Archive for the 'Discoveries' Category

missy-ga’s 24-hour blogathon

Saturday, July 29th, 2006

Google Answers researcher missy-ga was one of the first and is one of the greatest of the GARs.

For the next 24 hours she's joining others in a 24-hour Blogathon. I can't manage to keep awake that long, but she's blogging away every few minutes posting a fabulous collection of recipes.

I've never had the pleasure of tasting missy's cooking, but I've heard great things about it more than once in the researchers' forum.

The purpose of the blogathon is to raise money for charity, and missy is raising for the National Kidney Foundation. Her best friend has Alport's Syndrome and is waiting for a kidney transplant.

Her kids are the photogenic assistant chefs, and I gotta say, the Gingered Mango-Habanero Sauce is looking mighty good!


So mouse on over to Missy's “Someone's In The Kitchen With Moozie” blog, and consider clicking on the “Sponsor this blog!” link.

A Bit of Color

Sunday, June 25th, 2006

Once in a while a story about history may bring up a side issue.

One of those issues for me, though probably of little import to others, is the popular misconception that the Classical World was a world of gleaming white marble temples, palaces, and shining white cities.

Most every reconstruction of Roman and Greek architecture found online shows either the “white marble” model, with perhaps ‘just a touch’ of color or ignores color completely. Most offline resources do also. The fact that the classical world was colorful to the extreme, seems to be one of those dirty little secrets horded by the few out of fear of destroying this great public misconception. Archaeologists and historians both know that the Hellenistic World was colorful and painted to the hilt, yet little of this information makes its way to the public. One of the reasons has to do with the seeming public refusal to accept Greece and Rome as being garish. ( so were Egypt and Mesopotamia ) The “pure white marble” temple concept is so deeply ingrained, that when we do hear about it, we soon tend to forget it.

Much of our Western architectural heritage is based on the concept of “white stone” buildings in the classical world. Washington D.C. is a living monument to the 18th and 19th century vision of classical architecture, as is the Tomb of Victor Emmanuel in Rome. And they are beautiful in their own way. But, the Greeks and Romans would have considered them incomplete. A building without its color was not yet finished.

Now then, picture the gleaming facade of the United States Supreme Court Building in all its white marble glory, just as the majority of us picture the temples of ancient Rome.

supremecourt.jpg image courtesy

Next, picture it with purple columns and perhaps the body of the building painted purple as well, capitals and other architectural elements highlighted with gold , red, blue, green and polished bronze, or with natural color, if the element is a statue.

Now, you have something visually close to a Temple of Jupiter as it might be in a provincial capital somewhere. The temple in Rome would be even more splendid.

Corinthian capitals on the columns may have had a special treatment of their own. This description of a Corinthian capital comes from, “In the Cause of Architecture.”

“The Corinthian cap in our illustration was exhumed at Olympia in comparatively good preservation. It is difficult to find data upon this subject, and this example is of particular interest, inasmuch as it demonstrates the application of the decorative principles of color alternation, and color separation. The foliated husk of the angle volutes and the lower tier of leaves are painted blue; the centre tier is painted yellow, the yellow is also carried into the centre of the rosette, and on the stems of the lower leaf tier, realizing, as nearly as the motif permits, the appearance of alternating color. Unity in color effect is achieved by the method of separating bright colors with a fillet of another color, red serving this purpose in its outlining of the detail. This well-balanced distribution of red contributes much to the stabilizing of effect.”

Can you imagine the the U.S. Capitol Building all decked out in the national colors of red, white and blue, with a little gold trim thrown in for good measure? – – – It is difficult, isn’t it?

But that is the way Greeks and Romans would have done it. Until the Capitol Building displayed all its appropriate colors, it was not finished.
Above images found at this website where there is also much more about ancient architectural color

It is claimed Augustus said, “I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.” Now, he may have not meant that phrase literally, according to some sources. But if he had, few would have noticed the difference. Both marble and brick would have been plastered over and painted. The finished result looking much the same.

What that phrase may also mean is that Augustus reigned over a peaceful age in Roman history, the heart of the time known as the Pax Romana. Before Augustus, Rome was republic of brick, disparate and fragmented. After Augustus, Rome was an empire, solid like marble.

But I digress. I do that so easily.

I’m old and allowed to.

The concept of a “white marble” Greco-Roman civilization and the architectural purity it stands for, is now so deeply imbedded in our collective mind, a sudden realization that the cultural “mother” cities of Athens and Rome were extremely garish, and even repulsive, by the standards of the modern “Classic” code we have, based on our original misunderstanding of it. (scratching head here)

The temples and public buildings of the time exploded with color. The finest of white marbles were whitewashed over and painted. Marble was used because of its strength and durability rather than for its beauty. (though that did change somewhat later in Roman history when ‘colored’ marbles began to replace painted surfaces. ( more on that later )
Color overwhelmed everything. Classic, and increasingly “corinthian order” public buildings glowed in lime green, red, blue, purple, and once in a while a fairly neutral “sandy” color for large, flat surface, architectural elements.

The beautiful, green patina, bronze, equesterian statue of an emperor we see today, didn’t exist then. The bronze was not allowed to show. The entire statue would have been painted to look as natural as possible. Horse too.

Even the triumphal arches which today stand in white splendor were once quite different. The Arch of Constantine, which is the largest in Rome – “… that the arch was completed with precious pictorial and metal decorations. The dominating colours were gold and purple, the colours of the Empire.” – Quote From

The numerous portrait busts of Roman men and women we find jammed into our museum displays, all glittering so pure and white under the specially designed lighting, probably at one time looked more like this, with full color overall.
bust.jpg Please note that this is a ‘composite’ statue ( more later ) where polished stone of various types replaces paint as the color medium. Only the hair and face would have required painting. – – – image courtesy

In fact, finding a Roman sculpture surviving with any paint on it at all, is such a rare thing it makes the news. – From Discovery Channel

The only two artistic architectural developments of any significance made by the Romans were the Tuscan and Composite orders; the first being a shortened, simplified variant on the Doric order and the Composite being a tall order with the floral decoration of the Corinthian and the scrolls of the Ionic combined.

However, innovation did start as early as the first century BCE, with the invention of concrete, a stronger and readily available substitute for stone.

Tile-covered concrete quickly supplanted marble as the primary building material and more daring buildings soon followed, with great pillars supporting broad arches and domes rather than dense lines of columns and flat architraves. The freedom of concrete also inspired the colonnade screen, a row of purely decorative columns in front of a load-bearing wall. These decorative columns were usually painted a contrasting color to the wall behind. Later in Roman history, contrasting colors of marbles were used.

The tiles covering the concrete were themselves often large slabs of marble, plastered over and painted. In fact, the banks of the Tiber River, within the confines of Rome, were entirely paved with slabs of marble, and concrete being used to eliminate the dips and bumps for a smooth paved surface.

In smaller-scale architecture, concrete’s strength freed the floor plan from rectangular cells to a more free-flowing environment. On return from campaigns in Greece, the general Sulla brought back what is probably the most well-known decorative element of the early imperial period: the mosaic, a decoration of colorful chips of stone inset into cement. Now even Roman floors took on color of their own.

One of my favorite stories about the great “need to paint” attitudes of the Classical World comes from Greece. It seems an architect actually wanted white marble to show in a shrine. So, the building was constructed of white marble, plastered over, painted white, and with small brushes the lines and markings of fine white marble were painted on the new surface. Actually imitation “painted” marble finishes were not unknown.

Now back to that change from painting to colored marbles that took place later in Roman history. Just as color has always had symbolism, stone, especially colored stone, developed its own symbolism as the Empire grew, and both sets of symbols meshed.

As Rome’s conquests of the Mediterranean basin continued, it gained access to more colored stones such as yellow marble from Tunisia, purple marble from Turkey, along with red, green, and black marbles from Greece. Egypt was the richest source of color. It provided red, gray, and black granite, basalts and sedimentary stones, even black volcanic glass (obsidian). Sardonyx was imported from as far away as India.

Color in stone served a variety of purposes just as it did in painting. Exotic color stones were suitable for sculpture or buildings representing non-Roman subjects like barbarians, Africans, Germans, etc.

Materials could be combined to create composite statuary. ( see image above )

And perhaps most of all, the use of colored stone was a political reminder of the areas under Roman subjugation. It was this last usage which facilitated the rapid changeover from paint to colored stone in buildings representing the state shortly after the end of the Republic. The color didn’t change, only the material used to display it. This use of color was no longer merely decorative, it now signified the Power and Authority of the Roman State. ( the anthropology of ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’ is a subject all its own )

As Rome moved away from painting to allowing more ‘naked stone’ to show, it never did give up the color. If the new piece of stone couldn’t give the color depth needed or wanted, they still painted.

From Hollywood movie sets to public architecture, I’m sure the “white marble” concept of the Classical World is here to stay. That does not make it right, but like many other things in popular culture, though it is wrong, it won’t go away.

Till later


Greece – The Arrival

Monday, June 19th, 2006

What a stink?

I always thought that a ‘low Nile’ or the Port of Alexandria could get quite ripe. But Piraeus, the Port of Athens, has outdone them all. What a stench? I think every sewer and chamber pot in Greece has been emptied here.

And to top it all off, are these enormous clouds of incense trying to cover it all up. Simply makes a more disgusting mix to contend with.

Why is there all this activity at what is normally a dead port city? And why wasn’t I told about it before I left Alexandria?

Today, the Emperor Nero arrives to participate in the Olympic Games. And even though the Greeks have rules against non-Greek participation, that will make little difference to our Emperor.

My timing in life is still as interesting as ever. I calmly leave Alexandria only to arrive in the nearly abandoned Port of Piraeus, with luggage, servants, wine shipment in tow, while being chased by the entire Eastern Roman War Fleet fifteen minutes from my backside and closing fast.

Because of the Emperor’s presence with the fleet, all non-fleet vessels in proximity are considered possible dangers. The Romans have a knack for acting first and asking questions later.

Since I sailed straight for a recognized harbor instead of trying to outrun them and hide, I doubt if they will bother me now when they do arrive and I’m already tied up. Maybe ask a few questions?

However, I don’t think I will bother unloading today. Whether being chased by Roman warships or not, putting thirty barrels of high quality Egyptian wine in plain sight, on the dock, in front of fifteen-hundred thirsty, Roman soldiers would be pushing my luck a bit, even with Isis watching over me. – – – And the ladies in my party also appreciate not being put in plain sight, on the docks, too.

Not that they will stay out of sight, they just don’t want to be “on the docks.” I’m sure they will make themselves plenty visible, as long as several feet of water and a removed gangplank lie between them and their quary. And, of course, my daughter will be leading the parade.

That cheap incense is getting disgusting. And it is cheap too. Smells more like burning varnish than perfume. The Emperor is not going to like that, in as much as he is used to having saffron spread on his palace floors to perfume the air and flower petals mingled with perfumes being dropped from secret compartments in his ceilings, greeting him with cheap incense will not make a good impression whatever. They have also tried to make the quay look somewhat attractive with a few garishly painted statues and free standing columns, but nobody can miss the desolation here. Piraeus used to be the main port of Athens, and one of the busiest in the world, until its destruction at the hands of the Roman Sylla more than a hundred forty years ago.

Today, other than a ship or two and a very small fishing fleet, Piraeus is now mostly a garbage dump for Athens, one of the main reasons for the stench.

Why the Emperor chooses to land here is beyond me.

I think I will go ashore while the others wait.

… … …

… … …

Now that was an interesting excursion. When the Emperor landed, he passed less than ten feet from me. He was fair-haired, with weak, watery, blue eyes, a fat neck and chins, pot belly, and he was covered with spots. His smell was terrible even at that distance. He wore a short tunic, a dressing gown without a belt, a scarf around his neck, and no shoes.

It is said he goes around in that garb, in public, in Rome. Well, so much for that. But being on those ships for a few days, in all this heat, and without the ability to bathe has left our esteemed emperor perfectly ripe enough to pick. And splashing all that perfume over himself to hide it – -maybe I understand both the cheap incense and the location for the landing a little better now.

Just last year there was a serious plot against him. It was called the “Pisonian Conspiracy” and it was led by Gaius Calpurnius Piso. When it was uncovered, nineteen executions and suicides followed along with thirteen banishments. Piso and Seneca were among those who died.

There was never anything close to a trial. Anybody Nero suspected or disliked or who merely aroused the jealousy of his advisers, was sent a note ordering them to commit suicide.

So, he left Rome in charge of the freedman Helius and came to Greece to display his artistic abilities in the theaters and compete in the Olympic Games. Who will dare beat him in those races? Or not applaud his performances?

Our agent has finally arrived and informed us that he has obtained a large traditional Greek style country house for our use. I am anxious to compare it with our spacious Egyptian villas.

He said it is on a hill and commands a wonderful view of Athens along with its Acropolis. I hope I can stand looking at that bright red temple all the time. I knew that the Parthenon was built of white marble so was surprised when I first saw it from a distance as we sailed in. It is painted bright red, with blue, white, and gold trim, while its sculptures are painted to look as natural and lifelike as possible. It seems as though the Greeks hate naked stone. Everything sports a coat of paint. In that, they are exactly like us Egyptians.

Though we Egyptians have a much more sophisticated sense of what goes best with what.

In Rome, the Temple of Jupiter was once painted purple, the marble Temple of Castor and Pollux glimmers with red columns, capitals in blue, and a yellow tile roof, while another temple, just outside the walls on the Appian way, has purple columns, red capitals, and the body of the building is lime green. This last colorful gem is in a style just getting to be popular in that city, called Corinthian. It originated here in Greece, along with Doric and Ionic styles, which have already been used extensively.

They say the color of Rome will knock your socks off. Not a piece of bare white marble to be seen anywhere.

After all, they are very close to being barbarians, which could explain their bad taste. Hellenistic culture may now dominate the world, but it is still only an upstart in the ol’ civilization game.

Well, tomorrow we will begin moving the wine and household goods and in a couple of days another ship will arrive with more wine and the rest of the staff.

What a first day in my new home country.

Now it is a lovely gentle Greek evening in the harbor of Athens. The sky above is deep blue and the stars glitter. A soft breeze gently whispers by and – – “by Osiris’ missing member, what is that stench?” – -The air stinks. The water stinks. The soldiers stink. The incense stinks, and the Emperor smells like a piece of rotten fruit.

So, take a deep breath.

The ancient and noble Trading House of Digshotep, after more than a thousand years, has arrived in Greece.

And here we will prosper.

Or my name isn’t Phillip Digsopter.

Till next time


The Sohi – just who are they then?

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

We have now reached the end of this series about daily life in the stone age. But how do I know so much about the Sohi people?

I was there.

I've watched the women harvest the sago starch, and I have eaten it. I've paddled across the lake in a hollowed-out log, and seen the rows of ancestral bones on ledges above the lake. I've sat round a fire inside a hut telling stories with the men, hearing about their lives and the lives of their ancestors and their legend of how the lake was formed. And I've negotiated the mountain ridges to cross to the villages in adjoining valleys, and I've seen the scars on the men where the spear went in and the scars where the spear came out.

The real name of these people is not the Sohi. I coined that name because, in order to provide a full picture of daily stone age life, I've had to combine what I know about several different tribes. But they are all genuine stone-age tribes, all from Papua New Guinea, and mostly from the Southern Highlands region (hence, Sohi) where the Foi people live on the shores of Lake Kutubu.

These stone-age tribes were amongst the last to discover westerners. There are still some of them alive today who remember the first contact their societies had with early explorers and prospectors. Although western life is rapidly penetrating and reshaping their societies, even today there are women harvesting sago with stone tools, and men hunting with bow-and-arrow. Even today, canoes made from hollowed-out trees are plying the lake, although they may now sometimes have an outboard motor clamped onto the back.

I visited the Papua New Guinea highlands twice in the 1980s, and trekked into the most remote parts that I could reach. The original purpose of my trek was for a wilderness adventure, but it turned into a cultural adventure instead.

Although by then these people had seen some government officials and plenty of missionaries, many of them had not encountered recreational travellers. One day as I walked along a remote path, burdened down by a heavy backpack, I passed the sago-harvesters that I mentioned in the first article. When I saw that they were using a stone tied to a stick with twine, my mind was blown as it dawned on me that I was witnessing the last remnants of the stone age.

Much of the content of these posts, therefore, is from my own recollection. But some of it is not, because the practises had already died out before my visits.

Organised raids on other villages were no longer occurring – the missionaries had seen to that. I know about them from a remarkable book, an autobiography of a tribal chief who witnessed the arrival of “white man” and tells about life before and after their arrival. It is fifteen years since I read this book, so my memory might be a bit vague on some of the points, but I think I have the gist correct.

The book is Ongka: A Self-Account by a New Guinea Big-Man, narrated by Ongka himself and translated by anthropologist Andrew Strathern. It's easily readable by lay people such as myself, and it's one of the most fascinating books I've read.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it. It brought back many fantastic memories for me. And thanks to Digs for his Daily Life In Ancient Egypt series, which inspired me to write these posts.

Daily Stone Age Life – miscellany

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

Now and then the Sohi people will hold a celebration. Everyone will decorate their bodies with the brightest colours that they can muster, using body paints made from earth pigments. Flowers are added, and plumage from brightly-coloured birds completes the decoration – the more the better.

Three days of merriment will follow, to celebrate a marriage or a successful harvest or perhaps just the passing of the seasons.

It’s a different story when someone dies. If it is an adult, there will be sadness all round, but only a widow will go into mourning. She will coat her body with blue-grey clay for many months, and when she removes the clay she is ready to once again be courted. If it is a child who has died, all the mothers will mourn together for a week, singing a haunting, wailing, mournful song for many hours each day.

Most of the rest of the time, the village is a happy place. The children play games with sticks and stones: throwing the stones, piling them up, pushing them around a path with sticks, jumping over them, and so on. The boys will mess about with small bows and arrows, and will chase animals. They may even occasionally catch a small bird or a lizard. The girls will make little bags by knotting scraps of bark twine, offcasts from the twine with which the women have made their shoulder-slung bags. The children also play in the stream near the village, or by the fire.

The stream flows into a larger river, which (due to the heavy rainfall) can quickly swell to a ten-metre-wide swirling torrent. Above this river the Sohi have built a bridge.

The basic design is that of a suspension bridge. The trunks of two trees form a tower at each end, from which plaited lianas (tough but flexible vines) form the catenary. A lattice of bamboo forms the walkway, with gaps filled in by woven lianas.

The bridge is strong and robust, but the materials from which it is made have a limited life and it will need to be repaired frequently, and the bridge re-built every fourteen years or so.

Beyond the bridge is the forest – the jungle – and the Sohi do not like to stay there after dark. Particularly, they will not sleep overnight on the path, for fear of falling trees. After dark is the time for the women to be in the family house, and for the men to be in the longhouse, telling stories around the fire, and being ready just in case tonight is the night chosen by those from a nearby valley to attack.


That’s the end of this group of articles about what it’s like to live in the stone age. In the next post, I will tell who the Sohi people are, and where this information comes from.

Daily Stone Age Life – trade and war

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

The Sohi villages are set in rugged mountainous country, the kind that would nowadays be described as “inaccessible”. Of course that’s not quite true – there are ways to get in and out of the valleys, but the combination of steep mountains, rocky slopes and slippery ground make it a major undertaking.

Each valley contains one or a few small villages, but it can be a full day’s trek to get to the next valley. A woman will occasionally undertake the journey, laden with produce to trade. She will also carry food for herself, wrapped in palm leaves – perhaps some taro root that was cooked the previous evening and has been kept warm overnight in the ground oven.

The woman sets off early, and will stay one night before returning home. Hopefully by then she will have traded all her produce. She stays with friends and family, for she was born in that village.

The Sohi people don’t lack for much, so what would she trade her produce for? Well, stones for one thing. The Sohi villages are in primarily limestone country, and limestone doesn’t make very good tools compared to the hard chert stone that comes from the coast. This valuable stone is traded from village to village, passing through hundreds of hands before it arrives at its final destination.

Sea shells are also valued, being the currency by which a “bride price” will be paid. Decorative feathers, too, are sought. Occasionally a small quantity of salt is available that has been traded up from the coast, and this will be exchanged for a large quantity of produce – for the Sohi people, in their hot climate, get little salt in their natural diet and do crave it.

For much of the time, this limited trade is the only contact between the villagers in one valley and those in the next. So difficult is it to pass from one valley to the next, and so infrequent the contact, that different languages have evolved in each valley.

If the Sohi have experienced a few years of good harvests, and are strong and healthy and well-equipped, they may take it upon themselves to raid a village in an adjoining valley. Armed with spears and bows-and-arrows, they will make their way up and over the mountains, hoping to surprise their victims while they sleep.

It’s quite likely that the attacking party will be repelled, because they are limited to the weapons and ammunition that they can carry with them, and are limited in numbers. But in the event that they are successful they will raid the village, rape some of the women, and capture some young women as brides to take back to their own village.

It’s brutal behaviour, but it does spread the genetic material of the successful tribes, and it does prevent genetic degradation due to the intense inbreeding that would otherwise occur in these isolated societies.

So now we see why it is the women who travel from valley to valley to trade produce for stones, because they are returning to visit the village from which they were kidnapped many years previously.

The aim of the attacking party is to stage what is effectively a smash-and-grab raid; they are not aiming to inflict casualties. Similarly, those being attacked are primarily concerned with halting the raid rather than inflicting casualties. Nevertheless, deaths do sometimes occur and the deceased will be carried back to his own village.

More common are spear wounds and arrow wounds. Many a Sohi man can point to a scar where a spear went in, and usually also to a scar where the spear came out. If the spear tip has lodged in the flesh, it will usually cause less injury to push it right through than to attempt to pull it back out (which would cause its barbs to trigger much more internal bleeding).

Injuries unrelated to the battle can also occur, commonly broken arms or legs. These will be wrapped with a herbal poultice and the victim will be rested until they recover. Or not. If the wound and the dressing turn a putrid brown colour then everyone knows the victim has only a few days to live, and the victim knows that their bones will soon be joining those of their ancestors on the rock ledges above the lake.

Tribal warfare is not the usual state of things. Most of the time the Sohi channel their energy into growing crops, looking after the pigs, building huts, foraging and hunting for food, then cooking and eating the food.

But there is recreation too, which I’ll mention briefly in the next post.

Daily Stone Age Life – Sohi Food

Monday, June 12th, 2006

The Sohi people who live by the lake are fortunate to have a varied and nutritious diet, helped greatly by the availability of fresh fish. Others who live away from the lake are not so fortunate. Nevertheless, there’s still a wide choice of food.

The main staple food is sago starch, harvested from felled sago palms that the tribe planted many years previously and carefully nurtured. Taro root is also a staple, usually cultivated but occasionally growing wild.

There’s not a lot of protein in their diet. It comes from fish, and also from grubs, insects, small birds and rodents. The grubs and insects are obtained by foraging, the rodents by trapping, and the birds by shooting with a bow and arrow – a bamboo bow with a twine drawstring, and a very straight hardwood arrow with a very, very sharp tip.

It’s not easy catching birds this way, and they don’t yield much meat, so they don’t form a large part of the diet. But a bird is not caught just for food – the feathers of the bird (and often the entire wing) are worn proudly on the head as a sign of prowess. The bigger and fancier the feathers, the more admired the wearer will be.

Most of the food is baked in an underground oven. Stones are heated in a fire, a hole is dug, and a layer of hot stones is placed in it. Next comes the food, wrapped in palm leaves. Water is thrown in to keep everything moist, and dirt is heaped on top. Two hours later a steaming baked dinner is ready. It will be eaten using the fingers. There are no spices, but the nutty-tasting grubs add interest, and the slivers of rodent meat “taste just like chicken”, although of course the Sohi don’t know this as they have never seen a chicken.

The mother implores the children to eat their greens so that they may grow up to be strong. Greens are eaten with most meals, and don’t need to be grown as they are available for the picking. There are some trees whose leaves are edible, and a clover-like plant grows pretty-much everywhere.

Dessert is usually nuts and berries, but tonight there’s also papaya. The papaya trees can sometimes be coaxed to grow around the village, and the children are experts at bringing down a papaya by slinging a carefully-aimed stone at it.

The crops are cultivated in heavily-tilled earth, hunched up into square beds raised above the level of the surrounding ground. In this way, and for reasons we don’t yet fully understand, the Sohi achieve yields slightly in excess of what we would be able to grow on the same land.

The Sohi discovered crop rotation long ago, and on one side of the village are crop-beds that are being left fallow this year. Further up the hillside they are clearing some more land for agriculture. They cut down the trees, leave them for six months to dry out, then set fire to the whole area and plant the crop immediately afterwards. It’s not at all unusual to see a fire raging on some distant hillside, but it doesn’t matter: the heavy tropical rain that arrives every afternoon will put out any burnoffs that threaten to turn into wildfires.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the pigs. Although the Sohi keep domestic pigs, and may also trap the occasional wild pig, pigs are only eaten on ceremonial occasions.

Once every few months, there will be a great feast. Sufficient pigs will be killed, each with a single blow to the head from a heavy club. They will be cooked on spits and in the underground ovens, and eaten along with the usual staple foods. At these occasions, everyone gorges themselves for hours until they couldn’t possibly eat any more. There’s enough pig for everyone to have as much as they can eat, provided they don’t feast too often.

Coming next: Trade and war

Ancient Egypt – Another Exodus

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

Phillip was stamping his feet and blowing into his hands. The winds whipping into Alexandria from the sea were bitter. The ports of this Roman occupied city were as busy as they had ever been.

One of the reasons for this was the number of old and established Egyptian business houses that were in the process of taking advantage of Rome’s enlightened trade policies and establishing branch houses throughout the Empire.

That is where I come in. Our family is an ancient one and we have the largest and most famous winery in Egypt. There has been a small export market due to buyers sending the product out of the country. When we found that the prices for our product in other regions of the Empire was near top tier, we decided to eliminate the middle man and go out on our own.

So, here I am, Phillip Digsopter, a scion of an ancient and noble Theban family, off to do business in Athens.

What do I know about living in Greece? Do they even have a history? They seem to have come on the world stage so late. Myth says they claim descent from the Palace Civilizations of Crete. Others, such as the Dorians, claim to come from the North?

And since I, as an Egyptian, am forbidden to live in our own capital city, reserved for Greeks, Romans and foreigners only, I will go live among them.

I wonder if they’ll call me “Digs?”

Seems like everybody in the family has been stuck with that nickname for 2000 years?

Till next time, when we begin a series about ancient Greece. It will sort of be like two soap operas, because the Egyptian history will continue also.

The third soap will begin when we discover that while all this is going on in the Roman and Egyptian worlds, on the other side of the globe, a different type of ancient culture was developing. The Malay had entered the Philippines.

P. Digsopter

Daily Stone Age Life – The Lake

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

This Sohi village lies at the outflow of a large lake. It’s a beautiful sight, with its clear water and its surrounding forested mountains. The Sohi people travel about it by canoe – but these are not the kind of canoes that you might have paddled in at Scout Camp.

Each canoe is made by hollowing out a single massive fallen tree. It takes a week of energetic hacking and scraping with a stone axe, before the top of the fallen log and most of its inside wood has been removed, and the log starts to resemble a canoe. Now it is also light enough for a team of men to drag it to the lake for final hacking and balancing.

The sides and bottom of the canoe are left about two inches (50mm) thick, because if too much wood is removed there is a risk that a patch of bad wood will be encountered, or an axe-blow will fall in the wrong place, and a hole will open up which makes the canoe useless for anything except firewood.

The finished canoe is rough but functional. If the shape of the log causes the canoe to be slightly curved, a large rock is strategically placed inside to redress the balance. The canoe can now carry four or more people with ease, plus their tools and harvested crops.

Around much of the lake edge, there are high limestone cliffs riddled with ridges and ledges. A kilometre or so from the village, the bones of ancestors have been placed on the ledges, high up, as an ever-present reminder of those who used to be alive. One ledge is packed with skulls, another ledge holds all of the ribs, and another holds bones from the limbs.

The men travel to their fishing grounds, where they spear their catch using a very sharp almost needle-shaped stone bound with twine to a wooden shaft.

In the middle of the lake is an island, containing a small Sohi settlement, perhaps a dozen family huts and a men’s longhouse. Those who live on the island have used sticks and reeds to construct various forms of fish trap, from which the fish can be snatched by hand.

Just near the canoe landing-place is a patch of smooth mud, on wihch the children have been drawing with sticks. Some of the drawings appear to be part of games of various sorts, and others are representational. The drawings relate to the lives of the people – we see houses, villagers, canoes, fish, plants, trees, pigs and of course fire. Some of the children have tired of drawing, and are amusing themselves rolling stones around a set route by pushing them with a stick.

At the far end of the lake is a third Sohi village, and just beyond its houses are its gardens. In the next part of this series I’ll talk about the food of the Sohi.

Daily Stone Age Life – The Sohi Village

Saturday, June 10th, 2006

The Sohi people live at the edge of a lake, near its outflow. There are a hundred and fifty people in the village. They all live in houses constructed from roughly-hewn wood, bamboo, palm leaves and grass thatch.

The women and children live in family huts, alongside the family pigs which are highly prized and will be sheltered indoors. The men of the village all live together in a long hut.

The huts are neatly-constructed. The basic design is one that we might recognise as a gable-ended shed. The major structural members are made of wood, the minor structural members of bamboo. Dried leaves are woven between the bamboo to make the house reasonably windproof, and the grass-thatched roof is waterproof.

The huts last about fourteen years, before they need replacement due to deterioration of the structural elements. The new men’s house will be built alongside the old one, then the old one will be demolished. The women’s houses are also rebuilt, but fourteen years later the replacement house may well be for the next generation, for the women are likely to give birth during their teens.

The huts are elevated above the ground, so that a cooling breeze may circulate underneath. This also keeps away many ground-borne parasites, and as a result the Sohi people appear to be in generally good health. There are no stairs to the “front door”; instead there is a notched, sloping log which requires a little balance and agility to negotiate. The “front door” may simply be an opening, or may have a rectangular panel that can be moved into the opening to block it off.

Each hut will have a fire pit: an area of baked clay where a fire may be lit. The men’s longhouse will have a number of these at regular intervals along the house. Although cooking is generally done on an outside fire, the indoor fires will be lit in the evening and will be kept burning throughout the night. The smoke keeps away the mosquitoes that carry malaria.

The men will gather round the fires to tell their stories – stories about what they’ve been doing, all the news and gossip, and also myths and legends about their past. They talk of their ancestors, and their land, and how things came to be. This shared cultural memory, the stories passed from generation to generation, still contains fragments from their distant past.

Next: The lake.