AntiquityNOW Month: Factoid Friday! Hygiene and the Yuck Factor

old fashioned tubWhat do ashes, animal fat and goat tallow have in common? Find out what the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Germans and Gauls knew about soap and you’ll have your answer. From 2800 BCE we’ve been scrubbing and dubbing ourselves with all manner of cleansers. Learn about the antecedents of modern hygiene and personal care here.

Buildings of the Future With Foundations in the Ancient Past


UPDATE! This post was originally published on December 16, 2014. In the post below we discussed some ancient building techniques that are being employed in creative and practical ways. These techniques, while thousands of years old, are being utilized in modern constructions because they are sturdy, economical, efficient and sustainable. Today we’re bringing you one more ancient innovation: bamboo. Bamboo is one of the oldest building materials and has been used extensively in South America, Africa and especially Southeast Asia, all areas where it grows in abundance. Incredibly, even though bamboo is strong, beautiful and plentiful, in ancient times it was thought of only as a building material for the very poor.[1] Those who could not afford more lavish materials were forced to pull from their surroundings, and since bamboo was always at hand, it became the most employed. Even today in China, bamboo is referred to as “the poor man’s timber” and is not “accepted as a modern building material.”[2] However, this opinion is rapidly changing as forward-thinking architects around the world have begun to praise bamboo’s unique and valuable qualities. For example, bamboo is light and flexible, and bamboo buildings have been found to withstand earthquakes far better than those made from other more modern materials.[3] Also, while wood can take several decades to mature and be harvested, most bamboo can be harvested after growing for three to six years. In fact, there is one species that only takes two months to mature.[4] Compared to other building materials, bamboo can be processed with relatively little energy and only a limited amount is needed to build an entire house.[5] It can be combined with plywood and steel to create uniquely strong buildings able to withstand natural disasters.[6]

John Hardy showroom, designed by Elora Hardy. Image credit: Jeff Werner, Flickr

John Hardy showroom, designed by Elora Hardy. Image credit: Jeff Werner, Flickr

Elora Hardy is a designer envisioning a bountiful future for bamboo.  She is creating bamboo buildings in Bali that inspire the imagination and are helping the world to see how beautiful and sustainable bamboo architecture can be. She and her team focus on the strengths of bamboo as a material and have found ways to work with and around any “perceived weaknesses” such as “degradation by pests, moisture, and weathering, as well as the inability to easily produce large flat panels.”[7] Check out her video and TED talk to learn more about her important work, and view her stunning creations using bamboo, an ancient material promising remarkable possibilities.


The winter solstice takes place this coming Sunday and even though it is the first day of winter, much of the United States has been enjoying some of the warmest temperatures on record (click here to read more about the ancient history of the winter solstice). Meanwhile, the West Coast was just pummeled with a massive storm and November was unusually snowy in many parts. Earth is constantly evolving with its changing temperatures, shifting plates and rising sea levels. In the 21st century, our planet is on a roller coaster ride of unpredictable events. As a result, we are now questioning how to best exist on this tempestuous sphere. And sometimes, we’re even looking for alternatives.

When we look to the future and the designs of the dwellings we’ll call home, whether it be on this planet or another, it is amazing how often we actually look to the past. Winners of design competitions, innovative new architectural firms and the builders of the future continue to be inspired by the ancients. Here are a few ideas, rooted in the past, but designed to tackle our present and future needs.


The Mapungubwe Interpretation Center and Vault201

The Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Center

The Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Center

In 2009 and 2010, MIT professor of civil engineering and architecture John Ochsendorf set out to prove that the vault design of antiquity is actually the perfect solution for the future, coupled with 21st century green engineering. First he completed, along with Michael Ramage from the University of Cambridge, the Mapungubwe Interpretation Center in South Africa, for which they were awarded the David Alsop Sustainability Award at the 2009 IStructE Structural Awards and World Building of the Year at the 2009 World Architectural Festival. Ochsendorf and Ramage used the timbrel vaulting technique, a design that emerged in the 14th century and is found throughout the Mediterranean. The timbrel vault originally evolved from the Roman vaults that are featured in many ancient structures that continue to stand today. Even the name for the vault style is historical: Timbrel is an ancient musical instrument similar to a tambourine with a tightly-stretched surface.[1] This vaulting technique “saves large amounts of building materials and thus embodied energy,” making it an inexpensive building method.[2] Sunlight illuminates the rooms easily during the day and the ventilation is due to “open-air rooms without walls yet covered above to take advantage of breezes and shade.”[3] For additional comfort, “(r)eflecting ponds are placed around the perimeter of the building to cool the air that naturally passes through the structures.”[4] Masons who were brought to work on the Mapungubwe Interpretation Center were taught to employ local materials and recyclable items to make the tiles. They in turn took these ideas back and applied them in the building of homes and structures in their own villages.[5]

Vault 201 at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Vault 201 at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Ochsendorf brought his ideas for modern construction back to the United States in the form of a vaulted prototype built entirely to scale and selected for exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Vault 201 was created to demonstrate that “sturdy, eye-pleasing structures can be built inexpensively out of local materials.”[6] The structure is extremely strong and made entirely from “100% post-consumer waste.”[7] In fact, Ochsendorf was so eager to prove that this ancient and sustainable design and construction was more than just beautiful, he climbed to its top to demonstrate its strength.


Building with straw bales.

Building with straw bales.

Straw bale construction is the process of stacking compressed bales of straw in order to create the walls of a structure. Although the specific technique of straw bale has only been in use since the 1800’s, the use of straw in construction dates back millennia. There is evidence to suggest that houses in the African prairies were being built using a mixture of straw and mud in Paleolithic times and straw houses built in Germany over 400 years ago are still standing today. The natives of North America even used it to insulate their teepees.[8] It is a cheap, readily available resource that can be used for insulation, made into building material or even used in the construction of a thatched roof.

Today, many architects are turning to this ancient construction method as a way to build sustainable homes and other structures. There are many advantages to straw bale construction and some are very surprising. For example, homes made from straw bale are less susceptible to earthquakes, wind damage and even fires. The tightly-packed straw bales stand up easily to extreme temperatures, and as well resist fire and bend without crumbling in an earthquake and strong winds.[9] Straw bale construction is also soundproof, energy efficient because of its high R-value[10] and environmentally friendly because it makes use of straw that would otherwise be burned (causing pollution) and disposed of (incurring waste).[11]

There are many modern straw bale construction projects:

  • Maya Guest House– Located in Switzerland, this is the first hotel in Europe built entirely out of straw bales. It requires almost no heating.[12] Watch a time-lapse video of its construction here.
  • BaleHaus– Built by Bath University in 2009 using ModCell© technology, this prefabricated house has been put through several extreme tests including fire and high winds, all of which it has passed with flying colors.[13] Watch a time-lapse video of its construction here.
  • Didimala Game Lodge– This five-star resort in South Africa was built out of 10,000 straw bales and has hosted many celebrities and dignitaries.[14]
  • Kawkowe House in Poland- Weronika Siwiec and Staniław Kamionka, two Polish designers, are building a house that will be entirely organic and off-the-grid using straw bale technology. When the house is completed, they are going to publish and make publicly available their entire process so that anyone can duplicate it.[15]


In August of this year, NASA and Makerbot held the Thingiverse Mars Base Challenge to design and 3D print a human habitat for our potential future on Mars. Both second and third places were inspired by ancient designs. MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis remarked, “We really loved seeing how the designs in the Mars Base Challenge were often inspired by structures here on Earth that have withstood the passage of time and harsh weather elements.”[16]

  • pyramidThe Martian Pyramid—Based on a traditional pyramid design, the entry by Valcrow of Redicubricks received top marks for its “stable triangular geometry.”[17] It is powered by solar panels, features a closed aquaponics system to grow food and is built around a central water reservoir.[18] The pyramid has been used in construction all over the world for thousands of years. The most recognized ancient structures of this type are the pyramids of ancient Egypt; however, various other ancient civilizations including the Africans, Chinese, Mesoamericans and Indians also made use of the pyramid design in their architecture. The distribution of weight, the majority being closer to the ground, allowed these civilizations to build enormous structures of great height. We continue to have difficulty explaining how people with so little technology were able to create some of the most massive and enduring buildings on the planet.
  • acropolisThe Mars Acropolis—This design was based on the Athenian Acropolis, a site which has stood since the 5th century BCE. Project designer Chris Starr was inspired by the composition of the Acropolis to create a tiered system and an outer wall protecting the site. His Mars home includes three huge greenhouses for food, oxygen production and air filtration. A large tower sits on the top tier to collect fresh water from the atmosphere. The water is then piped down to the lower tier where it is treated and distributed throughout the rest of the habitat.[19] The Athenian Acropolis is the perfect piece of ancient architecture when imagining building in an inhospitable environment. According to UNESCO,

The Athenian Acropolis is the supreme expression of the adaptation of architecture to a natural site. This grand composition of perfectly balanced massive structures creates a monumental landscape of unique beauty consisting of a complete series of masterpieces of the 5th century BC. The monuments of the Acropolis have exerted an exceptional influence, not only in Graeco-Roman antiquity, a time when in the Mediterranean world they were considered exemplary models, but in contemporary times as well.[20]


What kinds of buildings will we live and work in 1,000 years from now? Will they be on other planets, at the bottom of vast oceans or floating in the clouds? Wherever our creative endeavors take us, we must pay homage to our ancestors, the progenitors of architectures that survive today. As we erect our monuments of 21st century ingenuity, let us acknowledge how we are now turning to our ancestors’ moments of genius to spark our next big jump forward. So imagine the far horizons ahead. And thank the ancient dreamers who made it all possible.

[1] Bamboo Architecture. (n.d.). Retrieved May 21, 2015, from

[2] Alter, L. (n.d.). Bamboo Houses Stand Up To Earthquakes. Retrieved May 21, 2015, from

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bamboo Architecture.

[5] Alter, L.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Markham, D. (n.d.). Meet the woman building stunning sustainable homes from bamboo. Retrieved May 21, 2015, from

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stabilized earth visitors’ center, Mapungubwe National Park, Sou. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ward, L. (2010, August 1). With Ancient Arches, the Old is New Again. Retrieved October 4, 2014.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Straw Houses and Fires. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2014.

[16] Straw Bale House Inspection. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2014.

[17] Home Insulation: It’s All About the R-Value. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2014.

[18] Straw Bale House Inspection.

[19] Briggs, M. (n.d.). Are straw bales the future of sustainable building? Retrieved October 6, 2014.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Soczewka, G. (n.d.). Earth Architecture – Building the Future with Ancient Solutions | Article | Retrieved October 6, 2014.

[23] Starr, M. (n.d.). This is what your home on Mars could look like – CNET. Retrieved October 6, 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Starr, C. (n.d.). The Mars Acropolis. Retrieved October 7, 2014.

[27] Acropolis, Athens. (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2014, from

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Native American Wojapi

WojapiWojapi is a traditional Native American dish that has been enjoyed for centuries. We give you fair warning that once you’ve had your first taste of wojapi, you won’t be able to put down the spoon.

Wojapi has been made by Native American tribes for centuries, with each generation passing the recipe down through the family. It is created with a combination of wild berries that can be found growing on the Great Plains, corn flour and honey. One of the favored berries for the recipe is the chokecherry. Used extensively by the North American Native tribes, the chokeberries were ground up, including the stones, and used in soups, stews, pemmican and even with salmon or salmon eggs.[1] (Speaking of pemmican, check out our blog post and recipe for this ancient dried meat jerky.) The bark and even the roots of the chokecherry trees were used in medicines to treat a host of illnesses.[2]

The bark was boiled along with other ingredients to produce a remedy for diarrhoea. A strong, black, astringent tea was made from boiled twigs and used to relieve fevers. Dried roots were chewed and placed on wounds to stop bleeding. Teas were made from the bark or roots and used to treat coughing, malaria, stomachaches, tuberculosis and intestinal worms. Such teas were also used as sedatives and appetite stimulants. The fruit were used to treat canker sores, ulcers and abscesses.[3]

The time of year when the chokecherry trees were in bloom was called a “black cherry moon.” The chokecherry was so important to the Cheyenne and Blackfoot tribes that they simply called the fruit “berry.”[4] [5]

Of course, wojapi was not made only with chokecherries, but included any wild berry. Today, a modern version is made using frozen blueberries, raspberries and cherries. We’ve decided to feature the original recipe, made with wild berries of the Great Plains, but you can replace the hard-to-find berries with any combination of fresh berries from your local grocer. Of course, if you want to be truly authentic, you could order some chokecherry seeds online, plant the seeds and wait for the trees to mature, harvest the fruit and make your own homegrown chokecherry wojapi. We think it might be worth the wait.


Recipe courtesy of


  • Berries (Wild Choke Cherry, plum, sand cherry, currant, buffalo berry, or grape. All wild, all found on the Great Plains.) *Substitute any combination of available fresh berries.
  • Wild corn flour
  • Honey


  1. Mash fruit, boil pulp for about one hour at low heat, strain through a cheese cloth type cloth. (This first cut is used for fine jelly).
  2. Boil again for an hour, remove seeds and half the pulp, add a white sauce of water and flour to boiling fruit and water. Thicken and add honey to taste.
  3. Serve with ice cream or frye bread.

* You can substitute corn starch for wild corn flour.

*For a meat dressing or bbq sauce, continue on to step 4.

  1. Crush seeds and remaining pulp, boil for hour. Strain juice and add thickener, salt and a small amount of wild honey.

[1] Prairie Elements – Biology and Culture of the Chokecherry. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

[2] Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

[3] Prairie Elements.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere.

A Modern Makeover for an Ancient Religion: The Norse Gods Find a New Earthly Home

OdinWe see them on the big screen, bashing about aliens and each other, ruling over fantastical worlds and wielding extraordinary weapons. Their hair is perfect, muscles rippled and jaw chiseled. While Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston do a remarkable job of portraying the Norse gods Odin, Thor and Loki, it is likely few moviegoers are aware these are not just superheroes, sprung from the mind of a talented writer. These are important figures in an ancient religion. And now, after thousands of years, the Norse gods are getting a brand new temple, the first since the Viking age. Before we explore this new phase of the Norse religion, let’s venture into its past and find out how it all began.

A depiction of the creation of the world by Odin, Vili and Vé. Illustration by Lorenz Frølich.

A depiction of the creation of the world by Odin, Vili and Vé. Illustration by Lorenz Frølich.

Norse mythology was the religion of the Norse and Germanic people of Scandinavia, Iceland, the British Isles and even parts of continental Northern Europe before they were converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages. The Vikings are the most well-known group of believers. The Vikings were seafaring warriors and explorers who flourished from approximately 79-1000 CE. They traveled far and wide, east and west, even reaching to North America in their quest for plunder, trade and expansion. Throughout their reign, they adhered strictly to their ancestral traditions, which included the worship of their gods.

Norse mythology is “animistic, polytheisticpantheistic, and holds a cyclical view of time.”[1] It is populated by a wide variety of creatures and spirits including elves, dwarves, land spirits, giants and two different tribes of gods, as well as an “animating spirit” for every single element of the natural world.[2] The main tribe of deities, called the Aesir, live on Asgard, a celestial home, from which they rule the universe and everything in it. Odin has a single eye and is the most powerful god. He is joined by his wife Frigg, with whom he has a son named Baldur. Unlike the Hollywood movie account, Thor and Loki are not the sons of Odin and Frigg. They are, however, powerful deities. Loki is a trickster and troublemaker, while Thor is beloved for his loyalty and honor. The second tribe of gods and goddesses, the Vanir, are lesser known today and we don’t have nearly as much information about them. They are associated with the natural world rather than with Asgard. The most well-known Vanir is probably Freya, who actually becomes an honorary member of the Aesir tribe and is even married to Odin at one point. At times throughout history, she is almost interchangeable with Frigg.

There are numerous other gods and goddesses and each being has a rich and specific history and purpose. There is a creation myth as well as a myth about how the world will end. The mythology is extensive and fascinating with so much to explore and learn. It teaches us about the people who followed these traditions and helps us to better understand their way of life. However, while most assume that Norse mythology is a thing of the ancient past, in reality the traditions are very much alive today.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and other members of Ásatrúarfélagið walk to a blót at Þingvellir in the summer of 2009.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and other members of Ásatrúarfélagið walk to a blót at Þingvellir in the summer of 2009.

A growing number of believers still exist and they promote a new, modern version of Norse paganism called the Asatru movement, which takes the stories and myths and uses them to craft a new way of viewing the world. Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, high priest of Asatruarfelagid, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods, says, “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”[3]

While Hilmar says that no one really believes in Odin as a real being, it is important to note he may not speak for all believers. A brief search of Asatru group websites reveals that many groups do believe the gods and goddesses are very real and continue to influence human lives today. However, even if you don’t take the pantheon and stories literally, there are still ways to worship and follow Norse paganism. For example, Modern American Asatruar follow a guideline known as the Nine Noble Virtues. They are:

  • Courage: both physical and moral courage
  • Truth: spiritual truth and actual truth
  • Honor: one’s reputation and moral compass
  • Fidelity: remaining true to the gods, kinsmen, a spouse, and community
  • Discipline: using personal will to uphold honor and other virtues
  • Hospitality: treating others with respect, and being part of the community
  • Industriousness: hard work as a means to achieve a goal
  • Self-Reliance: taking care of oneself, while still maintaining relationships with Deity
  • Perseverance: continuing despite potential obstacles[4]

These virtues are derived from the pantheon of gods and goddesses and their individual attributes.

Each group of believers is called a Kindred. These may be large groups affiliated with a national organization or they can be as small as a single family. Each Kindred is generally led by a priest and chieftain who speaks for the gods.[5]

Membership in Asatruarfelagid, the group that began the Asatru movement in the 1970’s, has tripled in Iceland in just the last ten years. Last year there were 2,400 members in a country that boasts a population of only 330,000.[6]

The new temple will be a center of worship and communion for the followers of Norse paganism. It will be a place for ritual and ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, the conference of names for children, initiation of young people and even the celebration of the ancient sacrificial ritual of Blot, minus the slaughtering of animals.[7] It will be “circular and will be dug 4 metres (13 feet) down into a hill overlooking the Icelandic capital Reykjavik.”[8] There will be a dome at the top that will let the sunlight in and as the sun’s position changes with the seasons. The sun will constantly repaint the room, giving it a mercurial and ever-changing feel.

As this ancient religion and its traditions are carried into the modern world, the spirit of the Vikings lives on through new believers who will gather together in a completely modern space. This temple will truly be a place where past, present and future fuse and ancient worship meets 21st century sensibilities.

[1] Norse Mythology for Smart People – The Ultimate Online Resource for Norse Mythology and Religion. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2015, from

[2] Ibid.

[3] Iceland to build first temple to Norse gods in 1,000 years. (2015, February 3). Retrieved March 24, 2015, from

[4] Wigington, P. (n.d.). Asatru – Norse Heathens of Modern Paganism. Retrieved March 24, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Iceland to build first temple to Norse gods in 1,000 years.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

AntiquityNOW Month: Make Something Monday! Build Your Own Great Wall of China

great wall of chinaIt’s AntiquityNOW Month! The Great Wall of China was built more than 2,500 years and remains one of the world’s most remarkable projects of antiquity. Construct your own Great Wall of China and explore life under China’s first emperor in Yesterday’s Child.

AntiquityNOW Month: Factoid Friday! The Coffee Bean’s Jittery History

John Frederick Lewis, The Coffee Bearer, 1857

John Frederick Lewis, The Coffee Bearer, 1857

In 15th century Turkey a woman could legally divorce her husband if he didn’t keep her well supplied with coffee. Learn more about the nefarious and splendiferous legacy of this enduring brew here.

Qin Shi Huang’s China: The Secret Tomb of the First Chinese Emperor Remains an Unopened Treasure

A kneeling crossbowman from the Terracotta Army assembled for the tomb complex of Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210 BC)

A kneeling crossbowman from the Terracotta Army assembled for the tomb complex of Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210 BC)

The history of China can be likened to a majestic tapestry threaded with innovative technologies and embellished with the exquisite artifacts of a prolific culture. Intertwined in this more than 4,000-year-old history are the wars and periods of peace that have lent definition to the complex evolution of this most populous modern nation. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Lemon Buttermilk Pie with Ancient Saffron

Saffron_CropSaffron. Exotic, expensive, ancient. Have you ever considered the origin of this delightfully complex spice with its rich color and flavor? Today we’re bringing you a spectacular springtime recipe for Lemon Buttermilk Pie with Saffron, along with a brief history of the brilliant golden spice it features.
Continue reading

Part 2, Tricks of the Trade: From Ancient Symbols to Modern Sensibilities—Imagination and the Power of Belonging

In ancient Rome, the fasces, symbolized strength through unity.

In ancient Rome, the fasces, symbolized strength through unity.

In Part 1, “Tricks of the Trade: From Ancient Symbols to a $70 Billion Brand” we looked at how symbols and branding have been around for millennia. Indeed, humankind has an innate need to belong, and to embrace that belonging with some outward expression of attachment. Whether it be the demonstration of national identity with flags and blood-stirring national anthems, team spirit with the sporting of football colors, ladies with attitude in purple and red hats or political candidates in party lockstep with precision soundbites, we join, cleave to, pledge allegiance to and meld into the single identity that gives meager individuals a sense of purpose and being. Continue reading

AntiquityNOW Month: Make Something Monday! Paint by Number Minoan Fresco

Dan's dolphinIt’s AntiquityNOW Month! Create a beautiful mural with artist Dan Fenelon’s paint by number design for AntiquityNOW inspired by the Minoan “Fresco of the Dolphins” on the island of Knossos near the north coast of Crete.