Stinging cheese & other subversions

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.

Marriage Ovens & Maternal Tattooing

Since I no longer have access to the tool I use for writing fiction at work (grr) I spent some time this week digging through the notes and articles I had queued up in Readwise Reader, my read-it-later app.

9 Quick Updates

  • Poison/Toxins: Here's a neat look into the history of poisoned weapons that points out that poisoned weapons were mostly used for hunting, which is also the conclusion I drew after doing my own research. Sean Manning goes a lot farther into looking at the phenomenon from the perspective of literary tropes and sword fighting though. There was a nice discussion in the comments tracing the origins of the phenomenon in literature; if you know of any poisoned arrows in early literature, please swing by and let him know.
  • Jewelry: Here's a follow-up to the last news I shared about neolithic friendship bracelets; it turns out that some of the artefacts that were deliberately broken in order to be used as jewelry that matched something worn by another person were decorated and finished in different styles, which is a really neat look into the preferences of our long-ago ancestors.
  • Ovens: In ancient Armenia, peasant homes usually had a tonir, which is a small tandoor oven built from clay and stone into the ground. It was used for baking bread, but more interestingly, it was used as a central point for holding marriages. They were mostly covered up and abandoned during the 1980s, but some have been renovated, and the thing I find most amusing is that some of the local teenagers have historically used it as a hidden place to make out with their dates.
  • Troglodytes: Archaeologists recently discovered an Iranian cave settlement that's about  400,000 years old. They aren't sure if it was inhabited by Homo heidelbergensis or Homo erectus, but they did find stone tools and the remains of horses, deer, brown bears, and rhinoceroses.
  • Art: Decorated stones from 15,000 years ago were sometimes damaged by heat. This isn't inherently interesting, except I think it's neat that the heat patterns indicate that they were carved by the light of a fire.
  • Tattoos: I mentioned previously that tattoos were viewed primarily as a punishment in Xiongnu-era Chinese culture, but apparently sometimes there were some pretty interesting subversions of this phenomenon. Specifically, criminals conscripted into the army were tattooed as a punishment, because there was a Confucian ideal about keeping the body pure to honor one's parents, but criminals and soldiers often chose to tattoo themselves for aesthetic and religious reasons. There are also a few folk tales about Chinese mothers tattooing their sons for luck.
  • Conveyances: Though not strictly about ancient wheels, I found it pretty interesting that we've used wheels as a metaphor for the cosmos since at least the time of Anaximander, who lived in the early 500s BCE.
  • Dentition: Anthropologists did a study on a Byzantine warrior's lower jaw and determined that after it was shattered in two places, a doctor was able to put it back together... following medical advice from a treatise written 1,800 years before the injury. It's a neat look at the history of medicine, and the warrior lived for probably another ten years after the original injury. What's particularly interesting is that the jaw was probably stitched together with gold wires; there's a bunch of calcified dental plaque marking where the wire used to be. They even went so far as to file the teeth so that the knot in the wire wouldn't irritate any soft tissue.
  • Cheese: Cornish Yarg is a crumbly, semi-hard cow's milk cheese inspired by a 17th century recipe. It's only made by one dairy farm in Cornwall, and only exists because a farmer happened upon a recipe book in his attic. One of the reasons I love the idea of it is that it's ripened in a coating of stinging nettles, which not only have to be foraged by hand, they're a  major plot point in the excellent adventure Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher. The tagline is: This isn't the kind of fairytale where the princess marries a prince. It's the one where she kills him.

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