Archive for the ‘Ancient World’ Category

Early Earth’s Stinky Perfume

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

gunflintia fossilYou know how some people like to sniff babies, but sometimes they sniff them at just the wrong time and get a whiff of a recent… ahem… “deposit,” instead of that newborn scent?

Well, early Earth had a newborn smell of its own… and it definitely wasn’t a sweet baby scent. Rather, advanced imagining techniques from scientists have brought us some interesting news about early Earth’s, uh… stench.

How much do you enjoy the smell of rotten eggs?

Because if you’d happened to have lived 1.9 billion years ago, you would have loved it. You’d have had no choice!

Scientists studied fossils taken from rocks around Lake Superior, Canada, and discovered bacteria that used to eat the outer shells of a larger type of bacterium called Gunflintia. In order to digest the hard shell, the happily dining bacteria needed to use oxygen atoms from salt found in seawater—perhaps better known by the term “sulphates.”

This process created gaseous carbon dioxide and released it into the atmosphere, along with the byproduct of—you guessed it—hydrogen sulfide. And that delicious byproduct is what creates the commonly known “rotten egg smell,” which anyone who lives near a water treatment plant in the modern age is highly familiar with.

Now, apparently this didn’t mean that the whole world stunk, but anyone with a delicate sense of smell would have certainly noticed the distinctive aroma.

gunflintiaAnother interesting fact about the discovery is that it revealed the earliest known fossil record of “one kind of creature eating another creature,” says Martin Brasier, a paleobiologist at London’s Oxford University. "This is the group that was producing the oxygen we now breathe."

Everyday Objects, Part Three: A Brief History of Showering

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

ancient showerThese days, we take our morning showers for granted… hot water, soap, and suds galore… but what did folks do in the days before modern plumbing? And who came up with the idea of pouring water on our heads instead of just sitting in it?

We’re smarter than we give ourselves credit for, sometimes—ancient man’s original showers weren’t indoors, but then again, they didn’t have to pay for plumbing, either. Ever heard of a little thing called a waterfall? Ah, yes. The original shower.

But as we developed a taste for a roof over our heads and the comforts of convenience, ancient societies used jugs of water poured over the head after washing—though this was done more to rinse after a bath, rather than the sole method of cleaning.

While the elite classes of Egyptians and Mesopotamians in ancient times had “shower rooms”, these weren’t showers the way we think of them—more like servants pouring water over their heads. So, effortless in the way a modern shower is… unless you’re the servant.

roman bathThe first version of a “modern” shower appears in the historical records with the ancient Greeks! In addition to “showering” from streams of water that poured from spouts on the sides of public fountains, the Greeks were known for having large, communal shower rooms—precursors to the popular Roman baths of the later era. The ancient Greeks had the ability to build extensive aqueduct and sewage systems that allowed water to be pumped through lead pipes and drained afterward.

Some of these rooms were found in archaeological excavations at Pergamon, and evidence shows that both elite and common people were able to access these facilities. Still, bathing and showering wasn’t considered an everyday occurrence until the Romans built their baths across the Mediterranean (and even into England!).

showerSadly, after the decline of the Greeks and the fall of the Roman empire, these advanced water supply and sewage systems fell out of use—and nothing as complex would appear in society again until, believe it or not, the 19th century!

Everyday Objects, Part Two: Rock, Paper… Ancient Scissors?

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

spring scissorsBelieve it or not, people have been losing pairs of scissors in their homes for thousands of years! Sadly, for most generations, the concept of a dollar store didn’t exist, which meant that losing your only pair of scissors made life just that much more inconvenient.

But really, who made the first pair of scissors? Who thought that would be a good idea? And did the first scissor-maker try using two knives first?

While we don’t have all the answers, the belief among historians is that scissors were first invented around 1500 BC by the Ancient Egyptians or the people of Mesopotamia.

The earliest scissors in the archaeological record are “spring scissors”, which means that the object is made of two bronze blades that connect at the base by a thin, flexible piece of curved bronze. This “handle” held the blades aligned and allowed for some give so that the blades could be squeezed together and come apart afterward.

The Romans, being overachievers, decided they could make a better pair of scissors and changed the design in 100 A.D.—just a bit—to create pivoted scissors. These were bronze or iron implements that used a pivot point for the blades, allowing them to cross between tips and handle. scissors

Not sure what a pivot point is? Go find your own scissors (if you can!) and take a look at where the blades are joined. That’s a pivot point!

It wasn’t long before this variety became the common form in Rome, with China, Japan, and Korea adopting the pivoted scissors afterward. These were the direct ancestor of today’s modern scissors—even though Europeans didn’t bother to change their scissor variety until the 16th century.

The next time you pick up a pair of scissors? Thank the Romans. Your office products have a long history!

Everyday Objects, Part One: Use the Fork, Luke!

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

Toasting_fork_dropHow many of us have heard snarky kids shouting, “If God wanted me to use a fork, why’d he give me fingers?” when told to use their table utensils? While the common table fork seems like a fairly modern invention—considering that, yes, we do have fingers and they work pretty darn well when it comes to picking stuff up—it’s a little older than you might think.

That said, compared to the knife and spoon? The fork is the baby of the family.

Archaeologists have found evidence of forks being used in Ancient Egypt, though it’s thought that these forks weren’t part of the place setting. Instead, they were used to pick things up off platters, out of fire pits, or from cooking cauldrons… and diners used their fingers and their own knife to actually eat.

There have also been bone forks found in Bronze Age Qijia Culture burials (2400-1900 BC), and some late Chinese dynasty tombs, but contextually there’s little confirmation on whether these were used the same way the Egyptians used them or if they were actually used to put food to mouth.

When the Ancient Greeks had their heyday, forks became a little more common in the dining room (for men, the andron) as a serving utensil—getting a little closer to the mouth, but still not exactly a fork in the way we know it. Romans called forks the furca, which means “pitchfork”—representative of the implement’s three-pronged, small pitchfork design.

As the Roman Empire progressed, smaller forks made of silver and bronze appeared on tables of the privileged, though the particular use of these items varied according to social class, the food being served, and customs of the area… sound familiar? (Ever tried to figure out which is the shrimp fork and which is the salad fork?) By the 4th-century AD in the Byzantine Empire, table forks were far more common.

fork iran 8th cOver the centuries, usage spread, though it was still more typical for upper classes to use forks as opposed to the “common” people. In the 1600s, it wasn’t unusual for a guest of the French court to attend dinner with a special box called a cadena, which contained his own fork and spoon!

But here’s a fork fact that you probably don’t know: In Perrault’s famous fairy tale “La Belle au bois dormant” from 1697 (ie. "Sleeping Beauty”), the original French text describes how each fairy attending the baby’s christening is given an exquisite “fork holder” as their party favor.

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