Our Top 10 Stories of 2011

From Civil War mustaches to Mayan lost cities to myths about the brain, here are the most-read stories of the year

Articles about beer and web memes are featured in our top 10 but which article is the most popular? (Clockwise from top left: TongRo Image Stock / Corbis; Library of Congress; Landon Nordeman; Dave Yoder)

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Before the Iliad and the Odyssey, there was the Margites. Little is known about the plot of the comedic epic poem—Homer’s first work—written around 700 B.C. But a few surviving lines, woven into other works, describe the poem’s foolish hero, Margites.

“He knew many things, but all badly” (from Plato’s Alcibiades). “The gods taught him neither to dig nor to plough, nor any other skill; he failed in every craft” (from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics).

It is unfortunate that no copy of Margites exists because Aristotle held it in high acclaim. In his On the Art of Poetry, he wrote, “[Homer] was the first to indicate the forms that comedy was to assume, for his Margites bears the same relationship to comedies as his Iliad and Odyssey bear to our tragedies.”

10. The Beer Archaeologist

Staff writer Abigail Tucker visits Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where archaeologist Patrick McGovern helps resurrect an ancient Egyptian ale. An expert on ancient brews and wines, McGovern has been able to piece together the recipes of libations drunk thousands of years ago by analyzing ancient pottery.

From the story:

Many of McGovern’s most startling finds stem from other archaeologists’ spadework; he brings a fresh perspective to forgotten digs, and his “excavations” are sometimes no more taxing than walking up or down a flight of stairs in his own museum to retrieve a sherd or two. Residues extracted from the drinking set of King Midas—who ruled over Phrygia, an ancient district of Turkey—had languished in storage for 40 years before McGovern found them and went to work. The artifacts contained more than four pounds of organic materials, a treasure—to a biomolecular archaeologist—far more precious than the king’s fabled gold. But he’s also adamant about travel and has done research on every continent except Australia (though he has lately been intrigued by Aborigine concoctions) and Antarctica (where there are no sources of fermentable sugar, anyway). McGovern is intrigued by traditional African honey beverages in Ethiopia and Uganda, which might illuminate humanity’s first efforts to imbibe, and Peruvian spirits brewed from such diverse sources as quinoa, peanuts and pepper-tree berries. He has downed drinks of all descriptions, including Chinese baijiu, a distilled alcohol that tastes like bananas (but contains no banana) and is approximately 120 proof, and the freshly masticated Peruvian chicha, which he is too polite to admit he despises. (“It’s better when they flavor it with wild strawberries,” he says firmly.)

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