Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Illuminating the beginnings of a mystery

I recently finished reading Adrian Goldsworthy's book How Rome Fell, and was impressed enough with it that (you may recall) it was last week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week.  I've always had a fascination for that time and place -- Europe of the "Dark Ages," the mysterious and poorly-documented period between the slow and tortuous collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century C.E. and the consolidation of the Frankish state during the eighth.

Part of the reason for my interest is that it is a mystery.  If you push back much earlier than Charlemagne, you get into some seriously sketchy territory.  The most famous example is King Arthur, whose legendary status is obvious, but whose historicity is dubious at best.  But he's hardly the only one.  Take the account of the founding of the Merovingian Dynasty (immediately preceding the Carolingians, founded by Charlemagne), from the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar:

It is said that while Chlodio was staying at the seaside with his wife one summer, his wife went into the sea at midday to bathe, and a beast of Neptune rather like a Quinotaur found her.  In the event she was made pregnant, either by the beast or by her husband, and she gave birth to a son called Merovech, from whom the kings of the Franks have subsequently been called Merovingians.

I had to look up what a "quinotaur" was.  Turns out it's a beast with the front half of a bull and the back half of a fish.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jacques63, Quinotaure, CC BY-SA 4.0

So Merovech's father was either (1) a guy named Chlodio, or (2) a fish-bull-thing.  What's amusing is that the author of the Chronicle of Fredegar seemed to consider these as equally plausible, so decided to include them both.

So if you go much before 750 C.E. or so, the actual facts become so interwoven with mythology and folk history that it's hard to tell what, if any, is real.  (I mean, the issue of Merovech's father is pretty clear cut, but that's the exception.)  When you get back to the second century and earlier, things improve drastically -- we have, all things considered, great records of the Roman Empire at the height of its power -- but as it started to disintegrate, people found that writing stuff down was less of a priority than avoiding starvation or being chopped into tiny bits by the latest group of invaders.

This is why a recent discovery in Turkey is so exciting to me and others who share my interest in that time and place.  At the site of the ancient city of Blaundos, about 180 kilometers east of the Aegean Sea, archaeologists have discovered a necropolis that was used as a burial site during the time when the Roman Empire was heading toward collapse -- from the second to the fourth centuries.  What they're finding is impressive, to say the least.

"We think that the Blaundos rock-cut tomb chambers, in which there are many sarcophagi, were used as family tombs, and that the tombs were reopened for each deceased family member, and a burial ceremony was held and closed again," said Birol Can of U┼čak University, who headed the team excavating the site.  "Some of these tombs were used as animal shelters by shepherds a long time ago.  The frescoes were covered with a dense and black soot layer due to the fires that were set in those times.  But [we were] able to clean some of the paintings, revealing the vibrant floral, geometric and figurative scenes painted on the walls.  Vines, flowers of various colors, wreaths, garlands, geometric panels are the most frequently used motifs.  In addition to these, mythological figures — such as Hermes (Mercury), Eros (Cupid) [and] Medusa — and animals such as birds and dogs are included in the wide panels."

The team has only begun to investigate the site; just cleaning the panels to expose the brilliantly-colored art beneath the layers of grime is a slow and painstaking process.  Eventually, the entire complex will be studied and restored.  After that, they're planning on doing DNA and chemical analysis of the remains of the people buried there, hoping to find out their ages and cause of death, nutritional habits, and ancestry.

The latter is of particular interest to me.  When the "barbarian tribes" -- the disparaging moniker which the Romans used to lump together the people of northern Europe, including Celts, Gauls, Goths, Allemanni, Suevi, Marcomanni, Franks, Vandals, and so forth -- began to chip away at Roman territory, the Roman citizens who lived in border regions began to accept the inevitable and "allowed" them to settle.  In some cases, the now-apparently-civilized barbarians were granted Roman citizenship.  (In fact, one of the most famous and powerful Roman military leaders in the fourth century, Stilicho, was a Vandal by descent.)

So finding out the ancestry of the people of Blaundos will be interesting, especially comparing the earliest to the latest remains to see how (or if) the same kind of ethnic melding happened here that was happening in other parts of the Empire.

In any case, the discovery is extremely cool, and may clarify our picture of the beginnings of one of the most mystery-shrouded time periods in the past two millennia.  It'll be interesting to see what more they turn up.  I'm guessing, though, that they're not going to find evidence of women getting knocked up by fish-bull-creatures.  Call me a doubter, but there you are.


My dad once quipped about me that my two favorite kinds of food were "plenty" and "often."  He wasn't far wrong.  I not only have eclectic tastes, I love trying new things -- and surprising, considering my penchant for culinary adventure, have only rarely run across anything I truly did not like.

So the new book Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Guide by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras is right down my alley.  Wong and Thuras traveled to all seven continents to find the most interesting and unique foods each had to offer -- their discoveries included a Chilean beer that includes fog as an ingredient, a fish paste from Italy that is still being made the same way it was by the Romans two millennia ago, a Sardinian pasta so loved by the locals it's called "the threads of God," and a tea that is so rare it is only served in one tea house on the slopes of Mount Hua in China.

If you're a foodie -- or if, like me, you're not sophisticated enough for that appellation but just like to eat -- you should check out Gastro Obscura.  You'll gain a new appreciation for the diversity of cuisines the world has to offer, and might end up thinking differently about what you serve on your own table.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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