Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tin and Tintagel

For a person interested in the interaction between Britain and the Ancient World (i.e. Greek and Roman civilizations) Cornwall is a very peculiar place.  For most of the Roman era it was a backwater.  Very few Roman remains are to be found there.  The Romans being practical folk took greater interest in the better farmlands of southeast and central Britannia.  They also had no choice but to pay attention to the areas now known as Wales and Scotland because conglomerations of unwashed and unpleasant barbarians were generally festering in such places.

But Cornwall?  Not much reason to go there.  It was regarded as being at the Ends of the Earth, a place beyond which was only hostile ocean.  The farthest extremity of Cornwall is still known as Land's End.

But most peculiarly, of all areas of the modern UK, Cornwall shows the most evidence of Mediterranean contact in those shadowy, poorly documented time periods just before and just after the Roman era.

It is a story of Tin and Tintagel.

In ancient times sea travel was not particularly safe; you needed a good reason to put your life in the hands of Poseidon/Neptune.  But Cornwall had tin, a necessary component of bronze.  So the Carthaginians and perhaps even their predecessors the Phoenicians knew of and visited Cornwall.

But our first solid bit of history actually comes from a Greek fellow named Pytheas of Massalia.  This resident of modern day Marseilles made one of history's great voyages of exploration circa 300 BC. He sailed from his home port in southern France and, not content to just drop in at Cornwall,  then went on to circumnavigate Britain, and perhaps take a peek at "Thule", a chilly place that could have been anywhere from Norway to Iceland.

Pytheas gets credit for some place names still in use.  He seems in fact to have been the first to use the word "Britain".  The northern point of Britain was "Orcus", the modern Orkney Islands.  The southeast point was "Kantion", still recalled as Kent.  Of the Cornwall peninsula his name - Belerion - did not stick.  But his favorable opinion of the place has been preserved by later writers even though his original work is sadly lost to history.

The inhabitants of Belerion were said to be friendly and relatively civilized from their frequent contact with foreign merchants.  Tin was collected from river beds and formed into ingots shaped like "knuckles".

Oddly during the Roman era there was no great surge in tin mining.  There were more productive mines in Spain, where the Romans literally moved mountains in pursuit of gold and other metals.

Roman Britain collapsed in the early 5th century.  A lot of factors came into play, but one of the biggest seems to have been the ill advised policy of hiring barbarian mercenaries to help defend the province. Of course they soon were running the show.  And badly at that, material culture quickly slipping into the Dark Ages.

This was the supposed time of King Arthur, "last of the Romans".  He is said to have fought a series of battles against the barbaric Saxons, keeping a tenuous peace for the dwindling civilized inhabitants of Britain.  And he was supposed to have come from Cornwall.

These are the ruins of Tintagel Castle, purported birth place of King Arthur.  In the cliff below is "Merlin's Cave".

A bunch of nonsense of course.  The tale of Arthur being born there was just another concoction of Geoffery of Monmouth who cobbled together most of what has become Arthurian Legend in the 12th century.  He used Gildas and Nennius and unspecified Welch traditions.  He likely tossed in a few tales he heard at closing time down at the pub.  As history it is all, ahem, rather dodgy.

But still, there was something going on at this site in the supposed time of Arthur.....

When the Roman era ended in Britain much was forgotten.  Even the basic know how involved in making pottery.  Post Roman sites have few pottery shards, and they are all worn down specimens, decades old when somebody finally dropped the sad family heirloom and folks had to make do with crude wooden bowls.

Actual pottery from the 5th and 6th centuries is rare in England, and would have to have come from more civilized places closer to the old core of the Empire.

Oddly, the isolated site of Tintagel has more pottery remnants of this era than the rest of England and Ireland combined.  Something was going on here, some reason that ships from the Mediterranean were still arriving to trade.  Amphorae from as far away as Byzantium were brought here to be traded for.....what?

The logical commodity of course would be tin.  But to date excavations at Tintagel have not unearthed ingots or other evidence of trade in this metal.

On a somewhat twisty side path into etymology and history, there seems to be no connection between the name Tintagel and the metal tin.  In ancient times the latter was called plumbum candidum which means white lead.  Somewhere in the late Roman era it began being called stanum from which we get its chemical symbol Sn.

Tintagel seems to be a variant of the Cornish Dintagel, meaning "fort of constriction".  This refers to it being on a very narrow peninsula.

So if not an emporium where amphorae of wine were swapped for knuckle bone shaped ingots, just what was going on at "Dintagel" in the supposed time of King Arthur.  Well, one popular theory is that a very late Roman site became a part time Official Residence for the King of Dumnonia, the successor Celtic/British entity that coalesced after the 410 AD Roman implosion.  Sure, it was not the most convenient place for traders to put in, but it was a safe harbor and far from those vile Saxons who were making a hash of the more appealing parts of the former province.

And if you can't face the harsh realities of life without a romantic belief in King Arthur....recent excavations at Tintagel will throw you a rather small bone.

This is a fascinating bit of stone, probably Roman but re-used in a 6th century stratum.  The A X E(?) are felt to be Roman, the scribbled looking stuff, post Roman.  It seems to read:


This does not tell us as much as you would like, only that names beginning with ART were known in early Medieval times.  For a much more detailed discussion with alternate readings I suggest Faces of Arthur

Monday, April 21, 2014

Treasure City - Still Cheesy after All These Years

In an antique shoppe in Indiana we ran across this postcard:

Ha!  A very vivid childhood memory popped up.

I was a smallish lad back in the 1960s.  Our family was driving the old U.S. 10 Highway on our way to the "up North cabin". About half way there, when the refrains of "are we there yet?" were just starting up, there was a series of road side signs announcing the marvels to be seen at Treasure City in Royalton Minnesota.  The best, the most tantalizing come on was the "Two Hundred Pound Man Eating Clam!!!".

Usually my brothers and I had been naughty and no frivolous treats were forthcoming, but once or twice we did get to stop.  The Clam was a bit of a disappointment.  I guess it could eat you if you stuck your head into it and gave it enough time....

image from Roadside America
The rest of the store was full of classic tourist trap merch.  Shells (non man eating), flags, snow globes, plaques, t-shirts.  There was kind of a pirate theme to much of it.

Fast forward a generation.  About twenty years ago I went up to the old lake place with my three young boys.  Treasure City was still there.  And the merchandise was still tacky beyond belief.  The "Man Eating Clam" was inside (as above).  He used to be mounted on the front of the building.

And guess what, it is 2014 and Treasure City is STILL THERE!.  They have added a few new lines like fireworks. Ah, what a dream that would have been to my younger self.....

Evidently nothing, not the construction of I-94 that diverted much of the traffic; not the ups and downs of the economy; not the simple fact that nothing they sell is really necessary...none of it matters. Treasure City is a Minnesota institution that seemingly will exist as long as antsy kids get hauled to the lakes of Northern Minnesota.

But the real surprise in my antique store find was on the reverse:

According to this circa 1964 artifact, Treasure City was a multi location enterprise.  The Suamico Wisconsin branch has vanished but the Manistique Michican location is still going strong, if apparently on a much less "kitchy" basis than their Minnesota affiliate.

I wonder what the connection between the three sites was?  They were all positioned in places likely to catch vacationers.  They all had similar merchandise.  Perhaps a single family ran them all?  It seems implausible that they would be a franchise operation in the modern sense, this was 1964 after all.

My efforts to find other similar stores called "Treasure City" have not been fruitful.  There seems to be an extinct ghost town in Nevada, a defunct chain of department stores and an extant group of thrift stores that all use the same moniker.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Clan of the Cheeseheads

Recently in conversation with one of my UK acquaintances I made reference to “cow tipping”.  Shockingly she had never heard of this rural American pastime and inquired as to whether it was a real thing or not.  Actually, it happens to be the rural equivalent of an Urban Legend, but the simple fact that my ‘cross the pond pals were unaware of it made me wonder how many other aspects of life in rustic Wisconsin were alien to them. 

So on the basis of my decades long study of this distinctive culture I present:


I should probably start with the basic subject of self-identifying names.

Wisconsinites can be referred to as Badgers.  This dates back to the earliest settlement of the state at a time when lead mining was a huge industry in the southwest corner of the state.  Folks came from all over.  They dug holes.  Some used their excavations as crude shelters to winter over.  They were called Badgers.  Other folks, mostly from Illinois,  would come up the river in the spring and go back down in the fall.  As this mimicked the behavior of a similarly named fish they were referred to as Suckers.  The term has since evolved to specifically refer to any citizens of Illinois who still trust their State Government.

The Badger is also the mascot of the University of Wisconsin.  His nick name is “Bucky” but it has no special significance.  They held a contest to name him.

There are heated rivalries between Illinois and Wisconsin in both college and professional sports.  Chicago fans – not a gentle bunch – used the derisive term “Cheeseheads” to refer to fans of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.  It became a badge of honor and fans started wearing home made foam rubber hats shaped like a wedge of cheese.  The prototype is said to have come from a discarded sofa.

The Cheeseheads gained additional attention when a private pilot on his way home from a game had to make a crash landing.  Alertly donning his foam rubber hat he averted serious injury.

The Cheesehead is one of three Ceremonial Attires found in Wisconsin.  The second is blaze orange hunting garb.  It has become somewhat less common in recent years but traditionally schools were let out of session and factories shut down for the duration of the fall deer hunting season.  The odds of the local newspaper displaying on their front page pictures of large defunct deer exceeds the probability of the sun rising in the east.

The Third Ceremonial Attire is team merchandise of The Green Bay Packers.  This is an American style football team that is the subject of adulation seldom accorded to mortal man.  Confusingly to the scientific observer, Packers football games can involve the wearing of all three styles of ritual garb….or if beer intake has been sufficient, of almost no clothing whatsoever regardless of the winter conditions.

Traditional foods in Wisconsin trend towards the carnivorous.  In the far southwest a hint of Cornwall is recalled in the ongoing popularity of the pasty.  In the northwest areas a Friday night “fish fry” is a grease laden carry over from the days when Catholic citizens were expected to skip meat that day.  The large German population has made the bratwurst a staple food item.  Larger meat markets sometimes have dozens of variations.  And if while traveling in the back country of the state you encounter a “hot beef” don’t be concerned that you are becoming enmeshed in a local disagreement.  The term refers to a sandwich prepared with sliced roast beef and onions.  It seems to be a requirement that they be served at all graduation parties.

Of course modern times have changed Wisconsin a little.  Now when you drive through the small farming communities that typify the state you find some of them much reduced in size as smaller farms are being replaced by larger operations.  Some of the little hamlets have in fact contracted down to the smallest possible unit of Wisconsin society: A post office.  A park with a war memorial cannon.  Two churches, one Catholic, one Protestant. And a tavern, where both faiths join hands to worship the Green Bay Packers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

History's First Memo to the I.T. Department

In my last post I had a little fun with the notion of what I would bring back in time to the Roman age in order to guarantee myself a life of relative ease.  You know, daily trips to the baths, slave girls feeding me grapes and so forth.  Planning for a return trip to the future seems even less plausible.  I mean, what would you bring back that would not be immediately challenged as fake?  Those mint, uncirculated rare denarii would only get you in trouble.

So a one way trip it shall be.  But it did get me thinking....could I send some gift from ancient Rome to modern times?  I think so. After accumulating my enormous fortune I would just have to compose the first memo in history to the "I.T. Department".

To: Chief Librarian, Museum of Alexandria
From: Badgericus Magnus, Merchant in Silks and Spices


Forgive the imperfect language of this message.  I have seen more years than you can imagine and as time runs short for me I find myself reverting to the subjects of my younger days.

By separate courier you will shortly receive my Last Will and Testament naming your Library the beneficiary of my considerable fortune.  Even after making provisions for the ongoing maintenance of numerous slave girls I think the sum will please you.  I ask that you use it to attend to the following issues.

1. Data Storage Media.  Dude, seriously, papyrus?  It has not been so very many years since the unfortunate fire associated with Julius Caesar.  Although that gossip Plutarch overstated it shamelessly it nevertheless was a warning that should not be ignored. Much wisdom can be destroyed by a single violent man with a torch.  And let me assure you, the past and the future contain many violent men. Also careless ones.  Can you be certain that Demetrius the Simple will not drop a lamp at any moment?

You should commission the local metalworkers to hammer out sheets of metal and inscribe upon them the thousand or so most important works in your collection.  And repeat the process every decade.  You could use lead, no doubt you are familiar with it from the use by the superstitious of "Curse Tablets". If the weight of this substance proves cumbersome consider using copper. The restless subjects of Judea have done some interesting work along these lines already.

Of course all this effort would be wasted if these durable mementos are not stored carefully.  Pick a number of places, ideally in the remote desert.  Inside the Great Pyramid would be a nice touch.  But most importantly place copies in as many spots as you can. You need only refer to Gaius Plinius Secundus' Naturalis Historia to understand the innate wisdom and nobility of the Squirrel.  (Modern readers take note, in exchange for my very excellent advice in AD 79 - "You do NOT want to get on that boat to check out the Vesuvius eruption" - Pliny the Elder will have allowed me to add to his Natural History no fewer than eight chapters on the Wonders of Squirrels!)

2. Physical Plant Security.  Hey, great bit of beachfront real estate you got there.  But you have noticed that you are along the waterfront.  Taverns, drunken sailors, and we are not even talking yet about how the native Alexandrians are so riot prone.  You could build some nice walls, even hire a cohort of Library Police.  But I suggest you relocate to a nice solid, easily defended hill outside of town.  Why?  I suggest on the next clear still day you go out in a boat right off your patio.  Look down. Notice anything?

Gee, look at all the big stuff that slid into the bay after earthquakes.  What are the odds that will happen again.  And again.  And again.

3. Future Information Technology Needs.  You are no doubt aware of the marvelous calculating machines invented by Archimedes and his followers.  I have had the opportunity to view the remains of one that was sadly shipwrecked on a sea voyage.

When intact this Device could rapidly determine the positions of Celestial Bodies, and the dates of intermittent events such as eclipses and the Olympic Games.  I suggest you seek out, finance and encourage the makers of such wondrous machines.  They are clever fellows and much future good will come from their further efforts.

But beware.  One day the cleverest of these fellows will come to you.  He will announce that a Terrible Event called "The Y One K" will be upon you in a few short centuries.  He will further state that he can solve all of your problems with something he describes as an "Operating System".  He will proudly name it "Fenestrae" (Windows).

Have him executed on the spot.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Time Travelers Back Pack

Only a couple of weeks now until I can forget the modern world.  Yes, the annual archaeological trek to be a volunteer excavator at the Roman site of Vindolanda.

Originally it was a solo trip, but of late an add on week has lured the Spouse along.  This is a better thing overall, but I do have one lingering bit of pique about it.  I have to use decent luggage.

My wife despises the disreputable Norwegian Army surplus backpack that is my preferred option. Comfortable to tote, more or less legal carry on size (takes a bit of scrunching on some planes but is fine on the Airbus overhead), I have managed to fit two weeks worth of stuff in it with ease.  And that is allowing for rain gear and sufficient changes of clothes for Northumberland weather quirks.

So as I pack for my "trip back in time" I set the back pack aside wistfully.  But not without a bit of musing.

If I were literally going back to Roman times, what could I fit in my back pack that would ensure me a comfortable life?  Oh, not slave girls feeding me grapes kind of comfort, but a few cups of wine a day and a nice visit to the baths on a regular basis.  It is a tricky question.

I would prefer not to bring back blueprints for muskets and the formula for gunpowder.  In science fiction stories this rarely turns out well.  You either get condemned for sorcery or more likely get blank stares as the blacksmiths try to comprehend bridging the gap from hammering bog iron up to running a precision lathe.  So if we leave aside the items that are pure Harry Turtledove and perhaps skip the things that would monstrously damage the time line, what's left?

I suppose you could start with about 40 pounds of this:

Pepper.  Widely used and greatly appreciated.  It was a big part of why the Romans bothered trading with India and lands beyond.  It is also one of the few precious commodities on which we have something of a price quote.  Pliny the Elder comments on the stuff.  Evidently the Romans knew of "long pepper" which went for 15 denarii a pound, white pepper that went for 7, and black pepper for 4.

I would have thought the prices would be higher.  After all the stuff got hauled by sea from Indonesia. But economies of scale one supposes.  I presume Pliny was quoting the price in Rome, perhaps for my friskier Cayenne pepper I could get a premium price out in Londinium.  But still, what I could conveniently carry would only get me around 600 denarii.  That's not bad, but really is less than three years wages for the average Legionary grunt in Pliny's early Empire.  You could do a little better with cloves and ginger perhaps, but Pliny is quite vague on this stuff.  One wonders if he had any specific information on where some of it came from and just what it was.

Oh, I bet I could do better if I kept a few side pockets free for:

I have a pleasing vision of myself as a gentleman spice farmer in southern Gaul....

If you have a darker side, and were very concerned about packing light, I suppose you could bring along a few grams of Polonium.  It has become the preferred undetectable poison for Eastern Bloc assassins and conspiracy kooks. If you believe the "I, Claudius" version of history you might find Empress Livia to be a reliable customer.  But watch your back, there would likely be a dagger aimed at it from every dark corner.

Nah, I have no interest in toppling dynasties.  Too risky anyway.  I want to make money.  And not piddling denarii either.  Lets go for the aureii!  Here's the contents of my Time Traveler's Backpack:

Bulk silkworm eggs.  $19.99 for 2000 or so.  Plenty of room left over for:

This is 10 pounds of powdered "Silk Worm Chow".  That ought to keep the little beggars happy until my first crop of mulberry seeds starts to sprout!

I am totally not kidding about this scheme.  The amount of money flowing from Rome to China for silk was supposedly high enough that the Senate tried to abolish the trade as damaging to the Roman economy.  And just how much was silk worth?

The best measure is probably from the  Edict of Diocletian.  This bit of desperate wage and price control legislation was circa 301 AD, when inflation had nearly wrecked the Roman economy.  So prices are both much higher than in the early Empire and are anachronistically listed in denarii, a fine silver coinage long since debased and out of circulation.  By way of reference our hypothetical Legion soldier now made 1,800 denarii per year.

And a pound of white silk from my industrious little fellow time travelers?  12,000 denarii.  Ah, bring on the grapes.

Note:  I can't claim any originality in my scheme.  The Byzantine Emperor Justinian pulled this off back in the 6th Century AD.  Some speculate that the economic boon from breaking the Chinese silk monopoly helped sustain Constantinople through its long difficult centuries in an increasingly hostile world.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


It had been a rough three days of shifts.  12 hours on, 12 off.  And seldom had I ever seen such a stretch of woe and morbidity. A lot of it was self induced.  It is almost as if the long winter had finally depleted the last reserves of alcohol and meth and heroin in the area, and the ambulances were running like mad hauling in folks with the stormy tremors of withdrawal or the odoriferous, languid zen state that comes when your liver finally surrenders.

I needed something to cheer me up.

So I stopped by the local Store that Sells Everything.  Because I knew that way in the back I would find:

Lean over the side with me.


Ahh.  Feel better yet?

Despite being exactly the same shade of yellow as the end stage cirrhosis patients they are pretty darn cute, and such a bargain!