Cephalopodic Human Figures Drawn by Bored Children in 13th-Century Novgorod

Erik Kwakkel, Professor of Book History & Director, School of Information, UBC, Vancouver, Canada, shares all sorts of interesting tidbits online. Among the older ones—posted over seven years ago now and dating from the Middle Ages—are some wonderful children’s drawings made on birch bark.

This piece of bark is from among a large find made near the city of Novgorod, Russia, from the 13th century.

Tumblr Erik Kwakkel C13th Novgorod Birch Bark Drawing

Isn’t it interesting? Look at the eyebrows and the noses! And the torsos! Incredibly cephalopodic, in a charming way. And the hands look like rakes. The figures are clearly identifiable as humans, but the customary ways of drawing some of the details seems to have changed over the centuries quite a bit.

Check out Kwakkel’s Tumblr or Twitter for more book history particulars.

Image via Erik Kwakkel on Tumblr

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

Matrilineality

Most traditional societies around the world have been patrilineal: power and property are passed down the male line of succession, usually from father to son, sometimes from grandfather to grandson, only on rare occasions to other relatives such as nephews, brothers, or cousins who share a common male ancestor. Some societies, however, have been matrilineal, where lines of succession are defined by descent from a common female ancestor. In these societies, power and property typically pass from brother to brother or uncle to nephew, only rarely from father to son.

Matrilineality should not be mistaken for matriarchy. Matrilineal cultures are often just as patriarchal as patrilineal ones are. Matrilineality is not a matter of women having power or being more important in society than men; it’s just a different way of determining which man is important and powerful.

Matrilineal succession can seem confusing and hard to follow for those of us who are used to the rules of patrilineality, but the principle is straightforward: to identify the next in line, find the nearest male relative who can trace their descent through their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. to a common female ancestor with the current holder of the property or position in question. The nearest would be a brother by the same mother. Next nearest would be a nephew whose mother was the current person’s sister by the same mother.

Here’s an example. Consider this extended family.

In a patrilineal society, here’s how property and power would pass down from the eldest son of the original couple to his son and grandson.

In a matrilineal society, the line of succession from the same eldest son would go first to his brother, then to a nephew, then another nephew, then his brother.

Matrilineal succession has advantages for certain kinds of societies under certain circumstances. For one thing, it spreads power and property out among the family lines of a clan or extended kin group, rather than letting one line have a monopoly. It can also create incentives for skilled and ambitious men to marry into the family—if we image the example above tracing the lines of succession for a kingdom, the men who marry into the family will never be king themselves, but their sons and grandsons might be. Another advantage to matrilineality is it multiplies the number of legitimate heirs within any given generation, which can be helpful in times of crisis when a man might die leaving no sons of age to take over his position.

For these reasons, matrilineal patterns of succession often appear in societies that need to encourage cohesion and cooperation among different families in the face of a dangerous world.

Thoughts for writers

Lots of good stories involve questions of succession, whether its the return of a lost heir to claim their rightful inheritance, a struggle for power among rival families, or the mysterious death of a rich old miser. If you’re in the mood to write that kind of story, it’s worth thinking about the rules of succession in your world and what consequences they might have for your characters. Even if a matrilineal society isn’t in the cards, it’s good to remember that not everything has to go from father to eldest son.

Charts by Erik Jensen

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

History for Writers Compendium: 2020

History for Writers explores history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s what we’ve been talking about in 2020:

Thinking historically

Thinking mythically

Imagining other places

Living other lives

Writing other worlds

People in the past

Join us in 2021 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

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.

Good Health with Telesphorus

With Covid-19 still largely unchecked and the winter flu season closing in on us (in the northern part of the world at least), health and illness are on a lot of our minds. So here’s a votive statuette of an ancient Greek god of health, Telesphorus.

Telesphorus represents an interesting combination of influences from several different cultures. Mythology describes him as a son of the Greek healing god Asclepius specifically concerned with recovery from disease or injury. In art he was often shown as a short, squat man similar to some earth-related deities from Phrygia in inland Anatolia wearing a type of hooded cloak typically associated with Gauls. This version, found in France and carved at some time when the Roman Empire ruled the region, has heavily outlined eyes, a triangular nose, and straight bands of hair, all of which are characteristic of Gaulish and British art. Somehow, this seems an appropriate image for a season in which we face a worldwide pandemic.

We wish you all good health in the times ahead.

Image: Telesphorus statuette, photograph by Millevahce via Wikimedia (found Moulézan, currently Musée Archéologique de Nîmes; Roman period; limestone)

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

Evidence for Donkey Polo in Ancient China

An interesting archaeological find was reported earlier this year from western China where the excavation of a noblewoman’s grave has provided evidence for the use of donkeys for games of polo by elite women in the Tang dynasty.

The sport of polo was popular among the Chinese aristocracy in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Literary sources document that women played as well as men, and that, even though donkeys were typically associated with low social status as pack and farm animals, they were also favored by the elite for playing polo. The excavation of the tomb of a Tang noblewoman, Cui Shi, for the first time offers archaeological evidence to support the written accounts.

Although polo has traditionally been played on horseback, the authors of this study, led by archaeologist Songmei Hu, mention that donkeys may sometimes have been preferred because their natural response to stress and danger, something a polo match would frequently present, is different. While horses, as herd animals, have developed a sensitivity to commotion among nearby animals and tend to respond by fleeing, donkeys, with a more solitary history, are less perturbed by the kinds of chaos that a polo field might present.

The authors identified the remains of at least three donkeys in Cui Shi’s tomb. For animals more traditionally connected with the peasantry than the elite, this was an unusual find for the grave of a woman whose family moved in the higher circles of the imperial aristocracy. But the family’s status was also connected to polo: written sources document that Cui Shi’s husband, Bao Gao, was promoted by the emperor to the rank of general on the strength of his skill in the sport. The bones of the donkeys themselves also show signs that they may have been used for playing polo, as they show patterns of growth reflecting strong and sudden stresses, such as animals suddenly starting, stopping, and changing direction on the polo field would experience, rather than those typical of animals used for carrying burdens or pulling carts.

This find is both an example of how archaeological and literary evidence can support one another and a view into the lives of elite women in ancient China who weren’t content to let the men have all the fun of donkey polo!

Image: Tang dynasty polo players via Wikimedia (tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, Qianling Mausoleum, Xi’an; 706 CE; wall painting)

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Now It Is Time to Drink!

If you’re feeling celebratory today, here’s a little verse from the Roman poet Horace to put you in the right mood. Horace was celebrating the defeat of Marcus Antonius in the last phase of the Roman republic’s long-running civil wars of the first century BCE (although, for political reasons, focusing most of his scorn on Antonius’ Egyptian ally, Cleopatra). But you can drink and dance for whatever is making you happy today!

 Now it is time to drink! Now with liberated feet
dance upon the earth! Now the sumptuous
feast of the gods
can be spread, my friends!

Before this, the time was not right to bring the good Caecuban wine
up from the ancient cellars, not while the insane queen
schemed to bring death and ruin
to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,
drunk with vain hopes
of sweet
victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.1-12

(My own translation)

Enjoy!

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

How Not to Study Linguistics

The Greek historian Herodotus recounts a tale about a rather dubious experiment in linguistics supposedly carried out by the Egyptian king Psammetichus.

The point of the experiment was to find out what people or nation in the world was the oldest. It was based on the assumption that the oldest culture’s language would be the language that people who had never heard spoken language before would speak. Further, Psammetichus assumed that the invention of this original language could be artificially recreated. The result of these mistaken assumptions is a bit of a comedy of errors. Here’s how Herodotus tells the tale:

When Psammetichus could not find out by inquiry what people were the oldest, he devised the following plan. He took two newborn children at random and gave them to a shepherd to bring up among his flocks, with orders that they be raised in such a way that no one should make any sound in their presence, that they stay in a lonely hut, and that he should regularly bring his goats there so they could drink their fill, and attend to their other needs. He did these things, and Psammetichus commanded him to notify him at once what word first burst forth from the children, once they had left behind the meaningless babble of infants. And it did indeed happen. When the shepherd had been taking care of the children for two years, once when he opened the door of the hut and went in, both of them fell upon him stretching out their hands and crying: “Bekos!” At first, the shepherd took no notice of what he had heard, but when he kept hearing the same word on his repeated visits, he began to pay attention to it. He sent word to the king, and when ordered, brought the children before him. When Psammetichus heard it for himself, he investigated what people called something “bekos,” and from his investigations he learned that it was the Phrygian word for bread. Taking this fact into consideration, the Egyptians acknowledged that the Phrygians are older than they are.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.2

(My own translation)

As should be obvious (and probably was to Herodotus’ audience), the experiment was in fact a failure. When the children exclaimed “bekos” at the shepherd’s arrival, they were not producing an actual word but simply imitating the bleating of his goats, the only sound they had heard another living creature produce. The fact that Psammetichus did not realize this (and had not accounted for it in designing the experiment) makes this whole story a joke at his expense. The punch line of the joke may be a little lost on a modern audience: the Phrygians were a people who lived in inland Anatolia and spoke a language related to Greek. Phrygians were stereotyped by the ancient Greeks as ignorant country bumpkins. For the Egyptians—proud of the antiquity and sophistication of their culture—to be forced to yield the title of “most ancient people” to the Phrygians was a deflation of their cultural pretension.

Although Herodotus claims to have heard this story from Egyptian priests, like more than a few of the stories he tells about Egypt it sounds more Greek than Egyptian. Specifically, it sounds like a Greek joke told at the Egyptians’ expense. Greeks and Egyptians had close and friendly relations in Herodotus’ day, but it was a relationship in which the Greeks were definitely the junior partners. Egyptians liked to celebrate the antiquity and wisdom of their culture, and we can understand if Greeks occasionally got a bit fed up with being looked down on. This story uses language was a way of turning the tables to suggest that not only were the Egyptians not as ancient a culture as they liked to claim, perhaps they were not as wise, either.

On, of, and about languages.

A Huron/Wyandot Glengarry Cap

This decorated hat was created by an indigenous North American Huron/Wyandot artisan around 1840. It is made of wool, silk, and moosehair, worked using traditional techniques, but patterned after the Glengarry-style cap of the Scottish highlands and decorated with a Victorian floral motif.

Hats and other decorated objects like this one represent a complex interplay of cultural, artistic, and economic influences. Indigenous artisans from Iroquoian, Wabenaki, and other native nations had long created trade goods intended for exchange with European settlers and adapted to European tastes. In the nineteenth century, indigenous creators took advantage of the growth of a tourist industry around the Great Lakes region to market a broader range of wares combining forms that white customers would recognize and find useful, like this Glengarry cap, with decorative schemes that appealed to Victorian sensibilities while preserving traditional techniques. Such objects were created in a combination of traditional and modern materials, such as moosehair and leather combined with wool, silk, and glass beads.

The creation and sale of these goods—often produced by female artisans—provided both a means of preserving traditional artistic methods and a valuable economic resource to indigenous and First Nations peoples at a time when other opportunities in white-dominated American and Canadian society were hard to find, and indigenous cultures were often suppressed, sometimes violently.

Image: Glengarry-style cap via Metropolitan Museum (Metropolitan Museum, New York; c. 1840; wool, silk, and moosehair; unknown Huron/Wyandot artist)

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

Accessibility Ramps at Ancient Greek Sanctuaries

A recent article in the journal Antiquity by archaeologist Debby Sneed argues that some ancient Greek temples were built with ramps to make them more accessible to people with limited mobility.

The argument begins from the observation, already familiar to archaeologists, that some temples had stone ramps leading from ground level up to the sanctuary. While in some places these ramps clearly seem designed to facilitate the movement of carts or chariots as part of religious rituals or the delivery of supplies and offerings, many are too narrow to be explained this way. Nor can these ramps be explained as part of the building process, since they are permanent and built in stone—far more difficult and expensive to construct than the packed earth ramps that would have been used in building—and they reach only to the level where people would have entered the temple, not all the way to the roof where building materials had to reach.

The interesting observation that Sneed adds to the discussion is that the distribution of these ramps is neither universal nor random, but they are particularly associated with temples connected with healing, and especially with temples where the evidence of inscriptions and votive offerings show a special focus on healing afflictions of the legs and other impairments to mobility. This pattern of distribution, while not definitive, does suggest that the ramps were purposely built at these particular sites to make it easier for people who might have difficulty climbing steps to gain access to the temple structures where they could participate in prayers or healing rituals.

Once built, of course, these ramps could well have served other purposes as well, such as making it easier to bring in offerings or supplies such as wood or wine needed for the routine operations of the temple, but this is also true of mobility accommodations today: once there’s a ramp in place, lots of people can use it for lots of different purposes. The planners of these sanctuaries may well have had this kind of multiplicity of functions in mind when building the ramps. Nevertheless, the fact that these ramps tend to appear at healing sanctuaries and not at others does indicate that the particular needs of those temples and their patrons were an important factor in the design.

The study of disability and its accommodation in history is a growing field. Studies like this one show how revisiting familiar evidence with new questions in mind can yield fertile new observations and interpretations.

Sneed’s full article can be read at cambridge.org.

Image: Artist’s reconstruction of the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, Sneed, Debby, “The Architecture of Access: Ramps at Ancient Greek Healing Sanctuaries,” Antiquity (2020): 1-15, 9.

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

Visualizing the Roman Emperors

Sometimes, putting information into a visual form helps you make sense of it. I’ve been studying, writing about, and teaching the history of the Roman Empire and its emperors for more than two decades now, but taking my knowledge and making it visual helped me grasp the significance of some of the long-term patterns I’ve know about for so long. In this chart, you can see the stumbling uncertainty of the early empire, the stability of the second century, the chaos of the third century, and the complexity of the late 200s to early 300s.

(It’s a big image; you have been warned!)

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