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)

Secrets of the Staffordshire Hoard

From the Independent:

Britain’s greatest treasure hoard reveals how goldsmiths fooled the Anglo-Saxon world

Scientists, examining Britain’s greatest Anglo-Saxon gold treasure collection, have discovered that it isn’t quite as golden as they thought.

Tests on the famous Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon treasure, a vast gold and silver hoard found by a metal detectorist five years ago, have now revealed that the 7th century Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths used sophisticated techniques to make 12-18 karat gold look like 21-23 karat material.

Scientific research, carried out over the past two years on behalf of Birmingham City and Stoke-on-Trent City councils, which jointly own the hoard, has revealed that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had discovered an ingenious way of, metallurgically, dressing mutton up as a lamb. It appears that they deliberately used a weak acid solution – almost certainly ferric chloride – to remove silver and other non-gold impurities from the top few microns of the surfaces of gold artefacts, thus increasing the surfaces’ percentage gold content and therefore improving its appearance. This piece of Anglo-Saxon high tech deception turned the surfaces of relatively low karat, slightly greenish pale yellow gold/silver alloys into high karat, rich deep yellow, apparently high purity gold.

Archaeologists had never previously realised that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had developed such technology.

“We had no idea they were doing it,” said Dr Eleanor Blakelock, a leading British archaeometalurgist who carried out the tests on the Staffordshire hoard gold.

“Previously, we had just done analyses of the surfaces of objects – because we didn’t suspect that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were deliberately removing the silver content from the surfaces of gold artefacts,” she said.

It’s thought that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths probably made their ferric chloride by heating up a mixture of water, salt and iron-rich clay (or potentially dust from crushed up old Roman tiles).

Although the goldsmiths often seem to have used the technique to create contrasts between different shades of gold, they also appear to have used it to enhance the apparent purity of gold used by the Anglo-Saxon nobility.

For the scientific tests – mainly funded by English Heritage – suggest that gold objects made for Anglo-Saxon royals, rather than mere nobility, were made of high karat material, which did not need to be subjected to the ‘surface enrichment’ trick.

The archaeologists have come to that conclusion by carrying out comparative tests on Anglo-Saxon gold objects, from East Anglia’s Sutton Hoo ship burial, which is thought to have been associated with royalty.

Significantly, this suggests that six of the 839 gold items in the Staffordshire hoard, including two sword pommels and two unusual tiny snake sculptures, were therefore made for Anglo-Saxon royalty.

The Staffordshire Hoard, discovered near the village of Hammerwich in 2009,  has, over the past two years, been the subject of one of the largest archaeological studies ever carried out. The hoard consists of almost 3,700 fragments – some 2,800 of silver and 839 of gold. However the silver items (1,500 of which came from just one or two high status helmets) are much more fragmentary than the gold ones. In weight terms therefore the hoard consists of five kilos of gold and 1.5 kilos of silver.

The 3,700 fragments probably represent between 300 and 800 original artefacts – mainly from weapons (including sets of gold and silver fittings from more than 100 swords) and at least one spectacular helmet. Work has not yet been completed on reconstructing the latter highly decorated mainly silver object. Most of the artefacts were made by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen in the first half of the 7th century AD – although a dozen heirloom pieces were probably made in the previous century, including a sword pommel, crafted in around 575 AD, probably in eastern Sweden.

The entire hoard, almost certainly worth the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds in Anglo-Saxon times, was deliberately buried, probably for safe-keeping sometime between around 650 (or perhaps as late as 670) and around 700.

It is likely that the entire treasure was hidden to keep it out of the hands of enemies or political rivals.

There are a number of late 7th century scenarios in which the Mercian elite or sections of it might have deliberately hidden their wealth.

For instance, in 674/675 AD, the kingdom of Mercia was defeated by its northern neighbour, the kingdom of Northumbria, which then demanded tribute, almost certainly in the form of gold, from the Mercian King Wulfhere, who might then have wanted to bury his or his court goldsmith’s wealth to keep it out of Northumbrian hands.

Soon afterwards, Mercia was also challenged militarily by a former vassal, the Kingdom of Wessex. Indeed in 685-688AD, Mercia faced recurrent threats from that latter source.

However, internal Mercian unrest could also have forced elite elements to bury their gold and silver. In 695, for instance, there was a dramatic internal political crisis in Mercia, during which a group of Mercian nobles murdered the king’s wife – the Queen of Mercia (almost certainly because she hailed from rival Northumbria). The crisis probably involved a desperate internal struggle between pro and anti-Northumbrian elements within Mercia’s elite.

Almost symbolically, the only inscription in the hoard amply reflects the violence, warfare and chronic instability of the period. A strip of gold, possibly from a Christian cross, bears the following words from the Bible’s Book of Numbers: “Rise up, oh Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face”.


More from Greece

The Amphipolis tomb, which recently yielded a pair of caryatids, has now yielded a stunning floor mosaic:

The colorful floor was laid with white, black, grey, blue, red and yellow pebbles and depicts a chariot in motion. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is pictured in front of the chariot.

The mosaic showcases the artist’s ability to portray the figures, horses and colors in exquisite detail.


According to a Culture Ministry announcement, Hermes is depicted here as the conductor of souls to the afterlife.


The stunning artwork, which has yet to be fully uncovered, spans the entire floor of the second chamber. It currently measures 4.5 meters in width and 3 meters in length. The central scene is surrounded by a decorative frame, 0.60 meters in width, featuring a double meander, squares and a wave-curl design.

More (including pictures) at the link.


• It has been confirmed that the human remains found in a two-chambered royal tomb at Vergina are indeed those of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

• Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (a.k.a. Celebes) may be 40,000 years old, rivaling those found in El Castillo in Spain. Interestingly, they are the same hand print stencil design familiar to us from Lascaux and other paleolithic European sites.

• The Roman shipwreck that gave us the Antikythera Mechanism continues to be explored.

People like the Vikings, Part 23

From the Navy Times:

Coast Guard gives WWII vet a Viking funeral at sea

The Coast Guard carries out dozens of burials at sea in a given year, but one World War II veteran got a unique farewell.

On Sept. 29, Station Atlantic City fulfilled the final wishes of service veteran Andrew Haines, a New Jersey resident who died in late August at age 89. Haines spent more than a decade planning his own Norse-style send-off — a self-built funeral ship to carry his cremated ashes, which was then to be ignited with a flare.

“Oh, I was thrilled,” Haines’ son Andy told Navy Times. “I was thrilled when the Coast Guard called and told me we were doing it my way.”

Haines said his father, a World War II veteran who finished his tour at Atlantic City, had been planning his funeral for years. Andrew Haines emigrated from Norway as a child in 1927 and had stayed connected to his Scandinavian heritage throughout his life.

About 10 years ago, Andy said, Haines’ cousin in Norway sent him blueprints for a 100-foot wooden ship, which he scaled down as small as two feet, as a small construction project.

“When I came over to the house one day with the wife and one grandson, we were in the basement, and he’s got the whole bottom shell done with the deck, getting ready to put the rest of the stuff on,” Andy recalled.

Then Andy had an idea. He asked his father if he still wanted to be cremated, and he said he did.

“So I said, ‘How about if we try to make a Viking funeral out of this for you?’ ” he recalled.

Haines built five versions of the ship, his son said, settling on a 54-inch version for the ceremony.

(More, including a photo, at the link.)

The History Plays

William Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies of so-called history plays, dealing with English history from the reign of Richard II (1377-99) to that of Richard III (1483-85). These are:

Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V


Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; and Richard III

These are, of course, dramatizations of English history – they are far more important for their psychological portraits of various characters – but Shakespeare was (and remains) so influential that English historians have been working against him ever since the sixteenth century. Nigel Saul’s Richard II and Ian Mortimer’s Fears of Henry IV both take Shakespeare as their starting point, and if you think that the Bard gave Richard III a raw deal, you can join the Richard III Society, which exists to prove “that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for.” Having said that, the history plays are captivating and edifying, and if you’re keen on seeing a recent enactment of them you can do no better than the BBC’s Hollow Crown series – now with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III!

We recently learned for the first time how Richard III died, and now we also know how the famed British monarch will look as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The “Sherlock” star is set to play the historic royal in the ongoing miniseries “The Hollow Crown,” and BBC Two offered the public its first look at Cumberbatch in the role Wednesday, as filming on his scenes commences in the U.K.

Cumberbatch appears in the photo riding a black horse in a wooded area while sporting matching garb.

It was also revealed that Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” co-star Andrew Scott has signed on to play King Louis, a rival to Richard III — the last King of England to die in battle, over 500 years ago.

(Although note that no Hollow Crown of Henry VI, Part III is planned.)

Ancient Earthquakes

Of course archaeology and history are different fields, but historians do rejoice in the things that archaeologists find. From Archaeology magazine:

Ancient Earthquake Damage Found in Israel

HAIFA, ISRAEL—A team led by Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa has uncovered the northern section of the first-century basilica at Hippos, a center of Greek and Roman culture located near the Sea of Galilee. The roof of the structure collapsed during an earthquake in 363, killing the occupants, whose skeletons were found beneath the rubble. Among the victims was a woman who had been wearing a gold dove pendant. Eisenberg and his team used coins to date the collapse and attribute it to the earthquake. “The latest of those coins dated to 362 A.D. About three feet above the debris of the basilica we found Early Byzantine rooms dated by dozens of coins in the floors themselves to 383 A.D.,” Eisenberg told Discovery News. “It shows that major parts of the city were totally destroyed and neglected for a period of about 20 years.” Hippos was finally destroyed by an earthquake in 749.

Llewellyn the Great

From the BBC:

Work to reconstruct one of the medieval courts of the Princes of Gwynedd has begun at St Fagans National History Museum, near Cardiff.

Rebuilding the great hall from Llys Rhosyr on Anglesey will be one of the most challenging archaeological projects in Wales, said the museum.

It will see the building’s nine-metre high (29.5 ft) stone walls and thatched roof rebuilt.


What was Llys Rhosyr?

  • Llys Rhosyr was one of the royal courts of Llywelyn Fawr – Llywelyn The Great (1172-1240) – who was prince of Gwynedd in the 13th Century, succeeded by his son Dafydd ap Llywelyn
  • The princes ruled by touring their realm and sitting in courts in small administrative areas called “commotes”. Each had a Llys (court)
  • Llys Rhosyr was at the heart of the Menai commote near where Newborough parish church is now
  • King Edward I’s conquest of 1282 led to Rhosyr being largely abandoned
  • Around 1330 a sandstorm buried the site beneath sand dunes
  • It was discovered in 1992 by archaeologist Neil Johnstone
  • The site was partially excavated, including a large main hall and a building thought to have housed the prince’s private rooms
  • The reconstruction at St Fagans will be a re-imagining of what the great hall would have looked like


From the Guardian:

Roman coin hoard, one of the largest found in UK, unearthed by builder

Laurence Egerton found haul of 22,000 fourth-century coins in Devon last November and slept in his car for three nights to guard it.
One of the largest hoards of Roman coins ever discovered in the UK has been unearthed by a builder.
Metal detector enthusiast Laurence Egerton discovered the haul of 22,000 fourth-century copper-alloy coins in Devon in November last year.

After uncovering the coins on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Egerton reported the find to the landowner and the local authority – and slept in his car for three nights to guard it.

The hoard was then carefully removed in its entirety by a team of archaeologists. Over the past 10 months the coins have been lightly cleaned, identified and catalogued by experts from the British Museum.

The Seaton Down hoard, which includes coins that are very well preserved, has been declared treasure by a coroner.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter is now launching a bid to purchase the coins for public display in the city.