Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Roman Cavalry Helmets

A selection of the weird "parade helmets" worn by some Roman cavalry from the first to fourth century CE. I find these fascinating because they are so contrary to my vision of what the Roman army was like. This makes me wonder what else I am getting wrong.

Above and top is the Crosby-Garret helmet, one of the most complete specimens. This was found by a metal detectorist in Britain about ten years ago and sold for more than £3 million.

These four were dredged from rivers in the Low Countries and are now in Dutch museums. The third one down shows you clearly that the face mask and helmet were separate pieces, hinged together. Most surviving examples are bronze (like many other Roman helmets), a few iron or brass; some are silvered and some were even decorated with gems.

Opinions differ as to whether these were just for show or were actually worn in combat. Some people call them "parade helmets," which tells you what they think. But this mask was found at the battlefield of Kalkriese, which seems to the site of the great battle of Teutoburger Wald. So at least one person wore one on campaign. To provide good vision and breathing the mask has to fit precisely, which suggests that they were custom made.

The Homs Helmet, from the Syrian desert, preserving even the cloth top. Imagine a whole troop of men riding by, wearing these. It must have been an eerie sight. Or were they just worn by officers?

Several surviving examples have women's faces with elaborate hairstyles. What was that about?

The Ribchester Helmet.

One from Istanbul.


Obama vs. Rubio on How to Fight the Islamic State

Matt Yglesias compares Marco Rubio's plan for fighting the Islamic State, which includes sending ground troops to both Iraq and Syria, to Obama's policies:
The core underlying differentiator between Obama and Rubio on ISIS isn't really a disagreement about ISIS or about Iraq or about Syria. Rather, it's Rubio's intellectual and emotional investment in a worldview which holds that American strength begets more American strength, versus Obama's more literal view that expenditures of American resources in one area means that fewer resources are available in other areas.

Rubio thinks that in addition to deploying ground troops to Iraq, intensifying air strikes in Syria, and preparing for possible war with Iran we should be getting tougher on China. But also getting tougher on Russia. And for good measure getting tougher on Cuba and on the Palestinians.

Rubio's view is that this isn't biting off more than we can chew because a foreign policy grounded in toughness and moral clarity will create a situation in which "our enemies and our adversaries will not dare test us, because they know that if they do they will not prevail."

By making it clear that we are willing to do whatever it takes, we will intimidate foes and bend them to our will. On that account, there is no opportunity cost to pouring additional resources into the fight against ISIS because success will establish American credibility and increase our strength.

Obama, by contrast, clearly views entanglements in the Middle East as crowding out other priorities. He told me in January that by shifting to a "smaller footprint" in Iraq and Afghanistan his administration has been able to "get at the actual problem" while conservative resources in a way that "frees us up to be able to send a team to prevent Ebola" and address other global crises. On this view getting sucked into open-ended military commitments is the worst mistake we can make. An ISIS or an al-Qaeda can murder Americans but they have absolutely no ability to defeat the American military or directly cripple our economy. What they can do is bait us into costly adventures that drain our resources and polarize opinion around the Muslim world. To Obama, the crucial thing is to avoid overreactions that will pull us deeper into the quicksand. To Rubio, the imperative is exactly the opposite — to show that we are willing to go further and do whatever it takes to prevail.
I think Rubio's belligerence would turn out just as badly as George W. Bush's did. But I think there  is a real chance he will be the next President and therefore a real chance that this will be our policy.

Warrior's Arm Band from Bronze Age Europe

Probably from the upper Danube region, 14th to 16th century BCE. This is a massive thing, 23 cm or more than 9 inches long, and the wire is 2.3 cm or nearly an inch thick. From Phoenix Ancient Arts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Philip Jackson

Sculptor Philip Jackson (born 1944) has been one of Britain's leading public artists for many years now, engaged to create realistic figures for several important public monuments. But I just discovered today that he also makes these wonderfully surreal works. I can't find dates for any of these, not even on his own web site, but they seem to be fairly recent, within the past 15 years or so. I love all of these.

Below, images of Jackson sculptures at Chichester Cathedral, by photographer Simon Rutter.

And one of his realistic works: Constantine the Great, installed in York in 1998.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust

That's the title of the latest survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. From the executive summary:
When asked what issues are most important to them personally, Americans are more likely to cite health care (63%), terrorism (62%), and jobs and unemployment (60%) than any other issue. A majority (53%) of Americans report that crime is a critical issue to them personally. Slightly fewer say the cost of education (49%), economic inequality (48%), and immigration (46%) are critical issues. Fewer Americans say that race relations (39%), climate change (34%), abortion (34%), religious liberty (31%), and same-sex marriage (25%) are critical issues.
One interesting number is that 72% of Americans think the country is still in a recession, even though in strictly economic terms the recession ended six years ago. As to what divides the parties this election season:
Strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans name health care (71% and 61%, respectively) and jobs and unemployment (66% and 59%, respectively) as critical issues. However, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to name the cost of education (62% vs. 33% respectively) and the growing gap between the rich and the poor (62% vs. 29%, respectively) as critical issues. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to name terrorism (79% vs. 53%, respectively) and immigration (59% vs. 43%, respectively) as critical issues.
Some interesting data on who is optimistic or pessimistic about America:
Americans have become more pessimistic about the country’s future than they were just a few years earlier. Today, Americans are evenly divided over whether America’s best days are ahead of us (49%) or behind us (49%). In 2012, a majority (54%) of the public said that America’s best days were ahead, while fewer than four in ten (38%) said that they were behind. No group expresses greater pessimism about America’s future than members of the Tea Party. Only one-third (33%) of Tea Party members say that the country’s best days lie ahead, while about two-thirds (65%) say they are in the past.

Perceptions about America’s future vary by religious affiliation. Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants are markedly more pessimistic than other groups, with majorities believing that America’s best days are behind us (60% and 55%, respectively). By contrast, majorities of Americans who are affiliated with non-Christian religions (55%), Catholics (56%), black Protestants (57%), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (58%) all believe America’s best days are ahead of us. . . .

Six in ten (60%) black Americans and a majority (54%) of Hispanic Americans believe that American culture has mostly changed for the better since the 1950s. In contrast, only 42% of white Americans agree, and 57% say that the American way of life has mostly changed for the worse over the last sixty years.

While a majority of independents (56%), Republicans (67%), and members of the Tea Party (72%) say American culture and way of life has gotten worse since the 1950s, only 40% of Democrats agree.
I think this explains American politics better than anything else. Supporters of Trump, Carson and Cruz don't care much about the details of their policies, they just feel that under its current leadership America is in catastrophic decline, and they want somebody radically different to shake things up and put us back on what they see as the right course.

One more detail:
Approximately two-thirds (65%) of white Americans say recent killings of African American men by police are isolated incidents, while about four in ten (41%) Hispanic Americans and only 15% of black Americans say the same.

More than eight in ten (81%) black Americans say recent police killings of African American men are part of a broader pattern of how police treat African Americans.
Fascinating that anyone could see the numbers on killings by police in America and think that the killings of black Americans are "isolated incidents." That's a lot of isolated incidents. This is a good lesson in how people's beliefs -- e.g., America is a just society -- influence their thinking on every topic.

Agribusiness Comes to Rural China

Michael Meyer met and married a Chinese woman from a Manchurian village called Wasteland, and ended up writing a book about his time in her hometown. She actually doesn't live there any more; like any other ambitious Chinese person, she has moved to a big city. Just as in the American midwest, family farms in China are slowly being absorbed by big agribusiness companies, and most young people are moving away. From Adam Minter's review:
Lake Wobegon, if it really existed, would have ceased being a small town with bachelor farmers years ago. Agribusiness, corporate farming, and the understandable wanderlust of Minnesota’s rural youth has transformed Central Minnesota (ostensibly, the location of Lake Wobegon) into a very different place. It’s easy to mourn for the end of rural America — in a sense, that’s what Garrison Keillor does whenever he spins a new yarn about the bachelor farmers. But as Keillor well knows, the Norwegian bachelor farmers aren’t coming back, because in 2015 one-man farming operations don’t make economic sense.

Wasteland is still in its Lake Wobegon stage, but just barely — a state of affairs that Meyer learns about first-hand while teaching in Wasteland’s school. There, he met students with mobile phones, internet, music downloads, and the natural wanderlust inspired by Chinese modernity. But even if the kids wanted to stay in Wasteland, their farmer parents wouldn’t hear of it. . . .

But who, then, will farm the fields of Wasteland? Who will preserve the traditional squat homes in which Frances was raised, her relatives still live, and Meyer rented during his sojourn? The blunt answer is: nobody. As Meyer witnesses during his years in Wasteland, China is at the start of a new round of land reform. Whereas in the past, ownership of land went from private owners to the public, now it’s on the verge of shifting to corporations who will farm it — and pay royalties to those who once farmed it individually.

In Wasteland, the vector is Eastern Fortune — a private company that cultivates and processes organic rice. They enter into contracts with local farmers to lease their land and farm their crop in return for a royalty. As part of the deal, they also get to demolish the farmer’s home (more land for farming) and move the entire family into a high-rise apartment. It’s a radical transformation — going from cultivating your own food, to buying it at stores, for starters — and Meyer is troubled by it. Nonetheless, some of Meyers’s friends and relatives begin to accept the transaction, and the change it brings. In a key, climactic scene, an executive from Eastern Fortune suggests to Meyer that the change is inevitable — and perhaps the town could change its name to Eastern Fortune.
Family farms are still thriving in some parts of China, especially areas close to cities where there are big markets for vegetables. But the family wheat or rice farmer will soon be a figure of history and myth.

The pictures are all of Wasteland, by Michael Meyer, from here.

Our Heroes are Back, or, The Rijksmuseum has Fun with The Night Watch

Delightful. Via The History Blog

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Otto Schmalz, Plan for a Royal Summer Palace, 1886

Otto Schmalz (1861-1906) was a minor German architect whose most important surviving buildings are courthouses and offices for the Prussian state. When he was a young assistant - that is, at the time he did these drawings -- he worked on the imperial palace in Strasbourg (now the Palais du Rhin) and other princely residences. But he never got to build his masterpiece.

Now, though, the Architecture Museum of the Technische Universität Berlin has scanned all the drawings and put them online in a wonderful zoomable format, so you can peruse them at your leisure.

I'm not sure what you would call this style; historical pastiche?

The only piece in color is the entrance hall plan below,which I believe was the cover of the plan book.

Drugs and Health

More health care is not better health care:
A study from Israel of elderly patients with multiple health problems but still living in the community tried discontinuing medicines to see if patients got better. Not unusual for these types of elderly patients, on average, they were taking more than seven medications.

In a systematic, data-driven fashion, the researchers discontinued almost five drugs per patient for more than 90 percent of the patients. In only 2 percent of cases did the drugs have to be restarted. No patients had serious side effects and no patients died from stopping the drugs. Instead, almost all of the patients reported improvements in health, not to mention the saving of drug money.

The Burned Witch Girl of San Calocero

In northern Italy, archaeologists working in a medieval cemetery have uncovered the skeleton of a 15-17 year old girl whose body was burned and then buried in an irregular pit; the pit was then covered with heavy stone slabs. She stood about 4' 9" tall. The grave has not yet been radiocarbon dated, and the excavators can only say that it dates to between the 9th and 14th centuries.

This is a perfect example of what archaeologists call a "deviant" burial, one that was made contrary to the stated rules of its society. Burning corpses was a taboo act in Christian Europe, punishable in some areas by death. But it was used for people who had offended so badly against the society that they had to be completely cast out: heretics, witches, women who murdered their husbands or children. Our historical accounts generally say that such people were burned alive, but I am not familiar with any burials of such victims; the ones that have been uncovered by archaeologists were dead before they went in the fire. There are enough of these to make me suspect that execution followed by the burning of the body may have been a common alternative to the legally-mandated death by fire.

I find these anomalous burials interesting in a broader sense as well. In traditional societies all over the world, informants tell anthropologists "we bury our dead like X." This is true, for example, of American Indians in the early historic period. But when archaeologists excavate cemeteries they often find several different burial methods. One graveyard of the late prehistoric culture in Ohio, the probable ancestors of the historic Shawnee and Miami, produced burials that had been cremated at another site and then moved to the grave, burials that had been cremated in the grave, unburned burials lying on their backs, and unburned burials curled on their sides. I have always wondered what led the the differences, but nobody has been able to figure it out.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

In Which the Islamic State Falls for the Red Mercury Scam

Wonderful article by C.J. Chivers on the Islamic State's attempt to buy the imaginary superweapon red mercury:
Red mercury — precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag. . . .

Legends of red mercury’s powers began circulating by late in the Cold War. But their breakout period came after the Soviet Union’s demise, when disarray and penury settled over the Kremlin’s arms programs. As declining security fueled worries of illicit trafficking, red mercury embedded itself in the lexicon of the freewheeling black-market arms bazaar. Aided by credulous news reports, it became an arms trafficker’s marvelous elixir, a substance that could do almost anything a shady client might need: guide missiles, shield objects from radar, equip a rogue underdog state or terrorist group with weapons rivaling those of a superpower. It was priced accordingly, at hundreds of thousands of dollars a kilogram. With time, the asking price would soar. . . .

Among specialists who investigated the claims, the doubts hardened to an unequivocal verdict: Red mercury was a lure, the central prop of a confidence game designed to fleece ignorant buyers. ‘‘Take a bogus material, give it an enigmatic name, exaggerate its physical properties and intended uses, mix in some human greed and intrigue, and voilà: one half-baked scam,’’ the Department of Energy’s Critical Technologies Newsletter declared.
So here's hoping the IS wastes a lot of money chasing this specter. And meanwhile it is fascinating to imagine the netherworld where terrorism intersects with the paranoid attitude toward all authority so common in the Middle East and the wiles of ex-Soviet arms smugglers.

The Bluest Blue, the Reddest Red

In the front yard, today.