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The Mammoths of Niederwenigen

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Mammoth

Image Credit:  Mammutmuseum Niederwenigen

So far this past week, we’ve crammed more activities into one week that we’d previously done all year.  There is a lot of beautiful scenery here in Switzerland, and though we spend time in the mountains, we also like museums of all shapes and sizes.  Our busy holiday started a week ago when my husband took a few weeks off from work, and our first stop was just over the hill range in the next valley, known as Furttal:  We had a private tour (given by an old family friend) through the local mammoth museum; it is one of the few in Europe.  Roughly 185,000 years ago, glaciers and glacial lakes came and went, and the intermittent stages formed lush valleys filled with wild grasses & forests – the perfect place for mammoths to forage.  Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for the mammoths, the ground could sometimes become swampy, trapping victims, and thus preserving their remains intact.  Today, any construction site in the valley is likely to find fossils, and the archaeologists are called in on a regular basis – whether by construction crews or by farmers whose ploughing churns up artefacts (from prehistoric to Roman).

To read more details about the findings, click on the image above for a scientific report (PDF), or on the link above for the museum information.  And just as a side note:  Mammoth teeth are huge, and were formed with ridges that ground their food between the top and bottom teeth (see image below, showing a fragment in comparison to a whole tooth).

Mammoth Tooth - Plymouth-edu

Image Credit: www.plymouth.edu

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Furry Therapists

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It’s long been accepted that animals play an integral role in the overall well-being of humans.  One would be tempted to say that the significance of animal-human interaction is a modern discovery, and it may well be in the sense of measurable data, as science can monitor the changes in a heart rate (if you want a really science-y report, click here), though anyone who owns a cat can tell you that stroking a purring cat is calming.  But from the time that man domesticated wild dogs and wolves to become a vital part of their daily lives in hunting, protection and companionship, animals have been prevalent.   However, as hunting and gathering gave way to farming homesteads, which gave way eventually to urban development as the predominant habitation of modern man (particularly in western societies), we began to lose touch with just how important animals are to us.

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1956:  Three little boys reaching into a water bin of baby ducks as one of the hospital’s methods of using therapy with animals. Source:  Time Magazine

Now, hospitals, nursing homes, universities, and even prisons have begun to rediscover the rehabilitating effects of furry therapists.  More recently, a VA hospital in Los Angeles, California has recognised the effects of animals on PTSD sufferers; yet they’ve gone a step farther:  They’ve paired PTSD birds with their human counterparts.

Please click on the links to watch videos of amazing work being done with and for animals; that both species benefit from the interaction is more than evident, and will make you smile!

Leader Dogs trained in Prison

A Glimpse of Victorian Photography

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Victorian photography was bizarre.  I’ll say it.  Seen through the eyes of a modern person, their sense of humour, their fascination with oddities, their budding scientific theories (and lack thereof), and their increasing access to photography that made everyone able to capture their own sense of weirdness… well, it all adds up to a bunch of freakishness.

They were fascinated with what they considered oddities; the rich collected such things, whether they were butterflies pinned to a display board, or porcelain figures, or live animals or human beings.  I’ve already discussed the practise of Memento Mori – it’s been an on-going discussion ever since.  But there were other practices, just as weird, and ones which our sensibilities today revolt at just as much as propping up dead loved ones for a photo op:  Our sense of dignity for the individual, be they human or animal, is at times repulsed by their lack of it – people born with deformities were displayed in travelling circuses as freaks.  I try to see it from different perspectives, and while it exposed those unfortunate individuals to public ridicule, it may have sometimes also given them a purpose in life with an income and a home (rather than, say, being locked away or experimented on), and a family that was the close-knit circus crew; they looked after their own.  Nevertheless, they were bought and sold as commodities; one case in point was the tragic story of Julia Pastrana, also known as The Ape Woman.  Another well known figure in history is Joseph Merrick, also known as “The Elephant Man”.

Human Oddities 4

Julia Pastrana

In the slideshow below, I have only included two examples of deformities that would have been displayed – the girl with the deformed legs, and the bearded woman; both would likely have been circus performers, or freak show exhibitions.  Thank God for modern medicine.

One fad seems to have been manipulating photos through double exposure, thus creating “ghosts” in photos or making the subject headless; another seems to be something akin to making macabre Halloween cards by defacing a photograph to make the person look like a zombie (there are two examples in the slide show of the “before” and “after” photos).  Others are simply weird; why would someone photograph a toddler with a saw?  Or someone with antlers, or a bear, or a skeleton?  There was a practice of what’s been called “hidden mothers” in photographs of children – the mother was hidden beneath a cover, or behind a chair, to help hold the child still for the long exposures of the photograph; but when some of them are so badly hidden, why didn’t they just take the opportunity to photograph the mother as well?

Below are a few random photographs found around cyberspace; I don’t know who owns any of them, but if you know of credit that should be given to a museum or collector, please do let me know and I’ll be glad to give it.  Enjoy a look into the past.

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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.

A Sailor of King George

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Captain Frederick Hoffman, HMS Apelles - 1808

As part of the research I’m conducting for a novel I’m working on, I’ve just finished reading a rip-roaring tale of high adventure – and it’s all true!  Straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, from an officer and gentleman who saw and survived 45 years in His Majesty’s navy (according to his own reckoning at the end of the tale).  Captain Hoffman, who began as a lowly mid (midshipman), survived yellow fever twice, was a prisoner of war twice, lost the hearing in one ear (and part of the ear), survived countless battles (including Trafalgar), and spent years at a time separated from his family, yet all with a keen eye for detail, and a sailor’s knack for conveying what he saw with humour and a vivid imagination.  He had a tongue-in-cheek writing style, and I found myself laughing many a time at his gentlemanly wording of euphemisms, such as when they attacked an enemy vessel and boarded her: “She (the ship) received us as warmly as if she had known us for years. I took the liberty of shooting a man in her main rigging who was inclined to do me the same kind office, had I not saved him the trouble.”

He also had an amazing repertoire of similes, and here are just a few:

  • “don’t be after splicing yourself (getting married) until you have a commission, and if you do then, you will have as much business with a wife as a cow has with a side pocket…”
  • “I walked the deck as surly as a bear with the Caledonian rash.”
  • “…(sitting) on the back of an animal as obstinate as a boat’s crew…”
  • …”we were as helpless as a cow in a jolly-boat…” (due to being short-handed)
  • “We were drifting like a pig upon a grating, and as helpless as a sucking shrimp…”
  • “My mind was like a coal-barge in a waterspout when I heard…”
  • “…his eyes glistening like a Cornish diamond…”
  • “Our prizes (ships captured, to be sold for prize money) made their eyes shine like a dollar in a bucket of water, and their mouths water like a sick monkey’s eyes with a violent influenza.”
  • “…we daylighted the anchor, mastheaded the sails, crested the briny wave like a Yankee sea-serpent…”
HMS Apelles

HMS Apelles; Illustration from the book.

Captain Hoffman was commander of several vessels, including the HMS Apelles; Wikipedia has an interesting article regarding the fate of that particular ship; Hoffman was taken prisoner as a consequence of his gallant actions, and spent over two years as a POW in France; Bonaparte refused the usual gentleman’s agreement of prisoner exchange, leaving men to languish in prisons until he was defeated and deposed (for the first time, in April 1814).

This gem of a book can be found free of charge at Gutenberg.org, and I would highly recommend reading it if you have any interest in military history, natural history, or social history, or just love a good tale – Hoffman covers it all!

 

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!

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