January 30, 2015

A personal oddity

Filed under: Uncategorized — acagle @ 11:58 am

Kind of off-topic, but you may quit reading if you like. Just wanted to post that Colleen McCullough passed away yesterday (Jan. 29). Apparently, her obit is causing a stir among feminist circles as it referred to her weight and lack of hotness. But I don’t care about that, because it’s not about ME.

What is about me is that I, um, became rather fixated on The Thorn Birds back in my undergrad days. I know, it’s kind of on par with my fondness for new age music. Nevertheless, I did quite like it. Recall this was the early 1980s when all things Australian were the rage here (Men At Work, Crocodile Dundee, Elle Macpherson). Add to that I was just getting into the nitty gritty of archaeology and spending hours and hours pawing through bones and junk, and going through some personal stuff involving a young lady and thinking the French Foreign Legion sounded like a nice alternative career path, and you have a recipe for latching onto some sweeping period tale involving love and loss. I still think it’s a pretty nice book, more on the chick-lit side to be sure, but I enjoyed it. Still do, I read it every couple of years. Primarily, I like the idea of self-sacrifice for something better:

“There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… Or so says the legend.”

Which is very true. Most very successful people sacrifice an awful lot to be the best at what they do. Though after watching many archaeologists who I considered very successful lead really screwed up lives, it started to wear on me whether or not I wanted to go that route.

Much of the language is really stilted; I think Rachel Ward who played one of the main characters in the miniseries hated the role and some of the lines she had to say (I watched it but didn’t care much for it). I still quote some of them to myself every now and then (“Nothing is given without a disadvantage in it” which is really true). I know a lot of Aussies who hate it (“That’s nothing like Australia!”), but I don’t like it because I think it describes Oz with great accuracy. I just like the story.

Odd, but for someone who doesn’t read much fiction, the two books that probably most influenced my young life were both fiction: The Thorn Birds and James P. Hogan’s Inherit The Stars. Both of those I feel almost compelled to read every couple of years, and they are so very different. The ArchaeoWife even bought me a decent hardcover first edition of Thorn Birds a few years ago because my old paperback was falling apart.

So anyway. Thanks, Colleen. Requiescat in Pace.

A bit of fairly recent history

Filed under: Historic — acagle @ 9:29 am

When bread bags weren’t funny

There is nothing so romanticized as old-fashioned cookery, lovingly hand-prepared with fresh, 100 percent organic ingredients. If you were a reader of the Little House books, or any number of other series about 19th-century children, then you probably remember the descriptions of luscious meals. When you reread these books, you realize that they were so lovingly described because they were so vanishingly rare. Most of the time, people were eating the same spare food three meals a day: beans, bread or some sort of grain porridge, and a little bit of meat for flavor, heavily preserved in salt. This doesn’t sound romantic and old-fashioned; it sounds tedious and unappetizing. But it was all they could afford, and much of the time, there wasn’t quite enough of that.

These were not the nation’s dispossessed; they were the folks who had capital for seed and farm equipment. There were lots of people in America much poorer than the Ingalls were. Your average middle-class person was, by the standards of today, dead broke and living in abject misery. And don’t tell me that things used to be cheaper back then, because I’m not talking about their cash income or how much money they had stuffed under the mattress. I’m talking about how much they could consume. And the answer is “a lot less of everything”: food, clothes, entertainment. That’s even before we talk about the things that hadn’t yet been invented, such as antibiotics and central heating.

I didn’t have bread bags, although both of my parents were dirt poor growing up. My mother baked her own bread and to this day I feel a bit of a twinge of guilt whenever I buy it in the store. We would have been counted as lower middle class I guess. I had more than one pair of shoes, but I do remember buying the cheap jeans and my mom making some clothes for us and herself. She canned a lot of vegetables for the winter; supermarkets in the midwest could get some produce during the winter but it was kinda pricey and not all that good.

And this doesn’t even take into account how sick most people were most of the time and how close to an early death everyone was. Most of my family of my grandparents’ generation died in their 50s or 60s usually from stroke or a heart attack. And a lot of their siblings died in their youth or infancy as well.

If you want to learn anything at all about history, a good place to start is ignoring Hollywood.

January 29, 2015

Tut, Tut update

Filed under: Egypt — acagle @ 7:56 pm

Archaeologists Want Egyptian Officials Charged for Damage to Tutankhamen’s Burial Mask

Outraged over what appears to be serious damage to one of Egypt’s ancient treasures — scratches and a layer of glue on the golden burial mask of Tutankhamen — a group of Egyptian archaeologists said on Friday that they planned to file charges against officials at the state-run Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Monica Hanna, an archaeologist with the group, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, confirmed the damage during a visit to the museum on Friday and told Agence France-Presse that officials must be held responsible.

Three of the museum’s conservators confirmed to The Associated Press this week that workers had been ordered to do impromptu repair work on the mask some months ago, after the boy king’s blue and gold braided beard came loose as workers replaced a light bulb in its case, and a hasty decision was made to glue it back on using epoxy, which might be impossible to remove.

The hands have it

Filed under: Paleoanth — acagle @ 7:53 pm

Early Human Ancestors Had Tool-Using Hands

Matthew Skinner and Tracy Kivell of the University of Kent, and their colleagues from University College London, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and the Vienna University of Technology, have found skeletal evidence that supports the archaeological evidence for tool use by Australopithecus africanus, an early human ancestor. The team members examined the internal spongey bone structure, called trabeculae, of modern human hands, and the trabecular bone structure in the hands of chimpanzees, and they found clear differences between the two.

Indiana Jones reboot?

Filed under: Indiana Jones — acagle @ 1:28 pm

Looks like it: Proof That Chris Pratt Is Perfect for Indiana Jones

Chris Pratt’s ongoing quest for fortune and glory continues. After a star-making 2014 that included lead roles in two of the biggest AND best movies of the year (Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie) and the procuring of another lead gig in what’s sure to be one of 2015’s biggest and hopefully best movies (Jurassic World), a new report claims that Pratt is wanted by Disney to play Indiana Jones in a franchise reboot.

I have to admit I’m not really sure about this. I saw Guardians and really liked him in that, but he doesn’t seem like he could really pull off the ’smartness’ of Indy. Yes? No? Indiana as Ford played him was less the buff hero type and more the professor-first, adventurer-second, and the fact that he didn’t really come off as a superhero type was what made the character work. He has to be a little nerdy for it to work, IMO. You have to believe at some level that he really could “Walk it through Mayan” first.

But please, movie people, at least run the screenplay by me first so we don’t end up with PEOPLE SWINGING THROUGH TREES WITH MONKEYS AGAIN.

January 28, 2015

And older still!

Filed under: Paleoanth — acagle @ 7:53 pm

Oldest human remains outside of Africa found in Israel

Researchers say they’ve found evidence of modern man’s exodus out of Africa. Scientists say a newly unearthed skull in Israel is roughly 55,000 years old. It is the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens outside of Africa, and proof that modern man set up shop in Middle East before colonizing the European continent.
“It’s amazing,” lead study author Israel Hershkovitz, an anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, told the Guardian. “This is the first specimen we have that connects Africa to Europe.”

Don’t have much to add.

More virtues of waiting?

Filed under: Egypt, Mummies — acagle @ 7:51 pm

Oldest known gospel retrieved from mummy mask, researchers claim

While the rich and royal members of ancient Egyptian society were buried in mummy masks of flaked gold and other precious metals, common people were forced to construct theirs with recycled pieces of paper. Recently, archaeologists found what they believe to be the world’s oldest piece of scripture in the mask of mummy from the first century.

Researchers say the new scrap of spiritual papyrus is a portion of the the Gospel of Mark, the second chapter of the New Testament. The gospel scroll fragment dates to approximately 90 AD. Scientists were able to zero in on the paper’s age by analyzing handwriting, comparing it to the other texts found in the mask, and (most convincingly) via carbon dating.

I dunno, it’s a neat thing to do, but they do end up destroying the masks themselves in the process even though the constituent components — the pieces of paper — are preserved and read.

Mummies update

Filed under: Egypt — acagle @ 7:45 pm

Archaeologists and experts say two mummies in the Vatican Museum are fakes

“These mummies are important evidence of the phenomenon of falsification that managed to regularly fool collectors and sometimes scholars,” said Alessia Amenta, Egyptologist and curator of the Vatican Museum’s department for the antiquities of Egypt and the Near East.
Scientists at the Vatican Museum’s diagnostic laboratory for conservation and restoration have been analysing the two mummy forgeries for the last year, and say they can finally reveal the techniques charlatans used to pass them off as real. They present their research on Thursday in Rome, finally unmasking the myth of these two mini mummies, which were long believed to be of a child, animal or possibly a falcon.

If it weren’t for the dating of the resin and other things it wouldn’t necessarily make them “fakes” since a lot of later “mummies” turned out to be fakes, of a sort, in ancient times: the embalmers would occasionally screw up the bodies and include parts from other bodies in the wrappings and hand them over as complete. Quite a few animal mummies have also been found to have just a few bones of (usually) the animal in question, but molded to look like the critter. Yes, there was a profit motive involved.

January 27, 2015

Bring on the kittehs. . . .

Filed under: Agriculture, Egypt — acagle @ 4:04 pm

Ancient Egyptian Kitten Skeletons Hint at Earlier Cat Domestication

The skeletons of six cats, including four kittens, found in an Egyptian cemetery may push back the date of cat domestication in Egypt by nearly 2,000 years.

The bones come from a cemetery for the wealthy in Hierakonpolis, which served as the capital of Upper Egypt in the era before the pharaohs. The cemetery was the resting place not just for human bones, but also for animals, which perhaps were buried as part of religious rituals or sacrifices. Archaeologists searching the burial grounds have found everything from baboons to leopards to hippopotamuses.

Really hard to say what’s going on. “Domestication” doesn’t necessarily mean “pets” as they may have been hanging around for a long time subsisting on the various rodents associated with agriculture, or even food stored by regular hunter-gatherers. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were all tame and friendly and rubbing around peoples’ legs. Plus, a lot of the cats were bred specifically to kill as part of religious sacrifices, which strikes us as not acting very kitty-friendly, even though they would have been truly domesticated. But then, as Ive often said, these “origins” questions can be vexing.

The Dark Light Ages?

Filed under: Historic — acagle @ 10:50 am

Good review of a book on the so-called Dark Ages (Medieval). The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers”

How the myths that led to the creation of “The Most Wrong Thing On the Internet Ever” is well documented in several recent books on the the history of science. But Hannam wisely tackles it in the opening pages of his book, since it would be likely to form the basis for many general readers to be suspicious of the idea of a Medieval foundation for modern science. A festering melange of Enlightenment bigotry, Protestant papism-bashing, French anti-clericism, and Classicist snobbery have all combined to make the Medieval period a by-word for backwardness, superstition and primitivism, and the opposite of everything the average person associates with science and reason.

Hannam sketches how polemicists like Thomas Huxley, John William Draper, and Andrew Dickson White, all with their own anti-Christian axes to grind, managed to shape the still current idea that the Middle Ages was devoid of science and reason. And how it was not until real historians bothered to question the polemicists through the work of early pioneers in the field like Pierre Duhem, Lynn Thorndike, and the author of my astrolabe book, Robert T. Gunther, that the distortions of the axe-grinders began to be corrected by proper, unbiased research.

He weakens things a bit by calling the current research (which he agrees with) “unbiased” but none of this was really new to me in general outline although many of the details were. One bit to note, regarding Galileo and his generation:

Hannam gives the context for all this in suitable detail in a section of the book that also explains how the Humanism of the “Renaissance” led a new wave of scholars, who sought not only to idolize and emulate the ancients, but to turn their backs on the achievements of recent scholars like Duns Scotus, Bardwardine, Buridan, and Orseme. Thus many of their discoveries and advances were either ignored and forgotten (only to be rediscovered independently later) or scorned but quietly appropriated. The case for Galileo using the work of Medieval scholars without acknowledgement is fairly damning. In their eagerness to dump Medieval “dialectic” and ape the Greeks and Romans – which made the “Renaissance” a curiously conservative and rather retrograde movement in many ways – they discarded genuine developments and advancements by Medieval scholars. That a thinker of the calibre of Duns Scotus could become mainly known as the etymology of the word “dunce” is deeply ironic.

This is fairly typical: to distinguish one’s own work, it’s common to tear down the work of the previous generation. The New Archaeology made a big deal out of making the culture historians out to be totally unscientific collectors of interesting objects and tinkerers with chronology, while they, in contrast, were enlightened Scientific Anthropologists.

I may snag Hannam’s book. Currently I’m reading Asbridge’s history of the Crusades which has really changed my views (which were admittedly rather 2-dimensional) of the period. Also made me appreciate my life, given the horrors and deprivations the typical soldier around the turn of the last millennium faced.

UPDATE: On the subject of the Crusades, one bit of the book really kind of disturbed me. Seems during the 5th (I think) Crusade, they had to ferry knights to shore (at Damietta) from some of the larger ships to some smaller craft. Apparently, one knight mistimed his jump to the smaller boat and, being weighed down by mail, etc.. . . . drowned. Can you imagine that? You leave your home to travel for months on a Holy Crusade to fight for Christ and then before you even set foot in the Holy Land, you die jumping from one boat to another.

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