Nothing excites the imagination of young history-and-science-minded kids like the Egyptian pyramids, which is maybe why so many people grow up into amateur Egyptologists with very strong opinions about the pyramids. For such people, access to the highest quality information seems critical for their online debates. For professional academics and serious students of ancient Egypt such access is critical to doing their work properly. All lovers and students of ancient Egypt will find what they need, freely available, at Harvard University’s Digital Giza Project.
“Children and specialized scholars alike may study the material culture of this ancient civilization from afar,” Harvard’s Metalab writes, “often with greater access than could be achieved in person.” The project opened at Harvard in 2011 after spending its first eleven years at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston with the goal of “digitizing and posting for free online all of the archaeological documentation from the Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition to Giza, Egypt (about 1904–1947),” notes the about page.
The Digital Giza Project was born from a need to centralize research and artifacts that have been scattered all over the globe. “Documents and images are held in faraway archives,” the Harvard Gazette points out, “artifacts and other relics of ancient Egypt have been dispersed, stolen, or destroyed, and tombs and monuments have been dismantled, weather-worn, or locked away behind passages filled in when an excavation closes.” Other obstacles to research include the expense of travel and, more recently, the impossibility of visiting far-off sites.
Expanding far beyond the scope of the original expeditions, the project has partnered with “many other institutions around the world with Giza-related collections” to compile its searchable library of downloadable PDF books and journal articles. Kids, adult enthusiasts, and specialists will all appreciate Giza 3D, a reconstruction with guided tours of all the major archeological sites at the pyramids, from tombs to temples to the Great Sphinx, as well as links to images and archeological details about each of the various finds within.
For a preview of the multimedia experience on offer at the Digital Giza Project, see the videos here from project’s YouTube channel. Each short video provides a wealth of information; young learners and those just getting started in their Egyptology studies can find lessons, glossaries, an overview of the people and places of Giza, and more at the Giza @ School page. Whatever your age, occupation, or level of commitment, if you’re interested in learning more about the pyramids at Giza, you need to bookmark Digital Giza. Start here.
We revere Leonardo da Vinci for his industry, but even more so for his imagination. Most of us would envision ourselves, had we lived in the late 15th or early 16th century, being perfectly content with having painted the Mona Lisa. But Leonardo had designs on a host of other domains as well, most of them not strictly artistic. His ventures into science and engineering made him the archetypal polymath “Renaissance man,” but he was also a man before his time: most of the inventions he came up with and documented in his writings couldn’t have been built when he lived.
Over the past six centuries, however technological developments have turned more and more of Leonardo’s machines possible — or at least conceivable to the non-visionary. Take, for instance, the bridge only put successfully to the test when MIT researchers 3D-printed it in 2019.
Alas, however advanced our materials in the 21st century, they have yet to prove equal to the ornithopter, a rig meant to bestow upon man the power of flight by giving him a pair of birdlike wings. But you can see it in action in the short video at the top of this post, the first in a series called “Da Vinci Reborn.”
Even as these videos help us understand how Leonardo’s ingenious creations worked, they remind us that Leonardo himself had to invent them without the benefit of computer-aided design — with little more, in fact, than pen, paper, and the Renaissance-era tools at hand. For him, when the self-centering drill bored straight through a log or the aerial screw took to the air, they did so only in his imagination. It was only there that he could test, refine, and reassemble the mechanisms that together constituted many of the inventions that still impress us today.
It must be something like stepping into Leonardo’s mind, then, to experience the Dassault-designed Da Vinci Castle playground, which virtually places these inventions and others on the lawn in front of the Château du Clos Lucé. It was there that the great Renaissance man came to the end of his life in 1619, having entered the service of King Francis I’s service after the French monarch recaptured Milan four years earlier. Leonardo himself would surely appreciate this geographical touch — and even more so, the fact that humanity is still bringing such high technology to bear on the project of understanding his work.
In ancient Hindu mythology, the Yali appears as a chimera, part lion, part horse, part elephant. It was carved into stone pillars to guard temples, and its form adorned an instrument called the yazh, whose sound “once filled the halls and temples of southern India,” Livia Gershon writes at Smithsonian. “Over time, however, the Tamil musical tradition all but vanished,” along with the royalty who filled those ancient halls.
“A distant cousin of the harp,” notes Atlas Obscura, the yazh was said to make “the sweetest sound,” but it’s a sound no one has heard until now. By studying ancient literary references, luthier Tharun Sekar was able to recreate the instrument, taking “some liberties with the design,” Gershon writes, like “replacing jackfruit with red cedar,” a lighter wood, and replacing the traditional Yali with a peacock.
References to the yazh go back around 2,000 years in Tamil literature from the time known as the Sangam, the earliest period of South Indian history, typically dated between 600 BCE to 300 CE., when the yazh had its heyday. Carved from a single block of wood and strung with either 7 or 14 strings, each modern yazh takes Sekar about six months to complete. He’s been building them in his Chennai workshop since 2019.
Sekar tells Atlas Obscura how he chose the yazh as the first instrument for his company Uru, which specializes in redesigning folk instruments: “Today, while there are replicas of the yazh available in museums, they are neither original nor playable. I wasn’t also able to find any recorded sound samples or videos of the instrument. So, this created a curiosity in me.”
Now, there is both a song and video, “the world’s first,” Sekar tells DT Next, in the form of “Azhagi,” above. A collaboration between Sekar, rapper Syan Saheer, and singer Sivasubramanian, who wrote the song about “a girl with superpowers from the Sangam era,” Sekar says. “We thought the context was very much relatable to yazh.” The only instrument in the song is the yazh, and Sekar hopes the video will begin to popularize the instrument. He’s already started receiving orders from interested musicians from around the world.
Learn more how Sekar creates a yazh in his workshop, and how he learned to recreate sounds no one could record 2,000 years ago, in his interview at Atlas Obscura.
…bears parts of two model letters of the very formal and ultra-poite variety addressed to a superior official. The writers consistently refer to themselves as “this servant” and to their addressees as “the Master (may he live, prosper, and be well.)” The longer letter was composed and written by a young man named Iny-su, son of Sekhsekh, who calls himself a “Servant of the Estate” and who, probably in jest, has used the name of his own brother, Peh-ny-su, as that of the distinguished addressee. Following a long-winded preamble, in which the gods of Thebes and adjacent towns are invoked in behalf of the recipient, we get down to the text of the letter and find that it concerns the delivery of various parts of a ship, probably a sacred barque. In spite of its formality and fine phraseology, the letter is riddled with misspellings and other mistakes which have been corrected in red ink, probably by the master scribe in charge of the class.
Iny-su would also have been expected to memorize the text he had copied out, a practice that carried forward to our one-room-schoolhouses, where children droned their way through texts from McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers.
Another ancient Egyptian writing board in the Met’s collection finds an apprentice scribe fumbling with imperfectly formed, unevenly spaced hieroglyphs.
Fetch the whitewash and say it with me, class — practice makes perfect.
I remember reading somewhere that Egyptian students were taught to write by transcribing stories of the awful lives of the average peasants, to motivate and make them appreciate their education. Like “the farmer toils all day in the burning field, and prays he doesn’t feed the lions; the fisherman sits in fear on his boat as the crocodile lurks below.”
Sent back in time 600 years and tasked with building the world’s largest dome, how would most of us fare? Most of us, of course, are not trained architects or engineers, but then, neither was Filippo Brunelleschi. Known at the time as a goldsmith, Brunelleschi ended up winning the commission to build just such a colossal dome atop Florence’s Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, which itself had already been under construction for well over a century. The year was 1418, the dawn of the Italian Renaissance, but a break with medieval building styles had already been made, not least in the rejection of the kind of flying buttresses that had held up the stone ceilings of previous cathedrals. Brunelleschi had thus not just to build an unprecedentedly large dome, in accordance with a design drawn up 122 years earlier, but also to come up with the technology required to do so.
“He invented an ox-driven hoist that brought the tremendously heavy stones up to the level of construction,” architect David Wildman tells HowStuffWorks. Noticing that “marble for the project was being damaged as it was unloaded off of boats,” he also “invented an amphibious boat that could be used on land to transport the large pieces of marble to the cathedral.”
These and other new devices were employed in service of an ingenious structure using not just one dome but two, the smaller inner one reinforced with hoops of stone and chain. Built in brick — the formula for the concrete used in the Pantheon having been lost, like so much ancient Roman knowledge — the dome took sixteen years in total, which constituted the final stage of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore’s generations-long construction.
Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, still the largest masonry dome in the world, has yet to quite yield all of its secrets: “There is still some mystery as to how all of the components of the dome connect with each other,” as Wildman puts it, thanks to Brunelleschi’s vigilance about concealing the nature of his techniques throughout the project. But you can see some of the current theories visualized (and, in a shamelessly fake Italian accent, hear them explained) in the National Geographic video at the top of the post. However he did it, Brunelleschi ensured that every part of his structure fit together perfectly — and that it would hold up six centuries later, when we can look at it and see not just an impressive church, but the beginning of the Renaissance itself.
In November 1965, after some hondling between the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation, a senior executive from Carnegie called former president of MIT James Killian with an invitation. Would Killian be interested in assembling a commission to study educational television with an eye toward strengthening the American system of learning on screen, and could he start right away? Killian jumped; a commission was formed; and two years, eight meetings, 225 interviews, and 92 site visits later, the Carnegie Commission’s report comes out, a bill gets written, the bill becomes law, and President Johnson is signing the 1967 Public Television Act to create public television and radio.
At the signing ceremony, Johnson said, “Today, we rededicate a part of the airwaves – which belong to all the people – and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people. We must consider,” he said, “new ways to build a great network for knowledge – not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.”
Heady stuff. But it gets even better:
Think of the lives that this would change:
The student in a small college could tap the resources of a great university. [. . .]
The country doctor getting help from a distant laboratory or a teaching hospital;
A scholar in Atlanta might draw instantly on a library in New York;
A famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspirations into some far-off classroom, so that no child need be neglected.
Eventually, I think this electronic knowledge bank could be as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank.
And such a system could involve other nations, too – it could involve them in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.
A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday’s strangest dreams are today’s headlines and change is getting swifter every moment.
I have already asked my advisers to begin to explore the possibility of a network for knowledge – and then to draw up a suggested blueprint for it.
The system he was signing into law, Johnson said, “will be free, and it will be independent – and it will belong to all of our people.”
A new network for knowledge.
Fifty years later, totally (seemingly) unrelated, then MIT president Charles Vest went on to speak of something else, something that became MIT Open Courseware. Together with new foundations – this time the Hewlett Foundation and the Mellon Foundation led the way – Vest envisioned “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced:”
A meta-university that will enable, not replace, residential campuses, that will bring cost efficiencies to institutions through the shared development of educational materials. That will be adaptive, not prescriptive. It will serve teachers and learners in both structured and informal contexts. It will speed the propagation of high-quality education and scholarship. It will build bridges across cultures and political boundaries. And it will be particularly important to the developing world.
Today, in our time of severe truth decay, our great epistemic crisis, it might be time again to envision another intervention, formative and transformational as the establishment of public broadcasting, imaginative and daring as the launch of open courseware and the open education movement. Indeed, something as breathtaking as the events above, and their own vital forbear over a century ago – the founding of a network of public libraries across America and other parts of the world (which also happened with Andrew Carnegie’s financial support).
The original Enlightenment brought us Newton’s physics, Rousseau’s political philosophy, Linnaeus’s taxonomies, Montesquieu’s laws, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man – it was the Age of Reason. Its founders – as we noted in [Parts 1 and II on] Open Culture – comprised between themselves what became known as the great Republic of Letters. They were all men, though; and they all were white; while they had access to their own means and to the mean of media production, and they delivered new systems of thinking much of the modern world is based on today, their circles were limited; their imaginations were not our imaginations.
Today we have a chance to do more – to take advantage of the cultures and communities that have arisen in the centuries and from the struggles since that time, to launch a new Enlightenment, and to realize perhaps in bolder and more secure ways this new network for knowledge. Video, more than text now, has taken over the internet; video is a new key to our networked world. The company Cisco Systems – which makes many of the devices that connect us – deploys a forecasting tool it calls the Visual Networking Index (VNI). The latest VNI tells us that there were 3.4 billion Internet users on the planet in 2017, almost half of the planet’s current population of 7.7 billion people. By 2022, there will be 4.8 billion Internet users: 60 percent of the planet, and more people in the world will be connected to the Internet than not. By 2022, more than 28 billion “devices and connections” will be online. And – here’s the kicker – video will make up 82 percent of global Internet traffic. Video is dominant already. During peak evening hours in the Americas, Netflix can account for as much as 40 percent of downstream Internet traffic, and Netflix – Netflix alone – constitutes 15 percent of Internet traffic worldwide. All this forecasting was completed before the pandemic; before 125 million cases of Corona virus; before 3 million deaths worldwide; before the explosion of Zoom.
We are living in a video age. What will be our next media intervention? How do knowledge institutions secure their deservedly central place in search and on the web? We need to look over our rights vis-à-vis the government and the giant companies that increasingly control our Internet; we need to look at the growing power we have to contribute to access to knowledge and share our wealth especially in the online Commons; we need to make sure that the public record, especially video (and especially video of all the lies and crimes, and of all the outrageous falsehoods leaders circulate about COVID) is all archived and preserved. We need to strengthen how much of the network we own and control.
What’s important is that we have begun to reach toward the point where there is equity in the leadership of our knowledge institutions. No longer are white men and only white men in charge of the Library of Congress, for example, or the Smithsonian Institution, or, and thus by extension, of our new Enlightenment. New and diverse study and action groups are being formed specifically to address our information disorder. But many more of our leading knowledge institutions – and, critically, foundations and funding agencies again – need to lead this work. This is a 20th-anniversary year for MIT Open CourseWare, for Wikipedia, and for Creative Commons; indeed, MIT OCW starts to celebrate its birthday this month. Many other like-minded progressive institutions and their supporters are on the move. That network for knowledge is coming again: this time, our new Enlightenment moment will belong to all of us.
These days, when a company finds itself in need of more space than its current building affords, it moves to a bigger one, expands the one it has, or does a full teardown-and-rebuild. But considering only these options shows a certain failure of imagination, as underscored by the video above: a brief summary of how the Indiana Bell Telephone Company added a second building alongside its Indianapolis headquarters — but only after hoisting up the latter and pivoting it 90 degrees on its side. “This was no small task,” says the video’s narrator, “as the eight-story, steel-frame-and-brick building measured about 100 by 135 feet, and weighed 11,000 tons.”
But between October 20th and November 14th, 1930, the company did indeed manage to turn and shift the entire structure as planned, “and the move caused no service outages, and all 600 workers within the building still reported to work every day.”
This necessitated lengthening and making flexible all its utility cables and pipes, then lifting it a quarter-inch with jacks and placing it on rollers. “Every six strokes of the jacks would shift the building three-eighths of an inch, moving it fifteen inches per hour.” As for Indiana Bell’s employees, they entered and left their slowly pivoting workplace “using a movable passenger walkway that moved with the building.” To Kurt Vonnegut Jr., then eight years old, all this must have been an impressive sight indeed.
The young novelist-to-be must have seen it not just because he was born and raised in Indianapolis, a fact he referenced throughout his life, but because his father was the project’s lead architect. Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. followed in the footsteps of his own father Bernard Vonnegut, designer of Das Deutsche Haus, today known as the Athenaeum, which the National Register of Historic Places designates as “the best preserved and most elaborate building associated with the German American community of Indianapolis.” This German legacy would prove rather more complicated for the most famous Vonnegut of them all, imprisoned in Dresden as he was during World War II. The darkness of his experience manifests in his work, not least his masterpieceSlaughterhouse-Five; but so, one imagines, does the near-fantastical practicality of 1930s Indianapolis.
Sitting or standing before an esteemed writer’s desk can make us feel closer to their process. Virginia Woolf’s desks — plywood boards she held on her lap and sloped standing desks — show a kind of austere rigor in her posture. “Throughout her life as a writer,” James Barrett points out, Woolf “paid attention to the physical act of writing,” just as she paid attention to the creative act of walking. The bareness of her implements tells us a lot about her as an artist, but it tells us nothing about the state of writing desk technology available in her time.
20th century modernist Woolf preferred the 16th-century rustic simplicity of Monk’s house. Had she been an 18th century aristocrat and a follower of fashion, she might have availed herself of a desk designed by the Roentgens, the “principal cabinetmakers of the ancien régime,” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“From about 1742 to its closing in the early 1800s, the Roentgens’ innovative designs were combined with intriguing mechanical devices to revolutionize traditional French and English furniture types.”
The German workshop was founded by Abraham Roentgen and continued by his son David, whose creations Goethe called “palaces in fairyland” and who took first place in a furniture making contest with his entry: “a desk with cabinet, decorated with chinoiserie figures in superb marquetry and featuring a clock with a carillon (musical mechanism) and a hidden clavichord.”
Roentgen writing desks were as functional as they were beautiful. But they were not made for just anyone. The Roentgens made the Berlin Secretary Cabinet, for example — which you can see demonstrated in the Met video at the top — for King Frederick William II of Prussia.
Other Roentgen desks may have been somewhat less outwardly ostentatious, but their inner workings were just as ingenious, as you can see in the rolltop desk further up and the mechanical desk above. Each of these magnificent creations features hidden drawers and compartments, a mainstay of luxury desk design throughout the 1700s, as the Rijksmuseum video below demonstrates. Called “Neuwied furniture,” this style was all the rage and anyone who was anyone, including, of course, Marie Antoinette, had the Roentgens or their competitors make elaborate cabinets, desks, and bureaus that concealed complex inner workings like wooden clocks.
“Roentgen’s perfectly executed inventions became a status symbol for princely interiors all over Germany and Central Europe,” writes the Met. Whether their meticulously engineered writing desks really solved the problem of office clutter or physically improved the experience of writing in any way, however, seems debatable at best.
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