Ancient Clay Cup Animation

Oh, wow: quite possibly the oldest attempt at animation ever comes from some four thousand years ago. It’s a depiction of a goat jumping up a tree to eat the leaves:

The sequence laid flat looks like this:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup Reproduction

And here’s a photo of the cup:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup

Found via The Real Iran on Tumblr. My Tumblr source doesn’t unfortunately give any more info, but it sounds like the cup was found in the Bronze Age site of Shahr-e Sūkhté (or Shahr-e Sukhteh) in Sistan, southeastern Iran.

Just reading the Wikipedia page for Shahr-e Sūkhté makes my imagination run—a large trading route hub with connections to Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and India with rich material culture would make an excellent setting for historical or speculative fiction. (For example, among the archaeological finds from the Burnt City is apparently the world’s first artificial eyeball.)

Finding real-world inspiration like this is when I really wish I was a writer!

Images: Animation via Wikimedia. Reproduction via Wikimedia. Cup photo via Wikimedia (Shahr-e Sūkhté, Iran; late half of 3rd millennium BCE; clay).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?


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The Oldest Active Library in the World

The library attached to al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university (alternate western spellings include Al Karaouin and Al Quaraouiyine, among others) in Fez, Morocco, is not just the oldest active library in the world, it’s also exceptionally beautiful.

TheNewArab al-Qarawiyyin Library Courtyard 479

Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 by Fatima Al Fihri. The architecture of the university reflects various past styles and ruling dynasties. The decorated interiors include calligraphic designs on the walls, ceramic patterns on the floors, and wooden carvings on the ceilings.

TEDcom al-Qarawiyyin Main Reading Room aziza_chaouni_img_2096

From 2012 to 2016, the library was completely renovated. The restoration was lead by architect Aziza Chaouni. She describes the starting point for her project at TED.com:

“When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place.

“In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling. […]

“Throughout the years, the library underwent many rehabilitations, but it still suffered from major structural problems, a lack of insulation, and infrastructural deficiencies like a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, cracked wood beams, exposed electric wires, and so on.”

TEDcom al-Qarawiyyin Entrance Main Reading Room aziza_chaouni_img_2100

One of Chaouni’s leading principles was respect to its authenticity. Her restoration team preserved and salvaged what they could, but when it wasn’t possible, features and details were created from scratch. This included using local materials and construction systems, like furniture by local craftsmen who used native wood. Says Chaouni:

“There has to be a fine balance between keeping the original spaces, addressing the needs of current users, including students, researchers and visitors, and integrating new sustainable technologies — solar panels, water collection for garden irrigation, and so on.”

TheBigStory al-Qarawiyyin Fountain Samia Ezzarrouki 460x

Currently a part of Morocco’s state university system, the library is now open to the public in addition to historians and students.

(Incidentally, the university’s famous alumni include the 16th-century Andalusian adventurer known as Leo Africanus, whose book Description of Africa was considered the most authoritative source for northern Africa until the beginning of European exploration and expansion in the African continent.)

More photos at The New Arab, TED.com, The Big Story, Tor.com and BookRiot.

Images: Courtyard via TheNewArab; main reading room and entrance to main reading room by Aziza Chaouni via TED.com; fountain by Samia Errazzouki via The Big Story.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Possible Prehistoric Twig Toy

In an article at SAPIENS, archaeologist Stephen E. Nash discusses the difficulty of interpreting prehistoric life due to the fact that artifacts made of perishable materials are so rarely preserved to be found. It’s a quick, fascinating read, but what jumped at me was this image of a split-twig figurine that Dr. Nash shared:

Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Figurine of a deer or bighorn sheep, accession number DMNS/A1291.1, by Denver Museum of Nature & Science via SAPIENS (Dolores Cave near Gunnison, Colorado; c. 2,500 BCE; split twigs)

Found in Dolores Cave near Gunnison, Colorado, and at 4,500 years old it’s apparently the oldest and easternmost example of an artifact style found in dry cave environments across the American West. It’s unknown whether the figurine had ritualistic (or magical) uses or whether it was a child’s toy.

Regardless of what its function was, the figurine is an intriguing example of Stone Age material culture. Like Dr. Nash points out, much of the coverage of prehistoric cultures concentrates on artifacts made of nonperishable materials—stone, bone, shells, metal, or the like. It’s exhilarating to see something that could basically have been the equivalent of a twig toy horse.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Medieval Texts Hidden inside Newer Books?

After the invention of the printing press, old handwritten books and documents were commonly recycled as reinforcements in new bookbindings made in the 15th through 18th centuries. Now, thanks to an x-ray technique developed in the Netherlands, these hidden manuscript fragments are readable without destroying the book they’re a part of.

It’s all possible with macro x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (MA-XRF), which allows even pages glued to each other to be read. Dr. Erik Kwakkel at Leiden University, one of the academics behind the Hidden Library project attempting to uncover more of these fragments, has both been interviewed and written about the process.

Kwakkel leiden_ub_583_x_x

Dr. Kwakkel describes the importance of this discovery for The Observer like this:

“Every library has thousands of these bindings, especially the larger collections. If you go to the British Library or the Bodleian [in Oxford], they will have thousands of these bindings. So you can see how that adds up to a huge potential.”

He blogs about his projects and findings at Tumblr and at medievalbooks; see the latter e.g. for the exclusive behind-the-scenes post on the Hidden Library project.

Now I’m hoping we will eventually find a wealth of medieval texts in bookbindings. It’s really fascinating what we can discover with modern technology!

Image: A printed book with medieval manuscript fragments inside the spine, photograph by Erik Kwakkel (Leiden, University Library, nr. 583; 16th c. with 12th c. fragments)

What If There Was White Moose Cavalry for Fantasy Winter Warfare?

What if there was a fantasy world where moose were tamed and selectively bred for cavalry? I spent some time pondering it after a couple of things found online collided in my head.

First, there’s this animated gif of a moose rushing through a deep snow-filled field:

moose rushing through a snow-filled field

Their size, speed, and ability to gallop through deep snowbanks make moose fearsome and pretty near unstoppable. Imagine a line of ginormous moose thundering at full tilt towards you across a field – that’s a truly frightening thought! Also bogs don’t slow them down by much, I believe, which might conceivably tip the scales in the right kind of a campaign.

Then, I saw this photo of an albino moose:

Yle Antti Terava valkoinen hirvi

Natural snow camouflage. Hmmm.

It’s not that far-fetched an idea, apparently. The Soviet Union attempted to build a moose cavalry in the first half of the 20th century, but they were unsuccessful. In our world, the solitary habits of moose seem to be standing in the way of domestication. If we’re talking about a fantasy world, however, I don’t see why not.

Images: Rushing moose gif via Crazy Hyena. White moose by Antti Terävä via Yle

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Museum Materials: Volcano Day in Pompeii

Speaking of the excellence of museum and library collections: below are resources on the destruction of Pompeii I found by visiting only two museum sites.

“A Day in Pompeii” is an 8-minute high-definition video on how a series of eruptions wiped out Pompeii over 48 hours, produced by Museum Victoria (Melbourne Museum) and Zero One Animation for an exhibition at Melbourne Museum in 2009.

A Day in Pompeii – Full-length animation via Zero One Animation

It would’ve been more stunning with changes in the POV rather than a static camera, but it was still interesting.

To accompany the exhibit, Melbourne Museum produced a wealth of additional online material.

Melbourne Museum Day in Pompeii Box

Unfortunately there’s currently no index page, but articles are still available on the Museum website (do a search for Pompeii). For example, House of the Vine is a nifty virtual recreation of a beautiful Pompeian house. And did you know that Pompeii had running water and lavatories? There is even a replica of a loaf of bread from Pompeii:

Melbourne Museum Day in Pompeii Loaf of Bread

After Melbourne, the exhibition traveled to other places. The Western Australian Museum also built a helpful site, still fully available, to go with their 2010 version in Perth.

Complementary views can be found from photos of the current state of the city at Pompeii in Pictures, website by Jackie and Bob Dunn. (Getting to the photos themselves takes a bit of clicking through the menus, but they’re there.)

Images: Box, (c) Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei via Melbourne Museum (House of Julius Polybius, Pompeii; original iron and bronze fittings and wood reconstruction). Loaf of bread via Melbourne Museum (bakery in Pompeii; plaster copy of an original, carbonized loaf)

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Ostrich for Breakfast, Ostrich for Lunch, Ostrich for Dinner

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 6 of 7

Background: I ran into two historical images from California with ostriches used as transportation. That got me wondering about the history of ostrich riding. And that lead me down quite a rabbit hole.

I’ve divided my findings into separate posts (find them with the ostrich riding tag). Warning: serious early history and language nerdery ahead in Serious Academic Voice.

TL;DR – Tracing ostrich riding to a 3rd century BCE tomb find (a statue of Arsinoe II) from Egypt doesn’t hold up. The use of various ostrich products in human material culture dates back thousands of years. A few ancient depictions involve humans handling ostriches; however, extant sources don’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world. The most promising source seems to be a description of a magnificent parade put together by Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II. This Grand Procession included eight chariots drawn by pairs of ostriches, and the ostriches may have been ridden by boys in costumes.

I had hoped to find a nice, neat selection of ancient texts putting the Greek word for ‘ostrich’ in context, but even a cursory look reveals that the history of the word strouthos is complex. At best, we can say that there are no immediate red flags either in the original Greek or modern English translations for Arsinoe II’s statue or Ptolemy II’s Grand Procession. The poem Berenice’s Lock was said to contain further evidence of ostriches as mounts in Ptolemaic Egypt after Arsinoe II’s death. Instead, what we seem to have is a case of poetic ambiguity translated with poetic license and taken uncritically as evidence.

Some centuries after Arsinoe II and Ptolemy II, ostrich riding may appear in the Roman Empire. Claims in some secondary sources turn out unverifiable, however. Researching primary sources helps but a little: on one hand, many of these texts either have problematic histories or their authorship or accuracy may be questionable; on the other, ostriches tend to appear in context of fighting in gladiatorial games, not being ridden or raced. Surviving visual art only confirms the appearance of ostriches in hunting and arena scenes the Roman territories, not riding or chariot-pulling. A description in the life of Emperor Firmus comes closest, but Historia Augusta, the source of his life, is considered unreliable.

Below is the long story.

Continue reading

Looking at Cleopatra

In this age of selfies and Instagram, we are very aware of how consciously we all create the image of ourselves that we show to the world. The people of antiquity were no less self-conscious about their public image. Look at these two sculptures of Cleopatra VII.

Cleopatra VII Philopator is the famous Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and lover of both Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius. She was the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, founded by Ptolemy I, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years, arguably the first European colonial state in Africa. Like other Macedonian dynasties in the relics of Alexander’s short-lived empire, Ptolemy and his heirs took a pragmatic approach to ruling over a large population that did not share in their Hellenized Macedonian culture. They embraced a kind of cultural bilingualism in which they presented themselves in very different ways to different audiences.

151008marble
Portrait head of Cleopatra VI, photograph by Louis le Grand via Wikimedia (Altes Museum, Berlin; 40-30 BCE; white marble)

This marble head of Cleopatra is sculpted in a Hellenistic style and presents the queen in a Greek cultural context. White marble was favored for sculpture in the Greek world because it reacts to light in ways similar to human skin, making marble sculpture appear more naturalistic. Details like the soft rendering of the mouth, the detailed delineation of the hair, and the slightly off-center tilt of the head are drawn from the artistic repertoire of late Classical and Hellenistic portrait sculpture. This statue asserts Cleopatra’s Greekness and her participation in the broader Mediterranean cultural world. It was probably displayed in Alexandria, the Ptolemaic capital, which had a cosmopolitan population largely made up of Macedonians and Greeks, along with substantial Jewish and Persian communities and a variety of other peoples, but few ethnic Egyptians. It was meant to be seen by an audience that would recognize and appreciate the way this portrait fit into the larger history of Hellenistic ruler portraiture.

Statue of Cleopatra VII, late 1st c. BCE, Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg, basalt, photograph by George Shuklin
Statue of Cleopatra VII photograph by George Shuklin via Wikimedia (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; late 1st c. BCE; basalt)

This basalt statue of Cleopatra uses not only an Egyptian artistic style, but an almost entirely Egyptian iconographic vocabulary. Many different stones were used for Egyptian portrait sculpture, but basalt was a popular one since the stone is very hard and durable, giving a sense of permanence especially to royal portraiture. Cleopatra is presented here as an Egyptian pharaoh. She wears a wig adorned with the royal uraeus and carries an ankh in her right hand. The cornucopia in her left hand is a Greek symbol, but its connotation of bounty is similar to the ankh’s symbolism of life. Also note that one of her feet is advanced. Egyptian women were typically depicted with feet together and men with one foot advanced, but the adoption of masculine traits to represent a ruling queen is also traditionally Egyptian. This statue was intended for an Egyptian audience and meant to convey Cleopatra’s commitment to ruling over her Egyptian subjects through the forms and structures that they had long been accustomed to.

The Ptolemaic monarchs were aware that their power rested on two precarious premises: that the people of Egypt would accept rulers who were not themselves ethnically Egyptian and that other Mediterranean, African, and Asian powers would respect as equals a royal house of comparatively recent vintage. These sculptures show the confidence with which Cleopatra balanced those two needs and reinvented her image for two different audiences.

(Sadly, there’s not an ostrich to be seen.)

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Add Eight Ostrich Teams and Call It a Procession

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 3 of 7

Background: I ran into two historical images from California with ostriches used as transportation. That got me wondering about the history of ostrich riding. And that lead me down quite a rabbit hole.

I’ve divided my findings into separate posts (find them with the ostrich riding tag). Warning: serious early history and language nerdery ahead in Serious Academic Voice.

TL;DR – Tracing ostrich riding to a 3rd century BCE tomb find (a statue of Arsinoe II) from Egypt doesn’t hold up. The use of various ostrich products in human material culture dates back thousands of years. A few ancient depictions involve humans handling ostriches; however, extant sources don’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world. The most promising source seems to be a description of a magnificent parade put together by Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II. This Grand Procession included eight chariots drawn by pairs of ostriches, and the ostriches may have been ridden by boys in costumes.

Below is the long story.

Continue reading

That’s a Large-Ass Egg, All Right!

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 2 of 7

Background: I ran into two historical images from California with ostriches used as transportation. That got me wondering about the history of ostrich riding. And that lead me down quite a rabbit hole.

I’ve divided my findings into separate posts (find them with the ostrich riding tag). Warning: serious early history and language nerdery ahead in Serious Academic Voice.

TL;DR – Tracing ostrich riding to a 3rd century BCE tomb find (a statue of Arsinoe II) from Egypt doesn’t hold up. The use of various ostrich products in human material culture dates back thousands of years. A few ancient depictions involve humans handling ostriches; however, extant sources don’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world.

Below is the long story.

Continue reading