Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I Am Not Looking Forward To The Eagle

I have yet to be satisfied with a film treatment of Roman Britain (*cough* The Last Legion *cough*), and I have the feeling The Eagle might annoy me much like 2004's ridiculous King Arthur.

"But you haven't seen it yet."

No. I haven't. And yet I'm already annoyed. Why?

Well, The Eagle, much like the forgettable film Centurion, is about the legendary Ninth Legion, which supposedly disappeared during a disastrous run-in with the local Britons up north of Hadrian's Wall around the year 120. Of course, whether this actually happened--not so much a local uprising, which is pretty much par-for-the-course, but the disappearance of the legion--is a matter of debate.Still, it's not the historical ambiguity that bothers me.

It has 2nd century Picts speaking Scottish Gaelic.

Let me say that again.

It has 2nd century Picts speaking Scottish Gaelic.

There is so much wrong with this.

According to the London Times

Macdonald has a fairly free rein in recreating his ancient tribe; but he is determined to be as authentic as possible, with the tribesmen in the movie all speaking Gaelic. In order to achieve a little contemporary symbolism, the Romans will be played by American actors.


They were a more indigenous folk than the Celts, who were from further south,” he argues. “They were probably small and dark, like the Inouit [sic], living off seals and dressed in sealskins. We are going to create a culture about which no one knows much, but which we will make as convincing as possible. We are basing it on clues gained from places like Skara Brae and the Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney, so that we will have them worshipping pagan symbols, like the seal and the eagle.

OK. Where to begin. First, if you want to be authentic, then you wouldn't have Picts living in the second century speaking Gaelic, which wasn't spoken by any sizable portion of people living in Britain at that time. For one thing, "Gaelic"--in this case, the Scottish dialect of Goidelic--didn't exist; there were dialects of Old Irish, mostly spoken in Ireland (I don't think there were any Irish settlements in Britain at the time, but I could be wrong). Having Picts speak Scottish Gaelic is like having King Alfred the Great speaking Elizabethan English and declaring it authentic.

Secondly, the Picts, insofar as they spoke a Celtic language, were Celts. "Celtic" isn't a race, it's a group of related languages/cultural output. That Pictish was probably a strand of Celtic--specifically P-Celtic, and thus distantly related to Gaulish and ultimatley Welsh--is largely accepted by academics, though there are always some who disagree; Wikipedia has a pretty decent introduction to the disagreements, and where the current thinking stands.Even as early as the 1500s, scholars saw the similarities between Gaulish and Pictish (yeah, I was surprised too by the early date; George Buchanan figured this out a full hundred years before Edward Lhuyd pioneered the use of "Celtic" to describe the related languages of Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Manx, etc.).

I'm not sure how Macdonald can say "They were Celts, expect that they weren't; they spoke Gaelic, except they didn't; this is authentic, even though we don't know anything about the Picts, except that we do, since they were short and not Celtic" and not expect my head to explode.

I get that the Picts helped form the Scottish nation; but they weren't Scotti, the name of the people who conquered them; they probably adopted Gaelic as it became advantagous to speak the langauge of the political elite, but that was centuries after the events of the movie. The best evidence we have tells us that they were related to the other Britons just south of them, who went on to become the Welsh, Cumbrian, and Cornish peoples. If he wanted to be "authentic", he could have had them speak Welsh, which is closer to what we know of Pictish than Scottish Gaelic is.

Moreover, the non-Scottish history of Northern Britain is often glossed over in popular culture, which is very frustrating. (To see Y Gododdin called "The Oldest Scottish Poem" is completely anachronistic. Sorry, Kenneth H Jackson, but come on!)

I hope the music for the movie is by these guys:

Because their knowledge of Druids is as well informed as The Eagle's knowledge of the Picts.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

But Does It Taste Like Guinness?

Via io9, scientists have figured out how the Celts brewed their beer:
The first step to drinking like the Celts is to dig an oblong ditch. Pour in water and barley, and leave them there until the barley sprouts. Once they have, they need to be dried. Light a fire at each end of the ditch and keep it going until the barley is dried. This will darken the beer and give it a smokey flavor. It will also dry the grains slowly enough that they'll secrete something called lactic acid. Like other acids, it tastes sour. Sourness and smoke; delicious. Some of the grains will char. Leave those in the ditch for future archeobotanists to uncover. Mash up the grains to maximize the amount of sugar that the yeast, which gets added later, has to feed on.
Hops weren't used in beer until sometime in the High Middle Ages; at least, that's the earliest it's mentioned. Instead, beer was flavored with gruit, a combination of herbs, some of which were mild narcotics: nutmeg, mugwort, yarrow, and henbane were among those used. Henbane, of course, is potentially very toxic, though here it's obviously diluted. Moreover, henbane is interesting, as it's associated with the oracles of Apollo, and with the Celtic god Belenus, for its hallucinogenic elements.

Why you shouldn't drink beer with henbane.

The Greco-Roman world wasn't too keen on beer; the emperor Julian wrote
Who and from where are you Dionysus?
Since by the true Bacchus,
I do not recognize you; I know only the son of Zeus.
While he smells like nectar, you smell like a goat.
Can it be then that the Celts because of lack of grapes
Made you from cereals? Therefore one should call you
Demetrius, not Dionysus, rather wheat born and Bromus,
Not Bromius.

Of course, the poem is a little more complex than it looks; there's a lot of punning in there:

However, even a beer lover like myself knows that stale beer does pretty much smell like piss.

As we all know, primitive man invented beer; but the Celts invented Guinness. And for that, we are grateful.

Monday, January 10, 2011

When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.

Except when they aren't.

I have nothing intelligent to say about the shooting this weekend. It seems like every week, there's a new shooting; I'm pretty sure someone killed a school vice-principal last week. And to be honest, I came of age when school shootings became common, in the 1990s; don't forget, there were a lot before Columbine. But being numb doesn't mean I think it's OK, or unimportant. I just know that I'm not the smartest kid in the room.

So. Before we tear ourselves apart; before anyone invokes Sarah Palin or Karl Marx or schizophrenia or Bleeding Kansas; I just want to listen to some music.

Make me laugh, funnyman:

Not funny, but he's right.

We live in hard times, not end times.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Celtic tomb found

At the Heuneburg hill fort in southwest Germany, already the sight of a good deal of archaeological work, the undisturbed tomb of what they believe was a Celtic noblewoman has been found. The tomb is around 2600 years old, which places it at the time of the Bronze Age western "Hallstatt D" culture, which was transitioning into the Iron Age Celtic La Tène culture.

So why is this interesting? Well, Heuneburg was an important Celtic settlement; it's possible that it's the city of Pyrene mentioned by Herodotus:
For the Ister [Danube] flows from the land of the Celts and the city of Pyrene through the very middle of Europe — History 2.33.3

There are dozens of graves that have already been found, but most were either destroyed by the elements, or robbed in antiquity; it's rare that modern archaeologists are able to find an undisturbed inhumation.

To get an idea of what an aristocrat's tomb can look like, check out this reconstruction of the Hochdorf tomb, which dates to 530 BC, not that long (archaeologically speak) after the recently-found tomb, and only about twenty miles away:

Click on picture to see original on Wikipedia

(What you can't see, off to the top right, is a giant cauldron, originally filled with 100 gallons of mead. Also found were golden shoes, a gold-leafed dagger, and other precious items.)

Hopefully, the public will soon see what's been found; Heuneburg is already the site of a reconstructed Celtic village.

The location of Heuneburg:

View Larger Map

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

You'll Pry My Butterscotch Krimpets From My Cold Dead Hands

Food of the gods

When I started this blog, I called it "The Philadelphia Preservation Society", mostly as a joke, playing off the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, one of my favorite records. Well, maybe we need a Preservation Society now.

A&P, who owns the local chains of Superfresh and Pathmark, declared bankruptcy in December, leaving the fate of 5,500 jobs up in the air. They've already closed several stores around my town (Lansdale). Safeway has closed some Genuardi's, as well, and now apparently Acme--yes, "the Ac-a-mee", my dear North Philadelphians--is closing some stores.

All of this is bad enough--especially for those who live in the city and only have access to public transportation, making getting fresh food that much more difficult. But there are some surprising repercussions, apparently:


Now, you have to understand--Tastykakes are as much a part of Philly as the Liberty Bell, pretzels, cheesesteaks, Yuengling, and questionable behavior at sporting events. Everyone knows how to scrape all the butterscotch icing from the package of krimpets; and who does love the creamy inside of those little Kandy Kake hocky pucks? And the mini-pies: baked, not fried, and filled with blueberries, or cherries, or apples...

Man, I'm getting hungry.

If we lose Tastykakes, we lose another part of Philly. "It's just snacks," you might say. Well, sure--but since when isn't food part of culture? What's Italy without salami? Ireland without potatoes? India without curry? Food is one of the most elementary things we deal with every day. "But it's just mass produced cakes." Sure, you could say that--but I bet you haven't eaten one.

It's a question of jobs, of course--if Tastykakes gets sold, we could lose even more jobs, or worse--lose the jobs altogether, like when Hershey sent all their jobs to Mexico. That's right, Hershey, PA doesn't make chocolate. If they get sold, the recipe could change, and not taste as good as it does now.

Sure, it's silly to get sentimental about snacks. But it's about identity, and about the loss of regionalism. Tastykakes and Yards tastes better than Twinkies and Bud Light (well, maybe don't eat beer and cakes together). The local almost always tastes better than the national. Smaller scale allows a greater attention to detail than a larger scale.

And hey, I want to win a case of tastykakes next time I see the Flyers.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2011: Back to the Future

When I started this blog in 2007, it was part of the World Without Oil alternative reality game. At the time, gas prices had started slowly rising, but in the game, they were shooting up, beginning at $4.12 and eventually ending at $5.59.

Well, as we know, in 2008, oil did shoot up to nearly $150/barrel, which I think was around an average of $4.11/gallon--as in the game. And then, of course, everything came crashing down, millions were thrown out of work, and oil fell down to $33/barrel.

Jump ahead now to 2011, and oil's at $91/barrel and gas over $3.10 (at least here outside Philly). Higher gas prices may be ahead, up to $4.11 again. And now we have over 9% unemployment, and U6 (under-employment) (hi, that would include me) at 17%.

Rising gas prices in an economy that's not getting better for us in the bottom 90%? Well, if you can see how this is sustainable, enlighten me.