Tag Archives: History Undusted

History Undusted: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsIf you’ve ever taken any medication stronger than an aspirin and benefited from it, chances are that you owe your thanks to an African American woman who never lived to hear your tale.

Born in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, when her mother died giving birth to her 10th child and the father could not support the family, the children were divided among relatives to be raised.  Loretta, who became known as Henrietta, was sent to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a two-storey log cabin (former slave quarters) on the tobacco plantation of her white great-grandfather.  After having five children with her first cousin, whom she married after their first two children were born, she died at the age of 31 of cervix cancer.

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix for biopsies. Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge – back then, permission wasn’t necessary for what was considered tissue waste) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today worldwide, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

HeLa cells are so prolific that if they land in a petri dish, they will take over; they have been used to create the vaccine against Polio, in research for AIDS, gene mapping, cancers and countless other projects; to date, scientists have grown over 50 million metric tonnes of her cells*, and there are nearly 11,000 patents involving these cells.  Her name should be known, and as the godmother of biotechnology, her history deserves to be undusted!

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’ve read it, and had trouble putting it down!

*For a more detailed article in the New York Times, click here.

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History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)

hnefatafl

Hnefatafl (meaning King’s Table, aka “Viking Chess”) is a board game that originated in Northern Europe; the oldest board found to date was located in Denmark, dated to ~ 400 BC. Because no written history of that period for northern Europe exists, apart from runic inscriptions on stone, wood, and bone, the rules of this game had to be recreated, so there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon by those who play it.  It is far older than chess, which originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to the rest of the world through Persia.

In Hnefatafl, the game is played on a square board (as pictured). There are five spaces on the board that are considered special: The space in the centre of the board is the ‘Throne’ space, and the four corner spaces are the escape points for the King.

Unlike most modern board games, Hnefatafl does not start with even-strength sides (as in chess). The two sides are divided into attackers and defenders; in the illustration, the pieces along the edges of the board are the attackers, and those in the centre are the defenders. The objective of the attacker is to capture the king (centre). The objective of the defenders is to protect the king long enough for him to escape.

The board shown above is a modern version; but online, I’ve seen a wide variety of boards, from draw-bags of leather with stone pieces to wooden blocks on a large outdoor board.  I’m certain that the travelling Norse, who loved board games, word games and competitions of any sort, would have made do with whatever was at hand and would have also had travel versions of their favourite games, just like we do today.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article, or see the rules and how to play the game here.

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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Stinging Nettles: A Weed with a Bad Rap and a Great Sap!

stinging nettleStinging nettles have gotten a bad rap, in my opinion.  True, they’ve not done much to endear themselves to hikers who get stung as they walk through undergrowth; but if you can get beyond first impressions, you’ll discover one of the power-packs of nature!  Stinging nettles have been around for thousands of years, and recipes for their use have been around for probably just as long. A fast-growing herb related to the mulberry, they grow everywhere (especially well in northern climates), and the list of their benefits reads more like a “Who’s Who” of remedies, from prostate, arthritis, blood pressure (it balances both high and low!), to iron and mineral deficiencies.  The younger the leaves, the more power and goodness they still have in them, so pick the top 4 to 6 new leaves for the best results.

It can be eaten raw straight off the plant:  “Taco”-fold the leaf by gripping it on the underside near the base of a young leaf and nipping it off with a pinch of the fingers, pop it in the mouth and chew; the juices from the leaf itself will neutralize any brief sting.  Also, if you’re out on a hike and get stung by the leaves inadvertently, take a leaf as described, chew it up or smash it up in your hand and rub the juices onto the sting area; it will neutralize itself.  It can also be boiled for teas, soups (it boils down like spinach, so you’ll need a lot more than you think you will), or blended into a pesto, or pizza sauce; the variety of ways to eat it are endless.  Once the stingers have been neutralized (their own juices will do the trick once released through blending, boiling, or processing in any way needed), its health benefits are unprecedented as a common plant, free to be had!  Just a word to the wise:  If you let it grow in your own garden, eat it as-is or with a light rinse if you’d like; but if you harvest from a public pathway, park or forest, washing it thoroughly is a good idea; where there are humans, there could be traces of herbicides or dogs… need I say more?

Click on the image above for a delicious, quick recipe.  When spring arrives, I’ll be looking for a fresh patch!

 

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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History Undusted: On Changing the Course of History

Mahatma Gandhi - Determined, alter history

Originally posted on History Undusted, 11 January 2014

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History Undusted: Dear Photograph

I love coming across websites that combine humanity with a history that is as unique as the people involved.  I recently came across “Dear Photograph,” a viral concept that encourages people to take photographs of photographs in the same locations, and to tell the story of the original photograph in the submission.  Some of the images could spark an idea for a story or two!  Take some time and browse through this site; you’ll be glad you did.  Just click on the photo below:

 

Dear Photograph

 

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History Undusted: A World War II Love Story

Once in a while I come across amazing stories; this one is truly one of dedication, perseverance, love, and gratitude.

Peggy and Billie Harris were married just 6 weeks before he was sent off to war as a fighter pilot over Nazi-occupied France in the Second World War.  Six decades later, Peggy finally found out what happened to him, no thanks to her own government.  Deep gratitude to, and a friendship with, a small French village is just one result of her amazing patience and quest for the truth.  Click on the picture to hear about this amazing story. (9½ minutes long, 3-part story)

 

Peggy and Billie D. Harris, 1944

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History Undusted: The 1867 Sailor’s Word-Book

Sea Captians Logfixed(web)

As part of my research for my upcoming novel, Asunder, I came across the 1867 “The Sailor’s Word-Book:  An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, including some more especially military and scientific, but useful to seamen; as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc. by the late ADMIRAL W. H. SMYTH, K.S.F., D.C.L., &c.”  It’s a massive document, but below is a small gleaning; if you want more, check out my original posts on History Undusted here.  It’s a fascinating insight into life and demands at sea in the 18th & 19th centuries, and gives a glimpse of just how many of our common idioms originated at sea; how dull our language might have been otherwise!  I’ve also included a few odd ones that I think deserve revival!

ACCOMPANY, to. To sail together; to sail in convoy.

AVAST. The order to stop, hold, cease, or stay, in any operation: its derivation from the Italian basta is more plausible than have fast.

BADGER, to. To tease or confound by frivolous orders.

BALLARAG, to. To abuse or bully. Thus Warton of the French king— “You surely thought to ballarag us with your fine squadron off Cape Lagos.”

BAMBOOZLE, to. To decoy the enemy by hoisting false colours.

BEAT TO QUARTERS. The order for the drummer to summon everyone to his respective station.

BLOAT, to. To dry by smoke; a method latterly applied almost exclusively to cure herrings or bloaters.—Bloated is also applied to any half-dried fish.

BONE, to. To seize, take, or apprehend. A ship is said to carry a bone in her mouth and cut a feather, when she makes the water foam before her.

BOTCH, to. To make bungling work.

BULLYRAG, to. To reproach contemptuously, and in a hectoring manner; to bluster, to abuse, and to insult noisily. Shakspeare makes mine host of the Garter dub Falstaff a bully-rook.

BUNGLE, to. To perform a duty in a slovenly manner.

CLINCH A BUSINESS, to. To finish it; to settle it beyond further dispute, as the recruit taking the shilling (those who were impressed into the Royal Navy, if they took the pre-payment of one shilling, were forthwith considered volunteers).

COBBLE, to. To mend or repair hastily. Also, the coggle or cog.—Cobble or coggle stones, pebbly shingle, ballast-stones rounded by attrition, boulders, &c.

CORN, to. A remainder of the Anglo-Saxon ge-cyrned, salted. To preserve meat for a time by salting it slightly.

CUT AND RUN, to. To cut the cable for an escape. Also, to move off quickly; to quit occupation; to be gone.

EGG, to. To instigate, incite, provoke, to urge on: from the Anglo-Saxon eggion.

FLEATE, to. To skim fresh water off the sea, as practised at the mouths of the Rhone, the Nile, &c. The word is derived from the Dutch vlieten, to skim milk; it also means to float.

GEE, to. To suit or fit; as, “that will just gee.”

GUDDLE, to. To catch fish with the hands by groping along a stream’s bank.

HARASS, to. To torment and fatigue men with needless work.

HOLD-FAST. A rope; also the order to the people aloft, when shaking out reefs, &c., to suspend the operation. In ship-building, it means a bolt going down through the rough tree rail, and the fore or after part of each stanchion.

JIRK, to. To cut or score the flesh of the wild hog on the inner surface, as practised by the Maroons. It is then smoked and otherwise prepared in a manner that gives the meat a fine flavour.

KEEP YOUR LUFF. An order to the helmsman to keep the ship close to the wind, i.e. sailing with a course as near as possible to the direction from which the wind is coming.  LUFF, or Loofe. The order to the helmsman, so as to bring the ship’s head up more to windward. Sometimes called springing a luff. Also, the air or wind. Also, an old familiar term for lieutenant. Also, the fullest or roundest part of a ship’s bows. Also, the weather-leech of a sail.

MAKE IT SO. The order of a commander to confirm the time, sunrise, noon, or sunset, reported to him by the officer of the watch.

PIPE DOWN! The order to dismiss the men from the deck when a duty has been performed on board ship.

STAND FROM UNDER! A notice given to those below to keep out of the way of anything being lowered down, or let fall from above.

TOE A LINE! The order to stand in a row.

KICK THE BUCKET, to. To expire; an inconsiderate phrase for dying.

KICK UP A DUST, to. To create a row or disturbance.

LET FLY, to. To let go a rope at once, suddenly.

MAN-HANDLE, to. To move by force of men, without levers or tackles.

MARINATE, to. To salt fish, and afterwards preserve it in oil or vinegar.

NAIL, to. Is colloquially used for binding a person to a bargain. In weighing articles of food, a nail is 8 lbs.

OVERSHOOT, to. To give a ship too much way.

PITCH IN, to. To set to work earnestly; to beat a person violently. (A colloquialism.)

RANSACK, to. To pillage; but to ransack the hold is merely to overhaul its contents.

SKEDADDLE, to. To stray wilfully from a watering or a working party. An archaism retained by the Americans.

SPIN A TWIST OR A YARN, to. To tell a long story; much prized in a dreary watch, if not tedious.

SUCK THE MONKEY, to. To rob the grog-can.

TOP THE GLIM, to. To snuff the candle.

TROUNCE, to. To beat or punish. Used as far back as the 1550s.

TURN A TURTLE, to. To take the animal by seizing a flipper, and throwing him on his back, which renders him quite helpless. Also applied to a vessel capsizing; or throwing a person suddenly out of his hammock.

TWIG, to. To pull upon a bowline. Also, in familiar phrase, to understand or observe.

WADE, to. An Anglo-Saxon word, meaning to pass through water without swimming. In the north, the sun was said to wade when covered by a dense atmosphere.

WALK SPANISH, to. To quit duty without leave; to desert.

WEATHER ONE’S DIFFICULTIES, to. A colloquial phrase meaning to contend with and surmount troubles.

WHISTLE FOR THE WIND, to. A superstitious practice among old seamen, who are equally scrupulous to avoid whistling during a heavy gale.—To wet one’s whistle. To take a drink. Thus Chaucer tells us that the miller of Trumpington’s lady had “Hir joly whistle wel ywette.”

WORK DOUBLE-TIDES, to. Implying that the work of three days is done in two, or at least two tides’ work in twenty-four hours.

 

Image Source: Unknown.  Please let me know if it’s yours – I’ll gladly credit the artist!

 

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History Undusted: Eidsborg Stave Church & the Vest-Telemark Museum

Back in August of 2013, my husband and I went on a holiday/research trip (for “The Cardinal“) through parts of Norway, and we came across an amazing site:  Eidsborg Stave Church and the Vest-Telemark Museum.  We went to Eidsborg with the intention of seeing the outside of the Stavskyrkje (stave church) there on our way to the Heddal Stave Church; instead, we spent swift hours there!  It started off with a private guided tour from a local guy (“local” meaning his family has lived in the area since the 1300s), who was both understandably proud of the local history and knowledgeable, as well as enthusiastic.

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Vest-Telemark Museum, Eidsborg

The museum itself is modern, beautiful, excellently staffed and convenient, with free wireless connection, a cafe and a gift shop, but most importantly, an extensive exhibit of the history of Vest-Telemark.  The rural life from the late 1700s to 1900s is colourfully laid out, with printed information sheets at each station in Norwegian, English and German.  There’s a strong sense of pride in local culture, and you can breathe in the history of the place.  Literally.  The buildings on the property, some of which you can enter, live and breathe the lives of those who lived there; the musty smells of old leather, damp earth, mildew in the wooden and thatched walls and roofs, the smell of pine wood, the turfy aroma of the blackened pitch-coated walls of the Stave church itself, and the sight of dusty sunlight streaking in through wallboards into the barn, the smithy, a cottage, storehouse, stable, or the mill.  There was even a sauna, built around 1895 (saunas weren’t used back then as they are now; they were places to dry grains for storage or to steam out fleas and lice from fur rugs and coats).

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The Eidsborg Stave Church

The church is typical stave construction:  The staves are corner pillars used to support the edifice, and the interior of the roof uses the same skeletal structure as the Viking longboats – if it works (and those ships worked better than anything on water for centuries), why change it?  The inside of the church is rich in history:  Carvings from the 1200s, intricately painted walls from the 1600s, a statue of the patron saint of travellers (St. Nicholas of Bari) watching from the corner (as an antique replica – the original is in an Oslo museum), and the dusty light of sunlight peering through small holes near the upper beams. The latter mainly served to provide a bit of light as well as fresh air:  Candles could only be afforded for the clergy, so it would have been extremely dark without those holes; sermons went on for hours back in olden days and there were no seats until the middle ages.  Everyone in the parish was required to come, punishment or humiliation being the course of the day if they failed to appear for service, and in the tiny space allowed inside the original church, it would have been standing room only, packed in like sardines.  If someone fainted from lack of fresh air, it probably wouldn’t have been noticed until everyone filed out.  Today there are pews, and it is used weekly as the parish church through the summer and autumn; it is closed for service during the colder months as heating it would cause decay of the paintings and interior woodwork.

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Details in the gallery

Wooden-shingle clad from the ground up, it gives the building the appearance of dragon’s scales, and having been coated with thick pitch for centuries, it looks quite as if it has been charred; it smells wonderfully peaty, like a strong dark whiskey, and on a sunny day you can smell the aroma a good distance away.  The gallery along three sides of the church reveals many interesting details, from the wooden spikes used to nail the shingles to the roof to the outer curve of the stave pillars jutting out into the gallery.  It’s living, breathing history, and a pleasure to have been there.

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History Undusted: Avaldsnes, Norway: A Hidden Gem

In the summer of 2013, I went to Norway on a holiday/research trip for “The Cardinal,” a 2-part fantasy-science fiction novel set in ancient Scotland, ancient Norway, and modern Scotland.  Norway, however, seems to carry its dislike of small-talk into the area of promotion and marketing, and as a result, its museums and attractions are not as well advertised, marketed or signposted as they could be; we only found out about this little gem of a site because we happened to run into a Swiss friend in Haugesund, and he knew of the place!  I promised the curators to get the word out, so here’ goes, and with pleasure:

On the island of Karmøy, along the western coast of Norway, sits Avaldsnes.  With over 50,000 islands in Norway, it wouldn’t seem to our modern minds (as dominated by cars and roads as we are) to be a significant location, but Avaldsnes is rewriting Norse history.  It has long been a place from which to control shipping passages through the narrow neck of the Karmunsundet, also called the Seaway to the North, or in Norwegian Nordvegen, and it is the maritime route that eventually gave its name to the country.

The kings of sagas and lays have become real at Avaldsnes, the rich archaeological finds there making it one of the most important locations in Europe for the study of Viking and Norse history.  Avaldsnes was a royal seat, so it’s not surprising that some of the most important burials in Norway have been found here:  One of its ship burials was dated to the 8th century (making it much older than any other such burials known of thus far).  It was clearly a king’s burial, and the findings there have proven its political importance several hundred years before King Harald Fairhair unified Norway.

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Today there are three main points of interest at Avaldsnes, all within walking distance from each other:  St. Olav’s church, built on the site of the oldest church in Norway, was commissioned by King Håkon Håkonson around 1250 AD as part of the royal manor complex.  On the north side of the church stands the Virgin Mary’s Sewing Needle, one of Norway’s tallest standing stones, measuring in at 7.2 metres today (though it was originally much taller; it can be seen in the picture above):  Local legend says that when the obelisk touches the wall of the church, Doomsday will come; over the years, priests have climbed the stone in the dead of night to chip away any threatening pieces from the top, thus saving the world from annihilation.  This church was an important site for pilgrims on their way to Nidaros (the medieval name for Trondheim, the capital of the land’s first Christian kings and the centre of Norwegian spiritual life up until the Protestant Reformation); on the north side of the church is a sealed door which was originally the entrance for those pilgrims, as it is said that they had to enter any church with their backs to the north.

The next site is the Nordvegen Historic Centre; at first glance, it’s merely a circular stone monument, but it is actually a stairway leading down into the underground museum, built so as to not interfere with the landscape.  The exhibitions guide you (with a bit of modern technology) through 3,500 years of history through Avaldsnes, focusing on daily life, international contacts and cultural influences from those contacts.  Foreign trade and communication were major factors at Avaldsnes, and archaeological evidence shows it to be a barometer to the prosperity and decline of European commerce as a whole.  The museum has a hands-on section, as well as a gift shop that’s well-stocked with books covering various aspects of Viking history.

The third site is a hidden gem, located about 20 minutes’ walk from St. Olav’s:  The Viking farm.  The gravel path takes you along the shore, over two bridges and through a forest to a small island.  It’s well worth the hike, as you come through the forest to find a Viking village tucked behind a typical Telemark-style fence (pictured above).  A 25-metre longhouse is the centrepiece, a reconstruction of a 950 AD house, and built of pine and oak, with windows of mica sheets.  The aroma of tar wafts from the house as you approach, as it is painted with pitch to weatherproof it; the smell reminds me of a dark peat-whiskey, and also of Stave churches, which are also painted with the tar.  [The photo of the longhouse has one element missing to the trained eye:  The low stone wall which should surround the house, as insulation, is missing at the moment while boards are being repaired.]  Other buildings on the farm include pit houses (both woven twig walls as well as wattle and daub) used for activities such as weaving, cooking or food preparation, and other crafts necessary to daily life; a round house, a reconstruction of archaeological finds in Stavanger (which may be a missing link between temples and stave churches in their construction); various buildings of a smaller size; and at the shore is a 32-metre leidang boat house, representing a part of the naval defence system developed in the Viking Age:  A settlement with a leidang was expected to man the ship with warriors and weapons when the king called upon them for aid.  When the boat house was vacant of its ship it was used as a feasting hall, and the modern replica follows that example as it is often hired out for celebrations or festivals.

Both the museum and the Viking farm have friendly and knowledgeable staff; the farm staff are all in hand-made period clothing and shoes; as a matter of fact, one of the women was working on her dress while we were there, and she said it was linen; the total hours to make such a dress from start to finish would be around 600 hours (including shearing, spinning, weaving, then cutting and sewing).  Had it been made of or included leather, it would have taken much, much longer.  That is why clothing was very valuable, and most people only had the clothes on their back; you were considered fortunate, and even wealthy, if you had a change of clothing – even into the mid-eighteenth century in countries such as England.

If you are interested in Viking history, Avaldsnes is well worth the journey.  Take your time; we stayed overnight in the area to spread the visit out over two days, and we could have spent much more time there.  If you’re a natural introvert like me, you’ll need time to process the multitude of impressions, but that’s what we like – quality time, and quality input.  And then get the word out about these points of interest!

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 14 September 2013

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History Undusted: Loch Eriboll, Scotland

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Loch Eriboll and region.  Click to enlarge.

Loch Eriboll is a sea loch along the northern coast of Scotland, roughly 16 km (10 mi) long.  It’s been used (probably as long as inhabitants were in the area) as a safe anchor from the stormy seas off of Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth.  Bronze Age remains can be found in the area, including the souterrain I wrote about recently.  There’s also a well-preserved wheelhouse on a hillside above the western shore, and on the small peninsula jutting out into the loch you’ll find the ruins of a small scale lime industry that developed there in the 19th century.  The shores around the area are fascinating, as the geological composition is a conglomeration of an amazing variety, split along the eastern shore of the loch by the Moine Thrust.  Even along the roads, you’ll find chunks of pink metamorphic rocks glittering with mica. 

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Loch Eriboll, taken Summer 2012, © Stephanie Huesler. Click to enlarge.

In 1945, thirty-three German U-boats surrendered in the deep loch, ending the Battle of the Atlantic.  Eilean Choraidh, the largest island in the loch, was used as target practice for aerial bombing due to its size and resemblance to the shape of a ship.  Along the western hills, you can see words written with stones near the settlement of Laid:  They are the names of warships, such as the Hood and Amethyst, arranged there by the sailors of those ships. 

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Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag Beach, taken Summer 2012, © Stephanie Huesler.  Click to enlarge.

Not far from Loch Eriboll, on the way to Durness, is a treasure:  Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag is a beach of vertical walls of stones layered in colours ranging from black to pink.  When the tide is out the beach is endless, and when it’s in, climb the rocks!  The beach was created as the Ice Age sheets began to melt, pushing the walls of rocks upward as the island actually rose, no longer being held down by the massive weight of ice. 

On a clear day, you can see the southern-most Orkney Isles, and the waters around the coast are still busy highways for ships of all sizes.

My husband and I were on holiday in Scotland in 2012, and we spent several days in this area so that I could do research for The Cardinal; both the souterrain and the above-mentioned beach play a role in the story.

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