Sound Sample Played on a Paleolithic Instrument Replica

A group of French researchers published their study of a conch shell from the Upper Paleolithic period based on an assumption that it was used as a musical instrument. The article includes a sound sample gained by blowing into it—the first such sample published.

The conch shell in question, a Charonia lampas—a handsome marine mollusk—was found already in 1931 at the cave of Marsoulas, which is a so-called decorated cave. The shell is dated to roughly 16,000 BCE. And, interestingly, the shell was not only modified—presumably to make it fit a human mouth more easily—but also decorated with traces of colors and engravings.

Science Advances Conch Shell Horn Sm

The color is mostly found in fingerprint-sized and -shaped red dots on the internal surface of the shell. They are similar to motifs present on the cave walls, including a bison covered with a layer of red dots (seen in the background of the image above).

Aren’t the dot decorations fascinating? Apparently, similar conch shells have been used around the world as musical instruments in later periods, with similar modifications. Also, the oldest known flutes discovered thus far come from earlier paleolithic periods, roughly 40,000-20,000 years BCE, so the the concept of horn or flute should have been known. It certainly would make sense, then, that this shell was a horn.

You can hear the sound by downloading an audio file attached to the article.

Fritz, C. et al. “First record of the sound produced by the oldest Upper Paleolithic seashell horn” in Science Advances, Vol 7, Issue 7 (10 February 2021). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abe9510

Image by G. Tosello via Science Advances

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

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Minoan Mugs as Handsome as Modern Ones

It’s a common misconception that the further you go in history, the poorer the materials and decorations used were. Materials were simpler, yes; complex metal alloys, synthetic textile fibres, or clean rooms, for example, were a long way in the future.

But the more we study extant material remains, the clearer it is that humans have always appreciated beauty in their surroundings and—if they possessed the means—decorated both themselves and their everyday environment. Case in point: Minoan mugs from ca. 1,500 BCE.

Flickr George Plakides Minoan Mugs

Mugs in similar shapes can easily be found in modern tea shops, even if we don’t use exactly the same decorative motifs in the same combinations or colors anymore.

What’s also fascinating is that the handles are exquisitely formed, with just about exactly the same range of variations you can find nowadays. These people clearly knew how to make a practical and pretty mug.

Image by George Plakides on Flickr

Out There highlights intriguing art, 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.

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.

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.

Swedish Riksdaler Plate Money Could Seriously Weigh You Down

Did you know that Sweden used to be a major power in northern Europe? A major power as in having land holdings pretty much all around the Baltic Sea and even beyond? If I hadn’t learned that at school, I probably wouldn’t know; it’s really not talked about much these days.

Anyway. One fascinating detail from my classes that has stayed with me is the large riksdaler plate money (Swedish: plåtmynt). They were circulated in the 17th to 18th centuries to reduce the costs of minting coins and ease the transportation of money.

The riksdaler could be quite large. For example, according to my old history book, the 1644 coin measured 20 x 70 cm (approximately 8″ x 27″) and weighed 19,7 kg (approx. 43-44 lbs). The one pictured below is from 1744 and obviously not nearly as big as that.

Swedish Platmynt 1 Daler

What if in your secondary fantasy world, instead of chests of thousands of coins, your intrepid adventurers had to deal with large metal sheet money, a dozen or so to a chest? Wouldn’t that be an interesting worldbuilding detail?

Image: Anja Laurila et al. Historia kurssi III. Porvoo: WSOY, 1990, p. 73.

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.

Macramé Inspiration Photos for Speculative Writers

There are times when my expertise and interests affect my response to the stories I consume. (I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.) Lately I’ve been noticing the presence or absence of textiles in my media, and how those textiles came to be.

I’m using macramé as an example of a technique that’s not getting much attention—in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a story using macramé even as a background element—despite its versatility.

For example, in a fantasy world, you don’t always have to have woven or embroidered wall hangings decorating the lord’s hall. You could also have a ginormous macramé room divider like “Ocean”, below, by Bali-based fiber artist Agnes Hansella:

Colossal Agnes Hansella Ocean

Apart from being refreshingly non-Eurocentric (if we consider the earliest records of macramé-style knots coming from Babylonian and Assyrian carvings), large-scale macramé works obviously require a high level of skill to complete, which makes them a perfect option for displaying a character’s wealth and social capital.

And even in smaller sizes, macramé can come in intricate shapes that in no way resemble the 1970s handiwork that may stereotypically come to mind (plant hangers, wall hangings, or cute but perhaps not entirely flawless friendship bracelets).

Etsy TBiaDesign Macrame Wall Shelf

Speaking of small, when writing this blog post I leared that some people make micro macramé, where the working yarn or cord is quite thin. The result is almost lace-like:

Etsy AmeEtTiss Macrame Fillory Cuff

You can make an almost endless range of items with macramé. If you can make cording (like bracelets), you can make anything used for supporting, holding, or edging, for instance like belts, suspenders, bands, animal harnesses (think of ceremonial processions etc.), pulls, straps, or decorative edges.

Macramé also does not need to be made from only unbleached or single color cord; on the contrary, colorful combinations can be quite eye-catching:

Etsy Toni Lasee kitdesignsbykith Green Macrame Belt

If you can make flat surfaces (like wall hangings), you can create items that could also be made from fabric, like table runners, curtains, cushion covers, pouches, or bags.

Pinterest Blue Macrame Bag

I could also imagine a macramé-style outer garment worn over fabric clothes looking fantastic. Indeed, someone else has had that very thought—check out these outfits promoted as Coachella or Burning Man costumes:

Etsy SeyanaStyle Macrame Vest and Dress

Depending on the type of cord, you could even make more utilitarian household items like chair seats, hammocks, lampshades, or baskets.

Etsy CraftingMode Big Macrame Basket Birch Green
Etsy Irina Kharebava Macrame Lamp Shade

As with all creative work, the maker’s skill and imagination are the limit.

Images: Agnes Hansella via Colossal. Wall shelf by TBiaDesign on Etsy. Lacy cuff by AmeEtTiss on Etsy. Green belt by Toni Lasee at kitdesignsbykith on Etsy. Blue bag with macramé strap via Pinterest. Macrame vests by SeyanaStyle on Etsy. Rectangular basket by Phing Chutima at CraftingMode on Etsy. Lamp shade by Irina Kharebava on Etsy.

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

Video of 14th-Century Techniques of Bridge Building

Here is an interesting animation of how the Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, was built with 14th century techniques:

Karlův most – Stavba pilíře a klenebního pole ve 14. století by praha-archeologicka.cz on YouTube

3D graphics and postproduction is by Tomáš Musílek, with assists from Ondřej Šefců and Zdeněk Mazač. More information about Charles Bridge can be found at the portal Prague – the City of Archaeology. (Note: most of the site’s content and functionality seems to be in Polish, or link from the English summary to the equivalent full page in Polish.)

I love it how we’re now able to not just model but animate many old or even ancient building projects. It really reveals how far we’ve come and the skills and persistence we have as a species.

Found via File 770.

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

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.

Custom Bookcases with Carvings for a LotR Collection

Now this is a treasure, preciouss! A Finland-based company built these amazing custom bookcases for a collection of figurines and other materials from the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

FB Puustikki LotR Bookcases

Many (if not all?) of the bookcases also have carved crowns. Here’s the Rohan one:

FB Puustikki LotR Bookcases Rohan

There are also metal shields that function as handles:

FB Puustikki LotR Bookcases Dragon

Puustikki talk about their project a bit on Facebook:

“Finally we’re able to publish photos of these custom made, epic showcases for LOTR and Hobbit figurine collection. Probably the biggest collection in Finland and now it’s also displayed in showcases it deserves! This whole thing is 100% handmade out of solid oak and we wanted to use glass doors to maximize visibility into the cases. Each one of the showcases has distinct features to corresponding races/nations; carvings on the top and a custom made steel handle.

“Height of these wooden marvels is 250cm, so they barely fit into a regular house! [sic]”

 

Puustikki is run by carpenter Jarkko Pilvinen and jeweler Juho Manninen. The makers pull their inspiration from history and historical fantasy. At this writing, their online store includes drinking horns, a picnic table and benches, beds, dragon pegboards, runed coasters, and jewelry, among others.

My goodness! Astounding, aren’t they? Stylistically, a lot of their other wares are not our style at all, but as a maker myself, I really admire and appreciate the consideration and effort that went into all of their designs.

Check out the Puustikki website or Instagram for more.

Images by Jukka Alasaari Photography via Puustikki on Facebook

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.