A Sicilian poet abroad

Dear imaginary readers,

today I want to talk to you about a poet and his relationship with his homeland.

Ibn Ḥamdīs al-ʾAzdī al-Ṣīqillī (c. 1056 – c. 1133), was born in Syracuse, a city in the South-East of Sicily, from a wealthy family who settled in the Val di Noto after the Arab conquest of the island in the 9th century AD.

When the Normans conquered Sicily in the 11th century Ibn decided to first move to North Africa, and then to al-Andalus (South of Spain) where the Almoravids were in power and were not so keen on sponsoring art, literature and poetry, so he had to move back to North Africa, at the Zirid court of Mahdiya, in modern-day Tunis.

 

Portrait of a Muslim poet in the Cappella Palatina, 12th century AD. Source: wikipedia

 

He died in Andalusia or in Majorca, depending on the sources, however he never forgot Sicily and dedicated to the island some of his finest diwan.

As William Granara says:  “The theme of al-hanin ila l-awtan, nostalgia for one’s homeland, dominates many of the siqilliyyas of Ibn Hamdis. Ibn Hamdis’s use of universal themes of the classical qasida enables his Arab audience to share emotionally and poetically in his own personal experience.”

Home is where your hearth is and in the case of Ibn Ḥamdīs, it was in Sicily, as we can guess from the following lines he wrote.

 

For them my heart harbors a burning fire

bringing chronic ailment to my body.

There stand abodes where cruel twists of fate

prowl like wild wolves,

where I used to accompany the lions in their thickets

and the gazelles in their coverts.

Beyond you, O sea, I have my paradise

where I donned the robes of blessing, not of despair.

Whenever I seek a morning there,

you grant me instead only an evening.

If I could be given my desire –

since the sea stands in the way of reunion –

I would sail the sea with the moon as my boat

until in it I would embrace the sun

 

And also

 

Oh my Sicily. In memory

A desperate longing for you and

For the follies of my youth returns. Again I see

The lost happinesses and the splendid friends,

Oh Paradise from which I was expelled!

What is the point of recalling your splendour?

 

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A Medieval “green revolution”

Dear imaginary readers,

It is very likely that if you hear the term “green” revolution you would think of the action we need to take in order to reverse the fate of the planet we live on. Instead for me it relates to a theory that has been developed by Andrew Watson and it is about how agriculture in the Mediterranean would have been completely re-shaped, circa  seventh-century AD onwards, by the Arabs’ (comprising a lot of different populations) conquests of the Middle East, North Africa, South of Italy and South of Spain.

Agricultural scene from a mediaeval Arabic manuscript from Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) c. 1200 AD. Source: Wikipedia

The terms used by Watson are “the Arab agricultural revolution” or “A medieval Green Revolution”, meaning a sudden change in land management with the introduction of new crops coupled with a new irrigation system (qanats), reshaping the way agriculture was carried out and leading to a complete different way of cultivating the land.

 

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Cross-section of a Kanat. Source Wikipedia

 

Kanat system circa 1050.
Map of the kanats system underneath Arab Palermo (Bal’harm). Source http://www.bestofsicily.com
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Inside a Palermo’s kanat. Source: http://www.sicilyuncovered.com

Other than the famous citrus fruits (sour orange, lemon, lime and shaddock), coconut, banana, watermelon and eggplants, the new crops introduced, which may be detectable via C and N stable isotopes analysis of collagen, according to Watson were:

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum L., Arabic: qasab al-sukkar, qasab farisi, qasab hulw, qasab hindi)

In Sicily it became an important industry and according to Watson it has been introduced into the island in the 10th century or possibly earlier. The product was widely use in North Africa during the early years of the Fatimid period (909-1171 AD). Watson states that wild sugarcane plants from India and Southeast Asia were hybridized and domesticated in New Guinea but, the original area of sugar cane production is Mesopotamia where it was likely to be brought in around the seventh century, expanding towards west in the following centuries, especially in Lower Egypt. In line with this theory the sugarcane industry in Sicily was flourishing and the product was exported to North Africa. Even though after the Norman conquest the sugar plantations started to be neglected. According to other sources it seems like it wasn’t until the eleventh-twelfth centuries that sugarcane plantation started to spread in the Mediterranean, reaching Sicily and Andalusia. To grow and treat sugar required advanced farming techniques and technology to refine the raw product, needing a stable economic and social background. In Sicily sugar cane was grown near Palermo in the village of Aqbat, that means Copts, who were Egyptian Christians possibly brought purposely to the island to grow it, as the Egyptians were among the earliest cultivators of this plant.

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Sugarcane plant depicted in a Medieval Arab manuscript

Asiatic Rice (Oryza sativa L., Arabic: ruzz, aruzz, uruzz)

Rice cultivation started somewhere in the East, possibly in different regions of India, Thailand and China and then spread from there reaching the Mesopotamia around the 2nd century BC as mentioned by Strabo and Diodurus. In Sicily it was grown in the marshes near the mouth of rivers and remained in use in everyday meals since today, as noted by the geographer Al-Idrisi in his 12th century AD in his “Description of Africa and Spain”.

A typical Spanish “paella”. However in many places, especially in the South, it has different versions and it is called with the arabic name of arroz.

Sorghum, great millet (Sorghum bicolor . Arabic: dhurra, jawars hindi, jawarsh)

Sorghum is part of the Poaceae, and is present in different types, even though we are interested in particular in one specie, Sorghum bicolor, that is native to Africa and was and it is used as food (sorghum syrup and sorghum molasses), animal fodder, and to make alcoholic beverages. It is a self-pollinating plant, grown from seed, adapted to the hot, semiarid and dry temperate areas, so it perfectly fits Sicily’s environmental conditions. There seems to be agreement in the fact that this plant has African origins, and was cultivated before the Christian era, with later domestication, maybe happening somewhere else in Asia.  It was used raw or cooked in the form of cous-cous, porridges, soups and cakes. Arabs used it mixed with other flours for the production of bread for low social classes. The seeds and cores were used to feed cattle and poultry.

Hard wheat (Triticum durum. Arabic: qamh, hinta, burr)

Because of its high gluten content and the hardness of its grain, hard wheat has special uses. It provides the most common semoules for the cous-cous of North Africa and some other parts of the Arab world, as well as the burghul for pilafs and for Levantine dishes such as tabbula, kishk, kibba and bitfin. In Arab cooking, these semoules are also the basis of many soups, gruels, stuffings, puddings and pastries, and of preparations resembling the European gnocchi. It was an important industry for Sicily and it was fully established during the Muslim period, according to Watson. By the middle of 12th century, the geography al-Idrisi records that the town of al-Tarbi’ah (Trabia) was manufacturing and exporting itriyah (tria in Sicilian stays for vermicelli, which is a particular shape of pasta similar to spaghetti, but hollow inside) to Calabria and to other countries.

“Blood” Sicilian oranges, (c) https://journeythroughitaly.com/sicilian-markets/

The overall picture of the Sicily’s agriculture production under Byzantines shows mainly a monoculture (wheat) coupled with a decrease in population.

As the Arabs started settling into the island, there was a reversal in this demographic decline trend, and the numbers of inhabitants on the cost and in the mainland increased. The demographic increment caused a greater demand of food that stimulated agricultural advance and investments in land property. New industries connected to the new plants, such as sugar cane and cotton, start to proliferate, pushing forward new non-agricultural sectors.

The subject of my study is whether and how the diet of the inhabitants of Sicily evolved through subsequent changes of regime (Byzantine, Arabs, Norman and Swabian). I am further trying to assess if the changes in agriculture introduced by the Arabs are detectable via stable isotopes analysis and/or if they were so radical as to shift habits during the course of one century rather than it being a gradual occurrence.

For more information about the project I am involved in check Sicily in transition.

The Medieval Kitchen

Dear imaginary readers,

since I started my PhD on stable isotopes analysis of remains from medieval Sicily, I read a lot of books dedicated to food and cuisine in the middle ages.

For this reason I decided to start writing about them, and I will start with the one that is currently sitting on my desk.  The title is “The Medieval Kitchen. A social History with Recipes” by Hannele Klemettila.

The most impressive feature of the books are the beautiful images, about 200, that offer to the reader an immediate vivid representation of medieval culture of food and eating, at least among aristocratic courts.

The books unfold in ten chapters, at the end of which there is a section where a menu for a Medieval style supper is suggested together with medieval recipes from modern cooks, for the readers who wants to put theory into practice.

For me the positive pretty much stop here. There are not clear references to documents and archaeological contexts, and there is no mention of the everyday food consumption and habits of what we may call villains. The focus is on the upper class part of the society that it is not the category in which the remains I am studying are likely to fall in. Also it is worth to mention that my research is trying to determine the effect of changes in regime on common people’s diet customs, so my disappointment is biased.

Overall I think this is a good didactic book, that is worth to be read if you are interested in a general taste of medieval cuisine in Europe.

 

 

The medieval Kitchen

A past still alive. DNA testing on the human remains of Fosse Ardeatine

Dear imaginary readers,

the idea for this post came to me after I read an an article on Forbes about the DNA testing of the human remains found in the mass grave of Fosse Ardeatine in Rome, written by the archaeologist and science outreach writer Kristina Killgrove.

335 civilians were shot as a retaliation for a partisan attack happened the day before in central Rome, and only 323 corpses were identified in the first forensic intervention on the remains.

I am Italian and working on a multidisciplinary bio-archaeology project that looks at reconstructing the everyday lives of medieval people in Sicily. Sometimes it is difficult to point out how my research it is related to today’s reality and issues, but this study shows perfectly how forensics archaeology and anthropology are bringing back in current discussion themes and debates that are crucial.

From a personal point of view, my family is the result of a very unconventional encounter and mix. My grandfather was a fascist, and voluntarily enrolled in the army and went to fight in Ethiopia. He never regretted his affiliation and that caused severe frictions with my dad who was growing as an antifascist rebel teenager. That was when he met my mum, who was from a farmer’s family very close to the Italian partisans’ resistance movement.

If you quickly check the news about Italy’s political climate, the regime and the regime’s ideas are still relevant in today’s Italian society and identity. Fascist ideas should have been challenged, and any movement inspired on them should have been banned, based on Italy’s constitution. They should have been . Nevertheless straight after the Italian constitution was written, in 1947, a common way of re-thinking fascism started to circulate in Italian society, permeating institutions such as schools and universities, and  the idea that fascism was not so bad after all, took more and more ground.

This is what in Italy we call revisionism, and my friend Alessandra Ferrini produced an amazing short movie called Negotiating Amnesia, mainly focused on Italy’s colonial effort, where she uses photos to get into conversation with people about what they think about fascism and its legacy today.

60 years after the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, that happened on the 24th of March 1944, 12 victims were still unidentified. Even though the study carried out by a team guided by Elena Pilli of the University of Florence was able to uncover only 10 of the unknown identities,  it was still very important from many points of view.

As the researchers state in the abstract, “the genetic analysis offered the families the possibility of replacing the number of the grave with the name of the victim.”

 

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One of the many execution of civilians in the Appennini mountains

The first study about the identification of the Fosse Ardeatine remains was published on 2009, and the title was “Forensic DNA Challenges: Replacing Numbers with Names of Fosse Ardeatine’s Victims”.

The study mentioned in the article is from 2018 and the title is “From unknown to known: identification of the remains at the mausoleum of Fosse Ardeatine”.“From unknown to known: identification of the remains at the mausoleum of Fosse Ardeatine”.

 

Talking from a soapbox, finally!

Dear imaginary readers,

shame on me for not having posted here an experience that was a big personal achievement for me.

Talking about my research project for the first Science Soapbox edition in York, last June!

Since I have moved to UK 6 years ago I started being informed and going to Soapbox Science events, then I volunteered for Brighton edition and last year I achieved my ambition to be a speaker.

In the picture: me gesticulating as every typical Italian, Kirstin, the amazing volunteer who facilitated my talk and members of the public.

Looking forward to next year!

For more information about Soapbox Science visit: http://soapboxscience.org/

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Never give up the fight

Lab

The path that brought me to my current PhD project hasn’t been a straight one. When I was in secondary school I didn’t know I would become involved in archaeological science later in life. When I was a kid I wanted to become a police investigator or a journalist, and somehow research does involve both. I can say I am doing what I always wanted to do.

I didn’t particularly enjoy maths and physics and that was the reason why I attended what in Italy is called as “High School for Classical Studies”. Then a very inspirational chemistry and biology teacher walked into the classroom and her lessons sparkled a brand new interest in me. I realised how much science was linked to reality and that ions, molecules, and reactions were able to tell stories about ourselves as much as poetry and literature.

When the time arrived to leave high school I decided to embark on multidisciplinary degree “Science for Cultural Heritage” at the University of Florence. My BSc and MSc dissertations both focused on the study of waterlogged archaeological wood from a Neolithic site near Naples and the design of dedicated preservatives made from sugars.

It wasn’t an easy road, as I had to work to pay for my studies, but the good side of it was that I had the chance to work on a science outreach project (OpenLAB) for about 7 years. That experience made up my mind. I wanted to work in a lab, ideally developing ideas into experiments and writing up the results in forms of papers so that other scientists in the world could use it.

For years I tried my best to find a position in academia in Italy, even working as a lab cleaner or assistant would have been enough for me!

In 2012 I was exasperated and moved to UK, where I worked as a nanny, teaching assistant, school science technician, and ultimately I successfully applied for the position of “Teaching and Research Technician” for the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Sciences at the University of Reading, where I worked for about three years. My old dreams and hopes were re-ignited and I started gathering information and experiences in order to achieve them.

One of the areas I was supporting was the stable isotopes analytical facilities, maintaining and running the mass spectrometer, undertaking basic lab chores and preparing samples from ancient bones and teeth to understand diet and migration in the past. The ratio of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in biological tissues is a signature of the food an individual has eaten during life and reflects the environment in which that particular person lived.

Since last October I have been a PhD student at the University of York, working as part of the collaborative project “Sicily in Transition” (SicTransit). (http://www.sicilyintransition.org/)

The aim of my research project is to clarify and better describe social, economic, and demographic changes happened through successive changes in regime (Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabian) in Sicily between the sixth to thirteenth century AD using stable isotopes analyses on human, animal and plant remains.

I wrote this as this year (Saturday the 9th of June from 12 pm in Kings Square York) together with other 11 fantastic researchers I will have the honour and pleasure to speak for Soapbox Science, an event that I discovered when I moved to UK, worked for as a volunteer last year in Brighton, and like to export to the country where I have born.

What I would like to say to any woman or person that feels not represented in science, or in any part of society in general, is that even though it can be difficult (and a real struggle sometimes), determination, passion and drive can get you where you want to be.  Let the values of honesty, care and respect, transparency, being open minded and curious led you, even when you think your going against everyone else.

These are tools that can break chains and barriers, and you can make a real difference, creating a more equal and diverse society, which is something everyone will benefit from.

For the list of speakers next Saturday visit:

http://soapboxscience.org/soapbox-science-2018-york/

You can find out more about my research at: https://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/research/research-students/ughi

 

Ocean acidification explained with dry ice

Dear imaginary readers,

It took ages for me to write a post as I am about to embark in a very exciting new adventure in the very near future.

I wanted to write this post straight after I was back from Into the blue in Manchester last October, but my worst enemy, the God of Postponing won the battle.

If you remember I was there with the Environmental Chemistry Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry working as a volunteer to introduce the public to the real problems the environmental chemists work on.

We had three stalls with different “hands on” interactive activities for kids (even though adults seemed to enjoy as well).

The first and the second were about environmental pollution, with a tray full of soil and small pieces of plastic dispersed in it and simple nitrates and phosphates testing kits.

into the blue 2

The real queen of the activities we proposed was the ocean acidification demonstration. It does involve smoke and colour changes so it does automatically attract the public attention.

In the rest of the article you can find the procedure, materials and adaptations you can use to realize the experiments in secondary schools, lab or even in the streets, as we did!

First of all we assessed what the audit knows about pH, asking questions and showing a pH colour scale. Then we encourage people to test different thing like drinking water, “fake” pre-made ocean water (pH about 8.2, adjusted with NaOH), coke, orange juice, milk and soap solution with bromothymol blue, litmus paper or any other pH indicator.

Ask the spectators if they know where seawater fits in on the spectrum. Explain that pH is measured on a logarithmic scale like earthquakes and a small change in pH from 8.2 to 8.1 corresponds to an increase in acidity of about 30%.

For this activity, the audience should understand that when humans release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, some of the carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean. This changes the chemistry of seawater making it more acidic. About one third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere over the past 200 years has been taken up by the ocean.

Then we started to explain why ocean acidification is a current and future problem. The average coastal ocean pH is 8.2, but it is changing because of the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and the subsequent absorption of that carbon dioxide into the ocean. About 30% of the carbon dioxide produced daily is absorbed by the ocean. The pH of the ocean has decreased 0.1 in the last century; it is becoming more acidic (less basic). Some of the organisms at greatest risk include larva and shell-forming animals at the base of the food web that provide food for larger species. Organisms faced with the stress of ocean acidification can migrate, acclimate or go extinct and values of 7.8 are expected by 2100 for the average ocean water, representing a doubling of acidity. Additional stressors that increase the impact include temperature increase and habitat loss.

Then you show the spectators the dry ice in a watch glass pointing out that is the solid form of CO2 and that is changing to a gas (sublimation) at room temperature, so its temperature is about -78 C so they should never touch it with bare hands. When it is added to water it rapidly changes to the gas form and some of this gas becomes dissolved in the water.

We then added enough dry ice to a conical flask containing the “ocean water” and bromothymol blue and the solution will turn progressively yellow as the pH decreases because of the formation of carbonic acid that acidifies the solution.

Because of the quick reaction and the big temperature difference between the “sea water” and the dry ice there will be quite a bit of what looks like smoke or fog billow away from the conical flask (it is actually vapour). The kids will go really excited (some of them even scared) and you will definitely get some “oooooooooooooooh”.

 

intotheblue5

When the reaction has finished and the spectators have regained their concentration, we tried to recap what they saw and why it matters to the ocean’s environment. Adding carbon dioxide to water makes it more acidic or less basic. This is what is happening to the ocean. Humans add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (driving cars, creating electricity, etc), deforestation, and in many other ways. The ocean then absorbs some of what gets emitted into the atmosphere, sometimes we say that the ocean acts as a “sink” for carbon dioxide. This effect is worsened by the global warming of the planet. The change in the chemical average composition of the ocean’s water, have consequences on many marine creatures, such as shell forming organisms such a corals, bivalves (clams, mussels and oysters) and pteropods (free swimming snails) that are sensitive to changes in pH.

If you want to do this demo as part of a wider lesson in schools, you can add a detailed explanation of the different reactions the CO2 gives in different environments and related demonstrations (acidic rain, weathering of rocks, cave formation)

For the ocean acidification the chemical reaction is the following.

CO2 + H2O      →        H2CO3

As shown in the chemical reaction scheme, when carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves in seawater, it creates carbonic acid, which releases bicarbonate ions (HCO3-) and hydrogen (H+) ions into the water. The hydrogen ions make the seawater more acidic (lowering its pH). In addition, some of the hydrogen ions react with carbonate ions (CO3=) already in the seawater to create more bicarbonate. This reduces the amount of carbonate (an important mineral for building shells) dissolved in the seawater. The impacts of ocean acidification and lower carbonate ion concentrations on marine ecosystems include reduced growth of organisms that form calcareous skeletons or shells.

Ocean acidification and global warming are relegated to the science fiction shelves by one of the more powerful politician of the world, at a point in the life of our planet when the consequences of the increase of CO2 released into the atmosphere are about to spiral up culminating in a very hostile environment for humans and every other living thing.

For this reason is more important than ever to engage in outreach activities trying to explain to as much person as possible that our choices have a very big and dangerous impact on the place where we live, and that it is important to act on a personal and a political basis.

Time is now!

“I think that once people understand the great risks that climate change poses, they will naturally want to choose products and services that cause little or no emissions of greenhouse gases, which means ‘low-carbon consumption.’ This will apply across the board, including electricity, heating, transport and food.” Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government, Chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and Head of the India Observatory at the London School of Economics.

Have a lovely end of summer everyone, but always try to be conscious! Hasta la vista

 

 

 

"The fate of wine is to be drunk, and the fate of glucose is to be oxidized." Primo Levi, Carbon, The periodic system.