Saturday, January 23, 2010

Farmers on the move, 8000 BCE

This blog is called Muhlberger's Early History for a good reason: I'm often making a connection between things that happened centuries ago and things that our neighbors are doing somewhere in the world today. In the classroom I love talking about remote origins. If I were teaching ancient history now, you'd bet this would be included ( exceerpt from the UK's Daily Mail):

European farming began around 9,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent - a region extending from the eastern coast to the Persian Gulf and which includes modern day Iraq, Syria, and southeast .

The region was the cradle of civilisation and home to the Babylonia, Sumer and Assyrian empires.

The development of farming allowed people to settle down for the first time - and to produce more food than they needed, leading to trade and the freedom to develop new skills such as metal working, building and writing.

Some archaeologists have argued that some of these early farmers travelled around the world - settling new lands and bringing farming skills with them.

But others have insisted that the skills were passed on by word of mouth, and not by mass migration.

The new study suggests the farmers routinely upped sticks and moved west when their villages became too crowded, eventually reaching Britain and .

The waves of migrants brought their new skills with them. Some settled down with local tribes and taught them how to farm, the researchers believe.

'When the expansion happened these men had a reproductive advantage because they were able to grow more food so they were more attractive to women and had more offspring,' said Prof Jobling.

'In total more than 80 per cent of European men have Y chromosomes which descend from incoming farmers.

'It seems odd to think that the majority of men in Ireland have fore fathers from the near East and that British people have forefathers from the near East.'

The findings are published in the science journal PLoS Biology.

Dr Patricia Balaresque, a co-author of the study, said: 'This means that more than 80 per cent of European Y chromosomes descend from incoming farmers.'

In contrast, other studies have shown that DNA passed down from mothers to daughters can be traced by to hunter-gatherers in Europe, she said.

'To us, this suggests a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the switch from hunting and gathering, to farming - maybe, back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer,' she said.

I don't think anyone had a clue about this 20 years ago when I first taught Ancient Civilizations. What fun!

(And let's hear it for SE Turkey getting proper credit.)

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820


British History Online has webbed a searchable version of this reference work, for serious research or serious fun.

Image: Market Hill in St. Edmundsbury, 1700.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine


I am fascinated by early 19th-century technological breakthroughs, so I was really pleased to be referred to this NPR piece on the Babbage Difference Engine, which includes audio, text, photo slideshow, and video.

Here's an excerpt:
Charles Babbage, the man whom many consider to be the father of modern computing, never got to complete any of his life's work. The Victorian gentleman was a brilliant mathematician, but he wasn't very good at politics and fundraising, so he never got the financial backing to finish any of his elaborate machine designs. For decades, even his fans weren't certain whether his computing machines would have worked.

But Doron Swade, a former curator at the Science Museum in London, has proven that Babbage wasn't just an eccentric dreamer. Using nothing but materials that would have been available to Babbage in the 1840s, Swade and a group of engineers successfully built Babbage's Difference Engine — and a version is now on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

The Difference Engine fills half a gallery and stands taller than most men. It's 5 tons of cast iron, steel and bronze woven together from 8,000 distinct parts. Though it looks like it could be a sculpture, the machine is essentially a giant calculator. Tim Robinson, a docent at the museum, says it's "the first automatic calculating machine."

This engine — made from 162-year-old designs — doesn't have a power pack; it has a hand crank. Robinson works up a sweat as he turns it. "As long as you keep turning that crank, it will produce entirely new results," he says.

Most importantly, the machine produces accurate results. In Babbage's time, England reigned over a vast global empire. To navigate the seas, captains used books filled with calculations — but these equations were all done by fallible human minds.

"If the tables had an error," Robinson says, "a ship could either get lost or run aground, so lives and property were thought to be at stake."

The story goes that Babbage was inspired to create the Difference Engine one day when he came across multiple errors in a book of astronomical calculations. "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!" he exclaimed.

Of course, this episode inspired one of the first steampunk novels.

P.s. It was designed to have a printer! And has one now!

Image: Wikipedia picture of the American exemplar.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

World famous in Scotland

Listening to CBC One's Ideas program on early steam engines last night, I heard a Scots expert say about James Watt, "We all know his story, I guess," and I realized:
I know next to no personal anecdotes about Watt, nothing on the level of what I know about Newton; and other people do.

Image: Watt's engine, turning linear motion into circular motion. And don't forget the condensers.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

A big Viking hoard may rewrite the history books


This post from the Independent (UK) has two very interesting points. First, the discovery is being called the "largest and most important" Viking hoard found in Britain since 1840, which is a long time. Second, responsible metal detectorists found and properly handled the discovery. Hooray!

As for rewriting the history books:
Some of the coins shed new light on the period – parts of Britain such as Staffordshire and Yorkshire were already believed lost by the Vikings and under Anglo-Saxon dominion, yet there are coins which show the Vikings were still creating their own currency in these regions. One such coin, with the word "Rorivacastr" on it, is believed to have originated from Roceter, in 10th-century Staffordshire, on the border of Viking and Anglo Saxon control.

Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins and Viking expert at the British Museum, said this particular coin revealed that the region may still have been under Viking control, despite Anglo Saxon spin that it was under their rule. He added that it was a truly remarkable find, with a vast array of coins from as far afield as Scandinavia, continental Europe, Tashkent and Afghanistan.

"There's been nothing like it for over 150 years. The size and range of material gives us an insight into the political history, the cultural diversity of the Viking world and the range of cultural and economic contact at that time," he said. Priceless lessons in history would further be revealed in four years time after careful study, he added.

Image: a small part of the hoard.

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A depressing but detailed British evaluation of the situation in Afghanistan...

...from Prospect Magazine.

It's like the Vietnam war -- either one of them -- never happened.

An excerpt:
Britain’s new Afghan war began shortly after 9/11, with the deployment of special force units to support the US campaign against al Qaeda. But it was a Nato plan to extend the writ of the Kabul government across the country that brought Britain to Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, in April 2006. Bloody as it was to be, the mission was defined initially in benign terms. John Reid, then defence secretary, emphasised reconstruction and a “development zone” in the centre of the province, with the 3,300 troops deployed to provide basic security. A commander from those early days told me that the British came equipped for defence, not attack. But from the start, the mission crept forward with dangerous confusion to include fighting terrorism, defeating an insurgency, rebuilding an economy, supporting the government and suppressing illegal drugs.

In spring 2006, a revolt was already underway across Helmand by those seemingly loyal to the former Taliban government. Though the rebellion was poorly understood, the imperative to defeat it pushed all other objectives to one side. Under Afghan political pressure, Britain’s limited combat strength was deployed to establish so-called “platoon houses”—defensive positions in towns across northern Helmand and around the Kajaki dam. It seemed, at the time, that unless the government was defended the rebellion could sweep across the entire south of the country. But this came at a cost. Under siege that first summer, the British defended their ramparts with heavy weapons and air power. The fighting reduced parts of Sangin to rubble, destroyed Musa Qala’s mosque, and drove the population out of other towns. Almost no meaningful reconstruction was carried out. The base at Musa Qala was eventually abandoned in a truce with the Taliban, but during the winter of 2006-07 the British clung on elsewhere. General David Richards, then Nato commander in Kabul (and now incoming head of the army), later told me that hanging on to these outposts had little strategic impact beyond helping to save face with the Afghans.


Then there is this piece of black humor:
Beyond our strategic interest in stability there also remains a moral case for the fight. Achieving a modicum of stability in Afghanistan would give meaning to all that loss of life. We cannot in good conscience abandon the place to anarchy. And Britain can still do good if it learns deeper lessons from its campaign.

!!!

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Birther conspiracies of yore


I can't bring myself to get into the details of the nutty and alarming American "birther" delusion, but if you already know about it, this may amuse you... Thanks to Brad DeLong.

Image: a bed warming pan.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Medieval Gallery at the British Museum

The British Museum has reorganized its medieval ( 1050- 1500) holdings. They are quite proud of the new display and the Times Online description makes it sound quite wonderful. There is a video here that gives a taste of it.

Image: the 15th century Fishpool hoard, a lost treasure of over 1000 gold coins from the Wars of the Roses.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Feeling insecure? Blame the Vikings!

Ever wonder how historical images and reputations get propagated, reworked, and repropagated?

Magistra et Mater,
a real medieval historian, was struck by a UK press denunciation of supposed efforts to supposedly minimize Viking rape and pillage. She asked:

I want instead to ask another question: why is it so necessary to modern Britain that the Vikings were violent? This can’t simply just be put down to right-wing prejudices about immigration (although this crops up in the Daily Mail): Simon Schama had pretty much the same attitude to Vikings in his History of Britain (BTW, the best takedown of Schama’s TV history style I’ve yet seen is here).

There is a very interesting contrast here with an earlier British attitude. If you look at some of the classic popular histories from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Our Island Story or 1066 and All That, then the Danes (not yet the Vikings) are simply one among many violent attackers of early Britain. There is nothing that particularly distinguishes their violence from that of Romans, Saxons or Normans. The same attitude is still shown by Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. But generally in Britain, it is now the Vikings alone whose violent reputation must be defended or revised: no-one outside history facilities really cares how violent the Saxons were or whether Hengist was coarser than Horsa. Why does Viking violence now spark the imagination in a way it didn’t 100 years ago? There’s been the discovery and display of much more material culture (as in Jorvik), but we’ve got more Saxon stuff as well.

It’s also not a reflection of modern politics in the normal sense: there are no significant anti-Scandinavian prejudices here. If you’re going to demonise the EU via the past, then Normans as proto-French and Saxons as proto-Germans are a better bet. But if you look at which aspects of the Vikings are remembered, you get the clue. It’s not Canute/Cnut or even the Danelaw which strike the modern imagination, and King Alfred is surprisingly absent. It’s the raids, from Lindisfarne in 793 onwards. What this country remembers about the Vikings is the sudden alarm of longboats appearing at a ‘peaceful settlement’ (this was the main trope in Simon Schama). It’s not the threat of invasion and conquest (Britain being ‘overrun with fire and the sword’) that sends a thrill of terror up British spines now. It’s the small-scale, unprovoked, seemingly random and meaningless violence that does that: the Vikings as the first terrorists.

So there you have it, cherry-picking of useful images once again...

Image:
Re-enactors at the Dublin Viking Festival.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stonehenge: No one who wasn't there can imagine what that music was like

But we can reconstruct and dream, can't we?

The Mail reports an acoustic-archaeological experiment:

Part-time DJ Dr Till, an expert in acoustics and music technology at Huddersfield University, believes the standing stones of Stonehenge had the ideal acoustics to amplify a 'repetitive trance rhythm' not dissimilar to some kinds of modern trance music.

Stonehenge would have had strange acoustic effects thousands of years ago

The original Stonehenge probably had a 'very pleasant, almost concert-like acoustic' that our ancestors slowly perfected over many generations. Because Stonehenge itself is partially collapsed, Dr Till, used a computer model to conduct experiments in sound.

The most exciting discoveries came when he and colleague Dr Bruno Fazenda visited a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge, which was built as a war memorial by American road builder Sam Hill at Maryhill in Washington state.

He said: 'We were able to get some interesting results when we visited the replica by using computer-based acoustic analysis software, a 3D soundfield microphone, a dodecahedronic (12-faced) speaker, and a huge bass speaker.

'We have also been able to reproduce the sound of someone speaking or clapping in Stonehenge 5,000 years ago.

'The most interesting thing is we managed to get the whole space (at Maryhill) to resonate, almost like a wine glass will ring if you run a finger round it.

'While that was happening a simple drum beat sounded incredibly dramatic. The space had real character; it felt that we had gone somewhere special.'

Read the rest.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Derek Neal Speaks: The Damage Done:


From Dr. James Murton:

The next talk in the History Department Seminar Series features our own gender and medieval historian Derek Neal, speaking on "Sex and the Damage Done: A Rare Prosecution for Sodomy in Late Medieval England."

Next Friday, Oct 24, 3:00 pm, Rm A224 (note the later than normal time to accommodate the Arts & Science Council Meeting).

Refreshments will be served.

Hope to see you there!


Image: The White Hart Inn in Blythburgh, Suffolk, was built in the 13th century as an ecclesiastical court venue, where such cases would have been tried.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

14th century economy and society

Over at A Commonplace Book, Will McLean has a couple of short articles on the English social hierarchy at the time of the Canterbury Tales, and the value of money at the same time.

Image:
A Richard II London groat (4d or pence) from a site by Ivan Buck. Alas, no depiction of the golden angel.

Update: Hoisted from comments:
OpenID tenthmedieval said...

Got no golden angel, but can do you a golden leopard... a relevant one too :-)

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Can parking fines be called "medieval?" Maybe.

A lovely post at Got Medieval.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Phil Paine: What a game show says about Canadian politics



Over at PhilPaine.com Phil Paine (who else?) talks about what he concluded about Canadian politics after watching a recent TV game show called Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister.

Among the things he claims Canadians don't care about in the voting booth is sex:


Unlike in the U.K. or the United States, I can’t think of any “sex scandals” in Canadian Politics. We simply don’t care about the sex lives of our politicians, if they have any. It’s just something we never think about.

I'm sure that someone can dig up a sex scandal, but after about four years of reading pretty much daily on American politics, I'd have to agree that the difference is like night and day.

Thank Heaven!

More good stuff here.

Image:
A template used by deputy returning officers to help visually-impaired voters.


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Friday, March 21, 2008

Stage Beauty (2004)

I never heard of this movie until Dr. Cameron McFarlane of Nipissing's Department of English Studies offered a paper on it in the History Department's seminar seried. I couldn't make the seminar, but his abstract was enough for me to hunt down a copy, which I have just watched. Am I ever glad I did. This is a topnotch historical movie with a serious theme but lots of fun, too.

The protagonist is a star actor in the time of Charles II who has spent his whole career portraying women, a specialized but essential skill since women are forbidden to appear on the stage. He has a young, good-looking female dresser who wants to act. In a comedy of errors, he loses his career and identity when women are allowed to act and men are forbidden to take crossdressing roles. And she, who does not have his training or talent, becomes a star instead.

That, and much, much more. Highly recommended. Thanks, Cameron!

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Palace of Westminster --developing before your very eyes!



A friendly contributer to the medieval history list Mediev-L has just alerted me to an online "film" of the development of the Palace of Westminster, the home of the UK Parliament and one of the most historical sites in Britain. Well worth taking some time with.

I'm not quite sure who is responsible for this site. It may be a commercial site and other such presentations may be available from the home page.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A druid grave?


A friend sent me this very sensible article from Spiegel Online International about what might be the grave of a druid. The archaeological site, in Essex, sounds very interesting, but what might be the best thing about the article is how the author explains why archaeologists have to be careful in using labels like "Druid."

Image: Some of the utensils found in the grave.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Who's the myth?


Over at Vanity Press a couple of days ago, Chet Scoville noted this story from Yahoo News, which I copy in its entirety:

LONDON (AFP) - Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real.

The survey found that 47 percent thought the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart was a myth.

And 23 percent thought World War II prime minister Churchill was made up. The same percentage thought Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale did not actually exist.

Three percent thought Charles Dickens, one of Britain's most famous writers, is a work of fiction himself.

Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi and Battle of Waterloo victor the Duke of Wellington also appeared in the top 10 of people thought to be myths.

Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Holmes actually existed; 33 percent thought the same of W. E. Johns' fictional pilot and adventurer Biggles.

UKTV Gold television surveyed 3,000 people.


Chet found this depressing, but since last year I do my best to avoid letting anything depress me, since that improves nothing. So, trying to take a more positive view, I ask myself these questions:

How, in a world saturated with fiction, can people who are not historians keep the mythical and the real sorted out?

How many historical figures do even intelligent people have filed away in their memories? How sure of their reality can they be -- if put on the spot by a pollster?

Is it amazing that people think Richard Lionheart is a myth, since most accounts (Ivanhoe-inspired) are pretty mythical?

Didn't medieval people think Arthur is real? Don't a lot of people think that now?

Isn't it perhaps understandable that someone with the poetic last name "Nightingale" associated with saintly charity, might be considered a legend?

Shouldn't literature profs be pleased that Dickens has more public reality than Churchill?

On to another myth. One spinoff of the Greatest Show on Earth is a debate about Barack Obama, and whether he's like JF or RF Kennedy. I was around for Kennedy's assassination, and was much affected by it, but have in the last 20 years or so have come to think he was mostly image. The issue of Kennedy's true standing was interestingly raised today at Ezra Klein's blog, by him and his commentators. Have a look.

P.s. My youthful Kennedy infatuation makes me very wary of discussing certain issues with people who were teenagers when Reagan was president.

Image: Mother Teresa. Or somebody.

Update: As Prof. Nokes points out, Will McLean looked farther than I did, and found the top 10 list of fictional characters believed by the public to be real. And behold, Will shows that the people who made the poll don't know their history very well.

Here's the list,

  • 1) King Arthur – 65%
  • 2) Sherlock Holmes – 58%
  • 3) Robin Hood – 51%
  • 4) Eleanor Rigby – 47%
  • 5) Mona Lisa -35%
  • 6) Dick Turpin – 34%
  • 7) Biggles – 33%
  • 8) The Three Musketeers – 17%
  • 9) Lady Godiva – 12%
  • 10) Robinson Crusoe – 5%

and here are Will's remarks. My own addendum: I'm pretty sure Dafoe modeled Robinson Crusoe off a real shipwreck survivor. Ah, yes, Alexander Selkirk.


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Monday, September 17, 2007

Lessons in imposed democracy

Today's Washington Post has an interesting article by Shankar Vedantam entitled Lessons in Enforced Democracy (a title less accurate than the one I've chosen for this post). Vedantam has got hold of an unpublished study by Andrew Enterline and J. Michael Greig on the fate of democratic regimes imposed by foreign countries. (Unfortunately he doesn't say where this study will be published and whether it will be an article or a book. But I will keep an eye out.)

The study suggests that this usually works out badly because the countries on which democracy has been imposed lack the appropriate civic institutions. The traditional generation seems to be a turning point. Weak democracies with elections but no institutional infrastructure fail in large numbers in the first 30 years. Strong new democracies that reach 30 seem to have become very well established by that point.

I am tempted to say DUH! but really I'm pleased that this serious matter has appeared in a major American newspaper. It's an improvement over what often appears in the WP, not to speak of lesser forums like the discredited NYT. However, I wonder how much systematic thinking is behind the study. Here, for instance, is the study's recipe for success as reported by Vedantam:

...large occupation forces early on to stamp out nascent insurgencies; a clear message that occupation forces were willing to spend years to make democracy work; an ethnically homogenous population, where politics was less likely to splinter along sectarian lines; and finally, the good fortune to have neighbors that also were democratically minded, or at least neighbors who could be kept from interfering.


Is this just an ad hoc argument for a long-term US commitment to Iraq?

One thing that makes me wonder is this paragraph from the article:

Enterline and Greig said there is one large exception to their finding: India, with its myriad internal divisions, but which still has become a strong democracy. Civic culture and a strong desire for representative government undoubtedly play a role in whether stable democracies emerge, Greig said -- meaning that Iraq might yet defy the odds.


Indian democracy is a remarkable achievement, but perhaps success there indicates that civic institutions are far more important than ethnic homogeneity. After all, neither the USA nor Canada has ever had any such thing. There's always been some new wave of immigration to mix things up. Political science has known for years that having a tradition of British justice and an independent judiciary gave freed British colonies a better head start on stability than colonies of other countries. In the partition, the Republic of India got the vast bulk of the institutional inheritance of the Raj, while Pakistan just got the army. Even so, the Pakistani judicial system has shown itself recently the biggest organized force for reform.

The Vedantam article cites the problems that the Philippines have had maintaining democracy after independence from American rule; it might be interesting to compare American-imposed institutions in the Philippines to British ones in India, at a detailed level of analysis.

While we are wishing, what about a good study of Spain -- model backward Fascist state to model European democracy in less than a generation? All while suffering from domestic terrorism! Long-established democratic countries -- you know who you are -- should bow their heads in shame in the face of this example.

Update: Thanks to Will McLean, I now have a link to the Enterline and Grieg paper. Alas, the briefest of looks makes me question the analytical judgment of the authors. To term the 19th century democratization of Canada and New Zealand cases "imposed democracy" similar to the cases of Germany and Japan and now Iraq shows a profound ignorance of the internal dynamics of Canada and New Zealand in that era.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Beef and Liberty by Ben Rogers

A friend lent me this book with an enthusiastic recommendation, and I'm glad he did. Anyone who wonders about the origin of John Bull, or why Jack Aubery's sailors play the song "Roast Beef of Old England" before battle will enjoy this book. Likewise those who might want to know more about the comparative development of national cuisine in England and France, or the great era of the English satirical cartoon. Enjoyable and informative both.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What motivates terrorists

It's often said that terrorists, especially those who are genuinely willing to die for their cause, are desperate and poor and marginalized. The fact that the latest round of bombers in Britain were doctors challenges us to look past that easy generalization. Juan Cole has what I think is a sensible consideration of the subject.

I should point out that several commenters say, wait until they are charged with something before analyzing their motives. I still think that the scenario Cole sketches is a plausible one.

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