Who Built the Egyptian Pyramids & How Did They Do It?: New Archeological Evidence Busts Ancient Myths

Although it’s certainly more plausible than hypotheses like ancient aliens or lizard people, the idea that slaves built the Egyptian pyramids is no more true. It derives from creative readings of Old Testament stories and technicolor Cecil B. Demille spectacles, and was a classic whataboutism used by slavery apologists. The notion has “plagued Egyptian scholars for centuries,” writes Eric Betz at Discover. But, he adds emphatically, “Slaves did not build the pyramids.” Who did?

The evidence suggests they were built by a force of skilled laborers, as the Veritasium video above explains. These were cadres of elite construction workers who were well-fed and housed during their stint. “Many Egyptologists,” including archeologist Mark Lehner, who has excavated a city of workers in Giza, “subscribe to the hypotheses that the pyramids were… built by a rotating labor force in a modular, team-based kind of organization,” Jonathan Shaw writes at Harvard Magazine. Graffiti discovered at the site identifies team names like “Friends of Khufu” and “Drunkards of Menkaure.”




The excavation also uncovered “tremendous quantities of cattle, sheep, and goat bone, ‘enough to feed several thousand people, even if they ate meat every day,’ adds Lehner,” suggesting that workers were “fed like royalty.” Another excavation by Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, famed Egyptian archaeologist and expert on the Great Pyramid, has found worker cemeteries at the foot of the pyramids, meaning that those who perished were buried in a place of honor. This was incredibly hazardous work, and the people who undertook it were celebrated and recognized for their achievement.

Laborers were also working off an obligation, something every Egyptian owed to those above them and, ultimately, to their pharoah. But it was not a monetary debt. Lehner describes what ancient Egyptians called bak, a kind of feudal duty. While there were slaves in Egypt, the builders of the pyramids were maybe more like the Amish, he says, performing the same kind of obligatory communal labor as a barn raising. In that context, when we look at the Great Pyramid, “you have to say ‘This is a hell of a barn!’’’

The evidence unearthed by Lehner, Hawass, and others has “dealt a serious blow to the Hollywood version of a pyramid building,” writes Shaw, “with Charlton Heston as Moses intoning, ‘Pharaoh, let my people go!’” Recent archeology has also dealt a blow to extra-terrestrial or time-travel explanations, which begin with the assumption that ancient Egyptians could not have possessed the know-how and skill to build such structures over 4,000 years ago. Not so. Veritasium explains the incredible feats of moving the outer stones without wheels and transporting the granite core of the pyramids 620 miles from its quarry to Giza.

Ancient Egyptians could plot directions on the compass, though they had no compasses. They could make right angles and levels and thus had the technology required to design the pyramids. What about digging up the Great Pyramid’s 2 million blocks of yellow limestone? As we know, this was done by a skilled workforce, who quarried an “olympic swimming-pool’s worth of stone every eight days” for 23 years to build the Great Pyramid, notes Joe Hanson in the PBS It’s Okay to Be Smart video above. They did so using the only metal available to them, copper.

This may sound incredible, but modern experiments have shown that this amount of stone could be quarried and moved, using the technology available, by a team of 1,200 to 1,500 workers, around the same number of people archaeologists believe to have been on-site during construction. The limestone was quarried directly at the site (in fact the Sphinx was mostly dug out of the earth, rather than built atop it). How was the stone moved? Egyptologists from the University of Liverpool think they may have found the answer, a ramp with stairs and a series of holes which may have been used as a pulley system.

Learn more about the myths and the realities of the builders of Egypt’s pyramids in the It’s Okay to Be Smart “Who Built the Pyramids, Part 1″ video above.

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

The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 1

Editor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kaufman has published The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, a book that takes a historical look at the powerful forces that have purposely crippled our efforts to share knowledge widely and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the coming days, Peter will be making his book available through Open Culture by publishing three short essays along with links to corresponding sections of his book. Today, you can find his short essay “The Monsterverse” below, and meanwhile read/download the first chapter of his book here. You can purchase the entire book online.

The Monsterverse – what exactly is it?  Like Sauron and his minions from Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, like Sheev Palpatine and the armies of the Galactic empire from Star Wars, like Lord Voldemort and his henchmen the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, it’s the collective force of evil, one that strives to shut down human progress, freedom, justice, the spread of knowledge –the dissemination of (let us just say it) open culture.  It’s the subject of the first chapter of my book, The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge – and its incarnations have been with us for thousands of years.

In 1536, which is when the book begins, it found its embodiment in Jacobus Latomus, who oversaw the trial and execution – by strangling and burning at the stake – of a translator and a priest named William Tyndale.  Latomus, who himself was overseen by Thomas More, who himself was overseen by Henry VIII (with Pope Clement VII in a supporting role), choreographed Tyndale’s formal degradation, such that a couple dozen apostolic inquisitors and theologians, university rectors and faculty, lawyers and privy councilors – “heresy-hunters,” as his biographer calls them – led him out of his prison cell in public and in his priestly raiment to a high platform outdoors where oils of anointment were scraped symbolically from his hands, the bread and wine of the Eucharist situated next to him and then just as quickly removed, and then his vestments “ceremonially stripped away,” so that he would find himself, and all would see him as, no longer a priest.  Death came next.  This scholar and polymath to whom, it is now known, we owe as much as we owe William Shakespeare for our language, this lone man sought and slain by church and king and holy Roman emperor – his initial strangling did not go well, so that when he was subsequently lit on fire, and the flames first lapped at his feet and up his legs, lashed tight to the stake, he came to, and, while burning alive in front of the crowd of religious leaders and so-called justices (some seventeen trial commissioners) who had so summarily sent Tyndale to his death and gathered to watch it, live, he cried out, less to the crowd, it would seem, than to Another: “Lord! Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!”

What did Tyndale do?  He believed that the structure of communication during his time was broken and unfair, and with a core, unwavering focus, he sought to make it so that the main body of knowledge in his day could be accessed and then shared again by every man alive. He engaged in an unparalleled act of coding (not for nothing do we speak of computer programming “languages”), working through the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Bible’s Old, then New, Testaments to bring all of its good books – from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22—into English for everyday readers. He is reported to have said, in response to a question from a priest who had challenged his work, a priest who read the Bible only in Latin: “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” And he worked with the distribution technologies of his time – the YouTubes, websites, and Twitters back then – by connecting personally with book designers, paper suppliers, printers, boat captains, and horsemen across sixteenth-century Europe to bring the knowledge and the book that contained it into the hands of the people.

It wasn’t easy. In Tyndale’s time, popes and kings had decreed, out of concern for keeping their power, that the Bible could exist and be read and distributed “only in the assembly of Latin translations” that had been completed by the monk Saint Jerome in approximately 400 CE. The penalties for challenging the law were among the most severe imaginable, for such violations represented a panoply of civil transgressions and an entire complexity of heresies. In taking on the church and the king – in his effort simply and solely to translate and then distribute the Bible in English – Tyndale confronted “the greatest power[s] in the Western world.” As he “was translating and printing his New Testament in Worms,” his leading biographer reminds us, “a young man in Norwich was burned alive for the crime of owning a piece of paper on which was written the Lord’s Prayer in English.” The Bible had been inaccessible in Latin for a thousand years, this biographer writes, and “to translate it for the people became heresy, punishable by a solitary lingering death as a heretic; or, as had happened to the Cathars in southern France, or the Hussites in Bohemia and Lollards in England, official and bloody attempts to exterminate the species.”

Yuckadoo, the Monsterverse, but very much still with us.  The strangleholds are real.  And Tyndale’s successors in the fight to free knowledge include many freedom fighters and revolutionaries – going up against the forces that seek to constrain our growth as a society.  Were Tyndale alive today, he would wonder about the state of copyright law and its overreach; the pervasive estate of surveillance capitalism; the sweeping powers of government to see and interfere in our communication.  And he would wonder why the seemingly progressive forces on the side of freedom today – universities, museums, libraries, archives – don’t fight more against information oppression.  Tyndale would recognize that the health pandemic, the economic crisis, the political violence we face today, are all the result of an information disorder, one that relies on squelching knowledge and promoting the darkest forms of ignorance for its success.  How we come to grips with that challenge is the number-one question for our time.  Discovering new paths to defeating it – overcoming the Dark Lords, destroying the Horcruxes, finally harnessing the Force – is the subject of the next two articles, and of the rest of the book.

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge.  This is the first of three articles.

When Jack Johnson, the First Black Heavyweight Champion, Defeated Jim Jeffries & the Footage Was Banned Around the World (1910)

“Being born Black in America… we all know how that goes….” 

                        —Miles Davis, liner notes for A Tribute to Jack Johnson

When Muhammad Ali saw James Earl Jones play a fictionalized Jack Johnson on Broadway in Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Great White Hope in 1968, he reportedly exclaimed, “You just change the time, date and the details and it’s about me!” In Johnson’s time, however, most white heavyweight fighters flat-out refused to fight Black boxers. Heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries swore he would retire “when there were no white men left to fight.” He left the sport in 1905, refusing to fight Johnson even after Johnson had knocked his younger brother out in 1902 and taunted him from the ring, saying, “I can whip you, too.”

After Jeffries retired undefeated, the next heavyweight world champion, Tommy Burns, agreed to fight Johnson in 1908 and lost when police stopped the fight. Two years later, lured out of retirement by the press and a $40,000 purse, Jeffries finally agreed to fight Johnson, who was then the heavyweight champion of the world. By that time, the bout had been framed as an existential racial crisis. Johnson was “the white man’s despair” and his challenger “The Great White Hope.” Jeffries played the part, saying, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”




Novelist Jack London dreamed of a magical scenario in which the full force of European history would inhabit Jeffries’ body. He “would surely win” because he had “30 centuries of tradition behind him — all the supreme efforts, the inventions and the conquests, and, whether he knows it or not, Bunker Hill and Thermopylae and Hastings and Agincourt.” Bluster and mythmaking do not win boxing matches. Out of shape and outclassed in the ring, Jeffries lost in 15 rounds in front of 22,000 fans on July 4, 1910, in what was known as the “Fight of the Century.” Johnson walked away with $117,000 and held the title for another five years.

Johnson’s victory was a triumph for African Americans, who staged parades and celebrations, and a profound defeat for “white boxing fans who hated seeing a black man sit atop the sport,” notes a Johnson biography. They took out their rage in “race riots” that evening, attacking Black people in cities around the country as collective punishment for a perceived collective humiliation. Hundreds of people were injured and around 20 killed. The videos above from Vox and Black History in Two Minutes (featuring Henry Louis Gates Jr.) tell the story.

White boxing fans’ rage had been building since the Burns fight, Vox explains, stoked by the newest form of mass media, commercial motion pictures, which came of age at the same time as professional boxing. Film reels of prizefights circulated the country at the turn of the century, and paying audiences cheered their heroes on the screen: “Boxing, going back centuries, has been wrapped up in themes of identity and pride.” Boxers represented their community, their nationality, their race. Spectators “imagined,” says American University historian Theresa Runstedtler, “that boxers in the ring, particularly for interracial fights, were almost engaged in this kind of ‘Darwinian struggle’” for dominance.

As a result of the violence on July 4, authorities attempted to ban film of the Johnson vs. Jeffries fight, and “police were instructed to break up screening events.” The ostensible reason was that the film caused “rioting,” as though the perpetrators could not themselves be held responsible, and as if the film were itself incendiary. But what it showed, the Black press of the time pointed out, was nothing more or less than a fair fight, something Jeffries and boxing legend John L. Sullivan immediately conceded in the press afterward. (“I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” said Jeffries.)

In truth, “white authorities were worried,” says Runstedtler, “about the symbolic implications…. They worried that any demonstration of Black victory and any demonstration of white weakness or defeat would undercut the narratives of white supremacy, not just in the United States,” but also in colonies abroad. The film had to be banned worldwide, but the fight to suppress it only pushed it underground where it proliferated. Finally, in 1912, Congress banned the distribution of all prize-fight films, with Southern members of Congress “especially interested in the proposed law,” it was reported, “because of the race feeling stirred up by the exhibition of the Jeffries-Johnson moving pictures.”

Aside from the extremely fragile reaction to a boxing film, what might strike us now about the violence and the controversy surrounding the screenings is the vehemence of racist invective among many commentators, who mostly followed London’s lead in openly extolling white supremacy. This was not at all unusual for the time. The narrative was woven into the fight before it began. And when the “Great White Hope” went down, he did not do so as an individual contender, standing or falling on his own merit. The fight’s announcer, in audio paired with the fight reel above, pronounced him “humiliated, beaten, a betrayer of his race.”

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

The Roman Roads of Gaul Visualized as a Modern Subway Map

At a casual glance, some travelers may take the map above for a depiction of France’s enviable intercity high-speed rail network Train à Grande Vitesse, better known as TGV. In reality, its content predates that system’s inauguration in the early 1980s — and by nearly two millennia at that. This is in fact a map of Gaul, a region of Europe that, most broadly defined, included modern-day France, Luxembourg, and Belgium, as well as parts of Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany. Ruled by Rome for five centuries until the fall of the Roman Empire itself, Gaul was run through with a number of Roman roads, a subject of fascination for many archaeologically inclined historians.

They’ve also become a subject of fascination for a young data scientist and graphic designer by the name of Sasha Trubetskoy. His work, much featured here on Open Culture, includes maps of the Roman Roads of Britain, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as, at a larger scale, those of the entire empire.




“This was an interesting map to make, but I can’t say it was fun all the time,” writes Trubetskoy. “Generally I enjoyed the process, but it was far more challenging than I had anticipated.” You can hear him describe some of the challenges involved, and even show how solving them played out in his design process, in his three-hour explanatory live stream now archived on Youtube.

You can download Trubetskoy’s Roman Roads of Gaul map from his site, and even buy a high-resolution file suitable for printing as a poster (USD $9). “As far as I can tell, it’s done,” writes Trubetskoy of the work, wisely — or from frustrating personal experience — acknowledging that, despite or because of the centuries of distance between us and the relevant historical and geographical facts, those facts could still change. Just as ancient history cannot both make its way to us and maintain absolutely perfect fidelity to the past, so the kind of practical visual design embodied in a subway map necessitates a great deal of simplification and approximation to be useful. And speaking of the graphic arts, just imagine how useful this particular map would’ve been to Asterix.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

The Oldest Known Globe to Depict the New World Was Engraved on an Ostrich Egg, Maybe by Leondardo da Vinci (1504)

Image by Davidguam via Wikimedia Commons

Every time you think you’ve got a handle on Leonardo da Vinci’s genius (which is to say, you think you’ve heard about the most important things he painted, wrote, and invented), yet more evidence comes to light of the many ways he meets the standard for the adjective “genius”…. Recently, Leonardo re-appeared not only as an inventor of futuristic military technology or discoverer of complex human anatomy, but also as the first European to depict the “New World” on a globe–proving he knew about Columbus’ voyages when the globe was made in 1504.

The discovery “marks the first time ever that the names of countries such as Brazil, Germania, Arabia and Judea have appeared on a globe,” notes Cambridge Scholars Publishing, who released a book by the globe’s discoverer and primary researcher, Stefaan Missinne. The artifact attributed to Leonardo is engraved, “with immaculate detail,” writes Meeri Kim at The Washington Post, “on two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs.” And it features a single sentence, in Latin, above Southeast Asia: Hic Sunt Dracones–“Here be dragons.”




We’ll notice other unique features of the engraved egg Missinne calls, simply, “the Da Vinci Globe,” such as the fact that in place of Central and North America are the islands of Columbus’ “discovery,” surrounded by a vast ocean in which Pacific and Atlantic join. Why ostrich eggs? Humans have used them for decorative purposes for millennia. Also, “in that time period,” says Thomas Sander, editor of the Washington Map Society’s journal, Portolan, “the ostrich was quite the animal, and it was a big thing for the noble people to have ostriches in their back gardens.”

Missinne, a real estate developer, collector, and globe expert originally from Belgium, discovered the globe in 2012 at the London Map Fair. It was purchased “from a dealer who said it had been part of an important European collection for decades,” and its buyer and owner remain anonymous. After the globe appeared, Missinne “consulted more than 100 scholars and experts in his year-long analysis,” putting “about five years of research into one year,” says Sander, calling the research “an incredible detective story.”

Missinne’s investigation seems to substantiate his claims that the globe was made by Leonardo or his workshop. The evidence, some of which you can find on the Cambridge Scholars Publishing site, includes a 1503 preparatory map in da Vinci’s papers; the presence of arsenic, which only Leonardo was known to use at the time in copper to keep it from losing its lustre; “The use of chiaroscuro, pentienti, triangular shapes, the mathematics of the scale reflecting Leonardo’s written dimension of planet earth”; and a 1504 letter from Leonardo himself stating, “my world globe I want returned back from my friend Giovanni Benci.”

Missinne and Geert Verhoeven, of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection & Virtual Archeology, have published a paper on the “unfolding” of Leonardo’s globe into the two-dimensional image above (see an interactive version here). “This miniature egg globe is not only the oldest extant engraved globe,” the authors write, “but it is also the oldest post-Columbian globe of the world and the first ever to depict Newfoundland and many other territories.” Previously, the Hunt-Lenox Globe, a small copper globe, was thought to be the oldest known such artifact. Dated to around 1510, this globe, Missinne discovered, is actually a copy made from a cast of the older, original ostrich-egg globe.

Missinne’s findings have their detractors, including John W. Hessler of the Library of Congress, who claims Missinne himself is the anonymous owner of the globe, which raises issues of conflict of interest. “Where this thing comes from needs to be clarified,” says Renaissance cartography expert Chet Van Duzer of the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, R.I., though he adds, “It is an exciting discovery, no question.” Missinne’s claims for the egg’s provenance are more modest than his marketing. He “speculates,” writes Kim, “ the egg could have loose connections to the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci.” Hessler’s view is less equivocal: “The Leonardo connection is pure nonsense.”

A layperson like Missinne, whatever his personal investment, might be inclined to overinterpret evidence or make tenuous connections a trained scholar would avoid. The many scholars he cites in support of his claims for the globe are also vulnerable to these charges, however, though to a lesser degree. What do we make of French Mona Lisa expert Pascal Cotte’s testimonial, “I hereby confirm the evidence of the left-handedness of the engravings on the Ostrich Egg Globe. As Leonardo was the only left-handed artist in his workshop, I hereby endorse the hypothesis of Leonardo da Vinci’s authorship”? As in all such academic debates, “Here be dragons.” Weigh the case in full in Missinne’s 2018 book, The Da Vinci Globe.

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

4,000 Priceless Scrolls, Texts & Papers From the University of Tokyo Have Been Digitized & Put Online

The phrase “opening of Japan” is a euphemism that has outlived its purpose, serving to cloud rather than explain how a country closed to outsiders suddenly, in the mid-19th century, became a major influence in art and design worldwide. Negotiations were carried out at gunpoint. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry presented the Japanese with two white flags to raise when they were ready to surrender. (The Japanese called Perry’s fleet the “black ships of evil men.”) In one of innumerable historical ironies, we have this ugliness to thank for the explosion of Impressionist art (van Gogh was obsessed with Japanese prints and owned a large collection) as well as much of the beauty of Art Nouveau and modernist architecture at the turn of the century.

We may know versions of this already, but we probably don’t know it from a Japanese point of view. “As our global society grows ever more connected,” writes Katie Barrett at the Internet Archive blog, “it can be easy to assume that all of human history is just one click away. Yet language barriers and physical access still present major obstacles to deeper knowledge and understanding of other cultures.”




Unless we can read Japanese, our understanding of its history will always be informed by specialist scholars and translators. Now, at least, thanks to cooperation between the University of Tokyo General Library and the Internet Archive, we can access thousands more primary sources previously unavailable to “outsiders.”

“Since June 2020,” notes Barrett, “our Collections team has worked in tandem with library staff to ingest thousands of digital files from the General Library’s servers, mapping the metadata for over 4,000 priceless scrolls, texts, and papers.” This material has been digitized over decades by Japanese scholars and “showcases hundreds of years of rich Japanese history expressed through prose, poetry, and artwork.” It will be primarily the artwork that concerns non-Japanese speakers, as it primarily concerned 19th-century Europeans and Americans who first encountered the country’s cultural products. Artwork like the humorous print above. Barrett provides context: 

In one satirical illustration, thought to date from shortly after the 1855 Edo earthquake, courtesans and others from the demimonde, who suffered greatly in the disaster, are shown beating the giant catfish that was believed to cause earthquakes. The men in the upper left-hand corner represent the construction trades; they are trying to stop the attack on the fish, as rebuilding from earthquakes was a profitable business for them.

There are many such depictions of “seismic destruction” in ukiyo-e prints dating from the same period and the later Mino-Owari earthquake of 1891: “They are a sobering reminder of the role that natural disasters have played in Japanese life.” 

You can see many more digitized artifacts, such as the charming book of Japanese ephemera above, at the Internet Archive’s University of Tokyo collection. Among the 4180 items currently available, you’ll also find many European prints and engravings held in the library’s 25 collections. All of this material “can be used freely without prior permission,” writes the University of Tokyo Library. “Among the highlights,” Barrett writes, “are manuscripts and annotated books from the personal collection of the novelist Mori Ōgai (1862–1922), an early manuscript of the Tale of Genji, [below] and a unique collection of Chinese legal records from the Ming Dynasty.” Enter the collection here.

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

Alfred Hitchcock Meets Jorge Luis Borges Borges in Cold War America: Watch Double Take (2009) Free Online

In 1962, while shooting The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock gets a phone call. Or rather, he’s informed of a phone call, but when he makes his way off set he finds not a call but a real live caller, and a thoroughly unexpected one at that: himself, eighteen years older. Beneath this encounter — in a room the London-born, Los Angeles-resident Hitchcock recognizes as a hybrid of Chasen‘s and Claridge‘s — runs a current of existential tension. This owes not just to the imaginable reasons, but also to the fact that both Hitchcocks have heard the same aphorism: “If you meet your double, you should kill him.”

So goes the plot of Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take, or at least that of its fictional scenes. Though feature-length, Double Take would be more accurately considered an “essay film” in the tradition of Orson Welles’ truth-and-falsity-mixing F for Fake. As Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou reveals, Welles’ picture offers a master class in its own form, illustrating the variety of ways cinematic cuts can connect not just events but thoughts, even as it expertly shifts between its parallel (and at first, seemingly unrelated) narratives. Double Take, too, has more than one story to tell: while Hitchcock and his doppelgänger drink tea and coffee, the Cold War reaches its zenith with the Cuban Missile Crisis.




We call Hitchcock “the master of suspense,” but revisiting his filmography exposes his command of a more basic emotion: fear. It was fear, in Double Take‘s conception of history, that became commoditized on an enormous scale in Cold War America: fear of the Communist threat, of course, but also less overtly ideological varieties. Hollywood capitalized on all of them with the aid of talents like Hitchcock’s and technology like the television, whose rise coincided with the embittering of U.S.-Soviet relations. Even for a man of cinema forged in the silent era, the opportunity of a TV series could hardly be rejected — especially if it allowed him to poke fun at the commercial breaks forever quashing his signature suspense.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, its namesake announced upon its premiere, would commence “bringing murder into the American home, where it has always belonged.” But along with the murder, it smuggled in the work of writers like Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, and Rebecca West. Double Take also comes inspired by literature: “The Other” and “August 25th, 1983,” Jorge Luis Borges’ tales of meeting his own double from another time. Its script was written by Tom McCarthy, whose Remainder appears with Borges’ work on the flowchart of philosophical novels previously featured here on Open Culture. However many different Hitchcocks it shows us, we know there will never truly be another — just as well as we know that we still, in our undiminished desire to be entertained by our own fears, live in Hitchcock’s world.

Double Take will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Archaeologists Find the Earliest Work of “Abstract Art,” Dating Back 73,000 Years

Image by C. Foster

Art, as we understand the term, is an activity unique to homo sapiens and perhaps some of our early hominid cousins. This much we know. But the matter of when early humans began making art is less certain. Until recently, it was thought that the earliest prehistoric art dated back some 40,000 years, to cave drawings found in Indonesia and Spain. Not coincidentally, this is also when archaeologists believed early humans mastered symbolic thought. New finds, however, have shifted this date back considerably. “Recent discoveries around southern Africa indicate that by 64,000 years ago at the very least,” Ruth Schuster writes at Haaretz, “people had developed a keen sense of abstraction.”

Then came the “hashtag” in 2018, a drawing in ochre on a tiny flake of stone that archaeologists believe “may be the world’s oldest example of the ubiquitous cross-hatched pattern drawn on a silcrete flake in the Blombos Cave in South Africa,” writes Krystal D’Costa at Scientific American, with the disclaimer that the drawing’s creators “did not attribute the same meaning or significance to [hashtags] that we do.” The tiny artifact, thought to be around 73,000 years old, may have in fact been part of a much larger pattern that bore no resemblance to anything hashtag-like, which is only a convenient, if misleading, way of naming it.




The artifact was recovered from Blombos Cave in South Africa, a site that “has been undergoing excavation since 1991 with deposits that range from the Middle Stone Age (about 100,000 to 72,000 years ago) to the Later Stone Age (about 42,000 years ago to 2,000 years BCE).” These findings have been significant, showing a culture that used heat to shape stones into tools and, just as artists in caves like Lascaux did, used ochre, a naturally occurring pigment, to draw on stone. They made engravings by etching lines directly into pieces of ochre. Archaeologists also found in the Middle Stone Age deposits “a toolkit designed to create a pigmented compound that could be stored in abalone shells,” D’Costa notes.

Nicholas St. Fleur describes the tiny “hashtag” in more detail at The New York Times as “a small flake, measuring only about the size of two thumbnails, that appeared to have been drawn on. The markings consisted of six straight, almost parallel lines that were crossed diagonally by three slightly curved lines.” Its discoverer, Dr. Luca Pollarolo of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, expresses his astonishment at finding it. “I think I saw more than ten thousand artifacts in my life up to now,” he says, “and I never saw red lines on a flake. I could not believe what I had in my hands.”

The evidence points to a very early form of abstract symbolism, researchers believe, and similar patterns have been found elsewhere in the cave in later artifacts. Professor Francesco d’Errico of the French National Center for Scientific Research tells Schuster, “this is what one would expect in traditional society where symbols are reproduced…. This reproduction in different contexts suggests symbolism, something in their minds, not just doodling.”

As for whether the drawing is “art”… well, we might as well try and resolve the question of what qualifies as art in our own time. “Look at some of Picasso’s abstracts,” says Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist from the University of Bergen and the lead author of a study on the tiny artifact published in Nature in 2018. “Is that art? Who’s going to tell you it’s art or not?”

Researchers at least agree the markings were deliberately made with some kind of implement to form a pattern. But “we don’t know that it’s art at all,” says Henshilwood. “We know that it’s a symbol,” made for some purpose, and that it predates the previous earliest known cave art by some 30,000 years. That in itself shows “behaviorally modern” human activities, such as expressing abstract thought in material form, emerging even closer to the evolutionary appearance of modern humans on the scene.

Related Content: 

Hear a Prehistoric Conch Shell Musical Instrument Played for the First Time in 18,000 Years

A Recently-Discovered 44,000-Year-Old Cave Painting Tells the Oldest Known Story

40,000-Year-Old Symbols Found in Caves Worldwide May Be the Earliest Written Language

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Painting the Earliest Form of Cinema?

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

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