news, world

Pestilence and Patient Zero

Pestilence: a topic we can all relate to.

In the mid fourteenth century, a tiny organism (bacteria) hitchhiked on another tiny organism (flea) which hitchhiked on another smallish organism (rat).

Image credit: pexels.com

This little road trip was a costly one, as it happened everywhere in Europe and killed anywhere between 75 to 200 million people.

Of course, I am writing about the Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, and got its name from “Bubo”, which refers a lump that arises from lymph nodes in an infected individual. Not unlike today, people were checking their bodies for lumps because they were worried about what it meant for their health.

Other interesting facts:

• The Plague also presents in other ways – pneumonic (lungs) and septicaemiac (blood infection). Bumps and lumps are simply the most common way it turns up.

• If a group of 100 infected people were left untreated, the disease would kill between 30-100 of them.

• It was also known as the “Black Death” (mors atra in Latin) to refer to the darkness of how lethal it was, and the term was used to describe such diseases in Homer’s Odyssey.

• This disease still crops up in several thousand people each year across the world. In 2020, one such case was confirmed in California, a first since 2015.

I was interested in this again because it was reported in the news only recently that researchers have found the earliest tombstones in present day Kyrgyzstan, pointing to where the Bubonic Plague first started. This was determined by an uptick in the number of deaths after 1338 and the word “Pestilence” was etched in some of the gravestones. They also excavated skeletons and checked their teeth, and confirmed presence of Yersinia pestis (Link is to the article in The Guardian).

It’s sort of like discovering who Patient Zero was, only seven centuries after the fact. Wild huh?

Image credit: pexels.com

Nowadays I get the impression that people have paid a bit of thought to how they want to be remembered after they die, and I would guess that most people would rather their epitaphs to mention good qualities rather than cause of death. Which is fair enough.

Just for interest – Do you care about what words might be used on your headstone, hypothetically?

Reference

Stenseth, N., Atshabar, B., Begon, M., Belmain, S., Bertherat, E., Carniel, E., Gage, K., Leirs, H. and Rahalison, L., 2008. Plague: Past, Present, and Future. PLoS Medicine, 5(1):3.

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journal, university

Between a rock and a hilly place

This appears to be a pile of rocks. It sits on top of a hill, in Glenthorne National Park, South Australia. It was not known about until very recently, when a worker involved in the development of trails stumbled upon it, in the tall grass.

Photo: mine

The worker’s colleagues all said it was probably just nothing, but he said he had a funny feeling it was significant:

• From the hill, you can see many fields, and the ocean in the distance; it is a peaceful view.

• The rocks were clearly not from around the National Park. Some were rounded, which only happens to rocks that have been made smooth by the ocean

• The placement of the rocks looked very intentional, with some edges interlocking, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. This suggests that they were all hand placed.

The deliberate placement of this pile of rocks lead the gentleman to conclude that this was likely a grave.

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The construction workers eventually agreed to fence the rocks off out of respect.

This remains unconfirmed, but likely. In discussions with the head Archaeologist on our team, I gathered that they thought it probably was not a human’s grave, as:

• The present-day National Park was owned by very important, influential colonialists in the 19th Century, and people who died would have had Christian burials down by the Church.

• Non-Christian persons around at the time would have been Aboriginal Australian, who do not like to have hard objects over their resting places, so this is unlikely.

• Another reason this could have been a private burial was that this was a scandalous one, like a lady of the night. However, the elevation, sentimental atmosphere of the hill and the rock placement would seem at odds with this hypothesis.

Glenthorne National Park is on land that was owned by the First Police Commissioner of South Australia, Major Thomas O’Halloran, who sailed to Australia from London in 1838. As mentioned, he was very influential, and he owned stallions in his time, which is like a modern day squillionaire collecting Maserati sports cars.

The worker and head Archaeologist suggested this was likely the grave of a prized horse, if not Major O’Halloran’s most prized horse.

An Arabian horse. Photo by Ealdgyth, from Wikimedia commons.

The grave will unlikely be excavated (I have since learnt on the field trip that it is common consensus in Archaeology that digging is often the last resort for investigating a site, due to its destructive nature*).

The site obviously meant something special to someone, and we now have the technology to analyse/scan what is under the earth without disturbing it with shovels, and so this is what archaeologists are going to do for further research projects.

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So there you have it! Our field trip last week was at Glenthorne. The horse grave was a little diversion from the main project though. Archaeologists are actually looking for this house:

c.1919 Image credit: State Library of South Australia

This three story mansion was called Glenthorne House, built in the 19th Century. It passed down wealthy colonialist families before it was given to the military, who billeted soldiers there.

The house was burnt down in 1932, and questions remain around why it happened: Did the army blow it up on purpose? Where did they hide the rubble?

And that’s what we were digging for – an unresolved 90-yo mystery. I felt a little bit like I was in a Scooby Doo episode when I heard the brief.


*I could rename this blog, but Dreams of Surveying doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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journal

Waxing Philosophical: Little Black Hen

A fact about me: I like to joke that I hoard chickens. I have six dinosaurs living in the back yard. One of them is a bantam named Puck. Fully grown, she is pigeon-sized – small, round, black, and the first night I got her, she hurled herself from a rooftop, halfway across the yard in a giant parabola, flying like well-smacked hockey puck.

Yesterday I watched Puck poke around near some flowers.

Unbeknownst to her, she was walking right on top of the grave of a white chicken, named Pillow. Poor Pillow died in January last year during a ~40C heat wave. (Digging graves for pets is the kind of digging that I don’t dream about.)

Watching Puck yesterday got me pondering. If Pillow hadn’t died, Puck would not be walking on Pillow’s grave. Puck wouldn’t even have come to live with us. She would have ended up in a small-town fodder store, and then sold to who knows where.

Puck wouldn’t have been named Puck, but something else by another owner, like Daisy or Berry, or whatever else people like to name their chooks.

I felt a strange wonderment, then. Similar conditions apply to all of us.

The lady who lived in our house before us was an Italian woman, Mrs B.R, who passed away in old age. (My partner continued to receive her magazine subscription from Italy for a good decade, until I moved in and plugged a polite request to unsubscribe into a translating app and emailed that to the editor in Italian.)

Mrs. B.R walked on the same linoleum tiles as us.

If she had gone on living – besides scoring an entry in he Guinness Book of World Records for having the most birthdays ever – Mrs. B.R could still be living here, and this house wouldn’t be our home. We would be somewhere else.

How many resting places in antiquity do we unknowingly walk over, every day?

The only reason any of us lead the lives we do is because other people in history have made room for us. For better or worse, their actions, lives and passing away – all of these have determined how our lives are sized, and shaped.

Call it a thought experiment, or an exercise in sonder; maybe this is the butterfly effect, or a glimpse of Indra’s net. It was just something that struck me, watching a little bantam chicken, scratching the earth and going about her day.

Puck beside the Everlastings

Other two images from pexels.com

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