Ancient Mysteries, Lost and Found

Ancient Mysteries, Lost and Found

Somehow my online reading this week seemed to be forming a thematic cluster: mysteries of the ancient world. So I’ve curated for you a collection of articles that all wanted to talk to each other, trying to fit together like pieces of a jigsaw.

I’ve been pondering that which is lost, that which is slipping away, that which might be rediscovered. History is vast, much of it unknowable. So much lost and we will never even know what we do not know.


But then when I am close to weeping over all that has been lost, I remember that there is One in Whom nothing is ever lost. He holds within Himself the knowledge of all human lives, in fact all knowledge of everything, of every time and place, distant stars whose light we will never see, world we will never know. All beauty and truth, all that is good. Someday we will know.

But anyway, on to the ancient mysteries.


1. First, there is silphium. The Mystery of the Lost Roman Herb.

“Legend has it that silphium was first discovered after a “black” rain swept across the east coast of Libya over two and a half millennia ago. From then onwards, the herb spread its broad roots ever further, growing luxuriantly on lush hillsides and forest meadows.”

“The thing is, the fussy plant only grew in this region. Its entire range consisted of a narrow strip of land about 125 miles (201km) by 35 miles (40km).

Try as they might, neither the Greeks or the Romans could work out how to farm it in captivity. Instead silphium was collected from the wild, and though there were strict rules about how much could be harvested, there was a thriving black market.”

Central to this botanical riddle is the fact that silphium couldn’t be farmed. But why?

The herb stumped even the most enthusiastic plant geek of the day, Theophrastus. Widely known as the father of botany, this Greek author was best friends with another giant – Aristotle, the father of biology – and wrote extensively about the characteristics of plants. Though he didn’t understand why it couldn’t be cultivated either, he observed that they tended to grow best on land which had been dug up the previous year.

In the past I’ve stumbled across names of other lost plants in Biblical texts as I wondered what plant the text was actually referring too. Even the “mustard seed” seems not to be what we call mustard. And sometimes the notes make clear that we really just don’t know what plant the word is referring to. We can make some guesses, but the actual plant is lost to us. Silphium seems like it would have been impossible to lose since it was so wildly popular. And yet we simply do not have enough data. It’s even possible that we could have a living sample in our possession and simply not recognize it.

I liked that this article had a lot of good information about botany as well. I read it aloud to the kids and can count it as history and biology, two birds with one stone. I try to ease botany in because some people, I won’t name names, are somewhat resistant to it as a discipline. Though everyone does seem to like knowing the names of the plants we see. So finding intriguing rare plants and interesting tidbits on hybrids… this is gold.

I’ve always wondered why I’ve never seen a huckleberry. Now I know. And now I know to plant poppy seeds in disturbed soil.


2. Then, there’s a story about an endangered species of clam and a critically endangered art that will die out when there is no one left to practice it: The Last Surviving Sea Silk Seamstress

Today, Vigo is believed to be the last person on Earth who still knows how to harvest, dye and embroider sea silk into elaborate patterns that glisten like gold in the sunlight.

Women in Mesopotamia used the exceptionally light fabric to embroider clothes for their kings some 5,000 years ago. It was harvested to make robes for King Solomon, bracelets for Nefertiti, and holy vestments for priests, popes and pharaohs. It’s referenced on the Rosetta Stone, mentioned 45 times in the Old Testament and thought to be the material that God commanded Moses to drape on the altar in the Tabernacle.

No-one is precisely sure how or why the women in Vigo’s family started weaving byssus, but for more than 1,000 years, the intricate techniques, patterns and dying formulas of sea silk have been passed down through this astonishing thread of women – each of whom has guarded the secrets tightly before teaching them to their daughters, nieces or granddaughters.

“My grandmother wove in me a tapestry that was impossible to unwind,” Vigo said. “Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to the sea, just as those who have come before me.”
Vigo is known as su maistu (‘the master’, in Sardo). There can only be one maistu at a time, and in order to become one, you must devote your life to learning the techniques from the existing master. Like the 23 women before her, Vigo has never made a penny from her work. She is bound by a sacred ‘Sea Oath’ that maintains that byssus should never be bought or sold.

But after more than 1,000 years in the same matrilineal family tree, this ancient thread may soon unravel.

According to tradition, the heir to the byssus secrets is Vigo’s youngest daughter, Maddalena. Like her own grandmother, Vigo began teaching her how to dive and embroider at an early age.

“The only thing she’s missing is the formulas for the dye potions,” Vigo told me.

But there’s a problem: “My mother and I are very different,” Maddalena said from her home in Dublin, Ireland, where she’s been living for the past two years. “People have always told me that I’d be a fool to allow this art to die, but I’m desperately torn. My life is mine.”


I was talking about this with Dom and he was aghast at the idea that this precious art would die out because of this vow. That it would be better to let it die than to break her sacred vow. I’m a little more ambivalent about it. Maybe because the vow itself is beautiful and mysterious and a little romantic. Maybe because I love stories where the protagonist is caught in an impossible place, forced to choose between two irreconcilable and mutually exclusive options. I understand Chiara Vigo’s position. I admire her fidelity to her vows and there is something admirable about following them to their logical end while it’s also rather tragic that the letter of the law prevails over the spirit and that the vow is more important than the preservation of the art. Perhaps she feels that if she must break her vow to perpetuate it, then it would be better off dying out. Though there does seem to be something fatalistic about it. I also understand Maddalena’s position, somewhat. To me it’s both understandable that she doesn’t want to follow her mother’s path but to find her own and at the same time it does seem to me somewhat selfish. I understand her choice, but I could wish that she’d make a different one. It does speak of the modern spirit opposed to the traditional ways. The story is rather iconic, speaking to one of the many ways in which the world has changed, changed utterly.

3. And then one of my favorite things: palimpsests. The very word is magical and so is the thing itself. We can read previously erased texts because their ghosts still remain hidden in the parchment even after it has been scraped off. Lost Languages Discovered in One of the World’s Oldest Libraries. Also, I love monks and monasteries and their dedication to preserving knowledge.

Now, using new technology, a team of researchers has developed a way to uncover the ancient writings in the palimpsests at St. Catherine’s and have discovered languages thought to be long lost. One such language, Caucasian Albanian, hasn’t been used since the 8th century. Other langauges include Christian Palestinian Aramaic, which is a mix of Syriac and Greek.

To uncover the hidden writings, the scientists photographed the manuscripts using different parts of the light spectrum and run the images through an electronic algorithm. This allowed them to see the first writing put down on the pages.

Michael Phelps, a researcher at the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library in California, calls this development the beginning of a “new golden age of discovery.”

“The age of discovery is not over,” he said. “In the 20th century, new manuscripts were discovered in caves. In the 21st century, we will apply new techniques to manuscripts that have been under our noses. We will recover lost voices from our history.”

Phelps went on to praise the monastery for their record keeping and devotion to the preservation of history.

“I don’t know of any library in the world that parallels it,” he said. “The monastery is an institution from the Roman Empire that continues operating according to its original mission.”

I think he does oversimplify a little bit, or at least acknowledges complexity without really pondering it. He wants to praise the monks for preserving the manuscripts but also points out they are the ones who erased the ancient languages and wrote over them. But then he doesn’t go so far as to consider how that erasure fits into the greater mission as the monks understood it at the time. The monks had a mission to preserve knowledge and from their point of view writings in languages that more people can read do a better job of preserving and transmitting ideas. That we can go back and recover what was lost and hidden, though, that is a great gift of technology.


4. Finally, I love this bit of investigative amateur-scholarly detection and comparative work. It happens all the time in detective novels that the solution, once know, seems almost obvious. So it is here in this real-life mystery and the way Nicholas Gibbs, artist and professional history researcher, explains his untangling of the mystery has the finesse of a Hercule Poirot. Voynich Manuscript Mystery Unlocked .

For medievalists or anyone with more than a passing interest, the most unusual element of the Voynich manuscript – Beinecke Ms. 408, known to many as “the most mysterious manuscript in the world” – is its handwritten text. Although several of its symbols (especially the ligatures) are recognizable, adopted for the sake of economy by the medieval scribes, the words formed by its neatly grouped characters do not appear to correspond to any known language. It was long believed that the text was a form of code – one which repeated attempts by crypt­o­graphers and linguists failed to penetrate. As someone with long experience of interpreting the Latin inscriptions on classical monuments and the tombs and brasses in English parish churches, I recognized in the Voynich script tell-tale signs of an abbreviated Latin format. But interpretation of such abbreviations depends largely on the context in which they are used. I needed to understand the copious illustrations that accompany the text.

. . . One of the more notable aspects of the manuscript were the illustrations on a bathing theme, so it seemed logical to have a look at the bathing practices of the medieval period. It became fairly obvious very early on that I had entered the realms of medieval medicine.

By now, it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is: a reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual. The script had hitherto proved resistant to interpretation and presented several hurdles. Medieval lettering is notoriously fickle: individual letter variations, styles and combinations are confusing at the best of times. I recognized at least two of the characters in the Voynich manuscript text as Latin ligatures, Eius and Etiam. Ligatures were developed as scriptorial short-cuts. They are composed of selected letters of a word, which together represent the whole word, not unlike like a monogram. An ampersand is just such an example. The design combines the letters “e” “t”; and “et” is the Latin word for “and”. On the strength of this I consulted the Lexicon Abbreviaturarum of medieval Latin (1899) by Adriano Cappelli, sometimes referred to as the medievalists’ Bible. Systematic study of every single character in the Lexicon identified further ligatures and abbreviations in the Voynich manuscript and set a precedent. It became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word and not a letter.

From the herbarium incorporated into the Voynich manuscript a standard pattern of abbreviations and ligatures emerged from each plant entry. . . .

One other noticeable difference from the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus is that not a single plant name or malady is to be found in the Voynich manuscript. This was problematic until I realized that not only had the folios of the manuscript been cropped (the images of flowers and roots have been severed and the tops of folios hacked) but, more importantly, the indexes that should have been there were now absent. Indexes are present in many other similar books: a system of cross-reference for illness, complaints, names of plants and page numbers. For the sake of brevity, the name of both plant and malaise were superfluous in the text so long as they could be found in the indexes matched with a page number. Recipes require an index to function in a reference book. The same recipe format is replicated throughout the manuscript: recipes for bathing solutions, tonics, tinctures, ointments, unguents, purgatives and fragrant fumigations – and not a name in sight. Not only is the manuscript incomplete, but its folios are in the wrong order – and all for the want of an index.

I first encountered the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript three years ago when linguistics professor Stephen Bax announced that he had made a breakthrough in deciphering the text, by focusing on identifying proper names. I’m curious whether there is any overlap between Bax’s work and Gibbs’. One of the frustrating things about this essay of Gibbs’ is that he focuses so much on the process and hardly at all on the results of his investigation. This essay is excellent, but leaves me wanting more. More context, more about the intersection of his work with that of other investigators. Is Gibbs really as revolutionary as this piece implies? Is he really the first to put these pieces together? And how much of the manuscript has he deciphered? Can he read the whole thing? This article leaves me with as many questions as it answers. It reads like a fragment, a chapter in a book or notes in a professional journal, where the audience can be expected to fill in the rest of the picture. But I don’t have that knowledge. So I’m going to have to go do some more research of my own. And maybe, hopefully, in the future Gibbs will publish more extensively about his research.



5. Finally, this article wasn’t from this week but from last month, still there are echoes—medieval manuscripts, medical texts, and rediscovering long-lost ancient techniques— that make this piece fit right in. Did Medieval Medicine Ever Work?A team of researchers is investigating medieval medical texts and making the remedies they describe and then testing their efficacy. And the results are surprising.

It all began as one of those Friday afternoon projects that medical researchers sometimes do to satisfy curiosity. No one expected it to work. The researchers were testing medieval medical remedies by replicating a 1000-year-old recipe for an eye salve. They were prepared to see it prove that medieval medicine was backward and even superstitious.

When the results came back, they were shocked to find that the recipe was incredibly effective in killing staph infections. Indeed, the medieval salve was actually a powerful antibiotic.

The finding threw everyone’s medieval preconceptions upside down and led the researchers to conclude that medieval medicine was highly developed and followed a scientific methodology. They also believe that the rediscovery of medieval drugs can have implications for present-day drug discovery.

“Recent scholarship may show that there is more methodology to the medicines of medieval practitioners, and further inquiry may show that their medicines were more than just placebos or palliative aids but actual antibiotics being used long before the advent of modern infection control.”

The recipe that sparked the debate is found in a book held by The British Library. Titled Bald’s Leechbook, the book has the ancient Anglo-Saxon recipe written in old English. The ingredients are organic materials accessible to everyone in the locality. It requires garlic and alliums, which could either be onions or leeks. These are mixed with wine and ox gall. The mixture is then put in a brass vessel and let stand for nine nights. After straining and clarifying, it is put in a horn and applied to the eye with a feather.

What seems like a haphazard collection of liquids and herbs was found to be much more. Researchers replicating the recipe found that any omission from the recipe dramatically diminished or eliminated its bactericidal qualities. Similarly, each ingredient on its own had no significant effect on the reduction in bacteria. They found that the nine-night incubation period served to make the mixture self-sterilizing and therefore effective. Likewise, omitting this period made the recipe ineffective.

The tests revealed a method of observation and experimentation that was anything but haphazard. Moreover, this was not a cure-all concoction. Dr. Connelly believes that it seems to have been specifically targeted for what it was made to treat.

The video of the talk given by medievalist Erin Connelly at the Library of Congress is quite excellent, well worth you time.

In addition to looking very promising as a possible alternative path for dealing with antibiotic resistant infections, these findings challenge so many of our preconceptions about pre-modern medicine, about medieval science and knowledge. What’s most surprising is that the value in these ancient manuscripts is not merely to satisfy our curiosity about the past, they also have promise to be quite relevant to the practice of modern medicine. Imagine a 21st century cure that has its roots in a medieval recipe!

6. Ok, I said that was the last one, but one more thing popped up today, new finds of Roman artifacts at the Vindolandia site, a barracks dating to before Hadrian’s Wall.

The barracks, which dates from AD105, was found beneath the fourth-century stone fort of Vindolanda, south of Hadrian’s Wall near Hexham, Northumberland. It is one of the site’s earliest barracks. Hadrian did not begin his 73-mile defensive barrier – to guard the north-western frontier of the province of Britain from invaders – until 122.

The artefacts survived because they were concealed beneath a concrete floor laid by the Romans about 30 years after the barracks was abandoned, shortly before 120. The concrete created oxygen-free conditions that helped preserve materials such as wood, leather and textiles, which would otherwise have rotted away.

Birley said: “The swords are the icing on the cake for what is a truly remarkable discovery of one of the most comprehensive and important collections from the intimate lives of people living on the edge of the Roman Empire at a time of rebellion and war. What’s exciting is that [they] are remarkably well-preserved … There is a huge range of stuff – their hair combs, pots, wooden spoons, bowls, weapons, bits of armour, and their cavalry bling.

“Even for us, it’s very unusual to get things like complete Roman swords, sitting on the ground in their scabbards with their handles and their pommels. We were slightly dumbfounded by that. Then, to find another complete sword in another room next door only two metres away, two wooden swords and a host of other cavalry equipment, all in beautiful condition, is just terrific.

“Archaeologists would never expect to find a Roman cavalry sword in any context, because it’s like a modern-day soldier leaving his barracks and dumping his rifle on the floor … This is a very expensive thing. So why leave [it] behind?”

He recalled feeling “quite emotional” over the discovery: “You can work as an archaeologist your entire life on Roman military sites and never expect, or imagine, seeing such a rare thing, even at Vindolanda. It felt like the team winning a form of archaeological lottery, and we knew we had something very rare and special before us.”

I just finished reading Word to Caesar, which takes place at just this point, beginning with a Roman fort being overrun by the British tribes and then following the journey of the son of one of the Roman soldiers as he makes his way to Rome on an important mission to the Emperor Hadrian.

Bella has been reading Minimus Latin, the story of which is set in Vindolandia. She was also quite thrilled to read this article. The Vindolandia site is great because they are always finding new objects. And you can follow the dig on their Facebook page, The Vindolndia Trust.

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So what conclusion can I make about this little collection of articles? Something about the unknowable past, about our limitations, about hope and possibility? I can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound a false note. So I’ll just leave you with to make of what you will.

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