Time for a roundup of all things old, aged, ancient, decrepit, enfeebled, grizzled, geriatric, superannuated, and senesced…
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1. Gorm the Old—also known as Gorm the Sleepy and probably Gorm the Butch—was the first king of Denmark, from 936-958 AD. Well, he was the first king of a unified Denmark; before that time the country was a heterogenous mix of fiefdoms and Gorm ruled just a small island. The location was fortuitous for Gorm, assuming he had designs on total domination: the island was the site of the every-nine-years (nonennial?) festival in honor of Odin. Hordes of Danes descended on the island, all bearing gifts. The details of his accumulation of land, wealth, and subjects are lost to the sands of time, but by 936 he’d manage to barter, seize, steal, pillage, plunder, and abscond with everyone else’s holdings and “unite” Denmark under his rule.
Gorm the Old doesn’t just sound like the name of violent, power-mad king from D&D, he lived it: “early in his reign he made a plundering cruise along the shores of the Baltic and joined a piratical invasion of Russia, penetrating far inward and pillaging as he went.” Who can resist the siren song of a plundering cruise? Wielding his Sword of Wounding, Gorm later invaded Germany, where a cowered emperor Charles the Fat forked over a ransom payment despite commanding an army vastly outnumbering the invaders. Gorm finally pillaged the wrong people: a few years later, another raid into Germany left rivers running red with the blood of the invaders; few Danes escaped the massacre.
While Gorm was out on his plundering cruises rule of the country was left to his wife Thyra, a less malevolent sort. She pioneered the construction/expansion of the Dannevirke, an 8 mile long, 75 foot high, 100% marauding-German-proof Danish great wall. Danish national songs and hymns speak in reverent tones of Thyra, and when she died Gorm carved and erected a massive runestone in her honor. When Gorm died, his son Harald Bluetooth did similarly for him. Both stones are still visible today.
Harald, by the way, was the namesake of the Bluetooth communication protocol, a name so chosen because he “united” Denmark and Norway in Christianity (Gorm the Old was pagan). The Bluetooth insignia is a superposition of the Nordic runes for Harald’s initials.
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2. Here’s something really old: fossils. Called the greatest fossil hunter who ever lived, Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a daughter of the first family of fossil finding and foundational figure in the fledgling field of paleontology. The Annings lived in Lyme Regis, surrounded by cliffs larded with Jurassic-era fossils. Trained by her father, who died when she was 11, Mary supported the family with fossil hunting. At 12, she uncovered one of the first complete ichthyosaur skeletons, still displayed at the London History Museum. She later discovered one of the first plesiosaur skeletons—popularly known as the relict species possibly occupying Loch Ness. She found the first pterosaur skeleton in England, and uncovered cuttlefish fossils with ink still intact (her friend and fellow fossil hunter Elizabeth Philpot later used the inks in illustrations).
Besides fossils, her other pioneering contribution to paleontology is shit. As she uncovered ichthyosaur skeletons, she often found “bezoars” in their stomachs. But when they split open the supposed hairballs, they found fossils of small marine life. What she’d actually found was coprolites.
One of the reasons Anning is interesting is that her work is situated within two unique ideological undercurrents. She was a woman—and not one of means—at a time when science was the sole province of gentleman scholars. On the outside looking in, she never published any work and spent most her life in poverty, even as “real” scientists relied on her studies and consulted with her.
The second undercurrent is the shifting sands of paleontology, then being confronted with the huge geological and biological changes revealed by the fossil record. One camp, the catastrophists, held that the development of the world as we know it was punctuated by abrupt, catastrophic events that brought about great changes. For many, catastrophism was an attempt to square biblical literalism—Noah’s flood—with existing fossil records. A second camp, the uniformitarians, held that change was a gradual and uniform process, not one of sudden, violent outbursts. On a long enough time scale, they said, even simple erosion can produce huge changes. Neither is necessarily wrong; geological timescales are so unimaginable that small things repeated over billions of years can have massive effects; but also the dinosaurs were taken out by a massive asteroid impact.
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3. Stepping back another century in fossil history we come to Nicolas Steno (1638-1686). An anatomist by training, Steno’s entree into fossildom can be traced to a shark head. When, in 1666, two Tuscan fishermen reeled in a huge shark, the duke ordered the head sent to Steno for dissection. Elbow deep in disembodied shark skull, Steno was struck with the realization that the teeth looked like the glossopetrae—literally “tongue stones”—often found in rocks and sold as curios.
The origin of fossils was a mystery in Steno’s time. Even the term itself was vague, applied to anything that dug up, including crystals and minerals. Steno, looking at his shark skull, realized that the tongue stones sold in shops didn’t just look like shark teeth: they were shark teeth—very old shark teeth. He wasn’t the first to make that connection—Leonardo suggested it—but he did follow it through to its conclusion.
Steno’s observation led to him studying solid objects found inside other solid objects, a seemingly obscure topic on which he wrote an entire book. He then put forward some foundational concepts of paleontology/geology: the principle of original horizontality (rock layers are horizontal unless something forces them out of that position) and Steno’s law of superposition (rock layers are laid down in a time sequence, oldest at the bottom).
Geology was at the time divided between two warring factions: the plutonists and the neptunists. Neptunists—named for Neptune, god of the sea—held that the world began as a roiling stew of water and solid particles, and that rock formations, sedimentation, and geological strata resulted from these particles sinking to the ocean floor, heaviest first. Plutonists—named for Pluto, lord of the underworld—held that rocks came from cooled magma, earthquakes, and other upheavals. So fractious was the debate that it spilled into popular culture: Goethe, a neptunist, depicts Mephistopholes as a plutonist in the fourth act of Faust. Neither side was entirely right or entirely wrong; as it turns out rocks can be made many ways.
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4. Despite featuring an actual crow on the bottle, Old Crow is not named for Corvus brachyrhynchos but for Dr. James Crow. He was a chemist and trained medical professional, inasmuch as one could be “trained” and “professional” by early 19th-century standards of medicine. In 1835, while working at Glenn’s Creek Distillery in Kentucky, Crow applied his chemical know-how in developing the “sour mash” process for bourbon production, in which mash from previous batches is used to kickstart fermentation for new batches. That became Old Crow. In later years, he ran the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery and the Old Taylor Distillery—the “old” suggesting aged bourbon, with a velvet smoothness just a notch or two below paint stripper.
Crow died in 1856, taking his original recipe with him. Thanks to its signature blend of thirteen herbs and spices, the original pre-Crow’s-death booze was so highly prized that Kentucky senator Joseph Blackburn supposedly secured re-election by promising a taste to voters. The onetime Old Crew distillery—which didn’t open until almost two decades after Crow’s death—is now abandoned and creepy.
BTW: Old Crow is cross-marketed as one of The Olds, a whiskey triumvirate including Old Overholt and Old Grand-Dad, the preferred drink of Harry and Bess Truman.
Double BTW: Old Crow’s slogan used to be “For people going places.” The “…and getting dragged there haggard, nauseated, and semi-conscious” was implied.
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5. Old-house-repairer Bob Vila was fired from This Old House in 1989, after cutting a commercial for a competitor of Home Depot, who at that time funded the show. Actual This Old House episode titles, season 23 onwards: “Roadblocks to Turning a Former Chicken Coop into a Cottage,” “Lots of Activity Outside,” “Many Hands Make a Beautiful Fireplace,” “Reviving an Abandoned 1879 Rowhouse,” “Stucco and Sewer Problems,” “Refrigerator, Hot Plate, and Bad Larry,” “Camelbacks, Bargeboard, and Toxic Mold,” “Even the Foundation is Prefabricated,” “Is the Island Too Big,” “Building a Clambake,” “Rustic Plaster, Advanced Septic.”