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“The medium is the message.”
—Marshall McLuhan

1. Nimoy (5:50 a.m.)

It’s a cloudy August morning just after sunrise, and my family and I are speeding about a hundred miles west of London in our rental car, bisecting the Salisbury Plain on the A303. Giant figures the color and heft of elephants appear on a treeless green hill, and an instant snaps before I recognize what they are. “Stonehenge! Hey, is that Stonehenge?” my son asks, my partner swerves as he takes a look, and I answer with a choked up, “Yes!” Latent emotions flood my system with embarrassing force, like I’ve run into a love-defining first crush.

The big stones are gathered in a circle as if around a watering hole, a campfire, some leaning into each other, others toppled over like they’ve had a few too many. I’m seeing them for the first time in person, and their jagged outline seems both familiar as my own hands and mildly hallucinated, as if the site had appeared from a distant universe made suddenly material — a fragment of a 5,000-year-old world.

Who built Stonehenge, how did they do it, and why? As a kid, I’d adored Stonehenge for these unsolved mysteries that had cleverly perplexed adults for so long, as if it were a benevolent entity visiting us continuously from the deep human past, wishing we could understand its heavyweight, three-dimensional language. I’d absorbed as revolutionary fact the beloved shlock 1970s TV documentary show, In Search of . . . the Mystery of Stonehenge, in which host Leonard Nimoy reported that the site was built as a mystical astronomical clock, whose time we could now tell using the most cutting-edge, van-sized computers (the results, I’m sorry to note, were a little off — but more on that later). More… “Setting Stonehenge”

Megan Harlan is an essayist whose work has appeared in AGNI, Colorado Review, Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Common, among other journals, and won the 2018 Arts & Letters Prize for Creative Nonfiction (judged by Joni Tevis). She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), awarded the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her travel writing and book reviews have regularly appeared in The New York Times, and her poems have been published by Crazyhorse, TriQuarterly, American Poetry Review, Hotel Amerika, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Daily, and PBS Newshour. She holds an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program and worked as a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog explores Chauvet, which contains some of the most absorbing cave paintings yet discovered. They also appear to be some of the oldest, dated to 32,000 years before present. Herzog’s camera pans slowly across Chauvet’s bulbous tan walls while his crew moves handheld lights to make the many bumps and angles do a sort of shadow play. The lions, bison, horses, and rhinos outlined in black seem to flex and shift. They nuzzle, sniff, or maybe battle each other. At one point in a voiceover, Herzog says, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on the rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Amid the flickering beauty in this scene, that monologue got me wondering: How does he know this was a religious situation?

Well. He doesn’t. Nobody will ever know why that skull sits there. While archaeologists agree some prehistoric person did it, the reason why could be anything from a carefully-planned religious rite to a joke. That’s one of the greatest attractions — and the insidious trouble — with cave art. There is no context. Looking at it turns us loose in a wide-open playpen for the imagination where each of us fills the gaps with wishes for what should be there. More… “Cave Artists”

Paul X. Rutz is an artist and freelance writer. His exhibitions include solo shows at Ford Gallery, the Oregon Military Museum, and a forthcoming residency at Purdue University, as well as group shows at Mark Woolley Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution. A former reporter for the Pentagon’s Press Service, he has contributed to HuffPost, Modern Fiction Studies, and Cincinnati Review, among others, and he is a feature writer for Military History and Vietnam magazines.

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Sometime between 7,000 and 5,600 BC, along the banks of the Yellow River, an early inhabitant of modern-day China left behind a jug that was once filled with the earliest known example of a fermented grain beverage. With no written recipe or recorded history of the Neolithic concoction, the contents of the vessel were left to evaporate and decay during its long burial, fading into the past. Today, however, roughly 9,000 years later, you can go to your local beer store and walk out with an alcoholic concoction brewed to that seemingly lost ancient recipe. How is that possible? Through the unlikely union of traditional archaeology, modern chemical analysis technology, and the adventurous craft-brewing industry, tasting a 9,000-year-old beer has become as easy as picking it up off the shelf.

It’s been known for a while that some of the earliest civilized humans brewed beer. The almost 4000-year-old “Hymn to… More…

 

Move over horse head, water bird, and lion man. At 36,000 years old, a busty broad unearthed in a cave in Germany is now the oldest sculpture ever found. Indeed, Busty beats those other sculptures, also discovered in a Southern German cave and carved from mammoth bone, by around 5,000 years.

Dubbed the “Venus of Hohle Fels” she is only about 6 centimeters tall. Her most prominent feature is the aforementioned rack, though her shapely gams come in a close second. This has led to a certain amount of snickering. The oldest sculpture in the world is basically a pair of breasts that hung on a string from some cave person’s neck. As The Economist opined, “this discovery adds to the evidence that human thinking—or male thinking, at least—has hardly changed since the species evolved.”

The more uptight… More…