How a German city changed how we read

Despite the far-reaching consequences of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history.

The German city of Mainz lies on the banks of the River Rhine. It is most notable for its wine, its cathedral and for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced the printing press to Europe. Although these things may seem unconnected at first, here they overlap, merging and influencing one another.

The three elements converge on market days, when local producers and winemakers sell their goods in the main square surrounding the sprawling St Martin’s Cathedral. Diagonally opposite is the Gutenberg Museum, named after the city’s most famous inhabitant, who was born in Mainz around 1399 and died here 550 years ago in 1468.

The printing press marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world

It was Gutenberg who invented Europe’s first movable metal type printing press, which started the printing revolution and marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world. Although the Chinese were using woodblock printing many centuries earlier, with a complete printed book, made in 868, found in a cave in north-west China, movable type printing never became very popular in the East due to the importance of calligraphy, the complexity of hand-written Chinese and the large number of characters. Gutenberg’s press, however, was well suited to the European writing system, and its development was heavily influenced by the area from which it came.

Mainz, Germany, is the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable metal type printing press (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

The German city of Mainz is most notable for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable metal type printing press (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

 

In the Middle Ages, Mainz was one of the most important cathedral cities in the Holy Roman Empire, in which the Church and the archbishop of Mainz were the centre of influence and political power. Gutenberg, as an educated and entrepreneurial patrician, would have recognised the Church’s need to update the method of replicating manuscripts, which were hand-copied by monks. This was an incredibly slow and laborious process; one that could not keep up with the growing demand for books at the time. In his book, Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age, Dr Bill Kovarik, professor of communication at Radford University in the US state of Virginia, describes this capacity in terms of ‘monk power’, where ‘one monk’ equals a day’s work – about one page – for a manuscript copier. Gutenberg’s press amplified the power of a monk by 200 times.

At the Gutenberg Museum, I watched a demonstration of a page being printed on a replica of the press. First, a metal alloy was heated and poured into a matrix (a mould used to cast a letter). Once the alloy cooled, the small metal letters were arranged into words and sentences in a form and inked. Finally, paper was placed on top of the form and a heavy plate was pressed upon it, similar to how a wine press works. This is no coincidence: Gutenberg’s printing press is thought to be a modification of the wine press. Since the Romans introduced winemaking to the region, the area around Mainz has been one of Germany’s main wine-producing areas, with famous grape varieties such as riesling, dornfelder and silvaner.

The page that is always printed at the Gutenberg Museum replicates the original style and font (Gothic Textura) of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, the first major book ever to be printed using movable type in the Western world. It is the first page of St John’s Gospel, in the Bible, which begins: “In the beginning was the word…”

Gutenberg’s printing press made it easier for the Church to replicate religious manuscripts (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Gutenberg’s printing press made it easier for the Church to replicate religious manuscripts (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Writing is often considered the first communication revolution, while Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication. After about 15 years of development – and huge capital investment – Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1455.

“Gutenberg’s Bible is an extraordinary work of craftsmanship,” said Dr Kovarik, who suggests we can read a strong religious motivation into the perfection of his work. “This wasn’t unusual at the time – for example, a stonemason would try to achieve a perfect sculpture in a remote corner of one of the great cathedrals, not really for the people who would be worshipping there, but rather as an expression of personal faith.”

Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication

Of his original print run of about 150 to 180 Bibles, only 48 remain in the world today. The Gutenberg Museum has two on display. Both are slightly different, because after printing, the pages would be taken to a rubricator (specialised scriber) who would paint in certain letters according to the tastes of their customers. Gutenberg’s Bibles turned out to be bestsellers.

At first, the Church welcomed the new availability of printed bibles and other religious texts. Printing enabled the Church to spread the Christian message and raise cash in the form of ‘indulgences’ – printed documents that forgave people’s sins. However, the disruptive power of the printed word soon became apparent. With the rapid spread of printing technology – by the 1470s, every European city had printing companies, and by the 1500s, an estimated four million books had been printed and sold — came the spread of new and often contradictory ideas, such as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, in which he criticised the Church’s sale of indulgences. Luther is said to have nailed his text to a Wittenberg church door on 31 October 1517. Within a few years 300,000 copies of it had been printed and circulated, leading to the Reformation and a permanent split in the Church.

Of the 150 to 180 Bibles Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 remain in the world today (Credit: Credit: Ann Johansson/Getty Images)

Of the 150 to 180 Bibles Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 remain in the world today (Credit: Ann Johansson/Getty Images)

But despite the far-reaching consequences of Gutenburg’s press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history. A plaque marks the place where he was born on corner of Christofsstraße, but the original house is long gone. Today, a modern building stands there, occupied by a pharmacy.

Another plaque outside the nearby St Christoph’s Church marks the place where he was likely baptised. The church was bombed during World War II and remains in ruins as a war memorial, although the original baptismal font from Gutenberg’s time is still intact.

The graveyard where Gutenberg was buried has been paved over, and even though there are statues of him are everywhere in the city, we don’t know what he looked like. He is commonly depicted with a beard, but it is unlikely that he had one. Gutenberg was a patrician and during his time, according to my tour guide Johanna Hein, only pilgrims and Jews wore beards. In fact, the man we all know as Johannes Gutenberg was actually born Johannes Gensfleisch (which translates to ‘goose meat’). If it weren’t for the 14th-Century trend of people renaming themselves after their houses, we would perhaps be referring to his invention as the Gensfleisch Press today.

Despite the far-reaching consequences of his printing press, little is known about Gutenberg today (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

Despite the far-reaching consequences of his printing press, little is known about Gutenberg today (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

But although the traces of the man have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere: a poster advertising cosmetics; a woman reading a newspaper in a cafe; the menu on a restaurant table. Furthermore, our current communications revolution, made possible by the internet, digital technology and social media, is a progression of what started with Gutenberg.

“Every time the cost of media declines rapidly, you enable more people to speak out, and you have a greater diversity of voices,” said Dr Kovarik, explaining that this impacts the distribution of power in society, and sparks social change.

Although the traces of Gutenberg have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere (Credit: Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Although the traces of Gutenberg have all but disappeared from the city, his influence can still be seen everywhere (Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Paradoxically, however, our digital revolution can also be seen as a return to the pre-print era, according to a theory called The Gutenberg Parenthesis by Dr Thomas Pettitt, affiliate research professor at the University of Southern Denmark, who argues that there are parallels between the pre-print age and our own internet age.

In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour

“Print conferred stability on discourse; works in books were authorities; news in print was true. In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour. We are now in a post-news phase, where purveyors of fake news can accuse the legitimate press of purveying fake news and get away with it,” Dr Pettitt said.

Whatever the impact of the 21st-Century digital revolution, just like the printing revolution before it, the effects will reverberate for hundreds of years to come.

By Madhvi Ramani 8 May 2018

“The sun began to be darkened”: The strange cloud over much of the world in 536 AD changed history dramatically

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In the summer of 536, a strange cloud appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Sometimes referred to as “a veil of dust,” something plunged the Mediterranean region and many other areas of the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness.

This foreboding change was recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” Procopius also wrote of disease and war resulting from the blocking of the sun’s light.

A Syrian scribe described the change as “…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray.” Gaelic Irish records describe a “failure of bread” in the year 536.

For many years, historians and scientists have wondered what may have caused Procopius and others to record notable differences in weather. Modern research has provided some interesting theories.

Much of the rest of the world seems to have been impacted by the cloud as well, at least in the northern hemisphere. Studies of tree rings between 536 and 551 show less tree growth in China, Europe, and North America. Less solar radiation reaching the earth resulted in lower temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. The results for humans included lower food production output, famine, as well as increased social and political disruption.

There were specific events recorded that were likely related to the ominous cloud. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, that became known as the Justinian Plague. Estimates are that up to a third of the population perished during the outbreak. Procopius described some of the horrible symptoms as fever and swelling all over the body.

In 536 China, there was famine and drought with many deaths, as well as reports of “yellow dust that rained down like snow.” At the same time, Korea faced massive storms and flooding. Unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.

Scandinavia seems to have been particularly hard hit. Archaeological evidence indicates that almost 75 percent of villages in parts of Sweden were abandoned in these years. One theory is that this displacement of people was a catalyst for later raids by Vikings seeking more fertile land in other parts of Europe and beyond. A Norse poem of the time reads, “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.”

The severe weather may have impacted other historical trends. Among them is the migration of Mongolian tribes westward, the fall of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and the rise and rapid expansion of Islam.

Some historians mark these specific changes in weather patterns as contributing to the historic transition from antiquity to the beginning of the era of the Dark and Middle Ages. It certainly emphasizes the impact rapid climate change may have had on human populations.

What could have caused such a sudden and dramatic change in weather? Experts are divided, and we may never know the whole answer. One theory is that the climate around the world changed based on one giant volcanic eruption, possibly from Central America. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the planet.

Another suggestion is that there were two large volcano blasts within a couple of years of each other, specifically in 536 and 540, causing darkness and cold around most of the world. Clouds of smoke and debris from massive volcanic fires could have spread rapidly.

Evidence of volcanic eruptions was backed up by material found in both the North and South Poles. In both Antarctica and Greenland, sulfate deposits have been discovered dating back to the mid-6th century.

A third theory contemplates the impact of a comet or meteorite crashing into the Earth. Or the possibility of a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Experts generally think this explanation is less plausible than that of volcanic eruptions.

Whatever the cause, people living at the time noticed and recorded a rapid change in nature. Human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many it would have felt like the world were coming to an end.

 Mark Shiffer

The tricks of camouflage, from mannequins in Ancient China to fabricated tree stumps in World War I

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The use of camouflage to hide oneself from an opposing person or force is nothing new. Since time immemorial, people have taken cues from the natural world and used concealment methods and tactics to hide their position and movement. However, this has evolved into being more than face paint, fabric, and tree branches, and some methods are quite innovative.

Green or drab uniforms replaced the previous red or blue versions in the 18th century, and the regular use of camouflage in military units was born. This soon included equipment, buildings, and even aircraft and ships. “Dazzle” paint schemes were used on ships during the First and Second world wars. While the literally dazzling pattern didn’t make the ships disappear altogether (that would be a feat!), it did make them appear smaller, therefore harder to hit. This pattern even inspired the Chelsea Arts Club “Dazzle Ball” in the UK in 1919.

During the world wars, both sides often fabricated tree stumps out of wire and papier maché to hide themselves from snipers and observers. They were designed to look like other trees on no-man’s land–battle damaged and stripped bare. However, because they had to be placed in flat, exposed areas, the replacement of real trees with fake versions was dangerous work. One such tree is on display at the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra, and it is signed by a soldier, Private Frederick Augustus Peck, who was killed three months after he signed his name.

It has not only been green and leafy areas that required the use of camouflage. During the First and Second World wars, forces fighting in the colder regions of the world used winter camouflage. While one may think that it would only need to be white, it often included some green and black, taking its cues from winter plumage and fur of arctic animals. Forces deployed in northern areas today still use arctic camouflage on a regular basis.

Even animals have been camouflaged. English troops fighting in Egypt during World War I sometimes painted their horses as zebras, making them almost invisible in the tropical foliage. This may have inadvertently had other advantages. In recent years, it has been claimed that a zebra’s stripes make it less attractive to pesky, and disease-carrying, horseflies–an added bonus when you’re in the tropics.

Camouflage was mostly used on guns and equipment during World War I, and, like today, each country had its own pattern. However, sometimes it was necessary to deceive the enemy with visible decoys – perhaps the opposite of camouflage. This was done by using mannequins, dummies, and cutouts.

 There is recorded evidence that mannequins were used by the ancient Chinese during the Battle of Yongqui. Scarecrows were lowered along the castle walls to draw enemy arrow fire. Mannequins were also used to draw sniper fire away from soldiers in World War I trenches. Any sniper firing at one of these fake soldiers would give away his own position, making him vulnerable. Likewise, Finnish forces are known to have used mannequins in a similar way during the Winter War (part of World War II). The figures would, like the World War I versions, draw sniper fire, and allowed the Finns to return fire upon the Soviet soldiers.

One highly unusual piece of camouflaged equipment, a Land Rover used by the British SAS during World War II, was painted a dusky pink. Its curious color was perfect for the African desert where it was used, especially in the early morning and at dusk.

Today, military forces are still using and developing methods of concealment, from special paint to pixelated camouflage, and more. In the future, “invisibility” clothing may be used. Perhaps J. K. Rowling was on to something.

 Patricia Grimshaw

An archaeological dig on the Swedish island of Öland reveals a massacre that happened 1,500 years ago

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A recent archaeological find on the island of Öland in southwest Sweden offers an insight into the daily life of Norse people during the period of the Scandinavian Migrations, which coincided with the wider movement of peoples around Europe between 400 and 550 A.D.

The earliest evidence of habitation on this Baltic Sea isle dates from around 8,000 B.C, during the Paleolithic period. The island has evidence of a rich ancient culture, including at least 15 Iron Age ring forts and many medieval burial sites, which modern archaeologists have explored on numerous occasions.

But what makes the recent discovery significant is the fact that it was a site of a massacre that happened sometime in the 5th century. It has been found almost as it was left, offering a glimpse into the daily life of Norse settlers on the island.

This morbid occurrence enabled archaeologists to discover corpses, daily objects, and even traces of food―all of which are hard to find due to the Scandinavian tradition of cremation of their deceased, often with his belongings.

The massacre happened at the ring fort called Sandby Borg, which was at the time a stronghold surrounded by 15-foot-high walls. The wall served as protection against raids from various parties, and although a village existed around the fort, it was within this wall that the villagers sought refuge in times of peril.

According to a paper published in the archaeological journal Antiquity, dozens of corpses were discovered on the site. The team of archaeologists that discovered the site of the 1,500-year-old massacre have concluded that it was a brutal attack. Antiquity journal described the discovery as:

“…a unique snapshot of domestic life and abrupt death in the Scandinavian Migration Period.”

 Bodies were found in positions in which they fell―one of them even found on the spot of what once was a bonfire, meaning that he was probably killed and fell on the fire. Decapitated bodies, as well as those who suffered head trauma from blunt objects, were also found. The archaeology team leader, Helena Victor, confirmed that remains of a newborn were also found, suggesting that the unknown perpetrators didn’t spare anyone.

The site was discovered by amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters, who found some artifacts belonging to the unfortunate settlers from the 5th century. Experts from Kalmar Läns Museum were called in to investigate further.

The site turned out to be a case for real forensics. By the looks of it, it seems like the settlers didn’t put up much of a fight, which implies they were caught off guard and were possibly sleeping when the attack commenced.

The team concluded that treason might have been at hand; the walls offered substantial protection against invaders and were at least enough to stage a defense effort. Since no traces of active defense could be found, the logical assumption was that somebody opened the gates from the inside, letting the raiders in.

It is estimated that the attack occurred during the turbulent age of migrations when the Western Roman Empire was in its years of rapid decline and the Huns were invading Europe.

Victor stressed the unique nature of this discovery for the BBC, as people were literally found in their homes, violently interrupted in their daily lives: “You don’t find people lying around in houses. People don’t do it today, and didn’t do it then.”

It is estimated that around 200 to 250 people took shelter in the stronghold at the time of the assault. The team also discovered a wide array of valuable objects including jewelry, Roman coins, and hair ornaments. Even though the island of Öland was never under Roman control, the money circulated and was probably used as a universal currency among Scandinavian tribes.

Despite the impact that the discovery has made so far on the academic community, there is much more work to be done. For now, only three out of around 50 houses have been excavated, and the team in charge of the site is looking for funds to continue with their research.

 Nikola Budanovic

Plato and Aristotle: How Do They Differ?

Plato (left) and Aristotle, detail from School of Athens, fresco by Raphael, 1508-11; in the Stanza della Segnatura, the Vatican. Plato points to the heavens and the realm of Forms, Aristotle to the earth and the realm of things.
Album/Oronoz/SuperStock

Plato (c. 428–c. 348 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) are generally regarded as the two greatest figures of Western philosophy. For some 20 years Aristotle was Plato’s student and colleague at the Academy in Athens, an institution for philosophical, scientific, and mathematical research and teaching founded by Plato in the 380s. Although Aristotle revered his teacher, his philosophy eventually departed from Plato’s in important respects. Aristotle also investigated areas of philosophy and fields of science that Plato did not seriously consider. According to a conventional view, Plato’s philosophy is abstract and utopian, whereas Aristotle’s is empirical, practical, and commonsensical. Such contrasts are famously suggested in the fresco School of Athens (1510–11) by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael, which depicts Plato and Aristotle together in conversation, surrounded by philosophers, scientists, and artists of earlier and later ages. Plato, holding a copy of his dialogue Timeo (Timaeus), points upward to the heavens; Aristotle, holding his Etica (Ethics), points outward to the world.

Although this view is generally accurate, it is not very illuminating, and it obscures what Plato and Aristotle have in common and the continuities between them, suggesting wrongly that their philosophies are polar opposites.

So how exactly does Plato’s philosophy differ from Aristotle’s? Here are three main differences.

Forms. The most fundamental difference between Plato and Aristotle concerns their theories of forms. (When used to refer to forms as Plato conceived them, the term “Form” is conventionally capitalized, as are the names of individual Platonic Forms. The term is lowercased when used to refer to forms as Aristotle conceived them.) For Plato, the Forms are perfect exemplars, or ideal types, of the properties and kinds that are found in the world. Corresponding to every such property or kind is a Form that is its perfect exemplar or ideal type. Thus the properties “beautiful” and “black” correspond to the Forms the Beautiful and the Black; the kinds “horse” and “triangle” correspond to the Forms the Horse and the Triangle; and so on.

A thing has the properties it has, or belongs to the kind it belongs to, because it “participates” in the Forms that correspond to those properties or kinds. A thing is a beautiful black horse because it participates in the Beautiful, the Black, and the Horse; a thing is a large red triangle because it participates in the Large, the Red, and the Triangle; a person is courageous and generous because he or she participates in the Forms of Courage and Generosity; and so on.

For Plato, Forms are abstract objects, existing completely outside space and time. Thus they are knowable only through the mind, not through sense experience. Moreover, because they are changeless, the Forms possess a higher degree of reality than do things in the world, which are changeable and always coming into or going out of existence. The task of philosophy, for Plato, is to discover through reason (“dialectic”) the nature of the Forms, the only true reality, and their interrelations, culminating in an understanding of the most fundamental Form, the Good or the One.

Aristotle rejected Plato’s theory of Forms but not the notion of form itself. For Aristotle, forms do not exist independently of things—every form is the form of some thing. A “substantial” form is a kind that is attributed to a thing, without which that thing would be of a different kind or would cease to exist altogether. “Black Beauty is a horse” attributes a substantial form, horse, to a certain thing, the animal Black Beauty, and without that form Black Beauty would not exist. Unlike substantial forms, “accidental” forms may be lost or gained by a thing without changing its essential nature. “Black Beauty is black” attributes an accidental form, blackness, to a certain animal, who could change color (someone might paint him) without ceasing to be himself.

Substantial and accidental forms are not created, but neither are they eternal. They are introduced into a thing when it is made, or they may be acquired later, as in the case of some accidental forms.

Ethics. For both Plato and Aristotle, as for most ancient ethicists, the central problem of ethics was the achievement of happiness. By “happiness” (the usual English translation of the Greek term eudaimonia), they did not mean a pleasant state of mind but rather a good human life, or a life of human flourishing. The means by which happiness was acquired was through virtue. Thus ancient ethicists typically addressed themselves to three related questions: (1) What does a good or flourishing human life consist of?, (2) What virtues are necessary to achieve it?, and (3) How does one acquire those virtues?

Plato’s early dialogues encompass explorations of the nature of various conventional virtues, such as courage, piety, and temperance, as well as more general questions, such as whether virtue can be taught. Socrates (Plato’s teacher) is portrayed in conversation with presumed experts and the occasional celebrity; invariably, Socrates exposes their definitions as inadequate. Although Socrates does not offer his own definitions, claiming to be ignorant, he suggests that virtue is a kind of knowledge, and that virtuous action (or the desire to act virtuously) follows necessarily from having such knowledge—a view held by the historical Socrates, according to Aristotle.

In Plato’s later dialogue Republic, which is understood to convey his own views, the character Socrates develops a theory of “justice” as a condition of the soul. As described in that work, the just or completely virtuous person is the one whose soul is in harmony, because each of its three parts—Reason, Spirit, and Appetite—desires what is good and proper for it and acts within proper limits. In particular, Reason understands and desires the good of the individual (the human good) and the Good in general. Such understanding of the Form of the Good, however, can be acquired only through years of training in dialectic and other disciplines, an educational program that the Republic also describes. Ultimately, only philosophers can be completely virtuous.

Characteristically, for Aristotle, happiness is not merely a condition of the soul but a kind of right activity. The good human life, he held, must consist primarily of whatever activity is characteristically human, and that is reasoning. The good life is therefore the rational activity of the soul, as guided by the virtues. Aristotle recognized both intellectual virtues, chiefly wisdom and understanding, and practical or moral virtues, including courage and  temperance. The latter kinds of virtue typically can be conceived as a mean between two extremes (a temperate person avoids eating or drinking too much but also eating or drinking too little). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle held that happiness is the practice of philosophical contemplation in a person who has cultivated all of the intellectual and moral virtues over much of a lifetime. In the Eudemian Ethics, happiness is the exercise of the moral virtues specifically in the political realm, though again the other intellectual and moral virtues are presupposed.

Politics. The account of justice presented in Plato’s Republic is not only a theory of virtue but also a theory of politics. Indeed, the character Socrates there develops a theory of political justice as a means of advancing the ethical discussion, drawing an analogy between the three parts of the soul—Reason, Spirit, and Appetite—and the three classes of an ideal state (i.e., city-state)—Rulers, Soldiers, and Producers (e.g., artisans and farmers). In the just state as in the just individual, the three parts perform the functions proper to them and in harmony with the other parts. In particular, the Rulers understand not only the good of the state but, necessarily, the Good itself, the result of years of rigorous training to prepare them for their leadership role. Plato envisioned that the Rulers would live simply and communally, having no private property and even sharing sexual partners (notably, the rulers would include women). All children born from the Rulers and the other classes would be tested, those showing the most ability and virtue being admitted to training for rulership.

The political theory of Plato’s Republic is notorious for its assertion that only philosophers should rule and for its hostility toward democracy, or rule by the many. In the latter respect it broadly reflects the views of the historical Socrates, whose criticisms of the democracy of Athens may have played a role in his trial and execution for impiety and other crimes in 399. In one of his last works, the Laws, Plato outlined in great detail a mixed constitution incorporating elements of both monarchy and democracy. Scholars are divided over the question of whether the Laws indicates that Plato changed his mind about the value of democracy or was simply making practical concessions in light of the limitations of human nature. According to the latter view, the state of the Republic remained Plato’s ideal, or utopia, while that of the Laws represented the best that could be achieved in realistic circumstances, according to him.

In political theory, Aristotle is famous for observing that “man is a political animal,” meaning that human beings naturally form political communities. Indeed, it is impossible for human beings to thrive outside a community, and the basic purpose of communities is to promote human flourishing. Aristotle is also known for having devised a classification of forms of government and for introducing an unusual definition of democracy that was never widely accepted.

According to Aristotle, states may be classified according to the number of their rulers and the interests in which they govern. Rule by one person in the interest of all is monarchy; rule by one person in his own interest is tyranny. Rule by a minority in the interest of all is aristocracy; rule by a minority in the interest of itself is oligarchy. Rule by a majority in the interest of all is “polity”; rule by a majority in its own interest—i.e., mob rule—is “democracy.” In theory, the best form of government is monarchy, and the next best is aristocracy. However, because monarchy and aristocracy frequently devolve into tyranny and oligarchy, respectively, in practice the best form is polity.

WRITTEN BY:  Brian Duignan 

The Egtved Girl, found in Denmark in 1921, was a true Bronze Age traveler of high status, with a sense of fashion too

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Photo: Sven Rosborn – CC BY-SA 3.0

An intriguing find took place in 1921 near the Danish village of Egtved. Concealed inside a large burial mound was an oak coffin containing the remains of a young female who, experts calculate, was laid to rest there on a summer day around 1370 B.C.

While her bones have gone, other bodily parts such as her hair, nails, and teeth survived, thanks to a favorable preservation environment created in the coffin. The girl’s outfit also remains in remarkably good condition, and it has grabbed as much attention as her remains.

In the coffin, next to the Egtved Girl, they also found a small bundle of clothing with the cremated bones of a younger child, not older than six years old. Research suggests the two individuals may not have been related.

Despite being buried in Denmark, analysis of the girl has revealed that she was from another region in Europe–in fact, she may have been a truly international traveler from the Bronze Age. Studying the evidence from her grave-site supports the theory that Bronze age communities in Denmark and Southern Germany extensively interacted with one another.

The Egtved Girl is considered among the most famous figures of Bronze Age Europe. Analysis of her remains has shown she was just a teenager at the time of her death, between 16 and 18 years old. Her body was dressed in a timelessly modern-looking tunic-like blouse and short skirt when laid to rest. Reproduction costumes and artwork of her wool blouse and skirt of woolen cords are popular in Denmark and Germany.

She was also wearing a bronze belt-plate decorated with spirals and other symbols associated with a sun cult present in Scandinavia in that era. Perhaps the girl was a priestess, a woman of high rank.

 Experts have been able to generate a reconstruction of the last years of the girl’s life after analyzing traces of strontium found in her teeth, hair, and thumbnails. According to senior researcher Karin Margarita Frei from the National Museum of Denmark, this chemical element can be used as a kind of  “geological GPS.”

Strontium is naturally present in rocks, but in varying amounts and molecular compositions at different broad geographic regions. It is absorbed by all animals and plants through ingesting water and food, so by examining the ratio of different isotopes of strontium in Egtved Girl’s teeth and hair, and comparing this to analysis of the type of wool fiber in her blouse, the research team have pinpointed her origin to a region of southwest Germany. According to the research paper published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2015, the ancient teenager spent her early life in Schwarzwald (the Black Forest), where she was likely born as well.

Based on her traveling log, the Egtved Girl appears to have had a surprisingly modern story. In the two years preceding her death, it appears that Egtved Girl left her homeland and traveled hundreds of miles to Denmark, possibly for an arranged marriage in order to help strengthen alliances between the chief of her own family or group and the Danish chief. However, she did make one further trip back home for up to six months, returning north just a few months before she died.

According to another theory, the girl might have held some political power, which was possible in Scandinavia back then, particularly if she was from an important family and her parents had no male heir.

Both the Danish and German regions are known to have been power centers throughout the Bronze Age, the former trading Baltic amber, which was highly valued across the continent, for bronze. The possibility is not excluded that she might have traveled to strike trade deals utterly on her own.

Such postulations have greatly excited archaeologists, historians, and other experts, as the girl and her grave goods provide new insight into how complex relations unfolded among peoples of the Bronze Age.

The Egtved case supports previously discovered archaeological evidence that people traveled great distances and engaged in complex relations, although this was still the Bronze Age.

The remains of the girl and her burial place, as well as reconstructed model of her outfit, can be seen at the National Museum of Denmark. There is also a reconstructed set of clothes exhibited in the Egtved Girl Museum near the excavation site where visitors can learn in greater details how the excavation process itself progressed almost a century ago.

This significant find happened in 1921, but it was new technologies that allowed scientists to revisit and reexamine the materials retrieved from archaeological site. In another recent discovery, earlier in 2018, the famed Gebelein mummies that have been displayed at the British Museum for years were inspected anew. Scientists found out the mummies actually sported some of the world’s oldest known tattoos, and have been prompted to rewrite aspects of the early history of tattooing.

 Stefan Andrews