Behold the Glass Armonica, the Unbelievably Fragile Instrument Invented by Benjamin Franklin

We’re all familiar with keyboard instruments. Many of us have also heard (or indeed made) music, of a kind, with the rims of wine glasses. But to unite the two required the truly American combination of genius, wherewithal, and penchant for folly found in one historical figure above all: Benjamin Franklin. As we’ve previously noted here on Open Culture, the musically inclined Franklin invented an instrument called the glass armonica (alternatively “glass harmonica”) — or rather he re-invented it, having seen and heard an early example played in London. Essentially a series of differently sized bowls arranged from large to small, all rotating on a shaft, the glass armonica allows its player to make polyphonic music of a downright celestial nature.

The playing, however, is easier written about than done. You can see that for yourself in the video above, in which guitarist Rob Scallon visits musician-preservationist Dennis James. Not only does James play a glass armonica, he plays a glass armonica he built himself — and has presumably rebuilt a few times as well, given its scarcely believable fragility.




Transportation presents its challenges, but so does the act of playing, which requires a routine of hand-washing (and subsequent re-wetting, with distilled water only) that even the coronavirus hasn’t got most of us used to. But even in the hands of a first-timer like Scallon, who makes sure to take his turn at the keyboard-of-bowls, the glass armonica sounds like no other instrument even most of us in the 21st century have heard. In the hands of one of its few living virtuosos, of course, the glass armonica is something else entirely.

“If this piece didn’t exist,” says James, holding a piece of sheet music, “I wouldn’t be sitting here.” He refers to Adagio & Rondo for glass armonica in C minor (KV 617), composed by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “In 1791, the last year of his life, Mozart wrote a piece for the German armonica player, Marianne Kirchgässner,” writes Timoty Judd at The Listeners’ Club. Like every glass armonica piece, according to James, one ends it by dropping suddenly into complete silence: “It’s the only instrument, up until that point, that could to that: die away to absolutely nothing.” Alas, writes James, not long after the debut of Mozart’s composition rumors circulated that “the strange, crystalline tones of Benjamin Franklin’s new instrument were a threat to public health.” A shame though that seems today, it does suit the multitalented Franklin’s ancillary reputation as an inveterate troublemaker.

Related Content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Catherine the Great of Russia Sends a Letter Urging Her Fellow Russians to Get Inoculated Against Smallpox (1787)

I got my booster shot the other week and through the miracles of modern science I barely knew a needle was in me before the pharmacist told me it was over. (I also didn’t feel any after effects, but your mileage may vary.) I mention this because before needles, before injectable vaccines, there was something called variolation.

Since ancient times, smallpox had a habit of decimating populations, disappearing, and reappearing elsewhere for another outbreak. It killed rulers and peasants alike. Symptoms included fever, vomiting, and most abhorrent, a body covered with fluid-filled blisters. It could blind you, and it could kill you. In variolation, a physician would take the infectious fluid from from a blister or scab on an infected person and rub it into scratches or cuts on a healthy patient’s skin. This would lead to a mild—but still particularly unpleasant—case of smallpox, and inoculate them against the virus.

But one can also see how the practice of variolation—introducing a diluted version of the virus in order for the immune system to do its work—points towards the science of vaccines.




One supporter of variolation was Catherine the Great, as evidenced by a letter in her hand promoting it across Russia from 1787. The letter just sold for $1.3 million, alongside a portrait of the monarch by Dmitry Levitsky.

Addressed to a governor-general, Catherine the Great instructs him to make variolation available to everybody in his province.

“Among the other duties of the Welfare Boards in the Provinces entrusted to you,” she writes, “one of the most important should be the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people.” She further orders inoculation centers be set up in convents and monasteries, funded by town revenues to pay doctors.

Catherine had a personal stake in all this. Her husband, Peter III caught the disease before he became emperor, and was left disfigured and scarred for life. When she got a chance to inoculate herself in 1768 she took it, calling in a Scottish doctor, Dr. Thomas Dimsdale, to perform the variolation. The procedure took place in secret, with a horse at the ready in case the procedure caused terrible side effects and he had to hot foot it out of Russia. That didn’t happen, and after a brief convalescence, Catherine revealed what she had done to her countrymen.

“My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger.”

Yet, despite her own bravery, 20 years later smallpox continued to rampage through Russia, hence the letter.

Nine years later in 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner found that the cowpox virus—which only caused mild, cold-like symptoms in humans—could inoculate humans against smallpox. Despite initial rejections from the scientific community, his discovery led to vaccination supplanting variolation. And it’s the reason we now use the word “vaccine”—it comes from the Latin word for cow.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Stephen Fry on the Power of Words in Nazi Germany: How Dehumanizing Language Laid the Foundation for Genocide

In a recent series of Tweets and a follow-up interview with MEL magazine, legendary alt-rock producer and musician Steve Albini took responsibility for what he saw as his part in creating “edgelord” culture — the jokey, meme-worthy use of racist, misogynist and homophobic slurs that became so normalized it invaded the halls of Congress. “It was genuinely shocking when I realized that there were people in the music underground who weren’t playing when they were using language like that,” he says. “I wish that I knew how serious a threat fascism was in this country…. There was a joke made about the Illinois Nazis in The Blues Brothers. That’s how we all perceived them — as this insignificant, unimportant little joke. I wish that I knew then that authoritarianism in general and fascism specifically were going to become commonplace as an ideology.”

Perhaps, as Stephen Fry explains in the video clip above from his BBC documentary series Planet Word, we might better understand how casual dehumanization leads to fascism and genocide if we see how language has worked in history. The Holocaust, the most prominent but by no means only example of mass murder, could never have happened without the willing participation of what Daniel Goldhagen called “ordinary Germans” in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, about the Final Solution in Poland, makes the point Fry makes above. Cultural factors played their part, but there was nothing innately Teutonic (or “Aryan”) about genocide. “We can all be grown up enough to know that it was humanity doing something to other parts of humanity,” says Fry. We’ve seen examples in our lifetimes in Rwanda, Myanmar, and maybe wherever we live — ordinary humans talked into doing terrible things to other people.

But no matter how often we encounter genocidal movements, it seems like “a massively difficult thing to get your head around,” says Fry: “how ordinary people (and Germans are ordinary people just like us)” could be made to commit atrocities. In the U.S., we have our own version of this — the history of lynching and its attendant industry of postcards and even more grisly memorabilia, like the trophies serial killers collect. “In each one of these genocidal moments… each example was preceded by language being used again and again and again to dehumanize the person that had to be killed in the eyes of their enemies,” says Fry. He briefly elaborates on the varieties of dehumanizing anti-Semitic slurs that became common in the 1930s, referring to Jewish people, for example, as vermin, apes, untermenschen, viruses, “anything but a human being.”

“If you start to characterize [someone this way], week after week after week after week,” says Fry, citing the constant radio broadcasts against the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide, “you start to think of someone who is slightly sullen and disagreeable and you don’t like very much anyway, and you’re constantly getting the idea that they’re not actually human. Then it seems it becomes possible to do things to them we would call completely unhuman, and inhuman, and lacking humanity.” While it’s absolutely true, he says, that language “guarantees our freedom” through the “free exchange of ideas,” it can really only do that when language users respect others’ rights. When, however, we begin to see “special terms of insult for special kinds of people, then we can see very clearly, and history demonstrates it time and time again, that’s when ordinary people are able to kill.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Be a Samurai: A 17th Century Code for Life & War

Many today draw inspiration from Bushidō, the Way of the Warrior, a comprehensive code of conduct for premodern Japan’s samurai (or bushi).

The above installment of History Brothers David and Pete Kelly’s primary source web series Voices of the Past suggests that some aspects of the samurai code are more applicable to 21st century life than others.

For instance, when was the last time you slaughtered someone for rendering offense to your Lord?




Not that the best practices surrounding such an assignment aren’t fascinating. Still, you’ll probably benefit more from incorporating the samurai approach to dealing with gossips or clueless colleagues.

If you want to adapt Master Ninja Natori Masazumi‘s Edo period instructions for cleaning blood from long swords, without damaging the blade, to polishing your stainless steel fridge, have at it:

Place horse droppings inside some paper and wipe it over a blade that has been used to cut someone. This will leave traces of the wiping and the blood will no longer be seen. If there are no horse droppings available to wipe the blade with, use the back of your straw sandals or soil inside paper.

The video draws on historian Antony Cummins and translator Yoshie Minami’s The Book of Samurai: The Fundamental Teachings, a reproduction of two scrolls containing Natori Masazumi’s directives for samurai conduct in times of war and peace.

The second scroll, “Ippei Yoko,” contains some explicit marching orders for the former.

If you’re squeamish — or eating — you may want to duck out of the video before Natori Masazumi’s granular instructions on the severing of enemy heads. (15:30 onward.)

Alternatively, you could make like an inexperienced young samurai and harden yourself to the graphic realities of bloodshed by attending executions and violent punishments in your downtime.

Again, the more everyday wisdom of “Heika Jodan,” the first scroll, will likely prove more pertinent. A few chestnuts to get you started:

Don’t say something about someone behind their back that you are not prepared to repeat to their face.

Keep your distance from “stupid” associates, but also resist the urge to make fun of them.

Never shy away from an act of virtue.

In an emergency, exit in a swift, but orderly manner.

Compliment the food when you’re a guest in someone’s home, even if you don’t like it.

If you’re the host, and two guests begin fighting, try to help settle the matter discreetly, to avoid lasting injuries or grudges.

Don’t pass the buck to excuse your own misdeeds.

Don’t panic in an unexpected situation — the first thing you should do is take a breath and settle your mind.

Whether traveling or just out and about, be prepared with necessary items, including, pencil, paper, money, medications…

When tempted to regale others with any supernatural encounters you may have had, remember that less is more.

Watch more Voices of the Past on their YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Browse a Huge Collection of Prison Newspapers: 1800-2020

“By the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the gloomy festival of punishment was dying out… Punishment, then, will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process.” — Michel Foucault

The study of crime in the late 1800s began with racist pseudoscience like craniometry and phrenology, both of which have made a disturbing comeback in recent years. In his 1876 book, Criminal Man, the “father of criminology,” Cesare Lombrosco, defined “the criminal” as “an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior of animals.” Lombrosco believed that certain cranial and facial features correspond to a “love of orgies and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood.” That such descriptions preceded Bram Stoker’s Dracula by several years may be no coincidence at all.

No such thing as a natural criminal type exists, but this has not stopped 19th century prejudices from embedding themselves in law enforcement, the prison system and the culture at large in the United States. Outside of the most sensationalist cases, however, we rarely hear from incarcerated people themselves, though they’ve had plenty say about their humanity in print since the turn of the 19th century, when the first prison newspaper, Forlorn Hope, was published in New York City on March 24, 1800.




“In the intervening 200 years,” notes JSTOR, “over 500 prison newspapers have been published from U.S. prisons.” A new collection, American Prison Newspapers: 1800-2020 – Voices from the Inside, “will bring together hundreds of these periodicals from across the country into one collection that will represent penal institutions of all kinds, with special attention paid to women-only institutions.”

The U.S. incarcerates “over 2 million as of 2019” — and has produced some of the world’s most moving jail and prison literature, from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The newspapers in this collection do not often feature a similar level of literary bravura, but many show a high degree of professionalism and artistic quality. “Next to the faded, home-spun pages of The Hour Glass, published at the Farm for Women in Connecticut in the 1930s,” writes JSTOR Daily’s Kate McQueen, “readers will find polished staples of the 1970s like newspaper The Kentucky Inter-Prison Press and Arizona State Prison’s magazine La Roca.”

Many, if not most, of these publications were published with official sanction, and these “cover similar ground. They report on prison programing, profile locals of interest, and offer commentary on topics like parole and education” under the watchful gaze of the warden, whose photograph might appear on the masthead. “Incarcerated journalists walk a tightrope between oversight by administrations — even censorship — and seeking to report accurately on their experiences inside,” the collection points out. Prison newspapers gave inmates opportunities to share creative work and hone newly acquired literacy, literary, and legal skills. Those periodicals that circulated underground without the authorities’ permission had no need to equivocate about their politics. Washington State Penitentiary’s Anarchist Black Dragon, for example, took a fiercely radical stance on every page. Nowhere on the masthead will one find the names of correctional officers, or even a list of editors and contributors, or even a masthead.

Whether official, unofficial, or occupying a grey area, prison periodicals all hoped in some degree to “poke holes in the wall,” as Tom Runyon, editor of Iowa State Penitentiary’s Presidio wrote — reaching audiences outside the prison to refute criminological thinking. Arizona State Prison’s The Desert Press, led its January 1934 issue with the pressing headline “Are Convicts People?” (likely after Alice Duer Miller’s satirical 1904 “book of rhymes for suffrage times,” Are Women People?)  Lawrence Snow, editor of Kentucky State Penitentiary’s Castle on the Cumberland, picked up the question with more formality in a 1964 column, asking, “How shall [a prison publication] go about its principal job of convincing the casual reader that convicts, although they have divorced themselves temporarily from society, still belong to the human race?” Given that the United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, the question seems more pertinent — urgent even — than ever before. Enter the American Prison Newspapers collection here.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How a Mosaic from Caligula’s Party Boat Became a Coffee Table in a New York City Apartment 50 Years Ago

Imagine owning Caligula’s coffee table — or, better yet, a coffee table made from the mosaic flooring that once covered the infamously cruel Roman Emperor’s party boats. Art dealer and Manhattanite Helen Fioratti owned such a table for 45 years, but she had no idea what it was until she happened to go to a 2013 book signing by author and Italian stone expert Dario Del Bufalo. There, a friend noticed her table in Del Bufalo’s coffee table book, Porphyry, “about the reddish-purple rock much used by Roman emperors,” notes Gloria Oladipo at The Guardian. Fioratti’s husband bought the piece from an aristocratic Italian family in the 1960s, then affixed it to a base and made into a table. “It was an innocent purchase,” Fioretti told The New York Times in 2017 after Italy’s Nemi museum seized the artifact and returned it to its home country. Del Bufalo agreed, and it pained him to have to take it, but the artifact, he says in an interview above with Anderson Cooper, is priceless.

Caligula had two luxurious wooden ships with elaborate tile floors built to float on Lake Nemi, just a few miles outside of Rome. “Stretching 230 feet and 240 feet long and mostly flat,” Brit McCandless Farmer writes for Sixty Minutes, it was said they were once “topped with silk sails and featured orchards, vineyards, and even bathrooms with running water.” They even boasted lead pipes “inscribed Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Caligula’s official name, according to a 1906 issue of Scientific American.” He was “once the most powerful man in the world,” says Anderson Cooper above, but Caligula became renowned for his brutality, self-indulgence, and possible insanity. The third Roman emperor was assassinated four years into his reign by a conspiracy of Praetorians and senators. So hated was he at the time that Romans attempted to “chisel him out of history.” The sinking of his party boats was one of many acts of vandalism committed against his wasteful, violent legacy.




Interest in the pleasure ships was only piqued again when divers found the wreckage in 1895. “The deck must have ben a marvelous sight to behold,” wrote Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani in 1898; “it goes beyond the power of imagination for its strength and elegance.” Lanciani described in detail “the pavement trodden by imperial feet, made of disks of porphyry and serpentine… framed in segments and lines of enamel, white and gold, white and red, or white, red, and green.” But it would be another few decades before the ships, submerged for almost 2,000 years, would see dry land again when Benito Mussolini, who was obsessed with Caligula, ordered Lake Nemi partially drained in the 30s and the boats resurrected and housed in a nearby museum built for that purpose. Then, in 1944, retreating Nazis allegedly set fire to the museum, after using it as a bomb shelter, destroying Caligula’s pleasure cruisers. No one knows how Fioretti’s mosaic made it out of Italy during this time.

It seems that the Emperor’s star has been on the rise once more the past few years, since the discovery of the mosaic and of Caligula’s imperial pleasure garden, Horti Lamiani, “the Mar-a-Lago of its day,” Franz Lidz writes at The New York Times. Unearthed in an excavation between 2006 and 2015, the now-subterranean ruins found beneath a “condemned 19th century apartment complex, yielded gems, coins, ceramics, jewelry, pottery, cameo glass, a theater mask, seeds of plants such as citron, apricot and acacia that had been imported from Asia, and bones of peacocks, deer, lions, bears, and ostriches.” The ruins opened to tourists this past spring. As for Mrs. Fioratti, “I felt very sorry for her,” said Del Bufalo, “but I couldn’t do anything different, knowing that my museum in Nemi is missing the best part.” He hopes to make a replica to return to her Park Avenue living room for beverage service. “I think my soul would feel a little better,” he says.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The 17th Century Japanese Samurai Who Sailed to Europe, Met the Pope & Became a Roman Citizen

Image via Wikimedia Commons

We learn about intrepid Europeans who sought, and sometimes even found, trade and missionary routes to China and Japan during the centuries of exploration and empire. Rarely, if ever, do we hear about visitors from the East to the West, especially those as well-traveled as 17th-century samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga. Sent on a mission to Europe and America by his feudal lord, Date Masumune, Hasekura “set off on a quest to earn riches and spiritual guidance,” Andrew Milne writes at All that’s Interesting. “He circumnavigated the globe, became part of the first Japanese group in Cuba, met the Pope, helped begin a branch of Japanese settlers in Spain (still thriving today), and even became a Roman citizen.”

Hasekura was a battle-tested samurai who had acted on the daimyo‘s behalf on many occasions. His mission to the West, however, was first and foremost a chance to redeem his honor and save his life. In 1612, Hasekura’s father was made to commit seppuku after an indictment for corruption. Stripped of lands and title, Hasekura could only avoid the same fate by going West, and so he did, just a few years before the period of sakoku, or national isolation, began in Japan. Traveling with Spanish missionary Luis Sotelo, Hasekura embarked from the small Japanese port of Tsukinoura in 1613 and first reached Cape Mendocino in California, then part of New Spain.




“Seven years before the Mayflower headed to the New World,” Marcel Theroux writes at The Guardian, Hasekura “crossed the Pacific, traveled overland through Mexico, then sailed all the way to Europe. He was accompanied by about 20 fellow countrymen — in all likelihood, the first Japanese to cross The Atlantic.” They set sail on a Japanese-built galleon — called Date Maru, then later San Juan Bautista by the Spanish. “The expedition spent seven years traveling one-third of the globe,” notes PBS in a description of  “A Samurai in the Vatican,” an episode of Secrets of the Dead.

Sotelo and Hasekura made formal requests for more missionaries in Japan, delivering letters from from Hasekura’s lord, the daimyo of Sendai, to the King of Spain and Pope Paul V. But the samurai’s most pressing purpose was the establishment of trade links between Japan, New Spain (Mexico), and Europe. In his 1982 novel, The Samurai, Shusaku Endo dramatized the exchange the Spanish missionaries made for such introductions, having a priest say: “In order to spread God’s teaching in Japan… there is only one possible method. We must cajole them into it. Espana must offer to share its profits from trade on the Pacific with the Japanese in return for sweeping proselytizing privileges. The Japanese will sacrifice anything else for the sake of profits.” This was not to be, of course.

The Spanish gambled on trade opening up Japan for the kind of missionary colonization they had achieved elsewhere, using Hasekura’s mission as a proxy. Hasekura gambled on a Christian mission to save his life. Though his own accounts are lost, it seems he came to genuinely embrace the faith, becoming a confirmed Catholic under the name Philip Francis Faxecura. During his mission, however, the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, banned Christianity in Japan on penalty of death, in advance of the expulsion of the Spanish and Portuguese by his grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, in 1623. What became of the explorer samurai when he returned to Japan in 1620 is unknown, but his decedents were executed for practicing his newfound faith. He would be the last visitor to the West from Japan until the Tokugawa Shogunate sent the so-called “First Japanese Embassy to Europe” in 1862, over 200 years later.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Many of us living in the parts of the world where marijuana has recently been legalized may regard ourselves as partaking of a highly modern pleasure. And given the ever-increasing sophistication of the growing and processing techniques that underlie what has become a formidable cannabis industry, perhaps, on some level, we are. But as intellectually avid enthusiasts of psychoactive substances won’t hesitate to tell you, their use stretches farther back in time than history itself. “For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs,” writes Science‘s Andrew Lawler. But was anyone using them in the predecessors to western civilization as we know it today?

For quite some time, scholars believed that unlike, say, Mesoamerica or north Africa, “the ancient Near East had seemed curiously drug-free.” But now, “new techniques for analyzing residues in excavated jars and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a range of psychoactive substances.”




The latest evidence suggests that, already three millennia ago, “drugs like cannabis had arrived in Mesopotamia, while people from Turkey to Egypt experimented with local substances such as blue water lily.” That these habits seem to have continued in ancient Greece and Rome is suggested by archaeological evidence summarized in the video above.

In 2019, archaeologists unearthed a few precious artifacts from a fourth-century Scythian burial mound near Stavropol in Russia. There were “golden armbands, golden cups, a heavy gold ring, and the greatest treasure of all, two spectacular golden vessels,” says narrator Garrett Ryan, who earned a PhD in Greek and Roman History from the University of Michigan. The interiors of those last “were coated with a sticky black residue,” confirmed in the lab to be opium with traces of marijuana. “The Scythians, in other words, got high” — as did “their Greek and Roman neighbors.” Ryan, author of Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants: Frequently Asked Questions about the Ancient Greeks and Romans, goes on to make intriguing connections between scattered but relevant pieces of archaeological and textual evidence. We know that some of our civilizational forebears got high; how many, and how high, are questions for future scholastic inquiry.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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