Archive for November, 2007

Argonauts: Not Just a Canadian Football Team (ca. 3rd C BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

The Argonauts aboard their ship, the Argo, as they sail with Jason to find the golden fleece. Unfortunately, the entire escapade is a myth.

Often considered synonymous with ‘adventurer’ or someone who has exceptional sailing skills, the truth of the matter is: the Argonauts were not real people.

The Argonauts were a group of heroes from Greek mythology who, before the familiar story of the Trojan War apparently took place, accompanied the hero Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece in the kingdom of Colchis. These men were known as Argonauts simply because they sailed on a ship called the Argo, which was named for its builder, Argus. Literally, “Argonauts” translates as “argo sailors.”

During the period when the tale of Jason and the Argonauts was supposed to take place, a prehistoric tribe of people is known to have lived in the area, and thus when historians attempt to pinpoint exactly who the Argonauts would have been – if they were real – they will sometimes refer to the heroes as ‘Minyans’. The Minyans were real, the Argonauts weren’t – which tends to be where the confusion sets in.

The Argonauts consisted of approximately 50 men, and the team was supposedly assembled after an oracle was received by King Pelias. What many people don’t realize, however, is that the heroes who made up the group of Argonauts are not faceless characters – a relatively comprehensive list exists of all the men who were a part of Jason’s Argonauts, and among them? An extremely familiar individual: Hercules.

Hercules actually played quite a central role in the tale of the Argonauts, and it was his idea to appoint Jason to be their leader in the first place. However, Hercules did not complete the quest for the Golden Fleece with the rest of the Argonauts – after his companion Hylas was abducted by nymphs while the Argonauts were on land, Hercules was distraught and began searching for Hylas, unable to concentrate on anything else. Eventually, the Argonauts were forced to set sail without him, leaving Hercules behind to continue the search for his companion.

After the quest for the Golden Fleece, the remaining Argonauts either went back to their lives or onward to other journeys in future myths. Some familiar names from mythology who are typically counted among the Argonauts are: Admetus, Atalanta (though this is disputed, as she was female), Castor and Pollux, Laertes (the father of Odysseus from Trojan War fame), Philoctetes (who later fought in the Trojan War), Nestor (an old, wise leader during the Trojan War), and the famous figure who descended to the Underworld to find his dead wife – Orpheus.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Ancient Roman Mapquest (ca. 13th C AD)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

ancient-roman-map.jpg – This is a section of the Tabula Peutingeriana which shows the Adriatic Sea, southern Italy, and the Mediterranean coast along Africa.

The Tabula Peutingeriana, or “Peutinger Table” is an ancient Roman road map that actually shows the road network of the entire Roman Empire – all the way across Europe, Asia, and in parts of North Africa. The map was created in the 13th century by a monk from Colmar, and was drawn on a scroll of parchment.

The map itself was made up of eleven sections assembled together, and when laid out it measures approximately 6.75 meters long – and all evidence points to this map being a Medieval reproduction of an original that was created in the 3rd or 4th century AD. The art of the map is very schematic and stylized, with highly distorted landmasses that seem to suggest the map’s use was primarily for the information on distances between settlements – which is given right on the map – and recognition of major intersecting roads, rivers, mountains, and so forth.

Some of the Roman Empire’s most important cities – Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome – are denoted on the map with different symbols to indicate their importance, and the lack of the Iberian Peninsula in the western area of the map seems to suggest that the original copy of the map had a twelfth section that would have included this portion of the Empire.

The Tabula Peutingeriana seems to have been based on ‘itineraries’, or meaning the destination points along the Roman roads, since that would have allowed travelers to know how far they needed to travel – approximately – between each town. The roads are roughly parallel in their representation, and each city and its size/comparative scale is demarcated by one of several hundred place symbols – these can be anything from small building icons to elaborate portraits of the large cities.

Another portion of the Tabula Peutingeriana, showing the city of Rome on the right, represented by a crowned figure sitting on a throne.

An interesting feature of the roads along the map are little ‘hook’ marks that appear every so often – these hooks were actually representations of rest stops. The distance between each set of hooks indicated one day’s worth of travel, and sometimes this would include a little icon of a building that showed there was an inn or hotel at certain locations where a traveler could stay – more luxurious accommodations were shown by icons that had large courtyards in the picture.

The people who would have used this map were either travelers – typically those who were making a long journey or who traveled often – or couriers, who spent each and every day traversing the roads across the Roman Empire and beyond.

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Tomorrow: The REAL Argonauts

This Scorpion Really Was King (ca. 390,000,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

The giant sea scorpion lived almost 4 million years ago, and would have been larger than a human. The claw itself is 46 centimeters long – that’s almost half a meter!In a quarry about 200 miles east from Frankfurt, Germany, archaeologists discovered the fossilized claw of what would have been an 8-foot long sea scorpion during its lifetime approximately 390 million years ago. The claw was 46 centimeters long – nearly half a meter! – and it is fairly certain that the ancient creature would have spent its time paddling along in rivers or swamps.

That isn’t to say that it couldn’t walk on land. According to the Biology Letters journal which published the report on the claw, the ‘Jaekelopterus rhenaniae’ probably only lived in water because it was easier to get around that way, considering the construction of its body – an arthropod of this size probably had some trouble walking effectively on land.

Considering the size of the claw and its resultant comparison – the sea scorpion would have been larger than a human being – researchers are now more convinced than ever that creatures such as spiders, crabs, insects, and other living things that are tiny in today’s modern world were much, much larger in the past. At the very least, this ancient sea scorpion exceeds the record for known arthropods by nearly a half meter.

These ancient sea scorpions existed during a time in the history of earth when the atmosphere’s oxygen levels were significantly higher than they are today – and some scientists believe that as a result, this helped creatures such as the giant arthropod and other invertebrates to develop super-sized bodies.

This diagram shows the size of the ancient sea scorpion in comparison to a modern-day human – the scorpion would have been about 8 feet long… not something you’d really want to come across on a leisurely swim.

However, over time as vertebrate predators made their way into the main sphere, larger creatures such as these would have been seen as prey – for plenty of predators, bigger prey is better, which likely resulted in all the larger creatures being killed off first, and the smaller specimens surviving. By the time humans came on the scene, these large creatures had been dwindled down to a much smaller size, which continued until there were only the tiny specimens that are known today.

Although the fossilized claw of this sea scorpion dates to approximately 390 million years old, it is believed that the species actually made its land debut approximately 450 million years ago.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

All Lions Go To Heaven…? Or Maybe Just the Afterlife (ca. 1430 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

A mummified lion was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun’s wet nurse Maia, buried alongside her.

It’s no secret that the ancient Egyptians mummified cats, monkeys, small crocodiles, even things like snakes and birds… but what about larger animals? Say, for example… a lion? Well, it turns out that not only were lions considered sacred in ancient Egypt, but the ancient records that talked about breeding and burying sacred lions weren’t exaggerating! Although no one had previously found a specimen to verify the written record, excavations from a tomb in 2001 certainly changed all that.

A mummified lion – actually one of the largest lions known to the scientific community, and obviously very old when it died in captivity – was found inside the tomb of a woman named Maia, who was the wet nurse to the famed King Tutankhamun. The nurse was buried around 1430 BC at Saqqara in northern Egypt, and was evidently held in very high regard by the royal family.

Analysis on the bones and the teeth of the lion revealed its old age, and that the lion was a captive in the royal household. The association between lions and royalty – particularly the Pharaoh – was nearly as well known as the association between kings and falcons, and plenty of Egyptologists believe that there were probably special animal precincts and sacred cemeteries at various locations in Egypt devoted to the breeding, care, and eventual buried of sacred animals such as lions.

Although none of these ‘sacred lion precincts’ have been found, the ancient Egyptians certainly had a history of setting aside specific areas for animals – for example, the city of Crocodilopolis was specifically devoted to crocodiles and contained a sacred pond for the animals.

The lion inside the Saqqara tomb was found stretched out on a rock, with the body oriented eastward and the head pointing north. Most of the wrappings had been lost, but the positioning and the surrounding context revealed its mummification had been complete at the time of burial – and in terms of the scientific community, the bones represent those of the largest male lion to ever be recorded.

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Tomorrow: Giant Scorpions!

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