Sunday, October 24, 2010

Farming the kibbutz land

Kibbutz workers (Caption: Farming the kibbutz land / Credit: Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem

My parents 'made aliya' soon after World War I. They were to be chalutzim – builders of the land. Wherever work was needed, they would be there. Whatever the work would be, they would do it. They would help create in the Land of Israel a new type of society – one based on equality, cooperation and justice. They joined up with other similarly motivated young Jews. Calling themselves 'G'dudei Ha'Avoda' (Workers' Brigades) they paved roads, drained swamps and undertook other strenuous work. When construction workers were needed in Jerusalem their group moved there and set up camp in an empty lot. My father quickly learned to quarry stone and my mother became a plasterer.

Not long after I was born, the group erected a kibbutz on a lonely hill south of Jerusalem. The kibbutz was called Ramat Rachel because it overlooks the grave of the biblical Rachel.

Tamar Caspi, Kibbutznik

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Marathon of the Marathon Project

The Marathon Marathon Project (hereinafter τουμαραθωνίουmarathonproject), will take place in Athens at the Acropolis Museum on October 31, 2010 under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

The project takes as its point of departure the impressive international array of marathon-format events which are rooted in the concept of superhuman endeavor, in the seemingly impossible but historically real feat of the Battle of Marathon. A particular point of reference was the international event entitled "The Marathon Project," which has been held annually since 2005 as part of the Serpentine Gallery art program in London. Through a marathon series of talks and presentations this project generates an important, unprecedented archive made up of the intricate "path" of thought and expression taken by artists and intellectuals as they explore a central issue or topic (e.g. The Poetry Marathon, the Manifesto Marathon, the Marathon of Maps). In doing so the project has questioned the established ways of presenting art and re-negotiated the concepts of public dialogue and cultural goods.

The apparent tautology in the title of the Athens event comes from the fact that τουμαραθωνίουmarathonproject—the "Marathon of the Marathon"—is being held as part of the celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon and the organization this year of the Golden Marathon.

The reason for putting this project together was the need for a different reading of the anniversary, through the artists' and intellectuals' point of view and , in terms of both the act of commemoration (why we celebrate the anniversary) and the content of what is being commemorated (what it means). This meta-Marathon—the discourse about the Marathon—provides an opportunity to creatively re-link the message of the Marathon not only to its place of origin but also to the numerous places around the world where this message was relayed and multiplied.

The project is being realized at a historical conjuncture which is proving to be decisive for re-shaping the broader features of Greek society and culture. The event explores such topics as the new understanding of humanism that has emerged within contemporary culture, the (re-) interpretation of innovation in a globalized world of hybrid realities, and the role of the arts in the memorization of the past, present and future. Other topics include the renegotiation of the idea of the Other (which comes to the fore in the Battle of Marathon itself and in Aeschylus's Persians) and the symbolic transformation of Pheidippides from soldier to warrior-runner.

Artists, writers and intellectuals from Greece and abroad will take part in τουμαραθωνίουmarathonproject, which is being curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and co-curated by Nadja Argyropoulou. The proceedings will be published in book form and distributed internationally.

The Marathon marathon participants so far are: Etel Adnan,Andreas Angelidakis,Athanasios Argianas (with the participation of Theodore Pistiolas),Nairy Baghramian,Daniel Birnbaum ,Anna Boghiguian,Vlassis Caniaris,Dimitris Dimitriadis,Simon Fujiwara,Fivi Giannisi,Nikolaus Hirsch,Julia Peyton Jones,Jeff Koons, Giorgos Koumendakis (with the participation of Thodoris Patsalidis),Panos Koutrouboussis,Armand Marie Leroi,Antonis Liakos (with the participation of Emilia Salvanou),Natalia Mela,Sarah Morris,Luigi Ontani,Christodoulos Panayiotou (with the participation of Nicolas Stylianos & Eleni Roumpani),Yiannis Papadakis,Angelos Papadimitriou,Maria Papadimitriou,Leda Papaconstantinou,Vassilis Papavassiliou,Huang Yong Ping,Angelo Plessas,Stelios Ramfos,Societe Realiste & Giorgos Papadopoulos,Yorgos Sapountzis,Christiana Soulou,Eva Stefani,Yorgos Tzirtzilakis,Nanos Valaoritis,Yiannis Varelas,Kostis Velonis,Vangelis Vlahos,Iannis Xenakis (recorded interview),Zyranna Zateli (with the participation of Nikos Bakounakis), Elias Zenghelis.

The Marathon Marathon or τουμαραθωνίουmarathonproject is being organized by the non-profit cultural initiative, Saprofyta. It is realized in cooperation with the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art and the Acropolis Museum.

Acropolis Museum

Sunday, October 31st 2010, start 16:00, Acropolis Museum

Recycling animal and human dung is the key to sustainable farming

Flushing the water closet is handy, but it wreaks ecological havoc, deprives agricultural soils of essential nutrients and makes food production dependent on fossil fuels.

For 4,000 years, human excrements and urine were considered extremely valuable trade products in China, Korea and Japan. Human dung was transported over specially designed canal networks by boats.

Thanks to the application of human "waste" products as fertilizers to agricultural fields, the East managed to feed a large population without polluting their drinking water. Meanwhile, cities in medieval Europe turned into open sewers. The concept was modernized in late 19th century Holland, with Charles Liernur's sophisticated vacuum sewer system.

The innocent looking water closet breaks up a natural cycle in our food supply. Basically, it turns extremely valuable resources into waste products. When we grow crops, we withdraw essential nutrients from the soil: potassium, nitrogen and phosphate, to name but the most important. During the greater part of human history, we recycled these nutrients through our bodies and returned them to the soil, via excreta, food trimmings and the burial of dead. Today, we flush them mostly into the sea

This is problematic and unsustainable, for three main reasons.

To start, dumping sewage in rivers, lakes and seas kills fish and makes fresh water undrinkable. This can only be avoided by extending the water closet and the already very costly sewerage network with an equally expensive infrastructure of sewage stations (which does not completely eliminate the detrimental effect on water life).

Secondly, we need artificial fertilizers to keep our soil fertile. In 2008, almost 160 million tonnes of inorganic fertilizers were used worldwide (1 & 2). Without these, our agricultural soils would lose their fertility in just a few years time, followed by an inevitable collapse of food production and human population. A third problem is that the water closet logically consumes large quantities of fresh water to flush everything "away".

Water closets are energy-intensive

Fresh water production, the construction and maintenance of sewers, the treatment of sewage (and sewage sludge), and the production of inorganic fertilizers are all energy-intensive processes. Nitrogen (which makes up more than half of total fertilizer consumption) is abundantly available in air, but to convert it to a useful form the gas has to be heated and pressurized. The energy for this (polluting) process is delivered by natural gas or (in China) by coal plants.

Potassium and phosphate have to be mined (up to depths of several thousands of feet) and transported. It takes more than 150 million tonnes of phosphate rock to produce our current yearly supply of 37 million tonnes of phosphate fertilizer, and 45 million tonnes of potash ore to produce 25 million tonnes of potassium fertilizer. Both operations are energy intensive and pollute the environment.

Moreover, while potassium is widely distributed and abundantly available (we have enough economically obtainable reserves to last 700 years at our current consumption rate), phosphorus is not. Ninety percent of global phosphate reserves are only found in a handful of countries, and economically recoverable reserves large enough to meet agricultural demand are estimated to last for only 30 to 100 years. Reserves are much larger if mining phosphates from the seabed is included, but this would be extremely energy-intensive, further deterioriating the sustainability of the food and sanitation system.

The only way to get nutrients from sea to land is via marine bird droppings - which is of course in very short supply - or by eating fish or seafood. However, once we have digested our fish and chips, the nutrients filter down to the sea via the sewer network.

A sign of civilization

The existence of the water closet and the accompanying sewer system is seldom questioned. It is viewed as an obvious technology and generally regarded as a sign of civilization - countries that do not have such a system today are considered retarded or backward. The reason for this is because we have been conditioned to believe that the water closet and the sewer system are the only alternatives to stench and disease.

Following the demise of the Roman Empire (with its early sewers and water closets) and right up to the end of the nineteenth century, the concentrated and unorganised distribution of human excrements in groundwater, city canals and rivers brought recurrent deadly epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever throughout the western world. These were caused by drinking water contaminated with faeces. People answered nature's call on the streets or emptied their honey buckets in backyards, open courtyards, badly sealed cesspools or surface waters - methods that were not conducive to healthy living in densely populated cities. Water closet and sewer system have solved this, at least in the rich world, and nobody wants to go back to the miserable hygienic conditions of those times.

Chinese agriculture

However, as obvious as it seems to us today, the water closet is not the only possible answer to the problem of sanitation. There are other, much more sustainable methods to separate human waste from drink water supplies. To start with, the grim sanitary conditions of the Middle Ages and the early Industrial Revolution were a purely western phenomenon. At the turn of the twentieth century in the East, the water in Chinese rivers was safe to drink.

The Chinese were as numerous as the Americans and Europeans at the time, and they had large, densely populated cities, too. The difference was that they maintained an agricultural system that was based on human "waste" as a fertilizer. Stools and urine were collected with care and discipline, and transported over sometimes considerable distances. They were mixed with other organic waste, composted and then spread across the fields (illustration on the right).

That's killing two birds with one stone: no pollution of drinking water, and an agricultural system that could have lasted forever. In fact, it did last 4,000 years, which is considerably longer than even our most abundant resource - potassium, with 700 years of reserves - will allow.

The Chinese agricultural system, which was also applied in Korea and Japan, is extensively described in "Farmers of Forty Centuries", a report of a study trip by the American soil scientist F.H. King. The book was published in 1911, around the time of the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process that would lead to the breakthrough of cheap artificial nitrogen fertilizer. King devoted an entire chapter to the collection and use of human fertilizer by the Asians. Joseph Needham also gives an account of the method, in volume VI:2 of "Science and civilization in China", citing various earlier sources. More recently, Duncan Brown talks about the Chinese system in his book "Feed or Feedback: Agriculture, Population Dynamics and the State of the Planet".

Dung traders

When King visited China, the population was estimated at about 400 million adult inhabitants, compared to some 400 million inhabitants in Europe and 100 million inhabitants in the US. The stools and urine of those 400 million people were collected in terracotta jars, with air-tight seals. The matter was gathered from every home, from the tiny country villages to the great cities. In some cities, special canal networks and boats were constructed for this purpose (picture below). This was the case in Hankow-Wuchang-Hanyang, for example, a city with almost 1.8 million inhabitants living in an area of only 6.5 square kilometres. You could thus argue that the Chinese did have a water carriage sewer network, though the difference to ours is stark.

Around the time of King's visit, every year in China more than 182,000,000 tonnes of human manure was collected in cities and villages - 450 kilogram (900 pounds) per person per year. This was good for a total of 1,160,000 tonnes of nitrogen, 376,000 tonnes of potassium and 150,000 tonnes of phosphate which was returned to the soil. In 1908 Japan, 23,850,295 tonnes of "humanure" was collected and given back to the soil.

Shanghai traded and distributed the yield of its inhabitants over a specially designed canal network using hundreds of boats (see map on the left, click to enlarge), a trade that brought in 100,000s of dollars every year. Human manure was considered a valuable commodity. In 1908, a Chinese business man paid the city 31,000 dollar (this would be more than 700,000 dollars today) to obtain the right to remove 78,000 tonnes of humanure per year from a region of the city to sell it to the farmers on the countryside.

In Japan, which was much more urbanized than China, people paid less rent when they left their landlord better quality excrements. King describes loads of human dung taken from Tokyo and Yokahama "carried on the shoulders of men and on the backs of animals, but most commonly on strong carts drawn by men, bearing six to ten tightly covered wooden containers holding forty, sixty or more pounds each". On the Japanese countryside, it was not unusual to see signs that invited passers-by to please answer nature's call on site. The farmers used the product to manure their fields.

The practice of recycling human dung in Asian countries repelled some foreign visitors. The Portuguese explorer Fernam Mendez Pinto wrote in 1583:

"You must know that in this country there are many of such as make a trade of buying and selling mens Excrements, which is not so mean a commerce among them, but that there are many of them grow rich by it, and are held in good account. They which make a trade of buying it go up and down the streets with certain Clappers, like our Spittle men, whereby they give to understand what they desire without publishing of it otherwise to people, in regard the thing is filthy of itself; whereunto I will adde thus much, that this commodity is so much esteemed among them, and so great a trade driven of it, that into one sea port, sometimes there comes in one tyde two or three hundred Sayls laden with it." (sic)

The 4,000 year old closed-loop system vanished with the arrival of artificial fertilizers, which were imported from the West during the first decades of the twentieth century. Today, China is the largest consumer of inorganic fertilizers with 28 percent of total world consumption. Asia as a whole now uses more than half of the world's artificial fertilizer.

Night soil collection in Europe

The collection of human "waste" also occured in Europe, be it for a much shorter time and on a much smaller scale. The second half of the nineteenth century marked the end of a predominantly agricultural period in Europe; migration to the cities accelerated and the problem of sewage disposal got much worse.

At the same time, health experts started to realize that cholera and typhoid fever were the consequences of drinking contaminated water. Since agriculture was increasingly short of animal manure, it appeared that both problems could be solved at the same time. The first system, which was set up in several countries and cities, is generally known as "night soil" collection and reminds of the Asian method.

Dung and urine were accumulated in movable wooden receptacles beneath the privy seat and mixed with earth, ashes or charcoal to prevent offensive odours. Night soil collectors came by at more or less regular intervals (mostly at night, hence the name) to pick up the merchandise. See picture above (source) and below (source).

This happened either by emptying the full tubs into a cart and giving them back immediately (which meant the cleansing had to be done by the users), or by placing the full tubs in a wagon, switching them for fresh ones (which meant the cleansing had to be done by the scavengers). The empty tubs were replaced under the privy seat, and the cargo was transported via horse and cart to a collection point outside the city. There it was converted into compost for use in agriculture.

Unfortunately, the collection and transport of the waste was not as reliable, efficient and sanitary as was the case in China, Korea or Japan. All was good when air-tight containers were used, but this was not always done. When open carts were applied, the transport caused waste and foul smell (see the 19th century cartoon below, source). Sewage was spilled while carrying the tubs down the stairs and while emptying them into the carts. Moreover, the collection did not always happen that frequently, especially in poorer neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless, the wooden tub system was an improvement over the comparitive disorder of nightsoil collection in Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, so-called dung farmers gathered human and animal excrements from streets, backyards and cesspools and sold these to farmers who applied them to their fields. The problem was that these scavengers needed to collect enough dung before they could sell a cartload. Duncan Brown cites Cipolla, who describes the situation concisely:

"The most pathetically tragic aspect of this business was that of the people, whose poverty was so abject that they collected the manure they found in the streets where they kept it [at their homes] until they had accumulated a sufficient quantity to sell."

There were exceptions, notably in Flanders, where an organized nightsoil collecting system that reminds of the Chinese method was set up as early as the Middle Ages. Around the town of Antwerp, the management of organic wastes (human excrements, dung of city horses, pigeon dung, canal mud and food scraps) had become a significant industry by the 16th century. By the 18th century there were great stores along the river the Schelde where the excrements from Dutch towns were transported by barge.

The vacuum sewers of Charles Liernur

A second collection method was pioneered by Dutch engineer Charles Liernur in 1866 (patent - pdf). His vacuum sewer system combined the comfort of today's water carriage sewer network with the ecological and manurial advantages of the earlier scavenging methods. A closet inside every home was connected to an underground small diameter pipeline infrastructure, and the stools and urine immediately left the house following deposition.

The crucial difference with today's technology, however, was that the Liernur system did not use water but atmospheric pressure as a transport medium. This meant that it avoided the dilution of the manure by the admixture of water, thus preserving its value as a fertilizer - which was Liernur's explicit intention. On the other hand, the vacuum sewer system did away with the need for scavengers to visit every house, lugging around buckets of poo and pee, and disturbing everyone's sleep. It was a clear improvement on the night soil systems, including the one used in Asia.

Several Dutch cities were equipped with the Liernur system: Leiden in 1871, Amsterdam in 1872 and Dordrecht in 1874. Initially, only a couple of thousand homes were connected to the vacuum sewer network, but in Amsterdam the system was expanded substantially. At the end of the nineteenth century, about 90,000 Amsterdam inhabitants were linked to the Liernur sewer network, some 20 percent of the population. In Amsterdam and Leiden, the system remained in operation for almost 40 years. The Liernur system was also introduced on a smaller scale in Prague (Czech republic), Trouville sur Mer (France), Hanau (Germany) and Stansed (England). The system in Trouville, installed in 1892, was operated until 1987 (source, pdf). Today, the method is still being used in ships, trains and airplanes.

The French designed their own version of the Liernur system - the Berlier system. It was introduced in 1880 for a trial period in Lyon, where it successfully removed sewage over a distance of four kilometres (2.5 miles). In 1881, a five kilometre network was introduced for trial in a Paris neighbourhood. The French took the trials very seriously: the sewage was observed by placing glass pipes at various points. The Berlier system, which was technically superior to the Liernur system, worked flawlessly: the thousand soldiers in the barracks of Pépinière, where it was in operation, were the only troops in Paris that were not affected by a serious typhoid epidemic.

The arrival of the water closet

In spite of the technical success, the Berlier system never ascended beyond the experimental stage. The Dutch Health Advisory Board advised a general, national introduction of the Liernur system in 1873, following the successful operation in Amsterdam, but this did not happen either. Liernur designed plans for other cities in Europe (Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Munchen, Stuttgart and Zurich) and in the US (Baltimore), but these were never realised.

There were several reasons why the pneumatic systems did not became the standard sewerage systems of today. Firstly, there was the arrival of the water closet and the waterworks. In the Netherlands, a growing number of people connected a water closet to the Liernur system, diluting the stools and urine in such a matter that their agricultural value declined considerably.

Even before this happened, the sale of the sewage for use as manure did not give the profits that were expected. Health experts advanced that profits should not be the first aim of a sanitary system, but the problem was that Liernur himself had stressed financial profits as an important advantage of his system. This had attracted investors, and they promptly left the technology behind when they started to lose money.

An important problem, not only in the Netherlands but throughout the western world, was the growing size of cities. Both the night soil system and the more sophisticated methods were eventually beaten by the logistics of maintaining the practice in huge cities supported by far away farms. The last blow for the vacuum sewer system was the appearance of inorganic fertilizers after a cheap production method was found in 1910. The shortage of fertilizers in agriculture was "solved".

Because cities had started building water carriage systems for the discharge of storm drain water, the next logical step was to allow the discharge of sewage via the same network. Basically, this was a step backwards: excrements were again drained on surface waters, not necessarily in the immediate surroundings but a few miles further downstream. It took another 70 years before sewage stations became (relatively) common in the rich world.
Only three future possibilities

If we want to restore the natural cycle of our food supply, there are only three technological possibilities. We could develop a modern variant of the scavenging method using composting toilets, in which the stools are collected from individual homes together with other organic waste products. Urine could go to a separate tank that is emptied once a year by a tanker (this method exists in some Dutch and Swedish residential areas where people use so-called urine separation closets). Or, we could develop a modern variant of the Liernur or Berlier system, in which the sewage is collected automatically, but without the use of water.

Vacuum sewer systems have found a limited application in some new housing estates since the 1960s and 1970s. A few hundred systems are in operation in the US, the UK, Australia, Germany, the Maledives, Southern Africa and the Middle East (overview). The installation of a vacuum sewer system is twice as cheap as the construction of a traditional sewer system. A vacuum system is also faster to construct and easier to maintain: it consists of much smaller diameter tubes that have to be laid less deep into the ground - a narrow trench in the road-surface suffices.

There is a third techno-fix, but it is many times more expensive than the other two: using the diluted sewage from our water carriage system as a fertilizer. Basically, this adds another layer of costly infrastructure and complexity on top of an already very costly and complex system. Diluted sewage not only has to be dried, but also purified. This is because sewage sludge does not only contain human waste but also many other (including toxic) waste resources, both from households and factories.

Interestingly, when we remove urine and excrements from the sewer system, we might as well eliminate the water carriage sewer system altogether, further obtaining substantial cost and energy savings. There are workable alternatives for the removal of storm water (basically reducing paved surface) and for the local treatment and re-use of grey water.


Human faeces and urine can only be used as a fertilizer following further treatment. This was an already known fact by early Chinese agricultural writers, who warned that untreated humanure could "burn and kill plants, rot the shoots and harm human hands and feet". Today we know it also carries more severe health risks. F.H. King and Joseph Needham praise the composting efforts of the early Chinese, who often combined their privy with the family pigsty (see illustration below). However, Duncan Brown is more critical of their composting techniques. The health advantages that the Chinese gained by keeping their drinking water supplies clean, were partly offset by the transmission of diseases via food crops:

"Gastro-intestinal diseases were endemic throughout the region. In Korea and Japan, fluke diseases were common because of the practice of eating raw fish grown in ponds fertilized with human excrement. But those diseases could have been largely avoided with a better understanding of their nature and modes of transmission. If properly used, devices like the relatively modern sceptic tank, the more modern oxidation tank or the so-called composting toilet can avoid the danger of gastro-intestinal diseases previously associated with the use of human excrement as manure."

A process of composting should always come first, and this can happen in two ways. The first - slow composting - is a do-it-yourself technique that is explained in the "Humanure Handbook", an online practical guide by Joseph Jenkins (who coined the term 'humanure'). Slow composting happens at low temperatures and takes about one year in a moderate climate. To be secure, most say the resulting (odourless) compost should only be used for growing crops where there is no direct contact between food and fertilizer (like fruit trees) and for inedible plants (flowers, houseplants).

The second method is composting at high temperatures, which goes much faster and results in a fertilizer that can be applied to any kind of food crop. It is an industrial process, which is being applied successfully in several countries for a number of years. Interestingly, the first step of this process also generates electricity, further improving the sustainability of the whole system. Since 2005, a factory of the Dutch company Orgaworld composts diapers (from babies and elderly) together with many other kinds of organic waste. It is a high-tech process that takes about 6 weeks and results in a high-quality compost, free from pathogens, medicines and hormones. The company has also built two factories in Canada and is building plants in the UK.

Can we feed the world using humanure?

Can we produce enough natural fertilizer to substitute for synthetic nitrogen and mined potassium and phosphates? According to the figures collected by F.H. King, an adult person produces on average 1,135 grams of dung and urine each day. How much nitrogen, potassium and phosphates does this contain? That all depends on the diet.

From the China of 100 years ago, King cites different research results, ranging from 2.9 to 6 kilogram (5.8 to 12 pounds) of nitrogen per person per year, 0.9 to 2 kilogram (1.8 to 4 pounds) of potassium per person per year, and 0.4 to 1.5 kilogram (0.8 to 3 pounds) of phosphates per person per year.

At present, the world population is estimated at 6,800,000,000 people. Let's assume they all have a similar diet as the early 20th century Chinese and that the highest figures given by King more closely resemble today's diets (reliable present-day figures are hard to find). This would mean that the total world population could produce 40.8 million tonnes of nitrogen, 14 million tonnes of potassium and 10.4 million of phosphates. Is that enough to eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers? At first sight, no. Today's artificial fertilizer production is:

* 99.9 million tonnes of nitrogen, or more than double the amount that all people could possibly produce (40.8 million tonnes)
* 37 million tonnes of phosphates, almost 4 times the amount that all people could produce (14 million tonnes)
* 25.8 million tonnes of potassium, or more than 1.8 times the amount that all people could produce (10.4 million tonnes)


However, we humans have "outsourced" a considerable amount of dung production to farm animals. A large amount of artificial fertilizer is used to produce livestock feed. These animals produce much more manure than all the people on the planet. Livestock excreta in 2004 were estimated to contain 125 million tonnes of nitrogen and 58 million tonnes of phosphates (there are no figures for potassium, which we will further ignore). That's 3 times more nitrogen and 6 times more phosphates than can be found in humanure.

Animals played a minor role in the Chinese humanure-based agricultural economy, but the European farmers in the Middle Ages relied heavily upon livestock for manure, which was their main fertilizer. Animal manure was never wasted. Joseph Needham cites Fussell:

"European farmers of the 15th to 17th centuries, both high and low, had one main worry, manure. They dared not neglect any source of supply, however minute, for the success of every crop they grew depended largely on the amount they could accumulate for use. They were willing to undertake the labours of Hercules to build a sufficient dunghill".

There are many good reasons to cut back on meat consumption, both for our health and for the environment - livestock production is also the main driver of deforestation (in its turn a major driver of soil degradation).

However, if we don't want to give up our high meat consumption, the least we should do is "to undertake the labours of Hercules to build a sufficient dunghill".

It would not only save us the effort to produce an ever increasing amount of artificial fertilizers, but it would also stop the devastating ecological consequences of dumping 91 million tonnes of nitrogen and 49 million tonnes of phosphates into the environment every year. Most of this is discharged without any treatment, illegally, or legally by overdosing it on fields near cities as a cost-effective waste management practice.

Food scraps & management techniques

There is another source of natural fertilizer material that is being wasted - food scraps. In this case, too, we turn a valuable resource into a waste product. Food scraps could be fed to animals like pigs, greatly improving the sustainability of meat production. But, instead, we feed them grain. Of all the food scraps produced in the US, only 3 percent is currently being recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, producing large amounts of greenhouse gases.

There is also a large potential to lower demand - one of the main problems with today's fertilizer use is overconsumption. Artificial fertilizers are cheap and as a result farmers prefer to dose their crops with too much fertilizer, instead of risking not using enough and lowering their yields. This means that more nutrients are lost through soil erosion, runoff and leaching - which also pollutes groundwater, rivers and seas, because these nutrients do not pass through sewage stations.

Things were very different in the early Chinese agricultural system and during the European Middle Ages. There was never a surplus of fertilizer, so farmers applied it thoughtfully. With more careful techniques, today's farmers could get the same yields with the use of much less fertilizer. The use of crop rotation, intercropping and green manure, all historically important techniques which are still being applied in today's organic agriculture, could further reduce the demand for fertilizers.

Nutrient balance

Pareja Let's digest all this information for a second. On the one hand, we have livestock and people, who together produce 166 million tonnes of nitrogen and 72 million tonnes of phosphates. Almost all of this is wasted, wreaking ecological havoc.

At the same time, our factories produce 99.9 million tonnes of artificial nitrogen fertilizer and 37 million tonnes of phosphates. A completely superfluous operation that further increases pollution and consumes vast amounts of energy. With the expected human (and livestock) population growth, not to mention the rise of energy crops to make biofuels, both biological and artificial production will rise even further, making everything only worse.

We have more than likely already passed the stage where humanity could be sustained without inorganic fertilizers. It is, after all, artificial fertilizers that caused the population boom of the 20th century. However, this should not be a problem. The large amounts of human and animal dung include nutrients which originate from inorganic fertilizers, since we all eat food that is largely grown by means of inorganic fertilizers. It is estimated that humans have already doubled the amount of nutrients in the global ecosystem. Thus, the main problem is not that we produce inorganic fertilizers it's that we don't recycle them.

Logistic challenge

Even if we only consider livestock manure, there is enough natural fertilizer available to sustain almost 7 billion people. There is also no taboo when it comes to utilising animal manure, so why don't we use it? Nutrients recovered as animal manure and applied to agricultural lands were estimated globally at a mere 34 million tonnes of nitrogen (28 percent of total) and 8.8 million tonnes of phosphates (15 percent) in 1996. The amount wasted thus equals (for nitrogen) or surpasses (for phosphates) artificial fertilizer production.

This is the consequence of an industrial and intensive meat and dairy production system that is operating on a global scale. In many countries cattle eats fodder that is produced on the other side of the world. So, in order to close the loop, we would have to ship the manure back to where the fodder comes from. The FAO writes (pdf):

"Even if livestock is raised on the same continent as where its feed is grown, the scale and geographical concentration of industrial feedstock production causes gross imbalances that hamper manure recycling options. High labour and transport costs often limit the use of manure as organic fertilizer to the direct vicinity of the production facilities."

Of course, the same can be said of human manure. Just like livstock, humans are geographically concentrated in large cities with no farmland in sight. Just like livestock, we eat food that is often produced far away from where we live. This means that if we choose to collect humanure, we have to ship it back from the place of food consumption to the place of food production. Consequently, recycling nutrient elements would bring along a massive logistic system consisting of trucks, trains and ships transporting dung (or pipelines transporting sewage) all over the world.

We are not saying that every ounce of dung should be sent back to the place where the food was grown - this is impossible and ridiculous. What counts is that there is a balance between import and export of nutrients. Countries that export food should also choose to import (other) food, instead of dung, yielding the same result and increasing the dietary variety. All we would essentially need is a sophisticated nutrient accounting system.

Decentralisation of the human population

The fundamental solution, of course, is to produce food more locally. This would not only do away with the shipping of manure, but also with the shipping of food. If livestock production would be geographically more diversified and mixed with cropland, all the animal manure could be used and artificial fertilizers would not be needed.

If cities were smaller and distributed more uniformly throughout farming country, the logistics of returning humanure to farmland would be greatly simplified. Of course, this 'decentralisation' of the human population goes against the notion that densely populated cities are more sustainable than a more uniformly distributed population. The challenge may not be to abandon Suburbia, but to make it more self-sufficient.

© Kris De Decker (edited by Shameez Joubert)

© Illustrations in red & black: ddidak for low-tech magazine.

Many Thanks to Sietz Leeflang, inventor of the Nonolet (an urban composting toilet - building plans), who spent two years convincing me to write this epos on shit, and referred me to most documents listed below. Sietz also inspired me to write about oven stoves (which took considerably less effort).



* "Farmers of Forty Centuries", F.H. King (1911) -- dung recycling in china, korea and japan
* "Science and civilization in China", Vol VI:2, Joseph Needham (1984) -- idem
* "De geschiedenis van de techniek in Nederland - de wording van een moderne samenleving 1800 - 1890, deel 2", H.W. Lindsen (1993) -- the liernur system (in Dutch)
* "Feed or Feedback: Agriculture, Population Dynamics and the State of the Planet", Duncan Brown, 2003 -- the nutrient cycle and how to restore it (great book!)
* "The history of sanitary sewers" (website) -- the liernur system and other early sewer systems
* "Proposed plan for a sewerage system, and for the disposal of sewage", PDF, Samuel M. Gray (1884) -- the technical options at the end of the 19th century
* "Humanure Handbook", Joseph Jenkins (2005 - third edition) -- diy
* "The nitrogen dilemma: is America fertilizing disaster?", Tom Philpott, Grist (2010) - inorganic fertilizers
* "Livestock's long shadow", PDF, Food and Agriculture Organisation (2006) - figures of livestock dung production
* "Production and use of potassium", PDF (1998)
* "Inorganic phosphorus and potassium production and reserves", PDF, T.L. Roberts and W.M. Stewart, in "Better Crops" (2002)
* "Environmental aspects of phosphate and potash mining", PDF, UNEP (2001)
* "Peak Phosphorus", James Elser & Stuart White, Foreign Policy (2010)
* "Scientists warn of lack of vita phosphorus as biofuels raise demand", Times Online, June 23, 2008
* "The voyages and adventures of Ferdinand Mendez Pinto, a Portugal, during his travels for the space of one and 20 years in the kingdom of Ethiopia, China, Tartaria, etcetera", Ferdinand Mendez Pinto (1583).

Source : Low-tech Magazine, 15 september 2010.

Bring your own beamer

Κunsthalle Athena has the honour to host “Bring your own beamer” (BYOB) event, an “exemplary” and crucial gesture supporting creative expression in a period of financial, social and cultural crisis.

“Bring your own beamer” (BYOB) exhibition comprises an edition of a broader set of events organised by different artists in different cities every time. In every occasion the organisers choose the participating artists with the aim to experiment and discover “what will occur in site when it is filled with moving light”.

In this special evening, under the acronym BYOB (a symbolic reference to bring your own booze parties), artists are invited to bring their own beamer and present any work they choose in any place they desire to. It is a case of “presenting” moving images and performances in a DIY context, expected to evolve organically in progress of the evening. Therefore, a significant aspect of BYOB’s concept is to be realized without the financial support of any third parties beyond the immediate participants.

The first BYOB event was held with great success in Büro Friedrich, Berlin with the initiative of Rafaël Rozendaal and Anne de Vries. Now, curated by Angelo Plessas, BYOB makes its second worldwide appearance in Kunsthalle Athena. All the artists will attend the event, even those who are not based in Athens, so you are welcomed to contact them.

Participating Artists: Alexandros Georgiou, Alexandros Psychoulis, Aliki Panagiotopoulou, Amateurboyz, Andreas Angelidakis, Angelo Plessas, Anne de Vries, Billy Rennekamp, Dimitris Foutris, Dimitris Papadatos, Dionisis Kavallieratos, Eftihis Patsourakis, Emile Zile, Irini Karayannopoulou, Ioanna Myrka, Georgia Sagri, Katerina Kana, Kostis Velonis, Lakis & Aris Ionas/The Callas, Mai Ueda, Makis Faros, Mano Plizzi, Maria Papadimitriou, Natasha Papadopoulou, Pantelis Pantelopoulos, Pegy Zali, Petros Moris, Poka-Yio, Rafaël Rozendaal, Sifis Lykakis, Spiros Hadjidjanos, The Erasers, Theo Michael, Theodoros D Giannakis, Vassilis, Patmios Karouk

Kunsthalle Athena, Saturday 23rd October

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fairy Story

Fairy Story
Wanda Gag, 1937
lithograph from Zinc plate

Politics of Art

The exhibition begins by a dominant nowadays museum principle under which we are asked to manage the collection as a constantly changing field of new relationships among works, revealing new narratives and meanings but also a wider understanding of the contemporary, international and intercultural. In this framework, past and present are being restructured one within the other, and the contemporary art practice is understood in dialectical relation to the totality of global culture that transcends national, geographic or racial limitations.

The exhibition aims to explore through different perspectives on the works which directly or suggestively indicate political, economic and social phenomena and events, the political dynamics of contemporary art, its possibility to act as a lever of criticism and alternative political thought and action. Political uses of the public space, situations and experiences of oppression, discrimination and violent political and social conflicts, economic globalization and the politics of space in their ecological and social dimensions, reconstituation of collective memory and the restoration of a collective social space, are some of the issues that works in the exhibition will explore, looking for alternative political collective action and artistic activism, as well as a new interactive relationship between the artist and the community, local and global.

Kendell Geers
Αkropolis Redux (The Director’s Cut)
Situation Security fencing, steel shelves

Participating artists: Dimitris Alithinos, Andreas Angelidakis, Sadie Benning, Andrea Bowers, Richard Brouillette, Costantin (Dikos) Byzantios, Vlassis Caniaris, Paul Chan, Eirene Efstathiou, Koken Ergun, Makis Faros, Kendell Geers, Jean – Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Mieville, Ivan Grubanov, George Hadjimichalis, Yiorgos Harvalias, Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir, Yael Kanarek, Carlos Motta, Antonio Muntadas, Shirin Neshat, George Osodi, Jannis Psychopedis, Walid Ra’ad & The Atlas Group, [+RAM TV], Oliver Ressler, Martha Rosler, Jayce Salloum & Walid Ra’ad, Allan Sekula, Danae Stratou, Theodoros, Iris Touliatou, Stefanos Tsivopoulos, Kostis Velonis, Bill Viola, Vangelis Vlahos, xurban_collective, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI).

"Politics of Art", National Museum of Contemporary Art
Curated by: Anna Kafetsi
Duration: 13/10/2010- 30/1/2011

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why is This Century Worse

Why is this century worse than those others?
Maybe, because, in sadness and alarm,
It only touched the blackest of the ulcers,
But couldn't heal it in its span of time.

Else, in the West, the earthly sun endows
The roofs of cities with the morning light,
But, here, the White already marks a house,
And calls for crows, and the crows fly.

Anna Akhmatova
А́нна Ахма́това

Translated by Yevgeny Bonver

Cowboy Hat Souvenir Stand

Cowboy Hat Souvenir Stand, Winkenburg, Arizona , 1934

Sick Of It All

Chris Bors, Sick Of It All, 2007, oil on canvas.

Witch's Head

August Natterer: Witch's head, c. 1915, Prinzhorn Collection

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Vergilio Ferreira
Lisboa, 1960
Portugália Editora
3.º edição
19,3 cm x 13 cm
272 págs.
capa/cover de Sebastião Rodrigues


The Folklore of the Universe

The Folklore of the Universe,2007

132 x 45 x 26 cm
steel, wood, felt, acrylic

Ute Muller, Kostis velonis @ ART FORUM Berlin
Dana Charkasi Gallery, Vienna
07 - 10 October 2010
Booth 162A in hall 18

Flat-Nose, Stocky and Beautugly

In the early 1800s, nearly 25 per cent of all females in the United Kingdom were called Mary. If you add to these many Marys the crushing numbers of Elizabeths, Sarahs, Janes and variform Anns (Nancys, Nans and Hannahs), you would have the Christian names of something close to 80 per cent of the female population. There was a similar pattern with Johns. About one fifth of all males in the UK between 1800 and 1850 were christened John and the vast majority of the other men and boys around at the time were Joseph, James, Thomas or William.

Around 1850, however, the repertoire of names in regular use began to increase rapidly. As Gothic-looking steeples rose around the country, so medieval-sounding names crowded around the font: Arthur, Walter, Harold and Neville, Ethel, Edith and Dorothy, soon to be supplemented by endless Geoffreys. This remarkable efflorescence has been described as a ‘personalisation’ of names, although since in this period the ‘proper’ name one gave to registrars and census enumerators might very well be supplemented by a highly personalised nickname – Old Tom, Long Tom, Short Tom, or even, according to Rev. Alfred Easther, a 19th-century Yorkshire dialectologist, Wantem, Blackcop and Muddlinpin – it might better be described as an outbreak of name-consumerism, as parents increasingly invested their energies in baptismal choice.

Children were no longer necessarily named after parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Indeed, parents began to choose names and forms of names simply because they liked them or because they reminded them of someone they liked, in life, in fiction or in a Shakespeare comedy: Olivia, for example. Parents insisted on children being christened with a particular form of name, not Ellen but Nellie, a name-form that peaked in the 1880s and 1890s. Orthography became important: Geoffrey or Jeffrey, Ann or Anne, Stephen or Steven. Girls’ names were especially given to whim and proliferation. In the 1930s, my mother was christened Doreen because a Russian acquaintance of my grandfather said that was the name of the nicest girl he had ever known. This nice Doreen seems to have made quite an impact given the surge in Doreens between the wars.

Perhaps as a reaction to this spectacular outbreak of fashion in naming, lumbering several generations with names that quickly came to sound modish, old-fashioned or just old-aged, the period after the Second World War saw a retreat to more timeless and ageless seeming names, especially for boys. On my first day at primary school I was surrounded by boys with what I still think of as normal classic names: Simon, Mark, Peter, Andrew, Paul, Martin, Michael, Stephen, Richard, Robert, David. Girls’ names remained more modish: some Sarahs, Anns and Elizabeths and even some residual Marys, but also plenty of Janets, Jackies, Lisas and Debbies, who soared and plummeted through the bestseller lists in the space of a couple of decades, the Nellies and Doreens of my generation.

The personalisation of names has nevertheless continued through the era of neo-classicism. So although James has been in or close to the top ten for well over a quarter of a millennium, since 1850 the percentage of boys so named has steadily declined. Instead of the 20 per cent commanded by Mary and John in the early 19th century, in 2009 just a few per cent of children received the most popular names for girls or boys – Olivia and Jack – and the top ten now includes the names of barely 10 rather than 80 per cent of newborns. In many modern classrooms most children will be identifiable by their first name alone.

Boys’ names remain less susceptible to fashion – Jack has been number one for many years now, while Olivia has had to contend for top spot with Emily, Jessica and Grace – and there remains a tendency towards the classics. But the classics have been redefined more classically. Most of the classics of my generation no longer even figure in the top hundred. Andrew and Robert are barely hanging on. But Joshua, Benjamin, Samuel and Joseph have been restored to the places they held two hundred years ago, after languishing for years in the unfashionable regions of the charts.

It is even possible to trace the rise of particular combinations of sounds. The popularity of J-names for boys in English-speaking countries is very ancient. A more recent trend is for names that end in -an or -en. This may be enough to account for the meteoric rise on both sides of the Atlantic of Jayden, coming soon to a playground near you, a lovely sounding name, without history or significance, which first entered the US top 1000 only in 1994. Or perhaps the -en sound has become a masculinising suffix, so that Jayden is a male form of Jade. An ‘ee’ sound has also become dominant in the top ten of girls’ names, assisting the revival of Ruby, Lily, Chloe and Sophie/Sophia – which currently enjoys remarkable popularity all over the world, from Russia to Argentina and from Germany to New Zealand. A computer might also therefore have been able to predict the spectacular rise of Evie, which has not one but two ee-sounds. Of course, there are not only regional variations but also temporal ones: Holly was top last December.

This fluidity is enabled by a traditional freedom in naming. The Rev. Easther noted – merely as a curiosity – that already in early 19th-century Yorkshire, children were being baptised with diminutives: Fred, Ben, Willie, Joe, Tom. Everywhere, some names could be given to both girls and boys – Hilary, Evelyn, Lesley, Happy, Providence – and the practice of using surnames as forenames was well established. Particular groups have periodically used this customary licence to bestow unusual names. Thus the sloganeering names of Nonconformists: Freewill Shepherd, Praisegod Silkes, Feargod Hodge, River Jordan and, reputedly, Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon, whose father, Praise-God Barebone, lent his surname to the Barebones Parliament of the mid-17th century. An American dialectologist noted that in the southern Appalachians in the early 20th century,

One girl was named Vest for no other reason than that her father wrapped her in his vest when she was only a week old and carried her proudly across the hollow to display his first-born before admiring neighbours … Three brothers in the little settlement of Shawnee bear the names Meek, Bent and Wild. Lem and Lum are the names of twins. One young man carried the substantial name of Anvil, and another that of Whetstone. A small mountain boy has Speed as his Christian name.

In this context the names that regularly provoke newspaper articles – Moon Unit Zappa, Zowie Bowie (a.k.a. Duncan Jones), Trig and Track Palin, Rocket, Racer, Rebel and Rogue Rodriguez, Number 16 Bus Shelter and Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii (known to her friends as ‘K’) – may seem a little less provocative. Michael Jackson did not, after all, actually register his second son as Blanket: that is just a nickname for Prince Michael Jackson II.

On the other hand, inasmuch as names carry powerful connotations of class and culture, they can have serious consequences. Several experiments have demonstrated that teachers mark children’s work differently depending on whether given names appear on test papers, and forenames can increase or decrease the chances of an applicant for a job making it to the interview room. When the parents of Adolf Hitler Campbell ordered a personalised birthday cake for his third birthday and the cake shop refused, the authorities were alerted; he was subsequently taken into care, along with his sister, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell. But the consequences of a name are not always negative. Henry Fielding Dickens did not live up to the literary aspirations intended by his father, but Michelangelo Caravaggio seems to have viewed the accident of his Christian name (bestowed simply because he was born on 29 September, the day of St Michael) as a challenge to emulate his namesake Mr Buonarroti (who had in fact been born in March). Names produce affinity (oikeiot-es) Socrates says of his namesake Young Socrates in Plato’s Statesman, or as Lévi-Strauss put it: ‘Un Jean est un membre de la classe des Jeans.’

Until very recently, most European countries fiercely resisted such typically English laissez-faire. You could not use surnames as forenames; you could not register diminutives; names must be taken from the calendar of saints or the otherwise illustrious of the nation’s past; names must be either masculine or feminine, but not both; names had to be given in the correct form of an official language. So, while Friday has occasionally been used as a forename in England and America for several centuries, when, in 2006, an Italian couple wanted to name their child Venerdì, a judge refused and took it on himself to rename the boy Gregorio; the name Friday carried negative, potentially damaging, connotations, he argued, citing Robinson Crusoe, Friday the 13th and the Crucifixion. Some countries, notably Germany, Sweden and Denmark, maintain approved lists, cared for in the last case by academic specialists at the University of Copenhagen, and parents must go through a special and sometimes expensive appeals procedure if they wish to name their child something off-piste.

However, licence is spreading rapidly. The number of appeals against the name-lists has increased rapidly in recent years and threatens to overwhelm the system, causing even Hans, Jens and Jørgen to wonder if this might not be a waste of government time and taxpayers’ money. Recently, the Danes have allowed Christopher and Swedish courts have allowed Google, Metallica and Q, though not Albin spelled Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssql-bb11116 in a vain attempt to test the law; even the laid-back English registrars insist a name must be readable and contain no numbers; it should also contain no titles, which leads one to wonder how Princess Tiaamii passed.

French names were officially liberated in 1993, and in Spain, in 2007, the principle, at least, of freedom in naming was recognised; a century and a half after the rise of the Nellies in America and Britain, a Spanish couple can now register a child under the name Concha or Pepe. The Spanish example reminds us that names can be straightforwardly political, a way for governments to count and control citizens and even to impose an artificial national identity. Under Franco (Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo), Spanish names were strictly managed, and even a quintessentially Basque name like Xabier had to be registered in its Castilian form, Javier.

But the customary licence with which names are bestowed in English-speaking countries is also ideological, a sometimes quite self-conscious expression of an assumed freedom to name children whatever parents want, another of those ‘ancient liberties’ that would in earlier centuries have been confidently ascribed to the Anglo-Saxons. Which is ironic, since one of the most dramatic upheavals in English naming occurred after the Norman Conquest, when parents chose to replace the wonderful and varied names of their grandparents’ generation – Aethelwulf, Aethelflaed, Frithuswith, Ealdred – with less personalised Toms, Dicks and Harrys. It is rather as if an orchestra had been replaced by a recorder ensemble. It is little consolation for this enormous loss to know that the most recent data for the UK places Alfie at number three. The demise of Anglo-Saxon names represented more than just a change of repertoire. All names signify something but most post-Conquest names were semantically opaque to all but the most learned: label-names. Anglo-Saxon names by contrast were mostly transparent: King Aelfraed sounded like ‘King Elf-Counsel’, Lady Aethelflaed ‘Lady Noble Beauty’, King Aethelraed ‘King Noble Counsel’.

Ancient Greek names were much closer to those of pre-Conquest than post-Conquest England. Just as we translate Native American names such as Tashunka Witko (‘Crazy Horse’), Tatanka Iyotake (‘Sitting Bull’), Woqini (‘Hook Nose’) and Tashunka Kokipapi (‘Young Man Afraid of His Horses’), and even those of the ancient Maya (King ‘Jaguar Paw II’, ‘Smoking Frog’, now renamed ‘Fire Is Born’), so we could refer to famous Greeks as ‘He Who Loves Horses’ (Philip), ‘Masters (with) Horses’ (Hippocrates), ‘Flat-Nose’ (Simon), ‘Stocky’ (Plato), ‘Famed as Wise’ (Sophocles).

Like Anglo-Saxon names, Greek names are either dithematic, composed of two elements: aristo (‘best’) and boulos (‘counsel’), Hera (the goddess) and kles (‘fame’), cleo (‘fame’) and patra (‘father’), Hera and dotos (‘given’); or monothematic: Apollonius, Ariston, Cleon, Aischros (‘Shameful/Ugly’). Indeed, there may be a genetic link between the way Greek and Anglo-Saxon names are formed, since a similar naming pattern and sometimes the same names have been found in a range of other Indo-European cultures: Celtic, Indian and Iranian.

There is plenty of evidence not only that ancient Greek names could be meaningful but that they were meant. It is no accident that an Athenian potter named his potter-to-be son ‘Good with His Hands’ (Eucheir), or that ‘He Who Loves Horses’ named a daughter ‘Thessalian Victory’ (Thessalonike), and there is some evidence for political sloganeering in the use of demos names under the Athenian democracy: Democrates, Demosthenes – (over-)glossed by Thomas de Quincey as ‘The People’s Fulminating Might’ – or just Demos, i.e. ‘The People’, the name given to Stocky’s step-brother, a son of Fire-Bright (Pyrilampes).

Generally speaking, and as Burckhardt noted in his Griechische Kulturgeschichte, the Greeks seem to have been peculiarly fond of names. Epic poetry is full of names, a fair number of which must have been made up by the poet, and both Homer and Hesiod occasionally turned their talents to the construction of lines composed of next to nothing but names, of sea-nymphs for example, beautifully fitted to the noble metre. In Theogony Hesiod names 50 nereids in a virtuoso performance of nearly abstract prosody: Sandy, and charming Salty, and lovely Promontoria, Goodmooringia, Welcome-Wave, Current-Carried etc. Others handed down the names of all the dogs who ripped Actaeon apart and of the snakes who strangled Laocoön and his sons. The painter who collaborated with Eucheir’s father on the François Vase carefully wrote out the names of centaurs in the Centauromachy – Woody, Rocky and Savage – and of the dogs involved in the Calydonian boarhunt: Rouser, At ’em, Latecomer. Other painters liked to give appropriate names to satyrs: Revel, Flat-Nose, With-Foreskin-Retracted (Psolos). A sculptor in Greek Antibes even named a phallic stone: ‘I am Delight, servant of dread Aphrodite.’ This exuberant invention of names for objects and other made-up entities provides the background noise of Greek nomenclature and maintains the assumption of meaningfulness.

Just as the epithet unraed – ‘ill-advised’ – brings out the connotations of Aethelraed’s name, so Platonists told just-so stories about ‘Platon’. Platus means ‘broad’, so either the great dialogist was given the name by his wrestling teacher for his stockiness, or because his forehead was broad, or because of the breadth of his interpretations. In fact, Plato is a normal Greek name and there is no hint in any contemporary document that it was anything other than the name the philosopher’s parents ignorantly gave him. Perhaps, at the end of the fifth century, the elite in democratic Athens had turned to simpler names, just as the middle classes in England at the end of the 20th century turned to Jack, Harry, Max and Ben. Whatever his real name, the fact that scholars in the Hellenistic period found it unbelievable that the great philosopher could be a ‘Plato’ – they preferred that his real name be Aristocles, ‘Famed for Excellence’, after his grandfather – may indicate that by this time plain monothematic names like Simon or Platon were considered low-class.

The most famous account of intentionality in Greek naming comes from Aristophanes’ Clouds; Strepsiades explains how he wanted to call his son Pheidonides (‘Of the Line of Thrift’) but his posh wife wanted a Hippos-name to evoke upper-class horsemanship and chariots. So they ended up with Pheidippides. That name (‘Of the line of Thrifty with Horses’?), shared with the famous long-distance runner of Marathon, shows that although the elements of a name might be transparent they might not necessarily make sense when combined. Such ‘irrational names’ – Andrippos (‘Man-horse’), Xenophon (‘Strange[r]-Voice’) – would also have to include the name of Plato’s great-uncle, Kallaischros, a name possessed by a number of distinguished Athenians of the classical period, which sounded exactly like ‘Beautugly’. Doubtless even the most transparent-seeming names quickly turned into nothing more than phonetic labels. There is some evidence for a fondness for particular sounds and syllables rather than for any particular lexical elements: Socrates, son of Sophroniscus.

My Spanish friends are quickly bored when I excitedly point out that their names Milagros, Mercedes, Pilar and Perfecto mean ‘Miracles’, ‘Mercies’, ‘Column’ and ‘Perfect’ (after San Perfecto, an asking-for-it martyr in Muslim Córdoba); and I expect any number of British and American Willies and Dicks have quickly got over their own semantics. But Spain and Britain are cultures where most names are meaningless labels. Ancient Greece was a culture where names were assumed to mean something. So perhaps the comparison is not appropriate.

An interesting case is the name Alexander. It looks very much as if it is a typically Greek dithematic compound of alex (‘defend’) and andr (‘man’). In the Iliad it is an alternative name for Paris, prince of Troy. There was therefore some excitement in the 1920s when a long Hittite document was found to be a treaty between a Hittite king and one Alaksandu lord of Wilusa – now almost universally accepted as the Hittite name for Ilion/Troy. Alexander could therefore be an example of a foreign Anatolian name being Hellenised into Greek-sounding syllables or, just as intriguingly and rather more probably, a 13th-century BC Greek (or Greek-named) ‘Alexander’, Hitticised as Alaksandu, a name that would be the 17th most popular in the far distant British Isles in 2010, approximately 3300 years later.

By far the largest proportion of Greek names, however, were theophoric or ‘god-names’: not just Apollonius, Dionysius, Zeno and Demetrius, Diodorus (‘Gift of Zeus’), Theodorus (‘Gift of God’), and Athenodotus (‘Athena-Given’), but also Origen (‘Born of Horus’), Hypatia after Zeus (‘Of Highest’), Phoebe after Phoebus Apollo and Hecataeus (‘Of Hecate’). One important set of names is those derived from river-gods – Neilos, Maeandrius, M[ae]androdorus, Anaximander, Nilomander – for rivers seem to have played an important role in rites of passage, particularly birth and marriage. It is not always straightforward to interpret such names. Is Hermogenes a reference to Hermes or the river Hermos? The popularity of the name Callias (‘Beautias’) in Athens may have something to do with a fountain by the same name near the monastery of Kaisariani on Mount Hymettus, whose waters were believed to aid pregnancy and delivery even into modern times.

All ‘X-given’ names imply that the birth of a child is a gift of a particular divinity X, perhaps in answer to a prayer or even as predicted by an oracle. But god-names were so common that by the late Roman period they had ceased to have any connotations of pagan worship, and were used even by Christian families, for example that of Origen; in the same way, perhaps, the christening of Prince Aelfraed need not imply a belief in fairies on his parents’ part.

That ancient Greek names might be a useful and productive object of study did not escape the notice of the great German philologists of the 19th century. The result was the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names of Pape (Wilhelm) and Benseler (Gustav Eduard), published 1862-70. Substantial though this was, the database has been massively increased by the discovery of graffiti and inscriptions, and by 1949 Pape-Benseler was being denounced by the late great French epigraphist Louis Robert as a ‘ruine dangereuse’. So when, in 1972, P.M. (Peter Marshall) Fraser proposed that the British Academy subsidise the production of a substitute they happily agreed.

Neither the British Academy nor even Fraser, who died in 2007, may have appreciated quite what they were letting themselves in for. Under the guidance of Fraser and, until her retirement in 2009 after 35 years on the project, Elaine Matthews, and with the support of innumerable scholars, the project has made consistent progress, region by region, and is now more than two-thirds done, but it seems unlikely that the remaining three volumes will be completed before 2022, 50 years after the proposal was accepted; and then there is Part II: the Greek names of Egypt and the Near East.

Together with a rough and ready online database, the project now provides the opportunity for producing statistics. So far there are a total of 126 Platos, 28 Euripideses and 178 Cleopatras in the database. For some unknown reason, the most popular name in almost every region was Dennis i.e. Dionysius – ‘Of Dionysus’. Other common god-names, Apollonius, Apollodorus, Demetrius – ‘Of Demeter’ – were usually in the top ten. For centuries after their deaths the names Philip and Alexander were also very popular, but especially in the region that includes Macedon, where Alexander was the second most popular. The city of Athena on the other hand provides the most examples of Athenodorus and Athenodotus. Achilles-names, including Achillodorus, are popular in the Black Sea region, where the hero had important cults. Generally speaking, god-names were less common than you might expect for women – because a baby girl was not considered the answer to a prayer? – and more common than you might expect for slaves, the naming of whom was a prerogative of the owner: perhaps the equivalent, therefore, of naming a slave Tom, Dick or Harry.

As yet the database does not allow one to search within regions or by date or status (free or slave). For that one must still refer to the printed volumes, the latest of which – V.A – covers the north-western coast of Asia Minor from Trabzon on the Black Sea to the mouth of the river Maeander, by way of Sinope, Chalcedon, Troy, Pergamum, Ephesus, Sardis and Smyrna, and from the eighth century BC to the seventh century AD, a period of nearly 1500 years. The volume has about 8000 names for about 50,000 individuals. Nearly seven times more men than women are represented, but only three and a half times as many men’s names; i.e., as in the 20th century, women’s names were more various (capricious or personalised?), men’s more standardised.

In this region, somewhat unusually, the most popular name, by far, was Apollonius, pushing Dionysius into second place; Demetrius is in third place and Artemidorus fourth. Alexander is in fifth place, with two examples from little Ilium, seat of prehistoric Alaksandu. The region seems even more fond of god-names than elsewhere, and some of them throw interesting light on local cults. The popularity of Apollonius and Artemidorus shows the importance of Apollo to the Ionians and of the great shrine of Artemis in Ephesus. The importance of Cybele, the local Mountain Mother, and the Phrygian moon-god M¯eēn is reflected in the frequency of the names Metrodorus (sixth most popular) and Menodorus. Greeks generally avoided names associated with underworld divinities such as Hades and Persephone, so the popularity of Hecate-names, including ‘Gift of Hecate’ Hecatodorus, confirms other evidence that the goddess of witchcraft had a more benign aspect in this part of the Greek world.

Even the most popular name, Apollonius, was shared by barely 2.5 per cent of the population, while the top ten male names accounted for about 15 per cent, the top ten female names for about 12 per cent; most of the top ten female names are Lallnamen (‘baby-babble’): Ammia, Tatia, Apphia. But there are also virtue-names such as Virtue (Arete), Justice and Peace (Irene). Well over half the names are attested only once in the region. These include a Sappho, an Ophelia, a Stephane, a Priam (from Pergamum), a Boar, a Quail, a Sparrow, a Foam, a Pebble (or Vote) and an Amazon, an Encolpius (whose father may or may not have read Petronius’ Satyricon), a Wonderful (or Miraculous: Thaumasios) and a Shitty (Copreus) of Teos, an Old Woman (Graus), who is male, and a man named Named (Onomastos) from Smyrna, a Ioseph, a Samouel, a Nigella, an Aemilia, a Martin, a Loukipher and a Christopher.

The latter are all late and reveal the way that Greek names changed over time, with the introduction of Roman names, Jewish names and Christian names. Romans had three names, an extremely limited repertoire of forenames (praenomina) such as Gaius, Lucius, Marcus; then a family name, Julius, Aemilius, Tullius; and finally a cognomen, Caesar, Paullus, Cicero. With Roman citizenship Greeks acquired Roman names, often using a form of the name of the reigning emperor, sponsor or benefactor while retaining their Greek name as a cognomen. Apart from Lollia Nigella and Aurelius Marteinos (‘Named from Mars’), there are thus 168 Marks in this volume – not, apparently, including the freed slave Marcus Mollicius Lucifer, whose satanic cognomen may be no more than a Latinised version of a not uncommon Greek name, Phosphorus, ‘Morning Star’ – plus 72 Julias, 66 Pauls, 44 Paulas, 100 Maximoses and three Ouiktorias or Biktorias.

Over the many years of the project there have of course been arguments about what should and should not be included in a dictionary of Greek personal names, and a series of evolving answers or messy compromises: any name attested in Greek letters is fair game – unless it is a Roman nomen i.e. ‘surname’, or its owner is identified as non-Greek – plus any clearly Greek name in Latin letters. So Loukipher appears as a Greek name but not Mollicius. Nigella is not counted amongst the Lollias. And, sadly, our friend ‘Foam’ Aphros turns out to be nothing of the sort, but rather the thoroughly Roman and confusingly Hellenised Titus Oppius Afer Pollius Tertullus, an officer of the 15th Legion. There are also problems with the question of whether variant spellings represent variant names. Apphia and Aphphia are listed as separate, as are Athenodorus and Athanodorus. So the Lexicon almost certainly exaggerates the variety of names. Biktoria, on the other hand, is listed only under Ouiktoria, although the beta-form is the more usual spelling.

Reviewers of each volume have tried to spot omissions and/or ghost names that are the result of nothing more than variant readings or reconstructions; they have found a few. Some dates could be more precise. As scholars have become more sensitive to issues of identity and ethnicity so the assumptions of ethnocentricity have been called into question. Can it be right and proper for instance to add Greek pitch accents to non-Greek names simply because they are written in Greek letters? Couldn’t the online search be refined to reflect more of the data in the database? But it isn’t easy to catch the editors out and they are fully aware of the compromises such a project involves and open to suggestions as to how to improve. Students of other peoples in other places must be green with envy.

Of other names with which we are familiar today, Andrew (Andreas, 23 examples here) and Stephen (Stephanos, 45 examples) are normal Greek names with no necessarily Christian connotation. There are several Jameses, including Eiakob, father of ‘Peacemaker’ of Smyrna c.400 AD, three Marys, two Dauids, two Marthas, two Annas, but some of these are certainly, and most of them probably, Jewish. Early Christians did not adopt specifically ‘Christian’ names on baptism as a matter of course, even if their given names had clear pagan connotations. There is, for instance, the famous Phoebe, deaconess in Corinth, mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans. But there is evidence that Christians began to worry a bit about names, that they were beginning to be problematised, a premonition of the heavy-handed regulation of Franco and the Scandinavians.

Jesus reportedly renamed Shimon as Peter, and Shaul adopted the Roman-seeming name Paul in the course of his mission to the Gentiles. In the early third century, Dionysius of Alexandria imagined that early Christians used to favour these two founder-names in particular and wondered if a similar kind of apostolic emulation might also account for the confusing number of scriptural Johns. Indeed, there are 47 Johns (Ioannes, Eoanes) in this volume compared with just seven Peters. Such a distinctively Jewish name might even be used by a notorious hater of all things Jewish, like Golden-Mouthed John Chrysostom, baptised around 370 AD.

Chrysostom had a lot to say about naming. Dilating misguidedly on a passage in Genesis about the naming of Adam’s grandson – ‘and he called his name Enosh’ – he complained that nowadays Christians called their children after grandparents and great-grandparents or illustrious men. Sometimes they chose names randomly, by attaching names to lamps and seeing which one burned longest. Instead, they should choose names of the virtuous or of martyrs, whose names will burn bright for eternity, like the people of his native Antioch, who had apparently named children after the local saint Meletius. The Christians of Smyrna do not seem to have been similarly impressed by their own local martyr, St ‘Much-Harvest’ (Polycarp); according to the record, only one further Smyrnaean was (just possibly) named after him. A little later, Theodoret suggested that martyrs might actually offer some protection to those whose names they shared. But since saints and martyrs often had heathen theophoric names – St Hermes, St Denys, St Hyacinthus, St Isidore, St Apollinaris, St Lucifer – this served only to preserve and to institutionalise the names of pagan divinities.

Because of this and the generally insidious nature of the Christian revolution, the name changes of the Christian era were rather subtle and much less dramatic than those provoked by the Muslim or the Norman Conquest. Some traditional but generalised theophorics – Theodore, Dorothy, Theodosius – needed no amendment, others reflected a rather different religious emphasis: Theodoulos (‘Slave of God’), Cyril and Cyriac (‘Of the Lord’), Eusebios (‘Pious’), Anastasia (‘Resurrection’). Christophoros, however, is the only name in this volume with a Christ element, and Iesous (Jesus/Joshua) also seems to have been carefully avoided in this, as in almost all, regions. Stavros – ‘Cross’ – has not yet become a name. On the other hand, there are lots of names in Chrestos – an old name meaning ‘useful’, ‘good’ – which sounded like Christos and seems to have been used as an alternative, so we have a Chrestos son of Theodoulos, and Chrestos father of Logos, as well as a Chrestinianos and a Chrestina.

As should by now be apparent, one reason a mere lexicon of names used by ancient Greeks has turned out to be such a massive enterprise is that it was long ago decided to include not only every attested ‘Greek’ name but every ‘Greek’ with that name. So hidden behind these curt lemmata are some great celebrities and some amazing biographies. One of only two Soranuses in this volume is the famous gynaecologist of Ephesus, son of Menander and Phoebe. Number 252 out of 262 Diogeneses turns out to be Diogenes the Cynic, son of ‘Suppliant’ (Hikesios) of Sinope. Dion no. 13 turns out to be another golden-mouthed sophist, Dio Chrysostom, of Prusa. Formerly called Cius, the city was refounded and renamed by Prusias the Lame, king of Bithynia, whose portraits survive on a beautiful coinage and who offered sanctuary to Hannibal following his defeat by the Romans. Prusias is also in this volume, along with other members of his dynasty. Also here are the Attaluses of Pergamum, who built the great Altar of Zeus with its notably unwitch-like Hecate, currently in Berlin, and who also commissioned the Dying Gaul and invited the Romans into Asia. Here too is the long-lived, poison-immune Mithradates of Pontus who, around 100 BC, attempted to revive the memory of the long-lost Persian Empire by naming his sons Xerxes, Darius and Cyrus, but who managed nevertheless to present himself as a last rallying point for Greek freedom against the tide of Roman imperialism – until he met his match in Pompey.

But behind almost every attestation of a name lurks more information. The man named Named was reportedly the winner of the first ever Olympic boxing competition in 688 BC; Pebble was the name given by his master to the child of one of his slaves. Ophelia was probably only a little girl when she was buried by her father. Anastasia of Prusias was the wife of Luke; she died in the month of May aged 22. Quail (Ortyx) describes himself as a ‘self-taught sage’. You would never suspect from his brief mention in the lexicon that Zotion no. 2 of Ephesus was a writer of tragedies and satyr-plays who so pleased the citizens of miles-away mainland Coronea with his ‘entertainments’ and his general decorum that they awarded him a present of 70 drachmas. Nor would you expect that Old Woman (or Milk-Scum, i.e. Wrinkleskin) was a highly successful long-distance runner with victories at the Olympics and ‘all the other competitions’.

So the humble-sounding not quite perfect and not always consistent Lexicon of Greek Personal Names will end up as something little short of a register of all ancient ‘Greeks’ whose names were permanently recorded on paper or stone, from the age of Homer to early Byzantium. In retrospect, this was a mind-bogglingly ambitious project to begin to undertake, but one that is now nevertheless well on its way to completion. By no means a proper prosopography – only a handful of statuses are included: bishop, slave, hetaira, freedman, gladiator – but rather more than a lexicon, something like an index to a catalogue of very ancient ghosts.

Text by James Davidson

Buy A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, Vol. V.A Coastal Asia Minor: Pontos to Ionia edited by T. Corsten, Oxford, 2010.

Source:London Review of Books