Tag Archives: Sun

Take your time, Do it right

25 Mar

I visited the ruins at the Roman city of Pompeii this past summer. It was awesome, but I noticed that I didn’t have access to much of the city. Many buildings were roped off and closed to the public. On top of that, at least one-third of the site is still buried. I wanted to know what gives; Why can’t I see the places that are already cleared, and why are the archaeologists taking so long to dig?

The answer is, like many wise answers, learned through experience. Here’s some highlights from the history of Pompeii.

AD 79 – Mt. Vesuvius erupts over a period of two days. On day one, an explosion creates a tall column of ash that slowly settles over the surrounding area and buries Pompeii almost 10 feet deep. On day two, a series of pyroclastic flows begins, spreading gas and ash that were  hot enough to melt your face off (250°C). There’s debate as to whether the victims of Pompeii were killed by asphyxiation from the falling ash or heat from the pyroclastic flow.  There is not debate  as to whether both fates suck.

AD 1599 – Pompeii is “Rediscovered” while digging water channels to move the Sarno River. Architect Domenico Fontana is brought on to examine the site. He uncovers some frescoes, sees sexually charged content, then covers them up again. It’s kind of a rediscovery, and as close as you’re going to get in Italy during the time of the counter reformation

AD 1748 – Spain’s Bourbon Kings rediscover Pompeii and several other cities in the region. Here’s how they helped; they unburied buildings, gathered artifacts, and chiseled frescoes off of the wall for their own personal collection.

AD 1960 – Pompeii is a tourist’s dream come true. All of the buildings that have been excavated are open to the public. The remaining frescoes and mosaics are clearly aged, but guide books as respected as Fodor’s suggest splashing a little water on them to bring them back to life.

Alright. Here’s the lesson from the first 1700 years after Mt Vesuvius; if you protect stuff from the sun, water and air, it will stay preserved. It works in Italy. It works in Egypt. It works in Turkey. What happens if you don’t protect stuff from the sun, the water, or the air, and people touch it?


Fountain at the House of the Fawn, Pompeii

Rust, weathering, and deterioration. It’s such a problem that in the past 20 years, Pompeii has been put on a conservation watch list three times by the World Monuments Fund. Addressing those issues is no small mater though . Due to it’s size (it’s a city covering 163 acres), the cost of adequately funding this work has been estimated at over $300 million.

How has Pompeii responded? Quite intelligently. The Soprintendenza Archaeologica di Pompeii have closed off many of the buildings and erected roofs over them to limit their exposure. Additionally, and probably the more far-sighted move, the Soprintendenza imposed a moratorium on new excavations. Taking a break from digging focuses the resources and attention on conservation and preservation.

So, while we may picture archaeologists like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft uncovering lost treasures, that’s only half of the story. The other half is preserving those treasures for future generations. That’s why I support Pompeii’s conservation efforts, even when it means that I don’t get to see all of the buildings and frescoes.


A time before clocks

13 Mar

Clockwise and counterclockwise are well established terms now, but before clocks were common objects how was rotational motion described?

To describe what we would now call clockwise, the Scottish used the term Sunwise. This relates back to the prior time keeping device, a sundial, and the fact that the Scottish lived in the Northern Hemisphere.


In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun appears in the southern sky and tracks from East to West. As a result, the shadow on a horizontal sundial tracks from West to East through the North. When clocks replaced sundials, they adopted this traditional sense of rotation.

The Scottish also described clockwise motion with terms related to Deiseil, derived from the Latin dexter, meaning ‘on the right-hand side.’ This is because clockwise motion around an object keeps the right hand toward it (important if you are carrying a sword in said hand).

The Scottish term for counterclockwise was widdershins, related to the German weddersinnes, meaning ‘direction opposite the usual.’ It seems that counterclockwise has again been defined as being the other direction.