When excavating medieval and early-modern buildings in northern Europe, archaeologists sometimes find horse skulls buried beneath them. One theory is that the skulls were placed there for magical, ritualistic reasons. Another possibility is that they served an acoustic purpose.
The practical, non-ritual, reason given for horse's skulls concealed in buildings is that they are placed under floors to create an echo. This has been suggested both in the British Isles and in Southern Scandinavia... Ceramic pots have also been concealed in buildings for acoustic reasons. The acoustic skulls were placed in churches, in houses and in Scandinavia especially in threshing barns.
In churches the acoustics were very important, of course. And in houses were people danced and music was played, but why in threshing barns? It was considered important that the sound of threshing carried far. Could this have some magic purpose? It is well known that in many cultures loud noises are considered to expel evil forces. So this "practical" custom of acoustic skulls may not be contradictory to magical and symbolic acts at all. One question to consider is also why horses' skulls were preferred. One would presume that the skulls of cattle would be available more often than those of horses, and possibly just as suitable for acoustics.
What many believe to be a mystery isn't actually so mysterious. Lion City, famed for sitting at the bottom of the Qiandao Lake, has a surprising history. The once thriving city, known for its powerful statue throughout all of China, now resides over 100 feet below the lake's surface. This was not due to a natural disaster or any type of destructive force unless you consider human nature to be one. The ancient city met its watery fate due to the hands of humans, specifically those who gave up the land the city once sat on to make way for modern machinery.
While there are many details surrounding the reasoning for this -- much of which we'll get into later on -- there's no denying that the fact that this city is fully preserved is a modern miracle. Although it sits deep under the water, all of its structures, statues, memorials, and archways all sit in perfect stature. Its rediscovery happened almost two decades ago and since then, divers have been repeatedly making trips below the surface to see what new aspects of the city they can explore. Inside these preserved walls lie the tale of several powerful dynasties, an ancient way of life, and some of the most stunning architectural features that are so indicative of China's history.
Built in 447 BC, the Parthenon sits on the Acropolis in the center of Athens Greece. Unfortunately it is in danger due to decay of the Acropolis. Repairs are being attempted, all the best of luck in that endeavor. It would be a tragedy to lose such a great piece of history.
Outside it is not much to look at, little more than a discoloured rock dredged up from the sea floor. But an x-ray scan of the object, actually a pocket watch recovered from a 17th century shipwreck, has revealed that the internal mechanism has been perfectly preserved. The computer aided tomography system used was sensitive enough to pick out the tiniest details, included the engraved name of the master watchmaker, one Niccholas Higginson of Westminster, London (Gizmodo).
As if more proof were needed that they don’t build them like they used to, a UK group has started collecting donations to build the first fully working version of Babbage’s “Analytical Engine”. The original design, dating from 1837, was never completed, possibly due to a combination of the strict engineering tolerances needed and Babbage’s notoriously prickly temperament. If the final machine works as advertised, it will be very strong confirmation of the claim that Babbage designed the first general purpose, programmable computer (BBC News).
Meanwhile, in Slovenia, Borut Povse and his team are busy teaching a modern descendant of Babbage’s design to hit people. Somehow Povse has convinced six volunteers to let an industrial robot hit them on the arm with various sharp or blunt implements in an effort to determine how much pain each blow causes. Obviously this has a beneficial use in that robots can be programmed not to exceed certain levels of force near a human obstacle, but will also be of immense interest to the machines during any future robot uprising (New Scientist).
Another robot out to supplant humans is HRP-4, a gynoid (female android), that has learnt to sing by copying the inflection and expressions of a human performer, right down to the breathing. The hope is to make robots behave in a more convincingly natural way, and so overcome the so called ‘uncanny valley’. From the video, it looks like they’ve still got a way to go (Daily Mail).
[From The Saturday Evening Post for October 10 1953. Two scans, top and bottom.]
Nothing like aligning your product with a civilization that practiced human sacrifice. The Incas weren't the Aztecs, but as Wikipedia reminds us: "There is [sic] archaeological discoveries supporting the presence of sacrifice within Inca society according to Reinhard and Ceruti: 'Archaeological evidence found on distant mountain summits has established that the burial of offerings was a common practice among the Incas and that human sacrifice took place at several of the sites.The excellent preservation of the bodies and other material in the cold and dry environment of the high Andes provides revealing details about the rituals that were performed at these ceremonial complexes.'"
And did they actually make the best ink ever? I can't find any reference to such an accomplishment.
Swiss chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut, who supply such companies as Cadburys and Nestlé, think they may be on to a winner after secretly developing a type of chocolate with 10% of the calories of the ordinary kind, and which melts at nearly twice its temperature. The company hopes the new chocolate, codenamed "Vulcano", will appeal both to health-conscious Western markets and to Asian and African consumers who have traditionally shunned chocolate because it melts too readily in the local climate. The new recipe stays hard up to 55°C (130°F) and has crispy, light texture according to Barry Callebaut food engineer Simone Cantz (The Guardian).
FYI: Chocolate was, as everyone knows, invented/discovered by the Aztecs. But what is less well known is that they did so at least 3000 years ago, and were probably trying to make beer. Anthropologists John Henderson, of Cornell University, and Rosemary Joyce, of University of California, discovered cacao residues on pottery vessels dating back to 1000 BCE that are believed to be from a drink formed by fermenting the pulp and seeds (PNAS).
It might be time to update the old adage as, according to a scientist from the Santa Fe Institute, NM, it should be "To war is human". Dr. Samuel Bowles suggests that continual conflict among our ancient ancestors may have driven the evolution of what he terms "parochial altruism", i.e. group sociality and hostility to outsiders. By combining archaeological data on stone age humans with studies of modern tribes, Bowles has developed a model of ancient population genetics and determined that there would have been much more genetic diversity between competing groups than previously thought. In such a scenario, Bowles' results suggest that groups displaying parochial altruism would benefit by having more aggressive warriors less concerned with self-preservation, at the expense of other groups. PA may even explain the extreme habitual sociality of humans (found elsewhere only in insects), which in another paper in the same issue of Science is identified as a possible cause of human culture. Paradoxically, we may be social as individuals because we are anti-social as groups (Independent).
But if we learnt war early on the path to humanity, we may have learnt laughter even earlier. Researchers from the University of Portsmouth analysed the sounds 22 young apes made when being tickled, and concluded that it is laughter. Dr Davila-Ross and her team looked for similar acoustic characteristics to human laughter in the young of several ape species, and found greater similarity in the sounds made by chimpanzees and bonobos (the species closest to humans genetically) than in that of more distantly related apes such as orangutans. The team concluded that laughter must have evolved some time before the major ape groups split apart, 18 million years ago (BBC News).
Finally, this last piece was going to be about gay penguin adoption, but that's already up, so instead I'd like to draw your attention to a new movie by sometime Simpsons writer, Mike Reiss. Called "Queer Duck", Reiss' film is an animated musical about three gay, animal friends, Openly Gator, Bi-polar Bear and the eponymous Queer Duck himself. When QD suddenly finds himself attracted to women, in the shape of new arrival Lola Buzzard, he begins a voyage of self-discovery that sees him experience quack therapies (from the wonderfully named clinic, "Homo No Mo'!") and kidnap and imprisonment at "Home Depot" (the one place no gay would think of looking for him), before the not-unexpected third-reel epiphany. Hopefully it'll be released on DVD soon, because this one's a keeper! (The News-Times).
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.