March 31st The Moon on the Aventine Hill

Cycle of the Moon, sketched from photo.

The Moon rules the months: this month’s span ends
With the worship of the Moon on the Aventine Hill.

Fasti by Ovid

I wrote extensively about Selene, recently, in this post.

The Aventine Hill is one of the seven hills of Rome, named after a mythical King Aventinus. Hercules pastured his cattle on the hill, and according to Virgil in his Aeneid, the monstrous Cacus lived in a cave on a rocky slope near the River Tiber. Cacus is killed by Hercules for stealing the cattle. The worship of Minerva also took place here. You can take a Google Earth fly past if you follow this link – also some nice photos, and a link to Wikipedia.

Aventine Hill, Rome Google Earth

The Hill is famous in the mythology of Rome because it is associated with Romulus. He and his twin Brother Remus, were born to the vestal virgin, Rhea Silvia, in the pre-Roman City of Alba Longa, not far away. Rhea was the daughter of former King Numitor, and in her sacred grove she was seduced by the God Mars, and gave birth to the twin boys. They had to be hidden from the wrath of their Granduncle, who had usurped the throne from their Grandfather. During this time they survived, saved by the River God Tiberinus and then by being suckled by a Wolf in a cave called the Lupercal, which is/was at the foot of the Palatine Hill in Rome.

When they grew up they helped their Grandfather reclaim the throne (as they were obviously very good at the art of war). They decided to found their own City but they could not decide upon which hill to build it or who to name it after (accounts vary!). Remus favoured the Palatine, Romulus the Aventine (or vice versa). They decided to let the Gods decide. Remus claimed to have won when he saw a flight of 6 auspicious birds but Romulus saw 12 declared himself the winner. The City was named Rome in his honour, and it was founded on the Palatine Hill, with the Aventine originally outside the circuit.

The two fell out and Remus was killed. The story was first written down in the Third Century BC but Rome claimed to have been founded in 753BC so there is a lot of dispute about the creation myths of Rome.

But they continue to be told and celebrated in a way that we have forgotten in Britain as we ignore our creation myths of King Brutus, relative of Romulus and Remus, merely because they are unlikely to be true!

Digital Heritage. Town Exploration. Virtual Amsterdam

You may have been following my ramblings on my attempts to work out Amsterdam’s history from maps and tramping the streets. But you might want to find out more about the History of Amsterdam from your armchair. So, this is my exploration of virtual Amsterdam. But bear in mind the ideas here can be used in any town exploration.

But if you have only a little time, here are my best tips for exploring Amsterdam online.

First, below is a very good 15 minute introduction to Amsterdam history on YouTube.

Try this Google Earth satellite view of Amsterdam and have fun exploring! Then put your feet up and explore the Van Gogh collection in all its excellent online glory.

But if you have a little more time, lets look at the options as to how the Internet can help you discover Amsterdam.

Online Encyclopedias


Encyclopedia Britannica | Britannica –

I quite often edit Wikipedia pages when I come across entries which are out of date or wrong. The quality of information can be variable but mostly its good. And reading the Amsterdam Page, as long as you are prepared to follow up some of the hypertext links, such as to the ‘Canals of Amsterdam’ or the ‘Defence Line of Amsterdam’ you can get a good idea of the history. But Wikipedia, however great for humanity, is none-the-less aspiring to be an encyclopedia, and not either literature, travel-writing, non-fiction nor entertainment. It is certainly not a virtual tour, and it takes quite a lot of timeto get a good overview of the City and it is not really something I ever do for ‘enjoyment’.

Encyclopedia Britannica has been published exclusively online since 2016 and it is a better read than Wikipedia, less rambling and more to the point. Definitely a better starting point, but still a long read, and, again, something I can’t remember reading with pleasure.


There are a number of video lectures/talks/tours on YouTube for free and I will just mention a few – please let me know if you find anything else interesting and I will add it here.

I’ve already linked to the 15 minute ‘A Quick History of Amsterdam (That Dam Guide), which is well put together and gives a good summary. Not enough about the walls in my opinion, and probably a little too much about the major drivers of historical change and not enough about the specific details of what made Amsterdam the town. That is probably asking too much for a 15 minute introduction. And, in effect, this guide is an advert for ‘That Dam Guide’ and the author’s guided virtual tours. He does live streamed 1 hour Amsterdam Tours (none on in March) Very good production values too.

Searching for ‘Amsterdam Virtual Tour’ brings me to the: The Amsterdam Drone Tour which gives a largely drone-eye view of Amsterdam, with slightly annoying music and not enough captions to really feel you are getting to know streets, areas and districts, but it does give an interesting ‘overview’. It is 9 minutes long.

A Free Virtual Tours Amsterdam is an interesting intro to Amsterdam in two 5 minute videos. It does give you some more of, what I would call, ‘structural’ analysis of the history and development of Holland/Amsterdam. It is, to an extent, complimentary to ‘That Dam Guide’. I should not be mentioning it as the ‘Free Walks’ groups are deadly rivals to ‘London Walks’, who I do my walks for. We have a fixed fee for a professional guide, while the Free Walks say they are free but put a lot of pressure on to get customers to pay up a reasonable amount (or so we think!).

Another ‘Tips based’ guide on YouTube is Tim, who gives a 20 minute free walking tour. This one is more of a real virtual walk, as it is a filmed guided walk, with all its imperfections. But, very good in terms of authenticity.

Google Earth

This uses the Google Earth satellite view of Amsterdam, with pins marking many, but by no means all, places of interest. Each place has a little information, and often, a link to Wikipedia. Clicking on the ‘more information’ tab brings up further, and sometimes an extensive number of pictures. There is also a paper aeroplane tab, and this brings up a virtual fly-past which is fun. I was looking for a tab for the Waag, which is one of the remaining gates of old Amsterdam, but I cannot find a tab for it. Nor a search button, which hinders the usefulness of the system. But it is definitely fun!

I have just gone back to Google Earth, found the search icon on the left of the screen, overflown my house, and then searched for the Waag, which I found and here it is! Follow the link to do the fly-past.

Google Earth view of the Waag, City Gate, Dissection Theatre, and now a Restaurant.
My house, on google-earth, to the south of the Canal is a strip of Grass, I live at the extreme left of that strip of grass.
My house, on google-earth, to the south of the Canal is a strip of Grass, I live at the extreme left of that strip of grass.

I would definitely use this to explore, and, if I were to be giving a guided tour of Amsterdam I would, indeed, use it in advance to consolidate my knowledge. It has the advantage that it brings to your attention things you would otherwise not know about, and gives a really clear idea of what the place is and what its environment looks like. For example it brought to my attention the houseboat museum, which is now on my must-see bucket list, previously unknown to me.

By the way, I found the Google Earth tour on this blog: which has other interesting tips for exploring virtual Amsterdam.

Guided Walks Apps

I thought these didn’t really count as they are designed to give a smart-phone based on location walking tour and not an armchair guide. is linked to GPS and the user can either access other people’s guided walks, or create their own. I tried it out in Stratford-on-Avon and found it remarkably easy to do. You find the places you want on the tour, and the app ‘sucks in’ the data and pictures from Wikipedia. So within a few minutes you have, a credible, guided tour and a GPS route around the City. In fact, I found it most useful just for creating my own walking routes – much easier than Google, or CityMapper, Just put in the stops and soon your SmartPhone will be dictating your route to you!

But you don’t have to access it via an app, in fact, if you are not going to Amsterdam, its better to visit the web site, and you can go to this link, scroll down and you will see a map, and the text for all the stops on the tour. Quite a good introduction, although not inspired. (Its possible you might need to login but I’m not sure as I do have a login.)

Another example is izi-travel, but this provides free and paid for audio guides. Again designed for a smart-phone app to guide around the location, but it can also be accessed on a computer at home. So here is the link to the Amsterdam tour – there are several to choose from.

I would definitely use gpsmycity on tour – I didn’t because I dropped my phone in the oily bilge of my boat, and it went insane for about 2 hours, and reset a lot of my settings, and deleted a few of my apps, including gpsmycity, before deciding to stage a recovery. Izi-travel I have had loaded for several years, and never used, but now listening to it I might have used it like a radio show to introduce me to Amsterdam. I’m also wondering about making my very many guided walks into virtual guided walks on apps like this.

Museum On Line Tours

The Amsterdam Museum should be the museum I would be pointing to for a great on line tour about Amsterdam’s History but it has a temporary Web Site while it works on opening a new Museum. The web has interesting stuff on it, and has the collection online, but nothing that pulls it together like an exhibition, or really gives you much of an introduction to the history of Amsterdam which is very disappointing.

The Van Gogh Museum, by contrast, has an excellent online collection which can be seen, as if a virtual exhibition. But this is much easier for an art museum than a history museum, for two main reasons: the art works are more immediately visually appealing that many objects in Museum Collections which often require context to understand; and art collections are much smaller than history museum collections and so easier to see as a ‘tour’.


There is nothing to beat walking around a City in the real world. There is nothing, yet, that even comes close to it. Smart Phone tours offer an easy way to tour the physical city, but its difficult to find content on line which provides a really enjoyable armchair online substitute.

The way I explore a City, after finding the walls of course(!), is to read a good guide book. Then buy a good non-fiction history of the city, and search the second hand bookshops for histories/guides/maps and that very special book that noone has heard of and no one knows about which gives unique insights/information that a good guided tour needs. Finally, I try to read a famous novel set in the City, or if in need of light relief, find a local fictional detective.

Podcasts, and ChatGBT also need to be explored.

Remember, if you want more Amsterdam to explore visit here:

March 28th As Mad as a March Hare

Hares Boxing in Yorkshire by yorkshireroestalking

The expression ‘Mad as a March Hare’ comes from the displays of hare boxing that takes place as the Hare mating season begins. And no, its not male hares fighting in the spirit of romantic rivalry, its the female hares fighting off unwanted attention from the males. Hares are solitary creatures, and the mating season is, perhaps, particularly difficult for them. The Country File web site has more on the subject.

There are also March Kittens and March Chickens. Edward Topsell in his ‘History of Four-footed Beasts‘ 1607 says the best Kittens to keep are those born in March. ‘The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened‘ 1669 says: ‘Keep a black cock hatched in March as a protection against evil spirits: his crowing terrifies them.’

He also give a recipe for Cock Ale: eight gallons of Ale, a boiled March Cock, four pounds of stoned Raisins, half a pound of dates, nutmegs, mace. Beat the ingredients in a mortar add to two quarts of Sherry. Add to the ale. Stop it in a container for 6 or 7 days. Bottle it, drink after a month. Let me know if you try it!

The hare is a sacred animal, it was sacred to Aphrodite:

‘For you know, I imagine, what is said of the hare, that it possesses the gift of Aphrodite to an unusual degree. At any rate it is said of the female that while she suckles the young she has borne, she bears another litter to share the same milk; forthwith she conceives again, nor is there any time at all when she is not carrying young.’

Classical Texts Library. Philostratus the Elder, ‘Imagines’ Book 1.1-15 c 3rd Century AD. Translated by Arthur Fairbanks.

In ‘The Battle for Gaul’ Julius Caesar writes: “The Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose.” Research reported by Exeter University suggests that hares were worshipped in pre-Roman Britain. In Neolithic Ireland hares were found buried with human remains at the Neolithic court tomb at Parknabinnia.

illustration of a hare from 1873 fom the London Illustrated Almanac
The Hare

Hares are thought to be the original Easter Bunny although finding good evidence before Germany in the early modern period is difficult. There is a tradition that Witches can be scared away at Easter. Exactly, how this works is not very clear, but it has been said that Witches could take on the form of a hare, and so Hare Pie and hare meat was eaten at Easter to rid the land of the witches. For a fuller discussion of hares and folklore click here:

A jointed hare’s foot was considered very lucky and a remedy against gout, stomach pains and insomnia. (The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore by Charles Kightly which I have used several times in this piece.)

March 25th The Beginning of the Universe as we Know It; Birthday of Adam, Lilith, Eve; Conception of Jesus, Start of the Year

Lilith is shown coming her hair and looking in a mirror
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia)

March 25th is the day that the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is pregnant. But it is also the anniversary of the birth of Adam and Eve (and presumably Lilith); the death of Jesus Christ; the anniversary of the Immolation of Isaac; the Parting of the Red Sea; the Fall of Lucifer; and, (until 1752 in the UK) the beginning of the Year.

Of course, it isn’t or to put it another way, no one can, or ever could, prove any of these dates except the last one. So what they speak to is the way the Church saw the world as logical structured by God. Christian thinking about the year, the world, the universe, creation, developed over many years and took influences from many cultures. Its also very complicated to work out the sequence, so I’m going to summarise from what I know (or at least what I think I know).

Christians chose Christmas Day as the Birthdate of Jesus because it was a prominent birthday already shared with several Gods but particularly Mithras and Saturn. It was approximately at Solstice, the beginning of the Solar Year, and close to one of the main festivals of the Roman World, the Saturnalia.

So Jesus was born on/or around the Solstice, so he would be conceived approx. 9 months earlier which would be around the Spring Equinox. I have always thought that the 4 or 5 days difference between the Solstice, the Equinox and the Christian festivals was down to the fact that the Calendars were not well coordinated with the actual movements of the Sun. But I have just realised the importance of something I discovered yesterday when preparing these two posts on the Annunciation. And since writing that sentence have had another revelation. But be patient.

So, God sends his Son to save the human race. God is a logical being so she would send her Son at an appropriate time. If the Child is born at or near the Solstice, which is an appropriate time for the Son of the Creator, then 9 months earlier, March 25th, is near the Equinox, which is the beginning of Spring. For many people Spring is a new beginning, for example, the Anglo-Saxons saw Winter as the death of the year, and Spring as the young Year.

So to the Creation. God, having a free choice, would have created the world at the beginning of Spring. In fact, if you think about it, God creates everything necessary for life at the creation in 6 days and it is going to immediately spring into new life, and the first season must, therefore, be Spring? So March 25th.

This gives a nice symmetry with Jesus’s Life. Conceived on March 25th, born December 25th, and died 30-40 years later, according to the Church, on March 25th. (the only other famous person I know born and died on the same day is William Shakespeare).

Easter, when Jesus is martyred, isn’t March 25th I hear you saying. But remember Easter is a lunar festival so its date varies each year. Birthdays, on the other hand, are fixed to the Solar Calendar and the Church chooses March 25th as the most appropriate day to pin the death of Jesus, on the anniversary of his conception and the anniversary of the creation of the Earth, and I am guessing that this is also the preferred date for the Day of Judgement.

It is also the Birthday of Adam, and his first wife Lilith (or so some say), and Eve. More about Lilith below. I thought this date was just one of the parallels that the Church liked, Jesus and Adam born on the same day but, yesterday I worked out why Adam is born on March 25th, and why these dates are not March 20th but March 25th, which has been bugging me.

Let’s go back to the Beginning of Creation. According to the Anno Munda‘s arrangement of the Year, the world was created 5500 years plus 2023 years ago so 7523 Before the Present. And it was supposed to have ended in 600AD, 6000 years after the Creation. But, ignoring that, the Creation, as described in Genesis, has the following sequence of Seven Days. As the Creation began at the Equinox March 20th. I have added dates to the 6/7 day sequence of Creation:

  • Day 1: Light – March 20th
  • Day 2: Atmosphere / Firmament – March 21st
  • Day 3: Dry ground & plants – March 22nd
  • Day 4: Sun, moon & stars – March 23rd
  • Day 5: Birds & sea creatures – March 24th
  • Day 6: Land animals & humans – March 25th
  • Day 7: The Sabbath of rest – March 26th
  • For more information

So there you have it! Adam, Lilith and Eve were created on Day 6 with the Land Animals – March 25th. Jesus conceived, also on this date, and so 9 months later is born on December 25th. It all makes sense, and aligns the Christian year fully with the Solar Year.

And that, dear Reader, is the very first time any one has been able to explain to me why Christmas is not at the Solstice, and why the Annunciation was not at the Equinox. Maybe you all know this but its very exciting to work this out for myself. And believe me I have done a lot of reading about Calendars and not spotted an explanation!

So that was yesterday’s revelation. What about the revelation I had about 45 minutes ago? (now about 5 hours). When writing items like this, there are a lot of things that are interconnected, and I begin writing them before realising I am interrupting the story I am trying to tell. This is often to the detriment of the story arc, or to understanding (although often, I think, adds to the joy of this blog – after all ChatGBT couldn’t write this stuff – could it?).

So I began to write about Dionysius Exiguus and his invention of the AD/BC system and about eras, cycles and ages. (He replaced the Anno Mundo year with the AD/BC system in the 6th Century AD).

I was thinking about the beginning of the year. The Celts chose October 31st, Julius Caesar chose January 1st, other cultures have other dates, and the Spring Equinox is another choice sometimes made. The Church and Dionysius Exiguus choose March 25th, although secular society also recognised the claims of January 1st. Britain kept to this system until 1752 when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar. But people like Samuel Pepys celebrated New Year on 31st December. But the year number did not change until March 25th. So King Charles I thought his head was being cut off on January 30th 1648; while history books will tell you it was cut off on January 30th 1649. Same day, different reckonings.

December 31st/January 1st is essentially a Solstice New Year Festival. And I have, previously, used the difficulty of keeping calendars as to why these days has slipped out of alignment with the Solstice. But today I realised that it is as likely that the reason is the Solar/Lunar nature of our time keeping. The year and its festivals is largely arranged around the Solar Cycle. But our weekly and monthly cycles are derived from the Moon. So, I think that January 1st would originally have been the First New Moon after the Winter Solstice! Keeping the Moon months and the Sun years in sync is very, very difficult and so Roman and Christian cultures gave up and fixed the moon months, completely abandoning any attempt to keep the months to the actual lunar cycle. This is our current system, in which only Easter remains a true to the moon festival much to our perennial confusion.

Maybe you all know this, but I’ve learnt a lot in writing these two posts..

The April 2023 Issue of ‘History Today’ has a short piece called ‘The Liberation of Lilith’ which suggests that the story of Lilith, a figure from Jewish Folklore, is first attested in a Medieval satirical text called ‘The Alphabet of Ben Sira’. The story goes that Lilith is created using the same clay as Adam. Adam then demands she lies below him during sex. She refuses, saying that they are both made from the same stuff and, therefore, equal. Adam refuses to accept this and so Lilith leaves the Garden of Eden. So the story goes.

The story of Lilith, Sarah Clegg suggests, is one of a series of similar stories found around Europe and Asia. And Clegg assumes that it is modified to make Lilith a demon who will kill babies unless the names of three angels are spoken out loud. So, the story survives as a charm to keep babies safe, and perhaps to remind people of equality among the sexes. But this causes problems for, OK, lets call them, the Patriarchy. Lilith becomes a monster, not made from the same clay as Adam but from the scum and waste left over from Adam’s creation. I imagine the story then went on to suggest that God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, and so she is created from Adam, and is subservient to him. Lilith is now a very important figure in feminist folklore cycles

I wrote about more about eras and ages in my post which you can see her: Greater Cycles and the Six or Seven Ages

Attached to the watercolour of Lilith at the top of the page by Rossetti, was a label with a verse from Goethe‘s Faust as translated by Shelley. (Wikipedia)

“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”

The model is Fanny Cornforth Rossetti’s mistress. He painted another version a few years later but the model in that is Alexa Wilding. His models are arguably more interesting than the man himself and include: Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth. Christina Rossetti, his poet sister, modelled for yesterday’s Rossetti painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini!

I think I might have enough material to begin my own Cult.

March 25th Feast of the Annunciation

Duccio's painting of the Archangel Gabriel bringing the news to Mary that she is to be the Mother of the Son of God.
Duccio’s The Annunciation. Egg Tempera on Wood c 1307-11

Today, is the anniversary of the conception of Jesus Christ. 9 Months before Christmas.

The picture above is by Duccio, from Sienna in Italy. It shows the Archangel Gabriel bringing Mary the news that she is to give birth to the Son of God. It is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. I chose it to represent March 25th as it has a special meaning to me. When I suggested taking my groups to the National Gallery I was surprised to find myself agreeing to leading a tour of the Gallery. For an archaeologist to give an Art History Tour was a particular thrill. I decided the only way I could do it was to find a narrative thread to pull my tour together, and my choice was the development of perspective. I had been reading a book on the subject by David Hockney.

The painting shows that Duccio does not understand single-point perspective. But then, no one could do perspective at that time in Europe. This skill was lost following the Roman Period, but here at the beginning of the 14th Century, painters like Duccio from Sienna, and Giotto from Florence, were groping towards more realistic representation. You might say they wanted a more human depiction in which events are shown in spaces that are trying to look real, filled with more realistic looking people and beginning to show on their faces what can be interpreted as real emotions. Previously, the Byzantine style produced iconic, storytelling images, that were somewhat cartoon-like rather than realistic. Here, is an detail from one such, where there is little attempt to make the encounter seem real, in a real space between real people. But it does tell the story effectively.

The Annunciation, St Catherine's Monastery,   12th Century. showing the archangel gabriel telling Mary about the conception of jesus
The Annunciation, St Catherine’s Monastery, 12th Century.

Now, look at the Duccio, he uses the arcading at the top of the painting to give an impression of this being an encounter in a real space, and the Archangel Gabriel is moving through that space decisively. This is not just a picture with a story, this shows Duccio’s interest in capturing a fleeting but incredibly emotional moment. It happens to be the most important moment in the history of the world (from a Christian view point), the moment that the son of God is conceived as a human.

Gabriel is striding towards Mary, who has come out of her house to see him. He is just telling her ‘Hey, you are going to give birth to the Son of God.’ She looks overwhelmed, holding her arm protectively towards her. ‘What me?’ she might be saying but is also pointing at the Bible where this moment in time is predicted by Isaiah. Their faces are rounded, and realistic, Mary is clearly emotional. Also if you look at Gabriel’s feet he is quite well grounded unlike many other medieval paintings, where people often seem to be floating above the ground. Mary, too is firmly, anchored, although you cannot see her feet. It’s by no means ‘perfect’ because they don’t know the rules of perspective, not yet have discovered they could use lenses to develop the ability to do photorealistic portraits but they are searching for methods that can bring spaces and people towards realistic life. It mirrors a humanistic trend to see Mary not as sort of Goddess, but as a real mother.

Above the arcading can be seen a small sphere of blue sky from which emanates several ‘rays’ and a tiny Holy Dove. As I told the story, the rays are showing the moment of conception coming from Heaven to her womb which is hinted at by the red of her dress. The National Gallery commentary, which you can read here, suggests ‘The conception takes place at the moment she hears the words, which is why a tiny white dove, representing the Holy Ghost, flies towards her ear‘. This made me stop and think – the tiny dove is heading to her ear is it? Really? Why? Gabriel is the messenger saying the words, the words head to the ear. The Holy Dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, part of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Its role, in the painting, is to show that God is the Father. So why, would the Holy Spirit enter by the ear?

I have been using a ruler to try to see if the National Gallery are right! It’s difficult to be sure with a reproduction. but my ruler says the rays from Heaven are neither heading to the ear not directly to the womb but in the general direction of her body. If they are right that the rays from heaven are heading for her ear, then is this rather the moment she is being told she will conceive rather than the moment of conception?

But the National Gallery text accepts that it is the moment of conception that is shown. So, I’ve looked at Luke 1:26-38:

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

On first reading he is telling her she will conceive, but reading it more carefully he is saying ‘now, you will conceive’. So Duccio is paying very careful attention to the Gospel and by the time Gabriel finishes his sentence she will have been impregnated by the Holy Dove.

Looking at other paintings of the Annunciation the rays from heaven/Holy Ghost head generally towards the virgin, sometimes to her head, nothing suggesting the ear. I’ve included a 19th Century Rossetti painting because it is so beautiful. It shows a lilly representing purity, instead of the rays, pointing to Mary’s womb.

By the way look at the feet in Rossetti’s painting. This is an early Rossetti painting, who was poe and he did not have the skills to ground feet, but he takes advantage of it in this case and disguises his ineptitude by giving Gabriel fiery feet. Subsequently, Rossetti concentrated on paintings of women from the waist up. More on the Annunciation tomorrow.

Veronese ‘The Annunciation’
The Annunciation by Rossetti originally known as Ecce Ancilla Domini! 1849 - 1850
The Annunciation by Rossetti originally known as Ecce Ancilla Domini! 1849 – 1850

Town Exploration Amsterdam 3 Making sense of the Canals & Defenses

Plan of Amsterdam Wall Circuit

So, I have built up a story of a Medieval City Wall of Amsterdam with a moat around it and the Amstell flowing through the middle. In the 17th Century the defenses are developed and a set of concentric canals are built.

You can see the details in the schematic plan above. Defensive circuit around the outside, concentric circles of canals inside. The first doubt came to my mind when the pilot of the tourist boat we took around the canals said the concentric rings were built up outwards progressively from the 13th Century onwards.

So, this must mean the original circuit was small and the later circuits expanded the size of the City. Just have a look at a modern plan for a moment.

City plan

Therefore, the medieval circuit was the inner concentric ring and the latest 17th Century circuit was the outer ring. So at least two different defensive perimeters. Let’s look back at the earliest plan of Amsterdam.

The oldest view of Amsterdam by Cornelius Antonisz 1538

This shows the City wall, the port on the seafront at the bottom of the painting with the River Amstel running through the middle of the City, and canals running parallel. There is a moot running outside the wall circuit. This moat is not, as I previously thought, the outer circuit as shown on the modern plan, or on the grey plaque. It is, in fact, the inner circuit. I’ve just looked it up and the moat is called the Singel, originally called the Stedegracht (“City Canal”).

Look at the Google map. The inner blue circuit is the Singel, the original moat and medieval defensive wall. The word Amsterdam is written above where the Singel meets the Amstell. The outer circuit is the 17th Century defensive circuit. You’ll see the icon of Rijksmuseum on this outer canal.

Google Map of the Hiatoric Centre 0f Amsterdarm
Google Map of the Hiatoric Centre 0f Amsterdarm

Now, a bit of research shows that the Pilot on the boat was repeating an old tale that the canals were progressively expanded from the medieval period onwards. He suggested that as Amsterdam grew it built itself another circuit of canals. But wikipedia assures me this is wrong. What happened was that Amsterdam became so overcrowded in the 17th Century that the authorities had to do something and what they decided to do was to enlarge the City and built a grid of concentric canals linked by linear canals, with an outer circuit of defensive bastions. surrounded by a final concentric canal. The main engine of development was commercial success followed by massive immigration. Its an amazing story of foresight. It meant that Amsterdam’s merchants could all enjoy direct access to goods coming by river and sea, or to shipping if they were exporting.

Each merchant had a tall thin warehouse/workshop of 5 to 7 stories high with a gable with a pole built into it for a pulley to lift goods up from the barges moored outside the merchants house. These houses are mostly of brick although the richest have the trappings of classical columns, and staircases leading up to the first floor. And Amsterdam also had the foresight to keep these merchants houses, and not knock them down. So a large percentage of the centrum of the City is still made up of these brick merchants houses. In the prestigious areas they are banks and offices, elsewhere shops, and houses.

This is a defensive tower on the medieval circuit

Defensive tower on the Medieval Defensive Circuit
Defensive tower on the Medieval Defensive Circuit

I’m not sure if this insight into my working process is enjoyable or not. Its something I have always done because for many years I have enjoyed leading guided walks, and cultural study tours around historic towns in the UK and Europe. In order to feel confident about the tour I have to feel I know the City, and how it articulates, and developed through time. Often it isn’t just a case of reading a guide book or wikipedia. It needs quite a lot of work to understand what is happening are what are the structural elements that led to the City as we see it today. I doubt for example, I would have realised that the Pilot was wrong, had I not had an image of the 16th Century City in my mind to compare with what he was saying.

Another 16th Century view of the original core of the town (by Cornelis Antonisz
Another 16th Century view of the original core of the town (by Cornelis Antonisz

Town Exploration Amsterdam 2 Finding the Walls!

Amsterdam City Wall photo K. Flude

Oh! A glorious find! As I said yesterday, I wasn’t sure there was going to be a wall.  But I headed towards the outer of the concentric rings of canals, thinking this is where a defense would be.  I almost went straight to the centre but decided I had to give it a try so walked around the inner side of the outer canal.  And almost immediately I found this slab of ruin.

The Wall!  I thought but was it?  And there was a panel with a plan.

Plan of Amsterdam Wall Circuit

The panel links to this Dutch language site which seems to say in 1663 Amsterdam was given a 5 metre high City Wall.  It talks about 5 sided ‘bolwerken’ which are bastions designed to withstand cannon fire.  And this bit of the wall is near the Osdorp bolwerk.

I then met my daughter and we went to the Rembrandt House which was interesting but very heavily reconstructed and in part difficult to know what was original and what a reconstruction.

Rembrandt House, Amsterdam. Photo K.Flude

In the display was a Rembrandt Etching which features a section of the City Wall and a Windmill.  It is dated to 1641 and so it suggests the 1663 date is for the bolwerken not the wall circuit as such.

The Windmill Rembrandt 1641

The mill was called the Little Stink Mill because it was used in the smelly process of making chamois leather.

There was a plan of the city in Rembrandt’s day but difficult to photo. Our next stop was the Amsterdam Museum which I had insisted we visited to find out information about the history of the City

The oldest view of Amsterdam by Cornelius Antonisz 1538

This shows the City wall with bastions, the port on the seafront at the bottom of the painting with the River Amstel running through the middle of the City, and canals running parallel. There is a moat running outside the wall circuit. What is missing is the concentric ring of canals which now exist inside the wall circuit.

Just to remind you of the current city plan.

City plan

This needs to be turned upside down to match the 16th Century view. A panel in the museum’s notes that Amsterdam is first documented in the late Thirteenth Century. The Protestant Netherlands broke away from the Catholic Hapsburghs in the 16th Century. I’m guessing the walls were built in the late 15th or early 16th Century as the one section I’ve seen is of brick.

So, now I’ve been doing a little research after returning from a visit to the sobering Anne Frank Museum – please remember to challenge prejudice whenever it raises its ugly head. Amsterdam was able to develop into a major town, when a flood turned the shallow river Ij into a wide waterway that linked the Amstel River to the Zuiderzee and the Ijessel in the 12th Century. This gave access to the sea and to the Rhine. It allowed the draining of the banks of the Amstel and with the building of a dam, gave birth to Amsterdam, the Dam on the River Amstel,

In the medieval period the walls were built and bastions added in the 17th Century. In the 17th Century the concentric canal circuits were built and every area given its canal frontage. Virtually all the buildings on the canals have bars protruding from the gable from which to mount a pulley to transfer goods from barge to warehouse, or vice versa,

Between 1880 and 1920 an amazing new defensive circuit was constructed around Amsterdam, which depended up a shallow flooding of the land. But it soon became obelete but is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Oh, and to add to what I said, yesterday, the world’s first Stock Exchange was built in Amsterdam in 1602, the same year the Dutch East India company was founded.

It’s a great City, with lots to enjoy, Big enough to be exciting, small enough to be manageable. Full of cyclists on tall upright bikes, chatting to each other as they cycle. I have seen a lot of cyclists riding with their hands in their pockets or holding an umbrella, and it is the first City I have been terrified of crossing the road because of the bikes who seem to ignore pedestrians and expect them to get out of the way; and the trams that hurtle along.

Town Exploration Amsterdam 1

The Canals of Amsterdam

I’ve relieved of the necessity to search for the Town Walls of Amsterdam without prior research by the fact that I am here to see my daughter who has recently broken her ankle, so she has an excuse for refusing to go on forced forced marches around the City.

I haven’t yet had a good look at a map, but the pattern of Canals circuling the centre is amazing and it seems possible there was no need for walls, when the centre is protected by so many rings of water.

I don’t know much about Amsterdam, but it reminds me of the surprising fact that Holland was a major power in the 17th/18th Century. I discovered this on a visit to Kerala in India where I realised that Portugal had a vast empire which was largely taken over by the Dutch in the 17th Century and then taken over by the British in the 18th Century.

It was one of the major pivots in world history. These three countries were small peripheral seafaring nations of no great importance in Europe until the Age of Discovery. Portugal set up trading systems (perhaps rather systems of exploitation) first down the coast of Africa and then to India and beyond. The Dutch then took over the trading stations and took control of the spice routes. Then the British took over.

Previously the spice routes from the East came through Egypt, Greece, Rome, Carthage and later the Ottoman and the Venetian Empires. This made the Mediterranean the richest place in Europe, both north and southern coasts.

The new ocean routes led to a major shift in power from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, leading to the current situation where the Mediterranean is no longer the centre of the world. Greece, Southern Italy, North Africa now under performing economies. A Roman would find this hard to believe.

Portugal, then Holland followed by Britain rose to the status of world power which would, itself, have been inconceivable before the 16th Century.

Holland was in the perfect geographic position astride the trade routes that lead to the heart of Europe. The entry point was the major river systems around the Rhine/Danube axis including the Rhine, the Scheldt, the Waal, and the Amstel. Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam developed from regional trading towns to global Cities. They spawned a self confident set of merchants who set the foundations of modern capitalism with foundations in spices and slaves.

Central to this was the Dutch East India Company. The first organisation in Europe where an investor only risked their investment rather than the shirt off their back in the event of bankruptcy. This let the shackles off investment, took money out of gold in the bank vaults and multiplied it around the economy.

But not only did it take away the risks of the consequences of investment the Dutch East India Company, set up in Amsterdam in 1602, was given quasi state power, with the ability to fight wars and impose laws on subject populations. This template was copied by the British East India Company which conquered and ran India, setting the seal for the British Empire and Capitalism.

March 20th Spring Equinox

Video by Heike Herbert of Druids at the Spring Equinox at Tower Hill, London

So, Spring has sprung. We are 20 days into the meteorological Spring (started 1 March) and now starting the astronomical or solar Spring. The 20th of March is the Spring Equinox, or Vernal Equinox, half way between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice. The sun has been rising further north each day since December 21st, and it now rises due East, and sets due West, The day and night are roughly equal in length although by no means exactly.

The term vernal comes from the Latin for Spring, and today is the primavera, the first day of Spring. The Anglo-Saxons originally used the word lencthen (Lent) for Spring, but later adopted the idea of the springing of the year when the plants bud. In Middle English the word Spring was also used for sunrise, the waxing of the moon, the rising tides (spring tides) as well as sprouting of the beard and the first appearance of pubic hair!

Up to the 15th Century the English also used the french term ‘prime-temps’ in the sense of ‘first times’. This follows the idea that the year is young, while Winter represents old age. As we shall see, on March 25th, there was also a belief that the world was created in Spring at what became the Equinox (after God created it!), and Jesus was also conceived at this point of the annual cycle.

Zodiacally, if that is a word, Spring is Aries (brave and impulsive); Taurus (sensual and stubborn), and Gemini (dynamic and talented).

Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert
Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert

The modern druids have been out at their annual Spring Equinox festival at Tower Hill. I have a picture of this from many years ago when I last attended, but, Heike Herbert, who seems to be always travelling around the world, was in the UK for long enough to attend the Druid Festival and has kindly let me use photos for this post. When I last went to the ceremony I remember noting, with some distaste, that the druid costumes seemed to be made with nylon sheets, and their footware was mostly plimsolls. I see the nylon has at least been replaced with cotton, and the plimsolls with trainers. Not quite sure what that pair of black trainers are doing in the picture!

I say modern druids because there is no convincing evidence that the modern fellowships of Druids can trace their origins back to prehistory. Druidry was reinvented in the 18th Century – for example the Ancient Order of Druids was formed in 1781. They were set up as societies in the tradition of the freemasons and with a belief in the fundamental importance of nature.

As to when the Equinox first had importance for human society, the answer is, probably, at least as long as we have been reasoning creatures. On January 24th I draw attention to a recent discover suggesting evidence for a Palaeolithic Calendar. This is what I wrote:

But recently, evidence of a Palaeolithic Calendar has been uncovered by an ‘amateur’ studying markings in cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and other caves. Furniture maker Ben Bacon has collaborated with Professors at UCL and Durham and interpreted markings which suggest the use of a lunar calendar to mark the time of the year when particular animals gave birth. A Y shaped mark is interpreted as meaning ‘giving birth’ and the number of dots or dashes drawn by or in the outline of the animal or fish has been shown to coincide with the time of the year that the wild creature gives birth. For further details follow this link:

At Stonehenge, in the old Car Park they found three huge Pine postholes in a line, erected in the Mesolithic period. They align to the direction of the Mid Summer Sunrise and Mid Winter Sunset (NNE/SSW) IF and its a big if, you were sighting from Stonehenge itself which was built some 5000 years in the future. It is a bit of a stretch using two pieces of evidence so far apart in time but recent excavations have revealed that there are, on the Stonehenge site, natural periglacial striations in the soft chalk bedrock which themselves point to the Solstices. These not only predate Stonehenge but also the three post holes, and may well have been visible from the time they were created when the glaciers melted.

As I’m on a train to Amsterdam with no internet I’m using dates from my memory which are roughly right but not as accurate as they might be. Around 12,000 years ago the climate changed and the glaciers melted. This left a lot of water rushing around the landscape and at Stonehenge, it gouged out striations in the chalk. By chance, or as ordered by the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature, the striations pointed to the Solstice Axis, just at a place where the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature provided super-abundance in the guise of herds of Aurochs, which are huge wild cows. Richard Jacques excavations in the vicinity of Stonehenge have revealed that the aurochs came to the Stonehenge area for grazing and water. Each one had enough meat on them to feed 200 people. So, by 8,000 BC we have what might constitute proof of recognition of the significance of the major movements of the Sun.

This is confirmed by the alignment of many megalithic monuments dating from 3,600 BC onwards, including, of course, Stonehenge. Also all around the UK are long barrows and other burial mounds, many of which are indeed sighted/sited E-W to the Equinoxes. Many are fairly approximate, but at Loughcrew, County Meath in Ireland the Vernal Equinox shines right into the burial chamber, onto a stone marked by stone carvings. Similar alignments are recorded at Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley.

The Equinox also has another role which is to be the anchor of the cardinal points – North, South, East, West, when there is a harmony, a balance in the world, and therefore a fortunate, a lucky time, a time to fall in love or undertake notable undertakings. Of course, as the Christian world awaits the commemoration of the death of the Messiah, marriage has to wait a little longer.

There are also two versions of the cardinal points too: there are the geographic and the magnetic cardinal points. The magnetic cardinal points wander – magnet North does not always point North, the earth has sometimes had magnet reversals when the north pole has pointed in different directions including south.

My first proper job after university was as an technician then research assistant at Oxford University studying this phenomena. I say ‘proper’ because when I left University, I became an itinerant archaeologist, digging in Switzerland, Northampton, East Anglia and Nottingham before I got the job at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Keble College Oxford. Working with Dr. Mike Barbetti who was an expert on the wanderings of the Magnetic Pole. His interest was firstly in the pure science of the subject, but he was keen to explore the applied uses of the science to Archaeology as well So, after being appointed as a Research Fellow at Oxford he set up an epic journey from his native Australia to Oxford that went via some of the iconic sites of Palaeolithic Archaeology, such as Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, site of excavations by Mary and Louis Leakey.

In order to plot the movements of the magnetic north, scientists needed dated samples, and early human sites were some of the best dated sites. Also, archaeomagnetism, as the discipline became known, offered the possibility of dating sites. Also to determine whether deposits were fired or not. One of the sites Mike sampled was a candidate for the first evidence of fire in human existence.

As I said, Mike’s interest was discovering how the magnetic field of the earth changed over time, and, more importantly, what was the mechanism. He shipped back to Oxford samples of soil cast in plaster of paris. My job was to cut the samples up and to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the samples. I cut them up with an electic saw in a shed in the backyard of the Laboratory, and then we used a mini-computer to measure the direction and intensity of the magnetic field in the samples. Soil contains particles of iron, and they align randomly so a sample of soil has a low magnetic intensity and a random direction of magnetic field. But once heated up, the iron particles align to the current direction of the magnetic pole and its intensity is proportional to the intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field and so provided a method of plotting the changes of the magnetic field. And from this data models could be constructed explaining how the iron in the earth’s core worked as a giant magnet.

We could tell if a sample of soil had been heated by fire and once we had built that reference curve for the movements of the direction of the magnetic poll and the changing intensity of the magnetic pole we might be able to develop another dating method to rival radio carbon, thermoluminescence and tree ring dating all of which were being developed at the Research Laboratory in Oxford.

Having got the results I then typed them up onto machine readable cards, took them to the Oxford University Computer Centre with a copy on cards of the programme written in Fortran, and gave them to the Computing Staff. They were run through the Centre’s mainframe computer which was probably an IBM or ICL computer, and 24 hours later I received a print out to proof read. When I located mistakes, I ran an editing run of punched cards essentially instructing the computer: ‘ on card two replace 2.5 with 2.6, and run the programme again’. I would pick up the results 24 hour hours later.

It seems extraordinaryily primative now but then it was an enormous saying of time. And that, patient reader, was my early contribution to Digital Heritage and pure science. We published at least three articles in the prestigious Science Journal Nature. And it is slightly annoying that my citations in the groves of academia are still dominated by articles I co-wrote in the late 1970s!

The work was important in the development of the study of the earth’s magentic field. However the use of archaeomagnetism in archaeology has never risen above strictly limited. Occassionally, in specific circumstances, it can be useful, but those circumstances tend to be times when no other methods came up with the goods and most often in attempting to date kilns.

March 19th Mothering Sunday

Strangely, very little to do with Mothers! Mothering Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent and is a day in which we are enjoined to visit our Mother Churches. It, therefore, became a day when people made processions to their Churches, and when servants and workers could go to their home parishes, and not only go to the Mother Church but also to say hello to their mothers. It was called Mothering Sunday when I was little but since then has morphed into the Americanism that is Mother’s Day.

Read on this day in Church was Isaiah 66:10–11

‘Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her, all ye that delight in her: exult and sing for joy with her, all ye that in sadness mourn for her; that ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations.

Jerusalem is personified. here, as the Mother. Further associations with motherhood came from the Gospel for the day which is John 6:1–14, the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which led to associations with the bounty of Mother Earth.

In the medieval period visits to the Mother Church seem to have become fiercely competitive. The Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste decreed:

In each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church. […] Those who dishonour their spiritual mother should not at all escape punishment, when those who dishonour their fleshly mothers are, in accordance with God’s law, cursed and punished with death.

(Letter 22.7 – Wikipedia)

Simnel Cake

It was also the Sunday in the fasting period of Lent in which the restrictions were relaxed, so you could eat what is called Simnel Cake.

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring
‘Gainst thou goest a-Mothering
So that, when she blesseth thee
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

Herrick Hesperides 1647

Photo: James Petts from London, England – Simnel cake (wikipedia
Easter 2012

The Simnel cake is a fine flour light fruit cake (Latin simila, fine flour), with layers of marzipan in it. It often has 11 balls of marzipan on the top, representing the 11 (not Judas) apostles. The cake is first boiled for two hours and then baked.

Now, I know 95% of my American readers hate fruit cake, but believe me when I tell you – you are completely wrong! Its delicious, and here is the BBC’s recipe for you to try:

And I’m beginning to see that cake is an emerging theme of this Almanac of the Past.