Monday, 5 November 2012

The Ghosts of Haunted Rye

Have you heard of the ghosts of haunted Rye? The history of Britain is long and has frequently been bloody, so it has perhaps not surprising that there are so many stories of hauntings and the paranormal.  And Rye is one of the towns that is most famed for its ghosts and hauntings.  Rye was once one of England’s ancient Cinque Ports and is perhaps the quaintest and most picturesque old town in the whole of the United Kingdom.  The position of Rye, high on the hill, commands beautiful views across Romney Marshes and to the sea.  Rye was heavily fortified in medieval times although only the Landgate, Ypres Tower and a small part of the town wall still survive.  The centre of Rye is filled with sloping cobbled streets, 16th century half-timbered houses, old inns and little shops.  The town used to be a thriving port before the harbour silted up and its colourful history contains many tales of smugglers, pirates and the revenue men who tried to catch them and stop their illicit trade.  Indeed during the 18th century Rye’s prosperity was very heavily dependent on the smuggling trade, much to the dismay of the evangelical preacher John Wesley who visited the town in 1773.  It has also been home to many writers in its time, including Henry James, E F Benson, Joseph Conrad, G K Chesterton and H G Wells.

Mermaid Street, Rye - Wikimedia Commons
Mermaid Street, Rye

So where in this old town do you go to possibly see one of its famous ghosts?

Lamb House

This old house was built in the 1723 and is now owned by the National Trust.  Henry James moved into Lamb House in 1898 and his later novels were written there. Henry James claimed that a ghost of an old lady used to visit him and help him with his writing.  Poltergeist activity has also been recorded in Lamb and the house is also said to be haunted by a man called Allen Grebell who was murdered by a butcher.

Mermaid Inn
Reputed to be one of the most haunted pubs in the United Kingdom, the Mermaid Inn dates to the early 15th century, though it is thought that parts of the cellars and the foundations may date as far back as 1150.  During the 18th century the Mermaid Inn notorious for being a smuggler’s haunt, and the inn has concealed staircases, rooms with moving wall panels, an a concealed entrance to a ‘Priest’s Hole’.  Room 16 of the Mermaid Inn is known as the Elizabethan Chamber and during the 1930’s a guest sleeping in the room witness a pair of phantom duellers fighting with rapiers.  The ghost who won the duel is then said to have dragged the loser’s dead body through the Inn and dropped it through a trapdoor.  A grey lady is also said to haunt the upper floors of the building, with Room 5, which is known as the Nutcracker suite, being one of her regular locations to materialise.  She is seen drifting through the closed door and halts once at the foot of the bed before disappearing.  It is thought that she is the ghost of a girl who was murdered for being too indiscreet about her smuggler lover’s illicit activities and that she is now endlessly searching through Mermaid Inn to find her murderous beau.

The Mermaid Inn, Rye - Wikimedia Commons
The Mermaid Inn, Rye

In rooms 10 and 18 a man who fades away has been seen entering and leaving, and he is often seen disappearing through the wall. In room 1 a lady wearing pale garments has been seen sitting in a chair by the fireplace, and even guests who have not seen the apparition have complained that they have hung their clothes over the chair at night only to find them soaked with water the next morning.  One of the rocking chairs at the Mermaid Inn is has also been seen rocking of its own accord and the chair cushion was seen to squeeze down as though an invisible someone had sat down on it.

Monastery Hall

In Rye’s Monastery Hall during the 1940’s a line of monks was seen in the hall and gardens.  This may have been related to the digging up of several skeletons in the garden at that time and there was some evidence that they had been buried alive.

Needles Passage

In Needles Passage echoing footsteps can be heard by people walking through the passage although there nobody can be seen when they pass by.

Reysons Farm

In the 1930s loud footsteps were heard going up and down the stairs and the ghost of a man was also seen at night.

The Union Inn

The Union Inn is an old, medieval building and has been a pub since 1420.  The name of the Inn probably derives from the union of England and Scotland at the accession to the throne of King James I, who had previously been James VI of Scotland.  The inn boasts the ghost of a little girl who was often seen wandering through the kitchen and restaurant of this old inn in the mid 1990’s, many of the people spotting her believing her to be real.  It is also thought that the inn is haunted by the ghost of an unmarried mother who died when she fell down the cellar steps.
Rye Town Centre

In the town centre of Rye, two female ghosts have been observed walking down Mermaid Street wearing long dresses and a little girl dressed in blue has been seen crossing the street.  In Watchbell Street the ghost of a little boy wrapped in a white sheet has been seen and disembodied footsteps have also been heard.  In the Old Tuck Shoppe in Market Street there is said to be the ghost of a grey lady.

Turkey Cock Lane

Ghostly sounds like those of a turkey gobbling used to be heard in Turkey Cock Lane.  They apparently emanated from the ghost of a monk who broke his vows of chastity and went mad after he was bricked up alive after being caught trying to elope with a local girl that he had fallen in love with.  The shade of the monk is apparently still sometimes seen, but the spectral sounds are no longer heard
White Vine Hotel

From November 1995 the White Vine Hotel in Rye has been a focus of poltergeist activity.  The kitchen gets rearranged by unseen hands and food gets moved around and hidden.  Sometimes the poltergeist activity moves to the bedrooms, but always eventually comes back to the kitchen.

So could Rye be the most haunted town in Britain?  If you wanted to visit haunted Rye for yourself, there is a good range of accommodation available from self-catering through to hotels and old inns.  For a taste of the paranormal, try staying among the ghosts at the Mermaid Inn itself or Rye Heritage Centre runs a Ghost Tour Experience which you can book onto.  There is plenty to see in the old town, such as Rye Castle Museum, and some glorious walks in the surrounding countryside.  So have a happy ghost hunting break in ancient Rye!

Mermaid Street Image Ian Macnab Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 
Mermaid Inn Image Chris Whippet Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Story of St Nicholas, Father Christmas and Santa Claus

Did you know that the origins of Father Christmas and Santa Claus lie with an early Christian Saint called Nicholas of Myra?  He came from the Lycian port of Myra in south west Turkey and lived in the fourth century AD.  He was an early Christian bishop and he probably died on 6th December as this was celebrated as his feast day in the medieval calendar.  He was regarded as a patron of sailors and navigation. It is thought that he was a survivor of the persecutions of Diocletian, and that he had been exiled and imprisoned.  Later accounts state that he attended the Council of Nicaea and argued against the Arian heresy.

Old Father Christmas - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Old Father Christmas

There are several legends that surround St Nicholas.  One that is credited with being the legend that linked St Nicholas to gift giving is that he was told of a man who could not get the money together to provide dowries for his three daughters.  Because of this man’s pecuniary difficulties, he was planning to send them to work in a brothel.  St Nicholas reputedly saved them from this fate by throwing three bags of gold through their window one night.  This legend led to St Nicholas being regarded as a protector of marriage.

Another legend of St Nicholas is that he found out that the cook of an inn offered the meat of children that he killed to his patrons.  When he investigated, he found the bodies of three small boys pickled in a tub.  He blessed the bodies of the dead children, which instantly restored them to life.  Because of this legend, St Nicholas became a patron of children and it became a custom in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, to give children presents on his feast day of 6th December.

He was buried in the cathedral church in Myra and a unique relic called manna was said to form in his grave.  This manna was a miraculous liquid that was purported to heal people. The bones of St Nicholas were brought to Bari in Italy in 1087 by a group of Greek merchants, after the Turks captured Myra, and buried under the altar of a new church, the Basilica San Nicola, inaugurated by Pope Urban II.  Some of the bones were taken to Port in France and others were taken to Worms in Germany.  Many churches in Europe were dedicated to St Nicholas, especially in the ports of the Hanseatic League.  The reformation in many parts of Europe, brought to an end the veneration of Catholic saints, but the old customs and legends of St Nicholas persisted and developed into modern times.

It came to be believed that St Nicholas judged whether or not children had been good or bad and in the Netherlands he was supposed to ride his white horse across the sky, dropping presents down the chimneys of the good children on the evening of 5th/6th December.   They would find these gifts the next morning, and they would often be hidden in shoes.  If the child had been bad during the year, it was believed that a small bag of salt would be left in place of the presents. Hiding the gifts in the shoes was a reflection of the older custom of putting money into poor people’s shoes on the feast of St Nicholas. He became known as Sinterklaas, and actors would dress up in bishop’s robes and visit children and tell them how to behave.  In Germany they developed the custom of electing a boy bishop on December 6th.

Sinterklaas is said to have had a helper or helpers, known as ‘Black Pete’, and they carry a bag containing sweets for good children and a swatch of willow branches with which to spank naughty children.  This is linked to the legend of St Nicholas saving the lives of three small Moorish boys who had been condemned to death for a crime that they had not committed.  In gratitude they stayed with the Saint and helped him to deliver the gifts from the rooftops.  The dark colour of their skin is said to be linked to the Moorish origins of the three boys rescued by or because they are associated with chimney sweeps. Traditionally Sinterklaas and Black Pete arrive in the Netherlands and Belgium on a steamboat from Spain, and nowadays they are then paraded through the towns, cheered on by crowds and even broadcast on television.  Sweets and ginger biscuits are tossed to the children in the crowds and traditional Sinterklaas songs are sung.

Sinterklaas is the basis for the American figure of Santa Claus.  New York started life as an old Dutch colonial town called New Amsterdam which had been traded by the Dutch for other territories.  It is believed that during the American War of Independence, because the customs surrounding Sinterklaas were not of English origin, they were changed and incorporated into a figure called Santa Claus.  In 1835 the Saint Nicholas Society was formed by a group of New Yorkers, including Washington Irving, to celebrate the heritage of New York City, and in 1850 a teacher called Jan Schenkman published an illustrated children’s book called ‘St Nicholas and His Helper’ which introduced the concept of Christmas presents being delivered down the chimney.

The modern American Santa Claus is depicted as a rotund figure that is dressed in a red suit with white fur rather than a bishop’s robes and has a sleigh with flying reindeer rather than a flying horse.  Drawings by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly in 1863-66 encapsulated this modern vision of Santa, and this figure was used by several large advertisers such as Coca-Cola.  Santa Claus is believed to live for most of the year at the North Pole with his wife Mrs Claus, his myriad helper elves and the magical flying reindeer, where they make all the toys that they will need for the coming Christmas.  Children now write a letter to Santa just before Christmas that lists all the toys that they would like Santa to bring them and outlining how good they have been throughout the year.  In turn, Santa Claus is said to make a list of all the children who were ‘naughty or nice’ that he uses to calculate how many Christmas presents each child is to receive.  Especially naughty children are believed to be left a lump of coal on Christmas Eve by Santa rather than presents.  It has also become a tradition to leave out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and some carrots for the reindeer.

The English Father Christmas was initially represented as a Christmas visitor and the personification of the spirit of Christmas, rather than an entity that delivered presents at Christmastime.   In Saxon times, they had a ‘King Frost’ or ‘King Winter’, who was someone who was chosen, dressed in green and given a big hat or crown to wear. ‘King Winter’ was believed to be able to make the winter weather less harsh and help them get through to the spring.   In the Middle Ages in England the local parish would hire an actor or borrow a religious person from another parish to disguise themselves and go around the homes in the area to see which families had any problems.  They would then go back and report to the Parish Priest, who would then try to make sure that those families received help.

Father Christmas - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Father Christmas

 An archaic version of Father Christmas was mentioned in an old carol in the fifteenth century, and he became more popular with the publication of Ben Johnson’s ‘Captaine Christmas’ in the seventeenth century.  The Puritans tried to do away with all English Christmas traditions, including that of Father Christmas, but they were not successful and Father Christmas continued to make his Yuletide visits.  He was often depicted as a pagan figure with either ivy or icicles around his head. The whole concept of Christmas went through a great revival during the Victorian era in England, and by the 1870’s Father Christmas was delivering Christmas presents and hanging Christmas Stockings from the end of beds just like the American Santa Claus.

These days the English Father Christmas and the American Santa Claus are almost indistinguishable and a fat jolly old gentleman in a red suit with a white beard can be found in Santa’s Grotto in most major department stores in the towns of America and the United Kingdom.  He is surrounded by elves giving out candy canes, no longer admonishes naughty children and hands out presents.  He is now a totally benign figure that adorns our Christmas cards and decorations, and slides down our chimneys on Christmas Eve to stuff our stockings with gifts!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Who Was Mother Shipton?

Mother Shipton and Cardinal Wolsey

On a dark and stormy night in 1488 a young woman lay in a dark cave on the banks of the River Nidd in Knaresborough in North Yorkshire struggling to give birth to her illegitimate daughter.  As the rain lashed down and the lightning crackled across the sky, Agnes Sontheil laboured through the night until her baby was born.  The young mother called her infant daughter Ursula and the cave was to be their home for the next two years.  Eventually, after the Abbott of Beverley brought pressure to bear, the small child was removed from her mother and the cave, and placed in the care of a respectable local family. When Ursula Sontheil grew up she married a carpenter from the city of York called Tom Shipton in 1512.

Ursula Shipton, or Mother Shipton as she became known as, started a career of telling fortunes and creating prophetic poems.  The local people, who were very wary and superstitious, believed that she was a witch.  This belief was reinforced by her appearances, because by many accounts MotherShipton was disfigured and deformed, unable to walk without the aid of a stick and with a large hooked nose on her terrifyingly ugly face.  She was so taunted and bullied by her neighbours that she began spending most of her time back in the cave where she had been born, wandering in the local woods looking for the herbs and healing plants that she used in her remedies and potions.

Mother Shipton lived during the reign of the Tudor King Henry VIII, and she confirmed her reputation as an incredibly accurate soothsayer when she made a prediction concerning Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s powerful Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York.  Cardinal Wolsey’s influence over Henry VIII was on the wane when she made a prophecy that he would never get to see York in his lifetime, even though he was the appointed Archbishop of that city.  The mighty statesman was, not surprisingly, unimpressed with this prediction, and moved swiftly to prove Mother Shipton wrong.  He sent three Lords from his retinue to remonstrate with her and to get her to withdraw what she had said, but she merely laughed in their faces.  Even when they threatened to have her burned at the stake as a witch unless she kept her mouth shut, she did not back down and just repeated her prediction that the great Cardinal would never set his eyes on the city of York.

This intransigence so incensed Cardinal Wolsey that he immediately set out to travel to York.  He reached a place called Cawood Tower, some ten miles south of the city, when his travelling party was forced to stop for the night.  Determined to get his first sight of the city, the Cardinal made to climb the tower, but before he could do it he was arrested by the King’s men on a charge of high treason.  The accuracy of this prophecy struck fear into the hearts of many, and she was now feared as well as reviled.

Mother Shipton reputedly lived until 1561, which would have made her an elderly lady of 73 when she died. During her life she had spoken her predictions, not written them, and it wasn’t until around 1641 that the first book recording her prophecies was produced.  This book was put together by a lady called Joanne Waller who compiled it just before she died at the age of 94.  She claimed that she had heard the predictions directly from Mother Shipton herself, so she must have been talking to the famous soothsayer in the last few years of her life.

Since this first publication of Mother Shipton’s prophecies, there have been over fifty other editions of her sayings.  With many of these predictions, it is very questionable as to how many of them were ever uttered by Mother Shipton, or were made up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  One of the most famous was her supposed prediction about the end of the world coming in 1881, but as we are still here over a hundred years later this one, thankfully, did not come true.  Various other dates were quoted in different publications and in different countries, but probably none of them came from the lips of Mother Shipton.  Other famous predictions were the Civil War in England, the coming of iron ships and Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary that while they were surveying the damage wrought by the Great Fire of London that he had overheard people talking about Mother Shipton prophesying the fiery conflagration.

Of course the reality is that we do not even really know if Mother Shipton was an historical figure or just a local legend. The cave where she was born, and brewed her healing potions is now a major tourist attraction in Knaresborough called Mother Shipton’s Caves.  The caves also feature a local curiosity called the Petrifying Well.  Since the Middle Ages people have hung objects in the waters of the Petrifying Well and returned a couple of months later to find that they have been turned to stone.  In earlier times it would be dead animals and birds and things like wigs that would be left in the well, but these days teddy bears are hung in the water, and once they have petrified they are sold in the Gift Shop.  The Petrifying Well is fed from the waters of the Petrifying Well Spring, which in turn is fed through an aquifer from a natural underground lake.  As the water travels through the aquifer it dissolves a very high concentration of minerals from the surrounding rocks, and it is this high mineral concentration in the spring water that turns things into stone if they are left immersed long enough.  In past centuries people would bring the sick and infirm to the Petrifying Well to drink the waters and bathe so that they would be healed, but these days you cannot drink the water as the high mineral content renders it not suitable. Another feature of Mother Shipton’s Caves is the Wishing Well, where apparently many of the wishes made have really come true.

So do you believe that some people can see into the future and that the prophecies of Mother Shipton were true? If so, maybe you should visit Mother Shipton’s Cave, make a wish at the Wishing Well and buy a teddy that was turned to stone in the Petrifying Well.

Mother Shipton image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Mother Shipton's Cave Chris Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

UK Invasive Species – War of the Grey and Black Squirrels

In the UK there are several very common and familiar animal, insect and plant species that are not actually native to our country.  They are species that have been introduced into our countryside in one way or another, and have often driven our native species from their habitats by out-competing them for food, passing on disease and taking over territory.  Invasive species can be very destructive to often fragile habitats, and can cost the economy millions of pounds a year. In fact, you may well have one of these alien animals in your garden right now, and you may have spent many happy hours watching their antics and admiring their aerial acrobatics in the trees.  This cute little invader is the grey squirrel, and although they seem so ubiquitous they have only been scampering around our gardens and woodlands for the last hundred years or so.

Our native squirrel species is the smaller red squirrel, and before the last quarter of the 19th century they numbered in the millions and ranged across the whole country. Red squirrels are easily recognisable by their striking red coats, bushy tails and tufts of red fur on their ears. Their preferred habitat is conifer forest, where they live off pine cones, seeds, shoots and fruit.  The red squirrel tends to be a solitary animal  except during the mating season, when they build large nests called dreys in the forks of trees producing a litter of between 2-3 kittens in the spring.  However, it is now estimated that there are as few as 120,000 red squirrels left in the wild, and the major cause of their decline was the introduction of grey squirrels into the UK.

The grey squirrel is a North American species, which arrived in the UK between 1876 and 1929 when they were introduced into many parks and private animal collections.  Inevitably some of the animals escaped or were released into the wild, where they thrived and bred successfully.  Because they were so much bigger, stronger and ate a wider variety of food than the native reds, they started to drive them out of their territory, so that now the red squirrel is confined to parts of Scotland, northern England, Wales and the Isle of Wight.  The grey squirrels also passed on disease to the reds, which they had no natural immunity to.

But although the grey squirrels have been the victorious conquerors of our gardens and parks for decades now, they do have a new challenger that is beginning to drive them out of their territory and ironically this new invasive species is a member of their own family.  So don’t go and get your eyes tested if the squirrel running down your fence looks black and not grey, as the black squirrel is slowly but surely increasing its numbers in some parts of Britain.

Like its grey cousin, the black squirrel also arrived from the US in the late 19th century, where they were kept as exotic pets in a private zoo in Bedfordshire.  Some of these animals escaped from captivity, and in 1912 the first wild black squirrel was spotted in the environs of Letchworth, Hertfordshire.  It is now estimated that there are more than 25,000 of them living in the UK, most of which are in the East Anglia region, and some scientists think that they could eventually become the dominant squirrel species in this country as there are more sightings of black squirrels being reported from other parts of the UK.

Grey and black squirrels are actually the same species, but a genetic mutation caused an excess of melanin to be produced in some squirrels that caused the black pigmentation of the fur.  It is thought that having black fur could help the squirrels to survive in colder climates, as it absorbs heat more readily.  Being so closely related, the grey and black squirrels can breed with each other, but when they do the black gene is dominant, which is another reason why they may eventually overtake the grey squirrels in numbers.  There has been a major research project undertaken on the spread of black squirrels by Anglia Ruskin University since 2004, where they have set up a website asking the public to report any black squirrel sightings they have made.  So a seemingly successful invasive species, can in its turn be overtaken by a more recently introduced species, so that in a few years time we could all be watching black squirrels in our parks, and the grey squirrels, just like the reds, might well have been pushed out and be only surviving in small colonies in the remoter, more inhospitable parts of the UK.

Black squirrel image Sujit kumar Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Enigma of the Indonesian Hobbits

Every so often a discovery is made that rocks the archaeological world to its core. One of these amazing discoveries was the uncovering of a strange, diminutive hominid skeleton on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Nicknamed the ‘Hobbit’, the remains of the this new dwarf species of human was discovered in 2003 in the vast limestone caves at Liang Bua Cave by a joint Australian-Indonesian team led by Mike Morwood from Australia’s Wollongong University. At the time, Morwood’s team were investigating whether there was any evidence for the migration of H. erectus, an early human species, from Asia to Australia and were very surprised to come across a brand new species of early human. This new species was named H. Floresiensis, and from the start these ancient human remains have been the cause of much speculations, disagreement and debate among the scientific community.

H. floresiensis Skull

To date, partial skeletons of nine individuals have been unearthed including one complete skull.  The most complete skeleton is known as LB1, and by the pelvis is judged to be a female who was around the age of thirty when she died.  Because of the very damp conditions in the Liang Bua caves and the relatively recent age of the remains, the skeleton had not been fossilised and the bones were in a very fragile condition when they were found. The ‘hobbit’ remains are remarkable for several reasons. The single most surprising thing is their small stature; they stood only about 1 metre tall and were fully bipedal. They also had a very small brain size, around 417cc.  This brain size is smaller than the brain size range of chimpanzees, which is between 300 to 500cc, and also those of the Australopithecines, who were a species of very early human. These ‘hobbits’ had human like teeth, but had a receding forehead and no chin. The bone structure of the wrists, shoulders and arms are also proved to be more similar to those of chimpanzees and Australopithecines than modern humans or H. erectus in a 2007 study.

So how old were these remarkable skeletal remains of a new species of dwarf human? The fossil skeletons range from being between 38,000 and 18,000 years old, but other archaeological evidence such as stone tools suggests that H. floresiensis inhabited the island of Flores from as long ago as 95,000 years ago and up to as recently as 13,000 years ago. This makes the ‘Hobbits’ the last-known surviving non-modern humans in the world, as the Neanderthals had last walked the earth about 35,000 years ago. As modern humans arrived on Flores between 55,000 and 35,000 years ago, these two very different species of human would have presumably shared territory and interacted with each other for thousands of years, although there is no archaeological proof of this.

There are theories that the ‘hobbits’ survived until much more recently and could even still be alive today, deep in the unexplored tropical rainforests of Indonesia.  Folklore on Flores speaks of a strange creature called Ebu Gogo who were small, human-like cave-dwellers who did not communicate and walked with a strange gait. Reputedly they were covered in hair and had broad faces and large mouths. The Ebu Gogo were known for stealing human crops and kidnapping children, so the legend goes that sometime in the 18th century the Flores Islanders tricked the Ebu Gogo into accepting gifts of rattan mats.  As they returned to their caves with these mats, the Flores Islanders followed them and set fire to the mats killing nearly all of the Ebu Gogo, except perhaps for one couple who escaped to continue on the Ebu Gogo line.  Also, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, deep in the jungle, sightings are still reported of a 1.5 metre high hominid the locals call Orang Pendek, which is Indonesian for short person.  But why would H. floresiensis suddenly die out 12,000 years ago after surviving successfully for so many thousands of years?  It is thought that a volcanic eruption in the region 12,000 years ago could have been responsible for the demise of the ‘Hobbits’, the same eruption that led to the extinction of the pygmy elephant Stegodon on Flores.

H. floresiensis was an unexpected discovery and it was a big surprise that a non-modern human species existed on the earth until so recently and was so small in stature, but what other controversy did the discovery of the ‘Hobbits’ cause.  Well, the big debate is where they came from and how they evolved. Some experts believe that they were a direct descendant of H. erectus, and that for some reason there had been active selection for smaller brain size and stature. So did the ‘Hobbits’ shrink over thousands of years because of the evolutionary pressures caused by being on an island with limited resources? Don’t forget that Flores had also been home to a species of dwarf elephants that had adapted to their environment and shrunk, and these dwarf elephants had been an important food source for the ‘hobbits’.  However, the study of the H. floresiensis wrist bones showed them to be nothing like H. erectus carpal bones, as the ‘hobbit’ wrist bones lack features that had been present in early species of modern humans from at least 800,000 years ago. If H. Floresiensis were a dwarf variation of these earlier humans, it challenges the traditional view that H. erectus could not cross sea barriers.  The island of Flores has always been separated from its neighbour Java by a deep sea barrier, so if H. erectus was living on Flores, and in 1998 Mike Morwood announced the discovery of stone tools believed to have been made by these early humans dating back 840,000 years, then this theory is totally overturned and they were indeed capable of travelling by sea.

However, an even more daring theory is that the ‘hobbits’ evolved directly from Australopithecines, who were some of our very earliest human ancestors.  Australopithecus first emerged around seven million years ago in the Rift Valley of East Africa, and australopithecine fossils show great similarities to the remains of the ‘Hobbits’, including small brain size, small stature and primitive wrist bones, teeth and feet. This would mean that H. floresiensis did not shrink due to environmental pressures, but started off small and stayed small.  But the most startling aspect of this theory is that Australopithecus was not previously thought to have ever left Africa.  The first modern human migration from Africa was believed to have occurred around 65,000 years ago, with small bands of our early ancestors migrating out of Africa via the coastal routes through the Middle East and maybe making the short sea crossing to Arabia.  If the ‘hobbits’ were descended from Australopithecus it meant that Australopithecines possessed hitherto undiscovered seafaring abilities and also that they possibly migrated out of Africa into Asia  millions of years before any species of human was thought to have done? Mike Morwood has now uncovered stone tools on nearby Sulawesi that could be almost 2 million years old, so will more H. floresiensis skeletons and archaeological artefacts be discovered that could provide further vital evidence?

There are some experts who argue that the controversial ‘hobbit’ remains are just modern human skeletons that are somehow abnormal and that the individuals suffered from a disease such as microcephaly that leads to small brain sizes.  However, all of the ‘hobbit’ skeletons display the same features and that they are just too different from modern humans to simply be diseased modern humans.  What might be able to settle the argument is if some mitochondrial DNA is recovered from the H. floresiensis specimens and sent for analysis.  However the hot, damp climate of the Liang Bua caves reduces the chances of it being recovered, as extreme heat degrades DNA.  In addition, the bones were not fossilised, which also does not help DNA recovery.

Hopefully, future discoveries will throw further light on where the ‘hobbits’ came from and how they evolved. Also, they may give us more information on when the first humans really did leave Africa to spread to other parts of the world. Of course, the most amazing thing would be if a population of diminutive ‘hobbits’ were discovered to be still living today deep in the tropical jungles of Indonesia, and then suddenly we would not be the only human species alive on our planet today.

H. floresiensis skull image FunkMonk Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Is There A Wild Big Cat Roaming The Cotswolds?

The UK doesn’t have any very large native big cat species, but over the past few weeks there has been a spate of mutilated animal carcasses found across the Cotswolds.   Our largest native cat is the ScottishWildcat, which is now unfortunately a very rare and reclusive species, with only around four hundred still remaining in the more remote areas of the Scottish Highlands.  So what creature is it that has now killed several deer and three wallabies in the rolling English countryside, where the largest local native predator is the fox?

This mysterious creature has been dubbed the ‘Wildcat ofWoodchester’ and there have dozens of reported sightings.  The terrain around this area is very rugged, with wooded ravines and heavy undergrowth, where a large feline predator could easily hide and be very difficult to spot.  Between 2005 and 2011 Gloucestershire police received seventy five different reports of alleged big cat sightings that ranged from glimpses of pumas, panthers and even a lion close to junction 9 on the M5.

The first mutilated deer carcass was found by someone walking their dog on January 4th, and when the corpse was examined there was plenty of evidence that it was a big cat kill, rather than a dog attack.  The nose of the animal has been bitten off, which is a sign of a cat attack as they sometimes suffocate their prey, and also the deer’s innards had been cleanly removed and placed by the body.  Because the deer had been so recently killed and the corpse was unlikely to have been scavenged by any other animals, samples were removed to be tested for DNA and the results are due in the next few days.  Hopefully the DNA testing will prove to have been successful and whatever animal it was that killed the deer will be identified.

Two more mutilated deer carcasses have been found in the last couple of weeks, and in the last couple of days three wallabies have been found dead in their enclosure at a private wildlife collection only twelve miles from where the deer were devoured in Woodchester.  The animals that killed the unfortunate wallabies had to jump a 7ft fence to get into their paddock, showing that it is a very powerful creature, and the dead wallabies were found to have puncture wounds in their necks, their bodies completely devoured and their internal organs placed alongside what remained of them.

Many locals believe that big cats have been on the loose in the area for many years, and that their prescence might go back to the 1970’s when it became illegal to own exotic big cats and many were thought to have been released into the wild by their owners.  But if it is found that there is a big cat population roaming Gloucestershire, is there any danger to people?  This is very unlikely as big cats generally avoid people where they can and there have not been any reported incidents of an alien big cat attacking a human in the UK.  In the Cotswolds there is a plentiful supply of wildlife, such as deer, for them to hunt, so the danger to people is minimal.  The big danger is that if the DNA tests do come back positive or there is an identified sighting that fear will drive a campaign to hunt them down and kill them.  Although these leopards, pumas or lynxes are an invasive species in the United Kingdom, it is likely that they have been quietly living and breeding here for many years, with no danger to humans or the local habitat.  So if we do have a population of beautiful big cats breeding in this country, would it not be better to protect them and learn about them rather than destroy them?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Where Is The Lost Amber Room?

Throughout history there have been many lost treasures.  Some have been miraculously found like the gold treasure of Troy unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann and some remain lost in the sands of time, perhaps still awaiting discovery.  One such lost treasure that has not yet been found again is the Amber Room, which is believed to be worth at least £150 million in today’s money.  What makes the disappearance of the Amber Room so unusual is that it was a whole dismantled room that was lost and that it vanished fairly recently at the end of the Second World War.  So this was no ancient mystery, where there are only a few tantalising clues or documents and sometimes even the existence of the treasure is disputed.  The existence of the Amber Room is historically well documented and photographed, and we know that it was the Nazis who looted the Amber Room during World War II and removed it from Russia.  But it is what happened to the Amber Room after the fall of the Nazis in 1945 that is so intriguing and so mysterious, for the whereabouts of the Amber Room has been lost despite all of the attempts to find it.

The Amber Room, Catherine Palace

History of the Amber Room

Amber is an organic gemstone made from tree resin that was fossilized millions of years ago.  Amber ranges in colour from warm yellows to rich tawny browns and is widely used in jewelry and decoration.  However, to create an entire large room lined with precious amber panels backed with gold leaf and encrusted with gemstones was a hugely ambitious and creative endeavour. When it was completed the Amber Room comprised of more than 55 square metres of amber that weighed over six tonnes. The beginning of the Amber Room was in 1701 when Andreas Schluter, a German sculptor, created the concept of the Amber Room for the Prussian King Friedrich I. It was constructed in Friedrich’s Charlottenburg Palace by Gottfried Wolfram. The Russian Czar Peter the Great visited the Charlottenburg Palace a few years after the installation of the Amber Room and greatly admired it, so in 1716 Friedrich I’s son, King Friedrich Wilhelm I, gave it to the Czar to cement a Prussian-Russian alliance.  The Amber Room was installed in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Russia in 1755 and subsequently moved to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. The new design of the Amber Room was conceived by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, court architect to Czarina Elizabeth of Russia and Frederick the Great sent further supplies of amber to complete the ambitious design.

What Happened to the Amber Room During World War II?

When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, those who were responsible for the treasures in the Russian palaces and museums made valiant attempt to hide what they could, but when they attempted to remove the Amber Room from the Catherine Palace they found that the amber covering on the walls had become too brittle and fragile to move.  Their solution was to wallpaper over the amber in the hope that the Nazi invaders would not realise that the amber was there, but the Amber Room was such an iconic, well known world treasure that this measure proved futile.  The Nazi soldiers found and disassembled the Amber Room within a very short time of taking over the Catherine Palace, and shipped the precious sheets of amber into crates and shipped them off to Konigsberg in East Prussia. It was housed in Konigsberg Castle and parts of the Amber room were put on display.

What Happened to the Amber Room When the Second World War Ended?

It is the mystery of what happened to the Amber Room in the confused, chaotic last year of World War II that no one has ever really solved.  Was the Amber Room removed from Konigsberg Castle or was it hidden away somewhere in a vault within the ancient castle or in the town? There were reports that crates large enough to contain the sheets of amber were seen at Konigsberg railway station early in 1945, and there have been rumours that the Amber Room was hidden away in a disused mine. There was also a rumour that the Amber Room was put on board the ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff during Operation Hannibal, when the ship was being used to evacuate military personnel and civilians from Gotenhafen to Kiel who had been trapped by the oncoming Red Army.  Unfortunately, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and sunk, with the tragic loss of over 9,000 souls. So if the Amber Room had been evacuated on this ship it is now at the bottom of the sea, and as the site of the wreck has been designated as a war memorial, it will never be open for exploration or salvage. At the very end of the war, the British Royal Air Force extensively bombed Konigsberg. Including the castle, so there is also the possibility that the Amber Room was destroyed during this bombing campaign or in the ensuing ground assaults.

Hunting For the Amber Room

The mysterious disappearance of the Amber Room has inevitably produced many groups of people who have hunted for the treasure, and some have even claimed to have found it, although none of the amber has ever been recovered.  One of the most recent claims in 2008 that the Amber Room has been discovered comes from Deutschneudorf in the Ore Mountain area of South East Germany.   A team of treasure hunters located an underground man-made cavern which they believed contained the Amber Room, and electromagnetic pulse measurements showed that the cavern also possibly contained over two tonnes of gold.  There had been eye-witness reports that the Nazis had brought trains and trucks full of treasures, artwork and valuable goods into the area in the spring of 1945, although they had never been found again when the hostilities ended. However, the digging was halted, and no conclusive proof of the presence of the Amber Room in Deutschneudorf has ever been presented.

In January 2010 a Russian treasure hunter called Sergei Trifonov reported that he has found a World War II bunker that had been used by the German High Command in Konigsberg during 1945 that he believes may contain the fabled Amber Room.  The bunker is situated around 1,000 metres from Konigsberg Castle, which was demolished in 1967, where it is believed that the Amber Room was housed during the course of World War II, and excavations have already uncovered a brick lined room.

Only time and further excavations will prove whether or not the Amber Room was hidden in either Deutschneudorf or Konigsberg.  If it is ever found again, the amber panels and precious metal decoration of the Amber Room will need careful restoration, or maybe will even be so badly damaged that it could never again be recreated in the Russian palace. However, if you do want to see what the Amber Room would have looked like, you can go and visit a recreation of the Amber Room that was completed in 2003 at the Catherine Palace Museum just outside St Petersburg. It is to be hoped that the Amber Room will be found one day, and not like so many of the world’s treasures lost forever, so once more we can marvel at this incredibly crafted Baroque masterpiece.

Amber Room Image Stan Shebs Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Invasive Red Fire Ants in the USA

Introduced Red Fire Ants – Relentless Invaders

Did you know that the southern parts of the United States are being invaded by a relentless enemy? This diminutive foe started arriving from South America during the 1930s and has left a trail of destruction wherever they have colonised ever since, and now they also seem to be moving on towards world domination. This successful invader is the red fire ant, and fear of this small insect is leaving some parks, gardens and camping grounds in affected areas of the US unused and empty. The red fire ant arrived in the United States by hitching a lift in ships ballast, and so is an accidental invasive species, unlike some introduced species, such as the cane toad in Australia, that were deliberately released in a country for a purpose such as pest control. The introduced red fire ant has also already caused millions of dollars of damage to crops, property and vital infrastructure, and are proving very difficult to eradicate.

Queen Red Fire Ant

What Are Red Fire Ants?

Red fire ants, or Solenopsis invicta, are native to Brazil in South America. The southern US does have its own two native species of fire ant, the southern fire ant and the fire ant, but it is the introduced fire ants that are causing most of the damage and environmental problems. There is another invasive species of fire ant, the black fire ant, which is only as yet only found in Alabama and northern Mississippi, but some experts believe that they could be just the same species as the red fire ant as they are so similar. Introduced fire ants live in colonies, and they build large above-ground nests which can have extensive networks of interconnected underground galleries. The red fire ants build these nest mounds in sunny spots in gardens, parks and fields, and they are rarely to be found in shady areas or dense forest. One of the reasons that introduced red fire ants can grow in numbers so rapidly is that the ants build their nests so that they can control the temperature and humidity inside them.  This means that the ants can keep the temperature in the nest high enough to keep on reproducing, even during the colder weather of the winter season. This rapid expansion of the red fire ant population has seen them spread like wildfire through suitable habitat across the south eastern United States and into western Texas.

What Damage Do Introduced Red Fire Ants Cause?

Red fire ants are very destructive and are costing the US millions of dollars in damage repair. They cause real problems for farmers, as their nest mounds can make ploughing fields and sowing crops very difficult. The red fire ants also feed directly on crops such as strawberries, potatoes, okra, corn and soybeans and their presence can also protect some other insect pest species. However, on a more positive note, they feed on some other pests such as cockroaches, ticks, boll weevils and sugarcane borers.  The lone star tick is regarded as a major livestock pest by farmers, and the red fire ant has been credited with significantly reducing its range. Red fire ants are also bad news for citrus fruit trees, as they chew on the bark and damage it and also feed on the fruit and the growing tips. Red fire ants also cause major problems and damage in homes and commercial properties. The introduced fire ants can get into homes and build nests in wall cavities, under flooring and carpets and around the plumbing. One of the strangest things about the red fire ants is that they seem to be attracted to electrical fields, and so they swarm into electrical appliances, chewing wires and causing damage. The especial love of red fire ants is microwave ovens, and they even seem to be able to survive the high temperatures when the appliances are switched on. They also get into outdoor electrical equipment, sometimes with the potential to cause dangerous accidents, as they can infest traffic signal control boxes or electric metres on properties. Scarily, they have even been found in the lights on airport runways. Even major infrastructure can be destroyed by these ants, as sections of road have collapsed due to the red fire ants removing soil from under the asphalt to build their nests.

Red Fire Ant Distribution Map USA

So Why Are People So Scared of Red Fire Ants?

An individual red fire ant sting is not that painful, and is probably not even as painful as the sting of a wasp or a bee.  They sting like a wasp, by injecting a stinger into your skin, and the red fire ant’s sting initially causes a burning feeling.  This burning sensation gives way to small, itching pustules on the skin. Sometimes these pustules can become infected if they are broken, which can cause scars that take a few months to fade. In some severe cases, there are people who have had to undergo skin grafts or even have had limbs amputated. As with most insect stings, there are also people who are allergic to red fire ant stings, and require immediate hospitalisation for treatment. What causes the great fear of the red fire ants is that most people are not usually only stung the one time. Red fire ants are very aggressive defenders of their nests and territories and will rush to attack any perceived threat. This could be you, one of your children or a family pet, and the ants will swarm over you, stinging you multiple times. It is not just the huge number of ants that is the problem, but the fact that each individual red fire ant has the capability of stinging you several times over. In an area heavily infested with red fire ants it is very difficult to avoid stepping on a nest and disturbing it, as they can quite difficult to spot. Camping in an infested area can also be a nightmare as it is very difficult to avoid being stung, and even leaning on your own garden fence can cause the red fire ants to swarm over you in defence of their territory. Unfortunately, there have even been some people killed by the effects of multiple fire ant stings and the scary reputation of these invaders has also been enhanced by some gory urban myths and scare stories.

Red Fire Ants Go For World Domination

Once colonies of red fire ants are established in an area they are very difficult and expensive to eradicate, and methods range from pouring boiling water into nests, mechanically digging them out and using chemical pesticides. Like a lot of introduced species, the red fire ants are short on natural predators, and in killing the fire ants there is always the risk of also destroying native species. However, red fire ants have now managed to establish themselves in several other countries around the globe, and seem to be bidding for world domination. There are now populations of invasive red fire ants in Taiwan, China, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean, and recently genetic experts have discovered that these invasions probably emanated from the US. The ants probably reached these other countries as stowaways in the cargo holds of ships, where they can survive for long periods of time. One of their survival techniques is that if their nest is flooded, they grab the juvenile red fire ants and grip on to each other to form a floating raft of live ants.  If the fire ants become too hungry, they will snack on the youngsters they are carrying to survive.  It has also been suggested by scientists that during the years that the red fire ants have been invading the southern states of the US, that the species has become hardier and have adapted to become even more invasive and aggressive.

The red fire ant has cost the United Stated millions of pounds in damage and destruction of crops, and a wealth of pain and fear for people, livestock and family pets.  There are also many recreational areas that are no longer being enjoyed because of the presence of red fire ants. But can anything be done to halt the march of this little red invader?  Or will the rest of the world soon have to learn to live with huge ant nest mounds on their lawns, stinging ants in their microwaves and extensive damage to their valuable crops and property.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Do We Know Who the Real St Valentine Was?

The US Greeting Card Association estimates that around one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year around the world timed to arrive on the 14th February, a huge number that is only eclipsed by the number of Christmas cards sent annually.  The modern phenomenon that is St Valentine’s Day is a triumph of marketing and consumerism; a day where lovers take their partners out for meals in restaurants where the prices have been inflated for the day and plied with red roses, champagne, saucy lingerie, chocolates or expensive jewellery.  But what are the true origins of this St Valentine’s Day celebration?

We may view St Valentine as a saucy little cupid shooting love’s arrows, but in a less romantic reality St Valentine was probably not even one person. Valentine or Valentinus was the name of several saints in late antiquity, maybe as many as fifty, who were martyred during the Roman period.  The name Valentine derives from the Latin word ‘valens’ which means worthy and it was a fairly popular name back in those times.  One of those saints just happened to have a feast day that fell on February 14th and it was from this saint’s feast day that our modern celebrations for St Valentine’s Day have evolved. Very little is known about this obscure saint except for the fact that he was buried north of Rome on the Via Flaminia.  The feast day of St Valentine was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, and even then it seems as though very little was known about this saint as Valentine was included in the list of those ‘...whose names are greatly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only known to God.’

Silver Reliquary of St Valentine

St Valentine does appear in several lists of martyrs or ‘martyrologies’, and he is described variously as a martyr in the Roman province of Africa, a bishop of Interamna or as a priest in Rome.  We have to wait until 1493 and the Nuremberg Chronicle to get the first graphical representation of St Valentine and his woodcut picture is accompanied by a text that states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus.

Emperor Claudius was busily persecuting the Christians in Rome at that time, and Valentine was arrested for marrying couples using the Christian rites and helping the Christians to evade the persecution.  He is said to have converted his jailer to Christianity by miraculously restoring the sight of his daughter.   Valentine befriended the jailer’s daughter and left her a goodbye note reputedly signed ‘From Your Valentine’.  According to the legend the Roman Emperor then took a strong liking to Valentine, but he then tried to convert him to Christianity and was condemned to death for his zeal.  It is believed that he was clubbed and stoned, but that his executioners did not manage to kill him, so they eventually had to behead him outside of the Flaminian Gate in Rome.  Various dates have been put forward for Valentine’s martyrdom, including 269, 270 or 273 AD and in the Middle Ages two churches were built in Rome dedicated to this St Valentine.

Relics, believed to be those of St Valentine, were exhumed from the catacombs of St Hippolytus in 1836 and sent to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin.  The casket containing the relics are carried in procession to the church’s high altar every February 14th for a special mass dedicated to young lovers.  As relics of saints tended to be  very numerous and widespread in the Middle Ages, there are also reputed relics of St Valentine in Stephansdom in Vienna, Roquemaure in France, the Gorbals in Glasgow and the Birmingham Oratory.

It was believed by two eighteenth century antiquarians, Alban Butler and Francis Douce that St Valentine may have been an invention of the early Roman Catholic Church as a means of suppressing the Roman pagan pastoral festival of Lupercalia which was celebrated on February 15th each year, but this theory is not universally upheld.   It is believed that during this Roman festival boys drew the names of girls to honour the goddess Februata Juno who was a goddess of fertility and physical love.  This was repeated in the Middle Ages when youngsters would draw a name out of a bowl to determine who their Valentine would be and then sew this name onto their sleeve for one week.  This is where the term ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’ comes from, meaning that you are showing your feelings so clearly that other people easily can gauge exactly what you are feeling.

 St Valentine’s Day first became associated with romance and love in the 14th century in England, and many of the stories around this festival were created by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer in his ‘Parliament of Foules’.   In the ‘Parliament of Foules’ the story goes that the birds choose their mates on February 14th, and this is what is believed to have started the tradition of people sending letters to their loved ones on this date.  Another romantic tradition is the one of pinning bay leaves to your pillow on St Valentine’s Eve with the aim of dreaming of your future husband or wife.  There is also a tradition that if you see a robin flying above you on Valentine’s Day you will marry a sailor, if it was a sparrow that you saw you would be blissfully married to a pauper and if it was a goldfinch you would marry a very rich person.

The earliest known Valentine greeting was a rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, addressed to his ‘valentined’ wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.  In 1797 ‘The Young Man’s Valentine Writer’ was produced in the UK, which contained romantic verses that young men could use for Valentine’s greetings if they were too shy or were unable to think up their own.  The nineteenth century ushered in the mass sending of greeting cards for Valentine’s Day and the practice of sending cards anonymously to someone that you fancied.

As there was so little information known about St Valentine, his feast day was removed from the Roman Catholic General Calendar for universal liturgical veneration in 1969.  However, St Valentine is not only the patron saint of lovers; his saintly patronage extends to apiarists, greeting card manufacturers, travellers, young people and he also offers protection from plague, epilepsy and fainting.

So while you are munching your chocolates, admiring your diamond or sipping your champagne, spare a thought for poor St Valentine who had to be stoned, clubbed and beheaded so that you can whisper sweet nothings to your loved one and send soppy greetings cards on the 14th February every year!