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Tag Archives: Ancient History

The Mystery of the Caucasian Dolmens

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Some time ago I read an interesting article about thousands of megalithic structures that have been found spread throughout the massive area of the Western Caucasus in Southern Russia.  Astoundingly similar though spread over hundreds of thousands of acres, there are currently over three thousand found and counting.  Dolmens are found throughout Europe through Asia, in India, Korea, Spain and Ireland, as well as the Middle East and Africa.  The Russian portal tombs are unique in that they are nearly all identical, reflect highly skilled stone masonry, and are spread out over a much farther region than one would think possible, given the sparse population of the region.  Each Caucasus Dolmen  weighs roughly 15 to 30 tons, yet they have not found a single trace of a stone quarry anywhere in the Western Caucasus, nor have they found any evidence of the stones having been dragged to the sites.  Personally, I’m a bit tempted to think of the Caucasian Dolmens as a type of OOPArt.  To read the fascinating article, please click on the photo.

Pietre Dure: Eternal Paintings

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I recently came across an interesting bit of information on past centuries’ continental tourists:  Searching for a way to display stones collected among Italy’s ruins and landscapes, these tourists discovered that they could have their stone specimens transformed into pieces of furniture or pottery, such as tabletops or bowls, in the ancient art of pietre dure (particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries).  Often floral or geometric designs, the tourist would collect semi-precious stones such as agate, jade, lapis lazuli, malachite, marble, onyx, topaz and many others, and have them worked into a treasured souvenir to bring home.  Click on the image below to read an article from the Select Italy Travel blog for an interesting piece on the topic.

Poccetti - Grand-ducal pietre dure manufacture, 1609

Poccetti – Grand-ducal pietre dure manufacture, 1609

The Varangian Guards

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Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

An elite unit of the Byzantine army from the 10th to 14th centuries, the Varangian guard was mostly comprised of Viking and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries whose job was to protect the Byzantine emperors as their personal bodyguards, and they were renowned for their loyalty, ferocity and honour; one of the greatest offences one could give a Viking or Varangian was to either question their honour or their courage – it usually ended in bloodshed.  So many Swedish left for this elite position that there was a law passed that no one could inherit land in Sweden while “in Greece” (the Swedish term for the Byzantine region).  These guards were prized, and hired not only in Byzantine, but also in London and in east Slavic tribes referred to as the Kievan Rus [Russia got its name from the Arabic term for the Vikings, perhaps related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.]

My personal connection with this information is a story from the Skylitzes Chronicle:  In 1038 the Varangian were wintering in the Thracesian theme when one of them tried to rape a countrywoman; in the struggle she managed to take his sword, and killed him.  But instead of taking revenge, his comrades praised her and rewarded her with his possessions; they then exposed his body without burial as if he had committed suicide (an act of cowardice, and the highest of insults).  This story fit perfectly within a novel that I’m just finishing, and preparing for publication this month, called “The Cardinal“, an epic fantasy set in around A.D. 800 Scotland and Norway, and modern Scotland.  More news of that will be following!  In this particular case, the woman in the chronicle becomes the woman in my own tale, and she tells this very account as she tells of her life.  It’s these kinds of tales that I come across in research that add rich details of history to my characters!

Ye Olde Spelling

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runesymbolsHave you ever wondered about the old-fashioned “ye” in shop signs?  It was a lazy printer’s solution to saving space for “th”, and should be pronounced as “the”, not “yee”!  The Old English character “y” was a graphic alteration of the Germanic rune “Þ” (which came over with the Viking raiders and the Danish King Canute and his rabble, but that’s another story).  When English printing typefaces couldn’t supply the right kind of “P” they substituted the “Y” (close enough, right?).  That practice continued into the 18th century, when it dropped out of use.  By the 19th century it was revived as a deliberate antiquarianism – to give a shop a pedigree, so to speak (read “marketing scam”), and soon came to be mocked because of it.  And now we think of it as the quaint way they used to write…

For a short, fun video on the topic, click on Ye Olde Web Link, below.

ye-olde-web-link

The Historical Face of Genetics

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Averages 1Only once have I watched an American History Channel “documentary” (and I use that word very loosely) – on Vikings, and I spent half the time correcting their blatant misinformation.  BBC documentaries, on the other hand, are frequently watched in our household; they are well-researched, well-presented, and entertainingly educational.

One such documentary is “The Face of Britain” in which they trace the history of Britain through the genetic studies of Oxford University, led by cancer and population geneticist Professor Sir Walter Bodmer.  If you’re interested in British history, genetics, or science, I would highly recommend this DVD, as well as the website link above (where there are additional interesting articles on the topic).  Genetics tell us where we come from; but they also map where regional similarities come from; what makes Irish generally red-haired and Scandinavians blonde?  Not only complexion and hair or eye colour, but even bone structure:  Regional differences in what make a person look like they come from “X” and not “Y”.

There was also a study of facial averages, where thousands of portraits were combined into one image to give a common face for various regions around the world.  I have friends from many regions of the world, and I can confirm that these average faces are fairly accurate (I can recognize friends and/or their facial features in the images).

Both topics are well worth looking into!

Pitch vs. Tar

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Pitch Drop Experiment, begun 1927

The Pitch Drop Experiment

If you’re like me and just naturally curious, and combine that with writing, you’ll find that it leads you down curiouser and curiouser paths.  Today it led me down the path to find the difference between pitch and tar, which came from the search for the etymology of the idiom “toe the line”.  So what is the difference between the two?  Quite a bit and not a lot, it turns out.

Pitch is a general term for either natural resins or manufactured derivations.  When it comes from plants it’s known as resin (and products made from this, such as violin string conditioner, are called rosin), and has a surprisingly wide range of applications, from waterproofing ships, Norse Longhouses and Stave churches to use as a glazing agent in medicines and chewing gum. The confusing thing is that some forms of pitch can be called tar.  Bitumen is a natural asphalt, also known as “oil sand” (an irregular petroleum deposit), which is a type of pitch.  Pitch is a natural viscoelastic polymer, which basically means that even though it seems hard and may shatter on a hard impact, it is actually a liquid.  The  Pitch Drop Experiment was started in 1927; since then, only 9 drops have fallen from the funnel filled with pitch.  That’s patience.  They were able to determine that the viscosity of pitch is roughly 230 billion times that of water.  Just thought you should know.

Tar is obtained through a process called “destructive distillation”, along with other products such as coal gas, coal tar, coal oil, gas carbon, Buckministerfullerene, coke, and ammonia liquor.  Its connection with pitch is that it can also be derived from pine.  I’ve seen puddles of natural tar all over the Highlands of Scotland, as the pressure of weight from the dense peat moors presses the tar out, much like a sponge being squeezed.  It can make hiking through the wilds of Scotland a messy business.  In fact, in Northern Europe the word tar refers to the substance obtained from pine wood and roots.  The distinction between pitch and tar is that the former is denser, more solid, while tar is more of a liquid form. So, it seems, that’s all the difference between the two terms comes down to:  Viscosity.

And that brings me full circle in understanding the idiom to “toe the line”:  The “line” was the strip of weather-proofing between a ship’s deck boards; this was made by packing a mixture of natural debris (sawdust, straw, etc.), pitch and tar between the boards.  It would be therefore logical to assume that tar and pitch were mixed together to make it both spreadable and solid.

The Eddic Poems (Poetic Edda)

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yggdrasilMapIn the course of research for the novel I’m currently polishing, I developed a taste for obscure literature; among other manuscripts I’ve read is the Poetic Edda, or Eddic Poems.  What I find fascinating in the poems is not just the language itself, but encapsulated within the language is always a glimpse into the mentality, humour, and mindset of a people.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse poems and mythology, mainly preserved in the medieval manuscript Codex Regius which was written in the 13th century, though the poems and tales are centuries older, having been oral history passed on by the skalds for generations before they were written down.  The poems were originally composed in alliterative verse (the alliteration may have changed from line to line, such as “Over beer the bird of forgetfulness broods / and steals the minds of men”), and kennings were often used (a compound noun used instead of a straight-forward noun, e.g. “wound-hoe” for “sword”), though they were not as complex as many skaldic poems were.  For a far more detailed history on the collection, click here.

I’d like to share a few gems with you; the reference “EP#” is the page number embedded in the Kindle manuscript.  These gems are either sayings, kennings, customs, or historical trivia.  Enjoy!

EP17:  “The wolf that lies idle shall win little meat, or the sleeping man success.”

EP20:  “Hard is it on earth / With mighty whoredom; axe-time, sword-time / shields are sundered, wind-time, wolf-time / Ere the world falls; Nor ever shall men each other spare.”

EP30:  “A faster friend one never finds / Than wisdom tried and true.”

EP31:  “Less good there lies / than most believe In ale for mortal men; / For the more he drinks / the less does man / Of his mind the mastery hold.”

EP35:  “To mankind a bane must it ever be / When guests together strive.”

EP36:  “Love becomes loathing if one long sits by the hearth in another’s home.”

EP36:  “Away from his arms in the open field a man should fare not a foot / For never he knows when the need for a spear / Shall arise on the distant road.”

EP39:  “No great thing needs a man to give / Oft little will purchase praise. / With half a loaf and a half-filled cup / A friend full fast I made.”

EP41:  “To question and answer must all ready be / Who wish to be known as wise. / Tell one they thoughts, but beware of two / – All know what is known by three.”

EP44:  “Wealth is as swift / As a winking eye, / Of friends the falsest it is.”

EP45:  “Give praise to the day at evening, to a woman on her pyre, to a weapon which is tried, to a maid at wedlock, to ice when it is crossed, to ale that is drunk.”

EP45:  “From the ship seek swiftness, from the shield protection, cuts from the sword, from the maiden kisses.”

EP48:  “Wise men oft / Into witless fools / Are made by mighty love.”

EP71:  “If a poor man reaches / The home of the rich, / Let him speak wisely or be still; / For to him who speaks / With the hard of heart / Will chattering ever work ill.”

EP167:  “Drink beyond measure / will lead all men / No thought of their tongues to take.”

EP250:  “On the gallows high / shall hungry ravens / Soon thine eyes pluck out, / If thou liest…”

“Welcome thou art, / for long have I waited; / The welcoming kiss shalt thou win! / For two who love / is the longed-for meeting / The greatest gladness of all.”

EP277:  “In the hilt is fame, / in the haft is courage, / In the point is fear, / for its owner’s foes; / On the blade there lies / a blood-flecked snake, / And a serpent’s tail / round the flat is twisted.” (Runes carved on a sword)

EP296:  A “breaker of rings” was a generous prince, because the breaking of rings was the customary form of distributing gold.

EP299: “There was beat of oars / and clash of iron, Shield smote shield / as the ships’-folk rowed; Swiftly went / the warrior-laden Fleet of the ruler / forth from the land.”

EP300:  Raising a red shield was a signal for war.

EP304:  “Helgi spake: “Better, Sinfjotli, / thee ‘twould beseem Battle to give / and eagles to gladden, Than vain and empty / words to utter, Though ring-breakers oft / in speech do wrangle.”

“…For heroes ’tis seemly / the truth to speak.”

EP305:  “Swift keels lie hard by the land, mast-ring harts* and mighty wards, wealth of shields and well-planed oars.” (*the ring attaching the yard to the ship’s mast.)

“Fire-Beasts” = Dragons = Ships:  Norse ships of war, as distinguished from merchant vessels, were often called Dragons because of their shape and the carving of their stems.

EP349:  “The word “Goth” was applied in the North without much discrimination to the southern Germanic peoples.”  “The North was very much in the dark as to the differences between Germans, Burgundians, Franks, Goths, and Huns, and used the words without much discrimination.”

EP368:  “Combed and washed / shall the wise man go, And a meal at morn shall take; For unknown it is / where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

EP369:  the “Bloody Eagle” was an execution for a captured enemy, by cleaving the back bone from the ribs and pulling out the lungs.

EP373:  “Few are keen when old age comes / Who timid in boyhood be.”

EP374:  “When one rounds the first headland” means, “at the beginning of life’s voyage, in youth”.

EP378:  “Unknown it is, / when all are together, / Who bravest born shall seem; / Some are valiant / who redden no sword / In the blood of a foeman’s breast.”

EP379:  “”Better is heart / than a mighty blade For him who shall fiercely fight; The brave man well / shall fight and win, Though dull his blade may be.”

“Brave men better / than cowards be, When the clash of battle comes; And better the glad / than the gloomy man Shall face what before him lies.”

EP382:  “There is ever a wolf / where his ears I spy.”  This is an Old Norse proverb that basically means, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

EP398:  “I rede thee, / if men shall wrangle, And ale-talk rise to wrath, No words with a drunken / warrior have, For wine steals many men’s wits.”

EP399: “I rede thee, / if battle thou seekest With a foe that is full of might; It is better to fight / than to burn alive In the hall of the hero rich.”  “The meaning is that it is better to go forth to battle than to stay at home and be burned to death. Many a Norse warrior met his death in this latter way; the burning of the house in the Njalssaga is the most famous instance.”

EP400:  “I rede thee, / that never thou trust The word of the race of wolves, (If his brother thou broughtest to death, Or his father thou didst fell;) Often a wolf / in a son there is, Though gold he gladly takes.”

“Battle and hate / and harm, methinks, / Full seldom fall asleep; / Wits and weapons / the warrior needs / If boldest of men he would be.”

EP405:  Eating snakes and the flesh of beasts of prey was commonly supposed to induce ferocity.

EP409:  The actual mingling of blood in one another’s footprints was a part of the ceremony of swearing blood-brother hood.

EP418:  “Borne thou art on an evil wave” i.e. “every wave of ill-doing drives thee”.  A proverb.

“Flame of the snake’s bed” = Gold, so called because serpents and dragons were the’ traditional guardians of treasure, on which they lay.

EP452:  “As the leek grows green / above the grass, / Or the stag o’er all / the beasts doth stand, / Or as glow-red gold / above silver gray.”

EP455:  “On the tapestry wove we / warrior’s deeds, And the hero’s thanes / on our handiwork; (Flashing shields / and fighters armed, Sword-throng, helm-throng, / the host of the king).”

EP457:  “In like princes / came they all, The long-beard men, / with mantles red, Short their mail-coats, / mighty their helms, Swords at their belts, / and brown their hair.”

EP458: “Heather-fish” = snake

EP468:  The punishment of casting a culprit into a bog to be drowned was particularly reserved for women, and is not infrequently mentioned in the sagas.

EP513:  “Thou hast prepared this feast in kingly fashion, and with little grudging toward eagle and wolf.”  = “You’ve been generous in the men you give to die in battle today.”

EP524:  “Full heedless the warrior / was that he trusted her, So clear was her guile / if on guard he had been; But crafty was Guthrun, / with cunning she spake, Her glance she made pleasant, / with two shields she played.”  In other words, Guthrun concealed her hostility (symbolized by a red shield) by a show of friendliness (a white shield).

EP546:  “The dawning sad / of the sorrow of elves” (i.e., sunrise – the Old Norse belief was that sun killed elves).

 

Notes from The Poetic Edda (Snorri Sturluson), translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Kindle Edition.

 

The Uffington White Horse

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Uffington White HorseI like to go “flying” occasionally with Google Earth; it is how my husband and I discovered the Scilly Isles (I’ll tell you more about that sometime), and how I’ve found several hill figures across the UK; here’s one of my favourites:

Dating from the late Bronze Age (1000–700 BC), the Uffington White Horse (in Oxfordshire, nearest the town of Uffington) is a stylized hill figure of 110 metres long, created by deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk. It is protected and maintained by the National Trust as a Scheduled Ancient Monument (if it is not cleaned regularly it would disappear rapidly, the chalk being washed away by rain or the trenches filling in with local vegetation).

Iron Age Celtic CoinsThese coins pictured are Iron Age Celtic coins (the currency of the pre-Roman population), and the designs are comparable to the White Horse, supporting the early dating (it was thought for some time that the figure could have been constructed as late as the Iron Age, 800 BC–AD 100, but samples from silt of the figure supported the earlier date).  The White Horse is by far the oldest such figure in Britain, but certainly not the only one; ancient figures are scattered throughout the British Isles, though Wiltshire alone has at least eight.  When you have a few minutes to spare, take a Google Earth flight over the UK, and see if you can spot any other figures!

 

OOPArts

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OOPArts are out-of-place artefacts, though other objects of historical, archaeological, or palaeontological interest are included.  The term was coined by the naturalist and cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson.  It isn’t a term used by mainstream scientists as it may be considered tainted with unprofessionalism; it is largely used by those who study the pseudo-scientific topics such as paranormal activities, fringe theories such as ancient astronauts, or the topic of creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Having said all that, I find it interesting to read about various objects that have been labelled as OOPArt.  Here are a few:

The Abydos Helicopter

The Wolfsegg Iron

The Klerksdorp spheres

The  Iron pillar of Delhi

The Baghdad Battery

The Abydos helicopter

The Iron Man (Eiserner Mann)

The Quimbaya airplanes

The Dendera Lamps

The Cambodian Stegosaurus

The Cambodian Stegosaurus

The Cambodian Stegosaurus

While some may be explained with scientific methods, other official “scientific” explanations seem to me, frankly, far-fetched.  Judge for yourself, and enjoy the curiosities of our planet’s history!

 

The (Tongue in Cheek) Truth about Stonehenge

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If you think that ancient druids built Stonehenge, you’d be wrong… off by a couple thousand years, actually.  Here’s a quirky, tongue-in-cheek historical low-down on the famous standing stones:  Just click on the image below!

Stonehenge - credit - destinationsalisbury-co-uk

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