped secure Scotland’s independence from England while the battles of the mid-17th century helped change both the roles of Crown and Parliament and the relationship between the component parts of the United Kingdom. Furthermore the reputations of many great leaders were forged on the battlefield: Cromwell’s victories, for example, gave him both the opportunity and the desire to intervene on the national political stage. But why preserve the battlefields?

Part of the answer lies in the ground itself. Battlefields may contain important topographical and archaeological evidence, which can help us understand the events that took place on their soil. Walk the boggy ground at the foot of the steep slopes of Branxton Hill at Flodden and you’ll quickly understand how in 1513 advancing blocks of Scottish pikemen lost cohesion and momentum and floundered to bloody defeat at the hands of the Earl of Surrey’s English billmen (see James IV: Renaissance Monarch). By locating the fall of shot through metal detecting, archaeological projects at Edgehill (1642), Naseby (1645) and Culloden (1746) have helped us learn more about the dispositions of the armies and the course of the battles, while at Bosworth (1485) it has finally unearthed the actual location of the fighting itself.

[...]

It is sometimes said that Britain lags behind the US, Belgium and parts of France in the care, interpretation and promotion of its battlefields. Many more British schools visit the Western Front than they do the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses or the Civil Wars. There are a dozen First World War museums in and around Ypres alone, headed by the award-winning ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum in the town’s restored Cloth Hall. There are numerous bunkers and preserved or reconstructed sections of trench, over a hundred British and Commonwealth cemeteries, and countless walking tours, self-drive tours, coach tours, cycle tours, even balloon tours to choose from.

Many American Civil War battlefields are carefully tended, painstakingly interpreted and bristling with memorials. The field of Gettysburg (1863) is administered by the US National Park Service; with a staggering 1,300 monuments it has been described as one of the largest collections of outdoor sculpture in the world. But perhaps all this is to be expected, for while its civil war remains America’s most costly conflict and was fought at home, Britain has done much of its fighting abroad. Mention battlefields to a Briton and the chances are they will initially think of somewhere overseas, notably Ypres or the Somme. The Great War was in many ways our national Calvary — the first time that anything more than a relatively small British army took part in a major war, suffering mass casualties as a result. Furthermore much of it was fought just across the Channel within reach of the British visitor, most of whom will know of relatives who fought there.

May 27, 2013

Recreating ancient hairstyles – the “Hairdo archaeologist”

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:36

BBC News has an interesting short video on the intersection of hairstyles and archaeology:

Janet Stephens earns a living trimming, straightening and dyeing the hair of customers seeking the latest look.

But the stylist from the US city of Baltimore is more interested in the hairdos of the past.

Stephens is a hairstyle archaeologist who specialises in recreating how women in ancient Rome and Greece wore their hair.

She spoke to the BBC about a museum visit that marked the start of a long journey of discovery on which she solved a historical mystery and had her work published in an academic journal.

May 23, 2013

Underwater archaeologists revisit Louisbourg

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:29

Archaeologists are visiting Louisbourg harbour to inspect the remains of several French ships that were sunk during the second siege of Louisbourg in 1758:

Parks Canada’s underwater archeologists have been studying what remains of the ships in the waters off Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site since the early 1960s. For this dive, they are also gathering fresh, high-quality video and pictures for new exhibits and for a festival of all of Parks Canada’s archeologists to be held during Louisbourg 300 celebrations this summer.

Jonathan Moore of Parks Canada’s underwater archeology service said that after so many years on the ocean floor, what is left of the warships is mainly the remains of the lower hulls, which are embedded into the harbour bottom.

“You are not seeing a lot of structure above the sea bed,” he said Wednesday morning, after the five-person team returned to the wharf in Louisbourg. “A lot of the heavier materials located in the lower-most reaches of the ships are laying on the seabed.

“A common thing we are seeing is cannons that were on the warships when they went down: cannonballs, cannon shot, bar shot — all of the kinds of ordnance that was on the vessels when they sank.”

Some ship parts like some rigging, pulley components, stone and iron ballast are also on the ocean floor.

Underwater archeologists last visited the shipwrecks in 2008.

“We haven’t seen any dramatic change, which is a good sign,” said Moore.

February 17, 2013

It turns out it actually was the Burmese equivalent of Al Capone’s vault

Filed under: Asia, Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:51

Back in early January, the archaeological dig for buried WW2 Spitfires was announced:

Then, the doubts began to grow:

And now, even the sponsoring organization says there are no buried Spitfires after all:

A global video gaming company that funded a high-profile hunt for dozens of World War II-era British fighters in Myanmar has some bad news for aviation enthusiasts: It says none of the legendary planes are buried in the Southeast Asian country.

Excavation teams carrying out surveys on the ground, however, said Saturday that they would not give up the search.

The hunt for the lost planes was launched amid hope that as many as 140 rare Spitfires were hidden in crates in pristine condition in three locations in Myanmar.

But the Belarusian video gaming company Wargaming.net, which had backed the venture, said in a statement late Friday that the planes were never even delivered to the country by Allied forces as the war drew to a close nearly 70 years ago.

“The Wargaming team now believes, based on clear documentary evidence, as well as the evidence from the fieldwork, that no Spitfires were delivered in crates and buried” in Myanmar between 1945 and 1946, the statement said.

I’d been rather doubtful of the story from the start — even though it would have been awesomely cool to find a stash of Spitfires.

February 5, 2013

What did King Richard III look like?

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:33

A facial reconstruction based on the skull of Richard III:

A facial reconstruction based on the skull of Richard III has revealed how the English king may have looked.

The king’s skeleton was found under a car park in Leicester during an archaeological dig.

The reconstructed face has a slightly arched nose and prominent chin, similar to features shown in portraits of Richard III painted after his death.

Historian and author John Ashdown-Hill said seeing it was “almost like being face to face with a real person”.

The development comes after archaeologists from the University of Leicester confirmed the skeleton found last year was the 15th Century king’s, with DNA from the bones having matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family.

I was unable to find an image of the reconstruction that is okay to use, but you can see various pictures on Google Image Search.

I was getting hungry after reading the first two paragraphs…

Filed under: Asia, History, India — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

What is curry and where did it come from?

What is curry? Today, the word describes a bewildering number of spicy vegetable and meat stews from places as far-flung as the Indian subcontinent, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean Islands. There is little agreement about what actually constitutes a curry. And, until recently, how and when curry first appeared was a culinary mystery as well.

The term likely derives from kari, the word for sauce in Tamil, a South-Indian language. Perplexed by that region’s wide variety of savory dishes, 17th-century British traders lumped them all under the term curry. A curry, as the Brits defined it, might be a mélange of onion, ginger, turmeric, garlic, pepper, chilies, coriander, cumin, and other spices cooked with shellfish, meat, or vegetables.

Those curries, like the curries we know today, were the byproduct of more than a millennium of trade between the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia, which provided new ingredients to spice up traditional Indian stews. After the year 1000, Muslims brought their own cooking traditions from the west, including heavy use of meat, while Indian traders carried home new and exotic spices like cloves from Southeast Asia. And when the Portuguese built up their trading centers on the west coast of India in the 16th century, they threw chilies from the New World into the pot. (Your spicy vindaloo may sound like Hindi, but actually the word derives from the Portuguese terms for its original central ingredients: wine and garlic.)

But the original curry predates Europeans’ presence in India by about 4,000 years. Villagers living at the height of the Indus civilization used three key curry ingredients — ginger, garlic, and turmeric — in their cooking. This proto-curry, in fact, was eaten long before Arab, Chinese, Indian, and European traders plied the oceans in the past thousand years.

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