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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5,000-Year-Old Beer Comes Alive

How would you like to make beer and get college credit for it? Students at Stanford got to do just that. Their final project for Professor Li Liu’s course Archaeology of Food: Production, Consumption and Ritual involved practical experiments with ancient brewing techniques and materials. The oldest “recipe” they tried is 5,000 years old:

“Liu, together with doctoral candidate Jiajing Wang and a group of other experts, discovered the 5,000-year-old beer recipe by studying the residue on the inner walls of pottery vessels found in an excavated site in northeast China. The research, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provided the earliest evidence of beer production in China so far.”

The materials for the ancient Chinese beer contained millet, barley, Job’s tears (Chinese pearl barley), and traces of yam and lily root parts. The students tried other combinations as well. Watch a short video explaining the experiments:

Stanford students recreate 5,000-year-old Chinese beer recipe by Stanford

Professor Liu’s research also shows it’s possible that barley (a very popular beer grain even today) may have been introduced to China from western Asia hundreds of years before previously thought and specifically for brewing instead of a food crop.

Fascinating! It shows that as long as we have records—or material remnants, not just written word—there have been people interested in the minutiae of food and food production. I for one am grateful to be able to enjoy the fruits of such a long history of delicious experiments.

This post has been edited.

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

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?

Racism and Ancient Aliens

The notion that ancient monuments, myths, and artworks reflect the visitation of Earth by alien beings is not one that is taken very seriously in the world of scholarly history, nor much outside of it, either. Still, it is one of those fictions, like astrology or the vaccines that cause autism, that continue to float through popular culture and appeal to some people because they offer simple answers to difficult questions. Who built the pyramids? Who drew the Nazca lines? Aliens!

It’s easy to dismiss ancient aliens as just another silly idea that most people don’t take seriously, but even silly ideas can be insidious. How we think about people in the past shapes and is shaped by how we think about people in the present. Especially when we’re looking to the past to inspire works of speculative fiction, we have to be conscious of the assumptions that underlie our ways of interpreting and explaining history. As harmless and even goofy as the ancient alien hypothesis may seem, it operates on a logic that is fundamentally racist and entangled with imperialist ideology.

160530racismI’ve written before about the dynastic race theory of Egyptian history. In brief, Europeans of the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries didn’t believe that Africans were capable of creating an advanced civilization on their own, so they invented a superior race of foreign invaders who they believed had conquered and ruled Egypt, bringing their advanced culture with them. This theory justified European imperialism by creating a historical precedent: the brown people of the world needed superior white rulers to teach them how to be civilized, both in the past and the present.

The racism and imperialism inherent in dynastic race theory is obvious to us today, but the ancient alien hypothesis rests on the same assumption: that those people couldn’t possibly have been capable of creating such sophisticated artworks, monuments, and cultures on their own. Although ancient alien crackpots can conjure little green men to explain anything from the past, you’ll notice that the popular examples are all things created by non-Europeans: the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of the Maya and Aztecs, the Nazca lines, the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) stone heads, and so forth. You don’t often hear arguments that aliens built the Parthenon in Greece or the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.

(The one European monument that regularly gets the ancient alien treatment is Stonehenge, which is a complicated case. The invasion theory of European history, which also clings on in popular culture despite being thoroughly discredited in scholarship, posits that the people who built Stonehenge were overrun and replaced by invaders from continental Europe, which makes them not really like modern Europeans and Euro-Americans. Some versions of the invasion theory even explicitly call the pre-invasion population non-white.)

But, some might say, that’s just because we know who built the Parthenon and we don’t know who built the pyramids, so the alien hypothesis is just filling in a mystery. Except that we do know. Egyptians built the pyramids. Mayans built the Maya temples and Aztecs built the Aztec temples. The Nazca people created the Nazca lines and Polynesians erected the stone heads on Rapa Nui. We have a pretty good understanding of how and why they all did those things, too, even if we’re still piecing together some of the details. None of this has ever seriously been in doubt. There is no mystery, just a reluctance on the part of white westerners to acknowledge the cultural attainments of non-white non-westerners. No aliens need apply.

The ancient alien hypothesis does much the same work for a modern audience that dynastic race theory did for an earlier one: it reassures us descendants of European imperialists and colonizers that the peoples our ancestors conquered, subjugated, and destroyed weren’t really up to snuff anyway. They didn’t build great monuments, figure out sophisticated mathematics and physics, or organize labor on a massive scale, space aliens did it for them. They didn’t compose great works of literature and mythology, they just handed down hazily-remembered stories about men from the sky. Invoking ancient aliens saves us the trouble of respecting other peoples’ cultures or acknowledging the tragedy of their destruction by assuring us that they don’t really count.

Thoughts for writers

We have a responsibility to the people of the past and to our audience in the present. False interpretations of history have underlain some of the worst atrocities that human beings have committed against one another. We have a duty not to perpetuate harmful assumptions, even when they come dressed up like silly alien stories. This duty lies upon us even when we aren’t doing serious scholarly study and are just mining history for interesting storytelling material. The stories we tell matter.

This doesn’t mean that ancient aliens are off-limits for storytelling. I have no doubt that there are good fantasy and sci-fi stories to be told about aliens visiting Earth in the past, stories that don’t deny the agency, ingenuity, and persistence of ancient peoples. Let’s see some of those.

Image by Erik Jensen, based on “Ancient Aliens Guy” via Know Your Meme

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Space Archaeologist Discovers Potential Viking Site in Southern Newfoundland

A team of archaeologists has unearthed a potential new Viking site in Newfoundland, Canada with the help of satellites. Dr. Sarah H. Parcak, an archaeologist, space archaeologist, and Egyptologist, lead the effort to take infrared images from space to find new archaeological sites.

Newfoundland with Viking Activity
Newfoundland with Viking activity. Map by Eppu Jensen on the basis of Canada Newfoundland and Labrador relief location map by Flappiefh on Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to The New York Times, while searching the coastlines from Baffin Island (in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, west of Greenland) to Massachusetts, she found

“hundreds of potential ‘hot spots’ that high-resolution aerial photography narrowed to a handful and then one particularly promising candidate — ‘a dark stain’ with buried rectilinear features.

“Magnetometer readings later taken at the remote site […] showed elevated iron readings. And trenches that were then dug exposed Viking-style turf walls along with ash residue, roasted ore called bog iron and a fire-cracked boulder — signs of metallurgy not associated with native people of the region.

“In addition, radiocarbon tests dating the materials to the Norse era, and the absence of historical objects pointing to any other cultures, helped persuade scientists involved in the project and outside experts of the site’s promise.”

Point Rosee is approximately 700 km (approximately 400 miles) away from L’Anse aux Meadows, the only currently confirmed Viking site in North America. The Norsemen staying at L’Anse must have traveled further south, though, because butternuts and worked pieces of butternut wood – which are not native to Newfoundland – were found among the Norse objects at the settlement.

CBC News reports that evidence of a Norse-like hearth and 8 kilograms (approx. 16 pounds) of bog iron was found at Point Rosee during a dig in 2015. It isn’t yet known for sure whether the site was a temporary base camp or a settlement, or whether it even was associated with Vikings. If confirmed, Point Rosee would be the second known Viking site in North America.

The evidence is still clearly on the scant side. Digging at Point Rosee is to resume this summer, so maybe they’ll find more.

As a sidenote, isn’t it so cool that we now have space archaeologists?!

“The Celts” and the Victorian Hangover

160328WandsworthNo, this is not a post about how ladies and gentlemen of the nineteenth century recovered after too many pints of Guinness. Rather, it is about how nineteenth-century ideas about culture and identity have held on so tenaciously in popular history that even now, over a century later, we still have to struggle against them when trying to talk about peoples of the past. One of the subjects that often brings up these outdated ideas is “the Celts.”

Searching for the Celts

Here’s how the Victorian version of history goes. Between 500 and 400 BCE, a new group of people known as the Keltoi to the Greeks or the Gauls to the Romans, whom we call the Celts, emerged in the area of southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. From this homeland, they expanded explosively outwards in all directions led by aggressive warrior princes who fought from two-wheeled chariots with long iron swords. They raided Italy and Greece but were prevented from conquering those regions by the armies of the Greeks and Romans. In the west and north, however, the native peoples were far less sophisticated and could not resist the invaders. The Celts conquered France and Belgium, northern Spain, and the British Isles until at the western shores of Ireland their expansion was finally halted by the Atlantic Ocean.

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