Plague Sunday at Eyam - the Black Death village

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics to have occurred in human history, killing as much as 60% of Europe's total population. The bacterium yersinia pestis is now known to have been the cause of the pandemic. The mechanism by which Y. pestis was usually transmitted was established in 1898 by Paul-Louis Simond and was found to involve the bites of fleas whose mid-guts had become obstructed by replicating Y. pestis several days after feeding on an infected host. This blockage results in starvation and aggressive feeding behaviour by the fleas, which repeatedly attempt to clear their blockage by regurgitation, resulting in thousands of plague bacteria being flushed into the feeding site, infecting the host. [1] The initial outbreak took place 1346-53 but plague broke out again and again in smaller pockets for centuries afterwards.

In England the last widespread outbreak was the Great Plague of London of 1664-66. Although the outbreak is now thought to have been on the wane by the end of the summer of 1666 there are still many who would argue that the Great Fire of London (September 2nd to September 5th) did much to halt the spread of disease and cleanse the capital of infection.

Today, the 31st of August, a ceremony is held annually in the quiet and picturesque village of Eyam, in Derbyshire in the East Midlands of England. Eyam's Plague Sunday service has been held for more than three-hundred years now and commemorates the settlement's own devastating, heartbreaking, yet self-sacrificing brush with the Black Death.

Rector William Mompesson

In late August 1665 the tailor of Eyam, George Viccars, received an eagerly awaited package from London. Some accounts say that it contained a normal bail of cloth, others go further and claim that the fabric had been specifically ordered for a bridal gown. Within six days of laying the cloth out in his shop the tailor was dead. The fabric had brought the plague with it from London. By the end of September six others - all Viccars' neighbours - had also died. Not knowing or understanding about the outbreak in London, the villagers began to worry that some kind of curse was being visited upon them - the howling of spectral Gabriel Hounds, the appearance of white crickets, and cows straying into the church all being cited as ill omens. By the end of April 1666 seventy-three villagers had died and many were gathering their belongings in preparation for flight.

In May the young rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, called a village meeting. Although the exact nature of the disease was not known, Mompesson and others understood enough to recognise that it was passed from person to person. He told his parishioners that theirs was the only village in the whole of the county in the grip of the Black Death and that if they were to flee they would only spread the disease and cause others to die. That day the people of Eyam agreed to enter into what we would now call quarantine - a voluntary isolation from all others - until all sign of the plague was gone from the village.

Arrangements were made for supplies to be delivered. The Earl of Devonshire's men would take food to the village's southern boundary stone, to be collected as soon as they were at a safe distance. Other provisions were left at Wet Withens stone circle on Eyam Moor, and at a Holy Well - now known as Mompession's Well - at which coins were left in payment in the belief that the water would cleanse them of contamination. Holes were drilled in a stone, named the Coolstone - still extant - into which vinegar was poured and other coins were left in the belief that the vinegar would sterilise them. In order that Sunday service continue without the parishioners getting too close to each other, Mompesson chose the grassy slopes of a natural amphitheatre - nearby Cucklett Delph - or an outdoor venue for his sermons.

The Eyam Plague lasted fourteen months and claimed two-hundred and sixty lives - the rector's wife Catherine Mompesson among them - but not one person outside of the village contracted the disease. [2]

Today in Eyam a procession will troop through the village - many dressed in 17th century costume - singing Onward Christian Soldiers. They will make their way along an ancient track to Cucklett Heath and seat themselves there upon the grass where hymns will be sung and a sermon given, just as it was in the plague years. [3] [4] Mompesson's Well will be dressed, and flowers left on the grave of Catherine.

[1] G. Christakos, Interdisciplinary Public Health Reasoning and Epidemic Modelling: the Case of Black Death (シュプリンガー・ジャパン株式会社, 2005), pp. 110–14.

[2] Marc Alexander, The Companion to Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002) pp. 87-89



News Briefs 29-08-2014

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Thanks Kat.

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Carl Sagan

The Mystery of Death Valley's "Wandering Stones" Has Finally Been Solved

Wandering Stone of Death Valley, by Arno Goudol (Creative Comomons Licence)

A long-standing Fortean mystery has been the 'wandering stones' of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, California. It might be time to cross this one off the list though:

Ending a half-century of geological speculation, scientists have finally seen the process that causes rocks to move atop Racetrack Playa, a desert lake bed in the mountains above Death Valley, California. Researchers watched a pond freeze atop the playa, then break apart into sheets of ice that — blown by wind — shoved rocks across the lake bed.

...The researchers began studying the region in 2011, setting up a weather station and time-lapse cameras and dropping off rocks loaded with Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers. The rocks were designed to start recording their position and speed as soon as something made them move.

...When the researchers travelled to the playa in December 2013 to check instruments and change batteries, they found a huge ice-encrusted pond covering about one-third of the 4.5-kilometre-long playa. After several days of camping, they decided to sit above the southern end of the playa on the morning of 20 December. “It was a beautiful sunny day, and there began to be rippled melt pools in front of us,” Richard Norris says. “At 11:37 a.m., very abruptly, there was a pop-pop-crackle all over the place in front of us — and I said to my cousin, ‘This is it.’ ”

They watched as the ice began moving past the rocks, mostly breaking apart but also shoving them gently...when the ice melted away that afternoon, they saw freshly formed trails left behind by more than 60 moving rocks.

The following month, the research team even managed to capture video of the phenomenon occurring:

Whether this is the complete explanation of the wandering stones phenomenon is still unknown - there have been reports of the stones moving during summer months as well, when it's unlikely that ice could form on the playa, leading previous researchers to note that ice "is not a required component or precondition for sliding rock activity".

So while the mystery seems to have largely been solved, there's still a few loose ends that might need cleaning up.

Link: 'Wandering stones' of Death Valley explained

News Briefs 28-08-2014

Keep Calm & Shift your Paradigm.

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Freeze Me Until I Can Live Again - A Short Documentary on Cryonics

In the 1960s a ground-breaking idea emerged: that freezing people soon after their death might preserve brain structures, and that in the future advanced technology and know-how might allow these frozen cadavers to be resuscitated and given extended life. Fifty years later, more than 250 people have undergone cryopreservation procedures following their passing (though contrary to what you may have heard, Walt Disney is not one of them), with a small 'cryonics' industry storing their bodies (or in some cases, just their heads) awaiting future salvation.

The above documentary, We Will Live Again, takes a look inside "the unusual and extraordinary operations of the Cryonics Institute", following Ben Best and Andy Zawacki, the caretakers of 99 deceased human bodies stored at below freezing temperatures in cryopreservation. It's a strange and thought-provoking exploration of mortality, and our attempts to avoid it, well worth a watch.

News Briefs 27-08-2014

I'd like to be straightly looked after.

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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?

News Briefs 26-08-2014

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Rock and Roll: A New Theory on How the Ancient Egyptians Moved Massive Blocks of Stone

Pyramid of Khufu (by Bradipus, Creative Commons Licence)

A new paper on offers a novel solution to the mystery of how the ancient Egyptians moved millions of massive stone blocks around: by rolling them inside a 12-sided wooden frame. Noting the orthodox theory - that the blocks were put on sleds which were pulled, with the sand in front of the sled being constantly lubricated with - results in a not insignificant level of friction, they suggest that the dodecagon idea would be a far more efficient method of moving these heavy blocks:

As an alternative to dragging large blocks, one can consider
rolling the blocks. Rolling a prism of 4 sides is not efficient, but
adding wooden rods to the surface can effectively increase the number of sides. The crew can then pull on a rope wrapped around and passing over the top of the block. In this configuration, static friction acts in the direction of the desired motion, rather than opposing the motion. In effect the block and rope combination becomes a 2:1 pulley, though the pulley was not yet formally "known" to the Egyptians at that time. The rods can be re-used many times, and there is no need to to transport large quantities of water for lubrication.

...By attaching 12 identical wooden rods to the faces of the block, one effectively transforms the block into a dodecagon prism with very little added mass, much lower ground pressure, and with good cross country mobility... It would seem that some variation of rolling the blocks should now be considered to be among the “best” and most likely method used to move the stones for the great pyramids

The paper goes into more of the physics behind the idea, as well as offering some experimental data to back the authors' theory up.

(h/t Norman R.)

Link: How they (should have) built the pyramids

You might also like: Has This Retired Construction Worker Figured Out How Stonehenge Was Built?