Special Edition: Chalk, Snow, and Roman Numismatics (or How Geology Can Shape a People)

It’s the weekend, so why not have a new Special Edition?  (I’ll be honest, I didn’t actually write this today, I wrote it several days ago, as I’m revising practical papers this weekend).  Anyway, the title of this post is of three things that seem pretty unrelated at first, so why a special edition about them?  Well, one day, while procrastinating, I noticed something interesting, a correlation between them.  Also, it’s a little taste of home, which is nice to remember in the midst of all these dastardly exams.

First of all, we need a geological map of Britain.  The area with the box is what we’re looking at today.  Look at the arrow.  You see there is a horseshoe shape of greens and blues in that region?  Good!  Make sure you remember that shape:

The Geology of Southern England: British Geological Survey/Natural Environment Research Council

The Geology of Southern England: British Geological Survey/Natural Environment Research Council

Right, now that we’ve got the geological basis of the post laid down, I’d better get on with the snow (appalling pun intended)! (I know it’s hard to imagine snow in June, with its (occasional) warm sunny days, but give it a go).  Earlier this year, there was a lot of snow across our verdant isle, and a satellite picture was taken by those chaps over at NASA:

Satallite photo of Great Britain: NASA

Satellite photo of Great Britain: NASA

What do we see?  That same horseshoe shape.  Why is it there?  It’s fairly straightforward.  There was a large fold present originally, but now the centre part has eroded away.  As a result, there are now two series of hills that meet in the west (the North Downs – known to me as “home”, and the South Downs).  Snow settles more easily on higher ground, because it’s colder, so it stays on these hills for longer.

Now, let’s move onto where the Romans come into this. “What have they got to do with this geology?” I hear you ask.  Well, let’s have a look.  The Romans were a busy bunch, first invading properly in 43, and not withdrawing until around 410 or so.  As a result, there is a lot of Roman archæology knocking about.  A while ago, I came across a map of where Roman coins had been found over the past 20 years or so, and noticed an interesting pattern.  Yes readers, that horseshoe is back once more (highlighted below).

Locations where Roman coins were found between 1997 and 2010: Portable Antiquities Scheme

Locations where Roman coins were found between 1997 and 2010: Portable Antiquities Scheme

Not being a Roman expert, I can’t really make any solid argument as to why more coins may have been found here relative to the centre of the area.  Maybe my sister (if she’s reading this) could elaborate, as Classics is her thing.  Perhaps the Romans preferred the hills for their strategic value?  Either way, it’s an interesting example of how geology can shape a civilisation.

Some Things Never Change

It is now less than a week to go until the exams start, and so it’s starting to heat up somewhat!  Another day spent in the library writing more essays means nothing much of interest to report on that front.  I did however enjoy some takeaway pizza (ham and mushroom for me, which is, quite frankly, the king of pizzas) with AJ and HL, which was a welcome break from studying.

This evening however, I came across something rather cool!  On Facebook, there are several groups dedicated to quirky things that happen across the university, namely: “Overheard at Cambridge” (for amusing snippets of conversation that were overheard), “Odd Things Around Cambridge” (for strange sights seen around the university and city centre), and “Marginalia At Cambridge” (for various witticisms that have been found inscribed within the margins of books).  It is from this third group that the main content of today’s post is derived.

You know how children draw pictures (such as this) and give them to their parents, and it’s all really sweet and endearing etc.?  Right, well, it turns out that this is nothing new.  The librarian at Catz has come across one such child’s drawing (it was in a copy of Cicero’s De Amicitia for those of you who are interested), believed to date from the 15th century.  Yes, that’s right, a child’s drawing from the 1400s (photo below).  I don’t know about you, but I think that’s quite cool!

Drawing by a 15th century child. Photo and details: Marginalia At Cambridge/St. Catharine's College, Cambridge. Click to enlarge.

Drawing by a 15th century child. Photo and details: Marginalia At Cambridge/St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Click to enlarge.

Special Edition: Old Letters (or the Four “Billy No Mates” of the Alphabet)

I like old stuff, really old stuff.  Walking around this marvellous city, nothing seems more exciting than the most ancient parts (Peterhouse’s 13th century Hall – see my previous post “Living La Viva Loca“, Corpus Old Court for example – built 1350, and the Round Church from circa 1130).  The amount of history that they have witnessed is simply staggering.  At home in Surrey, things are just the same.  There’s a church in my town that was built in 1095, and two of my local pubs were established in the 14th century (although I don’t just like them for their history – they do some solid real ales and pretty decent food too, but I digress).

Perhaps this interest in the past is where I get my fascination with my own genealogy from, and why I think Archæan geology is the most interesting?  There certainly does seem to be a pattern.  My favourite rock in my collection is my 2.7 Ga (or 2,700,000,000 years old for you non-geologists) Lewisian Gneiss that I picked up on the trip to Skye last June/July.

Anyway, all that aside, it is my rather archaic and outdated orthography that has prompted this inaugural special edition.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that I enjoy using “æ” (capital “Æ”) in my writing (both typed and handwritten) to denote “ae” (or simply “e” for those of you from North America).  I decided to do some digging around to see if this delightful character had any chums, or whether it would instead be classified as being “forever alone”.  At this point I feel it would be somewhat prudent to bung in a quick disclaimer, as I am not even remotely close to being any sort of linguistics expert.  If any English or ASNaC students are reading this, and there are major errors, please let me know, as I’d like to be accurate!

The first revelation I came across was that “æ” (named “ash”) used to be in the Old and Middle English alphabets, but its current usage in words such as “mediæval” is merely a combination of “a” and “e” (in linguistics speak, this combining of letters is apparently called a “ligature” – no I hadn’t heard of that word before either) rather than “æ” sensu stricto.

Nevertheless, there are several other letters that have sadly been culled over the past 1,000 years.

The first of these dearly departed friends is named “eth”, or (as an alternative spelling) “eð”.  This probably gives you a clue as to what this letter looks like – “ð” is the lower case, with “Д being the capital. It was used to denote a “th” sound (such as in “thank you”), and is still, like ash, used today in modern Icelandic.  “Д lost the popularity contest at some point in the 13th century, and was replaced by our next character.

This cheeky chappy replaced poor old eth, but only lasted about 200 years.  Given that it replaced eth, it had the same pronunciation.  So, allow me to introduce – “þ” (lower case), “Þ” (upper case), or, for those to whom he is yet to be acquainted – “thorn”.  Thorn is also used in modern Icelandic (although I don’t see why both eth and thorn are needed if they’re pronounced in the same way, perhaps someone who speaks Icelandic could comment below).

Third in our rogues’ gallery is the letter “wynn”: “Ƿ” (capital), “ƿ” (lower case).  Wynn was used for “w” sounds, until it got replaced by “uu” which then became “w” – hence why “w” is called “double-u”.

The final letter in this line up is named “yogh” (pronounced “yog” as in “yoghurt”, or “yoch” with the “ch” like that in “loch”).  Yogh looks like “Ȝ” in its upper case form, with “ȝ” as its lower case.  This letter’s pronunciation was quite hard to find, as I had to sift through (i.e. ignore) lots of strange sounding terms that only linguistics students are fond of.  Finally, I found out that yogh was used as a “g” (as in “bag”), and as a “y” sound that’s written as a “j” (as in “Jarlsberg” – which is an excellent Norwegian cheese for those of you unfamiliar with it).

So, there you have it, four abandoned letters from English.