Tag Archives: history

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.

What Will Happen to the Staffordshire Hoard?

Ben East wrote a short but incisive article yesterday in a United Arab Emirates newspaper on the irony of British efforts to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in Britain.  The British have long been oblivious to those same sentiments on the part of others,  such as the Greeks who want the Elgin marbles back.

Guns, Spears, Inscriptions, and Magical Thinking

I wasn’t terribly surprised to read the Associated Press story this week about the biblical inscriptions that appear on certain American military weapons issued to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dismayed, yes. (Wasn’t the American government trying to distance itself from the notion that it was engaged in a modern Christian Crusade against the Infidels? ) But shocked, certainly not. As archaeologists and historians can attest,  such inscriptions are part of a very old tradition, one that goes back many hundreds of years in cultures across Eurasia.

For those of you who missed it, here’s the much boiled down version of the AP story.   For the past 30 years, a Michigan-based  military contractor known as Trijicon Inc.  has put scriptural citations in raised letters on the sides of its products,  which include combat rifle-sights. According to the AP article,  U.S special operations forces in the Middle East currently carry Trijicon’s Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight into battle:   it bears the inscription JN8:12,  a clear reference to the Gospel of  St. John,  Chapter 8, verse 12, which reads: “When Jesus spoke to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The folks at Trijicon clearly think that this verse will go a long way in assisting American soldiers in their hour of need.

But the idea of inscribing a weapon with a sacred text to protect  its owner is a very ancient one.   Indeed it dates back at least  2000 years,  to a time when metalsmiths closely guarded the secrets of forging iron weapons, creating an air of mystery and magic around them.  The inscriptions these ancient smiths forged on sword blades or along spear tips seemed to further enhance this power.

History is replete with wonderful examples.  Early Islamic warriors, for example, carried Damascus-steel swords inscribed with verses from the Qur’an.   Lord Egerton’s classic book, Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour,  describes one sword that possessed  several inscriptions from the Qur’an–some for good times (“In everything there is speedy victory from God”), others for more perilous encounters ( “God is the best of Protectors.”).   But the Moslem warriors were not alone.  Japanese samurai also brandished swords inscribed with inspiring phrases–in their cases,  from Buddhist or Shinto texts.

My favorite example of  inscribed weaponry, however,  is the Spear of Kowel,  shown in the photo above.   It was discovered one spring day in 1858 in Poland by a ploughman preparing his field for planting.  Made of iron and thought to date to the 3rd century A.D.,  the Spear of Kowel bears a simple but slightly ambiguous message.   Depending on who you read,  the inscription reads “brave, bold rider,” “going to the target,”  “goal runner,” or simply “attacker.”

If Trijicon had to inscribe some kind of message on its rifle sights,  why couldn’t it have chosen something simple and to the point  like that,  instead of dragging biblical texts into Middle Eastern wars that are already plagued by fundamentalism.

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.

Sugar: A Short Bittersweet History

Wealthy Europeans of the Renaissance adored dessert time.  Indeed their cravings for sweet cakes and marzipan, plum pies and mince tarts far outstripped supplies of the chief ingredient—refined sugar.  To keep up with the vast demand and turn fields of  sugar cane into bags of white sugar, European mill owners required timber to fuel their boiling vats: by the early 16th century, sugar masters from Italy to Madeira had all but exhausted the most easily accessible forests.

The first Spanish colonists to land in the Caribbean understood this problem perfectly, and when their quest for gold failed in Jamaica, they turned to sugar in 1515 to make their fortunes.  In Jamaica’s earliest settlement–Sevilla la Neuva–Francisco Garay, a former slave trader and minor member of the Spanish nobility, imported a sugar master,  constructed a large mill to process newly planted sugar cane and forced Jamaica’s indigenous Taino villagers to do all the hard labor.

Simon Fraser University archaeologist Robyn Woodward and her team are now excavating the industrial quarter of Seville la Neuva,  uncovering traces of a tragic history that ended in the decimation of the Taino .   To read more about this new research,   please see my newly posted article on the Smithsonian magazine website.

Replicating the Armor of Alexander the Great

I think that there are few things more delightful and amusing to watch than an adventurous archaeologist in the act of trying replicate ancient drinks, hunting techniques, weapons, or other long vanished technologies. Who knew, for example, how punishingly difficult it was to chew one’s way through dozens of pounds of milled corn to make chicha, the beer of choice for the Inca and other Andean peoples? I had no idea until I began looking into the experiments of Penn State archaeologists Patrick McGovern and Clark Erickson and their associates at Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats.

Yesterday, I found a very intriguing YouTube video of the experiments that University of Wisconsin historian Gregory Aldrete and his student Scott Bartell conducted on linothorax, the ancient linen armor worn by Alexander the Great and his army. I wrote about their research on this remarkable kevlar like gear in my post yesterday, but seeing is really believing. Check this out.

The Most Ancient Mariner

When did land-loving humans first trust their fates to simple rafts and begin exploring the world by water?  Most archaeologists would say some 50,000 years ago,  when anatomically modern humans sailed from island southeast Asia to Australia.   But Thomas Strasser, an archaeologist at Providence College in Rhode Island, dropped a bombshell last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. Strasser reported that he had found several hundred double-edged cutting tools on the island of Crete that dated to at least 130,000 years ago.  Some,  said Strasser,  looked very much like the hand-axes that Homo erectus wielded in Africa 800,000 years ago.

Strasser now proposes that the ancient hominins voyaged out of Africa by primitive boat,  island-hopping from Crete to Europe.  “We’re just going to have to accept that,  as soon as hominids left Africa,  they were long distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place,”  Strasser told Science News reporter,  Bruce Bower.

This new evidence sounds immensely intriguing,  and I would certainly like to know much more.  But I think that we are still a long way from seeing Homo erectus as a seafarer.   Other evidence for such primeval ocean voyaging,  after all,  is very thin.   Let me briefly recap.  In 1998,  a team led by Michael Morwood,  an archaeologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia,  excavated  stone tools on the island of Flores in Indonesia (the same island that produced the so-called “Hobbit” remains of Homo floresiensis) that dated to some 800,000 years ago.  This was the time period when H. erectus was roaming southeast Asia.

How did the ancient hominin get to Flores?  Morwood himself suggested that they might have held on to logs as simple flotation devices, and kicked their across the narrow strait separating Komodo from Flores.  But a more flamboyant researcher, Robert Bednarik,  an independent scholar who heads The First Mariners project, proposes that H. erectus sailed there by raft.   To demonstrate that such a voyage is indeed possible,  Bednarik and several associates built a bamboo raft with paleolithic stone tools, and then sailed successfully on it from Lombok to the neighboring island of Sunbawa in a ten hour and twenty five minute crossing in rough seas.

So such a voyage is indeed possible in a simple raft.   But most archaeologists working on the subject of coastal migration have been exceedingly reluctant to buy into the idea of seafaring H. erectus.  When I interviewed half a dozen of the world’s leading experts on the subject two years ago while working on an article on ancient seafaring for Discover magazine,  most suggested that that ancient hominins likely floated to Flores accidentally,  after being blown out to sea in a storm.

A major sticking point for many is the cognitive ability of H. erectus.  Many researchers believe that only modern humans possessed the necessary technological creativity to build a raft and the requisite intellectual ability to navigate at sea.   But if Strasser’s new findings are accepted (and you can be sure that people will be looking very carefully at both the stone tools themselves  and at the proposed dates), then it could be a whole new ballgame.    I personally will be following this research with great interest.

Royal Chamber-Pots and Privies

Today, I’m bringing you a small, strange, guilty pleasure. I just stumbled across this delightful video of a very animated British archaeologist showing off the ancient privies of British kings and queens at several royal palaces. (Does anyone know who she is? She’s terrific, but uncredited.) Check out her real delight at finding residues of Tudor urine in a chamber pot!

Making Clothes for John Adams

A few months ago,  my husband and I curled up with a bowl of popcorn, our trusty Labrador retriever Max,  and a little stack of DVDs–all from HBO’s much admired 2008 miniseries,  John Adams. Loosely based on David McCullough’s best selling biography , the series started with the Boston Massacre on a cold March night in 1770,  and ends with the death of Adams,  the second American president,  in 1826.

The series was more my husband’s cup of tea than mine–I found all the constitutional wrangling extremely dull–but I loved the visual attention to historical detail.   The producers had scrupulously avoided a common trap: prettifying the past.  Indeed,  the actors themselves looked as if they had been lifted straight from a William Hogarth painting,  and the costumes struck me as letter perfect.

Just this morning,  I discovered why John and Abigail Adams’s clothing looked particularly authentic.  In browsing on online,  I found a fascinating article by Rachel Dickinson  at Smithsonianmag.com about Thistle Hill Weavers,  a small workshop in upstate New York run by textile historian Rabbit Goody.  (Great name, eh?)  Goody and her fellow weavers specialize in creating historically accurate reproductions of 17th, 18th, and 19th century fabrics.  And it was Thistle Hill who created much of the homespun cloth for John Adams.

The article is definitely worth checking out.