Historians Wanted

From the OUP Blog (via Paul Halsall):

Why the past is disputed and academic historians (don’t) matter

Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of disputes over how the past should be used, with alt-right demonstrations over the planned removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville/VA, the Hindu nationalist rewritingof Indian history, or the refashioning of the rural past in post-coup Thailand among those most widely reported. In all these instances, academic historians have either been sidelined, or have become the victims of politically motivated onslaughts. Still, the disputes per se are not a late modern phenomenon. Similar debates occur in any society that records its past. They form part of historical culture. But why is this so, and is there really nothing distinctive about the contemporary experience?…

The rejection of views, not because they are mistaken or flawed, but because those who voice them possess expert knowledge, is a distinctly late modern phenomenon. All the more reason why professional historians should not stand by! For if we fail to speak up, we abrogate our responsibility towards the very societies we study. If we allow their experiences, lives, and thoughts to become mere playthings to mendacious moderns, to be plundered and pillaged at will, we dehumanise both the past and the present.

Of course I agree with this, although I’d agree a lot more if professional historians didn’t have their own agendas…

Historians Against Trump

Ron Radosh (on PJ Media) says something I happen to agree with. Major excerpts:

Big Surprise? There Is Now a ‘Historians Against Trump’ Group

As they once did in their protests against the Vietnam War, American academic historians are now trying to use their positions in academia to present “scholarly” reasons why Donald Trump must not be president of the United States. They have formed a group called “Historians Against Trump” (HAT), since obviously “Historians Against War” was not appropriate for this salvo.

Their “Open Letter to the American People,” published on their website, is one of the most arrogant, pretentious piece of claptrap they could possibly have written. Why have they written this letter? This is their reason:

“Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”

I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I am not going to vote for him this election, but their argument does not stand up. First, what if there was a large group of conservative historians in the academy who decided to write an open letter about the election, claiming “the lessons of history” as their reason for arguing we should vote Republican? The HAT would no doubt loudly condemn them for using the fact that they are professional historians with Ph.D.s as the reason they should be listened to….

In response to their letter, Professor of Law Stanley Fish has written a column in this Sunday’s New York Times. Mercilessly slashing all of their arguments, he boils them down to noting that in effect, all they are saying is “We’re historians and you’re not,” and hence they are obliged to inform Americans that the lessons of history tell us Trump should not be elected. That they have Ph.D.s is not proof that they can equate “an advanced degree with virtue.” Fish writes:

“By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees….[which] does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.”

As a historian who has been fighting this good fight for too long a time, I fully agree with Fish that historians should not as historians be making “political pronouncements of any kind.” In trying to “invest their remarks with the authority of their academic credentials,” as Fish puts it, they are forfeiting the very sine qua non of what being a historian means. The long years of study and the skills they acquired, which earned them advanced degrees, do not come with the right to use those degrees to tell Americans how to vote.

Why does this not go absolutely without saying? Of course, people have the right to oppose Trump, as vociferously as they want. Like Radosh and Fish, though, I am chary of historians pretending that their profession gives them special insight into current politics – or rather, I am amazed that these wise, Olympian understandings always seem to be “liberal” in nature when, like all political positions, they are often no more valuable or true than their opposites. And I especially dislike it when these groups manage to get the American Historical Association or other ostensibly nonpartisan, professional organizations to endorse their points of view. We saw this ten years ago at the annual meeting of the AHA in Atlanta. As I wrote at the time:

Even during the Vietnam war the AHA would not pass an anti-war resolution, but now, be it resolved:

“that the American Historical Association urge its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

  1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
  2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”

Perhaps it passed because it doesn’t actually say that “The AHA condemns this war,” but still… it’s annoying when you discover that you’re still in college, with the student government earnestly passing sophomoric resolutions on your behalf. Wankers.

(See Radosh’s article about Eugene Genovese’s successful opposition to an anti-war resolution in the 1960s.)

Later on in 2007, still steamed, I elaborated:

Here is the resolution, in all its inanity:

“Whereas the American Historical Association’s Professional Standards emphasize the importance of open inquiry to the pursuit of historical knowledge;

“Whereas the American Historical Association adopted a resolution in January 2004 re-affirming the principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession;

“Whereas during the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror, the current Administration has violated the above-mentioned standards and principles through the following practices:

“excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;

“condemning as “revisionism” the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;

“re-classifying previously unclassified government documents;

“suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;

“using interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;

“Whereas a free society and the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching are imperiled by the practices described above; and

“Whereas, the foregoing practives are inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq; now, therefore, be it

“Resolved, That the American Historical Association urges its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

  1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and
  2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.”

Of course I have no problem with people who oppose the war, but I would really appreciate it if they would speak for themselves, or form groups for the specific purpose of opposing the war, rather than trying to shanghai the rest of us into taking their position. Yes, the price of liberty is constant vigilance, and I, and as many people as I could have mustered, should have gone to the business meeting and spoken out and voted against this resolution. But it would be really nice if I could take it for granted that I didn’t have to do such a thing. In the world in which I would like to live, people know their place, and would be deeply ashamed of the bloody rudeness of taking a group that is ostensibly a professional association for historians, and trying to turn it into an activist group opposed to the war in Iraq. “Oh, but this issue is too important for such considerations of bourgeois propriety!” they claim. No, it isn’t. Despite the deepest, most self-dramatizing desires of these people, we are not facing the imminent fall of the Constitution and the imposition of martial law in favor of some neo-Nazi regime. Oppose the war by all means, but leave the rest of us out of it! This really is college-sophomore stuff – like “jeans day,” when you are to show your solidarity with homosexual rights by wearing jeans, or so proclaim the few posters here and there about campus, put up the day before the event. So you wear jeans like you do all the time, and no matter how you may feel about gay people, you find that you are cast as supporting them! (Ha ha, caught you!) And no, I don’t find the logic of this resolution very compelling. The attempt to link opposition to the war with the practice of history is about as true as a resolution reading: “Whereas we are distracted because we don’t know where the terrorists are going to strike next, and whereas the violent homophobia and misogyny of Wahhabi Islam are deeply offensive to us, Be It Resolved That the AHA supports President George W. Bush in the Global War on Terror.” Something tells me that a resolution like that is not going to pass any time soon, because we are dealing with American myopia. Some people can’t get visas to come to the United States, and some documents are being reclassified, and some prisoners were abused at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib! How terrible! OK, but why not compare these things to, for example, the sort of things enumerated in this article. Opening paragraph:

“Academics who study China, which includes the author, habitually please the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously. Our incentives are to conform, and we do so in numerous ways: through the research questions we ask or don’t ask, through the facts we report or ignore, through our use of language, and through what and how we teach.”

Here is a perfect example of government policy specifically curtailing the practice of history. Will the AHA pass a resolution condemning this? (And, while we’re at it, condemning China’s atrocious human rights record as being “incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society”?) Fat chance: what we do is evil, what they do is “their culture.”

What really gets me though, is when my fellow professors can’t keep their damned liberal opinions to themselves, and shout them in socially inappropriate venues, and are then surprised when state legislatures want to cut their funding, or propose affirmative action programs for conservatives. They simply have no idea where such things came from! Help, help, we’re being oppressed! (Forget college sophomores – these are high school sophomores! The Holy Grail of being a teenager – being yourself, and being accepted for being yourself. But if you remember from high school, very few people actually got to do this; the rest of us had to choose between compromising our “selves” to fit in, or adhering to them and being ostracized. But to demand the right to spout your ideology while being cherished and affirmed for it… what wankery!)

Recently Noted

• In the Los Angeles Times: “History isn’t a ‘useless’ major: It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty of”

• Related, from Forbes: “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket”

• And from History Today: “Sorry, Vice-Chancellor. We need more historians of the sixth century.”

• From Higher Ed Tech Decisions: “New App Lets Students Discover History All Around Them”

• On Angry Staff Officer: “History: The Overlooked Military Discipline”

• From In the Middle: “The Ethics of Inventing Modernity: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

• From National Review: “Bernard Lewis at 100: An Appreciation”

Astronomical Geometry

From the National Post:

Clay tablets reveal Babylonians invented astronomical geometry 1,400 years before Europeans

The medieval mathematicians of Oxford, toiling in torchlight in a land ravaged by plague, managed to invent a simple form of calculus that could be used to track the motion of heavenly bodies. But now a scholar studying ancient clay tablets suggests that the Babylonians got there first, and by at least 1,400 years.

The astronomers of Babylonia, scratching tiny marks in soft clay, used surprisingly sophisticated geometry to calculate the orbit of what they called the White Star — the planet Jupiter.

These tablets are quite incomprehensible to the untrained eye. Thousands of clay tablets — many unearthed in the 19th century by adventurers hoping to build museum collections in Europe, the United States and elsewhere — remain undeciphered.

But they are fertile ground for Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin, whose remarkable findings were published Thursday in the journal Science.Ossendrijver is an astrophysicist who became an expert in the history of ancient science.

For a number of years he has puzzled over four particular Babylonian tablets housed in the British Museum in London.

“I couldn’t understand what they were about. I couldn’t understand anything about them, neither did anyone else. I could only see that they dealt with geometrical stuff,” he said this week in a phone interview from Germany.

Then one day in late 2014, a retired archaeologist gave him some black-and-white photographs of tablets stored at the museum. Ossendrijver took notice of one of them, just two inches across and two inches high. This rounded object, which he scrutinized in person in September 2015, proved to be a kind of Rosetta Stone.

Officially named BH40054 by the museum, and dubbed Text A by Ossendrijver, the little tablet had markings that served as a kind of abbreviation of a longer calculation that looked familiar to him. By comparing Text A to the four previously mysterious tablets, he was able to decode what was going on: This was all about Jupiter. The five tablets computed the predictable motion of Jupiter relative to the other planets and the distant stars.

“This tablet contains numbers and computations, additions, divisions, multiplications. It doesn’t actually mention Jupiter. It’s a highly abbreviated version of a more complete computation that I already knew from five, six, seven other tablets,” he said.

Most strikingly, the methodology for those computations used techniques that resembled the astronomical geometry developed in the 14th century at Oxford. The tablets have been authoritatively dated to a period from 350 B.C. to 50 B.C.

The people of Mesopotamia — what is now Iraq — developed mathematics about 5,000 years ago. Among them were the Babylonians who wrote in cunieform script and, over time, adopted a sexagesimal (base 60) numbering system. Early mathematics was essentially a form of counting, and the things being counted were mostly sheep and the like.

Mathematics progressed, as did the sharing of knowledge in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquering journeys across Asia. The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos argued for a heliocentric universe — one in which the Earth orbited the sun, contrary to what seems to be the case when one looks at the sky. That view was shared by another astronomer, possibly Greek as well, who lived in Mesopotamia on the Tigris River and was known as Seleucus of Seleucia.

But Ossendrijver said nothing in the newly decoded computations suggests that the ancient scientist or scientists who etched the tablets understood that heliocentric model. The calculations merely describe Jupiter’s motion over time as it appears to speed up and slow down in its journey across the night sky. Those calculations are done in a surprisingly abstract way — the same way the Oxford mathematicians would do them a millennium and a half later.

“It’s geometry, which is itself old, but it’s applied in a completely new way, not to fields, or something that lives in real space, but to something that exists in completely abstract space,” Ossendrijver said. “Anybody who studies physics would be reminded of integral calculus.”

Which was invented in Europe in 1350, according to historians.

“In Babylonia, between 350 and 50 B.C., scholars, or maybe one very clever guy, came up with the idea of drawing graphs of the velocity of a planet against time, and computing the area of this graph — of doing a kind of computation that seems to be thoroughly modern, that is not found until 1350,” he said.

Alexander Jones, a professor at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, praised Ossendrijver’s research, which he said shows the “revolutionary brilliance of the unknown Mesopotamian scholars who constructed Babylonian mathematical astronomy during the second half of the first millennium BC.”

La Sainte Chapelle

From the Guardian:


Laser surgery restores Sainte-Chapelle stained glass window to Gothic glory

Seven years’ work on Gothic chapel in Paris finished to mark anniversary of birth of Louis IX who commissioned it to house his collection of religious relics.

One of the Gothic wonders of the medieval world, the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in central Paris have been restored after seven years of painstaking work.

The restoration was finished to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of King Louis IX, who commissioned the chapel in the mid 13th century to house his collection of religious relics, including what was believed to be Christ’s crown of thorns and part of the cross.

The work involved dismantling the huge windows into small panels and cleaning them with lasers. An outside “skin” of glass has been moulded on to the original windows to protect them from traffic pollution, without altering their look.

The chapel is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Ile de la Cité, along with the Conciergerie.

The two-level building, which was built in just seven years in the 1240s, is a small but spectacular example of the Rayonnant style of Gothic architecture, with little stonework and 15 huge stained glass panels and a rose window added a century later.

The 6,458 sq ft of stained glass windows in the upper chapel illustrate biblical scenes from both testaments. Overwhelmingly deep red and blue, they depict 1,130 biblical figures.


More at the link.

Old Sarum

Salisbury Cathedral, constructed in the early thirteenth century in the newly fashionable gothic style, is one of England’s most splendid. Here it is on a WWII propaganda poster by Frank Newbould, via the Imperial War Museum.

Republished under the terms of the Imperial War Museum Non-Commercial License. IWM PST 3640.

But the cathedral wasn’t always in this Salisbury (“Sarum” in Latin). On top of a nearby hill lie the remains of the former cathedral, designated Old Sarum. Whatever population surrounded this cathedral migrated to the new one over the course of the Middle Ages, leaving the hilltop abandoned. One thing that did not move, however, was the “borough” status of Old Sarum, which continued to send two members to Parliament until 1832 – including, at one point, William Pitt the Elder, later to become Prime Minister. (Disraeli: “England is governed not by logic but by Parliament”). Basically, whoever owned the land was able to nominate both members of Parliament. This “rotten borough” and others like it were abolished in the Reform Act of 1832.

Old Sarum itself had been occupied during the Iron Age, and was quite important during the twelfth century, as new discoveries reveal:


Archaeologists reveal lost medieval palace beneath prehistoric fortress at Old Sarum

The archaeological site of Old Sarum located in Wiltshire, England, has a rich history stretching back at least five thousand years. But it was William the Conqueror’s selection of the site for his royal castle in the 11th century that left the greatest mark on this historic landmark. Now geophysical surveys have revealed that what lies beneath the surface may actually be one of the largest medieval royal palaces ever found, built within the grounds of a vast Iron Age fortress, and hidden beneath fields for more than 700 years.

According to a report in The Independent, the high-tech scans carried out by archaeologists from the University of Southampton, including magnetometry, earth resistance, ground penetrating radar, and electric resistivity tomography survey, have revealed the foundations of dozens of houses and an enormous, previously unknown complex, measuring 170 ms (558 ft) long and 65 m (214 ft) wide, which is believed to have been a royal palace.

“The prime candidate for constructing it is perhaps Henry I sometime in the early 12th century,” said one of Britain’s leading experts on high status medieval buildings, Dr Edward Impey, Director-General of the Royal Armouries.

The complex was arranged around a large courtyard with 3 m (10 ft) wide walls, and included a long building, which was probably a grand hall. There is also evidence of towers and multi-storey buildings. If it is indeed a medieval royal palace, it is the largest of its kind ever found in Britain. Up until now, archaeologists were only aware of the much smaller complex on top of the man-made castle mound.

Old Sarum was originally an Iron Age hill fort, built in 400 BC on a site that had been inhabited since at least 3,000 BC. The site was used by the Romans, becoming the town of Sorviodunum. The Saxons also used the site as a stronghold against marauding Vikings.

In the 11th century, William the Conqueror, having gained control of England, chose Sarum as the location for a royal castle. The fact that it lay inside a large hill fort meant that defenses could be constructed very quickly. The castle was built on a motte (raised earthworks) protected by a deep dry moat in 1069, three years after the Norman conquest. The construction of a cathedral and bishop’s palace occurred between 1075 and 1092. A royal palace was then built within the castle for King Henry I and subsequently used by Plantagenet monarchs.

By 1219, the limitations of space on the hilltop site had become cause for concern, with the cathedral and castle in close proximity and their respective chiefs in regular conflict. The abandonment of Old Sarum by the clergy during the 1220s marked the end of serious royal interest in the castle. The castle continued in use, but was largely abandoned by the 16th century.


More Greek Archaeology

From the Ottawa Citizen, via my friend Robert Black:


The biggest travelling exhibition on Ancient Greece ever assembled opens Dec. 12 in Montreal. And the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, which will host the stunning exhibition next summer, played a key role in making it happen.

Entitled The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, the show spans nearly 6,000 years of history and features more than 500 precious archaeological treasures from 21 Greek museums. About 300 have never before left the country.

After its run at Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière Museum ends in April, the exhibition will shift to the Canadian Museum of History for four months starting June 5. Then it’s off to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the National Geographic Museum in Washington, where it will wrap up on Oct. 9, 2016.

“I really think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition,” says Mark O’Neill, the Canadian Museum of History’s president and CEO. “It’s going to make Ottawa a real cultural destination next year.”

You can build audiences with exhibitions like this, O’Neill says. “I have every expectation that we will with this exhibition, as well.” The museum expects to attract 150,000 visitors. Pointe-à-Callière is projecting a similar number.

The Gatineau museum heads a four-museum consortium that, in conjunction with Greek authorities, organized the exhibition; something it had never done in its 25-year history. How it came to play the leading role is a tale of luck, timing and interests aligning.

In the spring of 2012 Jean-Marc Blais, the museum’s director general, raised the idea of a Greek exhibit with Eleftherios Aggelopoulos, then Greece’s ambassador to Canada.


More at the link.

Elgin Marbles

In the wake of the British Museum’s decision to lend of one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia, the Telegraph asks, “Why are the Elgin Marbles so controversial?” and provides some answers:


What are the Elgin Marbles?

A collection of stone objects – sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805, during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Athens was a part.

What is the Parthenon?

Regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Built nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, it was for a thousand years the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque, and finally an archaeological ruin. By 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.

Did Lord Elgin steal them?

Not according to the British Museum, which says he acted with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself.

Lord Elgin was passionate about ancient Greek art and transported the sculptures back to Britain by sea.

Where are they housed?

The objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816, following a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry which fully investigated and approved the legality of Lord Elgin’s actions. They were presented by Parliament to the British Museum, where they have remained on display ever since.

Why the controversy?

The sculptures are the subject of one of the longest cultural rows in Europe.

The Greeks have demanded that they be returned to their homeland. Greece maintains they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned for display in Athens. The Greek government has disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. Some suggest that Lord Elgin bribed Turkish officials and effectively stole the marbles.

But the British say that Lord Elgin legally purchased the statues from the Ottoman Empire before Greece won its independence and that it would set a disturbing precedent for major museums if they were returned.

Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.

When did the row begin?

The first serious discussion about returning the Elgin Marbles is said to have been initiated in an exchange of correspondence in a newspaper in 1925, with Courtenay Pollock arguing that the time was right to make the gesture towards Greece.

Since then the issue has been raised by the Greek authorities with almost every British ambassador to Athens.

The British Museum says that the Acropolis Museum in Athens allows the remaining Parthenon sculptures to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. It says the Parthenon sculptures in London are “an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history”.

Why the recent publicity?

In October, lawyer Amal Clooney – the wife of actor George Clooney – said Greece had “just cause” for the return of the marbles.

Mrs Clooney, who is part of the legal team advising the Greek government on possible action in the international courts to force the return of the marbles, claimed Britain should be embarrassed for retaining them.

However, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ruled out a return, arguing that they gave “maximum public benefit” by staying in London.

What now?

The row will only escalate with the lending of the river god Ilissos to Russia. Greece will no doubt be furious that the British Museum is prepared to send part of the Parthenon to Russia but not back to the Athens.

What survives of the Parthenon?

Roughly half now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Where can the surviving sculptures be seen?

Around 65 per cent of the original sculptures survive and are located in museums across Europe. The Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London have about 30 per cent each, while other pieces are held by other major European museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.


I think that one of the keys to this whole controversy is the line that “Many British historians consider them relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state.” A grad school professor of mine told me once that the ideology of the modern Greek state, founded in 1832 as a result of a revolution against the Ottoman Empire (and the help of the UK, France, and Russia), is that the state is in fact a continuation or reassertion of the Classical polis of Athens. A Greek I once spoke to hinted that he actually believed this. As such, one can see how the Elgin Marbles would assume such an outsized importance – and how any Ottoman treatment of them was completely illegitimate. Such uses of history are hogwash, of course. Why is the modern Greek state not figured as a continuation of the Byzantine state? Or a reassertion of Classical Sparta – or Bronze Age Mycenae? You can’t cherry-pick what you most value from history and ignore everything else that’s happened before and since (apparently Israelis used to practice archaeology on this principle, by shoveling off the Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman and Hellenistic layers in order to get to the Biblical ones that they were really interested in, and which their own state, they claim, is simply a new instantiation of). It is amusing to read how the British see the Parthenon as having fallen into ruins – this is a trope in furta sacra (accounts of medieval relic thefts), and employed to justify those thefts. Even the notion that “if they had been left in place, the air pollution in Athens would have damaged them” is not necessarily a watertight argument: when I lived in London a story broke that in the 1930s the British Museum cleaned the sculptures a little too enthusiastically, thereby destroying traces of the original colors used to paint them. Besides, say the Greeks, when they come back will go into a specially-designed Parthenon Museum, where they will be protected from the climate (my brother-in-law has visited this, and claims they’ve got an empty room all ready for them).

But I think the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum anyway. The Marbles do not belong to “Greece”, they belong to all of Western Civilization. And spreading things around geographically is like diversifying your investment portfolio – it helps to guard against the whole thing being destroyed in some disaster. Besides, Greeks, how about some gratitude to the people who helped free you from the Ottomans in the first place?!


Here are some pictures of the last time I visited the Duveen Gallery in 2010:

I took one of these pamphlets but I can’t find it now. The British Museum website probably gives just as much information.




We Got Here First!

Columbus tried to get to Asia by sailing across the “Ocean Sea” in 1492, and he’s lucky that the New World was in the way, because he would have starved to death before he ever got to Asia. No, he did not “discover” “America,” given that there were plenty of people living here already. But by this point in European history his sponsors were in a position to capitalize on the event, and so now a majority of the people in the Western Hemisphere speak Spanish as their native tongue.

But was Columbus the first non-native to gaze upon the New World? There have been plenty of attempts to claim that he wasn’t, for various reasons. I remember finding a book in the library at U. of Minnesota claiming that fisherman from Bristol had discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the 1480s, and made annual trips there (but who kept the discovery under wraps as a trade secret, which is why no one knows about it). Gavin Menzies has made a nuisance of himself by claiming that one of the Chinese treasure fleets rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1421 and made it to the New World. The Vikings did indeed make it to Greenland, and Newfoundland, in the tenth and eleventh centuries – but both of these settlements were later abandoned.

Now Muslims have gotten in on the act. The latest, from a Facebook friend:

Muslims found Americas before Columbus says Turkey’s Erdogan

Muslims discovered the Americas more than three centuries before Christopher Columbus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.

He made the claim during a conference of Latin American Muslim leaders in Istanbul, pointing to a diary entry in which Columbus mentioned a mosque on a hill in Cuba.

Mr Erdogan also said “Muslim sailors arrived in America in 1178”.

He said he was willing to build a mosque at the site Columbus identified.

The Turkish president – whose AK Party is rooted in political Islam – gave no further evidence to back up his theory, instead stating: “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th Century.”

Columbus is widely believed to have discovered the Americas in 1492, while trying to find a new route to India.

But in a disputed article published in 1996, historian Youssef Mroueh said Columbus’ entry was proof that Muslims had reached the Americas first and that “the religion of Islam was widespread”.

However many scholars believe the reference is metaphorical, describing an aspect of the mountain that resembled part of a mosque.

No Islamic structures have been found in America that pre-date Columbus.

Mr Erdogan said he thought “a mosque would go perfectly on the hill today” and that he would like to discuss building this with Cuba.

Needless to say, Mr. Erdogan’s opinion is about as accurate as Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

While We Were Marching Through Georgia…

From the New York Times:

150 Years Later, Wrestling With a Revised View of Sherman’s March

ATLANTA — This city would seem a peculiar place for sober conversation about the conduct of William T. Sherman.

To any number of Southerners, the Civil War general remains a ransacking brute and bully whose March to the Sea, which began here 150 years ago on Saturday, was a heinous act of terror. Despite the passage of time, Sherman remains to many a symbol of the North’s excesses during the Civil War, which continues to rankle some people here.

Yet this week, Atlanta became the site of a historical marker annotating Sherman folklore to reflect an expanding body of more forgiving scholarship about the general’s behavior. One of the marker’s sentences specifically targets some of the harsher imagery about him as “popular myth.”

“ ‘Gone with the Wind’ has certainly been a part of it,” W. Todd Groce, the president of the Georgia Historical Society, which sponsored the marker, said of regional perceptions of Sherman and the Union Army. “In general, we just have this image that comes from a movie.”

The marker near the picnic tables at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is the fruit of a reassessment of Sherman and his tactics that has been decades in the making. Historians have increasingly written that Sherman’s plan for the systematic obliteration in late 1864 of the South’s war machine, including its transportation network and factories, was destructive but not gratuitously destructive. Instead, those experts contend, the strategy was an effective and legal application of the general’s authority and the hard-edged masterstroke necessary to break the Confederacy.

They have described plenty of family accounts of cruelty as nothing more than fables that unfairly mar Sherman’s reputation.

“What is really happening is that over time, the views that are out there are being challenged by historical research,” said John F. Marszalek, a Sherman biographer and the executive director of the Mississippi-based Ulysses S. Grant Association. “The facts are coming out.”

(More at the link)