Very early warning system: ancient tsunami markers

The meaning of a place is frequently communicated by the means of markers. For example, a typical American convention for marking the site of a historic (read “culturally significant”) event is by the means of a large boulder with a metal plaque affixed to it. You can see a lot of these markers at the Historical Marker Database site.

But there are other types of markers that communicate the significant properties of a place. Travel down the King’s Highway in southwestern New Jersey, and you will find some old stone mile markers. The only significance of a mile marker is to communicate where that place is in relation to some other place, but to a weary traveler that knowledge could be very welcome indeed. (Here’s a photo of a King’s Highway mile marker at a place three miles from Salem and 31 miles from Camden.)

Another type of marker is detailed in this San Francisco Chronicle article (originally from AP):

Tsunami-hit towns forgot warnings from ancestors

The old Japanese stone markers described in the article are of different types. Some warn about what to what to do in case of a tsunami: “Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables,” reads a marker in Kesennuma, which was very hard hit by the 9.0 Tohoku quake and tsunami. Another marker in Aneyoshi reads, “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”

The article states:

“Hundreds of such markers dot the coastline, some more than 600 years old. Collectively they form a crude warning system for Japan, whose long coasts along major fault lines have made it a repeated target of earthquakes and tsunamis over the centuries.”

I’d quibble with the term “crude;” it seems that the people who made these markers used the best technology they had at the time. Stone is a durable material, and markers in public places are visible to all who pass by. Granted, one needs to be literate in order to read the stone’s message, but it seems likely that even illiterate members of the community would have known the message, if only because they had been told it by others in the community.

I’m sure that much more scholarship exists on the subject of these markers. I’m curious to know about the ages of the markers. I also wonder whether markers tended to be set up soon after a devastating tsunami had occurred; one point the article makes is that memories of tsunamis persist for relatively few generations. After the living memory dies out, people start building near the coastline again. Major seismic events occur on a very long scale of time, so a more permanent warning against their effects is necessary. Another thing I wonder about is whether those who made these markers intended that their warnings would still be visible centuries into the future.

H/T @Allochthonous

Happy birthday, Mark Catesby! (or not)

This morning, the blog of the Smithsonian Institution’s libraries posted a birthday greeting to Mark Catesby. Catesby was an English naturalist who wrote and illustrated The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: Containing the Figures of Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants. Quoting from Christopher Leahy’s The Birdwatcher’s Companion (1983 edition), Catesby’s book was, “…the first comprehensive, illustrated (engraved by Catesby himself and hand-colored), accurate (given the pre-Linnaean state of early-eighteenth-century biology) work on the natural history of North America.” Before there was Audubon, there was Catesby, though he didn’t confine his observations to birds; according to Leahy, his main field was botany.

Catesby was born on March 24, 1682/3 in Castle Hedingham, Essex, England; the uncertainty about his birthdate in part comes from the difference between the Old Style and New Style calendars, and in part from the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars (the Smithsonian blog post has much more about this, which is no surprise to any genealogist who has researched people in this era). The post also shows Catesby plates of “the Great Booby” and the Blue Jay (albeit with a somewhat rumpled crest).…

For a bit more about Catesby’s biography, here’s a link from the Catesby Commemorative Trust.

Archival materials, copyright, and teaching history

Micalee Sullivan has written an interesting post on the blog for the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative.

Sullivan, who is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Michigan State University, wanted to take digital photographs of letters held at Arizona State University’s Archives and Special Collections and post them on a website as materials for her class. As she says in her blog post:

“Allowing students to view high res photos of the actual documents gives them the opportunity to struggle with interpreting the faded, spotty, and outdated handwriting just as a historian would and can be much more interesting to view than just transcribed material on a word document.”

However, the copyright for those letters was not retained by ASU and they therefore cannot give permission to reproduce the letters on a public website, even if they have been reproduced for educational purposes.

Sullivan’s post does a good job of listing the various ins and outs of the copyright advice she received from various sources. The post also highlights the potential pitfalls of using archival materials as a teaching aid (not to mention the restrictions archivists face when they make decisions about access to and use of their holdings).

The thing that really resonated with me was Sullivan’s interest in using the original documents (or facsimiles thereof) in her teaching. Quoting again:

“As a historian, maybe it’s naïve of me to think that history can be exciting to most people. But when your only experience with the subject has been confined to textbooks and lectures, it would be difficult to find the thrill of it all. Digital technology provides teachers with the tools to make history more than lectures and textbooks. When students are given a variety of historical materials they can form their own opinions about certain time periods and events, rather than just taking notes on them. While distance may seperate [sic] students from the actual artifacts of history, digital archives can provide a close substitute. Hopefully the legalities won’t get in the way.”

Maybe I’m naive too, but I believe history can be exciting, possibly even to “most people.” Just look at the interest in genealogy, which essentially is a way of using research about your family’s ancestry as a way of learning about history. Sure, some genealogists never get beyond “name-collecting,” but others find their interest expanding to include the larger history of a location, or of a time period. The interest is there. The question is how (or if) historians, archivists, amateur history geeks, genealogists, and other interested parties can work together to support the cause.

H/T @ndiipp via @EinAtlanta and @archivesnext