Archive for December, 2010

Woad- Not Just For Warriors Anymore

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

When the Romans invaded Britain, they were confronted by warriors who had painted their bodies blue. The name they were given, “Picts”, actually means painted ones. It was believed that they used dye extracted from the woad plant to dye their skin and to tattoo it. Reports state that the woad was mixed with stale human urine in order to get it to stain the skin more visibly and to stay on the skin longer. But what was woad, and was it really used to dye the skin of ancient warriors?

imageWoad is a flowering plant that was found in many parts of Europe and Asia. Once it was found to have use as a dye it was cultivated in many other areas and can now be found throughout most if not all of Europe. When woad plants are processed, they produce indigo, a natural dye that colors fabric blue. While it is the same chemical as that produced by “true indigo” plants, the color is different than those produced by “true indigo”. The color was so superior that woad-dyed fabric became part of sumptuary laws and was reserved for royalty.

To extract the dye from woad, the leaves were stripped from the plant. This was normally done in July and August. The leaves were torn into pieces and steeped in water that was hot but not boiling. The water was cooled and the leaves strained out. The mixture needed to have something added to it in order to raise the pH. This needed to be done when the liquid was at the right temperature or it could destroy the blue pigment. The mixture needed to have air added to it and then it needed to sit in order to let the dye settle out. It could then be added to fabric in order to dye it or it could be dried in order to store it.image

Woad is also used in other cultures for reasons that have nothing to do with dying fabric. For example, it can also be used to make tea that can treat a wide range of medical conditions including sore throats, influenza, measles and several other diseases. It is also used as a preventative for other medical conditions such as epidemic meningitis, certain types of hepatitis and some types of cancer. The tea is made from the roots, not the leaves.

But was it used to dye skin? Many individuals who take part in medieval recreations do use woad to dye their skin. It is capable of tinting the skin and takes some time to fade. It is caustic, however, and if it is put on incorrectly or used to tattoo the skin, it can burn it. The skin would have a very difficult time healing properly if woad was used to color or tattoo the skin. It also tends to flake off of the skin when it is applied incorrectly.

Woad is still being grown for a variety of reasons. Many cultures still use it to dye fabric although they do not do it as frequently as they did in the past. Woad is also being used in the production of printer ink. Despite its popularity, some countries have declared it to be a noxious weed and are actively attempting to eradicate it.

A European Settlement in North America that Predates Columbus

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

Many people believe that when Columbus sailed the ocean in 1492, his discovery of the Americas marked the first time someone from Europe had set foot on the continent. But this was actually not the case. The Norse managed to beat Chris here by approximately 400 years and they left behind evidence of their life here that was not discovered until 1960.image

The settlement is known as L’Anse Aux Meadows and it was discovered in 1960. The ruins were discovered by Helge Ingstad, an explorer from Norway who was involved in a project to map Norse settlements. He and his wife discovered the site and were able to prove that the Vikings had settled here well before Columbus began his voyage. Although the precise age of the site is not known there are a lot of similarities between this site and others found in Greenland and Iceland which have been dated to around 1000 AD.

The settlement was discovered in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Due to its status as one of only two known North American Viking settlements the area was declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the remains of the settlement were not discovered until 1960, the name had been appearing on maps of the area ever since 1862. The area where the settlement is located is extremely open and has many meadows. This is one thing that may have made it appeimagealing to early Viking settlers.

There are a few theories as to why L’Anse Aux Meadows may have existed. One theory is that this was where Vikings who fled Greenland may have settled. It is close enough to Greenland that they would have been able to reach the area somewhat easily.

Another theory is that the settlement was part of a land known as Vinland. The Norse may have settled L’Anse Aux Meadows in order to get a foothold in Vinland, a land that was described as being to the west of Greenland. It is unknown why the Norse did not choose to settle in the area permanently. Evidence exists that shows the Vikings likely only lived in the area for a short time and then left to travel to other destinations.

There have been several periods of excavation at L’Anse Aux Meadows. The first was in the 1960’s and was conducted by the Ingstads. The second was in the 1970’s. During these two excavations a total of eight buildings were uncovered. The walls of the buildings were made of turf or sod that was placed over a framework of wood. Surprisingly, some of the largest dwellings have more than one room. A wide selection of tools was also discovered and remains of some of the foods that may have been eaten at the settlement.

This site is valuable because of the large number of artifacts that have been discovered as well as giving us an idea of what kinds of tools and equipment were used by the settlers in this area. Archaeologists have also managed to unearth a smithy that still contained a forge and some slag, an area where carpentry was performed and an area where boats could be repaired. This was important to the Vikings as travel by water was central to their way of life.

A Look at the History of Foot Binding

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

Many people have looked at beautifully decorated silk shoes from China and wondered if they were for a child or a doll. They are surprised to find that these pairs of shoes, some of which are only a little over three inches in length were actually meant to be worn by grown women. But how could a woman get her feet that small? Extremely small feet were achieved through a process known as foot binding.

Foot binding was first practiced in about the 10th century. The process was a lengthy and dangerous one and many girls actually died from having their feet bound. The arch was often broken and the toes folded underneath and bound into place. This was started before a girl’s feet had time to fully form. The average age that girls began the process was anywhere from four to seven years of age. If a girl was lucky, the process would be performed during the winter. Cold weather could numb the feet and help to ease some of the pain. image

The process of binding the feet to make them as small as possible would take years to complete. They were unwrapped often and cared for. It was not uncommon for gangrene to set in and for the flesh to rot in some areas. Foot care took place daily in rich families but may have only taken place once or twice a week in families that were less financially well off.

The ideal length for a woman’s foot was three inches long. Women who had longer feet were often considered less desirable and may not have been able to marry as well as women with perfectly bound feet. A woman who had her feet bound could walk on them although it was difficult. In fact, women who were from a higher social class were often more likely to have their feet bound since it showed that the family was affluent enough to afford servants.

There have been many stories that explained the origin of foot binding. One legend states that Yao-niang, a consort of the ruler Li Yu had performed a dance on feet that had been wrapped in silk cloth. This type of foot wrapping was very similar to the toe shoes that ballet dancers wear today. It became desirable to have feet shaped like a crescent moon.image

Although it was believed that all women in China had bound feet this was not always the case. Some ethnic groups only bound feet enough to narrow them and did not break the bones in any way. Manchu women did not have their feet bound at all after the year 1644 due to the fact that the Emperor had forbidden it.

Foot binding in some form was practiced for approximately 1000 years. Women who were born as late as the 21st century had their feet bound although the practice was outlawed in 1949. Some women who had bound feet did remove their wrappings but this also caused great pain and left the women disabled. There are still women who are living in China today who have the distinctive small feet that were once so prized for a thousand years.

Why Some Ancient South American Skulls Have Such Strange Shapes

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

imageArchaeologists who worked at unearthing skeletons from some Central and South American archaeological sites noticed that some skulls were strangely shaped. While some individuals believe that this is proof that extraterrestrials visited Central and South America, the truth is that many cultures practiced head binding. The discovery of the Starchild skull is one case where modified skulls were believed, by some, to be proof of extraterrestrial life.

The process of changing the shape of a person’s head is done for cosmetic reasons. Some of the changes that can be made to a skull include making it flatter, elongating the skull or even creating a conical shaped head. The process begins early, usually in infancy. A new baby’s skull is soft and has not completely fused as it has in an adult. Therefore it does not take as much effort to reshape a child’s head into a more socially acceptable shape.

The process varies from culture to culture and usually uses materials that are plentiful and easy to come by. Boards, baskets and cords woven from native fibers are often used to change the shape of the skull. For example, an elongated skull may have been bound between two boards in order to cause it to lengthen. The process can be a lengthy one as it may take several months or even years for the head to achieve the desired shape. Once the process has been completed, the skull cannot change back and has been permanently altered.image

Altered skull shape was often believed to be connected with desirable attributes. Some cultures believed that if a head was elongated, for example, it would mean that the individual was more intelligent than other individuals who had shorter heads. Other cultures believed that if a person’s skull shape had been altered it would make it easier for them to communicate with the spirit world.

The act of changing the shape of an individual’s skull is not limited to Central and South America. It has also been found in other ancient cultures such as the Egyptians. Some of the pharaohs had altered head shapes. One of the most famous is Tutankhamun. His head had been elongated using head molding. Egyptian skulls dating from the third millennium BCE are believed to be some of the most ancient examples of modified skulls but archaeologists have also unearthed altered skulls that are as old as 45,000 BCE.

Many cultures have used some sort of permanent body modification as a rite of passage or to show that a person belongs to their ethnic or tribal group. It was also often performed as a way of showing what social class an individual belonged to as it was often the offspring of wealthy or important individuals who were cared for enough that they were able to survive the modification process. Scarification, tattooing and permanent body modification techniques are used to do this and, while less common now than they were in the past, many of these modification techniques are still being practiced even now.

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