Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Gulliver's Travels:
Voyage to Laputa





Laputan Logic

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Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Archive for April 2004
Photography in the 17th Century


David Tiley of Barista informs me that a previously unrecognised Vermeer painting, Young Woman at a Virginal, has been recently authenticated. This brings the total of number of known paintings by the artist to thirty six.

I remember seeing some of Vermeer's works at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years back and I was struck by two things about them. Firstly, and most predictably, I was very impressed by their exquisite use of light and the wonderfully realistic way that light is diffused and reflected thoughout the scene. They are like frozen moments from the 17th century, moments of sublime calmness.

Secondly I was surprised by how small they actually were: each canvas was barely half a metre in width. This was surprising to me because, having previously marveled (in reproduction) at the extraordinary amount of detail that Vermeer managed put into his paintings, I had always assumed that these had been painted on much larger canvases.

I'm certainly not the first to notice the almost photographic realism of Vermeer's work but it was Jason Streed who first clued me in on one of the missing pieces in my understanding about this. Vermeer's paintings are so photo-realistic because in a very real sense they actually are photographs.

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The Rabbit in the Moon


"The moon has a face like the clock in the hall"
Robert Louis Stevenson

I never had a very clear mental image of the Man in the Moon, something not helped, I guess, by the fact that the full moon in the Southern Hemisphere appears rotated 180 degrees from the more conventional viewpoint. Okay, I'll admit a lack of imagination might have had something to do with it as well. After all, with all those blotches it's possible to see all kinds of things in the face of the moon.

Consider, for example, that other widely recognised figure. The Moon Rabbit.
The Piety of the Hare

In former days, a hare, a monkey, a coot, and a fox, became hermits, and lived in a wilderness together, after having sworn not to kill any living thing. The god Sakkria having seen this through his divine power, thought to try their faith, and accordingly took upon him the form of a brahmin, and appearing before the monkey begged of him alms, who immediately brought to him a bunch of mangoes, and presented it to him. The pretended brahmin, having left the monkey, went to the coot and made the same request, who presented him a row of fish which he had just found on the bank of a river, evidently forgotten by a fisherman. The brahmin then went to the fox, who immediately went in search of food, and soon returned with a pot of milk and a dried liguan, which he had found in a plain, where apparently they had been left by a herdsman. The brahmin at last went to the hare and begged alms of him. The hare said, 'Friend, I eat nothing but grass, which I think is of no use to you.' Then the pretended brahmin replied, 'Why, friend, if you are a true hermit, you can give me your own flesh in hope of future happiness.' The hare directly consented to it, and said to the supposed brahmin, 'I have granted your request, and you may do whatever you please with me.' The brahmin then replied, 'Since you are willing to grant my request, I will kindle a fire at the foot of the rock, from which you may jump into the fire, which will save me the trouble of killing you and dressing your flesh.' The hare readily agreed to it, and jumped from the top of the rock into the fire which the supposed brahmin had kindled; but before he reached the fire, it was extinguished; and the brahmin appearing in his natural shape of the god Sakkria, took the hare in his arms and immediately drew its figure in the moon, in order that every living thing of every part of the world might see it.

Moon Lore by Rev. Timothy Harley, 1885

When yet there was Darkness

The gods assembled at Teotihuacán when yet no sun had shone and no dawn had broken and they debated who would become the sun. One of them Tecuciztecatl said, "O gods I shall be the one."

Again the gods asked, "Who else?" and there was one man, Nanahuatzin, listening among the others. They said to him, "You shall be the one, O Nanahuatzin". For these two, a hill was made – the pyramid of the sun and the pyramid of the moon and there they remained, performing penances for four nights and after lifting the penance, they were to do their labour. They were to become gods.

The gods said, "Take courage, O Tecuciztecatl. Cast thyself into the fire." and four times he tried but the heat was too great for him. Thereupon they cried out to Nanahuatzin, "Onward, thou, O Nanahuatzin. Do not be afraid." All at once he quickly threw and cast himself upon the fire and burned. When Tecuciztecatl saw this then he also jumped into the fire.

When Nanahuatzin came to rise, he shone intensely and his brilliant rays penetrated everywhere. And afterwards Tecuciztecatl came to rise following behind him from exactly the same place – the east. And so they tell it, they were exactly equal in their appearances as they shone and the the gods became worried.

Suddenly, one of them came out running. With a rabbit he came to wound the face of Tecuciztecatl and with it he darkened his face so that he could never be a bright as the sun.

And so does it appear today.

— adapted from
Man-like Gods and Deified Men in Mexican Cosmolore
by Anna-Britta Hellbom
The tale in the left-hand panel originated in India but is well known thoughout much of East Asia, especially in China and Japan. The Chinese know him as the Jade Rabbit and, in this version of the story, the deity is substituted for either the Buddha or three sages who come down to Earth to beg for alms. The animals are reduced to three in number, the Monkey, the Fox and the Rabbit.

As in the original, the Monkey and the Fox are both successful offering food while the Rabbit having nothing but himself to offer lights a fire under a cooking pot and throws himself into it. So touched by this gesture, the Rabbit is saved and then a palace is built for him up on the Moon. There he can be seen still with a mortar and pestle busily pounding away and making the Elixir of Immortality for the gods (and sometimes rice flour to make moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival).

Reading by Numbers


In 1678 Leibniz composed a lingua generalis... After decomposing all of human knowledge into simple ideas, and assigning a number to each, Leibniz proposed a system of transcription for these numbers in which consonants stood for integers and vowels for units, tens and powers of ten:



In this system the figure 81,374, for example, would be transcribed as mubodilefa. In fact, since the relevant power of ten is shown by the following vowel rather than by the decimal place, the order of the letters in the name is irrelevant: 81,374 might just as easily be transcribed as bodifalemu.

--- The Search for the Perfect language, Umberto Eco
For those too lazy to try the transcription for themselves by hand, why not try this handy Leibniz-a-fier? Just type in the number you want to transcribe and hit the button.

Eco doesn't explain what happens for integers larger than 99,999 in Leibniz's scheme so I've chopped up the numbers into groups of no more that 5 digits. Nor does he explain Leibniz's treatment of zero so I've made an assumption and simply used the next consonant after 9 (i.e. the letter p).

Update: Reader KCinDC points out that my solution for zero was half-baked and that it's actually more likely that Leibniz simply left out the 0s and didn't pronounce them. This works fine because the power of ten is represented by a vowel rather than its place but it does mean that the number zero has no pronounciation at all. I've updated the code to reflect this change.

Please note this piece of code is very alpha so please be gentle with it ;-)
By working on a universal language Leibniz was following up on a particularly baroque idea that had also been pursued by a number of other 17th century luminaries (most notably Athanasius Kircher with his polygraphy and the a priori philosophical language of John Wilkins (via Mark Liberman). Leibniz however was uninterested in the main attraction that universal languages had for other researchers, the ability to facilitate missionary activity or international trade. Instead, his main focus was upon making a mathematical language with which to perform calculations that would automatically lead to the formulation of true propositions.

If we accept the traditional definition of man as a 'rational animal, we might consider man as a concept composed of 'rational' and 'animal'. We may assign numbers to these prime terms: animal = 2, and rational = 3. The composite concept of man can be represented as the expression 2 * 3, or 6.

For a proposition to be true, if we express fractionally the subject-predicate (S/P) relationship, the number which corresponds to the subject must be exactly divisible by the number which corresponds to the predicate. Given the proposition 'all men are animals', the number for the subject (men), is 6; the number for the animals is 2; the resulting fraction is 6 / 2 = 3. Three being an integer, consequently, the proposition is true. If the number for monkey were 10, we could demonstrate the falsity of either the proposition 'all men are monkeys' or 'all monkeys are men': 'the idea of the monkey does not contain the idea of man, nor, vice versa, does the idea of the latter contain the former, because neither can 6 be exactly divided by 10, nor 10 by 6'

--- ibid.

Update: Mark Liberman does the hard yards and actually explains Leibniz's system far better than this very brief intro. Better still, Laputan Logic is cited as "smart" (which coming from Mark I take as a very great compliment indeed) though, alas, not in the same league of smartness that's needed to have a really spectacularly stupid idea. For that, one would need to have a mind as spectacularly brilliant as that of the great Inventor of the Calculus himself.

Leibniz was also very interested in the language and culture of China but the Chinese themselves while never having seen the attraction of a universal language (why would they have when their own writing system was perfectly well understood by all of their neighbours, barbarian and semi-barbarian alike?) but they have long appreciated a cosmic connection between numbers and words.

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Rendezvous Under the Moon


Water colour on paper by Korean genre painter Shin Yoon Bok (1758-?), Choson period.

In a secret meeting held under a crescent moon, the gazes of the young couple reveal the theme:
Only two people would know what they feel.
Well, I suppose amidst that torrent of romantic feeling they might have been thinking "Why are we sneaking about like this in broad daylight?".
"Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries!"


One of the very first military actions of the Second Crusade was the capture of the city of Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. It was taken by an Anglo-Norman expedition which had set out from Dartmouth in England to capture a number of Moorish positions along the Iberian coast as well as to give aid to Don Afonso Henriques, who already laying siege to the city. Afonso became the first king of the independent country of Portugal and gained Papal recognition in 1179.

This action was also one the earliest victories of the Reconquista, the resurgence of Christian power which gathered pace during the following century becoming a coordinated and determined effort to dislodge the Moors from the penisula completely. This culminated in the conquest of Grenada in 1492.

Osbernus, who was an eye-witness and active participant with the Anglo-Norman party, wrote a brief but gripping account of the taking of the city. I thought this was a particularly choice snippet:
The Moors, meanwhile, made frequent sorties against our men by day because they held three gates against us. With two of these gates on the side of the city and one on the sea, they had an easy way to get in and out. On the other hand, it was difficult for our men to organize themselves. The sorties caused casualties on both sides, but theirs were always greater than ours. While we kept watch, meanwhile, under their walls through the days and nights, they heaped derision and many insults upon us. They considered us worthy of a thousand deaths, especially since they thought that we spurned our own things as vile and lusted after others' goods as precious. Nor did they recall doing us any injury, save that if they had anything of the best quality in their possession we might consider them unworthy of having it and judge it worthy of our possession. They taunted us with the many children who were going to be born at home while we were gone and said that our wives would not be anxious about our deaths, since home was well supplied with little bastards. They promised that any of us who survived would go home miserable and poverty-stricken and they mocked us and gnashed their teeth at us. They also continuously attacked Blessed Mary, the mother of God, with insults and with vile and abusive words, which infuriated us. They said that we venerated the son of a poor woman with a worship equal to that due to God, for we held that he was a God and the Son of God, when it is apparent that there is only one God who began all things that have begun and that he has no one coeval with him and no partaker in his divinity.... They attacked us with these and similar calumnies. They showed to us, moreover, with much derision the symbol of the cross. They spat upon it and wiped the feces from their posteriors with it. At last they urinated on it, as on some despicable thing, and threw our cross at us....

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Gemowe lines


Inspired by an item over at languagehat which cited the Earliest Known Uses of Some of the Words of Mathematics (an item, by the way, in which I left way more comments one-after-the-other than any decent person would consider to be good netiqette), I did a little digging around and found an interesting article on the earliest known uses of mathematical symbols.

A favourite quote of mine is from Robert Recorde who invented the equals sign and which he introduced in his textbook The Whetstone of Witte in 1557:
To avoide the tediouse repetition of these woordes : is equalle to : I will sette as I doe often in woorke use, a paire of paralleles, or Gemowe [twin] lines of one lengthe, thus: =, bicause noe .2. thynges, can be moare equalle.

The title of his book The Whetstone of Witte is a play on words. The unknown quantity to be solved for in algebra was called a "coss" (from the Italian "cosa" which derived from the Arabic "shai" meaning "a thing") and algebraists at that time were known as cossists. The word "cos", on the other hand, is Latin for whetstone, a stone used for sharpening knives. Hence we have a pun: here is a textbook on algebra which will sharpen your wits. Okay, geddit?

In the same book, Recorde also introduced the symbols for plus and minus into English mathematical notation:
There be other 2 signes in often use of which the first is made thus .+. and betokeneth more: the other is thus made .-. and betokeneth lesse.
and the word subtract (see the original languagehat post):
Wherfore I subtract 16. out of 18.
Life on the Edge of the Marshes


By Edward Ochsenschlager
Source: Expedition, 1998, Vol. 40 Issue 2, p29, 11p
In 1968, archaeologists digging at the mound of al-Hiba in Iraq were struck by the fact that the people living in the surrounding area depended on many of the same resources, and seemed to use them in the same way, as the people who had lived there in the 3rd millennium BC. So while archaeological excavations continued, they initiated an ethnographic study of the modern villages around the mound (Fig. 1). The ethnoarchaeology project was carried out under my direction and lasted twenty years. Its goal was to cast light on the use of locally available raw materials, and on the function and manufacturing technology of the same or similar artifacts in antiquity.
The materials we focused on were mud or clay, reeds, wood, cattle, and sheep. We eventually added bitumen–a natural tarlike hydrocarbon–to the list because it appeared so often in conjunction with wood, reeds, and mud in the villages, as well as in the archaeological record. There was abundant evidence that many of the details of village life had parallels in the archaeological record. We hoped that knowing how people in the present day made and used the objects they needed for survival could help us make sense of the isolated bits of archaeological evidence and weave them into a coherent tapestry of ancient life.

The 2-mile-long mound of al-Hiba was in antiquity the ancient city-state of Lagash (see map on p. 3). It stood on the edge of a permanent marsh bordering a tributary of the Tigris, in southern Iraq, and lay about 75 kilometers north of Ur. Like Ur, Lagash was a major Sumerian city. It reached its greatest size in the Early Dynastic III period (2600-2350 BC), at the same time as the Royal Cemetery of Ur was in use. At that time Lagash was the capital of the Sumerian empire and probably the largest early Sumerian city.

The early years of the project were marked by the on-going removal of the sheikhs (local hereditary leaders) by the central government of Iraq. As a result of the inevitable disruption in the management of the farmlands, these were times of unbelievable poverty for the people of al-Hiba. With the draining of the marshlands initiated in 1992, many thousands of marshland residents moved deeper into the swamps or fled to Iran. The way of life that we documented, and that I describe briefly here, no longer exists in the area around al-Hiba.


When the project began, a number of small villages existed alongside the marshes near the site of al-Hiba (Fig. 2). Each contained the homes of either the Mi'dan (also called the Marsh Arabs) or the Beni Hassan. The Mi'dan villages were sometimes built directly in the marshes on platforms or islands they constructed of alternate layers of reed mats or reeds and silt.

The Mi'dan made a living by fishing with spears. They also kept water buffalo, technically undomesticated, which foraged for reeds and sedge in the marshes during the day and returned to the family shelter in late afternoon to give up their milk and spend the night under protection. The Mi'dan kept water buffalo primarily for milk, dung, and hides. Of the three, dung was the most important for it provided fuel for warmth and cooking, and was a waterproofing agent, a plaster for wounds, and a cure for headaches.

The Beni Hassan kept sheep and cattle and grazed them on the banks of the marsh. They raised crops of vegetables and animal fodder on plots of land which were sometimes irrigated. They also fished, but with set or throw nets.

Both tribes kept chickens, caught wild birds in nets or shot them with guns, and grew rice in small beds on the edges of the marshes. They moved between settlements by donkey or camel, or in bitumen-covered wooden boats (tarada) propelled through the water with long poles (Figs. 3a, b, 4).


The Mi'dan and Beni Hassan built their houses and attendant structures from the same easily obtainable materials used to make similar buildings in ancient times–mud and reeds (Figs. 5a, b, 6). In 1968 reeds grew everywhere in the marshes and were considered the cheapest building material. Because of its size and architectural splendor, the mudhif, a grand arched structure built entirely of reeds by sheikhs, would dominate the horizon as one approached a village lucky enough to preserve one. Justice was no longer dispensed here as it had been in the historical past, but issues were debated and consensus reached on local issues by the heads of families with or without the sheikh being present. The mudhif also still served as a guest house for the occasional traveler. (For details of reed construction, see Ochsenschlager 1992:47-58.)

Except in the fortified compounds of major sheikhs (who built with baked bricks as well), mud-brick structures were very rare, for they required the services of professional builders and were quite expensive. Family members could build pise (compressed or packed mud) houses without any assistance, however, and a small number of these existed in every village, where they were a status symbol indicating above-average material resources. The raba (Fig. 1) was an arched reed structure smaller than the mudhif, while a one-room dwelling called a bayt was made of reeds, mud brick, or pise. Most of the village houses were made of reeds. The typical house was usually a little more than 2 meters wide, about 6 meters long, and a little less than 3 meters high. Houses built of reeds had the additional advantage of being portable. In the spring, if the marsh waters rose too high, a five-arched raba could be taken down, moved to higher ground, and re-erected in less than a day. With proper care and repair, reed dwellings could last for well over 25 years, and mud dwellings for two or more generations.

The raba had an entrance at both ends with a partition (bench or screen) in the middle. One end was used as a dwelling, the other end could be used to house animals in inclement weather, as a part of the dwelling, or as a workshop if either the wife or husband were craftspeople.

In villages where no mudhif existed, the second room of the largest raba often served the same purposes: as a meeting place and guest house. None of these uses were mutually exclusive; a thorough cleaning followed by laying reed mats over the dirt floor and placing colorful carpets for people to sit on quickly converted a workshop or barn into a reception room.


To protect the family's water buffalo during the inclement weather of late winter and early spring, a Mi'dan household built an adjoining sitra, another type of reed structure. Rows of tall reeds were buried in the ground with their tops tied together to form a sort of roof. Holes or trenches were dug around the interior of the wall to keep the buffalo at bay and protect the comparatively fragile structure. These structures had a particularly shaggy appearance since neither the reed leaves nor plumed tops were removed. At the end of winter the sitra was often dismantled and used as fuel.

Livestock pens were built of tall reed fences and used by the Mi'dan for their water buffalo and sometimes by the Beni Hassan for their cattle and sheep. As such a fence was called a sitra, it is not surprising to find that its method of construction was the same as for the building of that name. The sole difference is that the reed walls were left upright, perpendicular to the ground, rather than bent inward and joined to form a roof (Fig. 6).

Most Beni Hassan made their walls of mud lumps or of pise. When the structure was situated alongside a canal or irrigation channel, it was made of lumps of mud set on edge in herring-bone pattern. Each lump consisted of a shovelful of mud, and its plano-convex shape, which resulted from the form of the shovel paddle, was almost identical to the shape of mud bricks used in ancient Sumerian times. Whenever possible, this was the kind of wall a villager preferred to build and maintain for it was much simpler and less time-consuming than erecting a wall of pise or reed.


Houses were divided in two different ways. A reed mat tied to a reed frame could be fastened to the sides and top of one of the arches. If both rooms were intended for living, the partition had a doorway or opening. Such partitions, however, were most often used without doors for separating living space from animal quarters. Living spaces were usually subdivided by a wide bench made of a tied reed framework and reed bundle top which jutted into the room from one of the long walls.

A chest made of wood, usually studded with iron or brass and with a domed lid, was placed on the women's or kitchen side of the bench. Towards the center of the women's side was a permanent place for the cooking fire. Mud bricks or narrow walls of pise supported the vessels used for cooking or heating. The coffee pot (aluminum or brass) and tea kettle (aluminum) stood in close proximity, as did a variety of aluminum containers including a large, deep tray used for washing up and mixing, and one or two large bowls used for mixing, cooking, and sometimes serving. Conical bowls of various sizes made of aluminum, porcelain, or even plastic were also stored nearby. These were used for drinking water and for serving food. Those with bright, multicolored decorations, bought in market towns, were much sought after. To one side were the useful sundried mud objects made in every household. An aluminum or brass water jar or perhaps an old tea kettle stood near the door filled with water. This was carried by members of the family answering the call of nature and provided the water necessary for a thorough washing. If water was not available, one scrubbed oneself with sand.

Also near the door were the baskets used for collecting fresh animal dung, a job allotted to the youngest girls in the family. Women mixed the fresh dung with straw and molded it into disks to serve as the primary fuel for cooking and keeping warm. Along one side of the kitchen space was a shallow well dug in the floor and lined with bitumen in which sat two jars of similar shape and size: a water jar with drinking water and a jar for salt. These were made from coils of local clays by the village potter, and fired in a trench.

Near the bench, or perhaps even under it, were homemade baskets (either plaited or coiled) with staples such as wheat, rice, or dried fish, and perhaps a narrow-necked basket (sabat) with a variety of small packages of tea, coffee, and spices (Fig. 7). The latter three items might also be kept in the chest along with clothes, raw wool or wool spun into thread or yarn by family members, special amulets, jewelry, and money.

Some of these things were simply piled on the bench when not in use, as were woven bedclothes and pillows, carpets, paddles and poles for the boats used in the marshes, handmade fish and bird nets, agricultural or craft tools, and other family possessions.

The bench was seldom used as a sleeping platform at night except for the sick. Beds for small children were often made of piles of rushes with soft bedclothes on top. Swinging cradles for babies were made out of rushes and hung from an arch. A simple well was made in a bundle of rushes tied at both ends, and was lined with clothes, a sheepskin, or raw wool. Rattles made from sun-dried mud by fathers to amuse their babies were often inscribed with a simple smiling face, representing the child.

The other end of the raba was more sparsely furnished. When used exclusively as a part of the dwelling it contained a permanent hearth, otherwise a portable cooking dish (manqala) was used as needed. Reed mats made by the women of the household covered the mud floor for living or guests. When guests were present the mats were covered with carpets made by the village weaver and pillows made by one of the women of the household. Even in Mi'dan houses without provision for livestock, water buffalo shared the quarters at special times, such as in the case of a birthing cow or a young calf whose mother had gone into the marshes to graze. When water buffalo or other livestock were quartered in the living space, the mats were removed. Oftentimes the owner booby-trapped both entrances to the raba at night to keep out intruders.


Most of the year, the courtyard outside the raba was a hive of activity. Women prepared most of the food here. They cooked wheat bread disks on the insides of tanurs (mud beehive ovens; see Fig. 1) where the raw dough was pasted on with a bit of water or spit. Rice bread and small cakes were cooked on a flat disk of mud whose surface was heated in a fire. Meat and fish were baked or smoked in the tanur or boiled over a hearth and, on special occasions, roasted on spits over an open fire.

The courtyard is where women made dung patties and where young children made and played with their toys of mud and reed (Fig. 8a, b), and older boys made balls of sun-dried mud to use for ammunition in their slings (Fig. 9). The courtyard is where older girls embroidered the blankets which would be part of their wedding trousseaux and where men and women alike spun cord (Fig. 10). It is where the oldest woman in the family made containers of sun-dried mud when needed. All families had storage jars or chests made of reeds and mud and waterproofed with dung. People slept outside in the courtyard in the extreme heat of summer. The outside beds consisted of reeds placed on top of parallel walls of mud from 40 cm to 1 meter in height (Fig. 11a, b).


Arched reed houses and buildings of mud brick and pise are well attested in the archaeological record. We can conclude that in antiquity they were built in a very similar fashion to the way they have been built in modern times, in part because of the nature of the raw materials and in part because of direct evidence of manufacture from ancient strata (Ochsenschlager 1992: 54-61). Some of the forms of sun-dried mud pottery are attested in Sumerian times by finds from al-Hiba. Preserved details of construction show that they were made in the same way as modern examples. Mud storage containers, jars, tanurs, ammunition for slings, and children's toys are widely known in antiquity from many sites. Ancient models of beds, perhaps made as toys, show the same raw materials used in the same fashion as the beds in modern courtyards (see Fig. 11b). (See Ochsenschlager 1974a for a discussion of all these parallels.) Impressions of ancient reed baskets and mats exhibit the same techniques of construction as do modern ones (Ochsenschlager 1992:64-66). Models of ancient boats (see Fig. 3b) show that they were very similar to modern ones and built of the same materials (Ochsenschlager 1992:49-53).

Even without corroborating evidence, some ancient parallels with modern functions can be assumed. Although the materials did not exist in antiquity, some modern aluminum, tin, plastic, and porcelain containers probably have generally the same functions as the pottery of antiquity. The physical requirements of animals would lead us to believe that ancient animal husbandry had much in common with the modern (Ochsenschlager 1993a:33-42). In some cases, for instance in weaving, we can restore parts of the process and artifacts missing in the archaeological record (Ochsenschlager 1993b:54-55). Through knowledge of the process involved in the manufacture of an artifact we can estimate the actual value of that artifact to the people who made and used it by measuring the skill and time required for its production (Ochsenschlager 1998:129).

Other details of life in Sumerian times can be inferred from ethnographic information. We can understand and better appreciate, for example, the degree of coordination and skill required for everyday activities in ancient times because both ancient and modem peoples used similar artifacts for similar purposes. Indeed, the physical and mental energy expended by young men in mastering the throw-net, spear, and sling is akin to effort put forth by first-class athletes today. Like modern Iraqi villagers who, at the age of eight or younger, have jobs which are important to the survival of their families, Sumerian children were probably productive members of their society. In modern Western society where we appear to think that work deprives children of their "childhood," and there is little work that children can profitably do, children tend to live, by contrast, an undemanding parasitic existence, often to rather advanced ages.

More speculative, perhaps, are such things as the role of individuals or groups of people. For instance, Iraqi villagers and ancient Sumerian craftsmen dealt in raw materials and artifacts which were crucial to the survival of the entire community (unlike many modern craftsmen who make decorative accessories and think of themselves as artists). It is possible therefore that the two Middle Eastern groups may have enjoyed similar respect and played similar roles in preserving traditional morality and work ethics (Ochsenschlager 1998:130-33).

The findings of the ethnoarchaeological project were extremely helpful in interpreting the context of material remains and giving us some insight into everyday life at the site of ancient al-Hiba. But the acute and careful observation of the way of life of the Mi'dan and Beni Hassan also served to muddy the waters of archaeological interpretation. It brought home the complexity of behavioral and cultural choices and their impacts in ways that would be almost impossible to decipher from the archaeological record alone. Indeed, it soon became clear in the ethnographic study that one could not even easily understand the reasons for modern change unless one were present and privy to the conversations concerning it immediately before and during the process of the change itself. Shortly after change occurred the reasons for it often disappeared as part of a new mythology. Sometimes highly visible change is of little cultural significance, while major cultural change is accompanied by little or no change in the material record. Thus, these studies also serve to remind us that our knowledge of the past sometimes relies on shaky interpretations and cavalier assumptions, and show us that it is altogether too easy to misunderstand the significance of physical evidence (Ochsenschlager 1998).


The excavations at al-Hiba were conducted under the auspices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, and directed by Vaughn E. Crawford and Donald P. Hansen. Preliminary reports on the excavations can be found in the bibliography under their names and in the article authored by Robert Biggs.

FIG. 1. THE COURTYARD OUTSIDE A RABA, a dwelling constructed of reeds, in the Mi'dan village of Said Tahir. The two women, each garbed in an abaya (a long cloak which covers a person from head to foot), stand behind beehive mud ovens and an oil drum used as a table.

FIG. 2. THE BENI HAS SAN VILLAGE of Hagi Rachid was home to about 60 people. Beyond the village stretch their small farm plots.

FIG. 3A. MI'DAN FISHING FROM A TARADA. Wood is too costly, scarce, and poor in quality to make waterproof joins on ordinary boats. Applying bitumen to the outer surface waterproofs the boat and allows the boat builder to utilize whatever scraps of material are available for shipbuilding. Each year itinerant craftsmen visit the villages to strip the bitumen from boats, heat it to liquid consistency, and reapply the coating.; FIG. 3B. MODEL OF A SIMILAR BOAT FROM UR. Boats were as important for the transportation of people and goods in antiquity as they are now. The boat model from Ur is entirely made of bitumen. The shape of its upswung prow mirrors that of the tarada. UPM B 17706. Neg. S8-96719

FIG. 4. THE MI'DAN HAD ALWAYS FISHED WITH SPEARS, "THE MANLY WAY." During the 1970s, however, the Beni Hassan began to catch larger quantities of fish in nets. The solution for the Mi'dan is shown in this photo: they trapped fish in nets but harvested them with their spears.

FIG. 5A. MUDHIF UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Reeds had the same physical properties in the past as they do today, requiring similar innovations for structural soundness. For instance, if arches were made from bundles of fresh reeds, the structure would collapse in short order. For maximum soundness the core of a new arch bundle was made up of reeds taken from an older structure. From studying the physical properties of reeds used today, we have learned a great deal about the details of their use in the past.

FIG. 5B. CARVED GYPSUM TROUGH FROM URUK. Two lambs exit a reed structure identical to the present-day mudhif on this ceremonial trough from the site of Uruk in southern Iraq. Neither the leaves or plumes have been removed from the reeds which are tied together to form the arch. As a result, the crossed-over, leathered reeds create a decorative pattern along the length of the roof, a style most often seen in modern animal shelters built by the Mi'dan. Dating to ca. 3000 BC, the trough documents the extraordinary length of time such arched reed buildings have been in use. (C) The British Museum. WA 120000, neg. 252077

FIG. 6. A SHAGGY REED ENCLOSURE CALLED A SITRA serves as a pen for water buffalo. The small reed hut within the fence is seen end-on and looks similar to the structure on the Uruk trough but without the plumed top (Fig. 5b).

FIG. 7. MANUFACTURING A REED BASKET. Reed baskets such as that being made here were probably woven in antiquity in exactly the same way.

FIG. 8A, B. (A) CHILD PLAYING WITH CLAY ANIMAL FIGURINES. Children make toys of all kinds out of sun-dried mud; men and boys also make rattles, whistles, drums, and watering troughs for livestock from the same material.

(B) PROCESSION OF ANIMAL FIGURINES FROM UR. In the past most of the figurines like those in (b) were thought to be votive objects. Today we think some of them are toys made by children long ago. (b) UPM B 17236, B 17239, 31-43-351. Neg. S8-8611

FIG. 9. A MI'DAN BOY MAKES SHOT FOR HIS SLING. Ammunition made of balls of mud dried in the sun was used in antiquity and in modern times. Huge quantifies of ancient examples outside a wall at al-Hiba record an ancient battle. Modern mud sling shots are used mostly by boys for hunting small animals and birds. Using a sling accurately is no small accomplishment. It requires a physical stamina and coordination of muscle and eye similar to that of American high school athletes. The difference is that in America in the 1970s failure resulted in embarrassment. In the marshes it could result in starvation.

FIG. 10. A BENI HASSAN MAN SPINS THREAD USING A SPINDLE AND RAW WOOL. Men use the "drop and spin" method to create Z-spun thread, women rub the spindle on their thighs to create S-spun thread. Men create yarn by rubbing the threads together between the palms of their hands, while women use larger spindles which they rub on their thighs. The spinning of animal fibers into thread and yarn is attested in ancient times at al-Hiba (and Ur) by spindle whorls, impressions of cloth, and two- and four-ply yarn found on jar sealings. Although spindles for making thread and yarn have not survived, one can infer their existence from the clay whorls that served to provide the weight.

FIG. 11A. BED IN AN OUTSIDE COURTYARD AT AL-HIBA. Bundles of reeds laid on low walls of mud and covered with reed mats provide safe places to sleep during the hottest weather. The raised beds share the courtyard with domestic animals and protect the sleepers against cattle, sheep, chickens, creepy-crawlers, and other things which go bump in the night.

FIG. 11B. TERRACOTTA BED MODELS FROM UR. Hundreds of these bed models have been found in ancient strata and some of them may well have been children's toys. Note that the top surfaces of the models have been sculpted to represent woven reed mats. UPM 31-43-361 (left and center), 31-16-701. Negs. S4-74059, S8-8637


Biggs, Robert D.

1973. "Pre-Sargonic Riddles from Lagash." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 32(1-2): 26-33.

Crawford, Vaughn

1974. "Lagash." Iraq 36:29-35.

Fernea, Elizabeth W.

1969. Guest of the Sheikh: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village. New York: Anchor Books.

Hansen, Donald P.

1970. "Al-Hiba, 1968-1969, A Preliminary Report." Artibus Asiae 32:243-50.

1973. "Al-Hiba, 1970-1971, A Preliminary Report." Artibus Asiae 35(1-2): 62-78.

1992. "Royal Building Activity at Sumerian Lagash in the Early Dynastic Period." Biblical Archaeologist 55(4): 206-11.

Maxwell, Gavin

1957. People of the Reeds. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Ochsenschlager, Edward L. 1974a. "Modern Sun-Dried Mud Objects from al-Hiba." Archaeology 27(3): 162-74.

1974b. "Modern Potters at al-Hiba, with Some Reflections on the Excavated Early Dynastic Pottery." In Ethnoarchaeology, ed. C.B. Donnan and C.W. Clewlow, Jr., pp. 149-57. Monograph 4, Institute of Archaeology,, University of California. Los Angeles.

1992. "Ethnographic Evidence for Wood, Boats, Bitumen and Reeds in Southern Iraq: Ethnoarchaeology at al-Hiba."

Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture [BOSA] 6:47-48.

1993a. "Sheep: Ethnoarchaeology at al-Hiba." BOSA 7:33-42.

1993b. "Village Weavers, Ethnoarchaeology at al-Hiba." BOSA 7:43-62.

1995 (with Bonnie Gustav). "Water Buffalo and Garbage Pits: Ethnoarchaeology at alHiba." BOSA 8:1-9.

1998. "Viewing the Past: Ethnoarchaeology at Al-Hiba." Visual Anthropology 11:103-43.

Thesiger, Wilfred

1964. The Marsh Arabs. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Young, Gavin, and N. Wheeler 1977. Return to the Marshes. London: William Collins.
Foolish World


From "World Map Drawn in a Fool's Head." Ca. 1590. [Larger] Ptolemaic projection (otherwise known as an equidistant conic projection) onto the face of a clown. Maker, date and place of publication are unknown. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

This startling and disturbing image is one of the enigmas of cartographic history. The artist, date and place of publication are all unknown, and one can only guess at its purpose. The geography of the map strongly resembles that of the world maps of Ortelius published in the 1580s, giving a tentative date of c. 1590. This is the earliest known use of the world map in a visual joke. Its central visual metaphor is the universality of human folly and various mottoes around the map reinforce that theme. The panel of the left says: “Democritus laughed at it [i.e. the world], Heraclitus wept over it, Epichtonius Cosmopolites portrayed it.” Although Epichtonius Cosmopolites appears to be the author's or artist's name, it translates roughly as “Everyman,” leaving the mapmaker's true identity hidden.

A strong legacy of the theme of the Fool exists in literature and popular art from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. The Fool was licensed to break rules, speak painful truths and mock power and pretension, and the grotesque shape he bore was a kind of living punishment. This frame of reference would have been quite familiar to the audience of this engraving in the 1590s. And people would have recognized in this map a radical visual interpretation of the Fool's role: it is now the whole world that takes on the Fool's costume, thus forcing the viewer to confront the possibility that the entire created order is irrational, alien and threatening.

— The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps by Peter Whitfield (1994, p. 78-79). Pomegranate Artbooks, San Francisco.
More on Chinese Numerology


Rolex might be a Swiss company but one thing is for certain, it knows its Asian market extremely well.

For example, consider its half gold / half stainless steel watch, the Datejust. Its model number is 16233 which, if we apply the system already discussed in my earlier post on Chinese numerology, would be read in Chinese as:

"all the way easy long life".

As a consequence, this model of watch is said to be much sought after by your up and coming Hong Kong or Singaporean entrepreneurial types. But for the towkay who has already arrived, a solid gold Rolex is the order of the day and that could only mean a Day-Date Rolex which has a model number of 18238. This translates as:

"guaranteed prosperity, easy life and prosperity".

On the other hand, prestige car maker Alfa Romeo could certainly afford to learn a few things from Rolex. Surely only a very foolish company would ever consider naming one of its cars "164".

(clue: check to the handy calculator near the end of the earlier post to find out why).

Mr Faber's Amazing Talking Head


In December 1845, Joseph Faber exhibited his "Wonderful Talking Machine" at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia. This machine, as recently described by writer David Lindsay, consisted of a bizarre-looking talking head that spoke in a "weird, ghostly monotone" as Faber manipulated it with foot pedals and a keyboard.

Just prior to this public exhibition, Joseph Henry visited Faber's workshop to witness a private demonstration. Henry's friend and fellow scientist, Robert M. Patterson, had tried to drum up financial support for Faber, a beleaguered German immigrant struggling to earn a living and learn how to speak English. Henry, who was often asked to distinguish fraudulent from genuine inventions, agreed to go with Patterson to look at the machine. If an act of ventriloquism was at work, he was sure to detect it.

Instead of a hoax, which he had suspected, Henry found a "wonderful invention" with a variety of potential applications. "I have seen the speaking figure of Mr. Wheatstone of London," Henry wrote in a letter to a former student, "but it cannot be compared with this which instead of uttering a few words is capable of speaking whole sentences composed of any words what ever."

Henry observed that sixteen levers or keys "like those of a piano" projected sixteen elementary sounds by which "every word in all European languages can be distinctly produced." A seventeenth key opened and closed the equivalent of the glottis, an aperture between the vocal cords. "The plan of the machine is the same as that of the human organs of speech, the several parts being worked by strings and levers instead of tendons and muscles."

Henry, who in 1831 had invented a demonstration telegraph while pursuing his electromagnetic investigations, believed that many applications of Faber's machine "could be immagined [sic]" in connection with the telegraph. "The keys could be worked by means of electro-magnetic magnets and with a little contrivance not difficult to execute words might be spoken at one end of the telegraphic line which have their origin at the other." A devout Presbyterian, Henry immediately seized upon the possibility of having a sermon delivered over the wires to several churches simultaneously.

Joseph Faber's "Euphonia", as shown in London in 1846.
The machine produced not only ordinary and whispered speech, but it also sang the anthem "God Save the Queen".
...Faber, who had destroyed an earlier version of his talking machine out of frustration over an unappreciative public, apparently felt encouraged by the response of Henry and Patterson to his new machine. In 1846, he accompanied P. T. Barnum to London, where the "Euphonia," as it was now called, was put on display at London's Egyptian Hall. The exhibit drew an endorsement from the Duke of Wellington and remained a part of Barnum's repertoire for the next several decades. The financial returns for Faber, however, were meager. He would die in the 1860s without achieving the fame or fortune he sought.

Faber would thus not live to witness the most important outcome of his invention. By a curious twist of fate, one person who happened to see the Euphonia in London in 1846 and come away deeply impressed was Melville Bell, the father of Alexander Graham Bell...

--- Joseph Henry and the Telephone
It was Bell's own efforts to simulate speech, initially through constructing mechanisms similar to Faber's, that eventually led him to try the modulation electric current. Joseph Henry, himself a pioneer of the field of electromagnetism and by that time (1874) the first director of the Smithsonian Institute, immediately grasped the importance of Bell's invention. He became Alexander Graham Bell's first and most influential supporter.

Update: Once again Mark over at Language Log provides links to additional information about Faber's contraption and its predecessors and successors, most notably the one created by the brilliant inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen (which formed the basis of Wheatstone's mentiond above).

Cuteness Factor


The kangaroo: first noted by James Cook at Endeavour River on 23 June 1770 (engraving by Sydney Parkinson).
It's been said that the cuteness of a story is inversely proportional to the likelihood of it being true. A classic in this genre is the story about the origin of the word kangaroo.

In June 1770, Captain James Cook was charting the eastern coastline of the Australian continent when his ship, the Endeavour, accidentally ran afoul of the Great Barrier Reef. The ship's hull was torn open but his crew managed to beach the vessel on a bank of a river for repairs. This place was named by Cook Endeavour River and it was here that Cook first observed the kangaroo.

That part of the story is true but here is where the myth cuts in: Cook observed these strange animals and then called out to a local native who was standing nearby, "I say, what animal is that?", he asked. The native, who, of course, could not understand a word Cook was saying replied "kangooroo" which meant in his language "I don't know". Cook, satisfied, then wrote in his journal:
"The animals which I have before mentioned, called by the Natives Kangooroo or Kanguru... [it moves] by hoping or jumping 7 or 8 feet at each hop upon its hind legs only... The skin is cover'd with a short hairy fur of a dark Mouse or Grey Colour. Excepting the head and ears which I thought something like a Hare's, it bears no sort of resemblance to any European animal I ever saw."
As with all good stories, this one contains enough truth to be plausible. A later explorer, Captain Phillip K. King, recorded in 1820 a different word for the animal, which he wrote as “mee-nuah” so it was assumed that Captain Cook had been mistaken. However, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, this story has been overturned by linguistic fieldwork which has confirmed the existence of the word gangurru which is used by the Guugu Yimidhirr people to refer to a certain species of kangaroo. Furthermore, it is now thought King may have heard another of their words minha, which means “edible animal.”

There are other cute stories about the naming of the Yucatan Penisula and Alaska's Cape Nome but I'd like to relate a counterexample. A story which is both cute and also true.

For about 150 years there has been a parade held in the city of Melbourne each year on Labour Day. This parade originally grew out of celebrations to commemorate the establishment of the 8 hour working day, a early victory for trade unionism which reduced the length of the working week from 60 hours to 48 (a world-first, as it happens).

Over time, this parade became more of a general pageant than an overtly political event (it's message about worker's rights and solidarity now being commemorated by trade unionists and activists on the international day of worker solidarity, May the 1st) and by 1955 and one year before the parade's Centenary, the conservative government of the day with the support of the local chamber of commerce decided that it was high time to depoliticize the event altogether.

They re-branded the parade and relaunched it with a new (and considerably lamer) theme:

"Let's get together and have fun!"

and then cast about for a brand new name to encapsulate it.

Stories differ about how they settled upon the local Aboriginal word Moomba but, alas for the organisers, it turned out that this word actually meant something else entirely (or was a very literal translation, take your pick).

Moomba is the name of a carnival held annually in Melbourne from 1955. One of its distinctive features is a procession of floats etc. through the streets of the city.

The term is popularly regarded as being an Aboriginal word meaning 'let's get together and have fun'. Thus C. McGregor in Profile of Australia (1966) writes:

    Melbourne's Moomba (an aboriginal word meaning 'Let's get together and have fun') a yearly event during which floats parade through the city.

In 1969 Louise Hercus in The Languages of Victoria sounded a warning:

    Mum, bottom, rump. The jocular Healesville expression mum ba 'bottom and ..' has been given to the authorities in jest with the translation 'let us get together and have fun', hence the Melbourne Moomba Festival.

Victorian Aboriginal languages with the word mum for 'bottom, anus' include Wuywurung and Wemba-wemba.

In 1981 Barry Blake in his Australian Aboriginal Languages spelt out the etymology in more detail:

    Undoubtedly the most unfortunate choice of a proper name from Aboriginal sources was made in Melbourne when the city fathers chose to name the city's annual festival 'Moomba'. The name is supposed to mean 'Let's get together and have fun', though one wonders how anyone could be naive enough to believe that all this can be expressed in two syllables. In fact 'moom' (mum) means 'buttocks' or 'anus' in various Victorian languages and 'ba' is a suffix that can mean 'at', 'in' or 'on'. Presumably someone has tried to render 'up your bum' in the vernacular.

Snopes cautiously adds this snippet to the story:
"Bill & Eric Onus (brothers of Aunty Sissy Smith/McGuinness, a well known Aboriginal Elder in Melbourne) were approached during the late fifties or early sixties for an Aboriginal word to name a newly developed annual street parade, sponsored by the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce (businessmen's lobby group).

"The parade was to be held on the Labour Day holiday, thereby undermining the Trade Unions march and the historic significance of the day.

"Bill & Eric ran an Aboriginal artifacts stall in the Dandenongs, but were staunch unionists in their younger days.

"Bill had a dry sense of humour. He agreed to provide a suitable name for the parade. Friends were surprised at this, knowing how Bill felt about the City Fathers and their business promotion parade.

"When he offered the name Moomba, and the organisers accepted it, Bill gave the Aboriginal community a great gift. It has been the trigger for spontaneous laughter for many years since.

"While the Moomba organisers, in blissful ignorance, give the translation as "let's get together and have fun," every Koori knows that "Moom" means backside, and "ba" means . . . well, um, hole . . .

"So that's it. The grand festival we call Moomba means a***hole. Bill started a joke. We have the last laugh."
I'm not sure how "ba" goes from meaning " 'at', 'in' or 'on'" to meaning "hole" as in this version so I'm not completely certain that the Koories are telling us the full story even now. I guess there's still the possibility that this yarn could fall victim to its own cuteness factor.
A new Rosetta Stone unearthed


The famous Rosetta Stone, now located at the British Museum, also has an inscription in Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphs
A team of German and Egyptian archaeologists working in the Nile Delta has unearthed "quite a remarkable" stele dating back 2 200 years to Ptolemaic Egypt which bears an identical inscription in three written languages - like the famed Rosetta Stone.

Announcing the find on Monday, University of Potsdam chief Egyptologist Christian Tietze said the stone fragment was "quite remarkable and the most significant of its kind to be found in Egypt in 120 years".

The grey granite stone, 99cm high and 84cm wide, was found "purely by accident" at the German excavation site of the ruined city of Bubastis, a once important religious and political centre 90km north-east of modern-day Cairo.

It shows a royal decree, written in ancient Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphs, that mentions King Ptolemy III Euergetes I along with the date 238 BC.

"The decree is significant because it specifically mentions a reform of the ancient Egyptian calendar which was not in fact actually implemented until some 250 years later under Julius Caesar," Tietze said.

The inscription consists of 67 lines of Greek text and 24 lines of Demotic along with traces of Hieroglyphs outlining the calendar reform and praising Ptolemy.

The king is lauded for importing grain from Syria, Phoenicia and Cyprus to alleviate famine in ancient Egypt, among other deeds.

"It documents the might and beneficence of Ptolemy III," Tietze said.

Bubastis was the capital city of Egypt in the eighth Century BC. The temple where the Germany dig site is located was probably destroyed by an earthquake, according to Tietze.

--- Ancient inscribed slab brought to light
Mayan Masterpiece


This stone panel shows the Mayan king Taj Chan Ahk installing a subsidiary ruler.
Archaeologists working deep in Guatemala's rain forest under the protection of armed guards say they have unearthed one of the greatest Maya art masterpieces ever found.

The artifact—a 100-pound (45-kilogram) stone panel carved with images and hieroglyphics—depicts Taj Chan Ahk, the mighty 8th-century king of the ancient Maya city-state of Cancuén.

The panel was excavated in perfect condition from a royal ball court. Exquisitely carved in precise high relief, the 80-centimeter-wide (31.5-inch) stone depicts the Maya king seated on an earth symbol and throne with a jaguar skin, installing subordinate rulers in the nearby city-state of Machaquila.
Researchers say the panel's text confirms Ahk's status as one of the last, great kings of classic Maya civilization who controlled a vast territory in the Petén rain forest. Ahk grew and held his power through savvy politics and economic clout, rather than war, at a time when most other great Maya city-states were in their final decline, experts say.

"This panel is incredibly important," Arthur Demarest, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist and excavation co-leader, said in a satellite telephone interview from the dig site. "Every once in a while you have a beautiful, spectacular piece of art that is also profoundly historically important."

"It is … the best piece of Maya art that has ever been found in an excavated context," he added. "It looks like it was made yesterday."

--- Archaeologists Uncover Maya "Masterpiece" in Guatemala
The hieroglyphics expert with the team, Federico Fahsen, has said that the stone panel "is one of the greatest masterpieces of Maya art ever discovered in Guatemala. The images of the rulers and the historical text are deeply and finely carved in high relief and miraculously preserved."

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The word Abracadabra was originally a magic incantation which was used to cure fevers and to protect against disease.

The word was transcribed onto an amulet which was worn around the neck of the patient in eleven successive lines arranged as an inverted triangle. Each line eliminated one letter of the incantation until only the letter A remained at the very bottom of the triangle. This gradual reduction in the number of letters symbolised the reduction and eventual elimination of illness.

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Kircher's Tower


Athanasius Kircher, Turris Babel 1679

More Towers of Babel may be found here.
Gravitational Microlensing


Most techniques for detecting planets outside of our solar system can only spot very massive worlds which are comparable in size to the planet Jupiter but they are not much good at detecting small and close-in planets similar to our own.

There are, however, some detection techniques that are considerably more sensitive, one proposed method I mentioned here a few months ago is called nulling interferometry (here as well). It works by the cancellation of the lightwaves being emitted by a star and this allows us to directly observe any planets that may be orbiting it. The need to blank out this starlight becomes readily apparent when we consider that the light coming from a Sun-like star is billions of times brighter than any reflected light that might be coming from Earth-like planets orbiting it. This direct imaging technique is very promising and it offers a number of benefits which includes the ability to measure the chemical composition of the planet's atmosphere and to search for evidence of life. It does, however, have some practical problems, a space-based telescope using this technique would be extraordinarily difficult to build and it is likely that any implementation if it will be a few decades away at the earliest.

By contrast, a new relatively straightforward (though indirect) technique which uses conventional telescopes has proven itself to be an extremely sensitive way to detect extrasolar planets. It's called gravitational microlensing and it has just been used to discover the most distant extrasolar planet ever found. The new planet is three times further away than any previously discovered and the microlensing technique is so sensitive that it will be able to, in principle, detect planets over very large distances that are as small and as light as our own planet.

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Jiroft: An Unknown Civilisation


Amazing, AMAZING stuff coming out of the ground in Eastern Iran at the moment.

Evidence of a previously unknown and highly sophisticated civilisation has been discovered recently in south-eastern Iran. Geographically situated between, and contemporary with, the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, this was a literate society whose material culture was influential over a very wide area. Its pottery dating from the middle of the third millennium BC has been found in sites as widely separated as Syria and India and as far north-east as the Oxus river in modern day Uzbekistan (the so-called Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex or BMAC).

The site came to light only in 2001 when Iranian authorities started arresting villagers for plundering ancient grave sites found at Daqyanousin, near the city of Jiroft in the province of Kerman. The story of the site's discovery goes something like this:
One day in early spring, a peasant from Matoutabad village in Jiroft came across an old object when he was passing along the river. The object was floating on the surface of water, as a consequence of the change in the river's route. The man picked up the object and returned to the village to find out whether other villagers also agreed with what had occurred to his unconscious mind.

The brilliance of joy was quite evident in the eyes of the villagers who had gathered in the village square to observe the ancient artifact. Given that shortage of rainfall had inflicted great damage on the village plantations for the past two years, the villagers had to tackle the ensuing poverty and unemployment. Nonetheless, now things might have been different and if their guess was correct, they would be lucky and they shouldn't miss such a rare opportunity. The story was revealed to the entire village in no time. The following day all villagers took their shovels and picks and moved towards the point where the ancient object was located. Their guess that an underground treasure should have been hiden under the earth was correct. Nonetheless, they could hardly imagine that their homeland - Jiroft - could be the archaeologists' "lost paradise"!
--- Mystery of Daqyanous Treasuries And Extinction Of Ancient Hills In Jiroft

The site has been described as "so densely packed with archaic layers that ancient artifacts are even likely to come by at one-meter depths". Very accessible, no doubt, to agricultural workers armed with picks and shovels.

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