Nonexistent? Okay then, how are you at playing Concentration when you can see all the cards? Pretty damn good, I bet. Well now you can put that talent to excellent history nerd use by helping identify and transcribe the Oxyrynchus Papyri, a large collection of ancient writings dating from the 1st to the 6th century A.D.
Archaeologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt discovered thousands of papyri in a garbage dump outside Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, in the winter of 1896. The papyri had been preserved by the dry sand and were primarily written in Greek, although there were also Latin and later Arabic documents in the mix. The discovery generated immense excitement, with visions of the lost works of antiquity dancing in people’s heads.
Indeed several important ancient literary treasures were discovered among the papyri: large sections of lost Euripides plays plus a biography of him by Satyrus the Peripatetic, an essay by philosopher Empedocles on the anatomy of the eye, the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid’s Elements, some never-before-seen letters by Epicurus, seven of the 107 lost books of Livy, and many fragments of the elusive Menander whose comedies were immensely popular in antiquity but barely survived at all.
Scholars also identified a number of theological writings, including gospels canonical and non, and portions of books from the Septuagint, both Hebrew canonical and Apocryhpa, plus all kinds of fragments of quotidian life in Greco-Roman Egypt like receipts, loan notes, work contracts, government edicts.
Still, it’s been over a hundred years since the papyri were discovered and only 15% of them have been identified. For most of that time the process has been scholar-intensive, with each character on each fragment having to be documented by a classicist. The dawn of the computer era allowed for some easier identifications based on comparisons of string of papyrus text with known ancient works, but there is so much volume of data to go through, so many variations in scribe handwriting and so much non-literary material that clunky queries just won’t cut the mustard.
So Oxford University, which owns the bulk of the papyri, and the Egypt Exploration Society enlisted the help of University of Minnesota astrophysicists and papyrologists to devise a crowdsourced solution.
This is where Zooniverse, a collaboration of astrophysicists and public volunteers comes in. The general public will be able to help “read” the texts by locating the placement of ancient Greek letters, and matching the shapes of letters in order to help create strings of letters, which will allow the algorithms to learn to translate and recognize the various characters. Using an interface first developed for the Zooniverse collaboration to allow the general public to identify the shapes of galaxies, volunteers will be able to click on places where they think a letter might be. This data should train the algorithms to improve their ability to translate the texts.
Check it out on the Ancient Lives website. I just did three fragments and it’s easy. Even fun. (I spent many hours of a wayward youth playing Concentration.)
You see a large picture of the fragment and a keyboard of Greek characters beneath. Hover over one of the characters to see an example of it as written in a scribe’s hand over on the right above the accents and symbols. Click on one of the characters on the picture of the papyrus, then click on the corresponding character on the keyboard. Keep doing that until your friends call the cops because they haven’t seen you for days, then click save.
The Open University is a UK school of higher learning that has no formal entry requirements for admission. The idea is to make learning available to everyone of any age and walk of life, no matter where they live. You don’t have to wait to graduate high school to enroll at OU, and there is no age limit. There are no dorms, no residential component at all, but at more than 250,000 students the OU is the largest university in the UK. Since it was founded in 1969, over 1.6 million people have taken at least one Open University course.
In keeping with their mission of widening access to university-level study, the OU has a put a wealth of materials online. They have a database of research papers that is freely accessible to the public — Open Research Online — and OpenLearn makes available online, free of charge, learning materials used in coursework at The Open University. It’s not accredited so you won’t be able to parlay any of the work you do into an OU degree, but it’s an excellent resource for anyone looking to educate themselves on a subject of interest. There are over 500 free courses, from short introductory overviews to 50-hour advanced study programs, across 12 subject areas you can pursue on OpenLearn.
OL also has a YouTube channel, which brings us to reason for this here entry. Without further ado, please enjoy the History of English in (just over) Ten Minutes.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, at 4:30 in the morning, Captain James fired a shell from a ten-inch mortar across Charleston harbor at Fort Sumter. The garrison had been running desperately low on supplies, and since South Carolina had been the first state to formally secede from the Union months before (on Christmas Eve, 1860, in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln), Union troops weren’t going to be able to just waltz into Charleston and buy what they needed. Lincoln ordered a relief expedition and so informed the governor of South Carolina.
Confederate commander General P.G.T. Beauregard decided the fort had to be abandoned before the relief came. He demanded that the garrison surrender Fort Sumter or be fired upon. U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter’s commanding officer, offered to leave on April 15th, but only if relief didn’t arrive first and if he did not receive orders contradicting the plan. Beauregard did not accept and notified him in return that they would open fire an hour from that time and so they did. It was all very civilized and officer-and-a-gentlemanly. Anderson had been Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point 30 years earlier.
Confederate batteries fired for 34 hours straight. Fort Sumter returned fire at 7:00 A.M., but to no avail. The fort was surrendered and the garrison evacuated on April 13th. Major Anderson lowered the Union flag on April 14th, the day of his official surrender, and took it with him to New York. The flag would be used as a patriotic rallying symbol in the North for the duration of the war. It was auctioned off regularly to raise money for the war effort, with the expectation that everyone who “bought” it would immediately return it so it could be auctioned again. On April 14, 1865, Major General Anderson raised the flag over Fort Sumter again, in celebration of the end of the war. That same night, Abraham Lincoln went to the theater and never returned.
There were no Union nor Confederate fatalities in the first battle for Fort Sumter, although two Union soldiers and one Confederate died from their own misfires. The fort was not so lucky. It was ruined by the heavy shelling and ruined even harder two years later when the Union barraged Charleston from the water. It would be partially rebuilt by the US Army after the war and is now a national monument, along with the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center in Charleston, and Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island in the harbor.
Speaking of preserving history, the Civil War Trust is dedicated to the preservation of Civil War battlefields. To further their goal in the long term, they have put together an impressive group of educational resources so that future generations can grow up to be as properly obsessive about preserving these sites as they are. They have an entire Civil War Curriculum on their website, including freely downloadable lesson plans, exams and in-class presentations for elementary, middle and high school students. There’s a coloring book (pdf), crossword puzzles, links to primary sources, contemporary pictures, maps, and best of all, lessons based on visiting Civil War battlefields.
If you’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian has set up a website featuring all the current and upcoming events and exhibits on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. If you’re staying put but would like to learn out more about the Civil War, Smithsonian magazine has reposted articles from their archives about the Civil War in honor of the sesquicentennial.
In the pictures worth a thousand words category, Smithsonian offers a slideshow of select Civil War artifacts in the Smithsonian museums, and an interactive timeline of the Civil War (click on the question mark icons for more information).
Preserving the history of slavery is also the mission of National Trust for Historic Preservation program officer Joseph McGill who spends the night in slave dwellings all over the South to publicize the need to preserve slave quarters as well as the big fancy plantation buildings. Since they were constructed out of flimsy materials to begin with, slave dwellings are even more endangered than their architecturally sound contemporaries.
Finally, if you’ve kept reading this wall of text, here’s a little payoff. After Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, he received piles of congratulatory letters. One of them was from the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, the wee little statelet of 24 square miles in the middle of Italy that according to legend was founded in the 4th century A.D. as a monastic community by Marinus, a Christian stonecutter and Deacon. It has retained its sovereignty since then, making it the oldest sovereign nation in the world, and since its constitution (which codified a political system already in place since 1300 or so) was written in 1600, San Marino is also the oldest constitutional republic in the world.
Surrounded by an almost-unified Italy in 1861, San Marino was sweating a little when its Capitani Regenti (elected leaders) wrote to Lincoln. The letter expressed solidarity with the Union — six Southern states had already seceded by the time Lincoln was inaugurated — and conferring honorary citizenship on the American president. From the letter:
We have wished to write to you in our own hand and in English, although we have little knowledge and no practice in the language. It is a some while since the Republic of San Marino wishes to make alliance with the United States of America in that manner as it is possible between a great Potency and a very small country. As we think not extention of territories but conformity of opinions to procure friendly relations, so we are sure you will be glad to shake hands with a people who in its smallness and poverty can exhibit to you an antiquity from fourteen centuries of its free government.
Now we must inform you that to give to the United States of America a mark of high consideration and sincere fraternity the Sovereign Counsel on our motion decreed in its sitting of 25th October … that the citizenship of the Republic of San Marino was conferred for ever to the President pro tempore of the United States of America and we are very happy to send you the diploma of it.
We are acquainted from newspapers with political griefs, wich you are now suffering therefore we pray to God to grant you a peaceful solution of your questions. Nevertheless we hope our letter will not reach you disagreeable, and we shall expect anxiously an answer which proves us your kind acceptance.
Secretary of State William Henry Seward personally brought the letter to Lincoln’s attention. After some weeks, the President replied accepting the honorary citizenship and describing the key issue of the war in terms that presage his Gettysburg Address. From Lincoln’s reply:
Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history. It has by its experience demonstrated the truth, so full of encouragement to the friends of Humanity, that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.
You have kindly adverted to the trial through which this Republic is now passing. It is one of deep import. It involves the question whether a Representative republic, extended and aggrandized so much as to be safe against foreign enemies can save itself from the dangers of domestic faction. I have faith in a good result.
Abraham Lincoln’s letter is now one of San Marino’s most treasured historical artifacts. It is on display in the National Museum. In 1937, San Marino issued an Abraham Lincoln stamp, quoting the “most honored” line. They also dedicated a bronze sculpture to him, and the letter was read aloud at the ceremony inaugurating the bust. It was the first time in history Lincoln appeared on a foreign stamp. In 1959, they issued another set of Abraham Lincoln stamps, this time in honor of the sesquicentennial of his birth. Abramo Lincoln looms large in little San Marino.
This isn’t breaking news or anything, but it’s news to me and I’ve been obsessing about it for 2 days. Greek armies from at least the 6th century B.C. through the Hellenistic period (the era after Alexander’s conquests when Greek military strength and cultural influence were at their peak) wore an armour made out of linen. It’s called linothorax, a thorax being an armoured chestpiece and lino being, well, linen.
The famous floor mosaic of Alexander found in the House of the Faun in Pompeii depicts him wearing a linothorax. Although the mosaic was made 400 or so years after Alexander died, it is a copy of a Hellenistic original from Alexander’s time. You can’t tell from looking at it what it was made out of, of course, but that kind of armour has been depicted in hundreds of Greek vases, sculptures, reliefs, as well as described in ancient sources.
None of it has survived, however, unlike its metallic brethren, so it’s a bit of a mystery. We know there was tube and yoke armour made out leather as well as metal, but how could linen, a fabric worn in summer because of its easy breezy breathability, provide any kind of protection against arrows and swords?
The trick is layering. Layers of linen were laminated together, glued or stitched in a quilted pattern, creating a remarkably strong barrier against penetration. Of course it wasn’t as strong as metal plate armour, but it had other advantages: light weight, flexibility, comfort, low cost, widely-available, easily crafted materials, and it doesn’t turn into a oven the minute the sun hits it, a major advantage in the scalding Mediterranean summer fighting season. Linen’s unique breathability becomes a laminating advantage, in fact, because once it’s glued together it becomes a solid block.
This is the mystery that the UWGB Linothorax Project is exploring. Using the available literary and artistic sources, the group has reconstructed several linothoraxes using only the authentic fabrics and glues that would have been available in the ancient Mediterranean. These reconstructions and various sample patches were then subjected to a series of tests to precisely determine how wearable this armor was, and how effective it would have been in protecting its wearer from common battlefield hazards, especially arrows. This involved actually shooting the test patches with arrows and measuring their penetration, as well as hitting them with a variety of weapons including swords, axes, and spears.
The results have so far been impressive. See the UWGB linothorax reconstructions in action:
Also be sure to check out this sweet poster the UWGB team put together for the 2010 meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. It won the 2010 Best Poster Award from the AIA, and it’s easy to see why. It covers ancient literary and decorative sources of information about the linothorax, plus the reconstruction process and the test results.
Last but not least, here’s a pattern (pdf) so you make your own ancient Greek armour from the comfort of your own home.
Another slow news Sunday here, but I did find an addictive little YouTube channel run by Historic Royal Palaces, the British independent charity which cares for the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace. The videos in the channel cover the history of those sites and their royal inhabitants.
First one’s free about Henry VIII’s enormous kitchens at Hampton Court Palace. At 36,000 square feet, the Hampton Court kitchens are the largest surviving Renaissance kitchens in Europe.
Still that’s just scratching the surface. There are a dozen more videos about Henry VIII, his politics, his culture, his lovahs. Scroll down the list on the right of the uploads page to feed your Tudor addiction or to commune with the Tower of London ravens or find out about royal toilets through the ages
The “Corpus” compiles paintings by such illustrious artists as Giovanni Bellini, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna and Giotto as well as works by lesser-known names. Up-to-date scholarship, including provenance, iconography and bibliography, appears opposite each illustration in an easily accessible format. This resource is particularly valuable to scholars, educators and curators of early Italian art who are unable to travel between institutions.
Professor Bruce Cole of Indiana University and the late Professor Andrew Ladis of the University of Georgia initiated this project in 1993. At that time, only two publications might have rivaled a project as ambitious as this new fully illustrated “Corpus”: Richard Offner’s multi-volume “A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting” (College of Fine Arts, New York University, 1930) and Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri’s single-volume “Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Collections” (Harvard University Press, 1972). However, both of these publications are now out of date and limited in scope. The new publication covers works by artists from all regions in Italy and is likely to become a seminal compendium of early Italian art.
It costs $200 which sounds like a lot, I know, but if I had it to spend I totally would because this is an enormous, even unprecedented, work of scholarship and worth every penny. Museums and libraries are eligible for a discount, so if you represent such an institution call (706) 542-0450.
Mark your calendars, folks. The first episode of BBC’s Radio Four and the British Museum A History of the World in 100 Objects debuts tomorrow. That’s already today for those of you across the Atlantic.
The theme of the first 5 episodes is “Making Us Human” and they covers objects that define us as human, made between 2,000,000 and 8,000 B.C. Tomorrow’s inagural object is the Mummy of Hornedjitef.
This is the mummy of Hornedjitef an Egyptian priest who was buried in a coffin, within a second, outer coffin. Examining his body using CAT scans and X-rays revealed that he suffered from arthritis and osteoporosis suggesting he was a mature man when he died. The embalmers have placed four packages inside his torso, probably his lungs, liver, stomach and intestines. He lived over a thousand years after Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great at a time when Egypt was ruled by Greek kings.
There’s tons of information on the brand spanking new website on each of the 99 objects that have already been selected for broadcast. For those of us out of Radio Four’s range, the programs will be posted as podcasts.
The website also has a neat feature where individuals upload objects of their own and explain their significance. Just get a good quality digital picture and click the yellow Add Your Own Object icon in the upper right of the page. A moderator will check to be sure it’s not pr0n then approve it.
You can view all the images in the series plus the ones uploaded by individuals and find out more about them using this Flash map. Click on Contributor in the menu on the left and choose Individuals to see only the pictures uploaded by people.
The radio program is just 15 minutes a day, but I’ve already spent hours browsing the site. It’s addictive.
Beginning in January 2010, BBC’s Radio Four in conjunction with the British Museum will air 100 15-minute episodes each detailing the history of one object from the British Museum collection. The aim is to cover a vast stretch of history from 1.4 million years ago to modern times, and all over the globe, not just European history.
[Radio 4 controller, Mark] Damazer said each episode would feature a description of the object but most of it would focus on “areas where radio excels as a medium – on how the object was made, its political, economic and cultural significance, how the object came to be in the collection, and so on. I have heard those that have been made so far and they are wonderful.”
[British Museum director Neil ] MacGregor said he would look at each object in roughly chronological order, “spinning the globe so we can see what’s going on in the world at various moments”.
Each week will be focused around a particular theme, such as “after the Ice Age” and “meeting the gods”, with contributors including Bob Geldof, Wole Soyinka, Grayson Perry, Madhur Jaffrey and Seamus Heaney.
Some of the artifacts covered are a 1.4 million year-old hand axe from the Olduvai Gorge, a Chinese Zhou ritual bowl from 1000 B.C., the Croesus Coin (550 B.C.0 from what is today Turkey, thought the be the first modern form of currency, a bust of Roman Emperor Augustus (27-25 B.C.) and the Nef Galleon, a beautiful mechanical toy ship from 1500AD.
This project has been in the works for 3 years. It took MacGregor and a team of curators 2 years just to pick 99 artifacts from the 8 million pieces in the British Museum collection. The last object has yet to be chosen. They’ll wait until later next year to select it since it might not even exist yet.
There will be a companion website which is set to go live in January (it’s just a placeholder now). More information about all of the artifacts will be on the site, as will listeners’ submissions.
For those of us across the pond, every episode will be available on the site in podcast format. In an unprecedented move for the BBC, the podcasts will remain online for 2 years, so no need to rush over to the site to make sure you don’t miss one.
When he joined the library board and the subject of what to do with ye olde bookmobile came up, he proposed they sell it to the SGA for a mobile museum. Nine hundred bucks changed hands and the deal was done.
That was two years ago, and now the ArchaeoBus is primed and ready to travel to libraries and schools in Clarke County, Georgia, showing all comers artifacts excavated locally and giving mini-instructionals and labs on archaeological processes.
So far they’ve only done one planned stop, but Rita Elliot, the archaeologist who drove it to Athens from the mechanic in Savannah where the bus was first repaired and fitted with display cases, has big plans to integrate the bus into students’ curricula.
Elliot and other volunteers want to apply about a dozen activities and presentations to students’ in-class curriculum.
Archaeologists might ask younger kids to offer theories about where an artifact like a coin or a dish came from and then explain their guesses.
Older kids might have to show how they can use the Pythagorean theorem to map out a field excavation site using string on a peg board, Elliot said.
Using the theorem, archaeologists can lay out an accurate rectangular grid system to mark the layer of the soil where artifact is found.
“You want it so that you can see the clues in the soil, and unfortunately, the only way to do that is math, so the Pythagorean theorem comes in handy time after time,” Elliot said.
How many times do teachers hear the “But how am I going to use this in the real world?” refrain. The ArchaeoBus will answer that question as well as a million others about the history of the state and the study of material remains in general.
The ancient town of Amheida on the Dakhleh Oasis was and is hundreds of miles away from the political and cultural capitals of Egypt, but it’s been inhabited since the Stone Age and excavations indicate they kept up with the times.
The early settlers were farmers, maybe even before the Nile valley got famous as a center of agriculture. Irrigation is a lot easier when you have a steady supply of water rather than a yearly flooding, as the copious remains of figs and olives indicate.
They also seemed to have been tapped in to the dominant culture, despite their physical distance from it. The Roman and Greek era art found on the site features contemporary mythology and deities.
Then there’s the school. Conventional wisdom has it that teachers were poorly paid and widely reviled generalists hired by parents of would-be functionaries to ensure salable literacy. Amheida’s school, however, tells a different story.
Divided into three rooms lined with benches for more than 50 students, it more closely resembled today’s formal institutions. Students were segregated by subject and age, and the teacher’s lessons were scrawled on the walls, which were treated like blackboards at the time. What remains of that writing has caught Cribiorre’s attention.
“There you have a poem written on the wall in the column in red ink. The poem speaks of rhetoric. It says, ‘come on, get up, get to work,’” she explained. “It’s encouragement from a teacher of rhetoric to his students. But it’s all poetry. In Greek.”
Scholars had thought that rhetoric, not poetry, was taught in Roman Egyptian schools. The schools churned out politicians and bureaucrats, aristocratic young men destined for leadership. Prior to the find, Cribiore had suspected that they might also have learned poetry, and this confirmed it. The teacher had written his lessons in verse, showing that schools from the period were more formal than once believed.