Time for a roundup of all things old, aged, ancient, decrepit, enfeebled, grizzled, geriatric, superannuated, senesced, and Vigoda-like…
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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. Well, he was the first king of a unified Denmark, from 936-958. Prior to that, Denmark was a jumbled mess of minor fiefdoms and Gorm ruled only a smallish island. Lucky for him, assuming, that is, he had designs on total domination, his island was the site of the every-nine-years (nonennial?) festival/sacrifice in honor of Odin…meaning hordes of Danes descending on his kingdom, 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 a name from Dungeons & Dragons; the man was a straight-up viking: “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.” Yes, a plundering cruise. Wielding his Sword of Wounding and Exsanguinating Pulverizer of Smiting (I’m guessing he named his weapons), Gorm later invaded Germany, where a cowed emperor Charles the Fat paid him a ransom despite commanding an army that vastly outnumbered the invaders. Gorm’s pillaging went less well a few years later when another raid into Germany was rebuffed with extreme prejudice, leaving the rivers running red with the blood of the interlopers and only a smattering of Danes escaping the massacre.
While Gorm was out ravaging, someone had to mind the store, and rule of the country was left to his wife Thyra. She pioneered the construction/expansion of the Dannevirke, a sort of Danish Great Wall, that was 8 miles long and 75 feet high and absolutely, categorically, 100% marauding-German-proof. 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, unsurprisingly, was an avowed pagan). The Bluetooth insignia is a superposition of the Nordic runes for Harald’s initials.
2. You know what’s really old? Fossils. Mary Anning (1799-1847) was the star of the first family of fossil finding and a foundational figure in the fledgling field of paleontology. The greatest fossil hunter who ever lived, she’s called. The Annings lived in Lyme Regis, an area surrounded by cliffs buxom with Jurassic fossils. Trained by her father who died in 1810, Mary supported the family through her fossil hunting; at just 12 years old she uncovered one of the first complete ichthyosaur skeletons, which is still displayed at the London History Museum. Later she discovered one of the first plesiosaur skeletons (now more well-known as the relict species occupying Loch Ness), 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).
Her other pioneering contribution to paleontology is shit. She kept finding “bezoars” inside the ichthyosaur stomachs, but found that when split open the bezoars contained fossils of small marine life. So, they weren’t hairballs, but coprolites. Fossilized poo…very important to the whole enterprise, it turns out.
Anning is interesting because her work is situated in two distinct ideological undercurrents. The first was her status as a woman (and not one of means) when science was the province of gentleman scholars. Left on the outside looking in, she never published any work and often lived in poverty, even while “real” scientists relied on her work and consulted with her.
The second undercurrent was the shifting sands of paleontology, which at the time was at a loggerheads to explain the geological/biological change present in the fossil record. Catastrophists held that the development of the world was abrupt and punctuated by catastrophic events—a view that for many was an attempt to square biblical literalism (cataclysmic floods) with fossil records. Uniformitarians held that change was a gradual and uniform process, not one of sudden, violent outbursts—on a long enough time scale, erosion will produce huge changes. Uniformitarianism won out in the short term, but there are elements of truth to both; a catastrophic comet impact did in the dinosaurs.
3. Stepping back in the history of fossils a century or so, we come to Nicolas Steno (1638-1686). Trained as an anatomist, his entree into fossildom is traced back to a shark head. In 1666 two Tuscan fisherman reeled in a huge shark, and for unknown reasons the Duke ordered the head be sent to Steno for dissection. Elbow deep in the disembodied shark noggin, Steno was struck with the realization that the teeth bore something more than a passing resemblance to glossopetrae (literally “tongue stones”) that were found in some rocks and sold as curios.
Steno realized that tongue stones didn’t just look like shark teeth, they were shark teeth. Really, really, old ones. As with most insights, he wasn’t the first to make the connection that fossils had once been organic material (Leonardo da Vinci had suggested it), but he did follow it through to its conclusion. The origin of fossils was mysterious at the time, and even the term was enigmatic, applied to anything dug up, including crystals and minerals.
Steno’s observation led him down the path of studying—no joke—solid objects found inside other solid objects, a topic on which he wrote an entire book. He went on to put forward several foundational concepts in paleontology, including 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 at the time was divided between plutonists and neptunists. Neptunists held that the world began as a roiling stew of water and solid particles, and that rock formations, sedimentation, and strata were the result of these particles sinking to the bottom of the water, heaviest first (the theory is named for Neptune, ruler of the sea). Plutonists believed that rocks were the result of volcanic activity (cooled magma), earthquakes, and similar processes (the theory is named for Pluto, lord of the underworld). The debate was so heated that Goethe, a neptunist, depicts Mephistopheles (the devil) as a plutonist in the fourth act of Faust (no lie). It’s also said that John Wilkes Booth was a radical Plutonist, and that his shout after assassinating Lincoln may have been mistranslated from sic semper neptunis—“death to neptunists” (that last part isn’t true).
Steno converted to Catholicism and stopped practicing science in 1667; he died in 1683 and was beatified (one step shy of sainthood) in 1988.
4. Despite featuring an actual crow on the bottle, Old Crow whiskey is named for the Scotsman, Dr. James Crow. Crow was a chemist and trained medical professional, inasmuch as one could call oneself “trained” and “professional” by standards of early 19th-century medicine. While working in 1835 at Glenn’s Creek Distillery in Kentucky, Crow applied his scientific know-how to develop the “sour mash” process for bourbon production, in which mash from prior batches is used to kickstart the fermentation of new batches (like a sourdough starter). He later ran the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (great name), then the Old Taylor Distillery—“old” here meant aged, which implied a smoothness just a notch or two below paint stripper.
When Crow died in 1856, his original recipe died with him, although Old Crow continued to be produced. Thanks to its signature blend of thirteen herbs and spices, the original pre-Crow-death booze was so highly prized that it’s said Kentucky senator Joseph Blackburn secured re-election by offering a taste to voters. Meanwhile, the old Old Crow Distillery—which didn’t open until almost two decades after Crow’s death—is now abandoned, but still looks creepy as shit.
BTW, Old Crow is cross-marketed as one of The Olds, a whiskey triumvirate including Old Overholt and Old Grand-Dad, which was the preferred drink of both Harry and Bess Truman.
Double BTW: An old Old Crow slogan was “For people going places…”; the “…and getting forcibly dragged there haggard, nauseated, and semi-conscious” was implied.
5. Did you know famed 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”, “Deconstruction and Design: The Bathrooms of Jacques Derrida”, “Human Centered Design, Demolition” (human centered demolition?), “Rustic Plaster, Advanced Septic”.