Archaeologists Discover 1300-Year-Old Pair of Skis, the Best-Preserved Ancient Skis in Existence

Surfing is generally believed to have originated in Hawaii and will be forever associated with the Polynesian islands. Yet anthropologists have found evidence of something like surfing wherever humans have encountered a beach — on the coasts of West Africa, in the Caribbean, India, Syria, and Japan. Surfing historian Matt Warshaw sums up the problem with locating the origins of this human activity: “Riding waves simply for pleasure most likely developed in one form or another among any coastal people living near warm ocean water.” Could one make a similar point about skiing?

It seems that wherever humans have settled in places covered with snow for much of the year, they’ve improvised all kinds of ways to travel across it. Who did so with the first skis, and when? Ski-like objects dating from 6300-5000 BC have been found in northern Russia. A New York Times article recently described evidence of Stone Age skiers in China. “If skiing, as it seems possible,” Nils Larsen writes at the International Skiing History Association, “dates back 10,000 years or more, identifying a point of origin (or origins) will be difficult at best.” Such discussions tend to get “bogged down in politics and national pride,” Larsen writes. For example, “since the emergence of skiing in greater Europe in the late 1800s” — as a sport and purely recreational activity — “Norway has often been considered the birthplace of skiing. Norway has promoted this view and it is a point of national pride.”

Despite its earliest records of skiing dating millennia later than other regions, Norway has some claim. The word ski is, after all, Norwegian, derived from Old Norse skíð, meaning “cleft wood” or “stick.” And the best-preserved ancient skis ever found have been discovered in a Norwegian ice field. “Even the bindings are mostly intact,” notes Kottke. The first ski, believed to be 1300 years old, turned up in 2014, found by the Glacier Archeology Program (GAP) in the mountains of Innlandet County, Norway. The archaeologists decided to wait, let the ice melt, and see if the other ski would appear. It did, just recently, and in the video above, you can watch the researchers pull it from the ice.

Photo: Andreas Christoffer Nilsson,

“Measuring about 74 inches long and 7 inches wide,” notes Livia Gershon at Smithsonian, “the second ski is slightly larger than its mate. Both feature raised footholds. Leather straps and twisted birch bark bindings found with the skis would have been attached through holes in the footholds. The new ski shows signs of heavy wear and eventual repairs.” The two skis are not identical, “but we should not expect them to be,” says archaeologist Lars Pilø. “The skis are handmade, not mass-produced. They have a long and individual history of wear and repair before an Iron Age skier used them together and they ended up in the ice.”

The new ski answered questions the researchers had about the first discovery, such as how the ancient skis might have maintained forward motion uphill. “A furrow on the underside along the length of the ski, as you find on other prehistoric skis (and on modern cross-country skis), would solve the question,” they write, and the second ski contained such a furrow. While they may never prove that Norway invented skiing, as glacier ice melts and new artifacts appear each year, the team will learn much more about ancient Norwegian skiers and their way of life. See their current discoveries and follow their future progress at the Secrets of the Ice website and on their YouTube channel.

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Medieval Tennis: A Short History and Demonstration

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

Medieval Tennis: A Short History and Demonstration

British You Tuber Nikolas “Lindybiege” Lloyd is a man of many, many interests.

Wing Chun style kung fu…

Children’s television produced in the UK between 1965 and 1975…

Ancient weaponrychainmail, and historically accurate WWII model miniatures

Actress Celia Johnson, star of the 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter

Evolutionary psychology

…and it would appear, tennis.

But not the sort you’ll find played on the grass courts of Wimbledon, or for that matter, the hard courts of the US Open.

Lloyd is one of a select few who gravitate toward the version of the game that was known as the sport of kings.

It was, according to a 1553 guide, created, “to keep our bodies healthy, to make our young men stronger and more robust, chasing idleness, virtue’s mortal enemy, far from them and thus making them of a stronger and more excellent nature.”

Henry VIII was a talented and enthusiastic player in his youth, causing the Venetian Ambassador to rhapsodize, “it was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play; his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture.”

Henry’s second wife, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, was also a fan of the sport, with money riding on the match she was watching when she was summoned to the Privy Council “by order of the King,” the first stop on her very swift journey to the Tower of London.

The sport’s roots reach all the way to the 11th and 12th centuries when monks and villagers in southern France were mad for jeu de paume, a tennis-like game predating the use of racquets, whose popularity eventually spread to the royals and aristocrats of Paris.

The game Lloyd tries his hand at above is now known as Real Tennis, a term invented in the 19th-century to distinguish it from the then-new craze for lawn tennis.

Mention “the sport of kings” these days and most folks will assume you’re referring to fox hunting or horse-racing.

Mind you, real tennis is just as rarified. You won’t find it being played on any old (which is to say new) indoor court. It requires four irregularly sized walls, an asymmetrical layout, and a sloping penthouse roof. Behold the layout of a Real Tennis court by Atethnekos, compliments of  English Wikipedia:

Compared to that, the Tennis Department‘s diagram of the familiar modern set up seems like child’s play:

Other cognitive challenges for those whose version of tennis doesn’t extend back to medieval days:  a slack net; lopsided, tightly strung, small raquets; and a gallery of waist-high screened “hazards,” that are spiritually akin to pinball targets, especially the one with the bell.

The handmade balls may look similar to your average mass-produced Penn or Wilson, but expect that each will be “unique in its particular quirks”:

They are not perfectly spherical and these seams stick out a little bit more here and there, which means that the bounce can be rather unpredictable. Because these are heavier and harder, they don’t swerve when you spin them in the air very much, but when they hit a wall and get a decent grip, the swerve can send them zinging off along the wall to great effect.

Once Lloyd has oriented viewers and himself to the court and equipment, Real Tennis pro Zak Eadle walks him through serving, scoring, and strategy in the form of chases.

Quoth Shakespeare’s Henry V:

His present, and your pains, we thank you for:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace play a set,
Shall strike his father’s crown into the Hazard:
Tell him, he made a match with such a wrangler, 
That all the Courts of France will be disturb’d with chases.

Even non-athletic types could find themselves fascinated by the historical context Lindybeige provides.

If you’re moved to take racquet in hand, there are a handful of Real Tennis courts in the USA, UK, Australia, and France where you might be able to try your luck.

The sport could use you. Estimates indicate that the number of players has dwindled to a mere 10,000. Surely someone is desperate for a partner.

Delve further into the world of Real Tennis on the International Real Tennis Professionals Association’s website.

Check out some of Lindybeige’s other interests on his YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

What It’s Like to Actually Fight in Medieval Armor

Ever wonder what it was like to really fight while wearing a full suit of armor? We’ve featured a few historical reconstructions here on Open Culture, including a demonstration of the various ways combatants would vanquish their foe—including a sword right between the eyes. We’ve also shown you how long it took to create a suit of armor and the clever flexibility built into them. But really, don’t we want to see what it would be like in a full melee? In the above Vice documentary, you can finally sate your bloodlust.

Not that anyone dies in the MMA-like sword-and-chainmail brawls. In these public competitions, the weapons are blunted and contestants fight “not to the death, just until they fall over,” as the narrator somewhat sadly explains. It is just a legit sport as any other fighting challenge, and the injuries are real. There’s no fooling around with these people. They are serious, and a nation’s honor is still at stake.

This mini-doc follows the American team to the International Medieval Combat Federation World Championships in Montemor-o-Velho in Portugal. What looks like a regular Renaissance faire is only the decorations around the main, incredibly violent event. We see battles with longswords, short axes, shields used offensively and defensively, and a lot of pushing and shoving. Contestants go head-to-head, or five against five, or twelve against twelve.

Twenty-six countries take part, and I have to say for all the jingoistic hoo-hah I try to ignore, the American team’s very nicely designed stars and stripes battle gear looked pretty damn cool. The Vice team also discover an interesting cast of characters, like the Texan who wears his cowboy hat when he’s not wearing his combat helmet; the man who describes his fighting style as “nerd rage”; and the couple on their honeymoon who met while brutally beating each other in an earlier competition. (No, the knights here are not all men.).

There are injuries, sprains, broken bones. There’s also the madness of inhaling too much of your own CO2 inside the helmet; and smelling the ozone when a spark of metal-upon-metal flies into the helmet.

Thankfully nobody is fighting to the death or for King/Queen and Country. Just for the fun of adrenalin-based competition and bragging rights.

via BoingBoing

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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.

The Only Footage of Bruce Lee Fighting for Real (1967)

Two years after the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, people are still arguing about its brief portrayal of Bruce Lee. Whether it accurately represented his personality is one debate, but much more important for martial-arts enthusiasts is whether it accurately represented his fighting skills. This could easily be determined by holding the scene in question up against footage of the real Bruce Lee in action, but almost no such footage exists. While Lee’s performances in films like Enter the Dragon and Game of Death continue to win him fans 48 years after his death, their fights — however physically demanding — are, of course, thoroughly choreographed and rehearsed performances.

Hence the way, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s rough-hewn stuntman Cliff Booth dismisses screen martial artists like Lee as “dancers.” Those are fighting words, and indeed a fight ensues, though one meant to get laughs (and to illuminate the characters’ opposing physical and emotional natures) rather than seriously to recreate a contest between trained martial artist and simple bruiser.

As for how Lee handled himself in actual fights, we have no surviving visual evidence but the clips above, shot during a couple of matches in 1967. The event was the Long Beach International Karate Championships, where three years earlier Lee’s demonstration of such improbable physical feats as two-finger push-ups and one-inch punches got him the attention in the U.S. that led to the role of Kato on The Green Hornet.

In these 1967 bouts, the now-famous Lee uses the techniques of Jeet Kune Do, his own hybrid martial-arts philosophy emphasizing usefulness in real-life combat. “First he fights Ted Wong, one of his top Jeet Kune Do students,” says Twisted Sifter. “They are allegedly wearing protective gear because they weren’t allowed to fight without them as per California state regulations.” Lee is the one wearing the gear with white straps — as if he weren’t identifiable by sheer speed and control alone. Seen today, his fighting style in this footage reminds many of modern-day mixed martial arts, a sport that might not come into existence had Lee never popularized the practical combination of elements drawn from all fighting styles. Whether the man himself was as arrogant as Tarantino made him out to be, he must have suspected that martial-arts would only be catching up with him half a century later.

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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.

Tony Hawk Breaks Down Skateboarding Into 21 Levels of Difficulty: From Easy to Complex

Thirty or so Christmases ago, I received my first skateboard. Alas, it was also my last skateboard: not long after I got the hang of balancing on the thing, it was run over and snapped in half by a mail truck. There went my last chance at Olympic athleticism, though I couldn’t have known it at the time: it debuted as an event at the Summer Olympics just this year, and its competitions are underway even now in Tokyo. This is, in any case, a bit late for me, given the relative… maturity of my years as against those of the average Olympic skateboarder. But then, Tony Hawk is in his fifties, and something tells me he could still show those kids a thing or two.

Hawk, the most famous skateboarder in the world, shows us 21 things in the Wired video above— specifically, 21 skateboarding moves, each one representative of a higher difficulty level than the last. At level one, we have the “flat-ground ollie,” which involves “using one foot to snap the tail of the board downward, and then you have the board sort of aiming up, and then sliding your front foot at the right time in order to bring that board up and level it out in the air.”

To the untrained eye, a well-executed ollie projects the image of skater and board are “jumping” as a whole. But it can only be mastered by those willing to keep their feet on the board, rather than obeying the instinct to put one foot off to the side. “People do that for years,” laments Hawk.

Level ten finds Hawk on the half-pipe doing a “360 aerial.” He describes the action as we watch him perform it: “I’m going up the ramp, I’m turning in the frontside direction a full 360, and I’m coming down backwards” — but not yet flipping the board while in the air, a slightly more advanced move. The final levels enter “the realm of unreality,” covering the NBD (Never Been Done) tricks that skaters nevertheless believe possible. For Level 21 he chooses the “1260 spin” — “three and a half rotations” — which he’s never even seen attempted. Or at least he hadn’t at the time of this video’s shoot in 2019; Mitchie Brusco landed one at the X Games just two days later. Even now, given the seemingly infinite potential variations of and expansions on every trick, skateboarding is unlikely to have hit its physical limits. Just imagine what the kids who successfully dodge their mailman now will be able to pull off when they grow up.

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Fully Flared

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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.

Haruki Murakami’s Daily Routine: Up at 4:00 a.m., 5-6 Hours of Writing, Then a 10K Run

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Haruki Murakami has been famous as a novelist since the 1980s. But for a decade or two now, he’s become increasingly well known around the world as a novelist who runs. The English-speaking world’s awareness of Murakami’s roadwork habit goes back at least as far as 2004, when the Paris Review published an Art of Fiction interview with him. Asked by interviewer John Ray to describe the structure of his typical workday, Murakami replied as follows:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

This stark physical departure from the popular notion of literary work drew attention. Truer to writerly stereotype was the Murakami of the early 1980s, when he turned pro as a novelist after closing the jazz bar he’d owned in Tokyo. “Once I was sitting at a desk writing all day I started putting on the pounds,” he remembers in The New Yorker. “I was also smoking too much — sixty cigarettes a day. My fingers were yellow, and my body reeked of smoke.” Aware that something had to change, Murakami performed an experiment on himself: “I decided to start running every day because I wanted to see what would happen. I think life is a kind of laboratory where you can try anything. And in the end I think it was good for me, because I became tough.”

Adherence to such a lifestyle, as Murakami tells it, has enabled him to write all his novels since, including hits like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. (On some level, it also reflects his protagonists’ tendency to make transformative leaps from one version of reality into another.) Its rigor has surely contributed to the discipline necessary for the rest of his output as well: translation into his native Japanese of works including The Great Gatsby, but also large quantities of first-person writing on his own interests and everyday life. Protective of his reputation in English, Murakami has allowed almost none of the latter to be published in this language.

But in light of the voracious consumption of self-improvement literature in the English-speaking world, and especially in America, translation of his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running must have been an irresistible proposition. “I’ve never recommended running to others,” Murakami writes in The New Yorker piece, which is drawn from the book. “If someone has an interest in long-distance running, he’ll start running on his own. If he’s not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference.” For some, Murakami’s example has been enough: take the writer-vlogger Mel Torrefranca, who documented her attempt to follow his example for a week. For her, a week was enough; for Murakami, who’s been running-while-writing for nearly forty years now, there could be no other way.

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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.

Muhammad Ali Explains Why He Refused to Fight in Vietnam: “My Conscience Won’t Let Me Go Shoot My Brother… for Big Powerful America” (1970)

In April of 1967, Muhammad Ali arrived at the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston, Texas. “Standing beside twenty-five other nerve-racked young men called to the draft,” writes David Remnick at The New Yorker, Ali “refused to respond to the call of ‘Cassius Clay!’” Offered the choice of going to Vietnam or to jail, he chose the latter “and was sentenced to five years in prison and released on bail.” Ali lost his title, his boxing license, his passport, and — as far as he knew at the time — his career. He was newly married with his first child on the way.

When Ali refused to go to Vietnam, he was “already one of America’s greatest heavyweights ever,” notes USA Today. “He’d won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in Rome when he was just 18 and four years later, against all odds, defeated Sonny Liston to win his first title as world champion.” Ali, it seemed, could do no wrong, as long as he agreed to play a role that made Americans comfortable. He refused to do that too, becoming a Muslim in 1961, changing his name in 1964, and speaking out in his inimitable style against racism and American imperialism.

Ali stood on principle as a conscientious objector at a time when resisting the Vietnam War made him extremely unpopular. Sports Illustrated called him “another demagogue and an apologist for his so-called religion” and pronounced that “his views of Vietnam don’t deserve rebuttal.” Television host David Susskind called him “a disgrace to his country” and even Jackie Robinson felt Ali was “hurting… the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam.”

Robinson gave voice to a sentiment one hears often from critics of politically outspoken athletes: “Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.” But the country also gave Ali the opportunity to take his case to the Supreme Court, as his lawyer told Howard Cosell in the ABC news segment at the top. “Ali had no intention of fleeing to Canada,” DeNeen L. Brown writes at The Washington Post, “but he also had no intention of serving in the Army.”

Ali strung together a living giving speaking engagements at anti-war events around the country for the next few years as he fought the verdict. It was hardly the living he’d made as champion. But “my conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me [the N word], they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father…. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Ali remained prominently in the public eye throughout his appeal. He had become a “fixture on the TV talk show circuit in the precable days of the 1960s and ‘70s,” writes Stephen Battaglio in a LA Times review of the recent documentary Ali & Cavett. He remained so during his hiatus from boxing thanks in no small part to Dick Cavett, who had Ali on frequently for everything from “serious discussions of race relations in the U.S. to playful confrontations aimed at promoting fights.” Cavett’s show “provided a comfort zone for Ali, especially before he became a beloved figure.” And it gave Ali a forum to counter public slander. In the clip above from 1970, he talks about how his sacrifices made him a credible role model for troubled young people.

He seems at first to compare himself to early American pioneers, Japanese kamikaze pilots, and the first astronauts when Cavett asks him about the possibility of going to jail, but his point is that he thinks he’s paying a small price compared to what others have given up for progress — “We’ve been in jail 400 years,” he says. “The system is built on war.” The following year, the Supreme Court would dismiss the case against him, swayed by the argument that Ali opposed all war, not just the war in Vietnam. He saw Cavett as a worthy sparring partner, helping the late-night host earn a place on Nixon’s list of enemies. It would become a place of honor in the coming years as Ali won back his career, his reputation, and his title in the “Rumble in the Jungle” four years later, and the Vietnam War became a cause for national shame.

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

The Rules of 100 Sports Clearly Explained in Short Videos: Baseball, Football, Jai Alai, Sumo Wrestling, Cricket, Pétanque & Much More

When you get down to it, every sport is its rules. This leaves aside great historical weight and cultural associations, granted, but if you don’t know a sport’s rules, not only can you not play it, you can’t appreciate it (the many childhood afternoons I thrilled to televised 49ers games without having any idea what was happening on the field notwithstanding). What’s worse, you can’t discuss it. “There is a shared knowledge of sports in America that is unlike our shared knowledge of anything else,” as Chuck Klosterman once put it. “Whenever I have to hang out with someone I’ve never met before, I always find myself secretly thinking, ‘I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports.'”

Klosterman is a cultural critic, a position not at odds with his sports fanaticism, and he surely knows that his observation holds well beyond the U.S.: just consider how deeply so much of the world is invested in football. Despite its relative simplicity, many Americans never quite grasped the workings of what we call soccer. But thanks to a Youtuber called Ninh Ly, we can learn in just over four minutes.

Ly’s explanation of association football/soccer is just one of nearly 100 such videos on his channel, each of which clearly and concisely lays out the rules of a different sport. An American who watches it immediately becomes not just able to understand a game, but prepared to engage with the cultures of football-enthusiast countries from Mexico to Malaysia, Turkey to Thailand.

Though British, Ly just as cogently explains sports from the United States, even the relatively complicated ones: basketball, for instance, or what most of the world calls American football (as well as its arena, Canadian, and twice-failed XFL variants), a game whose devoted fans include no less acclaimed-in-Europe an American novelist than than Paul Auster. Previously on Open Culture, we featured Auster’s correspondence with J.M. Coetzee on the subject of sports, wherein the former probes his own enthusiasm for football, and the latter his own enthusiasm for cricket. “If I look into my own heart and ask why, in the twilight of my days, I am still — sometimes — prepared to spend hours watching cricket on television,” writes Coetzee, “I must report that, however absurdly, however wistfully, I continue to look out for moments of heroism, moments of nobility.”

Anyone can enjoy such moments when and where they come, but only if they know the rules of cricket in the first place. Ly has, of course, made a cricket explainer, which in four minutes fully elucidates a sport as obscure to some as it is beloved of others. He’s also covered much more specialized sports, including fencing, curling, pickleball, jai alai, axe throwing, and sumo wrestling. (Unable to “ignore the overwhelming demand,” he’s even explained the rules of quidditch, a game adapted from the Harry Potter books.) After a couple of hours with his playlist (embedded below), you’ll come away ready to ascend to a new plane of appreciation for sportsmanship in all its various manifestations. If you’re anything like me, you’ll then revisit your earliest education in these subjects: Sports Cartoons.

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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.

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