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Tubatulabal Sound Recording n.d

National Anthropological Archives
Digital audio file produced from 1/4" open reel tape copy.

Disc Note:JPH Note

SEE TUB 0004: 0005: 0007

Aluminum disc

Tubatulaal Sound Recording n.d

National Anthropological Archives
Digital audio file produced from 1/4" open reel tape copy.

Disc Note:JPH Note

SEE TUB 0004; 0006

Aluminum disc

Tubatulabal Sound Recording n.d

National Anthropological Archives
Digital audio file produced from 1/4" open reel tape copy.

Disc Note:JPH Note

SEE TUB 0006; 0008

Aluminum disc

The Dying Hercules [sculpture] / (photographer unknown)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On photo mount label: S.F.B. Morse. The dying Hercules. New Haven, Yale University Gallery of Fine Arts. one of six original casts (Loan exhibition of the paintings of Samuel F. B. Morse, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1932.) Photographer: Museum L12173. Classification number: 282/M886/450. Accession: 121827.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 1/8 x 5 5/8 in. (trimmed), mounted on 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. board.

The Dying Centaur [sculpture] / (photographer unknown)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On photo mount label: W. Rimmer. Dying centaur. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. William Rimmer (1816-1879). Photographer: MUS. NEG. 12092G. Gift of Mr. Albert T. Gardner 1943. Classification number: 282/R. Accession: 197530.

Tolles, Thayer, ed., "American Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume 1: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born before 1865," New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, pg. 55-57.

1 photographic print : b&w, 7 5/8 x 7 3/8 in. (trimmed), mounted on 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. board.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art retains the rights to this photograph. Researchers are required to obtain written permission from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to reproduce this image.

Stories from the Bible

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Ms on the Omaha and Ponca 1878-1880

National Anthropological Archives
Microfilm reel # 5.

Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Old number 1184 (complete)

autograph document signed

Contents: "Chapt. VI, Customs around the sick, dying, and the dead", 12 pages; Dakotan myths and legends," 8 pages; "Chapt. XV, Mythology, Folk-lore, Astronomy, and Natural Phenomena," 11 pages; "Chapt. VII, "The practice of medicine," 65 pages; "Chapt. XIV, Religion," 9 pages; miscellaneous notes, 3 pages.

Angel of Death

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Dying Tecumseh

Catalog of American Portraits
Tecumseh (c. 1768–1813) was a pivotal figure in the Native American resistance to American expansionism after the Revolution. A Shawnee chief from the Ohio Valley, Tecumseh created a coalition among the tribes that fought with the British during the War of 1812. After some military success, Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames (Ontario) by troops led by future president William Henry Harrison.

The sculpture draws on classical work, such as the Dying Gaul from ancient Rome, to mythologize Tecumseh as a heroic exemplar of the Native people and their tragic fate, a status conveyed to him only after death.

Vela de Pancho Villa

National Museum of American History
Pancho Villa is one of the most recognizable leaders of the Mexico Revolution. This civil war, which lasted from 1910-1921, was fought to curb U.S. corporate interests and to redistribute agricultural lands, especially for indigenous communities. It was a social revolution that reasserted popular culture and the value of "Mexican-ness." It was also a prolonged, violent conflict that spread death and hunger throughout Mexico, spurring migrants north, mostly into El Paso, Los Angeles, and other historically Mexican U.S. cities. With them came ideas, images, and language for organizing laborers and the rural poor. These ideas and images percolated in the popular culture of Mexican Americans and reappear in the art and activism of Chicanos in the 1960s and 1970s. On the back of this candle depicting Villa are prayers written in English and Spanish asking him to grant the petitioner some of the insight and prowess that enshrined this bandit, social revolutionary, and media star in the mythology of modern Mexico.

Does Rugby Predict Pope's Doom?

Smithsonian Magazine

As I was paging through a special Sport section in a December issue of the British Medical Journal (the source of Tuesday’s post on noisy golf clubs), two words caught my eye: papal rugby.

Those words were part of a larger phrase (the special and general theories of papal rugby) that makes no more sense. So I went back to the beginning of the paper, “Rugby (the religion of Wales) and its influence on the Catholic church: should Pope Benedict XVI be worried?” to try to make sense out of the strange collection of words.

There is an urban legend in Wales that states: “every time Wales wins the rugby grand slam, a pope dies, except for 1978 when Wales were really good, and two popes died.” Three researchers from Wales set out to test if the urban legend were true (and convinced the BMJ to print their results).

First a bit of explanation is needed since many of us—me included—are not familiar with the sport. Rugby is a form of football that originated in England and is sort of like a cross between soccer and American football. A grand slam in rugby is accomplished when whichever team that wins the Six Nations Championship (or its predecessor) does so by winning every match.

The researchers (rugby fanatics, I’m sure) developed two theories. The special theory of papal rugby states that “when Wales win a grand slam, the chance of a papal death in that year increases.” The general theory, meanwhile, says that “when Wales perform particularly well, the expected number of papal deaths increases.” The researchers then set about tracking the rugby championships and their relationship to papal deaths from 1883 to the present.

Their first conclusion: the urban legend (the special theory) is wrong despite the coincidence of the last three popes dying in years of Wales grand slams (the likely source of the myth). As for the general theory, they found a borderline significant association (P=0.047 for those of you who know what that means) between the Welsh wins (though not any other teams) and the number of papal deaths; two popes died in one year (1978) and that happened to be the year of a Wales grand slam.

However, now that we are in a new year, the math may need to be redone. The researchers counseled Vatican medical staff to be on guard until the end of 2008, as Wales won the grand slam last year, but the pope still lives. Does that doom the general theory of papal rugby as well?

People Have Always Been Obsessed with the End of the World

Smithsonian Magazine

It might seem like there's a whole lot of apocalyptic media out there right now, from pandemics, to zombie apocalypses, survivalist books and movies. But it turns out that the fascination with the end of the world isn't new. At The Conversation, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear argue that humans have used stories of the apocalypse for centuries for all sorts of purposes: to numb people from real-world crises like poverty and war, to push political agendas, and to promote hatred of certain groups.

In medieval times, for example, depictions of the Apocalypse were rife with antisemitism. The O’Hears write:

Jews featured heavily in apocalyptic depictions, as seen in some beautiful Anglo-Norman illuminated apocalypse manuscripts. Christ and his followers are depicted as medieval knights, while the forces of Satan are sometimes depicted as Jewish, as in the Lambeth Apocalypse of c. 1260. This sentiment culminated with the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.

Using the apocalypse to put down other groups was common. In Cranach the Elder’s illustrations for Martin Luther’s first German language Bible translation, Satan is linked to the papacy. And a 1795 cartoon by James Gillray shows the then-Prime Minister, William Pitt, as the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Death.

The Christian religion isn’t the only one to predict the end. Old Norse mythology held that a battle between the gods would be the conclusion of the Ragnarok, which some saw happening back in 2014. Some interpretations of the end of the Mayan calendar’s 5,126-year cycle said it would be the end of the world as well, in 2012. Fortunately these apocalypses, along with the one written at the end of the New Testament, have not happened.

Science, however, isn’t afraid to take an even larger view and predict the end of the universe. At least those timelines put the end quite a bit farther out, though experts are still debating the specifics. As astronomer Kevin Pimbblet writes for The Conversation, scientists are getting closer to figuring out how the universe may end — whether it’s through a slow stuttering halt to star production and a rise in the number of black holes or whether through a "Big Rip." That latter option is when the force of dark energy overcomes gravity and rips everything apart. Or maybe, a rare event like the formation of mini black holes could be the way the universe goes (but probably not).

In any case, it’s unlikely the end of the universe will be painful: If humans somehow avoid the end of the Earth and survive to the end of the universe, at least they probably wouldn’t even see it coming

Tasmanian Art Festival to Host Controversial Hermann Nitsch Performance

Smithsonian Magazine

The performance art of Hermann Nitsch, a man revered and reviled in equal measure, is not for the faint of heart. Since the 1960s, the Austrian artist has been staging pagan rituals replete with animal sacrifice, the battering of animal corpses, the splattering of animal blood, mock crucifixions and nudity. As Cristina Ruiz reports for The Art Newspaper, a Tasmanian art festival recently announced that a Nitsch performance featuring a slaughtered bull carcass will be proceed as planned, despite virulent protests against it.

The three-hour performance, titled "150.Action," is slated to take place on June 17 at the Dark Mofo festival, which is put on by the Museum of Old and New in Hobart, Tasmania.

As it turns out, reports that the work would feature a slaughtered bull carcass and 500 liters of bull blood did not go over well with many Tasmanians. In an article published in April, Priscilla Frank of the Huffington Post reported that Animal Liberation Tasmania had launched a petition calling for Hobart officials to stop the performance.

“We are opposed to this event, which trivialises the slaughter of animals for human usage, and condemns a sentient being to death in the pursuit of artistic endeavours,” the petition reads.

Responding to erroneous rumors that "150.Action" would include a live animal slaughter, Leigh Carmichael, Mofo’s creative director, said that the bull would be killed “humanely” before the performance, according to Frank. But Carmichael’s assurances did little to quell the roiling fury over Nitsch’s work. As of today, the petition had garnered more than 20,000 signatures.

Despite calls from protestors, the Tasmanian government did not make any moves to halt the performance. “I don't believe it's a good place for politicians to be in, to be making judgment calls about art no matter how confronting it is," said Tasmanian Premiere Will Hodgman, according to Richard Baines of ABC News.

Dark Mofo announced this week that it would proceed with the blood bath in the face of public outrage. In a lengthy statement, Carmichael explained the festival’s decision.  

"Hermann Nitsch is a highly regarded, internationally respected artist, who has been at the forefront of the Viennese Actionist movement for over 50 years,” he said, according to a second piece in ABC News.

“His work seeks to confront the truth of reality. It exposes reality, and it's an intense experience of reality. It deals with the sanitation of war, horror, and slaughter. It is grounded in ancient ritual, religion, and mythology. It is about death and sex.

"For those members of the public who believe that this is no more than shock art, or a publicity stunt, we urge you to look deeper.”

Oral history interview with Harlan Butt, 2009 July 27-28

Archives of American Art
Sound recording: 7 sound files (5 hr., 19 min.) digital, wav Transcript: 90 pages An interview of Harlan W. Butt conducted 2009 July 27-28, by Mija Riedel, for the Archives of American Art's Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, at Butt's studio, in Ptarmigan Meadows, Colorado.
Harlan Butt speaks of the influence of Asian art on his work; the use of text and imagery in his work; the use of pattern in his work; his undergraduate minor in weaving; the influence of Asian religion and mythology; series The Earth Beneath Our Feet , Garden Anagogies, and Snakes in Heaven; his childhood growing up in Hopewell, New Jersey, near Princeton; undergraduate work at Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; discovery of Buddhism and Eastern religions; his mother's death when he was 20; studying with Stanley Lechtzin and Elliot Pujol at Tyler; graduate school at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale; interest in Japanese tea ceremony; more exploration of Zen Buddhism; use of color in his work; studying with L. Brent Kington; reliquary series; move to Connecticut in 1974; second trip to Japan in 1984 to co-curate Kyoto Metal: An Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Art Metalwork; introduction to Japanese system of artisan apprenticeship; early efforts as a writer and poet; the influence of poet Gary Snyder; summer teaching position at Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; teaching job at San Diego [California] State University in the mid-1970s; rattles and pipes series; exploring the Western landscape; the power of the snake image; taking a teaching position at University of North Texas, Denton (1976- ); first trip to Japan in 1980; differences in artisanal/metalworking practices in Japan and the United States; teaching workshops at various craft schools, Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina; Haystack School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine; and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, compared with teaching in a university; the pros and cons of the gallery system; work with the Nancy Yaw Gallery, Birmingham, Michigan; the challenge of commission work; National Parks Project, Denton Center for the Visual Arts, Denton, Texas; the role of haiku and text in his pieces; series 1,001 Views of Mt. Mu; series Snakes in Heaven; the influence of his wife and children; trip to India and organizing Colour & Light: The Art and Craft of Enamel on Metal, National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, 2001; trip to Australia; involvement with the Society of North American Goldsmiths, Enamelist Society, and American Craft Council; subtle issues of environmentalism in his work; his affinity for metalsmithing and enameling. He also recalls [Rudolf] Staffel, Robert Winokur, Italo Scanga, Jan Brooks, Mike Riegel, Rachelle Thiewes, Eleanor Moty, Albert Paley, Shumei Tanaka, Ken Glantz (Ken Chowder), Randy Thelma Coles, Sandy Green, Mickey McCarter, Gene Pijanowski, Hiroko Pijanowski, Toshihiro Yamanaka, Helen Shirk, Ana Lopez, and Sarah Perkins.

How a German Archaeologist Rediscovered in Iran the Tomb of Cyrus

Smithsonian Magazine

Alexander the Great rode into the city of Pasargadae with his most elite cavalry in their bronze, muscle-sculpted body armor, carrying long spears. Some of his infantry and archers followed. The small city, in what is today Iran, was lush and green. Alexander had recently conquered India. Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor and parts of Egypt were all part of his new empire. The people of Pasargadae likely expected the worst—when the world's most dangerous cavalry shows up on your street, you are probably going to have a bad day. But he hadn't come to fight (the city was already his).

The world's most powerful ruler had come to pay tribute to someone else.

The young conqueror was looking for a tomb containing the remains of Cyrus the Great. But it had recently been ransacked (probably for political reasons). Alexander the Great was furious. An investigation was launched, trials were held.

Alexander ordered the tomb's contents replaced and restored. According to one Greek historian, this included “a great divan with feet of hammered gold, spread with covers of some thick, brightly colored material, with a Babylonian rug on top. Tunics and a Median jacket of Babylonian workmanship were laid out on the divan, and Median trousers, various robes dyed in amethyst, purple, and many other colors, necklaces, scimitars, and inlaid earrings of gold and precious stones. A table stood by it, and in the middle of it lay the coffin which held Cyrus' body.”

Cyrus had been dead for about two hundred years. Alexander idolized him. In the year 559 BCE, Cyrus ordered the construction of Pasargadae.

Ernst Herzfeld arrived in 1928 to begin mapping and photographing the city. He was the world's first professor of middle east archaeology. (Sackler Gallery of Art)

This city became the first capital of the Achaemenid empire that Cyrus built. “It was the super power of its day,” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art. “This is the first super power ever. It was Cyrus who captured Babylon. His empire reached from what is now Afghanistan, included much of Egypt and went as far as the Mediterranean.”

Cyrus' Persian-dominated empire would come to serve as both inspiration and eventual rival to Alexander. Cyrus created a template for not only military conquest but also the political infrastructure to manage and maintain an empire. A postal system, roads, taxation and irrigation systems; all begun years before the Roman Republic even existed.

Pasargadae was the capital of an empire known as well for its mercy and relatively liberal government as for its ability to invade and dominate. Cyrus made a point of allowing freedom of religion, language and culture within his empire.

Both the Christian and Jewish bibles laud him for issuing the Edict of Restoration. After years during which many Jews were kept as captives in Babylon, Cyrus captured Babylon, gave them their freedom and allowed them to return home. For this act, he is the only non-Jew in Jewish scripture who is referred to as 'messiah' or 'His anointed one' (Cyrus is presumed by many scholars to have been a Zoroastrian but it isn't clear that he followed any particular religion).

Yet somehow, both the city and the tomb were essentially misplaced. The buildings and gardens fell into disrepair and crumbled. The mausoleum remained standing but locals eventually became confused about who was buried in it. “The tomb was known as that of the mother of Solomon,” says Farhad.

Herzfeld was meticulous, scientific and careful. He soon produced maps of the site that showed how Pasargadae had been more than just an administrative capital. It was a miracle of design. (Sackler Gallery of Art)

“It's one of the most iconic buildings of the ancient world. But its function was forgotten.”

By the early 20th century, nobody was sure exactly where Cyrus had been buried and it wasn't clear where the former capital of his empire was.

Thousands of years after Alexander paid his respects, Pasargadae was visited by another foreign adventurer looking for the same tomb as Alexander.

This time it was a German rather than a Macedonian. Ernst Herzfeld arrived in 1928 to begin mapping and photographing the city. He was the world's first professor of middle east archeaology. Herzfeld determined that the tomb was that of Cyrus, who had become a historical icon and a part of Iran's national identity.

Modern archeology was still a new replacement for the haphazard looting that had passed for exploration before. Herzfeld was meticulous, scientific and careful. He soon produced maps of the site that showed how Pasargadae had been more than just an administrative capital. It was a miracle of design. Herzfeld's journals, photographs and other materials are now found in the collections of Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, where an exhibition of his drawings, notes and photographs is now on view.

“It was an effort to create a palace city with gardens,” says Farhad. “The gardens play a critical role. The buildings were built around these gardens. There were pavilions... But they had integrated the landscape into the architecture, which was a novel and new idea. That's why the plans for Pasargadae are so important. It was a type of palace that didn't exist before.”

Herzfeld was no Indiana Jones. He was known for being dry, down-to-Earth and serious (although he did travel to Iran with a pet boar named Bulbul). (Sackler Gallery of Art)

“He was right in the middle of empire building,” says David Hogge, head of the Freer and Sackler Archives. “But the architecture that is there very much indicates the international character of the empire; Persian, Greek and even Egyptian elements in the architecture.”

Pasargadae was never a huge city, even by the standards of the time it was founded. But it was Cyrus' personal vision and probably a very pleasant place to visit. “There was a complex system of irrigation canals which Herzfeld discovered,” Hogge says. “It really was very novel when it was built.” The gardens may have contained almond, pomegranate and cherry trees. Clover, roses and poppies probably flowered. It would have been a fragrant place (the Persians also happened to be the first people known to use perfume).

Herzfeld methodically probed for the outlines of foundations and canals. He sketched reconstructions of shattered statues. And in his drawings and maps he brought Cyrus' city back to life for us, just a little bit. “He really made the foundation,” says Farhad. “You cannot do any research on the ancient world without going back to his work. He's not as well known as he should be.”

After Cyrus' death in 530 BCE, the empire's capital was moved to the nearby city of Persepolis (which was also probably founded by Cyrus). Some of the buildings that were still under construction at the time of his passing were never completed. The region gradually became less politically important. “What happened, clearly it was no longer the center of the empire,” says Farhad, “and then with the coming of Islam, the center of importance sort of shifted. . .  Persepolis and Pasargadae represented the pre-Islamic period.”

In spite of his pre-war international archeological expeditions, Herzfeld was no Indiana Jones. He was known for being dry, down-to-Earth and serious (although he did travel to Iran with a pet boar named Bulbul). He was also Jewish. In 1935 he lost his support from the German government. The rise of the Nazi party forced him to seek employment and backing elsewhere. Ironically, the Jewish man who discovered the tomb of the emperor responsible for the Edict of Restoration was himself forced away from his home because of his religion.

Herzfeld ended up in the United States teaching at Princeton at the same time as Albert Einstein. He died in Switzerland in 1948 at the age of 68. Cyrus may have lived to be as old as 70 (his exact birth date is unclear) and is thought to have died in battle.

By the time Herzfeld found his tomb, it had been looted again and Cyrus' bones were gone.

Alexander's empire exceeded that of his hero but he died of a sudden illness believed by some to be the result of poisoning. He was only 32. Modern archaeologists are still searching for his tomb.

“Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae” is on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. through July 31, 2016.

Human Sacrifices May Lie Behind the Rise of Ancient Social Status

Smithsonian Magazine

Stabbed, burned, drowned, strangled, bludgeoned, buried alive. These are only a few of the many ways that humans were ritualistically sacrificed throughout history. These people lost their lives in deference to a higher deity for a range of reasons—to ensure fertile crops, to follow masters to the afterlife, to bring rain.

The victims, however, were often of a lower class, slaves or captives from adjacent communities, and their deaths were frequently drawn out. The perpetrators of the acts were usually the social elite. These facts all hint at a possible darker motivation for human sacrifice: keeping some people at the top of the social ladder and others at the bottom.

This idea, known as the Social Control Hypothesis, was popularized in the late 1990s with the study of human sacrifice in early American cultures. Now a new study, published today in Nature, adds to the evidence that the hypothesis might be correct. Using statistical methods, a team of New Zealand researchers has shown that human sacrifice could have played a crucial role in cementing the layers of social status that gave rise to the eventual formation of many complex societies.

In these early cultures, sacrifice was a tool to terrorize the masses, says the study’s lead author, Joseph Watts, a graduate student at the University of Auckland. “It provided a supernatural justification for punishment,” he explains on his website.

Ancient Greece is one of many cultures in which human and animal sacrifices were performed upon the burial of revered members of society, as depicted here in an engraving by Heinrich Leutemann. (Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis)

The new study focuses on Austronesian cultures, a group of peoples that share a common root language originating in Taiwan. Throughout history, these people diversified and spread across Southeast Asia and Oceania, as well as to Madagascar. Many practiced human sacrifice, including nearly half of the 93 cultures Watts and his colleagues studied.

The mode and rituals around the ceremonies, however, vastly differed between the people practicing them.

For instance, on Shortland Island, which is near Papua New Guinea, a human sacrifice would be necessary upon the building of a common house. The victim would be placed in a hole and then crushed under the weight of a pole dropped into the pit.

Another group, the Melanau people of northern Borneo, would tie the hands of several slaves to the mausoleum of their recently deceased master. Abandoned there, the slaves would die of exposure and, supposedly, serve their master in the afterlife.

The researchers studied such accounts using historical records primarily from the 19th century. They were careful to only examine periods of time before outsiders introduced major world religions, such as Christianity or Islam, and modernized the communities.

Using linguistic information, the researchers created a phylogenetic tree—a complicated branching map of the type more often used to show the interconnectivity of species through time. But instead of creatures, they mapped out the evolution of Austronesian cultures.

They also ornamented the tree with two key details for each community: the degree of social stratification and whether or not the people practiced human sacrifice. Then came the math.

The researchers applied a statistical method to their tree to suss out patterns and examine the relationship of social stratification and human sacrifice through time. This determined whether cultures that had formed a social elite also practiced human sacrifice and vice versa. The method also helped the researchers to directly sort out cause and effect, determining which came first—social status or human sacrifice.

What the results show is that human sacrifice may have helped bolster differences in social status. If a society practiced human sacrifice, it was unlikely for social stratification to diminish and for people to return to a society in which everyone was a social equal. The model also showed that the practice of human sacrifice may have helped to hasten the development and separation between various layers of social status.

The results add support to the idea that human sacrifice instilled fear and at the same time demonstrated the power of the elite, Watts says. This system could have been an early means to build and maintain power, which was a step to the development of complex societies and more formal political systems.

The model also suggests that human sacrifice was not all that important in making the transition from an egalitarian society to a stratified one. That’s because, Watts says, “if human sacrifice is being used at all to maintain social power, there has to be power to start off with.”

“These effects aren’t overwhelmingly strong, but they are consistent,” says Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Redding who wasn’t involved in the study. Although the results do support the role of human sacrifice in social stratification, he says, there could be exceptions to the pattern.

Human sacrifice, however, could have been an effective technique for maintaining power in some societies, Pagel says. “Imagine you lived in a society that is highly stratified, and the ‘winners,’ or so-called elite, of that society would, on certain occasions, just grab someone off the street and sacrifice them,” he says. It’s an effective tactic to warn people that the elite are powerful and to get them to toe the line. “It doesn’t mean that sacrifice is just or right, but it does serve to control a society,” he says.

Watts notes that many of the rituals surrounding sacrifices seemed to aim for the utmost gore—with some ceremonies delaying the moment of death for many hours. “It’s not just a matter of killing efficiently. There's more to it than that,” he says. “The terror and spectacle [of the act] was maximized.”

One example of such a ritual in the Ngaju society was described by Hans Schärer in Ngaju Religion: The Conception of God Among a South Borneo People: "It begins towards sunset and lasts until sunrise. All the participants dance around the slave and stab him with sacred spears, daggers, swords and blowpipes… About sunrise he receives the coup de grace and collapses dying in his own blood."

The question still remains whether the results of this study extend beyond the Austronesian people. Motivations for human sacrifice widely varied across cultures, yet many showed similar links to social hierarchy, Watts says.

There was a tomb found in Eastern China, for instance, that scientists determined was the grave of an aristocrat buried with nearly four dozen victims of human sacrifice along with a trove of precious artifacts. And ancient Egyptians, of course, are known to have similarly buried slaves alongside deceased rulers.

However, in Central and South America, “the Maya, Aztec and Inca, and other New World societies celebrated the capture and sacrifice of rulers and other high status individuals,” says John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University. Among these peoples, human sacrifice may have served a different purpose.

For many societies, though, “social stratification was probably one of the first steps in social complexity,” Watts says. “In these early stages, human sacrifice was serving a crucial role in building and maintaining social structures.”

The World's Strangest Scientific Names

Smithsonian Magazine

Would you like to have an animal, plant or other organism named after you? Do you long to be immortalized in the faux-Latin of a species’ scientific name? Here are a few easy options:

You can discover one and name it yourself.

A colleague, friend or family member might have enough new species lying around and be willing to name one after you.

If you have enough money, you could pay an institution or charity to give a species your name. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography last year offered naming rights for several ocean species, starting from the rock-bottom price of $5,000.

Of course, if you’re famous, a scientist may honor you with, say, a spider, a la Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, or the tapeworm Acanthobothrium zimmeri, recently named for science writer Carl Zimmer.

But naming a creature after a person seems to lack a certain amount of creativity. After all, the rules for naming species are surprisingly open: The name must not be offensive, must be spelled in only the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet and may be derived from any language. In fact, a name need not be derived from anything at all; the rules state that an arbitrary combination of letters is also perfectly acceptable. (In contrast, astronomical bodies—like stars, asteroids and planets—have strict naming conventions overseen by committees.) So why shouldn’t a biologist have some fun when naming something she discovered?

Fictional characters (Han solo) have been honored, as have imaginary places (Dracorex hogwartsia). Unsurprisingly—since we are dealing with scientists—the genre of science fiction and fantasy seems to be a big draw, with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien a popular source (Gollumjapyx smeagol, Oxyprimus galadrielae, Macrostyphlus frodo and M. gandalf).

Some scientists turn to mythology, including Greek (Cassiopeia andromeda) and Norse (Clossiana thore).

Religion is another great source for names. There are species named for Indian gods (Stegodon ganesa), Egyptian gods (Papio anubis) and even a host of Aztec gods (Alabagrus coatlicue, A. ixtilton, A. mixcoatl and A. xolotl). The Christian devil has whole genuses named after him (Lucifer, Mephisto and Satan). And there’s even Noah’s Ark (Arca noae).

For those who like wordplay, there are anagrams (Rabilimis mirabilis), palindromes (Orizabus subaziro), rhymes (Cedusa medusa) and puns galore (Agra phobia, Gelae baen, Ytu brutus and Pieza pi).

Some names are clever only in translation, such as Eucritta melanolimnetes, which can be roughly translated as “the creature from the black lagoon.” Others only make sense if you know they derive from a misspelling. The genus Alligator, for example, derives from “el lagarto,” Spanish for “the lizard.”

Geography is an obvious source (Panama canalia), but there are a number of species whose names don’t seem to match their range. There’s the Australian death adder named Acanthophis antarcticus and the Tahitian blue lorikeet, Vini peruviana.

But sometimes people just run out of ideas. When one scientist reached his ninth species of leafhopper, he named it Erythroneura ix. And one early 20th-century biologist found so many species of olethreutid moths that it seems to have strained his creativity. A sampling includes: Eucosma bobana, E. cocana, E. dodana, E. fofana, E. hohana, E. kokana, E. lolana and E. momana. You get the idea.

Maybe he ran out of people he liked enough to give them a moth. I wouldn’t mind, though, having one named after me. And unlike Carl Zimmer and Neil Young, my last name lends itself perfectly to scientific nomenclature.

Naples: Italy in the Extreme

Smithsonian Magazine

Naples, just two hours south of Rome, has long been a symbol of chaos, stress, and culture shock for European travelers. I remember my first visit as a wide-eyed 18-year-old to this quintessential southern Italian city. My travel buddy and I stepped off the train into the same vast Piazza Garibaldi that 35 years later still strikes visitors as a big paved hellhole. On that first trip, a man in a white surgeons’ gown approached me and said, “Please, we need blood for a dying baby.” We immediately did a U-turn, stepped back into the station, and made a beeline for Greece.

Today, even with its new affluence and stress on law and order, Naples remains uniquely thrilling. With more than two million people, Naples is the third-largest city in Italy. It also has almost no open spaces or parks, which makes its position as Europe’s most densely populated city plenty evident. Watching the police try to enforce traffic sanity is almost comical in Italy’s grittiest, most polluted, and most crime-ridden city. But Naples surprises the observant traveler with its impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children in the streets with good humor and decency. One of my favorite sightseeing experiences anywhere in Italy is simply wandering the streets here.

I’ve taken probably a hundred photos while just observing the teens on motorcycles in the vertical neighborhoods of the Spaccanapoli district. Every few yards a couple of James-Dean-cool guys were leaning against lampposts while three or four girls straddling the same motorbike would cruise by as if playing Neapolitan Idol.

Something crazy is always going on in Naples. During one of my visits there was a great and stinky garbage strike. Minibus-sized garbage mounds were parked on the curb every couple of blocks. It’s easy to make a big newspaper stink about it, but locals seemed to just hold their noses, knowing that someday this little piece of Naples chaos would be dealt with. I smelled nothing.

One time I ran across the “Chapel of Maradona”—a tiny niche on the wall dedicated to Diego Maradona, a soccer star who played for Naples in the 1980s. Locals consider soccer almost a religion, and this guy was practically a deity. You can even see a “hair of Diego” and a teardrop from the city when he went to another team for more money.

Around the corner from the shrine is an entire street lined with shops that sell tiny components of fantastic manger scenes, including figurines caricaturing local politicians and celebrities—should you want to add Bush, Obama, or Berlusconi to your nativity set. There are also many gold and silver shops, though this is where stolen jewelry ends up. According to locals, thieves quickly sell their goods, the items are melted down immediately, and new pieces go on sale as soon as they cool.

Naples has the most intact street plan of any ancient Roman city. I like to imagine this place during those times, with streetside shop fronts that closed up after dark, turning into private homes. Today, it’s just one more page in a 2,000-year-old story of a city: kisses, near misses, and all kinds of meetings, beatings, and cheatings.

You name it, it occurs right on the streets today, as it has since ancient times. People ooze from crusty corners. Black-and-white death announcements add to the clutter on the walls. Widows sell cigarettes from buckets. For a peek behind the scenes in the shade of wet laundry, venture down a few side streets. Buy two carrots as a gift for the woman on the fifth floor if she’ll lower her bucket to pick them up.

While trying to find cheap eats near major sights for my guidebook users, I wandered behind the Archaeological Museum and met exuberant Pasquale—owner of the tiny Salumeria Pasquale Carrino. Rather than ask the cheapskate “how much” question, I just let fun-loving and flamboyant Pasquale build me his best sandwich. I watched enthralled, as he turned sandwich-making into a show. After demonstrating the freshness of his rolls as if squeezing the Charmin, he assembled the components, laying on a careful pavement of salami, bringing over a fluffy mozzarella ball as if performing a kidney transplant, slicing a tomato with rapid-fire machine precision, and lovingly pitting the olives by hand before ornamenting his masterpiece with them. He then finished it all off with a celebratory drizzle of the best oil. Five euros and a smile later, I was on the street in search of a suitable bench upon which to enjoy my affordable and memorable Neapolitan lunch.

For all the details on Naples, please see Rick Steves’ Italy.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

Excavating the National Numismatic Collection

National Museum of American History

Ever wonder what it feels like to discover an object not seen for over 1,000 years? Ever been curious about the ancient world? Beginning with Etruscan coinage, Melissa Ludke explores the National Numismatic Collection (NNC) through the eyes of an archaeology student by rediscovering objects and making historical and archaeological connections.

As a trench supervisor excavating on an Etruscan site located in the hills of Tuscany, I felt a certain excitement about uncovering history with my bare hands that has not been seen since the 7th century BCE. It is a completely unique experience. Once you get past the dirt in your face and blistered fingertips, you earn that gratifying moment when you discover an object that has been lost until now.

While working alongside the curatorial team on the new numismatics gallery opening in July 2015, I decided to take a closer look at the National Numismatic Collection. As a soon-to-be graduate student in classical archaeology, I sought a new approach to understanding the ancient collection and connecting these monetary objects—once used and held very similar to the money jangling in our pockets today—with their cultures.

The Etruscan civilization primarily originates in an area within Italy called Etruria, which we know today as the region of Tuscany. This civilization existed before the Romans and is contemporaneous with the Ancient Greeks, spanning roughly the 11th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE. As with almost any other civilization, they had their own language, religion, architecture, and economy, including their own system of coinage, which was primarily minted in the Etruscan cities of PopuloniaTarquiniaVetulonia, and Volterra.

Similar to the Roman Aes Rude, the Etruscans used bronze ingots as a precursor to coinage. Cast bronze coinage was produced around the 3rd century BCE, with a variety of weight standards, contemporaneous with the circulation of the Aes Signatum, specifically the "ramo secco" type and the Aes Grave. In addition, Greek coinage also circulated in Italy at this time, primarily among Magna Graecia in southern Italy.

Side-by-side photos of the front and back of a coin. Slightly blue. Raised, gold-colored pattern.

Early silver coinage began with the first issue minted and circulated by Vulci and Populonia in the 5th century BCE followed by three issues in the 4th century BCE, although the bulk of silver coinage emerged within the 3rd century BCE, along with small amounts of gold coinage. These coins were also produced in roughly three separate phases, with the majority having been minted in Populonia and Vetulonia, consisting of various units marked on either the front or reverse of the coin.

Within the National Numismatic Collection, there are approximately twelve coins of identified Etruscan coinage, the majority of which are from Populonia. The industrial center of Populonia was an Etruscan city situated on the coast, whose currency was typically marked by its names of "Pupluna," "Pufluna," and "Fufluna," along with several types of mythological iconography. The NNC has two depicting creatures thought to be part of the Etruscan religion and identified as demons, which exist in between immortals and mortals. Demons were not considered evil, but instead were either symbols of death who escort souls to the Underworld or seen as protectors of human beings.

Photo of coin with swirly-bodied dragon thing in center

A hippocampus is the combination of a horse and a fish, widely present as a demon throughout Etruscan religion. For a coastal city like Populonia, it would not be uncommon to find this type of animal in an area circulating around a seafaring culture. At the same time, the gorgon type was in circulation and, similar in appearance to well-known Medusa, was thought to ward off evil and is often depicted with snakes or wings.

Photo of coin with design

While this is a small sampling of the NNC's large collection of ancient coinage, these objects are important to our understanding the development of money in the classical world and offer a glimpse into some of the early history of currency and ancient economies. With the combination of archaeology and numismatics, much can be achieved merely by excavating the National Numismatic Collection cabinet by cabinet and drawer by drawer.

Melissa Ludke is a project assistant in the National Numismatic Collection and will be a graduate student at Florida State University in the fall.

Melissa Ludke
Posted Date: 
Monday, August 24, 2015 - 08:00
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The Holy City of Varanasi

Smithsonian Magazine

At six in the morning, the alleys of old Varanasi gleam with last night's rain. One path just wide enough for two men to walk abreast leads past shops down to the holy river Ganges.

It's barely sunrise, but the alleys are already in chaos. Men jostle women, women jostle fat bullocks, bullocks narrowly avoid stepping on children. Everything is for sale – small bottles of holy Ganges water, larger bottles of branded mineral water, tiny figurines of the Lord Shiva, whose town this is. Tourists, almost invariably wearing colorful harem pants, brush shoulders with locals.

The storeowners watch the activity with lax interest, slurping tooth-rottingly sweet chai out of thimble-sized cups. When asked for directions they come to life, putting away the tea and describing the path with energetic and firm gestures. This may be the city where Hindus come to find enlightenment, but it is easy to lose your way.

Lines of Indian pilgrims walk barefoot through the alleys, drawn by occasional glimpses of the holy river. At last, the alleys fall away, and the sluggish green river appears, smooth as a sheet of glass. From here the view extends to the distant eastern bank, hazed with brown dust. This year, the monsoon rains have been below average, and the Ganges lies low and tame between the banks.

Tens of narrow steps shine wetly. The pilgrims sigh, picking their way down the steps to the water's edge. It's sunrise, the most fortunate hour, and they're here to take a dip in the Ganges.


In recent years the Ganges River has drawn attention for its ungodly level of pollution. But the bathers are immune to all this. Nearly 2.5 million of them come each year to Varanasi, this holiest of cities, on the banks of the most sacred of Indian rivers. According to Hindu legend, Lord Shiva unleashed the Ganges from the knot of his hair. For centuries, its rich floods lent fertility to the soil of the central Gangetic plains, which nourished some of India's most prominent ancient civilizations.

Varanasi is a heap of mismatched temples and narrow steps located on the Ganges' crescent-shaped western bank, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is a city of scholars, home to one of Asia's largest universities. It is a city of temples, including the gold-plated Vishwanath sacred to Shiva; the Bharat Mata, or Mother India, temple that boasts a huge three-dimensional relief map of the Indian subcontinent carved out of marble; and the hundreds of small temples that dot the waterways and alleys.

It is also a city of legends. Varanasi strains under its own myths, which are contradictory, obscure and impossible to prove.

"The history of Varanasi is a puzzle [that] has to be solved by a group of scholars together," says Bhanu Shankar Mehta, who has lived in Varanasi for more than 80 years and lectures on its history. "You must put all the mythological and historical and proto-history together."

Old Varanasi's ancient ruins lie on the Rajghat plateau, in the northeastern part of the city. Here, archaeologists discovered pottery that went back to 1000 B.C., and broken masonry from as late as A.D. 1500, suggesting the area has been continuously inhabited for 2,500 years.

"We have very few settlements that continue like that, so Varanasi is very important from an archaeological perspective," says P.N. Singh, a history professor at Banaras Hindu University. "It is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities."

Image by Anika Gupta. A view of Varanasi from Manmandir Ghat. Approximately 80 ghats lead down to the western edge of the Ganges River. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. A group of men bathes in the Ganges River. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Boys swim in the Ganges River. When the monsoon is low, the river is narrow enough to cross. Locals often bathe on the opposite bank, where there is less of a crowd and no slipper steps. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Tourists charter boats to watch the morning rituals. Varansi is the seventh most popular destination for foreigners visiting India. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Pilgrims, bathers and tourists gather at the ghats in the morning. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Wooden rowboats take tourists from Desaswamedh to Harish Chandra ghat and back, a trip of about one hour. They also take bathers to the opposite shore. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Prakash rows a boat along past Harish Chandra ghat shortly after sunrise. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. The steps that lead up to Kedar Ghat, where Shiva is said to have risen from the surface of the water. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. A pillar at Desaswamedh Ghat depicts the Ganges River flowing from Lord Shiva’s hair. To the right sits the shiv-ling, also one of Shiva’s icons. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Pilgrims wash their clothes in the sacred river and leave them to dry on the railings along the ghat. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Local cowherds bring their bullocks down the ghats to drink and bathe in the Ganges. The bull, nandi, is also sacred to Shiva. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Cycle rickshaws transport people within Old Varanasi. They are the only vehicles that can navigate the narrow alleys beside the ghats. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Merchants spread out glass beads and necklaces on the ghats. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. Seven priests perform the Ganga aarti. They begin by lighting incense and ringing bells, saluting the sacred river. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. The tools the priests use during the Ganga aarti include fresh flowers and a lamp in the shape of a serpent. Shiva is often depicted reclining on a serpent. (original image)

Image by Anika Gupta. A man sells flowers and candles for pilgrims to use in the Ganga aarti, a nightly prayer saluting the Ganges. Hundreds of people come to watch and participate in the prayer, which starts at 7 pm and runs for about an hour. (original image)

Varanasi's legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time. It could also be the battlefield where the god Krishna set fire to a duplicate but imposter Krishna, or the place where the Lord Rama came to do penance after slaying the demon Ravana.

"Banares is an encyclopedia itself, it has got 100 dimensions, you can't cover it even in a book," Mehta says.

In a country where most cities have at least two names, Varanasi has over a hundred. The locals still call it Banaras, perhaps after the mythological king Benar. The Jataka Tales, a collection of ancient Buddhist folk stories, refer to the city as Jitwari, the place were business is good, or as Pushwavati, the flower garden city, or as Molini, the lotus garden city.

Under the name Kasi, the city was one of 16 great Indian kingdoms mentioned by ancient Buddhist texts from the first millennium B.C., when the invention of highways and coins first led to a flourishing of commerce. Iron arrowheads and fortified cities discovered by archaeologists suggest violent encounters between the kingdoms, but it was also an age of nonviolence. Gautama, later known as the Buddha, delivered his first sermon during this era. And Mahavir, the founder of the ascetic and nonviolent Jain religion, was born during this period.


Prakash can't be older than 15 years old, but he's been working as a boatman on the Ganges for as long as he can remember. Every morning, starting as early as five AM, he rows tourists down the Ganges in a 10-foot-long blue wooden boat. The most popular time for a boat ride is sunrise, when the surface of the sacred river flames with reflected color and bathers line the waterfront.

Along the way, he tells the stories of Varanasi's famous ghats, the sets of steps that lead from the alleys of Varanasi down to the river. Each ghat was constructed by a different medieval king, and though they are young compared to the ancient ruins on Rajghat, the ghats have inspired their own mythology.

The most famous is the Desaswamedh Ghat, where the father of Lord Rama once sacrificed 10 horses in an appeal to the sun.

At Kedar Ghat a priest used to perform a daily prayer to Lord Shiva. One day he became ill and couldn't perform the prayer, telling Lord Shiva, "You will have to come yourself."

"So Lord Shiva rose from the water in front of the ghat," Prakash says.

Further down the river, a ghat is abandoned. "That's Narad ghat," says Prakash. "The story is that women who bathe there will fight with their husbands, so no one bathes there."

Heavy black smoke rises from Harish Chandra and Manikarnika ghats. Ashes and flowers dot the waves. These are the burning ghats, where relatives bring their loved ones to be cremated. According to Hindu legend, those who are cremated in Varanasi will achieve enlightenment and be free of the cycle of death and rebirth. Nearly 300 bodies are cremated every day.

"This is the best city to die in," Prakash says, smiling, as he looks at the sun rising over the ghats. The bathers are out in full force. Some lather up, while others dance and sing in the water. In the narrow alleys behind them, the city of Varanasi is just waking up.

What Artist Martha McDonald Might Teach Us About a Nation Divided

Smithsonian Magazine

Connecting the present to the past is the central mission of historians, and especially historians who work in museums. A new exhibition, “Dark Fields of the Republic,” which I curated for the National Portrait Gallery, looks at the photography of Alexander Gardner, a student of Mathew Brady, who was among the first to document the horrors of the Civil War battlefields. During the heroic and tragic middle period of the American 19th century, it was Gardner's shocking images of the dead that helped usher in the modern world.

Martha McDonald, a Philadelphia-based performance artist had been drawn to the question of Victorian mourning rituals in her earlier works The Lost Garden (2014) and The Weeping Dress (2012) and when we asked her to create a piece to accompany and amplify the themes of the Gardner show, she readily agreed.  

Gardner was one of the major figures of the photographic revolution in art and culture that occurred in the United States and Europe in the middle of the 19th century. Scots-born and of a working class background, Gardner was fascinated by the emerging technology of photography and found employment in Brady's studio for whom he did both portrait photography and, most crucially, began to take pictures of the battlescapes of the Civil War. The success of his photographs in his 1862 exhibition, "The Dead at Antietam" allowed Gardner to strike out on his own, to set up his own gallery in Washington, and to continue taking pictures of the War and later of the American west.

To suggest the full dimensions of that past experience, artistic and cultural programs in poetry, dance and performance art will support the exhibition. McDonald, who was in the process of creating her work Hospital Hymn: Elegy for Lost Solders, sat down with me to discuss her artistic intentions and purposes, as well as her career as a performance artist. The piece will debut October 17 at the museum.

David Ward: The Portrait Gallery’s building was used as a troop depot, as a hospital and Walt Whitman worked as a nurse in the building. How much did the history of the building play into how you conceived your work?

On my first site visit, I was immediately struck by the idea that this gorgeous, stately building was once filled with the sick and the dying. I started thinking about all the spirits that were still present in the building and I thought, this is really rich territory to mine.  I went home from that visit and read Whitman’s Specimen Days, which is in large part about his time as a nurse during the Civil War. Whitman writes specifically about visiting soldiers in the Patent Office hospital and how strange it was to see all the beds lined up next to the cases of patent models, especially at night when they were lit up. I was struck by how Whitman was obsessed with and heartbroken about the “unknown soldier”—the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who died far from home, with no family or friends around, and how so many of them were buried in mass, unmarked graves, or not buried at all, just left to decay in the woods or on the battlefield.

The second thing that struck me was Whitman’s fascination with how nature served as a kind of witness to the suffering and loss of the war. He imagines a soldier wounded in battle crawling into the woods to die, his body missed by the burial squads that came by several weeks later during a truce. Whitman writes that the soldier “crumbles into mother earth, unburied and unknown.” Now I know from reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering that this was not just an imagined incident, but one that happened to thousands of soldiers in the war. Both Specimen Days and Whitman’s later Civil War poems suggest that the bodies of these unknown soldiers became the compost of the nation—their spirits now present in every blade of grass, every sheave of wheat and every flower. He writes: “…the infinite dead—the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows and every breath we draw…”

Performance artist Martha McDonald premieres her new work Hospital Hymnal: Elegy for Lost Soldiers at the National Portrait Gallery on October 17, 2015, at 1 p.m. (Photograph by Kelly Cobb)

DW: Gardner’s portfolio, "The Dead at Antietam" caused a sensation when it was exhibited in New York City in October 1862. The New York Times commented that the photographs had a “terrible distinctness” that brought the reality of war home to civilians. Would you talk a bit about how the themes of the exhibition played into how you conceptualized the piece?

I was thinking about how I might express that idea in a performance in the Great Hall and I had this vision of filling up the entire hall with red felt flowers—the kind of flowers that a grieving widow, mother or sister might have made in her 19th century drawing room out of silk or paper or wax to commemorate her lost loved one. I envisioned it as a piling up of the work of all this grief, the grief of a nation of mourners.

Then I had the idea to suggest the temporary hospital by lining the hall with military cots covered in white sheets and that I would put the red flowers in pillow cases and release the flowers in the performance by cutting each pillow open to suggest the wounds tended in the Patent Office hospital and the blood that was shed. I wanted to suggest both the loss of life but also the work of mourning that was done by all those left behind, who struggled to mourn their loved ones without a body to bury.

This is a similar problem that mourners faced after 9/11. This question of how do you grieve without a body is important to me. So the thousands of flowers I’ll be releasing suggest the enormity of the loss but they are also symbols of renewal and rebirth, as suggested in Whitman’s compost imagery of flowers springing from the dark fields of battle.

DW: We were drawn to you because of your work personifying mourning. And we’ve had conversations about the title of the exhibition “Dark Fields,” which suggests the weight and tragic aspects of a crucial period in American history.

There is an Alexander Gardner photograph in the exhibition that shows the bodies of dead soldiers lined up on the battlefield before they are to be buried. When I first saw the photograph, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of dead, but I also found it oddly beautiful the way their bodies formed a long arc across the field. It is almost sculptural.

When I look at the copy of the photo I have hanging on the wall in my studio and then I look at the pile of red flowers on the cot I have set up in there, it feels like my red flowers can also be seen as stand-ins for the lost soldiers, the sheer volume of flowers hinting at the immensity of human loss. The Gardner photos will inform the audience’s viewing of my more lyrical approach to the subject matter.

I will also be making a small booklet for the audience similar in size to the little notebooks that Whitman kept while visiting soldiers. The booklet will have some background information on the Patent Office’s use as a hospital and Whitman’s role there, as well as lyrics for the songs I am singing. So people will get a little bit of education from that as well.

For a piece she did on Victorian mourning dress rituals, artist Martha McDonald learned the dies in the fabrics sometimes stained the skin. (Crying Portrait (tear stains), 2010, photograph by Matthew Stanton)

DW: I think we forget how noisy ordinary life was circa 1850-80—to say nothing about the volume of noise in a battle like Gettysburg—and similarly the smell and the odors of that period. People today don’t realize how unpleasant it was—horse shit all over the streets, tanning mills, unbathed bodies, clothes that were never cleaned. How much of that are you going to bring to you work? 

Oh, the smells of the 19th century! I can only imagine the horror of it all! Reading Whitman’s Specimen Days and Faust’s Republic of Suffering certainly gave me a sense of the putrid odors that would have swirled around the Civil War camps, hospitals and battlefields but the cities were pretty fowl-smelling places as well.

I pondered that a lot when I was researching Victorian mourning dresses and how the unstable plant-based dyes stained women’s bodies. People bathed so seldom, the stains hung around for a long time, sometimes long after they moved out of mourning. The recipes I found in ladies magazines for removing the stains seemed horrible—the main thing they used was oxalic acid, which is what you use to clean silverware. I am not addressing 19th century smells in any way in this piece but I am interested in suggested other sensory experiences from the period—the sound of my feet echoing through the hall as I walk from cot to cot, the rough texture of the felt flowers against the crispness of the white sheets. 

DW: We conceptualize the past through written documents or portraits—before the 20th century there were few recordings—we tend to think of the past as silent which I think plays into our romanticization of it—frozen in silence like an exhibition display behind glass. How will you address that?

I will be singing a number of old hymns that were popular during the Civil War era, some taken from the sacred harp tradition of the South and others that are Northern folk hymns, like “The Shining Shore.” I recently read that [the hymn] was very popular with soldiers during the war, but that it fell out of fashion because it reminded veterans too much of the war.  Little wonder with its chorus: “For now we stand on Jordan’s strand/Our friends are passing over/And just before the Shining Shore/We did almost discover.”

DW: How do those hymns play into your performance?

The music I will be singing is based on Whitman’s recollection of walking into the Armory hospital late one night and hearing a group of nurses singing to the soldiers. He describes the songs as “declamatory hymns” and “quaint old songs” and lists some of the lyrics for “The Shining Shore,” which I am learning now. He describes the sight of “men lying up and down the hospital in their cots (some badly wounded—some never the rise thence) the cots themselves with their drapery of white curtains and the shadows” they cast. How they tilted their heads to listen.

He says that some of the men who were not as far gone sang along with the nurses. I was surprised when I read that passage about singing in the hospitals, but then I remembered all the accounts I had read of 19th-century families singing at home for recreation and singing around the bed of a sick or dying loved one and it reminded me how pervasive music (or “home-made music” as Whitman titled his entry about the singing nurses) was in the 19th century. People sang for every occasion.

And as I mentioned earlier, singing provided a way for people to express intense emotions—too intense for polite society—like grief and loss. I am a big believer in the healing power of a sad song. When a lament is sung, the singer invites the listeners to come in contact their own grief. The performance of a lament or sad hymn creates a space for people to cry or to live out their emotions in public in a way that is deeply healing because it allows listeners to live out their own personal dramas in a crowd of individuals who are each processing their own grief or experiencing other deep emotions.

DW: You’ve evolved a number of pieces that draw on American history, which as an American historian I have to commend. What draws you to the past?

My work engages in a dialogue between the past and the present. I find deep resonance with the handcrafts and folk songs people used in the 18th and 19th centuries to cope with and express feelings of loss and longing. I appropriate these historic art forms in my performances and installations as a way to articulate my own losses and longing and to explore presence and absence. I look to the past to reflect on the present but I am certainly not the only American artist looking to our history as a source for inspiration.

DW: I get the sense that contemporary artists aren’t all that interested in American history as a source or inspiration—am I wrong?

My work can be contextualized within a group of contemporary artists engaging with history and folklore to explore personal narrative and reflect on the current socio-political climate, artists like Dario Robleto, Allison Smith and Duke Riley. These artists appropriate folk crafts to convey their personal narrative, including 19th-century hair work and soldiers trench art (Robleto) sailor’s scrimshaw and tattoo art (Riley) and Civil War re-enactor’s costumes (Smith).

There were a couple of recent exhibitions of contemporary artists engaging with history, including “The Old Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art” at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2008) and “Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History” at MASSMoca (2006) that show the breadth of this trend. 

DW: You’re a committed feminist, could you talk about your recovery of women’s voices as an aspect of our evolving historical understanding.

I have always been interested in recovering women’s voices in my work—whether looking at female stereotypes in opera, literature and mythology as I did in my early work, or exploring the history of women as keepers of memory in my more recent work. Being a feminist is integral to my art practice.

My work is a kind of a performative response to women’s social history, in all its richness and complexity and invisibility. There is a really great book I recently read called Women and the Material Culture of Death that is all about recovering the largely invisible work that women did over the centuries to commemorate lost loved ones and keep the memory of families, communities and the country alive. Drew Gilpin Faust also addresses the key role women played in healing the nation after the Civil War in her book.

I am inspired as an artist by these craft forms, but I also think its important for people to know about them as material practices that helped society to address and live with death and loss. Contemporary society lacks these rituals. We deny death and aging. As a result, we are completely out of touch with our own impermanence, which causes all sorts of problems like greed, hate crimes, destroying the environment, etc.

I hope my work reminds people about impermanence and to think about their own lives and how they might adapt some of these rituals to face and live with the loss that is all around them.

DW: Talk a bit about your artistic evolution or trajectory and how you were originally trained.

I usually refer to myself as an interdisciplinary artist. I make installations and objects that I activate in performance to transmit narrative. For the last 10 years my work has focused a lot on site-specific interventions in historic house museums and gardens where I draw on the site and its stories to explore how these public places connect with private histories and emotional states.  

My art practice developed through a pretty unconventional trajectory. I started out working as a journalist. I was a newspaper and magazine writer. I also sang with professional Baroque ensembles—performing in churches and concert halls. In the mid 1990s, I crossed paths with a queer, highly politicized performance art scene in Philadelphia, performing in cabarets and nightclubs.

As I sang my baroque arias in this milieu of drag queens and AIDS activists, I discovered the powerful potential of costumes to convey narrative. Nurtured by benevolent drag queens in this super theatrical environment, I developed performance pieces that drew on the artifice of Baroque opera and the mythological characters that peopled them to explore gender, identity and power and my own personal narratives.

I drew on my journalism background to do the heavy research and write monologues that I spoke to the audience. I made a piece about mermaids, sirens and harpies—half-women/half-beasts that don’t fit in on land, sea or air—and my relationship to them. I explored the Madwoman in Opera. I made another big piece looking at the mythological Penelope’s epic labor of weaving and unweaving to explore the pain of waiting and acceptance, drawing on my mother’s death. These shows often included video projections (I sang Henry Purcell’s siren duet with myself on video), elaborate sets and sometimes other singers and dancers. 

DW: As a person interested in creating art, how have you evolved into a performance artist.

After years of showing work in theaters, I started to feel really limited by the flatness of the theatrical proscenium and the distance of the audience sitting passively in the darkened theater. Around that time I got invited by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia to make a piece in response to their collection of rare books and decorative arts.

I was fascinated by how the Rosenbach brothers used their collections to reinvent themselves: They grew up as sons of middle-class Jewish merchants who went bankrupt but as the brothers’ amassed a fortune from selling rare books in the 1920s, they assumed the lavish lifestyle of English country gentlemen. My performance took the audience on a tour of the museum, focusing on objects that were pretending to be something else—chinoiserie mirrors, Empire furniture, forged Shakespeare folios—to examine how we use our objects to redefine ourselves. 

Making the Rosenbach show made me realize that I was not so interested in creating “stage magic” to transport the audience to somewhere else anymore. What I really wanted to do was to literally take them through sites and uncover their hidden histories through a kind of song tour.

Since then I have led audiences through an 18th-century botanic garden, a Victorian cemetery (both in Philly), on a tiny boat traveling down a river through the center Melbourne, Australia, and out into the shipping lanes, and in a private in-home theater designed by Leon Bakst in the 1920s in the basement of a mansion in Baltimore. Throughout all of these pieces, my main interest was to awaken the audience to the experience of being in the site—the smell and taste of herbs in the kitchen garden, the wind in the trees and the swallows feeding on insects in the cemetery, the giant container ships that dwarfed our little boat on the river and the angle of the setting sun at twilight. I began to speak less and less in my performances and let the site and my objects speak more.

Singing has always been central to my art practice. It is probably the most essential mode of expression for me. I feel like it allows me to communicate with an audience much more deeply than speaking can. It allows a different kind of emotional contact. As an audience member, I get such a rush of emotion when I feel the vibration of a singer’s voice—especially up close—in my own body. I know how powerful that can be. Singing also allows me to explore and activate the acoustics of these spaces and to evoke the memories of the people who once lived and worked there. Its almost like I’m conjuring their spirits through song.

When I moved to Australia in 2008, I had the incredible opportunity and freedom to experiment with my work, to try new things and to jettison others. I stopped singing Baroque music at that point because I wanted to spend more time making the objects and costumes and less time keeping my voice in shape. You have to be like a professional athlete to sing that music—vocalizing several hours a day 5- to 6-days a week. When I began making work in Australia about Victorian mourning culture, I reconnected with Appalachian folk music and I continue to find its haunting melodies and lyrics so well-suited to express yearning and loss. I am also really interested in how Anglo-Irish immigrants brought these songs to America as keepsakes of the homes they left behind. I am fascinated by how people use folksongs to bind themselves to people and places they have lost and to express feelings they are not able or not permitted to express in polite society.

I am interested in taking the audience on a physical journey through time and space, often by literally walking them through a site. But I also want to take them on an emotional journey via the music and visual images I create—to encourage them to think about their own lives and their own losses.

DW: As a final question, what do you hope to achieve in creating and performing this piece?

I guess I hope to achieve several things with the performance: I would like to create an experience for the audience that awakens them to the site of the Great Hall—to the amazing acoustics, the grand architecture, and the “hidden” history of its use as a temporary hospital during the Civil War soldiers where soldiers died.

I would like the audience to think about the volume of loss during the Civil War 150 years ago and perhaps how that relates to the current losses we experience in the ongoing conflicts in the Gulf region and in the escalating racial violence, taking place across the country right now.

And finally, I would like to invite the audience to think about their own lives and their own losses and to have the opportunity to share in a collective moment of grief and renewal. This is probably a lot to ask of an audience, but this is what I am working towards as I develop the project. 

On September 18, 2015 the National Portrait Gallery will open the exhibition “Dark Fields of the Republic. Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-72.” Martha McDonald will debut her work as part of a performance art series, “Identify” that will be inaugurated this year at the National Portrait Gallery on October 17, 2015 at 1 p.m.

When Newspapers Reported on Gun Deaths as "Melancholy Accidents"

Smithsonian Magazine

Earlier this month, a gun rights activist made national headlines when her four-year-old son shot her in the back with her handgun while she was driving. Her story, unsurprisingly, drew intense scrutiny. A Facebook page she operated featured posts such as, “My right to protect my child with a gun trumps your fear of my gun,” which in turn lead to many online commenters to take a seemingly perverse, outsized pleasure in her suffering. One Slate reader commented on a story about the case, “While it’s good she didn’t die, she got what she deserved.” (Meanwhile, her county Sheriff’s office is pursuing misdemeanor charges for the unsafe storage of a firearm and, according to The Gainsville Sun, the state has opened a child protective investigation.)

Though the story has a distinctly 21st-century feel to it, at its core, it’s a story older than our country, and that it reached a wide and vociferous audience is, actually, nothing new either. Accidental gun deaths and injuries, especially those inflicted on family members, are as American as apple pie – at least according to American religious history scholar Peter Manseau.

In 2012, while at work on his previous book, One Nation Under Gods, Manseau discovered a genre of newspaper reports dating back to colonial America called “melancholy accidents.” As he explains in the introduction to his new book, Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck, “Though these accident reports also took note of drownings, horse tramplings, and steamship explosions, guns provided their assemblers with the most pathos per column inch.” Over four years, Manseau read and collected hundreds of these reports, ultimately gathering more than 100 of them into his book, which contains reports spanning nearly two centuries of American history.

Melancholy accidents “bridge a gap not of geography or politics, but of time,” Manseau writes about the reports. In America, the news media continues to write news stories about accidental gun deaths, and it seems unlikely the feed will ever stop. As one report from 1872 reads, “We thought a good strong frost would put an end to shot-gun accidents, but people still blaze away at themselves.”


Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck

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And, as Manseau discovered in his research, the accidents themselves are not the only constant. The way we react to them has remained surprisingly similar, too. From the time when we called these deaths and injuries “melancholy accidents” through to today, the age of the hashtag #gunfail, history has shown us to be a people who can’t live with their guns, but won’t live without them.

Manseau spoke to about his research, the book, and what he calls the “alternate history of guns in America” that he discovered in the melancholy accident reports.

You mention in the introduction that you stumbled upon the phenomenon of “melancholy accidents” while doing historical research. What were you researching when you discovered melancholy accidents and when did you realize you wanted to collect these accidents and publish them?

My last book, One Nation Under Gods, told the story of religion in America from the point of view of religious minorities, going back into the early 18th century. I was reading a lot of newspaper accounts looking for evidence of religious minorities, and while I was doing that research, I kept coming across this phrase “melancholy accidents.”

This was a genre of newspaper reporting that seems to have started in England and was brought to colonial America very early on. It would often refer to people drowning in rivers or being blown up by steam ships and that sort of thing, but what seemed most common for “melancholy accidents” was that they were gun accidents. They were reports of musket exploding or misfiring, killing the person who was using it or someone who happened to be unfortunate enough to be nearby.

It began to seem to me that the genre of gun accident reports has been part of American journalism from the very beginning. The stories spoke to each other across the centuries as this genre of journalism, this type of American storytelling that endured no matter what changes were going on politically or within the population as it changed. That struck me as a fascinating thing, that here was something that remained unchanging in American culture throughout the centuries.

Had you heard of “melancholy accidents” before?

Other scholars have noted them, but not specifically having to do with guns so, after I discovered them for myself, I began to research them.

This is my sixth or seventh book, and it was a great relief as a writer to write with other people's words, to compile these reports and let them speak for themselves. I found that they had a power that is difficult to bring in your own writing. 

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

Image by Melville House. (original image)

How systematic were you in looking for them? Is the book a small representative slice of all of the melancholy accidents reported from 1739 to 1916 or is this the grand total of melancholy accidents on public record?

I really could have included, without exaggeration, hundreds more. These were published in dozens of newspapers for centuries. I continue to find new ones, in fact, and often I'll find a new one and think, “I wish I had included that in the book.” They are really such a fascinating window on lives lived long ago.

Many of them are just so haunting. The style of early American newspaper writing is, in some ways, very spare and yet, in other ways, is very florid in its language. There’s something about them. They’re so different from the way we write stories now, or different from the way we often read stories now.  It gives them this haunting quality. They linger and you can really feel the anguish felt by the people on the page.

Why did you stop at 1916?

I could have continued well past 1916, all the way up to today, certainly. I chose 1916 because it is 100 years before today exactly, but also because something seems to happen with the arrival of the First World War to the way violence is spoken about in the American press. It also seems the be the end of this phrase “melancholy accidents.” It doesn't turn up in the press at all as far as I can remember after that. In the 20th century, it began to seem archaic in a way it wasn’t before and so it seemed to me a natural stopping point.

Can you talk about some of the things you realized about America’s relationship with guns through history?

One of the things that I kept running into was this idea of divine indifference. We think of colonial America and the young United States as being a very religious place, and yet when you read these gun accident reports, they give this sense of feeling that if you come in contact with guns, you're ruled suddenly, entirely by fate, that God takes no interest in how people are interacting with guns, and there's no question or lament about this: How did this happen? How do bad things happen to good people? It's just a feeling that if we choose to make guns a part of our lives, this is bound to be part of our experience, and we are bound to experience this again and again.

How has gun culture in our country evolved over time?

Guns play a very different role in American society today than they used to. Once upon a time, they were, for many people, tools that you would use for sustenance. You might feel you needed to have them for protection if you are living in remote places and need to defend yourself against wolves and bears and whatnot. They were very practical tools for early Americans.

For Americans today, they seem to be far more often tools of enjoyment and tools of hobbyists, and that very fact makes them entirely different objects as far as what they mean to Americans. That, to me, makes them far less necessary. And yet, as they have become less necessary, they have also become a symbol of the clash between those who use them for enjoyment and those who fear those who use them for enjoyment. They've become a symbol of this clash within the culture in a way that they were not in early American history.

Have the ways that we’ve struggled to come to terms with accidental gun deaths changed?

I guess we've come to terms with them in the sense that they keep happening, and we all just throw up our hands about it and say, “Well, that's what happens when you have guns in your life, that's what happens when you have so many guns in your country, when you have as many guns in the United States as there are people.” They're bound to intersect in these fatal ways very often, and so there's a sense of resignation, this helplessness that this is bound to continue to happen.

And that’s very similar to what I found in these early accident reports, this feeling that if you have objects in your life that are designed to kill, you have to assume that they will do so very often, even when you don't want them to. The feeling of helplessness in the face of guns endures.

The reason I collected these stories and chose to retell them the way I did, was that I hoped to provide a kind of corrective to the stories that we usually tell about guns. Guns within American culture, the way we think and talk about them, there's so much determined by the mythology of the frontier or the mythology of the western. We think of guns as being these heroic machines that allow for the preservation or protection of freedom. And yet I started to wonder as I collected these stories, what if that is not the most enduring meaning of guns? What if the most enduring meaning is not heroism, but tragedy? What if accidents are really what happens far more often with guns than them being used as they are intended? I wanted to propose another, an alternate history of guns in America, through these primary sources to let them speak for themselves.

I really didn't write the book with any kind of political agenda, though. I have no problem with hunting culture or responsible gun use, people who choose to own and use guns for recreation. I have no problem with any of that, and I don't expect that anyone's going to read this book and suddenly say, "I had no idea how dangerous guns could be!"

Gun owners know that best of all. They know far better than people who never get close to them how dangerous they can be. But I did want to open up this view of the past that shows how these accidents are far from a modern phenomenon. These small-scale tragedies have shaped our experience with guns entirely from the beginning. I am, first of all, a person interested in the stories and to me, that’s how these accidents reports resonate.

Some of these are stunningly tragic; others have a note of dark humor. Were there any melancholy accidents that stayed with you or affected you most?

The ones that stay with me for their tragedy are usually the parents who accidentally take the lives of their children. The telling of those stories, with just a sentence or a detail, make it so easy to imagine yourself into that situation and know the pain they must have felt. For me those are the most haunting.

But again and again I would find these accident reports that you just couldn’t help laughing at. One I'm thinking about right now is a woman who was doing her ironing, she's ironing handkerchiefs, and she's accidentally shot in the leg. The accident report is careful to note that she finished her ironing before she called a physician. It's a very funny situation to read on the page. It's also suggestive of the way the accidents, all told, are taken in stride.

Every day there's a new gun accident in the news. When we read about them, we either find them absurd and funny or terribly tragic, and yet we take them in stride, we go about our business, because this is what life with guns is, it's what it means. We hear the gunshot and we go on with our ironing.

How long did the project take?

The book actually began as a little piece I wrote for the New Yorker three years ago this month. But they just lingered with me, the idea of them. And so I kept looking for them. I began finding them accidentally, but then I began looking for them, and that's when I couldn't stop. It became this obsession for a little while, finding these and wanting to show them to world. All told, off and on it was probably a matter of four years I spent wondering about melancholy accidents.

Was it difficult to do so much research on private and personal tragedies?

I didn’t find it ultimately depressing. The interesting thing about the melancholy accidents is that they are ultimately not about death. They are ultimately about the living, about the people who survive and how they deal with this tragedy. That's true of any stories of tragedy, I think. It's ultimately about what comes next and what we can learn from it. I think they raise questions that anyone living asks about what it means to be alive and how we endure in the face of such tragedies.

One that topic, some of the reports talk about the grief that the shooters feel afterwards, how they dealt with it for the rest of their lives. Has that changed over time?

The accident reports go into such detail of the grief these people felt, whether it was a brother who accidentally killed his sister and then they had to try to stop him from taking his own life after seeing what he had done, or the father who accidentally killed his child and then the report notes that he himself died of a broken heart weeks later… I imagine that the feelings of grief have changed very little, no matter how much the technology of the weapons has changed or the way we think about weapons as a culture has changed. That part seems, to me, to endure. 

A difficult part of being involved in a tragedy like this today is that you probably can't escape it in the way that you could then. The digital trail of having your name associated with one of these things is going to follow you for the rest of your life. With the book coming out, I've been doing more research on gun accidents more recently, and I happened to come across an article from sometime in the early 90s. It showed a picture of a little boy with his mother, and it noted that the little boy had accidentally killed his baby sister with gun. I thought, “That little boy in the early 90s is now a grown man. No doubt he still lives with that.” And his story, his pain, is there to be found by anyone who happens to stumble across it online. It's a way that the tragedy continues to echo. 

An example of a "melancholy accident" (Courtesy of Peter Manseau)

The Scariest Zombies in Nature

Smithsonian Magazine

Once the fungus invades its victim’s body, it’s already too late. The invader spreads through the host in a matter of days. The victim, unaware of what is happening, becomes driven to climb to a high spot. Just before dying, the infected body—a zombie—grasps a perch as the mature fungal invader erupts from the back of the zombie’s head to rain down spores on unsuspecting victims below, starting the cycle again. This isn’t the latest gross-out moment from a George A. Romero horror film; it is part of a very real evolutionary arms race between a parasitic fungus and its victims, ants.

One zombie by itself is not necessarily very scary, but in B movies from, Night of the Living Dead to Zombieland, Hollywood’s animated corpses have a nasty habit of creating more of the walking dead. Controlled by some inexplicable force, perhaps an intensely virulent pathogen, the main preoccupation of a zombie is making other zombies. The story line is pure drive-in movie schlock, yet the popular mythology of zombies has lately been spattered with a coating of biological truth. There actually are organisms that have evolved to control the minds and bodies of other creatures, turning once normal individuals into dazed victims that fulfill the parasite’s need to reproduce itself.

Some of the most successful zombie-masters are fungi from the genus Ophiocordyceps. The parasites infest many kinds of arthropods—from butterflies to cockroaches—but it is among ants that the fungi’s ability to control other beings’ behavior is most apparent. One prototypical scenario is found in Costa Rica, where infected bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) climb to a great spore-sprinkling height before the fungus erupts.

In the jungles of Thailand, the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilaterius parasitizes Camponotus leonardi ants, which forage on the ground and nest in the canopy. When infected, these ants shamble toward “ant graveyards,” where they bite down on the undersides of leaves, anchoring their fungus-infested husks at a level of the forest with just the right humidity and temperature to allow the fungus to grow properly. When Sandra Andersen of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues placed the bodies of infected ants higher in the canopy, the parasites grew abnormally, and infested ants placed on the ground were eaten by other insects. “The fungus is sensitive to UV light, and the heavy rainfall in a tropical forest would most likely also be able to damage the fungus,” Andersen says. “The position of the ant on the underside of the leaf limits the exposure of the parasite.” The fungus drives the ants to seek out specific places to die that best benefit the growth of the fungus.

Ophiocordyceps-like parasites have been manipulating other organisms for millions of years—their disturbing behavior has been preserved in the fossil record. Forty-eight million years ago, during the global hothouse epoch of the Eocene, the place now known as Messel, Germany, was draped in a lush, semitropical forest. Archaic primates scrambled among the trees; cousins of early horses browsed; and an Ophiocordyceps-like fungus caused ants to put a death grip on leaves just before the infesting fungus fully overran their bodies. Exceptionally preserved fossil leaves from the Messel quarry show the same pattern of leaf scars made by some living ant species when they have become fungus-controlled zombies.

Image by Yanoviak et al., 2008. The nematode parasites inside this Cephalotes atratus ant have caused its gaster to turn red and mimic berries found in its habitat. This attracts birds which help spread the parasites to new ant colonies. (original image)

Image by David Hughes. Some of the most successful zombie-masters are fungi from the genus Ophiocordyceps. In the jungles of Thailand, their victims are Camponotus leonardi, or carpenter ants. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. The nematode infestation thinned the exoskeleton of the ant's gaster, which, combined with the presence of nematode eggs, caused it to look red and to detach easily from the rest of the ant's body. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. After the nematode eggs pass through the bird's digestive system, they are deposited back onto the forest floor in bird droppings. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. As ants develop, the nematodes grow and reproduce inside the ant's body, leaving eggs in the gaster. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. In the jungles of Thailand, the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilaterius parasitizes Camponotus leonardi ants, which forage on the ground and nest in the canopy. (original image)

Scientists are looking for these types of interactions even farther back in time. “Now that we know the behavior like this can fossilize, I would not be surprised if we find more,” says University of Exeter behavioral ecologist David Hughes. “I believe samples tens of millions of years older are likely.” The fungus is clearly ancient: in 2008, another team announced that a 105-million-year-old insect trapped in amber was shot through with an Ophiocordyceps-like fungus. It is possible that zombie-style parasitism between the fungus and its hosts goes back to the Cretaceous days of the dinosaurs (though evidence of zombie dinosaurs has not been forthcoming).

Fungi aren’t the only parasites to hijack ants. A different kind of parasite changes the appearance of giant gliding ants (Cephalotes atratus) from Central and South America. While studying this ant species in Panama, Stephen Yanoviak of the University of Arkansas and colleagues noticed that the gasters of many ants–the bulbous back end of the abdomen–were bright red, and the ants held them up high in a behavior called “gaster flagging.” When the scientists dissected the ants, they found hundreds of tiny, transparent eggs of a previously unknown species of nematode worm.

The nematode infestation thinned the exoskeleton of the ant’s gaster, which, combined with the presence of nematode eggs, caused it to look red and to detach easily from the rest of the ant’s body. The gasters of these infested ants are easy pickings for local birds that usually eat red berries. After the nematode eggs pass through the bird’s digestive system, they are deposited back onto the forest floor in bird droppings. Gliding ants regularly eat bird droppings, and when worker ants bring avian feces back to the nest, they inadvertently feed nematode eggs to ant larvae. As the ants develop, the nematodes grow and reproduce inside the ant’s body, leaving eggs in the gaster. The ants totter around until a bird picks them off, continuing the cycle.

Some parasites cause even more dramatic anatomical changes in their victims. The flatworm Leucochloridium paradoxum is the scourge of North American and European snails unfortunate enough to eat the droppings of birds containing the eggs of the parasite. Once inside the snail’s body, the worms infest the eye stalks, turning the tentacles into brightly colored, pulsating organs that attract birds. Once the bird eats this part of the infested snail, the parasites reproduce inside the bird and leave their eggs in its digestive system. Simple as they are, parasites have evolved to be masters of manipulation.

Scientists are just beginning to study how two species come to occupy the same body and vie for its control. It’s not yet clear what chemicals signals alter the behavior and appearance of parasitized ants and other victims. Somehow fungi and other parasites are manipulating brain chemicals, and one doesn’t have to be a mad scientist to want to understand more. Zombies have a long natural history, stretching back tens of millions of years, and nature is filled with creeping, oozing, blood sucking and otherwise ghastly creatures just as terrifying as anything Hollywood could concoct. Just don’t expect scientists to discover much about sparkling vampires or radioactive dinosaurs with a taste for Japanese cities.

Brian Switek is the author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature.

What Happens to Fiction When Our Worst Climate Nightmares Start Coming True?

Smithsonian Magazine

Fiction about the climate is ancient – nothing lends itself to mythology like the swell and ebb of a river, a drought that kills the crops, a great flood that washes the land clean. But fiction about man-made climate change is newish, gaining attention as its own genre only in the last few years. I first heard the term “cli-fi” after the 2011 publication of my first novel, America Pacifica, in which an ice age destroys North America. At that time the label, coined by the writer Dan Bloom, seemed obscure; now it is almost mainstream.

In my own writing, I thought of the end of the world as a crucible for my characters: What quicker way to make ordinary people into heroes and villains than to turn the weather against them and destroy everything they know?

Now the changes I once imagined are upon us: 2016 was the hottest year on record; before that, it was 2015; before that, 2014. This year, 16 states had their hottest February on record, according to Climate Central. Arctic sea ice hit record lows this winter. Permafrost in Russia and Alaska is thawing, creating sinkholes that can swallow caribou. Meanwhile, President Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from the Paris agreement and intends to slash federal funding for climate research. Art that once felt like speculation seems more realistic every day.

Writing and movies about the apocalypse used to seem like exciting breaks from real life.  As a writer, a dystopian setting was in part a way to avoid the mundane, to explore situations, problems and ideas outside the scope of everyday life. As a reader, I was both thrilled and disturbed by a world I barely recognized in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a story that felt entirely new. And when I saw Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine, I watched in rapture — how beautiful, the Sydney Opera House surrounded by snow.

A short cli-fi reading list would include Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood and MaddAddam), which is about genetic engineering gone mad in a time of environmental upheaval; Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, a thriller that centers on water rights in Phoenix; Claire Vaye Watkins’s “Gold Fame Citrus,” a tale of refugees from a drought-parched California that feels all too familiar given recent weather patterns; plus Marcel Theroux’s Far North, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. For a film complement, watch Sunshine (about a dying sun, not carbon emissions, but similar in look and tone to other cli-fi stories), The Day After Tomorrow or the brilliant Mad Max: Fury Road, about a wasted desert ruled by the ruthless and physically decaying Immortan Joe, who controls all the water.

As a term, cli-fi is a little narrow for my taste, because some of the most interesting climate writing I know isn’t fiction. One of the most moving responses to our climate crisis is Zadie Smith’s essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” in which she enumerates the small pleasures already lost as climate change transfigures English weather: “Forcing the spike of an unlit firework into the cold, dry ground. Admiring the frost on the holly berries, en route to school. Taking a long, restorative walk on Boxing Day in the winter glare. Whole football pitches crunching underfoot.”

More fiery in its approach is the Dark Mountain manifesto, published in 2009 by two English writers, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, which describes climate change as just one of many pernicious effects of a cross-cultural belief in human supremacy and perpetual technological advance. The antidote, for Kingsnorth and Hine, is “uncivilization,” a way of thinking and living that privileges the wild over the urban and situates humans “as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession.” The best way to spread this perspective, they argue, is through art, specifically writing that “sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds.”

Kingsnorth and Hine mention the 20th-century poet Robinson Jeffers as a prime example of this kind of writing, and say that early in his career, the poet “was respected for the alternative he offered to the Modernist juggernaut.” But it’s a Modernist poet, T. S. Eliot, I think of when trying to trace the roots of climate fiction, or at least my relationship with the genre.

Eliot’s seminal poem “The Waste Land” anticipates human-caused climate change, especially in the final section that draws on the legend of the Fisher King, his lands laid waste by his impotence. It’s here we get “rock and no water and the sandy road,” the “dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit,” the “dry sterile thunder without rain.” Eliot was not worrying about climate change — England’s climate was not yet changing noticeably in 1922 when the poem was published. But humans are not so different now from a hundred years ago: Drought has always brought despair, and thunder fear, and unusual weather a creeping sense that the world is out of joint. “The Waste Land” just seems more literal now.

Now that Eliot’s “dead mountain mouth” reads like a description of last year in California, and his “bats with baby faces in the violet light” feel like they might be right around the corner, is climate fiction going to rouse humans to action?

J. K. Ullrich in The Atlantic cites a study showing that people felt more concerned about climate change and more motivated to do something about it after watching the climate disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. But fiction is, at best, an inefficient means of instigating political action — will the desiccated Los Angeles of Gold Fame Citrus, for instance, spur readers to conserve water, or just make them pour themselves a tall, cool glass before it’s all gone? Will the weird, lonely land of Oryx and Crake, full of genetically engineered animals and children, and almost devoid of ordinary humans, encourage support for renewable resources or only make readers lie down in despair? And will those most skeptical of climate change ever pick up a volume of climate fiction in the first place?

The primary function of climate fiction is not to convince us to do something about climate change – that remains a job primarily for activists, scientists and politicians. Rather, fiction can help us learn how to live in a world increasingly altered by our actions – and to imagine new ways of living that might reduce the harm we do. In Gold Fame Citrus, the dune sea essentially creates its own culture, its mysterious pull (whether physical, metaphysical or merely psychological is not entirely clear) collecting a band of outcasts with a charismatic leader who makes of desert life a kind of new religion. In Mad Max: Fury Road, a handful of female rebels, led by the heroic Imperator Furiosa, kill Immortan Joe and take over his water supply.

Neither is exactly a hopeful story. Levi Zabriskie, the desert cult leader in Gold Fame Citrus, is a liar and a manipulator, and the fate of his followers remains uncertain at the end of the novel. The conclusion of Fury Road is more triumphant, but even the benevolent Furiosa will have to rule over a blasted country, where her fabled “green place” has become a dark mudscape traversed by creepy beings on stilts. What the best of climate fiction offers is not reassurance but examples, stories of people continuing to live once life as we know it is over. Post-apocalyptic fiction takes place, by definition, after the worst has already happened; the apocalypse is the beginning, not the end, of the story.

There’s still time, I hope, to avert the worst of climate fiction’s nightmares. But even if we don’t find ourselves lost in the sand dunes in our lifetimes, we will surely need to rethink the way we live, perhaps radically so, and especially in the wealthy countries that consume most of what the earth provides. I don’t know if I agree with Kingsnorth and Hine that we will have to become “uncivilized.” But we will have to change what civilization means. Some of these changes may be painful; many will feel strange. As we make them, it is useful to be told that humans could live on a sand dune, in a wasteland, in a spaceship aimed at the sun. It might behoove us to make some modifications now, before we are forced into much more drastic transformations.

I wrote America Pacifica because I wanted to imagine a time when humans would be morally tested, when dire circumstances would make heroes or villains of us all. Now that time has come: We are being tested, every day. I, along with many readers, look to fiction to find ways we might pass that test.

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