19 February 2011


The 71st Carnival of Ancient & Medieval History Blogging.

As a full-blooded member of the vinous Wein-garten family, I am kicking off this Carnival with two grape stories.  The first may be more archaeology than history -- but who can doubt that turning grapes into wine changed the history of  humankind forever?

The first tipple knocked back 6,100 years ago 

Wine-making started 1,000 years earlier than we thought: Anthropology.net ('When & Where Grapes Domesticated') reports on a 6,000 year old uncorked 'wine barrel' discovered at the Areni-1 cave near the Iranian border in Armenia (the same place where the 5,500 year-old leather moccasin was found last year).  It forms part of the oldest complete wine production facility ever found, including grape seeds, withered grape vines, remains of pressed grapes, a rudimentary wine press, a clay vat apparently used for fermentation, wine-soaked potsherds, and even a cup and drinking bowl. 

The precise identity of the wine-swilling shoe-wearing people remains a mystery but the archaeologists have some interesting ideas on how wine was first used. More on that, and details of radiocarbon dating, paleobotanical, and chemical residue analysis at the UCLA.edu portal

After examining the grape seeds, the species turned out to be Vitis vinifera vinifera, the domesticated variety of grape still used to make wine today.  And therein lies a grave problem....

Lack of Sex Among Grapes Tangles a Family Vine

The New York Times (25 January) set the tone,
For the last 8,000 years, the wine grape has had very little sex. This unnatural abstinence threatens to sap the grape’s genetic health and the future pleasure of millions of oenophiles.

After testing genetic variation in over 1,000 samples of the domesticated grape, Vitis vinifera vinifera, and its wild relative, V. vinifera  sylvestris, Sean Myles of Cornell University, discovered that 75% of the 583 varieties of cultivated grapes were as closely related as parent and child or brother and sister. "Previously people thought there were several different families of grape," Dr Myles said. "Now we’ve found that all those families are interconnected and in essence there’s just one large family."

This web of interrelatedness indicates that the grape has undergone very little breeding since it was first domesticated.  Albeit one big happy family, this makes the grape especially vulnerable to pests and diseases (think of the French phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century).  It's an oenophilic disaster waiting to happen.  The whole story is at 'Genetic Study of the Grape Reveals Weakness in Our Wine Supply' on JetLib News, and the publication on  the PNAS website.

OK, the pub is now closed, the Armenians having pipped the Egyptians at the post: wine remains from the tomb of King Scorpion I (ca. 3150 BCE) appeared long after Opening Time.  

That news was the beginning of a bad month for the pharaohs.

Is Pharaoh DNA For Real? 

The results of the first DNA analysis of ancient Egyptian royalty - a huge study of 11 royal mummies dating from around 1300 BC - were published with great fanfare in February 2010.  The findings were dramatic.  As well as detecting DNA from the malaria parasite in four of the mummies, the researchers produced a family tree. They identified Tutankhamun's father as the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, concluded that Tut's parents were brother and sister, and determined that two mummified foetuses found in his tomb were probably his stillborn children. 

It seemed that we were finally getting definitive answers to questions relating to health, family relationships, and causes of death. 

Or were we? 

Jo Marchant (Decoding the Heavens) explains why this study has triggered not so much excitement as scepticism and frustration for many in the ancient-DNA community.  Is it the dawn of 'molecular Egyptology' and our first insight into the genetic origins of the pharaohs -- or of researchers under huge pressure for results seeing what they want to see?  Is Pharaoh DNA for real? is the best analysis I've read of why -- so far -- things only seem to get murkier.

'Egypt without Secrets is like a day without sunshine', as an ancient proverb might have it. 

Unknown Secret Chambers in the Great Pyramid?

Where else? 

The known chambers and passages inside the Great Pyramid are shown, left -- but French architect and pyramid expert Jean-Pierre Houdin argues that these are merely related to the pyramid's construction and were not those used for the funeral procession.  His claim that the Great Pyramid is hiding secret rooms and passages could be settled by scanning the walls with ground-penetrating radar.  Jo Marchant investigates, in the Great Pyramid's Secret Chambers

And yet another Mystery from Ancient Egypt: 

Did the Ancient Egyptians Know of Pygmy Mammoths?

Among the exotic gifts presented to pharaoh, as shown on the painted walls of Rekhmire's tomb (mid-late 15th C BCE) in the Valley of the Nobles, is a unique depiction of a small, tusked, hairy elephant (left).  The beast is pictured waist-high to the Syrian traders marching beside him in the procession.

The African elephants Loxodonta and the now extinct Middle Eastern population of the Asian elephant Elephas maximus were both known to the ancient Egyptians, but Rekhmire's elephant doesn't seem to be either.  Its apparent hairiness, convex back and domed head makes it look like a juvenile Asian elephant -- but it is also shown with huge tusks.  Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology (via Andie at Egyptology News) explores the possibility that it was a late-surviving pygmy Mediterranean island-dwelling species.  Chronology just about makes the link feasible.  Art historians will look askance but it's fun to think of the last dwarf elephant on earth ending up being presented to pharaoh -- and recorded in his vizier's tomb at Thebes.

Shiver My Timbers

In the ancient Mediterranean parrots were an exotic bird. They were rare,  multicoloured and could even repeat human words or swear like sailors.  Ctesias of Cnidus (late 5th C BCE) was the first to describe the human-tongued bird in a work, now lost, which comes down to us somewhat garbled:
The parrot is about as large as a hawk, which has a human tongue and voice, a dark red beak, a black beard, and blue feathers up to the neck, which is red like cinnabar. It speaks Indian like a native, and if taught Greek, speaks Greek.
Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog ('First Greek Encounter with a Parrot') helps to ungarble Ctesias' colour code and nail down the species of bird (I'll take it on trust, too, Beachcomber).  Beachcomber also supplies a cackle of parrot references -- from poetry (e.g., the glory and the pride of the fowls of the air, the radiant Ruler of the East, is dead is dead) to the bizarre feast with parrot meat mentioned in Eubulus -- but, surely, Beachbomber, the comic poet was 'only kidding'.

Bad Omens!  Bad Omens! 

No, not from parrots, no matter how foul-mouthed. 

But from dead birds falling from the sky. 

... like the thousands of blackbirds, starlings, grackles, and cowbirds hitting the ground in Arkansas on New Year's Eve.  Surely, a sign!  

What, wonders Vicky Alvear Shecter of History With A Twist, if it had happened in Rome?

If thousands of birds had fallen from the sky in ancient Rome, everybody—from emperors, to warriors, to peasants and slaves — would have been in a state of complete and total panic.

Streets would have run with blood as priests slaughtered animal victims to appease the gods.  And yes, they'd certainly have asked -- as did Arkansans, too -- why did it happen on New Year's Eve?  What can it mean? "God is angry," say some. "We must change our behaviour to appease him," say others.  How can anyone deny that it's the first sign of the Apocalypse and end of the world?  

In short, some people seem to have learnt nothing in the intervening millennia.

Speaking of bad-omened Romans, I made the sign against the evil-eye when I saw this headline in the Guardian newspaper:

Caligula's tomb found after police arrest statue-smuggler.

But, sadly, this was not Caligula's tomb.  This was media hype.

The police arrested a man near Lake Nemi, south of Rome, as he loaded part of a 2.5 metre [8.2'] statue into a lorry [truck].  True, the emperor had a villa in the area, as well as a floating temple and a floating palace, but the only evidence for a tomb seems to be a misunderstanding of the Italian word, tombarolo -- 'tomb robber' (more generally, illegal digger).  And why did the police finger Caligula? Because the statue was shod with a pair of the caligae, the military boots worn by the emperor when, as a boy, he accompanied his father on campaigns in Germany: the soldiers were amused and gave him his nickname Caligula, or "little boot".

Putting the (big) boot in.

Big Boot 1: 'RogueClassicism'  (Caligula Tomb Silliness) advised the Guardian not take the word of the police when it comes to historical/archaeological matters.  He pointed out that Romans generally didn’t entomb folk on country estates.  And, anyway, Suetonius told us what happened to Caligula’s perforated corpse (stabbed at least 30 times):
His body was conveyed secretly to the gardens of the Lamian family, where it was partly consumed on a hastily erected pyre and buried beneath a light covering of turf; later his sisters on their return from exile dug it up, cremated it, and consigned it to the tomb. [thus, in or near the gardens]
Big Boot 2:  Mary Beard, in 'A Don's Life' (This Isn't Caligula's Tomb) adds that you can't tell a headless statue by its boots: loads of Roman statues wear such boots.  And, for good measure, as a commenter on her post added, Caligula wore them as a boy, not as a man.

Big Boot 3:  'New at LacusCurtius and Livius' (Oh, please...) notes that the last line of the media report is, “The tomb raider led them [the police] to the site, where excavations will start today.”  In other words, research still has to start. 

So, this was about as accurate a report as you'd expect from Caligula's horse.

I have more bones to pick

Bone Girl  (An African in Avon?) writes about the discovery of the skeleton of an African man who died in ca. 300 CE in what is now Stratford-on-Avon.  Naturally, the public wants to know who he is -- and the archaeologists oblige: "He could have been a merchant, although, based on the evidence of the skeletal pathology it is probably more likely that he was a slave or an army veteran who retired to Stratford."


Bone Girl wonders, first of all, how they determined that this skeleton is that of an African man: isotopes, DNA, morphology?  We don't know.  All we have are osteological results, which "revealed the man was heavily built and used to carrying heavy loads."  And between 40-50 years old when he died.  From these meagre pickings, our African(?) has become a probable slave or old soldier.
Granted, slave, soldier, and merchant were the main classifications of men who moved around the Roman Empire. But there were certainly free civilians, students, and others (like women and children) who circulated in this large geographic space. Additionally, slaves could (and were often) freed, so the ideas of social class and free/slave are quite mutable in the Roman Empire.
Quite so.  Read the whole story at Bone Girl.

But, before we leave Stratford, we have to ask, "Is the man even African, and, if he is, what does that mean?  According to Rosemary Joyce (British, Roman, or African?), people in the past were not as homogeneous as we imagine them:
The Roman empire extended across northern Africa; Roman legions recruited from across the empire; and trade throughout the empire surely was accompanied by movement of people from place to place.
In Roman Britain, the interesting question about this man's status would have been: was he a citizen or a slave – a civil status, not racialized as it became as a consequence of the Atlantic slave trade.  The interfering screen here is our modern use of race as the determinative classification of identity.  Lots more spot-on analysis at British, Roman, or African?.

And lots more bones

Tenthmedieval (More skeletons and this time Vikings) reports on the 54 bodies found in a burial pit along the Ridgeway in Dorset, England: all of them were men, nearly all in their teens or twenties, all executed, and their severed heads were stacked separately (in the photo, upper left). 

Isotope analysis showed they were non-local guys, most likely from much further north so it's hard to doubt that these were some Vikings "who’d lost the big game quite badly".  Radiocarbon dates cluster around the year 1000 CE, when Dorset was ravaged by Vikings (998), and by Cnut's invading army (1015).  Tenthmedieval tells us how the victims died (a grisly tale).  Still, we can only speculate if they were raiders, or a mercenary group or even a garrison, perhaps connected with the infamous events of 1002. 

The Vikings who arrived in Dorset were one branch of the Scandinavian seafarers who travelled widely and settled in swathes of Northern Europe, the British Isles and the northern Atlantic from ca. 900 to 1200 CE.  Vikings were master navigators, able to cross thousands of kilometres of open sea between Norway, Iceland and Greenland.  Perpetual daylight during the summer sailing season meant that they could not use the stars as a guide but, when the Sun was shining, geographical north could be determined with a special sundial. But how did the Vikings navigate in cloudy or foggy situations? 

An Icelandic saga hints that these sailors might have had some kind of magical aid at their disposal: a sólarsteinn, or sunstone:

The weather was very cloudy, it was snowing. Holy Olaf, the king sent out somebody to look around, but there was no clear point in the sky.  Then he asked [the hero]Sigurd, to tell him, where the Sun was.  After Sigurd complied, he grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun.  

So, could the Vikings have navigated using sunstones?

A multidisciplinary research project is investigating if it would be possible to spot the sun in such conditions using polarised light viewed through such crystals. Jo Marchant (Vikings' Mythical Sunstone) describes how the sunstone -- perhaps a type of calcite known as Iceland spar -- might work. 

Alun Salt is sceptical.  How to navigate a Viking longboat with a king, some bees, and a DC-8 notes that there is no positive evidence for their use on shipboard.  As he says, "I’m not sure how relevant the possibility they could have been used is. Impossibility would rule sunstones out, but there’s plenty of possible things that could have happened that didn’t."  Still, the physicists and biologists conducting the study are only asking if it could work -- with the Viking saga as the reason to be interested in the idea, and not the thing to be explained.  Whereas we want to know if they did.

Historians and archaeologists are so fussy.

Flat-earth and Small Oceans

Now that I've launched myself on the briny deep (and into the Middle Ages), I have to consider 'The Flat Earth Myth?', on Edward T. Babinski's blog.  This starts off as a review of the early church's view of the earth, and then veers off into even more fascinating byways.

It's true that Christopher Columbus and most (but not all) Church Fathers were not flat earthers, seeking rather a concordance between the Bible and the Hellenistic notion of a spherical earth.  Even though many Church Fathers accommodated themselves to the idea of a spherical earth, a major thinker such as Augustine denied that human beings could possibly live on the other side of that sphere: 
But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible.
Just so.  But more to the point, when you consider Columbus' voyage, is his view of the size of the earth, which was still based on Ptolemy's Geography:
"Ptolemy calculated that a degree was 50 miles (not 70 as we know today), which gave him an earth with a circumference of only 18,000 miles. Ptolemy also stretched Asia eastward for 180 degrees (not 130 degrees as we know today). Therefore, Columbus thought India was far closer than it really was." 
So Columbus sailed with a map probably quite like the one made -- in 1492, no less -- by Martin Behaim (above, left) a German geographer in the service of the King of Portugal; and note the legendary 'St Brendan's Island' smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic.  After reading Babinski's post, it's perfectly clear why Columbus thought he had reached the islands off the coast of India.  And logical too.

Vasco da Gama, however, did get to India not many years later, arriving in Calicut (Kerala) in 1498.  His ship's Journal preserved the story of his meeting with the king, the Zamorin, of the land.  A wonderfully detailed account of their meeting is given, with running commentary by Maddy, in 'The Many Faces of the Zamorin' on the Historic Alleys blog. 

Curious crowds had gathered around the palace:

When we reached the palace we passed through a gate into a courtyard of great size, and before we arrived at where the king was, we passed four doors, through which we had to force our way, giving many blows to the people. When, at last, we reached the door where the king was, there came forth from it a little old man, who holds a position resembling that of a bishop [i.e. a Brahmin], and whose advice the king acts upon in all affairs of the church. This man embraced the captain when he entered the door. Several men were wounded at this door, and we got in only by the use of much force.

Maddy reproduces western paintings and tapestries purporting to illustrate the historic encounter.  The closest in date to the event is a commemorative medal minted in Portugal ca. 1510 (above, left).  The female musicians seem more than a bit fanciful, though, perhaps inserted from temple sculptures.

Vivisection isn't so bad when you consider the alternative

For example, hanging.

In January, 1474, an archer of Meudon (southwest of Paris) was condemned for many robberies, and especially for robbing the church at Meudon, and sentenced to be hanged. 

But he wasn't hanged.

Instead, he was vivisected alive for the good of better men ... and survived -- not to tell the tale, but to collect a pension from the king.  Even better.

Executed Today tells this amazing story. The anonymous villain himself, bowels back in and all sewn up, vanishes from history. His story, however, morphed into a myth of French medicine: the unspecified ailment became identified with kidney stones; a heroic and brilliant French physician was fabricated as the genius behind the procedure; even Louis XI turns up personally to observe (above, left).  Read about what happened, why it became myth, and, just as strange, why it disappeared from medical history.

Thus ends the 71st History Carnivalesque.

But wait!  I can't end on that macabre note.  How about this for a happy ending?

This comfy sofa based on the Roman Colosseum is Italian furniture maker Tappezzeria Rocchetti's new zenith in tatty representations of glorious antiquities. 

Absolutely perfect for flopping down in front of the television and watching someone being disembowelled.  Alive.

My thanks to all who nominated great candidates for Carnivalesque. 


All illustrations are from the blog posts mentioned, except for the reproduction of the globe of Martin Behaim, for which credit goes to Wikipedia.


  1. Anonymous20/2/11 01:13

    A class act as ever, Ms Weingarten, and had me laughing several times. Thankyou also for the link!


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