The Diamond Sutra is the world’s oldest book bearing a specific date of publication – 868 A.D. It was printed on a 16-foot scroll using woodblock and was discovered in 1907 in a series of caves in China among 40,000 books and manuscripts that had been walled up there. They are located outside the town of Dunhuang (also spelled Tunhuang).
Early Buddhist monks had made their way from northwest India to inhabit the Mogao Caves which came to be known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.” The location had been a desert outpost along the Silk Road.
The caves were forgotten until the year 1900, when an itinerant Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu happened upon them and began to slowly restore the caves. When he eventually unsealed the caves, he found a cache of thousands of texts and paintings. He was unsure of what to do with all of it and was advised to reseal the location.
An archaeologist, Aurel Stein (a Hungarian working for the British) convinced Wang Yuan Lu to part with a huge amount of manuscripts. Stein left (basically stealing) with 7000 manuscripts and five cases of paintings and relics. He gave Wang just £130 and the promise that he wouldn’t tell anyone about the transaction. The Diamond Sutra was among those manuscripts.
Stein was knighted in England but was rightly hated in China for stealing national treasures. His “discovery” led other scholars to visit the caves and they took more of the treasures, even chipping murals off the walls.
The summer of 2019 has been a hot and dry one across Europe. The already hot and dry region of Extremadura in Spain is into a mega-drought that is terrible for farmers. I’ll leave the question of climate change to others, but the drought is also revealing things that were earlier underwater.
No one wants plant cover to disappear, or lakes and reservoirs to run dry. Well, no one but maybe archaeologists.
The Valdecañas Reservoir in the province of Cáceres has dropped so low that stones that have been revealed earlier are now fully exposed.
The Dolmen of Guadalperal is what remains of a 7,000-year-old megalithic monument consisting of 150 granite stones (orthostats). A dolmen is normally a megalithic tomb with large flat stones laid on upright ones, and are found chiefly in Britain and France. The stones here are up to six feet tall and are arranged in an oval with the main room of about 16 feet.
The Dolmen de Guadalperal was excavated and studied in the 1920s, but then it “drowned” in the 1960s, and has dried up again this year.
The archaeologists believe that this dolmen was on the banks of the Tagus River in the fifth millennium BC and was a completely enclosed space resembling a large tomb or stone house with a massive capstone on top. It is thought that it could have been a solar temple, as well as a burial enclave.
One large stone at this dolmen is the menhir that marked the entrance which has a human figure engraved on its front. Another face has a long squiggly line that was first believed to represent a snake. But another theory is that the line represents the course of the Tagus River. If that was its purpose, it could represent one of the oldest maps ever found.
The site was drowned with one of Francisco Franco’s civil engineering projects that were a dam and reservoir that flooded the Dolmen of Guadalperal in 1963. The megalithic monuments and most of the remains of a Roman city called Augustóbriga were covered with water. Some of the city ruins were relocated to a nearby hilltop, but the dolmen was lost, only to be glimpsed as water levels fluctuated and the tops of the tallest stones were temporarily visible.
We now know that dolmens as tombs or ritual sites were built in many places including sites from Ireland to India to the Korean Peninsula.
How does this site compare to Stonehenge? The Dolmen was once entirely enclosed space, unlike Stonehenge. It is also about 2,000 years older than Stonehenge.
Archaeologists would like to see the stones permanently moved to a dry location nearby because it could again be swallowed up by the lake in the near future.
As I work my way through the week, reading online and offline, listening, and looking around me, I collect things that I might want to write about here. Sometimes those notes lead to deeper searching, sometimes research, and sometimes they lead no further. Friday night is my start to the weekend and I usually post my shortest posts then.
Here are three things that are what they are and not anything more. A light buffet of ideas. Sample. Maybe you’ll like something enough to go further yourself.
For example, I heard someone on the radio (actually, it was a podcast, but I still think of them as radio) ask if the interviewer knew what industry was worth $28 billion. That is more than the NFL, the NBA and MLB together. Answer: the book publishing industry. And I thought books were becoming a thing of the past. The statistic makes me feel better about books, bookstores and libraries – good places full of good things.
In 1938, television was an idea being developed. No sets in homes. No programs. People didn’t know quite what could be done with it. When Edison was playing around with film, he wrongly was thinking of nickelodeon style viewing machines where you plunked in a coin and watch your little show. he was wrong, and rather quickly movies were projected for groups of people on a larger screen.
The same thinking was around with television. I came across this odd little device from a British company called the “Television Monocle.” It had a tiny screen, measuring just 1.5 inches by 1 inch, for a personal viewing experience. It looks a bit like the viewfinder on a video camera.
As with film, the path would lead to broadcasting to big audiences. Then again, since so many of us are watching TV and films on small screens again, maybe we are actually go backwards.
Halloween is coming next week, so lots of chocolate will be bought and consumed. It is a historical and ancient food, though much of what we call chocolate today is far from what it once looked and tasted like.
It comes from the cultivated cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). Cacao domestication and chocolate have long been seen as emerging from Central America and Mexico where it was found mentioned in texts and there is archaeological evidence of it being consumed. It was in the form of a drink that was more gruel than modern hot cocoa.
It was once considered a food of the gods. It only showed up in the American Southwest about 1,000 years ago, but it was believed that cacao domestication and chocolate production originated in Mesoamerica less than 4,000 years ago.
But some newer research by a multidisciplinary team makes a case for chocolate use going back almost 5,500 years. They find evidence not in Mexico or Central America, but in the upper Amazon of South America.
It is late October. It is autumn here on the top half of the planet, but there are days that feel like summer and nights and mornings that feel like winter. I like the change of seasons. I’m not sure how I would feel about living in a place that is all one or two seasons. On a wintry day when I’m dealing with ice and snow, that kind of place sounds very appealing, but I suspect it would be boring.
Triton is Neptune’s largest moon. It has been gathering frost on its surface. We have been observing the accumulation of the frost for 20 years and that frost continues to travel northward from the southern polar cap of Triton.
The frost comes from the sun heating and sublimating volatile material before it travels northward.
But something else that I read made me think that Ray Bradbury could have written a story about this. Triton’s frost varies over the world’s full season. The season lasts 84 years.
In Bradbury’ story “All Summer in a Day,” a class of students on Venus wait for one special day. Bradbury’s Venus is a world of constant rainstorms. The Sun is visible for only one hour every seven years. When I taught that story, I knew that my students couldn’t really imagine what it would be like to have only one day of summer every seven years. I can’t really imagine it myself.
What would it be like to have a Triton season of 84 years that might last your entire lifetime? I can’t go any further with that thought either.
Don’t be frightened. This isn’t about THAT string theory – the one from physics that replace the particles of particle physics with one-dimensional objects called strings. That is a tough one to explain. I can’t even imagine strings propagating through space and interacting with each other and all kinds of vibrational states and the graviton. Nope, no theory of quantum gravity today.
These strings are khipus (“knots”). They are made of twisted and tied cords and were once used by indigenous Andeans for record keeping.
These khipus (AKA Spanish spelling quipus) are best known by archaeologists as record keeping devices of the Inca Empire. That Empire had more than 18 million people and covered 3,000 miles of South America. It existed from the early 1400s until the Spanish conquest in 1532.
But what did they mean? How were they used? Was it their form of “writing?”
One older theory was that they were simple memory aids, similar to prayer beads. Current research seems to point to them being a three-dimensional writing system. Analyzing color, fiber and twist direction they found 95 unique signs. That is enough to constitute a writing system.
Those colonial-era Spaniards observed them being used never learned how they were use. But they appeared to be the way the numerical data (censuses, inventories) were recorded. But they might have also been used for narrative (phonetic) records such as letters and histories.
There are less than a thousand surviving khipus in museums and collections. Some remote mountain villages still used khipus as cultural artifacts into the 20th century, but reading them has not survived.
So far, there is no link between a quipu and Quechua, the native language of the Peruvian Andes, which suggests that they are not a glottographic or true writing system. Perhaps, they are a system of representative symbols, more like music notation, and relay information but are not directly related to the speech sounds of a particular language.
Looking at some of those strings and knots seems as difficult to interpret as the strings supposedly floating all around us in the quantum universe.
I saw a news story this weekend about continuing exploration in Luxor, Egypt in the tomb of Ancient Egypt’s boy-king Tutankhamun. Many people are intrigued by Tut, but what amazes me is that this tomb from seven centuries ago still has passages and hidden chambers that we haven’t discovered. The real quest there currently is to find the last resting place of the lost Queen Nefertiti. Nefertiti, who died in the 14th century B.C. and is thought to be Tutankhamun’s stepmother.
My own explorations have been of the armchair variety, but date back to my childhood. My mom bought me many of the How and Why book series about science.
The How and Why books of childhood took me into space and into Earth, back in time, to lost cities, dinosaurs. I dug in, flew high, and wondered – no question, thankfully, was ever fully answered.
One of those books took me into the jungles of South America to find the Maya and Inca lost cities. That introduced me to the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is on the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes.
It was built about 500 years ago, at the height of the Inca Empire. A “lost city” made up of about 200 buildings, including temples, houses, and baths, it was rediscovered by an American archaeologist in 1911.
It is a place that probably is on a lot of bucket lists. There is something about a mysterious civilization and “lost city” that intrigues us. Hundreds of thousands of people visit it every year and it is one of the largest tourist attractions in South America.
Really, the city was never “lost” to the locals, but Hiram Bingham was one of the first outsiders to see it. He was in Peru in search of the lost Incan capital, Vitcos. Locals led him to a ruined city on top of one of the nearby mountains. The explorers were surprised to see families living in the area and farming on some of the lower terraces of Machu Picchu.
The following year his team cleared vegetation and started restoring the buildings. Bingham also took artifacts back to Yale with him. In 2010, the Peruvian government successfully petitioned President Obama for the return of the artifacts.
Machu Picchu has many terraced levels connected by 3,000 steps with a sophisticated irrigation system. Like other ancient structures, the construction is a marvel, even by modern standards. The stone blocks they used to build were shaped using only hard river rocks – no steel or iron chisels – but they fit so tightly together that a knife blade can’t be slipped between them.
The terraces were a way to grow crops and also deal with heavy annual rainfall. Not unlike some modern landscaping, they used layers of stone, covered by smaller stone chips, sand, and topsoil that allowed water to drain and avoided mudslides on the slopes.
The location might have also been used for defensive protection from enemies. But it is thought that it might have been built as a resort or estate for the Incan nobility. It could have been a religious site. We still aren’t sure, and a little mystery makes it more interesting.
I support the theory that, as with the Maya, at least part of its use was for astronomical observations. At the highest part of the site, the Intihuatana stone was used to mark the equinoxes and other celestial events, and local shamans consider the stone as a gateway to the spirit world.
If I ever get to visit, I will want to touch the stone with my forehead to open a vision to the spirit world., and visit the temple of the Moon, the temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.
The Inca abandoned it at the time of the Spanish conquest when it was only a hundred years old. There is no evidence that Spanish conquerors ever found the city. One theory is that an epidemic of smallpox, carried by the Spanish, wiped out the people.
Durrington Walls via Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology
While mapping the neighborhood near Stonehenge, researchers have found a row of up to 90 standing stones less than 2 miles from Stonehenge. They are big – some of them nearly 15 feet tall. It is thought to be from the same period as Stonehenge.
Durrington Walls is the name given to the largest henge in Britain. A henge is a prehistoric monument consisting of a circle of stone or wooden uprights. Durrington Walls was thought of before as an earthwork enclosure, but now we find that hidden away has been a large stone component beneath the earthworks which, like Stonehenge, was built to align with the solstice.
Stonehenge’s circle is made of sarsen stones that are around 13 feet tall. Sarsen is a silicified sandstone boulder of a kind that occurs on the chalk downs of southern England. Such stones were used in constructing Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments. Researchers haven’t dug out any of the newly-found stones, but expect that they are also sarsen which is found elsewhere in the region.
You would have thought that after 4500 years we would have found everything that was there. In 2010, the same team of researchers uncovered a “shadow Stonehenge” less than 3,000 feet from the famous monument. Last year, they found 17 ritual monuments in the same area.