Tag Archives: hypotheses

Ancient Roman salad crispers?

The classicist Mary Beard (@wmarybeard) has a saucily titled piece, Banter about Dildoes, in the latest edition of The London Review of Books, in which she reviews Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate by Claire Holleran (Amazon uk|.com).

In her review, Beard states:

The [Pompeii and Herculaneum food and drink] bars are a well-known conundrum. It always used to be thought that the big jars set into their counters held wine and cheap hot food, soups and stews – ladled out to a poor and hungry clientèle by an accommodating landlord or landlady. But the jars are not glazed, and could not be removed for cleaning. It doesn’t take long to see that they would be completely inappropriate for liquids, hot or cold – not to mention a deadly health risk.

I visited Pompeii in 2010. Never one to walk past a bar, I went into several, and even photographed some of the jars to which Beard refers (although I had no idea at the time that they were conundrums to anyone other than me):

Pompeii bar

A Pompeii bar in 2010.

Ever one to hypothesise, I have just emailed the following suggestion to the LRB. I'm sure I can't be the first person to suggest this solution to the conundrum:

Mary Beard (LRB, 3 January 2013) describes the conundrum of big storage jars set into Pompeii and Herculaneum shop counters, the non-glazed nature of which would make them unsuitable for food or drink storage.

In some hot countries, such as Spain and India, porous pots are still used to cool water. In a process similar to human sweating, water stored in the pots slowly seeps to the surface and evaporates, thereby cooling the pot and the water still inside. In a more modern, patented African take on this old idea, glazed food-storage pots are placed in wet sand inside larger porous pots to make solar-powered ‘pot-in-pot refrigerators’.

Perhaps Mary Beard's enigmatic jars were the Roman equivalents of wine chillers or salad crispers.

Richard Carter

I had a great time in Pompeii, although I failed to track down the domus of the hero of my school Latin textbooks, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus.

You can see some of my other photos from Pompeii here.

Postscript (19-Jan-2013): A slightly edited version of my letter appeared in the 24-Jan-2013 edition of The London Review of Books.

My ridiculous hypothesis about starlings

I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1

The other week, I came up with a frankly ridiculous hypothesis (I won't dignify it with the description theory) about starlings [Sturnus vulgaris]. Ridiculous and fanciful though it undoubtedly is, I record it here, in the unlikely event that it turns out to be true, so that nobody else can take credit for thinking it up. It's a priority issue:


A starling on my chimney pot.

Starlings (or European starlings, to give them their international name, as we're supposed to these days) are reasonably accomplished mimics. Not as accomplished, it must be said, as their close cousins the mynahs, but they have been known to imitate the sounds of other birds—and, indeed, man-made objects. As a child in the 70s, I well remember the local starlings' occasionally imitating a neighbour's Trimphone. In later years, as technology advanced, their descendants took to calling out like car alarms—a habit which seems to have died out as car alarms became more reliable, emitting false alarms much less frequently.

The collective noun for starlings is a murmuration. Indeed, when the birds congregate in the winter months and settle to roost, they do murmur incessantly to each other. But in amongst the murmurs, there are subdued snap, crackle and popping noises. The overall effect is uncannily like the noise made by Dr Frankenstein's electrical apparatus just before he throws the master switch, or, less fancifully, a high-tension electrical transmission line.

Which is where my ridiculous hypothesis comes in. I am wondering whether the modern-day murmuration of starlings incorporates elements of electrical snap, crackle and pop, picked up by these semi-accomplished mimics as they gather for a murmur on electrical transmission lines.

No, I don't think so either.

Molehill observation

While clearing away yet more molehills from my front lawn the other day, I made an observation which is almost certainly pure coincidence, but which I record here for posterity, in case it turns out to be remarkably profound:

The holes in the middle of molehills almost invariably appear right underneath or immediately adjacent to dandelion plants. I wonder if moles deliberately choose to make their tunnel entrances next to dandelions. Perhaps dandelion roots are a good indication of where it is sensible/safe to surface.

That is all.

An ugly fact

[T]he great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact…
Thomas Henry Huxley
Biogenesis and Abiogenesis (1870)

Back in 2002, I wrote an essay entitled (in tribute to Huxley) …So Let's All Be Scientists! It was my contribution to Darwin Day Collection One: The Single Best Idea Ever [ISBN: 0972384405, Amazon.com], a collection of articles, reviews and cartoons in celebration of Darwin and science. In the essay, I observed:

…for all the thousands of slugs I have found, I have never come across a single snail in my garden. Why is that? Is it too cold (I live in the Pennines)? Do the slugs eat them […], or out-compete them? Am I just not looking hard enough? Or is there simply not enough calcium in the area to allow snails to make shells (possibly because the soil is too acidic)?

Well, it would appear that the not looking hard enough hypothesis had some merit. The other weekend, I was moving a rockery in my garden (don't ask), when I came across this:

Very small snail

A very small snail!

OK, as snails go, it wasn't exactly the biggest (or, indeed, the alivest), but a snail is a snail, and an ugly fact (no matter how small) is an ugly fact: my no snails in my garden hypothesis is well and truly falsified. So now I have had to modify it slightly:

There are no big snails in my garden.

Actually, I have been keeping an active look-out for snails ever since I wrote my essay, and I can confidently say that I believe my modified hypothesis is correct. Which is odd, because I have observed large snails a couple of hundred yards away from my garden, albeit at a significantly lower altitude (I live on a very steep hill).

But, despite this stark evidence to the contrary, I still like my acidic soil explanation for the (near) absence of snails in my garden. In fact, until last week, I was growing increasingly confident that it was the correct explanation, having first confirmed that the soil in my garden is indeed acidic, and having recently come across the following in the New Scientist subscribers' archive:

Acid attack

Acid rain has progressively thinned the shells of eggs laid by British thrushes over the past 150 years, a new study suggests. Ornithologists fear that the trend could make thrush eggs less likely to hatch…

[Rhys Green of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds] thinks that acid rain, caused by sulphur emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, is the most likely cause. This would reduce both the calcium content of leaf litter consumed by worms and the abundance of snails, which together make up a large part of the birds' diets.

So maybe there is still enough calcium in my garden for some very small snails, but not enough for any snails bigger than a couple of millimetres across.

I will get to the bottom of this one! Eventually.

Postscript [18-Jun-2007]: Hypothesis well and truly falsified!