Short News, Inebrious Fourth Edition

Ritmeier's C.W. Bitters, c. 1906.
Ritmeier’s C.W. Bitters, c. 1906, on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, Wisconsin.

Bracing Tonics. A CRM excavation at the site of a former Manhattan beer garden unveiled a trove of 19th-century bitters bottles. Bitters — tonics that combined herbs and spices along with a hefty dose of alcohol — were used as digestives and medicines at the time, even by otherwise abstinent teetotalers. From the relief writing on the bottles (which today are highly collectible), the archaeologists were able to track down the original recipes, which they then recreated and shared. Also worth noting: in the comments, an author plugged this apothecary recipe book.

Flipping my Lid. Speaking of cocktail books, I recently downloaded food writer Corin Hirsch’s Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, which includes recipes I intend to inflict upon our guests this July Fourth. I’ve always wanted to try flip. I’ve had switchel before, but didn’t care for it.

Columbia Uber Ailes. And in not-so-alternate-history news, Fox News reached through a tear and stole the logo for BioShock Infinite.

Fugitive Slave Settlements Discovered

An amazing story of shoe-leather archaeology deep in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina:

Buried in the earth are what are believed to be remnants of one or more communities of escaped slaves, known as maroons, who built homes and carved out lives where their freedom depended on secrecy. Researchers now think settlements may have existed there on and off for hundreds of years; their occupants relying on the swamp’s forbidding conditions to give safe haven from those who wanted to return them to chains.

Historical archaeologist Dan Sayers spent years researching documents and talking to residents but his big break came when he reinvented his approach toward interviews:

Locals were stumped when he inquired about hills in the flat swampland.

His luck changed, Sayers said, when he figured out how to phrase the right questions.

In February 2004, he asked refuge forester Bryan Poovey about islands.

“He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll take you out to one,’ ” Sayers said.

Very often, how you structure your questions determines the answers you’ll receive.

Pirate News

Analysis of ceramic remains from Barcadares, an 18th-century pirate camp in Belize, showed that more than 65 percent of it was delftware. Numerous pipes and few cups were found, suggesting popular images of buccaneers eating from decorated plates stolen off merchantmen, with a tobacco pipe in one hand and an open bottle in the other, aren’t that far from the truth.

North Carolina has officially confirmed the shipwreck near Beaufort is indeed Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge — in part because the local maritime museum hopes to attract private funding to continue excavation and research.

Mammoth Art

While cleaning an old bone he found, an avocational fossil hunter made an incredible discovery:

Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Florida have announced the discovery of a bone fragment, approximately 13,000 years old, in Florida with an incised image of a mammoth or mastodon. This engraving is the oldest and only known example of Ice Age art to depict a proboscidean (the order of animals with trunks) in the Americas. The team’s research is published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The scientists are likely too cautious to make a definitive call without running DNA tests on it, but the carving is clearly that of a mammoth, not a mastodon, and a Columbian at that. Both animals had backs that sloped from shoulders to hips, but those of mammoths were much steeper; and unlike mastodons, mammoths had discernible necks, which you can also see in the image. Both Columbian mammoths and mastodons roamed ancient Florida.

Art is communication — and that long-gone artist has said “I saw this” across thirteen millennia or more. Amazing.

Photo credit Chip Clark at the Smithsonian Institution.

Latest News From Beaufort Inlet

The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project has posted a summary of their 2010 fall field season:

A total of 122 objects were recovered from the wreck site during the field season. Sixty-five concretions of varying sizes have the potential for containing hundreds of individual artifacts. These concretions will be X-rayed at the conservation lab to help identify what may be contained within. Some artifacts readily apparent on gross external examination include: cannon balls, cask hoops, a pewter plate, and the largest object recovered this season — multiple segments of a deadeye strop with the wood deadeye intact, likely from the port side main mast chain plate.

Drawing of the QAR from the Project’s 1999 management plan.

This Week in Experimental Archaeology

Twenty German college students are spending the summer living and training as Roman gladiators:

The student warriors, who are all studying various disciplines at the university, won’t be eating pizza, hamburgers or steaks during their training. Instead they’ll have berries and white beans on their plates as the ancient Roman doctor Galen recommended in his texts.

They will also learn to fight wearing bronze helmets that weigh almost five kilogrammes at a camp that won’t allow girlfriends, showers, or washing machines.

“For me it’s a welcome change from sitting in front of the computer,” said athletic archaeology student Martin Schreiner.

He and the other gladiators are already training together four days a week. Following the summer training camp the group plans to perform at the former Roman army camp Carnuntum in Austria.

The worst part of the experience will be the food. Gladiators ate a vegetarian diet consisting largely of a barley gruel. The fat gain from the starchy carbs is believed to have acted as a shield against blows and cuts received in the arena. [via HistoryTweeter]

Next on deck: a group of economists and anthropologists believe agriculture precipitated market economies because surpluses forced people to associate with others outside their social sphere:

To arrive at this conclusion, the team set up money-swapping games played by people from small societies around the world — farmers, hunter-gatherers, seaside foragers, livestock herders, and wage laborers — and looked at how each group divvied up resources.

Participants who regularly have to deal with outsiders treated strangers more fairly, sharing a pool of money or valuables more equally, the team found.

Game players’ willingness to split up resources fairly with an unknown partner rose sharply with their “market integration,” or the extent that they lived in communities with market economies.

I’m generally dubious of these sorts of games and models since I suspect the rules often support pre-established conclusions. In this case, the people with higher “market integration” may have been fairer to strangers simply because they were more familiar with the trading process itself.

In addition, participants from the largest communities were most likely to punish players whom they regarded as offering unfair deals. That meant canceling the deal and getting nothing or paying part of one’s own pool of money to cause an even bigger loss for the unfair player.

That’s not good news for traditional economic theories that regard self-interest as the engine of commerce. If those theories are right, players should take whatever someone else gives them, because that’s better than nothing.

Wrong. One of the most common misconceptions of capitalism is that individuals are motivated by material gain alone. “Self-interest” is not the same as “greed.” If a man spends a lot of money at a bar trying to pick up a woman, he’s still working in his self-interest. Other desires — like love or sex or vengeance — may outweigh the desire for wealth within the breast of an individual. It’s a mistake made not just by journalists but by economists as well. A lot of people seem to think of markets as robotic abacuses, with beads shuttling back and forth in a logical manner, but I’m always surprised at how often pure emotion fuels the economy, particularly the stock market.

Trade led to market economies because people began to trade — I think the writer garbled the point, although maybe the researchers did too. The belief in archaeology is that agriculture led to larger, fixed populations, which led to more complex societies featuring skill specialization, which often led to market economies because specialized individuals had to trade with each other to obtain things they could no longer produce for themselves.