History Doesn’t Look Historical

It’s an unavoidable fact that when we look at historical artifacts, we’re looking at things that are many years old, sometimes centuries or millennia. Physical objects, even those made of enduring materials like metal or stone, are changed by the processes of time. Exposure to light, moisture, changing temperatures, air pollution, wind, water, and other effects works changes on artifacts that can range from subtle to drastic. Our sense of what history looks like is shaped by things that no longer look like what they were when they were first being made, admired, and used by people in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the sculptures and architecture of ancient Greece. Our perception of ancient Greek art is shaped by the white marble statues and temples that remain today, but the originals were not white. We know from ancient descriptions and a few pieces with surviving traces of paint that the stone buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece were brightly colored.

Examples like this statue of a woman, with traces of paint on her dress, suggest what such a statue might have originally looked like.

Statue of a woman (kore), photograph by Nemracc via Wikimedia (Keratea, Greece, currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 580-560 BCE; marble)

Evidence like this makes it possible to attempt to reconstruct what statues of this type looked like when first created. The two reconstructions on the right here offer two possible interpretations of what the original, on the left, may have looked like when it was new.

Statue of a woman (kore) and two reconstructions, composite of photographs by Marsyas, via Wikimedia (original: Acropolis, Athens; c. 530 BCE; marble; reconstructions: Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The striking colors of the past are not just a phenomenon of ancient Greece. At Stirling Castle, in Scotland, a recent restoration project has brought back the original rich yellow color of the walls of the medieval great hall, which was determined from traces of ochre mixed with the remains of the lime wash applied to the stone. You can see the striking contrast between the restored great hall in the background and the bare stone of the buildings in front.

Stirling Castle, photograph by dun_deagh via Flickr (Stirling, Scotland; c. 1500-1600; stone and lime wash)

Studying history requires an act of imagination. Just as we have to imagine ancient monuments are artifacts new and fresh, not as the worn-out relics we see today, we also have to imagine peoples of the past as vibrant, complicated, living societies, not the stilted, dry facts of textbooks. Fiction has a great value to the student of history, as it helps us imagine ourselves into the lives of people different from ourselves. Our history is always somebody else’s daily life.

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.

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?

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)

Feasts and Fools

151026jackHalloween will soon be upon us. The origins of this holiday are obscure. It is often connected with the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, but Halloween, at least as popularly celebrated today in the US and some other countries, has wider connections. It is an example of a type of holiday found in many cultures: the “feast of fools.”

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Race: Fundamentals

150914BuryThis is a very, very, very basic introduction to the question of race from a historical perspective. If you’ve studied any world history, human genetics, or even just had your eyes open in the past decade, there’s probably nothing here you don’t already know. Everything I have to say has been said before, so why say it again? I have two reasons.

First, there are some more obscure and complicated things I want to talk about concerning race and history and it would be useful to have some basic points covered for future reference.

Second, there are some people who don’t know the basics of race, even some very intelligent people (even some Supreme Court justices), so it can’t hurt to say these things again.

Race is like money.

No, really, hear me out on this.

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Labor

150810oxcartThe majority of the stuff that needs to get done in an agrarian society is basic manual labor: primarily farm work, but also things like construction, building and road maintenance, mining, carrying, housework, etc. Any functioning pre-industrial society needs lots of workers to do all that work, but there are many different kinds of workers, some of which are not so familiar to us today. Some of these kinds of workers had it much better than others.

Here’s a list of possibilities, by no means exhaustive, arranged roughly in order from worst to best conditions.

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