Ancient Pants for a Rider Reconstructed

The precise construction of ancient textiles is often a matter of educated guesswork, since fibers—if they survive in the first place—tend to rot in most soil types. Now we have a little more to go on: in March 2022, a study was published on the technical details of fabric and finishing techniques of eight wool garments, including a spectacular pair of pants, belonging to a rider buried ca. 1200-1000 BCE.

One of the oldest preserved pairs of trousers in the world, the garment was found at Yanghai, Turfan (also known as Turpan), in the Xinjiang area in Northwest China. It’s an area with a long history and multiple tombs, as befits a stop on the Silk Road.

The breeches were made from three pieces: one for each leg and one for the crotch to combine the two sides.

HS Archaeological Research in Asia Wagner et al Turfan Rider Pants1

All three pieces included some woven patterning. Besides striping, the leg pieces also had a decorative band in a T-hook pattern (a kind of geometric design) around the knees.

HS Archaeological Research in Asia Wagner et al Turfan Rider Pants2

Interestingly, it seems that the pant pieces were woven on a loom into the final size and shape; no cutting from a longer length of cloth was involved. A combination of multiple techniques was also discovered: regular twill weave on the majority of the work, the weave on the knees, and a third method on the upper areas to create a thick waistband.

All this means a high skill level was needed in gauging not just the size of the future wearer, but also the amount of yarn required, plus naturally the various weaving techniques.

In the course of studying these clothes, reproductions were made. The outfit consists of the trousers, a poncho with belt, two pairs of braided bands (one below the knees and another at the ankles), and a wool headband.

HS Archaeological Research in Asia Wagner et al Turfan Rider Pants3

I’ve recently done some reading on recreating prehistorical clothing from scratch, and let me tell you, all of the shearing, washing, sorting, carding, spinning, dyeing, and—only at the very end—weaving plus sewing was no mean feat. The gorgeous (pre)historic garments we have managed to find must have taken a simply enormous amount of work to create. Even with a little weaving and band making plus a lot of sewing under my belt (pun intended—sorry, not sorry) I have a hard time imagining the magnitude of effort required in textile production before modern machinery.

Found and images via Helsingin Sanomat. (NB. Finnish only.) In English, you can read more at Science News.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

A World of Warcraft Druid Cosplay by Svetlana Quindt

Svetlana Quindt at Kamui Cosplay makes seriously impressive cosplay outfits from scratch. Here are a few of her photos of the druid tier 9 set from World of Warcraft.

Flickr Svetlana Quindt Druid T9 w Flute

Her attention to detail is amazing! Take a look at the Making of photoset on Flickr for a sampling.

Flickr Svetlana Quindt Druid T9 Vest Progress

And because merely sewing an intricate costume wouldn’t be enough, Quindt has embedded LED lights into some of the gems.

Flickr Svetlana Quindt Druid T9 Skirt w Gems

A staff, of course, is included.

Flickr Svetlana Quindt Druid T9 w Staff

OMG, there’s even a little pouch built into the shoulder piece! I’m afraid I’m way too impatient to make anything this detailed, even if I looked like an Elf… Although, the Dwarven females look about the right height for me if I squint hard. LOL! 🙂

Quindt has written blog posts on the build process, available at the Kamui Cosplay website.

Images: Druid tier 9 costume by Svetlana Quindt: With flute. Making the vest. Skirt with gems. With staff.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Estonian Muhu Skirts Dyed with Mine Chemicals

Kadri Liik shared on Twitter some of her family history of using mines to dye fabric for colorful folk skirts in western Estonia in 1930s.

Strictly speaking, of course, it’s not mines themselves that were used in dyeing, but the picric acid in them. Russian World War I battleship Slava sank in 1917 between Muhu island and mainland Estonia, only 12 years after putting to sea.

Google Maps Muhu Estonia

Estonians scrapped the ship in the early 1930s. During that process, picric acid was extracted and put to use. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, picric acid was first used in dyeing in 1849, initially of silk. In Muhu, it was apparently used with wool.

The bright yellow derived from picric acid was locally known as mine yellow (miinikollane). Below is the Muhu skirt made from scratch by Liik’s grandmother or great aunt in 1930s:

Twitter Kadri Liik Muhu Skirt

Apparently, Muhu skirts enjoyed such popularity that older women might be doing their everyday chores in them as late as the 1960s.

It’s quite striking, isn’t it? It seems that some of these traditional patterns survive, either in traditionally woven textiles or as prints on modern fabrics, which is fabulous. I’m not sure I’d like to know exactly how the picric was extracted in the 30s, though…!

Images: map of Muhu island by Google Maps. Skirt by Kadri Liik via Twitter.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Stupid Writer Tricks: Character Voices

Writing dialogue is not one of my strengths as a writer. I often struggle to give my characters their own voices. So I have a stupid trick to help me get the voice right for characters I’m going to spend a lot of time with: When thinking of their dialogue in my own head, I give them a distinctive accent, tone, or speaking style. It doesn’t always come through onto the page, but it helps me think about how a particular character would talk.

For an example, here’s how I wrote the voices for the main characters in my story “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters.”

The story is about Mnestra and Lampedo, two flute girls working the streets of Athens who get caught in the chaos when the rich, ambitious aristocrat Alkbiades uses a mysterious artifact to make the city’s statues come to life and go on a rampage. To make the story work, it was important to convey the personalities of these three key characters.

Mnestra, as narrator of the story, was the most important to get right. I wanted her to come across as self-possessed, confident, and a little snarky. I also wanted her to feel accessible as a character, someone we felt like we knew. With a story set so far in the past, there was a danger that the characters would feel distant and hard to identify with. Mnestra’s world is certainly not like our own, even before the monsters appear. I wanted to close that gap and make her feel real. There’s also a long history of ancient Greek and Roman characters in modern fiction written as if they were stiff upper-class Brits (in no small part because Greek and Roman literature was for a long time a crucial part of upper-class British education). I didn’t want Mnestra to sound like that.

So when I was thinking about her lines, I thought of her as a jaded teenager. I wrote the first few sentences of the story almost before I really knew where the plot was going, just to make sure I had Mnestra’s voice down.

Okay, so that thing with the statues? The smashed penises thing? That was my idea. But let me explain. I had a good reason for it.

She’s a little overly blasé and vague like a teen trying to play it cool. She leads into the story gradually, like a high schooler with a bent fender sidling up to a freaked-out parent.

In the first draft of the story, there was a lot more of Mnestra’s attitude throughout, but in revising, I found that I didn’t need all of that, and in fact once the action picked up later, it just slowed things down. I edited out most of it, but kept a few sarcastic asides in where they felt appropriate.

Lampedo was a different problem. Her character changed a lot as I was writing. I originally wrote her as shy and delicate, but some good editorial feedback made me rethink her relationship to Mnestra. I rewrote the pair to be less “surrogate sisters” and more “buddy cops,” which gave the story more to work with. Lampedo instead ended up being tough and prickly.

I had a hard time writing the new version of Lampedo’s voice until I started thinking of her with a Russian accent. Not just a Russian accent but a Russian attitude: proud, prematurely world-weary, fatalistic. Here’s a little dialogue between Mnestra and Lampedo after they first get away from the attacking statues.

“Isis’ milk!” I hissed at her. “What did you think you were doing, trying to fight those things?”

“A warrior always attacks,” she answered, grabbing a wine jug. She pulled out the cork with her teeth and drank a big glug.

“We’re not warriors!” I snapped. “We’re flute girls. Don’t you get that? We have to be smart.”

“You say ‘smart,’” she scoffed. “You mean weak.”

“Have you ever seen an old flute girl?” I asked her. “No, there aren’t any. Most of us end up as graveyard women spreading for scraps. You only get through if you have a plan.”

“What’s yours?” she asked. “Hide in a storeroom?”

Alkibiades was a different challenge. Alkibiades is an aristocrat, and his driving motivation in my story (as in history) is that he feels he has never been shown the respect that his status entitles him to. Unlike with Mnestra, I leaned hard into the “stiff upper-class Brit” mode with him to convey that not only is he of a much higher social class than the flute girls but he’s also to an extent putting on an act of what he thinks an Athenian aristocrat should be like. If you can imagine a sinister version of Bertie Wooster, that’s what I heard in my head when writing his lines. Here’s how he intervenes when some potential clients are threatening to get violent with Mnestra and Lampedo.

But before anything could happen, a man on horseback came riding up and waved the twits back.

“I say, is that any way for an Athenian to behave?” he rebuked them. “Tussling with girls in the street? Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

Later, at his dinner party, Alkibiades tries to reassert his status after having his political position usurped by his rival Nikias. He starts a philosophical dialogue but is undermined by his own guests:

“Friends,” Alkibiades began, “let us make this a festival of the mind, not only of the body.” A couple of men near us snickered, but Alkibiades pretended not to notice. “Let me propose a subject for our discourse. What is the measure of a man’s worth?”

“The length of his cock!” a drunken voice called out.

“The quality of his wine!” another added before the laughter had faded.

“His virtue,” proposed an old white-head. A few other suggestions floated around the room. When the merriment had subsided a little, Alkibiades offered his own answer.

“I should say that the measure of a man’s worth is the greatness of the challenges he has overcome. The greatest of all men I name Leonidas of Sparta who faced the Persians at Thermopylai. When the Persian king demanded that the Spartans lay down their arms, he answered: ‘Come and take them.’”

“Then they all died and the Persians burned Athens,” someone objected. Alkibiades was undeterred.

“What more can a man ask for than to face an unbeatable foe with unwavering courage?”

“Sending Nikias out to do it!” came an answer. Alkibiades’s face went red and he sat down as the rest of the room exploded with laughter.

I have a great admiration for people who can write rich, fluid dialogue that drips with character. That’s not where my strengths lie. This is the stupid trick I use instead, and it works for me.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Glimpse of a Huge Library Offsite Facility

Ever wondered where the really big libraries store their collections? The answer is, increasingly, somewhere else.

Offsite storage sounds cumbersome—after all, you’d have to build, buy, or rent the building, possibly convert the structure, and bring in shelving or other storage containers before you can even think about moving the physical items themselves—but it might actually be the most practical solution, especially in case of old institutions built in high-density urban areas. Also, apart from library science, collections care, digitizing, and preservation, setting up a remote storage facility requires knowledge of logistics and warehousing.

Here’s a chance to peek into the Bodleian Book Storage Facility near Swindon, UK. The BSF holds over 12 million items (books, maps, manuscripts, microfilms, periodicals and newspapers) in a warehouse constructed specifically for the library, and at this writing has been in operation for ten years.

Bodleian describes the facility capacity on their website for completed projects thus:

“The Book Storage Facility consists of an eleven-metre tall solid shelving system comprising 31 Very Narrow Aisles (VNA), with seven different bay type configurations to accommodate the different sizes of books and other materials. It also has a capacity equivalent to 153 miles (230 kilometres) of shelf space and a five level multi-tier structure for map storage. To guarantee the books’ preservation for the long-term, volumes are stored in 745,000 bar-coded and specially designed storage trays and boxes that are of archival standard. Floor area of the warehouse equates to 1.6 football pitches, although the high-density shelving provides shelf surface area equivalent to 16.5 football pitches.”

 

Bodleian BSF Shelving

Below is an excerpt from the post written by Daniel Haynes (haynesd) for the Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog:

“The BSF is huge. Its shelves are 11 metres high and over 70 metres long. Before the automatic lights kick in, the narrow aisles seem to converge into darkness. We wore high-visibility jackets to alert staff driving the book-retrieval vehicles to our presence. A cross between a cherry-picker and a forklift, these vehicles are configured to fit exactly between the shelves, allowing staff to retrieve an impressive average of one book per minute.”

Haynes also lists some of the challenges involved:

“Low-use books kept in storage might suddenly become grow in demand and require relocation ‘on-site’, or vice-versa;

Renovation or building work might require temporary storage (in fact, the BSF currently holds several thousand volumes from Cambridge), so could your facility accommodate for that?

Existing space can always be reconfigured to meet new challenges and needs;

Since an off-site facility means books always moving around, could it also offer research facilities? Some libraries are considering specialised reading rooms to avoid transit for fragile or valuable material.”

As I’ve has to wait for a book to arrive from offsite storage to a library for me, I appreciated this glimpse into the backend operations of large library warehouses.

Image via Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

The Strange Poetry of an Index

One of the tricks of the trade in academia is: when you pick up a new book, look at the index first. Seeing what terms appear there and which ones have large numbers of references tells you a lot about what the book is about.

I’ve been working on the index to my latest book, a collection of primary sources on the Greco-Persian Wars. Most of the entries are proper names for people, places, and institutions, and their specificity tells you pretty clearly the topic of the book. If you take those out, though, the terms that are left have a strange kind of poetry about them. You could let your imagination wander and dream up some very different books that had these terms in their indices. For your enjoyment:

animals, archers

beer, bees, bread, brick, bridges, bulls

canals, cannibalism, carnelian, cattle, cavalry, chariots, childbirth, clothing, colonies, crown, cuneiform

democracy, diplomacy, disease, dreams

earth and water, earthquakes, esparto, exiles

forgery, fowl, frankincense, frontiers

gifts, goats, gold, grain, guest-friendship

hair, helots, heralds, heroes, hoplites, horses, hostages

incense, ivory

labor, language, lapis lazuli, laws, linen, lions

medicine, mercenaries, merchants, moon, mules, multiculturalism, mummification

oil, ointment, oligarchy, oracles

palaces, papyrus, phalanx, pomegranates, poultry, propaganda

racing, rain, religion, roads

sacrifice, satraps, satrapies, sheep, shields, ships, shipwrecks, sieges, silver, storms, stone

temples, tolerance, tombs, trade, translation, tribute, triremes, turquoise, tyrants

walls, water, wind, wine, wood

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Moving a Whole Town: Kiruna, Sweden

Kiruna is a small Swedish town of about 17,000 people in the Norrbotten county and the northernmost town in Sweden. And it’s on the move to escape a literal undermining.

Kiruna Environs Small

The Kirunavaara iron ore mine (run by the state-owned LKAB) is expanding too close to the town center. Already in 2004, it was decided that a new center would be built; a site some 3 km away was since selected.

BBC Kiruna Mine and Town Map

Also, according to the 2010 decision by the municipal council, some of the westernmost areas of town—in fact, if I’ve understood it correctly, most of them—would also be razed and new areas built eastwards, so that the town gradually moves away from the mine. At least if things go according to an ambitious plan that runs up to the year 2100.

The new areas were planned to be more walkable, with better public transit, close to shops and other amenities that are hoped to attract residents. The move also involves moving the railroad and the local highway.

The map diagrams below show projections for high-density (red) and low-density (green) population areas from 2018 to 2100, and serve as an easier way to wrap one’s head around a massive moving project like this:

Ghilardi Hellsten Kiruna 4Ever Pop Density

At this writing, a new town hall (called Kristallen or The Crystal), the first building in the relocated city center, has been in use for about a year and a half. Some of the valuable heritage buildings have been disassembled and/or moved intact to a new location.

It sounds like a staggering project, doesn’t it? But it’s not like we humans haven’t dreamed up and then built on a massive scale before.

Read more at Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter AS. Also the Kiruna municipality has a page for the project (in Swedish only).

Images: Scenic view of Kiruna environs via Kiruna kommun (Kiruna municipality). Location of the mine and the town via BBC. Projection of population areas from 2018 to 2100 by White Arkitekter AB with Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter AS via Ghilardi + Hellsten.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 6: We Have Done the Best We Reasonably Could Have Expected

(Previous entries: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)

And that’s the semester. The deadlines have passed, the grades are turned in, all that’s left to look forward to is celebrating our graduating seniors at a safe distance. This is not the way any of us wanted this semester to end, but I think all of us—my fellow faculty, my students, and the university administration—have done the best we reasonably could have expected.

I was prepared to be lenient in my grading this semester, but I found that (after making some basic structural adjustments to my syllabi, such as dropping some assignments and adjusting the weight of others), I did not need to. My students have continued to turn in work of exceptional quality, despite the challenges of the times. Their papers are just as strong as I could have hoped for in a normal semester, their self-reflections just as thoughtful, their questions just as insightful. I credit this result to the quality of my students and not my skills at teaching online, which are dubious at best.

Not all my students made the transition to online learning gracefully. Across all my classes, only about two thirds of students ever engaged with the discussion questions I posted online. Still, I am treating those discussions as the equivalent of our classroom conversations, and getting two thirds of a class to speak up is not bad even in person. Some of those who didn’t engage in the online discussions still showed through their written work that they had done the reading thoroughly and thoughtfully. There were a few students who just disappeared, but on the whole they were the same students who had mostly disappeared from in-person classes before the outbreak of the pandemic.

The spread of final grades came out about the same as usual: a lot of Bs, a good handful of As, a scattering of Cs and Ds, and a few Fs for those who just never turned in the required work. I know from email exchanges with a few students that some of them have been under enough stress this spring that it was all they could do to manage a passing grade, and I’ve done my best to guide them to what they need to do to get it. For the most part, though, my students have done as well as I would normally have expected of them.

This will be my last update for this spring. We’ll see what the fall holds. I hope there has been something interesting in this view into the mild chaos of teaching in a pandemic. Stay safe and well, everyone.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

What a Long Walk Does to Your Body

A lot of speculative stories involve characters going for very long walks, whether it’s carrying the One Ring to Mordor or keeping away from other tributes in the Hunger Games. If you’re feeling cooped up inside right now, you may well be imagining a new story in which your characters travel a long way through the wilderness on foot.

I’ve written before about some of the practical details of walking long distances (here), but you may also want to think about the effect a long walk has on the human body. Here is a very interesting article by Robert Moor from a few years back about how walking the Appalachian trail affected him.

The whole article is fascinating reading, but here are few noteworthy observations from Moor about the effects of strenuous walking.

  • Your body learns to recognize good and bad foods: “you begin to acutely feel the quality of the nutrition you are putting into your body.” You come to crave those that will give sustaining energy for hours of walking, while cheap highs of sugars and fats can come with a devastating crash afterward.
  • Many walkers loose weight, shedding fat and building muscle. The result is often that as walkers go on they can walk farther and farther distances.
  • The body’s adaptation to walking, though, makes it less adapted to other demanding activities. A simple swim in a lake left Moor and another hiker “blue-lipped from the water, clutching ourselves and shivering electrically.”

Enjoy your explorations. Even if you are stuck between four walls at the moment, the imagination knows no limits!

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Teaching in a Pandemic 5: Online Teaching Leaves Me Feeling Drained

(Read previous entries part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4)

Things are starting to get routine. My teaching day goes like this: I check my email for any messages from students and respond to individual questions and problems. If someone raises a question that I think others may be wondering about, I send out a general email to the whole class or to all my students. I try not to send more emails than necessary, because I know my students are already getting a lot of information from the administration, but sometimes important things need to be said or reiterated. I’ve been surprised by how many of my students have missed or misunderstood basic instructions about how to participate in online discussion for my classes, but I don’t hold it against them. We’re all struggling right now, and I have to be aware that just because I understand something doesn’t mean that my students do. My job is to give them the information they need, and if that means repeating the same information in different words four or five times, then I will.

Next I grade and comment on any assignments that have been submitted. Then I move on to the online discussions. Wherever there are new comments, I record who participated in the discussion so that I can give credit. To do this I have a sheet of paper, on the same model as the sheet I always use for taking attendance at the start of class, with rows for all my students’ names and columns for the different discussion topics. When a student makes a comment on a given topic, I make check mark in the corresponding box on my sheet. At the end of the semester I will put this sheet together with the attendance sheets from the first part of the spring and combine them to give participation grades.

Depending on the day, this process can take anything from an hour to the whole afternoon. When I have time to spare, I work on my current book project, which is getting close to being finished. This schedule is exhausting, but in an entirely different way than a day of in-class teaching is. After a good day in the classroom, I feel energized and alive. Even at the best, this online teaching just leaves me feeling drained.

I miss the spontaneity and verve of the classroom. I miss the way a good class takes on a life and spirit of its own. I miss the dumb jokes and pointless but entertaining tangents that help bind students and professor together. I miss the performance-art craft of leading a discussion so gently from my students’ own questions and ideas to the points I wanted to make that they feel like they got there on their own. I miss the wonder of seeing my students strike off in new directions and arrive at ideas I never expected them to come up with.

This is an emergency situation, and we all understand that this is how things have to be for now. My fear at the moment is that we will not be able to return to the classroom in the fall. I know that there are some professors who are amazing at online teaching, but I am not one of them. For all of us, the end of this spring semester has been a rickety tub held together with duct tape and twine. With a summer to prepare, I’m sure I could make my online teaching better in the fall if I have to, but I cannot be at my best for my students from the other side of a screen.

Image by Erik Jensen

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.