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A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
In July 1585, the first English settlers began their attempt to build a colony in North America. They survived one year before abandoning their efforts and returning to England. In April 1587, John White, one of the first colonists, led a second attempt to establish a permanent colony. Within a few months, a supply shortage forced him to sail back to England. He was unable to return until 1590 when he found that all other members of the second colony had disappeared.
In 1588, while White was back in England searching for a way to return to Virginia, Thomas Harriot, another member of the first colony, published his account of that effort. Theodor de Bry republished it in 1590, with an addendum of 28 engravings based on watercolors by White, as part of his folio edition on the colonization of America.
In this activity, students use a facsimile of one of de Bry's engraved pages to experience how historians work, and to see how the English language has changed over the past 400+ years.
- the student assignment sheet (click here to open a PDF version suitable for printing on a single page)
- the list of lessons learned (optional)
- A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
by Thomas Harriot
facsimile of de Bry's 1590 edition, published in 1972 by Dover Publications, Inc.
- A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
by Thomas Harriot
facsimile of the 1588 edition, published in 1903 (digitized by Google Books)
- Deep Time : How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia
by Gregory Benford
Hardcover - 225 pages (November 9, 1999)
Avon; ISBN: 0380975378
click here to read an excerpt
In this book, physicist and science fiction author Greg Benford deals with the mirror image of the problem the above activity posed for your students. Instead of trying to figure out what a message from the past meant, he recounts his involvement in three projects where the object was to create messages that stood a reasonable chance of being understood by intelligent beings in the far distant future. I found it fascinating.
For a rather tongue-in-cheek look at the government's efforts to actually create one of the projects on which Benford worked (the nuclear waste repository warning), read Douglas Cruickshank's article, How Do You Design a "Keep Out!" Sign to Last 10,000 Years? (Salon.com, May 10, 2002). You might also want to share and discuss Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous poem, Ozymandias. Stewart Brand's 1998 essay, Written On the Wind, is also relevant here.
If you use Benford's book with your students after they've worked with the Briefe and True Report, you might want to have them discuss what, if anything, Harriot could have done to leave us a work that we might more easily understand. The Rosetta Project also addresses this type of problem.
To explore humanity's most ambitious conscious attempt at introducing ourselves to intelligent extraterrestrial life, look at the Voyager Interstellar Record. This Jet Propulsion Laboratory web site contains lists of the images and sounds (some with links) recorded on the disks attached to Voyagers 1 and 2, which were launched to explore the outer planets in 1977. The effort was chronicled in the book Murmurs of Earth by Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, et. al., published originally in 1978 and republished in 1992. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print; but you should be able to find a copy at your local public library.
Manned interstellar voyages have captured the attention of science fiction writers and working scientists. For a look into the thinking of space scientists as they ponder what such a voyage might do to the language of those manning an interstellar ship, read this report from the Nature Science Update.
If you find the Nature report intriguing, here are links to two additional articles about the section of the American Association of the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston in February 2002 on which it reported. They describe other aspects of intergalactic travel that were discussed. Natalie Angier writing in the New York Times (access to this article requires a free registration) quoted one of the participants as he tried to put the magnitude of an intergalactic rocket flight into perspective. Referring to an attempt to reach another star using current technology she wrote, "If a caveman had launched one of those during the last ice age, 11,000 years ago," Dr. Landis said, "it would now be only a fifth of the way toward the nearest star." In addition to the New York Times article, the section was also reported in The Christian Science Monitor.
- Motel of the Mysteries
by David Macaulay
Paperback - 95 pages (October 11, 1979)
Houghton Mifflin Co (Pap); ISBN: 0395284252
This delightful illustrated book poses the question, "What might future archaeologists make of an unearthed 20th century motel room?" Students of all ages love it.
Try this if you want to give your students a quick introduction to the sorts of problems faced by archaeologists, without leaving your classroom. Go to your local hardware store and buy a few small items that are usually hidden from view. Divide your class into groups of no more than 5 students each. Give each group one of the objects. Tell them that they are to imagine they have just uncovered their object in an archaeological dig. It is the job of each group to develop a consensus story for its object, explaining a plausible purpose for it. After a few minutes, have a person from each group present its object, and report its story to the entire class. My favorite is from the group of ninth grade World History students to whom I gave a small, curved plastic disk with a hole in its center. After discussing it for awhile, they decided that it must have been some sort of contact lens used by a race of giants. In fact, it was a shower head flow restrictor. But, thinking about it later, I decided that it was much more interesting as a giant's contact lens.
- Web Sites
- The University of Virginia's facsimile and transcribed versions of both the 1588 and 1590 editions of Harriot's work
- The Electronic Edition of A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, published on the web in 2003
- A PDF version of the 2007 Electronic Edition of the 1588 version (without White's drawings) published on the web in 2007
- A Google search for web references to the Briefe and True Report
- An online collection of de Bry's engravings of John White's drawings, the descriptions presented with modernized spelling and punctuation.
- John White's watercolor drawings and the de Bry engravings based on them
- The Newberry Library's slide set, John White's America as Represented in the Engravings of Theodor de Bry
- Thomas Harriot on the Web
- Wikipedia's page on Thomas Harriot
- Wikipedia's page on John White
- Wikipedia's page on Theodor de Bry
- In July 2009, PBS debuted its TIME TEAM AMERICA series with a look at the archaeological work being done on the 1585 and 1587 Roanoke settlements. You may view the video and explore additional material at http://www.pbs.org/opb/timeteam/sites/ft_raleigh/
- Body Ritual Among the Nacirema
This is a link to Horace Miner's classic article published in American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 503-507. If you are unfamiliar with it, and haven't discerned the identity of the Nacirema by the time you finish reading; try reversing the letters in Nacirema. Miner's work shows how critical an author's choice of words is to the meaning we make from what we hear and read. And, of course word choice depends so much on one's assumptions and perspective. But that is another lesson.
When I decided to use this article with a group of middle school students, I realized that it was beyond most of their reading abilities. Therefore, I took the liberty of excerpting it to make it more accessible to them. Click here to see the assignment sheet I came up with for them.
A simpler story, most probably inspired by Body Ritual Among the Nacirema, is The Sacred Rac. Click here to see how one teacher uses it in the classroom.
Confusion often reigns when U.S. speakers converse with their British cousins. The reason - the same words sometimes have different meanings. BritSpeak will help you negotiate potential minefields.
Here are links to additional BritSpeak sites.
English As A Second Language for Americans
The English-to-American Dictionary
Antiques Roadshow BritSpeak Game
Google's search results for BritSpeak
A project of the Long Now Foundation, the Rosetta Project is an attempt to preserve humanity's linguistic heritage for future generations. The idea is to archive 1,000 human languages on a modern Rosetta Stone in a format that will survive millennia. They are seeking help. Perhaps you and/or your students can assist.
- Machine translators
To show your students the difficulty of retaining accurate meaning when translating, have them try an activity like this. Use one (or all) of the free translation services linked below to take an English statement, translate it to another language, then use the service to translate the resulting phrase back into English. I tried it on July 9, 1999 (who knows, these may get better with time) with Alta Vista and Free Translation. I began with the adage, "A penny saved is a penny earned." I had both translate the adage into French, then back into English. Alta Vista returned, "a backed up penny is a penny gained". Free translation came back with "a saved penny is an earned penny". I also tried, "Lie down with dogs and you'll get up with fleas." Alta Vista returned, "Sleep you with dogs and you will rise with chips"; while free translation came up with "to put to bed itself with the dogs and you will get up with fleas".
Alta Vista Connections: Translations with Systran
NPR's All Things Considered (ATC) broadcast a segment discussing the Alta Vista translator on February 12, 1998. Click here to open a window to that segment. Click on the Listen button to hear the story.
Should you want to translate individual words, GoToWorld .com once allowed you to do so among 33 languages.
If you have an aspiring programmer or group of programmers in your class, maybe they'll want to try to write a program that will translate modern English into 16th century English and vice versa. If so, have them test it with sections from the Briefe and True Report.
- Other Classroomtools.com activities that deal with
- History and other Social Studies
- The Roanoke Mystery
- Putting Time In Perspective
- The World in a Room
- Dear Abby
- Eyewitness News
- The Change Game
- Tough Choices
- Tax returns made EZ
- Propaganda in the Classroom
- Is That A Fact?
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original web posting: Thursday, July 8, 1999
last modified: Sunday, July 17, 2011