Magna Carta of basketball to be sold

James NaismithI can’t take credit for that deliciously grandiose title. It was Selby Kiffer, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist for Historic American Manuscripts, who described the first typewritten pages listing the 13 original rules of basketball as the “Magna Carta of the sport.” Said Magna Carta, as you might have guessed, is for sale.

In December of 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a 30-year-old PE teacher at a Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA, dreamed up a sport that could be played indoors to keep those YMCA ruffians busy during the long winter break between the football and baseball seasons. He typed 13 rules on 2 pages and hung them on the gym wall. The sport was instantly popular and the players spread it to other YMCAs. Only 7 years later, Naismith was bringing the game to the University of Kansas and only 30 years after that, the first NCAA tournament took place with 8 teams.

What makes these rules particularly important is that basketball is the only major sport that didn’t evolve from an earlier form. Naismith invented it, the players added their input — including the whole idea of dribbling — the rustic peach baskets and soccer balls were replaced by netted hoops with backboards within 15 years and now the rules are 80 pages long, but it’s still the same game developed from Naismith’s original rules.

The rules memorialized by Naismith are both recognizable and a little bit alien.

The game was to be played with an “ordinary Association football.” Players were not permitted to run with the ball and disqualified for a second foul “until the next goal is made.” But he made a provision for a flagrant foul if “there was evident intent to injure the person.” The only handwritten words in the document read like the most significant ones in Rule 8’s definition of a field goal; in his hand, he inserted “into the basket.”

Perhaps to ensure that people in the future would know the source of the rules, he also wrote in ink in the open space below Rule 13: “First draft of Basketball rules hung in the gym that the boys might learn the rules — Dec. 1891.”

Ian Naismith, James Naismith’s grandson, is offering them for sale. The proceeds will fund the non-profit Naismith International Basketball Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting good sportsmanship in sport in the spirit of the good doctor. The estimated sale price is $2 million.

Fun fact: This one time Ian thought he’d left the rules in a Kansas City Hooters but then he found them under his seat in the van after all.

James Naismith's Founding Rules of Basketball

Syphilis found in 13th c. London

WPA poster encouraging testing and treatment of SyphilisIt’s become a mainstream convention that syphilis was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus’ sailors returning from the new world. The first documented syphilis outbreak in Europe was among the French troops besieging Naples in 1495. (That’s why the French called it “the Italian disease” and the Italians called it “the French disease.”) The syphilis those poor soldiers got was far more virulent and deadly than the venereal disease we know today. It was highly contagious, spread through casual touch and oral contact, and killed within months. There are descriptions of victims’ flesh falling off their bodies before a painful death just weeks after the appearance of the first symptom.

By the mid-16th century the disease had settled into a the more subtle, insidious, long-term infection spread primarily by sexual contact that we know it as. The date of that first epidemic and the lack of any precedent in the historical record couldn’t help but suggest that this new pathogen came to the continent via Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. Syphilis was endemic in the Americas. The skeletal record shows widespread syphilis contagion, with lesions primarily located on the legs, suggesting a non-venereal version caused by a subspecies of the Treponema pallidum bacterium. There is no such skeletal record in Europe.

There have been a few pre-Columbian skeletal finds, including in Pompeii, that suggest a form of syphilis going as far back as the Romans. Some researchers think some Medieval skeletons that show signs of leprosy might actually have been afflicted with syphilis. It’s all been speculative, though, because both dates and disease are hard to pin down, and because ancient and medieval sources don’t describe any disease that matches the symptoms that sprang up in the 15th century.

Also, recent genetic studies of the Treponema pallidum bacterium indicate that the STD version is a more recent descendant of the American strain that causes the non-veneral yaws. That old yaws strain could well have begun in ancient Africa or the Middle East then the two diverged.

Syphillitic skullsMuseum of London researchers examining the skeletal remains excavated at St. Mary Spital, an Augustinian priory and hospital founded in East London in 1197, think they’ve found stronger evidence of pre-Columbian European syphilis.

Brian Connell, an osteologist for the Museum of London who studied the bones, said he had no doubt that the skeletons were buried before Columbus’ voyage. Radiocarbon dating of the samples is estimated to be 95 percent accurate.

“We’re confident that Christopher Columbus is simply not a feature of the emergence and timing of the disease in Europe,” Connell said.

The seven syphilitic skeletons from St Mary’s Spital, two from 1200-1250 and five from 1250-1400, are not only better preserved than those considered previously, but buried alongside other skeletons and objects such as coins that corroborate radiocarbon dating results.

Connell said it was probably a coincidence that the first well-documented outbreak of the disease was after Columbus’ return.

Could be. Or the New World yaws bacterium might have encountered the Old World yaws bacterium and been stimulated to mutate into something new. It seems unlikely to me that it was a complete coincidence, especially considering that genetic analysis of the strains themselves indicates European syphilis is a descendant of the New World bacterium. Osteological examination is inherently limited because you can’t know for sure what caused the bone lesions, even when they’re characteristic of syphilis.

Queen Eadgyth laid to rest. Again.

Queen Edith's sarcophagusThe remains of Queen Eadgyth, granddaughter of Alfred the Great and wife of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, were reburied in an ecumenical ceremony in Magdeburg Cathedral this Friday. Her bones were found in a lead coffin inside a stone sarcophagus by archaeologists doing some work on the cathedral in 2008. Even though there was a cenotaph dedicated to her in the church, the find was unexpected because her remains were known to have been moved several times.

The burial wasn’t original. She died in 946 A.D, and an inscription on the lead coffin noted her name and the reburial date (1510), but of course that wasn’t sufficient to prove that the bones belonged to the queen herself. It wasn’t until this year that isotope analysis on her teeth confirmed that the remains did indeed belong to Queen Eadgyth.

Now that the science has been done, the good Queen has been put to her final rest. Again. Hundreds gathered in the 800-year-old Magdeburg Cathedral to pay their respects. First there was an ecumenical 2-hour funerary service with both Lutheran and Catholic clerics presiding, then a closed coffin viewing of Queen Eadgyth’s remains. After that, the coffin was placed inside the stone sarcophagus and reburied under the floor of the cathedral.

The original lead coffin was too corroded and broken to reuse, so the Arts Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt held a competition to chose a new long-lasting coffin design. The winner was Leipzig sculptor Kornelia Thümmel. She created a polygonal container made of titanium that looks like a crystal. On one side of the coffin in a cross, on the other the following inscription: “This sarcophagus contains the mortal remains of Queen Edith, wife of Otto the Great, once again buried Anno Domini 1510, re-discovered by archaeological excavations in 2008 and now again buried in 2010.”

Queen Edith's new titanium coffin Incription on titanium coffin

The coffin is so small because there are actually not that many bones left, only 40 out of the usual 200, and some fragments of her skull.

Otto had given the city of Magdeburg to Eadgyth as a wedding present. She was widely beloved and known for her charitable works and kindness. She was never canonized, but she was revered locally as a saint for centuries, hence the missing bones. Whenever she got moved, people helped themselves to pieces of her as relics.

First US performance of Shakespeare in the original pronunciation

This November, University of Kansas theater professor Paul Meier will be staging the first US production of a Shakespeare play spoken in the original pronunciation. This is not only a first for the United States, but it’s an extremely rare event worldwide. There have only been 3 other productions of original pronunciation (OP) Shakespeare before this one, 2 at The Globe theater in London, and 1 at Cambridge in the 1950s.

The reason these performances are so rare is not that Shakespeare’s accent is too far out of our reach. Linguists know quite a lot about early modern English, and for Shakespeare in particular, there’s a blueprint of original pronunciation in the rhymes that no longer work today but did in his time. It’s that the linguists who have the appropriate expertise don’t also have the qualifications or interests to teach it to actors and put on a play, nor do most theaters have the wherewithal to put together the necessary team.

Meier is not only a theater professor with a particular passion for Shakespeare, but he’s also a top-notch dialect coach with 30 years’ experience researching accents and dialects all over the world. In 2007, he took a small group of students to Stratford-upon-Avon where they attended a seminar in original pronunciation led by linguist and OP expert David Crystal. Crystal had been the consultant on the Globe’s OP productions, and Meier determined on the spot that he would find a way to bring Crystal to Kansas to work on an OP play together.

It took a few years, but Meier finally made it happen. They decided to do “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because it’s packed with rhymes that worked in OP but not in today’s English. David Crystal spent 2 weeks with Meier the cast in September, working to get the accents just right.

“American audiences will hear an accent and style surprisingly like their own in its informality and strong r-colored vowels,” Meier said. “The original pronunciation performance strongly contrasts with the notions of precise and polished delivery created by John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and their colleagues from the 20th century British theater.”

Meier said audiences will hear word play and rhymes that “haven’t worked for several hundred years (love/prove, eyes/qualities, etc.) magically restored, as Bottom, Puck and company wind the language clock back to 1595.”

“The audience will hear rough and surprisingly vernacular diction, they will hear echoes of Irish, New England and Cockney that survive to this day as ‘dialect fossils.’ And they will be delighted by how very understandable the language is, despite the intervening centuries.”

The play will run for 8 performances between November 11th and November 21st. If you plan to be in the Lawrence, Kansas, area during that time, you can purchase advance tickets from the KU website. The rest of us need not weep, however, because after the play closes, the cast will be recording a radio drama version, complete with sound effects and music, for Kansas Public Radio. It will be made available online and via CD after it airs on the radio.

For the linguist nerds among you or for those of you who just want to try your hand at OP, Paul Meier has created a free e-book with embedded sound files from the documentation he used to train the cast: The Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English (pdf).

Here’s a subtitled video of the cast rehearsing in original pronunciation:


UK’s oldest hospital found; predates Normans

Arial view of early hospital foundations, WinchesterUntil recently, historians thought the first hospitals were built in England only after the Norman conquest of 1066. Radiocarbon dating of burials at the site of the former St. Mary Magdalen leper hospital in Winchester, however, return results ranging from 960-1030 A.D. Archaeologists also found artifacts, postholes and foundations that date to the same time.

Before this excavation, St. Mary Magdalen hospital was thought to have been founded in 1170. Many of the bodies from the site that were found to date to the 10th and early 11th century show signs of advanced leprosy, so either St. Mary’s was founded earlier than previously thought, or it was built on top of an earlier leper hospital.

Prof Nicholas Orme, a leading researcher on medieval hospitals, added: “I have only studied the documentary evidence but I could not find any such evidence for a hospital before 1066 except perhaps as an activity within a monastery or minster.

“A late Anglo-Saxon hospital would surely be a first for archaeology and indeed for history.”

Winchester at that time was the capital of England (London didn’t achieve that laurel until the 12th century, well into Norman rule) and the epicenter of religious reform. Monasteries were become more tightly regulated and were enclosing their properties. The hospital could have been a religious community of lepers, if not a traditional monastery, and evidence of community outreach in what is generally seen as a inward-focused, self-segregating reform movement.

The earliest known hospital in England before this discovery was in Harbledown, Canterbury, founded in the 1070’s by Lanfranc, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, a man who aggressively put Normans in every possible position of importance, ousting native English officeholders no matter what their virtues and talents. He also foiled a plot by Saxon earls to assassinate William the Conqueror in 1075 by ratting out a confession, and would later be instrumental in making William Rufus the Conqueror’s successor to the crown of England.

Finding a hospital that predates his by a hundred years is therefore quite the coup for pre-Norman England.