Google Maps for the Roman Empire

The last time I was in London, I was so tempted by all the ads for $30 flights to Rome — I could flit off for a weekend in Italy! I could also make a day trip by train to Edinburgh, which was a bit more expensive but a pleasant way to travel anyway. Let’s do a fantasy vacation and see what I could do. Here’s the Edinburgh trip:

What? The closest you can get me is to York, which the British manage to spell funny, and it’s going to take nine days? By donkey? British rail sure has gone downhill.

What about that weekend trip to Italy, instead? Cheapest route, please.

No direct flights available? I have to take a couple of sea cruises, another butt-busting ride on a donkey, and it’s going to take 37 days? I haven’t the slightest idea what the conversion rate for denarii is, so I’m not going to guess what it costs. Probably more than $30.

You’ve probably figured out that I wasn’t using Google Maps, but this cool webpage called Orbis, which uses a historical database to calculate routes and travel times to and from various destinations in 200CE. Apparently, there was no such thing as taking a three day vacation in a different country back then, when you either had to walk, ride a donkey, or pay a lot of money for a carriage.

I could see how fantasy novelists and fantasy gamers, as well as historians, could use this to get some perspective on how much work was required to move around in the ancient world.

I never did like those genders, anyhow

When I was learning German, I struggled with the whole concept of gendered words — you had to use different articles with different nouns, and adjective endings were all over the place. One of the nice things about English is that we’ve jettisoned all that nonsense, but our language used to have them.

Maybe we should continue the trend and get rid of the gendered pronouns? They just get in the way and flag people with often inappropriate assumptions. All the people who complain about having to respect pronouns should appreciate that since it makes everything so simple and means they won’t have to worry about “compelled speech” anymore.

It’s a property of English, learn to respect it! Or go learn Spanish.*

*(We Americans might all have to learn Spanish anyway, or at least some hybrid of Spanish and English**)

**(Which I would hope would ditch the gendered nouns, too.)

Those darn immigrants

Go back where you come from! You violate our traditions and are trying to replace us!

I guess that’s a familiar complaint. Britons were complaining about all those immigrants from the European mainland who were waltzing in, smug as you please, after the fall of Rome, and I presume they were taking all the jerbs. Now science demonstrates the takeover.

In the eighth century C.E., an English monk named Bede wrote the history of the island, saying Rome’s decline in about 400 C.E. opened the way to an invasion from the east. Angle, Saxon, and Jute tribes from what is today northwestern Germany and southern Denmark “came over into the island, and they began to increase so much, that they became terrible to the natives.”

But in the later 20th century, many archaeologists suspected Bede, writing centuries later, had exaggerated the invasion’s scale. Instead, they envisioned a small migration of a warrior elite, who imposed their imported culture on the existing population. Now, a sweeping genomic study, published this week in Nature, suggests Bede may have been at least partly right. New DNA samples from 494 people who died in England between 400 and 900 C.E. show they derived more than three-quarters of their ancestry from Northern Europe.

It was the Angles and the Saxons!

“You can’t deny there was a big shift in material culture—Roman Britain looks very different from the Anglo-Saxon period 200 years later,” Hills says. In spite of that, “Most archaeologists have been critical of the idea of migration,” rejecting it as an overly simplistic explanation for cultural change.

But the new DNA analysis revives it. Together with previously published DNA, samples from more than 20 cemeteries along England’s eastern coast suggest a rapid, large-scale migration from Northern Europe, beginning by 450 C.E. at the latest. “Some Anglo-Saxon sites look almost 100% continental European,” says co-author Joscha Gretzinger, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “The only explanation is a large amount of people coming in from the North Sea zone.”

Anglo-Saxons go home! Pack up your things and move back to Germany. Or France. Or Poland. And take your foreign ways and your strange foods and your filthy habits with you.<

Except…here comes the kicker.

Traces of western British and Irish ancestry in people buried on the continent suggest a reverse migration, too, with migrants’ descendants moving back after generations in Great Britain. The results undercut the idea of Great Britain as an isolated island, upset only occasionally by invasions. “Actually, the North Sea was a highway, where people were coming and going,” Hills says. “Maybe mobility is a more normal human state than we think.

So, like, maybe we should just get used to populations changing over time?

Hooke doesn’t get enough respect

This is an impressive microscope. It doesn’t look like much, but this is the kind of instrument Leeuwenhoek used to make his observations, back in the 17th and early 18th century. I did not know until now that it was a mystery how he could magnify specimens 270 times with a simple lens — we didn’t know exactly how he constructed the lens, and he wouldn’t tell anyone. It was his secret, which is not a proper scientific attitude, but OK, it was his key to fame.

Until now, that is. The secret of Leeuwenhoek’s lenses has been cracked! It turns out he borrowed a technique of Robert Hooke’s and improved on it.

But on his most powerful lens, neutron tomography revealed that Van Leeuwenhoek used another technique entirely. It was almost perfectly spherical and completely smooth, without the sharp rim inevitably created by a traditional grinding cup. Even more tellingly, the lens retained the faint remnants of a snapped stem, concealed by the brass plates since the day Van Leeuwenhoek had placed it there.

The stem is a smoking gun. It’s the unavoidable result of forming a lens by melting a thread of glass until a bead forms on its end and then snapping it off. In other words, to make his greatest lens, Van Leeuwenhoek copied Hooke’s simple recipe from the book that likely inspired him. Cocquyt believes this may explain why he was so circumspect when Hooke asked about his methods; he wanted to avoid giving credit to Hooke himself.

Published in Science Advances last year, Cocquyt’s discovery that Van Leeuwenhoek used a well-known technique reveals a deeper truth about the state of microscopy in the 17th century. It suggests that for all the crafting genius required to make his tiny, super-powered lens, Van Leeuwenhoek’s greatest insight may have been that there was something new to see by making one.

I mean, everyone was copying Robert Hooke in the 17th century and then hiding the fact. Hooke was a real genius, and it makes me wonder why no one wanted to credit him for anything. Apparently, he was an unpleasant character, vain and jealous, and that has damaged his legacy. The lesson: be courteous and nice with your peers!

Men never change

I suppose a woman could have carved this stone found along Hadrian’s wall, and from the 2nd century CE, but somehow I doubt it.

The stone is fairly small, measuring 40 cm wide by 15 cm tall (15 inches by 6 inches). Experts in Roman epigraphy recognized the lettering as a mangled version of Secundinus cacator, which translates into (ahem) “Secundinus, the shitter.” The penis image merely added insult to injury—a clever subversion of the traditional interpretation of a phallus as a positive symbol of fertility. The Vindolanda site now has 13 phallic carvings, more than have been discovered at any other dig site along Hadrian’s Wall.

The last laugh is on whoever carved it, because we remember Secundinus’s name and not his.

Ancient Romans were diverse? Who would have thought it?

I wouldn’t have guessed that they’d ever get DNA from the dead of Pompeii, but they have. It’s not complete — heat isn’t compatible with DNA preservation — but they were able to make some mundane conclusions.

The man’s genome assembly had just 0.42x coverage, indicating that the reads had little overlap, and there were gaps. Still, according to Scorrano, the sequence was good enough to analyze certain aspects of the DNA. The results suggested the Pompeian man was genetically similar to modern Mediterranean populations and, when compared to other published genomes from ancient Rome, that he was closely related “to Imperial Roman Age individuals,” Scorrano says, adding that that’s what the team expected to find. But at the same time, he notes that Rome was packed with people from diverse genetic backgrounds back then. In fact, the markers of the man’s maternal and paternal lineages were absent among those previously published sequences, which suggests the region had high genetic diversity during that time.

The Italian Peninsula was “incredibly heterogeneous” when Vesuvius erupted—people were “coming from all over the empire” into Rome or into port cities like Pompeii, says University of Chicago archaeologist Hannah Moots, who did not participate in the study but has previously characterized the genomic pool of ancient Rome. It is exciting to have genomes from Italian regions outside Rome, she says, adding that looking at sites like Pompeii is “really interesting” because they can provide insights into more rural areas.

Mundane isn’t bad — it’s what was expected. And they did find some novel markers. Just learning that Roman society was diverse is a good reminder to all those people who think monocultures are superior.

Lara Logan: A classic example of not even wrong

A Fox News host went on a QAnon show, and the absurdity just blew up from there. She started talking about Darwin.

What is the only thing on Earth that is actually renewable? It’s life. And they can, you know, go back to the big-bang theory and Darwin. I mean, when I found out, does anyone know when, who employed Darwin? Where Darwinism comes from? Well, I mean, you know, look it up, the Rothschilds. It goes right back to 10 Downing Street and the same people who employed Darwin and that’s when Darwin, you know, wrote his theory of evolution and so on and so on. And I’m not saying that none of that is true. I’m just saying Darwin was hired by someone to come up with the theory. Right? Based on evidence. OK, fine.

Um, no one employed Darwin. He was independently wealthy, getting his money from his inheritance (being related to the Wedgwood industrialists helped), rents and business investments, and book royalties. No one paid him to write The Origin, other than John Murray, that is, who was his publisher, and who also published Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Now there’s a grand group of conspirators.

I know of no connection with the Rothschilds, other than that an anti-Semitic hate group (a term that applies to both Fox News and QAnon) wants desperately to connect the Jews to everything.

I did look it up, and didn’t find any links between Darwin and the Rothschild bankers. Well, except for maybe this weird incoherent rant about Rothschild-Khazarian Mafia.

Irony Alert! Darwin’s famous “scientific” voyage to the Galapagos Islands as the resident naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1831 was ostensibly made to catalogue different species of plants and animals, but in actuality was a prelude to pervert the history and Biblical origins of Mankind with the publication of his scientism (fake science) books, On the Origin of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871).

Of course Darwin (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Weber, and many, many other scientists and academics, philosophers and intellectuals since the last quarter of the 17th century) were virtually all financed with Rothschild (Fake Jewish Khazarian Mafia) money, (including all his books, essays, articles, and lecture tours) proposing his Theory of Evolution Atheism and Eugenics Racism which brought with it instant national and international fame and celebrity. Why were the Rothschilds interested in financing this obscure naturalist with no scientific expertise in either biology or zoology? Following the Kabbalah Law of Opposites and Babylonian Talmudism, the Rothschild Khazarian Mafia funded these anti-intellectual enterprises with the specific intent to deconstruct and ultimately destroy Christianity by pushing the academic atheism Big Lie that mankind is no different than the animals, and in fact descended from them.

If the crazed grammar doesn’t persuade you, they also published this image.

Yeah. Look it up.

One thing I don’t miss from Salt Lake City

Yikes, there’s something off about the whole story

Really, it’s a lovely place to live, and it’s usually easy to overlook the Mormons. The Salt Lake Tribune is also a good newspaper, except…they have a tendency to soft-pedal Mormon absurdity. Case in point: their coverage of Mormon archaeology. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the Mormon religion was founded by a 19th century con artist who wrote this pretentious, long-winded piece of fan fiction about the lost tribes of Israel colonizing North America and creating, out of whole cloth, a pseudo-history of pale-skinned people building cities and fighting wars all across the continent. There’s no evidence for any of this nonsense. But the Salt Lake Tribune reports it as if this is legitimate history and archaeology, and the religious kooks digging around for support for their myths are heroic.

Forget Indiana Jones. Try Iowa John.

Yes, John Lefgren and other supporters of the Heartland Research Group aren’t hunting for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, but they are searching high and low — in this case, really low — for archaeological evidence supporting the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

Right now, they’re on a quest to find Zarahemla … in southeastern Iowa.

They’re using light detection and ranging sensors — along with carbon dating, magnetometry and other technological tools — to pinpoint the ancient Nephite capital, which they believe is waiting to be discovered underground just outside of Montrose.

Nope. There were no Nephites. There was no Nephite nation. There was no Zarahemla. Montrose, Iowa happens to be just across the Mississippi from Nauvoo, Illinois, where Joseph Smith and his followers fled to after they were chased out of Missouri — Smith just incorporated anywhere he found himself into his fantasy fictional history. So they’re digging in a random spot and claiming any evidence of human habitation supports the Book of Mormon.

The Heartland Research Group thinks it may have found the site of Zarahemla—a notable city in the Book of Mormon—outside of Montrose, a small southeast Iowa town located on the banks of the Mississippi River.

John Lefgren of the Heartland Research Group said in his faith, Zarahemla would be comparable to Jerusalem for Christians. The exact location of Zarahemla has not been verified, so being able to pinpoint it would be a milestone.

“Iowa is an important place,” Lefgren said. “In the fourth century, Montrose, Iowa, had the largest city in North America.”

According to Lefgren, in its heyday of AD 320, Zarahemla had a population of about 100,000 and it was the largest city in the Americas.

Nope. Nauvoo/Montrose are on the Mississippi, about 200 miles from Cahokia. This was the heartland of the Mound Builders culture, which actually existed, and was thriving at the time the Mormons claim there was an entire Hebrew civilization living in the same place, riding horses and wielding iron swords, somehow replacing the real human beings who lived there. They’re going to misinterpret everything they find.

One method they hope can help verify Zarahemla’s location is by finding fire pits. The group theorizes that with a population of about 100,000, there would be one fire pit for every 10 residents within a mile or so of the city center.

“We’ve gone down into the ground with core sampling to get charcoal/carbon from fires that are 1,700 years old,” Lefgren said. “It’s all serious stuff; all serious stuff right here in Iowa.”

The samples will be sent to the Vilnius Radiocarbon Laboratory in Lithuania for carbon-14 dating to determine the age of the recovered charcoal.

Let’s just pretend there wasn’t a thriving American Indian culture right there 1700 years ago, and that those people cooked their food in their villages along the banks of the Mississippi. They’re going to find ashes and declare victory, they found proof that Joseph Smith’s grand con was true.

And the Mormon newspapers will go along with it.

The most charming magical bar that has ever been

The other day, I got in my car and discovered a few fine strands of silk between the steering wheel and the dashboard. Just a few; some spider had been making a few exploratory leaps inside the car, leaving traces behind, and then probably left because there isn’t much spider food in there. It made me just a little bit happy, though. It’s good to see the little ones out and about.

I can only dream of someday owning a Cobweb Palace.

That’s the interior of a San Francisco saloon that existed between 1856 and 1893, established by a wise gentleman and kindred spirit named Abe Warner.

Cobweb Palace was unlike any other saloon in that it had dense spider webs fixed on the bar’s ceiling. More threads draped over the shelves that stored the liquor bottles. The spiders cast a veil over nude portraits on the walls, and some of the webs reportedly grew 6 feet wide at times. But Warner refused to destroy them.

“The spiders just took advantage of me and my good nature,” Warner told the San Francisco Chronicle. “When I first opened up here, I didn’t have time to bother with ‘em and they grew on me. It’s a great neighborhood for spiders, anyway, and the news got around among ‘em that I was easy and they founded an orphan asylum and put all the orphans to work spinning webs.”

All good things must come to an end, though, and the enchanted saloon eventually failed after a prosperous 40 year run.

Cobweb Palace would continue showcasing its curios, wild animals, and web-covered ceiling for nearly four decades, until the crowd outgrew their taste for the peculiar fortress Warner created. The saloon began to lose its luster in the 1870s, when the area became mostly industrial. Years later, the Sausalito ferries moved away from Meiggs’ Wharf, causing a bigger blow to Warner’s business.

Customers stopped coming to Cobweb Palace and Warner couldn’t make enough cash to pay the rent. The property owner had no choice but to evict Warner by 1893 to tear down the saloon and make way for new housing.

The end of Abe Warner was especially poignant. Is this me in a few years time? If it is, it’s not that terrible a way to go.

Warner is remembered in historic articles as a man whose only friends were the spiders, and in a way, they were. Warner’s best days were among the spiders that coexisted inside his bar as they kept him company long after the crowd abandoned him. Some webs had been undisturbed since the saloon’s inception until the auctioneers finally cleared them out.

Warner refused his daughter’s call to return to New York after the failure of Cobweb Palace. It would be too painful of a move after the decades spent in San Francisco. Even when local relatives wanted to take him in, Warner declined their offer, preferring his own solitude. Then, three years after the saloon’s permanent closure, Warner passed away in 1896 without a dime to his name. He was 82 years old and died alone, save for the spiders that watched over him until the very end.

What’s especially sad about that is that I haven’t accomplished anything as glorious as the Cobweb Palace. I’m going to have to get to work fast in my remaining years.

Also, anyone else read his story and think he sounds like a great character for an urban fantasy novel?