Sunday, 28 April 2013

A Journey Into the Mayan Underworld

A lot of archaeological sites and remains have been given World Heritage status by UNESCO. Exactly a year ago today a site in Guatemala submitted a proposal to have that status given to a cave system containing many Mayan cave drawings. These drawings depict the whole of Mayan life and culture, including images of child sacrifice, ritual bloodletting and (according to Dr. Karen Olsen Bruhns of San Francisco University’s Department of Anthropology) the “only genuine depiction known of male-male erotic interaction” in Pre-Columbian America.

How the caves were discovered sounds like the opening of an Indiana Jones film. In the steaming hot summer of 1979 Bernabé Pop, a hunter of peccaries (a type of jungle pig), took his dogs out hunting in the jungle near his home village. Chasing after his dogs down a ravine he came across a cave entrance at the bottom of a rock face, almost hidden behind hanging vegetation. Venturing into the darkness little did Bernabé know that he had stumbled across the location of the biggest collection of subterranean Mayan inscriptions, drawings and artefacts, including several tombs, ever discovered.

The caves were given the name Naj Tunich (pronounced Nah too-neech) which means “stone house” in the local Mayan language. Over the next few years archaeologists worked hard to explore the whole cave system and stop robbers from looting the precious ancient artefacts. A big problem was how to preserve the cave drawings. With the frescos of Pompeii the problem is the outdoor atmosphere eroding the paint away. In Naj Tunich the problem is the pigment itself. It doesn’t dry out like paint and smudges when touched. Many of the cave drawings have been damaged by visitors touching them.

Some of the cave drawings date back to 100 BC and other drawings and artefacts show that it was used by the Maya continuously for the next 9 centuries.

The drawing mentioned above by Dr. Bruhns is one dating from the 700s, redrawn for you here. As you can see it shows two men who are clearly in a sexual embrace. The archaeologists, most notably Dr. James E. Brady of the University of California, the scientist who has studied the caves the most, describes the man on the right as the younger of the two. The young man also seems to be wearing his hair in the style of the Mayan Moon Goddess. It has been suggested that this man is a shaman, an androgynous priest, hence the Moon Goddess’s hairstyle. It is believed that these shamans “helped” in sexual matters within Mayan marriages, passing on the divine sexual energy of the gods to the people – they could interact with the community on a physical as well as spiritual level.

As with other cultures around the world the Mayan connected caves with entrances to the underworld and regarded them as places where rituals and ceremonies took place. The Naj Tunich drawings may depict the type of ceremony carried out in the caves. So what does the picture of the two men tell us? The drawing is surrounded by others depicting ritual blood-letting. This was common in Mayan culture, particularly among the ruling classes, to indicate their virility and fertility.

We could interpret the scene as that of a young shaman, on the right, in an act of ceremonial sex with an older man on the left, possibly a Mayan ruler, who is thus acquiring symbolic youth and virility from the shaman before offering his own blood to the gods.

Perhaps we’ll never know what’s really going on, but if the drawings are to survive another thousand years a lot of conservation has to take place. Thankfully, Dr. Brady and his team of scientists has photographed all the images, and even multispectral imaging technology has revealed previously hidden drawings.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

On Track to the Outgames - Part 5

Less than a year after the inaugural North American Outgames in 2007, the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association (GLISA) held the first Outgames in the southern hemisphere. It was one of their continental games and was the 1st Asia-Pacific Outgames and were held between 30th January and 3rd February 2008.

The impetus to host an international lgbt sports festival in Melbourne, Australia, came from a group of Melbourne competitors who had been to the 2002 Gay Games in Sydney. They submitted a bid to GLISA to host an Asia-Pacific Outgames even before the first World Outgames had taken place in Montréal in 2006. Their bid was accepted in February 2007.

The main catchment area for participating athletes was countries in the Pacific Ocean and eastern Asia. Representatives and athletes from 21 countries converged on Melbourne.

As was the case with the other Outgames Melbourne planned an arts festival and lgbt rights conference to go with the games. Melbourne had an annual 3-week-long arts festival called Midsumma which usually ended with the Melbourne Pride march. It was Midsumma, that was celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2008, which was the central focus of the bid.

The third element of the Outgames, the conference, was once again organised as the prelude to the games. Called “Rainbow Conversations” the 2-day conference began on 30th January 2008. Many delegates came from eastern Asia and spoke of the difficulties the lgbt community still faces in some countries such as China. In fact, the organisers of the Asia-Pacific Outgames found their website blocked by the Chinese government and used other methods of outreach to the Chinese lgbt community.

The conference was held in Melbourne town hall and ended with a cocktail reception party, after which the arrival of the athletes parade took place. Marching through the city streets the parade entered the grand ballroom and the official opening ceremony began.

There were 1,191 registered athletes for the games which began the following morning. Whereas the first North American Outgames had 8 sports, the Asia-Pacific games had 12 – badminton, 10-pin bowling, dance-sport, hockey, lawn bowls, rowing, running, squash, swimming, tennis, volleyball and water polo. Volleyball had the most competitors with 181 taking part, 3 more than for the swimming events.

Most of the sports were officially sanctioned by their governing bodies within Australia. This meant, among other things, that any Australian records broken at the Asia-Pacific Outgames would be recognised within the sport, and that the governing bodies considered the Outgames to be of a sufficiently high standard of competition. Not all of the sports results are available online. There are also very few reports of the competitions, and any information will be a great addition to my files and database. My email address is on my Contact page.

One aspect of the first Asia-Pacific Outgames which was of particular interest to a vexillologist like myself was the introduction of the official games flag, which became known as the Melbourne flag (shown on the right, below). As with the summer and winter Olympic flags (the Antwerp and Oslo flags respectively), the intention of the Melbourne flag is for it to be handed from one host city to the next. At the end of the games the Deputy Premier of the state of Victoria, Hon. Rob Hulls, handed over the Melbourne flag to Wessel van Kampen, the Co-President of GLISA.

Next month I continue the history of the Outgames with the first venture onto European soil for the 2nd World Outgames in Copenhagen in 2009.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A Queer Achievement - A Return to Shakespeare

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

Following on from last year’s St George’s Day discussion on William Shakespeare I return to the subject this year. Rather than concentrate on the famous playwright, today’s subject is another person with the same surname, but it also illustrates the practice in heraldry of “borrowing” the coat of arms of a famous namesake.

The arms I’ve shown here belong to Tom Shakespeare. Whether or not he’s related to William Shakespeare or not is uncertain. Tom’s earliest known ancestor was called Humphrey Shakespeare and live at Ipsley in Worcestershire and died in 1689. There’s no known connection between Humphrey and William.

Tom Shakespeare, known officially as Sir Thomas Shakespeare, 3rd Baronet, made it into the list of the UK’s most influential 200 lgbt people in 1995 in the 200th issue of “Gay Times”. Then aged 28 he was a lecturer in sociology at the University of Sunderland. His specialist research areas are bio-ethics, sexuality, disability, and genetics, authoring several books of these subjects. Tom is also an active campaigner for disability rights and currently works for UNESCO.

Tom has achondrophasia, causing dwarfism which, like his title, he inherited from his father. His coat of arms is inherited from his grandfather, Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare, 1st Baronet. Sir Geoffrey was a Liberal MP for over 17 years and held several high political offices. When he was created a baronet (a hereditary knighthood) in 1942 he was granted a coat of arms which reflected his political career and family association with the famous playwright.

With no proof of a blood relationship to William Shakespeare, Sir Geoffrey was allowed to use the playwright’s arms on condition that it included other objects. The playwright’s coat of arms is shown to the left. These were granted to his father in 1596. It shows a common practice in heraldry of using the person’s name to inspire its design, just like the roses in the arms of Eleanor Roosevelt I showed you in February. The obvious choice of object for someone called Shakespeare is a spear. The playwright’s father was also granted a crest (not shown) which is the same eagle and spear adopted by Sir Geoffrey in 1942 and inherited by Tom.

Sir Geoffrey chose to place a portcullis behind the eagle and put another in the corner of his shield. The portcullis is a symbol of the British parliament and represents his career as an MP. During his political career Geoffrey held several positions which are represented by the anchor. He was Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty, and held offices in the Departments of Overseas Trade and Dominion Affairs.

Even though Tom Shakespeare, the present baronet, done not use his title, nor has any political or Admiralty connections of his own, he is still entitled to the full heraldic achievement of his grandfather. Tom’s rank as a baronet is shown in two ways. First is the helmet, which is shown with the visor open (all other members of his family can only use a closed visor). Secondly, the badge of a baronet of the United Kingdom is suspended below the shield. In the centre of this badge is a small white shield showing a red hand which is the special emblem of all baronets. Quite often this little white badge with red hand is shown in miniature on the main shield, but since I have chosen to show the badge below the shield it wasn’t necessary to include it on the main shield as well.

Finally, the motto. Sir Geoffrey doesn’t appear to have been granted a motto in 1942, though he could use William Shakespeare’s own motto “Non sans droict”, which means “Not without right”.

I have not coloured the back of the motto scroll with a rainbow as I have done with my other Queer Achievements. Instead, I have used the bisexual colours to reflect Tom’s sexuality.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Writing on the Wall for Pompeii

The ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum have been in the news a lot recently in the UK. This is because of a major new exhibition at the British Museum called “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum”. British television has even been showing Frankie Howerd’s film “Up Pompeii” several times.

Pompeii has become well-known for the explicit sexual artwork that has been preserved on its walls. Lots of paintings, frescos and carvings both there and in Herculaneum show men with erections and people having sex. It’s a strange situation to us which highlights just how different their attitude to sex was to ours. There was also quite a lot of same-sex activity being depicted that it seems gay sex was nothing out of the ordinary either. But it doesn’t seem to have the same place in Pompieiian society that gay sex had in Ancient Greece. You won’t see many Greek paintings of statues of men with huge erections, for example, except for representations of man’s bestial nature.

Perhaps the reason why Pompeii and Herculaneum seem so much more pornographic in their art lies in the origins of these cities and their inhabitants.

Pompeii is situated in what was once a vast area of Italy populated by the Etruscans, people from modern Tuscany area. They founded Pompeii as part of their expansion into southern Italy and dominated the area until about 420 BC. Even though populated by successive Italian sub-nations Pompeii retained much of its Etruscan character.

To the Romans and the Ancient Greeks the Etruscans were immoral and synonymous with prostitution. It was not unknown for Etruscan couples to have sex in front of other people, or wife swap at parties, often offending their Roman hosts. This was also the case with male-male sex. On a fresco in the Etruscan settlement of Tarquinia (about 160 miles up the coastline from Pompeii) there’s a scene of an audience of men at a chariot race. Underneath the seating platform are several naked male figures, two of whom are clearly having sex. In Pompeii there is even a scene on the wall of the changing rooms of the suburban baths of two men and a woman in a bisexual threesome.

But it is the graffiti in Pompeii that has become more famous for its sexual expression. Like modern sexual graffiti most of it is gay or bisexual in nature, and sometimes could be meant to be an insult or “outing” a local person. Several examples are (translated) “Phileros is a eunuch” and “Secundus likes to screw boys”.

It still happens today. Outside the lift in the apartment block where I live someone kept scratching “Bobby is gay” into the paintwork, only for the name to be scratched out the next day and the name “Juan” scratched underneath. That happened several times over many months, no matter how often it was painted over.

Some graffiti in Pompeii give boastful claims from men who had sex with others and were not afraid to give their names. Some even mention where it took place – “Auctus and Quintus had sex here”, and “Quintus Postumius asked Aulus Attius to have sex with me”.

There are many more examples like this, and much more explicit. When they were first discovered, along with the other erotic artefacts, archaeologists were shocked. They tried to keep it all hidden way and only accessible to men (not women) of an “appropriate” moral standing. The graffiti on the city walls were a bit more difficult to hide, though attempts were made to cover them up or even paint over them.

Today these examples of street literature are being conserved by scientists. There has always been a problem with the wall paintings, frescos and graffiti. Being open to the elements they are in danger of being lost forever. Over 90 percent has already disappeared since the 1800s through exposure to the air. Recent conservation techniques by universities from America have used digital technology to record every details on the walls and have used infra-red to detect features previously un-noticed by the naked eye.

However much attitudes to the use of graffiti and the depiction of sex have changed over the centuries what seems to have remained the same is the urge to express yourself on the walls in public. The Pompeiians didn’t need Twitter!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The World's Oldest Gay Chat-up Line

Ancient Greece doesn’t have a monopoly on gay myths. Take this one from Ancient Egypt. It involves those strange animal-headed gods and the eternal struggle for power and how gay sex played its part.

In this month’s introduction I mentioned the Petrie Museum and their trail of lgbt items on display. Number 2 on the trail was a tattered ancient papyrus dating from the late Middle Kingdom, that’s about 3,800 years ago. On it is written part of a myth describing the battle for the throne of Egypt between Horus, the falcon-headed god (left), and his uncle Seth, the weird-headed god (right).

This myth is well-known in Egyptology and the Petrie fragment tells just a part of it. More complete versions of the myth are found on later papyri discovered in the 1840s in a village in the Valley of the Kings. These are called the Chester-Beatty papyri.

Horus and Seth had been fighting over the throne of Egypt for over 80 years. They take their cases to the divine court for a decision. But that’s not enough for Seth. He’s bored with waiting so invites Horus back to his place for a meal (we’ve all heard that before!), flattering him with what is the oldest recorded chat-up line.

After the meal the two gods retire to bed and have sex. The Petrie Museum papyrus gives the most lustful version of the encounter than given in the later Chester-Beatty version, including being the only version to contain the full gay chat-up lines, possibly indicating more tolerance of sexual matters in earlier times.

Even though Seth succeeds in getting Horus into bed as part of his plot to win the throne it all backfires on him. Having had sex he could claim to the court his superiority to the claim, as he has engineered the situation to indicate that Horus was the submissive partner and not strong enough to be made king.

But Horus’s mother Isis had suspected a trick (aren’t mothers always like that?) and a trap is set for Seth. It could sound like an early example of supernatural C.S.I. I love those programmes. I love the way they find specks of evidence, quite often involving something found at a crime scene which proves someone has had sex – what they usually refer to as “biological trace”. Sometimes this “biological trace” has revealed the guilty party.

The ancient Egyptians didn’t have any high-tech labs, of course, but being gods the divine court could call upon other unorthodox techniques. So when Seth stood up in court and revealed he had made Horus his sex-servant there was only one way the court could prove it.

What Seth didn’t realise was when that he and Horus had sex the only biological trace he left behind was on Horus’s hand. Isis chopped off Horus’s hand and threw it into the Nile and made a new one for him. So any ancient Crime Scene Investigator would only find Seth’s “biologicals” in the Nile. The trap set by Isis and Horus was for Horus to leave some of his own biological trace on Seth’s favourite food, lettuce. Yes, lettuce. Sounds silly to us, but lettuce was highly regarded by the Ancient Egyptians. Before the final court appearance Seth had a meal of his favourite lettuce unaware that his plans were about to fall apart.

In court Horus denied Seth’s version of events and says the only way to prove it was, like C.S.I., to find the biological trace. Without the use of those torches and glasses that C.S.I. agents use when looking for evidence of sexual activity on bed sheets, the divine judges called for the biological traces of both Horus and Seth to magically reveal themselves instead.

Sure enough, Seth’s biological trace shouted from the Nile where Horus’s hand had been thrown, while Horus’s biological trace emerged from inside Seth’s body in the form of a shining gold disc. To the court this proved that Seth was lying and that Horus had been the dominant sexual partner and better suited to the throne. The golden disc became a crown and it was placed on Horus’s head.

And that’s the outcome of the earliest recorded gay chat-up line in the world as used by Seth. But what was it? Seth may have only used it as a means to obtain power but it’s still one that is being used to this very day by thousands of gay men. Translated from the Petrie papyrus it reads: “How lovely are your buttocks. And how muscular your thighs”. Though today you’re more likely to hear those words spoken as I’ve pictured them below in some imaginary Egyptian graffiti ….

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Lost Tribes at the Top of the World

Imagine making a discovery proving that people lived in a certain place over 3,000 years before anyone previously thought. Imagine making another discovery of a second previously unknown civilisation who lived there shortly afterwards. Imagine travelling to the top of the world and the nearest land point to the North Pole to do it. That’s what Eigil Knuth, Danish count, explorer, archaeologist and sculptor, did between 1948 and 1950.

Eigil Knuth was born with exploration in his blood. His ancestor turned the family estate into a country park in 1860 and filled it with rare plants gathered from around the globe. Eigil’s grandfather financed an expedition to the Arctic Ocean and Greenland, and gave the compass used by explorer Fridtjof Nansen in the first crossing of the Greenland ice field to Eigil as a birth present.

Discovering lost Arctic tribes was far from Eigil’s mind at first, though Nansen was to be a life-long hero for him. After studying fine art and sculpture Eigil managed to get a place at the gymnastic school of Niels Bukh (the Nazi gym coach who almost became the first gay Olympian). Eigil graduated as a gymnastics teacher in 1932, but before he could get a teaching job he joined the Danish excavations of Norse ruins in Greenland, and it was there that he started a love affair with the island and its culture that lasted until his death in 1996 at the age of 92.

Ever since it was first colonised by the Norse and Vikings in the 11th century Greenland has had close links with Denmark, and many Scandinavian expeditions and explorations were carried out. Eigil’s discovery of lost cultures in Greenland changed the known history of both the island and the Inuit people who migrated there long before the Norse. No-one was prepared for Eigil’s stunning evidence that they had been there long, long before they knew.

At the head of an expedition to the northwest tip of Greenland in 1948 Eigil discovered the remains of Inuit dwelling huts further north than anyone had ever found before. He named the new tribe, and another he found shortly afterwards, the Independence I and Independence II cultures, named after the fjord near which they were discovered (see map).

At first Eigil and the archaeologists believed these cultures to be the same as one already known, but Eigil became increasingly convinced they were new tribes who had travelled from Arctic Canada and across the top of Greenland thousands of years ago. Science and technology came to his rescue. Using radio carbon dating of charcoal from the remains of fires inside the dwellings and of animal bones science proved him right. The Independence I culture, the older of the two, lived over 4,000 years ago – more than 3,000 years before anyone had believed people lived in Greenland. It was a tribe from a civilisation that had been lost in history.

Eigil also found evidence of the Independence I culture on Ellesmere Island in Canada, and suggested that they were a semi-nomadic people who were following the migration on musk ox across the ice and tundra.

For Eigil the arctic regions of Greenland was his paradise. He spent many years excavating sites, and even if he hadn’t discovered two lost Arctic tribes he’d still be important in the study of later Inuit cultures who migrated to Greenland.

Because of his work and discoveries Eigil received awards from the Danish, English and Scottish Royal Geographical Societies. The king of Denmark made him a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog (Dannebrog is the name of the Danish national flag).

Throughout his archaeological career Eigil painted and sculpted. His archaeological note books are full of his drawing and sketches, not only of the artefacts he found but also of the landscapes he saw. Using the various Greenland cultures as inspiration he produced a series of sculpted heads.

With the sexual revolution of the 1960s homosexuality became more acceptable. In his older years Eigil said he wished he had come out publicly as a young man before the sexual revolution had happened. But as many of his obituaries remarked Eigil had a life-long partner – Greenland.

Even at the age of 91 Eigil Knuth was spending the summer in remote northern Greenland at his expedition HQ. He died the following year in Copenhagen. He is regarded as one of the most important polar explorers of the 20th century, and the leading archaeologist in the history of Greenland even if he hadn’t discovered the Lost Tribes at the Top of the World.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Out of Their Trees - An Olympian Mayflower

I haven’t done an lgbt family tree for several months so I thought I’d do one to tie in with the 300-days countdown to the Winter Olympic games in Sochi. I’ve done quite a lot of research on many Olympians – from the famous (including Jayne Torvill and Michael Phelps) to the forgotten (including Margaret Woodbridge and George Beaumont). I’ve covered several lgbt Olympians on this blog already (Lauren Meece, Mark Chatfield, and Susan Gray McGreivy). During many years of research I’ve uncovered new facts. For instance, I became the first to verify that Michael Phelps is descended from Edward III, and that Todd Eldridge and the gymnastic Hamm twins have Mayflower ancestry.

Today I’m taking a look at the ancestry of another Mayflower descendant, a Canadian who celebrates his birthday next week – Toller Cranston.

Toller Cranston won the bronze medal in figure skating at the 1976 Montréal Winter Olympics. He stood on the medal podium on the left-hand side of the great John Curry, who won the gold. Between them, Curry and Cranston brought a new artistic element into men’s figure skating. Curry was known for his graceful and balletic athleticism, whilst Toller brought a more artistic and energetic presentation to technical elements – the jumps and twists – that made them merge seamlessly into the routine. The influence of both skaters remains in men’s figure skating today.

Toller’s ancestry, as you might imagine, has a lot of Canadian blood in it, but there is also quite a lot of American early settler blood as well. The Mayflower Pilgrims are the most well-known.

Some internet websites show that Toller is descended from an impressive 9 Mayflower passengers. My own research can only verify 4. They are John and Elizabeth Tilley, their daughter Elizabeth, and John Howland. The Tilleys were members of the Pilgrim group while Howland was a servant of pilgrim John Carver. Howland later married the Tilley daughter and rose in the Plymouth Colony to become Assistant Governor in 1633.

John and Elizabeth Howland had 9 children. Their second daughter, Hope, married John Chipman who had emigrated to New England in 1631. Chipman became a local magistrate and, in 1670, was appointed an Elder of the Puritan congregation in Barnstable.

John and Hope Chipman’s son, another John, also became a magistrate. Later he was appointed a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and it was his son Handley who took the family blood to the Canadian colonies when he moved to Nova Scotia, and he also became a judge.

Toller’s connection to the justice system in Canada continued in other descendants of Handley Chipman, including Toller’s great-great-aunt Alice who became the second wife of the Premier (and later Governor) of New Brunswick colony Sir Leonard Tilley. As Lady Tilley Alice showed a philanthropic zeal for health and social welfare issues in the colony.

Lady Tilley’s younger sister Annie married Col. Frederick Toller, Sir Leonard’s private secretary and Comptroller of the Dominion Currency. This brought the name Toller into the family and it’s use as a first name. Col. Toller was the first in his family to move to Canada from Devon, England, where the family had lived for over 400 years.

Col. and Mrs. Toller’s daughter Mary Frances married Dr. James Goldie Cranston jr. of Arnprior, Ontario. His grandfather came to Canada from Roxburghshire in 1831. The doctor and his wife were Toller’s grandparents. The Cranston’s probably belong to the Clan Cranstoun. Even possessing a related name Toller will be entitled to wear the tartan and clan badge pictured below.

That is Toller Cranston’s father’s family. His mother’s family, the Chubbs, descend from Charles Chubb, the locksmith who founded Chubb Locks and Safes, so at least Toller should have somewhere safe for his medals! Charles Chubb’s grandson, another locksmith called Charles, emigrated to Canada in the 1860s. His granddaughter Margaret (usually known by her second name Stuart), is Toller’s mother.

So that’s just a quick look at Toller Cranston’s ancestry.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Prehistoric Czech-Mates

Is this the world’s earliest known threesome?

This is really one of those stories where you need to make your own mind up. Most of what archaeologists know about the past comes from evidence. However, where evidence is difficult to interpret that’s when differences of opinion arise. Take the case of this Stone Age triple burial. Archaeologists have several theories and have changed their minds several times since the skeletons were discovered in 1986.

This triple burial was discovered near the village of Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic. The site was destined for industrial redevelopment but the discovery of a major archaeological site put a stop to that. Archaeologists found a settlement dating back 28,000 years or so. Pottery, bones and charcoal fragments were carbon dated and proved this to be the site of the world’s first pottery kilns. But it was the triple burial which created the most discussion among scientists.

My stylised diagram below shows a how the skeletons were positioned when they were discovered. It wasn’t unusual to find a multiple burial like this but it was unusual, even unique, to find them in these positions.

Carbon dating of charcoal found in the remains of a nearby hearth dated the burials to the same date as the rest of the site. The skeletons were of teenagers, certainly not of anyone older than their early 20s. The two outer skeletons were easily identified as male, healthy and well-built, the sort of young man you’d find in that era hunting for mammoths around the swampy settlement. The middle skeleton was more difficult to identify. It was smaller than the other two and frail and it was believed at first to be a female.

Several theories were made to explain why these three were buried together. A young woman who died, buried with her executed husband and shaman who failed to save her life? A bit fanciful. Perhaps a tribal queen and her two husbands? Still quite fanciful without other supporting evidence. Or perhaps siblings who died at the same time from an inherited ailment? Medical examination of the bones provided more evidence of this theory than the other two. But further examination of the middle skeleton produced others.

The middle skeleton has always been difficult to sex. It shows evidence of disease, a curvature of the spine, a fused hip joint and a shortened leg. It could easily belong to a disabled teenaged youth. It would explain why it was smaller and less robust than the others. Several respected archaeologists have suggested this was a young man, which led to even more theories about three skeletons. The unusual positions of the bodies and of remains of items in the grave have given rise to the queerest theory of them all…

Is this a gay threesome?

Here’s the thinking behind that theory. See what you think. I’ll refer to the skeletons as Leftman, Middleman and Rightman.

Middleman was buried first, probably indicating that he also died first. Rightman was buried next with his left arm deliberately intertwined with Middleman’s left arm. Rightman was also buried face down, perhaps the most unusual aspect of the whole scenario. Other burials are face up. Rightman’s face was also turned away from Middleman.

Leftman was buried last. Some archaeologists have even suggested he was buried alive, or at least still breathing at the time but incapacitated. They also suggest that the people who buried him turned his head towards his hands, which they positioned over the groin of Middleman. There’s no doubt in the archaeologists’ minds that all three were placed in these positions deliberately. Most burials are placed on their backs, not touching any other. If you had come across these young men today, sleeping in a bed like this, it would be easy to assume they were all lovers. But why would they bury them like this if they weren’t?

Red ochre, a common mineral in the area used a lot ritually in burials, covers all three skulls. There’s also red ochre underneath Leftman’s hands over Middleman’s groin. Again, historians and archaeologists have given several interpretations for this – the remains of a small ceramic vessel, or, more sensationally, the remain of a pottery dildo (several of them have been found as ceremonial objects). In addition it appears that Leftman had a stake thrust into his groin, or even up his back side. This has been given a sexual interpretation.

Archaeologists think that the way Leftman was impaled by a stake, and the way Rightman’s head was turned away from the others indicates some sort of shame the society attributed to these two. Was it sexual shame?

Did prehistoric man engage in gay threesomes? Is there any reason to suppose they didn’t? Sexual expression was much more overt in their culture, as evidenced in their pottery. It’s an amazing burial, and we can only imagine the type of relationship these three young men might have had, and the manner of their deaths.

And yet the mystery remains. I’ll let you decide – a gay threesome; a woman and her two husbands; or even three brothers who died tragically together. The gay man in me likes to think it is the first of these, but only more archaeological finds and research may help fully explain the strange burial of these Czech-Mates.

Monday, 8 April 2013

"Cabaret" and the Original Man From Galilee

With Easter only just a week past, the thoughts of a man from Galilee are high in the minds of a lot of people. Today, however, I want to write about a much earlier Man from Galilee and his links to 1930s Berlin and the world of the musical “Cabaret”.

Let’s start with “Cabaret”. This musical was based on a play that was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin”. The novel dealt with the Berlin night-life at the time the Nazi’s were rising to power. Isherwood had spent some time in Berlin, staying with Francis Turville-Petre. Francis was a member of the pioneering gay rights group the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, headed by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. Francis introduced Isherwood to Hirschfeld. He also introduced him to some of the seedier sights of Berlin club life.

Francis was well-known on the Berlin gay scene and had acquired the nickname “Der Franny”. Isherwood anglicised this into “Fronny” and used this name for Francis in letters and as a character name in a play. Although Isherwood was uncomfortable with Francis’s blatant promiscuity they remained friends after they both went their separate ways in 1931.

Isherwood was surprised to learn while staying in Berlin that Francis was an archaeologist. “He had directed archaeological digs in Palestine and elsewhere,” wrote Isherwood in “Christopher and His Kind”, “and written articles on his findings for scientific journals”.

Francis Turville-Petre began excavating in Palestine in 1924. At just the age of 24 he carried out the first palaeontological survey of the region. Excavating in what was called locally the Cave of the Robbers, he unearthed part of a skull. It became known as the Galilee Skull or Galilee Man. At first Francis thought it was a Neanderthal skull but further analysis revealed it was much older, belonging, in fact, to a species from which both the Neanderthals and ourselves probably descend – Homo heildelbergensis. It turned out to be a very significant discovery.

The exact evolution of our species is still far from certain. It is usually believed that Homo sapiens descends from Homo heidelbergensis (I’ll refer to this species as “Heildelberg” for simplicity’s sake) who lived in Africa, and that the Neanderthals evolved from Heidelberg who lived in Europe. Heidelberg himself evolved from an earlier African species of hominid (the term use to differentiate between humans and apes and monkeys).

It wasn’t until Francis Turville-Petre found the Galilee Skull that anyone had thought that Heidelberg had gone into Asia. It was the first hominid remains to be found in the whole of west Asia – the original Man from Galilee! Francis acquired his place in the history of evolution research.

Heidelberg remains were first discovered in 1907 in Germany in the area after which they were named. It may have evolved as far back as 1.3 million years and existed until about a quarter of a million years ago. The species is extinct. In many ways Heidelberg is the first “modern human” – it may have been the first hominid to develop a language, or at least give specific vocal sounds to objects. There is also some evidence to suggest that they were the first species to bury their dead.

Based on Francis’s find in Galilee he was invited to join other major archaeological digs in Palestine and Kurdistan, though none of his later finds ever matched the Galilee Skull in historical importance.

By 1928 Francis has stopped digging around for old bones and moved to Berlin in the pursuit of new ones! Isherwood noted his predilection for young men. Francis escaped Germany before the Nazi’s gained power and settled on a Greek island surrounded by a harem of Greek youths. He died in Cairo at the young age of 40 in 1941.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Star Gayzing - The Importance of Being Uranian

When Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” he was putting more than one meaning into the title. On the general level it reflected the lead character’s realisation that being Ernest by name and earnest by nature was the answer to all his problems. But “earnest” had another meaning in Victorian times – or rather the homophone “urnist”. For in Wilde’s time being “urnist” could also describe same-sex attraction.

There were Victorian male poets who wrote of male love grouped under the name of the Uranian Poets. This name, and the term urnist, come from the same root – the ancient Greek name Urania. It was the gay German psychologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs who first used Urania for his description of male sexuality. He came up with several terms, each one describing a gay “type”. These included “urning” (gay man), “unringin” (lesbian), “uranodioning” (bisexual man), and “uraniaster” (straight man who has sex with men).

The use of Urania was picked up in the UK in the 1870s by the above-mentioned poets, though they espoused spiritual attraction rather than Ulrichs' sexual and physical meanings.

But what has Urania got to do with the stars?

There are several Greek gods with related names – Uranus, Urania and Aphrodite Urania. Uranus is the god of the sky and heavens. His name (properly Ouranos) means “heavenly”. He also symbolised everything that was spiritual and divine. Then there were 9 goddess sisters called the Muses who presided over the arts and learning. Each sister had a specific area under her patronage, and Urania was the muse of astronomy – all things in the heavens. In the 17th century the poet Milton, in his “Paradise Lost”, refers to Urania as the spirit of the “loftiest poetry”, another influence for the Uranian Poets, perhaps.

Finally there’s Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, whom the Roman called Venus. She was the daughter of Uranus, born from his severed genitals that were thrown into the sea (Aphrodite means “she who shines from the sea foam”). This motherless birth is commemorated in the famous painting by Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus” (pictured). From the manner of her birth she acquired the name of Aphrodite Urania and became symbolic of love that is spiritual and divine – a love which did not involve women.

In the ancient Greek world male-male sex and love was an important part of the culture. Aphrodite Urania became a patron of male-male love because of her non-female birth. Only later was Aphrodite a patron of “straight” love under the new name of Aphrodite Pandemos (Pan=all, demos=people). It may have been around this time that the various aspects of love and sex had new deities assigned to them – all of them were thought of as children of Aphrodite Urania, and the most famous of them was Eros.

There was always a statue of Eros in Greek gyms. Athletes and soldiers would give offerings and prayers to Eros when they entered, hoping he would give them success in their training, strength in their bodies, bravery in their fighting, and regular sex with their current male partner. It was all part of Greek culture and they would never apply the modern label of “gay” to themselves. I suppose it’s like drugs – is everyone who takes aspirin for a headache a drug addict?

With these three Uranian sky deities it is natural to include them together in my “star-gayzing” series. There is, perhaps, more of an astrological aspect behind the lgbt connections, but they are all to be seen in the night sky all the same. Uranus is, of course, one of the outermost major planets. Aphrodite, as the planet Venus, is clearly visible regularly to the naked eye. Many of the features on Venus are named after lgbt women. The muse of astronomy, Urania, is to be found in the main asteroid belt as Asteroid 30.

Next time you see “The Importance of Being Earnest” or see the planet Venus perhaps you’ll think again about their multiple meanings.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Ology of the Month

At first glance it would seem that archaeology is a strange subject to include in my year of science and technology. After all, what do archaeologists do but dig up the ground and talk about history and dates and such. But if you think about it again you’ll begin to realise how much technology there is in modern archaeology.

One of the most popular programmes on British television since 1994 has been “Time Team”, a series following a team of archaeologists who dig up one site in 3 days. Last week was its last ever programme (except a couple of specials later this year). Every programme featured many scientific techniques used to locate and date their sites. Geophysics were used to locate demolished walls underground by radar or magnetometry, and most people will have heard of carbon dating. Many time x-rays are used to identify objects hidden in clumps of soil. Quite often DNA evidence in also used in modern archaeology, as happened recently with the high-profile discovery of the remains of King Richard III. The interest created by this discovery has seen an upsurge in the media reporting other similar incidents, such as the burial of a medieval knight under another car park and the mass burial of plague victims in London.

Perhaps its just good timing that a big exhibition is being held in the British Museum this year on Pompeii, and I’ll be looking at that particular subject later this month.

Another smaller exhibition of archaeology is held at the Petrie Museum. They hosted a special evening event called “Every Good Thing” for LGBT History Month in February. The event’s organiser, John J. Johnston, a gay Egyptologist, produced this guide to items of lgbt interest several years ago which formed the basis of the event.

Several high-profile lgbt speakers, not necessarily archaeologists, were invited to talk a bout one particular item they liked. Speakers included the gay astronomer Dr Marek Kakula (interviewed many times earlier in the year because of all those meteorites and asteroids flying around), and Prof Greg Woods (a pre-recorded piece, as he was actually standing a few feet away from me in Nottingham’s council house at the time, presenting awards for the lgbt heritage project I co-founded).

Ever since the growth of Queer Theory and queer studies there has been a re-examination of some archaeological finds and sites. Archaeology has always looked at the past from a western heterosexual male viewpoint (except when only an “homosexual” interpretation of the evidence is possible). Queer Archaeology is a growing subject. It grew out of the Queer Anthropology movement which looked at cultures and societies and their sexual attitudes. A pioneer in this field was Margaret Mead, a bisexual anthropologist who made a ground-breaking study of Samoan sexuality at the beginning of last century, and who was a leading inspiration in the Queer Anthopology movement of the 1970s.

Quite often lgbt archaeologists are accused of pursuing a “gay agenda” when interpreting evidence, and it will probably always be a problem as long as the interpretation is based on personal opinion of the evidence. Quite often the new queer interpretations are no more than alternative suggestions and not intended as definitive proof of homosexual behaviour. The whole point being that ancient cultures didn’t have the same attitude, or even definition, that we have for the words “homosexual” or “gay”. As I’ve said several times in the past with regard to the many same-sex relationships in ancient Greece and its mythology, they wouldn’t have thought of themselves as gay. But then, neither would Oscar Wilde, and he’s one of the biggest gay icons there is.

Together with other lgbt archaeological subjects I’ll try to keep my posts in some sort of archaeological order. I’ll be looking at the evidence of homosexual behaviour from around the world – from Egypt to China, from Pompeii to the North Pole.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Sex in the Snow

The Ology of the Month for April is Archaeology. I’ll give a proper introduction tomorrow because here’s the perfect story for today, April Fool’s Day.

Last year I gave you the story of the “gay caveman”. That wasn’t the first time that such an idea had been suggested. This story is an actual April Fool’s joke about a prehistoric mummy found buried in snow which media at the time kept referring to as a “caveman”. Thankfully, they call is an “iceman” these days. The subject is quite topical at the moment because last month there were two documentaries on British television featuring the “caveman” concerned (“The Curse of the Ice Mummy” and “Iceman Murder Mystery”). There’s obviously still a lot of interest in the ice mummy since it was discovered in 1991. So here’s the iceman’s story.

On a cold September day in 1991 two German tourists discovered a body in the snow in the Ötzal Alps on the Italian-Austrian border. At first they thought it was a mountaineer who had got lost and perished in the cold. It wasn’t long before the body was named Ötzi, after the part of the Alps where he was found. After being removed from the  mountain and examined at the University of Innsbruck carbon dating revealed that the body was older than anyone thought – over 5,000 years older, in fact. I needn’t go into the details of the scientific investigations about Ötzi and the causes of his death, but if you’re interested, here is his Wikipedia entry.

As the titles of the documentaries imply there’s a lot of controversial theories surrounding Ötzi, not least of which was who “owns” him. The remote Alpine border between Italy and Austria where he was found obviously isn’t marked by border check-points or huge sign posts so each country’s government claimed he was found on their soil and should remain in their country. Even though Austria claimed Ötzi first, a survey of the area found that he was in fact just short of 100 metres from their border, and so Ötzi is now on display in Italy.

Something about Ötzi inspired many strange theories. Within a year of his discovery, as well as the battle over ownership, the media in the Alpine countries were full of stories such as the body being a modern fraud and scientists covering up the truth. There was even a woman who claimed to be Ötzi’s reincarnation.

But the queerest of all the stories to be circulated was that Ötzi was gay and had sex not long before his death! An article in the Austrian magazine “Lamdba Nachrichten” reported that scientists had found remains of bodily fluid from another man inside Ötzi’s remains which indicated very clearly that he had been on the receiving end of sex. Scientists kept this discovery secret or orders from the Austrian government who weren’t keen on having the Ötzel Alps being turned into some gay pilgrimage site! The magazine announced to the world that Ötzi was the first ever homosexual known to have had sex.

With such a lot of interest in Ötzi already, it was only a couple of days before other European newspapers picked up the stories. Five months later an American news agency got hold of it and distributed it to many lgbt newspapers around the world.

If the American news agency had examined the story more closely it would have realised that the story was just one big April Fool’s joke. The most obvious clue being the date on which the original story was published by “Lamdba Nachrichten” – April 1st! And a look at the photographs of Ötzi available at the time clearly shows that the part of his body where the sexual act was alleged to have taken place didn’t actually survive the mummification process. When the American agency realised what the story was it hastily, and rather embarrassingly, issued a correction.

The whole story of Ötzi’s sex life was invented by the writers on “Lamdba Nachrichten”, a magazine produced by one of Austria’s leading lgbt organisations, Homosexuelle Initiative Wienn (HOSI Wienn). “Lamdba Nachritchen” began publication in 1979 and is still going strong, making it the oldest continuously published lgbt magazine in Austria, possibly even in Europe. Whether the creators of the Özti story realised how much of an impact it would make or not, it certainly remained in circulation for quite a while – 5 months – before people realised it was an April Fool joke.