Wednesday, January 4, 2012


I have learned from past years that when I said I was going to do something new for Ancient Scripts in the new year, I ended up not get to do them because of blah blah blah. So I'm not going to do it this time.

I guess I'll do a recap of sorts for 2011? I didn't get a chance to do much cultural activity with the exception that I did end up going to two very impressive exhibits in San Francisco, the Olmec at the De Young and the Maharaja at the Asian Art.

I already wrote about the Olmec exhibit here, so no need to go there again.

The Maharaja was an amazing exhibit. Not only did the sheer amount of gold, silver, and precious stones like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds (like in the turban ornament to the right) boggle the mind, but the incredible craftsmanship that displayed not just material wealth but also human wealth of the kingdoms and principalities of India. One could really say that India was the richest country in the 18th century before the English plundered it. In fact, the majority of the items in the exhibition either came from the British Museum or the Victoria Albert Museum.

I found the human aspect of the royals quite intriguing as well. Maybe because I'm a guy but I was impressed by the game box that Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar III of Mysore developed. It contains an incredible 11 board games in a beautifully decorated box. It was the PS3 of its day!

Another cool part of the Maharaja exhibition is the Indian-influenced pop artwork done by Pixar animator/artist Sanjay Patel. It was an interesting counterpoint to the classic and traditional art of the exhibition. Check out this mural done in a long corridor:

The Asian Art Museum itself also has the largest collection of Asian art outside of Asia, although it primarily specializes in East, Southeast, and South Asian art. Roaming its galleries is in itself a whole-day affair. I've done it twice and I still find new things.

Here are some pictures I took. Just a small feel of the remarkable collection.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Word of the Day: Boustrophedon

I want to start a new series of blogs to talk about words that I frequently use in Ancient Scripts but sometimes ended up poorly defined because I don't want to make the pages go on too many tangents. Ultimately when I have enough of these "Word of the Day" posts I will collate them into a glossary in Ancient Scripts.

Anyway, here goes the first one.

Back in the day (yes I am THAT old) when we had books and computer screens of only 80 columns by 25 rows, I've never lost my place in a long paragraph. However, now that we have wide displays with high resolution, texts can span for 15 inches! When I reach the end of a line and move my eyes back to the left of the screen to the beginning of the next line, I lose my position in the text! It'd take me a few seconds to get context back and find the right line. It's extremely annoying.

My solution? Bring back boustrophedon!

What is this boustrophedon thing you ask? It's not some high-tech fancy gadget, but instead an ancient way of alternating the direction of writing. In the history of the Greek alphabet, there was a transitional period between the right-to-left direction inherited from Phoenician and the better known left-to-right direction where texts were written in both directions, alternating every line. The letters themselves appeared mirrored depending on the direction of writing.

In the example above, the grey dotted arrows indicate the direction of reading. The first line of the text starts on the left and goes to the right, then continues immediately on the right and goes back to the left. You can imagine a farmer plowing a field with an ox, and when he gets to one end of the field, he turns his ox around and goes in the opposite direction to plow the next row of his field. This is in fact the meaning of boustrophedon, which means "turning of the ox" in Greek.

Rongorongo tablets employed an even more extreme for of boustrophedon called reverse boustrophedon. The glyphs are mirrored both horizontally and vertically, or in other words, rotated 180° every line. The idea, perhaps, was to read one line, turn the tablet 180° upside-down and read the next line. On the example to the left, you can see that the brown glyphs are the same on both line, but they are upside down and mirrored. If anything, this style of boustrophedon fits the meaning of the name much better because the ox and the farmer really do turn 180° each time.

If we take this analogy of "ox turning" to ridiculous heights, then perhaps the most efficient kind of plowing (and writing) would to continuously turn in a circular surface. You might think this is contrived but I have seen verdant circular fields when flying over agricultural heartlands of America. Granted these fields are plowed and irrigated by machines, but the same logic of efficiency holds for writing as well. There is no interruption when the scribe arrives at the end of the line to move down one line. Instead he/she continuously turns the circular surface until he/she runs out of space.

And somebody precisely thought of this principle 3700 years ago. The Phaistos Disc (pictured to the right) is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the only example of a stamped text starting from the outside of the disc and spirals inward in a counterclockwise direction until the text terminates at the very center of the disc. Actually the disc is still undeciphered. The direction of writing is inferred from physical characteristics of the signs themselves.

I just noticed that this Blogger layout I chose is quite narrow. You probably read this whole post without losing your place in the text even once. I guess I've self-defeated my arguments to bring boustrophedon back. Oh well! Next time let's try to bring back logograms.

Monday, September 5, 2011

This Old Building

Alhambra Theater, circa 1906
Courtesy of Martins West GP
It is not often that we have very old buildings in the West Coast of USA. California is a young state with a short architectural and a vigorous geological history. The earliest buildings were the Spanish missions which established the western-most edge of the Spanish Empire in the 18th century. Many other buildings have been torn down for new constructions or destroyed in earthquakes famous in this state. So it is fairly difficult to find an honestly old building, and that is why I've decided to write a quick blog post about my office building, the (former) Alhambra Theater.

One city that time forgot is Redwood City, the seat of the San Mateo county. Years ago the only reason to go to Redwood City was to go to court. Plethora of bail bond shops still dot the downtown area. In fact we jokingly call it "Deadwood City". As a result, many old buildings were left alone and were not demolished for shiny new ones.

However, during the 19th century, Redwood City was a major center for shipping California coastal redwood lumber (hence the name) and a place for wealthy San Franciscans to buy property for estates. It practically went from ranchos owned by old Spanish/Mexican families into a business center overnight.

Although not to the extent of the southerly neighbor Palo Alto or San Mateo to the north, in the past two years the town has picked up steam again and now it is a pretty happening place. It is nice enough (despite the junkies loitering a block away) that the tech startup I work for has moved downtown. In fact we moved into one of the most historical and famous buildings in Redwood City.

Wyatt Earp
My office building, originally called the Alhambra Theater, was built in 1895 and miraculously survived the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. It was billed as the finest theater south of San Francisco. It also included a bar and a restaurant that entertained fine ladies and gentlemen.

One such "gentleman" was none other than the famous lawman/outlaw Wyatt Earp. He was known to frequent the Alhambra quite a bit. His wife, Josie Earp, sang in the Alhambra and he would come to see her perform and have some whiskey later at the saloon.

What the 1906 earthquake couldn't do, the Prohibition did. The Alhambra closed it doors as a saloon in 1920 and it became the meeting hall of the local chapter of Freemasons. It remains so until 1950 when it fell into disrepair. An attempt in 2001 to fix up the building resulted in a catastrophic fire that left only the bricks. In fact, currently the bricks are fully exposed on the inside of the building, and you can easily see the smoke marks on the walls. It adds quite a lot of charm to the place.

Exposed brick walls and fire damage
Finally a few years ago the project restarted and now the entire building is occupied. On the ground floor is a very good gastropub called Martins West with a huge collection of scotch whiskey. Once again a saloon occupies the Alhambra. My company has some of the first floor and all of the second. Even our side reflects the history of the place. The staircase to the second floor is a narrow but beautiful marble staircase. It feels like going to the opera going up those stairs. Then it opens up to an airy 30-feet high ceiling with skylights and exposed brick walls. Perfect for musical theater.

I have a soft heart for stories of the West and it is quite amusing for me to know that everyday I sit in a place where one of the most famous characters of the West used to hang out. I like it when history flows forward.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fasting Coyote

Sorry, Wile E. Coyote, I think you're in the wrong post. This is indeed about a certain "Fasting Coyote", but it's somebody else. In the meantime, go chase after the Roadrunner.

Anyway, I've been puzzled for quite some time by the name glyphs of Nezahualcoyotl and Nezahualpilli, successive kings of the city of Texcoco in 15th and 16th century Central Mexico. Their names literally mean "Fasting Coyote" and "Fasting Prince" in Nahuatl, respectively. Their name glyphs do contain logograms for coyotl "coyote" and pilli "prince". The common part of their name, nezahual is derived from the verb zahua, meaning "to fast". However, I couldn't say what is the glyph for zahua. It looks like a colorful vertical band, topped by two or more vertical colorful bars. In fact at one point I called it "inverted rainbow Π" (as in the Greek letter pi).

In the case of Nezahualpilli, the band is actually bent, like a road around a corner. This proves to be important.

My next step was visiting various Nahuatl dictionary. My usual suspects are AULEX Diccionario náhuatl - español and Nahuatl Dictionary at University of Oregon. I was able to confirm the meaning of zahua as "to fast" but not much else until I did the reverse search in English and discovered the word for "fast", moçaua. In the 16th century Spanish orthography was transitory. Sometimes they used ç instead of z, and also h was becoming silent, thus the inconsistent use of it. Therefore moçaua is really mozahua, which contains the zahua root again.

However, more important was that the entry for moçaua contains a small little picture for a fasting enclosure from Codex Borgia. It looks like this:

The rounded rectangle is presumably the enclosure. While not as colorful, it looks like the zahua glyphs. In fact the version in Nezahualpilli captures the rounded corner of the full structure. I am not really sure about the actual function of this fasting enclosure in context to Aztec rituals and ceremonies, as it's difficult to find more information online. However, at least I think I've figured what the "inverted rainbow Π" is. It is a part of the enclosure that represents the entire structure.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Software and Hard Shell

I recently discovered an interesting translation. Being ethnic Chinese and living and working in the Silicon Valley, I am constantly exposed to technology news in both English and Chinese. One night on the Cantonese news hour I saw the reporter referring to Oracle Corporation as 甲骨 in Chinese. Now, 甲 literally means "shell" and 骨 means "bone". Why would a high-tech software company be translated to this strange name (other than being reduced to bones after paying for their software and services (but I digress))?

Turns out an ancient Chinese script is the intermediary in this strange relationship. The earliest Chinese text were divinations carved on animal bones and turtle shells. These bones and shells were then subjected to heat to form cracks, which a priest would interpret to foretell the future. Because of this usage, Western scholars called this highly pictorial script Oracle Bone Script. However, in China the name of the script was instead 甲骨文, which translates as "shell (and) bone script".

This essentially created an equivalence between English "oracle bone" and Chinese 甲骨, despite the fact that the Chinese word doesn't really imply any kind of ritual divinatory function. Then by semantic shift, 甲骨 came to just mean "oracle" in the mind of the reporter who wrote the first Chinese news article on Oracle Corporation. From there on it entered common usage and eventually onto the news program I saw on television.

Semantic shifts like this happen quite frequently in the history of languages. For example, the word "kleenex" now practically means "soft paper tissue" but obviously it originated from the brand "Kleenex". What other such semantic shifts can you think of?

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Long Walk and Marathon

Pruned fennel at Shoreline Park, Mountain ViewThe weather in the San Francisco Bay Area has turned hot again and I like to take long walks with my family around parks near the shore. One thing I noticed consistently was how many wild fennel plants were growing in the marshy area right next to the bay (as you can see in the picture to the left, which ironically was taken in winter). I've also seen patches after patches of wild fennel growing right on the freeway. I even had one in my front yard, and it was quite a lovely sight until it grew too big and I had to cut it down.

Fennel is not native to North America, being an import from the Mediterranean brought by early European immigrants, but they grow really well here because the Bay Area has a Mediterranean climate. They could be considered an invasive species but they're already pretty much integrated into the landscapes of Northern California.

Fennel is quite a culinary chameleon in that you can use its root (or bulb), its fronds (the frilly leaves), its "seeds" (which are actually fruits) and even its pollen. And it is used in cooking from France to China and anywhere else in between, as also increasingly in regional American cooking. There is even anecdotes of restaurants using fennel in their parking lots when their stock in the walk-in runs out. It has also been used extensively as medicine. It has carminative (gas-relieving) properties that would alleviate stomach ailments. It is also an anticoagulant (prevents blood clots) and a diuretic (makes you want to pee but also lowers blood pressure). It also has low-level contraception properties, and in fact the famous contraceptive of the Classical world, silphium, might have been a relative of fennel.

Fennel is also attested quite early in ancient texts (indeed this is related to Ancient Scripts) and indirectly is quite important to world history. One very famous place in Greece is Marathon, literally meaning "Place of Fennels". In Mycenaean Greek it was marathwon, written as ma-ra-tu-wo. The modern word "marathon", which means a really long run (42 km or 26 miles), came from the semi-legendary feat of a Greek soldier who ran that distance from Marathon to Athens after the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) to transmit the message that the Greeks had prevailed over the Persians. According to the story, the messenger died of exhaustion after delivering his verbal message.

The Hittites, the Mycenaean's eastern neighbors in Anatolia, also wrote about fennel. Coincidentally, among the Hittites fennel also has a martial connotation, but one associated with defeat. According to Durnford and Akeroyd, the Hittites had a ritual of cursing a conquered town to mark it as uninhabitable by planting the seeds of a particular plant commonly written in sumerogram ZÀ.AḪ.LI. Sumerogram is a cuneiform logogram directly borrowed from Sumerian, and as such does not provide any clue to actual pronunciation of the word in Hittite.

However, the recent discovery of a partially preserved "dictionary" of useful plants between Akkadian and Hittite revealed ZÀ.AḪ.LI to be marašḫanḫaš. Through process of elimination and contextual evidence, the authors identified marašḫanḫaš to be fennel.

Why would the planting of fennel seeds be considered to curse a city so it cannot be populated again, especially since fennel has so many beneficial uses? This goes back to my observation of how common fennel is in Northern California only after two centuries of European settlement. The plant grows extremely quickly in rocky or poor soil. When a city falls into disrepair, fennel is likely the first plant to take over the ruins. In other words, the prolific nature of fennel is a symbol of the abandonment of civilized life. Quick ironic to me.

One interesting linguistic observation is that the Mycenaean Greek marathwon and Hittite marašḫanḫaš seem to share a common root, namely *mara(s/t). Since both Greeks and Hittites were Indo-European whose ancestors came from the Central Asian steppes, it is quite likely they adopted the local name for fennel, a securely Mediterranean plant. Hence this common root could be part of a pre-Indo-European linguistic continuum stretching across both sides of the Aegean Sea.

My son loves curry, and I make it pretty much every weekend. I grind my own garam masala, a "warm" spice blend used in Indian cooking. My basic recipe is 3 parts cumin, 2 parts cardamom, 1 part cinnamon, 1 part caraway seeds, 1 part coriander seeds, and 1 part fennel seeds. Not only fennel but all these spices appear in ancient texts. This recipe I'm using could be 5,000 years old.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Answer to Mystery Archaeology Picture

Many of you guessed it is one of Cleopatra's Needles but only Bob McChesney figured it out it's the one in Manhattan's Central Park. Bravo!

In reality Cleopatra's Needles didn't belong to Cleopatra or even carved during her reign. They're actually 1000 years older than Cleopatra and erected by order of Thutmose III in 1450 BCE.

When I saw it a few years ago I was struck by how faded the hieroglyphs were on it. I have also seen the one in Paris and it was substantially in better shape than the one in New York. It was in such bad condition that Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Chief Antiquities Bulldog, issued one of his numerous rants that if New York doesn't take care of the obelisk he'd taken action.