Vikings, Baking Powder And Poets: Boston’s Long And Confusing History With Leif Erikson
If you were to believe a small plaque on the grounds of Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, you’d think there was a time when the Vikings sailed the Charles River.
But there’s a reason you didn’t read that story in your American history books.
The plaque, which can be found if you walk along Fresh Pond Parkway with Gerry’s Landing Road to the left, reads, “On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland.” One of our readers asked why the marker is there, and it turns out the plaque is not the only nod to the renowned Viking explorer that Greater Bostonians could spot across the region.
So we set off to break down the long timeline of Massachusetts’ complicated, largely unproven and definitely unorthodox infatuation with Erikson and Viking heritage.
Another legend of a transatlantic crossing that I had not heard of:
Whilst it was generally believed that Columbus was the first European to discover America in 1492, it is now well known that Viking explorers reached parts of the east coast of Canada around 1100 and that Icelandic Leif Erikson’s Vinland may have been an area that is now part of the United States. What is less well known is that a Welshman may have followed in Erikson’s footsteps, this time bringing settlers with him to Mobile Bay in modern day Alabama.
According to Welsh legend, that man was Prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd.
A Welsh poem of the 15th century tells how Prince Madoc sailed away in 10 ships and discovered America. The account of the discovery of America by a Welsh prince, whether truth or myth, was apparently used by Queen Elizabeth I as evidence to the British claim to America during its territorial struggles with Spain. So who was this Welsh Prince and did he really discover America before Columbus?
Owain Gwynedd, king of Gwynedd in the 12th century, had nineteen children, only six of whom were legitimate. Madog (Madoc), one of the illegitimate sons, was born at Dolwyddelan Castle in the Lledr valley between Betws-y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog.
On the death of the king in December 1169, the brothers fought amongst themselves for the right to rule Gwynedd. Madog, although brave and adventurous, was also a man of peace. In 1170 he and his brother, Riryd, sailed from Aber-Kerrik-Gwynan on the North Wales Coast (now Rhos-on-Sea) in two ships, the Gorn Gwynant and the Pedr Sant. They sailed west and are said to have landed in what is now Alabama in the USA.
Prince Madog then returned to Wales with great tales of his adventures and persuaded others to return to America with him. They sailed from Lundy Island in 1171, but were never heard of again.
They are believed to have landed at Mobile Bay, Alabama and then travelled up the Alabama River along which there are several stone forts, said by the local Cherokee tribes to have been constructed by “White People”. These structures have been dated to several hundred years before the arrival of Columbus and are said to be of a similar design to Dolwyddelan Castle in North Wales.
Early explorers and pioneers found evidence of possible Welsh influence among the native tribes of America along the Tennessee and Missouri Rivers. In the 18th century one local tribe was discovered that seemed different to all the others that had been encountered before. Called the Mandans this tribe were described as white men with forts, towns and permanent villages laid out in streets and squares. They claimed ancestry with the Welsh and spoke a language remarkably similar to it. Instead of canoes, Mandans fished from coracles, an ancient type of boat still found in Wales today. It was also observed that unlike members of other tribes, these people grew white-haired with age. In addition, in 1799 Governor John Sevier of Tennessee wrote a report in which he mentioned the discovery of six skeletons encased in brass armour bearing the Welsh coat of arms.
More at the link (although I confess to a certain skepticism – what happened to these suits of armor? You’d think that some of them would be on display somewhere…)
Other such stories were touched on in an earlier post.
From my former student Laura Craig, news of something I had not known about:
The moon-eyed people are a race of people from Cherokee tradition who are said to have lived in Appalachia until the Cherokee expelled them. They are mentioned in a 1797 book by Benjamin Smith Barton, who explains they are called “moon-eyed” because they saw poorly during the day. Later variants add additional details, claiming the people had white skin, that they created the area’s pre-Columbian ruins, and that they went west after their defeat. Barton cited as his source a conversation with Colonel Leonard Marbury (c.1749-1796), an early settler of Georgia. Marbury, a Revolutionary War officer and a Congressman in the Second Provincial Congress of Georgia (1775), acted as intermediary between Native American Indians in the state of Georgia and the United States government…
The Cherokee tradition may have been influenced by contemporary European-American legends of the “Welsh Indians”. These legends attributed ancient ruins to a Welsh pre-Columbian voyage; some versions specifically connect this voyage to a prince named Madoc. In an 1810 letter, former Tennessee governor John Sevier wrote that the Cherokee leader Oconostota told him in 1783 that local mounds had been built by white people who were pushed from the area by the ascendant Cherokee. According to Sevier, Oconostota confirmed that these were Welsh from across the ocean. Historian Gwyn A. Williams notes this is “a beautiful example of the way minds were working in the late eighteenth century – and of the power of suggestion which white minds could exercise over red”.
Author Barbara Alice Mann, who identifies herself as Ohio Bear Clan Seneca, suggests that “moon-eyed people” were Adena culture people from Ohio who merged with the Cherokees around 200 BCE.
The article does not deal with the connection between the purported expulsion of the Moon-Eyed People and Cherokee Removal in the 1830s, although I would be very surprised if no one brought it up at the time. “You expelled white people, now white people are expelling you. Just desserts!”
I was pleased to see yesterday this reference to another historical myth, on the side of a U-Haul:
The Kensington Runestone is a nineteenth-century forgery, but it has not prevented Alexandria, Minnesota, from constructing Big Ole, a twenty-five foot tall statue of a Viking, complete with spear, winged helmet, and “Alexandria: Birthplace of America” on his shield.
Another misuse of history. From Reuters (courtesy Stephen Bartlett). Choice excerpts:
By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India
NEW DELHI – During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation.
The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quietly appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier. Details of its existence are reported here for the first time.
Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.
Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people – a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.
In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace…
According to the minutes of the history committee’s first meeting, Dikshit, the chairman, said it was “essential to establish a correlation” between ancient Hindu scriptures and evidence that Indian civilization stretches back many thousands of years. Doing so would help bolster both conclusions the committee wants to reach: that events described in Hindu texts are real, and today’s Hindus are descendants of those times.
The minutes and interviews with committee members lay out a comprehensive campaign to achieve this, including the dating of archaeological sites and DNA testing of human remains.
Culture Minister Sharma told Reuters he wants to establish that Hindu scriptures are factual accounts. Speaking of the Ramayana, the epic that follows the journey of a Hindu deity in human form, Sharma said: “I worship Ramayana and I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong.” The epic tells how the god Rama rescues his wife from a demon king. It still informs many Indians’ sense of gender roles and duty.
Sharma said it was a priority to prove through archaeological research the existence of a mystical river, the Saraswati, that is mentioned in another ancient scripture, the Vedas. Other projects include examining artifacts from locations in scriptures, mapping the dates of astrological events mentioned in these texts and excavating the sites of battles in another epic, the Mahabharata, according to Sharma and minutes of the committee’s meeting.
In much the same way that some Christians point to evidence of an ancient flood substantiating the Biblical tale of Noah and his ark, if the settings and features of the ancient scriptures in India can be verified, the thinking goes, then the stories are true. “If the Koran and Bible are considered as part of history, then what is the problem in accepting our Hindu religious texts as the history of India?” said Sharma.
Modi did not order the committee’s creation – it was instigated by Sharma, government documents show – but its mission is in keeping with his outlook. During the 2014 inauguration of a hospital in Mumbai, Modi pointed to the scientific achievements documented by ancient religious texts and spoke of Ganesha, a Hindu deity with an elephant’s head: “We worship Lord Ganesha, and maybe there was a plastic surgeon at that time who kept the head of an elephant on the torso of a human. There are many areas where our ancestors made large contributions.” Modi did not respond to a request from Reuters that he expand on this remark.
This is nuts! I repeat my query: Is it not possible to value your country, and the truth, at the same time? Bartlett told me of another forum of this dispute, in which Hindu nationalists triumphantly claimed that a study of mitochondrial DNA proved that “the Aryan invasions never happened!” Unfortunately for them, this conclusion was overturned pretty quickly, since mDNA is passed down from mothers – but not by Y chromosome DNA, which marks for maleness. A study of that suggests, indeed, that (male) warriors arrived and procreated with local women.
My Hanson and Curtis world history text has an inset box dealing with a similar issue (page 69):
Whose History of Hinduism is Correct?
Historians of religion often have a different understanding of a given religions tradition than do its adherents. Studying documents and art objects from specific periods, historians see all religions as changing over time, and they often have evidence revealing that different groups – the illiterate and literate, men and women, rich and poor – understand the teaching of a religion in divergent ways. In contrast, believers sometimes maintain that since their own understanding of a religions tradition has been true since the founding of the religion, it is the only correct view. Pluralists see Hinduism as an evolving, changing set of beliefs, while the centralists lean toward the view that the Vedas have always been the primary texts of Hinduism, which they believe existed since time immemorial.
These two views have collided head-on in India. In 2010, Penguin Press published a book entitled The Hindus: An Alternative History, by a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, Wendy Doniger. The book offers a pluralist perspective, presenting materials in languages other than Sanskrit, the language of India’s high tradition, to highlight the experiences of women and untouchables. Because Hindus debate certain core beliefs of Hinduism, such as vegetarianism, nonviolence, and the caste system, Doniger argues that there is no single, correct teaching, or orthodoxy.
In 2011 a small Hindu group, called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), led by a retired school principal, filed a civil claim against Penguin in Indian courts. “The book is in bad taste right from the beginning,” the principal told BBC. “If you see the front page, the picture there is also objectionable since it portrays a deity in vulgar pose.” The book cover features a painting of the blue-skinned deity Krishna riding on a horse made up of multiple bare breasted women.
Choosing to settle out of court, in February 2013, Penguin India recalled all remaining copies of the book and promised to destroy them….
Sigh… I wish publishers would not be so willing to succumb to the heckler’s veto (cf. Yale UP’s decision to publish a book about the Danish Mohammad cartoons, without actually publishing the cartoons).
My friend Tom MacMaster recently told me about something I did not know: the Sun Language Theory, which “makes Nazi race theory look sane.” Wikipedia:
The Sun Language Theory (Turkish: Güneş Dil Teorisi) was a Turkish nationalist pseudoscientific linguistic hypothesis developed in Turkey in the 1930s that proposed that all human languages are descendants of one proto-Turkic primal language. The theory proposed that because this primal language had close phonemic resemblances to Turkish, all other languages can essentially be traced back to Turkic roots. According to the theory, the Central Asian worshippers, who wanted to salute the omnipotence of the sun and its life-giving qualities, had done so by transforming their meaningless blabbering into a coherent set of ritual utterings, and language was born, hence the name.
The article further states that “the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, not only gave the theory official backing and material support, but also was himself a very important contributor to its development.”
Part of me admires how the Turks take pride in themselves and their country. But I confess that I find this sort of thing (others: Erdogan’s theory that the Turks made it to the New World in 1178, or the denial of a certain genocide carried out under cover of World War I) utterly baffling.
Is it simply not possible to value your country, and the truth, simultaneously?
For Confederate Heritage Month, First Floor Tarpley presents an amusing interpretation of 1860s American politics that is not necessarily in accord with current historical consensus. This excerpt may be found in Janet and Geoff Benge, Lottie Moon: Giving her all for China (Seattle: YWAM, 2001), a children’s chapter book in a series entitled Christian Heroes: Then and Now.
On April 12, 1861, a month before she graduated, Confederate artillery in South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter at the entrance to the Charleston harbor, which was manned by the U.S. Army. The attack was the climax of a long series of disagreements between northern states and southern states over the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Lottie had heard these disagreements being discussed endlessly around dinner tables and on buggy rides, but she, like most other people, was shocked that the North and the South were now firing at each other.
Basically the North was in favor of the federal government’s having broad rights over all of the states in the Union, while the South wanted the federal government to have very limited powers. The southern states wanted to make their own decisions and fund their own projects. The North and South had already clashed over a number of issues, including who should pay for new roads and railways in the West, taxes on manufactured goods, and one issue that did not start off being very important but quickly grew into a big issue: slavery. In the beginning, the North did not want to ban slavery in the South but rather wanted to prohibit slavery in any new western states. The South was afraid that if this ban happened, there would eventually be so many “free” states in the Union that they could, and most probably would, vote to outlaw slavery everywhere. As a result, the shots fired at Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the War Between the States, or the Civil War, as it came to be known.
The war dragged on. Ike Moon was wounded in battle but lived to tell about it. Lottie and her sisters tried their hardest to keep the plantation going with a steadily dwindling supply of equipment and labor.
Crusade historian Christopher Tyerman once wrote that:
The Templars occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of Alternative History of the ‘what they have tried to conceal from us’ genre, championed by obsessive, swivel-eyed anoraks and conspiracy theorists allied to cool money sharks bent on the commercial exploitation of public credulity.
Now I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but it’s true: like the Bermuda Triangle, the lost continent of Atlantis, and the Nazca Lines, the Templars do tend to attract a good deal of Speculation. The Templars, or more formally “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” were founded as a religious order in 1119 in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Like the crusading movement itself, they represented “a fusion of Christian and military practice” – that is, the members took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but instead of praying eight times a day and copying out manuscripts like monks, they practiced horsemanship, guarded pilgrims to the Holy Land, and fought Muslims as they needed to, like knights. (This is definitely a novelty – prior to the late eleventh century the Church did not like knighthood much, but after numerous unsuccessful attempts at regulating it, the Church threw in the towel, and gave it their blessing – but only if the knights exercised their craft far from Europe, and against non-Christians. Thus were they allowed to organize themselves into religious orders.) What attracts everyone’s attention is the Templars’ sordid end: in 1312, King Philip IV of France accused them of heresy, tortured confessions out of the leadership, and prevailed on Pope Clement V to dissolve the order, after which many of them were burned at the stake. But some of the Templars, it is alleged, escaped and “went underground,” later to emerge as the Freemasons. Some of them even sailed to the New World before Columbus, which is why the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, built by supposed crypto-Templar William Sinclair, features carvings of new world corn. One author claims they buried treasure in the Oak Island Money Pit off Nova Scotia. A student of mine once lent me a book suggesting that the Shroud of Turin actually depicts an image, not of Jesus, but of the martyred Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay. A character in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code asserts that the Templars, while in the Holy Land, had uncovered evidence that the Papacy was a con job, and that the leadership of the true Church belonged to the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene – which is why the Pope was so keen to eradicate them.
I tell my students that history is interesting enough without concocting such theories. The real history of the Templars touches on several late-medieval themes – among them the rising power of the king of France (at the expense of the papacy), and the desire to find a scapegoat for the loss of the Holy Land (Acre, the last Christian stronghold there, had fallen in 1291). But what it touches on the most is the money one could make as a result of the medieval commercial revolution – and the envy this provoked in others. The Templars were not just active in the Holy Land – they had chapters throughout Western Christendom (their churches were usually round, and you can visit one in London). Templars got into long-distance banking – and made a fortune, so much so that their formal title of “Poor Knights,” and their seal showing two knights riding a single horse, became ironic.
A BBC article, which my friend Chris Berard points me to, explores this history in greater detail. Author Tim Harford claims that they “invented modern banking.”
The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe.
Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.
Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades.
We don’t actually know how the Templars made this system work and protected themselves against fraud. Was there a secret code verifying the document and the traveller’s identity?
They did more than this, however:
Templars were much closer to a private bank – albeit one owned by the Pope, allied to kings and princes across Europe, and run by a partnership of monks sworn to poverty.
The Knights Templar did much more than transferring money across long distances.
As William Goetzmann describes in his book Money Changes Everything, they provided a range of recognisably modern financial services.
If you wanted to buy a nice island off the west coast of France – as King Henry III of England did in the 1200s with the island of Oleron, north-west of Bordeaux – the Templars could broker the deal.
Henry III paid £200 a year for five years to the Temple in London, then when his men took possession of the island, the Templars made sure that the seller got paid.
And in the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were kept at the Temple as security on a loan, the Templars operating as a very high-end pawn broker.
Harford goes on to say that Philip IV owed money to the Templars, and didn’t like how they operated beyond his control, and so contrived to dissolve them. But I can’t help but think there was even more at stake here. Lester Little’s Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (1983) talks about how money made people very anxious in the Middle Ages, especially the “money from nothing” that one could get from currency exchange, lending at interest, or taking advantage of scarcity to sell at a premium. Charging more money than the “just price” for something was uncharitable and un-Christian, and if you made any extra-normal profits at all the only way to expiate your sin would be to give it all to the Church. (This helps to explain all those elaborate late medieval “wool churches” in East Anglia, and it also helps to explain the increased anti-Semitism of the High Middle Ages – Jews were increasingly shut out of various professions, leaving them in the role of the hated money lender.) It’s true that the Templars were themselves a church organization, but I suspect that just made it worse.
As unfair as their end was, however, it happened. “Templar” groups today are somewhat disreputable – at least, they have no institutional continuity with their medieval namesake. If you’re interested in joining a crusading order, try the Hospitallers, the Templars’ main rivals in the Middle Ages, who do enjoy continuity and who are thus much classier.
The Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn’t Exist
Just about everybody interested in the Middle Ages, who has played Dungeons and Dragons, or read historical and fantasy novels knows what a military flail is. It’s one of these:
A military flail is a medieval weapon consisting of a short handle attached to a chain, at the end of which is a metal ball. This is not to be confused with a two-handed variant, often also called a flail, which derives from the threshing implement of the same name. Varieties of the one-handed version have multiple chains or spiked heads. They have appeared in a range of medieval movies and books, and they are held in the collections of museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Only problem is: they never existed.
Despite the weapon’s popularity in pop cultural depictions of the Middle Ages, the flail was almost certainly an invention of the imaginations of later people.
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.
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.
From my friend Richard Raiswell, an interesting article by Suzannah Lipscomb in History Today. This is her proposed code of conduct for historians:
- Use evidence to support your interpretation and seek to understand that evidence correctly.
- Do not wilfully present evidence out of context, especially not in such a way that the lack of context will render the meaning of the evidence different, unclear or manipulable.
- Do not cite evidence from sources that you elsewhere discount.
- At best, do not waste a reader’s time on unsubstantiated sources.
- At least flag up evidence that is drawn from such sources; do not use it silently.
- Triangulate; search ardently for evidence that might undermine, as well as corroborate, your hypothesis.
- Avoid assumption creep: do not allow assertions to move from ‘possibly’ to ‘probably’ to ‘definitely’; do not build more elaborate layers of interpretation on a foundation that is rocky.
- Do not rely on the secondary assertions of other historians; ad fontes! Go back to the original sources.
- Guard against confirmation bias; interrogate the ‘facts’ anew and bring a fresh analysis to them; do not mould the facts to your interpretation.
- Root out and resolve any internal inconsistencies in your argument.
- Cite sources so that they can be traced, with page numbers, archival call numbers and publication details.
The biggest historical scandal in recent years has been the book Arming America by Michael Bellesiles, which got a lot of attention as it touched on a hot-button cultural issue. (I haven’t read it, but I understand that he claims that American gun culture was the creation of arms manufacturers for the purpose of selling off their surplus stock after the Civil War, and that prior to this time guns were simply not important to your average American civilian.) For his overturning of received wisdom (and, let us admit, in a direction that liberal academics really wanted to believe), he received the prestigious Bancroft Prize. To the NRA, his book was a challenge they could not afford to ignore, and they went after him personally and professionally. Unfortunately, it turns out that he really did make quite a lot of stuff up – he claimed to have consulted archives that disappeared in the San Francisco earthquake, for instance – and then kept making up excuses about why he could not produce his notes. For his blatant and systematic fraud, he lost his job at Emory. I once met someone from the department there who claimed that the only possible excuse for his behavior was some form of mental illness. Fine, but one wonders how many other violations of Lipscomb’s code are out there – fraud that is not as blatant, or does not provoke the scrutiny of interested parties. Who has the time to comb through every footnote?
This is obvious, but bears repeating: if we demand respect for our professional credentials, then we must practice with integrity.
UPDATE: From an Atlantic article by Benjamin Schwartz. Don’t be like “the sycophantic courtier [Arthur] Schlesinger [Jr.], whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts—“profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive”—were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.”