Pigeon Towers: A Low-tech Alternative to Synthetic Fertilizers

pigeon-towers-iranPhoto credit: Bekleyen, A. (2009). The dovecotes of Diyarbakır: the surviving examples of a fading tradition. The Journal of Architecture, 14(4), 451-464..

Many societies, ancient and contemporary, have innovated ways of supplying their fields with fixed nitrogen and phosphorus—two crucial ingredients for crop productivity. One is crop rotation, which alternates nitrogen-fixing and nitrogen-exhausting crops. Farmers around the world make use of chickens, ducks, and geese to add “fresh” guano to their fields. Cattle manure is another useful alternative—although it often lacks in phosphorus. Much more labor intensive than simply adding fossil-fuel derived synthetic fertilizer, these practices tend to build up soil, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and lead to less run-off into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Persian pigeon towers are one of the more elegant solutions to the nitrogen-phosphorus problem. These are essentially castles built for thousands of wild pigeons, strategically placed in the middle of the fields. Their droppings were shoveled up once a year and sold to nearby farmers. While most pigeon towers existing today are in disrepair, the oldest still standing are dated to the 16th century (but they are assumed to have existed over 1,000 years ago) and helped fuel the cultivation of Persia’s legendary orchards, melons, and wheat production.[1] [Read more…]

Sail the World’s Largest Viking Ship from Europe to America

viking ship“Draken Harald Hårfagre (that’s “Dragon Harald Fairhair” in English) is a modern interpretation (rather than an accurate replica) of an old Viking longship that was built in Haugesund, Norway, and launched in 2012.

In May next year she will set out on a voyage from Norway to Newfoundland via Iceland and Greenland, and the project organizers have just announced they are accepting applications for volunteer crew.

You need at least two months of free time to do it and presumably should have some sort of useful skill to boost your chances of being selected.

Conditions aboard look to be very Spartan by modern standards, with no shelter except for a tent on deck, but by traditional Viking standards it should be a veritable luxury cruise.”

Read more: Calling all Vikings. More sailboat news.

What Can Be Learnt From a 17th Century Town

wattle and daub wall“In Plymouth, Massachusetts — the site of the first English colony in America — Matteo Brault spends his days living a 17th century life, along with dozens of other re-enactors on the modern-day Plimoth Plantation. Brault works full-time as a 17th-century style blacksmith, using traditional tools like a grindstone, hand-made nails and a large bellows for making the fire hot enough for forging iron and steel. He also helps build the traditional shelters.”

“The simplest homes in town were built using cratchets — natural forks in trees — as support for the ridgepole of the roof. The walls are built up with “wattle” — small sticks for the lattice structure — and “daub” — a mortar of clay, earth and grasses. Instead of using the traditional English lime wash to protect the walls, the colonists took advantage of the plentiful wood in the America and created clapboard siding by cleaving wood into thin boards. For the thatch roofs, large bundles of water reed or wheat straw are woven with a giant needle by two people working in tandem (one outside and one inside). “It’s like a giant quilt made of grass,” explains Brault, “which makes a water-tight roof that essentially acts as a giant sponge. It absorbs water and laps it off.”

Watch the video. Picture: a wattle and daub wall in Germany.

Photographs of American Indians

photographs of american indians

First People” hosts a large and wonderful collection of American Indian photographs online, dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Aside from the portraits (which include, among others, the Edward S. Curtis archives), there are picture galleries of tepees, boats, pottery and basketry.

Previously: Walter McClintock’s glass lantern slide collection of the Blackfoot Indians. [Read more…]

Change Ringing

Despite the curtailing of their liturgical uses, at the beginning of the seventeenth century a lot of church bells remained hanging in church towers. Ringing them was an activity pursued with great enthusiasm, often by groups of boozy young men. Paul Hentzner, a German lawyer who traveled through England in the final years of the sixteenth century, wrote that the English were “vastly fond of great noises that fill the ear, such as the firing of cannon, drums, and the ringing of bells, so that it is common for a number of them, that have got a glass in their heads, to go up into some belfry, and ring the bells for hours together for the sake of exercise.”

It was in these long, beer-fuelled ringing sessions that change ringing was invented, as a codification of the disorganized ringing that Hentzner describes. It seems to have started in London and southeast England in the early seventeenth century; it spread, and by the 1660s was a fashionable recreation, with societies springing up all over south, central, and eastern England to further the practice.

St Mary-le-Tower Bellringers

[Read more…]

Precolumbian Causeways and Canals

precolombian causeways

Detail of an engineered landscape in the Bolivian Amazon. Artwork by Clark Erickson.

“In contrast to the Western obsession to drain what are considered marginal wetlands for agriculture, farmers in the Bolivian Amazon may have intentionally expanded wetlands and wetland productivity through earthwork construction, which impedes, rather than enhances, drainage. The precolumbian farmers did not use causeways as dikes to prevent inundation of fields and settlements, but rather to expand and enhance inundation for agricultural production. At the same time, impounding water with well-placed causeways and the creation of canals improved and extended the season of transportation by canoe across the landscape. The grid-like structure also permanently marked land tenure in a highly visible manner.” [Read more…]