Macedonia is a place with a complicated history. Like many countries in that region of Europe, it has been settled, invaded, conquered, and fought over for thousands of years. It has been a subject of Greece, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and a sovereign state known as the Republic of Macedonia. It has been part of the Kingdom of Serbia (also the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), then it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. And then the Nazis happened, and then the Communists, and then independence. There’s hardly been a time when the region wasn’t undergoing change, politically.
Its tumultuous history notwithstanding, Macedonia is a gem bordered by Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania. Today it boasts picturesque and sleepy little mountain towns, world class Slavic architecture, and living museums, like the city of Kratovo which finds itself situated inside the crater of an extinct volcano.
Very near Kratovo in the north east of Macedonia, there’s a small town called Kuklica, and that town has a story to tell.
Kuklica is a small town, housing no more than about 100 inhabitants. At least, 100 living inhabitants. For you see, according to some, Kuklica is the unchanging resting place of either a man who tried to marry two women on the same day, or many fallen soldiers; all of whom turned to stone.
Most famously, locals tell of a man who fell in love with two different women and was faced with the difficult choice of deciding which to marry. According to the legend, he was unable to make the choice and instead decided to marry both women…on the same day. He planned the wedding ceremonies in a beautiful meadow, one to occur in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Unfortunately for all involved, during the first wedding, his second bride-to-be happened upon the first ceremony and, as would be expected, she objected to that particular union most adamantly. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, however, and in her rage she cursed everyone in attendance, casting them all into stone.
The other legend, somewhat less grandiose, suggests that the war-ravaged area, turned to wasteland, was prone to extreme cold, whereupon any and all soldiers travelling across the wastes were frozen and became of stone.
All of these formations or pillars – which number somewhere around 120 distinct examples, some of which bear an uncanny resemblance to the human form – are on average the size of an adult human, some are pillar shaped (hence the notion that they’re people turned to stone) but many are simple near-pyramid shaped mounds.
You may choose to believe whichever one of those explanations as you want, and there are apparently other local legends to consider as well, but there are explanations that don’t invoke people turning to stone.
The stone dolls of Kuklica, as they’re often called, are known in geological circles as earth pyramids, or earth pillars (you’ll note the conspicuous absence of any reference to human origins). It is largely believed by experts that they are the product of natural erosion – and the more conspiratorial among us roll our eyes on cue.
As mentioned above, Kratovo, the nearest city of any size, is built on top of a long-dead volcano. In fact, the entire region was at one time part of a large volcanic system. Most of the rock in the area is tuff (solidified ash) and volcanic rock, both of which are relatively soft. But there are deposits of harder, older rock, such as andesite, and therein lays the explanation for the stone dolls.
According to Dr. Ivica Milevski, Associate Professor at the Institute of Geology, Faculty of Natural Science and Mathematics at the University "St. Cyril and Methodius" in Skopje, Macedonia, the earth pyramids are the result of a combination of wind and water erosion over thousands of years. He claims that the soft volcanic tuff is washed away at a much faster rate than the harder andesite underneath it, resulting in periodic mounds and pillars of harder rock remaining while the sediment is washed away.
It’s thought that this same process is responsible for the Manpupuner Rock formation in the Russian Urals (also known as the Seven Strong Men of Russia), though on a larger scale.
Of course, the scientific explanation, as always, is much more mundane than the colourful legends of old, but there’s no harm in imagining that the groom’s wedding guests are wishing they’d declined the invitation.
 Milevski I. (2000): Earth pyramids in Kuklica-near Kratovo. Geographical review No. 35, Skopje pp. 177-182 (in Macedonian) http://www.kuklica.50webs.com/?ItemID=C42D791DE738E046B3C544C635663B57&5FB5C74C1F31C34FBFF2F9FF7585D1AF=5,first
A massive 275m-wide geoglyph found in the Ural Mountains predates the famous Nazca Lines by thousands of years, archaeologists have found. The giant moose-shaped structure was 'accidentally' discovered just three years ago by local researcher Alexander Shestakov while looking at satellite images of the area in Google Earth.
Initial fieldwork found simple techniques were used to create the moose, with turf and earth 10-metres-wide dug out to make its shape before being filled with stones. 'The figure would initially have looked white and slightly shiny against the green grass background,' he said.
Different methods were deloyed to make the various parts of the geoglyph; for instance, a mix of clay and crushed stone was used to make the hooves. When part of the hind leg was excavated, archaeologists found the largest stones were on the edges, with the smaller ones inside. While there are similarities to the world famous Nazca Lines, in Peru, and to geoglyphs in England - such as the White Horse in Oxfordshire or the Dorset Giant - the experts believe there are no links.
...Yet archeologists still cannot fathom the identity of their sophisticated social group who worked in the massive operation of constructing structure visible from space.
'Facts say that on this territory in the Neolithic and Eneolithic Ages lived hunters and fishermen. We conducted archaeological works on the site of a settlement nearby, on the lake shore, on the assumption that the builders of the geoglyph might live there. People have lived here since the Neolithic era but there was no sign of large social structures, nor that they did anything other than hunting and fishing', Stanislav Grigoryev said.
'It puzzles me a lot, I keep thinking about the people that built the geoglyph, and their purpose'.
Though I've never had the pleasure to visit Egypt and contemplate the massive splendor of the Great Pyramid (yet), modern tourists will never truly grasp why sheer size and geometric perfection weren't the only things that made this monument the biggest wonder of the Ancient World.
That's because what remains of the pyramid attributed to the pharaoh Khufu is now almost completely devoid of its outer layer of highly polished limestone blocks, which would have made it look shiny white to the naked eye, and easy to spot for many miles around - a vision Egyptologist Dr. Jacquelyn Williamson has tried to recreate using the magic of CGI for a documentary produced by the Smithsonian channel.
I hope the documentary remembers to mention an oft-forgotten aspect in the mystery of the Great Pyramid: that of the missing capstone, which some believed was made of pure gold -- and which was supposedly going to be replaced as part of a grandiose ceremony at the start of the current millennium.
Seeing how the structure was covered in a bright material such as limestone, it makes sense the top portion of the pyramid, which would have been hit first by the ray of the rising sun, should have been made of an equally-reflective or more reflective substance, in order to turn it into a beacon presiding over the land of the pharaohs, bringing forth illumination from the realm of the gods.
[H/T Fast Company Design]
Nostalgic for the halycon days of the 'alternative Egypt' craze of the 1990s? It seems that two decades later, it's due for a comeback. We already know that Graham Hancock is revisiting the areas covered in his hugely influential Fingerprints of the Gods - presumably including ancient Egypt - in a 2015 release titled Magicians of the Gods. And now two other big names of alternative Egyptology, Robert Bauval and Robert Schoch, have announced they are teaming up to write a book on the 'Age of the Sphinx' controversy. From Robert Bauval's Facebook page:
I am please to announce that Dr. Robert Schoch and I have decided to team up in order to write a book on the Sphinx. Since the early 1990s on the one hand Schoch's name has been associated with the 'Age of the Sphinx' geological debate and, on the other hand, I have been associated with a similar debate based on astronomy. Since then much new evidence has come to light after twenty years of new research and on-location expeditions which we will present in this new book, as well as tackle heads-on the various criticism and academic attacks that were thrown at us over the years. No punches will be spared in this forceful book that will once and for all hammer in the last nail to this intellectual coffin of Egyptology. Stay tuned for more news....
In the modern age we take for granted the almost magical ability to record audio - up until the 19th century, if you wanted to listen to music, you had to either play it yourself, or listen to someone else play it, live. How then can we hear the sounds of the past before this point? One way is through the transcription of music on to paper - this is how we know the music of the great composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Sometimes it is through through memory, such as in the transmission of folk tunes from one generation to the next. But in more ancient examples, those sounds have largely been lost.
While we can't be sure of the melodies these ancient people played, archaeological excavations have uncovered some of the instruments that were used. And they show that music is something humans have enjoyed for a very long time: three flutes found at the Geißenklösterle cave in Germany - two of which were made from swan bones, the other from a hollowed mammoth tusk - have been dated to around 36,000 BC, while flutes made from vulture bone discovered in France have been dated to between 20,000 and 35,000 years ago. In fact, it seems the ancients realised fairly early on that bones make for a pretty damn good flute, and utilised skeletal remains from birds, animals, and even humans (most often femurs and ulnas).
And from these archaeological discoveries, we can at least get a sense of what ancient music might have sounded like. The position of the holes in a flute give us the musical scale they utilised, and the construction of the object provides us with an idea of the tone the instrument may have had. Last year we posted video of an ancient vulture bone flute being played. And recently Philip 'Greywolf' Shallcrass has recreated a deer-bone flute found near the Avebury megalithic complex and posted the resulting sounds to YouTube:
The original instrument, now lost, was discovered in July 1849 by one John Merewether, Dean of Hereford, when he dug into some burial mounds about a mile and a quarter from Avebury. The flute was found beside the crouched skeletal remains of a man and an undecorated urn containing the bones of a child. We know what it looks like as Merewether sketched and described his finds in a book published in 1851. I'm not sure why Greywolf's recreation has four holes rather than the three in Merewether's sketch, but imagining the sound of this flute floating across the Avebury circle certainly does give me chills.
When you think of robots, what image does that conjure in your mind? Does it engender visions of 1950’s futurism? The Jetsons? Maybe 21st century manufacturing processes? Bomb squad rovers? Perhaps sci-fi movies like iRobot or The Bicentennial Man? It’s a safe bet that, for most people, when they think of robots, they think of examples from contemporary culture.
Robots are actually everywhere today, though it’s not nearly as overt as Will Smith’s pseudo-utopia. They’re out there though, doing our heavy lifting, enduring our mundane operations, and standing between us and our dangerous endeavours. Of course, in most cases they look nothing like the movies portray. And in fact, the advent of robotics isn’t actually a new-age, high-tech movement at all, not in the sense that it’s all titanium and silicon circuit boards.
Before we go down this road though, we need to get a grasp on a couple terms.
What is a robot? The word itself is derived from an Old Church Slavonic word – robata – which evolved in to the Czech robotnik. Both words refer to servitude and slavery, though the former was specifically related to religious servitude. In 1923, the Czech play titled Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti was translated to English in the UK, and became Rossums’ Universal Robots. The author of the play, Karel Čapek, claimed that his brother and collaborator Josef was responsible for coining the term, but however it came about, the word robot quickly supplanted all other terms previously used for that purpose. Eventually the famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov adopted the term in 1941, cementing it in the modern lexicon. He then formulated the even more famous three laws of robotics in 1968. Since then the word robot has come to mean anything remotely mechanical, autonomous, and computerised.
Though it’s not technically synonymous, robot is often viewed as interchangeable with the terms cyborg, android, and even artificial intelligence. Which perhaps demonstrates how that word has become central to our idea of mechanical personhood, but the developments in robotics from the last 100 years, whether actual or fictional, are only a small part of the story of robots.
Prior to 1923, the things we now call robots were known by other names; automata, simulacra, and even simply machine (or their transliterated equivalent) were the common terms, and the origin of such devices long predates Rossum’s Universal Robots.
Depending on how we define examples of automata, the earliest such devices come from one of the earliest civilizations we know of; Babylon. Specifically dating to the Old Babylonian period c. 2000 BCE, these earliest forms of robots were water clocks, now commonly called clypsidra (Greek, meaning to steal water). A water clock is a very simple means of measuring the passage of time using bowls of various shapes and sizes with a single small hole drilled in the bottom. That hole would allow water to escape the bowl at a constant rate. Babylonians measured the passage of time according to the weight of the water that had escaped the bowl, in units of measure known as qa.
You may find it a bit of a stretch to label a simple water clock a robot, but it does fit the description; an automatic mechanism used to perform a specific function. By the time of the ninth Egyptian Pharaoh, Amenhotep III, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, water clocks had become somewhat more complicated. Priests at the temple of Amen-Re at Karnak used water clocks that consisted of twelve separate columns with marked gradations measuring months, days, and hours according to the water level remaining in the container.
The use of water clocks was spread across several disparate cultures, from the various Mesopotamian peoples, to India, and even China. The Chinese water clocks of the first century CE employed clypsidra escapement, water wheels, and chain drives. And with those advances, we edge closer to our modern understanding of the concept of robotics.
The next great advances in the realm of automata is credited to the ancient Greeks during the scientific awakening of classical antiquity. The great Archimedes of Syracuse, considered the greatest mathematician of the era (and possibly all time), pushed the innovation of mathematics and geometry, and was responsible for inventing the screw pump, compound pulleys, and other intricate machines. Most importantly (for this discussion) he was the first to accurately explain the action of a lever and of water displacement – or hydrostatics – which led to more complex mechanisms and more efficient use of available energy resources. Archimedes’ work influenced nearly everything that followed, and it ultimately represented a true revolution in the area of robotics.
The fruits of Archimedes’ labours didn’t really gain a solid foothold in robotics though, until the Islamic Golden Age, c. 622 - 1258/1492 CE. But when they did…
Some of the most magnificent, complex, and innovative automata that has ever been created came out of the workshops of Muslim scholars and craftsmen during the middle ages. Much like the Chinese equivalent, the water clocks developed by the 11th century Arab mechanical engineer Alī Ibn Khalaf al-Murādī of Iberia, began to employ water wheels, but al-Murādi took things a step further. He invented complex segmented and epicyclic gearing which allowed fine movement and more precise measures of time.
In 1206 CE, a Muslim polymath named Badi'al-Zaman Abū al-'Izz ibn Ismā'īl ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī wrote a treatise on innovative mechanisms, titled al-Jāmiʿ bain al-ʿilm wa al-ʿamal al-nāfiʿ fī ṣināʿat al-ḥiyal (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), and with this document al-Jazari became the rightful father of modern robotics – among other things. Al-Jazari was prolific as an inventor and engineer; the list of basic mechanical devices credited to him is staggering. Without al-Jazari and his inventions we would be without camshafts and crankshafts, which are fundamental to internal-combustion engines (cars). We wouldn’t have fine segmented gears, such as in modern clockworks. We wouldn’t even have simple water pumps and the concept of irrigation. We owe him much.
His most celebrated works though, are in fact robots. Al-Jazari automata and water clocks (al-Jazari Elephant clock pictured above) are considered to be the pinnacle of his work, and are unparalleled in quality. While most of his robotic inventions seem, in this day and age, to be quaint conversation pieces, imagine how revolutionary an automatic, mechanical, humanoid drink serving waitress would be in a world that still largely believed that the planet was flat. Or the wonder that would be inspired by an automatic hand washing machine, complete with a flushing mechanism. A flushing mechanism, incidentally, that’s still used in modern toilets.
Our history books credit a lot of people with the precursors to much of our modern conveniences. Leonardo da Vinci is rightly considered to have been one of the most important thinkers of the early Renaissance, with his art, his musings, and his many inventions – from flying machines (which didn’t work), to tactical submarines, to his own automata – but few correctly illustrate the influence of al-Jazari and his contemporary Muslim scientists and engineers on all of the great scientific minds that followed. Da Vinci himself was very likely directly influenced by al-Jazari’s drink server and mechanical musical band when he built his brilliant robotic lion. That robotic lion is quite often given as the origin of modern robotics. Obviously, at this point, we know better. But when you think of all that’s come out of these early efforts, it does truly blow one’s mind.
Modern robotics are so far beyond the earliest examples, but even with computers and integrated circuit boards, and brilliantly written software, the fundamental mechanism behind the most cutting edge robots from Japanese developers and MIT engineers are virtually identical to those used by al-Jazari and al-Murādi, and even early Chinese inventors. The only real difference between the technologies is that engineers from the middle-ages and earlier didn’t have access to electricity.
So while self-driving cars, and sprinting robots, and space-age tools are impressive, imagine where we’d be without Babylonian water clocks.
Last week tongue-in-cheek Northern Irish news site Tyrone Tribulations ("News from amongst the bushes. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed.") published a piece entitled "Omagh’s ‘Shawshank Husband’ Dug Tunnel From Bedroom To Pub Over 15 Years".
“The wife has a bad snore on her and after watching the Shawshank Redemption on RTE one night in 1994, I decided to do something about it so I waited til she was in a deep sleep and then set about digging a hole under the bed in the direction of the pub. I used all manner of tools from spoons to a heavy duty tunnel boring machine I managed to sneak down there when she was at the shops. It wasn’t until 2009 that I hit the jackpot and came up through the women’s toilet mop and bucket room.”
While the chronicle Patsy Kerr's nocturnal misadventures beneath the streets of Omagh should undoubtedly be taken with a hypertension inducing amount of salt, there are many interesting documented cases of urban tunnellers and their subterranean works.
In August 2006 retired electrical engineer William Lyttle was ordered by Hackney Borough Council to leave his home at 121 Mortimer Road in De Beauvoir Town, London, UK. Five years earlier an 8 foot (2.4 m) hole appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the pavement on nearby Stamford Road. When the local authorities investigated, they found that Lyttle had created an intricate network of tunnels, some 26 feet (8 m) deep, spreading out as much as 65 feet (20 m) in every direction from his house. Lyttle had been working on his excavations since the 1960s, digging with a shovel and using a home-made pulley system. Following numerous complaints from people living in the adjacent properties, and with the council looking at and estimated repair bill of one hundred thousand pounds to fill the tunnels in, Lyttle was finally banned from re-entering his property.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper at the time Lyttle - known as The Hackney Mole Man - was asked the big question: why did he dig the tunnels?
"I don't mind the title of inventor," he said. "Inventing things that don't work is a brilliant thing, you know. People are asking you what the big secret is. And you know what? There isn't one." 
William Lyttle died in 2010. After remaining derelict for several years, 121 Mortimer Road sold at auction in 2012 for £1.12 million. The house remains shrouded in scaffolding and unoccupied, the tunnels beneath largely untouched and unexplored. 
Seymour Roger Cray was an American electrical engineer and supercomputer architect who designed a series of computers which were, for a long time, the fastest in the world. He is known today as "the Father of Supercomputing". In 1997 - the year after Cray's death - an article published in Personal Computer World revealed some interesting mythology surrounding the man and his methods.
There are many legends about Seymour Cray. John Rollwagen, a colleague for many years, tells the story of a French scientist who visited Cray's home in Chippewa Falls. Asked what were the secrets of his success, Cray said "Well, we have elves here, and they help me". Cray subsequently showed his visitor a tunnel he had built under his house, explaining that when he reached an impasse in his computer design, he would retire to the tunnel to dig. "While I'm digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem", he said. 
In Liverpool, UK, during the early 1800s, wealthy businessman Joseph Williamson employed a workforce of thousands to carve out a vast, uncharted labyrinth of tunnels beneath the city. The purpose of the Williamson Tunnels remains a mystery — some suggest philanthropy, while others say Williamson was a cultist preparing a safe haven for the coming apocalypse. Sealed when Williamson died in 1840, the tunnels were tapped into from above and used as an immense pit into which the household refuse of the city was tipped for over a century.
Today at The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre in the Old Stable Yard on Smithdown Lane, visitors can take a guided tour through a section of tunnels cleared over the last twenty-five years by volunteers from the Joseph Williamson Society and the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels. The majority of the brick-lined warren still remains unexcavated and unexplored.  Not only is Williamson reputed to have had a tunnel dug to connect his home with St. Mary's Church nearby but also, to his local pub The Bear's Paw. Sadly,there's insufficient historical data to tell us whether or not Mrs. Williamson had a "bad snore on her" or not.
This January a jury ruled in favour of the City of Austin, Texas, USA in a case brought against it by 74 year old Austin man Joe De Rio. Joe's claim was that city officials had not followed proper procedures when they seized his home on Canterbury Street in East Austin in 2010.
What has been distressing is the city did not give any prior notice,” [Joe De Rio's Defence Attorney, Joe] McCreary said. “I realize they thought there was some kind of mad bomber-type situation and they mobilized all the horses and all the king’s men. The problem is it’s disturbing when a city will use a warrant to seize a person’s property.” 
The authorities became concerned when De Rio's home was inspected following complaints from neighbours and found unlicensed firearms, grenades, and suspicious chemicals on the property. Beneath De Rio's home they found a 35 foot (10.6 m), three tier excavation "supported [in places] by wood and automotive parts"  . De Rio claimed that he was merely expanding a pre-existing fallout shelter constructed as part of the home in the 1950s but his efforts left the house in danger of imminent collapse. City contractors filled the tunnels beneath the home with more than 264 tons of concrete and De Rio was billed more than $90,000. 
By and large tunnellers motives remain a mystery and, of course, we only know about those whose activities are uncovered. How many suburban catacombs remain undiscovered? Do you know really what your neighbours are up to? I've just worked out that it's 1345 feet (410 m) from my house to the nearest decent pub so, if you'll excuse me, I've got some digging to do.
Wow, this looks interesting: archaeologists say they have discovered more than 50 geoglyphs of various shapes and sizes across northern Kazakhstan in Central Asia - a landscape reminiscent of the famous Nazca Lines in Peru:
Discovered using Google Earth, the geoglyphs are designed in a variety of geometric shapes, including squares, rings, crosses and swastikas (the swastika is a design that was used in ancient times). Ranging from 90 to 400 meters (295 to 1,312 feet) in diameter, some of them are longer than a modern-day aircraft carrier.
Over the past year, an archaeological expedition from Kazakhstan's Kostanay University, working in collaboration with Vilnius University in Lithuania, has been examining the geoglyphs. The team, which is conducting archaeological excavations, ground-penetrating radar surveys, aerial photography and dating, recently presented its initial results at the European Association of Archaeologists' annual meeting in Istanbul.
Many of the geoglyphs were made of earthen mounds, although one example, a swastika, was made using timber.
Archaeological excavations uncovered the remains of structures and hearths at the geoglyphs, suggesting that rituals took place there.
Do a set of parchments show that the 13th century Italian explorer Marco Polo mapped the coast of Alaska, some two hundred years before Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the New World?
For a guy who claimed to spend 17 years in China as a confidant of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo left a surprisingly skimpy paper trail. No Asian sources mention the footloose Italian. The only record of his 13th-century odyssey through the Far East is the hot air of his own Travels, which was actually an “as told to” penned by a writer of romances. But a set of 14 parchments, now collected and exhaustively studied for the first time, give us a raft of new stories about Polo’s journeys and something notably missing from his own account: maps.
If genuine, the maps would show that Polo recorded the shape of the Alaskan coast—and the strait separating it from Asia—four centuries before Vitus Bering, the Danish explorer long considered the first European to do so. Perhaps more important, they suggest Polo was aware of the New World two centuries before Columbus.
“It would mean that an Italian got knowledge of the west coast of North America or he heard about it from Arabs or Chinese,” says Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography whose book, The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps, is out in November from the University of Chicago Press. “There’s nothing else that matches that, if that’s true.”
Many readers will be familiar with the Magical Egypt series, a high-production-quality DVD set from the early 2000s that explored the esoteric symbolism, philosophy and history of ancient Egypt, via 'alternative Egyptologist' John Anthony West. For those that enjoyed the series - and those that just love discussion of ancient Egypt in general - you'll be pleased to learn that a second instalment of the series is now being planned. In 2014 though, the producers are seeking to gauge interest and raise funds via a Kickstarter campaign:
Magical Egypt series 2 pushes the entire investigation to the next phase. If, as modern science seems to be showing, there actually was a scientific culture that in many respects, was MORE advanced than we are today, or if it was advanced along technological paths different than western science has taken, can we find "recoverable technology" in the considerable relics and ruins left behind by the ancient world?
Magical Egypt is excited to include the unique voices of some of the worlds leading thinkers in "the new counterculture", such as Graham Hancock, Neil Kramer, Lon Milo DuQuette, Robert Bauval, Laird Scranton, Max Igan and the host of the original series John Anthony West.
The campaign has already passed its initial $5000 funding goal, with more than 3 weeks still left to go - but the total they are looking to raise to fund the series is in the region of $50,000 - so take a look at the pledge rewards on offer, and chip in if there's anything that grabs you.