The Pyramids of Kush

The pyramids of Egypt may be famous, but they’re not the only pyramids to serve as royal tombs.

The region of Nubia lies along the upper Nile in modern-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The kingdom of Kush flourished here for a millennium and a half, even dominating Egypt for a century as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. Kushites had a long history of war, trade, and diplomacy with Egypt, including incorporating elements of Egyptian art and architecture into their own culture. Like all such cultural borrowings, the Kushites did not simply imitate what they had seen in Egypt but reimagined and innovated on those ideas to suit their own needs.

Pyramids at the northern cemetery at Meroe. The larger pyramids in the background are in ruins, but the two smaller ones in the foreground have been restored in modern times to give an idea of the original shape. Photograph by UNESCO via Wikmedia (Meroe, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE with modern restoration; stone)

In Egypt, Kushite visitors would have seen the massive ancient stone pyramids of the early kings still famous today. They would also have seen small, steep-sided brick pyramids that were popular in later times as tomb markers for wealthy families. In their royal cemeteries in Nubia, Kushite rulers combined these forms to create stone pyramids much larger than the private monuments in contemporary Egypt, though not as large as the great pyramids of early pharaohs. These pyramids had steep sides, rising high over narrow bases. Many also had passages leading inside at ground level marked with monumental gates, a feature not found in Egyptian pyramids. While the major pyramids of Egypt were almost all built for kings, some of the largest Kushite pyramids were built for queens. These tombs drew on Egyptian ideas, but interpreted those ideas in a new way, marking the kings and queens of Kush as both connected to Egypt but also distinct.

Another view of a partially restored pyramid at Meroe. Photograph by Michael Walsh via Wikimedia (Meroe, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE with modern restoration; stone)

The custom of building tombs in this style took hold in Nubia. Despite the depredations of modern treasure hunters, there are, in fact, about twice as many Nubian pyramids still standing today as Egyptian. They are are a remarkable piece of world heritage and a fascinating example of the adaptation and reinvention of one culture’s ideas in the hands of another.

Pyramids at Nuri. Photgraph by Vit Hassan via Wikimedia (Nuri, Sudan; c. 300 BCE – 350 CE; stone)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Colorful Ancient Statues at the Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a fascinating new exhibit featuring reconstructions of some ancient works of art that show how they might have originally looked when they were still painted in bright colors. Sadly, I’m on the wrong side of the Atlantic now to go and check it out myself, but there’s an excellent online gallery of examples. Here’s a comparison of one original sculpture with its reconstruction to give you an idea of how amazing the work is.

Sphinx finial, original and reconstruction via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Originally Athens, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; c. 530 BCE; marble. Reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkmann)

It’s always wonderful to get a chance to glimpse what the ancient world may have looked like when it wasn’t yet ancient.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Visual Inspiration: Ruins Don’t Need to Be Grey and Dull

Ruins and abandoned places are often seen as plain and boring. Granted, the color of untreated, inexpensive rock (which the majority of surviving buildings tend to be made from) often isn’t anything to write home about. But in our fiction, ruined areas don’t need to be austere and grim. You can even find real-life ruins in a variety of styles for inspiration.

For example, houses in Herculaneum famously featured colorful mosaics and painted murals. In addition, paint was generously applied elsewhere, like these pillars and external wall from House of the Relief of Telephus show:

Flickr Andy Hay Herculaneum

In Sanzhi, Taipei County, Taiwan, clusters of colorful pod houses or UFO houses once stood:

Flickr mingshah Sanzhi Pod Houses

It’s not always humans who have applied the color onto the ruins either. At the ancient Maya site called Bonampak or Ak’e, in the Chiapas area, Mexico, strikingly orange lichen is taking over building facades:

Flickr Carsten ten Brink Bonampak

(Check out the Bonampak Wikipedia article for a stunning relief carving and a painted mural!)

In Dutch photographer Roman Robroek’s shots we can see that a ruin definitely need not be grey, blocky, and boring. Partly overrun by nature could mean an almost orderly takeover, like in the photo of a Gothic-style former chapel built at the end of 19th century, below:

Robroek Former Gothic Chapel Sm

Beautiful, brightly colored arches among rubble from the childhood house of Lebanese singer Fairuz (who was born in 1934) in Beirut form a striking contrast to the greenery outside:

Robroek Arches House of Fairuz

Finally, a still strikingly turquoise—if peeling—underside of a round staircase:

Robroek Blue Staircase Sm

It vaguely reminds me of peacock feathers! I wish the photographer gave us a little more information about the history of this place. Browse more via Colossal or at Robroek’s website.

Since they exist in real life, I would be delighted to read about vibrantly colored and visually striking abandoned places in my genre fiction, too.

Images: Herculaneum by Andy Hay via Flickr (CC BY2.0). Sanzhi Pod Houses by mingshah via Flickr. Bonampak by Carsten ten Brink via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Images by Roman Robroek: Former chapel. Arches at the house of Fairuz. Blue staircase.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Living in the Science-Fictional Now: Solar Canals

Covering canals with something to slow water evaporation is a no-brainer, right? (Or should be.) How about making those covers be solar panels for a two-fer—as apparently is already happening in India—now, that’s outright ingenious.

Smithsonian Magazine Solar Canal System California

And not just India: for example, California has planned a similar system. Its first prototype section, Project Nexus, is about to break ground (in the fall of 2022).

(Incidently, I can recommend Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Water Knife from 2015, in which water rights and covered canals feature strongly. In case you’re interested in that sort of fiction.)

Found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr.

Image: an artist’s rendering of a solar canal system for California by Solar Aquagrid LLC (CC BY-ND) via Smithsonian Magazine

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Epitaph for a Pig

Carved gravestones with images and short poems celebrating the deceased were common in the ancient world, but it wasn’t just people who got them. This one commemorates a pig who apparently died in some kind of traffic accident. Like other Greek epitaphs, this one is phrased in the first person, as if the pig were narrating its own story.

A little pig, everyone’s friend, a young quadruped, I lie here, after leaving behind the land of Dalmatia to be offered as a gift. I walked through Dyrrachium and Apollonia in my longing, and passed through the whole earth alone untouched. Now, by the violence of wheels, I have left the sunlight behind. I longed to see Emathia and the phallic chariot, but now I lie here, and my debt to death is cleared.

Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecarum 25:711

(My own translation)

The story seems to be that a pig was bought somewhere in Dalmatia (the Balkans) and driven overland toward the plain of Emathia in Macedonia (west of modern-day Thessaloniki), to be offered as a sacrifice in a festival for Dionysus (which often involved a large decorated phallus carried in a procession). The stone was found in Edessa, a city right at the edge of Emathia, and it seems that here the poor pig got run over by a cart.

It’s certainly unusual for an animal to have a gravestone like this. There was a custom of writing joke epitaphs for animals, but few people went to the expense of actually getting them carved in stone. Perhaps this pig was special, or perhaps the gravestone represents a kind of substitute for the religious act of sacrifice that was no longer possible once the pig was killed on the road.

Whatever the case may be, that was clearly some pig.

Image: Copy of pig stela, photograph by Philipp Pilhofer via Wikimedia (Edessa; 2-3 c. CE; carved stone)

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Living in the Science-Fictional Now: Photos from Another Planet Are Trivial

One of the astounding things about living right now is the sheer amount of scientific knowledge and technical skills humanity has gained in the past 100 years or so alone.

These days it’s trivial, for example, to get high-quality photos from a neighboring planet brought to your personal device.

(Ok, it’s not truly trivial in the strictest sense since so many steps and technologies are involved, but at the same time: Photos. From another planet. Automatically delivered. Via the Internet. Which many (if not most) of us in the West have casual access to. Pretty much daily! So yes. Trivial.)

Specifically, I’m talking about the Persevererance Imgage Bot on Twitter. It’s a project by computer engineer Niraj Sanghvi. He has automated image tweeting mostly from NASA/JPL-Caltech sources for an impressive, ever-growing collection.

The photos are purely functional, of course, helping the rover to operate, but some are also quite interesting as photographs. Below are some recent favorite shots.

Twitter PersevereImgBot Rock and Sand
Twitter PersevereImgBot Hilly Landscape
Twitter PersevereImgBot SkyCam and Stars
Twitter PersevereImgBot Smooth Sand

(Click on the image source links below to find more about each photo.)

As a bonus, here’s a short video of a Martian solar eclipse by the moon Phobos taken by Perseverance:

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Sees Solar Eclipse on Mars by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on YouTube

Cool. Cool, cool, cool. 🙂

Images by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU via PersevereImgBot on Twitter: Rock and sand. Hilly landscape. SkyCam with stars. Smooth sand.

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Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Polar Bears Taking Over Abandoned Buildings

In September 2021, Photographer Dmitry Kokh visited the currently unoccupied Kolyuchin Island in the Chukchi Sea between Russia and Alaska, and documented some of the wildlife there. A bunch of polar bears seem to have settled in the abandoned buildings of a former Russian weather station.

Colossal Dmitry Kokh Kolyuchin Island Three Polar Bears

You can see the bears casually stroll in between the houses, and apparently even spend time inside the buildings, often peeking out of the glassless windows. Astounding!

See more of Kokh’s photos at his site or in Colossal.

Image by Dmitry Kokh via Colossal

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The Unspoken Messages of an Unswept Floor

This floor mosaic comes from the dining room of a Roman house. The central parts of the floor have been lost, but the edges of the room were decorated to look like the untidy remains of a banquet. We can identify leaves, fish and poultry bones, nut shells, bits of fruit, and the shells of a wide variety of shellfish. This may seem like an odd choice for home decoration, but mosaics in this style were popular in well-to-do Greek and Roman households. To contemporary guests, mosaics like this sent a number of messages about the people who dined on them.

On one level, this mosaic simply reflected the reality of the room it was in. Diners at an ancient banquet could toss their refuse on the floor with abandon because they were not the ones who had to clean it up. The widespread use of enslaved labor for domestic service meant that the rich could lob greasy chicken bones and half-eaten olives around the place without caring about the time and effort involved in cleaning up afterward. In that sense, this mosaic identified the owners of this house as the sorts of people who had other people to do the cleaning up after them.

On the other hand, the evident abandon with which the detritus is strewn around the room is deceptive. The individual pieces are precisely placed so that there the space between them is relatively even. Larger items are spread out with smaller ones between them. They are positioned in loose diagonal lines with a subtle aesthetic regularity; similar objects repeat to help unify the image, but are spaced out and given different orientations to avoid any sense of pattern. This mosaic is an extremely fine one made of very small tesserae in many different shades that must have taken a substantial amount of work by a skilled mosaic artist and a team of workers. The details of this Roman mosaic also imitate a famous Greek predecessor created by the mosaic artist Sosos of Pergamum. The effect was meant to project wealth and power: only the very rich could afford to put so much care into looking so careless.

The choice of food to show in this mosaic is also significant. Meat had a religious, even moral, significance in Greek and Roman culture. Large land animals like cattle, sheep, and pigs were typically eaten as part of a communal religious sacrifice, and religious custom dictated how they could be cooked and served as well as who should partake in the feast. Fish, shellfish, and poultry were not constrained by similar rules and could be eaten when, how, and in any company one liked. As such, this sort of food was associated with indulgence, even decadence. To say that a fellow Greek or Roman dined on fish had a sting of moral judgment akin to declaring that someone today enjoys champagne and caviar. The variety of fish bones, chicken claws, and shells in this mosaic makes a statement that this room is not one for solemn sacrificial meals but a place where the diners can indulge in their favorite delicacies free of any religious scruples or moral condemnation.

A great deal of meaning is packed into a mosaic of an untidy floor. These were messages that the original guests in this dining room would have implicitly understood in same way that we today grasp the status-signaling meaning of a four-car garage or a water view.

Image: Detail of unswept floor mosaic, photograph by Yann Forget via Wikimedia (currently Gregorian Profano Museum, Vatican; early 2nd c. CE; glass tessera mosaic; by Heraclitus, copied from work by Sosos of Pergamum)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Fine Art as a Three-in-One Quilt

Check out this mind-blowing quilt simultaneously copying three fine arts pieces, namely Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream:

Tumblr Good Stuff Flora Joy Quilt1
Tumblr Good Stuff Flora Joy Quilt2
Tumblr Good Stuff Flora Joy Quilt3

Even the intricate gold frame is sewn!

This astounding piece is called “Sleep, Play, Scream” and it was made by Flora Joy. She was deservedly awarded for her innovative trispective technique.

Any time I come across someone, typically an older white man (seriously, dudes, you’ve got to do better), sneering at sewing or other textile work, I can’t but shake my head. Poor twits, showing what they emphatically don’t know jack shit about.

Images via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Socks with Sandals, Ancient Egyptian Style

This amazingly preserved sock comes from the late Roman period of ancient Egypt. The colors of the stripes give us some idea of how bright and cheerful this sock must have been when it was new.

The notch at the end separated the big toe for wearing thong sandals. The question of whether this means “wearing socks with sandals has an ancient and honorable pedigree” or “ancient Egyptians could be huge dorks, too” is left as an exercise for the reader.

Image: Sock via National Museum of Scotland (currently National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh; 4th-5th c. CE; wool)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.