Sometimes, we make progress

It takes decades, though. When did you last hear anyone seriously advocate a flat earth? How many Republican presidential candidates would raise their hands if asked if they believed the earth was flat? Sure, you can find a few far out fringe cranks who babble about it, just as there are a few geocentrists around, but it’s a dead idea — not even Ken Ham pushes it, although I am wondering, since the Bible does support it literally, whether he doesn’t secretly suspect the astronomers have been lying to him for all these years.

But there used to be more noisy flat-earthers around. A complete copy of a map by Orlando Ferguson from 1893 showing his flat earth model has been found, and it’s gorgeous and hilarious. Here’s his Biblical interpretation of the shape of the earth:

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Spectacular! Unfortunately, the book that justifies this is lost, and all we have left for support are the notes on the map: Four Hundred Passages in the Bible that Condemn the Globe Theory, or the Flying Earth, and None Sustain It. This Map is the Bible Map of the World.” Just like creationists, though, he does emphasize negative evidence: he ridicules physicists with their absurd proposition that the earth is zooming through space.

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Let’s hope that a century from now people will look back on the quaint artifacts from the age of Creationism and Intelligent Design as amusing curios that only a lunatic would find plausible.

Our grisly history

History isn’t often pretty. Archaeologists have been excavating a site called Towton, where a major battle was fought in the Wars of the Roses in 1461, and in which 28,000 people died and were buried in mass graves scattered about the battleground. It’s a fascinating story of the soldiers involved in the battle, and they were both diverse and contradicting certain stereotypes about medieval citizens.

The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. It is easier to be precise about younger individuals, thanks to the predictable ways in which teeth develop and bones fuse during a person’s adolescence and 20s. The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest, Towton 16, was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men’s height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest.

This physical diversity is unsurprising, given the disparate types of men who took the battlefield that day. Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall–just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too.

I can identify: the oldest there were up around my age, and certainly in much better physical shape, and there they were battering each other to death. And then there are bits I can’t identify with at all — they shredded each other with savagery. Some of the dead weren’t simply killed in the heat of battle, they were butchered by repeated blows to the head. This was far more brutal than was necessary to fell an enemy.

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Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.

The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head—picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25’s brain, felling him.

His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw. It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat.

Yeesh. These were people so much like us, and we can’t have evolved much beyond that point biologically, yet this is an ugly story of what we often call inhumanity, but is probably more typically human.

How authoritarians treat art

Somebody needs to grab Bill Donohue by the ear and drag him to the Neues Musem in Berlin — all the way to the airport, during the long transatlantic flight, and on the taxi ride to the museum. Pinch hard, too, and make him squeal all the way.

While digging a subway tunnel in Berlin, construction workers discovered a cache of buried expressionist sculptures, hidden survivors of the Nazi campaign to destroy what they considered “degenerate art”.

Researchers learned the bust was a portrait by Edwin Scharff, a nearly forgotten German modernist, from around 1920. It seemed anomalous until August, when more sculpture emerged nearby: “Standing Girl” by Otto Baum, “Dancer” by Marg Moll and the remains of a head by Otto Freundlich. Excavators also rescued another fragment, a different head, belonging to Emy Roeder’s “Pregnant Woman.” October produced yet a further batch.

The 11 sculptures proved to be survivors of Hitler’s campaign against what the Nazis notoriously called “degenerate art.” Several works, records showed, were seized from German museums in the 1930s, paraded in the fateful “Degenerate Art” show, and in a couple of cases also exploited for a 1941 Nazi film, an anti-Semitic comedy lambasting modern art. They were last known to have been stored in the depot of the Reichspropagandaministerium, which organized the “Degenerate” show.

I’ve found one small collection of photos of these works, and of the “Degenerate” show. They’re interesting, not great masterworks or anything, but it’s amazing how a touch of harsh history imbues them with much greater meaning.

Mr Donohue should contemplate how history regards people who try to dictate what art means, and that the person who is thought to have hidden these works from the hammers of the Nazis, Erhard Oewerdieck, is now considered heroic.

The myth of a Christian nation

Smithsonian has a fine article on the real history behind America’s status as a “Christian nation”: it just isn’t so. Religion is a poison our European ancestors brought to these shores, and it’s been a source of trouble and stupidity since the beginning.

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

We are a nation of diverse and competing faiths. And we’ve been made weaker because of it.