Monthly Archives: March 2010

Women, The Earliest Brewmasters?

Until last night,  I had never given much thought to the  gender of the world’s  ancient brewmasters.   But while surfing the net in the wee hours,  I came across a British newspaper article with an irresistible  headline:   “Men Owe Women for ‘Creating Beer’  Claims Academic.” According to the Telegraph, British author Jane Peyton now proposes that Bud Lite, Tsingtao and Victoria Bitter drinkers around the world owe their favorite suds to women brewmasters.

Peyton furnishes several examples in this article.   Only women,  she noted, were permitted to brew beer in Mesopotamia.  Much later, among the Vikings,  women owned all the equipment for beer making and controlled the entire process.  And until the beginning of the 18th century,  most of Britain’s ale came from ale-wives who worked out of their homes for extra income.   But the mass production of beer during the Industrial Revolution apparently put a end to all these  female microbreweries.

The Telegraph article made no mention,  however,  of who Jane Peyton is.  So I googled her and stumbled upon a whole unsuspected world of beer pedagogy in Britain.   Peyton is a tutor at the Beer Academy in London.   She  is also the principal of the School of Booze,  an outfit whose model is “Think While You Drink,”  (a splendid oxymoron) and which offers tutored beer tastings.   Clearly there are a lot of  beer connoisseurs  out there who want parity with wine snobs.

I don’t know where Peyton is getting her info from or whether she has a book on the way on feminist beermakers.  Her website offers few clues.  And because of this,  I might have dismissed the article entirely,  but for one thing.  Peyton mentioned that before the Industrial Revolution,  people thought of beer as a food:  as a result,  many cultures deemed beer-making women’s work.

Although my knowledge of early brewing is very limited,  I recently read a wonderful paper by Justin Jennings, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto,  on the Andean art of making chicha,  or corn beer.   According to Jennings,  Andean families have long brewed two types of this beer–one thin,  the other quite thick.   They reserve  the thicker and more filling chicha for daily consumption as a food.  But they prepare  a thinner corn beer for festivals, so that celebrants can drink more and get pleasantly high faster.

As Jennings points out, “gender roles are often fluid in the Andes,”  but “chicha brewing is primarily a female activity. ”  He then goes on to note that “the preparation and serving of chicha,  like all food,  is central to women’s identity,  and for women who sell chicha [today] the drink offers considerable social power and autonomy that they aggressively defend.”

I think Jane Peyton is on to something here.


The Last Place on Earth for Humans

While I was at the Bowers Museum in California this past weekend giving a talk on mummies,  Peter Keller called me into his office to take a gander at something remarkable.  Keller is the director of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana,  California,  and the man who succeeded in bringing the very famous Tarim Basin mummies and their associated artifacts to North America for the exhibition,  Secrets of the Silk Road:  The Mystery Mummies of China.   These European looking mummies,  some as old as 4000 years,  have never travelled outside Asia.

Keller had just located the earliest known necropolis in the Tarim Basin,  the site known in English as Small River Cemetery No. 5 and in Mandarin as Xiaohe,  on Google Earth.  And the two of us spent a good half hour or so examining the area with researcher Victor Mair.  This made a great impression on me.

The Tarim Basin lies at the very heart of Asia,  nearly encircled by steep snow-capped mountains.  It is an exceptionally harsh, forbidding land.  In summer,  temperatures there can soar as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit; in winter,  they plummet to minus 40.  And it is one of the most arid places on Earth,  right up there with the Atacama Desert.   For all these reasons,  modern humans took their time settling the Tarim Basin.  Indeed Victor Mair,  the sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied these mummies for nearly twenty years, suggests that the Tarim Basin was the last place on Earth to be colonized by humans.   And this didn’t happen until some 4000 years ago.

In the reign of Mao Tse-tung,  the Chinese government put all this harshness to work.  It constructed labor camps in the Tarim Basin,  knowing that the desert would be a powerful deterrent to escape.  And it built a nuclear testing range there,  confident  that  no one would dream of crossing the barrens to spy.

It is one thing to know all this intellectually.  It is quite another to see all the desolation of the Tarim Basin on Google Earth.  Small River Cemetery No. 5,  named for a stream that no longer exists,  is surrounded by miles and miles of sand dunes,  dried river and stream beds,  and pure nothingness.  If you’d like to see for yourself what I’m talking about,  here are the coordinates:  40 degrees,  20 minutes, 11 seconds North and 88 degrees, 40 minutes and 20.3 seconds East.   (And if anyone knows how I can embed the Google Earth photo of the site in this blog,  please leave a comment below.)  I can give you these coordinates without any fear of encouraging looting,  as Chinese archaeologists have now completely excavated Small River Cemetery No. 5,  and reconstructed the site,  with its remarkable phallic looking wooden posts.

Surveying the area via Google Earth has given me a whole new appreciation for the Bronze -Age Europeans and Asians who colonized this region some 4000 years ago.  Mair believes that water would have flowed then along many of the small streambeds that meander through the desert.  I’m sure he’s right:  how else could the colonists have survived there?

But life must have been a daily grind in the Tarim Basin,  and I often wonder if the early migrants didn’t drift off to sleep each night dreaming of their greener and gentler homelands.

The Silk Road Merchant Who Loved Haute Couture

I have just returned from a three-day trip to California,  where I attended the opening of a major new exhibit on the Tarim Basin mummies.   The new exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana did not disappoint.  I spent hours  marvelling at the mummies and nearly 150 spectacular artifacts which date as early as the Bronze Age,  4000 years ago.  I’ll be writing about some of the more fascinating aspects of the exhibit this week.  But today,  I’ve posted an entry over at Archaeology magazine on the sartorial splendor –no other way to describe it–of one of the mummies,  Yingpan Man.  Please click here to read today’s post.

Google Streetview and the World’s Megaliths

This is pure genius.  Over at The Megalithic Portal, they are having a competition.  Between now and May 31st,  they are asking megalithomaniacs around the world to help them locate  henges,  barrows, mounds and the like on Google Streetview.  There’s a lot of turf to cover.  Two weeks ago, Google rolled out a deluxe version of  Streetview in the U.K., encompassing 95% of the roads.

And the organizers aren’t just limiting the competition to good old Albion.  “There are thousands of obscure and unloved standing stones, earthworks etc in roadside locations all over the world,”  say the organizers.  With a little crowdsourcing and a few  prizes to the sharpest eyes, they hope to locate these sites for all of us on Google Earth.

What a brilliant scheme!  A few months ago,  I posted on the immense fun I had toodling around Pompeii for hours on Google Streetview.   An astute reader then put me on to the Google views of Stonehenge,  and there went another good hour as I moved around inside this wonder –something I’ve never been able to do in the real world.  So the folks at Megalithic Portal hope to do us all a big favor by mapping thousands of other sites,  and I think the least we can do is return the favor,  by sinking a little spare time in hunting for megaliths.

I have to say, though,  that I’m  both touched and a little dismayed by some examples they have posted to date.   At 7 Ravenswood Avenue,  Edinburgh  (my father’s home town),  there’s a standing stone piercing the sidewalk in front of what looks to be an apartment block.  It’s completely encircled by a black iron fence.  I suppose the iron bars are there to protect the stone from vandals or careless parkers.  But  the fence reminds me a little of a miniature prison,   dividing the past from the present, the mystery from the mundane,  the ritual world from the real one.

Who’s really in prison here?

When Did We Begin Supersizing Dinner?

Every time  I venture into the produce departments of large supermarkets,  I am stunned by what I see on the shelves.   Arranged to perfection on trays and lit by soft lighting are foods I scarcely recognize anymore:   grapes the size of a squash ball,  naval oranges as big as a child’s head,   and pineapples larger than a football.   How did we ever get to this,  I ask myself,  pumping our crops so full of chemicals  until they reach Brobdingnagian dimensions?   Gulliver would have felt right at home.

All this came to mind this morning,  as I read a very clever new historical study that Brian Wansink, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating:  Why We Eat More than We Think,  and his theologian brother Craig Wansink,  just published in the International Journal of Obesity.   The two researchers examined 52 images  of the Last Supper  painted between A.D. 1000 and 1900,  and measured the size of the portrayed portions.  (They did the later by scanning the food items and plates with computer-aided design technology, then calculating  the relative food to human head ratio.)

What they found was a strong trend over time towards supersizing.    The entrees grew by a whopping 69%,  while  the plates themselves expanded by 66%.   Even bread loaves swelled by 25%.  Could religious practices account for this trend?   Craig Wansink,  the theologian on the team,  says no. “There is no religious reason why the meal got bigger,”  Wansink told a BBC reporter.  “It may be that meals really did grow,  or that people just became more interested in food.”

Brian Wansink’s earlier research strongly suggests that the monster-sized portions we see today in restaurants,  fast food joints,  and on our own dining room tables have a lot to do with the current obesity epidemic.  And there are some simple things we can do to cut the calories.  Just switching from a 12-inch to a 10-inch  plate, for example,   will result in a 22% decrease in the amount of food we eat at dinner.

Above:  The Last Supper by Jacopo da Ponte,  ca 1546

Below: The Last Supper by Alonso Vazquez n.d.

Bronze-Age Europeans in China

Both the Grey Lady,  the New York Times,  and USA Today,  have run stories (here and here) this week on the forthcoming exhibition of China’s famous Tarim Basin mummies and their gravegoods and possessions at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.  The three mummies in the exhibit are European in appearance and date back as early as 4000 years,  long before the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century B.C.

I have a very short interview with Victor Mair,  a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the leading  expert on these mummies, coming out in Science magazine later today.  In addition,  I have penned a feature article for Archaeology on Victor Mair and the latest research  in the Tarim Basin,  which will hit newstands in June.

But I will be attending the opening of the exhibition next weekend as a guest of honor,  as the Bowers Museum has invited me to give a talk on mummies on Sunday,  March 28th.   So I will be posting here on my impressions on this major new exhibition.   Chinese authorities have never before permitted any of the Tarim Basin mummies to travel outside Asia.

I should mention, however,  that I have  seen some of these mummies before.  A decade ago,  I joined Victor Mair and a geneticist colleague in Shanghai while they were trying to obtain permission to sample some of the mummies for  DNA testing.  At that time,  I was fortunate enough to be taken down into a basement room at Shanghai’s Museum of Natural History,  where one of the Tarim Basin mummies lay in a glass case.  Later,  I  wrote a chapter in my book,  The Mummy Congress,  on the finds from the Tarim Basin.

These are extraordinary mummies.  Their preservation is superb and they are daily revealing more about the lives of Bronze Age European migrants to Central Asia.  I’ll have a lot more to say about this in a week’s time!

Photo by Wang da Gang

Repatriating the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum

I sometimes think that one of the worst jobs in archaeology today would be  to work as a curator at the British Museum.  Yes,  there is the prestige of researching and mounting massive exhibitions that attract international attention.   But who would want to be on the receiving end of all the ire of foreign governments who want their treasures back,  from Iran demanding the loan of the Cyrus cylinder to Greece pressuring for the return of the Parthenon marbles?  And I sure wouldn’t want Zawi Hawass lecturing me on the return of the Rosetta Stone.

Now a new front has opened up in the diplomatic war to pry loose national treasures from the British Museum showcases–and it’s not at all where you might think it would be.  Last week,  Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil called for a debate in the British House of Commons over the repatriation of the very famous Lewis Chessmen discovered in a sandbank on the Isle of  Lewis,  in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides Islands sometime before 1831.

First a very short primer on the Lewis Chessmen,  which are my all time favorite artifacts from Medieval Europe.    A 12th century artist carved the exquisitely beautiful  chess pieces–93 in all–mostly from walrus ivory,  which could well have come from the Greenland colonies,  or possibly even from the Canadian Arctic.  (That’s another story  I’ll save for another day.)  No one knows for certain, however,  where the chessmen were carved,  although some scholars lean towards Trondheim in Norway,  since similar chess pieces were found there.   How these wonderful chessmen–one of the best preserved sets from the medieval world- came to lie in a sand dune near Uig on the Isle of Lewis is unknown.

Shortly after they came to light in 1831, however,  the Hebridean finder decided to sell them.  A private  buyer purchased 11 of the pieces and the rest went to the British Museum, which displays several of these miniature artworks  in one of its galleries.

But now people in the Outer Hebrides want their famous chessmen back.  Indeed, their MP Angus MacNeil is working hard to repatriate them to the Museum nan Eilean in  Stornoway,  the major town of the Outer Hebrides.  And what has provoked this protest?   It appears that the  British Museum has stepped very clumsily on toes and local sensitivities in the Outer Hebrides.  Its curators have been working on a major travelling exhibit of the chesspieces to Scotland and according to a recent online article in The Press and Journal, advertising for the forthcoming exhibit attributes the chesspieces to Norwegian craftsmen,  completely ignoring the possibility that they were carved in the Outer Hebrides.

Is this just a tempest in a teapot?  I don’t think so.   The Lewis chesspieces are objects of of immense pride in the Outer Hebrides,  and someone at the British Museum should have known this.  I am becoming more and more sympathetic all the time to foreign governments and even local museums who want to repatriate their greatest treasures from the vaults and exhibition cases of the British Museum.  It think it’s patronizing in the extreme today to think that only the big national museums in developed countries know how to take care of the world’s most important cultural heritage.

Lights, Camera, Action in Victorian Melbourne

Rose Wild over at the Times Archive Blog has posted an amusing little short film that will never win an Academy Award,  but is worth a quick gander.  At just 24 seconds,  Patineur Grotesque is the oldest known surviving film from Australia–made for a song and a lark I suspect in 1896 on a Melbourne street.  Even then,  the Aussies clearly  loved a laugh. G’day!