Where we attempt to fill you in on everything they forgot to teach you at school

Recreating the Lost Music of our Ancient Ancestors

Deerbone Flute from Avebury

In the modern age we take for granted the almost magical ability to record audio - up until the 19th century, if you wanted to listen to music, you had to either play it yourself, or listen to someone else play it, live. How then can we hear the sounds of the past before this point? One way is through the transcription of music on to paper - this is how we know the music of the great composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Sometimes it is through through memory, such as in the transmission of folk tunes from one generation to the next. But in more ancient examples, those sounds have largely been lost.

While we can't be sure of the melodies these ancient people played, archaeological excavations have uncovered some of the instruments that were used. And they show that music is something humans have enjoyed for a very long time: three flutes found at the Geißenklösterle cave in Germany - two of which were made from swan bones, the other from a hollowed mammoth tusk - have been dated to around 36,000 BC, while flutes made from vulture bone discovered in France have been dated to between 20,000 and 35,000 years ago. In fact, it seems the ancients realised fairly early on that bones make for a pretty damn good flute, and utilised skeletal remains from birds, animals, and even humans (most often femurs and ulnas).

And from these archaeological discoveries, we can at least get a sense of what ancient music might have sounded like. The position of the holes in a flute give us the musical scale they utilised, and the construction of the object provides us with an idea of the tone the instrument may have had. Last year we posted video of an ancient vulture bone flute being played. And recently Philip 'Greywolf' Shallcrass has recreated a deer-bone flute found near the Avebury megalithic complex and posted the resulting sounds to YouTube:

The original instrument, now lost, was discovered in July 1849 by one John Merewether, Dean of Hereford, when he dug into some burial mounds about a mile and a quarter from Avebury. The flute was found beside the crouched skeletal remains of a man and an undecorated urn containing the bones of a child. We know what it looks like as Merewether sketched and described his finds in a book published in 1851. I'm not sure why Greywolf's recreation has four holes rather than the three in Merewether's sketch, but imagining the sound of this flute floating across the Avebury circle certainly does give me chills.

(h/t @Fiona_Lang)

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The Origin of Robotics: A 4000 Year Journey

imageWhen you think of robots, what image does that conjure in your mind?  Does it engender visions of 1950’s futurism?  The Jetsons?  Maybe 21st century manufacturing processes?  Bomb squad rovers?  Perhaps sci-fi movies like iRobot or The Bicentennial Man?  It’s a safe bet that, for most people, when they think of robots, they think of examples from contemporary culture.

Robots are actually everywhere today, though it’s not nearly as overt as Will Smith’s pseudo-utopia.  They’re out there though, doing our heavy lifting, enduring our mundane operations, and standing between us and our dangerous endeavours.  Of course, in most cases they look nothing like the movies portray.  And in fact, the advent of robotics isn’t actually a new-age, high-tech movement at all, not in the sense that it’s all titanium and silicon circuit boards.

Before we go down this road though, we need to get a grasp on a couple terms.

What is a robot?  The word itself is derived from an Old Church Slavonic word – robata – which evolved in to the Czech robotnik.  Both words refer to servitude and slavery, though the former was specifically related to religious servitude.  In 1923, the Czech play titled Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti was translated to English in the UK, and became Rossums’ Universal Robots.  The author of the play, Karel Čapek, claimed that his brother and collaborator Josef was responsible for coining the term, but however it came about, the word robot quickly supplanted all other terms previously used for that purpose.  Eventually the famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov adopted the term in 1941, cementing it in the modern lexicon.  He then formulated the even more famous three laws of robotics in 1968.  Since then the word robot has come to mean anything remotely mechanical, autonomous, and computerised.

Though it’s not technically synonymous, robot is often viewed as interchangeable with the terms cyborg, android, and even artificial intelligence.  Which perhaps demonstrates how that word has become central to our idea of mechanical personhood, but the developments in robotics from the last 100 years, whether actual or fictional, are only a small part of the story of robots.

Prior to 1923, the things we now call robots were known by other names; automata, simulacra, and even simply machine (or their transliterated equivalent) were the common terms, and the origin of such devices long predates Rossum’s Universal Robots.

image

Depending on how we define examples of automata, the earliest such devices come from one of the earliest civilizations we know of; Babylon.  Specifically dating to the Old Babylonian period c. 2000 BCE, these earliest forms of robots were water clocks, now commonly called clypsidra (Greek, meaning to steal water).  A water clock is a very simple means of measuring the passage of time using bowls of various shapes and sizes with a single small hole drilled in the bottom.  That hole would allow water to escape the bowl at a constant rate.  Babylonians measured the passage of time according to the weight of the water that had escaped the bowl, in units of measure known as qa.

You may find it a bit of a stretch to label a simple water clock a robot, but it does fit the description; an automatic mechanism used to perform a specific function.  By the time of the ninth Egyptian Pharaoh, Amenhotep III, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, water clocks had become somewhat more complicated. Priests at the temple of Amen-Re at Karnak used water clocks that consisted of twelve separate columns with marked gradations measuring months, days, and hours according to the water level remaining in the container.

The use of water clocks was spread across several disparate cultures, from the various Mesopotamian peoples, to India, and even China.  The Chinese water clocks of the first century CE employed clypsidra escapement, water wheels, and chain drives.  And with those advances, we edge closer to our modern understanding of the concept of robotics.

The next great advances in the realm of automata is credited to the ancient Greeks during the scientific awakening of classical antiquity.  The great Archimedes of Syracuse, considered the greatest mathematician of the era (and possibly all time), pushed the innovation of mathematics and geometry, and was responsible for inventing the screw pump, compound pulleys, and other intricate machines.  Most importantly (for this discussion) he was the first to accurately explain the action of a lever and of water displacement – or hydrostatics – which led to more complex mechanisms and more efficient use of available energy resources.  Archimedes’ work influenced nearly everything that followed, and it ultimately represented a true revolution in the area of robotics.

The fruits of Archimedes’ labours didn’t really gain a solid foothold in robotics though, until the Islamic Golden Age, c. 622 - 1258/1492 CE.  But when they did…

Some of the most magnificent, complex, and innovative automata that has ever been created came out of the workshops of Muslim scholars and craftsmen during the middle ages.  Much like the Chinese equivalent, the water clocks developed by the 11th century Arab mechanical engineer Alī Ibn Khalaf al-Murādī of Iberia, began to employ water wheels, but al-Murādi took things a step further.  He invented complex segmented and epicyclic gearing which allowed fine movement and more precise measures of time.

In 1206 CE, a Muslim polymath named Badi'al-Zaman Abū al-'Izz ibn Ismā'īl ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī wrote a treatise on innovative mechanisms, titled al-Jāmiʿ bain al-ʿilm wa al-ʿamal al-nāfiʿ fī ṣināʿat al-ḥiyal (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), and with this document al-Jazari became the rightful father of modern robotics – among other things.  Al-Jazari was prolific as an inventor and engineer; the list of basic mechanical devices credited to him is staggering.  Without al-Jazari and his inventions we would be without camshafts and crankshafts, which are fundamental to internal-combustion engines (cars).  We wouldn’t have fine segmented gears, such as in modern clockworks.  We wouldn’t even have simple water pumps and the concept of irrigation.  We owe him much.

His most celebrated works though, are in fact robots.  Al-Jazari automata and water clocks (al-Jazari Elephant clock pictured above) are considered to be the pinnacle of his work, and are unparalleled in quality.  While most of his robotic inventions seem, in this day and age, to be quaint conversation pieces, imagine how revolutionary an automatic, mechanical, humanoid drink serving waitress would be in a world that still largely believed that the planet was flat.  Or the wonder that would be inspired by an automatic hand washing machine, complete with a flushing mechanism.  A flushing mechanism, incidentally, that’s still used in modern toilets.

Our history books credit a lot of people with the precursors to much of our modern conveniences.  Leonardo da Vinci is rightly considered to have been one of the most important thinkers of the early Renaissance, with his art, his musings, and his many inventions – from flying machines (which didn’t work), to tactical submarines, to his own automata – but few correctly illustrate the influence of al-Jazari and his contemporary Muslim scientists and engineers on all of the great scientific minds that followed.  Da Vinci himself was very likely directly influenced by al-Jazari’s drink server and mechanical musical band when he built his brilliant robotic lion.  That robotic lion is quite often given as the origin of modern robotics.  Obviously, at this point, we know better.  But when you think of all that’s come out of these early efforts, it does truly blow one’s mind.

Modern robotics are so far beyond the earliest examples, but even with computers and integrated circuit boards, and brilliantly written software, the fundamental mechanism behind the most cutting edge robots from Japanese developers and MIT engineers are virtually identical to those used by al-Jazari and al-Murādi, and even early Chinese inventors.  The only real difference between the technologies is that engineers from the middle-ages and earlier didn’t have access to electricity.

So while self-driving cars, and sprinting robots, and space-age tools are impressive, imagine where we’d be without Babylonian water clocks.

Urban Tunnellers - What Lies Beneath Our Streets?

Williamson's Tunnels, Liverpool

Last week tongue-in-cheek Northern Irish news site Tyrone Tribulations ("News from amongst the bushes. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed.") published a piece entitled "Omagh’s ‘Shawshank Husband’ Dug Tunnel From Bedroom To Pub Over 15 Years".

“The wife has a bad snore on her and after watching the Shawshank Redemption on RTE one night in 1994, I decided to do something about it so I waited til she was in a deep sleep and then set about digging a hole under the bed in the direction of the pub. I used all manner of tools from spoons to a heavy duty tunnel boring machine I managed to sneak down there when she was at the shops. It wasn’t until 2009 that I hit the jackpot and came up through the women’s toilet mop and bucket room.”

While the chronicle Patsy Kerr's nocturnal misadventures beneath the streets of Omagh should undoubtedly be taken with a hypertension inducing amount of salt, there are many interesting documented cases of urban tunnellers and their subterranean works.

 

William Lyttle -The Hackney Mole Man

In August 2006 retired electrical engineer William Lyttle was ordered by Hackney Borough Council to leave his home at 121 Mortimer Road in De Beauvoir Town, London, UK. Five years earlier an 8 foot (2.4 m) hole appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the pavement on nearby Stamford Road. When the local authorities investigated, they found that Lyttle had created an intricate network of tunnels, some 26 feet (8 m) deep, spreading out as much as 65 feet (20 m) in every direction from his house. Lyttle had been working on his excavations since the 1960s, digging with a shovel and using a home-made pulley system. Following numerous complaints from people living in the adjacent properties, and with the council looking at and estimated repair bill of one hundred thousand pounds to fill the tunnels in, Lyttle was finally banned from re-entering his property.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper at the time Lyttle - known as The Hackney Mole Man - was asked the big question: why did he dig the tunnels?

"I don't mind the title of inventor," he said. "Inventing things that don't work is a brilliant thing, you know. People are asking you what the big secret is. And you know what? There isn't one." [1]

William Lyttle died in 2010. After remaining derelict for several years, 121 Mortimer Road sold at auction in 2012 for £1.12 million. The house remains shrouded in scaffolding and unoccupied, the tunnels beneath largely untouched and unexplored. [2]

 

Seymour Roger Cray

Seymour Roger Cray was an American electrical engineer and supercomputer architect who designed a series of computers which were, for a long time, the fastest in the world. He is known today as "the Father of Supercomputing". In 1997 - the year after Cray's death - an article published in Personal Computer World revealed some interesting mythology surrounding the man and his methods.

There are many legends about Seymour Cray. John Rollwagen, a colleague for many years, tells the story of a French scientist who visited Cray's home in Chippewa Falls. Asked what were the secrets of his success, Cray said "Well, we have elves here, and they help me". Cray subsequently showed his visitor a tunnel he had built under his house, explaining that when he reached an impasse in his computer design, he would retire to the tunnel to dig. "While I'm digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem", he said. [3]

 

Williamson's Tunnels

In Liverpool, UK, during the early 1800s, wealthy businessman Joseph Williamson employed a workforce of thousands to carve out a vast, uncharted labyrinth of tunnels beneath the city. The purpose of the Williamson Tunnels remains a mystery — some suggest philanthropy, while others say Williamson was a cultist preparing a safe haven for the coming apocalypse. Sealed when Williamson died in 1840, the tunnels were tapped into from above and used as an immense pit into which the household refuse of the city was tipped for over a century.

Today at The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre in the Old Stable Yard on Smithdown Lane, visitors can take a guided tour through a section of tunnels cleared over the last twenty-five years by volunteers from the Joseph Williamson Society and the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels. The majority of the brick-lined warren still remains unexcavated and unexplored. [4] Not only is Williamson reputed to have had a tunnel dug to connect his home with St. Mary's Church nearby but also, to his local pub The Bear's Paw. Sadly,there's insufficient historical data to tell us whether or not Mrs. Williamson had a "bad snore on her" or not.

 

Joe De Rio tunnels

This January a jury ruled in favour of the City of Austin, Texas, USA in a case brought against it by 74 year old Austin man Joe De Rio. Joe's claim was that city officials had not followed proper procedures when they seized his home on Canterbury Street in East Austin in 2010.

What has been distressing is the city did not give any prior notice,” [Joe De Rio's Defence Attorney, Joe] McCreary said. “I realize they thought there was some kind of mad bomber-type situation and they mobilized all the horses and all the king’s men. The problem is it’s disturbing when a city will use a warrant to seize a person’s property.” [5]

The authorities became concerned when De Rio's home was inspected following complaints from neighbours and found unlicensed firearms, grenades, and suspicious chemicals on the property. Beneath De Rio's home they found a 35 foot (10.6 m), three tier excavation "supported [in places] by wood and automotive parts" [6] . De Rio claimed that he was merely expanding a pre-existing fallout shelter constructed as part of the home in the 1950s but his efforts left the house in danger of imminent collapse. City contractors filled the tunnels beneath the home with more than 264 tons of concrete and De Rio was billed more than $90,000. [7]

 

By and large tunnellers motives remain a mystery and, of course, we only know about those whose activities are uncovered. How many suburban catacombs remain undiscovered? Do you know really what your neighbours are up to? I've just worked out that it's 1345 feet (410 m) from my house to the nearest decent pub so, if you'll excuse me, I've got some digging to do.

 

1. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2006/aug/08/communities.uknews

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Beauvoir_Town

3. http://www.cs.man.ac.uk/~toby/writing/PCW/cray.htm

4. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/essential-guide-urban-tunnels

5. http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/jury-rules-for-city-of-austin-i...

6. http://www.statesman.com/news/news/man-who-dug-space-under-home-sues-cit...

7. http://www.kvue.com/story/news/local/2014/05/25/2435656/

The 'Nazca Lines' of Asia - Archaeologists Discover Massive Geoglyphs in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan Geoglyphs

Wow, this looks interesting: archaeologists say they have discovered more than 50 geoglyphs of various shapes and sizes across northern Kazakhstan in Central Asia - a landscape reminiscent of the famous Nazca Lines in Peru:

Discovered using Google Earth, the geoglyphs are designed in a variety of geometric shapes, including squares, rings, crosses and swastikas (the swastika is a design that was used in ancient times). Ranging from 90 to 400 meters (295 to 1,312 feet) in diameter, some of them are longer than a modern-day aircraft carrier.

Over the past year, an archaeological expedition from Kazakhstan's Kostanay University, working in collaboration with Vilnius University in Lithuania, has been examining the geoglyphs. The team, which is conducting archaeological excavations, ground-penetrating radar surveys, aerial photography and dating, recently presented its initial results at the European Association of Archaeologists' annual meeting in Istanbul.

Many of the geoglyphs were made of earthen mounds, although one example, a swastika, was made using timber.

Archaeological excavations uncovered the remains of structures and hearths at the geoglyphs, suggesting that rituals took place there.

Link: Nazca Lines of Kazakhstan: More Than 50 Geoglyphs Discovered

Did Marco Polo 'Discover' America in the 13th Century?

Early Map of the Americas?

Do a set of parchments show that the 13th century Italian explorer Marco Polo mapped the coast of Alaska, some two hundred years before Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the New World?

For a guy who claimed to spend 17 years in China as a confidant of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo left a surprisingly skimpy paper trail. No Asian sources mention the footloose Italian. The only record of his 13th-century odyssey through the Far East is the hot air of his own Travels, which was actually an “as told to” penned by a writer of romances. But a set of 14 parchments, now collected and exhaustively studied for the first time, give us a raft of new stories about Polo’s journeys and something notably missing from his own account: maps.

If genuine, the maps would show that Polo recorded the shape of the Alaskan coast—and the strait separating it from Asia—four centuries before Vitus Bering, the Danish explorer long considered the first European to do so. Perhaps more important, they suggest Polo was aware of the New World two centuries before Columbus.

“It would mean that an Italian got knowledge of the west coast of North America or he heard about it from Arabs or Chinese,” says Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography whose book, The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps, is out in November from the University of Chicago Press. “There’s nothing else that matches that, if that’s true.”

Link: Did Marco Polo "Discover" America?

Kickstarter: Magical Egypt Series 2

Magical Egypt 2 Kickstarter

Many readers will be familiar with the Magical Egypt series, a high-production-quality DVD set from the early 2000s that explored the esoteric symbolism, philosophy and history of ancient Egypt, via 'alternative Egyptologist' John Anthony West. For those that enjoyed the series - and those that just love discussion of ancient Egypt in general - you'll be pleased to learn that a second instalment of the series is now being planned. In 2014 though, the producers are seeking to gauge interest and raise funds via a Kickstarter campaign:

Magical Egypt series 2 pushes the entire investigation to the next phase. If, as modern science seems to be showing, there actually was a scientific culture that in many respects, was MORE advanced than we are today, or if it was advanced along technological paths different than western science has taken, can we find "recoverable technology" in the considerable relics and ruins left behind by the ancient world?

Magical Egypt is excited to include the unique voices of some of the worlds leading thinkers in "the new counterculture", such as Graham Hancock, Neil Kramer, Lon Milo DuQuette, Robert Bauval, Laird Scranton, Max Igan and the host of the original series John Anthony West.

The campaign has already passed its initial $5000 funding goal, with more than 3 weeks still left to go - but the total they are looking to raise to fund the series is in the region of $50,000 - so take a look at the pledge rewards on offer, and chip in if there's anything that grabs you.

Link: Kickstarter: Magical Egypt Returns

Graham Hancock on the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE #551)

Geez Louise, two in a row! Once again, Powerful Joe Rogan regales us listeners with one kickass podcast episode; this time with none other than Graham Hancock, the explorer of deep mysteries and lost worlds, who came to the JRE studio for a wide-range discussion about altered states of consciousness, the benefits of psychedelics both for their healing qualities and as tools to expand one's concept of Reality, along with the kind of research into ancient civilizations he's most famous for ever since he published his seminal book Fingerprints of the Gods nearly 20 years ago.

A lot of things have happened in those 20 years, incidentally. Not only is archeoastronomy being taken a much more predominant role --thanks in part to the availability of computer software which can simulate the exact position of the constellations as they were in the night sky thousands of years ago-- but we keep digging up more amazing discoveries which have forced historians to push back the dawn of civilization ever further. For Graham, the discovery of Göbekli Tepe felt like a personal vindication to his theories which are still considered as 'pseudoscience' by orthodox archeologists --although with Göbekli Tepe we actually need to talk about a RE-discovery, for the existence of the Turkish megalithic site was known since the 1950s, but it was originally dismissed by American scholars because its columns were 'too finely carved'; it was only until the (recently deceased) German archeologist Klaus Schmidt decided to take a second look to those columns in 1994, that it was finally ascertained they predated the megaliths in Stonehenge by at least 6000 years.

Indeed, one of the main topics in Joe's chat with Hancock was the issue of being in either the right or the wrong side of history. Copernicus and Galileo, with their theories about the nature of our planet and our solar system, are now universally acknowledged to be in the right side of history, whereas the Holy Inquisition and the cardinals who put Galileo into house arrest --and condemned Giordano Bruno to a fiery execution-- are perceived in our age as reactionaries who stood in the way of progress. The same will no doubt be said of those who demanded TED to put down both Hancock's & Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx presentations a year ago, just as surely as future generations will also view the government agencies & international interests seeking to perpetuate the war on drugs, as the XXth century equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition: For standing in the way of every adult's sovereign right to explore its own consciousness through the tools that have been at our disposal for thousands of years --Entheogens.

But perhaps with this & other needless wars there have been other forces at play, which has in fact been the subject of Graham's fictional novel War God, the 1st in a trilogy of books dealing with a subject near & dear to my heart: The Spanish conquest of Mexico. If you read the novel already --for which I wrote a review for The Grail last July-- you'd already know Graham explored the potential influence of 'supernatural' entities in the unfolding of that crucial moment in history; this year War God's sequel Return of the Plumed Serpent will be released, and Hancock's readers will find out how the demon/demiurge revered by the Aztecs as their god Huitzilopochtli played with both emperor Moctezuma and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to prompt the fall of the Aztec reign, and the enslavement of millions of natives. Could it be that the same demon filling Cortés' head with dreams of glory and riches in the XVIth century, has been also whispering in the ear of modern leaders, in order to maintain an endless river of blood to sate its thirst?

And yet, if there are dark entities seeking the suffering of men, couldn't there also be forces of light seeking to guide us and show us a way out of the darkness? Graham's personal experiences with the Ayahuasca brew have convinced him that this is the case; who knows? maybe those guides are also responsible for the modern resurgence of psychedelics in our present times, as well as how contemporary technologies like the world wide web, are empowering the masses into seeing beyond the web of lies that our governments have spun around our eyes for far too many years.

So be sure to listen to this latest episode of the Joe Rogan's Experience with one of TDG's favorite authors, and pre-order War God: Return of the Plumed Serpent to learn more about Graham Hancock's gnostic vision of the world. BTW if you send him an e-mail to wargoddedications@gmail.com with confirmation of the pre-ordering before October 9th, he will send you a special bookplate with his signature to your designated postal address which you'll be able to stick in your copy. This he'll do after he returns from his trip around the United States with American catastrophist Randall Carlson --the last leg of his research for the upcoming book Magicians of the Gods-- which will culminate at the Paradigm Symposium in Minneapolis, where he'll meet with his friends & colleagues Robert Bauval & John Anthony West.

I will be there in Minnesota this October, where I'll have the tremendous pleasure to extend my personal gratitude to one of the most illustrious explorers of our time.

Google Pyramid View

Pyramids of Giza on Google Street View

Ever fancied traveling to Egypt to take in the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, the Pyramids (and Great Sphinx) of Giza, but haven't had the cash or aren't too fond of the actual travel part? Google Street View has your back, with the addition of a new walking tour of the Giza plateau added to a list of fascinating virtual tours that includes other ancient marvels such as Stonehenge and Angkor Wat.

While the actual experience of being there can never be surpassed, Google's tour does bring some facets of the real thing into your home - not least the overpowering size of the things. Having been lucky enough to visit Giza myself (way back in 1998), what really blew me away was standing up close to the Great Pyramid and taking in the way the massive blocks seemed to just extend upwards into the blue sky - and Google's tour does its best at providing that feeling.

But as much as I love the addition of Giza to Google's Street View tours, I can't help but feel that they've really missed a trick here. Why not get the permission of Egyptian authorities to go off the beaten track, so that millions of people at home could walk in the 'forbidden areas' of the Plateau, such as right up between the paws of the Sphinx, or on top of the Great Pyramid? Or, at the very least, inside the pyramids themselves, so we could all walk up the amazing Grand Gallery, take in the grandeur of the King's Chamber, or feel the claustrophia of walking within the tight passages? Even the Sphinx Temple is off limits, though thankfully you can take a look inside the Valley Temple on the way to the viewing platform for the Sphinx.

That said, I'm hardly one to look a gift horse - or camel, as the case may be - in the mouth, and am really pleased to see this tour of Giza now available for us all. And also note that the new Egyptian Street View tours aren't restricted to Giza, with a number of other sites, including the Step Pyramid of Djoser, also now available for viewing.

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The Mysterious Celestial Spheres of the Ancient Mughal Empire

The famous celestial globe of Muhammad Salih Tahtawi

Before the advent of Google Earth, when one wanted to see what the planet looked like, or to find a certain faraway place without actually travelling to it, one would consult a map - and you’ll recall that they didn’t always fit in your phone. We’ve made maps for millennia. It’s an art form unto itself, and as anyone with a love for antique maps can tell you, the variation in form and artistic style is both immense and awe inspiring.

Of course, there are different kinds of maps. From a technical perspective, there are topological and topographical maps, navigational maps, population maps, faction maps, marine maps, even wind maps. Most are concerned with demonstrating relative locations on Earth, but people have been making maps of the stars for almost as long as they’ve been giving each other badly drawn directions to the corner store. Celestial maps, as they’re called, offer a standardised view of constellations and individual stars, along with their relative position compared to specific points on Earth.

One of the problems with celestial maps, and actually with all maps, is the two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object or space. In order to accurately plot locations and show a realistic measure of their position relative to all others, the cartographer must distort the actual shape of either the Earth or the heavens. This, obviously, can cause some problems when one wants to clearly understand the actual relationship between two locations. The answer? Globes!

Globes too, are split into two categories, terrestrial and celestial. The earliest known terrestrial globes date to ancient Greece (6th to 3rd century BCE), though no examples have survived the ravages of time. Celestial globes may have gotten a start much later, possibly as late as 2nd century CE, as a part of the Farnese Atlas, which is a Roman replica of the classical Hellenistic sculpture of Atlas, but depicting him holding up the heavens, rather than the world. Though, since no examples or records of celestial spheres have been found (yet) prior to this point, it’s not known when or who exactly started the trend. Antique celestial globes are most often made out of metal, usually bronze, and are usually hollow, but are also found in marble and other sculpting mediums.

In the realm of celestial globes, also known as celestial spheres, there are some spectacular surviving examples, and among those gems are hidden one of history’s most vexing puzzles.

In the 1980s, a Smithsonian historian of science, Emilie Savage-Smith, embarked on a journey throughout the middle-east, with the purpose of finding and studying celestial spheres from antiquity. She found a bounty of them, some of the most incredible works of cartographic art and engineering ever made by human hands.

Among those she found there were two distinct types; seamed and seamless spheres. Seamed spheres are, or were, made by moulding two halves of the sphere separately and then soldering them together, ultimately buffing the soldered seam to make a smooth sphere. Then artisans and astronomers would engrave the surface according to whatever specific element of the skies they wanted to depict.

Seamless spheres, however, were another thing entirely; something Emilie Savage-Smith discovered quite unexpectedly.

Up until Savage-Smith made her discovery, it was thought by virtually the entirety of the academic community and by metallurgists the world over, that all examples of hollow metal celestial spheres in existence were of the seamed type. This was owing to the long held belief that creating seamless hollow metal spheres is impossible. It turns out, that isn’t true.

One of the earliest examples of a seamless celestial sphere found by Savage-Smith, was found to be from a workshop in Lahore, Pakistan, though she soon found that the technique, described as ‘secret wax casting’ was widely known by metal craftsmen in Northern India from at least as early as the late 16th century and coming from the Mughal Empire. In fact, some of the workshops identified continued to use the technique up until the 19th century. Though it has apparently now been lost to modern manufacturing techniques.

According to some, the best surviving example of a hollow, seamless celestial sphere is one made by a Mughal metallurgical master and astronomer named Muhammad Salih Tahtawi in 1631. The sphere, known as the celestial globe of Muhammad Salih Tahtawi, is a massive bronze globe adorned with ornate engraving in both Arabic and Persian, as well as numerous pictographic representations of celestial bodies. Its manufacture would have been an immense undertaking, though Salih Tahtawi surely succeeded in creating a masterpiece unparalleled before or since.

A detailed portrait of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir holding a globe

The existence of the spheres, which are commonly known as Islamicate Celestial Globes, isn’t without controversy though. Aside from the obvious resistance among modern metallurgists to the idea that these objects were created as Savage-Smith asserts, there exists a good deal of misinformation about these spheres, stemming from what appears to be a reluctance to attribute such mastery to the Muslim ruled Mughal Empire. Several people have asserted that the existence of both Arabic and Persian language on many of the surviving examples is explained simply by the suggestion that those features were added long after the spheres were made. Presumably implying that the spheres themselves were made by a much older culture, perhaps even in a different area of the world.

Bronze casting techniques similar to that which may have been used to create these spheres, such as lost-wax casting, originated approximately 5700 years ago in Israel, but there is no evidence thus far to substantiate such a claim.

Circumstantially, it is a well-established fact that Arab and Muslim cultures were responsible for a great many technological and scientific advances throughout the middle-ages and long before. There seems to be no valid reason to deny that this particular innovation also came from their masters.

Unfortunately, the subject of seamless celestial spheres is little known in mainstream culture, and as such, in the few places it is discussed, the facts are often distorted or even completely made up. There are those who would like to claim that these magnificent examples of our history are actually OOP-ART (out-of-place-artefacts), suggesting that their origin is related to either a lost pre-historic human culture or aliens. Though as with most such arguments, there isn’t enough information at present to really dive into the discussion.

In any event, once again we are awed by the sophisticated and masterful creations of our forefathers, and once again, our steady march toward modernity has cost us the wisdom of the ages.

The Secret Buried Beneath Stonehenge that has Astonished Archaeologists

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, by Andrew Dunn (Creative Commons Licence)

One of the striking features about Stonehenge is how lonely it feels, standing bare upon the fields of Wiltshire (if one ignores more modern constructions). But was it that way in the past? Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating feature on new research that suggests the megaliths of Stonehenge were just one part of a much larger complex. Using magnetometers and ground-penetrating radars, Vince Gaffney and his team of archaeologists have spent four-years gathering information on what still lies beneath the soil of four square miles of the countryside surrounding England's most famous megalithic monument:

The results are astonishing. The researchers have found buried evidence of more than 15 previously unknown or poorly understood late Neolithic monuments: henges, barrows, segmented ditches, pits. To Gaffney, these findings suggest a scale of activity around Stonehenge far beyond what was previously suspected. “There was sort of this idea that Stonehenge sat in the middle and around it was effectively an area where people were probably excluded,” Gaffney told me, “a ring of the dead around a special area—to which few people might ever have been admitted....Perhaps there were priests, big men, whatever they were, inside Stonehenge having processions up the Avenue, doing...something extremely mysterious. Of course that sort of analysis depends on not knowing what’s actually in the area around Stonehenge itself. It was terra incognita, really.”

Link: What Lies Beneath Stonehenge?