Sunday, December 31, 2017

The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria

Ancient Origins

Alexandria, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, was founded by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt in 332 BC. After the death of Alexander in Babylon in 323 BC, Egypt fell to the lot of one of his lieutenants, Ptolemy. It was under Ptolemy that the newly-founded Alexandria came to replace the ancient city of Memphis as the capital of Egypt. This marked the beginning of the rise of Alexandria. Yet, no dynasty can survive for long without the support of their subjects, and the Ptolemies were keenly aware of this. Thus, the early Ptolemaic kings sought to legitimize their rule through a variety of ways, including assuming the role of pharaoh, founding the Graeco-Roman cult of Serapis, and becoming the patrons of scholarship and learning (a good way to show off one’s wealth, by the way). It was this patronage that resulted in the creation of the great Library of Alexandria by Ptolemy. Over the centuries, the Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world. The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all civilizations came to study and exchange ideas. As many as 700,000 scrolls filled the shelves. However, in one of the greatest tragedies of the academic world, the Library became lost to history and scholars are still not able to agree on how it was destroyed.

An artist’s depiction of the Library of Alexandria. Image source.

Perhaps one of the most interesting accounts of its destruction comes from the accounts of the Roman writers. According to several authors, the Library of Alexandria was accidentally destroyed by Julius Caesar during the siege of Alexandria in 48 BC. Plutarch, for instance, provides this account:

when the enemy tried to cut off his (Julius Caesar’s) fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library. (Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, 49.6)

This account is dubious, however, as the Musaeum (or Mouseion) at Alexandria, which was right next to the library was unharmed, as it was mentioned by the geographer Strabo about 30 years after Caesar’s siege of Alexandria. Nevertheless, Strabo does not mention the Library of Alexandria itself, thereby supporting the claim that Caesar was responsible for burning it down. However, as the Library was attached to the Musaeum, and Strabo did mention the latter, it is possible that the library was still in existence during Strabo’s time. The omission of the library can perhaps be attributed either to the possibility that Strabo felt no need to mention the library, as he had already mentioned the Musaeum, or that the library was no longer the centre of scholarship that it once was (the idea of ‘budget cuts’ seems increasingly probable). In addition, it has been suggested that it was not the library, but the warehouses near the port, which stored manuscripts, that was destroyed by Caesar’s fire.

The second possible culprit would be the Christians of the 4th century AD. In 391 AD, the Emperor Theodosius issued a decree that officially outlawed pagan practices. Thus, the Serapeum or Temple of Serapis in Alexandria was destroyed. However, this was not the Library of Alexandria, or for that matter, a library of any sort. Furthermore, no ancient sources mention the destruction of any library at this time at all. Hence, there is no evidence that the Christians of the 4th century destroyed the Library of Alexandria.

The last possible perpetrator of this crime would be the Muslim Caliph, Omar. According to this story, a certain “John Grammaticus” (490–570) asks Amr, the victorious Muslim general, for the “books in the royal library." Amr writes to the Omar for instructions and Omar replies: "If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.” There are at least two problems with this story. Firstly, there is no mention of any library, only books. Secondly, this was written by a Syrian Christian writer, and may have been invented to tarnish the image of Omar.

Unfortunately, archaeology has not been able to contribute much to this mystery. For a start, papyri have rarely been found in Alexandria, possibly due to the climatic condition, which is unfavourable for the preservation of organic material. Secondly, the remains of the Library of Alexandria itself have not been discovered. This is due to the fact that Alexandria is still inhabited by people today and only salvage excavations are allowed to be carried out by archaeologists.

While it may be convenient to blame one man or group of people for the destruction of what many consider to be the greatest library in the ancient world, it may be over-simplifying the matter. The library may not have gone up in flames at all, but rather could have been gradually abandoned over time. If the Library was created for the display of Ptolemaic wealth, then its decline could also have been linked to an economic decline. As Ptolemaic Egypt gradually declined over the centuries, this may have also had an effect on the state of the Library of Alexandria. If the Library did survive into the first few centuries AD, its golden days would have been in the past, as Rome became the new centre of the world.

Featured image: One of the theories suggests that Library of Alexandria was burned down. ‘The Burning of the Library of Alexandria’, by Hermann Goll (1876).

 By Ḏḥwty

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Acta Diurna: The Telegraph of Ancient Rome, Bringing You All the Latest Gladiator Combat News

Ancient Origins

Roman emperor conquers new lands !’ ‘Five new ways to use your fish paste .’ ‘When do the stars say you will marry?’ ‘ Viae militares expand our reach to foreign lands.’ These may have been some of the headlines you would read in the Roman Acta Diurna – the daily notices many call the precursor to the modern daily newspaper.

The Roman Acta Diurna (translated from the Latin to mean ‘Daily Acts’ or ‘Daily Public Records’) were the daily public notices that were posted in certain public places around the ancient city of Rome. These notices kept the ancient inhabitants of Rome up to date with current events. They contained various forms of news, ranging from the official to entertainment, and even astrological readings.

Roman Fish Market. Arch of Octavius. ( Public Domain )

The Acta Diurna was posted in public places around the city. Content of the Roman Stone, Metal, or Papyri “Newspapers” The Acta Diruna is said to have first appeared around 131/130 BC during the Roman Republic. At this point of time, the Acta Diurna , which were known also as the Acta Popidi or Acta Publica , was carved on stone or metal. As the Acta Diurna were meant to reach a public audience, they were placed at public places, such as the forum, the markets, or the thermal baths. Initially these notices reported ‘serious’ news of importance to the Roman populace, such as the results of legal proceedings, and the outcomes of trials.

‘Cicero Denounces Catiline’ (1889) by Cesare Maccari. ( Public Domain ) Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate. Initially the notices reported ‘serious’ news of importance to the Roman populace, such as the results of legal proceedings, and the outcomes of trials.

As time went by, the range of topics reported by the Acta Diurna increased as well. The contents of the Roman notices began to include public announcements, such as military victories, and the price of grain. Apart from these, the Acta Diurna also included other pieces of noteworthy information, such as notable births, marriages, and deaths, as well as news about gladiatorial combats and other games that were being held in the city. The Acta Diurna even included a gossip column, which often contained the latest amorous adventures of Rome’s rich and famous.

By the time of the 1st century BC, the Acta Diurna was no longer carved on stone or metal. Instead, they were hand-written, most likely on sheets of papyri. They continued to be posted in public places, and after a couple of days, were taken down to be archived. Unfortunately, papyrus is not the most durable of materials, and no intact copy of the Acta Diurna is known to have survived till the present day.

Fragment from the front of a sarcophagus showing a Roman marriage ceremony. ( CC BY SA 4.0 ) Notable marriages were mentioned in the Acta Diurna too.

Scribes Copied the News for Wealthy Romans Living Outside the City
The Acta Diurna were very popular indeed. For example, the rich (presumably those living outside of Rome) would often send scribes to the city to seek out the latest edition of the Acta Diurna . These would then be copied and brought back to their patrons. Provincial governors would also send scribes to make copies of the Acta Diurna for them, so that they were kept abreast of the latest happenings in the capital. During this time, the concept of copyright was not in existence, and the scribes could copy the Acta Diurna freely.

The Acta Diurna were used also as a source of information by various ancient authors. Suetonius, the author of The Lives of the Twelve Caesars , for example, is said to have relied on the Acta Diurna for information about the dates and place of various births, deaths, and other important events. News form the Acta Diurna was also resourced by the Pliny the Elder, who wrote the encyclopaedic Natural History . In his work, Pliny recounted a story he read in the notices, which was about a faithful dog who followed his dead master’s body into the river at the funeral. Tacitus, who wrote The Annals and The Histories , saw the Acta Diurna as not worthy of reporting great historical events, but only good enough for trivial matters. Nevertheless, it is from this writer that we learn about the popularity of these notices, so much so that they were brought to the distant provinces of the empire by couriers.

Pliny the Elder. ( Public Domain )

 Pliny the Elder is one of the ancient authors who turned to the Acta Diurna for information.

The publication of the Acta Diurna continued until around 330 AD. As a result of the decision by the Emperor Constantine to move the capital of his empire from Rome to Constantinople, the Acta Diurna came to an end.

Top image: Relief from a scribe's tomb found in Flavia Solva. ( Public Domain ) Background: Latin stone inscription. ( Public Domain )

 By Wu Mingren

Friday, December 29, 2017

Archaeologists in Search of Beer End Up Discovering Valuable Viking Trove

Ancient Origins

A team of archaeologists searching to find beer and other brewing materials, ended up discovering something way more valuable; a trove of amazing Viking artifacts, including an out of place Celtic fitting from a book.

Surprising Discovery Shocks Archaeologists
This was supposed to be another day at work for the team of archaeologists exploring the Byneset Cemetery, adjacent to the medieval Steine Church in Trondheim, Norway. However, they ended up discovering something way more valuable than the beer brewing stones from the Viking Age they were looking for. The team of archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) University Museum discovered a trove of valuable Viking artifacts. “We started the project with slightly lower hopes for what we might find than what's recently emerged,” Museum’s director Reidar Andersen, who was present at the site when the trove was unearthed, said as Phys Org reports.

 Jo Sindre Pålsson Eidshaug and Øyunn Wathne Sæther, research assistants at the NTNU University Museum, also expressed their surprise when they discovered the trove during their excavations.

Excavation site was adjacent to the Steine Church, Trondheim, Norway. (Image: Raymond Sauvage, NTNU University Museum.

Viking Trove Includes an “Imported” Irish Object Coincidentally, the director of communications for the museum, Tove Eivindsen, happened to be there at the moment of the discovery and was particularly surprised by a find that appears to be of Irish origin,

“The find is probably a gold-plated, silver fitting from a book. It appears to be Celtic in origin, and might have come from a religious book brought here during the Viking Age that disappeared several centuries ago, and that hasn't been seen by anyone since then – but for now everything is speculation,” he said as Phys Org reports.

Mr. Andersen added, “Someone very politely called this an Irish import, but that's just a nice way of saying that someone was in Ireland and picked up an interesting item."

Raymond Sauvage from NTNU's Department of Archaeology and Cultural History, and the project’s director for these excavations, agreed with Mr. Andersen, as he’s not quite sure if the foreign item ended up being part of the Viking trove in a peaceful manner, “Yes, that's right. We know that the Vikings went out on raids. They went to Ireland and brought things back. But how peacefully it all transpired, I won't venture to say," he said according to Phys Org. He also added that the discovery is really rare and you won’t find it everywhere in Scandinavia, as there are only a few areas where people had the resources to go out on such voyages.

The item which is deemed a "Viking import" from Ireland. Image: NTNU University Museum

Archaeologists, however, used the scientific term for a foreign find as this one and referred to it as an “imported object.” They explained that it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was bought or traded for, taking into consideration, of course, the well-known tactics of the Vikings.

 Site Holds Great Promise for the Future
According to the archaeologists the site will probably offer more finds in the near future. The team also unearthed a belt buckle, a key and a knife blade, so they hope now to uncover even more precious artifacts in future digs. As Phys Org reports, the church dates from the 1140s and used to be connected to a large, old farm estate from the time of the Vikings, "Steine Church was built in the 1140s," Sauvage said, explaining that the archaeologists also found a link to Nidaros Cathedral.

Ultimately, Sauvage mentioned that the archaeological mission was originally planning to do a sampling of layers containing brewing stones, but the site proved to hide below way more significant and valuable items than they believed before the excavation works began. For that reason the dig was significantly expanded, and now artifacts dating as far back as 700 AD have been unearthed. The excavation works were funded by Trondheim’s municipality and lasted for five weeks during the summer of 2017, while the cemetery expansion started on 16 October.

Top image: A fitting, probably from a book. The style is typical of Celtic and Irish areas and dates from the 800s. Silver with traces of gilding. Image Credit: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Ancient Greece – fact or fiction?

History Extra

The famed Washington-based satirising internet newspaper, the Onion, launched a story in early October lifting the lid on the study of the ancient Greek world: it had, in fact, all been made up by the historians. Everything from the Iliad to ancient Greek vases to entire archaeological sites had been faked because, as the Onion puts it, no one really had any idea what happened in the 800 years before the Christian era in Europe.

I have, along with other ancient historian colleagues I'm sure, received several joking emails from academics in other disciplines revelling in the fact that we had been "busted". I was even asked by one tourist traveller in Greece last week if it was true.

No, I can categorically state we didn’t make it all up. But that’s not to say we have not been involved in the way the ancient world’s story has unfolded. Archaeologists have imposed their own views about how ancient buildings should be reconstructed, scholars of the ancient texts have argued for how they think the fragments surviving should be completed and more importantly interpreted. Ancient historians have applied modern models of thought to cast the social, economic and political realities of the ancient world in certain lights. Issues that have occupied our 19th, 20th and 21st-century worlds have become guiding questions for investigation of ancient societies.

Of course the best traditions of scholarship have always worked incredibly hard to ensure the ancient world is allowed to speak for itself, without refraction or alteration through the myriad of lenses with which it is studied and through the layers of societies and historical time that stand between us and them. That search for an ‘objective’ way of studying past human society will always be on-going and I have no doubt that we will continue to get better at it.

But we will never be able to take ourselves entirely out of the equation. Nor should we want to, because it is in that very multiplicity of approaches, views, understandings and ideas that the debate about what the ancient world was like is fired up, and it is through that debate that we gain a better understanding of our humanity and its past.

Reprinted from Neos Kosmos
Submitted by: Michael Scott

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Student’s Lucky Find Worth £145,000 Is Rewriting Anglo-Saxon History

Ancient Origins

A student in Norfolk probably never imagined that his discovery of a female skeleton wearing a pendant could rewrite Anglo Saxon history – but researchers say that the “exquisite” gold piece is doing just that.

According to The Telegraph , “The find of the female skeleton wearing a pendant of gold imported from Sri Lanka and coins bearing the marks of a continental king is prompting a fundamental reassessment of the seats of power in Anglo Saxon England.”

 Altogether, the artifacts have become known as the treasure of the Winfarthing Woman. An analysis of the grave goods, namely two inscribed coins, suggests that the grave’s owner was buried between 650 to 675 AD and was an elite member of society, possibly even royalty.

 One of the large gold pendants found on the skeleton is inlaid with hundreds of tiny garnets. That artifact alone has been valued at £145,000 (almost $190,000). A delicate gold filigree cross found in the burial suggests that the woman may have been one of the earliest Anglo Saxon converts to Christianity. Other items found in the grave included two identical Merovingian gold coins which had been made into pendants, and two gold beads. Senior Curator of the Norwich Castle Museum Dr. Tim Pestell said the craftsmanship of these objects is “equal” to the famous Staffordshire Hoard.

The Anglo-Saxon pendant found at the rich grave in Winfarthing, Norfolk. ( The British Museum )

In an amusing turn of events, the discovery was made at a site which has been overlooked by archaeologists over the years due to the poor soil. But Thomas Lucking, who found the site in 2015 decided that the location was worth an examination. “We could hear this large signal. We knew there was something large but couldn't predict it would be like that,” he said, “When it came out the atmosphere changed.”

The Guardian reports the first artifact unearthed was a bronze bowl placed at the feet of the skeleton, when the human remains were noted Lucking paused the dig to call the county archaeology unit in.

Excavating the Anglo-Saxon grave in Winfarthing, Norfolk. ( John Rainer )

Work continues at the site first identified by Lucking as it has been identified as a cemetery, possibly with a settlement located nearby as well. Mr. Lucking now works as a full-time archaeologist.

The Daily Mail notes that Mr. Lucking’s discovery in 2016 is one of the highlights from a record year for public discoveries of ancient treasures. 1,120 treasures were found that year, making the highest figure for 20 years. Two other interesting discoveries described at the launch of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure annual reports at the British Museum include two Bronze Age hoards and a Roman coin collection. One of the Bronze Age hoards consisted of 158 axes and ingots while the other consisted of 27 axes and ingots. Both were found in Driffield, East Yorkshire and date to around 950-850 BC. The Roman coins numbered more than 2,000 and were discovered inside a pottery vessel in Piddletrenthide, Dorset.

Some of the artifacts found in the Driffield hoard. ( British Museum )

Top Image: The gold pendant found in the soil. Source: John Fulcher

By Alicia McDermott

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A brief history of Boxing Day

History Extra

Q: So what exactly is Boxing Day?
A: Boxing Day is also known as St Stephen's Day – Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death in c34 AD.

Being a saint’s day, it has charitable associations. Charitable boxes – collections of money – would have been given out at the church door to the needy.

While the wider significance of St Stephen’s Day collapsed in Europe, it held on in Protestant England. It is an Anglo-Saxon thing. As England made more and more of a thing about Christmas, it began to concentrate its rituals onto just a few days. This was happening by the 18th century.

 The English came to believe that they owned Christmas – perhaps in partnership with other ‘Teutonic/Nordic’ peoples. This was a bit of an over-exaggeration as, of course, there are plenty of southern European Christmas traditions.

The Church of England had gotten rid of so many days. The charitable efforts that, under the Catholic calendar, would have been scattered, became tied to the one day.

By the late 18th century or early 19th century, Boxing Day became a day of outdoor activity.

While Christmas Day was about being at home with your family, Boxing Day was a time to get outside, to get away from the home. People can only be cooped up for so long! There’s a need to exorcise – and exercise – all of that.

In the 18th century, Boxing Day became a day for aristocratic sports – hunting, horseracing, shooting. By the 19th century, as a result of urbanisation, it was about professional football.

As British society, particularly English society, became marked by large industrial cities, distinctive working class leisure pursuits evolved. With Boxing Day already associated with pleasurable, outdoor activities, it was soon adopted as a key date in the professional soccer calendar.

Q: When did the charitable side of Boxing Day end?
A: By the early 19th century, charitable aims became more focused around Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but it was a very slow petering out. There was a debate about whether inmates should get beer and beef on Christmas Day, for example.

Whether they got this depended upon the attitude of local guardians.

And by this point, there were enough poor people to be thought of as an entity. Provision for the poor turned into a local government issue, as opposed to something individuals organised.

Mason/Associated Newspapers)

 Q: So when did Boxing Day originate?
A: Boxing Day emerged quite quickly after the establishment of Christmas. The very early church took no notice of Christmas – it wasn’t until the turn of the first millennia that the church started to push Christmas.

It was a way to make sure converts stayed on board – the early church knew it could not stamp out all the winter festivals, so it decided to ‘Christianise’ them. So a whole series of pre-existing European mid-winter ceremonies were white-washed with Christianity.

Boxing Day came quickly after.

Christmas feast days were chipped away at – largely because of Protestantism and the development of the British economy. A more urbanised, factory-oriented economy meant that the machines and methods of production just had to be kept going.

It was completely unlike the rhythms of the rural world which had dominated, and which allowed for more punctuation marks in the course of the year – so you ended up having to peg festivities on fewer days.

Q: Historically, has Boxing Day been celebrated differently in other parts of the world?
A: England, Wales, Australia and New Zealand are distinctive in making quite a thing of Boxing Day, with outdoor events such as picnics, horse shows, rides and walks.

Q: How did Boxing Day become a bank holiday?
A: The 26th of December became additional bank holiday in 1974, but in fact it had been a de facto day off for many years. This is partly because football made such a big thing of Boxing Day that many took time off anyway, and gradually during the course of the 20th century more and more employers realised that business was generally slow during this period and so, in effect, turned a blind eye to people taking the time off, which then became a custom in its own right.

Q: Boxing Day today tends to be associated with shopping. When did this trend emerge?
A: It began in the late 1990s, when the John Major government amended Sunday trading laws.

When you open the door to trading on a Sunday, changing the spirit of when it is morally ‘right’ to shop, you open up trading on festival days.

By Mark Connelly, professor of modern British history at the University of Kent.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas celebrations: the old versus the new

History Extra

Christmas is, notoriously, a time for nostalgia and for many ‘Christmas present’ is considered never to be quite the same as ‘Christmas past’. This is partly due to our getting older, but is also because there are layers of tradition in our celebrations, some of them pre-Christian, which draw us inevitably to the ‘Old Christmas’. As Charles Dickens wrote, ‘How many old recollections and sympathies does Christmas time awaken’?

 Christmas is still essentially that which was remodelled in the 19th century to suit the tastes and ideals of the time. Victorian festivities were centred on the home, the family and the indulgence of children and if, in many homes, the hearth or fireside has disappeared and computer games have replaced the railway set as presents, this is still the Christmas we attempt to recapture and regard as traditional.

The trappings of this festival reflect Victorian innovations: the cards, the tree, the crackers, the family meal with a turkey and, of course, Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Yet an older Christmas hovers behind it and its image is fixed on numerous cards and illustrations depicting a world of stagecoaches, ruddy-faced landlords, thatched cottages, manor houses and hospitable squires. The Victorians built into their new Christmas nostalgia for an ideal Christmas located forever in the 18th-century countryside.

Those very architects of the Victorian Christmas, Charles Dickens and Washington Irving looked back to an idealised Christmas of their recent past. To Dickens, Christmas epitomised not only conviviality and humanity, but an affection for the past. In Pickwick Papers he describes a merry old Christmas, a “good humoured Christmas” in which, after blind-man’s buff, “there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisons were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail”.

Dickens may well have helped create a new Christmas but at the heart of his vision was an idealised old Christmas; one he hoped to revive. This Christmas was a merry, lengthy and mainly adult affair with some relaxation of the normal rules of propriety.

Whether the occasion was generally observed has been doubted by some, as there is evidence that Christmas was in decline during the late 18th century. The puritans of the Commonwealth, who considered it a Popish survival, attempted to abolish the festival, but the Restoration saw it reinstated amidst popular acclaim. However, forms of celebration based on the open-handed hospitality of the aristocrat or squire in the big house and the often drunken and bawdy customs of the country people, were coming to seem quaint and old-fashioned to many.

Such celebrations had little appeal for the well-to-do in towns and, in the countryside, the gentry no longer automatically kept open house for their dependents, while up-and-coming farmers, distanced themselves from their workers and the mumming and licence of the ‘world-turned-upside-down’ that was the ‘Old Christmas’. Only in more backward areas was Christmas celebrated in the old style and The Times reflected in 1790 on the time of festivity having “lost much of its original mirth and hospitality”.

It was the very decay of Christmas traditions and a consciousness of their passing that appealed to romantics and antiquarians. The American writer, Washington Irving, visiting England in the early 19th century, saw the ‘Old Christmas’ as resembling “those picturesque morsels of Gothic architecture which we see crumbling in various parts of the country, partly dilapidated by the waste of ages, and partly lost in the additions and alterations of later days”. His account of the ‘Old Christmas’ presided over by the antiquarian Squire Bracebridge at Bracebridge Hall was an imaginative reconstruction of old customs and traditions, rather than a description of a contemporary Christmas.

 It wasn’t, however, solely the antique and antic customs of the decaying ‘Old Christmas’ that appealed to Dickens and Irving, but the underlying social harmony that they perceived in it. The ‘New Christmas’ that Dickens helped to create was essentially a private and family affair, even if Victorian families were large, and one that centred on children. The ‘Old Christmas’, whose passing he regretted, had been more of a community festival; an expression in the idle period of the agricultural year of charity in its older sense of fellowship.

Much has been made of the contrast between Christmas at Dingley Dell in Pickwick Papers, a gregarious and merry festival lasting twelve days, and A Christmas Carol where the emphasis is upon Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as well as the notion of the family, represented by the Cratchits. This difference can be exaggerated for, if Dickens was Victorian enough to put home and hearth at the centre of things, his main aim was to stress fellowship, empathy between different sections of society, the responsibility of employers and good cheer. Mr Fessiwig’s Ball, held by the employer for all who worked for him, looks back to the festivities in the manor or farm house in which villagers or retainers, as well as family, participated and forward to the office party. Social harmony was the vision he saw Christmas representing and, if the half-imaginary 18th-century Christmas he drew on was a rosy image of pre-industrial society, it was ever-present in his works.

The third ghost to visit Scrooge is the Ghost of Christmas Present who in fact bears a strong resemblance to some of the more jovial depictions of the spirit of the ‘Old Christmas’ – “a jolly Giant, glorious to see” who, “in a green robe, or mantle bordered with white fur”, is surrounded by a display of plenty in the shape of turkeys, geese and ‘seething bowls of punch’. This spirit, a prototype Father Christmas and a kindly if rather pagan figure, continued to hover over the Christmas that Dickens helped refashion.

The Dickensian Christmas is, therefore, a bridge between the old and the new Christmas, the Anglo-American Christmas, which we inherit. The latter is, no doubt, better suited to an urban and mobile society; it is centred upon the family and children and is essentially private and home-based amidst eerily empty streets. It is also rather tamed for, if we eat and drink enough, it lacks the boisterousness and wider conviviality of the older, more adult, Christmas.

Yet, that ‘Old Christmas’ is annually invoked today, as it was in the 19th century, by Christmas cards and festive illustrations in which jovial squires forever entertain friends by roaring fires while stout coachmen swathed in greatcoats, urge horses down snow covered lanes as they bring anticipatory guests and homesick relations to their welcoming destinations in a dream of merry England.

Professor Arthur Purdue is visiting senior lecturer in history at the Open University and co-author with JM Golby of The Making of the Modern Christmas, Batsford (1986).

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The History of... Christmas crackers

History Extra

Who do we have to thank for the Christmas cracker?
Traditionally the credit goes to london confectioner Tom Smith. In 1847 he is said to have introduced England to the delights of the French bonbon, a sugar-almond wrapped in paper with a twist at both ends. To boost sales and keep ahead of his competitors, Smith added a ‘love motto’ before enlarging the packaging, replacing the bonbon with a gift and, in 1860, adding the exploding ‘crack’ that was to give the cracker its name. His son, Walter, later introduced the now-obligatory paper hat.

Yet it’s possible that the first person to sell crackers in Britain was in fact the Italian-born gaudente Sparagnapane, another London confectioner (and the father of noted suffragette maud Sennett). His company, which was established in 1846, a year before Smith’s, described itself as “the oldest makers of Christmas crackers in the United Kingdom”.

Were crackers always called crackers?
No. Both companies initially called their creations ‘Cosaques’, supposedly because the crack they made when pulled were reminiscent of the cracking whips of Russian Cossack horsemen.

What’s the story behind the introduction of the ‘crack’?
 Tradition has it that Smith was inspired by the cracking of a log on his fire. Some accounts even claim he spent two years trying to perfect a way of making the sound. However silver fulminate ‘snaps’ had been around for decades and it’s more likely that Smith merely found a new use for an existing novelty.

And they’re not just for Christmas?
Not at all. Late 19th and early 20th-century manufacturers in particular kept a close eye on current affairs and produced crackers with a variety of themes. Votes for women, Charlie Chaplin, coronations, the wireless, even the battle of Tel el Kebir (in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882) were just some of the subjects to get the cracker treatment.

Were the mottoes and jokes always so awful?
Smith’s certainly didn’t think so. They were proud of the quality of the verse in their early mottoes. But by 1906 the efforts of some manufacturers were certainly bad enough for the Westminster Gazette to describe a particularly poorly written play as being “not up to the standard of cracker poetry”.

By Julian Humphrys

Saturday, December 23, 2017

5 festive facts from BBC Two’s QI

History Extra

The festive season is well and truly upon us, but how much do you know about the history of Christmas? Here, we bring you a festive extract from the newly released QI book – The Third QI Book of General Ignorance

 1) Prince Albert didn’t bring the first Christmas tree to Britain
 The first Christmas tree in England went up in December 1800, when Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, gave a children’s party. One of the grown-up guests remarked, ‘After the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted.’

 Christmas trees soon became wildly fashionable in high society, but it took 40 years (helped by the popular press) for them to catch on across the country. By then Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was busy importing them, which is why they are so often associated with him.

December 1848 illustration. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Prince Albert and Queen Charlotte were both born in Germany, where families had been bringing evergreen trees indoors and putting candles on them since the sixteenth century. According to legend, the first person to do this was Martin Luther (1483–1546), better known for his role in the Protestant Reformation. One evening, it’s said, he looked up at the night sky, saw the stars twinkling between a tree’s branches, and decided to recreate the effect in his home. Luther was a controversial figure. He was also said to eat a spoonful of his own faeces every day. The Christmas tree story may be romantic fiction, but the German tradition of decorating trees indoors did begin in Luther’s lifetime.

Artificial Christmas trees became popular in Britain after the death of Queen Victoria, when large ostentatious trees suddenly seemed inappropriate. The first ones were made from goose feathers that were dyed green. These were also imported from Germany, where they had become fashionable as a way of conserving the country’s fir tree population. But artificial Christmas trees only took off in the 1930s with mass production by the Addis Brush Company. Founded by William Addis, inventor of the toothbrush, they used the same machinery to make bristly branches that they used to make toilet brushes.

Today artificial Christmas trees are seen as an environmentally conscious alternative to the real thing. Unfortunately, an independent study released in 2009 showed that, to be greener than buying a fresh-cut tree each year, you would have to reuse your plastic tree for more than 20 years.

2) ‘Jingle Bells’ wasn’t originally written as a Christmas song
‘Jingle Bells’ is the only Christmas song that doesn’t mention Christmas, Jesus or the Nativity. That’s because it was written to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Originally entitled ‘The One-Horse Open Sleigh’, ‘Jingle Bells’ was the work of American composer James Lord Pierpont (1822–93), uncle of the financier J. P. Morgan. Pierpont’s father commissioned it for a Thanksgiving service.

Pierpont led a wild life – at 14 he ran away to sea and joined a whaling ship. At 27 he left his wife and children in Boston to join the California gold rush. After re-inventing himself as a photographer, he lost all his possessions in a fire and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he joined the Confederate army during the Civil War. Throughout this period he continued to write songs, ballads and dance tunes, including Confederate battle hymns and ‘minstrel’ songs for performance by white people with blacked-up faces. Some of his less festive tunes include ‘We Conquer or Die’ and ‘Strike for the South’.

The states of Massachusetts and Georgia both claim Pierpont was there when he wrote ‘Jingle Bells’ in 1857. Wherever he was, he made very little money out of it and never lived to see his song’s enormous popularity.

‘Jingle Bells’ was the first tune played live in space. On 16 December 1965, as US astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were preparing to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in Gemini VI, Stafford contacted Mission Control to report a UFO. ‘We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit . . . Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon . . . I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.’ Before Houston could respond, Schirra began playing ‘Jingle Bells’ on a harmonica he’d smuggled aboard in his spacesuit. He was accompanied by Stafford on sleigh bells.

‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ started life as a colouring book devised by US advertising copywriter Robert May in 1939. His reindeer was originally called ‘Reginald’ but he changed his mind at the last minute and the book sold 2 million copies in its first Christmas alone. The song was written a decade later by May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks, who also wrote ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’. Marks was Jewish, joining a tradition of Jewish songwriters behind classic Christmas songs, including ‘White Christmas’ (Irving Berlin), ‘Let It Snow’ (Sammy Cahn) and ‘Santa Baby’ (Joan Javits).

Santa returns to the North Pole after delivering presents from the now empty sack on the back of the sleigh, 1880s. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

The story of ‘Winter Wonderland’ (1934) is a sad one. The lyrics were inspired by watching children playing in the snow outside the sanatorium where songwriter Dick Smith was dying of tuberculosis.

3) Jesus’ mum didn’t call him Jesus
For a start, when Jesus lived in Galilee, the letter ‘J’ didn’t exist. In Hebrew, his name was Yeshua or Yehoshua – from which we get the name Joshua. In Aramaic (the language he probably spoke at home) it was Isho or Yeshu.

When the Gospels were translated from Hebrew into Greek, Yeshua became Iesous. When the Greek was rendered into Latin, it became Iesus. Joshua and Jesus were once the same name.

Classical Latin had no letter J – Caesar was Iulius, not Julius. Except for a handful of borrowed foreign words, modern Italian still has no J. The letter J wasn’t really in common use until the seventeenth century, at first to distinguish between words with ‘i’ as a consonant, pronounced as ‘y’ in ‘iest’ (jest) and the short vowel sound ‘i’, as in ‘it’ or ‘inch’. J wasn’t used in English until around 1630, so Shakespeare never used it either – he wrote Romeo and Iuliet, King Iohn and, like Caesar himself, Iulius Caesar. In time, J came to be spoken in English like the Old English ‘dj’ sound, as in ‘hedge’, while in Spanish J still has a ‘Y’ sound’ and in French it’s halfway between the two.

In Hebrew Jesus’ father’s name was Yusuf, not Joseph, and Jesus would have been Yeshua ben Yusuf (‘Joshua, son of Joseph’). It’s possible neither of them were carpenters. The Hebrew word used to describe what they did is naggara (tekton in Greek). It only comes up twice in the New Testament and other possible meanings are ‘architect’, ‘stone mason’ and ‘builder’ – so Jesus may have been a brickie rather than a chippie.

 In 2012 more than 4,000 American children were given the first name Jesus. There were also 800 Messiahs, and 29 Christs.

 4) The holiday celebrated on 26 December every year is not Boxing Day
Boxing Day in Britain is defined as ‘the first working day after Christmas’, so it’s not always on 26 December.

For example, if Christmas Day falls on a Friday, Boxing Day is on Monday the 28th, because the Saturday and Sunday aren’t working days. When Christmas falls on a Saturday, Boxing Day is on Monday the 27th (the next working day) and, to make up for Christmas Day being on a weekend, the Christmas Bank Holiday moves to Tuesday the 28th – so that, in one sense, Boxing Day sometimes comes before Christmas.

But there is a holiday that always takes place on 26 December: the Feast of St Stephen. Appropriately for someone whose feast day comes the day after Christmas, St Stephen is the patron saint of headaches. He also looks after deacons, horses and coffin makers, and is the patron saint of stone workers – which is grimly ironic as he was the first Christian martyr to be stoned to death.

St Stephen’s Day is celebrated as an official public holiday throughout most of Europe; only Commonwealth countries celebrate Boxing Day instead. The name comes from the British tradition of giving small ‘Christmas boxes’, containing money or treats, to workers for their service throughout the year.

 (Photo by George Pickow/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In Scotland Boxing Day was once known as ‘Sweetie Scone Day’, when the lords and ladies of great estates would make cakes with dried fruit and spices to distribute among the poor.

In Ireland Boxing Day is sometimes called ‘Wren Day’, after a tradition that continued till the early twentieth century. Children hunted and killed a wren and took it from door to door, offering its feathers in exchange for money. Boxing Day in Wales was even grislier: female servants who were caught oversleeping were traditionally whipped with holly branches.

 5) You don’t need to take down your Christmas decorations by Twelfth Night
Taking down decorations on Twelfth Night (5 or 6 January) is a modern superstition. For many centuries they were kept up until Candlemas Eve, 1 February. Candlemas celebrates Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple at Jerusalem and presenting him to the Lord. According to St Luke’s gospel they had to sacrifice two pigeons to do so.

Early Christmas decorations consisted mainly of greenery, which kept the house looking cheerful even when the weather outside was miserable. Some people clung to older, pre-Christian beliefs about these – namely that they contained woodland spirits who, if you left the decorations up, would cause mischief in your house. Careful householders took them down and burned them just to make sure.

 This photograph was sold for use in the Christmas 1948 issue of Mother magazine. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

In North America Candlemas is celebrated as Groundhog Day. Groundhogs are large rodents related to squirrels and, according to folklore, if it’s cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, spring will come early. If it’s sunny, the winter weather will persist for six more weeks.

 Of course, the groundhog has no interest in weather forecasting: he’s looking for a mate. Recent statistics, released by the USA’s National Climatic Data Center, "show no predictive skill for the groundhog". Groundhog Day comes from an older medieval European tradition of the Candlemas Bear, where people watched for a hibernating bear as it awoke to get a similar weather prediction. The rarity of bears in France meant that this duty eventually had to be taken over by a man in a bear costume. A similar tradition in Germany is called Dachstag (‘Badger Day’), and in Ireland they use a hedgehog.

 Until the 17th century ‘Christmas’ lasted almost three months, from the Feast of St Martin on 11 November to Candlemas on 2 February. Although today it doesn’t officially begin until Advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), the shops make it seem as if it’s starting earlier and earlier – a process known as ‘Christmas Creep’. This is getting faster, and it’s not just retailers. Analysis of Internet searches in 2007 found people started looking for ‘Santa Claus’, ‘elf ’ and ‘presents’ on 11 November. By 2013 they started on 25 August.

The Third QI Book of General Ignorance, published by Faber & Faber, is on sale now.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A brief history of medieval magic

History Extra

From Narnia to Harry Potter, so many modern manifestations of magic come from the Middle Ages. Hetta Howes, who is writing a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, investigates…

Want to get rid of an unwanted husband? Coat yourself in honey, roll naked in grain and cook him up some deadly bread with flour milled from this mixture. Want to increase the amount of supplies in your barn? Leave out child-sized shoes and bows-and-arrows for the satyrs and goblins to play with. If you’re lucky, they might steal some of your neighbour’s goods for you in return. These unusual charms and medical tips, which featured in medieval books, sound suspiciously like magic.

But alongside these weird and wonderful spells and superstitions, medieval history paints a picture of a people actually more enlightened than their Renaissance successors. So what was medieval magic really like?

 Season of the witch
The now all-too-familiar figure of the ‘witch’ – that frightening old hag with warts on her nose and curses at her fingertips – didn’t appear until the 15th century. Despite being dubbed ‘The Renaissance’ and ‘The Age of Discovery’, the centuries that followed [the Renaissance lasted from the 14th to the 17th century] were witness not only to ruthless witch-hunts, but also to a new belief in the reality of magic.

In the Middle Ages, the practice of magic was not yet imagined to be essentially ‘female’. In fact, according to court records from the first half of the 14th century, the majority of those tried for maleficium (meaning sorcery, or dark magic) were men. That was because the most troubling form of magic – necromancy – required not only skill, learning and preparation, but above all education, which was less readily available to women. Necromancy involved conjuring the dead and making them perform feats of transportation or illusion, or asking them to reveal the secrets of the universe. Because many books describing necromancy were Latin translations, anyone wanting to practise the craft would need a good working knowledge of Latin.

It wasn’t until the publication of Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (or, Hammer of Witches) in 1487 that the specific connection between women and satanic magic became widespread. Kramer warned that “women’s spiritual weakness” and “natural proclivity for evil” made them particularly susceptible to the temptations of the devil. He believed that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust”, and that women’s “uncontrolled” sexuality made them the likely culprits of any sinister occurrence.

Black sabbath
Hand-in-hand with this increased emphasis on women came a shift in the perception of magic. Evidence suggests that medieval church authorities (whose successors would later spearhead the witch-hunts) didn’t really believe magic was real – although they still condemned anyone who claimed to practise it.

The 10th-century canon, Episcopi, describes women who, seduced by illusions from the devil, believed they could fly on the backs of “certain beasts” in the middle of the night alongside the goddess Diana. The canon dismissed these women as “stupid” and “foolish” for actually believing that they could accomplish such things. They were criticised in the text for being tricked rather than for practising any real, magical mischief.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, however, inquisitors seemed to believe that women really could make magic happen by entering into pacts with the devil. It was thought that at sabbaths – nocturnal meetings with other witches – women renounced their Christian faith, devoured babies, participated in orgies and committed other carnal and unspeakable acts.

Execution of three witches by hanging, woodcut, 1589. (© INTERFOTO/Alamy)

Afterwards, the devils worshipped would watch their women for signs, and then do their bidding. For example, if a witch put her broomstick in water and spoke certain words, a devil might cause a storm or flood. Magic of this kind wasn’t always harmful, however. Witches might be able to heal as a result of a pact, or perform other kinds of positive magic. But, because of their fundamental belief that all magic was carried out by demons and devils, inquisitors condemned it just the same.

Magic or medicine?
Certain practices – which sound to us very much like magic – would have been classed as science or medicine in the Middle Ages. William of Auvergne, a 13th-century French priest and bishop, certainly condemned most magic as superstition. However, he admitted that some works of “natural magic” should be viewed as a branch of science: as long as practitioners didn’t use this “natural magic” for evil, they weren’t doing anything criminal. Sealskin could quite happily be used as a charm to repel lightning; vulture body parts could be used as a protective amulet; and gardeners could get virgins to plant their olive trees without any anxiety – this was, after all, a scientific way of promoting their growth.

A number of healing practices from the Middle Ages also sound very much like magic to a modern reader: one doctor instructed physicians to place the herb vervain in their patient’s hand. The presence of the herb would, it was thought, cause the patient to speak his or her fate truthfully, offering the physician an accurate prognosis.

Sympathetic magic was another well-known technique – it used imitation to produce effective results. For example, liver of vulture might be prescribed as medicine for a patient suffering from liver complaints. Meanwhile narrative charms – a complex version of sympathetic magic, hinged on the belief that telling a particular story could help channel healing power to the patient – were usually accompanied by a more ‘medical’ application, like a poultice. According to one medical treatise, wool soaked in olive oil from the Mount of Olives could staunch blood when coupled with a spoken story about Longinus, a man who was famously healed of his blindness by the blood of Christ. Religious elements were blended with the magical.

Details of the properties of verbena or vervain, from a 16th-century book about herbs. When placed in a patient's hand the presence of the herb would, it was thought, cause them to speak his or her fate truthfully, offering the physician an accurate prognosis. (© The Art Archive/Alamy)

Although some of these methods were considered superstition by the Christian church in the Middle Ages, they were never associated with demonic magic until the dawning of the witch hunts. Even though women tried for witchcraft were accused of much more diabolical doings than using charms or stories to heal, many women became afraid of carrying out such practices, for fear of attracting suspicion of darker deeds.

Medieval history offers us a magical potion of stories and practices infused with charms, herbs and superstition. While some of the examples might seem curious to us, they are evidence of a people trying to make sense of and control their surroundings – just as we do today.

Hetta Howes is writing a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London on the subject of water and religious imagery in medieval devotional texts by and for women.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Solstice: Stone Age people in Ireland built a Fantastic Monument to the New Year

Ancient Origins

Today, the Irish and visitors celebrated the Winter Solstice as they did thousands of years ago at Newgrange, a huge Stone Age megalithic monument into the deepest part of whose main chamber the sun shines at sunrise. This year about 30,000 people participated in a lottery, from whom 50 were chosen, to be in the 5,000-year-old monument at sunrise to witness the primeval event the mornings of Dec. 18 to 23.

While the monument near the Boyne River in County Meath is open all year and is one of Ireland’s most popular attractions, it draws special international attention today.

Newgrange predates the great pyramids at Giza in Egypt by some 500 years and Stonehenge by about 1,000 years. When it was built, sunrise on the shortest day of the year, what we now call December 21, entered the main chamber precisely at sunrise. Experts say it is not by chance that the sun shines there. Now it enters about four minutes after sunrise because of changes in the Earth’s orbiting of the sun since then.

Solstice sunrise light entering the Newgrange monument, a photo by Cyril Byrne of the Irish Times, as seen on NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day website.

Archaeologists say they believe Newgrange and two other nearby monuments, Knowth and Dowth, were tombs, built in ancient times to provide somewhere to bury the dead and as ritual and community gatherings, perhaps to honor ancestors. They believe it took decades to construct by generations of the Neolithic people, about whom little is known.

The tomb itself is massive and impressive and is surrounded by a henge or ring of huge stones. Experts say they believe the huge stones were moved from the nearby river, perhaps by rolling them on logs.

This short YouTube video from National Geographic gives great views of the Newgrange tomb and monument.

The number of bone fragments found inside Newgrange hardly constitute evidence of a communal burial chamber, Ancient Origins reported in 2013 in a two-part article about the Neolithic structure. In total, the bones of only five individuals were found inside the monument during excavations in the 1960s. Some bones could have been taken away after the rediscovery of the entrance to the passage and chamber in 1699. But at over 85 meters (278 feet) in diameter, and containing more than 250,000 tons of stone and earth, this monument would seem such a lavish and grandiose tomb for a few mere mortals, if that were indeed its sole purpose.

The structure of the passage tomb was buried in earth for many centuries, until archaeologist M.J. O’Kelly began excavating it in 1962. He worked there until 1975. In 1967, he saw for the first time in thousands of years the dawn sunlight striking into the chamber on December 21. The light enters a perfectly placed window and hits deep in the tomb where the human remains were found.

 O’Kelly wrote in his notes: “The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and cast a glow of light all over the chamber. I can see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back into the back of the end chamber.”

 O’Kelly and others have restored the Newgrange mound. It is 12 meters (40 feet) high. The total area of the monument and surrounds covers about 1 acre, and its roof is intact and still waterproof 5,000 years after construction. Triple-spiral carvings like the Celts did still adorn many of the stones making up the tomb.

The triple spiral carvings on a wall at Newgrange (Photo by Johnbod/Wikimedia Commons)

Up until 1967, after archaeological excavation, conservation and restoration work, it was not possible for the light of the sun to illuminate the interior. This was because of the slow subsidence of the roofing stones of the passage, which had slowly sunk as the supporting orthostats leaned inwards over the long centuries. Before 1967, when Professor O’Kelly became the first person to witness the solstice event in modern times, nobody could have witnessed this phenomenon. And yet, local folklore held that the sun shone into Newgrange on the shortest day of the year. O’Kelly pointed to this as being one of the reasons for his visit to the chamber in December 1967.

 But the astronomical mysteries of Newgrange run deeper. In 1958, in his book about primitive mythology, Joseph Campbell recounted a folk tale from the Boyne Valley in which a local had told him the light of the Morning Star, Venus, shone into the chamber of Newgrange at dawn on one day every eight years and cast a beam upon a stone on the floor of the chamber containing two worn sockets. This might seem like an incredible suggestion, except for the fact that it is astronomically accurate. Venus follows an eight-year cycle and on one year out of every eight, it rises in the pre-dawn sky of winter solstice and its light would be able to be seen from within the chamber.

 Featured image: December 21, the longest night and shortest day of the year, is a special event at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. This photo was shot August 24, 2014. (Photo by Paul A. Byrne/Wikimedia Commons)

By: Mark Miller

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Dickensian Christmas

History Extra

Thanks to his seminal 1843 novel A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens is often credited with inventing winter festivities as we know them. His book of literary favourites including Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the host of Christmas ghosts are thought to define the Dickensian Christmas but is Dickens’ pioneering reputation really deserved?

Charles Dickens’ association with Christmas is infamous. A Christmas Carol was an immediate smash with the public, and quickly spawned a range of ‘pirated’ copies forcing Dickens into a number of legal actions to protect his creation.

 “Dickens, it may truly be said, is Christmas,” said the literature scholar, VH Allemandy, in 1921. However, important though he undoubtedly was, Dickens did not create Christmas. Rather, he reflected a general early 19th‑century interest in the season and was part of a widespread, particularly middle-class, desire to reinvigorate its ancient customs.

At the time Dickens was writing his now world famous story he could have consulted an ever-burgeoning number of popular histories of Christmas such as TK Hervey’s Book of Christmas (1836), and his A History of the Christmas Festival, the New Year and their Peculiar Customs (1843) and Thomas Wright’s Specimens of Old Carols (1841). Dickens, being perfectly in-tune with Britain, therefore published his story at precisely the right moment. He was a massive player in a revival that was already under way, but he was not the sole instigator of it.

Mark Connelly is professor of modern British history at the University of Kent, His books include 'Steady the buffs! A regiment, a region and the Great War'.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Discovery of 1,000 Sealings Reveals an Ancient City’s Devotion to the Graeco-Roman Pantheon

Ancient Origins

Classical scholars from the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics" of the University of Münster discovered a large number of sealings in south-east Turkey. "This unique group of artifacts comprising more than 1,000 pieces from the municipal archive of the ancient city of Doliche gives many insights into the local Graeco-Roman pantheon -- from Zeus to Hera to Iuppiter Dolichenus, who turned into one of the most important Roman deities from this site," classical scholar and excavation director Prof. Dr. Engelbert Winter from the Cluster of Excellence explains at the end of the excavation season.

 "The fact that administrative authorities sealed hundreds of documents with the images of gods shows how strongly religious beliefs shaped everyday life. The cult of Iuppiter Dolichenus did not only take place in the nearby central temple, but also left its mark on urban life," says Prof Winter. "It also becomes apparent how strongly Iuppiter Dolichenus, originally worshipped at this location, was connected with the entire Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD: many of the images show the god shaking hands with various Roman emperors."

Statue of Iupiter Dolichenus standing on a bull. Kunsthistorisches Museum. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The excavation team has been exploring the temple of the soldier god Iuppiter Dolichenus for 17 years. This year, the team focused on the urban area. "Under a mosaic dated to 400 AD within a complex of buildings, we were able to uncover an even older mosaic floor of equally high quality," Prof. Winter explains. "According to the present findings, there is much evidence of a late antique church. This could turn out to be an important contribution to understanding the history of early Christianity in this region." The excavations in the three-local aisled building complex began in 2015. Up to the present, 150 square meters of the large central nave bordered by columns have been uncovered. Engelbert Winter: "Apart from the architecture, small finds from the surrounding area also point to the existence of a church, such as the fragments of a marble table or the mentioning of a deacon attested by an inscription."

Part of the mosaic floor surrounded columns excavated in 2015. (Image:© Peter Jülich)

"City center discovered"
The researchers have now also discovered the public center of the city of Doliche, which they had first located in the eastern part of the city by geophysical prospecting. "This assumption has been confirmed," the excavation director explains. "We were able to uncover parts of a very large building: it is a public bath from the Roman Iron Age with well-preserved mosaics. Since hardly any Roman thermal baths are known so far in the region, this discovery is of great academic importance." The research team from Münster also gained new insights to the extension of the urban area and the chronology of the city: an intensive survey carried out this year on the settlement hill of the ancient city, Keber Tepe, led to quite surprising results. "A large number of finds from the Stone Age indicate that Keber Tepe was obviously an extremely important place very early on. Doliche reached its greatest extent later, in the Roman and early Byzantine periods."

Mosaic floor of a Roman thermal bath uncovered at Doliche. (Image: Peter Jülich)

Excavation director Winter says about the large number of discovered sealings: "Many sealings can be attributed to the administrative or official seals of the city due to their size, frequent occurrence, and in some cases also due to inscriptions. In addition to the images of the 'city goddess' Tyche, the depictions of Augustus and Dea Roma deserve special attention, since they point to the important role of the Roman emperor and the personified goddess of the Roman state for the town of Doliche, which lies on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. However, the central motif is the most important god of the city, Iuppiter Dolichenus. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, his cult spread into large parts of the Mediterranean world, extending as far as Britain," explains Prof. Winter. Therefore, it is not surprising that hundreds of documents were sealed with images showing a handshake between this deity and an emperor. "It was a sign of the god's affinity to the Roman state."

The images also provide insights into the cult itself. In addition to sealings showing busts of Iuppiter and his wife Iuno, there are depictions of the divine twins Castor and Pollux, the sons of Zeus. "The sons of Zeus, also known as Dioscuri or Castores Dolicheni, are often portrayed as companions of Iuppiter and therefore play an important role in the cult," Prof. Winter explains.

Votive relief to Jupiter Dolichenus and Juno, Jupiter with tiara, sword, an ax and lightning bundle, Juno has a mirror and a scepter, 3rd century AD, from Rome, Neues Museum, Berlin. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Archaeological park for tourists
Under the supervision of Prof. Winter from the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics," the Asia Minor Research Center of the University of Münster has been excavating the main temple of Iuppiter Dolichenus with the support of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) since 2001. Each year, the international group of archaeologists, historians, architects, restorers, archaeozoologists, GIS analysts and excavation assistants have uncovered finds from all periods of the 2,000-year history of the place of worship. Among them were the massive foundations of the first Iron Age sanctuary, numerous monumental architectural fragments of the Roman main temple, but also the extensive ruins of an important Byzantine monastery which was built by followers of the Christian faith after the fall of the ancient sanctuary. In order to make the excavation site near the ancient town of Doliche accessible to a broad public, an archaeological park is being developed. Prof. Winter's research project at the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics" is closely connected with the excavation. It is titled "Syriac Cults in the Western Imperium Romanum."

Top image: Sealings from the archive of Doliche. (Image: Asia Minor Research Centre)

The article, originally titled ‘More than 1,000 ancient sealings discovered,’ was originally published on Science Daily.

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Tradition Revived? Inverted Christmas Trees May Have Pagan Roots

Ancient Origins

Hanging a Christmas tree from the ceiling makes some sense – it can keep your floor space clear and may protect your pets or young children from harm – but it is not common. The costly trend of hanging a tree upside-down is a whole other matter. As with many things that go against the norm, there is a lot of controversy and confusion about the practice of hanging an inverted tree from the ceiling. But it seems the idea is not a new one; in fact, the unconventional decorating idea may trace its roots, at least loosely, to pagan traditions.

 CBC News reports that inverted hanging Christmas trees can be found “dangling from the ceilings of exclusive hotel lobbies and public atriums from London to Vancouver.” It is certainly an eye-catching way to decorate for the holidays, but are the people who practice this method of tree-trimming really following a tradition from the Medieval period, or is the idea purely commercial?

An upside-down Christmas tree. Galeries Lafayette. (Laika ac/CC BY SA 2.0)

Followers of the upside-down Christmas tree practice say that it was a popular way of doing things in in the 12th century in Eastern Europe. Yet it is important to note here, the hanging element was generally just the top of a fir tree – not a huge, heavily decorated tree like you may find in a shopping center or luxury hotel today. In Poland, the top of the tree, or a branch from a fir tree, was hung pointing down from the rafters, usually facing the dinner table, in preparation for the holiday of Wigilia or Wilia. These decorative features were adorned with fruit, nuts, shiny sweets, straw, ribbons, golden pine cones, and other ornaments. An article by The Spruce says that the treats and sweets on the tree could not be eaten until the day after the festivities.

There is a legend that may explain the peculiar practice. The traditional story says Saint Boniface was the first to hang a “Christmas tree” upside-down, in the 8th century. Apparently, Boniface saw pagans preparing to celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under an oak tree – a sacred tree in their beliefs. He was angered by their actions and cut the tree down. A fir tree grew in its place and Boniface supposedly decided to hang the inverted tree and use the triangular shape as a tool to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans while trying to convert them to his religion.

Boniface chops down a cult tree in Hessen, engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781. (Public Domain)

Some historians say that the tradition of hanging a Christmas tree was still popular in certain European countries as recently as 100 years ago. But the reason had changed by then. Bernd Brunner wrote in his book, Inventing the Christmas Tree, that people living in the 19th century needed the floor space. However, it’s worth mentioning that the tree was right-side up.

It seems the modern tree-hanging practice is meant to essentially serve the same purpose in stores. Dan Loughman, vice president of product development at Roman Incorporated, told NPR in 2005, “By having a tree upside down, you're taking a very small footprint on the floor, and you're placing all the ornaments at eye level. And then the retailers can move their store products around the bottom of the tree or on shelves, you know, just behind it.”

An upside-down Christmas tree is suspended from the ceiling at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel in Richmond, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The tradition of putting up Christmas trees may be tied to the German reformer Martin Luther, who popularized the use of the Christmas tree in 1605 after being inspired by the beauty of the stars on Christmas Eve night. Pine trees also used to have a place in ‘miracle plays’ that were performed in front of cathedrals at Christmas time –the Church eventually banned the practice, but the tradition of having a decorated Christmas tree has continued.

Top Image: An upside-down Christmas tree. Source: This is Why I’m Broke

By Alicia McDermott

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Did the Viking Age Really Start on 8 June 793 AD?

Ancient Origins


 “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race (…). The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets”.

With these words, Alcuin of York, a Northumbrian scholar serving King Charlemagne of the Franks and Lombards described the surprising and brutal attack in June 793 on the church of St Cuthbert on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

The brutal Viking raid sent a shockwave through England and the rest of Christian Europe.

The 8th of June is according to the Annals of Lindisfarne the exact date when Vikings raided the Holy Island. Consequently, the Viking Age is defined to have started on this date, maybe at sunrise so that the raiders could sneak into the Northumbrian island under cover of dusk.

But is this really the exact date when Vikings became Vikings? Of course not, but the date marks a deep sword stab into the midst of the heart of the Christian Anglo-Saxon England. They came from the fjords of Western Norway, and when they left, only silence could be heard. 1

 These men from the fjords represented a new and uncontrollable threat, and the attack clearly demonstrated that the English kings (and other European kings) were more or less unable to protect their own people, even priests and monks, facing these brutal raiders.

Year 805 AD, Yorkshire, England: Imagine, you wake up in the morning and you see this Norseman waiting outside your door. (Illustration by: Stian Dahlslett)

The Vikings did not start to be Vikings in the year 793. The Viking Age started long before and followed the development of keels and sails until their longships easily could cross the North Sea and other open waters.

The Oseberg ship (built around 820-834) is the first proof of sailing ships in Scandinavia, but it is likely that this type of vessels were built as early as the mid 700’s.

Three Ships of Northmen
The attack on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just off the Northumbrian coast in northeast England, was not the first on the British Isles. In the year 789, three ships of Northmen who had landed on the coast of Wessex, killed the king’s reeve (chief magistrate) sent out to bring the strangers to the West Saxon court.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:

During the reign of King Beorhtric 789 – 802], there came for the first time three ships of Northmen and then the reeve rode to them and wished to force them to the king’s residence, for he did not know what they were; and they slew him .

The Vikings did not leave their written version of events. Nor do the later sagas tell anything about their eight century raids.

However, the assault on the Holy Island was something new and represented a great threat because the pagans attacked the sacred heart of the Northumbrian kingdom and dishonored the very place where the Christian religion started on the British Isles.

This was the holy island where Cuthbert (c. 634 – 687) had been bishop, the man who after his death became one of the most important medieval saints of Northern England.

A carved stone found on the island, known as the “Doomsday Stone”, could represent the Viking attack on Lindisfarne. (Photo:

As soon as the shocking news reached Alcuin serving at the Charlemagne’s court, he wrote to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne:

The church of St Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishing, exposed to the plundering of pagans, a place more sacred than any in Britain .

The raid on Lindisfarne made the Englishmen understand that their lives would never be the same again, and the start of the Viking Age is therefore set to the “dark date” of the attack, i.e. 8 June 793.

However, if the Vikings had got the opportunity to describe themselves, they probably would have said something like: “We come from the north and honor Odin, Thor, Freyr, and our ancestors. Feel free to call us heathens or Vikings, but we have always been, and always will be free men from the north”.

 Furthermore, the Viking Age did not come to an end at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, a date determined by today’s historians and archaeologists.

But, this is quite a different story.

Top image: They came from the fjords of Western Norway, and when they left, only silence could be heard. (Illustrating photo from “Trace” Viking movie, by Markus Dahlslett).

The article ‘ Did the Viking Age Really Start on 8 June 793 AD? ’ by Thor Lanesskog was originally published on ThorNews and has been republished with permission.