Living history

BBC News: Ancient tree ‘one of UK’s best’

An ancient Perthshire yew has made the top 10 in a list of the most important trees in the UK. The Fortingall Yew, which grows at a churchyard near Aberfeldy, could be up to 5,000 years old and is among the oldest living organisms in Europe.

Local legend has it that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus, was born in its shade and played there as a child. It is heading a list of 22,000 trees being compiled by the Woodland Trust. The document is being drawn up to highlight the need to protect the UK’s trees.

A tree that’s five thousand years old, the mind boggles. What was it like in 3000BC when that tree first put out leaves?

We used to go to Thetford Forest when I was a child, I remember Dad lighting one of those portable gas stoves with the blue cannisters in a clearing covered with pine needles, and Mum sitting in the boot of a huge light blue car drinking tea from a thermos flask. The forest was a haven for red squirrels. It was created after World War I so nothing in there would be in the list of ancient trees. Grimes Graves, a neolithic flint mine, is in the forest, we visited there and I freaked out about being so far underground.

Tudor re-enactment

Fascinating article about Tudor re-enactment at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk BBC News: Upstairs, downstairs.

Last weekend I travelled back in time to a place where the worlds of those with lavish lifestyles were of necessity closely intertwined with those who provided them with all their everyday needs – the year was 1588, the place, Kentwell Hall in Suffolk.

Each summer for the past 30 years, Kentwell Hall has been transformed by owner Patrick Phillips and his wife Judith into a living replica of itself in a given year during the 16th Century. For three weeks continuously, between 200 and 400 volunteers, steeped in Tudor history, ranging in age from infants to sprightly octogenarians, live and breathe the period from dawn to dusk.

The article is about the disconnection between the wealthy and the poor, which was not possible in Tudor times. Kentwell Hall is a beautiful red brick building in Long Melford. Their Tudor re-creations web page has some video clips from their DVD for schools. They do several re-creations through the year, but the summer one is biggest with three to four hundred people involved.

I’ve been reading about Medieval times lately (William Manchester "A World Lit Only By Fire" and Norman Frank Cantor "In the wake of the plague"), and Tudor times seem positively civilised in comparison.

St. Distaff’s Day

According to the Book Of Days (scroll down), January 7th is St Distaff’s Day. There is no saint called Distaff, it was just the day people were expected to return to work, and work for the women included spinning. Robert Herrick wrote this poem about it:

St. Distaff’s Day; Or, the Morrow after Twelfth-day

Partly work and partly play

You must on St. Distaffs Day:

From the plough soon free your team;

Then cane home and fother them:

If the maids a-spinning go,

Burn the flax and fire the tow.

Bring in pails of water then,

Let the maids bewash the men.

Give St. Distaff’ all the right:

Then bid Christmas sport good night,

And next morrow every one

To his own vocation.’

I went back to work today, despite my main route being closed for the next year. I’ll be spinning in the evening. Still working on the baby camel.

The Great Charter

BBC News: Charting out the Magna Carta.

The latest chapter in the history of the Magna Carta is the sale of one example of it, sealed by King Edward I and dating from 1297, which has been sold at Sotheby’s in New York for £10.6m ($21.3m). It came into being as the result of a dispute between King John, English barons and the political community of the kingdom, and went some way towards limiting the authority of the king. The first was sealed in 1215, and not signed as is often thought, by King John at Runnymede. The final one was issued in 1300. This has led to 17 surviving versions from the 13th Century, including the one sold at Sotheby’s.

The original set of rulings still have some resonance in modern-day English law, as they contain the principle of Habeas Corpus, which protects people against unlawful imprisonment. Also, the right of trial by jury can be traced back to the Magna Carta. And it is a document that was much studied and revered in the United States several centuries ago, as that nation fought for its independence from Britain.

I didn’t know the American founders were so interested in it! The article mentions Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln both studying the Magna Carta. How many of our documents will still be around in seven hundred years time? With changing data formats, we’re lucky to manage a mere decade in electronic format.

The Vikings are coming!

BBC News: The return of the Viking warship.

On Sunday [July 1st], 65 men and women will embark on one of the most ambitious, dangerous and important experimental archaeology projects ever undertaken. They will attempt to sail a reconstructed Viking warship from Roskilde, Denmark, to Dublin, across some of the roughest seas in the world. The ship, The Sea Stallion from Glendalough, is the most authentic Viking warship built in nine centuries. It’s based on the largest of five ships that were excavated from the bottom of Roskilde fjord in 1962, opposite the small village of Skuldelev.

It’s a six week journey on an open ship, each person will have less than a square metre to live in. The ship was built without using saws, the Vikings didn’t have them and used axes instead. There will be weekly updates on a crew diary, and more frequent updates on a programme webpage, this will be a BBC program in September.

They have set sail

Modern History of Britain

Andrew Marr has filmed a series for the BBC on the political, social, and cultural changes in the UK since WWII, called "Modern History of Britain". While you can’t get the video outside the UK, each decade has been summarised in a good article, with a selection of reader memories from that decade on another page.

Which was your favourite decade? Mine was definitely the 1990s, when I went to university, got married, and moved to the US.

Everyday history

BBC News: A

study of life in the 1930s.

From the soup-eating habits of the middle classes to the application of face cream – a pioneering study of everyday life in Britain is celebrating its 70th birthday… and was the inspiration for Victoria Wood’s double Bafta-winning drama. A common criticism levelled at reality TV shows such as Big Brother is how they have fetishized the tediousness of daily life and turned it into a spectator event. But, as far back as 1937, the belief that mundanity had a currency for historians spurred three young men to start an ambitious and radical project. When Mass Observation began, members of the public were invited to help with a new research project on daily life in Britain – a "science of ourselves".

You can see the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex. The original project ended in 1951, but newer material has been added from 1981 onwards. If you’re in Britain (and you meet their current needs), you can contribute to the ongoing project. The archive contains reports from paid investigators and personal writing from volunteers, which ended up as a series of file reports on subjects like:

  • Social Attitudes To Margarine (December 1938)
  • Non-Physical Ear Plug Problems (November 1940)
  • The British Sense Of Humour (August 1948)
  • Do You Cry In The Dark? (December 1950)
  • Reading In Tottenham (November 1947)
  • Implications of Peckham (October 1946)

You can browse the titles of the file reports, and the summary of what was produced on each topic, but the actual text is not available online.

Raising Atlantis

BBC News: The wave that destroyed Atlantis.

The legend of Atlantis, the country that disappeared under the sea, may be more than just a myth. Research on the Greek island of Crete suggests Europe’s earliest civilisation was destroyed by a giant tsunami. Until about 3,500 years ago, a spectacular ancient civilisation was flourishing in the Eastern Mediterranean. The ancient Minoans were building palaces, paved streets and sewers, while most Europeans were still living in primitive huts. But around 1500BC the people who spawned the myths of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth abruptly disappeared. Now the mystery of their cataclysmic end may finally have been solved. A group of scientists have uncovered new evidence that the island of Crete was hit by a massive tsunami at the same time that Minoan culture disappeared.

This theory is partly a result of the 2004 tsunami in Asia, analysis of destruction led to the idea that the Minoans faced a tsunami that wiped out their coastal cities, caused by a volcano north of Crete.

Finding history

BBC News: School wall yields historic items.

A unique piece of local history has been discovered in the wall of a local primary school in Gravesend, Kent. A bottle containing artefacts from the day in 1893 when building work on Wrotham Road School finished was dug out by workmen building an extension. Coins, letters from the architect, and copies of two local newspapers had all been buried beneath its memorial stone. Head teacher Jenny Hetherington said they would be reburied by the pupils along with some modern equivalents. "We’re hoping to re-use the memorial stone and add our new memorial stone from this phase of the work. The children are writing their own time capsules, and this time we’re going to add photographs," she said.

I love the idea of time capsules. If I made one, I’d include a miniature knitted sock, some English Breakfast teabags in an air-tight tin, and a pair of 16 gauge titanium earrings, along with the usual coins and newspapers. What would you put in your time capsule?

Neolithic Henge Fest

BBC News: Stonehenge builders’ houses found.

A huge ancient settlement used by the people who built Stonehenge has been found, archaeologists have said. Excavations at Durrington Walls, near the legendary Salisbury Plain monument, uncovered remains of ancient houses. People seem to have occupied the sites seasonally, using them for ritual feasting and funeral ceremonies. In ancient times, this settlement would have housed hundreds of people, making it the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain. The dwellings date back to 2,600-2,500 BC – according to the researchers, the same period that Stonehenge was built.

There are houses that show evidence of being used part-time, as if people came to Stonehenge for a festival, partied, feasted, and left, leaving rubbish behind. Other houses are cleaner, and could have been for community leaders.

I remember driving past Stonehenge on the way back from Salisbury where we’d been picking out bridesmaid outfits for two of Paul’s nieces. It was late afternoon, the henge was on a hill in a meadow, and the car, a 30 year old Morris Minor, died just as we passed it. Hubby went to the nearest farmhouse to phone for help, and the AA (Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous) got us back on the road with a replacement part, but it was a bit spooky.