Lost City Beneath The Sea

maxresdefault1

Once, Baiae was a resort city on the Italian coast for the wealthy patricians of Rome.  Then, volcanic activity caused the city to vanish beneath the waves, as the coastline moved inland.

Divers have now located the town, and discovered that much of the artwork — including statues, tile designs, and mosaics — has been preserved beneath the water.  Pretty cool!  It would be a great place to go for a dive — if my ear drums had not been blown out by prior, ill-fated scuba activity.

Who knows?  Maybe there is something to that Atlantis myth.

More Of Earth’s Curious Ancient Mysteries

Scientists recently discovered the existence of hundreds of curious and colossal earthwork formations in Kazakhstan.  The Steppe Geoglyph formations, which include geometric patterns and a kind of curlicue form of swastika, are visible only from high in the air.

As the New York Times reports, scientists estimate that the earliest of the mound formations was built approximately 8,000 years ago.  They had long since been forgotten and were discovered only when a Kazakh amateur archaologist started using Google Earth images to search for pyramids in Kazakhstan.  He didn’t find any evidence of pyramids in his home territory, but he did notice the huge, sprawling patterns that appeared.  After he announced his findings, NASA and other scientists got involved, began photographing the formations from satellites and analyzing their contents, and the mystery only deepened.

No one knows who built the earthworks, or their purpose.  They apparently aren’t burial mounds.  One scientist speculates that the geometric shapes were built to track the path of the rising sun.  But that explanation doesn’t account for the odd, curlicue swastika shape — which looks like the sort of insignia you might see on a uniform or a flag — nor does it gibe with what we know about the nomadic tribes that lived in the area at the time the formations apparently were built.  Why would nomads stop for the period of time needed to build such enormous formations, only to leave again?

I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t watch TV shows or read books about “ancient astronauts” or lost Atlantis or theories about the alien genesis of the Sphinx or the pyramids or Stonehenge or the Nazca Lines in Peru.  But there’s obviously a lot we don’t know about the Earth and human history in the period before the early Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations developed.  Perhaps there is a rational explanation for all of these formations that were visible only from the air, and investigation will uncover a period of human culture that we aren’t currently aware of that helps to make sense of it all. And if there was a previously unsuspected, higher form of early human civilization that somehow disappeared, we might be able to learn something useful from its downfall.

Or, perhaps, there is another explanation.  The possibilities are intriguing.

One other point.  If you’ve got some spare time, you might decide to spend it searching Google Earth images of the terrain in your neck of the woods.  You never know what you might find.

Losing The Pyramids And The Sphinx

Egypt is the latest Middle Eastern country teetering on the brink of chaos.  Each day brings fresh reports of battles between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and dozens of new deaths on the streets of Cairo.

I can’t fully appreciate the religious, political, and social issues that are playing out in Egypt.  I can understand, however, what a loss it is for the world that Egypt has become a place that is not safe to visit.  It means that many people will never see the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, or the other relics of the ancient Egyptian civilization along the Nile.

That loss is a terrible tragedy.  The Sphinx, the pyramids, and the temples of the pharaonic era are the greatest surviving sites of our ancient past.  They are not merely historical sites, but a tangible link to the early development of human culture.  Their very existence shows what our forebears were capable of, even if we don’t quite understand how they were built thousands of years ago.  Their immense age, and their equally immense significance, are the reasons why standing in their presence on the Giza plain is such an awesome experience, and why so many people, myself included, have long dreamed of making the journey to Egypt to have that experience some day.

But not now.  Although the pull of the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings is enormous, it is not irresistible — not when a visit puts you at risk of finding yourself in a mob of angry, screaming men or confronting soldiers ready to fire at any moment.  That means, for me at least, that the pyramids and Sphinx are lost for now, and I don’t know when, or even if, they will ever be safe to visit in my lifetime.  That reality makes me very sad.

Ancient Brews

I had no idea that a curious branch of archaeology is focused on reconstructing the hooch guzzled by the ancients . . . but it seems like a very worthwhile scientific endeavor.

Using high-tech chemical analysis of residues found at ancient archaeological sites — and some scientific guesswork — the researchers have developed the actual recipes that ancient civilization used in their brew.  In the town of Jiahu in China at approximately 7000 B.C., for example, the locals quaffed a beer-wine-sake concoction made of grapes, grain, hawthorne fruit, and more.  The Norsemen circa 3300, on the other hand, were tipping back a brew made of bog myrtle, honey, lingonberries, and bog cranberries.  (Hey, nothing like bog myrtle and bog cranberries to really add that extra kick!)

Of course, alcohol was an essential element in the development of human civilization.  Some archaeologists believe that the reason early humans stopped their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and decided to settle down is that they wanted to raise grain crops that they knew could be fermented in all kinds of interesting ways.  Studying the development and consumption of alcoholic beverages therefore seems like a good way to learn something meaningful about human civilization.

Interestingly, Dogfish Head Brewery will actually be producing some of these ancient recipes for our modern consumption.  That development will allow us to determine for ourselves the most important element of these antique cocktails:  how do they really taste?   And, upon careful reflection, would the ancients probably have rather cracked open a Budweiser?

 

Dumb And Dumber

Are humans becoming dumber?  Some researchers think so, and argue that if a citizen of ancient Athens suddenly appeared in the modern world, they would seem unusually intelligent, well-balanced, and emotionally stable.

The arguments for an increasingly dim-witted human race are based upon a kind of reverse Darwinism — the world is now so safe, the theory goes, that the mutated dunderheads among us aren’t killed off and culled out, and therefore survive to reproduce where they wouldn’t have survived before — in combination with studies that show that certain common substances, such as fluoride in the water supply, pesticides, and processed foods, reduce intelligence.

Color me skeptical.  There’s no way of knowing whether the ancients were, in general, smarter than modern humans, but the arguments in support of that position seem pretty thin.  There seem to be medical studies that support just about any health conclusion you might want to reach, and if modern pesticides, fluoride, and processed foods are bad, there’s no telling how many people from ancient cultures were exposed to lead, poor sanitation, uncured illnesses, and other conditions that could impair brain functioning.

The natural selection argument doesn’t work, either.  If anything, the modern world is more dangerous to the witless than were the days of yore, where the village idiot could happily live out his days in the same tiny hamlet, guzzling mead and eating turnips.  The big killers — wars, plagues, and other pestilences — tended to kill the bright and the dull in equal measure.  Now, technology gives the imbeciles countless ways to knock themselves off, as the Darwin Awards recognize.  Why do you think modern devices feature so many unnecessary warnings?  The only reason lawnmowers caution people not to lift the lawnmower and use it to trim hedges is that some fool actually tried to do so at some point.

We citizens of the modern world may not all be rocket surgeons, but I see no evidence that we are any more stupid than our ancestors.  I don’t think the human race is quite ready to go the way of the Morlocks and the Eloi just yet.

Our Extraordinarily Ancient Artistic Impulse

Using dating techniques that examine the build-up of calcium carbonate, scientists have concluded that artwork found in caves in Spain is more than 40,000 years old.  That makes the particular artistic statement — a red dot, found on a wall that features a series of depictions of hands rimmed by red paint — is more than 4,000 years older than the previous oldest known piece of human art.

The age of the art is extraordinary, because it stretches back to the dawn of human immigration into Europe, which is believed to have occurred about 41,000 years ago.  To give some context to the amazing age of the paintings, consider that the first known civilizations didn’t begin until about 6000 years ago, and that if you went back in time 4000 years from today you’d be at a point centuries before the birth of King Tut.

Discoveries like this make you wonder how old human expression truly is, and when it first was displayed.  Is cave painting the earliest form of human artistic expression, or is another form even older?  When did humans first sing, or dance around the fire pit, or create some form of music?  How soon after language was developed did the first poet or storyteller come into being?

The days of these early humans were consumed by hunting dangerous animals, foraging for food, building fires, creating tools and clothing, and avoiding predators — and yet they spent time creating art on the walls of their cave shelters.  The fact that the artistic impulse is found in such early humans says something very powerful about creativity and the artistic urge as a fundamental part of human nature.

Ample Asses And Ancient Graffiti

Anyone who has been to Pompeii knows that the ancient Romans were accomplished graffiti writers.  So were many other ancient humans, from the cave-dwellers forward.  More and more, bits of ancient graffiti are being translated, and the results are classic — and often hysterical. The writings tell us something meaningful about our ancestors.

For example, how can you not smile about the unknown Greek guy who wrote, 1,500 years ago, “Sydromachos has an ass as big as a cistern.”  Who today hasn’t felt a similar urgent need to point out the reality of an acquaintance’s enormous rump?  It reminds me of a co-worker who, years ago, saw a newly hired employee who formerly had been an intern and who, in the intervening period, has put on a few pounds in the posterior.  With perfect timing, the co-worker scrutinized the colossal keister, turned to a friend, and said in an awed voice:  “That’s not the ass we hired.”

The ancient graffiti writings confirm that there is something basic and immutable about the human condition that remains lurking below — temporarily hidden, perhaps, by the trappings of civilization and technology, but always ready to appear at an opportune moment.  It’s reasonable to conclude that, for so long as human beings survive as a species, a big butt is always going to be worthy of a wry comment.