Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Carnivalesque XXXIII

Carnivalesque XXXIII

Hello, all, and welcome to the 33rd edition of Carnivalesque Logo. It's been a while since I've been able to really enjoy looking at blogs, so the theme for this Ancient/Medieval version is "some really cool stuff I wish I hadn't missed the first time 'round." With any luck, you may have missed some of this, too.

Even though it's not always considered history, I thought I'd start out with some prehistorical discoveries. First, and this is absolutely not historical, but I heard it on the news this morning and thought y'all might be equally amazed, here be dragons? Seriously, has anyone done any work on whether tales of dragons and other mythical creatures might have been discoveries by early fossil hunters?

To get to something a bit closer to our time period, Ancarett points us to prehistoric fashionistas. Meanwhile, both The Antiquarian's Attic and The Cranky Professor report on the discovery of a support village for Stonehenge. It might be Neolithic, but I don't think any ancient or medieval historian would debate that these big honking stone circles and the debates over their purpose and their builders haven't affected concepts of pre-Roman civilizations. Not to mention their importance to Asterix and Obelix! And, it appears, to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

Digs at more recent archæological sites are also in the news. Over at Memorabilia Antonina, Tony Keen recounts the possibilities, likely and imagined, of finding a Latin Library at Herculaneum. If you're interested in whether or not Alexander the Great was an alcoholic -- and many of my students are, for some reason -- World History Blog has been reading up on the possibility For those of you who are really interested, there's an even older article out there, I think either in The Lancet or in The New England Journal of Medicine that is an attempt at a forensic report based on what our ancient sources tell us about Alexander's life and death. IIRC, the result was that he was probably not poisoned.

I'd like to stay in chronological order, but really, this time I can't. You'll see why. Moving forward to the Middle Ages, though, there are some really interesting tidbits. My favourite all-around cool thing is this very cool video of a medieval church being moved, lock, stock, and barrel -- again, posted by Cranky Professor. And what's a church without saints? Or at least, saints' days? Over at Executed Today, we find that Saint Brice's Day in 1002 was not a particularly good day for Danes living in England. While you're there, you might also check out somewhat macabre tale of Frederick of Isenberg. Ick.

On a possibly less gory note (if we try to ignore those 4000 Saxons, at least), Magistra et Mater looks at the management secrets of the Carolingians. I don't completely agree, but it's good reading, and I'm very glad to have found her blog, because, well ... another blogging female Carolingianist!!!! I found her through Jonathan Jarrett over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe. Jonathan also has a post up that is drawing some great comments. In the post, he addresses that perennial question: "what is our purpose?"

Apparently, most of our purpose these days is to talk about Beowulf. The movie, not the poem. My Long Distance Whatever and I saw it the other night. Take two early medievalists who are also sff fans and put them in front of a CGI-assisted film version of a poem they've both taught (and he's actually taught an entire course on the damned thing) from a historical perspective and see what happens. And no, X, we did not bore each other to death! Actually, we did both have to cover our eyes a couple of few times. Neither of us found too many nits to pick, possibly out of Gaiman-loyalty, possibly because for me, at least, the CGI really made it a bit alien to me, and I just felt the film was ... detached? from the poem. There's a lot to say, but really, I think some of our colleagues have done better jobs. First, The hype at In the Middle. Then,Dr. Virago asks, Hwaet the Hell? and later, tells us what she really thinks! Meanwhile, over at Got Medieval, LL Cool Carl waxes philosophic about Angelina Jolie's CGI breasts. No critique of modern views of the medieval could be complete without Matt Gabriele's review at Modern Medieval. And, of course, someone had to help with all the work -- I started collecting these when the film came out, but trust Scott Nokes to have beat me to the punch and posting. What I've missed, he's found. Enjoy!

As a final message, Ralph Luker over at Cliopatria would like me to remind you that The 2007 Cliopatria History Blog Awards are underway. Please check them out and nominate/vote for your faves.

Update: Links now fixed.


Anonymous said...

Yo, dude. I believe about fifteen years ago, I read? heard? a story about the theory that ancient Greeks/Cretans (tee hee) came up with the Cyclops through finding old elephant/mastodon/etc. skulls. Elephant's skulls have a large hollow in the middle of the forehead, whither the sub-human-hearing-range rumblings they make. Also, their tusks were apparently harvested long before any of these people found the skulls, so, voila! Cyclopseses. Cyclposi. Whatever. This theory was propounded by an archeologist who was surprised to dig up some old fossilized elephant and/or mastodon remains on, I think, Crete. Anyway, it may be worth researching... yer cousin in PA

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Cool! And nice to see you here!

Sharon said...

Cool stuff!

(*cough* The link to Ancarett's post is broken *cough*)

Michael McNeil said...

Notice was posted some time ago via the submission form for this Carnivalesque, but Impearls' recent posting on the “Constitution of the Roman city-state” didn't show up here.  Is the submission form system working?

As to your question, you might like to read this review from Science (Vol. 288, No. 5469 (19 May 2000), p. 1180):

Ancient Reasons for Monsters
A review by Mott T. Greene

The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times
Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2000. 381 pp. $35, £21.95. ISBN 0-691-05863-6.

We are aware that the past has a past of its own. We know that the civilizations of antiquity had their own versions of history and prehistory. We also know of the Greek and Roman fascination with giants and monsters, and we are familiar with their versions of a "deep time" filled with battles between such creatures. What we have not heard before is that this mythology had an empirical foundation. The Greeks and Romans believed in giants and monsters not least because they had found their bones.

It is Adrienne Mayor's well-documented contention that the ancients constructed their deep time as we have constructed ours, through the discovery and analysis of the fossil bones of extinct creatures. If they told stories about these fossils that differ from our own, they examined the fossils with the same techniques we employ today: comparative anatomy, skeletal reconstruction, paleogeography, and museum display.

The First Fossil Hunters is a historical and scientific detective story of the first rank. Mayor, a classical folklorist, brings together two lines of investigation that rarely meet: modern vertebrate paleontology and the study of classical Greek and Roman texts. Her results are as striking as they are entertaining. Aimed at a broad nonspecialist audience, the book will engage specialists with its serious purpose and extensive documentation and will please all readers with its profusion of maps, photographs, and drawings.

The first chapter, "The Gold-Guarding Griffin," is a showcase for Mayor's methodical ingenuity. Using inscriptions and art works, archeology, and the testimony of Greek writers, she reconstructs the ancients' understanding of the griffin. She determines that it was thought to inhabit only the gold-mining region known in antiquity as Issedonian Scythia (on the inner Asian frontier of China), that it was described as a quadrupedal and perhaps wingless bird with a fierce beak and armored head, that it nested on the ground and guarded its eggs and young, and that, though the creature was greatly feared, no informant ever claimed to have seen a living one. Then, using the tools and concepts of vertebrate paleontology, Mayor makes the case that this griffin is none other than Protoceratops, the dinosaur made famous by Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s. (His expeditions to the Gobi Desert and its environs collected abundant and widely distributed remains of Protoceratops along with eggs and nests attributed to the species.) How the author works her way to this conclusion makes a wonderful story, and I have no intention of spoiling it here.

Mayor then moves on to her major task, a discussion of Greek and Roman fascination with the remains of extinct mammals. Among the examples she considers are several proboscideans (mastodons, mammoths, dwarf elephants, and Deinotherium), woolly rhinoceroses, and giant species of cattle, giraffes, and bears. She shows us how Greek and Roman myths may be sifted for paleontological clues. Surveying the ancient geography of battlefields where "gods and giants" were supposed to have struggled, she maps these to known locations where giant mammalian fossils have been collected in abundance. She documents a 5th-century B.C. "bone-rush" to collect and display these remains--virtually identical to the "bone-rush" of the 1830s when European paleontologists swarmed over the same Greek sites to collect the same megafaunal remains.

Most of the bones collected in antiquity ended up in temples or cabinets of curiosities (though the Emperor Augustus apparently had his own paleontological museum on the isle of Capri). This is not much different than the fate of such bones before the end of the 18th century of the modern era. Indeed, the ancient mythic interpretation of the bones--bridging the gap between deep time and the historical past with stories of ancient catastrophes--differs little in spirit from the attempt to understand the surficial geology of Europe and the bones of the extinct creatures discovered there with reference to the great flood of Genesis, as was common until the 1830s.

I salute the author's refusal either to condescend to the ancients' study of fossils or to rationalize away their subsequent fabulations. The comparative anatomy of giant vertebrates was then and is now a difficult scientific study. The important point is not whether the Greeks and Romans were "correct" in their interpretations of fossils, but that the productive and serious study of fossil remains was extensively carried on in antiquity. Demonstrating this is what Adrienne Mayor has accomplished in her rich, spirited, and eminently readable book.

The author is in the Honors Program, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA 98416 USA. E-mail:

cardinal_wolsey said...

Interesting carnival -
(ahem) a "Page not found" on the Got Medieval links, and I was so looking forward to reading about Angelina Jolie's CGI breasts!

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Notorious Ph.D. said...

Oh, goody! Monday & Tuesday are days for my presentation at Fellowship Institute, after which I plan to take at least 24 hours off. So now I've got reading material!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for linking me to my buddies Asterix and Obelix!

Tony Keen said...

Nice birthday present, to be back in the Carnival.

squadratomagico said...

You've been tagged!