History Podcasts

The Middle Sarcophagus of Kha (Detail)

The Middle Sarcophagus of Kha (Detail)

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

The tomb contains a central room, offering room and burial chamber. The complex was first recorded in the 19th century and was noted for its 11 statues, which include depictions of Perseneb and his family. Archaeologists were conducting restoration work and did not expect to make a new discovery. This image shows part of the central room with four of the statues. [Read full story]

The remains of the painting were found here on the eastern wall of the central room of the tomb near the Great Pyramid at Giza. The painting required extensive cleaning and restoration in order to reveal what the images show.

The Three Fates: Destiny’s Deities of Ancient Greece and Rome

The ancient Greeks believed that many aspects of a person’s life were determined by the three mythical women known as Fates. These were three sister goddesses that appeared in Greek and Roman mythology and were believed to have “spun out” a child’s destiny at birth. They determined when life began, when it ended, and everything in between. At the birth of each man they appeared spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life. However not everything was inflexible or pre-determined. A man destined to become a great warrior one day could still choose what he wanted to do on any given day. The gods could simply intervene with decisions that could be helpful or harmful. In a sense, they controlled the metaphorical life of every mortal born.

‘Alexander the Great and the Fates’ by Bernardino Mei ( Wikimedia Commons )

Known as Moirai or Moerae in Greek Mythology and Fata or Parcae by the Romans, the Fates were comprised of three women often described as elderly, stern, severe, cold and unmerciful. Their names in Greek were Clotho, (“the spinner”), Lachesis (“the apportioner”) and Atropos (“the inevitable”). The Roman names for them were Nona, Decuma and Morta. While Greek portrayal of these deities was that of grave and busy maidens, Romans often showcased them as being mean or denying humans their hopes and desires.

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. ‘The Three Fates’ by Paul Thumann ( Wikimedia Commons ).

The first Moirai goddesses, Clotho, meaning spinner, spun the thread of life. She is depicted as a maiden and is often seen carrying a spindle or a roll (the book of Fate). Lachesis, meaning unbending, measured the thread of life which determined how long one would live. She appeared as a matron with a staff with which she points to the horoscope on a globe. Atropos meaning “inexorable” or “inevitable” was the cutter of the thread of life and appeared as a crone. She chose the manner of each person’s death and when their time was up, cut their life-thread with shears. The smallest of the three, she is also characterized as the most terrible. In various accounts, the three goddesses are shown with staffs, scepters or wearing crowns as symbols of dominion. They all lived in Zeus’s palace on Mount Olympus.

At the birth of a boy, the Moirai spun out the thread of his future life, followed his steps, directing the consequences of his actions according to the counsel of the gods. The Fates did not interfere in human affairs directly but availed themselves of intermediate causes, and determined the lot of mortals conditionally. Man was allowed to exercise a certain influence upon them. As man's fate was determined at his death, the goddesses of fate became the goddesses of death, ‘Moirai Thanatoio’.

It is likely that Moirai controlled the fates of both mortals and gods alike and they have even been described as being more powerful than the gods. Homer wrote in the Iliad, “it was the will of fate that the Greeks destroy Troy, when Rumor and Panic caused the Greeks to want to flee. Aeneas was fated to go to Italy, despite the best efforts of Hera. Hera's actions in attempting to defy fate led to a premature death of Dido, the queen of Carthage. Since her thread was not cut to so short a length, she would not die even though a dagger had pierced her breast.” While Zeus reigned as the supreme Greek deity, he was subject to the decisions of the Fates and the driver of destiny rather than the source of it. However, Zeus, if he chose, had the power of saving those who were already at risk of being seized by their fate.

Zeus weighing the fate of man by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, 1793 ( Wikimedia Commons )

The personification of fate as the Moirai, is first clearly described in Hesiod's epic poem the Theogony (ca. 700 B.C.E.). Hesiod presents the Moirai as the daughters of Zeus and the goddess Themis. They are imagined as working the womanly task of spinning - drawing out a thread of yarn that represents each person's life. Into the thread may be woven sorrow, wealth, travel and the like. It is uncertain who the parents of the Morai were. In some myths, they were the daughters of Zeus and the Titan goddess Themis, the goddess of divine order. Some say they were the daughters of Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (or of Zeus and Themis). In some instances, they were related to Ananke, the personification of necessity.

‘Destiny’ by Henry Siddons Mowbray ( Wikimedia Commons )

The idea of three goddesses linked with one’s destiny appears in various forms in mythology. The Greeks recognized another triad of goddesses called the Horae, who were associated with Aphrodite. The Norse called their three Fates the Norns and were sometimes referred to as the Weird Sisters, from the Norse word wyrd, meaning "fate." The Celts had three war goddesses, known as the Morrigan, who determined the fate of soldiers in battle. The idea or image of a triple goddess may be linked to very ancient worship of a moon goddess in three different forms: a maiden (the new moon), a mature woman (the full moon), and a crone (the old moon).

The Fates were popular figures of cult worship in Greece and evidence suggests there were sanctuaries to them in major cities such as Corinth, Sparta, and Thebes. Offerings were also made to the Fates during festival times in Athens, Delphi, Olympia, and Sicyon and they are thought to have been of benefit during the harvest season. Today, the origin and meaning of the word ‘fate’ is traced to the mythology of these three powerful goddesses.

Featured image: The Three Fates by Sodoma, 1525 ( Wikimedia Commons )

Mitford, Miranda. An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings. London: Dorling Kindersley Publishers Ltd :, 2008.

Cotterell, Arthur, and Arthur Cotterell. Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Gods and Legends from Ancient Greece and Rome, the Celts and the Norselands. [New ed. London: Southwater, 2001.

The Middle Sarcophagus of Kha (Detail) - History

Brian May said in Q magazine March 2008: "This is a perfect pop record and one of Freddie's greatest songs. It's beautifully constructed and it's also got one of the solos I'm most proud of."

He elaborated further on it in the Days of our Lives documentary: "Every slice of that record is pure pop perfection. Little things that visit once and come again, like the little bell in the second verse."

Nevertheless, he was a little reticent at first about releasing it: "I was a little hesitant I was thinking are we setting ourselves as something very light?" He relates this back to how initially the band were very heavy and rock-orientated, and "Killer Queen" was a major departure from that sound.

Comments: 85

  • Bridget from Co This was about a prostitute? Seeing as it referred to Marie Antoniette, I thought it was referring a historical event.
  • Anonymous Another theory is its about JFKs killer, Jackie Onasis. Jackie was meant to be a CIA asset with previous experience and Russian connections. The job was inside controlled at the behest of the controllers of the federal reserve, three generals from the pentagon and used the driver and Jackie to deliver a message with a modified gun hidden in her blue clutch. A Message to any or all president or politicians who step out of line. Now whether you agree with such a theory it certainly seems to sit better than most.
  • Becriz from United States Its about a high class prostitute who murders.
  • Deborah Smalley from Louisville Kentucky I was teenager and early 20’s in the 70’s and 80’s. I loved Freddie Mercury. He was so confident in being himself. I was always so different from everyone around me. I felt like I was the only one that was wide awake and seriously I understood that I couldn’t make people uncomfortable with it. Instead it drew people to me. I felt Freddie Mercury in a deep personal way. He showed me there are expressive ways that were fun or happy, feel like yourself without taking people out of their comfort zone too much LOL I can’t sing a lick but Freddie allows me to belt out a song that makes me feel powerful and happy. Happiness is everything if you’re being yourself at the same time. Radio gaga
  • Mellissa from Southern California I'm so glad that Brian May finally clarified the "What a drag" lyric. I grew up singing that, because I thought it couldn't possibly be anything else, given the context of the song and Freddy's sexuality. Then karaoke came to America, and my husband challenged me on the "wanna try" thing. Well, now we know it is both.
  • Belle from Georgia Does anyone besides me think the actual lyric is, "Met a man from China, Went down to ASIA MINOR"?
  • George from Vancouver, Canada It was Maria Antoinette that said it, but this is a mistranslation Certain impoverished people would come to the castle for a daily bread allowance or it was her servants receiving part of their pay in food. The head of the larder said, "We're out of regular flour breads" & Maria said to go ahead & use the better/sweet flour. . . So it was actually a statement/act of generosity ("noblesse oblige") likely the revolution was started, as most, by malcontents, who changed their minds about what they deemed fair pay/treatment, &, when they won, they didn't want to seem like greedy aarseholes, so they allowed the "let them eat cake" story(which was invented by an English history philosopher).
  • Leon from Intrnational It's about the continuing rivalry of chess grand masters of the USSR and other international teams and the effect they had during the cold war.
    Boris Spassky's innovative and aggressive use of the queen in his middle game was widely known in chess circles as Spassky's "killer queen offense".
    Freddie was an uncommon fan of international chess tournaments following the action from China, Turkey, and the middle east, Mercury lionized the Russian Masters unbeatable offense against all comers from all over the world . The song lyric metaphorically refers to events within particular tournaments and matches within Spassky's career.
    Mercury was embarrassed by his nerdish obsession with international chess and when interviewed about the hit song he made up a story about a classy whore.
    He later commented to confidants that the call girl story sounded sexier and more "rock and roll".
  • Jon from Phx No matter what Freddie says, to me it is obvious that this song is about a high class transgendered prostitute. The hints are in the lyrics, "dynamite with her LASER BEAM", and throughout the song, Mercury is wailing, "what a DRAG". I'm sure that it was his own private joke.
  • Houston from New York, Ny Seems to me the song is about a male homosexual (drag queen) if anything. kind of like Morrison's Madame George. As for the Marie Antoinette thing, who really cares, it's a cool line and probably in the mouth of the character a light-hearted sophisticated joke referencing the expensive champagne.
  • Hunter from Philadelphia, Pa I almost fell over laughing after reading how Katy Perry wanted to become like the woman in this song. Yeah, she did pretty good at taking on the whore image. But that aside, this is an awesome song. I actually just listened to it for the first time :)
  • Cyberpope from Richmond, Canada Gunpowder, Guillotine (head chopping off device used against Marie Antoinette & the other nobility) note: history has slandered Marie -- she wasn't saying "no bread, then eat cake"(out of touch with what a lack of flour completely means) at that time, they ate two kinds of pastries -- plain, bread-like, & sweet, pastry(cake)-like -- it would've been reasonable for the servant staff to say, "we're out of bread to accompany lunch" & Marie replied with the meaning of, "Oh, serve them(our guests) the good breakfast stuff", as in don't quibble over details, we'll not go broke through giving a little more than is expected, especially when the alternative is to risk the entire community infrastructure by displaying poverty from the leaders (if Marie is so poor now as to not have bread, how much worse will this famine become for US??) Marie likely loved her subjects as much as a monarch ever did, & was optimistic about future improvements in her nation's straits. . . certainly is possible, likely even, that other nobles were feeding at the tough, making life worse for the little guy, but they'd not involve Marie in this as a co-thief nor even in knowledge of it.
  • Milly from Swansea, United Kingdom If you mix Gunpower and Gelatine and then set it on fire.. BOOM! You've made a simple form of Dynamite.
  • Camille from Toronto, Oh Here it is 2012. For some unknown reason, these song lyrics have been stuck in my head for weeks. Read all these comments and find no one is addressing why this person is referred to as a 'queen'. Imo, I think this is definitely about an assassin (guaranteed to blow your mind). But it's about a MAN dressed as a woman (queen) (if you're that way inclined) (dynomite with the laser beam).
  • Cam from Newport Beach, Ca For the line "Gunpowder ______, dynamite and a laser beam", I hear the word "turpentine".
  • Larry from Wayne, Pa It's "gelatine", which I assume is like plastic explosives.
  • Emily from Smithfield, Nc What is the actual word in the line chorus line "Gunpowder _________, dynamite with a laser beam"? It is hard to discern when listening to the song, and I've seen many interpretations such as turpentine and gelatine (? I know of gelatin, but not this), and I personally hear "guillotine" which to me makes sense with the rest of the lyrics, and coincides with the Marie Antoinette reference. However, I am notorious for mishearing things, so this may be another case of that.
  • Nikita from Drogheda, Ireland I agree with Alexandria from Preston, CT. Songs shouldn't be covered. The original is ALWAYS the greatest.
  • Lawrence from Erie, Pa This was the first queen song I heard 1975?, It has been my number 1 faverite song of all times.
    I have since then been an avid fan and collector of the band. Brian May is by far the greatest guitarist of all time.
  • Irfan from Bekasi, Indonesia this song is guaranteed to blow your mind anytime.
  • John from Brisbane, United States This pure-unadulterated original classical stuff before people got picky.This is Queen at thier and at the best time.Superb!
  • Charles from Glenside, Pa Shame,shame,shame on anybody who would dare compare the virtuous Emma Peel with some high class hooker!
  • Kate from Norfolk, Va I haven't seen this one represented yet, but there's a theory it's about Jackie O, as well. Just adding tinder to the fire. ^_^

1. This is apocryphal. She never actually said it.

2. We say "let them eat cake," but the expression in French is "Qu'ils mangent des brioches," or "let them eat brioche." The point is not that she was meant to have said they should eat burnt leftovers rather, it points to her naivete - if there's no bread, why don't they have cake (or brioche) instead?

More Songfacts:

Hot For TeacherVan Halen

The voice of Waldo in Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher" video was the late Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live Fame.

Louie LouieThe Kingsmen

"Louie Louie" was first recorded in 1955 by an R&B singer named Richard Berry, and his lyrics are easy to understand. When The Kingsmen recorded the hit version, their lyrics were indecipherable.

VenusShocking Blue

The original "Venus" was a #1 hit for the Dutch band Shocking Blue. Listen to the first line and you'll hear a muffed word: "goddess" was sung as "goddness."

In the MeantimeSpacehog

The Spacehog song "In The Meantime" samples an obscure recording of telephone noise, which is used at the beginning of the song.

StayLisa Loeb

"Stay" by Lisa Loeb was the first #1 hit by an unsigned artist. Ethan Hawke got it in the movie Reality Bites.

The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone)Celine Dion

Celine Dion's 1998 festive tune "The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone)" came from an unlikely source. It was penned by Dee Snider of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister.

Editor's Picks

Amy GrantSongwriter Interviews

The top Contemporary Christian artist of all time on song inspirations and what she learned from Johnny Carson.

Grammar In LyricsMusic Quiz

Lyrics don't always follow the rules of grammar. Can you spot the ones that don't?

Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt On How To Create A Music SceneSong Writing

With $50 and a glue stick, Bruce Pavitt created Sub Pop, a fanzine-turned-label that gave the world Nirvana and grunge. He explains how motivated individuals can shift culture.

Chris Frantz - "Genius of Love"They're Playing My Song

Chris and his wife Tina were the rhythm section for Talking Heads when they formed The Tom Tom Club. "Genius of Love" was their blockbuster, but David Byrne only mentioned it once.

Michael Glabicki of Rusted RootSongwriter Interviews

Michael tells the story of "Send Me On My Way," and explains why some of the words in the song don't have a literal meaning.

Billy Joe ShaverSongwriter Interviews

The outlaw country icon talks about the spiritual element of his songwriting and his Bob Dylan mention.

Ancient Egypt

(50 years ca 2520 – 2470 BCE)
Horus name: Neb-maat
Nebty name: Neb-maat-nebty
Golden Falcon name: Bik-nub
Nomen: Snefru
(from digitalegypt)

Successor of Pharaoh Huni. Seneferu (Snefru) was the son of Meresankh I, but it is not known if Huni was his father.

  • Bed canopy (inscribed), gold covered, presented by Snefru, in Cairo Mus. Ent. 57711 (restored).
  • Bed with inlaid footboard, gold covered, in Cairo Mus. Ent. 53261 (restored).
  • Curtain box (inscribed), gold covered, faience inlaid, presented by Snefru, with King seated on north end, and names and winged disk on south end, in Cairo Mus. Ent. 72030 (restored).
  • Armchair with papyrus-flower decoration, gold covered, in Cairo Mus. Ent. 53263 (restored).
  • Armchair with inlays of Neith-standards on both faces of back, with hawk standing on palm column on arms (wood perished), gold covered, in Cairo Museum
  • Gold fragments with deceased seated smelling lotus, probably from lid of small box, in Cairo Museum.
  • Palanquins (inscribed on back), gold covered, in Cairo Mus. Ent. 52372 (restored).
  • Remains of tubular leather case containing two long staves covered with gold ribbed casing and wooden stick with inlaid Min-emblem decoration, in Cairo Museum. (89619 a and b).
  • Chest with inlaid lid with text and Min-emblem decoration, gold covered, in Cairo Museum. The chest contained a box with eight alabaster ointmentjars (inscribed) in stand, and copper toilet-spoon, a box (inscribed), gold covered, containing silver bracelets with butterfly design, and a head-rest, wood, covered with gold and silver (uninscribed).
  • Sarcophagus - alabaster.
  • Canopic box - alabaster.

  • Khufu Son of Snefru and Hetepheres I. Successor of Snefru.
  • Ankhhaf . King’s Son and Vizier (under his nephew Khafre). Buried in G7510. A famous bust of Ankhhaf is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Ankhhaf was married to the King’s Daughter Hetepheres.

  • Kanefer . Eldest King’s Son of his Body. Buried in tomb 28 in Dashur. Son of Snefru. Second Vizier of Snefru, continued to serve Khufu. (A History of Ancient Egypt By Nicolas-Christophe Grimal - pg 68)
  • Nefermaat . Probably son of Snefru. His wife was named Atet (from their tomb in Meidum) Titles: Priest of Bastet, Hereditary Prince, Guardian of Nekhen, great one of the five at the house of Thoth, etc. First Vizier of Snefru (A History of Ancient Egypt By Nicolas-Christophe Grimal pg 68)
  • ? Netjeraperef . King’s Son. Buried in Dashur.
  • ? Rahotep . King’s Son of his Body, High Priest of Re in Heliopolis. Possibly a son of Sneferu. Buried in Meidum with his wife Neferet. Owners of the famous statues now in the Cairo Museum.
  • ? Ranefer . King’s Son. Possible son of Seneferu. Buried in Meidum.
  • Merytiotes I , Great of Sceptre and King’s Wife. Probably married to her brother Khufu.
  • Nefertnesu King’s daughter, God’s Daughter. Had son named Kaemqed.
  • Nefertkau . King’s Daughter of his Body. Possibly buried in Mastaba G7050. Her tomb dates to the time of Khafre. In the tomb Snefru is mentioned ass wel as Nefertkau's son Nefermaat (from G 7060) and her grand-son Snefrukhaf (G 7070).

Faience beadnet dress from approximately this time.

Built great ships and a palace of cedar. Opened diorite quarries near Abu Simbel. Conducted military campaigns in Nubia and Libya. (Palermo Stone).

Constructed pyramids in Dashur (2) , Meidum and Seila:
Seneferu’s Bent Pyramid in Dashur
Seneferu’s Red Pyramid in Dashur (Kha-Sneferu = Sneferu Shines)
Seneferu’s pyramid in Meidum
Seneferu’s Pyramid in Seila- small cult pyramid.

A stela from Dahshur showing the Pharaoh Snefru
(Photo Jon Bodsworth)

Height of the Mughals

Humayan was not a very strong leader. In 1540, the Pashtun ruler Sher Shah Suri defeated the Timurids, deposing Humayan. The second Timurid emperor only regained his throne with aid from Persia in 1555, a year before his death, but at that time he managed even to expand on Babur's empire.

When Humayan died after a fall down the stairs, his 13-year-old son Akbar was crowned. Akbar defeated the remnants of the Pashtuns and brought some previously unquelled Hindu regions under Timurid control. He also gained control over Rajput through diplomacy and marriage alliances.

Akbar was an enthusiastic patron of literature, poetry, architecture, science, and painting. Although he was a committed Muslim, Akbar encouraged religious tolerance and sought wisdom from holy men of all faiths. He became known as Akbar the Great.

The Enumerated Story of the Census

On January 21 of this year, Lizzie Chimiugak Nenguryarr, a 90-year-old elder in Toksook Bay, Alaska, became the first person to be counted in the 2020 Census. Workers from the U.S. Census Bureau and the agency’s director traveled to a rural corner of the state to kick off the decennial survey that helps apportion funds and representation. But just two months later, the Bureau paused all ground operations amid the outbreak of COVID-19—and has urged households to respond to the census online, by mail or by phone.

The Bureau doesn’t know yet how many people will respond to the survey or how successful the push to make the census primarily digital will be but the public can rest assured that the Census will go on, as it always has under Constitutional mandate. That is what drew Andrew Whitby, a data scientist and author of the new book The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age, to studying and writing about the census.

“The core idea, that the government representing us reaches out to every single household in the nation and asks some basic questions, feels very democratic to me,” he told Smithsonian. “There's nothing that really matches it: not everyone votes, and not every household submits an income tax return. It's really the one time each decade that we pay attention to every single person living in this country.”

Whitby spoke with the magazine about early instances of record-keeping, how the U.S. survey has evolved and what the future might hold for the census.

The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age

This three-thousand-year history of the census traces the making of the modern survey and explores its political power in the age of big data and surveillance

What’s the history of the census? What is the first recorded census and why did it come about?

It's hard to pinpoint a “first” census. The idea of formally counting people probably arose as soon as we started living together in communities large enough to require formal government and taxation—around, say, 5,000 years ago. Various mythological traditions describe censuses not long after that—one conducted by China's Emperor Yu, or by Moses in the Old Testament—but we can't take that as history.

The word “census” is Latin in origin, so in a linguistic sense, the first censuses were taken by the Romans, who were certainly doing this by around the middle of the first millennium B.C. But few if any of those counts would meet today's definition, which is essentially to count everyone in a given place at a given time. The biblical censuses, for example, excluded women—as did the Romans, as far as we know. There were, no doubt, small counts of villages or cities through history that would qualify, but today we mostly think about the census at a national level. So if you forced me to choose a first modern census I might pick that of Iceland in 1703, which recorded exactly 50,366 people and was about as accurate as a census today. That's nearly a century before the first U.S. census in 1790.

A lot of countries have censuses. What’s unique about the decennial census in the United States? Why was it seen as so essential during the nation’s founding?

First, the U.S. census is embedded in the Constitution itself—Article 1, Section 2—on a ten-year cycle. Whereas censuses in other countries might occur (or not) at the whim of a particular government, the U.S. census would go ahead every ten years no matter what (and since then, it has). Secondly, it was tied to a mechanistic, arithmetic approach to ensuring representative government, reapportioning Congress after each count. That was a novel idea. At the time the first U.S. census took place in 1790, Britain's Parliament suffered acutely from so-called “rotten boroughs”—unrepresentative districts with only a handful of voters. The U.S. had its own flaws, most notably the three-fifths compromise (which treated an enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person, for apportionment), but [the census] was sound.

Last year, we saw much debate about the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census, which was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court. How has the census been politicized before?

Statisticians would love for the American census to be an objective, scientific instrument, but that very innovation, to use it for apportionment, prevents it from ever being so. Censuses have consequences for the distribution of power, so censuses attract political scrutiny. After the 1920 census—the first in which a majority of the population was urban—Congress failed its constitutional duty to reapportion itself, as rural states opposed the loss of power that would have entailed. It wasn't until 1929 that a law was passed making apportionment automatic, as it is today.

With the civil rights era, other more egregious wrongs in the American electoral system were gradually rectified, and so even more attention focused on the census itself. Since about the 1970s, seemingly arcane questions of methodology have often been settled in the courts, as with the now-rejected citizenship question.

How have Americans’ changing concept of privacy affected the census?

In the early days, some people saw the census as an intrusion, an illiberal imposition, but they didn't really have the language of privacy to describe that. The first inklings of privacy arose in respect of commercial statistics the census began to collect in 1820 businesspeople were worried that their competitors might learn their secrets. It was really in the late 19th and early 20th century that our current notion of privacy crystalized. The census—which was asking ever-more personal questions—responded by adopting a commitment to secrecy. As President Taft declared in 1910, no person can “be harmed in any way by furnishing the information required.” There have been lapses since, especially during times of war, but that is still the guiding principle.

I learned from your book that we have a census-worker to thank for early computing machines. How has innovation changed the census?

The logistics of reaching everybody and collecting their responses was always a challenge—and it continues to be. But for a long time, the compilation and analysis of responses was difficult, too. Thousands of clerks were employed to copy and condense this information, just to make a single table in a census publication. It's hard to imagine anything else in the 19th century that compares to it: the census was the original Big Data.

But as the number of questions and the population grew, this became increasingly difficult. After the 1880 U.S. census, a real effort was made to find a better way of doing things. One bright young former census agent, Herman Hollerith, invented a machine to tabulate results by first encoding them in punch cards and then feeding those cards through an electric machine. It wasn't a computer, but the technology of punch cards underpinned computing up into the 1970s, and the company Hollerith founded eventually became IBM.

This sketch depicting census taking by Thomas Worth ran in Harper's Weekly in November 1870. (Library of Congress LC-USZ62-93675)

I was surprised when filling out the census recently that it only included 9 questions. Previous iterations had dozens and dozens of questions. What accounts for that change? Where are governments getting the other information?

First, well done on responding! It’s interesting that you were surprised—and you're not the only one who has said that to me. The core census—the set of questions asked of every household—has been very short since about 1970, never asking more than about ten questions. That was an intentional change from the earlier period. The Census Bureau became increasingly aware that it was missing people, and it is a general rule in survey statistics that the shorter the survey, the more likely people will respond. So the Bureau really streamlined things.

What you might be remembering is that up to 2000, the census sent a "long form" questionnaire with additional questions to a random sample of households (1 in 6 in 2000). In 2005, the Census Bureau replaced the long form with the American Community Survey (ACS), which is administered continuously throughout the decade. Only 3.5 million households are asked to complete the ACS each year, so you're quite lucky if you encounter it!

What does the future of the census look like? Does it still matter in the 21st century?

Quite a few countries no longer perform a traditional enumeration, but instead maintain a live register of their entire population. That requires a population that is willing to notify the authorities every time, for example, that they move homes. It looks like an increasing number of countries are headed in that direction, though I'm not sure it could happen in the U.S. anytime soon, not least because the census is mandated by the Constitution.

Does the census still matter? Can you have sensible government on the basis of facts without something like a census (be that a decennial enumeration or a population register)? I don't think so. The census generates the population denominators in so many of the statistics that we depend upon to understand our society. Now more than ever, we're seeing how important good data is. How much should we worry about 100 deaths from a new disease? Amongst other things, that depends very much on whether they occur in a town of 5,000 or a city of 8 million.

How will COVID-19 affect this census?

Like everything related to COVID-19, it's currently very hard to know. Concretely, the Census Bureau has now delayed its "field operations" for a month. That is less of a problem than it sounds, because they were always planning to encourage the majority of households to reply online (or by mail or phone). As of “Census Day,” April 1, nearly 40 percent had already done that. All the official communications from the Bureau express optimism and reiterate the goal of counting everyone.

But short of a miracle, a large number of households—around 50 million in 2010—will not self-respond, and so will need to be enumerated in what the Bureau calls "nonresponse follow-up" operations. That usually requires field work—knocking on doors, interviewing occupants in person. That can only be delayed so far before it must run up against the due date for delivery of initial numbers, which is December 31, 2020. And of course, the later field work happens, the lower the quality of responses, since you're asking people to remember “Who lived here on April 1?”

So everything depends on whether the current [COVID-19] conditions persist for a month, six months, a year.

About Anna Diamond

Anna Diamond is the former assistant editor for Smithsonian magazine.

Once you have arrived at the Visitor Center, you can sign up for an Arlington National Cemetery Tour that gives you the opportunity to honor and remember our nation’s fallen heroes. Running in a 45 minute continuous loop, the tour makes five stops. Stops include the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy with its eternal flame, the Arlington House as well as the Memorial Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Check out this interactive Arlington map to find all of the most popular sites within the cemetery. You can hop off the trolley, spend additional time walking around Arlington House, attend the changing of the guard ceremony or view a particular memorial. When you are ready, you can hop aboard the next trolley and resume the tour. Along the way you’ll travel through history while paying respect to America’s fallen heroes. The tour conductor provides insight into the cemetery’s history, famous graves and significant memorials and monuments. The respectful and educational guided tour will enable you to see more of the cemetery than you would on foot.


In a 1915 excavation, archaeologists from the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition discovered the entrance to a tomb at the picturesque site of Deir el-Bersha in Egypt. Inside, the MFA team found, in jumbled array, the largest burial assemblage of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 BC) ever discovered. The tomb, designated Tomb 10A, was filled with the funerary equipment of a local governor by the name of Djehutynakht and his wife, also named Djehutynakht. Robbers had stolen the finest jewels but left everything else, including the severed (but nicely wrapped and painted) head of one of the Djehutynakhts. The tomb contained four beautifully painted coffins, one of which (detail, shown above), the famous "Bersha coffin" (the outer coffin of the governor), is arguably the finest painted coffin Egypt produced and a masterpiece of panel painting. The tomb also included Djehutynakht’s walking sticks, pottery, canopic jar, and miniature wooden models that were made for the burial but reflect life on Djehutynakht’s estate, including some 58 model boats and nearly three dozen models of daily life such as individual shops for carpenters, weavers, brick-makers, bakers, and brewers. Of these, the best known is the exquisitely carved "Bersha procession" of a male priest leading female offering bearers.

The contents of Djehutynakht’s tomb were awarded to the MFA by the Egyptian government and transported to Boston in 1920. En route, they nearly met with disaster when the ship that was carrying them caught fire. Thankfully, the crew averted disaster, and the material suffered only slight water damage. Following their arrival in Boston, the Museum put the Deir el-Bersha coffin and procession on view in the galleries, but most of the other objects have never been displayed before. Many of the models, in fact, were never fully conserved prior to the preparations for this exhibition.

"The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC" introduces visitors to the concepts of the afterlife in the Middle Kingdom by taking a journey through the remarkable tomb of the Djehutynakhts and its many objects. It also offers an opportunity to gain insight into the fascinating era in which the couple lived by viewing sculptures, jewelry, furniture and other objects representing high officials of their time.

Watch the video: Egyptian Museum of Turin - 1st Floor Walking Tour Tomb of Kha and Merit! (May 2022).