June 26, 2013

Come to Cleveland and Let's Toast to Ninkasi, the Sumerian Goddess of Beer!

(Photo) Impression of a Sumerian cylinder seal from the Early Dynastic IIIa period (ca. 2600 BCE; Woolley 1934, pl. 200, no. 102 [BM 121545]). Persons drinking beer are depicted in the upper row. The habit of drinking beer together from a large vessel using long stalks went out of fashion after the decline of Sumerian culture in the 2nd millennium BCE.

Want a rare opportunity to taste an authentic style 5,000-year-old Sumerian beer made by using only clay vessels and a wooden spoon? Then come to Cleveland, Ohio on July 13 and we'll have a beer together and toast to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer!

In a joint project with the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Great Lakes Brewing Co. will feature a special presentation on the "Sumerian Beer Project” on July 13. The goal of the project was to create the first known beer recipe referenced in the Hymn to Ninkasi.

According to the brewery, they used only rudimentary tools created by the Oriental Institute and have experimented with different ingredients and methods taken from cuneiform texts of the Hymn to Ninkasi. Rather than using modern stainless steel tanks, the Oriental Institute gave the Great Lakes Brewing Co. ceramic vessels modeled after artifacts excavated in Iraq during the 1930s. Nate Gibbon, a brewer at Great Lakes, said he had stood over a ceramic vat, cooking outside on a patch of grass. The fire that heated the vat was fueled by manure! The batch, spiced with cardamom and coriander, fermented for two days, but it was ultimately too sour for the modern tongue, Mr. Gibbon said. Next time, he will sweeten it with honey or dates.

Obtaining a yeast sample from the Middle East proved to be difficult. The brewers originally enlisted an archaeologist to collect yeast samples during his travels, but he was unable to get the sample past customs. They decided to experiment with initiating fermentation using the bappir (barley bread) as their yeast source. The brewery malted its own barley on the roof of the brew house after asking a Cleveland baker to help make a brick-like “beer bread” for use as a source of active yeast.

Great Lakes Brewing has no plan to sell the beer to the public, as it is part of an archaeological research project. However, it will be offering a public tasting of the final brew alongside an identical recipe made with more current brewing techniques at the World Beer Festival, Saturday, July 13 in Cleveland, Ohio. Hope to see you there! 

June 18, 2013

A Concrete Example of the Modern Benefits of Ancient Technology

I will never forget the disbelief I felt when my undergraduate art history professor mentioned that civilization had lost the recipe for concrete. This seemed preposterous. I've walked on a sidewalk before, skipped down the paved path as a child, watching diligently to not step on cracks for fear of “breaking my mother’s back”, as the old saying warned. We have concrete!

What she went on to explain was that the original recipe for the highly durable Roman concrete had been lost to history. For thousands of years, people have tried to reverse engineer this seemingly simple technology. It has been quite a challenge. Though we have concrete now, it is not the same as the concrete used by the Romans. The concrete we use in modernity is actually pretty poor in comparison to the Roman concrete of the past. Think about it for a moment. Roman concrete roads, aqueducts, and structure are still doing well considering there antiquity. Consider all the times you've driven down a road of potholes or walked down a sidewalk with pits and cracks and questioned, “Didn't they just pave this a few years ago?” 

While some of this may be seen as planned obsolesce, it is still testament to the relative inefficiency of modern concrete, most of which lasts only decades. Commonly, what is used is Portland cement. We have been using this recipe for over 200 years, not a bad recipe, but compared with the durability of Roman concrete, it falls flat, especially when exposed to salt water. 

After years of research, scientists in the US and Europe have finally figured out the recipe to Roman concrete. The findings are published in this month's issues of the Journal of the American Ceramic Society and American Mineralogist, a publication to which I’m sure you all subscribe. ;)

According to the scientists, "The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, lime and volcanic ash were mixed to form mortar, and this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The seawater instantly triggered a hot chemical reaction. The lime was hydrated – incorporating water molecules into its structure – and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together." It is because of this lime and volcanic ash mixture that Roman concrete has such tremendous binding ability. 

It gets better, though. Not only is this concrete far superior in durability, but unlike modern concrete, it is more environmentally sustainable. The manufacturing of most modern concrete accounts for 7% of greenhouse gas emissions. With these new, ancient methods, we have the potential to make amazingly durable structures and live in harmony with the environment. 

I wonder what other lost technology we may find and for use in modernity? It is my belief that ancient civilizations possessed a number of technologies that we may never fully understand. Since they used the natural resources around them, a lot of evidence of such “green” technologies may have simply decayed or been lost to history, though some have not. 

Between the pyramids, Baghdad Battery, and the Antikythera mechanism, just to name a few, there is little doubt that the ancients were far more advanced than they are commonly depicted. 

June 13, 2013

NASA's Latest Discovery of Possible Ancient Life on Mars and the Man from Clay Monomyth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

A recent report from NASA says that samples taken from the surface of Mars has indicated the presence of clay and other minerals, indicating a long history of contact with water. 

According to the scientists, “Clay minerals tend to form only at a more neutral pH. This is water you could drink. It was much more favorable for things like prebiotic chemistry – the kind that could lead to the origin of life.” Since Mars was warmer and wetter billions of years ago, it could have theoretically sustained life. 

What is interesting to me is that clay and water have been an important reference point to life throughout history. Perhaps the ancients knew something we do not? Could complex organisms arise from such simple material as clay? Here is just a short look at the universality of the “Man from Clay” myth from varied translations, cultures, and regions: 

Assyro-Babylonian: Aruru (Ninmah, Nintu, Ninhursaga, Belet-ili, Mami) - made Enkidu in Anu's image by pinching off a piece of clay, throwing it into the wilderness, and birthing him there. 

Canaan-Ugaritic: According to Gibson's translation, "men are considered made of 'clay'."

Sumerian: According to Samuel Noah Kramer (Tablets of Sumer, Colorado,1956) Nammu and Ninmah, mixed clay which was 'over the abyss' and brought man into existence. Gods were having difficulty in finding food, and their problems have increased when the later born goddesses joined them. Enki the water god - he was the god of wisdom and in a position to help them - was fast asleep in the sea and did not hear their complaints. Enki's mother Mother of all Gods Nammu brought the tears of the complainants to Enki and told him in their presence: "O! my son, get off your bed... do what is wise. Give shape to (make some) servants to gods. Let them make their own copies.(?)" Enki thinks, decides to head the 'union of good and bright modelists' and says to Nammu: 'O! mother, the creature you have mentioned exists: Put the image of gods(?) on him. Shape his heart from the clay on the surface of the Bottomless Deep. Good and bright modelists will thicken this clay. You make its organs; Ninmah (Goddess of Earth) will work in front of you. While you are making a model…goddesses of birth will be with you. O! mother decide on the faith of the newborn, let Ninmah put the image of gods on it: This is the human."

Ancient Egyptian: Khnum, the ram-headed god of Elephantine, the potter, fashioned men on his wheel, making use of the clay in his locality as his basic material.

Ancient Greeks: Prometheus shaped man out of clay and Athena breathed life into this clay figure.

The Qur'an, the lord says "I am going to create a human being out of clay. When I have formed him and breathed My Spirit into him, fall down in prostration to him!" (Qur'an, 38:71-72), Then inquire of them: Is it they who are stronger in structure or other things We have created? We created them from sticky clay. (Qur'an, 37:11)

The Pangwe of Cameroun say that God first created a lizard out of clay which he placed in a pool to soak. He left it there for seven days, and then called ‘Man, come out’, and a man emerged instead of a lizard.

The Inca: "There he raised up all the people and nations, making figures of clay and painting the clothes each nation was to wear. To each nation he gave a language, songs and the seeds they were to sow. Then he breathed life and soul into the clay and ordered each nation to pass under the earth and emerge in the place he directed."

In Asia, The Bagobos, a pagan tribe of South-Eastern Mindanao, say that a god took two lumps of earth, shaped them like human figures, and spat on them; so they became man and woman.

Due to the monomythic nature of the "Man from Clay" narrative, some scientists have tried to study its possibility. 

According to the findings of scientists, Martin Hanczyc, Shelly Fujikawa and Jack Szostak at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and published in the highly reputable journal Science (vol 302, p 618 ), it may appear possible that life can originate from clay particles and water. After experiments, the team found that the two crucial components for the origin of life (genetic material and cell membranes) could have been introduced to one another by a lump of clay. 

They studied montmorillonite clay and concluded that it can dramatically accelerate the formation of membranous fluid-filled sacs. These sacs can grow and undergo a simple form of division, giving them the properties of primitive cells. Previous work has shown that the same simple mineral can help assemble the genetic material RNA from simpler chemicals. 

Leslie Orgel, an origin of life expert at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in San Diego, California has noted that “the clay also gets internalized in these sacs”, postulating a connection between the mechanism that creates RNA and encloses it in a membrane. One theory about how this works is that the negatively charged layers of clay’s crystals create a trapping of positive charge, creating a highly attractive environment for RNA subunits to concentrate and join together into long chains. In their research with clay, it was seen to have a 100-fold acceleration of the formation of these sacs. Once formed, the sacs were able to use bits of clay and grow by absorbing more fatty acid subunits. They essentially made "protocells” that could divide, grow, and evolve. 

This fits very well with not only ancient “Man from Clay” myths, but it also fits the scientific research showing how the basic building blocks for RNA-like molecules and membranes can be spontaneously created by chemical reactions that could occur not only on a primordial Earth, but outer space as well.

Considering all of this in relation to the new findings by NASA, it really shows just how important the discovery of clay on Mars is. Could this mean there were complex life forms on Mars billions of years ago? If the theory of panspermia is accurate, could life on Earth have been a result of primordial seeding of this material from Mars? This is especially interesting to think about when considering the ancient creation myths. 

There are too many uncertainties to conclusively answer any of these questions. To me, this is precisely why it is such an exciting subject. One thing is certain; we have only scratched the surface!  

June 5, 2013

Excavation to Search for E.T. in New Mexico Desert?!

Yes. You read that correctly. 

Weird, but true, local authorities have granted a Canadian film company permission to excavate a New Mexico landfill in search of a unique artifact. 

The mysterious relic they are seeking? 

The Atari video game of E.T., inspired by the 1982 Steven Spielberg film. Though the film was a blockbuster success, the video game was a flop and considered to be one of the worst video games of all time. 

But why would E.T. be in New Mexico? (Insert Roswell E.T. joke here.)

Buried deep in a New Mexico desert, there is rumored to be an Atari graveyard. Here, it is believed that numerous truckloads of games were dumped in September of 1983. The film company is planning to document their exploration. 

When authorities were asked, Alamogordo, New Mexico's District 1 Commissioner Jason Baldwin admitted to having played the E.T. Atari game and confirmed that, it "indeed, was horrible".