Archive for January, 2008

An Ancient Glass Mosaic from Caesarea (600 A.D.)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

This 1,400-year-old glass mosaic was discovered in a palace located in northern Israel’s Caesarea.

Discovered in a palace from the ancient city of Caesarea, a 1,400-year-old glass mosaic is thought to be the only one of its kind to exist in the current archaeological record.

The city of Caesarea was located on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee, and had successive occupations during the Roman period and the Byzantine era, and it also contains some ruins from the Crusades. The history of the palace that was being excavated, where the mosaic was found, is relatively unknown – the owner of the palace has yet to be discovered, and the time of the building’s original construction remains to be seen. However, judging by the history of the surrounding area, the occupants were likely Christian.

The gleaming glass mosaic found here is unique because of the style of tiling used in its construction: there were two motifs used, both crosses and eight-petal rosettes, while some tiling was done with gold glass and other portions were done using the traditional, multicolored & opaque glass tiles.

Another view of the glass mosaic from Caesarea.

The mosaic’s preservation over the centuries was incredible, likely due to the way the panel fell: face down onto the earth, which protected the blue, green, and gold shades from damage and fading.

What the panel was originally used for is unknown – and whether it belonged to a window, or was simply a decorative piece, was unclear from the excavation context. Regardless, the mosaic is a one-of-a-kind discovery, and a clear testament to the high quality of craftsmanship at the time.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Meet Galileo’s Daughter (1600-1634 AD)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

Galileo’s daughter Maria was his oldest child, from whom 120 letters survive that she wrote to her father during her lifetime.

Sister Maria Celeste, born under the name Virginia Gamba, came into the world on August 16th, 1600. She was the daughter of the now-famous astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Galileo Galilei and a woman named Marina GambaMarina actually bore all three of Galileo’s children, but the two never wed. As a result, Virginia and her sister Livia were considered illegitimate and unmarriable – and so Galileo entered his two daughters into the San Matteo convent of Florence just after Virginia’s 13th birthday.

Galileo wanted his daughters to have a good life and to be cared for, and since they could not marry, life in a convent was the best option at the time. Unfortunately, the girls were considered too young to make the decision to enter a convent for themselves, and Galileo was met with significant resistance from the church authorities. After a time, Galileo was able to obtain special dispensation from the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini – who just so happened to be an admirer of Galileo’s work – and in 1613, his two daughters were placed in the San Matteo convent of Arcetri, Florence.

In 1616, Virginia realized that the life of a nun was truly what she wanted for herself, and proceeded to “take the veil”. She chose the name of Sister Maria Celeste – young women were expected to take a new name, symbolic of their new devotion – which represented both her reverence for the Virgin Mary, and her father’s passion for astronomy.

As Galileo’s scientific books began to stir up controversy among leaders of the Catholic Church, father and daughter began composing letters to each other, an activity which likely sustained Galileo through some of his darkest trials. While very little is known about Maria Celeste’s actual life, about 120 letters have survived – written between 1623 and 1634 – that she wrote to her father while in the convent. Unfortunately, only one side of the story survives – after Maria died, the church authorities burned Galileo’s letters to his daughter, not wishing to retain the writings of someone considered to be a heretic.

Galileo drew up a horoscope for his daughter after she was born, probably just for fun, since it involved complex mathematics and dealt with planetary rotations.

The picture of Maria that emerges from these letters is of a caring, loving daughter, who was not only constantly concerned with her father’s well being, but who also seemed to nearly match him in intelligence and wit. She often prepared her father’s manuscripts, a feat which must have been remarkable to accomplish inside the convent – under the rule of the very church that accused her father of heresy. However, Maria saw that Galileo was a devoted man of God whose scientific discoveries clashed in no way with his religious beliefs – yet, in 1633, Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy.

For a time, Maria served as the convent’s apothecary, and was able to send various remedies to her father, now living in Tuscany, for his ailments, and managed to appeal to him on more than one occasion to help the convent’s upkeep – the convent of San Matteo was extremely poor, as the nuns had no means with which to feed themselves or repair the buildings. After notifying her father of various problems, Galileo even took it upon himself to ensure that the convent clock was running properly at all times.

When Galileo was convicted of heresy, he was sentenced to house arrest in Arcetri – which happened to be near enough to the convent that he could see its outer walls and hear the bells each day. Another portion of his sentence had been to recite the seven penitential Psalms once every week for the next three years, which Maria Celeste took upon herself to perform for him – however, it wasn’t long before she contracted dysentery and died on April 2nd, 1634, only four months after her father’s return to Arcetri.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard




The Gods Want You to Wash Your Hands (ca. 4th C BC)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

The head of a statue of Hygieia, the Greek goddess of hygiene… and the moon.

Apparently, the ancient Greeks were concerned more concerned about cleanliness and bacteria that they’re given credit for! In ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Hygieia was the daughter of the god Asclepius – the god of medicine and healing – and was associated with preventing sickness and the preservation of good health. Essentially, she was the goddess of cleanliness, health, sanitation… and the moon, oddly enough.

It’s thought that Hygieia might have had her own cult as early as the 7th century BC, but it is more likely that during this period, the goddess Athena was associated with this title – in Plutarch’s writings, he mentions a bronze statue of ‘Athena Hygieia’. However, the early years of the cult were strictly local, and it was only after the ‘Cult of Hygieia’ was recognized by the Oracle of Delphi that the goddess’ worship began to spread.

It probably also helped that there were several critically devastating plagues in Athens in 429 and 427 BC, which was when the cult began to rise in prominence. Another plague at Rome in 293 BC also helped to secure her position there – the people were desperate for help in the face of such a dire situation, so naturally they turned to a goddess who was supposed to be in charge of health.

The largest temples and centers of worship for Hygieia were at Epidaurus, Corinth, Pergamon and Cos – and in these temples were statues of Hygieia to which suppliants would bring offerings. The Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias noted something very interesting about these statues – he noticed that in one Asclepion he visited, the statues of Hygieia were covered in women’s hair and piece of Babylonian clothes! According to inscriptions, the same types of offerings were also made on the Cycladic island of Paros.

Hygieia was a popular subject for artists from the 4th century until late in the Roman period. A Sicyonian artist named Ariphon, during the 4th century, even composed a hymn in celebration of the goddess, and a number of renowned ancient sculptors were responsible for creating statues in her image – including Scopas, Timotheus, and Bryaxis.

This modern symbol in pharmacy has its roots in ancient Greek depictions of the goddess Hygieia, who was shown with a snake wrapped around her body which was drinking out of a jar she held in one of her hands.

In terms of representation, she was often depicted as a young woman feeding a very large snake, which happened to be wrapped around her body. In a number of cases, the snake would be shown drinking out of a jar that she carried in her other hand – which is the origin for one of today’s modern symbols of pharmacy, the Bowl of Hygieia.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Who – or What – is the Peking Man? – Part 2/3 (ca. 400,000 – 250,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

A view into one of the caves where fossils belonging to Peking Man were found over the course of several decades.

Twelve years passed without excavations at Zhoukoudian. Finally, in 1949, the political situation was stable enough for the work to continue, and work seasons were held in 1951, 1958-60, and again from 1978-80. A surprising number of additional fossils were found during these excavations:

1959: Almost full mandible belonging to an older female.

1966: Frontal and occipital skull fossils, allowing for a complete skullcap reconstruction. The skull fossils found here belonged to the same individual whose bones had been excavated in 1934-36.

Between the years of 1921 and 1966, the Peking Man fossils that were excavated brought the findings to a total of 6 almost full crania/skullcaps; 19 large skull fragments; many small skull fragments; 15 partial or incomplete mandibles; 157 isolated teeth; 3 humerous bone pieces; 1 clavicular; 1 lunate; and 1 tibia.

A look at some of the skull fragments found in 1966, belonging to Peking Man. These pieces are called a “frontal” and an “occipital”.Studies on these fossil fragments then made several conclusions about this ancient man. Peking Man walked upright, like modern humans, and had a similar skeletal morphology – males were between five and six feet tall (about 5’11”), with the women just under five feet (about 4’73”). However, despite all the study done on the physical aspects of the people and examinations of cranial capacity… there is little that can be actually learned about Peking Man from fragments of bone. Instead, it’s the material remains that really makes a difference.

Fortunately, plenty of mammal fossils, ash piles, and other artifacts were found at the dig locations! Around 118 animal fossils were recovered, and reportedly about 100,000 other items were collected from the site – nothing was left behind, just in case it might provide some clue about Peking Man’s background.

The recovered stone tools from Zhoukoudian were made with various types of rock, which seems to suggest an aesthetic appreciation for different textures and densities – everything from vein quartz, to flint, to sandstone, to quartz crystals were used, alone with boulders and cobble to assist in tool creation. The tools were also made using different methods as time progressed!

Peking Man’s tool-making proficiency is often divided into three stages: in the early period, the artifacts were mostly middle to large, and typically made of quartz and sandstone. The flaking technique here is known as ‘block on block’ or ‘anvil technique’ – the large core rock is actually struck against a large, stationary rock (an “anvil”) to remove flakes of stone In the middle stage of tool industry, this manufacturing style was abandoned and a ‘bipolar technique’ was used, a modification of the first method. In this case, the core is placed on the anvil as support, and then struck with another object to function as a ‘hammer’, compressing the stone at both ends and causing the rock to shatter into hopefully usable pieces.

A stone core that would have probably been knapped using one of the early techniques, the anvil technique or direct percussion.Unfortunately, both methods give very little control over the stone and the pieces that fly off it, creating rather dangerous and extremely sharp rock projectiles! Naturally, Peking Man wanted to find something better, and so the late stage of tool making was far more advanced. Tools became much smaller, were higher quality, and semi-translucent quartz was used for most of the objects. The technique used was called ‘direct percussion’: the core is held in one hand, and stuck with a hard hammer stone to remove the flakes, giving the flintknapper very close control of the object and the size of flakes that are removed.

But even more interesting? Peking Man had fire…

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Tomorrow: Part 3 of course!

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