Category Archives: history

Sweet Tooth: Victorian style

For anyone who has been caught empty-handed in terms of a gift for Valentine’s Day,  it’s not too late to pop into the kitchen.  New York Times columnist Amanda Hesser has resurrected a Victorian recipe for chocolate caramels and given it to two prominent New York chefs to  update.  The results sound delectable,  and the column is well worth a quick read.

Why We Should Worry about Neanderthal Clones

Should we clone Neanderthals?  That’s the provocative question that science writer and editor Zach Zorich poses in the forthcoming issue of Archaeology,  hitting the news stand on February 15th.  I received an advance copy late last week and read Zorich’s article this weekend. I’ve been thinking about this question ever since, and already I have arrived at my own  answer.  No.  No.  NO.

First of all,  I should point out that this is not a pie-in-the-sky question.  Zorich interviewed an impressive A-list of researchers–including geneticists who are sequencing the Neanderthal genome and leading paleoanthropologists who study ancient hominins–and some clearly believe that a cloned Neanderthal awaits us somewhere down the line.

So it’s not too early to begin thinking and debating about the ethics of cloning one of our hominin kin.  While some researchers champion the idea out of pure scientific curiosity and the desire to learn more about an extinct hominin,  I think it’s a terrible idea.  I simply don’t trust my fellow Homo sapiens sapiens to treat another hominin with kindness and respect.  Our track record with other primates, for example,  is appalling–using chimpanzees for circus shows and laboratory experimentation, hunting gorillas for meat,  and killing orangutan mothers  in order to sell their babies as pets.

And here’s something else that worries me about a Neanderthal clone.  In the 1920s, the Soviet leader  Josef  Stalin ordered the researcher who perfected the technique of artificial insemination,  Ilya Ivanov,  to create a “living war machine. ”  Ivanov’s brief, as American writer Charles Siebert reports  in his remarkable book, The Wachula Woods Accord,  was to artificially inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm to create a new hybrid.

Stalin dreamed of a large,  invincible Red Army and a vast slave workforce to carry out his Five Year Plans.  He thought a chimp-human hybrid would serve admirably. According to Russian newspapers,  Stalin told Ivanov “I want a new invincible human being insensitive to pain,  resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.”

Ivanov failed miserably to produce such chimp-human hybrid, though he certainly tried.   In 1930s,  the biologist fell from political grace and was exiled to Kazakhstan in one of the many purges of the time.

All this strikes me as an important cautionary tale.   What if one of the world’s dictators  got it into his head to clone Neanderthals as slave laborers or a new kind of soldier, one physically stronger than modern humans?   It sounds far fetched,  I know.  But I don’t think we can blithely ignore the lessons of history.

Sex and Rubbers in the City

In case you missed it,  the New York Times ran an intriguing review this week of a new museum exhibition,  “Rubbers:  The Life,  History and Struggle of the Condom.”  Currently running at the city’s Museum of Sex,  the exhibit highlights both the history and modern-day politics of the French letter.

Fueling the New Chinese Mania For Antiques

I can’t believe how badly the New York Times missed the point this morning in its article on the newly red-hot antiquities trade in China.   Journalist Dan Levin reports on the growing mania among  middle class buyers in Beijing for Chinese antiquities, extolling their newfound passion for ” Ming Dynasty porcelain vases,  19th century hardwood furniture and even early 20th century calligraphy ink pots.”  Such antiquities,  Levin explains,  “have become popular status symbols for an emerging middle class eager to display its new wealth and cultural knowledge.”

Too bad Levin didn’t ask a few  hard questions about exactly where all these Chinese antiquities  are coming from.  If he had, he might have come away with a very different impression.  While researching a new story for Archaeology magazine,  I recently discussed with Victor Mair,  a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and one of the world’s leading experts on the archaeology of Xinjiang province,   this very issue.

I had noticed in Mair’s  articles that many of the most important Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in Xinjiang–sites that have yielded European-looking mummies and western grave goods and that are now revolutionizing our understanding of Central Asian  history–had been badly looted.  In fact,   looting in Xinjiang has become so serious that Chinese archaeologists are constantly forced to excavate entire cemeteries just to salvage and protect some of the finds.

I asked Mair what on earth was going on.  The Xinjiang sites, after all,  are in the midst of a huge and very barren desert–one of the bleakest and most remote places on earth. Mair explained to me that Chinese looters have become very sophisticated.  They journey into the desert equipped with GPS  and specifically target the ancient cemeteries there. The devastation is enormous,  Mair explained,  with mummified human body parts strewn everywhere.  “They just take the bodies,  the heads, the coffins and throw them out on the ground,” he said.  “They are looking for gold or they are looking for something that is obviously a nice artwork.”

Most looters then sell their finds to middle men in Hong Kong, individuals who don’t ask any questions.  “You can go down to the antiquities market street there,” said Mair, “and you can find unbelievable things, precious materials or precious objects from all over China being sold there.  So Hong Kong is like a  door for selling.”

To me,  this is the real story behind the newfound enthusiasm for antiquities in China. And there is a terrible irony here.   During the Cultural Revolution,  Mao Zedong ordered the destruction of  “old culture,”  officially condoning the looting of old cemeteries  and destroying antiquities.  Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction,  as the Chinese middle class celebrates  its ancient culture.  But the change in attitude has only led to further destruction of the archaeological record.

Somebody Stop Mel Gibson, Please

Oh, no.  Not again!  Yahoo News is reporting that Mel Gibson is planning yet another of his nightmarish historical blockbusters.  The man who brought us Braveheart andApocalypto is planning to unleash his filmmaker talents yet again on another unsuspecting ancient culture with a reputation for extreme violence–the Vikings.   “I’m going to give it to you real, man,” Gibson reportedly told a Yahoo News writer.  “I want a Viking to scare you.”

Actually what scares me is Gibson.  The man is a menace.  He loves decking out his projects with all the trappings of historical accuracy, while merrily jettisoning any real fidelity to history and truth.   Take Apocalypto,  his ghoulish, blood-spattered epic on the Maya.  His cast all spoke Yucatec Maya like natives.  His Maya nobles and priests wore exquisite costumes and headdresses.  And he even threw in a real honest to goodness environmental crisis that plagued the Classic Maya–the deforestation of Maya lands to provide timber for fueling lime kilns.   (All the lime went into plaster for the buildings.)

But was Apocalypto true in any way to what we know about the Maya? Not by a longshot.  It depicted the Maya almost en masse as ghoulish blood-thirsty club-wielding savages — what Mayan archaeologist David Friedel once wryly described  as “orcs in loinclothes.”    It depicted little if anything of the beauty and richness of Maya art, science, and religion,  pretty much rendering an entire culture into a historical horror show.

Sure it’s entertainment,  and it wouldn’t matter so much except for two things.  One is that his films are huge box-office hits,  seen by millions of people, particularly impressionable teenagers.   And secondly his version of past looks and sounds so historically authentic that many people are conned into believing that they are witnessing something truthful.

And there’s one other aspect that disturbs me.  Gibson is already talking about how he will apply his techniques of verisimilitude to the Vikings.  “I think it’s going to be in English,  an English that would have been spoken back then and Old Norse,” he told the reporter.   “I want to see somebody who I’ve never seen before speaking low, guttural German who scares the living **** out of you.”  Some critics applauded Gibson for filming in foreign languages in The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto,  but if Gibson was quoted correctly,  I’d say that he sees the act of speaking in such a language as something that will  increase both the fright factor and brutality of scenes.   What kind of a message is that to send to kids?  How about xenophobic.

I know one film that I won’t be rushing out the door to see.

Leonardo da Vinci: Taking His Last Secrets to the Grave

Did you catch the news headlines yesterday about the Italian researchers who hope to open the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci in France in order to reconstruct his face?  They are keen to see whether the Renaissance artist was indulging in his well-known love of riddles when he painted the Mona Lisa.  For years,  some some scholars have hypothesized that the mysterious beauty in the painting was a self-portrait in drag.

My first reaction to this proposed project was to shake my head in disbelief.  Is this really a valid reason to disturb the sleep of the dead, particularly someone so deserving of our respect? Are we so driven by curiosity that we need to rummage through chill church tombs and peer at the bones of the dead in order to answer a question that is on the level of a barroom bet?

And  I was not  reassured when I Googled the team’s spokesperson, Giorgio Gruppioni, a bioanthropologist at the University of Bologna.  In 2009, Gruppioni and several colleagues  reconstructed the face of one of Italy’s greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, using the cranial data that researchers recorded in 1921 when officially identifying Dante’s remains.  And just a few weeks ago,  Gruppioni and colleagues recovered what they hope will be the remains of  the great 17th century Italian painter, Caravaggio.   Once again, the team announced plans to reconstruct Caravaggio’s face.  Gruppioni and his colleagues seem awfully interested in surface appearances.

But the more I thought about it,  the more I began to see a legitimate context for  these projects.  For the past two decades,  several Italian research teams led by pathologists and anthropologists have been prying open Renaissance tombs and reliquaries to gather vital scientific data.  One of the leading researchers in this field, University of Pisa pathologist Gino Fornaciari has spearheaded several of these projects,  exhuming such Renaissance luminaries as Cosimo I de’ Medici,  Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Maria D’Aragona,  one of the greatest beauties of her day.

I have met and talked at length with Fornaciari,  and can attest to his interest in serious science.  And I was really intrigued today when I checked out his recent publications to see what science had learned from all these rude awakenings of the dead.   His papers covered a wide range of subjects–the methods that Renaissance embalmers employed to artificially mummify royalty  in 16th century Europe;  the species of lice that clung to the mummified remains of Ferdinand II (revealing that these parasites plagued even the wealthiest  during the Renaissance); and the human papillomavirus  (HPV) that infected Maria D’Aragona.  The latter study will permit medical researchers to study the evolution of this important virus, a major cause of cervical cancer, perhaps giving them clues to new treatments.

If the team that wants to open Leonardo da Vinci’s grave obtains permission to do so, I strongly suspect that they will make the most of this rare opportunity,   gathering all the relevant samples and data to do key pathological and bioarchaeological studies.  I personally don’t care whether the great artist painted the Mona Lisa in his own image. But I’d love to know more about the health and life of this great Renaissance artist.

The Burner of Books

The China Daily News carried a very cool story this week on a major new archaeological discovery in Hubei province. According to Shen Haining,  the director of Hubei’s cultural heritage bureau,  excavators working in a tomb that dates back to the  Warring States period of China’s history  (475-221 B.C. ) recovered a trove of water-saturated bamboo strips covered in inked Chinese characters.  Resembling a snarl of soggy noodles,  the strips are remains of ancient and exceedingly rare Chinese books–a find that is sure to generate huge interest in China and abroad.

Perhaps a little Chinese history is in order here  to help make sense of this find.  The Warring States period,  as its name clearly suggests,  was a time of massive violent military clashes.  Lords of seven major states all vied for supreme power in tianxia (which means “all under heaven”),  and they threw huge infantry armies bristling with mass-produced iron weapons at one another.   These  armies also boasted for the first time in Chinese history archers with crossbows and soldiers fighting on horseback,   both of which completely transformed military engagements in the Far East, rendering them far more horrifying.

The period came to an end finally when one of the combatant lords,  Qin Shi Huang, subjugated all his rivals.  But while the new emperor brought peace to China, he committed a grave sin against history and literature.  Fearing that all earlier books would cast doubt on the legitimacy of his rule,  Qin Shi Huang  ordered most Chinese books of the day to be burned and he had scholars who possessed such forbidden writings buried alive–making bamboo-strip books dating from the Warring States period rare indeed today.

You might ask yourself why we should care today about the fate of these lost Chinese documents,  many of which were recorded on bamboo strips.   Well,  it turns out that amid all the bloodshed and chaos of the time,   many of China’s greatest thinkers were discussing warfare and dreaming of peace.   Many of their works were undoubtedly lost in the destruction ordered by  Qin Shi Huang,  though a few,  including the very famous meditation The Art of War, survived to the present thanks to later copyists.

I am dying to find out what the soggy bamboo strips in the newly discovered Hubei tomb will hold.  “It’s still to early to tell,”  Shen told the China Daily reporter.  “Let’s wait and see.  Archaeology is all about surprise.”  Hear, hear.

Frank Lloyd Wright and His Desert Camp

A few weeks back,  I had the great pleasure of touring Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s school and winter camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was a surprisingly raw, blustery day, and I joined one of the tours that wend frequently through the sprawling desert complex.  As I am sure you know, Frank Lloyd Wright, was one of America’s greatest architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,  a genius of concrete and glass and light,  and his winter camp, though roughhewn and experimental looking,  did not disappoint.

Wright died in 1959,  but his spirit was  still very much alive at Taliesin West.  At one point in the tour,  for example,  I briefly spied,  through the glass windows of a room off-limits to the public, a stooped, elderly figure swiftly fleeing like a startled bird into some hidden room.   I later learned that he was a member of The Fellowship,  one of Wright’s aged former students who resides at Taliesin West.   Like the British aristocrats who open their castles and estates to the public in order to pay the upkeep,   the Fellowship does not care much for tourists.  But the steep entrance fees provide Wright’s fellows with one of the most beautiful and elite retirement homes in North America.

I found many things about Taliesin West fascinating.  Wright’s students, for example, had to be a hardy,  self-sufficient lot.   When the newest students arrived at the camp, their first assignment was to design and build a shelter in the nearby desert,  where they would live while attending Wright’s school.   Some of these shelters grew quite elaborate over time,  as their builders added more space,  but none possessed much in the way of creature comforts.  I can imagine that some future archaeologists will have a great deal of fun digging what remains of these imaginative shelters.

When Wright purchased the land for Taliesin West in the 1930s,  it possessed an unparalleled view of a desert wilderness,  precisely what he was looking for.  So he designed the complex so that it would face out into the sweeping desert below. Civilization soon caught up with Taliesin West,  however:   someone built a home in its sightlines,  and the residential lights at night apparently threw Wright into a state of despair.

But he was not easily defeated. He did not want to pick up and start afresh somewhere else, so he reoriented the entire complex so that it would look out upon a mountain that rose in the opposite direction.

I’m posting below a wonderful little YouTube video taken in 1933 of the Taliesin Fellowship. It was filmed by a former student in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where Wright and his proteges spent their summer.

How Early Wooden Armor Defeated Russian Firearms

As regular readers will know,  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about ancient forms of body armor.  I got started on this  subject last weekend, when I read about new research on the cloth armor that Alexander the Great and his army favored.  But a question from reader Dan Hilborn and a very cool post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology (one of my favorite blogs) have led me to the subject of wooden armor, specifically the armor Tlingit men wore into battle against Russian traders  in the late 18th century.

The Russians coveted furs — primarily the sea-otter fur,  which is the thickest and warmest of any mammal on Earth.  By the 18th century,  these traders had pretty much exhausted the sea-otter populations that once flourished in Siberia’s kelp forests, so they sailed further east along the coast of the Bering Sea,  searching for new kelp forests and more sea-otters.  Along the Aleutian Islands, Alaska and eventually northern British Columbia,  they spied abundant sea-otter habitat

Initially,  the Russians traders sailed into Aleut villages,  taking women and children hostages in order to force the men to bring them pelts.  They did not hesitate to murder their captives if things didn’t go their way.   In 1745,  a Russian group slaughtered 15 Aleuts on the island of Attu,  just to strike terror into the hearts of the villagers.  The Aleut people, in turn,  tried to expel these ruthless invaders from their lands, but Russian firearms and Russian diseases took a terrible toll.

Eventually,  the Russians worked their way southward into Tlingit territory.  Like many Northwest Coast peoples,  the Tlingit fished the bountiful rivers and coasts of their territory and hunted sea lions and other sea mammals.  They had a rich, complex culture,  with chiefs,  nobles and even slaves.   To settle grievances with their neighbors,  they embarked on raiding parties from time to time,  outfitting themselves in armor made from the one of the most bountiful materials in their territory:  wood.   Tlingit men carved alder into slats and rods,  then lashed these pieces together to form  sturdy, lightweight armor.

The  Smithsonian Institution holds several really spectacular examples of the traditional Tlingit armor.  I particularly love the Tlingit battle helmet beautifully carved from a very hard spruce burl.  The helmet itself is shaped like a very fierce-looking (and tattooed) man’s head and would have been worn atop the fighter’s head. According to the Smithsonian notes,  “it would have been “impossible to split open with a club.”  (The two images accompanying this blog show other Tlingit armor from the collection of  a Spanish museum.)

But back to my story.  After seeing images of Tlingit war gear,  I began to wonder how effective it was  in battle against the Russians and their firearms.   I knew that the Tlingit had put up a very strong  fight against the Russians, even capturing their settlement,  New Archangel,  on Sitka Island in 1802.  But an account of one battle  in Carl Waldman’s book, Atlas of the North American Indian,   really caught my attention.

In their attack on Russian-led forces in Prince William Sound,  writes Waldman,  the Tlingit  “wore animal masks to protect their faces as well as chest armor of wooden slats lashed together with rawhide strips,  which actually repelled Russian bullets.”  (The italics are mine.)

I would never have  guessed that well-made wooden armor could deflect a bullet.  It looks to me as if we don’t give early armorers nearly enough credit.