History: A Very Short Introduction by John Arnold


A post from Revise and Dissent archived here. You can add your com­ment on this at HNN.

History VSIAt Leicester there’s a small group of people who will evan­gel­ise to who­ever will listen about the Very Short Introduction series. In recent years the series, pub­lished by OUP has gained the ulti­mate in accol­ades. The format has been ripped-off by other pub­lish­ers. The concept, a pocket-sized intro­duc­tion to the prob­lems of an aca­demic field is easy enough to copy, but there is more to the suc­cess of the series than that. The writ­ing is usu­ally extremely good and History: Very Short Introduction by John Arnold is an excel­lent example.

The book opens with an action sequence. It con­cerns Guilhem Déjean, a man on the trail of Cathars in Languedoc. His arrival in the vil­lage Tarascon sets in train a series of events which leads to the murder of Déjean at the hands of heretics who seek to hide from the Catholic church. It’s a pacey and well-written start that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond film, if James Bond relo­cated to 14th cen­tury France.

The point of the graphic open­ing is to give the reader a piece of the past to work with. Certainly there’s a story to be told, but is that it? Arnold asks “Is his­tory the truth of the past re-told in the present?” In this book Arnold aims to show that his­tory is not syn­onym­ous with the past. As David men­tioned earlier, History is an invest­ig­a­tion and this book tackles the ques­tions of what we invest­ig­ate and how we can do it. He also chal­lenges the reader to think about what his­tory is for, a point to which he returns at the end of the book.
Continue read­ing

More Bosnian Trigonometry


You can read an over­iew of some of the other flaws in the Bosnian Pyramid saga at Revise and Dissent in the post­ing Bosnian Pyramids: Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Atlantis

Thanks, if that’s the right word, go to Doug Weller for passing along a bet­ter map of the equi­lat­eral tri­angle con­nect­ing the peaks of the Bosnian pyr­am­ids. It turns out that Bosnianpyramids​.com is not an offi­cial site, so my meas­ure­ments based on that don’t neces­sar­ily dis­prove the claim that the peaks of the pyr­am­ids mark the ver­tices of a tri­angle with “not one minute dif­fer­ence”. So I’ve looked at this map.


What I’m inter­ested in is whether or not there are three equal angles. The easi­est way for me to check is to meas­ure the lengths of the sides and cal­cu­late from there. What I’ve done is put the map into Google Earth, placed it over the ocean, to ensure I’m meas­ur­ing it flat and meas­ured the three sides. The lengths of the sides will not be accur­ate, but their rel­at­ive lengths will because their lengths will all be out by the same factor.


Measuring the three sides I get:
Sun — Moon : 2563
Moon — Dragon : 2638
Dragon — Sun : 2598
If you click on the pho­tos you’ll see those meas­ure­ments are metres, but in real­ity that’s mis­lead­ing because the over­lay is almost cer­tainly not scaled cor­rectly. It’s just the rel­at­ive lengths that mat­ter because the ver­tical and hori­zontal scal­ing will be out by the same factor.

You can work out the angles in degrees for the tri­angle through the Cosine Rule which will work because it’s inde­pend­ent of units. Alternatively you could use the Triangle Calculator which does the same thing with much less effort. Using this I get angles (con­ver­ted from decimal degrees to degrees and minutes):

Sun: 61º 29′
Moon: 59º 55′
Dragon: 58º 37′

Is that an equi­lat­eral tri­angle?
Continue read­ing

Antikythera Mechanism


I’d heard that an announce­ment was forth­com­ing about the Antikythera Mechanism, but I wasn’t expect­ing any­thing till October. The plan was to read around it when I had time this sum­mer and then appear ter­ribly wise in the autumn. So while Badgerminor at Orbis Quintus and Glaukôpis at Glaukôpidos are talk­ing about it, I still know very little about the mech­an­ism that you can’t pick up from the news­pa­pers. If I get time I’ll read round the sub­ject for autumn, but it’s one of those things which is very odd. Even being able to read it might not solve many ques­tions about its use. Or maybe it will. The pub­lic­a­tion will have more info.

There’s also an offi­cial page from X-Tek, the people doing the scan­ning and an offi­cial web­site for the pro­ject which has an anim­a­tion of the mechanism.

Beyond that there’s noth­ing I can say that Wikipedia doesn’t say already. No photo either because there’s noth­ing on a CC licence and my own pho­tos, if I could find them, are so blurred they give me a head­ache. I hadn’t worked out how to focus inside glass cases when I took them.

Update: There’s now the press release and some com­ments on the let­ter in Nature on line.



Is this a Supernova? Photo by John Barentine, Apache Point Observatory

I picked up the story Ancient rock art chron­icles explod­ing star yes­ter­day, but I don’t know what to make of it. It’s another example of how a news story misses what is so interesting.

Briefly, a talk at the 208th meet­ing of the American Astronomical Society sug­gests that a Hohokam pet­ro­glyph might depict the great super­nova of AD 1006. The rem­nants of this explo­sion can only be seen through a tele­scope today, but at the time it may have been the bright­est star in the sky by a long way. Bright enough to read by. It’s not sur­pris­ing that there are his­tor­ical records of it around the world, but no record of it has been found in North America till now.

The talk relates an image to another pet­ro­glyph depict­ing Scorpius. This is what I find both really inter­est­ing and a bit odd, because I don’t know how they worked out the pet­ro­glyph was a con­stel­la­tion and that it was Scorpius. The pic­ture looks like a scor­pion, but does that auto­mat­ic­ally make it a con­stel­la­tion? If it does then must this scor­pion be in the same part of the sky as the Graeco-Roman con­stel­la­tion Scorpius?

The only con­stel­la­tion records I could get my hands on from the region are the Navajo con­stel­la­tions. In these one part of Scorpius, along with Sagittarius, is part of a man with a staff. The other part is an entirely dif­fer­ent con­stel­la­tion, the Rabbit Tracks. I’ve asked on HASTRO-L and Steve McCluskey has said that there’s no reason to assume con­tinu­ity between Navajo and Hohokam cul­tures, they’re too far apart in time, geo­graphy and eco­nomic pat­terns, so you wouldn’t expect the astro­nom­ies to be similar.

Unlike the Navajo there is no liv­ing Hohokam people so inter­pret­a­tion has to be purely archae­olo­gical. Unfortunately (?) there are thou­sands upon thou­sands upon thou­sands of pet­ro­glyphs in the American south­w­est. Simply pick­ing glyphs to fit a the­ory would be easy, and with such a bright star it would be really really strange if no-one drew it. So the news report tells me noth­ing I can get excited about. It tells me that ancient Americans saw a super­nova which shone around mag­nitude –7.5 but I could have guessed that. The really excit­ing and archae­olo­gic­ally use­ful bit, that it might be pos­sible to identify con­stel­la­tions in pet­ro­glyphs, is com­pletely glossed over.

I’ll have to wait for the pub­lic­a­tion before I can make sense of it.

Quick Reads


There’s an ini­ti­at­ive launched on World Book Day to get the UK, read­ing. Quick Reads are as described as “are excit­ing, short, fast-paced books by lead­ing, best­selling authors, spe­cific­ally writ­ten for emer­gent read­ers and adult learners.” which could sound a bit pat­ron­ising. However there are some excel­lent authors con­trib­ut­ing which you can see on this BBC web­site, along with pre­views. Some times his­tor­ical author Tom Holt has an SF book. Tom Holland’s The Poison in the Blood is about the death of Paris. Danny Wallace and the Centre of the Universe is also on my to read list, but the first one I got was a story set in an archae­olo­gical excav­a­tion of a Roman villa dat­ing from AD 70.
Continue read­ing

(From an archaeological perspective) is vandalism of ancient sites a bad thing?


The first of the post­ings to Revise and Dissent. Commenting is closed here, but you can com­ment on this post at HNN.

If you’re des­per­ate to hear the answer and can’t bear sus­pense I’ll drop a hint: I’m hardly going to get any dis­sent if I say yes am I?

Rollright Stones - Kings Men Stone Circle
The Kings Men Stone Circle – Rollright Stones – Oxfordshire

On the way back from Oxford today I stopped by the Rollright Stones to get some pho­tos. There are plenty of good pho­tos on the net. Flickr has a few, as does the Megalithic Portal. The prob­lem with these pho­tos is that they emphas­ise the stones, which nor­mally is one of the major attrac­tions of a stone circle. The Rollright Stones are a par­tic­u­larly good place for this because unlike some­where like Stonehenge you can get among the stones. Unlike Avebury the circle tends to be rel­at­ively empty too. The war­dens are friendly people and the lack of facilties means that it tends to be quiet. It’s a very nice place. Sometime in the early hours of April Fool’s Day 2004, or pos­sibly late the pre­vi­ous even­ing, someone daubed the stones ran­domly but fairly com­pre­hens­ively with yel­low paint. Over two years later the paint still defaces the stones as you can see from the pho­tos below. Is it a prob­lem?
Continue read­ing

A small squeak of annoyance


Vecchi strumenti
Vecchi stru­menti. Photo by –Zelig–.

Recently I’ve been work­ing on a solu­tion to a prob­lem on cal­en­dars in South Italy and Sicily. A few cit­ies have cal­en­dars which start in the autumn. The assump­tion is that this is con­nec­ted to the autum­nal equi­nox, but I’m not so cer­tain. The autum­nal equi­nox makes great sense if you have geo­met­rical astornomy, but these cal­en­dars pre-date the accur­ate astro­nomy of later Greece. I think it could be tied to other obser­va­tions. There’s a prob­lem in prov­ing this though. I need to cor­rob­or­ate some of my assump­tions with inde­pend­ent evid­ence. Working with Greek cit­ies this should be easy, but the Greek cit­ies in Sicily don’t have that good a his­tor­ical record. However, there is also the pos­sib­il­ity of look­ing at pot­tery and I’ve found a couple of vases which fit nicely. Unfortunately they’re Apulian vases.

This should be good news. Apulia is the heel of Italy, so these vases come from exactly the right place. Yet there’s very little archae­olo­gical record of these vases. Up to ninety per cent of Apulian vases were first known when they were put up for auc­tion. It is pos­sible that they were all stored in grand­moth­ers’ attics dur­ing the Second World War. Indeed there are so many vases that it would sug­gest that the attic is the safest place to hide if you’re in a war zone. An altern­at­ive explan­a­tion is that a trade which is happy to buy arte­facts with no proven­ance and no ques­tions asked helps drive a demand for Apulian vases. What is more likely capa­cious attics or illi­cit smug­gling? Who knows?

If I can­not proven­ance the vases then their use is lim­ited. I’m try­ing to tie the obser­va­tions to spe­cific sites and ‘South Italy’ simply isn’t good enough.