Tag Archives: history

The Emperor and the Horse

Last summer while I was researching an article for National Geographic magazine in Ecuador,  I had the remarkable pleasure of staying at the Hacienda Guanchala.  Lying almost exactly on the equator, the Hacienda Guanchala is the oldest colonial hacienda in Ecuador.  Indeed,  some of its buildings date back as early as 1580,  and its shadowy corridors  feel haunted by all the history that has passed through them.

I arrived at the hacienda late in the day,  well after dark,  and after dining there I retreated to my room and lit a fire in the old stone fireplace.   Someone had left several glossy Spanish language magazines there,  and so I began to thumb through them:  they were all devoted exclusively to the Peruvian Paso horse.  I had never heard before of  the Peruvian Paso,  and I was too tired to dig out my Spanish-English dictionary to begin translating the articles.  But I was much struck by the athletic appearance of this horse–with its massive deep chest and its powerful looking haunches.

Yesterday,  I came across a fascinating blog post on the Peruvian Paso.  It turns out that the Francisco Pizarro and his men brought the ancestors of this horse with them when they landed in Tumbes in early 1532 and embarked on their invasion of the Inca Empire.  And they later rode and led these horses by halter through the Andes to a fateful encounter with the new  Inca emperor,  Atahualpa,  in the provincial center of Cajamarca.

Atahualpa had just defeated the forces of his half-brother Huascar in a lengthy civil war,  and he was resting with his wives,  lords and elite bodyguard in the hills outside Cajamarca.   He and his entourage had never before seen a horse.  But in the preceding months,  Inca scouts had sent them a good deal of intelligence about the  Spanish invaders and the large foreign animal they rode.

Pizarro sent one of his bolder captains,  Hernando de Soto,  and several men out to Atahaulpa’s camp to invite him to a meeting in Cajamarca.  To impress on the Inca entourage the power of horses,  de Soto first led a charge on several of Atahualpa’s bodyguards,  sending panic into the crowd.  Then the Spanish captain reined his horse in sharply and trotted over to where Atahualpa sat on a low wooden throne.  He nudged his horse so close to the  divine king that the animal’s exhalations ruffled the braided royal fringe–a mark of imperial office–that hung from Atahualpa’s forehead.  But the emperor betrayed no fear:  he sat impassively as the animal gazed down at him.

Tragically the intelligence that Atahualpa had received about the Spaniards was badly flawed.  His scouts informed him,  for example,  that the Spanish could not ride their horses in the dark.  So Atahaulpa delayed his arrival at  Cajamarca for the meeting until late afternoon the next day.  But the Spanish forces and their horses were ready and waiting,  quickly  slaughtering the emperor’s bodyguard and taking Atahualpa himself a prisoner.

Seldom has one breed of horse witnessed so much tragedy and misery.

My apologies to subscribers who received a garbled version of this blog earlier today.   Something went a little wrong in the blogging software this morning.

Slavery and the Power of a Story

As an archaeological journalist,  I  long ago learned the value and importance of storytelling.  My articles often open anecdotally,  with a brief  story that I hope will seduce readers into staying with me as I explore the science of a new excavation or find.   I love telling stories,  and if I have good material to work with,  these leads often write themselves.

Story-telling is an immensely powerful medium,  perhaps the most direct and intense way of communicating basic truths that we humans have.  And yet it is one that archaeologists rarely tap into when they try to communicate  their findings to the public. I think this is a great shame,  for the artifacts that archaeologists work with often tell immensely compelling stories,  stories that allow readers to connect strongly with the past.

I was reminded of this today while  listening to a superb online interview with Lonnie Bunch,  the director of an important new museum in the planning stages, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.   Bunch was talking about how Smithsonian curators decide which donations to accept and which to reject,  a topical subject for he had just turned down the suit that O.J. Simpson wore to court on the day of his acquittal.

The  interviewer asked Bunch about the most surprising donations he had received, and this is where the interview took soaring flight,  as Bunch left the tawdry, tabloid story behind.  He described a recent acquisition,  a humble pillowcase that someone had brought in.  It was,  he explained,  embroidered by an enslaved woman who was about to be sold the next day.

The embroidered inscription was for her daughter.  It read:  “In this pillowcase, you will find a dress,  some biscuits,  but what you will [also] find is that it is filled with love,  and,  though you will never see me again,  always know how close you are to my heart.”

For me,  this one humble artifact said more about the horrors of slavery than many lengthy archaeological reports I have recently read about excavations in the slave quarters of southern plantations.  I felt an instant, direct,  immediate connection to that long-ago grieving mother,  as one human being to another.  Bunch clearly knows how to communicate to the public, and I really look forward to seeing this new museum when it opens five years from now.

Moreover,  it seems to me that many archaeologists could learn something important from this museum director.  Sometimes all it takes is one well-chosen artifact with a story to bring the past back vividly to life.

Phoenicians and a Very Big Thirst for Adventure

I confess  I have a great soft spot for the half-mad adventurers who build painstaking replicas of ancient seacraft and then trust their fates to them on long ocean voyages.  Their published narratives speckle my bookshelves–from Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his balsa-wood-raft voyage from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in Polynesia,  to lesser known tomes recounting near-death experiences aboard ox-hide Celtic coracles in the storm-tossed North Atlantic and Viking knarrs navigating iceberg-littered waters off the Newfoundland coast.   The courage of these modern mariners is truly impressive.

The latest in this band of nautical brothers is the crew now sailing around Africa aboard a replica of a 2500-year-old Phoenician ship.  The team,  led by former Royal Navy officer  Philip Beale,  is attempting to recreate what is thought to be the first circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenician sailors around 600 B.C.

The great classical Greek historian Herodotus briefly described this epic three-year-long voyage in The Histories.  According to Herodotus,  the Egyptian pharoah Nekho II commanded a small fleet of Phoenician ships–the master mariners of the day–to explore the African coast from East to West.  After rounding the horn of Africa,  they sailed southward, stopping only to plant and reap grain for ship’s supplies, then passed through the dreaded Pillars of Heracles.  From there,  they returned along the coast of western Africa to Egypt.

Beale and his companions have built what they believe to be a faithful replica of a Phoenician ship of the era,  right down to 8000 olive-wood pins to hold everything together.  Two days ago they docked in the South African port of East London,  and the crew is now preparing to head off to Capetown.  The toughest part of the voyage lies ahead,  as they round the tip of Africa.  If you’re interested in following their voyage,  I’d suggest checking out their info-packed website.  It has a wealth of information on Phoenician history and seafaring.

I certainly wish them kind winds and a safe journey.

The Knights Templar and a Mysterious Nail

A British newspaper, the Telegraph,   reports today that archaeologists working on a tiny  island off the coast of Madeira have recovered a 1st or 2nd century A.D. iron nail from what was once a Knights Templar stronghold.  The story’s headline reads:  “A Nail from Christ’s Crucifixion Found?”

I’d say the Telegraph editors are  taking a few liberties here.  Yes, the nail was reportedly found in a decorated box on the island,  and yes,  the Knights Templar served as a fighting unit in the Crusades during the 12th century, occupying Jerusalem for a time.   But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Roman soldiers employed this particular nail in the crucifixion of Christ.   In medieval times,  charlatans peddled a wide assortment of fake relics  in the Holy Land:  this could certainly be one of them.

World’s Oldest Surviving Junk Food

Quick,  who invented the hot dog?  Was it the sausage-makers of Frankfurt?  The butchers of Vienna ( a city that German-speakers call Wien)?  Or was it Charles Feltman,  an enterprising German immigrant who ran a pie-wagon in Coney Island in 1867? We’ll never know,  but get this.  Construction workers have now excavated the world’s oldest known hot dog frozen in ice below one of Feltman’s buildings on Coney Island.  Mummified and rather revolting looking,  this 140-year old frankfurter is attracting a lot of attention. You can see it for yourself in the CNN video here.   The discoverers  say they want to preserve it,  but they are sure going about it in a weird way–pouring hot water on the ice!

Hot dogs made Feltman a fortune.  In his first year of business,  the young enterpreneur hawked more than 3864 of them to Coney Island visitors,  and he transformed junk food into a small empire of beer gardens,  hotels and the like.

Clearly junk food pays.  Never underestimate the appetite of the public!

The Civil War’s First Scorched Earth

Archaeology magazine has just published a story I wrote on an almost completely forgotten tragedy of the Civil War.  In 1863,  the Union Army razed and laid waste to nearly four counties in Missouri–a year before the better known scorched-earth destruction of Atlanta, Georgia,  by General William Tecumseh Sherman and his forces.  Archaeologist Ann Raab,  a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence,  and her colleagues are now excavating sites in what is still known as “The Burnt District.”   They are bringing to light a virtually unknown chapter of the Civil War–incredible work. Archaeology has posted an abstract of the article here.  I will have more to say about this story in a future post.

Herman Wirth and the Origins of Writing

Did our early human ancestors develop a  written “code” some 30,000 years ago or more, inscribing and painting cave walls with its enigmatic symbols?  This is the question posed by new research from Genevieve von Petzinger,  a recently graduated master’s student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and the subject of a fascinating new article in New Scientist.  What no one has mentioned so far, however,  is that the  idea of such an ancient script dates back to the nineteenth century and has a dark link to Nazi Germany.

First,  however,  let me summarize my understanding of von Petzinger’s very cool new research.  Struck by the profusion of little circles,  triangles,  lines and other marks on rock-art-covered cave walls dating to Paleolithic times,  von Petzinger created a massive database of all such recorded marks at 146 sites in France.  (No one else had apparently been willing to undertake this seemingly thankless task, so full marks to von Petzinger.)  The sites  ranged in age from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

In analyzing this new database with her thesis advisor April Nowell,  von Petzinger noticed that cave artists had repeated 26 different signs–including circles and triangles–over and over again. The artists had also used a kind of visual shorthand–inscribing just mammoth tusks instead of a whole mammoth, for example–which is common in pictographic languages.   Moreover,  in some caves,  von Petzinger discovered pairs of signs,  a type of grouping that characterizes early pictorial language.

This all sounds exceedingly interesting,  though I am waiting to see the paper that the pair has just submitted to Antiquity. But I feel obliged to point out that the idea of a very early system of written symbols was strongly championed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s by Herman Wirth,  one of the most controversial prehistorians in Europe and the first president of the Nazi research institute founded by SS head Heinrich Himmler.   (This institute was the subject of my last book,  The Master Plan:  Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust.  In it,  I wrote two full chapters on Wirth and his research. )

Wirth,  who had a Ph.D in philology,  was a man of great personal charm and many bizarre ideas.  He became convinced that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nordic race had evolved in the Arctic,  where it developed a sophisticated civilization complete with the world’s first writing system.  Furthermore, he proposed that Plato’s description of Atlantis and its demise was in fact an accurate account of the catastrophe that befell the Nordic civilization on an Arctic  island.

According to Wirth,  the Nordic refugees from this  disaster escaped to northern Europe,  bringing with them their ancient writing system,  an invention that later diffused to cultures around the world.   So Wirth spent years poring over ancient European rock art, searching for evidence of this system and recording examples of circles,  disks and wheels that he believed were ancient Nordic ideograms symbolizing the sun,  the annual cycle of life,  and so on.

I found Wirth’s ideas about an ancient master race and an Arctic Atlantis preposterous.  Indeed,  they would have been laughable  had it not been for the fact that Himmler,  the architect of the Final Solution,  used Wirth’s published works  to lend credence to the official Nazi line on the Aryan master race,  and that Wirth, who died in 1981,  still has many avid followers in Germany and Austria today. Indeed,  I  interviewed one of his ardent supporters.

I think that von Petzinger’s new research on Paleolithic symbols sounds immensely intriguing.  It certainly fits with our growing awareness of the abilities of our human ancestors.  Moreover,  I  want to state clearly that the Canadian researcher did not for a moment come under the influence of Herman Wirth and his ideas.  Indeed, she proposes that the ancient sign language may have originated in Africa and arrived in Europe with modern humans–a proposal that would have horrified Wirth.

Nevertheless,  I think it’s  important to point out the troubled history of the idea of an ancient European script recorded in rock art.    We cannot afford to forget in any way the Nazi past.

Today’s photo shows a plaster cast that Wirth made in the late 1930s of Bronze-Age rock art in Sweden.  I photographed this cast in 2002 as it hung in a museum in a small Austrian town, Spital am Pyhrn.  At the time,  Wirth’s casts were clandestine Nazi memorials.

Exhuming Ancient Celebrities

I wasn’t planning to post today on Tutankhamun.  Over the past twenty-four hours,  journalists have spilled a cargo tanker’s worth of ink on news that the famous young king suffered from a host of serious ailments.  I thought I would leave the story to the newspapers until I began browsing the coverage.   Some reporters derided the Egyptian king as “malarial and inbred,”  while others took lower aim.  One online rag, for example,   informed readers  that “King Tut was a wreck, but his penis was ‘well-developed’.”

If you ask me,  these exhumations and studies of ancient kings and other celebrities are  becoming media circuses.   All the high-tech poking and prodding quickly strips away the dignity and grandeur of great men and women,  baring their physical  frailties and secrets for all to see.  In recent years,  we’ve been subjected to several of these tawdry sideshows and I suspect there are more to come.  I posted recently on the proposal to exhume Leonardo da Vinci.  And two weeks ago, I spotted an article on a Danish team who will soon exhume a famous 17th century astronomer, Tycho Brahe.

None of the subjects,  I might add,  has given consent for such scientific study.  And I sometimes wonder about the motives of the researchers.  The scientists who propose to exhume Tycho Brahe, for example,  want to determine whether the famous astonomer was murdered or whether he died of natural cause.   This hardly seems reason enough to rifle through a tomb and disturb the sleep of the astonomer.

In future,  I’d like to see researchers and reporters alike treat the ancient dead in the same way we treat the recently deceased–with respect and decorum.   Few of us would consider prying open a recent grave and poring over newly buried remains  just to satisfy a point of  idle curiosity.  So why is it ok to do that to a 17th century astronomer?

When I was writing my book,  The Mummy Congress,  I was really struck by the highly professional way that serious mummy researchers treated the ancient dead. They never made  jokes at the expense of the dead or  talked lightly or unfeelingly about their ailments.  Indeed, during the examinations of the bodies,  they often spoke as if the mummies themselves could hear exactly what was said.

Poor Tutankhamun.  I’m glad he couldn’t hear what people were saying today.

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.