Friday, December 17, 2010

Richard Upton Pickman's Studio Found in Boston?

"Mystery Skulls" discovered in Boston basement. It's not the North End where Pickman's secret studio apartment is supposed to be, but Thurber said he couldn't find the place again if he tried.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why Cthulhu Isn't On That Gravestone: A Sympathetic Response to io9

Here at Miskatonic Museum, we curate and display objects and cases where the real world parallels or at least calls to mind the works of H. P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos. So we were amused when io9's Jess Nevins recently pointed out a tombstone from Duxbury, Massachusetts that to his eye resembled one of the common icons for Cthulhu. This is very much up our alley, and is comparable with our most famous piece, the Moche Headdress, possibly from La Mina, Peru, which may provide additional insight into the Cthulhu Cult.

But as with our Red Rain of Kerala exhibit, examined through the lens of "The Colour Out of Space," we do try to also educate our visitors regarding more mainstream interpretations of these objects. In the case of the Duxbury Stone, there seemed to be more that might be said in this regard.

One of the comments on the io9 article, by greenivygrey, notes that the border is a gourd and floral design, and points to similar iconography on a 1695 tombstone. Another example, from 1697 was photographed by jlbriggs in Newport, Rhode Island. This design is also known as "fig and pumpkin" and in these examples this is more obvious than on the Duxbury Stone (which includes the figs, but not the pumpkin). Another example from 1705 Ipswich can be seen here. PrimaryResearch has a visual glossary of colonial-era headstone elements which you can view. If you are a student of these designs, please feel free to add further information or corrections in the comments.

You may notice that all of these examples cluster together. This brings us to the Death's Head design on the Duxbury Stone, and the work of archaeologist James Deetz. James Deetz was a pioneering historical archaeologist, author of, amongst other works the book In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Deetz's most famous work may be his seriation, conducted with Edwin S. Dethlefsen, of New England headstone iconography. You can read the article here. This seriation did not directly address border designs such as the fig and pumpkin, but is a classic case study on seriation of material culture. The article tracks the waxing and waning in popularity of three basic headstone designs, and then goes into detail into the specifics of the evolution of these designs, and how demographics, settlement pattern, religious beliefs, and economics affected this evolution. This article has led to other projects, including those utilizing the study to educate children in history and how to conduct research, such as Dean Eastman's "Tiptoeing Through the Tombstones" which has another illustration of the fig and pumpkin motif.

Seriation is a technique developed over a century ago that is in many ways the backbone of everyday archaeological chronology (anchored in time with absolute dating techniques such as radiocarbon). The style of material objects generally changes through time, and in most cases, it changes in a relatively predictable and common sense way. Elements of style or whole styles are innovated or introduced, they become popular and widespread, and then they drop off as another new fad or trend emerges. The sequence of these changes can be compiled and used to date when an object was probably made. We do this all the time, recognizing that a car or a pair of pants or a building is from a particular decade or century based on other examples we know from that time. We know that Mad Men takes place in the early 1960s not from seeing a calendar, but from the clothes, and we recognize the show's advance through time as the clothes change. And when we see something we believe to be out of place, even if it is not, we find it jarring, as in the recent meme of finding "time travelers" in old photos or video clips.

Deetz and Dethlefsen seriated these grave markers not just to study them in particular, but as a larger test of seriation. The article was published in 1967, an era when explicit testing of the rigor of archaeological methods had reached a fever pitch in what historians of archaeological theory call "The New Archaeology" or processual archaeology, contrasting it with "culture historical" archaeology that had preceded it. The headstones are dated, and some of the carvers are known from the historical record. It was an ideal case to determine whether seriation, regularly applied to prehistoric artifact populations, actually worked like everyone thought it did. Below is a video of archaeologist Dave Wheelock carving an 18th century style headstone for the late Deetz.

This headstone may feature pumpkins and figs rather than Cthulhu, but I suspect HPL would have appreciated what has been learned about these tombstones in the intervening decades. He wrote extensively about changes of style and elements of architecture, both in his letters and in some travelogues, unpublished during his lifetime with an antiquarian bent (most famously his purposely archaic "Quebeck" study). He wrote about small bits of old Dutch material culture in New England, liked the idea of a museum of folkways, and went on in an amateur fashion about regional English-language dialects in America.

Just as a side note on the io9 article, while Innsmouth does indeed have some elements of Ipswich and Gloucester in it as Mr. Nevins notes, much of it was openly based on Newburyport. Like Arkham, which is a mix of Salem and Providence (especially Brown University), it has several components.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Now on Twitter - Miskatonic Museum and Other Strange News

Sometimes something weird comes across my desk, and I don't have too much to say other than "Hey, look at this weird thing, but don't touch it you fool!" If headlines such as "Whitest Voodoo Priests Ever Team Up to Fight Hitler" or "US Military to Weaponize Flying Snakes" pique your interest, just follow me on Twitter by hitting the button on the right. These and other strange stories will show up in your electro-tickertape fresh from the workshop.

I'll also be retweeting stuff I write as Cthulhu Cthursday for Ectoplasmosis, which might be of interest to readers of this blog.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Looking for a Necronomicon Cheap? It's a Buyer's Market

I don't have one, and I suspect the Ritman library, aka the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica doesn't either, as it focuses mostly on the Christian Hermetic, Gnostic, alchemical, and other traditions, and other aspects of the Western occult tradition. And many of those works, currently housed together in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam, may be split up on the auction block to cover the owner's debts. Some of the works there are quite important for these topics, and the current crisis was signaled by the offering for sale of The Grail of Rochefoucauld, the oldest account of the myth of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, a story still alive in our culture centuries later. If you want to check out more, or sign the petition if you believe it might help, check out The Wild Hunt's post on this for more info.

But seeing the troubles of the Ritman made me wonder what ancient grimoires and works of "occult poetry" might float about in economic chaos.

Update: The library is indeed being broken up.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mi-Go Flight Abilities: Insights from Fungal Air Jet Production

MIG002: Apothecial fungus propulsion (Video from Marcus Roper of the University of California, Berkeley, and New Scientist)

The ability of the beings known as the Fungi from Yuggoth to move through both the atmosphere and vacuum on ungainly wings has always been puzzling.

The things come from another planet, being able to live in interstellar space and fly through it on clumsy, powerful wings which have a way of resisting the aether but which are too poor at steering to be of much use in helping them about on earth.

Henry Akeley, May 5, 1928 in a letter to Albert N. Wilmarth, as recorded in "The Whisperer in Darkness"

While still a mystery, perhaps the capabilities of Sclerotinia sclerotiorum provides a clue. Marcus Roper and a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that apothecial fungi are capable of coordinating to produce an air jet when ejecting their spores. A video of this phenomenon can be seen above. While the relationship between Earth fungus and extraterrene fungus is still unknown, such a development would surely have been noticed by the keen biological mindset of the creatures known in Nepalese as the Mi-Go.

Perhaps this ability lies behind the cryptic text of the poem "Fungi from Yuggoth," specifically from the section on "Star-Winds" (emphasis added)

It is a certain hour of twilight glooms,
Mostly in autumn, when the star-wind pours
Down hilltop streets, deserted out-of-doors,
But shewing early lamplight from snug rooms.
The dead leaves rush in strange, fantastic twists,
And chimney-smoke whirls round with alien grace,
Heeding geometries of outer space,
While Fomalhaut peers in through southward mists.

This is the hour when moonstruck poets know
What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, and what scents
And tints of flowers fill Nithon's continents,
Such as in no poor earthly garden blow.
Yet for each dream these winds to us convey,
A dozen more of ours they sweep away!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Esoteric Order of Dagon Conclave in Ohio

Exhibit INS002 - The Loveland Frog (image by author)

The people of the pleasant little town of Loveland Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, are gathering together this weekend to celebrate the infamous Loveland Frog. In 1955, in the midst of a larger wave of sightings of odd humanoids, three misshapen "troll" like beings (labeled as such by Loren Coleman in his Mothman and Other Curious Encounters were sighted carrying odd equipment that gave off electric sparks. Further down the Ohio River in Indiana, one of these encounters involved a swimmer grabbed by a claw-like-hand from underwater, leaving a green stain on her leg. In 1972, in two separate incidents police officers saw, and in one case fired upon, a four foot tall frog like humanoid. In the time since then, one of the officers has said he only saw (and fired upon) an iguana.

This is a drawing made by the sister of one of the officers in 1972, based on his description

Frog people, using strange devices? Robert Olmstead, the famed visitor to Innsmouth in 1927, was a resident and student in Ohio. The Marsh family sent a relative, Olmstead's grandmother, to Ohio in 1884. Robert Olmstead's cousin Lawrence was kept in an asylum in Canton, Ohio. Robert Olmstead decided to free his cousin and journey with him to Innsmouth, and then to Y'ha-nthlei. But what if they never made it? Perhaps the escape went badly, or the pair decided the waters of Ohio and the Great lakes were sufficient. Or perhaps these are simply blood relatives?

I visited Loveland two years ago, and did not have any time to really look around. But I did get some pictures of the area in which one of the 1972 sightings, the one depicted in the sketch above, occurred.

The area of the sighting, on Riverside Avenue

While perhaps ideal for a frog-fish-man, no sign of one here

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lovecraft Right Again: Giant Prehistoric Penguins

Meet Inkayacu paracasensis, the Water King. Fossils from this 36 million year old penguin remarkably show us its color, a pattern of brown and gray rather than the black and white of modern penguins.

Possibly alien fossils, hidden anomalous mountains, strange lifeforms reviving from the ice, and now giant penguins. It seems like there should be a Moore's Law for how inevitably Lovecraft's creations come to life in the real world.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chariots of the Elder Things? Nicholas Roerich's UFO

"Star of the Hero" Nicholas Roerich, 1932 (Wikicommons)

Over at his blog Mirage Men (the name of his recently released book Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs, arguing that much of the UFO cultural phenomenon has been deceptive government activity), Mark Pilkington discusses Nicholas Roerich's UFO sighting. In 1927, Roerich and his team saw "something big and shiny reflecting sun, like a huge oval moving at great speed" in the sky. The sighting, before there was the idea of flying saucers or UFOs, may be the result of a joint Chinese and Swedish research team launching (you guessed it) weather balloons. You can read the account on pages 361 - 362 of the book Altai-Himalaya (excuse the difficult navigation system at the link), published in 1929

Roerich was one of Lovecraft's inspirations for At the Mountains of Madness, and he and his paintings of temples amidst the Himalayas are name-checked in the novella as a visual cue for the city of the Elder Things. In turn, the Elder Things, through Maurice Doreal, worked their way into the earliest stew of flying saucers, and the idea of a massive and/or ancient secret city of civilization involving UFOs in Antarctica has never dissipated.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Three Real World Versions of "The Colour Out of Space": Part 3 - The Shadow Under Gypsumville

Exhibit MET003: The Lake St. Martin's

Before we examine our last meteorite, let's note that Tentaclii has put together several scientific articles and news items from the time period Lovecraft wrote "The Colour Out of Space," as examples of the intellectual context for the tale. Go check it out.

Previously, we have examined two recent claims of meteorite strikes, and their unusual properties. The Red Rain of Kerala of 2001 may derive from an airburst meteor (though other research suggests it is just algae), with a handful of scientists suggesting it seeded the earth with extraterrestrial life forms. Three years ago, a meteor struck southern Peru, damaging nearby buildings and livestock, and resulting in villagers claiming illness after exposure to the fallen rock.

Our third case is of a much older meteorite, far older than humanity. And like the Colour that fell under what would become the Quabbin Reservoir outside of Arkham, Massachusetts, the Lake St. Martin Bolide has actually poisoned the groundwater of the rural residents of the small Canadian town of Gypsumville.

Roughly 230 million years ago, a large meteorite struck the earth, leaving a 24 km wide crater. This land is now in Manitoba, Canada, And that land is befouled. The place looks pretty blasted, though not exactly a heath (check out a visit by a geologist studying landing sites for Martian probes). Water there has unusually high concentrations of fluoride. The substance conjures up either visions of healthy teeth, or paranoid ravings of conspiracy theorists worried about the essence of their bodily fluids. But high intake of fluoride can actually cause "damage to teeth, softening of bones, calcified tendons and ligaments and neurological damage." It's not exactly the horror that befell the Gardner farm in "The Colour Out of Space," but there are some points of comparison.

The area is not heavily populated (check out impact and geological maps here)(and here). One resident of the region describes it as "barren stretches of boreal forest, inhabited only for resource exploitation or sheer force of habit." The people of two First Nations towns and the town of Gypsumville, would be ill-advised to drink the local groundwater, as it contains levels of fluoride above safety limits. A 2008 paper in the journal Geology demonstrates that the meteor strike broke up the local sediments through melting and shock, making them more susceptible to leaching, producing the toxic levels of fluoride. Simply put, a hidden deadly horror from outer space is reaching out from the vast depths of time to poison these backwoods communities.

In conclusion, visitors from outer space can (in addition to falling on your or exploding) poison you, possibly make you sick, and maybe propagate alien life on your planet.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Three Real World Versions of "The Colour Out of Space": Part 2 - The Horror at Carancas

Exhibit Met002: Fragment of the Carancas Meteorite.
Image by Meteor Recon (Wikicommons).
On special loan in Miskatonic Museum's Nahum Gardner Memorial Meteorite Gallery.

Yesterday, we viewed sample from the Red Rain of Kerala. Samples of the water show apparently biological elements that are considered by many researchers to be perhaps a local algae. But a handful of scientists argue that the water contains unearthly cells that reproduce at high temperatures and may have a chemical signature tying them to a planetary nebula. These researchers suggest the rain may contain material from an exploded meteorite.

Today we look at the second of our three real world cases that bring to mind H. P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space." Considered one of Lovecraft's finest works, this short story describes how rural residents and farmers outside of Arkham, Massachusetts became sick after a bizarre meteorite struck on their land, with tragic consequences.

In 2007, a scenario very much like "The Colour Out of Space" played out in Peru and on the global media stage. On September 15 of that year, a meteor impacted in southern Peru, near the Bolivian border. A large crater, some reports describe it as 30 meters wide, was soon filled with boiling water, with some video and testimony suggesting additional impact damage to buildings and livestock. After the impact, fumes (including sulfur) were reported from the area of the impact, and soon several hundred people complained of headaches and vomiting, including several police officers sent to take samples of the meteorite.

In addition to the meteor explanation, initial skeptical reports wondered if the phenomenon were geological, while conspiracy theories suggested it might be an American spy satellite. Neither turned out to be correct as further study pointed not just to a meteor, but a chondritic rocky meteor (as opposed to a more typical iron meteor, information here). Geologists, including several from Brown University (the model for Miskatonic University, and located in Lovecraft's home of Providence), confirmed that a meteor struck, and that it did indeed create shockwaves and damage nearby structures with flying debris. They also found that the meteors (it had broken up during atmospheric entry) struck the earth at extremely high speed. Papers by those researchers, as well as more photos of the fragments and the site can be found here.

They did not, however, find anything to point to the meteor or any physical cause for the reports of illness after the strike. They instead suggested psychosomatic illness resulting from panic after the impact. A great deal of dust and soot would have been kicked up and inhaled by people and animals, but initial suggestions that arsenic in the soil had sickened villagers have not been supported by evidence for sufficient doses of the metalloid.

This time, unlike "The Colour Out of Space," the scientists did repeated and thorough investigation, rather than dismissing the stories of rural farmers out of hand. But the possibly extraterrestrial source of the subsequent illness remains without a definitive answer in both cases.

Tomorrow, we explore The Shadow Under Gypsumville!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Three Real World Versions of "The Colour Out of Space": Part 1 - The Red Rains of Kerala

Exhibit MET001: Microscopic view of Kerala Red Rain sample
Image by V. Sasi Kumar (Wikicommons)
On special loan in Miskatonic Museum's Nahum Gardner Memorial Meteorite Gallery

Part 1 of 3

Of all his stories, H. P. Lovecraft considered "The Colour Out of Space" to be his best. Many critics agree that this tale, one of the subtler and more science fictional but still moody and atmospheric, is amongst his best. The story tells of a bizarre meteorite impact outside of Arkham, Massachusetts, and the subsequent ill effects on local residents exposed to the unknown substance or life form carried to earth from outer space.

The Miskatonic Museum specializes in pointing out parallels in real world scientific and historical occurrences between Lovecraft, his tales, and the Cthulhu Mythos he spawned. And "The Colour Out of Space" is one of the most fertile in this regard. Three examples come to mind.

The first does not directly involve the sighting or recovery of a meteorite. Nor does it involve any ill-effects to humans or livestock. But if a handful of researchers are correct, it is quite literally The Colour Out of Space. And it happens to be red. For two months in 2001, red rains fell over the state of Kerala in Southern India. This phenomenon has become known as the Red Rain of Kerala, and has become a sticking point in discussions of the hypothesis of panspermia. This concept holds that microscopic lifeforms could travel from world to world, being ejected from one planet, surviving vacuum in dormancy, and then possibly contaminating and prospering on a new planet. This would be similar to the claims, found elsewhere in the museum, of Martian fossils in a meteorite discovered in Antarctica. In the case of the Kerala red rains, a meteor would have exploded in the upper atmosphere, seeding the clouds with microbes from outer space. In addition to objections that debris from a meteorite would probably not continue to rain down for two months, rains of unusual color are not that uncommon, and can be produced by sandstorms, volcanic eruptions and other known natural phenomena.

Kerala Red Rain samples. Image by V. Sasi Kumar (Wikicommons)

In the case of the Kerala rains, samples of water were taken and subjected to various forms of analysis. Some of the reports describe red-colored biological cells, in some reports without the DNA that would be found in earthly bacteria (though the accuracy of this point has been disputed). In a recent paper, these cells are reported to reproduce at high temperatures (131 degrees Centigrade and possibly up to 300 degrees Centigrade), but not at room temperature.

The paper concludes that the cells fluoresce in a spectrum similar to hydrocarbons detected in the Red Rectangle Nebula. Obviously such amazing claims have engendered substantial skepticism. The Wikipedia entry on the Red Rains details many of the criticisms, including the likelihood that prior heavy rains in the region caused excessive growth of the orange-colored lichen Trentepohlia, and that or perhaps a rust fungus was responsible (a local algal source has been suggested, though not determined, by one of the primary proponents of the general hypothesis of panspermia). (EDIT: You can read or listen more about this explanation in a recent post/podcast at Skeptoid) Institutional full disclosure would have us note that in the case of the Quabbin Reservoir impact, as noted in "The Colour Out of Space," Miskatonic professors were equally skeptical of the Gardner meteorite, with tragic results.

Tomorrow, part 2: The Horror at Carancas

Monday, September 6, 2010

Regnum Congo and the Horror of Theodor de Bry's Engravings

Exhibit EXH002: Pigafetta's A Report of the Kingdom of Congo (1881 [1591]).
In collaboration with Miskatonic University's Orne Library, Special Collections

One of the most infamous books referenced in the works of H. P. Lovecraft is Regnum Congo, the centerpiece of "The Picture in the House." Lovecraft did not read this book, written in 1591 by Filippo Pigafetta, titled in English, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, and the Surrounding Countries, Drawn Out of the Writings and Discourses of the Portuguese, Duarte Lopez. Instead, he read Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature, a page from which is reproduced above. But we can read a copy of Pigafetta's work. In it he does describe the Anziques as being cannibals. He does not find this that unusual in a global scale, but Pigafetta holds the Anziques to be unique in that they willingly cannibalize members of their own community. From Chapter 5
They have shambles for human flesh, as we have of animals, even eating the enemies they have killed in battle, and selling their slaves if they can get a good price for them; if not, they give them to the butcher, who cuts them in pieces, and then sells them to be roasted or boiled. It is a remarkable fact in the history of this people, that any who are tired of life, or wish to prove themselves brave and courageous, esteem it great honour to expose themselves to death by an act which shall show their contempt for life. Thus they offer themselves for slaughter, and as the faithful vassals of princes, wishing to do them service, not only give themselves to be eaten, but their slaves also, when fattened, are killed and eaten. It is true many nations eat human flesh, as in the East Indies, Brazil, and elsewhere, but to devour the flesh of their own enemies, friends, subjects, and even relations, is a thing without example, except amongst the Anzichi tribes.
Today, the people referred to as Anziques are the BaTeke, living in the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon. They are part of the Bantu language family. And as is usually the case with cannibalism stories, they came to European chroniclers from unfriendly neighbors, making the veracity of such claims doubtful without additional evidence.

But this did not stop the reproduction of the stories, and especially the image for centuries. Engraver Theodor de Bry created the image which so impressed Huxley, and in turn inspired Lovecraft's tale of backwoods New England cannibalism. Illustrations by de Bry have become some of the most reproduced in portrayals of European exploration in the 16th century. He worked with reports from various travelers and chroniclers, such as John White (check out this section of Virtual Jamestown for comparisons, commentary, and more) but did not actually journey to Africa or the Americas himself. Nonetheless, his fascinating and at times disturbing imagery shows up again and again in both popular and scholarly presentations. His studies of the native of Virginia are very commonly used, and can be viewed at several online galleries, such as this one from the University of North Carolina Libraries.

Theodor de Bry also illustrated an edition of Bartolome de las Casas' A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, an influential polemic against Spanish cruelties in the American colonies. These images are amongst the most horrifying de Bry ever produced, which is saying something, putting the centerpiece of "The Picture in the House" to shame. The book and the engravings were instrumental in establishing The Black Legend against the Spaniards, which portrayed them as monsters sacking the New World through mass torture and murder. There was indeed plenty of cruelty and destruction, but it is worth noting that the propagandistic emphasis on horrible Spanish excesses served political purposes in the national and religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and even up through the Spanish Civil War to the present. The nations pointing out Spanish atrocities would have their own massacres and ethnic cleansing in colonies in North America.

I myself had an experience which calls to mind "The Picture in the House." Prior to my work with the archaeology of the Spanish Conquest, I was conducting prehistoric archaeological excavation in El Salvador. I had brought with me, amongst a handful of other books, a copy of Charles Hudson's Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms, which featured some of the de Bry illustrations from las Casas. This engraving in particular horrified me.

Cannibalism was also depicted, but for some reason the bits of people, and especially the anguished flailing of the maimed, bothered me at a core level. I knew that the taking of noses and ears was a common punishment for rebellion in feudal Europe, and that added to the reality of the horror depicted. For the remainder of my stay during that project, a period of several months, this image gnawed at me. I tried to avoid it while finishing the book, yet every so often felt compelled to seek it out, as if confronting the image would take away some of the fear that had gripped me. Only once out of El Salvador, and the claustrophobic apartment I lived in, and with many other books and other media, did the image's effect dissipate. Today it does not bother me in any undue fashion. But at the time, during a time period when there was great uncertainty in my life, and I felt somewhat trapped in situations not of my making both in a foreign land and in my larger life, de Bry's imagery chilled me to the core.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Political Geography of the Permian - A Culture History of the Cthulhu Mythos

Jordan179 has made a tentative reconstruction of Earth's past political geography, based on the Kadath murals, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, testimony of channeled time travelers, and other fragmentary evidence of the deep past surviving to the present. He has correlated geological evidence for the position of the continents (noting Lovecraft's use of continental drift, at the time a disputed and largely rejected fringe hypothesis that would become the dominant geological paradigm a generation later).

I find the positioning of R'lyeh somewhat odd, placing it what would become central and northeastern Asia, but the scope of the future continent is still unknown so any suggestion at this point is tentative. And it keeps in the commendable spirit of many chroniclers of Earth's hidden history, with two sources rarely agreeing. And then there is the issue of the Cthulhi/Xothians and water, which has been discussed extensively elsewhere. I think there is a methodological issue in presenting this as somewhat static, collapsing vast amounts of time (the map is labeled as varying through time, but considering the huge amounts of time involved ...). But then, the source material also stretches empires over tens of millions of years, or longer, so this isn't out of character with the evidence.

But overall, an interesting approach to a problem typically handled textually. It reminds me of the culture history maps from archaeology's early professional days, when large blobs and arrows would translate artifacts, postmolds, and art styles into nation-like units to build histories before history. V. Gordon Childe, one of the most influential of culture historians, was publishing his reconstructions of Eurasian prehistory precisely at the time Lovecraft was writing the stories that most directly under gird this map. I find it quite fitting.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Neurobiology of the Elder Things

Working with the somewhat sketchy descriptions made by the survivors of the Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica, Caio Maximinio (a graduate student and adjunct Professor at the Federal University of Pará, Brazil) has authored a speculative paper on the neural evolution of the Elder Things. In "And through Strange aeons, even Death may Die" at The Descent of Brain at, Sr. Maximinio examines the cladistic position of the Elder Things had they evolved on Earth (and addresses the issues with this assumption), and contradictions between their likely nervous structure and that described by the Peabody-Lake Expedition. An excerpt

"It is clear ... that Elder Things are characterized mainly by their barrel-shaped body. This body can be divided in similar halves by more than two planes that cross the longitudinal axis of the organism. In taxonomy, this is called radial symmetry, and two phyla in the kingdom Animalia have it: Cnidaria and Ctenophora. This plan is particularly good for animals which are sessile or sedentary, or for animals which are free-swimming, because they can sense their environment from all sides equally. Notice, however, the pair of wings that Elder Things' have. A paired structure such as this represents a variation in the "radial symmetry" theme, called biradial symmetry . The only phylum to present this type of organization is Ctenophora, composed of less than 100 species - all of them marine, occurring specially in warm oceanic waters. This is consistent with the hypothesis (made by Lovecraft, based on a few geological conjectures of his time) that the poles once were much warmer places."
Very interesting work, and illuminating on issues of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial biology.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Call of Cthulhu in Under 2 Minutes

Self-guided audio tour headsets are available at the front desk.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Moche Octopoid Headdress - A Representation of Cthulhu?

Exhibit RLY003 - Moche gold octopoid hybrid headdress, possibly from La Mina, Jequetpeque Valley*

In 1988, looters robbed a rich tomb at La Mina in the Jequetepeque Valley of north coastal Peru. This tomb was left by members of the Moche archaeological culture, a series of sites and artifacts participating in shared material culture, and especially an expressive iconography and art style for most of the first millennium AD. Tomb looting is rampant in Andean archaeology as it is elsewhere, but this is exacerbated in the case of the Moche because of the excellent preservation (much of coastal Peru is quite dry, and organic materials are found at many sites) and because Moche metallurgists were skilled in working gold, a substance that drives the most primal dreams of treasure hunters.

In 2006, a gold Moche headdress was recovered in London, believed to derive from the La Mina tomb and looting. Police worked with an international art dealer to locate and take possession of the headdress, valued at possibly almost one million pounds (over 1.5 million $US). As of 2006, British authorities were working to return the object, described by some as the Moche Mona Lisa, to Peru.

The headdress has been described as a sea god or goddess, an octopoid creature with a human/feline mixed face. Most Moche depictions of octopods portray the suckers with lines of dots or circles. In this case the triangles on the tentacles are more like those attached in Moche painting to the frill of an iguana or along the sides of a snake, perhaps suggesting a scaly surface, thought they are also found on fish fins, such as in the depiction below. The ends of the tentacles suggest mouths, similar to serpents often found protruding from figures in Moche artwork.

Anthropomorphizing animals and objects was common in Moche art, as was combining elements of different creatures. Likewise, marine subjects were common in Moche art, dominating many scenes in the corpus of fine-line painted pots that make up the most important databank we have for elite Moche intellectual and religious concepts. Much of the background information here is found in Christopher Donnan and Donna McLelland's 1999 book Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. Intriguingly, a marine hybrid creature more commonly depicted than the octopus is one Donnan and McLelland label 'The Demon Fish." Resemblances to stories of mermaids or fish humanoids elsewhere in the Pacific or off the coast of Massachusetts are plain.

Demon Fish, from Donnan and McLelland 1999:

The Demon Fish is one of many anthropomorphized marine creatures, carrying a tumi metal knife for ritual combat, throat slitting, blood drinking and decapitation for trophy heads. This mythologized activity in Moche artwork is reflected in a number of archaeological discoveries. Probably the most infamous example is the Huaca de la Luna (a huaca is a general Andean term for prehispanic ritual sites) at the Moche type site, where multiple sacrifice or execution events left behind individuals in positions suggesting they were bound, and showing not just cut throats, but horrific wounds across the body. Bioanthropologist John Verano has suggested that the placement of cut marks on bones, when compared with other Moche artwork, suggests that some bodies were defleshed but not dismembered, and were hung in a fashion not unlike windchimes. Comparison can be made with Inspector Legrasse's early 20th century report on the Cthulhu Cult in Louisiana, and their hanging of bodies for some undescribed creature that the adherents told police would attend their ceremonies. Perhaps there is some parallel in the Decapitator, the name given to a supernatural figure that appears in Moche artwork associated with these rituals. This entity often had arachnid elements, as can be seen in the video below

What are we to make of this headdress? It is gold or a gold alloy, depicting a bizarre sea creature. Compare with Robert Olmstead's description of a tiara in the possession of the Newburyport Historical Society when he visited Massachusetts in 1927, as described in the narrative "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," by Howard P. Lovecraft

"It was tall in front, and with a very large and curiously irregular periphery, as if designed for a head of almost freakishly elliptical outline. The material seemed to be predominantly gold, though a weird lighter lustrousness hinted at some strange alloy with an equally beautiful and scarcely identifiable metal. Its condition was almost perfect, and one could have spent hours in studying the striking and puzzlingly untraditional designs - some simply geometrical, and some plainly marine - chased or moulded in high relief on its surface with a craftsmanship of incredible skill and grace."
That object was a prime example of Marsh Gold, a scattered series of eccentric jewelry pieces turning up in New England between the mid-19th century and the 1930s. The artist or workshop is unknown, but local folklore associates the pieces with the Marsh gold refinery in Innsmouth, Massachusetts, shuttered in 1927 after a federal investigation into alcohol bootlegging. Stories have swirled around the gold for decades suggesting it came from a pirate hoard found by Captain Obed Marsh during his trade expeditions in the 19th century Pacific. Prehispanic artifacts have been recovered from sunken Spanish ships, and such shipments were the prime target of pirates. If the Marsh Gold objects could be demonstrated as having ties to Andean art traditions, perhaps Marsh did indeed find some pirate loot left over from the days of the Spanish colonial empire in the Americas.

In light of the octopod-human-feline gold headdress, its similarities to the Marsh Gold, and prominent elements of supernatural anthropomorphic "Demon Fish" in Moche art, perhaps the geographical context should be examined.

The above map displays several items of significant interest. The rough location where the headdress was believed to have been looted is noted on the South American mainland. To the southwest, we can see the rough location of the biologically emptiest spot in the ocean, waters exceedingly clear because they are more devoid of life than other areas of the open oceans, as discussed in a previous exhibit. South of this area we find the triangulated position of "The Bloop," an acoustic phenomenon to be discussed in a future exhibit, and the rough location of the mystery island, called R'lyeh by some, described in the Johansen Diary. These locations roughly outline the area suggested by theosophist James Churchward for the southeastern tip of sunken Mu, but as Lovecraft noted,

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survival in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism.

*note: while the information about the Moche is accurate, discussion of the Marsh Gold, Innsmouth, Inspector Legrasse and his investigations of the Cthulhu Cult are for edutainment purposes only

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cannibalism in earliest Britain - The Real "Rats in the Walls?"

Cheddar Gorge at the turn of the 20th century
Image LC-DIG-ppmsc-08150 from the United States Library of Congress (Wikicommons)

Exhibit EXH001: The Gough's and Kent's Cave Bones

Recent study of disparate bits of hitherto unrelated knowledge have suggested some deep roots for the repellent behavior of the Delapores of Exham Priory, as chronicled in H. P. Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls."

Anthropological testing of bones from Gough's Cave, in Cheddar Gorge, United Kingdom, have revealed some startling information about some of the earliest settlers of Britain after the glaciers started to recede. As reported in The Guardian, a battery of new tests and procedures suggest that immediately after a rapid warming in temperatures 14,700 years ago, Gough's Cave was inhabited by humans. The precision of dating the settlement derives from a new method for filtering carbon samples for radiometric dating, one primarily suited for bones as it isolates collagen.

Some of these humans were butchered intensively, stone tools used in a manner identical to the techniques used to butcher animals, and dumped in a pit. While the numbers are small and do not suggest a large-scale practice, and there is no evidence of violent death, the intensive processing methods are striking.
"They were stripping off all of the muscle mass. Brains seemed to have been removed. Tongues seemed to have been removed. And it is also possible that eyes were being removed. It was very systematic work"
It should be noted that this processing is not a guarantee of cannibalism, as the evidence only speaks to the intensive removal of flesh and marrow in a manner equivalent to animals assumed to be used for food.

Map of sites mentioned in the text. In addition, three other locations are noted. S. T. Joshi (1997) suggests that Alchester may have inspired Anchester, the general area of Exham Priory, while Hexham Priory in the north may have inspired the name of the place itself. Piltdown is referenced in the story in relation to the hominid remains found under the Priory.

It is notable that Cheddar Gorge is not very far from some other points of interest in regards to "The Rats in the Walls." Roman history is part of the de la Poer heritage, and while he made an error in the number of the legion stationed there, Lovecraft was clearly inspired by the Roman camp at Isca Silurum in Wales, a site that fascinated him. In 1923, the year "Rats" was written, Lovecraft had read about the place and fantasized of it, as demonstrated in a letter in May of that year to Frank Belknap Long (HPL letter to Frank Belknap Long, May 13, 1923, Published in Lovecraft 1965: 228) (he would write of it in a similar manner in other letters through the years). The inspiration by Isca Silurum with the invocation of the Cymric (Welsh) language suggests that the general area near the Wales/England boundary isn't a bad place to place Exham Priory.

Just to the south of Cheddar Gorge, another interesting piece of the Exham Priory puzzle can be found at Glastonbury. Though I am not aware of any evidence that Lovecraft was familiar with it, in 1919 Frederick Bligh Bond published The Gate of Remembrance (intriguingly, the New York Times did not get around reviewing it until January 1923, the same year Lovecraft wrote "Rats")(New York Times, January 14, 1923). In it, Bond discusses his employment of a psychic researcher in his excavations of Glastonbury Abbey a decade prior, similar to the presence of Thornton, a psychic investigator, in Delapore's party of explorers under Exham Priory. This revelation led swiftly to Bond's dismissal from Glastonbury, though I suppose this is not as harsh a fate as the committal to a mental institute suffered by Thornton.

Returning to Gough's Cave, the descendants of these early settlers would have not survived directly to the present, in Britain at least. Climate grew colder again with the onset of the Younger Dryas, sending the North Atlantic back into a glaciation for about a thousand years, before warmer and more familiar temperatures became the norm after 11,500 years ago. Britain was settled again, and once again the spectre of cannibalism would raise its head. In 1866, a human arm bone was excavated at Kent's Cave, Devon, amongst thousands of animal bones. Re-analysis of this bone in 2009 (as reported by the BBC) showed cut marks not unlike those from Gough's Cave. That said, cannibalism is a flashy topic, and taking a look at some of the promotional material from the Cheddar Gorge museum might give us pause before jumping to conclusions.

Similar sensationalism has been invoked in historical discussion of another tale of British cannibalism, this one much more recent, the infamous case of Sawney Bean. Like the de la Poers in "The Rats in the Walls," the Bean clan supposedly lived in a cave (since the nineteenth century associated with Bennane Cave) and ate hundreds or thousands of victims, leaving behind a vast subterranean bone bed. In both cases, this reign of terror came to an end during the reign of King James I, a monarch so obsessed with witchcraft that he became personally involved in witch hunts and wrote Daemonologie, a manual for hunters. The reality of the Bean legend is not entirely clear, and it has been suggested it may have been nothing more than a print media hoax of the eighteenth century (read original text here) based on earlier tales.

Such tales are alive and well today, though more often associated with paranormal folklore and tourism. Nicholas Redfern in his "gonzo" Three Men Seeking Monsters: Six Weeks in Pursuit of Werewolves, Lake Monsters, Giant Cats, Ghostly Devil Dogs, and Ape-Men includes relict (or time traveling) cave men and savages amongst the various terrors encountered or alleged during his journey up and down Britain in search of the strange. More than one reviewer has suggested (with a mix of praise and disdain) Redfern and his traveling companions resemble a punk version of Lovecraft's seekers of "strange horrors," and indeed the book plays with a mythology of (somewhat New Age-tinged) extradimensional old ones who can be found in forgotten places by those who disturb what should be left alone. Likewise, the tale of Sawney Bean appears to be a staple of the Edinburgh paranormal tourism industry (a development not approved by all).

Works cited above

Bond, Frederick Bligh (script by John Alleyne)
1921 The Gate of Remembrance: The Story of the Psychological Experiment which Resulted in the Discovery of the Edgar Chapel at Glastonbury. Fourth Edition. E. P. Dutton and Company, New York. Source Google Books.

King James the First (edited by G. B. Harrison)
1922 - 1926 Daemonologie [1597] and Newes from Scotland [1591] From the series Bodley Head Quartos published by John Lane, The Bodley Head Ltd. Source Sacred Texts

Joshi, S. T. (ed.)
1997 The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, annotated by S. T. Joshi. Dell, New York.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips
1965 Selected Letters: 1911 – 1924. Volume I. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. Arkham House, Sauk City, Wisconsin.

Redfern, Nick
2004 Three Men Seeking Monsters: Six Weeks in Pursuit of Werewolves, Lake Monsters, Giant Cats, Ghostly Devil Dogs, and Ape-Men. Paraview Pocket Books. New York.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Innsmouth Genes

Exhibit INS001 - Actinodin 1 & 2 (Image source: Bjorn Christen Torrensen, via wikicommons)

University of Ottawa researchers Jing Zhang and Marie-Andrée Akimenko have discovered that if the proteins actinoden 1 & 2 are suppressed in fish, fin development gives way to something like leg development. These two proteins are found in fish, but not in reptiles, mammals, or other tetrapods. (discussion, original article). The date of this original transition is immensely far into the past, and new research continues to push it back into the temporal gulf.

That such a small alteration is all that governs such a huge change should not be surprising to those familiar with the history of Innsmouth and similar communities.

"everything alive come aout o' the water onct an' only needs a little change to go back agin."

- Zadok Allen, Innsmouth Massachusetts, July 15, 1927

One wonders what the researchers would find if they were able to examine biological samples collected by the federal investigation of Innsmouth.

UPDATE: Meet Tiktallik, the 375 million year old "fishapod" discovered six years ago. It has all the basic structures that will form the human body. Perhaps we should instead call it Dagon?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Review of Archaeology in Antarctica

Hut built by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Photo by Mila Zinkova. Source Wikicommons.

Exhibit ANT004 - History of Antarctic Archaeology

David L. Harrowfield has written a paper on the history of archaeology on Antarctica. In addition to its general interest regarding the Heroic Era of Antarctic Archaeology (shortly before Miskatonic's expeditions), the following section of the abstract concurs with Professor William Dyer's warnings regarding the continent

"There is great potential for further archaeology in Antarctica; however, any future work must take place under strict controls."

Harrowfield, David L.
2005 Archaeology on Ice: A Review of Historical Archaeology in Antarctica. New Zealand Journal of Archaeology Vol. 26: 5 - 28. Available online at Polar Heritage

Friday, May 7, 2010

Crookes Tube - Ghostbusting Equipment from "The Shunned House"

video by AlastairWright

Exhibit PHY001 - Crookes Tube

Developed by physicist and spiritualist William Crookes, the Crookes tube would play an important role in the development of modern physics, including the discovery of x-rays, as outlined by this BBC report. Perhaps this is why they would be naturally considered as ghost busting equipment in Lovecraft's "The Shunned House."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Necronomicon cameo on "House, M.D."

On tonight's episode of House, M.D., one of the characters, a RenFaire and medieval enthusiast, is also at least interested in either modern magickal practices or historical alchemy (this is never exactly cleared up, and the props are a hodge podge of "spooky" stuff, so good luck with that). He's got a big book of forbidden knowledge, and it's title is shot twice, very prominently with a full-screen close up. It's Necronomicon. I nearly fell over laughing when I saw it tonight. I don't know if that was the director's intention.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Vermont Flood in "The Whisperer in Darkness"

Trailer for the upcoming H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society film The Whisperer in Darkness

MIG001 - The Vermont Flood of 1927

As I write this, coastal New England, especially Lovecraft's beloved Providence, is cleaning up from what is being called the worst flooding in 200 years. Another devastating flood occurred in New England 82 years ago, focused on the hills and mountains of Vermont. In addition to the massive damage, 85 people were killed. Images of the destruction, and some of the locations today, can be seen at the Landscape Change Program. A newsreel can be viewed at the Vermont Historical Society as can more images. Middlebury College has postcard images from the flood. Time Magazine, a relatively new publication in 1927, covered the floods in this article. Closer to the events, Westminster History Project has a Bellows Falls Times article from two weeks after the flooding began. Rootsweb has an extensive section of their site devoted to the flood. The National Weather Service has several resources, including an overview with rainfall amounts, and a 50th anniversary retrospective.

This flood provides the opening hook for H. P. Lovecraft's story "The Whisperer in Darkness." Lovecraft had previously used real events as inspiration for his story. I have previously noted the influence of the Charlevoix-Kamouraska earthquake of 1925 on the story "The Call of Cthulhu," though in that case the date was shared, but the location of the earthquake moved to the South Pacific. In "The Whisperer in Darkness, written almost three years after the floods, Lovecraft incorporates the actual event. From the second paragraph of the story

"The whole matter began, so far as I am concerned, with the historic and unprecedented Vermont floods of November 3, 1927. I was then, as now, an instructor of literature at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, and an enthusiastic amateur student of New England folklore. Shortly after the flood, amidst the varied reports of hardship, suffering, and organized relief which filled the press, there appeared certain odd stories of things found floating in some of the swollen rivers"
This aspect of the story introduction is reflected in the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation, viewable in the video at the top of this post. This weekend, officials are warning New Englanders that the 2010 flood waters contain hidden dangers, though I suspect they are not thinking exactly of fungal monstrosities from beyond the stars.

Like the earthquake, which HPL would have felt, Lovecraft did not need to rely solely on news accounts of the Vermont flood, as he visited the state the year after the disaster. This same trip also provided the setting and some of the inspiration for his story "The Dunwich Horror." Lovecraft would have seen some of the damage himself, and presumably talked to people about it. As someone who lived in New Orleans in 2005, I can tell you that the topic of that disaster continued to show up in everyday conversation for years afterward.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Gamburtsevs: The Real Mountains of Madness

Topographic and bathymetric map of subglacial Antarctica. Source.

Exhibit ANT003: The Real Mountains of Madness

The Gamburtsevs Mountains, also known as the Ghost Mountains, are the last mountain range being mapped on Earth. They have eluded exploration for so long due to their location: under glacial ice in Antarctica. I am certainly not the first to note the comparisons that can be made with the Mountains of Madness (which have cast a shadow over Antarctic exploration), discovered by the Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica, and described in the novelized account of their exploits and discoveries, At the Mountains of Madness, as follows.

"10:05 P.M. On the wing. After snowstorm, have spied mountain range ahead higher than any hitherto seen. May equal Himalayas, allowing for height of plateau. Probable Latitude 76° 15', Longitude 113° 10' E. Reaches far as can see to right and left. Suspicion of two smoking cones. All peaks black and bare of snow. Gale blowing off them impedes navigation."

Those coordinates aren't too far off for the Gamburtsevs. First discovered by a Soviet expedition in 1958, The Gamburtsevs have recently been the subject of serious research. As with the Miskatonic Expedition’s experiences with the Mountains of Madness, airplanes have been the most vital tool for exploring these mysterious peaks. But rather than drill, these modern-day Professor Dyers are utilizing high-speed airborne laser mapping to reveal the form of the mountains. Dr. Michael Studinger, one of the directors of the AGAP project studying the mountains, discusses the mountains and the details of modern Antarctic exploration in this fascinating lecture video that certainly made me feel inadequate in terms of how tough my working conditions are, and what I’ve accomplished.

Their research is ongoing (here's a good index and intro for the AGAP project website), and while the maps are getting better, showing sharper peaks than had been expected, many mysteries (including why and when the mountains formed) are still being worked out. Earlier reports suggested both the origin and lack of erosion for the mountains was a big mystery, though some of this is addressed in the lecture above, utilizing newer data). Numerous recent research images from the project can be seen in this National Geographic slide show, while loads of field photos can be found here. The new research has also uncovered river erosion, suggesting that the mountains rose before Antarctica was shrouded in ice, and in fact this location may well be where glaciation started on Earth, and it may contain some of the world's oldest ice, over a million years old, invaluable for climate and other research. By this point, I shouldn't have to make any specific remarks regarding the dangers of digging up bizarre alien life forms in Antarctic ice.

EDIT: Dark Roasted Blend used the same title I did to refer to the Gamburtsev's. I've visited their site before, but I don't know if I read that particular article. But the similarity is unintentional, but sorry if it did bother anyone.

UPDATE: The history of the mountains has been pieced together, stretching back a billion years.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Nicholas Roerich Museum

Added a link to the Nicholas Roerich Museum, where you can see the paintings name-dropped in stories like At the Mountains of Madness. Roerich was, in addition to a painter, a Theosophist mystic, an archaeologist, and an activist for protecting world heritage. Lovecraft visited the Roerich Museum, located in New York in 1930.