If Noah's Ark Existed, Was It Round?

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After examining a 3,700-year-old clay tablet with instructions on how to build an ark, the expert who translated it says he doubts Noah’s Ark ever existed.

The ark instructions call for construction of a huge circular coracle, 3,600 square meters large and made like a giant rope basket strengthened with wooden ribs, waterproofed with bitumen inside and out. What’s described is a giant version of a craft the Babylonians knew very well, in daily use up to the late 20th century to transport people and animals across rivers, according to British Museum expert Irving Finkel.

According to the Guardian: "I am 107% convinced the ark never existed," Finkel said. The tablet gives a version of the ark story far older than the biblical accounts, and Finkel believes the explanation of how "holy writ appears on this piece of Weetabix," is that the writers of the Bible drew on ancient accounts encountered by Hebrew scholars during the Babylonian exile.

Texts about a great flood and the order by God to the one just man to build a boat and save himself, his family, and all the animals, clearly older than the Bible story, were first found in the Middle East in the 19th century. They caused both consternation and wild excitement, including an expedition to find the broken part of one tablet in a mountain of shattered clay fragments.

The tablet was brought to Finkel on a museum open day by Douglas Simmons, whose father, Leonard, brought it back to England in a tea-chest full of curios, after wartime service in the Middle East with the RAF.

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A Selfie of the YOLO Generation

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Steven Cromack

“Selfie” is the 2013 word of the year. In many ways, its definition encapsulates the identity of the generation that made it their own. The Millennials are rising. It is important that our teachers, school
administrators, and college professors understand the students who sit before them in their classrooms. Of course, no generation is uniform. Based on the data, however, many Millennials members agree on certain ideas.

Born between 1982 and 2003, we Millennials grew up in a rapidly changing world, and we were—and are—able to capture every moment of it through MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine. We are called “the Peter Pan” and “Me Generation.” We live by social media and have made it a part of every moment of our lives. According to our elders, we are rude because we cannot look up from our phones; lazy; refuse to grow up; and play too many video games. The Baby Boomers despise our attitudes and insist that because of us the country is going to hell in a hand basket. Our teachers claim that we are a generation of idiots falling behind the rest of the world because of our ability to “txt” and write in single letters—idk—and lament that words like “selfie,” “clutch,” “gucci,” and “swag” have become part of everyday vocabulary.

There are indicators, however, that we just may be the next great generation. In their book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation Neil Howe and William Strauss outline the unique characteristics of the rising age group. Millennials, they claim, are “unlike any other youth generation in living memory. They are more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse . . . and destined to dominate the twenty-first century like today’s fading and ennobled G.I. generation dominated the twentieth” (4-5).

Of all the generations before us, we are the most tolerant and accepting. In a 2005 study 60% of respondents between the ages 15 and 25 agreed with the statement “homosexuality is a way of life and should be accepted by society.” In comparison, of those over 57 surveyed, only 39% agreed with that statement. In a 2002 study 60% of Millennials surveyed believed that “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” In comparison, only 42% of those over 57 agreed with that statement. Many within our generation are independents with liberal inclinations, especially on social and economic issues. With that said, we overwhelmingly loathe the government and want nothing to do with it.

That does not make us selfish, however. On the contrary, we are actually more selfless than the Baby Boomers. Forty-three percent (and rising) of our generation is committed to community service, something within our control. We believe that our future does not lie with the government, but with ourselves.

As one Millennial blogger puts it: “We have been handed the world and it looks awful, and we have never felt so goddamn powerless . . . . The self is the only thing we have. Our own experience is the only thing on which we have complete authority, the only thing over which we have total control.”

Sixteen percent of our generation is unemployed because 58% of managers won't hire us. In the meantime, we are going to live life, and if it means doing so from our parents’ basement, then so be it. Indeed, we have invented the acronym YOLO, or “you only live once.” #noregrets.

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More Paintings Rumored Near Lascaux

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Another cave containing prehistoric paintings may exist just four kilometers from the famous Lascaux caves in southwestern France. The original cave art at Lascaux was found in 1940, and attracted hordes of visitors until it was closed to the public in 1983 to protect the artwork.

A group of teenagers near the town of Montignac discovered in 1940 a complex network of Paleolithic caves with a series of 17,000-year-old frescos. According to Archaeology News Network:
The rumors of a second cave covered in pre-historic artwork have been circulating for years, but it appears local authorities are now ready to take them seriously after one local family shared an extraordinary secret they had kept to themselves for half a century. 
According to French media reports this week, preliminary investigations by the town’s mayor, as well as authorities in the Dordogne region, have proved promising enough to warrant a more detailed probe into a patch of land 4 km from the site of the Lascaux caves. 
 “There’s no certainty, and we are still quite far from having the necessary evidence to confirm the existence of another decorated cave,” Montignac mayor Laurent Mathieu told French daily Le Figaro this week. 
 Despite that caution, however, Mathieu did confirm that the culture department of the Dordogne regional administration would soon be mapping out a 10-hectare area for “further research.” This region will also be placed under surveillance, to prevent amateur archaeologists from conducting their own, unsupervised investigations.
The possibility of a second discovery near the town came about in August, when an elderly local woman told the mayor that her husband – who had died in August – had come across a cave with prehistoric frescos back in 1962, but had covered the entrance for fear of bringing hassle on himself. The secret had stayed in the family for 51 years, until she finally shared it with the mayor.

Image: Researcher examining paintings in the original Lascaux chamber.

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Roundup: Digging up the Past

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"Ancient Ancestors Come to Life," National Geographic, January 3, 2014

See our ancient ancestors come to life through paleoartist John Gurche's realistic human likenesses for the Smithsonian's Hall of Human Origins.
"The human story is really nothing short of the story of a little corner of the universe becoming aware of itself," says Gurche.>>>

Louise Iles, "Year in digs: How 2013 looked in archaeology," BBC, December 31, 2013

. . . . This year's research also gave us a glimpse into the private lives of our hominid cousins, reopening debates that might shed light on the evolution of our species.

The first complete Neanderthal genome was published, at the same time showing inbreeding within Neanderthal groups as well as reports of interbreeding between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans.>>>

Joe Holleman, "St. Louis University archeology team is unearthing Irish history," St Louis Post-Dispatch, January 2, 2014

Thomas J. Finan, a history professor at St. Louis University, has been taking students to Ireland for archaeological work since 2004. Last summer, Finan and his band of 12 students made an important discovery — the remains of what appears to have been a major Irish settlement dating to about 1200.>>>

Louis Charbonneau, "UNESCO sounds alarm about illicit Syria archeology digs," Reuters, December 16, 2013

The head of UNESCO sounded an alarm about widespread illegal archeological excavations across war-ravaged Syria on Friday, saying the U.N. cultural, education and science arm has warned auction houses, museums and collections about the problem.>>>

Lindsay Peyton, "Her group finds artifacts that reveal Texas history," Houston Chronicle, December 17, 2013

When the Texas Department of Transportation recently needed help sifting through a mountain of sand hiding hundreds of prehistoric human artifacts, staff archeologists knew exactly where to look.

The Houston Archeological Society jumped to their aid, offering to search through the sand at the Dimond Knoll site that TxDOT discovered while paving the way for the Grand Parkway. And society members offered to transport the dirt to an adjacent property, allowing more time and more people to join the effort.>>>

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Live-Tweeting #AHA2014

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Craig Gallagher

In anticipation of going to my first American Historical Association conference this past weekend in Washington D.C., I sought out a range of senior colleagues who had attended past AHA meetings for advice on what to expect. As a third-year Ph.D. candidate who is about to start writing a dissertation, I was regularly advised that many aspects of the AHA meeting did not yet apply to me, such as the Job Center, where interviews for academic positions are conducted, or the Book Exhibit where publishers meet with scholars and teachers to discuss manuscripts or books for use in the classroom.

My first AHA, therefore, was largely confined to the scholarly panels (and, I should add as a brief aside, various receptions, where I shamelessly handed out business cards and tried to score five minutes of chat with some of my favorite scholars. I was mostly successful). I attended six different panels over the four days, enjoying some immensely and others not-so-much. On the whole, I was impressed with the range of questions posed by various luminaries in my field, and – especially in the Atlantic History panels I was most interested in – the sweeping state-of-the-field discussions most papers engendered.

But it turned out that physically attending those panels and listening to the presenters was only scratching the surface of what was offered by this year’s AHA. I made an early decision this year to live-tweet the panels I was attending so that scholars who couldn’t attend the conference could get a sense, at least, of what issues were being raised. For this purpose, as the AHA themselves recommended, I tweeted with the hashtag #AHA2014 (which remains searchable).

But as I sat there with my laptop, oftentimes the only person in the room not using pen and paper,  frantically summarizing points raised via the game-changing medium of Tweetdeck (if you’re not acquainted with it, become so), I discovered that I was also attending almost every other panel that was happening concurrent to the one I was listening to.

Where I had intended to provide a flavor of the conference proceedings for scholars unable to attend, I quickly found myself in dialogue with interested scholars actually present in D.C. but at another panel or professional development workshop (or even waiting for a job interview to start). Although they were mainly reading my shorthand summaries of points raised (far more eloquently) by the presenters I was listening to, they nonetheless sent me pertinent questions, comments or asked for clarifications which I did my best to provide.

Indeed, it seemed as though every panel or workshop across the AHA program had a dedicated tweeter, whether on classical Rome or modern China, and especially the various digital history (#dhist) workshops run this year by many younger scholars. This was all fitting as part of the AHA meeting featuring the inaugural Reception for History Bloggers and Twitterstorians, which was well attended and stimulated very lively discussions.

Could live-tweeting panels be the answer to the long-suffering conference-goer’s gripe about too many similar panels scheduled at the same time? I’d offer a cautious yes, as long as the tweeter is willing to be the only person in the room typing away furiously and is prepared to spend the intervening time between panels desperately searching for an outlet to charge their laptop or phone!

But at the very least, it suggests that history conferences like the AHA in future are likely to take place in two separate but intimately related spaces: the real world of Washington D.C. on the verge a major snowstorm, and the ethereal, abbreviated, but undeniably lively world of the Twittersphere.

Craig Gallagher is a Ph.D. Candidate at Boston College, who is writing a dissertation about religion, trade and empire in the early modern British Atlantic world. He tweets at @Gallacticos87

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Snow Day

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Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

I am as giddy as a child at the prospect of a snow day. Others fret about climate change when they see -40 windchills on the weather and can’t push the door open into a snowdrift. I think about Laura Ingalls
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Wilder’s memoirs and relish the prospect of stoking the fires of memory and imagination.

Wilder’s books sparked my early interest in the past. Some of Wilder’s tales seemed similar to my own grandmother’s recollections of learning and teaching in a one room school house. My grandmother had a comparatively stable life on a comparatively prosperous farm in Illinois.  Laura followed Pa Ingalls from Wisconsin West in a series of tentative land claims. My mother read the stories aloud at bedtime. My father would pass through and groan every time Pa uprooted his family and chased further west in pursuit of a half-baked dream. I didn’t need the New Yorker to tell me Pa Ingalls was not the saint his daughter imagined him to be.  Even as a child, I couldn’t stomach the television version of Wilder's tales. Michael Landon’s Pa was so angelic that the actor needed no adaptation to his performance when he moved on to play an angel in Highway to Heaven. I craved the bits of terrifying realism that remained in the prose and faded from the screen.

My favorite moments in the memoirs involved the Ingalls family hunkered down for fearsome but intimate winters. Little House in the Big Woods featured maple syrup drizzled on snow cakes that still make my mouth water. Little House on the Prairie offered the enduring image of Mr. Edwards making in through a blizzard to deliver Santa’s gifts to the Ingalls girls. During the heavy snows of the last week in Chicago, I have thought often of how Pa strung a rope between the house and the barn so he could find his way between them in a white out. I don’t need a rope quite yet, but I am glad no animals need feeding in my garage.

As my family gathers round the fire to wait out a negative forty-four degree windchill, I imagine the Ingall’s envy at our well-insulated walls and well-stocked pantry. We don’t need Almazo to save us from starvation during The Long Winter. I’m fortunate not only compared to Laura but compared to most of humanity past and present. I know that. A snow day drives that home.

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In Praise of (Electronic) Serendipity

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Elliot Brandow

Old books smell delicious, apparently like a combination of grass and vanilla. Browsing the stacks offers us a chance not only to enjoy the lovely aroma but also to stumble upon that fragrant book we didn't know existed, or that we wanted, but that is just the one we needed! Ah, serendipity! It
Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.
consistently tops, or nearly tops, the list of 20th-century library features we sorrowfully mourn. As we move ever-increasingly toward electronic-focused library collections, it seems we'll have to forgo this feature and pleasure of physical browsing.

Roger Schonfeld recently posed the question in his excellent analysis of the landscape of electronic monographs: "given that there is no hope for many libraries of recreating the single-site book collection for browsing, are there other steps that can be taken to re-establish opportunities for serendipitous discovery in the emerging environment?"

But electronic browsing and stumbling just can't compete with searching, right? The war between a browsable Yahoo Directory and Google Search is long over:  Google won. And library catalog systems and databases have been riding Google's coattails since, emphasizing ever simpler single search boxes, relegating advanced features and browsing to the corners of the screen, or removing them entirely.

But, electronic browsing doesn't have to mean print-directory surrogates. There are many examples of innovative electronic discovery design that can help you stumble upon something you didn't know you needed. You don't have to start with a search term at Zappos, for instance. Just select your foot size and it will present you with a list of what's available, then narrow by facet (those clickable categories on the left). The interface allows you to imagine a shoe store organized in any number of schemes: by designer, by season, by color, by price. You are no longer limited to one main organizational structure.

Multiple organizational schemes are a key advantage of electronic serendipity. The browsing we enjoy in physical libraries is primarily based on subject categorization of the material. But electronic browsing isn't restricted to this single attribute, it offers many new possible ways to organize and reorganize a collection. We could browse by book jacket color (don't laugh, many librarians have heard that request at the reference desk from time to time). We could browse by frequency of use, as Harvard's Stack View does. The newly formed Digital Public Library of America has not only been creating an interface that unifies many U.S. digital collections, but also encouraging the creation of new ways to explore those collections, including browsing geographically, temporally, and even by matching collections against any text of your choice--witness the Serendip-o-matic.

Some of these might be novelties and proof of concepts, but I can think of numerous cases where browsing offers a more effective experience than search. Old Maps Online, a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth, UK and Klokan Technologies, is one of my favorites. Instead of searching for historical maps by place names, the interface allows you to navigate spatially, the site continually refreshing a visual list of historical maps that coincide with your current view of the world. The maps are drawn from numerous key collections including the British Library, Harvard, New York Public Library, and the Rumsey collection. It also allows you to narrow by time period with a simple sliding bar, and then jump to the full images of the digitized maps at their home collections.

Recommendation engines, like those of Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube, leverage your personal (and our collective) purchasing and viewing history to offer more material and could also be considered a form of electronic browsing. Here is serendipity by algorithm. If you liked that Howard Zinn video, perhaps you might like this one with Noam Chomsky. Many library systems are now trying to utilize this technique as well: if you liked that article you might also be interested in this one, or you might care to read this author who wrote a critique of the book you're viewing. Reading and research social networks like LibraryThing and Mendeley leverage their community bases to offer you more material based on your current research. And, of course, broader social networks like Twitter offer a platform to discover new material and often to interact right with its creator.

Some might argue that serendipity implies more chance, a more random process than this type of computer-driven or human-curated selection. But there really is nothing random about the way library stacks are organized. They are designed according to a clear set of rules to facilitate this type of browsing. The truth is, serendipitous browsing has always been by design. And if we want to reestablish opportunities for serendipitous discovery in the emerging digital environment (and build exciting new ones), we will need to thoughtfully design them first.

A loss of effective physical browsing is inevitable as we now live in a bifurcated electronic and print world. If you only browse the stacks, you'll miss all of our fantastic licensed and free digital collections (and of course, you're limiting yourself to what is in your specific library, happens to not be checked-out, and is located in that corner of the building, as Brian Mathews points out). For a while libraries crudely tried to accommodate our hybrid collections by inserting dummy foam placeholders on the shelf where the electronic version had replaced the print--remember those? But the real opportunity lies in the reverse: building new and exciting possibilities for electronic browsing that still incorporate physical volumes while taking advantage of the digital environment.

Electronic serendipity can cross boundaries of library and vendor ownership, availability, material type, and it can offer unlimited methods of organization and exploration of the same material. Our progression to electronic research doesn't have to mean one and only one thing: the single search box. We can build many new methods to stumble and browse through material electronically, accommodating different learning styles and ways of thinking about the material, and offering multiple opportunities to stumble upon just the item you didn't know you wanted. Now if we could only get our iPads to emit old book smell while we do it.

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