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Subject: ‘Archaeology’

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The curse of Tutankhamen made frequent headlines

Posted in Archaeology, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, News, Superstition on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Tutankhamen first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Tutankhamen,  picture, image, illustration
Tutankhamen by John Millar Watt

Lord Carnarvon was laughing, his lean, lined, aristocratic face creasing with amusement at the joke. The archaeologist, Arthur Wiegall, frowned as he watched him. This was no way to act at such a solemn moment. Jokes and quips were hardly apt on the threshold of any tomb, and even less so at a time when everyone inside the antechamber might be standing on the brink of the greatest treasure ever excavated in Egypt.

Wiegall turned furiously to a journalist, standing nearby. “If he goes down in that spirit,” he muttered darkly, “I give him six weeks to live.”

Just over six weeks later, on 6th April 1923, Lord Carnarvon died. The leader of the famous expedition which discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings had been bitten by a mosquito. The bite turned septic, pneumonia developed and Carnarvon succumbed.

Naturally, the death of so prominent and newsworthy a man was a matter for the headlines. For five months, ever since Carnarvon’s partner, Howard Carter, had found Tutankhamen’s burial chamber, Carnarvon’s name had been constantly in print. In its sombre way, his death was merely the latest development in a fascinating tale of buried treasure. But it was also something more sinister. Wiegall’s remark, prompted by pique, now looked very much like a doom-laden prophecy come true.

It also gave colour and conviction to the warning issued to the dying Carnarvon by Marie Corelli, the popular writer of romantic melodramas. Two weeks before Carnarvon died, newspapers publicised Miss Corelli’s prediction that “the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb.”

This sort of thing was newsman’s gold, and there is no doubt that journalists made the most of it.

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The quest to find Noah’s Ark was briefly ended

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Bible, Boats, Historical articles on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about the discovery of Noah’s Ark first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 589 published on 28 April 1973.

Discovery of Noah's Ark,  picture, image, illustration
Lieutenant Roskovitsky of the Russian Air Force was convinced that he had spotted the ark by Roger Payne

Lieutenant Roskovitsky, of the Russian Air Force, stared down at the mountain top below him. He knew only two things about Mount Ararat in Armenia. One was that it was almost 17,000 feet high, which was a point worth remembering when flying the shaky aeroplanes of 1916, and the other was the well known tradition that it was on that very peak that Noah had grounded his ark at the end of the Great Flood.

Suddenly Roskovitsky caught his breath. On one of the highest slopes there was a shape that seemed too regular to be natural. In fact it looked for all the world like a huge boat. A boat? Could the old Bible story be true after all, and was he actually looking down on what was left of that extraordinary floating zoo?

The pilot headed for home and made his report with some misgivings. As an official report it sounded hopelessly far fetched, and Roskovitsky was well aware that his superiors were quite likely to haul him over the coals for wasting time on fantasies in the middle of a war. As it turned out, he had no need to worry. The story of the stranded ark worked its way from office to office until it came to the ears of the Czar himself, who promptly organised an expedition to Mount Ararat in order to recover the ancient timbers. The war against Germany might be important, but men had dreamed of finding the ark for two thousand years!

To ordinary men and women there had always been something logical about the quest, for was it not clearly stated in the Old Testament that “the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat”? The Flood had receded long ago, so surely it stood to reason that Noah’s wonderful vessel must still be up there?

This belief was shared by the Armenians, who up to the beginning of the 19th century refused permission for anyone to climb Mount Ararat on the grounds that a monk had once attempted the ascent, only to be turned back by an angel. This meant, they argued, that the mountain was particularly holy and quite inaccessible to ordinary men. So far as the Armenian Church was concerned, the ark would have to remain undiscovered.

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The search for the ‘Missing Link’ led to Piltdown Man

Posted in Anthropology, Archaeology, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 12 March 2014

This edited article about Piltdown Man  first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 587 published on 14 April 1973.

Piltdown Man, picture, image, illustration

It was one of the most exciting meetings ever to take place at the Geological Society of London; had the skull in front of them once belonged to a creature half ape and half man?

The workman who had been digging in the Sussex gravel pit all day was glad of the diversion. With a quick swing of his shovel he cracked the round, light brown object into several pieces. Then he stared down in surprise. They were not bits of nut at his feet but splinters of bone.

“Best show them to Mr Dawson.” And within a few days the workman had handed over a large fragment to Charles Dawson, a local solicitor who was well known for his keen interest in fossils.

Dawson was interested all right. In his spare time during the next few years he explored the gravel bed himself and found several more pieces of bone that clearly were part of a fossilised skull, Finally in 1912, he took his discoveries to his friend, Arthur Woodward, who was in charge of the geological section of the British Museum in London.

Woodward was wildly excited and joined in the hunt. Finally he and his colleagues were able to reconstruct a whole skull of a primitive man. This they showed to a tense and expectant meeting of the Royal Geological Society. Next day, the little solicitor was the man of the hour. It was unbelievable, but a spare time explorer into the past had succeeded when all the experts had failed.

Charles Dawson had found the Missing Link!

But what exactly was the Missing Link? So far as Dawson and his friends were concerned, it was the long extinct creature who, in the long history of evolution, bridged the gap between apes and man. The quest for this “halfway” creature had gone on for almost half a century, ever since Charles Darwin had published his revolutionary book, “On the Origin of Species.”

Today, Darwin’s theory of the gradual evolution of life on Earth seems so sensible that it is hard for us to imagine the shock and horror it caused at the time. But for hundreds of years men had believed unquestioningly in the Old Testament’s poetic explanation of Man’s birth, and that he had made his appearance in much the same form as he exists today. They carefully ignored any fossil relics that suggested any form of primitive man, and were outraged at the idea of humans starting as some kind of primitive life form, millions of years ago.

“He means we are descended from apes!” people exploded. In fact, Darwin had said no such thing, but because of the apes’ near-human appearance, the idea was generally accepted. And the search for remains ofthe ape-man was begun.

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The legend of King Arthur and his fabled Camelot

Posted in Archaeology, Castles, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Royalty on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about King Arthur first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 585 published on 31 March 1973.

Arthur and Excalibur
Arthur takes Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake by James E McConnell

“Then there was a great battle, and King Arthur slew many with his sword, Excalibur. By dusk the enemy had fled, and the king led his Knights of the Round Table in triumph back to Camelot . . . .”

So for years the hero-king has ridden through the story books, ruling with the help of a band of fearless knights pledged to the task of keeping the peace and seeing justice done. But was there ever such a man? And if he is fact, not fiction, when did he reign? And where was Camelot?

The search for Arthur and his Camelot has been keeping historians busy for the last hundred years, although only recently has the pace quickened to a full scale exercise in historical detection.

At first, the doubters claimed it was easy to dismiss the whole story as a fairy tale. After all, the Knights of the Round Table all wore armour and spent their spare time jousting, which clearly set their period at around the 14th century. And whoever heard of a King Arthur the First living then? Equally suspect was the point that many of his knights’ adventures had been told and retold in France since earliest times with absolutely no mention of any English king and his castle at Camelot.

The facts certainly seemed to support the non-believers. The story of the Knights of the Round Table came to us from the pen of Sir Thomas Malory, a rather shadowy figure who died in 1471. His book was printed by Caxton 14 years later, and the great printer himself seems to have had his doubts, for he wrote in the preface “Sir Thomas Malorye did take out of certyne bookes of frensshe and reduced it to Englisshe.”

And if that was what Caxton believed, what was the point of trying to prove otherwise? Obviously, the good Sir Thomas had written one of the first best-sellers, a kind of medieval James Bond. And that was that.

After several hundred years scholars suddenly woke up to the fact that the name of Arthur and his followers kept cropping up in the most unlikely places. In the 11th century Black Book of Carmarthen, for instance. In the History of the Britons, compiled in the 9th century by the Celtic monk, Nennius, and in William of Malmsbury’s Acts of the English Kings. Someone even found a 12th century carving in an Italian church that showed Artus de Bretani (Arthur of Britain), Galvagnus (Gawain), Che (Kay) and others storming a castle where Mardoc, or Mordred, held Guenevere a prisoner. All of which dated back to long before Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was written.

The evidence pointed to only one explanation: that although Malory had undoubtedly collected his stories from a number of sources and knitted them all together within the framework of the Round Table, the stories themselves were the products of ancient romancers. But the people in the stories were a different matter. Certain statements were repeated so often that it seemed probable that they had really lived.

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The monumental saga of Cleopatra’s Needle

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Historical articles, History, London on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about Cleopatra’s Needle first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 581 published on 3 March 1973.

Cleopatra's Needle,  picture, image, illustration
Cleopatra's Needle in its proposed position at Westminster

Two pink granite obelisks lay among the rubbish of a squalid quarter of Alexandria in Egypt. Once they had stood as magnificent memorials to King Thotmes III. The finest of the pair had been made in 1460 BC at Aswan and taken 700 miles down the Nile to Heliopolis.

Here it stood outside the Temple of the Sun as a proud symbol of Egypt’s might. Many centuries later, on the orders of Cleopatra, it is said, it was taken down and moved to Alexandria and the Palace of the Caesars.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt brought the British to the country. They drove Napoleon away. Britain returned Egypt to the Turks, although some British soldiers remained there for a year or so under the command of General the Earl of Cavan.

By now the obelisks had been removed from their former positions and deposited among the rubble of Alexandria’s poorer quarter.

But the Earl of Cavan took a fancy to one of them, the finest of the pair. It would, he thought, make a fitting memorial to the British victories in Egypt, if it were shipped to London and erected there as a monument.

The Turks said he could have it. But the Earl’s plans to have it shipped to Britain fell through, and he compromised by having a brass plate put on the obelisk. Engraved on this were details of the principal events of the Egyptian campaign. Tribute was paid to Napoleon’s valour with a warning that the British nation was ordained by divine providence to defeat its enemies.

Once this had been done the obelisk stayed where it was. Mohamed Ali, one of the local rulers, reminded the British government that the needle was theirs. Would they please remove it?

But the government did not share the Earl of Cavan’s enthusiasm for the needle. They accepted the advice of an Egyptologist, Sir Gardner Wilkinson, who said, “It is unworthy of the expense of removal.”

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An ancient copper scroll told of fabulous treasure in the desert

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Bible, Historical articles, History on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about the Dead Sea Scrolls first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Dead Sea Scrolls,  picture, image, illustration
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

It was a clear and brilliantly sunny morning in early summer, with the promise of a scorching heat later in the day. The Arab shepherd lad idly watched his sheep and the rocky, barren landscape on one side with the shores of the Dead Sea on the other. His name was Muhammad, his nickname “The Wolf” but today he hardly had the energy to live up to this name. It was 1947, at a place called Qumran; he had been up since dawn and now all he wished to do was look for some shade as the sun rose higher.

The sound of stones being dislodged made him look upwards and he saw that one of the goats which fed with the sheep had strayed up a steep cliff path. His shouts were of no avail and, unwillingly, he rose to his feet and went after it. Unless he could drive the goat back to the plateau there would be real trouble. But the goat simply scampered on, with Muhammad wearily climbing afterwards. Soon he came on an overhanging crag of rock, and decided to use its shade for a brief rest.

As he sat down, his eye was caught by a small, queerly placed hole. Tossing a stone through, he was even more surprised when he heard the sound of breaking pottery. Soon he had cleared the entrance to a long, narrow cave, and inside were several tall, wide-necked jars. At this, Muhammad began to fear, for who would expect such signs of habitation in this wilderness? He wondered about evil spirits and swiftly decided that this was no place for him. Forgetting all about his goat, he dashed back to the camp and told his story.

Next day Muhammad returned, more boldly, with a friend. They squeezed through the entrance hole and took the bowl shaped lids off the jars. But instead of the Aladdin’s treasure they had hoped for, all they found were some evil smelling cloth-covered bundles – and underndeath each cloth was simply a roll of parchment.

Although the shepherd boys may have been disappointed, they were, in fact, looking at some of the most precious manuscripts the world has known. The “Dead Sea Scrolls” as they became known include copies of parts of the Old Testament older by a thousand years than anything we had ever seen. The fact that they were still in such good condition seemed miraculous and it was only the heat and dryness of the Dead Sea Rift Valley, 1300 feet below sea level that had made it possible.

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Legendary Bronze Age citadels were not impregnable

Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Thursday, 20 February 2014

This edited article about Bronze Age citadels first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 560 published on 7 October 1972.

Mycenaean warriors fighting
Mycenaean warriors defending the city, its massive Cyclopean walls clear to see, by Richard Hook

For month after month the mighty walls of Troy stood firm against the invading Greeks. Homer, the ancient historian, describes battles beneath the ramparts and on the plains between Troy and the sea until in the end Troy fell.

Yet if we are to believe Homer, the Trojan fortifications did not fail. Troy’s walls were not overcome nor were its gates broken down – in fact the city could only be taken by a trick, the famous Wooden Horse in which a band of Greek warriors at last entered the Trojan stronghold.

Is it only a story? Perhaps the Wooden Horse never existed but Troy certainly did and it had some of the toughest fortifications of its day. These walls have been discovered beneath the bleak hill of Hissarlik which is all that now remains of once proud Troy. Hissarlik overlooks the Dardanelles in Turkey, the frontier between Europe and Asia, and for over a thousand years Troy was like a bridge between the two continents. Nine cities were built at Troy, one above the other. Troy’s position made the city wealthy by trade but also put it in the path of every passing army. Each of those nine cities was destroyed by conquest or earthquake, but it is the sixth Troy that most archaeologists believe to be the city besieged in Homer’s epic tale.

Its walls were built like panels, each flat and slightly angled one to the other so that there were no curved surfaces anywhere. Troy also had a recessed gateway built between the main wall and an overlapping stretch of ramparts so that anyone attacking the gate could be shot at from both sides. This was a new and clever idea.

The army that eventually destroyed this sixth Troy in around 1,300 BC, came from the Greek mainland, from citadels like Mycenae and Tiryns. Both these towns were masterpieces of Bronze Age military architecture. Homer named them “Mycenae rich in Gold” and “Tiryns of the Great Walls,” and both were built of huge blocks of uncemented stone. The folk of later years thought that they must have been built by giants called the Cyclops and even today such walls of great rough stones are known as Cyclopean Walls.

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Megalithic monuments had an astronomical purpose

Posted in Archaeology, Astronomy, Famous landmarks, Prehistory, Space on Saturday, 15 February 2014

This edited article about Prehistoric astronomy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 553 published on 19 August 1972.

Carnac,  picture, image, illustration
Original arrangement of stones at Carnac, Bretagne

It seems that Neolithic Man, who inhabited Europe about 3,500 years ago, was not the simple farming type that the history books would have us believe. Recent scientific research has shown that these people went to extraordinary lengths to solve the complex problem of the Moon’s motion and had an astonishing knowledge of astronomy and geometry.

Surveys carried out on Megalithic monuments in Scotland and France show that what seemed to be just geometrical patterns of stones were in fact observatories that were used for determining the Moon’s motion. From there findings it has been found these people had a far greater understanding of lunar astronomy than any of their descendants were to have for the next 3,000 years!

In the 18th century it was realised that Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, was aligned with the mid-summer sunrise and was perhaps used on this day for religious or mystical rites. More recently one expert has suggested that the way the stones are arranged at this famous monument made it possible to predict eclipses of the Sun, an event which would have had a special and awe-inspiring significance for these early peoples.

To understand just how great the problems of building these observatories were for Neolithic Man it is important to know something of the Moon’s complicated motion through the sky.

To observers in Prehistory the most striking fact would be that the rising and setting points of the Moon change rapidly from night to night. In the Outer Hebrides, where most of the important Megalithic sites are found, it is possible for the Moon to rise and set almost in the north one day, and then two weeks later it barely manages to rise above the southern horizon for more than a few hours. When it does rise, it appears at different heights in the sky and over a period of 18.61 years goes through a full cycle of different positions and setting and rising points.

Only by constant observations over decades and even centuries could these early stone circle builders establish the reference points needed to construct their observatories.

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Charles III of Spain forgave even his fiercest enemies

Posted in Archaeology, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Thursday, 13 February 2014

This edited article about Spain first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 551 published on 5 August 1972.

Charles III King of Naples,  picture, image, illustration
British ships sailed one day into the Bay of Naples during Charles III’s reign in that city and threatened to bombard the city by C L Doughty

It is a sad fact that men who have been aggressive and destructive enjoy more of the limelight in history than men who have been peaceful and constructive.

It is the same with kings. We remember much more about the bellicose, tyrannical Henry the Eighth than we do about his forebear, Henry the Sixth, who read books, founded colleges, and didn’t want to hurt anyone.

So let us now recall a monarch who reigned in two kingdoms – Naples and Spain – and left them when he died better than any of his predecessors had done for hundreds of years.

You have probably never heard of Charles the Third of Spain. Very little is known about him in this country, probably because of his lack of success in war, and even histories of Spain published in English generally do not give him the space that good men deserve.

Yet all the world owes at least one debt to Charles. It was he who sponsored the excavations of Pompeii and its “twin” Roman town Herculanium, and the marvellous panorama of ancient Rome they afford is due to Charles’s realisation of their importance to posterity in an age and a country where such things were generally scorned.

Charles was a most meticulous King, slavish about detail and punctuality. He liked to see the same faces around him every day – “those who attended on his infancy grew grey, or died in his service,” a biographer wrote.

He rose at five every morning, presided over the Council at eight, and generally tried as best he could to do exactly the same thing at the same time every day of the year.

Each afternoon, whatever the weather, he would hunt – his one great passion. Often he would dress for State occasions by putting his robes over his hunting clothes, so that no time was lost in changing. It was said of him that he could not pass a picture of a horse without raising a leg as if to mount it, and that he had been known to shoot arrows at animals depicted on tapestries.

Charles became King of Naples when he was 18 and at once set about sweeping reforms designed to break the feudal power of the church and nobles. For the five million people in the kingdom he established factories and workshops, schools and libraries.

These splendid, far-seeing reforms that elevated Naples to one of the greatest and most prosperous city-states in Europe, earned for Charles only the detestation of his courtiers. They were convinced that giving to the common people all the fine things that hitherto only aristocrats had enjoyed was to take the road to disaster.

Undaunted, Charles ignored their protestations. “I devote all my attention to improving the welfare of my people, because I wish to save my soul and go to heaven,” he said. The courtiers had never heard anything like it before!

They disliked him even more when he married, at 22, Maria Amalia, a daughter of the King of Poland. She was a shrewish, back-biting woman, as ugly as her husband. But she bore Charles 13 children and he loved her until the day he died.

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Mexico City

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Historical articles, Sport on Wednesday, 12 February 2014

This edited article about Mexico first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 550 published on 29 July 1972.

Tenochtitlan,  picture, image, illustration

Aztec city of Tenochtitlan

Dig deep into the ground at Mexico City in South America and you could unearth a rare treasure from an ancient civilisation. This is possible because the city stands on the site of a 15th century town called Tenochtitlan. It was built by the Aztecs, an American-Indian tribe who lived in the Valley of Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest from 1519 to 1521.

They were the successors of other inhabitants like the Toltecs, the Chichimecs and the Tenochcas who all had their own special cultures, arts and religions. Many beautiful things they made still lie buried in the Mexican soil. Because of this, the Mexicans are very cautious when the soil is disturbed.

The wisdom of this was shown when workmen were building the athletes’ village for the 1968 Games, for at one point they stopped work and sent for a team of archaeologists. An ancient sculpture, perhaps a thousand years old, had been revealed. This was left for the experts to work at with delicate care while the workmen began building the village on another site.

Perhaps their new find would be as magnificent as the pyramids built by the Toltecs a thousand years before the Spaniards came. These, with temples to the sun god and moon goddess, made a spectacular background to the modern festival of sport. Fireworks flashing from the top of the pyramid provided a startling and colourful opening.