Month: December 2011

Felix sit annus novus! Happy New Year!

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It’s New Year’s Eve! Wow that came about quickly. It has been a good year from the beginning, so let us go back to the very beginning. Most of us celebrate or at least witness New Years every year; the fireworks, the parties, the family get-togethers, but few of us know why we celebrate it on such a particular day, the 1st of January.

January the first marks the beginning of the modern Gregorian calendar in addition to the Julian Calender of the ancient Romans. So it has been the custom for more than a few years! It is true that many people celebrate other days in correspondence with other religions, customs and calendars, but as it is December 31st, today let us focus on January the first.

In Roman times the first day of January was the day of Janus who was the god of beginnings, doors and gateways (symbols in themselves of new beginnings). As we say we open doors to new opportunities, new beginnings. Janus had two faces looking forward and backward and as such is a suitable personification of the New Year. The calendar was reformed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and when he was murdered in Roman senate deified him on the 1st of January in recognition of his life and new calendar’s beginning in the year 42 BC.

Not everywhere turned to the Gregorian calendar and January the first as New Year at the same time. Like most things that are established throughout a large area, it took time. The majority of the countries in Western Europe did however adopt the New Year before adopting the Gregorian calendar. England only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. This Gregorian calendar I keep mentioning is the current Christian Calendar introduced by decree in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. It was introduced to fix the assumptions of the Julian calendar which assumed that the yr was made up of 35.25 days, where as in reality it is 11 minutes shorter which accumulated over time to knock the year out by several days.

The first of the Western European areas to adopt January first as their New Year was The Republic of Venice in 1522 followed by the Holy Roman Empire in Germany in 1544. Spain, Portugal, Prussian, Sweden, France, Netherlands and Lorraine changed also before the end of the sixteenth century. Scotland moved over in the 1600s and Russia and Tuscany in the 1700s. The rest of Great Britain and its colonies, which would include Australia, adopted January the first in 1752.

But enough with the dates, I find them interesting but I am peculiar. What I am now wondering is how all these different people around the world traditionally celebrate this day, because everywhere and everyone celebrates a little differently.

Japan brings in the New Year by forgiving misunderstandings and grudges and Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times to expel the 108 types of human weakness. Children receive gifts and money and cards are traditional. In Greece, New Years is also the festival of one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church, St Basil. And the Greeks know how to throw a great festival! The Dutch burn bonfires of Christmas trees and let off fireworks, this is to get rid of the old and welcome the new.

In Scotland, New Years is also Hogmanay, neighbours visit neighbours which is called First footing. Traditionally it is good luck for a tall dark handsome man to be the first to visit in the New Year. Sounds good to me. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is the largest in the country consisting of an all-night street party with a Torchlight procession, ceilidh and games.

The United States have a famous tradition in New York City of dropping the New Year ball in Times Square. Seems a bit odd to drop a ball but there you go. The traditional began in 1907 though I haven’t yet had a chance to find out why…

And then there are the fireworks, which I will be attending the famous fireworks tonight in Sydney Harbour, speaking of which it’s time to go! So remember all the people around the world, new beginnings, make good wishes to friends and even enemies.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year! voorspoedige nuwejaar! عام سعيد! godt nytår! bonne année! ein gutes neues Jahr! שנה טובה! kali chronia! felix sit annus novus! bliadhna mhath ur! And all that Jazz 🙂

Note that this Blog can be followed by pressing the ‘Follow by Email’ option on the right hand side of the screen :)

The might also like to check out:

The (not so) True History of Lucian of Samosata

Kepler’s Somnium


Santa Claus Before Coca Cola

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These days people are forgetting that Santa has only been the jolly guy in the red suit since Coca Cola reinvented him. Here are some images of Santa how he used to be depicted.

Merry Christmas Everyone!!!

Early Illutration by Thomas Nast with Santa lynching Jefferson Davis.

1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, with Clement Clarke Moore, helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas “Lipensky” (1294 Russian icon).

Excerpt from Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England.

Folk Tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat.

Saint Nicolas with Children, The Original Santa Claus.

Wilde/Chase Books 1-4: Andy McDermott

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The problem with being a fast reader is that this happens: Reviewing several books at once…But fortunately Andy McDermott’s series, starting with ‘The Hunt for Atlantis’, allows one to do that because each book runs nicely on from the previous while having self-contained plots that are easy to read and very entertaining. Historians and archaeologists tend to look at fiction concerning their general area and pick out all that is wrong with it. Hence why its difficult to watch 300 with out wanting to rip apart the cinema screen. However, McDermott manages to allow one to look past the historical inaccuracies and enjoy the story itself by choosing subjects that we would dream of finding in archaeology but already know they likely don’t exist. By doing this he isn’t stepping on anyone’s toes.

McDermott’s first book ‘The Hunt for Atlantis’ tells the tale of the intelligent and obsessive Nina Wilde, doctor of archaeology, and her body-guard, former SAS agent Eddie Chase, as they search for the legendary lost city while being thwarted at every turn by an evil villain set to destroy every trace of the Atlantean culture (this particularly made one angry and rooting for the good guys, the horrors of vandalising archaeology!). With a topic such as Atlantis, straightaway even the historically obsessed such as myself can accept that this is just fiction and enjoy it as such without picking at its faults.

The best book in the series so far, McDermott allows us to identify with the characters and doesn’t fall into the trap many writers do in making the characters larger than life. Nina Wilde is no Lara Croft, she is simply as academic with an idea, drive and determination, and that’s what makes one like her. Eddie Chase is no James Bond, he is a mid-thirties Yorkshireman, slightly balding, who likes action movies and scuba diving in addition to beating the **** out of bad guys. Crude, simple, effective.

Eddie Izzard once said that he would read more books if they were a bit more like action movies and had acceptable car chases. Well here is one! I was rather impressed by the successful writing of a car chase into a book and the mix of Indiana Jones like action without it seeming corny or unrealistic.

The only problem with this book is that you can’t stop reading it and then you have to go on and read the next book, and the next book, and here I am finishing book four after starting the first less than a week ago!

While book one sucks you in and doesn’t let go, book two ‘The Tomb of Hercules’ had its faults which did

contrast to the exceptionally well written first book. The background story is altogether well written though with Nina and Eddie heading up the first major exploration of the newly devised organisation to safeguard the ancient mythical places

that turn out to be reality as well as archaeological remains around the world. The hunt for the tomb of Hercules is interesting and entertaining but its merits are unfortunately overshadowed by the air contributed by the characters. Its like one is witnessing a domestic. The bickering and all sometimes all out bitch fights between characters in the first twenty odd chapters becomes slightly unbearable though the wish to find out about the tomb of Hercules, the villains and Eddie’s strange ex-wife does spur you on to finish the book.

The ending does make up for the beginning though with wonderful fight scenes, nuclear warheads and crazy chases across the world which appeals to ones love of the unexpected. So you get to the final chapter and all is good, you are relieved by the outcome of the characters and plot, especially since the end of the domestics can’t really continue into the following books so you can read them…and then all goes a little screwed up again with appearances of former characters. Oh well, this book was not the best by any means, I can only vindicate McDermott because I have read the next two books which are worth reading. So advice here is read and move on.

McDermott’s third book ‘The Secret of Excalibur’ brings back the charm of the series as Nina and Eddie explore the legend of King Arthur to find the legendary sword Excalibur and the lost tomb of Arthur and Guinevere themselves. Unlike the first two books I am pleased to announce that no archaeological ‘formerly mythological’ sites were destroyed in the making of these book. The character relationships are back on track which is relieving and it takes a while to work out who are the true baddies which is nice because you can’t really guess the end at the beginning.

McDermott did well by changing the character dynamics to parallel those in the first book a bit more closely. The secret of Excalibur includes more well written fight scenes and secondary characters who parallel archaeologists in reality; slightly mad, often at the pub. I was also fond of the Monty Python references but they should have stopped after a while or been spaced out more because in the end there were a few too many. This book wasn’t as memorable as the first or the second because the first was brilliant and the second is mostly memorable for the wrong reasons, but having down played from the second book it was a pleasure to read with a happy and successful ending.

Now quickly we come to book four ‘The Covenant of Genesis’. This was my second favourite book after the first for several reasons: You don’t actually know what they are looking for until half way through the book because they aren’t even sure so it’s different from the previous and keeps you guessing, it gets your emotions up as you are annoyed by the destructive nature of the human race, the artefacts and ideas are new and unique, dealing with ancients beyond ancients, lost knowledge that all archaeologists wished then had and hope exists buried somewhere in the world for them to some day dig up, and lastly you really don’t expect it when McDermott does explain the secret of the covenant of Genesis.

I don’t think it was necessary though to bring back certain characters from the second book but book four did suck you in more with the hope that for once everything goes to plan for the main characters. Unfortunately though the plot is great in general the character interactions again become a bit much at times and you really start to think that it would be better for the ancient world and its artefacts if Nina and Eddie just stayed at home and watched television instead of accidently leading horrible religiously based covenants of destruction to sites real archaeologists would likely die to protect. Crossed fingers for the survival of all sites mentioned in these and future books. McDermott stop killing them!!! But I love the Top Gear references…

Oh well, over all despite the ups and downs you can’t stop reading these books. Trust me, I just got book 5 on kindle…

Note that this Blog can be followed by pressing the ‘Follow by Email’ option on the right hand side of the screen :)

The might also like to check out:

The (not so) True History of Lucian of Samosata

Kepler’s Somnium

To Pass Knowledge on to the Younger Generations

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I swear that the scariest audience when presenting is kids. They ask odd questions and seem to know a lot more than you realise. In a way they are rather like academics which makes them good practice. Last week I spread my wings a bit and took archaeology to a special education school at the university. It was eye-opening and the feedback heart lifting so I thought I’d share it with you while showing why it is important to teach the newer generations about history and archaeology.

These kids suffer from a range of severe learning and behavioural disabilities and yet seem to have a wish to learn like no other. Some university students could learn from them.

Here is the evidence to make one smile (complete with spelling mistakes):

“On Tuesday an archaeologist named Dr. J [came to visit]. She showed us some of the preveos artefacts she found. Dr J told us about Pompeii in Italy and now it is an archaeologist wonderland. Dr J named all of her diging tools. My faverote is the trowel.”

“Yesterday J came for a visit. We looked at some artefacts. We looked at the pictures in the white board. J had been to many countries. J told us about Italy, Greece and Egypt. She used a trowel, brush, spade and a shovel. I liked her visit.”

“On Tuesday Dr J came to our school. She told us about Greece, Egypt and Italy. J told us about the olden day toilet. She showed us some tools that she used for digging. She showed us a trowel, a brush and a leaf trowel. It was fun.”

Seeing the enthusiasm on the faces of these kids reminds me why it is important to teach them about new and exciting things. They will struggle more than any other students and yet so many of them want to be there. By showing them some of the fantastic things in this world they can aspire to continue learning despite their disadvantages. I’m no primary school teacher, but I’d happily go back and talk to kids because not only are they interested in what I’m talking about, they remember it and take it in.

An “archaeologist wonderland” was came up by the kid herself by the way. That’s pretty cool! And to remember something as obscure as a leaf trowel. I’m impressed!

So spread the word fellow historians and archaeologists! If you get a chance to talk to children, take it because they might be our successors one day and it really is fun.