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Posts Tagged ‘Archaeology

“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”*…

 

tree-of-life_1000

This Tree of Life diagram is based primarily on the evolutionary relationships so wonderfully related in Dr. Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and timetree.org. The smallest branches are purely illustrative. They are intended to suggest the effect of mass extinctions on diversity, and changes in diversity through time. This diagram is NOT intended to be a scholarly reference tool! It is intended to be an easy-to-understand illustration of the core evolution principle; we are related not only to every living thing, but also to everything that has ever lived on Earth

Climb around in The Interactive Tree of Life Explorer.

* Charles Darwin

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As we ponder our progenitors, we might a thought for Kenneth Page Oakley; he died on this ate in 1981.  An anthropologist, paleontologist, and geologist, he  developed a method of dating fossilized bones by measuring their fluoride levels (based on a French mineralogist’s theory that bones would gradually absorb fluoride from surrounding soil).  He was able to use his technique, in 1953, to expose the “Piltdown Man” skull as a forgery.  It had been “unearthed” in 1912, in Piltdown, England, and had for decades been said to represent the “missing link” in human evolution.

Oakley source

 

Written by LW

November 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The dice of Zeus always fall luckily”*…

 

14th century medieval dice from the Netherlands

Whether at a casino playing craps or engaging with family in a simple board game at home, rolling the dice introduces a bit of chance or “luck” into every game. We expect dice to be fair, where every number has equal probability of being rolled.

But a new study shows this was not always the case. In Roman times, many dice were visibly lopsided, unlike today’s perfect cubes. And in early medieval times, dice were often “unbalanced” in the arrangement of numbers, where 1 appears opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, and 5 opposite 6. It did not matter what the objects were made of (metal, clay, bone, antler and ivory), or whether they were precisely symmetrical or consistent in size or shape, because, like the weather, rolls were predetermined by gods or other supernatural elements.

All that began to change around 1450, when dice makers and players seemingly figured out that form affected function, explained Jelmer Eerkens, University of California, Davis, professor of anthropology and the lead author of a recent study on dice.

“A new worldview was emerging — the Renaissance. People like Galileo and Blaise Pascal were developing ideas about chance and probability, and we know from written records in some cases they were actually consulting with gamblers,” he said. “We think users of dice also adopted new ideas about fairness, and chance or probability in games”…

From fate to fairness: how dice changed over 2,000 years to be more fair: “It’s not how you play the game, but how the dice were made.”

[via Tim Carmody‘s always-illuminating newsletter, Noticing]

* Sophocles

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As we consider the odds, we might send frontier-challenging birthday greetings to a man who tempted chance– Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager; he was born on this date in 1923.  A flying ace, test pilot, and ultimately U.S. Air Force General, Yeager became the first human to officially break the sound barrier when, in 1947, he flew the experimental Bell X-1 at Mach 1 at an altitude of 45,000 ft. 

Perhaps as famously, Yeager was a mentor and role model for the first class of NASA astronauts, as memorialized in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and Philip Kaufman’s film adaptation.  On finishing high school at the beginning of World War II, Yeager had enlisted in the Air Force as a private; he served a mechanic before being accepted into the enlisted flight program, from which he graduated as a “Flight Officer” (equivalent to a Chief Warrant Officer).  His extraordinary skill as a pilot fueled his continued rise through the ranks.  But NASA’s requirement that all astronauts have college degrees disqualified Yeager from membership in the space program.  So though he was by most accounts far the most qualified potential astronaut, he became instead their head teacher, the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, which produced astronauts for NASA and the USAF.

Yeager in front of the Bell X-1, which, as with all of the aircraft assigned to him, he named Glamorous Glennis (or some variation thereof), after his wife.

source

 

Written by LW

February 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid”*…

 

By the time American audiences were introduced to Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr in the 1938 film Algiers, she had already lived an eventful life. She got her scandalous start in film in Czechoslovakia (her first role was in the erotic Ecstasy). She was married at 19 in pre-World War II Europe to Fritz Mandl, a paranoid, overly protective arms dealer linked with fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. After her father’s sudden death and as the war approached, she fled Mandl’s country estate in the middle of the night and escaped to London. Unable to return home to Vienna where her mother lived,  and determined to get into the movies, she booked passage to the States on the same ship as mogul Louis B. Mayer. Flaunting herself, she drew his attention and signed with his MGM Studios before they docked.

Arriving in Hollywood brought her a new name (Lamarr was originally Kiesler), fame, multiple marriages and divorces and a foray into groundbreaking work as a producer, before she eventually became a recluse. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lamarr’s life isn’t as well known: during WWII, when she was 27the movie star invented and patented an ingenious forerunner of current high-tech communications…

The story of the movie star who invented spread-spectrum radio, the secure signal technology that helped the Allies avoid having their radio communications intercepted by the Axis forces, and that lies at the heart of the cellular phone system that we all use today: “Why Hedy Lamarr Was Hollywood’s Secret Weapon.”

* Hedy Lamarr, who was decidedly not stupid

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As we give overdue credit where credit is due, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista Belzoni; he was born on this date in 1778.  The 14th child of a poor barber in Padua, he was a barber, a Capuchin monk, a magician, and a circus strongman before finding his true calling– explorer (and plunderer) of Egyptian antiquities.

Belzoni’s call to action came when he met a British Consul-General named Henry Salt who persuaded him to gather Egyptian treasures to send back to the British Museum.  Under extremely adverse conditions he transported the colossal granite head of Rameses II from Thebes to England, where it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Later, he discovered six major royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including that of Seti I, and brought to the British Museum a spectacular collection of Egyptian antiquities. He was the first person to penetrate the heart of the second pyramid at Giza and the first European to visit the oasis of Siwah and discover the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. He stumbled into the tomb of King Ay, but only noted a wall painting of 12 baboons, leading him to name the chamber ‘Tomb of the 12 Monkeys” (because hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered, he usually had no idea who or what he had found).

Belzoni had two habits that have contributed to his legacy:  he was a lover of graffiti signatures, and inscribed “Belzoni” on many of Egypt’s antique treasures, where the carvings survive to this day.  And he carried a whip: which, given that he was one of the models for Indiana Jones, became one of that character’s hallmarks.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“What’s it mean; are you determined / To make modern all mankind?”*…

 

Over the past century, there have been numerous expeditions to find a mythical lost city in the Mosquitia rainforest. La Ciudad Blanca keeps being discovered, over and over again; practically any time anyone finds the remains of any settlement, they call it that. I know of half a dozen large sites that have each been deemed ‘the White City’; there must be others. In all cases, the ‘discoverers’ are outsiders, and their find is presented as a heroic accomplishment. They want us to believe that they are intrepid explorers – achieving what others couldn’t because of their guts, money, technology, business acumen and grit.

Nothing in their description is accurate. The cities aren’t lost; the people living in these areas know all about them. And the original legends do not even reference cities; rather, they refer to locations that, for whatever reason, represent a golden age for indigenous communities. Even the landscape is not particularly dangerous; children grow up there, after all…

Archaeologist Christopher Begley asks: “Ancient ruins keep being ‘discovered’: were they ever lost?

* Charles Conrad Abbott

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As we dig, we might send acquisitive birthday greetings to Baron Nils Erland Herbert Nordenskiöld; he was born on this date in 1877.  A Swedish archeologist and anthropologist, he was a foremost scholar of South American Indian culture in his time.  From 1913, he built an extensive collection of “discovered and recovered” South American native artifacts at the Gotebörg Ethnographic Museum, which he headed.  His work was influential in the study of archaeology and anthropology throughout Scandinavia.

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Written by LW

July 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting”*…

 

Between 2010 and 2014, archeologists digging in London’s financial district, on the site of a new British headquarters for Bloomberg, made an astonishing discovery—a collection of more than four hundred wooden tablets, preserved in the muck of an underground river. The tablets, postcard-sized sheets of fir, spruce, and larch, dated mainly from a couple of decades after the Roman conquest of Britain, in A.D. 43, straddling the period, in the reign of Nero, when Boudica’s rebellion very nearly got rid of the occupation altogether. Eighty of them carried legible texts—legible, that is, to Roger Tomlin, one of the world’s foremost experts in very old handwriting…

The pleasures– and purposes– of paleography: “How to decode an ancient Roman’s handwriting.”

* George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

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As we put the curse in cursive, we might send terrifically-legible birthday greetings to Ottmar Mergenthaler; he was born on this date in 1854.  Known as “the second Gutenberg,” he invented the linotype machine– the first device that could easily and quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses. It so revolutionized the art of printing, that Thomas Edison called it “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

 source

 

Written by LW

May 11, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I said to a bartender, ‘Make me a zombie.’ He said ‘God beat me to it.'”*…

 

Wharram Percy, aerial view

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 in the Journal of Archaeological Science

Dig in at “Mediaeval Yorkshirefolk mutilated, burned t’dead to prevent reanimation.”

* Rodney Dangerfield

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As we anticipate the apocalypse, we might recall that it was on this date (as tradition would have it) in 1387 that 30 pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to embark together the next day on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.  They agreed to a story-telling contest to be held along the way on their journey, the prize being a free meal on their return.

The pilgrims were, of course, fictional, the product of the glorious imagination of Geoffrey Chaucer.  But their stores– The Canterbury Tales— delight to this day.

A woodcut from William Caxton‘s second edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in 1483

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Written by LW

April 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”*…

 

In 1872 a British general named Alexander Cunningham, excavating an area in what was then British-controlled northern India, came across something peculiar. Buried in some ruins, he uncovered a small, one inch by one inch square piece of what he described as smooth, black, unpolished stone engraved with strange symbols — lines, interlocking ovals, something resembling a fish — and what looked like a bull etched underneath. The general, not recognizing the symbols and finding the bull to be unlike other Indian animals, assumed the artifact wasn’t Indian at all but some misplaced foreign token. The stone, along with similar ones found over the next few years, ended up in the British Museum. In the 1920s many more of these artifacts, by then known as seals, were found and identified as evidence of a 4,000-year-old culture now known as the Indus Valley Civilization, the oldest known Indian civilization to date.

Since then, thousands more of these tiny seals have been uncovered. Most of them feature one line of symbols at the top with a picture, usually of an animal, carved below. The animals pictured include bulls, rhinoceros, elephants, and puzzlingly, unicorns. They’ve been found in a swath of territory that covers present-day India and Pakistan and along trade routes, with seals being found as far as present-day Iraq. And the symbols, which range from geometric designs to representations of fish or jars, have also been found on signs, tablets, copper plates, tools, and pottery.

Though we now have thousands of examples of these symbols, we have very little idea what they mean. Over a century after Cunningham’s discovery, the seals remain undeciphered, their messages lost to us. Are they the letters of an ancient language? Or are they just religious, familial, or political symbols? Those hotly contested questions have sparked infighting among scholars and exacerbated cultural rivalries over who can claim the script as their heritage. But new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script…

A tale of antiquities, A.I., and academic rivalry: “Cypher Wars.”

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (5.6)

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As we dig in, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Gertrude Caton Thompson; she was born on this date in 1888.  An influential English archaeologist at a time when it was unusual for women to be allowed to lead in the field (pun intended), she distinguished two prehistoric cultures in the Al-Fayyum depression of Upper Egypt (the older dating to about 5000 BC and the younger to about 4500 BC.), and she demonstrated that the ruins in southeastern Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe known since the 16th century as Great Zimbabwe were the product of a “native civilization” (not outsiders, as some others had asserted).

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Written by LW

February 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

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