Archive for March, 2013

Ancient Avian Extinction in the Pacific

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

The problem of species extinction isn’t a modern-day invention—the story of how the dodo became extinct is probably one of the earliest non-dinosaur examples that everyone knows about, but dinosaurs and dodos aside, extinction has been an issue for… well, as long as humans have been around to mess things up.

A recent report has found that the first humans to settle the Pacific Islands weren’t just exploring and discovering… they were also destroying, and ended up leaving “a wave of extinct bird species in their wake.”

Humans are known for their destructive tendencies on existing species, but usually it’s the land mammal populations that suffer—creatures who are large enough to provide meat and resources. Historians and biologists are well aware that numerous large species in Australia were hunted to extinction about 40,000 years ago, and the first North Americans are guilty of the same between 10,000-20,000 years ago.

But when humans trekked their way to the Pacific Islands between 3500 and 700 years ago, they discovered something incredible! A number of bird species had actually evolved to be flightless, fearless, and more than a little rotund. The ecosystems of islands like Hawaii and Fiji had no real predators for these birds, so they just didn’t bother to fly anymore… why would they need to?

Sadly, humans thought this meant open season on the bird species, and hunted many of these species to extinction—and the other species? Well, because humans started burning away trees and natural plant life for the sake of agriculture, the other birds lost their habitats and died out that way.

The fossil record shows the extinction of these species, but until recently that record was rather incomplete. Some rough estimates on the numbers of total bird extinction have ranged from 800 to 2000 species. A study done at the University of Canberra has now pegged a more accurate number to be at least 983 species, and up to 1300.

What does that mean overall? It means that humans arriving in the Pacific Islands were responsible for theextinction of almost 10% of the world’s bird species.
If there’s any good news in this, it means archaeologists now know more or less what they’re looking for in terms of the remains of extinct species—so while these bird species are gone forever, the future may reveal their ancient remains and tell us about who they were and what species they were ancestors to.

Why Spring Cleaning Your Cupboards is a Good Idea

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

Surely if they’re hired Molly Maid, they would have found this a lot sooner…

An archivist cleaning out a basement cupboard at a castle in southwestern England—Sudeley Castle, to be precise—discovered, or rediscovered, a depiction of Apollo Cunomaglos. This version of Apollo was a local Roman deity, and the sculpture is one of only seven known depictions of the god.

The sculpture is thought to be dated between A.D. 150-300, and it shows the god wearing a jaunty conical cap, tunic, and cloak, with a bow and arrow set on his person.

Originally, the statue was found in the 19th-century by the owners of Sudeley Castle, but apparently they did their own spring cleaning and shoved the dusty old thing in a cupboard somewhere… and, like most people who put important things someplace “so I’ll know where it is when I need it”, its location was promptly forgotten and it remained lost for decades.

According to Reverend archaeologist Dr. Martin Henig, author of a book on Roman sculpture that denotes this particular statue as ‘lost’, the “authentication of the subject as Apollo Cunomaglos with his bow and arrows is of major significance in furthering our understanding of Roman religion in Western Britian.”

The statue is currently on display at a Roman-themed exhibition at the castle. Now, that’s all well and good, but just make sure someone doesn’t put it in a cupboard once the exhibit is over so they can “find it later” for study…!

Getting High in Ancient Egypt: Blue Lotus

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

Oh, those Egyptians. They have so many beautiful tomb paintings, papyrus scrolls full of art, and sculptures, and look at all those lovely people holding beautiful white  and blue flowers… they must really love their flowers. Who wouldn’t, right?

But, wait… why are they all holding the flowers to their noses and mouths? Surely everyone wasn’t sniffing their flowers all the time, were they?

Actually, maybe they were, but probably not for the reason you think. Rather, they were likely, uh… getting high.

However, first it’s worthwhile to mention that the blue lotus isn’t actually a lotus. It’s a water lily, but we’ll be using the word “lotus” for the sake of convenience and familiarity. This particular flower was closely linked with the rising & setting sun for the ancient Egyptians, and was the flower belonging to the god of the sun and perfume, Nefertem.

Apparently, Nefertem brought a blue lotus to the sun god Ra in order to help “ease the suffering of his aging body.” The perfume of the flower was thought to have a healing quality, so the Egyptians liked to sniff it at parties, when they felt they needed healing, or as part of rituals… however, the exact details on this are still under debate.

Some studies were done on the blue lotus to see if it had any psychotropic or narcotic effects, and conclusions were a little shaky—one thought was that the flower was infused with wine to change its chemical content, and after a period of fermentation, the wine would be drunk. However, the lack of a control group meant the results were unreliable, so it remains unknown if this theory holds any weight.

That said, it seems fairly well accepted that the blue lotus has a somewhat hypnotic effect at low doses, along with being a mild stimulant for the libido.

Whether used for perfume, for healing, just to get high, or to get one’s mojo back, the ancient Egyptians definitely had a use for the flower… there’s a reason it shows up in their artwork so often!

It’s a Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger… Celt God, CELT GOD!

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

The ancient Celts liked to do things a little differently when it came to their gods. They took one look at the Greco-Roman god Apollo and thought “no way dude, that guy’s boring… pretty sure the god doesn’t look like that.” (What, you don’t think the ancient Celts talked like that?)

Nope, they thought, the god definitely looks like something more… well… four-legged. And pointy-nosed.

In fact, they were so convinced that they named him Moritasgus, which scholars have analyzed and believe means… Great Badger. Or maybe Sea Badger. Either way, he’s a giant badger god of healing.

The god’s epithet (or, what they called him) has been found on four inscriptions at the ancient city site of Alesia, and two of those are what identify him with Apollo. Moritasgus also had a consort named Damona who—in keeping with the animal-epithet tradition—means “Divine Cow.”

The ancient Celts liked to devote various objects to the Great Badger, most of which were models of affected body parts like limbs, internal organs, genitals, and eyes—and archaeologists have also found surgeons’ tools near these votive offering sites, which may suggest that the god’s priests acted as surgeons in their duties to the healing god.

The ancient city site where the inscriptions were found is also the site of a shrine dedicated to Moritasgus, near a spring believed to have healing properties. Pilgrims to the shrine would have bathed in the pool and also journeyed to the god’s nearby temple.

Why a great badger? Badgers do burrow in the earth and re-emerge, which has been thought to symbolize death and rebirth—so it may make sense to give this epithet to a healing god. The concept is also reminiscent of the Celtic belief system’s origins, which were highly animistic.

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