Sunday, April 5, 2015

War games in an eighteenth-century German military academy

War games in an eighteenth-century German military academy, Hans Friedrich von Fleming, DervolIkommene teutsche Soldat (Leipzig, 1726). In this elegant room, four sets of instructions seem to be going on at the various tables. Above the tables on the right, there are on the wall two large panels setting out the calibres of the artillery, and on the wall at the end, five instructors seem to be discussing the best way to assault a well-defended sea port, looking something like La Rochelle.

In France much the same sort of development was taking place. In Leparfait aide de camp, published at Paris in 1770, Georges-Louis Le Rouge (active 1730-70), 'ingenieur et geographe du roi', explains how during the 1740s and 1750s it had been found necessary to train young aides-de-camp in bringing the most recent topographical and military information to the general officers whom they served, often using maps. Probably the leading exponent of military map use in France at this time was Pierre Bourcet (1700-80), whose book entitled Lesprincipes de la guerre de montagne (Paris, 1775) explained how 'a commander should plan troop manoeuvres and supply on a day-to-day basis from maps') As yet, though, these relatively detailed maps relied on hachures (striations marking hills) to indicate the terrain: there were no contour lines until quite far into the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile the same type of development was taking place in Brandenburg-Prussia, where Frederick the Great (ruled 1740-86) used officers like Major Von Wrede and Major Von Griese to manage a travelling Plankammer, or map-office, from which material could be generated for most contingencies. Frederick's own Instructions for his generals insist upon the use of 'the most detailed and exact maps that can be found', for 'knowledge of the country is to a general what a rifle is to an infantryman and what the rules of arithmetic are to a geometrician'. Frederick was of course in close touch with what was going on in France and England, and probably used specialists from these countries.

Above picture, taken from Dervollkommene teutscheSoldat, published at Leipzig in 1726, shows how thoroughly the study of maps was penetrating the German military academies. Groups of students are seen examining them at tables alongside the walls, while at the end of the room a large map sets out the details of a siege. Such an image is impossible to imagine for the sixteenth century, but by the middle of the eighteenth century armies had become so large that some form of cartographic control had become absolutely indispensable, along with standardized written orders, fighting groups of about 12,000 men, and trained general staffs; this was all part of a process of growing bureaucratization. Indeed, the military hierarchy and procedures that developed at this time would have been quite recognizable to twentieth-century soldiers.

John White, Map of part of the east coast of North America, 1585

John White, Map of part of the east coast of North America, 1585. John White was the English equivalent of Jacques Le Moyne in that, taken to the New World in 1585 on an English expedition as illustrator, he turned out to be not only an excellent portrayer of the local Indians, but also an accomplished cartographer, as this map shows. It stretches from Florida (lower left) to the Outer Banks, showing the coastline, reefs, and islands in some detail.

Two curious instances of artists turning cartographer come from the early European settlement of the east coast of the United States. When the French decided to establish a colony on the Saint John's River (in Florida) in 1564, they recruited Jacques Le Moyne, Sieur de Morgues. Until then he had been, as Quinn puts it, 'trained to paint flowers and fruit in the manner of traditional miniaturists', but on the expedition 'he had perforce to become a cartographer and found himself making sketches of river entries and eventually compiling a general map of the areas the French reached'. This map was eventually printed by Theodor de Bry in America, part I (1591), together with a dozen or so of the sketches of smaller areas. The manuscript original of the map has not survived, but from the printed copy it is clear that Le Moyne was quite capable of offering a novel and reasonably accurate delineation of a part of the coast that until then had not been well known to Europeans

Much the same could be said of John White, who as a journeyman painter accompanied Martin Frobisher on the voyage to Baffin Island in 1577. There he made excellent sketches of Eskimos, which is no doubt why he was then assigned to Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition to Virginia in 1585. Here he collaborated with Thomas Harriott upon a quite extensive mapping programme, from which several manuscript maps and sketches survive. The area round the Outer Banks, which White knew personally, is best shown, but the delineation of Florida and the islands is also passable. Like Le Moyne, White seems to have been able to switch quite easily from one mode of representation to the other: as Svetlana Alpers puts it, mapping was still 'a casually acquired skill. We do not know much about White's later life, but he does not seem to have drawn any more maps; as for Le Moyne, having escaped the murderous Spanish attack upon the French settlement, he went back to his exquisite studies of plants and insects.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Monster black hole from early cosmos challenges physics

New physics are needed to explain an ancient supermassive black hole quasar 12 billion times the mass of the Sun (NASA/Caltech)

The discovery of a supermassive black hole from the early cosmos is set to rewrite physics, say scientists.
An international team of astronomers detected a black hole 12 billion times the mass of our Sun, they report today in the journal Nature .

The black hole, which formed just 900 million years after the Big Bang, is the source of a powerful beam of bright material known as a quasar.

"When we found this supermassive black hole we got very excited because we had found something that we never thought we could find," says Dr Fuyan Bian of the Australian National University.

The team, led by Xue-Bing Wu at Peking University, discovered the black hole and quasar -- known as SDSS JO100+2802 -- using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, then followed up with three other telescopes.

With a luminosity of 420 trillion that of our Sun's, the new quasar is seven times brighter than the most distant quasar known.

"This quasar is very unique. Just like the brightest lighthouse in the distant universe, its glowing light will help us probe more about the early Universe," says Wu.

Challenging physics

But the discovery of the supermassive black hole powering the quasar presents a mystery: how can such a monster black hole grow so quickly in the early Universe?

"It's very hard to make these kinds of supermassive black holes very early in the universe," says Bian.
"We need to find some new theory that can grow the supermassive black hole much faster than we thought."

Supermassive black holes are believed to have formed in conjunction with galaxies in the early Universe but according to current theories there must be a careful balancing of forces to build a black hole.

As material accelerates under the force of gravity towards a black hole, it heats up, emitting an extraordinary amount of energy in the form of a quasar.

But the energy of the quasar actually pushes material away from the black hole so if it is too great it can stop material falling onto to the black hole altogether.

These forces must be balanced, which limits how fast a black hole can grow. This fact, combined with the small amount of matter available in the early Universe in the first place, make it hard for scientists to explain how the supermassive black hole came into existence.

"With this supermassive black hole, very early in the Universe, that theory cannot work," says Bian.
"It's time for a new hypothesis and for some new physics."

Friday, February 27, 2015

Aboriginal rock art - how old is it actually?

Scientists don't know how old this painting of an emu-like bird in Arnhem Land is (Source: ABC News)

 Australia is blessed with many beautiful examples of Aboriginal cave paintings and engravings but what does science tell us about how old they are? What are the different methods used to date such artworks? And what are some of the challenges involved in dating them?

Many people will be forgiven for thinking that Australia has some of the oldest rock art in the world, but the truth there is no reliable dating to show this.

"You often hear people talk about the oldest continuous culture in the world being Aboriginal culture," says geologist Professor Brad Pillans of the Australian National University.

"Many archaeologists have thought rock art has been a part of Aboriginal culture since earliest times... but it's an inference."

Pillans and colleague Keith Fifield have argued that rocks bearing Aboriginal engravings on the Burrup Peninsula have the potential to preserve the engravings for 50,000 to 60,000 years, but they have done no direct dating of the engravings themselves.

According to archaeologist Dr Bruno David of Monash University the oldest reliably-dated rock engravings in Australia are 13,000 to 15000 years old, and are in Laura, Queensland.

"These were dated using radiocarbon dating of charcoal buried at the same depth of engravings," he says.

Beyond engravings, the oldest reliably-dated rock art in Australia is 28,000 years old. It's a fragment of a charcoal cave painting found buried in an Arnhem Land cave by David and colleagues.

The fragment was both preserved and dateable by being buried in carbon-containing soil
But dating most rock art isn't usually quite so straightforward.

Challenges of dating

"Rock art is notoriously difficult to date," says David. "Most pigment art contains no dateable carbon, and therefore radiocarbon dating is usually not feasible."

What is known as the oldest rock art in the world - cave paintings in Indonesia and Spain — was dated using a more complex method that measures the age of a microscopic layer of minerals deposited after the art is created.

"It's like a laminate," says David.

Instead of measuring the decay of radioactive carbon, this method relies on measuring the decay of uranium in the microscopic layer to provide a minimum age for the art. In some cases a similar layer beneath the art gives a maximum age for the art.

In both Spain and Indonesia, the cave art appeared in deep limestone caves.

Not only did this protect the artwork from the elements, but it also provided a good environment for the production of these dateable layers.

"Australia doesn't have much art in deep limestone caves," says David.

Ochre on sandstone

Indeed, he says, the richest collections of rock art in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Cape York Peninsula, are on sandstone.

Take the ochre painting of a giant emu-like bird found on the Arnhem Land plateau, which some believe could be 40,000 years old — as old as the paintings in Spain and Indonesia.

There is no dateable carbon from plants, charcoal or dust caught in the ochre pigment, says David.
And it's difficult to use a similar approach to that used on the limestone art so new methods need to be developed.

"It's very likely that there is something extremely old in Australia but it's just very hard to date," says David. "And there are very few people doing research on rock art."

David says there are hand stencils in some limestone caves in North Queensland that are believed to be more than 30,000 years old, and he hopes to be involved in dating these in the future.

Circumstantial evidence

The bottom line, says David, is that very little rock art anywhere in the world has been dated, including in Australia.

But there remain a lot of hints and circumstantial evidence around to support the idea that Australia is in fact home to the world's oldest art.

Pillans, who studies the Burrup rock engravings, describes the giant bird painting on the Arnhem Land plateau as a "hint of older rock art".

Some researchers say the creature looks like Genyornis which is believed to have gone extinct at least 40,000 years ago.

"The people who drew that animal could only have seen it more than 40,000 years ago," says Pillans.
David emphasises it is still uncertain whether the bird is actually a Genyornis and points instead to ochre crayons that date to around 50,000 years ago.

"We don't have the [dated] art itself, but we've found the tools that were used to make the art. For that reason, we rightfully assume that Australia has pigment art going back to when people first came here which is close to 50,000 years ago."

Monday, February 2, 2015

Ancient 'Lord of the Rings-style' forest discovered under sea off Norfolk coast

An ancient "Tolkien-style" forest like those imagined in Lord of the Rings has been discovered by an amateur diver just 300m off the Norfolk coast.

Dawn Watson, 45, found oak trees from a prehistoric forest dating back 10,000 years in the North Sea.

According to experts, the wood could have been hidden since the last Ice Age and was possibly part of a massive forest stretching for hundreds of miles.

"The sea was quite rough by the shore, so I decided to dive slightly further out and after swimming over 300m of sand I found a long blackened ridge," Watson told the Eastern Daily Press.

"When I looked more closely I realised it was wood and when I swam further along I started finding whole tree trunks with branches on top, which looked like they had been felled. It was amazing to find and to think the trees had been lying there completely undiscovered for thousands of years. You certainly don't expect to go out for a quick dive and find a forest."
Watson's partner Rob Spray said: "At one time it would have been a full-blown Tolkien-style forest, stretching for hundreds of miles.

"It would have grown and grown and in those days there would have been no one to fell it, so the forest would have been massive.

"It would have looked like a scene from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, which is something we don't get in this country anymore. Geologists are very excited about it. It was a really miraculous find."

Watson and Spray run the Marine Conversation Society's survey project in East Anglia and hope to find out exactly how long the forest has been there.

The forest was part of a land mass known as Doggerland, which once connected the UK to the rest of Europe.

However, the low-lying land was wiped out about 8,200 years ago by a huge tsunami that created a "North Sea Atlantis".

The Storegga Slide generated huge waves and, coupled with rising sea levels from the time, left Doggerland (which was just 5m above sea level) completely submerged.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hessdalen lights

Has the mystery of glowing Norwegian orbs been solved? Expert claims natural 'battery' creates the amazing light show

    Hessdalen lights can be as large as cars and have been spotted in Oslo 

    Numerous theories have attempted to explain how they are created 

    One claims metallic rocks divided by a sulphurous river provide a natural 'battery' which provides the right conditions for orbs 

    Italian expert used samples from the site to make a battery to test this idea 

    He thinks bubbles of ionised gas are made when sulphurous fumes from the River Hesja react with humid air, forming the balls of light 

    But other experts think they're a type of ball lightning or made from plasma

      Monday, December 15, 2014

      Rosetta Stone

      A giant copy of the Rosetta Stone greats visitors to the Place des Écritures at Figeac, France. This monument by Joseph Kosuth pays homage to the birthplace of Jean-François Champollion, who published the first translation of the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs in 1822.

      The importance of the famous Rosetta Stone to Egyptology and the study of the ancient world cannot be overestimated. This iconic artefact, discovered in 1799, bearing inscriptions in Greek, Demotic (the language of ordinary Egyptians) and hieroglyphic languages, was the key to deciphering and translating the baffling Egyptian hieroglyphs that decorate tombs and temples. 

      The Rosetta Stone, a granodiorite commemorative stone measuring 114.4 cm high, 72.3 cm wide and 27.93 cm thick, weighs some 760 kg (1676 lb.) and was discovered by Pierre-François Bouchard, a French soldier, during Napoleon Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition in 1799. 

      Recognising implicit value of its trilingual inscription to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the discovery sparked immediate excitement; it was most likely the means of understanding Egypt's ancient past. Lithographic and plaster cast copies were made and began to circulate, many of which found their way to the museums of France. 

      Back in Egypt, things were going from bad to worse for the French. Nelson and the British Navy had already sunk the French fleet and armed insurrections against the French erupted throughout Egypt. In 1801, Napoleon was forced to quit the country altogether and the Rosetta Stone fell into the hands of the British army, who shipped it to London. 

      However, it wasn't until 1824 that the hieroglyphics on the Stone were finally deciphered and published. The breakthrough came in Paris by Jean-François Champollion, a language expert and a professor of history at Grenoble University. It took him two years, but by comparing the three sets of writing on the stone faces, Champollion decoded the mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was the breakthrough that provided the key to unlocking the door to the history and mystery of ancient Egypt. 

      But, was the Rosetta Stone's place in the history of ancient Egypt itself? What was its context? 

      In fact, what the Rosetta stone revealed about life in Egypt under the country's Ptolemy rulers is almost as fascinating as its more contemporary narrative. 

      The Rosetta Stone comes from a time in Ptolemaic Egypt's history in which the Ptolemaic regime (323 bc to 31 bc) went into decline, eventually to be overthrown by the Romans. The conquests of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great changed the political landscape of both ancient Greece and the wider Near East on a massive scale. No longer would the city-state rule. The autocratic successors to Alexander would control vast stretches of territory through centralised bureaucracies linking the cities as never before. Those cities would henceforth become thriving cosmopolitan hubs of long-distance commerce and cultural exchange. 

      The greatest of all of such cities was Alexandria in northern Egypt. Founded by Alexander himself on an earlier settlement, from the outset it was perfectly designed and located to be a great city as the capital of Alexander's Egypt. With its deep harbours and its situation between Lake Mareotis in the Nile delta and the Mediterranean Sea the metropolis was a link between Africa, Asia and Europe. Little wonder, when building began there, that Alexander's soothsayer, Aristander, predicted that the city would "abound in resources and would sustain men of every nation." 

      When Alexander died in 323 bc, his four generals carved up his conquests, which stretched from Greece to India. Ptolemy I, the son of Lagus, took control of Egypt, establishing a dynasty there known as the Ptolemies. From the beginning, Ptolemy wanted to make his kingdom the world's finest, with Alexandria as its capital. It was there that learning and the arts would find a home; its library, containing some 490,000 volumes, was the largest in the ancient world. There too, a museum and university were founded and the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint). A nearby island, Pharos, would in time be linked to the mainland and on it the greatest of all the ancient lighthouses, the Pharos light, which would guide merchant and naval vessels into the city's two great harbours. 

      Ptolemy (and his Ptolemaic successors) didn't interfere with the way of life of common Egyptians, despite declaring himself to be the Pharaoh (albeit a Macedonian one). But as Pharaoh, Ptolemy I was directly responsible for the sustenance of his Egyptian subjects, so he made certain that farming along the Nile was carried out efficiently and effectively in order to keep them fed. 

      However, despite this somewhat idyllic picture, the reality was quite different. Papyri written by ordinary Egyptians reveal that most of the Nile's grain and other products, were never to be used by the Egyptians themselves but was directed to Alexandria for export around the Mediterranean. From the profits, the Ptolemaic regime enriched itself, using much of the income to maintain an exclusively Greco-Macedonian army of mercenaries who kept control of the country. The Egyptians themselves were barred from this army, so they would never get a taste of power or the means to throw off their Ptolemaic overlords. And with the system in place and functioning, it would have seemed to the first of the Ptolemies that their dynasty was unassailable. 

      In less than a century, Ptolemy IV Philopater would become king. He was a weak ruler and his court lacked unity and direction. With the king preferring self-indulgence to fixing his crumbling society, the economy and his army of mercenaries, his power began to decline.
      Meanwhile, to the north, a second empire spawned by Alexander, the Seleucids with Antiochus III at its head, mobilised, looking to expand the realm from its centre in Antioch in Syria. In 217 bc, Antiochus marched on Palestine, an area ruled by the Ptolemies, with his well-trained army of some 60,000 men. Ptolemy was roused from his carousing. Since his own army numbered only 30,000 soldiers, the king dispensed with custom and enlisted another 20,000 native Egyptians to meet the Seleucid king. With his enlarged army prepared, Ptolemy marched north and met Antiochus at Raphia, near today's Gaza in Palestine. In the battle that ensued, Ptolemy's army, incredibly, emerged victorious, thanks largely to the ability of his generals and the bravery and training of the native Egyptian contingent. 

      The battle of Raphia proved to be pivotal in the Egyptian history about to be made. For as the Greek historian Polybius expressed it, "they [the Egyptians] were elated by the success at Raphia and could no longer endure to take orders, but looked out for a figure to lead them, as they believed they were now able to fend for themselves" (History, 5. 107. 1-3). 

      Also, native Egyptian discontent had been brewing for some time. The Rainer Papyrus records how that for some years, the Egyptians had hated the city of Alexandria; they felt it to be a foreign city imposing its harsh will upon them and they looked forward to a day when their Egyptian gods would will that its fame as a "sustainer of men from every nation" be made a thing of the past. But until Raphia, the subservient Egyptians had not the means to capitalise on their suppressed sentiment and rid themselves of the Macedonian king and capital. 

      Now that thousands of Egyptians had been armed and trained to fight, their grievances could be solved through the powerful voice of civil war. This, together with the drying up of the Ptolemies' foreign trade markets, which had caused a sharp rise in taxation and inflation, created a critical mass and the Egyptian resentment exploded in an open rebellion. First, it was a guerrilla insurgency, but then turned into all-out warfare led by Egyptian priests. It was successful, such that the entire Upper Egypt area gained independence, once more ruled by a native Pharaoh.

      The loss of the strategic and productive Upper Egypt region further weakened the Ptolemies' power, with revenues and resources drying up. This meant that even fewer mercenaries could be employed. Taxes and inflation rocketed. But that only firmed the resolve of the Egyptians to rule themselves. When in 204 bc Ptolemy IV died, his successor to the throne, Ptolemy V, was still a boy. Family and courtiers, who were interested only in themselves, dominated his early rule and not the plight of their adopted country. Eventually the regime was forced to surrender Palestine to Antiochus III, when he again appeared there at the head of a large army. 

      But as Ptolemy V grew older, he learned how to rule effectively, and also how to restore peace to the country. The key, as he saw it, was to repair relations with the highly influential Egyptian priesthood, who held sway over the minds and hearts of all Egyptians. The priesthood, too, saw advantages in reconciling with the king. With Antiochus on the horizon with his army, the priests decided on the devil they knew and in 196 bc Ptolemy V and the Egyptian priesthood compromised and a reconciliation was achieved: the Ptolemies would continue to rule, but only on behalf of their native Egyptian subjects; taxes would be reduced and debts to the crown forgiven; the Egyptian priesthood would be given access to funds to use at its discretion, thus replenishing the temple coffers; and produce from the Nile farming was given them, alleviating the hunger of the priests, who were given greater autonomy. 

      And so, it came about that in order to celebrate this event, that on the 27th March 196 bc, commemorative inscriptions were set up in every Egyptian temple, each written in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphs. And it is one of these that is the Rosetta Stone as we have it today, containing the declaration of the reforms. 

      The Rosetta Stone records how Ptolemy V, who it describes as "the young one, who has received royalty from his father, the lord of crowns, whose glory is great, who established Egypt and is pious towards the gods" (lines 1, 2), provided "many benefits to the temples" and to all "those who dwell in them and all the subjects in his kingdom" (lines 9, 10). Those benefits included the restoration and decoration of numerous temples across Egypt, as well as the upholding of "the privileges of the temples and of Egypt in accordance with the laws" (line 33). In return for all this, Ptolemy was awarded great honours by the Egyptian Priesthood. As the Rosetta Stone records, "the priests of all the temples throughout the land have resolved to increase greatly the [honours] existing [in the temples] for King Ptolemy the everlasting, beloved of Ptah, God Manifest and Beneficent" (lines 36-38). Among those honours were that statues of Ptolemy V be set up in every Egyptian temple alongside these commemorative inscriptions, (line 54) and that those statues be worshipped three times a day by temple priests as possessing the same status as any Egyptian god (lines 39, 40). Ptolemy's birthday and accession day were also to be celebrated as festivals (lines 46-48). 

      In a way, then, the Rosetta Stone is also a monument to cooperation between ruler and subject. But it is also a pointer to lost opportunity. To many Egyptians, Ptolemy's overtures were too little and too late. The nationalist movement remained and Ptolemaic power continued to decline due to its arrogance, inciting further unrest that would continue until the Romans arrived. Such arrogance is testified in the fact the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn to speak Egyptian was Cleopatra VII, who was the very last of the Ptolemaic rulers. The Ptolemies were completely out of touch with concerns and plight of ordinary Egyptians. 

      The importance of the Rosetta Stone itself to ancient Egypt is in what it said, which was considerable. And for the historian, it gives a context against which the Ptolemaic dynasty could be judged: while Ptolemy V was able to compromise, his successors, with the possible exception of Cleopatra VII, were neither willing nor able to seek that common ground that might have united the country and preserved them as its rulers. Consequently, the regime continued to decline until it fell to the Romans in 31 bc, when Octavian, the nephew and heir of Julius Caesar, defeated Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. Octavian would go on to become Rome's first emperor, more commonly known to us as Caesar Augustus, and he would keep Egypt in his own power for his own special use. Such was its strategic importance to him and to Rome. 

      The Stone in it time was a key to civil rule and life, and in our time a key to unlocking that life and history. It stands today behind glass in the British Museum, a solid testament to history.