Comparanda: Post-Modern Hepatoscopy (sort of)

Folks who have been following my antics online for the past couple of decades might recall that once upon a time on the Classics-l list I posted something about divining weather via pig spleens … seems the story is making another round:

It’s not the most traditional way of predicting the weather, but one Jamestown man boasts a near-perfect record stretching back decades.

Pig spleens and their height and width are how Norbert Schulz predicts the snowy season in North Dakota. This year, Schulz offered the same advice as years before: Buy a new shovel.

“It’s going to be real nice here for a while; then she’s going to turn real mean,” Schulz said sizing up the spleen in his rural butcher shop.

He said the weather should continue to stay nice through Thanksgiving and then make a turn for cold and snow in December and January before it warms up again.

As for why to measure with the spleen, Schulz, 83, said it’s something he learned from those before him.

“I got it from the old-timers. A lot of old-timers went by the pig spleen,” Schulz said.

His son, Steven, 54, who runs the family farm now, is next in line for pig spleen predictions.

The spleen’s function is to control the blood supply and help the immune system. Humans have a spleen shaped like a fist, while pigs have a long and narrow version.

“I just don’t know, but the pig knows,” he said.

Schulz has been using this method for decades, but only in the past 15 years or so has he been telling people about it. Now he said he receives phone calls from media outlets in Minnesota and Montana seeking his forecast.

“I don’t know why, but I hit it right all the time,” he said.

The number of spleens to predict from has dwindled over the years, but Schulz remains confident in his prediction.

“This I don’t think is going to be that mean. Sure, we’re going to get a bad shot, but then it’s going to level off,” he said in front of two hanging pig carcasses.

Last year, Schulz’s forecast of snow and cold starting in November was off as it was the second-warmest November on record, said Rob Kupec, meteorologist with WDAY.

“Last year was a rough year,” he said. “Everyone was a little off, including the climate prediction centers.”

But the cold and snow starting in December was spot on, said Sam Walker, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

“In general, December of last year was the 16th-wettest winter for Bismarck and the fourth-snowiest December at Bismarck airport,” Walker said. Only four days last December did not see snow.

Walker said he agrees with Schulz’s prediction for this year, with the initial cold burst.

“Actually, it sounds fairly close,” he said of Schulz’s prediction.

Kupec agrees because the spleens’ prediction resembles the La Nina pattern that will occur this winter.

“I think his forecast is an agreement with what the climate prediction center has been saying,” he said.

Schulz himself is confident of his prediction method but said no one can stay perfect forever.

“That’s the problem. I’m going to be wrong someday,” he said.

According to what I can locate semi-efficiently, the last time I mentioned this practice was back in 2001, when the Farmer’s Almanac had put online an article on the subject (which had previously come to my attention in the hard copy version). That article has since. That article has since vanished from the FA site, but it’s still lurking in the Wayback Machine. Here’s the bit:

STEP INTO Gus Wickstrom’s office in Tompkins, Saskatchewan. Gus, a man of Swedish descent who’s lived in this prairie province all of his 60-plus years, is a weather forecaster. He can predict upcoming conditions for the next six months, yet his technology requires no fancy equipment, no high-tech razzle-dazzle. All Gus needs is a barn and a farmhand or two standing by. . .because he predicts the weather by looking at a pig spleen.

Every six months or so, Gus slaughters a pig, and in the frugal way of farm families, he finds a way to use everything but the squeal, as they say. Gus closely scrutinizes the spleen, using a method he learned from his father and Harold Pearson, a neighbor.

Pig spleen chart Left: Here’s a drawing of a spleen from a pig Gus slaughtered in January of 1998, and his predictions for the next six months.

Gus’s method: Divide the spleen into six areas, each representing one month. The top of the spleen (closest to the pig’s head) shows the current month. The bottom indicates the end of the upcoming six-month period. Where the spleen thickens, a change in the weather is indicated, usually pointing to a cold spell. Where there’s a pronounced bulge, expect even more inclement weather. Gus can even read wind and rain into the variations in the spleen.

Seventy-two-year-old Joe King, in Wynyard, Saskatchewan, also learned pig-spleen weather predicting from his father. But Joe is adamant that the pig must be slaughtered in the fall or early winter; a spring spleen, says Joe, is not nearly as accurate. His method predicts only temperature, not precipitation. In the fall of 1997, Joe slaughtered his pig and pulled out a spleen that was even all the way through. This, he says, was one of the first indications that Saskatchewan would experience an even-tempered winter. Never mind that meteorologists were hysterical about the phenomenon called El Niño; or that onionskins and cornhusks were thick. Joe predicted a mild winter with just a few cold days, and his temperature predictions were right on the money.

I checked with a few animal scientists, whose reactions were of disbelief. After all, said the experts, a spleen is a vascular, ductless organ that stores blood, destroys worn-out red blood cells, forms lymphocytes, and so on. “A spleen,” I was reminded, “is a useful organ that has bodily functions. It has nothing to do with predicting the weather.”

I found myself defending this form of weather prophesying, even though I know it’s folklore. I too have farming in my blood. So I went to the one person I knew would have the answer — my father. “I recall,” Dad said, going back to his upbringing on a farm near Goodeve, Saskatchewan, “that our Polish neighbors also looked at the spleen of a pig to forecast the weather. And I know it’s something the Ukrainian families did as well.”

Aha, I thought to myself. It’s not just Gus and Joe — it’s in many cultures, probably more than I’ll ever know. Those who believe in pig-spleen weather prognosticating have seen it work, and that’s just the way it is.

The article was accompanied by a diagram reminscent of those accompanying the Piacenza liver:

All the Farmer’s Almanac stuff bears their copyright, of course. I wish they’d leave stuff like this up. The other thing I referenced lo those many years ago was the ARS HARUSPICINA haec est DISCIPLINA ETRUSCA page, which obviously still exists.

… all of which reminds me … I keep meaning to start including Nigidius Figulus’ brontoscopic prognostications in my ‘This Day in Ancient History’ feature … still looking for a complete copy online, though …

Scaffolding Back Up on the Acropolis

Too bad if you didn’t manage to get there for the one or two days the thing was actually open to the public … from the Independent:

Scaffolding once again appeared on the Acropolis in Athens Thursday as work resumed after a brief pause on a decades-long restoration project.

“New scaffolding has been constructed on the central part of the Propylaea to restore the original marble,” said Mairi Ioannidou, the head of Acropolis Restoration Service.

The Propylaea is a vast, semi-ruined gateway that served as the gateway to the Acropolis, the 5th century BC citadel that towers over the Greek capital.

The new phase of the restoration, which is being partly funded by the European Union, is expected to last until 2013 and will include work to improve the site’s earthquake resistance.

The Acropolis was free of scaffolding for two months, in a brief pause during a massive restoration project that has been going on for a quarter of a century.

The Greek government vowed in May to press ahead with the project, despite introducing deep budget cuts aimed at warding off financial collapse.

Dead End? Ancient Roman Soil Analysis?

From an item in the National last summer:

Dr Raymond Murray said the first investigative use of soil analysis by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation was in 1935. But if there is truth in the legend, the FBI was preceded by quite a few centuries by the ancient Romans, who used to look at the soil under enemies’ horses in an attempt to guess at their previous whereabouts. […]

I have been unable to recall/find any mention of Roman soil analysis … anyone have any ideas?

Roman ‘Multi Tool’

That so-called ‘Roman Swiss Army Knife’ story was making the rounds again at a couple of sites that I frequent (e.g. Wired, Neatorama) and, of course, it was being Tweeted all over the place as well:

As regular readers of rogueclassicism know, of course, this story was actually first making the rounds back in January:

… and a number of us continue to be somewhat skeptical of the dating, based on the inclusion of a fork in the ‘package’. See the post and discussion at:

The Fitzwilliam Museum page on the item appears to have been updated on November 1, but I’m not sure how; the dating of the object (A.D. 200-300)  certainly hasn’t changed.

The Search for Boudicca’s Final Battlefield

Can Computerised Terrain Analysis Find Boudica’s Last Battlefield?

We have few details of the native response to the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43, but one episode entered folklore: the rebellion of an East Anglian queen. Steve Kaye thinks he knows how to narrow down the search for the elusive site of Boudica’s last stand.

via Feature: British Archaeology 114, September / October 2010.

… the whole article is there online. (Tip o’ the pileus to History of the Ancient World)

Temple of Venus et Roma Reopens

Plenty of versions of this one filling my box … here’s the one from ANSA:

Ancient Rome’s most imposing shrine, the Temple of Venus and Rome, has reopened after a restoration lasting almost 30 years in welcome news for a government under pressure since last weekend’s collapse of Pompeii’s Gladiator School.

Facing East and West to symbolise the sweep of the empire, the temple was built in the second century AD by Hadrian on the vestibule of Nero’s Golden House, shifting the Colossus of Nero close to the Flavian Amphitheatre so that it got its better-known name, the Colosseum.

“We have restored to Rome one of the most powerful symbols of the power and greatness of the Roman Empire,” said restoration chief Claudia Del Monti, who has been on the job for all but three years of its 26-year duration.

“My project was aimed at reading the temple as far as possible in its entirety,” she said, recalling that it had once been split in two and was used as a car park until the 1980s.

Rome’s archeological superintendent, Anna Maria Moretti, said the revamped temple “affords an extraordinary view, walking up from the Colosseum”.

With majestic pillars and soaring arches, the Temple of Venus Felix (Venus the Bringer of Good Fortune) and Aeterna Roma (Eternal Rome) was designed by Hadrian in 121 AD, inaugurated by him in 135, and finished by his successor Antoninus Pius in 141.

Damaged by fire in 307, it was restored with changes by Maxentius.

The temple restoration is part of the government’s plans to open up more ancient sites, said Culture Undersecretary Franco Giro, deputising for Culture Minister Sandro Bondi who was fielding a fusillade of questions in parliament over Saturday’s collapse of the school in Naples where gladiators trained. Giro noted that the pits under the Colosseum where gladiators prepared for mortal combat have recently been unveiled and other temples, such as that of Antoninus and Faustina, are set to be reopened within the next year.

“We are respecting the schedule we set for the Forum and we are proceeding with a restoration of an area that was in deep decay, having been abandoned by governments of all colours,” Giro said.

He rejected criticism of Bondi’s handling of Italy’s artistic heritage which began with his allegedly supine acceptance of budget cuts that led to Italy’s museums staging a mass closure Friday.

The undersecretary also defended the minister from what he described as “unfair” attacks over the situation in Pompeii, calling the centre-left opposition “ill-informed”.

… and it’s no surprise — given the ‘House of the Gladiators’ collapse (about which more later this weekend) — that already the opening has been politicized.

Hadrian’s Heart Condition

Roman emperor Hadrian in Greek dress offers a ...
Image via Wikipedia

Yes, my skeptical alarm went off when I read this incipit to a piece in the Daily Mail:

For years, centuries even, there have been anecdotes linking diagonal creases across the earlobes to heart disease. One of the earliest ‘cases’ was the Emperor Hadrian, most famous for building a wall to mark the northern extent of Roman occupation in Britain.Hadrian, who lived to the age of 62, is believed to have died of heart failure. As several sculptures of him show obvious diagonal creases across both his earlobes, many believe Hadrian is the first recorded evidence for this link with heart disease.

… but then I poked around and found this interesting article in the Western Journal of Medicine from back in 1980 … here’s the abstract:

Classical writings suggest that the Roman emperor Hadrian died from congestive heart failure resulting from hypertension and coronary atherosclerosis. This diagnosis is supported by the identification of bilateral diagonal ear creases on sculptures of several busts of Hadrian as well as literary evidence of behavior pattern A.


The whole article is available (for free!) online and is an interesting read. I still can’t comment on the crease-heart attack link, obviously (and if you look in the right margin on the link page you can see the point has been debated for a long time), but it’s an interesting bit of research …