Cantona – Ancient Ghost Town (Updated 4/10/2018)

Here is an updated version of something I wrote a little while back. However, more recent studies have provided interesting info that I thought was worth the share and rehash of the old post!

Nu History

The site of Cantona in the modern state of Puebla (Mexico) is one of those golden and mysterious archaeological finds that the experts are still trying to figure out. One of the main mysteries about this place is who actually occupied or originally settled in this ancient city. The experts suggest this could have been a settlement of the pseudo mythological Olmec people, but the archaeological finds are inconclusive. David Carballo has recently suggested that the urban plan of the city seems to indicate and agglomeration of different communities with the purpose of defence. Even the name of the settlement is disputed, and this could be key for our understanding of the site. According to the native inhabitants of the San Pedro Tepeyahualco area, the city’s name should be Caltonac.

 

Cantona was discovered in 1855, allegedly by Henri de Saussure, but it was Nicolas de Leon who in the early 1900s did extensive…

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Caesar & the Celts: Nationalistic Propaganda and Fear of Foreigners

Julius Caesar, for many a hero, for others a master of war, a tyrant. Whatever your take on Caesar is, the fact is that he was a rather intelligent man who used all the tools he had at hand to complete his objectives. Part of this involved building a narrative for Rome; tales of the greatness of their people and their military victories. Caesar in this regards was fantastic at crafting political propaganda; a common Roman sport that we have already explore in this blog with stories of Cicero and Augustus. And there was a particular enemy that Caesar needed to deprive of any glory: The Celts.  Accounts of the Galic War mystified and bastardised the history of these people and who they really were, to the point that the comics of Asterix do, in many ways, represent that image that the Romans held of their neighbours. This did not stop just with Gaul; the same story is repeated with the Britons and the people of Iberia – And let’s not even get into the nitty-gritty details of the defilement of the Germani, you know, just the same people but on the other side of the Rhine river…Of course, it all makes sense if we consider that Caesar was only delivering the information that his audience wanted of him. Meanwhile, if we have a look at what Greek authors such as Timagenes had to say about the Celts, the picture varies drastically. The Celts of the Greeks weren’t described as dirty or in rags, even if the Greeks believed them to have lower economic power than themselves in some cases. They were described as a people with a culture and a cultural exchange that happened often between the two.

There are plenty of evidence, however that confirm that Caesar was writing with propagandistic accents and that the Celts were people of culture, and not uncivilised societies. Here in Britain and archaeological excavation directed in 2011 of Roman Callevva (Silchester) shows the existence of an earlier Celtic town. This was what is commonly known as an oppidum built following a grid pattern that reflected the sun solstice. It is believed to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last decade. There are also archaeological evidence that the Celts used their own roads that were funded by toll systems, and this is confirmed by evidence of chariots found in Yorkshire as well as in the Rhineland. According to Graham Robb, author of The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe, he advises that the druids – another terribly mystified group of people, not just by the Roman but by many more since them, particularly the Victorians and the waves of Hippies from the 60s- we key in these networks. Robb states that the druids devised network of continental wide solstice lines used in the locations for temples and towns. This seems to correlate with the discoveries found at Silchester too. Another thing he points out is that the Celts and these networks may have led into the earliest types of accurate maps that would have use the Greeks systems for longitude and latitude, again a sign of communication and borrowing between the two cultures.

So where does this fear and defamation of the Celts? Well, believe it or not ladies and gentlemen, this is something that will resonate incredibly without modern society. It was in fact fear of foreign people. Yes, you know, Trump, Brexit, all these movements and people are just representations of ideas that are rather ancient and demodee. Some cool guys with swords and original republics had already gone that far (and much classier and cooler I must say, if I am allowed to be flippant). Before the Rome succeeded in the supremacy for the West, there were in fact Celtic settlements all over their beloved patria. Notorious in this list are those in Turin, Milan and Bologna: all of which are, by the way, names of Celtic origin. There was conflict between these people, not just Rome and the Celts but also the Etruscans – or you know just a different type of Celts who happened to be really successful at what they did and were worthy of specific remarks. The conflict between all of these got to the point that arms were taken. As a result we have an important moment in the early history of Italy and one that will be forever ingrained in the memory of Rome: such was the Battle of Allia. During this confrontation (date c.390 BC, though Polybius suggests it may have been more like 387 BC) the Celts were the victorious side, and the trifle by the river Allia was not going to stop them. Their retaliation took them to the very gate of Rome, and as a consequence the city was sacked by you know them dirty Celts – and it was quite  a frightful moment for the inhabitants of the city, many of which actually fled the settlement in despair. Collective memory is a power thing, it shapes us all and our perception of history, and no one likes to be on the losing side. Therefore, years later with the great Caesar in charge, things started being turned around for the glory of Rome, would not die at the hands of them Celts but subdue them, for sure…

 

…For sure? Well, let’s see…It would take a long while but it would be in fact the Germani – or you know, our friends the Celts but with a  different name cause they happened to be on the other side of the river – that eventually lead to the fall of Rome, fall that was promoted by the very corrupted and broken system that our glorious Caesar had himself invented (and died for). And just some more food for thought: what of identity? A bit like the Vikings, whose past lives are misshapen by collective memory and political propaganda, the Celts are very much alive not just in our memory, but in our identity as people. There are certain parts of the world that if you walk around and ask their people who they are, or what they are, they will tell you they descend from the Celts. And to them those Celts are not the dirty barbs that the Romans painted. They are a proud and defined people, whose values, cultures and tales are still valued. Why, of course, you can accused me of being biased here for my Celtic heritage, but you just need to look around places in Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, and many more. The Celts are embraced as part of them alive, whilst often the Romans are referred to as those people who came here and left all these things behind for us. Identity and ‘foreignity’ (here I have invented my own word, yeah) are often related. We identify us by what others who aren’t us are. Just keep that in mind when you deal with people around you and more importantly, with people in the past.

Gegharot and the Armenian Bronze Age (Updated August 2018)

Some more updated information on something I wrote a while back – this site has become extremely important in the archaeological discourse of Armenia, the Bronze and the political relationships between countries in Europe and the Near East

Nu History

Today we are going to take a trip to the site of Gegharot in Armenia. This area is currently under excavation as part of the ArAGATS – American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies. The project which was developed in 1998 by Dr Adam Smith and Dr Ruben Badalyan focuses in the investigation of the Tsaghkahovit Plain of Central Armenia under the northern slopes of Mt. Aragats. Their aim is to understand the cultural diversity and historical issues in Armenia since ancient times and up to the modern age. Gegharot, is one of the specific field projects of the ArAGATS since 2005. In order for you to get the picture, I’ll give you first of all an overview of the site.

This is a Bronze Age settlement, with a fortified wall and a cemetery which was the main area of research upon its discovery in the…

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Home Remedies, Recipe Books and 18th Century Medicine

Today I am going to talk to you guys about something I studied briefly during my masters, but did not really have the chance to look into. Yet, I think it is an interesting topic, and actually very much contemporary. If you are one of those people who worry about being healthy in an age of know-it-alls and what not, you may be aware of the great commotions that self-medicating and diagnosis has caused over the last few years. Well, this is only a very recent apprehension that has developed onto applying medicine yourself by your own procurement. It was certainly not the ordinary folk of the 18th century would have thought much about.

In the 1700s the four humours were still used as the main pathways for medicine. It was all about staying in synch with your body and find balance through diet, exercise and your environment – I guess nowadays we would call it a very holistic way of approaching medicine, right? And people would achieve this balance by obtaining health care by all sorts of ways. Practitioners were usually expensive so these would have been called only in certain occasions perhaps for more severe illnesses, or more frequently for those who could afford them. Mostly people would resource to self-diagnosis, as well as the purchase of commercial remedies, drugs and other type of herbs and natural remedies. Elaine Leong (University of Warwick) has developed her entire research around this subject. One of the aspects of her work that I found most intriguing is the use of gardening books as a compilation of advise and guidance of medical herbs. Books such as The New Art of Gardening with the Gardener’s Almanac would be popular best-sellers of the time. Moreover, people kept recipe notebooks alongside these type of publications where they would annotate lists of medicinal waters, syrups and other type of beverages for the cure of common ailments. These nasty tasting things would often been sweetened with sugar or honey – perhaps not so different from our current thoughts about certain medicines, I presume (Any of you had to take Dalsy or Apiretal when you were little? Did you not wished that their so-called strawberry and orange flavours where actually as advertised?).

These lists compiled over time also give us an insight into how intrinsically linked with the economy this homemade remedy business was. The pages would contain the ingredients required for each “potion” if you like, much like you would find in a cooking book these days. During the 18th century, the importance of international trade becomes transparent through the constant mention of spices and herbs obtained from southeastern Asia as well as the Caribbean. This was a serious task for whoever decided to follow the paths of self-medication and notebook keeping. Just consider the amount of time invested, as well as the money and resources required to get the job done right. So what sot of things did they make back then to keep all good and jolly inside? Well, believe it or not, a very frequent remedy for any kind of malady was a god purge. Purgatives were actively used in medicine, even for things that has nothing to do with the digestive system. And a lot of these laxatives you could just make at home. Here is a recipe for one such a thing that was published in A Book of Phisick, for a “pleasant purge”:

  • Manna – which was this magicky sounding name for the dried sap of the Southern European ash tree.
  • Lemon juice.

Aloe was actually use extensively during the 18th century for these remedies as well – and in fact if you substitute in the above recipe the tree for aloe that would apparently get rid of intestinal worms…One of the most common maladies that we also see cropping up often in these books are headaches – and here you are thinking of the convenience of just popping a couple of tablets of paracetamol/ibuprofen huh? Well, in the same book you find several different types of home treatments, from drinking strong tea or coffee (relatable?) or you know, just comb your hair upwards and rub in some nutmeg and vinegar…

If you are laughing at how silly this all may sound, think that this is a controversial issue nowadays and that the controversy has only started recently in the age of great pharmaceuticals, when you suddenly go to the doctor for the pills you were taking for xyz, and suddenly they change it so something else simply cause its cheaper (even though these pills may in the long run be 3 times worse for you, or have some ridiculous side effects). So perhaps, before you apply your critical eye to the situation of self medicating people or those who go or natural remedies, think that it is a very 21st century problem of 1st world countries, and perhaps you need to take a step back and think that when your granny use to tell you to take some chamomile tea before your exam to cool down, she may have had a point. And that like the good Paracelsus said back in the day  “Sola dosis facit venenum”.

 

…And if you are intrigued by some of these books and notebooks, here are some links to the Wellcome Library where you can have a peak at some of these manuscripts.

https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b19293938#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&z=-0.0637%2C-0.0356%2C1.1275%2C0.713

https://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/browse/collections/digrecipe/#t

“Crwydro y byddo am oesoedd lawer” – Them Welsh Witches!

We have covered bits of the history of witchcraft here in W.U Hstry, but there is always more stuff to dig up, obviously. So it happens I’ve recently come across something written by Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire) regarding witch trials in Wales. I was incredibly surprise to find out that there have only been reported a total of 34 cases regarding witchcraft in Wales, which is a ridiculously low amount in comparison just with England, but in general with Europe and the world as a whole. Were the Welsh less prone to heresy? Were witches perceived in a different way than elsewhere? I am still uncertain, and I cannot quite make sense of the figures myself. Yet the fact is nonetheless curious.

Doind some further research, I find out that the first ever execution for withcraft in Wales did not take place until the year 1594 – massive time lapse again. In any case, the unfortunate perpetrator of this presumed faul crime was a woman by the name of Gwen ferch Ellis. She was then in her early forties born c.1542 (Llandyrnog),Vale of Clwyd. She was known in the community for making a living as a kind of medicine woman, providing ailments for sick animals, selling herbs, and distributing Christian charms for those in need of them. Technically this could have been an ordinary woman, going through life doing perfectly normal things that did not get others killed, but! Of course, there had to be something right? Well, Ms Ellis was accused of bewitching a Welsh magistrate going by the name of Thomas Mostyn of Gloddaeth. How or why you’d think? Seemingly they found a charm written backwards at the mans parlour in his house in Caernarvonshire…Thus, Gwen Ellis suddenly was performing witchcraft instead of being a nice, helpful herb lady. Just like that. And the thing is, a lot of accusations regarding witchcraft took place rather randomly like this one. It was convenient to use it as a wild card to get rid off any woman (or man!) who may fit in the general descriptions of a witch (the many, varied, abudant definitions of a witch…) just to destroy their career, or most likely end their existences. And such was Ellis’ fate.

The trial transformed this woman into a monster. She was accused by presumed witnesses of having a bad temper and a sharp tongue – clear sign of evil! – as well as being accompanied by a familiar. But the fact that really condemned Gwen to death was the charge of murder. It was said that she had killed a man called Lewis ap John using her evil incantations. She was kept in the gaol for 4 months awaiting for her sentence until she was eventually found guilty and executed, (hanged), both for the murder as a back up for the previous accusations of witchcraft in Denbigh Town Square…What I forgot to tell you, of course, was that Gwen Ellis had not long before her tragic end, become acquianted with a Jane Conwy of Marl Hall, and found out that this Jane was having an affair with the above named Thomas Mostyn…So, perhaps not much of a coincidence at all, right? Just the perfect escape goat one would think.

Well seeing how seemingly different the history of witchcraft was in Wales, I kept on looking at their mythology: being this part of the famously known “Celtic Fringe”, I couldn’t help but think that there may have been something in their folk tales that would have either legitimised or reinforced the believe in witches in this area. And perhaps not so surprising, of course there are tales of witches in this part of the UK. However, the story that caught my attention seems to somehow correlate with this time period: the tale of the Llanddona Witches. There is a lot of controversy regarding the origin of this story in terms of timeframe. It is generally believe that this tale comes about in the 18th century, which corresponds with the 1736 repeal of the Witchcraft Act. This essentially changed the laws against witchcraft, most notably by taking prosecution in different ways other than execution: instead the law favoured imprisonment and fines for those accused of performing the mystic arts. Therefore, people like Phil Carradice believe that perhaps this moved the populace to take justice in their hands, which arguably had always been the case, particularly considering Wales counts with a highly rural population and law enforcement has not always been easy.

But, in any case, what are these witches from Llanddona about? Well, here comes my rendition of the tale. Llanddona is a small fishing community in Wales. Suddenly one day, a boat is seeing soaring the waters, sinking and with no oars and the people in it pretty much dead. The origin of these people and why and how they end here is varied depending on the version of the story. But in general the idea is that a boat full of people (sometimes men and women sometimes all female…sometimes Irish/Scandinavian/Welsh! A Spanish circus troupe?!) arrived to the coast of Anglesey. News were heard in Llanddona and the community, not trusting the strangers and state of the boat (who knew what the condition of the travelers was!) decided this was bad news and tried to keep them at the water. Eventually, the boat lands and the desperate people in it reach out to the bare sand, where suddenly a spring of clean water springs, freaking out the locals who of course decide these people are witches. At awe/fear of their powers they let them stay there but separate from the community, building their reputation as outsiders, thieves (best smugglers in Northern Wales supposedly), witches and the rest. In some versions of the tale the stigma sticks just to the women of the family and the trade of witchcraft survives in them, using the fear and gullibility of these people to “curse” them. Two prominent names of the witches of this family are Bella Fawr and Siani Bwt – the latter known for having missing toes and being barely 4 foot tall and all of these folklore, traditional witch qualities.

The Irish accents of the tale are supposed to resonate religious tension during the English Civil War, as the Welsh and some of the English people of the west feared a Catholic Irish invasion. There could also be the possibility that one of the “local” ways of dealing with people accused of witchcraft was to cast them adrift at sea hoping they’d perish that way.

So, I guess perhaps the problem with Wales and their witches is like with Galicia (north western Spain) and the meigas; their version of witches. The saying – in Spanish – goes as “haberlas, haylas”. This essentially comes to say “witches, there are…”. But without any more to add to the subject, almost as an obvious passing comment I guess (but that’s a very Galician thing to do, which I’ll talk about another day).

Until then, I say “so long” and beware of them witches knocking on your door.

Stockholm – A Lesson in Museology

Just a few days back, Alex and I had the absolute pleasure to travel to Stockholm; the Scandinavian capital had been on my list for a while to complete the “Scandinavian Triumvirate” I had promised myself I would experienced before my PhD was over (mission success!). Stockholm was certainly a wonderful visit, and a lot of material that I will be sharing with you guys over the next few weeks/months/years/centuries 😉 will come from what I learnt there. But one of the things that certainly stuck with me and I value of this trip is the amazing museums I visited. You know, working in the heritage industry you get a thing for cool museums, but this has always been one of my obsessions: the public should simply have fun whilst exploring the past, art, or science, or whatever the hell you’re into. And the Swedes certainly know how to deliver. So today, I am going to just rant about how cool these places were, and what made them cool – and pictures of course.

One of the first things that already caught my attention when I was preparing the holiday was the abundance of museum in the city. Let’s face it, Stockholm is not a huge European capital, so I would never expect to find mini-London…but there were So Many Museums and Galleries!! There is an entire section of the city, east of the old town (Gamla Stockholm), that could be called museum miles if it wanted to. This is the area of the Djurganden – the Royal National Gardens. In our trip, time was tight, but I had decided that an entire day would probably go into exploring this area. So, in my selection of activities to do here, I included a visit to the Vasa, Vikingaliv, Skansen, and part 2 with the ABBA museum – would have love to do the Nordic museum (which is btw a gorgeous building far prettier than the Royal Palace?!) but as you all know Alex doesn’t get art and I was feeling generous. And what can I tell you just with those 4 examples? That Stockholm provides the best of old and new museology to the greatest standard.

Our first stop was the Vasa Museum, and I swear I have never seen anything quite like it. I am a seasoned traveller and an experienced historian, this was mind-blowing. The Vasa is this royal ship which was going to be the pride and joy of Gustav Vasa, and that due to many misfortunes (more about that a different day) sank on its first voyage 20 mins into its journey just outside of the port in Stockholm. A lot of people compare it to the Mary Rose – yeah, alright, you wished! The museum is built around the ship itself, with the actual boat inside the building as the central piece. It reminded me in that regards a bit to the Fram museum in Oslo, which we visited a couple of years back, and you can read about it here: https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/bygdoy-museums-in-oslo-4-exhibitions-in-1-day/

Without going into the history of the ship, what is great about this museum is the following: there are two huge auditoriums I didn’t even have time to enjoy fully where they put documentaries and videos explaining you different aspects of the ship and the archaeological and conservation work put into it. There are guided tours so incredibly often, and if there is not a tour you can buy an audio guide in pretty much every other language for a very affordable price. the audio guides seemed very thorough and detailed. The thing is, though, I struggled to not spend more than 2 hours there without a tour or an audio guide because there is simply so much information and so well exposed in the information panels and displays, which by the way are very modern and well presented, both in English and Swedish.

The museum has different floor levels dedicated to different aspects of the boat and seafaring so you can appreciate not only the actual ship for what it is but learn in the process. This is something that, for example, the Cuty Sark is missing, and the Mary Rose attempts to do, but due to the current work they can’t quite do, and it really brings the ship alive. There were also good stuff for the children too – not only activities to learn about the boat but little video game like interactive displays where you learnt about navigation and sea faring. I particularly enjoyed as well the recreated port where they tell you the story behind the sinking of the boat. In general, it is very engaging. This is something that is evident as well in Vikingaliv: technology reigns over displays. As you come into this modest sized museum, you find plenty of touch screens and video stands covering different aspects of Viking society.

There are a lot of things there to keep you entertained too such as a big board of hnefatalf – or more commonly known as Viking chess, helmets and weapons to try on. And what I found most amazing, an entire board dedicated to Viking Age research and latest archaeological and history news. But, of course, who could forget the ride? They have something similar to this in Jorvik. It is like a little train ride that tell you this saga story through which you discover different tensions of the Viking Age and its people. The models, images and sounds were really great and the story is very fitting – without it being any of the well-known sagas, it takes bits and bobs from all of them to give you a general picture of the Viking age. The museum is very much up to date and provides with the most up to date research, interviews and historiographical theories – some of which are still trying to catch on in places like the UK.

When you come out of a place like that and submerge yourself in the huge thing that is Skansen Open Air Museum, you can feel like you have walked through time. Not just because of the time period has changed, but because the museum concept is different. This was the very first open air museum in Europe. The purpose of places such as Skansen is to provide a picturesque idea of how society has changed throughout time by recreating buildings and other aspects of society. In Skansen you can find reenactors spinning, carving, even riding horse carts.

Skansen also contains a little zoo of animals typical of Sweden and other fun things like the little farm for children, an old timey funicular and a stage for ALL SANG: a very famous Swedish tradition of something like karaoke that gets film and played on the TV. In essence this is trying to represent like a compact version of Sweden in just the one site that comprises the culture, history and ecosystem of the country. This type of spaces were popular during the late 19th and early 20th century, but the displays have been kept up to date and the general condition of the park is remarkably good, which is important for a place of this type in order not to look out of date. But, as I am sure you are getting now from my recollections of Sweden, being up to date is something the Swedes know best, and this is perfectly exemplified by the ABBA museum – in case the others hadn’t convince you yet.

Even if you do not like ABBA, if you are in Stockholm, just go, because this is an experience, not just a visit. You are gonna spend around 20 pounds to get in, but you are gonna be there for 2 hours easily, and it is going to be worth every penny. This is one of the most interactive museums I have ever been to. Not only you have several displays with ABBA memorabilia, costumes, records, etc, there is a lot of audio-visual information as well – from video to sound, this screams 21st century.

On top of that, it is fun! I found myself mixing ABBA music, singing and dancing, performing (quite badly) for an audition to become the 5th member of the group with holograms of the band right by me, whilst learning a ridiculous amount about music, ABBA and Sweden. I cannot explain with words how sincerely fun, new and great this museum is. The gift shop is also great: it is small but it has all the right type of souvenirs and very fairly priced. And, just to top it off, as we went in, they do have a small space dedicated to temporary exhibitions. My luck was that they had there the guitars that made the history of rock, and on top of hearing amazing stories about these instruments and the musical pieces that made the legends, I got to play guitar hero cause why not?!

So, what has become apparent from my experience in Stockholm is that, in Sweden, museums are believed to be fun: and they are! More importantly, this is what museums should be; cool, interesting places where you learn and enrich yourself as a person through an engaging experience that aids your learning. Move past the antiquarian cabinets and dry lines of text telling you “here be a sword from the 6th century” and actually take them closer to people. Another example that tops it off for me was the kids room in the History Museum (which is free btw).

This room was not just a play room, but a space for learning. There is a huge section which is like a sandbox where copies of artefacts are hidden so the kids can dig them up and then put them on the displays and tell the stories of said objects and learn in the process with the books – and audio books/stories – that you can find not just in this room but across the museum. Tell me when was the last time your children had that much fun and hands-on interaction in a museum? Cause I do not recall.

So, wrapping it up – you want to see good museums, for a more than fair price and genuinely learn the most up to date information on the subject whilst having fun? Go To Stockholm.

Hideous Visitor Attitudes Learnt and Experienced from Working in the Heritage Industry

 

After having worked for a long time in the heritage industry, I feel like this is something I need to share and talk about. I guess as a visitor of cultural attractions and a cultural historian with a keen eye for public history, it is something I have always been very aware of, but never really thought about until I actually had to deal with it on a daily basis. And the truth is, as sad as it sounds, that the heritage industry in this country (and others) suffers from an incredible mistreatment from the visitors – at least in some cases. Culture is at a great deal of being endangered. We live in the age of technology. Our cultural values may be replaced for new artefacts that reign in the digital area. The respect for the items of the past, of long gone civilizations, and even more those that still remain is very necessary to understand where we have come from and where we are heading as a species. Technology can help us preserve these things, but it needs to be done through a responsible use of such resources. War and hate crimes destroy our heritage. In the not so distant Middle East news reports advise of monument been obliterated by the likes of ISIS. Art pieces go missing or are stolen. And that is to name a few. Culture, heritage and patrimony are worth keeping alive. So here I will share some pretty common issues I encounter on my day-to-day job, which reflect pretty poor social practices and a terrible treatment of culture which we need to address and fix.

-“Why do I have to pay for entry? I am a local I pay taxes/It used to be free” – Yes, very good. Are you aware of the cuts done to local governments in term of culture and the arts? Do you know how many museums actually get funding from the Estate? Far less than you think. Just because some of the big museums in places like London (and not all by the way) are free, it does not mean everyone else has access to the same amount of resources. You may think that paying to go into churches is an abomination, but tell me how do you think that wonder of the English Gothic gets repaired and cleaned so it does not fall apart so people like you can come and visit it? And how do you think the person that has to be at the door get paid? Or that tour guide that was so nice to show you around? Hardly anything is free these days. I am not arguing whether it should be free or not – I wished! What I am saying is that, as much as this may seem outrageous, the heritage industry lacks a sincere amount of funding and resources and simply because you are unhappy with it, it does not mean you can make the staff working on that site feel awkward about it, or verbally abuse them and their job. We are people, we have feelings too, and simply because we are on a public facing role, it does not mean we can or will just take it.

Continue reading “Hideous Visitor Attitudes Learnt and Experienced from Working in the Heritage Industry”

The Enchantress of Numbers: Ada Lovelace

I am sure by now you all know I am not the most techy person in the world, but I still find this an interesting area, particularly if it comes wrapped in a majestic, incredible woman with the smarts of a genius. Yes, I am of course talking of the only legitimate child of Lord Byron: Ada Lovelace. I was seriously blown away by her knowledge and contribution to modern-day science, and I think we should be talking more about her! So here we go.

Ada was born in 1815 as the only child fruit of the relationship between Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke; as we know he was a serial polygamous lover and the vast majority of his children were born out-of-wedlock from his lovers and mistresses. This relationship in fact, is very short lived and the couple separate just a few weeks after the birth of their daughter. Byron never got to meet the woman his child became, as he died away in Greece when Ada was only 8 years old. They never really met, so Ada really grew up away from her father’s influence. This probably worked out well for Miss Milbanke as she was seriously concerned her daughter would turn up to be like her father: she thought Ada would inherit some sort of poetic madness just like her stranged husband and that would ruin her…(Genetics, huh?). But interestingly enough, little Ada showed from a very early age an interest in machines. It is because of this reason and her utter bitterness towards Lord Byron that Annabella decided to promote her daughter’s education in the field of science, particularly mathematics. Ada grew under the tutelage of Mary Sommerville, the famous astronomer who  expanded the girls curiosity into rational thinking and the complexity that was the universe. And it is thanks to her tutor that Ada gets to meet the most influential person in her life: her mentor Charles Babbage. Although becoming a reason for gossip at the time, the relationship between then an elderly Babbage and a very young Ada was strictly intellectual. However, it could be argued that they were, indeed, very fond of each others company, but not in the way people thought of it. If one considers her family lineage, and the fact people were very aware this was, in fact, Lord Byron’s daughter, in addition to Ada’s apparent great beauty, perhaps one could understand the nature of said rumours…Nevertheless, you could say that the Lovelace – Babbage companionship was really a family replacement one. Babbage had lost his children; Ada never knew her father, so they found in each other that perfect person to compliment their hearts as well as their minds.

And it is then when Ada’s brilliance really flourishes. Babbage gave her the task to translate the work of Luigi Menabrea on the Analytical Engine of Babbage. But she went so much further than just doing a translation of the work: in addition Ada introduced notes and sketches on how to use this machine. Thus, she created in many ways a new piece of work, 3 times longer than the original. Finished in 1843, Ada’s work was presented as Notes by the Translator…Sketches of the Analytical Engine. This piece also provides an insight into what Ada understood to be the true potential of such piece of equipment. In here she develops the theory that Babbage’s machine could find application beyond numerical calculations. She was convinced that this engine could be used to perform complex tasks by manipulating symbols such as producing basic answers to questions. In essence, a century early, Ada Lovelace conceived in her mind that computing was indeed possible and that any piece of content had the potential to be digitised.  It was Miss Lovelace work that truly inspires Alan Turing’s work in the mid 20th century.

However, this brilliant young mind suffers the fate of such many romantics, yet not in the way her mother thought. Ada Lovelace died at the age of 36, just like her father, but due to a severe medical condition: uterine cancer.

The Altamura Man: an Overview of Neanderthal

The Altamura Man found in Italy is an interesting Neanderthal specimen. It was discovered in 1993 in the karstic cave of Lamalunga nearby Altamura (Puglia). The remains were at the bottom of a 26 ft deep well. The archaeologists suggest the cause of the death presumably was the accidental fall of the individual into the well. The find is in a great degree of conservation, even though this Neanderthal body has been dated as 150000 years old. However due to the calcification of the remains, the only parts left that are visible are the skull and a portion of the shoulder. A team lead by Giorgio Manzi has been investigating the body and their research produces DNA data that has categorise the specimen amongst the most ancient Neanderthal remains known from DNA extraction and analysis. This was published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2015.

As I have kicked off with such a cool example of a pre-historic individual find, I thought I might as well talk a bit about Neanderthals as a whole since we have given them little mention here over the year. Moreover, I think Neanderthals are one of those historical people – or pre-historic in this case -that we tend to take for granted. I think many people still have this sort of cartoony idea about them being dumb cavemen, who were all whipped out because our cleverer and better looking Homo Sapiens ancestors came about with their evolutionary mad dash. Well, that is just not fair at all.

I think we tend to forget and overlook the fact that Neanderthals had, with their more stocky bodies, larger cranial capacities than your average Sapiens, and we just as crafty as any of the other early humans species in this worlds. Neanderthals have left an astonishing record of stone tools. Some of the most abundant and impressive founds come from France, particularly the area of Dordogne. In fact it is one of this French sites, Le Moustier, that gives the name of the culture (or as fancy archaeologist call it – techno-complex) known as Mousterian. This is a collection of flint tools of Neanderthal craft that emerged during the Middle Paleolithic (from 160000 BP to 40000 BP). But this was not a culture and type of tool making technique restricted to France. Remains of Mousterian span from far east as Siberia, to the plains of Spain. In Spain one can find the site of Atapuerca, just in the north of Castile, which is another famous settlement and data-analysis centre for the investigation of the evolution and development of early human societies. So, in this regard, our Altamura Man is not so uncommon in terms of his location. Therefore, I hope you now understand that the real uniqueness behind this find has more to do with the state of preservation and its calcification due to the geological conditions of the cave. As well as his age, of course.

Another thing that a lot of people do not realise, is that there is still a lot of Neanderthal in our modern human bodies. It has now been commonly accepted by scientist that Neanderthals were, at least in part, assimilated into the Homo Sapiens group via reproduction and mating. In fact, recent studies suggest that the sexual interaction between the two species happened much earlier than previously thought: around 100000 years ago, before, or during the first waves of diaspora from the African continent. Therefore, Neanderthal DNA runs through our veins, and it is still found individuals in the far East alongside Denisovans genetics. We have come a long way to understand this species since the first discoveries of Neanderthal remains in the 19th century. One of the first finds was that of an infants skull in Engis (modern-day Belgium). However, there is still much unknown about their lives, legacy and extinction. The scientific community still holds strongly that the Neanderthals became extinct due to climatological changes they were unfit to over come – presumably a long-lasting period of extreme cold in which our distant forebears outlasted their cousins due to, perhaps, higher adaptability. We do know that Neanderthal society was a hunting-gathering type; and that is about it. From the analysis of their teeth and the abundant evidence of weapons of their making, we now know that they were in fact apex predators, hunting from deer to mammoths. However, very recent report coming from El Sidron, (Spain), suggest that at least this group of Neanderthals survived mostly on mushrooms and plant leftovers, like pine nuts. Their social groups were also much smaller and farther wide-spread than those of the Homo Sapiens. And from there on everything gets a bit vague. There are some claims to artistic expressions in Neanderthal culture, such as some shells with pain found in a site in Murcia (Spain), as well some scratched rock surfaces found in Gibraltar that could be understood as rock cave art. However, the studies are inconclusive due to the lack of consistent evidence.

In any case, what comes across from this general overview of Neanderthals is the need of further investigations due to our lack of understanding. There is a serious lack of researchers investigating the Stone Age, or certain parts of it in Europe and the rest of the world, due to the difficulties this supposes. However, I think the challenge should encourage us to get more involved. Everyday science and our methods and resources get a little bit better to allow us to understand the very distant past with more clarity. We need to keep on pursuing this knowledge so that specimens like the Altamura Man stop being a funny coincidence in our historical, and pre-historic record, and turn them into highlights of the early origins of our societies.

Uncovering the Neolithic at Ness of Brodgar

Today I bring you an update about a place I have been wanting to go visit now for quite sometime, yet it always seems to escape me. I am talking about Ness of Brodgar, which is part of the archaeological compound found in Orkney located between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The site is 2.5 hectares and in combination with the other two, it forms the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Most people would think, well okay this is just another of those cool rocky man-made formations, why such a fuss? Well the thing is that the team that has been working in this area is pretty much convinced that Ness of Brodgar is actually older than Stonehenge – around 500 years – which of course has serious implications in our understanding of the Neolithic developments in Britain, and for that purpose the entirety of Europe. The team act work on site is led by Nick Card from the Orkney Research Centre For Archaeology UH, and has been investigating the site for over a decade. The investigation started in 2005, when Nick Cord decided to explore a whaleback mound that was believed to be a natural formation. The actual dig started in 2008.

The finds here are unique. These include clay figurines with marked faces and bodies as well as painted wall designs from around 3000 BC. This is quite a remarkable part of the discovery as Nick Card and Antonia Thomas advise:

‘until recently, relatively few examples of Neolithic decorated stonework

had been found in Orkney, with even fewer from secure stratigraphic contexts. As a result

of the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar however, the number of known examples has

more than doubled.’

(Card, Nick and Thomas, Antonia Susan orcid.org/0000-0002-1959-7260 (2012) Painting a picture of Neolithic Orkney : decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar. In: Cochrane, Andrew and Jones, Andrew Meirion, (eds.) Visualising the Neolithic. Oxbow Books , Oxford , pp. 111-124).

The archaeologist have seen and identified an increased used of carved ceramic maces and axe heads too. The items found during the excavation have raised questions regarding the use and function of such place. Current theories contemplate the possibility that this could have been a great temple complex. One of the reasons behind this thought it the fact that the site contains a really high number of rooms to have been some sort of military building. Even from the point of view of the domestic sphere, the details known about human living during the Neolithic period suggest that communities would have lived in smaller singular buildings – nothing quite of the vast dimensions unearthed at Ness of Brodgar. This was further backed with the geophysics analysis of the area, suggesting that the sheer size of the complex goes beyond our current understanding of everyday Neolithic society.

The real importance of the site is due to the building site and the techniques used in its construction. 5000 tones of rocks were used to construct what looks to be a symbolic layout. The type of stone use in this site is flagstone, which is abundant in these islands. Due to its physical properties, flagstone presents itself as a material easy to work where you can obtain flat blocks for construction as well as durable tools. It has been pointed out that the extensive use of stone work in Orkney during the Neolithic may not just be related to the lack of timber, but perhaps plays a further symbolic meaning which Mike Parker Pearson advises may be related to the culture of stone circle buildings. This also seems to have some close connection with other structures of a similar type found in the Hebrides. The position of the complex is also striking as it is in the middle of a promontory. Perhaps the evidence could be indicating a Neolithic theocratic society, as perceived from the great power the site suggests priest may have held.  Another theory that relates the site to what we now know from Stonehenge is the fact that this area could well be part of a larger ceremonial promenade – similar to the one located on the Salisbury plain. The main supporter of this idea is Prof. Mike Parker Pearson, who was also involved on the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

As you can see this site is really helping us reshape our archaeological and historical knowledge of Orkney and the Neolithic, which can have serious repercussions in our general understanding of the British Isles as well as early human history. There is so much more that will come out of this, as the excavations go on. So if you want to find out more, or keep an eye out for possible new discoveries, I suggest you have a look into their website, where you can also find a lot of extra information from the archaeological record point of view, in addition to audio-visual material that is really worth while:

http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/