Thank Janus

On this first day of 2016, I find myself pondering why January 1 marks the beginning of a new year. As with so many traditions lacking astronomical substance or scientific reason, it starts to make sense when considering ancient history.

Ancient Rome celebrated a mid winter festival in honour of the god Janus. The god of “doorways and beginnings”, Janus had two faces – one looked to the future, the other to the past. Januarius was the first month of the Roman calendar, a time when citizens exchanged gifts of lamps to light the coming year.

The earliest record of new year celebrations comes from Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. Long before Roman Janus, Mesopotamian New Year fell in March with observance of the vernal equinox. Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians partied in September with the fall equinox. Ancient Greece favored winter solstice on December 20. It was a free for all until introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, since the 16th century January 1st has heralded the new year. That said, make no mistake about it – we can all thank Janus for our hangover.


Ushtogaysky Square

Every so often I’m asked about my fascination with ancient history. Polite restraint tempers inclination towards uncontrollable blithering. Reeling myself in, I take a moment to assess context, social parameters, familiarity and seriousness of my inquisitor. Are they truly interested, or halfheartedly making conversation? Who cares, either way I have an answer. “It began with the Nazca Lines”, if that doesn’t fall like a lead balloon – hang on because here I come.

Ancient astronomical feats – monolith alignment, mathematical calculations, capacity to precisely chart the passage of time, have tickled fancies for centuries. The ancients had plenty of free time to observe the cosmos, unfettered by light pollution or preconceived notions of this or that. One thing for sure – we couldn’t duplicate their accomplishments without modern technology. If that wasn’t mind blowing enough, ancient civilizations created monuments to be appreciated from high above – undertakings like Nazca and the Steppe Geoglyphs.

In 2007 Dmitriy Dey, an economist and archaeology buff from Kazakhstan spotted something remarkable while viewing Google Earth. Dey’s idle interest in finding Khazakh pyramids led to discovery of the Steppe Geoglyphs. Ponder meticulously placed earth mounds – squares, rings, crosses and lines estimated to be 8,000 years old. Precise geometric figures, imperceptible unless seen from above. Massive earthworks larger than the Great Pyramid at Cheops, hundreds of mounds no taller than a few feet strung together to create geometric designs only visible from space.

Splutters of “Oh, there must be some explanation” bounce off chimes of “is this one of those alien conspiracies” and “where did you read this”. Occasionally someone clicks with a genuine “holy crap”.

Take a moment to ponder – what was the population 8000 years ago in Kazakhstan? How many, and how long would it take Neolithic hunter/gatherers void of written language, the wheel, or anything other than stone tools to construct such a monument? Who did they think would see it?

Goosebumps prickle my arms – for 8,000 years not a soul noticed the Steppe Geoglyphs. It was all about Nazca until 2007, the year an amateur archaeologist using Google Earth tripped on ancient anomalies perplexing enough to kick history’s ass.

One of the enormous earthwork configurations photographed from space is known as the Ushtogaysky Square, named after the nearest village in Kazakhstan. Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA


Ancient Potion Ponder

Who would have guessed, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon potion for treating styes (infected eyelash follicles), might hold the secret to eradicate “super-bugs”. Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), otherwise known as the antibiotic resistant “super-bug” has stubbornly eluded modern medical cures.

Last year at the University of Nottingham, Dr. Christina Lee – an expert in Old English happened to mention Bald’s Leechbook, a 10th century book of infection remedies kept in the British Library. Knowing styes are caused by Staphylococcus Aureus bacteria, Dr. Lee took great care to duplicate an ancient potion – turning it over to researchers battling MRSA.

Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together… take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek… let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…

On their own, onions, garlic red wine and cow bile amount to a hill of beans against antibiotic resistant bacteria. Combine them in precise quantities, ferment for 9 days in a brass pot – you have a thousand year old potion killing over 90% of MRSA bacteria in infected mice.

Given resources and a little time, modern applications of an ancient bacterial remedy seem poised to tackle dreaded “super-bugs”. Remarkable as that might be, consider 10th century men of science. Ponder their path along trial and error’s treacherous slopes. Before concepts of bacteria, let alone antibiotics. In a time of sin, divine retribution and blood letting – folklore, not science cured affliction. In all honesty – that alone blows my mind.

Happy Pi Day

The circumference of a circle, regardless of size is 3.14 times longer than the diameter (distance across). Circumference divided by diameter is a mathematical constant known as Pi. By definition Pi is a mathematical constant because it isn’t changed by the size of numbers it’s used to equate. Pi is irrational, meaning it has an infinite number of digits which never repeat. In 2018 physicist Peter Trueb calculated Pi to 22.4 trillion digits – 22,459,157,718,361 to be precise. Limitless as Pi may be, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory requires a mere 15 Pi digits to calculate interplanetary travel, mathematician James Grime argues 39 digits is enough to calculate circumference of the known universe. In 1988 physicist Larry Shaw organized the first Pi Day at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum on 3.14. In 2009 U.S. Congress officially recognized the fourteenth day of the third month as Pi Day.

Antiquity was no stranger to Pi, ancient Egypt and Babylon calculated approximations of Pi between 1900-1600 BC. In 250 BC Greek mathematician Archimedes is credited with the first algorithm calculating Pi as 3.14. Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi (429-501) calculated Pi to 6 decimal places.

March 14 ignites ponders of my Pi soft spot. Gavrinis, a Neolithic site inhabited between 5000-3500 BC on a tiny island off the Brittany coast of France. In the 1930’s French archeologists discovered a burial chamber on Gavrinis containing stone slabs with intricate carvings resembling fingerprints. Mathematicians saw it as indecipherable code, modern computer analysis blew our minds – Gavrinis code indicates the exact number of days in a year, reference to solstice and equinoxes, precise longitude/ latitude of the island, and the “mathematical constant Pi.

Happy Pi Day.

Great Dam of Marib

Ancient history is tricky – a mine field of contradiction, biblical references, conspiracy and myth. History, easily misinterpreted or recorded with bias of the author, can’t always be trusted. Interpretation, often subjective, must be approached cautiously. Archeology, at least in terms of physical evidence is irrefutable. Over the years I’ve come to accept archeological evidence as the place to embrace wonders of our past.

The Sabaeans inhabited present day Yemen from roughly 1200 BC to 275 AD. For the sake of argument lets accept that approximation and move on. Biblical references to “Saba” or the Queen of Sheba – Old Testament ruler of the Sabaean people, hold little interest in this ponder. Mind bending feats of engineering magnificence obliterate dusty religious debate. Ponder the Great Dam of Marib.

Try to imagine a parched and dusty empire 750 BC. So many mouths to feed – so little water. Hey, lets build a dam. We’ll need to make it 2000 feet across, control the flow of water with canals, spillways and sluices, make certain it’s watertight, and proceed without concrete. No problem – we’ll just pack all this earth where we want it, and channel water as needed. The dam stood for 1000 years before a breach estimated at 600 AD returned Yemen to the desert.

Remnants of the Marib Dam
We see ourselves as superior, sophisticated, technologically advanced specimens of a highly evolved civilization. Imagine the sophistication required to build the Dam at Marib.
Archeological evidence eclipses written history, forcing us to think in practical terms. We rub our eyes in disbelief, blink a few times, look again, it’s still there – stoically daring us to grasp the enormity of ancient tenacity, ingenuity and above all – the will to move the earth, if it meant a better world.

Core No. 7

It strikes me as appropriate – my 701st post not only contains No. 7, but resonates with ancient wonder that got me blogging in the first place.

No. 7 requires an open mind, suspension of belief, dismissal of dusty textbook historical timelines, willingness to resist alien conspiracy theories and a good dose of childlike wonder. To ponder No. 7, is to accept we know jack about the past. Clear your mind of rolled eyes, dismissive platitudes, tin foil hats, new age fruit cakes, divine intervention and crocks of shit.

In 1881 British archeologist Flinders Petrie found something remarkable near the great pyramids at Giza. He didn’t unearth great riches or open an undisturbed tomb. Petrie picked up a piece of granite – a 4000 year old chunk of construction debris. A treasure politely tucked away in the Petrie Museum of Egyptology in London, England – one that defies explanation, logic or reason.

Flinder Petrie’s chunk of granite – Core No. 7 – only makes sense if you accept the ancient world as capable beyond imagination. Granite is hard, it can only be cut with something harder – today we use diamond tipped drills. Murals show Egyptian workers cutting blocks of lime or sandstone with copper saws – this makes sense. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being the softest – copper is a 3, so are marble, lime and sandstone. Granite is a 7, diamonds are 10.

Science doesn’t know how, but think they know where No. 7 came from. A plug of red granite drilled to form a door pivot – not chiseled, drilled with precision accuracy. Drills leave marks behind – a road map of rate and pressure. This is when 4000 year old granite cores get freaky – the markings on Core No. 7 are so perfectly spaced, engineers don’t believe a modern diamond tip mechanized drill could duplicate them.

Ponder Core No. 7 a moment – forget plausible explanations, suspend belief and allow lost knowledge to plaster a grin on your face.


Secrets Lurk Beneath Stonehenge

A four year project named Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes, revealed hundreds of unseen structures beneath the sod of Salisbury Plain. We’ve always thought of Stonehenge as a singular entity – standing defiant and alone, daring us to ponder ancient secrets. Archeology can’t agree precisely when Bronze Age people erected this iconic monolith – all agree it is very, very old. Textbooks hold fast to a middle ground of 2000 to 3000 BC. A massive dirt bank surrounding the area has been carbon dated to 3100 BC.

Image credit: University of Birmingham

Ground penetrating radar and geophysical survey techniques were used by the Hidden Landscapes project to illuminate incredible buried structures. Seventeen of which flabbergast an already puzzled gaggle of ancient history sleuths.

Underground “peeping” without excruciatingly slow excavation presents astounding Stone Age ponders. Radar imaging suggest Durrington Walls ( a super massive earth “henge” surrounding the familiar monoliths) once stood between polite rows of stone pillars – tidy rows up to 3 meters tall stretching for one and a half Kilometers. Evidence now points to long forgotten “pits” with astronomical alignments, and speculation Stonehenge evolved over a period of 11,000 years. Burial mounds predating Stonehenge, ring after buried temple ring of civilization lost, sleeping under Salisbury’s pillow.

Stonehenge is hardly my favorite ancient structure – Puma Punku or Gobekli Tepe take that honor. It is however one of the most recognizable and best known testaments to ancient kick ass. Learning further evidence of engineering wizardry rests beneath a few meters of British sod, explains the silly grin on my face. Slowly, but wielding scientific surety, evidence mounts to dispel notions of the history we memorize in school. Pondering civilization lost never grows old.