Category Archives: My Bookshelf ~ Before Current Era

Religion, Philosophy, anthropology and archeology Before Current Era

Review ~ Is it something that we’ve left behind…

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. By Wade Davis. $16

This was a book that has been on my “someday” list for quite some time. Written by an anthropologist, this group of lectures is structured using a wealth of information Dr. Davis has accumulated over a lifetime of travels to distant corners of the globe. His travels have been funded by such organizations as the National Geographic Society and the Harvard Botanical Museum. Don’t let the term “lectures” scare you off. Davis is a story-teller.

The presentation of this book genuinely touches me for a number of reasons. Davis does not attempt to throw away our technological advances. He does not suggest that we should return to some simpler time to unlearn the advances of the last several centuries. What he does call on us to do is respect the past, and to learn from its wisdom.

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The voyages of the Hokule’a

[photo credit from the Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions page]

Long before we had compasses, GPS, and automated navigation systems, the Polynesians settled the South Pacific reaches under the guidance of Wayfinders. They were highly esteemed navigators. In Hawaii, the ancient practices are being recaptured. Hawaii’s Hokule’a has sailed since 1975 and has made its way all over the South Pacific using the same navigation methods that settled the area – finding the way. The ancient explores worked with their environment and learned the currents and the winds. They learned which birds flew how far from land. How to read the clouds and the paths of the fish. How to feel the very waves. In the ancient tradition, Wayfinders did not sail to find land; they called the land up from the sea.

Davis covers other ancient cultures, some of which have only recently been introduced to modern life. Each culture discussed in this book has found a time-honored way to live within the ecosystem that was home. Each culture has found a way of give and take with limited resources. Each honors the earth on which we live as the source of life and a treasure to be preserved.

I was taken by the story of the Penan of Borneo. On a visit to Canada to gain support against the clear cutting of their ancestral forest, they were exposed to the homeless of cities in British Columbia. To people who lived in a culture that would be considered impoverished by almost any Western standard, they could not understand why the inhabitants did not share. Their culture was built on the concept that everything must be shared – always. How, then, could there be homeless, hungry, people? Sharing is how the entire community learned to survive.

Davis was part of the expedition to research the growing and use of coca in South America. In the tribal areas, coca is a central part of the culture. It is also a source of protein to a people who have few other sources. Used in the manner developed in ancient rituals, they do not get addicted. The wide spread use of the plant for a number of applications is what gave modern governments the leverage to “take care” of the poor, drugged, Indians. It was the modern perversion of the plant that has caused so much heartache in modern society – not the former highly ritualized use developed through centuries of cultural stability.

From the Amazon to the Arctic, from Borneo to Australia and the South Pacific, Davis tells the story of ancient peoples and their time-honed methods of surviving in their home. He also tells the story of the impact of modern intrusion. His thesis is not that we should abandon our hard-won knowledge; what he does suggest is that we incorporate the wisdom of older cultures into our application of that technology. These cultures, the ones that survived, understood that it is a cycle. In order to receive from earth, we must return to earth. It is critical that we protect our heritage and re-learn the lessons we thought so trivial.

It’s a small book, and well worth the read. You may find yourself far more committed to preserving the life support system on our tiny piece of rock, hanging in a vast universe with no friends in sight. For me, Davis grasps the sentiment of my poem and asks that we not stop learning; but that we protect our heritage and preserve its wisdom in the process.

Is it something that we’ve left behind,
Or something that we’ve yet to find,
That keeps each one forever hoping,
To reach that thing for which we’re groping?

© 1988

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Reviews ~ How Old is This?

Bones, Rocks and Stars by Chris Turney Available for $12 -25.

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As I unpack all those books we’ve had for years I find treasures that I meant to read but, well, never got around to. It’s like Christmas in my house these days. This title is one I probably acquired through a book club. It was purchased to answer a question an avid history nut, such as myself, finds perplexing – how do we know how to date things?

This is no easy question in the world of historical and archeological investigation. It gets even touchier when we talk about the age of the earth, the universe, or the advent of man. For instance, you may hear something like, radiocarbon dating is unreliable. Fine, but why, and when? I felt it was time that I read the science and left the media hype to the tabloids and those with specific agendas. This book opened that door, and in an entertaining way. A lot of science, but an easy read.

Before I address the book itself, I would like to posit a thought. I have friends and followers with varying positions on evolution, creationism, and all the emotional baggage on both sides. I’ve been there, and reading up on the science is part of what gave me some sense of clarity.

For those who are more concerned with scriptural interpretations, I’d like to point out a few things that helped me. There are several chapters in Job where God puts forth on the wonders of the natural world. They are introduced with the question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” Yes, indeed. The message in these passages burned in my heart was – don’t make assumptions. Look to creation for your answers, there is a reason things work the way they do.

Fast forward to New Testament times and the apostle Paul (whatever his reputation may be) and we find in Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (New American Standard). Again, things evident in nature are meant to tell a story. There are many more similar references.

So, why the mini-sermon? Because if I am to believe that we have some direction, that the ancient holy books of our species have something to say about the place we find ourselves and what we should do about it, then I have to believe that there is value in what is said. My thought is this. If we are admonished to look to nature for the creative power within — if the ancients of many religions tell us to look, to see, to contemplate the marvels before us—then why should we expect something other than truth? Should we expect to find an “appearance of age” to mislead us? Should we find things that are not what they appear to be? Man’s knowledge is not perfect. However, we do have the ability to seek, to find, to follow where the evidence leads. What’s more, I sincerely believe we are commanded to do so.

Thus, we get to the book. How do we date things? Turney leads the reader through a step by step process of what amounts to the history of sorting out just how old things are. Starting with how we date things using calendars, and how we convert ancient historical documents to modern calendars to get a sense of time. He describes the fascinating science of dendrochronology: the use of tree rings to count the years and study climate changes. Comparing these records with journals and legends we can better understand when events occurred and some of the reasons a culture changed or died out.

He carefully explains how we compare the ratios of compounds in samples, check for luminescence, uranium content and even radiocarbon dating. Yes, it is true, radiocarbon dating has it limits. Due to the half-life of the Carbon 14 atom it is only accurate to somewhere near 40,000 years. I also learned that these methods work not because of one test, but because of a series of tests in and around a sample to plot curves in order to reduce the chance of contamination skewing the sample.

The steps taken on specific claims show how the frauds are discovered, and how science corrects itself. He speaks with clarity and provides headline cases and inside adventures to show the reader how the conclusions were constructed. How we learned and how our knowledge is growing.

We live in an incredible universe of unbelievable wonder. Our own history is filled with lessons, information, wisdom that we cannot ignore. If we do not put these events in proper context, we cannot learn, we cannot be all that we are created to be. Check out “the science of when things happened.” I think you will find much to contemplate.

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Reviews ~ Discoverer, or Last Guy to the Party?

Columbus Was Last, by Patrick Huyghe, available for $25 on Amazon – there are several alternates as well. The link is to the version I read.

Columbus

I have a confession. I’ve never been a fan of Columbus. For some reason I could not get all excited about someone who “discovered” the American continents – when there were already a whole lot of people here. I get it. The colonists wanted some pin in history that didn’t draw a direct line to England. Some point in history that said, “This is where it all began.” Except, well, Columbus was far from first; and it was in a photo finish for last.

The story of Columbus is filled with ambiguities. We don’t know for sure where he came from, who he really was, or what his true motives were. We don’t even know for sure where he is buried. His logs are filled with contradictions and he did not receive the riches and notoriety he sought in his own life time. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that he received general recognition. The “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” was somewhat of a flop in his own time even if he made at least four successful voyages to the “New World.”

That said, questions regarding the settlement, and repeated “discovery” of the Americas, are still suffering from heated debate. The only events of note that appear to be generally accepted in the academic community are the arrival of homo sapiens over a land bridge or sea route from Asia to Alaska (the Bering Strait), and the occasional visitations and settlement attempts by the Nordic peoples.

When the migration to the east occurred, and how often, is a battle ground in the literature. Each year, each decade, each millennia that the date is pushed back is a hard won victory. Although it is now generally accepted (and supported by archeology) that the Vikings arrived in the Americas around 1000 CE, where all of their landings took place and how long these places were occupied seems to be up in the air. Meanwhile, other stories, legends, and evidence, are constantly brewing in a pot of, ‘Who was here first, how often, where and what were they doing?” And that is the kind of mystery I love.

Huygue’s little book is an easy read that leads the curious through the tales, legends, and evidence of previous visitations to the American continents. He collects what we know about the ancient tales and the archeological evidence unearthed in pottery, inscriptions, sculpture and artifacts. He provides sign posts to those who have compared flora and fauna, common language, rituals and dress. He also provides references to those who have analyzed the ancient tales to locate possible routes of travel and settlement. There are also descriptions of carvings throughout South America which depict races not currently accepted as visitors and matches them with corresponding tales and legends from possible, or probable, points of origin.

This was a very busy place. Collectively, there is at least some indication that these lands were visited by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Polynesians, the Irish, the Africans, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Jews. The book mentions but does not address possible visitations by the Celts and the Greeks. At the time of Columbus, there appears to be a number of records, maps, and sailors’ tales from the Danes, the Portuguese, the British and the Irish. And then there is the Welsh bastard prince, Madoc.

This book is not a fanciful collection of theories. The notes and bibliography support the research and provide a road map to a serious student of the history of this part of the world. Huyghe also provides details when the authenticity of an artifact is questionable. I found the roots of many of the bits and pieces I have found in academic literature and well researched historical fiction.

The journey of Columbus did indeed have a major historical impact on the future of these lands. Even if the original result was slavery, exploitation and disease, I would like to think that at least some of the heirs to these lands have contributed much that was beneficial to the human race. Columbus’ journey, and those of his contemporaries, “stuck” and the whole world learned of, and remembered, the land across the seas.

The point, I think, is that we really can’t approach the world with a sense of absolute. It is arrogance to believe we have it all figured out when we know so little about what has come before. As my poem says, “Is it something that we’ve left behind, Or something that we’ve yet to find? …” Enjoy the magic of the journey. Don’t be swayed by every whimsical interpretation of the bits and pieces we find of the past; but keep an open mind. Who knows what treasures we have yet to find? And just what they might tell us about who we are?

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Reviews ~ Unsung Ladylike (and not so Ladylike) Women of Note

4,000 Years of Uppity Women by Vicki Leon  Available for around $11.00

UppityThere is one aisle I should never, ever visit at Barnes and Noble; but oh the treasurers I would miss.  I really can’t walk into one of those stores without browsing up and down the bargain aisle.  Not only are there delightful treasures, but they are at such tempting prices.  Even though I’m now in publishing and know what those discounts mean to the author; well, they’re irresistible.  This past week I finally had an opportunity to check out one of those bargains and had a few much needed giggles.

Leon has created a little book of vignettes about the life and times of a number of women from the past.  This is a rollicking quick read.  It is obviously well researched.  You are introduced to the antics of ruler and slave, mistress and bored wife, business woman, intellectual, highway robber, patriot, nun and scoundrel.  Some of these women were way ahead of their time; some just made the best use possible of the available resources.  Here are a few of these windows on the past.

Fabiola, an early Christian.  Long before the Nightingale of the Crimean war, Fabiola established the first free public hospital in the Western world.  She didn’t wait for her patients to come to her – she went out and found them.

Back in the time of Alchemists, and interesting lady named Mary Prophetissa not only contributed much to the science of chemistry, she is the inventor of the double boiler.  It must have been very helpful boiling and brewing all those potions.

I loved the robbers and pirates, the brave patriots and Australian who arrived as a criminal and ended up on a $20 bill.  I learned that Betsy Ross did not create the Old Glory that inspired Francis Scott Key was one Baltimore widow named Mary Young Pickersgill.  She created a wool flag that was 42 feet long and 30 feet wide.  It used 400 yards of material and weighed 85 pounds.  Pickersgill’s handwritten invoice was $405.90.

A couple of other ladies never mentioned in such rousing poetry as Paul Revere is a lady who road on horseback for 10 miles alerting the country folk of an impending attack (Mr. Revere didn’t make it that far) and a Quaker woman who bluffed her way through enemy lines to warn Washington of an impending attack.  Never lying through her bluffing or through her integration (evidently the right questions were not asked) she was still kicked out of the Friends for being too involved in the war.

Many bits and pieces of the high and the really low, the celibate and those who found their identity less focused on the opposite sex, or not focused at all.  Each and every one had an impact on her times and some far into the future.  It’s a great short read and I highly recommend it.

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Book Review ~ When Kings were Gods that Bled

I, the Sun, by Janet Morris Available on Amazon for around $26.00 in paperback and $10.00 in Kindle.

the suneSince history is one of my first and most cherished loves I am rather picky when seeking the “historical fiction” story.  It’s not because I don’t enjoy a great story, it’s because I want to read the work of authors that cared enough to really do their homework when it comes to describing people, places and events somewhere in our past.  Janet Morris took me on a journey that I have rarely experienced.  Be prepared to stay up late at night and grab moments in the day until you help The Sun mount his chariot for his final ride.

Throughout the reading of this fascinating and meticulously written history I had to constantly resist the urge to return to my own history texts to see what would happen next.  Morris laces the book with the words of Suppilulima I himself (although in a slightly modernized version of the ancient record).  Her story is peopled with documented participants from the court of the king of Hattie (save for one very unfortunate slave girl).

Suppiluliam I was the throne name of the king of the Hittites ca 1344-1322 BCE.  Taking the throne by force in his late teens he immediately proceeded to rebuild the reputation of the ancient Hittite Empire through statescraft and war.  Through his early connections with mercenaries, and one of his father-in-laws, he built one of the most extensive and responsive intelligence networks in the ancient world.  He was nearly killed in a war against Mitanni, but regained his strength and eventually reduced that country to a vassal state.   His most unfortunate error in timing and strategic planning was the offer of his son, Zannanza to the widow of Tutankhamun.  On the way to Egypt, Zannanza’s party was attacked by the forces of Horemheb and all were murdered.  The elderly Ay then took the throne of Egypt at the side of the young widow.

The assault against Zannanza ignited a firestorm in the Hittite Empire and The Sun set out to do battle against any and all of Egypt’s protectorates just as the country was beginning to awaken from the daze imposed by Akhenaten and the worship of his one god – Aten.  Successful in battle, the armies were not able to combat the plague introduced by the Egyptian prisoners.  The plague killed both Suppiluliuma I and his successor and eldest son, Arnuwanda II.

It is not an easy task to bring these ancient courts to life.  Often a writer comes across stilted or sounds like a monument builder more than a recorder of human activities including their joys and pain.  Many of these stories have no life, no everyday struggles that make up the recorded history.  What manner of men and women built these great empires and suffered these epic defeats?  Morris brings these people alive and does so in brilliant prose.  Painting the picture of a man who struck terror in the hearts of many a king; she also shows the warrior taken and held by the touch of a woman that could match him as a king.  Most obvious in the story is the love Suppiluliam I had for his queen Khinti.  A woman left to rule in his place while he sought control of the ancient Middle East; and who in her loneliness could not resist the temptation of those left at home.  As beloved as she was, Morris paints the pain of a sovereign granted the status of a god when he is forced to exile his wife for adultery rather than have her killed as demanded by the law.   It is many years before a son of his first queen reunites the two.

The history of the Hittite kingdom is not a great mystery since a large amount of information has survived that tells us about the events, people and life style of the kingdom in the form of clay tablets and stone monuments.  If, however, you prefer to take your history in the form of a story told by those who lived it, I highly recommend this wonderful and engrossing read.

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Book Review – Sailing with Odysseus

Book Review ~ Where Troy Once Stood: The Mystery of Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey Revealed by Iman Wilkens, $55.00, might find it for less on Bookfinder.com

I first ran across this title in a book by Clive Cussler called Trojan Odyssey.  Cussler, of course, has an incredible talent for taking a snap shot of some moment in history and building a current day adventure/action novel around a related mystery.  He referenced this title in his notes.  I immediately had to have it.  Well, not so immediately.  When I first looked for the title the only copies I could find were over $400.  A few years ago I thought I would check again and there had been a reprint.  I managed to acquire the volume for far less: I see the price is rising yet again.  I discovered that when I first went looking for the volume it was rated by Bookfinders.com as one of the most wanted out of print books on the database.  There was a reprint in 2005 which brought it back into my budget.  If you can’t afford the book, there is some information on Wilkens and his ideas on Wikipedia.

Warning label:  Wilkens’ efforts are not well accepted in mainstream academia.  This is rather sad because the questions he raises could be seriously investigated and answers are within the reach of modern archaeological techniques.  Wilkens is a native of the Netherlands and published his book in 1936. In this book he presents a credible presentation that the Trojan War did not occur in Asia Minor at all.  With a great deal of meticulous research, Wilkins puts together the case that Homer’s epic poems are drawn from the verbal traditions of a much earlier place and time.  Odysseus, in this version, is a Celtic king of an Ithaca placed near modern day Cadiz in Spain and Troy is placed in England.  The war was between competing kingdoms of Celts.  According to Wilkens the ancient verbal traditions of the Celts were taken with them when they migrated to Greece and Asia Minor.  Once there they named local landmarks with familiar names.  Finally, in around 750 BCE, Homer took on the task of putting the traditions in written form.

Whatever your position on the possibilities presented, the book is a fascinating read.  Wilkens builds the case that the tale was a way to record the sailing path to the western hemisphere without exposing such secrets to the whole world. He also shows that the tale may have included veiled instructions for the initiate in the ancient religion of the Celts.  Unlike our Atlantis fascination, this tale could have some check points if funding were provided for excavations at key locations.  Puffery or not – it is a great adventure story and crammed full of Celtic empire references.

What points in history hold interest for you?  Are there places and times you would like to know more about?  Are you curious about forgotten scientific or engineering accomplishments?  Leave a comment or two; you never know what might be lurking on my library shelves!

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Book Review – Computers in BCE

Book Review – Decoding the Heavens: A 2000-year-old Computer & the Century Long Search to Discover its Secrets  by Jo Marchant.  Readily available for around $15.00

Once upon a time, during the third century BCE, there lived one among many wise men in Alexandria whose inquiring mind could reach far beyond the accepted knowledge and question the smallest of things in order to understand greater truths.  This man, Eratosthenes, was a Greek mathematician, geographer (he is credited with inventing the discipline), poet, athlete, astronomer and music theorist.  He also invented a system of latitude and longitude, which means he knew the earth was round.  This came about because he read a sort of diary notation that at high noon on the day of the summer solstice there were no shadows in a temple town some 800 miles south of him; in Alexandria there were.  So, by hiring someone to step off the distance, and calculating that it was impossible for the shadows to differ unless the world was not flat – he calculated the circumference of the globe.  He did so with amazing accuracy.  He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis.  Long before Copernicus, those with the patience to explore the structure of the world around us knew that the globe was round and just how large it was.  So, how does this relate to my selection for this week?

In 1901, in the middle of a dive to collect artifacts from a 2000-year-old shipwreck on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, divers found an enigmatic lump about the size of a shoebox.  Named for the area it was found in, the Antikythera Mechanism has baffled scientists and archeologists for over a century.  You see, it was discovered that the “lump” was a device with many small, interlinking gears made of brass and that there were some sort of astronomical symbols emblazoned on its parts.  In October of 2006 the technology was developed to look inside the corroded lump and try to piece together its original purpose and construction.  Decoding the Heavens is a story of the discovery and the “decoding” of the working of this amazing little computer.  Yes, computer.

The Antikythera Mechanism is a navigational instrument made up of 30 gears and “programmed” to determine the position of the sun, moon and planets.  It can predict both solar and lunar eclipses.  And yet this amazing little device was found on a ship that sunk some 80 years BCE.  Such an instrument indicates that the Greeks made good use of Eratosthenes’ work and developed a reliable navigational instrument.  Yet we forgot.  As noted above, in was nearly 1,400 years before Copernicus tried to re-educate us on such a concept.

This book is a magical journey through that amazing world of accomplishments the human race made in times of the distant past.  So, again I wonder…  “Is it something we’ve left behind…”

So, what about you?  What corners of our past are you most interested in?  Let me know and, perhaps,  we’ll discover something fascinating together!

 

Just adding recent news about this discovery. The more that is known, the more complex this object appears. See the article here.

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