Saturday, March 31, 2012

News from the Silk Road

  • 31 Mar 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Joyce Morgan is co-author of Journeys on the Silk Road.

Tale of ancient treasure on a road less travelled

The silk trade created its own information superhighway in China, writes Joyce Morgan.

WHEN a couple of wandering monks arrived at the court of the Emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th century, they brought with them a hidden treasure.

Concealed in their pilgrim staffs were silkworm eggs. The monks were said to have returned from China with the means to make the coveted fabric with which the West was enraptured. It was a remarkable, and perhaps apocryphal, piece of industrial espionage.

The legendary monks had travelled along the Silk Road, or more accurately roads, a network of trade routes that linked China with the West.
For about 1000 years, caravans loaded with silk, rubies, jade, amber, musk and more travelled the Silk Road, the subject of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

From its eastern end in the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an, now Xian, the route passed through such fabled oases as Turfan and Kashgar before branching south to India, present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, or west to Samarkand, Bokhara, Persia and the eastern Mediterranean.

Despite all its ancient connotations, the name Silk Road is new. It was coined in the 19th century by a German geographer and explorer, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. A slick marketing guru could not have dreamt up a more evocative phrase.

Certainly the name is far more romantic than if it had been called after another desirable commodity traded along the way, which might have seen it dubbed the Rhubarb Road.

But silk, which originated in China, was the best known and among the most prized of the route’s merchandise. And for centuries China maintained its monopoly as the secret of silk-making was closely guarded and surrounded by myth.

The intrepid explorer Aurel Stein found evidence of one such tale last century when digging in China’s remote Taklamakan Desert – into which many once thriving oases sank after the Silk Road was abandoned as sea routes took over.

From the sands he pulled a painted wooden panel. It told the tale of the silk princess and how sericulture reached the ancient oasis of Khotan – today the centre of jade production in China’s restive Xinjiang Province.

According to legend, a Chinese princess was betrothed to the king of Khotan, a man determined to learn the secret of silk. He sent an envoy to fetch his bride, who warned her that if she wanted to wear beautiful silk robes in her new, distant homeland she would have to bring the means to make the fabric herself.
She hid silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds in her headdress knowing the border guards would not dare search there. Her venture was successful but dangerous – anyone trying to export silkworms or eggs could be condemned to death.

It wasn’t just goods that travelled the Silk Road, so too did ideas. It was the original information superhighway. The most influential idea to do so was Buddhism, which spread from its Indian birthplace and into the west of China, leaving a network of painted Buddhist caves en route at such places as Bezeklik, Kyzil and Dunhuang.

Few Silk Road caravans travelled its full length. Instead, goods changed hands several times and teams of weary men and animals were replaced. Which is one reason why the inhabitants at one end of the Silk Road knew little about those at the other. But rumours flourished.

Some in the West talked of Seres, the Kingdom of Silk, as a land of giants with red hair and blue eyes and people who lived 200 years. For centuries, the Romans thought silk grew on trees and was combed from leaves.

The wealthy middlemen, who benefited from the passing trade through their lands, were not about to put them straight.

The Roman Senate even tried to ban the gossamer fabric, regarding it as too costly and utterly indecent. The philosopher Seneca was purselipped about silk’s seductive charms: ‘‘Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.’’

A route through the past – and to it

THE fabric was used as currency, clothing, in religious ceremonies and for making music. Strings of twisted silk were once used for musical instruments, many of which made their way along the Silk Road.

Some, such as the Chinese pipa, a bowed instrument, are still played today.

A pipa and a painted Chinese drum, depicting a figure on horseback, pictured, are among the musical instruments included in an exhibition about the Silk Road at the National Museum of Australia.

The exhibition focuses on four cities along the route: China’s ancient capital Xian, the desert oasis of Turfan — today part of China and home to the magnificent Emin mosque — the prosperous trading centre of Samarkand and the once cosmopolitan and intellectual centre of Baghdad.

The show, from the American Museum of Natural History, evokes the spirit of the trade route through objects developed along it, from a Persian astrolabe to study the heavens to a sacred Tibetan scripture. The museum’s director, Andrew Sayers, says the exhibition is an immersive, family-oriented show.

‘‘Visitors will gain a sense of why this trade route has become famous in the story of world civilisations,’’ Sayers says. 

Travelling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World opens at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra today.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ancient Greek statue found in goat pen

Ancient Greek statue found in goat pen

Athens police say goat herder and accomplice attempted to sell €12m marble sculpture of young woman for just €500,000
Ancient Greek statue unearthed in goat pen
Greek police have unearthed an ancient statue of a young woman, which dates to about 520BC and belongs to the kore type. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Greek police have recovered an ancient statue worth €12m (£10m) that was illegally excavated and hidden in a goat pen near Athens, and arrested the goat herder and another man who were allegedly trying to sell the work for €500,000.
The marble sculpture of a young woman dates to about 520BC and belongs to the kore type, a police statement said on Wednesday. The 120cm (4ft) work was largely intact, except for a missing left forearm and plinth.
Although dozens of examples of the kore statue and its male equivalent, the kouros, are displayed in Greek and foreign museums, the type is considered important in the development and understanding of Greek art. New discoveries in good condition are uncommon.
Archaeologists who inspected the find estimated its market value at €12m. A spokesman for Athens police said: "They told us that this is a unique piece."
Still bearing traces of soil, the statue has the hint of a smile on its lips, elaborately braided hair and an ankle-length gown.
Police said it had been concealed near the village of Fyli, in the foothills of Mount Parnitha on the north-western fringes of Athens. The goat herder, 40, and a 56-year-old man were arrested.
Detectives are seeking to determine where the statue was excavated, which could potentially lead archaeologists to a previously unknown ancient sanctuary or cemetery.
Archaeological remains of civilisations spanning thousands of years are spread acrossGreece. By law all antiquities are state property, but pillaging is a lucrative business.
The spokesman said the suspects had tried to contact potential buyers and "would have sold the work for a relative pittance".
Two years ago, police in southern Greece recovered a pair of twin kouros statues and arrested two suspected looters.
Dozens of illegally exported finds have been returned to Greece in recent years, including works from the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

New Year in Pisa

  • 28 Mar 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Happy new year . . . from a city that likes to get in early

Worshippers don medieval costumes in Pisa’s cathedral this week during a celebration for New Year’s day, welcoming 2013 nine months before the rest of the world. The Tuscan city, once a mighty maritime republic which aimed to rival Rome, has revived a tradition dating back centuries, when Pisa had its own calendar which began nine months before Christmas to mark the miraculous conception of Jesus.
Photo: AFP/ Fabio Muzzi

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Vale Louisiana Red

  • 24 Mar 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Blues singer developed inimitable style

The blues singer and guitarist Louisiana Red began his career as an eerily accurate copyist of other artists but grew into a musician of inimitable originality. In a profession well stocked with the footloose and itinerant, he stood out as the most adventurous of blues travellers, taking his music to almost every country in Europe and many beyond, including Australia.

Photo: AP
Vivacious entertainer . . . blues musician Louisiana Red continued recording award-winning albums in his final years.
His discography includes albums cut in Czechoslovakia and Iceland and his output over 50 years makes an eloquent case for the blues as an international language.

Louisiana Red was born Iverson Minter on March 23, 1932, possibly in Bessemer, Alabama (though he would cite other birth places, too). His mother died shortly after his birth and his father was killed in a Ku Klux Klan lynching when Iverson was very young. He spent some years in an orphanage in New Orleans before going to live with his grandmother in Pittsburgh.

In his teens he hung around with John Lee Hooker and Eddie Burns in Detroit, where he made some heavily Hooker-influenced recordings under the pseudonym Rocky Fuller. His other early sides were similarly flagrant but immensely spirited imitations of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters.

By 1962 Red had found his way to New York, where he recorded Red’s Dream. The album Lowdown Back Porch Blues (1963) and the 1964 single I’m Too Poor to Die drew further attention to this vivacious and articulate young bluesman. After the album’s release in Britain, he regularly visited Europe.

He also recorded in Germany then, back in the US, he made two gripping solo albums in the 1970s, Sweet Blood Call and Dead Stray Dog.

In the early ’80s, Red relocated to Germany but he was not forgotten in the US, where he received a W. C. Handy blues award in 1983 for best traditional blues male artist. However, he continued to find most of his work in Europe, where his impassioned performances provided a blues experience like no other. He played in Australia a number of times in the early 1990s.

His 2009 album Back to the Black Bayou and a duet set with the pianist David Maxwell, You Got to Move, led to several nominations at the 2010 Blues Music Awards, where he won best acoustic artist and best acoustic album. His final album was Memphis Mojo (2011).

After an early marriage, in the 1970s Red was involved with the singer Odetta. He married Dora in the 1980s and is survived by her.

Tony Russell, Guardian

Oldest Surviving Clipper Ship

  • 24 Mar 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Billy Briggs
  • Guardian News & Media

Historic clipper retires to sun after 150 years

GLASGOW: It is the oldest surviving clipper ship in the world, apart from the Cutty Sark, and in its heyday carried emigrants from Scotland to Australia, where about 250,000 people can trace their origins to its passengers.
Survivor . . . the City of Adelaide carried emigrants from Scotland.
For years, the City of Adelaide has lain rotting on a slipway in Irvine, Scotland. But now, nearly 150 years after the ship was built, preparations are under way for one last voyage – to Adelaide, where the vessel is to become a tourist attraction.

According to the National Historic Ships Committee, the 54-metre ship is one of the most important in British maritime history, the last survivor of the timber trade between North America and Britain.

Despite its early splendour and pedigree, the future had looked bleak for the City of Adelaide after it sank in the River Clyde. It became a political issue, with various parties laying claim to ownership until a bid from Australia secured its future.

The ship was built in 1864 in Sunderland, England, and launched on May 7 that year. It spent 23 years making 16,000-kilometre trips to and from Australia, and played a fundamental role in the development of the young nation.

In 1893, it was converted to a hospital ship at Southampton on England’s south coast, and after being commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1924 was converted to a training ship at Irvine and renamed HMS Carrick. The ship was moored at Greenock, on the River Clyde until 1950 and later in Glasgow, where it was used as a clubhouse for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

It became a landmark before it sank in 1991. After a year under water, it was raised by the Scottish Maritime Museum and moved to its site in Irvine. The Carrick was repaired and opened to the public in 1995 but there were problems with funding and the museum applied for consent to dismantle the vessel in May 2000.

Experts said the restoration required would be akin to building a new ship. They suggested breaking it up, which provoked a campaign by interested parties, including a group from Sunderland, to save the ship.

In 2010 the Scottish government announced that the ship would not be dismantled, and that Adelaide had been identified as a preferred bidder.

Engineers in Australia constructed a 100-tonne cradle, costing £680,000, which has now arrived in Irvine. The clipper will be transported on a lift ship to become the centrepiece of a maritime heritage display in Port Adelaide.

Turtle Travels

  • 24 Mar 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Nicky Phillips

Turtles swim across an ocean – and back

THE first little turtle did a loop around Lord Howe Island before heading east towards New Zealand.
The second one sped down the Australian coastline, riding the Pacific Ocean’s superfast highway – the East Australian Current, just like the turtles in the movie Finding Nemo.

The journey of these little ‘‘dudes’’ is a rare insight into the life of the mysterious, and endangered, Australian loggerhead turtle.

‘‘Nothing is known about the Australian loggerhead,’’ says Libby Hall, the manager of the wildlife hospital at Taronga Zoo.

After leaving their nesting beaches, hatchlings are rarely seen until the females of their clutch return to lay eggs on the same shores three decades later.

To build a travelogue of these creatures, Hall has teamed with international biologists to satellite track several turtles during these ‘‘lost years’’.

The team hopes the tracking data will eventually be used to alter commercial fishing routes and reduce the number of turtles killed as bycatch, a major cause of their dwindling population.

A young turtle being tracked, named George, who was released at Lord Howe Island in January, had travelled down the Australian coastline via the EAC and was now somewhere south of Sydney.

‘‘We don’t really know where it is going,’’ Ms Hall said.
‘‘Each time it surfaces that’s when [the tracker] connects to the satellite.’’

While it was probably using the EAC for a free ride, the area where the current’s warm waters converged with the surrounding cooler water was an important turtle feeding ground, she said.

‘‘They swim along with the currents, but they’re not just being swept along,’’ Ms Hall said.

The first turtle the team tracked in 2010 swam a different route, taking 221 days to circle Lord Howe Island before heading to New Zealand where its tracking device stopped relaying data.

‘‘The devices stay on for a bit over a year. They shed as the animal grows,’’ said Ms Hall, who hoped the program would track more turtles.

The researchers, including a biologist from the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Centre in Hawaii, George Balazs, and one of the zoo’s vets, Kimberly Vinette Herrin, have some clues about where the turtles may go.

In 2009, Queensland geneticists found loggerheads swimming in waters off the coast of South America had the same genetic background as Australian loggerheads, who can live to 50 years of age.
While female loggerheads were sexually mature from six years of age, they generally returned to nest on Queensland’s beaches when they were 25 to 30 years old.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Extinction of the Megafauna

  • 23 Mar 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Deborah Smith SCIENCE EDITOR

Scientists get to the bottom of what wiped out Australia’s ancient gentle giants

HUMAN hunters were mainly responsible for wiping out Australia’s megafauna, a study has concluded.
Artist’s impression of the diprotodon optatum.
The reasons behind the demise of the giant animals that once roamed the continent – such as rhinoceros-sized diprotodons, towering kangaroos, marsupial lions and birds twice the size of emus – have long been hotly debated, with hunting, the human use of fire, and climate change blamed.

Chris Johnson, of the University of Tasmania, said his team had solved the extinction mystery by studying fungi that thrive in the dung of large herbivores.

The team examined two cores of sediment from Lynch’s Crater, a swamp in north-east Queensland, dating back 130,000 years.

They counted the spores of these fungi and looked for pollen and charcoal in the sediments as indicators of vegetation change and fire.

Professor Johnson said the research showed megafauna numbers were stable until about 40,000 years ago, despite several periods of drying.

‘‘This rules out climate change as a cause of extinction,’’ he said.

The giant herbivore population crashed soon after humans arrived, with the number of spores in the sediment virtually disappearing. ‘‘So it seems that people did it.’’

The study, published in the journal Science, showed that after the demise of the megafauna, the vegetation changed and fire activity increased, with rainforest species disappearing and grassy eucalypt-dominated forests expanding. But Judith Field, of the University of NSW, challenged the conclusions of the study. She said it was merely assumption that the ancient spores reflected the abundance of the giant animals.

‘‘The only evidence we have from Queensland for megafauna indicates that they were gone before humans arrived.’’

There was also little archaeological evidence from any site in Australia to show humans coexisted with megafauna, and none to show they hunted them.

‘‘The results of this paper are interesting. The interpretations drawn from it are unsubstantiated and can be explained by other mechanisms,’’ Dr Field said.

But John Alroy, of Macquarie University, described the data as ‘‘superb and decisive’’.

The debate had dragged on for almost 50 years because people thought it ‘‘incredible’’ that stone-age hunters could have had such a big impact as to wipe out the megafauna.

Gavin Prideaux, of Flinders University, said the study was an important contribution and supported mounting evidence that climate change was not to blame.

‘‘To test the inferences from this paper we might look at similar lake records from other regions of Australia and seek fossil deposits in the north-east that preserve bones of the giant animals themselves,’’ Dr Prideaux said.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Indonesian women colonised Madagascar

  • 22 Mar 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Madagascar mystery of how small group of Indonesian women colonised island

PARIS: Madagascar was colonised by a few dozen Indonesian women 1200 years ago, according to scientists who have probed one of the strangest episodes in the human odyssey.

A team led by the molecular biologist Murray Cox of New Zealand’s Massey University delved into DNA for clues to explain the migration riddle.
Anthropologists are fascinated by Madagascar, for the island remained aloof from mankind’s conquest of the planet for thousands of years. It then became settled by mainland Africans and Indonesians, whose home was 8000 kilometres away.

They looked for markers handed down in chromosomes through the maternal line, in DNA samples offered by 266 people from three ethnic Malagasy groups.

Twenty-two per cent of the samples had a local variant of the ‘‘Polynesian motif’’, a tiny genetic characteristic that is found among Polynesians, but rarely in western Indonesia. In one Malagasy ethnic group, one in two of the samples had this marker.

If the samples are right, around 30 Indonesian women founded the Malagasy population ‘‘with a much smaller, but just as important, biological contribution from Africa’’, it says.

The study focused on mitrochondrial DNA, which is transmitted only through the mother, so it does not exclude the possibility that Indonesian men also arrived with the first women.

Computer simulations suggest the settlement began around AD830, around the time Indonesian trading networks expanded under the Srivijaya Empire of Sumatra.

The investigation points to other contributions from southeast Asia.

Linguistically, Madagascar’s inhabitants speak dialects of a language that traces its origins to Indonesia. Most of the lexicon comes from Ma’anyan, a language spoken along the Barito River valley of south-eastern Borneo, a remote, inland region, with a smattering of words from Javanese, Malay or Sanskrit.

Other evidence of early Indonesian settlement comes in the discovery of outrigger boats, iron tools, musical instruments such as the xylophone and a ‘‘tropical food kit’’, the cultivation of rice, bananas, yams and taro brought in from across the ocean.

How the 30 women got across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar is a big question.
One theory is that they came on trading ships, although no evidence has been found that women boarded long-distance merchant vessels in Indonesia.

Another idea is that Madagascar was settled as a formal trading colony, or perhaps as an ad hoc centre for refugees who had lost land and power during the expansion of the Srivijayan Empire.

Yet a third – and more intrepid – hypothesis is that the women were on a boat that made an accidental oceanic voyage. That notion is supported by seafaring simulations using ocean currents and monsoon weather patterns, Cox’s team says.

The study appears in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Agence France-presse

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Nicholas V Elected as Pope

Nicholas V Elected as Pope in Rome

Richard Cavendish explores the circumstances surrounding the election of Tommaso Parentucelli as pope, on March 6th, 1447.
Pope Nicholas V, by Peter Paul Reubens, 1612-1616Pope Nicholas V, by Peter Paul Reubens, 1612-1616The election of the Bishop of Bologna, Tommaso Parentucelli, as pope in succession to Eugenius IV in March 1447, came at a time when the Catholic Church in the West was still recovering from the traumas of a divided Christendom under the Great Schism (1378-1417).  
Despite the ending of the latter by the Council of Constance, there remained tensions and unfinished business between the College of Cardinals and the papacy over the balance of power to be struck, and Nicholas V had to face at his election a continuing rival 'anti pope', Felix V, who had been elected in opposition to Nicholas' predecessor Eugenius V by the Council of Basle in 1439.
Nicholas' ability, combined with the good offices of Charles VII of France, to coax his rival into abdication and honourable retirement, and to find places in the Roman college for several of the rival cardinals who had elected Felix at Basle, was testimony to his abilities as a conciliator. This skill was as needed in temporal as in spiritual matters, given that the papacy was a key player in the politics of Renaissance Italy. Nicholas was able to improve relations with the aristocratic families of Rome, ever jealous of their privileges compared with their overlord, the Holy See.
Even more important he established good relations with the German Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III – vital, since the Emperor with his quasi-hieratic status could act as a potential rallying point for the papacy's opponents. Nicholas managed to secure his rights to senior church appointments throughout the German Reich. In return Nicholas crowned Frederick as Emperor in St Peter's in Rome in March 1452, in an echo of the famous coronation of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800.
Nicholas' papacy marks a transition point between the world of the late Middle Ages in Italy and that of the High Renaissance His patronage of artists included the Florentine artist Fra Angelico and also Benozzo Gozzoli, and he combined the practical revitalisation of Rome's public buildings, bridges and fortifications, which the long years of papal residence in Avignon had left in disrepair, with the encouragement of Renaissance scholarship and revival of classical texts
In particular he promoted the Greek inheritance, to which renewed contact with the Byzantine world in the union of Orthodox and Catholic at the 1439 Council of Florence had given fresh impetus.
That union of East and West however had failed to save Constantinople from the long-feared final onslaught of the Ottoman Turks, the city's siege and capture in 1453- which brought with it the end of the Byzantine Empire – was a psychological blow echoing those of the Black Death and Schism a century earlier.
Nicholas' reaction was to try and prod the rulers of western Christendom into a new crusading initiative, but with France enfeebled by her long struggle with England in the Hundred Years' War and England herself teetering on the brink of civil war between Lancaster and York, only Philip the Good of Burgundy responded – with his famous theatrical 'Feast of the Pheasant' at Lille in 1454 and its oaths of crusade – which failed however to be translated into any concrete action.
With continued quarrels and rivalries among the various Italian states hindering any common purpose in the peninsula, Nicholas died in March 1455 at fifty-eight years of age, disappointed in his hopes of reversing the tide against the Turks and re-establishing the papacy's prestige on a new and unchallenged pinnacle.
Patron of Renaissance culture he may have been, and also an instigator of the canonisation of the Franciscan reformer Bernardino of Siena, but Nicholas was unable to address his energies to any concrete reform of the weaknesses and abuses of the late medieval church. It was during the years of Eugenius and Nicholas' pontificates that the humanist Lorenzo Valla wrote his penetrating critiques of Thomas Aquinas, bedrock of traditional Catholic theology. Valla's criticisms of papal power, the corruption of morals in the Church and the privileges of the religious elite were precursors of the wider storms that were to be whipped up by men like Erasmus, and, eventually, the direct challenge to the papacy that came from Martin Luther.