In the Land of Lost Gardens

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The neatness, the orderliness, the sheer scientific preciseness of the death lying at our feet is impressive. It is a sunny spring day near the mouth of the Big Qualicum River on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island; Nancy Turner is hard at work. With long, straight, graying hair tucked behind her ears, brow slightly furrowed, the 69-year-old ethnobotanist arranges hundreds of newly cut plants, 20 to a bunch, into two neat green lines along a gravel lane. Turner straightens, satisfied. The greenery arrayed below is death camas. Its teardrop-shaped bulb contains enough poison to kill a child, maybe even a small adult.  Read more at Hakai Magazine

Illustration:  ‘Indians at Fort Rupert, Vancouver’s Island, July 1851’  Edward Gennys Fanshawe (27 November 1814 – 21 October 1906).

What You Don’t Know about the Vikings

 

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A cold drizzle falls as we shiver in the streets, waiting for the Viking lord and his band of raiders to appear. It’s a raw January night in the old Shetland town of Lerwick, but there’s euphoria in the air. Beside me, a man with two young children laughs as he spots a red smoky haze rising behind the town hall. “Looks like they torched the whole building,” he shouts, to grins all around. Fire, after all, is why we are here. It’s Up Helly Aa, the great incendiary celebration of the Viking past in Shetland. Like everyone else, I’ve come to see a Viking ship burn. Read more at National Geographic Magazine

 

Image:  Viking sword pommel from Haithabu Museum, Germany.  Courtesy Keeshu and Wikimedia Commons.

From Vilified to Vindicated: The Story of Jacques Cinq-Mars

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What I remember most about Jacques Cinq-Mars the first time we met was his manner—one part defiance, one part wariness. It was 1994, and I had just flown into the small village of Old Crow in northern Yukon; Cinq-Mars was waiting in the tiny airport. Tall, grizzled, and unshaven, the French-Canadian archaeologist looked every bit the old Yukon hand. Still fit in his early 50s, he worked as a curator at what is now called the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. But Cinq-Mars lived for summer fieldwork, combing Yukon riverbanks and rock shelters for traces of Ice Age hunters. In three hollows known as the Bluefish Caves, he and his team had discovered something remarkable—the bones of extinct horses and wooly mammoths bearing what seemed to be marks from human butchering and toolmaking. Radiocarbon test results dated the oldest finds to around 24,000 years before the present.  Read more at Hakai Magazine.

Image from Iconographia Zoologica, Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Amsterdam, and Wikimedia Commons.

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The Little Man Who Soared

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To modern eyes, the carved man looks like a steampunk messenger from an earlier time. Flying through space like a Jules Verne character, he is part human, part automaton; part lord of the winds, part humble servant. But he is all masterpiece. His maker was a 19th-century artist from the islands of Haida Gwaii off the northwest coast of British Columbia. A carver of wood and ivory, this unknown Haida master had closely observed the European and American sailors he had encountered, right down to the seams of their sensible shoes.  Read more at Hakai Magazine

 

Haida carving of a European sea captain at Peabody Museum,  Harvard University, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mysterious Markings May Hold Clues to the Origin of Writing

 

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For decades, archaeologists have pored over the spectacular images of stampeding horses and charging bison left by Ice Age artists on European cave walls more than 10,000 years ago. But few researchers have paid much attention to the simple geometric signs that often accompany the art. Unable to interpret or decipher these markings, many archaeologists dismissed them as mere decorations. Read more at National Geographic News

 

Image from the Quarterly Journal of Science, 1864. courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The Fishy Business of Rome’s 1%

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About 400 years ago, a throng of dusty workmen laid down their shovels and huddled around an ancient painted wall—a fresco, technically—unearthed in a tunnel near Italy’s Bay of Naples. The men were at work on a massive construction project, burrowing through a hill to build a canal for a local armament factory and mill. No one expected to find fine art. But as the workmen dug deeper into the hill, they encountered wonder upon wonder—house walls painted blood red and sunflower yellow, fragments of carved inscriptions, pieces of Roman statues. Read more at Hakai magazine

A Parka for a Fashionista

 

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Around 1923 or perhaps a little earlier, one of the Yup’ik inhabitants of remote St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea decided to sell this fine ceremonial parka to Arnold Liebes, a furrier from a prominent California family. The Liebes owned a string of Arctic trading posts, as well as an elegant department store near Union Square in San Francisco: Arnold Liebes knew all about high-end fashion and style. So on one of his trips to northern Alaska, he purchased this classic Yup’ik parka fashioned from bleached walrus intestine and ornamented with plumes and orange beak parts from crested auklets. Read more at Hakai magazine.

Photo courtesy Hiart and Wikimedia commons.

Captain Cook’s Feather Cloak

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On a cloudy afternoon in January 1779, British explorer Captain James Cook watched as the Hawaiian chief Kalaniʻopuʻu and his attendants arrived in outrigger canoes for a formal meeting at Kealakekua Bay. The chief, a man in his late 40s or early 50s, was dressed for the occasion in a spectacular cloak made of tiny scarlet- and saffron-colored bird feathers, a garment so soft and sumptuous that it seemed to be made of velvet. As Cook walked ashore to pay his respects, Kalaniʻopuʻu gracefully tossed the rich cloak over the explorer’s shoulders as a present. Then he placed a feather helmet on Cook’s head, and laid “5 or 6 other cloaks, all exceedingly beautiful,” at Cook’s feet, as one of the British officers later noted in a journal entry.  More

 

Photo: courtesy Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and Wikimedia commons.

Travellers in Time

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Daryl Fedje was feeling his age, kneeling in a waterlogged pit, trowel in hand, mud everywhere, water pooling a dirty brown in the low spots. It was a cold, gray April morning on the central British Columbia coast, with rain lashing the overhead tarp, and Fedje, an archaeologist at the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria, and one of Canada’s leading researchers on the early human history of the Americas, was dueling with doubt. Still lanky at 62, with gray hair curling out from his ball cap, he wondered yet again if he was wasting time and hard-to-find money chasing a figment of his imagination. Read More

Photo of Calvert Island, B.C. courtesy of A. Davey and Wikimedia Commons.