Archive for July, 2008

TB or not TB, that is congestion

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Once again, I am compelled to apologize for the title. I just couldn’t help myself. If it’s any consolation, there’s more to the doggerel that I’ve spared you (ie, it didn’t fit in the title field).

The story today is about scientists examining 6000-year-old bones excavated from Jericho decades ago to trace the evolution of tuberculosis. The bones show extensive evidence of TB infection, and given Jericho’s advanced age, some of them might yield clues to the early transmission of the disease.

Examining human and animal bones will give the researchers insight into the first people living in a crowded situation and how they developed crowd diseases; the nature of human-animal interaction; the MTB strains that were present in founder populations, the changes in the DNA of both microbes and people and how those changes affected the disease’s development.

“We may have an opportunity to identify the real bugs that harmed humankind,” said Dr. Andreas Nerlich of Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. The bones will be tested for tuberculosis, leprosy, leishmania and malaria, however, the primary focus in the first funding period will be mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC).

The most significant results, the researchers say, will come from comparing data for humans and corresponding animal remains. Initial results already contained one surprise, Nerlich said. “We did not find mycobacterium bovis. We tend to think that [diseases] come from cows to humans, but it could have been the other way around.”

Spigelman adds that Atlit Yam is one of the first villages in which a large number of cow bones were found, indicating domestication of the animal. “And yet the TB strain is modern TB and not bovis. So the theory is that we gave TB to the cows,” he said.

Oh man, we really don’t need this information getting out. If the cows hear about it they will make us pay. And after they gave us cowpox to keep us safe from the far meaner pox. There will be bovine hell to pay.

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Chariot racing revival in Rome?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Historical society Vadis Al Maximo wants to bring chariot racing back to the Circus Maximus.

It’s not as insane as it sounds, actually. Quadriga races have been held in Jordan and France over the past couple of years, with more to come this year in Germany and Bulgaria.

The thing is, the way these guys are going about it seems overly ambitious, to put it mildly. I really don’t see them pulling this off in a year. I don’t see the city of Rome pulling something like this off, and it doesn’t have to beg, borrow and steal the necessary permits like a private organization does.

”All the main squares of the capital would be transformed into scenes from Ancient Rome, using props on loan from the Cinecitta film studios,” said Calo. But the effort involved in staging such an event would be enormous. ”According to our calculations, the Circus Maximus area could hold up to 35,000 people,” he said. ”Various maxi-screens would therefore need to be installed at various points outside the course so that people could watch the races”. Restoring Rome’s Circus Maximus would include setting up platforms, security exits, a sidewalk, a stage at the centre of the course, a ditch and outdoor stables. It would also require the assistance of other organizations, including the sports department of Cinecitta for costumes and scenery, municipal authorities for public parking and security, and riding groups for the horses and race training.

Yeeeah, see, that’s a little on the grandiose side. I vote they ditch the crazy movie stuff and just stick with making the Circus Maximus usable for its original hippodromic purposes.

The city is considering the proposal, though, so who knows? It might just it happen.

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Drunk History

Monday, July 14th, 2008

We live in a great era, folks. An era when things like this are created for our (NSFW on account some cussing) mirth.

On August 6th 2007, Mark Gagliardi drank a bottle of Scotch…
And then discussed a famous historical event.

That night history was made…Drunk History

That’s Michael Cera of Superbad and Juno fame playing Alexander Hamilton, btw.

For more awesome Drunk History with more special guest stars (Jack Black as Ben Franklin ftw), check out the YouTube channel. Fair warning: Drunk History 2.5 is particularly NSFW.

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Israeli lifeguard finds ancient good luck charm

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Marble evil-eye warding discDuring his daily swim in Palmahim beach, a lifeguard found a marble disc with a hole in the middle and the remains of two painted circles suggesting the pupil of an eye.

It dates from the 4th or 5th c. B.C. and was most likely affixed to one side of the ship along with a companion on the other side.

“We know from drawings on pottery vessels … that this model was very common on the bows of ships and was used to protect them from the evil eye and envy, and was meant as a navigation aid and to act as a pair of eyes which looked ahead and warned of danger,” Sharvit told The Associated Press.

“But we thought the eyes were only on fighting ships, not merchants ships. Only four eyes like these have been discovered in the world,” he added.

It’s like the Argo, Jason’s ship. Remember it had eyes painted on each side of the prow. Or at least I always thought they were painted directly on the wood. Maybe they were painted on marble discs instead.

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What boys did before 7-11s and folding wallets

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

They stuffed their condoms in newspapers and carried them around campus. You know, just in case.

Librarians at the University of Salamanca were cataloguing the library’s historical books when they came across a 16th c. medical manual. A newspaper was found folded inside the manual, and inside the newspapers were two condoms.

Made from pork tripe and with a blue string at the open end to minimise spillage, they were actually found inside a newspaper dating from 1857, and probably left behind by a medical student.

I’m finding it difficult to imagine some poor guy having to tie a blue ribbon ’round the ol’ oak tree at the crucial moment. And I thought opening the package was a buzzkill. We’ve got it easy in every way, don’t we?

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Pretty hard rocks

Friday, July 11th, 2008

I don’t know why but I seem to be on a pretty rocks kick lately. Today’s are brought to you by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit of “pietre dure”, literally hard rocks, a decorative inlay technique using semi-precious hardstones like lapis lazuli and alabaster.

The exhibit has been a sleeper hit for the Met, probably on account of the jaw-dropping beauty of the artifacts.

At the show’s heart is the constantly shifting use of stone, especially the flat pietre dure. Sometimes stone is exploited for its own fabulous color and texture, as in the bold geometric tabletops of papal Rome or a Venetian cabinet that is really more a rock-solid architectural model than it is furniture.

Sometimes delicacy prevailed, especially in pictorially inclined Florence. There, the stones’ textures, colors, shadings and inherent light were extensively micromanaged into descriptive schemes that often challenge painting. Examples include the fabulously accurate undergrowth of grape vines, butterflies and birds on a table with Eucharistic symbols, and a tiny austere landscape in which single pieces of lapis and agate form sky and hills. Inlaid details like a white church and green poplars sharpen the implicit spatial recession.

But the sentimental favorite has to be this amazingly realistic painting-like piece of the piazza in which I spent so many happy hours of my wayward youth:

Is that not a stunner? The craftsmanship, the eye for texture and color it takes to even see the possibility of something like this in a collection of rocks, just boggles my mind.

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Buddha’s Caves

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

On the edge of the Gobi desert in Western China outside the ancient Silk Road city of Dunhuang is a cliff face bored with hundreds of Buddhist grottoes carved out of the rock face. They’re called Mogaoku (“peerless caves”) and they are packed with unbelievably gorgeous frescoes and sculptures ranging in date from the 5th to the 14th centuries.

The caves started as hermit habitats, simple holes carved into the sandstone, but by 50 years after the first monk made himself a rock home in 366 A.D., the caves flourished in number and decor.

Larger and larger grottoes were excavated as temples and monastic lecture halls: essentially, public spaces. Many had chapel-like niches and free-standing walk-around altars, all cut from stone. As with the Ajanta Buddhist caves in India, interiors were carved with architectural features — beams, eaves, pitched roofs, coffered ceiling — as if to simulate buildings.

Painting covered everything. Murals illustrating jatakas, tales from the Buddha’s past lives, were popular; they’re like panoramic comic-book storyboards spread across a wall. For imperially commissioned interiors, images of princeling saints and court fetes were the rule. Rock ceilings were covered with fields of decorative patterning to evoke an illusion of fabric pavilions. Any leftover space was filled with figures of tiny deities — Mogaoku was known as the Thousand Buddha Caves — painted directly on the plastered walls or stuck on as sculptural plaques. [...]

Of the 800 or so caves created here from the 5th to 14th centuries, nearly half had some form of decoration. What survives adds up to a developmental timeline of Buddhist art in China, an encyclopedic archive of styles and ideas, of dashes forward and retreats to the past.

5th c. painted Buddha shows some deteriorationSo of course it’s in danger of destruction. We have the usual story of scholars/looters stripping hunks off the wall for their hometown museum. Then there’s the desert sand: nature’s most reliable abrasive. Then there are the crowds of people since the site was opened to tourism since 1980, exuding moisture and carbon dioxide.

Plans for drastic remedial action are in place. Under Dr. Fan and the vice director, Wang Xudong, the academy will build by 2011 a new visitor reception center several miles from the caves, near the airport and railroad station. All Mogaoku-bound travelers will be required to go to the center first, where they will be given an immersive introduction to the caves’ history, digital tours of interiors and simulated restorations on film of damaged images. They will then be shuttled to the site itself, where they will take in the ambience of its desert-edge locale and see the insides of one or two caves before returning to where they started.

It’s not the familiar model of Western tourism, to be sure, but I think it’s quite brilliant. If site preservation requires draconian measures, then draconian measures there should be. They could have closed the caves. Hell, they still might have to is this doesn’t work.

Be sure to check out the slide show on the article because there isn’t one picture I didn’t want to post. The art is just astonishingly gorgeous.

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Laocoön gets public makeover

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence will be restoring sculptures in public, starting with Baccio Bandinelli’s 16th c. copy of the famous second century B.C. Greek Laocoön group.

During the “open air restoration”, which will take place behind clear plastic screens, the public can see how restorers use laser technology and deionised water to remove fatty substances, old layers of wax and dust deposits from the priceless sculptures.

Experts will also check the structural strength of the works, paying special attention to repairs done in the past following a fire in the Uffizi in 1762.

As if the Uffizi weren’t interesting enough to visit. Now it’s like an action museum!

Other works slated for restoration as a spectator sport include a Roman statue of Hercules at the end of his labours, two first century Roman busts of unnamed elderly gents, and the marble “Cinghiale” (aka wild boar) which was the model for the bronze “Porcellino” (aka piglet) that has become a symbol of Florence.

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Another Petra!

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

The city of Petra in Jordan is a famous remnant of the Nabateans, a wealthy trading people who controlled oases from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. The buildings carved into beautiful rose-colored rockfaces were famous even before they hosted the crusader knight with the Holy Grail in the third Indiana Jones movie.

There’s another Nabatean city with amazing rock carving, though, that I found about only today because UNESCO just added it to its World Heritage List. It’s called Al-Hijr, and it’s the first site in Saudi Arabia to make the list.

Formerly known as Hegra it is the largest conserved site of the civilization of the Nabataeans south of Petra in Jordan. It features well preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. The site also features some 50 inscriptions of the pre-Nabataean period and some cave drawings. Al-Hijr bears a unique testimony to Nabataean civilization. With its 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated, and water wells, the site is an outstanding example of the Nabataeans’ architectural accomplishment and hydraulic expertise.

Nabatean tomb, Al-Hijr, Saudi ArabiaNabatean tomb, Al-Hijr, Saudi Arabia Carving detail

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Roman battering ram found off Sicily

Monday, July 7th, 2008

It’s a rostrum. The Romans used to affix them to the prow of their ship to batter the sides of enemy vessels.

This particular rostrum was found off the coast of Sicily and seems to have been used in the last naval battle of the First Punic War against Carthage. (The first one was the one without Hannibal and his elephants.)

The ram was attached to the bow of a ship that was used in a 241 B.C. skirmish called the Battle of the Egadi Islands, off a body of water that has been a shipping pathway dating back to the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans traveled the waterway on their way to and from North Africa, Royal said.

The Battle of Egadi Islands pitted 200 Roman ships against 100 Carthaginian ships. The battle was one of the last of the first Punic War and led to the Carthaginian’s surrender, Royal said.

I don’t know how the archaeologists made this determination, but it’s a majorly big deal to find a rostrum in the first place (only 4 others are known) and completely unique that it can be traced to a specific battle.

I pictured them shaped like rams heads, thanks to excessive consumption of Hollywood sword-and-sandal cinemascope epics, but instead they’re rather pointy and scary and eminently well-adapted to their function.

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