Monday, December 31, 2012

Cairns, Isle of Skye

Not sure what they mean, but they're kind of cool. These are on the western shore of Trotternish, near the northern tip of the island.

Loneliness Feeds on Itself

Olivia Laing:
Something funny happens to people who are lonely. The lonelier they get, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it isn’t easy to dislodge. When I think of its advance, an anchoress’s cell comes to mind, as does the exoskeleton of a gastropod.

This sounds like paranoia, but in fact loneliness’s odd mode of increase has been mapped by medical researchers. It seems that the initial sensation triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, one tends to experience the world in negative terms, and to both expect and remember negative encounters — instances of rudeness, rejection or abrasion, like my urn brew episodes in the cafĂ©. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.

 At the same time, the brain’s state of red alert brings about a series of physiological changes. Lonely people are restless sleepers. Loneliness drives up blood pressure, accelerates ageing, and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline. According to a 2010 study I came across in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine entitled ‘Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms’, loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality, which is an elegant way of saying that loneliness can prove fatal.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The D & D Wedding

These people really know how to do it up, between the center pieces made of gold-painted dice and a reading from the Dungeon Master's Guide. And their vows:
S: When you are low on sanity points, I will tank the demons for you
K: I will monitor party hit points, and make sure everyone is healed up for the next adventure
S: I will always help you build your character, and never question your core concept
K: I will take training in the skills you lack so that the party is balanced
S: I will always provide interesting adventure paths, and never railroad you down the boring ones
K: I will help you to gain all of the levels. All of them.

Gilgamesh and Humbaba in Mesopotamian Art

Gilgamesh, the great hero of ancient Mesopotamia, makes surprisingly few appearances in their art. The image above is the most famous, from the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon at Khorsabad, now in the Louvre.

Full image of the above.

This relief of Gilgamesh and two winged demons comes from Tell Halaf in Syria, also dating to Assyrian times.

From earlier times little except for cylinder seal images. Here Gilgamesh assumes the pose of the ancient Master of Animals.

 This one shows Gilgamesh battling the Bull of Heaven.

Here, having defeated the bull, he takes on the monster Humbaba, whose mouth is fire, whose breath is death

There are several drawings like these that show up on mythology web sites. I assume they are made from seals.

One early depiction of Gilgamesh I have found that is not from seal is this Neo-Sumerian votive plaque, now in the royal museum of Belgium, dating to between 2250 and 1900 BCE.

Gilgamesh's friend, the wild man Enkidu also appears on many images. In these two, an Assyrian relief (above) and a Babylonian seal (below), Gilgamesh and Enkidu battle Humbaba.

This relief showing the same scene is of disputed date, but it may be as early as 1500 BCE. It is thought to be from Uurk, but that is also uncertain.

Here Gilgamesh and Enkidu battle separate enemies, side by side.

There may be more surviving images of Gilgamesh's great enemy, the monster Humbabu, than of Gilgamesh himself. They seem to have been charms against bad luck or wards against demons, the kind of magic the Greeks called apotropaic.

The Greeks used images of Medusa to frighten away demons, and the Babylonians used these amulets of Humbaba.

Gilgamesh is one of my favorite traditional stories because of the way it combines adventure with lessons about fate. My favorite part is the conclusion, when Ishtar explains that Gilgamesh's quest for immortality was futile:
O Gilgamesh, whither do you fare?
The life you seek, you will not find.
When the gods created man,
They apportioned death to mankind;
And retained life to themselves.
O Gilgamesh, fill you belly,
Make merry, day and night;
Make of each day a festival of joy,
Dance and play, day and night!
Let your raiment be kept clean,
Your head washed, body bathed.
Pay heed to the little one, holding onto your hand;
Let your wife delight your heart.
For in this is the portion of man.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Today's Castle: Tourbillon, Switzerland

Tourbillon Castle is in the Canton of Valais in Switzerland, on a hill overlooking the town of Sion or Sitten. It was built around 1300 by Bishop Boniface de Challant. Just why the bishop needed this fortress is shown by subsequent events.

Valais is a very mountainous district, home to the Matterhorn, and it had no large cities. The biggest place was Sion. In the thirteenth century Sion became a chartered town with its own government, and it became in a few decades nearly independent. The bishops did not like this, and building the castle was part of their attempt to retain control. In the 1350s Bishop Witschard Tavel tried to reassert his power over both the townspeople and the cathedral chapter by violence. He had the support of the Count of Savoy, but the people resisted. In 1352, Sion was conquered, pillaged and plundered by an army from Savoy. (Take that, you scurvy bakers' boys!)

The anti-episcoal faction then formed Patriots of the Valais and launched one of those late medieval revolts in which peasants and townsmen battled their feudal overlords. This conflict dragged on for decades. In 1384, the town of Sion was sacked and burned again by the bishop's allies. In 1416 the Patriots took Tourbillon castle and burned it down. Behold the way the bishop's two fortresses, Tourbillon Castle on the left and the fortified basilica of Valere on the right, loom over the town. Imagine what a thrill it must have been for the oppressed townspeople to storm up the hill and smash in the gate.

Woodcut of the castle made in 1550 by Sebastian Munster.

And another woodcut, this of an attack on the town of Sion by the bishop's forces in 1418.

The castle was then rebuilt in about 1450 by bishop Gullaume VI of Raron --wikipedia gives 1477, but I found another source that gives this bishop's dates as 1437-1451-- who among other things added crenelation to the walls. He also updated the living quarters to the latest luxurious standard. The bishop retained a great deal of power in Valais even as the Swiss Confederacy asserted its independence from kings and emperors, and Valais remained Catholic through the Reformation.

The castle was burned down again in 1788, during another round of revolutionary agitation, and the ruins have been left to molder ever since.

It seems to be quite difficult to take pictures of this castle, and most of what comes up in an image search is pictures taken from it toward the town below or the mountains beyond. This must be the great hall.

The density of history in that part of the world is startling to think about, and when you contemplate any event in European history it pays to remember how many centuries of conflict lie behind it.

Elephant Festival, Chitan, Nepal

The news is full of pictures from the annual elephant festival in the Chitan district of Nepal, where the events include an elephant beauty contest,

An elephant race (above), and the famous elephant soccer game (below).

Friday, December 28, 2012

Delmarva Adena at Pig Point

Pig Point is a marvelous archaeological site on the Patuxent River in Maryland, a few miles east of Washington, DC. The site was occupied off and on for thousands of years, and excavators from Anne Arundel County's Lost Towns Project have made many great finds there. But the latest discovery from the site is the best find yet: a burial pit of the Delmarva Adena culture radiocarbon dated to 80 to 240 CE. Actually there are five or six such pits at the site, only one of which has been excavated to date.

"Delmarva Adena" is what we call a group of cemeteries and ritual sites found around the Chesapeake Bay that have produced artifacts imported from the "mound builder" cultures of the Ohio Valley. There are at least a dozen such sites known. They mainly date to Hopewell times, 200 BCE to 500 CE, but the first archaeologists to find these artifacts didn't know that and thought they more closely resembled the older Adena material. Either way they represent a transplant of Ohio Valley culture to the east.

Midwestern artifacts from Pig Point: copper beads from Michigan, pieces of flint ridge Hopewell blades from Ohio, and a gorget made of banded slate.

There are also locally made Delmarva Adena artifacts, such as these quartz blades, which have been found at several Delmarva Adena sites. The breaking or "killing" of artifacts, a widespread habit around the world, was part of the burial practices of some Hopewell and Adena groups.

What Delmarva Adena means is much disputed, and it is a very interesting question. To begin with, what was Hopewell culture about in its homeland? I follow the interpretation of Robert Hall, who argued that the extraordinary funerals of the Mound Builders were part of their political system. In many Indian societies, political transitions were managed largely through funerals and fictive kinship. When a big chief died, a new man would assume his identity and name, and then ceremonially renew his relationships with important allies, vassals, and so on; in Indian parlance these people were now his brothers, children, cousins, or whatever kin term seemed appropriate for the relationship. These political ties were cemented at the funeral, so men with big ambitions had to stage very impressive funerals for their predecessors.

How did this spread to the Chesapeake? Perhaps ambitious chiefs in the east had themselves adopted as the nephews (or some such) of major Hopewell chiefs, offering valuable gifts and inspiring the Hopewell chiefs to give some of their special ceremonial artifacts in return. The Chesapeake chiefs then set up their own systems of fictive kinship, distributing a few of these very rare and special western objects to cement key alliances and raise their own status. Many of these objects ended up in their own graves, as their successors tried to assume the same high status. None of the Delmarva Adena sites seems to have lasted more than a couple of generations (so far), so it seems that even with these imported objects Chesapeake chiefs were not able to establish stable states. But there are hints that Pig Point remained in use for centuries, so that may now change.

Most of the Delmarva Adena sites were dug up decades ago, usually by amateurs. Nobody knows yet what will happen to this one, but the thought that one has now been found by professionals has all of us around here very excited.

Grandchildren and Evolutionary Fitness

This explains a lot:
To begin with, we need to see that achieving reproductive success is not just about maintaining high birth rates: it is no good producing children every year if they die in infancy because it is impossible to care for several of them at the same time. In fact, a better measure of an individual's reproductive success is not the number of children but the number of grandchildren. That is to say, one must not only produce children, but also ensure that they do not die in childhood. It is necessary to invest in their upbringing, so that they in turn become successful adults who have a high probability of reproducing their parents' success.
Steven Shennan, Genes, Memes, and Human History

NGC 5189

Hubble photo of a nearby planetary nebula.

Tel Motza

Israeli archaeologists working at Tel Motza near Jerusalem have unearthed what seems to be a temple and cult center dating to around 750 BCE.

The broader significance of the discovery is its role in the debate over what Jerusalem was like during the period when the Bible says David and Solomon ruled over a glittering kingdom. Thirty years ago a band of archaeologists came forward with the assertion that there was no evidence of such a kingdom, and that in the 10th century BCE Jerusalem was just a village and David therefore only a chief of herders. Not until after 700 BCE, these archaeologists said, was there much evidence of cities and kings in Israel, corresponding to the first appearance of Hebrew kingdoms in the Assyrian records.

The problem with making claims based on the lack of evidence is that somebody can always come along and find evidence that had been missed. This is what has happened in Israel in the past 20 years. There have been numerous reports of massive walls and gates, temples, a major copper mining center, and so on dating to before 700 BCE. The question of exactly how old these features are, and what they represent, remains open, but it is certainly true that by 800 BCE Judea contained much more than just herders.

The Tel Motza ritual center is more evidence of sophistication in Israel in the period of the early kingdoms. However, at 750 BCE it is fairly late, and so far from a revolutionary discovery. Still very interesting, though, especially these figurines.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lots of Dead Squid

Hundreds of dead Humboldt squid washed up on beaches in Southern California earlier this month. Nobody knows why. Sometimes these mass deaths are caused by blooms of poisonous algae, but water quality off California is closely monitored, and no toxins have been noted. More at National Geographic.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Ancient Souvenirs from Hadrian's Wall

Three enameled pans found in southern Britain and Gaul may be souvenirs of visits to Hadrian's Wall:
The pans are about the size of wine glasses and are decorated with the names of forts along the western sector of Hadrian’s Wall from Bowness-on-Solway to Great Chesters. They were made in the decades following the building of Hadrian’s Wall in AD 122.
As archaeologist Nigel Mills said,
It is also fascinating that Hadrian’s Wall was a tourist attraction 2000 years ago. This highlights the significance of Hadrian’s Wall as an expression of the power and prestige of Rome, known across the Empire. Visitors continue to come from all over the world.
The ways in which the people of the Roman empire were eerily like us continue to multiply.