Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Archaeologists Discover Paintings of Ancient Egypt in a 2,000-Year-Old Villa in Pompeii

Ancient Origins


A team of archaeologists have discovered impressive paintings of Ancient Egypt in a Roman villa in Pompeii. The portraits clearly show the vast influence the Egyptian culture had in early Roman society. Experts speculate that some of the paintings could possibly underscore an early form of Globalization.

 Drawings Show Strong Egyptian Influence on Early Rome Daily Mail reports that paintings portraying the River Nile were found in a beautiful garden in a luxurious ancient villa in Pompeii. Experts are optimistic that these paintings will reveal a lot of secrets on how the early Roman Empire was influenced by ancient Egypt.

Complex drawings from Casa dell'Efebo – one of the largest households in the city before it was severely damaged during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 – present a series of Nilotic murals with hippopotamuses, crocodiles, lotuses and short-statured men battling with vicious beasts.



Painting of a short-statured man fighting a beast (CC by SA 3.0)

Caitlin Barrett from the department of Classics at Cornell University claimed that the drawings give the house a cosmopolitan touch and outlines how the Romans were influenced by the ancient Egyptian culture such as religion. “The paintings from the Casa dell'Efebo were created after Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire, but several generations after Augustus' initial conquest of Egypt. Some researchers have turned to explanations emphasizing religion: maybe paintings of Egyptian landscapes have to do with an interest in Egyptian gods,” she told IBTimes of UK. And added, “Others have interpreted these paintings as political statements: maybe this is about celebrating the conquest of Egypt. I suggest that instead of trying to apply a one-size-fits-all explanation, we should look at context and individual choices.”

Sexual Activity is Present Regardless the Political and Cultural Focus of the Paintings
It’s no secret that Pompeii was famous for its intense sexual life and wild parties. As a result of this lifestyle, many paintings discovered from that era are extremely graphic, including strong doses of excessive sexual content. Let’s not forget that when the city was rediscovered in 1599, the city became buried again (thanks to censorship) for nearly another 150 years before the king of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, ordered the proper excavation of the site during the late 1740s. As DHWTY reports in a previous Ancient Origins article, despite the erotic nature of these images, it has been suggested that they were merely an idealized version of sex. Thus, it has been postulated that the lives of the prostitutes at the most famed bordello in Pompeii, Lupanare, was far grimmer than the erotic images suggest. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the main theme of the recently discovered paintings is sex and alcohol consumption.




A fresco found within one of Pompeii’s brothels. Source: BigStockPhoto

Paintings Could Underscore a Form of Globalization
Despite the obvious themes of the paintings, Barrett also argues that they could underscore how the Romans interacted with the outside world; thus a form of globalization. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Archaeology, appears to share its views with Barrett’s suggestions and also proclaims that artifacts discovered around the garden of the household and the building’s elaborate architecture such as water installations mimic the diverse nature of the Roman Empire. Barrett stated as Daily Mail reports, “In this particular assemblage, rather than solely trying to make some kind of statement about Isiac rituals or Roman politics, the owner of this house seems to be asserting a cosmopolitan identity as a citizen of the Empire. In Pompeian houses at this time, when people are representing faraway lands in domestic art, they are also trying to figure out what it means to them to be participants in the Roman Empire.”


Representations of sexual activity, music and alcohol consumption are often central to these paintings (CC by SA 3.0)

The study adds that the paintings of the Nile in the Pompeian villa provided its owners with a unique chance to come in contact with shifting local and imperial Roman identities and to reproduce a microcosm of the world they lived in, “People sometimes imagine phenomena like globalization to be creations of the modern world. In fact, if you look at the Roman Empire there are lots of parallels for some of the cross-cultural interactions that are also very much part of our own contemporary world” the researcher of the study concludes at the end.

Top image: Painting of a scene around the River Nile in Egypt, found in Casa dell'Efebo (CC by SA 4.0)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sam’s historical recipe corner: Brown Windsor soup

History Extra


In every issue of BBC History Magazine, picture editor Sam Nott brings you a recipe from the past. In this article, Sam recreates a hearty meat soup that was popular in the 19th century.

 The origins of Brown Windsor soup are unclear. No one is quite sure where the recipe originates, but it is said to be have been one of Queen Victoria’s favourite soups, and was often served at palace banquets.

 The soup seems to have been viewed in a comedic light in the second half of the 20th century, and was featured in television and radio comedy shows such as Fawlty Towers and The Goon Show. But despite this (or maybe because of it) and because I am a big fan of robust, meaty soups and stews, I was intrigued to see what Brown Windsor soup would taste like.

 I have to admit, sadly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the result. Perhaps with some tweaks to the recipe (less butter – lamb is quite fatty as it is – more seasoning and lots more fresh herbs, like thyme) the dish would be a bit more exciting. As it is, it seemed like a lot of effort for something that tasted rather plain and a bit fatty – and that looked very brown!

 Ingredients

• 2 tbsp butter
 • ¼ lb stewing beef
 • ¼ lb lamb steak or mutton
 • 4 cups of beef stock
 • 1 onion, sliced
 • 1 carrot, sliced
 • 1 parsnip, sliced
 • 2 tbsp flour
 • 1 bouquet garni (bunch of herbs)
 • Salt and pepper to taste
 • ¼ tsp chilli powder
 • ½ cup cooked rice (optional)
 • ¼ cup Madeira wine (optional)

 Method
Cut the lamb
 and beef into 1-inch cubes and roll in the flour.

 Place the butter in a large saucepan over a low- medium heat. Fry the meat off for three minutes and then add the rest of the flour. Fry for a minute longer until the butter and flour mix is a golden brown colour.

 Add the sliced vegetables and stir in the stock. Add the bouquet garni, partially cover the saucepan and simmer for two hours.

 Add the rice (if using). Stir in the Madeira wine (if using). Serve piping hot.

 Difficulty: 2/10

 Time: 2 hours, 15 mins

 Recipe based on Food.com This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Hobbyist Metal Detectorists Find Hoard of 3000-year-old Axes in Farmer's Field in Norway

Ancient Origins


Some 3,000 years ago, 24 axes were cached in Stjørdal municipality, about 44 km (27.3 miles) east of Trondheim. They're now seeing the light of day once again.

 In late April, a sensational discovery was made in a field in the village of Hegra, not far from the Trondheim International Airport in Værnes. Numerous axe heads, a knife blade and some fragments were lifted out of obscurity. The objects date back to the Late Bronze Age, approx. 1100-500 BC. 

Archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) University Museum and Nord-Trøndelag County Council unearthed the findings with the help of with six private metal detector hobbyists from the area.

 Found with metal detectors
Brothers Joakim and Jørgen Korstad from Stjørdal municipality made the first discoveries on this field in January this year. They found nine socketed axes (also called Celts), a spearhead, a casting mould, and a fragment of a possible bronze lur. The metal detector hobbyists contacted county archaeologist Eirik Solheim, who says that the brothers did everything right in the process of informing him about the finds.


One of the axe-heads after it was dug up. Credit: Eirik Solheim Between the two searches, the Hegra find now consists of 30 Bronze Age artifacts.

 "The 24 axes are a particularly special part of this discovery. There have never been so many axes in a single deposit before in Norway, and they're rare in the Scandinavian context," says archaeologist and researcher Merete Moe Henriksen in NTNU's Department of Archaeology and Cultural History

Hidden or sacrificed?
Archaeologists call this kind of find a hoard, when they uncover objects that have been hidden away or buried in the ground. It is still too early to say why the axes and other objects were buried 3000 years ago.

"There may have been religious reasons linked to a sacrifice, or they might have been cached temporarily, with the intention of recasting the metal later. This was a known practice in the Late Iron Age," says Henriksen.



The whole hoard of 24 axe heads and 6 other Bronze Age articles (Credit: Thehistoryblog)

Stjørdal municipality is one of the areas in central Norway that has a concentration of ancient rock art and rock carvings. Solheim has wished for a museum to showcase the rock art of the area.

"We know that there's been a lot of activity in this area, but we've lacked artefacts. Now this shows up and it's infinitely more than we could have asked for. It's so spectacular and totally cool," he says.

Archaeologists hope to get in one more excavation of the Hegra field this fall. This would help them to better understand the context of the findings, which would hopefully reveal more about why the objects were cached.

Top Image: Some of the original 9 axe heads or “Celts’ plus the spearhead found by the Korstad brothers. Source: Jorgen Korstad

The article, originally titled ‘Three-thousand-year-old axes found in farmer’s field in mid-Norway’ was originally published on Science Daily.

Source: The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). "Three-thousand-year-old axes found in farmer's field in mid-Norway." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 May 2017.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hold Your Horses! Did Caligula Actually Make a Steed a Roman Consul?

Ancient Origins


When we think of the emperor Caligula, it is John Hurt’s wonderfully maniacal performance in the BBC TV series I, Claudius that usually comes to mind. Hurt dances in a gold bikini, sports a beard soaked with the blood of his progeny, and parades his favourite horse, clad in the toga of a consul, in front of shocked onlookers. He is the very model of a mad Roman emperor.




The story that Caligula made his favourite horse, Incitatus, a consul has long tickled our imaginations. The internet is awash with articles and blogs chewing over whether it is really true. The horse has even made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: its definition for the name “Incitatus” reads “the name of Caligula’s horse, made a consul by the emperor”. Perhaps the greatest testament to Incitatus’ immortality, however, is the fact that he has his own Wikipedia page.

While the ancient evidence mentions a plan for making Incitatus consul, the repeated retelling of the story over centuries (in particular, as a snide way to suggest that a politician might be out of his or her depth) means we often forget that Caligula’s horse never actually sat in the senate at all.



Caligula and his horse. (Yo amo la Historia)

The Emperor’s Favorite Ass
The office of consul was the highest magistracy in the Roman Republic. Under the empire, the position still existed, though it was primarily an honorific office, which emperors used to reward loyal senators. On the subject of Caligula’s horse, the ancient sources are unambiguous in their testimony: he was not made a consul.

The biographer Suetonius does, however, report that the emperor lavished gifts upon Incitatus, equipping him with a marble stall, ivory manger, purple blankets, luxurious furniture, and his own slaves. At the climax of this passage, Suetonius writes:

 …it is also reported that he designated [Incitatus] to the consulship.

Another ancient source, the historian Cassius Dio, gives a slightly different version:

…and he even promised to designate [Incitatus] consul. And he would most certainly have done this, if he had lived longer.

The story therefore probably owes its origin to an off-hand remark made by Caligula that he would make Incitatus a consul (though he never followed through with it).



Although Caligula remarked that he would make his horse Incitatus a consul he never followed through with it. (Tvtropes/CC BY NC SA 3.0)

Why would Caligula say this? One of the most popular theories is that the emperor was criticising the consuls: they were such “asses” that he might as well include his horse in this elite group.

The name of the horse is particularly relevant here. “Incitatus” means “fast-moving”. The historian David Woods has ingeniously suggested that the name was intended to be an insult directed towards one particular consul, Asinius Celer, whose name means “swift ass”. A joke by Caligula the comedian has been interpreted as historical fact.




Emperor Caligula. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Party Fit for a Horse
Caligula was a far cry from his imperial predecessors Augustus and Tiberius. We think of Augustus as the “first emperor” but he positioned himself as a leading Republican politician, not a monarch. His successor, the dour Tiberius, tried to refuse as many monarchical honours as possible.

Caligula, on the other hand, was a boisterous young man in his mid-twenties. He was keen to experiment with the opportunities his position allowed him, adopting ceremonies and dress that were more in keeping with eastern kings. In short, Caligula wanted to be – and be seen to be – a monarch.

The youth of Rome loved their horse-racing. The attention Caligula lavished on Incitatus went above and beyond that shown to prize steeds by other young aristocrats. He was the emperor, so bigger and better was the name of the game.

Caligula did hold parties for his friends in the horse’s grand stables, where Incitatus himself was the “host”. But all the bling was really for Caligula and his mates, so they could live it up in style – it was not for the horse. Caligula’s regal pretensions did not sit well with Roman aristocrats, who wanted their emperors to respect them and Republican institutions such as the consulship. We can easily imagine Caligula and his drinking buddies lampooning the stuck-up consuls as “asses”, and the emperor declaring that Incitatus would soon be joining their ranks!


Caligula’s Horse (Dali’s Horses), Salvador Dali, 1971. (Fair Use)

The Neighs Have It
The story of Caligula and Incitatus proved so irresistible as a paradigm of political abuse that it didn’t seem to matter that the horse never donned the consular toga. In particular, commentators through the centuries have had a great deal of fun in comparing contemporary politicians to the emperor’s favourite horse.

 One of the cleverer examples of this is a piece from the London Magazine and Monthly Chronologer, printed on 6 February 1742. In a column entitled Common Sense, the subject for discussion is “Caligula’s Prime Minister”. The Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time was Robert Walpole, who, on 28 January 1742, had lost a vote of no confidence in Parliament. The author of this satire immediately lays his cards on the table, stating that Caligula was a good and able emperor who chose the best candidate for the job of “Prime Minister”:

What a happiness … must it have been to have liv’d under the auspicious Reign of the Emperor Caligula, who had so great a Regard to Merit wherever he found it, and took such a fatherly Care in providing for the Happiness of his People, that he made his Horse a Minister of the State.



Imaginary depiction of Caligula making Incitatus a consul. (imgur)

Incitatus comes up trumps compared to Walpole, as the horse demonstrates all the qualities of a good Prime Minister. The real blow, however, is dealt at the end of the piece:

Whoever considers these Things with an unprejudiced Judgement, will upon an impartial Comparison with another whom I have in my Eye, be obliged to own, that the Horse was not only the honestest, but by far the wisest Minister of the two.

Caligula’s horse also appears in more serious contexts, such as a British response to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, entitled the “Rights of Great Britain Asserted against the Claims of America”. The author cites the story of Incitatus’ consulship as one of many examples from ancient Rome where the wrong people are given decision-making power:

The extension of the right of electing Magistrates to the people at large, was the principal cause of the fall of freedom in Old Rome. The prejudices and fears of the rabble were the steps by which ambitious men ascended to a power, which they converted into tyranny over their foolish Constituents…the grandsons of voters who placed Marius, Cinna, and Caesar at the head of the State, were employed by Caligula in raising his horse to the Consulship.

Here the story of Incitatus becomes a parable of what happens when a state abandons its founding principles at the behest of sycophants.

But there is a final twist in this horse’s tale. Cassius Dio states that Caligula made a horse – assumed to be Incitatus – a priest of the emperor’s cult. This has usually been overlooked, perhaps because Dio mentions it in a different section and does not explicitly name Incitatus.

As a result, we have been accustomed to interpreting this story as one about the abuse of political, rather than religious, power. Even though Caligula’s horse never actually got to sit in the ivory chair in the Roman senate (his ivory stable had to suffice), we still like to imagine a time when a politician literally was an ass.

Top Image: An equestrian statue of a Julio-Claudian prince, originally identified as Caligula. Source: Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0

The article, originally titled ‘Mythbusting Ancient Rome – Caligula’s Horse’ by Shushma Malik and Caillan Davenport was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Ten Mythological Creatures in Ancient Folklore

Ancient Origins


The world is full of stories about mythical creatures, legendary beasts, and supernatural and god-like beings. For thousands of years, humans everywhere—sometimes inspired by living animals or even fossils—have brought mythic creatures to life in stories, songs, and works of art. Today these creatures, from the powerful dragon to the soaring phoenix, continue to thrill, terrify, entertain, and inspire us. Some, such as the Loch Ness Monster or Sasquatch, continue to be "sighted" and sought to this day. While the origins of these fabulous creatures are varied, and often disputed, they have played significant roles in human society, and have served to stimulate the imagination and desire that is ingrained in human nature to experience more than this physical world. Whether they truly exist in physical form is indeed secondary to their existence in the minds of so many people throughout the world and through history.

The legendary Kraken


According to the Scandinavian mythology, the Kraken is a giant sea creature (said to be 1 mile long) that attacks ships and is so huge that its body could be mistaken for an island. It is first mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga involving two sea monsters, the Hafgufa (sea mist) and the Lyngbakr (heather-back). The Hafgufa is supposed to be a reference to the Kraken. The existence of the Kraken was even acknowledged in scientific texts, including the first edition of Systema Naturae [1735], a taxonomic classification of living organisms by the Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus. He classified the Kraken as a cephalopod, designating the scientific name Microcosmus marinus. Although any mention to Kraken was omitted in later editions of the Systema Naturae, Linnaeus described it in his later work, Fauna Suecica [1746], as a "unique monster" that "is said to inhabit the seas of Norway”. Accounts of the Kraken are believed by many historians to have originated from sightings of the giant squid, which can reach 18 meters in length.

Grendel, the beast of Hrothgar


Beowulf is an Old English heroic epic poem set in Scandinavia and cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature of all time. Dated between the 8th and early 11th century, the epic poem tells the story of Beowulf, a great hero who comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, by defeating a beast known as Grendel who had been terrorising the great mead hall built by Hroðgar and threatening the entire kingdom. Archaeological research has verified that the great hall commissioned by Hroðgar did indeed exist, and was located in the country’s earliest royal capital, Lejre, 23 miles west of modern Copenhagen. Whether Grendel (meaning quite literarily ‘the destroyer’) originally existed in some less legendary form – perhaps symbolizing a malevolent spirit responsible for disease and death, or a particularly fierce-looking human enemy – is as yet unknown.

The mythological Kappa



In ancient Japanese folklore, the Kappa is a water demon that inhabits rivers and lakes and devours disobedient little children. The Kappa, a word meaning ‘river child’, is usually depicted with the body of a tortoise, a beak, and the limbs of a frog, and has a hollow filled with water on top of his head. While they are primarily water creatures, they are believed to occasionally venture onto land. According to legend, the cavity must be kept wet when the Kappa ventures out of the water, or he will lose his powers. The Kappa is one of the most well-known folk legends in Japan and many believe the mythical creature to be true. In fact, there are signs near some lakes in Japan warning people of their presence. However, others maintain it is much more likely that the legend of the Kappa is connected with sightings of the Japanese Giant Salamander, or ‘hanzaki’, which is known to be aggressive and to grab its prey with its powerful jaws.

 The legend of Nian



According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called Nian, who had the body of a bull and the head of a lion. It was said to be a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted for a living. Towards the end of Winter when there was nothing to eat, Nian would come on the first day of New Year to the villages to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people. The villagers would live in terror over the winter, but over time they learned that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the colour red, fire, and noise. So when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. They also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, Nian never came to the village again. According to legend, the Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk, and Nian became Hongjun Laozu's mount. After Nian was captured, everyone had a big celebration and the ritual involved in banishing him was repeated the following year, and so the ritual was passed down from generation to generation and the custom of celebrating New Year with firecrackers, noise, and the colour red has persisted to this day.

Naga, the water deity



The naga is a legendary aquatic, serpentine creature that resides in oceans, rivers, lakes, or waterfalls. Nagas are said to have black scales and can grow to hundreds of feet in length. Nagas are traditionally worshipped as personifications of water deities and considered bringers of rain and clouds. They are guardians of temples and holy places. Most Kaliyatran believe that the superior God direct the actions of the nagas, and these sea serpents are honoured with many titles such as the "Maharaja Sarpa" and the "Naga who is God". It is commonly believed that nagas live in underground cities, are capable of speech and can use their heavenly powers to control weather and assume humanoid form at will.

The tradition of the Piasa



The legend of the Piasa Bird dates back to long before European explorers came to region. It has been traced to a band of Illiniwek Indians who lived along the Mississippi in the vicinity north of present-day Alton. This tribe, led by a chief named Owatoga, hunted and fished the valley and the river and lived a contented life until the "great beast" came, described by French missionary priest Jacques Marquette in 1673 as follows: “it is as large as a calf, with horns like a roebuck, red eyes, a beard like a tiger and a frightful countenance. The face was something like that of a man, the body covered in scales, and the tail so long that it passed entirely around the body, over the head and between the legs, ending like a fish.” As with the Illini tribes, there can be found traditions of similar large birds and dragons throughout the world. The Dacotah tribe believed that thunder was a monstrous bird flying through the air and claimed that these birds were large enough to carry off human beings. In the ancient Buddhist caves of India there can be found a number of carved and painted dragons that easily fit with the descriptions of Piasa. Some have questioned whether the so-called mythical creature could have been an ancient species of bird that actually existed. That so many cultures and groups of people separated by thousands of miles and years have similar tales of immense flying creatures is curious to say the least.

The Menhune of Hawaii



In Hawaiian mythology, the Menehune are said to be an ancient race of people small in stature, who lived in Hawaii before settlers arrived from Polynesia. Many scholars attribute ancient structures found on the Hawaiian Islands to the Menehune. However, others have argued that the legends of the Menehune are a post-European contact mythology and that no such race existed. The mythology of the Menehune is as old as the beginnings of Polynesian history. When the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, they found dams, fish-ponds, roads, and even temples, all said to have been built by the Menehune who were superb craftspeople. Some of these structures still exist, and the highly-skilled craftsmanship is evident. According to legend, each Menehune was a master of a certain craft and had one special function they accomplished with great precision and expertise. They would set out at dusk to build something in one night, and if this was not achieved, it would be abandoned. To date, no human skeletal remains of a physically small race of people have ever been found on Kaua’I or on any other Hawaiian islands. While this does not disprove that a race of small people existed, it does draw the truth behind the legend into question. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence, both archaeological and in the numerous legends passed down over generations, that suggests that there was indeed an ancient race of highly skilled people who inhabited the Hawaiian islands long before the Polynesians arrived.

Cipactli, the Aztec creator




The Aztecs of Mexico held the belief that the Earth was created from the destruction of a large sea demon, created by and known to the gods as Cipactli. Cipactli was described in many fashions: a crocodile with toad and fish characteristics, a sea demon or monster. Regardless of the description, the Aztecs considered this asexual sea monster the source of the cosmos. Cipactli’s appetite was insatiable, and each joint of the creature bore a mouth. As the gods began the process of creation, they soon realized that their other creations would fall into the void and be devoured by the demon, so they decided to destroy Cipactli. Tezcatlipoca lured the monster in and lost a foot to its insatiable appetite before the gods were able to defeat it. Cipactli put up a fight, but in the end the gods prevailed. They pulled Cipactli’s body in four directions and freed the universe from its body. Then Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl created the heavens and the Earth and everything therein from Cipactli’s body. The creature’s head became the thirteen heavens, its tail the underworld, its midsection the Earth

 The majestic griffin



The griffin is a legendary creature with the head and wings of an eagle, and the body, tail, and hind legs of a lion. As the eagle was considered the ‘king of the birds’, and the lion the ‘king of the beasts’, the griffin was perceived as a powerful and majestic creature. During the Persian Empire, the griffin was seen as a protector from evil, witchcraft, and slander. While griffins are most common in the art and mythology of Ancient Greece, there is evidence of representations of griffins in ancient Persia and ancient Egypt dating back to as early as the 4th millennium BC. On the island of Crete in Greece, archaeologists have uncovered depictions of griffins in frescoes in the ‘Throne Room’ of the Bronze Age Palace of Knossos dating back to the 15th century BC.

The four mythological creatures of China




In ancient Chinese astronomy, the sky ecliptic was divided into four sections. Each of these sections contained seven mansions, and together they formed the 28 Mansions. The 28 Mansions may be considered to be equivalent to the zodiacal constellations in Western astronomy, although they reflect the movement of the Moon through a sidereal month rather than the Sun in a tropical year. This enabled the ancient Chinese to mark the travelling positions of the Sun and the Moon, as well as to determine the time and seasons. Each section of the sky is assigned to a mythological creature, collectively known as the Four Symbols. These creatures are the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermillion Bird of the South. Apart from their astronomical significance, each of the Four Symbols is surrounded by various mythological associations.

By April Holloway

Friday, May 19, 2017

No One Questions that Vikings Drank; But Did They Make Wine?

Ancient Origins


Further evidence that the Vikings weren’t just beer-swilling, raping, and pillaging savages comes out of Denmark with the discovery of two grape seeds that may indicate the Norsemen didn’t just drink but may have even produced that most sophisticated beverage: wine.

It seems not everyone in Viking society was allowed to drink the more refined beverage, but many of them did enjoy their tippling of whatever kind of alcohol they could get. The lower echelons drank beer, which was easier to produce in the northern climate. The higher strata of society apparently enjoyed wine - when they could get it.


Viking drinking horns. (Mararie/ CC BY SA 2.0)

The question is, was the wine produced locally, or was it imported from France or other parts south? An article on Videnskab.dk explores these questions with interviews of archaeologists involved in the research of the two tiny grape seeds. Botanical archaeologist Peter Steen Henriksen, a curator at Denmark’s National Museum who found the two tiny seeds said:

 "This is the first discovery and evidence of viticulture in Denmark, and all that it entails in terms of status and power. We do not know how they used the grapes. Was it just has to put a great bunch of grapes on a table, for example? But it is reasonable to believe that they made the wine."

Dr. Henriksen found the seeds in soil at a distance from each other of about 600 meters (1968.5 ft.), and they grew between 100 and 200 years apart. He mixed the sand and dirt from the settlement of Tissø with water and found plant material, including the grape seeds. The remnants of the settlement are in Zealand.



An analysis of the strontium content in the two seeds proved one of the seeds was grown in Denmark, according to National Museum Professor Karin Margarita Frei. As Professor Frei says:

"We can safely say that it has a local strontium isotope signature, suggesting that it could be a grape grown in Zealand. This means that the first time we can say that they may have produced wine in Denmark. Before we had only conjecture, now we can see that they actually had grapes, and thus potential to make it themselves. Suddenly it becomes much more real.”


Harvesting grapes for wine. (Public Domain)

 The speculation that elites enjoyed wine may be confirmed by the nature of the settlement of Tissø, which the article calls “one of our richest sites from the Viking Age in Denmark. It is an example of how a royal family—or at least something resembling—has manifested itself in the same place for a very long period. It stretches from the late Iron Age to the end of the Viking Age, from 550 to 1050 AD.”



The settlement of Tissø, which was rich and may have been the seat of a Viking monarch, was near this large lake, which is connected to the sea by a river. (Vastgoten/CC BY SA 3.0)

Sandie Holst, a co-author of the article explaining the results of the research, published in the Danish Journal of Archaeology, says the wine may have set the elites apart from ordinary people in Viking society. It was like saying, “I can drink wine, and you can only drink beer,” she tells Videnskab.dk.

Top image: Drinking from a Viking drinking horn. (CC BY SA 3.0) Oak wine barrels. (Sanjay Acharya/ CC BY SA 3.0)

By Mark Miller

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Vikings Beheaded English King and Patron Saint Edmund, but What Happened to his Body?

Ancient Origins


It’s a 9th century tale involving Vikings, their beheading of a famous English king, and upheaval that led to the burial and reburial of the king’s remains in an unknown spot. And the story is still playing out today as the remains of King Edmund, patron saint of England, are being sought in the town of Bury St. Edmunds.

The Saxon king ruled the East Angles during a time when the British Isles were under attack from the Scandinavian marauders. The Vikings shot Edmund full of arrows somewhere in Suffolk or Norfolk, the stories say, when he refused to renounce Christianity. After killing him, the Vikings decapitated Edmund’s body to desecrate it.


St Edmund was shot full of arrows (CC by SA 3.0) 

The search has some currency because a few years back the remains of King Richard III were found and given a better burial. 

Edmund at one time was at least as famous as Richard. His place of rest became a pilgrimage site for kings and citizens alike. 

Now historians believe it’s possible Edmund’s remains were reburied under the place where a tennis court now sits. Archaeologists are seeking permission to dig there.




The tennis courts under which the king may be buried. (Credit: SWNS)

The St. Edmundsbury Borough Council has indicated it may approve the excavations. The council owns the Abbey Gardens and tennis courts near the grounds of St. Edmundsbury Cathedral.

Edmund’s remains had been in a Benedictine abbey, but they were lost when the abbey was wrecked during the religious upheaval under King Henry VIII. It’s believed the body may have been moved to the Abbey Gardens, perhaps underneath what are now the tennis courts. Under there is also a monks’ graveyard.

But the king’s burial may stand out from the monks’ because it’s said he was reburied in an iron coffin. Presumably the monks did not have such a distinction for their burials.

 Historian Francis Young told The Telegraph a commission dissolved the Benedictine abbey in 1539. Records indicate the commissioners did not mention the body of the king. But Young said it’s likely they allowed the monks to quietly remove it and rebury it elsewhere because Edmund was king.



The ruins of the Abbey of St. Edmund with the more recent cathedral in the background. (Creative Commons/Bob Jones photo)

Mr. Young said:

“According to a third-hand account from 1697, St. Edmund was placed in an iron chest by a few monks but sadly the account does not give the location within the Abbey precincts where he was buried. On balance, however, the monks' cemetery is the most likely location.”

The councilor in charge of the project, Robert Everitt, told The Telegraph:

“It would be an incredibly important historical discovery if he was found under there. It is something the borough want to do and the cathedral are in agreement as well, but we need to ensure we replace the courts. We are looking at St James Middle School courts, which are not being used [as the school is closed]. They would be ideal and would ensure people can play tennis right next to the Abbey Gardens.”

After killing him, the Vikings decapitated Edmund’s body to desecrate it. But the myth tells of a wolf that called out to the king’s followers saying “here, here, here,” leading them to the head and allowing them to bury the body with it.

Not long after Edmund died, people built a shrine for his body in the abbey of the town then known as Bedericesworth. That name later changed to Bury St. Edmunds. Edmund was so famous that the town became the most popular pilgrimage site in England. Many kings visited. Eventually St. Edmunds became patron saint.

Top image: Image from ‘Vikings’, a medieval drama series airing on The History Channel. By Mark Miller