Archive for September, 2011

Egg-laying Dog

September 26, 2011

This is just too awesome not to link to. That is all!

Tis But a Scratch!

September 25, 2011

Have at you!

As I’m studiously ignoring ‘Deadliest Warrior’ for the time being (though I will say that I thought the Vampire vs Zombie was a much better use of the format) I’ll just comment briefly on a recent UK TV series entitled ‘Back From the Dead’. It’s part of a series on, essentially, Osteoarchaeology (aka bioarcheology), although they employ the services of a less specific Forensic Anthropologist instead.

They take a number of human remains from a given site and period, look at the evidence in the bones in terms of healed and unhealed injuries, as well as the apparent age, sex, status and likely occupation of the original owner. It’s a fascinating subject and does make for an interesting and entertaining – not to mention gory – TV documentary. I have only nitpicks with it, really, although the fight scenes from the ‘Samurai’ episode were pretty poor, with theatre-style hack and slash choreography (including the dreaded static edge-to-edge block move) and even wirework a la ‘Crouching Tiger’. Unnecessary. They’ve have been better going for the classic ‘gunfighter’ style duel, with the fight ended by a single sword stroke. This would still be an oversimplification, but closer to real history (and I need to apologise here for linking to Wikipedia with the phrase ‘real history’ – sorry Wikiers, but I’m still slightly bitter about the ‘original research’ thing!).

Anyway, one of my major nitpicks, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, had to do with the ‘Crusader’ episode (currently still available for UK viewers here). Whilst I enjoyed the ‘300‘ style wide-angle slowmo scenes interpreting the various battle wounds received by the skeletons/people in question (complete with severed limbs reminiscent of Monty Python’s Black Knight), I found one conclusion by the specialist featured to be particularly speculative.

There was a clear cut down through the joint of one humerus – a disabling wound and clearly produced by a sword blade. But as the cut didn’t extend very far into the bone, the conclusion was made that the man must have been wearing ‘chain mail’ that slowed down the blow and limited the damage, and therefore that he must have been a Templar Sergeant (informing the detailed recreation shown shortly afterward).

Firstly, I don’t regard the cut shown as being at all limited – particularly if this man was a warrior and had considerable muscle mass around that joint. If the man was, as seems likely, moving when the blow was struck, this will limit the penetration of the blade. For example, if he had simply stepped back, only the tip of the sword/scimitar would have connected, explaining the wound. The other thing is that the wound from an edged weapon is dependent upon cutting angle and the force applied – if all the attacker’s strength and technique is not brought to bear, the cut will not be as severe. But really, I think a 6″ (or so) cut down through an upper arm bone is quite severe enough for a sword wound!

Had he been wearing mail, there would not be a cut! Or at least, not a clean partition as shown. Period riveted mail armour (NOT ‘chain mail’ please, Channel 4) is quite simply proof against cuts (or thrusts, for that matter) from the swords of the period in question. Have a look at this video. I don’t know whether this was something that the bone specialist had been pressed on, or whether the claim appears in the original research (perhaps someone with access to the article can let me know at bs.historian@yahoo.com), but it should not have been made without reference to an expert in arms and armour. The man in question could not have been wearing armour, and so the conclusion that he was a senior Templar soldier is invalid.

As ever, the subject is (or should be) interesting enough without resorting to making stuff up.

On the Nicolas Cage vampire ‘story’

September 25, 2011

There’s nothing I can usefully add to these great pieces by Anthony Hogg on the bizarre sort-of-hoax (more of a joke/publicity stunt really) that’s doing the rounds at the moment that looks a bit like Nic Cage. Save to emphasise that as the photo is from (as Anthony points out) an archive of Victorian death and mourning photos), the chap in the photo, far from being immortal, is deceased. He is no more. He is an ex-Nic Cage. So unless someone brought Cage back to unlife Lestat-style some decades later…

The market in photos of dead loved ones in artificial poses no longer exists, but it seems that there’s another in photos of other people’s loved ones instead. If you’re going to advertise something weird, you might as well invoke Hollyweird to do it!

Mysteries of The (Not) Vampire Skeletons

September 19, 2011

Gottle o’ Gear!

 

I caught up with this documentary the other day, and was pleasantly surprised (though sadly it appears no longer available by legal means). It centred upon a very interesting find that I wasn’t aware of; the discovery on an Irish site of 30-40 Viking-age skeletons ‘stacked’ in ‘shallow graves’ with injuries caused by edged weapons. One was basically wrapped around/bound to a large stone/boulder, and at least two others displayed the deliberately inserted stone in the mouth method of keeping dead people dead – noted on various other occasions, most famously in the case of the ‘Vampire of Venice’ that I’ve commented on before. Unlike that story, this is not light on detail, comes from a geographic region with historical evidence for the practice, and gives us some of the earliest evidence for revenant belief, with Carbon 14 dates in the late 700s AD.

As well as (roughly) contemporary English stories of revenants (the Berkeley Witch and the Devil of Drakelow) and other archaeological finds in Britain and elsewhere, the programme also makes mention of an Irish ‘penitential text’, the 5th-6th century AD ‘First Synod of St Patrick’, which apparently alludes to fears of the living dead. In bringing us into the age of the vampire proper, Fluckinger’s Visum et Repertum is referenced, ‘Dracula’ features only in passing, and the segment on the present-day case of Petre Toma has new interviews with those involved. I do wonder though why Glam, the Icelandic revenant featured in the 13th century Grettir’s Saga was not included given the period and ‘Viking’ nature of the find.

There is also an impressive list of academic participants, from all over Europe, and a nice if tentative suggestion that revenant belief (or at least, this version of it) might have its roots in the Christianisation of Europe.

All-in-all, a well-argued, interesting and entertaining documentary. They actually used the academic phrase ‘deviant burial’, for the first time so far as I know. The only sticking point for me is the reliance on the idea that these were ‘vampires’, clearly used as a ‘hook’ for the audience. As in Venice, there’s no tradition of blood-drinking revenants in the British Isles, nor was any analogue for the word ‘vampire’ known in the medieval period. If anything they might better have drawn the parallel with the German nachzehrer (shroud-eater), as did Borrini et al. One academic uses the word ‘vampire’ to describe the find, and in the next breath qualifies it by calling the skeletons ‘something like vampires’. I completely understand why the makers did this, and of course a vampire is one type of revenant. Using the word ‘vampire’ in the title is inevitable. I just wish that the distinction had been more clearly drawn – perhaps a ‘family tree’ of revenants.

Which brings me to an interesting observation on the reporting of the case in question. The newspaper media have, despite the existence of the documentary, eschewed the vampire angle for the zombie one:

http://news.discovery.com/history/zombie-skeletons-ireland-grave-110916.html
http://m.cbsnews.com/storysynopsis.rbml?feed_id=0&catid=20107552&videofeed=36
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2038565/Skeletons-buried-stones-mouths-stop-returning-zombies-discovered-Ireland.html

Of course, though there’s no evidence that these were ‘vampires’, neither are they ‘zombies’ by either Haitian or Romerian definitions. Still, these two creatures are our closest modern analogues to the revenants in question, and the varying descriptions may tell us something interesting about the burgeoning popularity of the fictional zombie, and perhaps the decline of the vampire (though this is less certain).