Category Archives: History

Travel theme: Big

This week, Ailsa’s theme is “big” – don’t miss her pictures of impressively big things! I went in a more metaphorical direction, though…

BigGalileoGalileo. A towering figure in the history of science.
And this is his (fairly large) tomb, in Santa Croce Basilica in Florence.

Weekly photo challenge: Change

Sometimes change is hard to see, and even harder to illustrate. But I finally remembered this photo –

ChangeAug04Pompeii3aThis Pompeiian gentleman is much too responsible and serious to acknowledge the apparition staring at him from the distant future. When everyone knows that Roman culture is perfection, why waste attention on these barbarians? It’s not as if anything in a prosperous little town like his could ever change.

Hooray for the Taxman


Not really writing yet – but somebody was counting sheep and cows

Today is April 15 – and here in the U.S., that means we all have to get our income tax filed by midnight. Yes, it’s tax day – a day all us bloggers and writers should celebrate.

I can hear you now, all of you. Has she lost her mind?

No, or not any more than usual. If there’s one thing everyone who enjoys writing or reading (at least, everyone who speaks any of the various European languages or Hebrew or Arabic) depends on, it’s the alphabet. But where did the alphabet come from?

It seems that several thousand years ago, people in what’s now Iraq started building cities along the rivers. (Well, to them they were cities – clusters of buildings where so many people lived that you were likely to see strangers almost every day.) They needed to work together to irrigate their crops, and somehow they had to feed the people who organized the irrigation system – so they invented taxes.

They hadn’t invented money yet, though, so you had to pay taxes in farm produce. You might owe five sheep every year, and your neighbor might be taxed twenty bushels of barley. Of course, right away people started arguing over whether the taxes had really been paid or not, so some clever collector came up with little clay tokens shaped like sheep (or whatever). When you brought your five sheep in, the tax collector set aside five sheep tokens to show that you had paid.

Only, how could you tell which tokens applied to which person? Pretty soon somebody figured out that you could wrap your five tokens in a clay “envelope” to keep them separate from everybody else’s. And soon after that, collectors started making marks on the outside of the “envelope” to show how many tokens were inside, and what kind. Then they realized they didn’t need the separate tokens – it would be easier to just make marks on a piece of clay that stood for the tokens. By now we’re halfway to inventing writing.

It only took another century or so of people inventing ways to add more information to these lists of tax payments – for example, maybe an explanation of why somebody had only paid part of what they owed – before they started using this wonderful new technique to write down important information like what towns the local king had just conquered. And after that, well, the rest was history.

At first the symbols on the clay were pictures, quick ways to represent whatever they stood for. But as time went on and people got busier and busier, they made the pictures simpler and simpler – and after centuries, they just stood for sounds. They had become letters, like the ones this post is written with. And it all started because of people who didn’t especially want to pay their taxes if they could avoid it, and tax collectors who needed a way to keep track of who really had paid.

Thank you, all you ancient taxmen. 😉

Weekly photo challenge: Dreaming

This week, the topic for the Weekly Photo Challenge is dreaming. I dream about various things – but this is the one that caught my attention today.

Once, people lived here in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Once, this was the floor of somebody’s entrance hall in Ephesus.

Once, this was someone’s private garden in Pompeii.

Once, these were all new and ordinary, as much a part of daily life as my front door. Sometimes I dream about what it could have been like to be among the people who lived with these ancient things, and never thought of them as ancient.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Movement

This week’s Photo Challenge theme is “movement”.

This is a mill wheel at Sturbridge Village, Connecticut – a reconstructed early nineteenth century town. The wheel is turning at a pretty brisk speed, propelled by the stream of water flowing over it. But that’s nothing. Inside the building, the shaft attached to the mill wheel connects to a series of gears that increase the speed, step by step, until it sets an enormous stone wheel spinning fast enough to grind rock-hard grains of wheat into flour.

It’s really a pretty impressive piece of pre-electronic (actually, medieval) technology.

Third Sentence Thursday again: How would YOU invent squash?

After the Ice  by Steven Mithen

p. 285: “Not only do their social lives seem to have been based more around sharing than competition, but it seems unlikely that a rival would have been impressed, let alone humbled, by no more than a handful of squash seeds, however large they may have been.”

Archaeologists argue a lot. This quote has to do with two theories of how people about ten thousand years ago in Oaxaca (Mexico) managed to develop corn and domesticate squash and beans.

Theory 1: Over the centuries, people spent more and more time tending wild plants, weeding out sickly ones and planting healthy ones in good locations. They did this to improve their food supply in dry years. Little by little, the plants became more nutritious and appetizing, and more dependent on humans.

Theory 2: Leaders – “big men” – directed the selective breeding of plants so they could use improved varieties to humiliate their rivals, whose crops would be less awe-inspiring. (On the whole, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Mithen prefers Theory 1.)

But what’s this book really about? The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5000 B.C.” Mithen starts with the end of the latest ice age and gives us 52 short chapters, about ten pages each, describing what we know and guess about life in various parts of the world up to the beginning of civilization. To liven up the stories, he invents an invisible time traveler who visits a representative group of people in each chapter and sees how they live.

This is a book to read in chunks, a few chapters at a time. Try to read it all at once and you’ll feel like you’re being rolled head over heels in an avalanche of information. Take it in smaller bites, and it’s a fascinating story of how climate shifts and human inventiveness changed the world.

A twofer for Third Sentence Thursday

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

p. 113: “It’d burn its own lips off!”

Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch is a sensible man (even if he does tend to dive headfirst into the nearest bottle of liquor). He doesn’t believe in big threatening dragons, because they just wouldn’t work. So when he sees one with his own eyes, breathing a huge blast of fire in classic dragon style, his instinctive reaction is “it can’t do something like that! It’d burn its own lips off!”

Then Vimes realizes that whether the dragon is possible or not, it’s a threat to his city. And he gets mad.

You wouldn’t like Sam Vimes when he’s mad, but you’d enjoy reading about him.

A Forest of Kings by Linda Schele and David Freidel

p. 282: “Lady Eveningstar moved to take the position on Shield-Jaguar’s left, but before she could mount the bench, Lady Xoc entered and usurped that position for herself.”

Or, power politics among the ancient Maya, about 1300 years ago. (Think Game of Thrones with tropical climate, amazing ornate art, and religious bloodletting.)

A Forest of Kings tries, fairly successfully, to be several kinds of books at once: archaelogical study, art history, and history-history, with little scenes from time to time of how things could have happened (and, from the information we have now that Maya writing can be read again, how they probably did happen).

The sentence above comes from one of those vignettes – in other words, it’s historical fiction, almost; but very close to fact. We know definitely that Lady Eveningstar (a low-ranking wife of the previous king) was Shield-Jaguar’s mother. But Lady Xoc, his father’s main wife, tried hard to stop him from inheriting the throne – much like a classic fairy-tale evil stepmother. Only real.

Weekly photo challenge: Together

The theme this time for the Weekly Photo Challenge is “Together”.

Here’s what I have –

The living and the dead…

The past and the present…

Together at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
(Photos taken in summer 2009.)

(The memorial has an interesting design which may not be clear from the photos. There are gray statues of weary soldiers down the middle of the space. Along one side, there’s a polished stone wall with pictures from the war engraved in it – it’s just reflective enough to show faint images of passing tourists and of the group of statues.)

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Measuring one of the big snows in February 2010

Well…taking that question literally, they’ve melted, thank goodness, all 60 or 70 inches of them. They’ve soaked into the aquifer, or drained into the Delaware River and flowed out to sea. But once in a while, we run head-on into the wall of one of those cliches that are too true to believe:

Things change.

Around here, for example, people are still capable of giving directions by saying, “Well, you drive out past the Hawaiian Cottage…” even though the Hawaiian Cottage burned down years and years and years ago. Using it as a landmark is understandable, though. Who could forget a restaurant that you enter by way of a big concrete pineapple?

And if you wait long enough, things change a lot more.

Any self-respecting natural history museum can unnerve you with something like this –

(I took this photo at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. in July 2009.) I wouldn’t want to meet it in a dark alley, or in broad daylight either, if it was still equipped with skin and muscles and a nubbin of brain and an empty stomach. But it’s gone, long gone, and its whole world with it. Gone like the green Sahara that dwindled and dried up before ancient Egypt began to think about pyramids.

Ah, well. We’re told that God notices the fall of a sparrow; from other sources, we’re told that birds are, in effect, living dinosaurs. If God takes note of our mini-dinosaurs of today, can he forget T. rex? 😀

T. rex, meanwhile, never guessed that her time was short; never made bucket lists or had nostalgic thoughts about how much better the Triceratopses they had when she was a kid tasted than the ones you get nowadays. We know better, or worse.  Good or bad, this is the only 2012 we get. Appreciate it.

Point of view

What you see depends on where you’re standing. But you knew that, right?

I’m fascinated – like many other people – by the Heian period, a thousand years ago in Japan, partly because it’s so strange, so remote from life as I live it.

Now, it was a terrible time and place to be poor. (When has it ever been fun to be poor?) But if you were a member of the nobility, especially if you spent your time at the capital in the Imperial court, your life revolved around elegance, fashion, style. Women took great care with their clothing – layers and layers of multicolored robes chosen for seasonally suitable themes. Their greatest pride was their long, long hair, as long as they were tall. Men and women alike put hours of thought into perfumes and poetry to help them succeed in their love lives. One of the world’s great novels, the Tale of Genji, came from the Heian court; so did one of the liveliest books of trivia ever written, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Elegance and beauty were everywhere.

And it was a world of grimy, sickly people. Both in the Tale of Genji and in historical fact, people died shockingly young. (Sei Shonagon thought she was old at thirty.) One reason for perfume was that various taboos kept people from bathing very often; Sei Shonagon tells us how amusing it is to see people’s clothing move as the fleas underneath jump around. (Not that anybody, anywhere a thousand years ago was able to come near the levels of health and cleanliness that we take for granted.) If we could be suddenly transported into that world, we would probably be horrified.

It must have been a little like a lifetime in high school, too. Nothing mattered more, it seems, than who you were in love with, what clique you belonged to, and how fashionable your clothes were. (Probably that’s because the average age was so pitifully young.)

And yet, it remains endlessly fascinating, this shadowy world of women swathed in layer on layer of carefully matched silks, peeping out from behind screens to glimpse their strutting menfolk perform elegant dances, brooding over the perfect wording of a poem to send as a reply to their latest admirer or to show their wonder at the season’s beauties.

(Images are from the Tokugawa Art Museum’s Handscroll of the Tale of Genji, on Wikimedia Commons. The scroll was painted around 1030 A.D. – when the Genji was a new story, written only about thirty years earlier – and is in the public domain because of age.)