RENDERED 20: Ice
Ice in your glass, Ice in our past
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In my little corner of France, 2022 has been the summer of forest fires, heat waves, and hordes of wasps. For a time recently, the lingering stink of acrid smoke was an unsettling underlying track of the summer soundtrack. The heat became oppressive, a discomfort that evidences the current global natural imbalance.
On the everyday level, I cope with the heat by responding to the environment with what I feed myself. Sweat-drenched days require refreshing cold water (sparkling water, even better in my book), cooling ingredients, cold food with deep flavor. As if to give the tastebuds a refreshing swim.
A household favorite hot-weather dish is a Korean cold noodle soup called kongguksu. Cold homemade soymilk is poured over wheat noodles (cooked and rinsed in cold water), garnished with a hard-boiled egg, cucumber, tomato, and toasted sesame seeds. I keep it extra cold by chilling the bowls before serving, and a bit of ice makes it even better.
The wonder of modern technology means I can saunter over to my freezer, pop out a few ice cubes, and enjoy refreshment in front of the fan.
Ice is a summer go-to to beat the heat. It is also a creature comfort that is easy to take for granted: you need a freezer, electricity, and fresh water. For most of humanity's existence, people haven't had year-long access to ice... have they? What did people have to do to get ice back in the day?
Until very recently on the timeline of modern history, ice was a seasonal resource for most humans. And so, I would like to look at humanity's relationship with ice, extending back to the ancient world.
Melting permafrost releases secrets about our planet's history, about the trajectory of humanity--Earth's memories. Melting ice patches have revealed many ancient relics, places, and artifacts. It has uncovered strange human mysteries like Ötzi the Iceman,* ancient trade routes in Norway, early hunter's tools in Mongolia, and a Little Ice Age village in Southwest Alaska (more on that below).
Caves, ice, and pits dug into the ground were useful to hunter-gatherers to store and preserve food in regions where ice naturally occurs.
Later, clay tablets etched with cuneiform script mention ice houses in Mesopotamia. The benefit of consuming those chilled foods and beverages seems to have been reserved for the exclusive enjoyment of the royals.
In ancient Sumer (Iraq today), each year was named after a notable event of a king's reign. The 13th year of Shulgi, King of Ur's reign was named for the building of the royal ice-house, in the 3rd millennium BCE. There is no further information about this structure.
About 200 years later, enter King Zimri-Lim of Mari, a city-state in what is Syria today. Mari was an early example of urban planning, growing into a prosperous city that specialized in textiles. And the king kept copious records of all his correspondence.
According to one tablet dating to about 1780 BCE, the king specifically ordered the construction of an icehouse in Terqa--meant to be a feat no other King had ever built before. This ice house was apparently a total flex. There are no physical traces of this building left today, but the tablet reveals its size: 6 meters by 12 meters. This is the oldest confirmed ice house, back 3800 years ago.
Soon after (1761 BC), Mari was destroyed during the invasion from Hammurabi of Babylon. That which was not destroyed or taken was left behind, including a large portion of King Zimri-Lim's correspondence and political documents.
Those tablets that Hammurabi's soldiers had left remained untouched for thousands of years, until the site was rediscovered and excavated in the 1930's. It is the oldest existing and most complete collection of political archives in the world.
The one particular tablet that decreed the founding of the ice house is kept in the Louvre in Paris (viewable online here). Other tablets are kept in Syrian museums. Unfortunately, some of the tablets have been destroyed during this period of civil unrest and violent conflict.
In ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Persia, ice and snow was gathered from mountains and transported into cities for those who had the cash. Snow and ice was put into wine, or used to chill fruits.
Icehouses in ancient China date back to at least the 1st millennium BCE, in Yongcheng. They may even extend as far back as 2300 BCE. There were, of course, other icehouses in existence in other regions, but were not so widely documented.
It's not certain exactly when icehouses came along in ancient Persia, but it was already happening by 400 BCE.
Ice houses of ancient Persia are called yakhchal (yakh meaning ice, and chal meaning pit). Its design allowed for ice to be stored, and for runoff from melting ice to actually refreeze. An architectural feat, located in the hot arid landscapes of Iran: not too far south, nor on the Caspian coast.
Made of adobe bricks, a yakhchal comprises of a dome structure (or ice reservoir), a shading wall, and a pond to collect water. Overnight, the water in the pond would freeze, and the wall would shield the ice until the next night. Once the ice in the pool was 3-6 inches thick, it would be broken up, collected, and stored in a well at the bottom of the dome structure.
Concrete information on yakhchals drops off until the 1600s. References in documents and surviving structures date back to the Safavid reign (1501-1736). Those ice houses were accessible to the public, selling ice at an affordable price. Between these ice houses and architectural features like wind catchers, those in ancient Persia coped with the harsh, dry heat.
Some yakhchals were still in use by the 1960's, but because of the labor required to maintain them and the ubiquity of home freezers, they fell out of use.
Ice is necessary for a traditional Persian dessert called faloodeh*, which seems to date back to the times of the first yakhchal. Thin rice noodles are served with lime in a chilled rosewater syrup, similar to a granita or sorbet. In ice cream shops today, it can be served alongside bastani, a Persian ice cream flavored with rosewater, saffron, and pistachio nuts.
You may be familiar with the Ice Ages, the most recent of which lasted until 12,000 years ago... but did you know that there was a "Little Ice Age" from about 1400 to 1850?
Ice core samples tell us that the Northern Hemisphere dealt with lower-than-average temperatures during that time period, and several factors aligned to make it happen.
First, the sunlight was just weaker (Solar Minimum). Second, human land use was increasing--treeless land reflects more sunlight, which causes cooler temperatures. There were volcanic eruptions happening elsewhere on the planet (volcanoes emit particles into the atmosphere that shade the Earth from the sun's rays). Finally, wind currents blowing over a cooler sea surface caused lower temperatures. (Anyone who's been to a body of water on a cold day knows those kinds of chilly winds.)
Put these factors together, and you've got a yourself a Little Ice Age. And frozen tootsies weren't the only thing at stake.
Europe during that time was facing upheaval. A period in the 1600s was even called the "General Crisis." Pre-industrial Europe relied on agriculture--as harsher weather caused poorer crop yields, food shortages began cropping up, followed by famines. Due to malnutrition, people even grew shorter. A bad harvest means higher grain prices, and we've seen examples of what can happen when necessities like bread are inaccessible, including social unrest.
France managed to avoid a famine in 1740 by using land more flexibly, installing a better food distribution system, and offering money to the poorest citizens. Unfortunately, these adaptations didn't shield the country from food shortages leading up to the French Revolution. (See last month's RENDERED for more.)
Just as we see today, those in areas dependent on agricultural production are more sensitive to the effects of climate change. But that isn't news to many of us. Time and time again, in modern history, we can see the effects that climate change has had on our societies.
But going back to Nunalleq for a moment: While Europeans were facing famine during the Little Ice Age, the people at Nunalleq were getting along just fine.
It seems the reason for this was their diverse diet. Having multiple different food sources made for smoother adaptation to the harsher, fluctuating climate.
The local community had left the site of Nunalleq untouched to preserve it, but melting permafrost revealed the site in 2009, leaving it exposed to the elements. At the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center, there has been a coordinated effort between archaeologists, the village corporation Qanirtuuq, Inc., and the Yup'ik community in Quinhagak, Alaska; the mission is to retrieve, catalog, and safely store the enormous collection of artifacts.*
Fire incinerates, renews, rejuvenates. In contrast, ice holds on, encapsulating information like a frozen time capsule.
Visualizing what it means to be of the earth, interconnected with it. I can't be the only person who has wondered, drinking a glass of water, how many of those very molecules had traipsed their way through dinosaurs' digestive systems, or the first human, or Boudica. The water will again be evaporated, condensed, frozen once more, and some future creature will have the pleasure of ingesting molecules that have seen my very own insides.
Humans and ice, we imprint upon each other. Ice both answers and obscures the questions of humanity. It is a primordial element that holds on to secrets; precarious yet powerful, reminding people to be adaptive. Ice ensures our survival, and reminds us of that ancient history which we do not remember.
Ice: Part II is coming on September 1st for paid subscribers--reflecting on ice's history as a commodity. Stay tuned!
* For a fantastic podcast about Ötzi the Iceman, I highly recommend this episode of "History on Fire."
* More about the Little Ice Age and the research at Nunalleq in this video by PBS Eons on Youtube.
* The Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center has a blog, with images, news, and a cool video about the story behind Nunalleq.
* Here is a Youtube video recipe (in English and Spanish) for Persian faloodeh shirazi.
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Appleby, Andrew B. “Epidemics and Famine in the Little Ice Age.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 10, no. 4, 1980, pp. 643–63. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/203063.
Davidson, Alan. Tom Jaine, ed. The Oxford Companion to Food, 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 403, 864-5.
Handwerk, Brian. "Little Ice Age Shrank Europeans, Sparked Wars." National Geographic, 5 Oct 2011.
"How To Survive the Little Ice Age." Youtube, Uploaded by PBS Eons, 20 Apr 2021.
"Ice." The Food Timeline.
Namazian, Ali, and Bahareh Hosseini. "An Overview Of Iranian Ice Repositories, An Example Of Traditional Indigenous Architecture." (2012).
Pochee, H; Gunstone, J; Wilton, O; (2017) "New insight on passive ice making and seasonal storage of the Iranian Yakhchal and their potential for contemporary applications." In: Brotas, L and Roaf, S and Nicol, F, (eds.) Proceedings of the Passive and Low Energy Architecture (PLEA) 2017: Design to Thrive. (pp. pp. 3579-3586).
Ramming, Audrey. "Melting Ice Reveals an Ancient Thriving Trade Route." Columbia Climate School (Columbia University), 27 May 2020.
Silver, Carly. "Do You Want to Build an Icehouse?" Lapham's Quarterly, 28 Sept 2021.
Silver, Carly. "The Greatest Library Before Alexandria." History Today, 17 Jul 2017.