Sunday, 11 December 2011

Mitchell Siegel Murder – Mystery of the Origins of Superman

Superman is possibly the best known and most iconic action comic superhero of our time, and this bullet-proof hero from the planet Krypton dressed in his distinctive bright blue and red costume has appeared in many films, TV shows, action comics, books and on a huge array of Superman merchandise.  The accepted story is that Superman was created by two shy and friendless high school students to make some money and help them to get girlfriends, but could the true story of Superman’s creation be a lot darker than that?  Could the character of Superman have been created because a young teenage boy had lost his father in shocking and tragic circumstances, causing him to create a fantasy world where good always prevails over evil and where there is an indestructible Man of Steel who will fly to your aid at your time of peril? Did this young, grieving boy wish that his father had been bullet-proof and that one day there would be justice done for a horrendous crime?


Superman was the creation of two teenagers called Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and was destined to be the first of the celebrated American comic book superheroes.  Jerry Siegel was born in 1914 and was the youngest son of Mitchell Siegel, a Lithuanian immigrant who had opened a clothing and haberdashery store in Cleveland. Jerry was a shy child, who was not good at making friends, and whose greatest love was drawing.  His father Mitchell encouraged his son’s artistic talent, but on one tragic night in 1932 the young teenager’s life would be changed forever.  On the 2nd June in 1932 Mitchell Siegel’s store was robbed at around 8.30 in the evening.  During the course of the robbery Siegel slumped to the floor and died; the robbers fleeing and they were never being brought to justice.  The Siegel family and the coroner stated that Mitchell had died of a heart attack, but police reports stated that gunshots had been reported during the robbery.  So had Mitchell Siegel really been murdered by being shot to death, and if so, why the cover up and why was there no murder enquiry?

Whether this was a murder or a tragic natural death brought on by the robbery, the impact on the shy teenager Jerry Siegel who loved and admired his father must have been devastating.  Also the fact that nobody was ever arrested for the robbery must have seemed highly unjust to the idealistic teenager, who would have naturally wanted justice for his father and to see his assailants brought to trial.  But was this tragic event the catalyst for the creation of the bullet-proof superhero whose mission was to destroy evil so that justice could be done and good prevail?  It could be said that making Superman bullet-proof was a way of admitting to the world that he knew that his father had really been shot to death, although we will never really know. Did Spiegel wish that his father had been bullet-proof and invincible, and that there had been a superhero that could swoop down from the skies to protect his father from being killed and destroy the evil villains, restoring justice to the world?

Immediately after his father’s death Jerry and Joe Shuster seemed to be driven to create a comic book world where there was a strong sense of good and evil, and where there would always be a superhero on hand that fought tirelessly for good and justice for the wronged.  Was this because the young Siegel could not believe that there would be any real justice for his dead father in this world? Which then led him to create a world of his own where his father’s death would have been avenged? The character of Superman also had other correlations with the young Jerry Spiegel’s life, as Superman had also lost his family, his familiar home environment and was an outsider in a strange land. As well as having to deal with the loss of his father, Jerry had to cope with being  bullied at school, where he was shy, had no interests other than reading magazines and books, and did not excel academically. Practically the only friend he had made at high school was Joe Shuster, who was his collaborator on the comic book strips, and Shuster was a shy and introverted character like himself. In fact, they were so similar that both he and Shuster had to repeat their final year of High School. Ironically, even though many of the characters they would go on to create would be physically strong with superhuman abilities, Spiegel was also not much of an athlete or team sport player, and displayed none of his action comic characters physical prowess.

Since his early childhood years, the young Siegel had been a huge fan of comic strips, films and science fiction pulp magazines.  His career started around 1929, when Jerry published a SF fanzine called Cosmic Stories, which he had created on a manual typewriter and advertised in the classified section of the Science Wonder Stories.  He was active over the next few years and produced several other comic strips and magazines. After he met Joe Shuster they would both spend hours, day and night, creating their comic strip stories and action heroes, to the detriment of their education and social lives. The creative duo broke into comics when they made their debut with Henri Duval, a swashbuckling musketeer and the supernatural crime fighter Dr Occult in the publication New Fun.

However, the character of Superman did not make his appearance until just after Mitchell Siegel’s tragic death, when the younger Siegel and Shuster unveiled a bald villain with telepathic powers whose mission was to dominate the world, that they called ‘The Superman’. This version of the character did not take off, and after a sleepless night spent tossing and turning, Spiegel came up with the idea for the Superman character that we are now all familiar with. However it would take years for them to find a publisher for their new comic strip character, Superman, and after one more rejection by Consolidated Book Publishing, Shuster was so enraged that he burned all the Superman material. Siegel managed to save the front cover from the flames, and in 1938 the publisher of Action Comics decided to use an illustration of Superman lifting a car with his bare hands as a cover for his new action comic.  He contacted Spiegel and Shuster and asked them to create a 13 page Superman story for Action Comics#1 and the legend of Superman was born.  By the time that ActionComics#4 hit the newsstands, the comic was selling in huge numbers and all because Superman was featured in its pages.

 You might think that this would have been a turning point in the lives of Jerry Spiegel and Joe Shuster, and that their futures were destined to be rosy from then on.  However, misfortune never seemed to be lurking too far away from the talented pair. When Superman had been first published in Action Comics in June 1938, they sold all the rights to Superman for only $130 and a contract to supply ongoing Superman material to the publishers.  DC Comics were making a fortune from publishing Superman, but the creators Spiegel and Shuster were still being paid relatively little for their work. They eventually got so frustrated with the situation that they sued DC Comics in 1946. They were promptly fired and the fight went on until in 1948 they accepted $200,000 to sign away all the rights to Superman and any character that was a spin off from Superman, and their names were even removed from the Superman byline. It wasn’t until newspaper reports began to surface in the 1970s of the duo’s impoverished circumstances, that Warner Communications, who were not happy about the bad PR they were receiving, started giving Spiegel and Shuster a $35,000 annual pension and health care benefits. Also they ensured that any material they produced containing the Superman character had to contain the credit ‘Superman created by Jerry Spiegel and Joe Shuster’.

So was Superman really created because a teenage boy had lost his father in a tragic and shocking way, and who wished that his father could have been bullet-proof and have a superhero to save him? It is unlikely that we will never find out what was really going on in their minds as Joe Shuster passed away in 1992 and Jerry Spiegel in 1996 and during his life Jerry never once mentioned the Cleveland robbery that led to his father’s death in an interview.

Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Want To Be a Treasure Hunter? – The Lessons of the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard

Staffordshire Hoard – Buried Anglo-Saxon Treasure

Have you ever heard of the Staffordshire Hoard, the amazing Anglo-Saxon gold and silver treasure found by a lone man with a metal detector in an English field?  Many of us have been brought up on tales of buried treasure and maps where X marks the spot, so the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard must have seemed like a dream come true to that lucky treasure hunter.  Finding an ancient treasure or chest full of gold coins may seem like a bit of a pipe dream, but it is one that many people hope to fulfil as they scour the countryside with their metal detectors hoping to strike it rich. 

But just as many lottery winners have discovered to their cost, hitting the jackpot and finding a unique, golden treasure does not always lead to happiness ever after and can even cause the people involved to regret ever having been part of their remarkable discovery. So was finding the Staffordshire Hoard a wonderful, life-changing event for those involved or merely the precursor to arguing, bitterness and remorse?

The Finding of the Staffordshire Hoard

Back in 2009 Terry Herbert was just an amateur metal detector enthusiast, who was living on disability allowance in a council flat. He had found some small archaeological artefacts in the past, but could have had no idea of was he was about to unearth in a muddy field near Lichfield in Staffordshire. For what he pulled out of the mud that day in Fred Johnson’s field were the very first pieces of what would turn out to be a fabulous Anglo-Saxon treasure, comprising of over 1500 items in gold and silver, some studded with precious stones that dated from the 7th century AD. 

Most of the precious objects were associated with warfare, such as parts of decorated helmets, sword pommels, and hilt collars. There were also three gold crosses discovered that had had the arms folded inwards, possibly so that they would not take up so much space when they were buried. Mr Herbert reported his amazing find to the local authorities and Birmingham archaeology undertook the full archaeological excavation between July and August 2009.

So What is the Staffordshire Hoard?

 The items recovered in the Staffordshire Hoard are of the most superb craftsmanship and show what expert metal workers the Anglo Saxons were. The huge quantities of gold and silver found also shows that these were once the possessions of very high status individuals, possibly even royalty. One of the more interesting facts is that none of the objects found would have belonged to women; they were all parts of the trappings of an Anglo-Saxon warrior, which had been ripped off the original swords and helmets.  

There has been fierce debate as to how this collection of treasure was originally accumulated and why, but it has been suggested that they are trophies collected from vanquished warriors after a battle, or that the gold and silver embellishments had been removed so that the sword blades or metal helmets could then be redecorated to reflect the new owner’s identity.  Also there have been various reasons put forward as to why the Staffordshire Hoard was buried in that field, ranging from the treasure being an offering to a pagan god to the artefacts being hastily concealed due to protect them from being pillaged during a battle.

Who Were The Anglo-Saxons?

The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribesmen that invaded the south and east of England during the early 5th century AD. This period of British history is usually known as the Dark Ages, a time from which there are very few surviving written records and it used to be thought that any culture had fled the country with the retreating Romans and that the invading Anglo-Saxons were merely blood-thirsty savages. 

However, some of the archaeological finds from this period, such as the Sutton Hoo burial and now the Staffordshire Hoard, show that the Anglo-Saxons were exceptionally skilled at working precious metals, setting them with garnet gemstones. The field where the Staffordshire Hoard was found was in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, ruled by warrior kings such as Aethelred, Penda and Wulfhere. 

During the 7th century AD Mercia was trying to expand its territory and influence and was being militarily aggressive, so the booty of the Staffordshire Hoard could easily have been stripped from bodies on the battlefield. The Staffordshire Hoard also shows that at that time, Anglo-Saxon Britain was in transition from being a pagan country to a Christian one, as some of the objects show a mix between being decorated with pagan or Christian symbols.

Valuing the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard was valued by the Independent Treasure Valuation Committee at the British Museum at £3.28 million. This small fortune was divided equally between the farmer who owned the field, Fred Johnson, and the man who had made the discovery with his metal detector, Terry Herbert. You would have thought that becoming millionaires overnight would have been a cause for celebration, but instead it appears to have led to a souring of relations and bitter recriminations between these two men. 

The relationship has even deteriorated to the point where Mr Johnson has banned Terry Herbert from ever setting foot on his land again. It seems that both men have expressed regret that they ever had any part in discovering the Staffordshire Hoard. Fred Johnson has stated in the media that he believes that Terry Herbert is just a greedy, grasping man and that he has been incensed by Mr Johnson’s desire to search for more treasure on the farm. Mr Johnson says that he was never interested in gaining money from the find and was only ever interested in protecting the find for the country, and also that he did not welcome any of the publicity or media interest. 

Mr Herbert has riposted by saying that Fred Johnson was just unhappy that he had to share any of the payout and that he wanted to keep all the money for himself. So despite the fact that Fred Johnson has been able to build himself a new house on his farm and that Terry Herbert has moved from his council flat to a luxury bungalow, their new found wealth does not seem to have brought either man very much happiness or peace of mind.

So maybe we should all be a bit more careful of what we wish for, as even something as fabulous as discovering a buried hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure can bring stress and unhappiness with it. But perhaps the most important thing to have come out of all this is the Staffordshire Hoard itself. 

This fascinating piece of Anglo-Saxon history is now housed in several museums in the UK, including the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Potteries Museum and the British Museum, where visitors can wonder at their beauty and experts can continue to examine them and discover more about their history, how they were made and fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history.

Staffordshire Hoard Image Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Labyrinths – A Walking Meditation

Meditation and Labyrinths

The practice of meditation is a personal journey inwards in order to find a new sense of serenity and joy, and also to learn more about ourselves and to promote our spiritual growth.  There are very many different ways of meditating and all religions have their own practices and prayer rituals designed to create stillness and contentment within and to help develop your own direct contact with the spiritual world.  Although many types of meditation involve sitting in silence and solitude, there are also forms of meditation that involve movement, and walking a labyrinth is one of them. People often confuse labyrinths with mazes, but whereas mazes are designed to confuse, get people lost and have many dead-ends, a labyrinth only ever has a single path that always leads you towards the centre. Labyrinths are not supposed to be difficult to find your way through, as the walker may be lost deep in prayer or meditation.

Walking A Labyrinth

The three classical designs of a labyrinth are seven circuit, eleven circuit and twelve circuit.  These are regarded as spiritually powerful patterns as when they are being walked, the backwards and forwards route that turns the walker 180 degrees when they go into another circuit, can encourage their awareness to shift between the two sides of their brain. This can lead to experiencing deep states of meditation, even a hypnotic trance, which can help the walker on their inner journey.  Once the centre of the labyrinth has been gained, it could be an opportunity to spend some more time in contemplation or even to sing and dance.  The same path has to be retraced to get out, which reinforces the key insights gained on your journey to your centre. The seven circuit layout has been known since Greek and Roman times, and appeared as decoration on coins, wall paintings, baskets, pots and is seen in early depictions of body art from as early as 430 BC.  In Roman times, labyrinths were created from tiles or mosaic on the walls or floors of their villas, but these appeared to be mainly for decorative or symbolic purposes.

The Labyrinth of the Minotaur

Labyrinths are very powerful, sacred spaces and have been used since ancient times, and they are represented in many of the great ancient civilisations including the Celts, Ancient Greeks and the Native American Indians.  Perhaps one of the best known labyrinths from antiquity, although a legendary one, is the massive one constructed by Daedalus in order to contain the Minotaur, the monstrous half bull/half man, at the palace of King Minos in Crete.  The Greek hero Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur, but the labyrinth was so convoluted and tricky, that he had to be aided by King Minos’s daughter Ariadne, who gave him a ball of thread which he could use to find his way back out again. As her reward, the gallant Theseus left her as she lay asleep on a beach on the Greek island of Naxos. It is thought that the location of the Minotaur’s labyrinth was at the Minoan Palace of Knossos, which was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900.

Labyrinth at Cathedral in Lucca, Tuscany

The Labyrinth at Hawara

Another famous ancient labyrinth was situated in Hawara in the Fayoum in Egypt and is thought to have been the galleries, chambers and passages of a huge funerary temple complex attached to the pyramid of the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Amenemhat III.  This great structure was described by ancient writers such as Herodotus and Strabo as containing as many as 3,000 rooms all of which were elaborately decorated with images and hieroglyphic texts.  The exact location of this ancient labyrinth has been lost since antiquity, but modern archaeological expeditions, such as the Mataha Expedition to Hawara in 2008, have been slowly uncovering what remains of this vast ancient complex using modern technology.

Labyrinths in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages in Europe was the time when the great Gothic cathedrals were built and pilgrimages to holy shrines were considered to be an important part of spiritual life.  For those who could not travel many of these vast stone cathedrals had labyrinths created in them, carved into the stones of the floors, which allowed the worshipper to walk in meditation, prayer or repentance in lieu of undertaking an arduous and potentially expensive pilgrimage.  It is known that the clergy would dance in the labyrinths during the Easter season and they were also thought to be symbolic of the long and difficult journeys that many pilgrims had undergone to visit the shrines housed in the cathedrals. Many of these labyrinths have either been removed or destroyed over the centuries, but a very good example still survives in Chartres Cathedral.  The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth was created on the floor of the nave below the famous Rose Window over the West Door during the early years of the 13th century and is an eleven circuit labyrinth divided into quadrants.

Labyrinths and the Inner Journey

Labyrinths have enjoyed something of a revival in recent years, as people in the West have started exploring meditation and the inner journey in greater numbers.  If you want to undertake this form of walking meditation, you can create your own temporary labyrinth on the floor with sand, flour, masking tape or string.  If you want something a bit more permanent, you could paint one on some canvas or even a sheet to lie down across the ground when you needed it.  And, of course, real devotees with the space and money could have one carved into the floor, marked out with stones or even a topiary labyrinth planted in the back garden.

Remember though that although labyrinths always lead you to the same place, the very centre, that your own journey to get there will be unique and personal to you.  This is not something that you can do ‘wrong’ and every time that you undertake the journey it will be different.  It can be likened to your life path, and the deeper you penetrate into the labyrinth, the closer that you will come to the meaning and centre of your current existence. If you are meditating and walking as a group it can be very beneficial and interesting to share your experiences, but do not allow yourself to be pressured to do so and never compare your experience to someone else’s.  You are at your own unique point in your spiritual journey and the speed at which you move and what your soul chooses to experience is a very individual and sacred choice.

Image  Lucca Labyrinth Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Saturday, 26 November 2011

What Was The Permian Mass Extinction And What Caused It?

What Was the Permian Mass Extinction?

Have you ever heard of the Permian Mass Extinction, also known as the ‘Great Dying’?  If you are worried by the prophecies that the world as we know it is going to end in 2012, you may not be too cheered by the fact that our planet has already undergone several mass extinctions where a significant percentage of all the animal and plant species then alive were suddenly wiped off the face of the Earth. The mass extinction that we are all perhaps the most familiar with is that of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, when 70% of all the species on the Earth died out. However, the Permian Mass Extinction was even more devastating to our planet, and yet many people have never heard of this sudden period of mass destruction. The Permian Mass Extinction occurred around 251.4 million years ago and constitutes the borderline between the Permian and Triassic periods.  During the Permian, there was only one big land mass, known as the super-continent Pangaea and the destruction of species was savage, with 70% of terrestrial vertebrates disappearing, 96% of all marine species disappearing, and what is thought to be the only mass extinction of insect species  in the planet’s long history occurring.   The destruction of species was so complete that it took the Earth from 4-6 million years to recover, and when it did the foundations had been laid for the dawn of the age of the dinosaurs. So what could possibly have caused this disaster and wreaked such a trail of total destruction?  The Permian Mass Extinction has baffled scientists, and there have been many theories put forward as to what natural event or chain of events could possibly have caused this maelstrom.

What Are The Possible Causes of the Permian Extinction?

So what type of natural disaster could have triggered what is known as the ‘Great Dying’? Globally most complex ecosystems were destroyed, and with only 5% of all species surviving there was a huge question mark as to whether life on Earth could continue to survive at all. It is believed that the extinction event that led to the end of the dinosaurs was a huge impact event; with the impact of a huge asteroid or comet hitting the earth and triggering global destruction. So could an impact event have been the cause of the Permian Mass Extinction? Many scientists have combed the surface of the Earth for evidence of an impact crater that was large enough to have been the catalyst. One of the problems that they have encountered is the huge 250 million time gap between then and now. There is every chance that the impact crater simply no longer exists. Around 70% of the world’s surface is covered by the oceans, and no part of the ocean floor is older than 200 million years old. This is because the sea floor is destroyed by spreading and subduction, and it has been surmised that extensive lava flow could also have concealed any large crater site.

Basalt Lava Flow

Could A Meteorite Impact Have Caused The Permian Mass Extinction?

So evidence of an impact event at the Permian-Triassic boundary is sparse. In 2001 a team from the University of Washington, led by Luanne Becker, published a paper that outlined their discoveries of extraterrestrial argon and helium in rocks of the right age in Japan and China. These two gases were found trapped in something called fullerenes or buckyballs, which are often linked to debris from meteor impacts. The team’s findings were brought into question by other scientists, but they have stood by their findings. There are also a couple of possible sites that have been proposed as the point of impact 250 million years ago. One of these is the Bedout High off the coast of northwest Australia, which is a 30km in diameter circular area where older rocks have been uplifted by as much as 4 km towards the surface. It has been theorised that the Bedout High may be the centre of a huge buried impact crater that dates towards the end of the Permian period. Another proposed impact site is in Antarctica and is known as the Wilkes Land crater, which is actually two hypothetical giant crater impact sites that are hidden deep beneath the Antarctic ice sheets.  Both of these locations have been questioned by the experts, as it has been queried as to whether the geological structures were really caused by meteorite or asteroid hits.

Did Massive Volcanic Eruptions Trigger the ‘Great Dying’

Can you imagine huge volcanic eruptions that carried on for over half-a-million years? Well the close of the Permian period was marked by massive volcanic events. This type of sustained volcanic activity could have accelerated massive global climate changes, covered huge areas with boiling hot volcanic rock and released tremendous amounts of poisonous gases and ash into the atmosphere. What remains of some of these ancient volcanic eruptions are known as the Siberian Traps, where around two million square kilometres of what now is Eastern Russia was covered with basalt lava.  Usually, these are not the type of explosive volcanic eruptions that form the tall cone-shaped volcanoes that most of us are familiar with, but rather huge amounts of basalt lava is pushed out through long fissures in the rocks spreads across large areas. However, there is evidence from the Siberian Traps, in the form of a large amount of pyroclastic deposits in comparison with other basalt floods, that these eruptions were very explosive pumping vast quantities of gases and ash into the atmosphere. However, again scientists have questioned whether these volcanic eruptions, long lasting and as explosive as they were, would have been enough to cause the extinction on the scale of the ‘Great Dying’.

However, there is new evidence that these massive volcanic eruptions could have been the cause of the Permian Mass Extinction after all.  Scientists from the University of Calgary have discovered layers of coal ash in the rocks dating to the Permian-Triassic boundary in the Canadian Arctic, which they believe were deposited as the result of massive coal combustion that was set off by the volcanic activity. This widespread coal fire would have been responsible for the emission of large quantities of greenhouse gases, at a time when the Earth was suffering from a decrease in oxygen levels, acid rainfall and the effects of massive amounts of toxic ash in the air.

So although it may never be conclusively proved that massive volcanic eruptions are what were responsible for the Permian Mass extinctions, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that this is the case.  However an impact event as the trigger cannot be totally discounted and it may well be that the meteorite or asteroid comet impact was what started off the catastrophic volcanic activity.  No doubt the Earth will continue to yield new evidence as to what was the cause of this greatest of mass extinctions, and that one day the full story will be known.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Traditions and Customs of The Twelve Days of Christmas

‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ proclaimed Count Orsino as the iconic opening line of William Shakespeare’s famous play ’Twelfth Night’.  But what is the meaning of the Twelfth Night and what are the origins, history and traditions behind The Twelve Days of Christmas?

Traditionally, the Twelve Days of Christmas begin with Christmas Day as the first day and end on the eve of Epiphany on 5th December.  The Twelve Days of Christmas are celebrated very differently from country to country, as in some places they give gifts on Christmas Day, in some gifts are given on Twelfth Night and in some places gifts are given on each of the twelve days.  As this time of year is the darkest in the northern hemisphere bringing the light back is a very important part of the traditions, so in some countries a candle is lit on each of the days and there is also a tradition of lighting a Yule Log on the first night of Christmas and letting it burn until Twelfth Night.  Celebrating for twelve days at the this time of year, the time of the Winter Equinox, has its origins way back in pagan traditions and the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

During the Middle Ages the Twelve Days of Christmas was a time of great celebration and there would be feasting on every day and long into the night.  The climax of the Christmastide celebrations was the festivities of Twelfth Night.  A Lord of Misrule would have been chosen and he was responsible for overseeing all of the feasting and revelries during the Christmas period.  The Lord of Misrule was generally a peasant, and was known as the Prince des Sots in France, the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland and a Boy Bishop was appointed for festivities run by the Catholic Church.  The celebrations held during the Twelve Days of Christmas were often drunken, debauched, wild affairs, and it was the job of the Lord of Misrule to try and create as much mayhem as possible and disrupt the normal, smooth running of the household.  Another tradition was that the Lords and Ladies switched places with the servants and peasants so  they in turn had their chance of living the high life for a few hours!  A cake, known as the King cake, would have been specially baked for the Twelfth Night celebrations that contained a bean or a small bauble, and the reveller who got the piece of cake would have to do certain things and received various privileges.  The rule of the Lord of Misrule ended at midnight and normal service resumed!

Twelfth Night Merrymaking in Farmer Shakeshaft's Barn

A special alcoholic drink called wassail was prepared to be drunk during The Twelve Days of Christmas, and especially on Twelfth Night.  Wassail was a hot, spicy punch and the practice of wassailing is toasting the gods to ask for abundance and a good harvest.  In the Middle Ages in Europe, the ingredients of the wassail would have included sugar, which was a rare and expensive commodity back then, nutmeg, ginger, ale and cinnamon.  These would have all been put into a large bowl, heated up and then had ‘sops’ of toasted bread placed on top.  Another festive sweet treat was mince pies, which have been eaten during the Christmas season since the 16th century.  Tradition has it that if you eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days then the following twelve months will exceptionally happy. The celebration of Epiphany, where the Three Wise Men or ‘Magi’ arrived to give gifts of gold, frankincense or myrrh to the infant Jesus, is an important occasion in some countries.  In Spain they have processions with people dressed as the Three Kings who throw out sweets for the children in the crowd to catch.

It is believed that the traditions of The Twelve Days of Christmas were taken to America by the early Colonists.   They probably started the tradition of hanging evergreen wreaths on the front door of their houses during the Festive Season.  They would create a wreath from local produce and greenery on Christmas Eve, and then hang it out on the first day of Christmas and would bring it back in on the morning of Epiphany.  It is still a common tradition in England and other parts of the world that all Christmas decorations and Christmas Trees have to be taken down by 6th January, which is Epiphany, and that any festive food that remained had to be eaten or stored away.  It is considered to be bad luck if any decorations are left hanging after that date, but if they are not down by Twelfth Night  to stave off that bad luck they are supposed to be left hanging for the rest of the year.   In earlier times the evergreen wreaths and garlands would have been left in place until Candlemas which is the 2nd January.  The bad luck was supposed to stem from the spirits of the holly, ivy, mistletoe and other Christmas greenery.  These plant spirits were said to be happy to be in the warmth and comfort of the house during the snow and frost of the mid-winter, but once the milder days returned they wanted to go back outside where they belonged in nature.  It was said that if they were not returned to the woods and hedgerows all the plants and leaves would not start to grow again and the spring would not come back again, causing great hardship for all.

There is an English Christmas Carol called ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ that enumerates the gifts that a very special someone received on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  It starts with a ‘Partridge in A Pear Tree’ on the first day and ends with ‘Twelve Drummers Drumming’ on the twelfth day.  In my experience most people know the words up until the fifth day, but once past the golden rings they tend to start getting their ‘Lords a-Leaping’ and ‘Maids a-Milking’ pretty mixed up.  It also depends how much wine was consumed with Christmas Dinner!  The carol may have been French in origin, and could date back until the 16th century, but was first published in England in 1780. 

It is believed that this famous carol first started out as a memory game that was played by the revellers who attended Twelfth Night feasts.  The participants in the game would have to remember all of the earlier verses that had been sung and then add a verse on the end.  If they failed to remember the verses, they would most likely have to pay a forfeit, such as giving someone a kiss or giving a sweetmeat to another reveller. The lyrics of the carol are also said to contain religious symbolism, such as the ‘Seven Swans a-Swimming’ referring to the seven sacraments of the Church, or the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  This may have originated from the time when the Roman Catholic Church was being suppressed in England, and needed to pass on the Catholic faith in a hidden manner, such as in the words of a popular song, although there is no evidence to support this.

So when you find yourself singing this popular carol this Christmas season, or you start to get anxious about getting your Christmas Decorations down on time, stop and take some time out to remember the history and traditions of The Twelve Days of Christmas and where these seasonal customs came from.

Image Wikimedia Commons  Public Domain 

Friday, 7 October 2011

Why Explore The Valley of the Queens?

Do you long to visit Luxor and explore the many monuments of the Ancient Egyptians?  Luxor offers many spectacular monuments such as the great temples of Karnak, Luxor and Deir el-Bahri, the magnificent pharaoh’s tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina.  However, one of the ancient sites that you should not miss is the Valley of the Queens. The Valley of the Queens is a small wadi on the West Bank of the Nile that contains between 75-80 tombs of queens, princes, princesses and high officials from the early 18th dynasty until the 20th dynasty of Ancient Egypt.  In Arabic the valley is known as the ‘Biban al-Harim’ and in ancient times it was called ‘Ta-Set-Neferu’ or ‘The Place of Beauty’.  During the time when the Valley of the Queens was being used as a necropolis, it would have been a busy place with teams of tomb builders working and mortuary priests performing daily rituals and giving offerings and prayers for the deceased.

Many of the tombs were simple, undecorated affairs and the owners have not been identified as there are no inscriptions on the walls and no funerary equipment with the owner’s name on it has been found.  All of the tombs in the Valley of the Queens are numbered, like all Theban tombs, and are prefixed QV for Queen’s Valley.  There may also be tombs that have not yet been discovered in the Valley, as there are also remnants of funerary equipment from other interments that have been found during excavation, which give an indication that their owners may have been buried in the Valley of the Queens.

Valley of the Queens - Own Image

So who we know was buried in the Valley of the Queens?  There are several tombs of the family of Ramesses the Great to be found in the valley and the most famous is the tomb that he carved out for his beloved wife Queen Nefertari (1290-1224 BC).  This jewel-bright tomb was excavated by Ernesto Schiaparelli and the Italian Archaeological Mission in 1904 and is thought to be one of the most beautifully decorated tombs in all of Egypt.  The walls are decorated with brightly coloured painted scenes, many which depict Nefertari accompanied by various Egyptian deities.  She is also often shown on the painted walls wearing a golden vulture headdress.  This dazzling tomb also boasts an arresting astronomical ceiling painted dark blue and studded with painted golden stars.  The tomb was extensively robbed in antiquity, and most of the rich funerary equipment, including the coffins and royal mummy, were ransacked.  The only fragments of Nefertari’s mummy that remain are pieces of her knees that are now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin.

The origins of Nefertari are unknown, but she may have been related to the Amarna royal family from the late 18th dynasty as a cartouche of the Pharaoh Ay was found on a fragment of furniture or the pommel of a cane in her tomb. Her name means ‘beautiful companion’ and she was married to Ramesses II when she was a young teenager and was his most prominent and favourite wife until her death in her early forties in around year 25 of her husband’s reign. Unlike most Egyptian queens, Nefertari was featured prominently on Ramesses II’s statues and monuments and he even built her a temple next to his own at Abu Simbel.  There is every indication that there was real affection between this royal couple and Ramesses II had a love poem inscribed on the walls of her tomb and she was referred to in an inscription at Abu Simbel as ‘she for whom the sun doth shine’.

The limestone of in the Valley of the Queens is not of the highest quality, so Nefertari’s tomb was plastered several times before the painted funerary scenes could be executed by the ancient artists.  The area is also subject to earthquakes and the precious wall paintings developed cracks and damage, which led to the tomb to being closed to the public in the 1950s for conservation.  In 1986 serious works were undertaken by the Getty Conservation Institute, and further work was done in 1988.  It was discovered that one of the main offenders was salt.  Both the local Theban limestone and the plaster that the ancient Egyptian tomb builders used contained large amounts of salt which crystallised and forced parts of the plaster away from the walls and peeled off areas of the painted scenes.  The earlier restoration project had actually further damaged the irreplaceable painted images, so the whole of QV66 had to be cleaned and the wall paintings stabilised.  This restoration was an immense project and was not completed until 1992.  The tomb of Nefertari was reopened to the public again in 1995, but the number of tickets sold was severely restricted.  However, even the small amounts of tourists that were allowed to enter the tomb caused further damage to the painted images on the wall and it was closed again in 2003.  These days only a very few lucky tourists on certain private tours or with special permission can view this most exquisite of Egyptian tombs.

Valley of the Queens - Own Image

There are also several tombs of the sons of Ramesses III to be found in the Valley of the Queens, and after the tomb of Nefertari they are regarded as some of the finest to be found in the Valley. They include QV55, which is the tomb of Prince Amunherkhepshef who was a son of Pharaoh Ramesses III and his Great Royal Wife, Queen Tyti, who also has a tomb nearby in the Valley of the Queens. It is thought that Prince Amunherkhepshef was only about 15 years old when he died around year 30 of his father’s reign and he is shown in most of the wall paintings in the tomb wearing the side locks of youth. Although he was one of the pharaoh’s younger sons, he still held some very important titles such as ‘Fan Bearer to the Right of the King’ ‘Superior of the Two Lands’ and ‘Royal Scribe’

The tomb of Prince Amunherkhepshef was unfortunately discovered to have been completely looted in antiquity, probably not long after it had been sealed during the 19th dynasty, when it was excavated between 1903 and 1904 during the second campaign undertaken by the Italian Archaeological Mission. The tomb is decorated with well-executed painted scenes which mainly depict Amunherkhepshef’s father presenting him to the various Egyptian gods and goddesses.

Apart from an unfinished pink granite sarcophagus, very little in the way of funerary equipment was ever recovered during the excavation of this tomb.  In fact, further research has shown that Amunherkhepshef was never actually buried in this tomb, but was in fact interred in an adapted sarcophagus once belonging to Queen Tausert in the tomb of Chancellor Bay in the Valley of the Kings (KV13). There is, however, one fascinating, albeit slightly gruesome artefact still on display in QV55 and that is the mummy of a foetus wrapped in linen bindings.  This tiny mummy was originally found in a tiny wooden chest, but is now kept in an urn in the back chamber of the tomb.

The opening hours are 6am to 5pm, but the best time to visit the Valley of the Queens is very early in the morning, before the sun gets too hot and the crowds have descended. The tombs that are generally open on a daily basis are those of Tyti, Amunherkhepshef and Khaemwaset, although this may vary.  There are local vendors at the entrance to the site selling souvenirs and there are toilets.  As with all the ancient sites in Luxor, it is a good idea to wear a hat and cover your arms to protect yourself from the hot Egyptian sun, wear suitable footwear and take a bottle of water with you.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

What Was The Fate of Queen Nefertiti?

Nefertiti is regarded as being one of the most beautiful of the Ancient Egyptian Queens, but she is also a very enigmatic Queen. Although today the image of Nefertiti is famous the world over, with the bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin museum being one of the most famous sculptures of the ancient world and her exquisite face adorning everything from jewelry, to scarves to tea towels, we still do not know the origins of Nefertiti or what happened to her at the end.

There has been much speculation among Egyptologists as to who the parents of Nefertiti were and how she came to marry a future Pharaoh.  Was she an Egyptian royal princess, or was she a foreign princess who had been sent from a foreign court? Or was she the daughter of a noble Egyptian family, who were somehow well connected enough to the royal family to be able to wed their daughter to Pharaoh's son?

Nefertiti became an exceptionally influential figure during the Amarna period of Egypt's history, and was shown in equal stature to her husband, the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten, and seems to have enthusiastically promoted his new beliefs in the single god Aten. The royal couple had six daughters, but are not recorded as having had a son.

What happens to Nefertiti at the end of her life is as mysterious as where she came from, so read on to find out more about the mysterious fate of Queen Nefertiti.

Bust of Queen Nefertiti in Berlin Museum

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Giant Fossil Wombat Found In Australia

How would you feel if you were taking a gentle stroll through the bush in the Australian Outback, and you suddenly found yourself nose-to-nose with a giant wombat-like creature? Well, this would have been the experience of the first aboriginal people who landed in Australia, as the island continent was at that time home to a creature called Diprotodon.  Diprotodon was probably the largest marsupial that ever walked the planet and made its home in Australia between 2 million and 25,000 years ago.

Previously only fragments of these fossil giant wombats have been discovered, but now scientists are excited because a complete Diprotodon fossil has been discovered in a remote part of Northern Queensland on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The discovery of the complete Diprotodon skeleton will help scientists more accurately assess the size, weight and movements of this huge prehistoric marsupial.  It is thought that Diprotodon could grow up to 14 feet long and weigh up to three tons. Luckily, the giant wombat was a vegetarian, but with its great size and weight, would be able to crush anything in its path.

Scientists are not sure why this giant beast, a member of the Australian megafauna, became extinct, but one fossil bone found in New South Wales, shows signs that it had been pierced with an arrowhead.  As the Diprotodon died out not long after humans first settled in Australia, the question has to be asked as to whether the giant wombat was hunted to extinction?

Hopefully, this amazing fossil discovery in Australia, will help scientists to piece together much more information on Diprotodon, so that we can learn much more about how they lived and what exactly it was that led to their extinction.

Diprotodon - cast of composite skeleton Queensland Museum 

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Ancient Egypt Revealed - Thousands of Lost Tombs and Seventeen Pyramids

Modern technology has now very firmly got a grip on the world of Egyptology with some very exciting results. Researchers have been using infrared satellite imaging, known as space archaeology, to survey parts of Egypt and so far they have located seventeen lost pyramids, one thousand lost tombs and scores of buried ancient settlements.

Egyptologists have already confirmed that they already know of the existence of two of those lost pyramids and they are highly impressed with the accuracy of the information that has been produced so far. The researchers also think that there are still many more major sites to be discovered that have been deeply covered silt along the banks of the River Nile.

One excavation site that is proving to be particularly exciting is the ancient city of Tanis in the Nile Delta, where a 3,000 year old house is being dug by the Egyptologists. As they have gradually uncovered this ancient dwelling, it has proved to match almost exactly the outline shown on the satellite images from space.

So hopefully we can all look forward many exciting future finds, which will greatly add to our understanding of the magnificent culture that is Ancient Egypt!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Did the Neanderthals Survive Longer Than We Thought?

Neanderthals were an ancient species of human that flourished in Europe for around 200,000 years until modern humans put in an appearance around 40,000 years again. The disappearance of the Neanderthals has caused fierce debate among the experts, with many different theories being put forward and many being shot down again. It has been thought that the last bands of Neanderthals to survive in Europe were living at the extremes of the Iberian Peninsula, in Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal.

However, new archaeological evidence shows that Neanderthals may have survived for much longer than  was previously thought on the icy tundra of sub-Arctic Russia.  A typically Neanderthal tool kit has been excavated at a site called Byzovaya in the Ural Mountains, that comprises of hundreds of stone tools. These ancient stone tools have shown that the site was last occupied around 33,000 years ago and were dated by using both radiocarbon and luminescence dating. Why they are thought to be Neanderthal tools is because they are the classic scrapers and flakes that are associated with this prehistoric species of humans, and are known as Mousterian Technology.

This late date is believed to be after the last Neanderthals had supposedly died out, but although the tool kits are typically Neanderthal, as no human fossil remains have yet been discovered it can not be taken as definitive evidence that the Neanderthals had survived this long. The location of Byzovaya is also surprising as it is 620 miles outside the previously accepted range of the Neanderthal people, and to survive there these hardy early humans would have had to learn to cope with very harsh and cold weather conditions.

So did the Neanderthals really make their last stand in the icy wastes of the sub-Arctic and did they really survive for thousands of years later than was previously thought?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Coronary Heart Disease Found in Ancient Egyptian Princess

Most of us think that heart disease is a modern phenomenon and that people in antiquity lived lives blessedly free of these debilitating conditions. Well it seems that coronary heart disease is truly an ancient condition and the oldest ever case has just been diagnosed in the mummy of an Ancient Egyptian Princess.

Princess Ahmose Meryet Amun was a daughter of the Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II of Ancient Egypt's 17th dynasty and died around 3,500 years ago sometime in her 40's. This might seem to be a young age to die for us folks of the 21st century, but this was a fairly average age to die for Ancient Egyptians. Her mummy is housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and it was during the recent scans of the royal mummies that the royal princess's heart disease was detected.

During the scan it was found that Princess Ahmose Meryet Amun suffered from coronary atherosclerosis during her life, which is a potentially fatal condition that is caused by plaque building up in the arteries, causing blockages that can lead to strokes or heart attacks. It was discovered that the Egyptian princess had blockages in five of her major arteries, including those that supply the heart and the brain, which would have required her to have a double bypass operation today.

One of the causes of coronary heart disease is thought to be lifestyle, with modern diets rich in trans fats and sugar, lack of exercise and smoking being among the main culprits. But although the average Ancient Egyptian diet and lifestyle was probably low in risk factors for coronary heart disease, Ahmose Meryet Amun was a member of the royal family and a such probably ate a much richer diet and did far less physical exercise than other members of the population at that time.

There is also the suggestion that her atherosclerosis could have a genetic element, as several other of her female relative's mummies also showed signs of this disease. The cause of her disease could also be inflammation brought on by her immune system responding to the infections that were prevalent in Egypt during that period.

So it seems that the royalty of Ancient Egypt also suffered from a disease that is a scourge of the modern world.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

T. Rex Has a New Relative!

If, like me, you have to huddle under a blanket when the T. Rex is rampaging during Jurassic Park, you may be horrified to learn that scientists have just identified a new species of tyrannosaur may have been even bigger! This new, mighty theropod dinosaur has been named Zuchengtyrannus magnus, which means 'Tyrant of Zucheng' and so far a fossil skull and jaw bones have been excavated in China.

Scientists have estimated that this new member of the tyrannosaur family stood around four metres tall, was around eleven metres long and could have weighed as much as six tonnes. The tyrannosaurines were a group of large theropod dinosaurs who lived in eastern Asia and North America during the Cretaceous Period 99 million to 65 million years ago. So far the famous T. Rex is the most illustrious member of the family, although there have been debates as to whether T Rex was a mighty predator or a scavenger.

But although Zuchengtyrannus magnus might not have such a catchy name as T. Rex, just give him his own movies, and he might just become the new dinosaur to stalk our nightmares!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Mona Lisa's Remains To Be Exhumed

The Mona Lisa is possibly the most famous portrait in the world. There has been endless speculation over the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile and what the lady really looked like when she was alive. Well now archaeologists have decided to try and exhume the remains of the Mona Lisa, extract some DNA and recreate her famous face.

The Mona Lisa, which hangs in the Louvre in Paris, is believed to be a depiction of a noblewomen who lived in renaissance Florence called Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo. This lady died in 1542 and is thought to be buried in the Saint Orsola convent in Florence, and an Italian team led by Professor Silvano Vinceti is aiming to find and excavate her bones, extract the DNA and then compare this DNA against that of two of her children that are buried in other churches in Florence. This DNA comparison should prove the identity of the remains, but there are obstacles in the way of the excavation.

A survey has revealed a 500 year old crypt beneath the convent, but there are fears that the ancient crypt may have shifted over the years and it is thought that the remains of the convent were bulldozed over thirty years ago.

The team will start digging at the end of April 2011, and will locate the crypt using radar. So maybe we will soon be looking at the true smile and face of the Mona Lisa?

Monday, 7 March 2011

Deir el-Medina - Ancient Egyptian Workmen's Village

The climate of Egypt has ensured that many amazing artefacts and ancient buildings and monuments have been preserved.  One of the most fascinating of these fantastically preserved archaeological sites is the ancient workmen's village at Deir el-Medina. Deir el-Medina is set in an arid curve in the cliffs on the West Bank of the Nile at what was then known as Thebes, and is now modern Luxor. The excavation of Deir el-Medina was undertaken over many years of the 20th century, first by Ernesto Schiaparelli and then by Bernard Bruy√®re.

These excavations uncovered an amazingly preserved village comprising of four-room dwellings built of mud-brick set on rubble foundations, that opened out onto a main street that bis-sected the small town. The general plan of the houses comprised an entrance hall, a living area with raised platforms for sitting and sleeping, some smaller rooms for storage and sleeping and an open courtyard that was used for cooking meals and grinding grain into flour for bread.

The inhabitants of this unique village were the workmen who dug, carved and painted the amazing royal tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.  They worked long hours in physically difficult conditions, so that their pharaoh could journey safely into the afterlife after his death, but still these were prized jobs that were passed down from father to son.  It should be stressed that these workers were free citizens, and not slaves, and enjoyed a better education and quality of life than many other ordinary Ancient Egyptians.

But what makes Deir el-Medina so very fascinating, is the amount of information that we have learned about the lives of these ordinary Ancient Egyptian families.  Thousands of ostraca, or large flakes of limestone, have been recovered from the site, along with papyri, that have written on them lists, work records, letters, notes and daily gossip, which have provided a wondeful picture of those who lived in the village at Deir el-Medina.  Names, family relationships, jobs, who was arguing with who, or was having a relationship with who, is all known due to these amazing ancient records.

Deir el-Medina is now open to tourists and is well worth a visit, especially the exquisitely painted tombs that the workers dug and decorated for themselves and their families.

Deir el-Medina

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Myths of Britain - Herne The Hunter

The United Kingdom has a long and,quite often, bloody history, which has lead to many myths and legends becoming associated with historical places. Windsor is one of the oldest castles in England, and along with its extensive Great Park, is well known for hauntings and paranormal events.  One of the most famous legends associated with Windsor Great Park is that of Herne the Hunter and his Wild Hunt.

The legend goes that during the reign of King Richard II, Herne was a conscientious keeper on the Windsor Estate. In fact he was so good at his job that the other keepers were all resentful of his success.  One day Richard II was hunting in the park when he was thrown from his horse and then attacked by a white hart (stag). Herne managed to rescue the stricken monarch and slit the white hart's throat, but was fatally wounded in the process.

As Herne lay dying, a mystery man called Philip Urswick appeared with an offer to heal Herne, while hiding the fact that he has already made a pact with the other keepers that on his recovery Herne would no longer be any good at his job. Urswick chopped the antlers off the dead white hart and place them on Herne's head, where they stuck as though they had always been there. After his recovery Herne lost his position as predicted, and in despair hung himself from an oak tree. Although his swinging body was seen, when it came to be recovered his corpse could not be found.

The other keepers mysteriously also lost their powers and when they consulted Philip Urswick, he advised them to meet that night at the oak tree where Herne had been seen swinging.  When they arrived they were met by the horned Herne, who forced them to go hunting with him in Windsor Great Park.

The legend of Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt was born, so read on to find out more