Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Knole House receiving needed TLC

A history resource article by  © 2015

Knole House served as a country palace and hunting lodge for English Kings Henry VIII
and James II.  Photograph by Mary Harrsch © 2008

I was really pleased to see in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Archaeology Magazine that Knole House, a country palace once enjoyed by Henry VIII after wresting it from Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cramner, is getting some sorely needed restoration.  I first visited this sprawling complex back in 2008.  A friend who lives in Kent stopped there on the way to dropping me off at my hotel in Sevenoaks (I decided to stay in the country rather than in London on that particular trip).  Unfortunately, it was late in the afternoon and the English Heritage people were just closing up the 365-room complex.  So I contented myself with photographing the grounds and the fallow deer that graze the 1,000 acre park on which the house sits.  Thankfully, they are no longer hunted by the royals!

Then in 2013, I had another opportunity to see the house.  We purchased our tickets then watched a very interesting introductory film before finally entering the complex.  I was disappointed that photography was prohibited although this may have changed.  An internet friend recently uploaded images he had taken inside at Hampton Court, another wonderful palace complex I have visited and was prohibited from taking pictures indoors.  I emailed him and he said the restrictions there have been lifted so perhaps, after the English Heritage restoration at Knole House, the restrictions will be lifted there as well.  Photography will be a challenge, though, as the house is paneled extensively with dark English oak and the lighting is very dim.

Anyway, inside, I found a lot of royal and noble portrait paintings including some by the famous artist Joshua Reynolds as well as King Henry VIII's official court painter Hans Holbein the Younger. One painting was a portrait of a beautiful young woman with the iconic red hair of the Stuart line wearing a tunic that looked very much like one a man would wear under a breastplate. Apparently the English Heritage Folks weren't sure who it was but there was speculation it was a young Mary Queen of Scots. She looked every inch the warrior queen. Perhaps Elizabeth I's counselors were right to convince Elizabeth to execute her!

Furnishings included a lavishly gilded bed used by Queen Elizabeth I, another used by King James II and a very early billiards table.  Sadly, the furnishings were in pretty bad nick as my English friends often say.  Hopefully the National Trust restoration will include a few funds to restore some of the furnishings as well.  Although I was not allowed to photograph the interior there are some early 20th century monochrome images on Wikimedia Commons.

Here are more of my images of the exterior though:

Bouchier's Tower at Knole House in Sevenoaks, Kent with the Borghese Gladiator in the foreground.  Photograph by
Mary Harrsch © 2013

Closeup of the Borghese Gladiator at Knole House in
Sevenoaks, Kent.  Photograph by Mary Harrsch © 2013
Closeup of the clocktower on Bouchier's Tower at Knole House
in Sevenoaks, Kent.  Photograph by Mary Harrsch © 2013

The stone court at Knole House in Kent.  Photograph by Mary Harrsch © 2013

Another view of the stone court at Knole House in Kent.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2013
Some structural details:

Tudor-era hardware at Knole House in Kent.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2013

To see more of my images of Knole House check out my Knole House album on Flickr.

Knole House also has a cozy cafe back by the carriage house offering sandwiches, hot soup and pastries as well as a very well-stocked gift shop.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Getting the Scoop on Pre-Clovis Poop - The Investigations Continue

A history resource article by  © 2015

Ancient American.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2004.

Recently, one of my friends posted a Smithsonian Magazine article to my Facebook timeline about new DNA research linking prehistoric Amazon populations in Brazil to prehistoric Australians. Researchers think a non-Mongoloid common ancestral group that had originally migrated from Africa traveled to south Asia. From there, the group branched off with some of the group migrating north to Siberia while the rest migrated south to New Guinea and Australia.  The non-Mongoloid Siberian group eventually continued on to the Americas continuing their migration all the way into South America, apparently without leaving any remnants in North America. Furthermore, the DNA study appears to corroborate Brazilian Paleoindian skull studies performed in 2002.  In that study, Paleoindian skulls dating between 8200 and 9500 BP recovered in Brazil were compared to late Pleistocene/Early Holocene skulls recovered from sites in Australia and New Zealand.

"The Santana do Riacho late Paleoindians present a cranial morphology characterized by long and narrow neurocrania, low and narrow faces, with low nasal apertures and orbits. The multivariate analyses show that they exhibit strong morphological affinities with present day Australians and Africans, showing no resemblance to recent Northern Asians and Native Americans. These findings confirm our long held opinion that the settlement of the Americas was more complicated in terms of biological input than has been widely assumed. The working hypothesis is that two very distinct populations entered the New World by the end of the Pleistocene, and that the transition between the cranial morphology of the Paleoindians and the morphology of later Native Americans, which occurred around 8-9 ka, was abrupt. This, in our opinion, is a more parsimonious explanation for the diversity detected than a long, local microevolutionary process mediated by selection and drift. The similarities of the first South Americans with sub-Saharan Africans may result from the fact that the non-Mongoloid Southeast Asian ancestral population came, ultimately, from Africa, with no major modification in the original cranial bau plan of the first modern humans." - Walter Alves Nevesa, André Prousb, Rolando González-José, Renato Kipnis and Joseph Powell, Early Holocene human skeletal remains from Santana do Riacho, Brazil: implications for the settlement of the New World, Journal of Human Evolution 45 (2003) 19–42

But, although the Smithsonian article mentions a coprolite (fossilzed feces) study done here in Oregon in which fragments of human DNA were found dating to as far back as 14,340 B.P. and the DNA was found to share commonalities with modern Native Americans, there was no discussion about how the Oregon findings appear to contradict the theories put forward by the 2002 Brazilian skull researchers and later DNA studies that non-Mongoloid Paleoindians settled South America first and later Mongoloid groups became the ancestors of northern Native Americans.

As it turns out, I interviewed Dr. Dennis Jenkins of the University of Oregon back in 2009 about his coprolite studies for a website in London that is no longer online.  I've never been one to waste research so I am republishing it here for those who may not have read it back in 2009 and have an ongoing interest in these types of investigations seeking to discover ancient migration patterns from the Old World to the New.  At the end I have added updates about more recent ongoing investigations at Paisley Caves and elsewhere.

So, here once again is "Getting the Scoop on Pre-Clovis Poop!" originally published in 2009.

Looking out across the arid sagebrush-dotted landscape of southeastern Oregon makes a person wonder if there's anyone really out there.  When I lived there for seven years in the late 1970s and early 80s and worked as an economic development coordinator for a local county government, I actually heard the region referred to as  "the empty quarter".  But Oregon's high desert, part of the 200,000 square mile area known collectively as The Great Basin, is actually teaming with life and, as it turns out, even human life, for over 14,000 years.

In fact, a handful of shallow caves near Summer Lake, a large alkali bed in south central Oregon, have yielded human remains in the form of coprolites (fossilized feces) that return carbon dates of between 12,750 and 14,340 calendar years before present.  This finding appears to finally wield a death blow to the "Clovis first" school of thought that has ruled the chronology of settlement of the Americas since the mid-20th century.

Summer Lake in southeast Oregon's Great Basin country.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2015
The Clovis first theory was developed following the discovery of a number of sites in the 1930s containing artifacts from a Paleo-Indian culture who produced distinctive bifacial lanceolate spear points.   Found near Clovis, New Mexico in excavations between 1932 and 1937, remains of this prehistoric population group have been dated to near the end of the last Ice Age, originally thought to be about 13,000 years ago.  New radiocarbon dates by Michael Waters from Center for the Study of First Americans, Texas A&M University, and Thomas Stafford, Stafford Research, Inc, Boulder, Colorado, place Clovis remains from the continental United States in an even shorter time window (11,050 to 10,900 years ago).

Clovis spear point.  Image courtesy
of Wikimedia Commons.
The Clovis people were skilled hunters who stalked large mammals, particularly mammoths and mastodons, evidenced by numerous finds of the skeletal remains of these late Pleistocene animals intermixed with Clovis weapon points.  In fact, the Clovis people were considered to be such lethal hunters that they have been placed at the center of the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis used to explain the extinction of these animals from the North American continent. This may be an oversimplification, however, as research has shown the Clovis people utilized over 125 species of plants and animals including extinct bison, mastodon, sloths, tapir, paleolama, horse and a host of smaller animals.

As years passed and no validated archaeological evidence dated earlier than the Clovis period (using the somewhat limited dating methods available at the time) were discovered, the Clovis first theory became solidly entrenched. However, it began to unravel as early as 1961 with the discovery of a child's skull in Taber, Alberta, Canada, carbon dated to 30,000 y.b.p.  The dating of the skull was immediately dismissed as erroneous as were artifacts at Crows Nest Pass (Alberta) dated to 23,000 y.b.p., stone choppers and scrapers below the glacial deposits in Grimshaw, Bow River and Lethbridge (Alberta) dated to 40,000 - 20,000 y.b.p. and human-worked mammoth bones found by Canadian archaeologist, Jacques Cinq-Mars, in 1978-79 at the site of Bluefish Caves in the Yukon Territory.  A bone spear point from the Bluefish site was finally radiocarbon dated in the early 1990s to 28,000 y.b.p.  But, Cinq-Mars research was ignored by mainstream anthropologists so he was unable to obtain funding for follow-up research until 2008.  I was actually surprised that so many Canadian finds appear to have been totally omitted from lists of potential pre-Clovis sites, even though core ice sample studies in the late 1970s indicated Arctic ice was only 17,000 years old in areas that could have served as corridors to the North American continent during earlier epochs.

More publicity was awarded to controversial sites in the US where researchers had to focus their dating efforts on contextual remains rather than human artifact samples until Dr. Dennis Jenkins of the University of Oregon recovered human coprolites from a cluster of dry rock caves 150 miles south of Bend, Oregon (USA) in 2002.
Dr. Dennis Jenkins excavating Paisley Caves.
Image courtesy of the University of Oregon.

Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, coprolites were considered relatively worthless and were usually discarded when found in archaeological excavations.  But in 1946, botanist Eric Callen was asked to search for evidence of maize in human coprolites recovered by archaeologist Junius Bird from a pre-Colombian excavation at Huaca Prieta in the Chicama Valley of Peru. Although Dr. Callen, then a professor of plant pathology at McGill University in Montreal, did not find any maize pathogens in Bird's samples, he became intrigued with the information he did discover and soon switched to archaeology focused exclusively on coprolites.  Needless to say, Dr. Callen, despite his degree from the University of Edinburgh, was ridiculed for what many of his colleagues considered to be bizarre research.  But the importance of knowledge gained from the study of excrement was revealed with advancements in genetic studies in the late 50s and 60s and now Dr. Callen, who unfortunately died prematurely of a heart attack on a dig in 1970, is recognized as the father of human coprolite analysis.   But back to the coprolites in question!

Paisley Caves was not targeted as a potential pre-Clovis site.  In fact, the remote site, plundered by pot hunters in modern times, was first excavated in 1938 by Dr. Luther Cressman, founder of the University's Department of Anthropology and former husband of world-famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead.  Cressman's team trenched caves 1, 2 and 3 of the 8 caves and rockshelters that comprised the site.  They evaluated three stratigraphic levels, examining sediments above Mazama ash, in the ash, and below the ash. (Mount Mazama was a stratovolcano in the Oregon Cascade Range that erupted in approximately 5,677 B.C. with a force estimated at 42 times more powerful than that of Mt.St. Helens in 1980.  Crater Lake, the centerpiece of Crater Lake National Park, is nestled in the remnants of Mazama's caldera.)  They discovered a few human artifacts in apparent association with the remains of extinct late Pleistocene camel, bison, and horses but Cressman's finds were largely ignored because of what was subsequently viewed as a lack of adequate documentation.

Pleistocene mastodon hunt courtesy of Pinterest.
New excavations were launched in 2002.  Dr. Jenkins' team focused on the recovery of in situ bone and cultural materials and photographed all large mammal bones and artifacts found in situ.  They sampled the soil around all specimens thought to be from the Pleistocene era and employed a newer dating method, obsidian hydration, to provide information about the surrounding context.

Although radiocarbon dating has been around since 1949, obsidian hydration as a dating technique was introduced by geologists Irving Friedman and Robert Smith in 1960.  Obsidian hydration is based on the fact that obsidian, a volcanic glass formed by the rapid cooling of silica-rich lava, has a saturation point of 3.5 percent.

Obsidian contains about 0.2 percent water. When a piece of obsidian is fractured, atmospheric water is attracted to the surface and begins to diffuse into the glass. This results in the formation of a water rich hydration rind that increases in depth with time. The hydration process continues until the fresh obsidian surface contains about 3.5 percent water. This is the saturation point. The thickness of the hydration rind can be identified in petrographic thin sections cut normal to the surface and observed under a microscope. Friedman and Smith reasoned that the degree of hydration observed on an obsidian artifact could tell archaeologists how long it had been since that surface was created by a flintknapper. - Chronological Methods 10 - Obsidian Hydration Dating, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Cave 1 yielded sage brush charcoal dated to 8440 y.b.p., human feces dated to 7540 y.b.p, and a basketry fragment, and a few point fragments, the oldest of these artifacts was a butcher-cut artiodactyl (deer, pronghorn, or mountain sheep) rib dated at 11,930 y.b.p.  In Cave 2, charcoal remains were discovered at a depth of more than a meter below the Mazama ash layer and was associated with stone-working debris and tools of various kinds including a short length of sagebrush rope, a wooden peg, a pumice abrader, and scrapers.  The rope returned a radiocarbon date of 12,000 y.b.p. and a butcher-cut sage grouse bone an age of 13,860 y.b.p.

In Cave 5, dense cultural remains were found to depths of a meter and a half below the Mazama ash layer.  Processed sinew and grass fiber thread was unearthed at a little over 1 meter below the ash layer.  The grass fiber thread produced a carbon date of 12,750 y.b.p.

Mural of prehistoric camelids that roamed Oregon in the late .
Pleistocene.  Photographed at the John Day Fossil Beds
Visitors Center by Mary Harrsch.
But the best was yet to come for in Cave 5, remains of prehistoric camelids (camels and llamas) were recovered along with human coprolites in the same layer.  An ankle bone from one of the animals produced a carbon date of 14,290 y.b.p., corresponding to the date produced by the fossilized coprolites.

Samples from the coprolites from Cave 5 were sent to Dr. Eske Willerslev in Copenhagen for DNA analysis.  Dr. Willerslev had developed a new technique to recover DNA from dirt and ice.  When Willerslev successfully extracted DNA from the samples, they were submitted to three labs in Germany and Sweden to obtain independent results.  All three returned dates of approximately 14,300 years ago.  The results were presented at a special conference of prehistoric archaeologists last February and was, for the most part, widely embraced.  But, a cadre of researchers at none other than Dr. Callen's own McGill University questioned some of the methods used to produce the findings recently in a July 2009 issue of Science magazine.  Questions focused primarily on the presence of canine DNA possibly indicating the feces were not human and  possible unidentified sources of contamination, either directly or through leeching  associated with human urine seepage through the cave deposits.   Jenkins and Willersley pointed out that canine and human cohabitation could have occurred at the site so the presence of canine DNA would not be surprising.  But the questions surrounding contamination were more difficult to resolve.

"We were particularly concerned about leeching," explains Dr. Jenkins, "especially since rodent feces comprise almost 80 percent of the excavation material.  But we tested the coprolites for wood rat DNA and found no trace of it.  If there had been no leeching of rodent DNA into the coprolites with their presence in the environment so high, there is little reason to suspect leeching from subsequent human visitations.  Lithic debris was generally found to be very sparse and the proportion of tools to debitage unusually high. This pattern suggests that occupations were generally limited to very brief stays and that the site was not generally a destination camp."

The researchers also evaluated the fecal samples for Native American haplogroups and found both A and B groups associated exclusively with Native American populations.  To remove any doubts about sample contamination from researcher contact, all team members were tested for the presence of Native American haplogroups A and B. None were found in any of the 67 people who had come into contact with the samples during the research process.

Armed with new Bureau of Land Management and National Science Foundation research grants, Dr. Jenkins and his team suited up in full isolation garb in 2008 to recover more coprolites from the Pleistocene aged deposits.  New field workers were again tested for Native American genetic markers.

"We collected over 300 new coprolites bringing our total collection to over 1100," Jenkins exclaims, "We're collecting all coprolites we find whether or not we suspect they are human.  Some may be wolf, or bear, or dog.  But, we feel our chances to find human remains increases each time we find one so we're gathering every one employing stringent collection protocol to protect against contamination of ancient coprolites with modern DNA.  During the excavations we also found a toothed comb-like bone implement that we are very excited about and are anxious to learn its radiocarbon age.  Of course we realize the bone itself could be much older than the point in time it was fashioned into an artifact but we approach each challenge as they come."

Thomas Stafford also visited the site and took numerous samples.  His research firm, based in Boulder, Colorado, will apply revolutionary chemical pre-treatment techniques to finds including the extraction and freeze drying of urine from samples to exclude material seepage that may be impacting radiocarbon dates.

"Artifacts may actually be older than radiocarbon dates indicate if there is contamination from urine produced at a later time," Jenkins explains.  "Such analysis is extremely expensive but results will be that much more precise."

Portrait of Modoc chief Yellow Hammer by
E.A. Burbank, 1901.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
Perhaps the aspect of his research that is the most gratifying to Jenkins is that it is viewed positively by local Native American tribes.  "Members of  The Klamath Tribes (Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin Paiute) are enthusiastic supporters of our work here," Jenkins observes, "they are proud of their heritage and thrilled that we've put the little community of Paisley on the world map.  They tell me, 'Dennis, we told you we have been here forever!' You will find even older evidence of our ancestors.'"

After the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act almost 20 years ago, much of the research on early remains was stopped. Prehistoric remains became bones of contention between archaeologists and tribal members culminating with a court battle that erupted over the posssession of the 9,300 year old Kennewick Man. Now, coprolites are seen as the key to the future study of ancient American population groups.

Jenkins, like Dr. Callen before him, sees enormous potential in his collection of prehistoric poop.  "Once you start digging into these coprolites, you realize you've got data that can't be found anywhere else.  These people weren't just mammoth hunters, they were eating chicken-sized sage grouse, rabbits, and many different kinds of plants!"

Jenkins hopes that between his archaeology and Willerslev's genetic detective work, they may eventually be able to identify genetic links that can be mapped and used to create a more accurate theory about the spread of humans across the Americas.  Who knows, perhaps they will even be able to relieve PaleoIndians of the blame for extinction of America's megafauna too!

Update - After Jenkins initial findings were published in the May 2008 journal Science, another research team led by Ainara Sistiaga, an archaeologist from MIT, analyzed the fossilized excrement and pointed out the material contained too high of percentage of plant material to be excrement from a human.

Sistiaga’s team used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to scan the scat for types of sterols — fatty molecules found in both plants and animals. When plants are digested, they produce byproducts called phytosterols. Animal tissues, meanwhile, contain cholesterol — which the human body also manufactures on its own — and it, in turn, is metabolized into a compound called coprostanol
“Humans, because of their omnivorous diet and their high levels of cholesterol biosynthesis, will always have a predominance of coprostanol, the intestinal product of cholesterol,” Sistiaga said. 
But while coprostanol usually makes up about 60% of the sterols in human droppings, she said, the study finds that nearly 70% of the sterols in the Paisley Cave feces are plant-based. 
“Even in the case of a vegetarian diet — unusual in an Upper Paleolithic society — the cholesterol and coprostanol values are too small to derive from a human,” she [Sistiaga] said. - Blake De Pastino, Western Digs (2013)

The Sistiaga team analyzed the original coprolites found in 2008, though.  In 2012, Jenkins led another team back to Paisley Caves and recovered projectile points, animal bones and more coprolites that dated to 13,200 B.P. - still older than dates the Brazilian team estimated for northern Paleoindians.

If you find all this fascinating and would like to learn even more about early prehistory, I would encourage you to check out Dr. Brian Fagan's course, Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations, available from The Great Courses.


Thompson, H. (n.d.). A DNA Search for the First Americans Links Amazon Groups to Indigenous Australians. Retrieved August 4, 2015, from

Neves, W., Prous, A., González-José, R., Kipnis, R., & Powell, J. (n.d.). Early Holocene human skeletal remains from Santana do Riacho, Brazil: Implications for the settlement of the New World.Journal of Human Evolution, 45(2003), 19-42. Retrieved August 4, 2015, from
A. Sistiaga, F. Berna, R. Laursen, & P. Goldberg (2014). Steroidal biomarker analysis of a 14,000 years old putative human coprolite from Paisley Cave, Oregon Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.10.016
M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Dennis L. Jenkins, Anders Götherstrom, Nuria Naveran, Juan J. Sanchez, Michael Hofreiter, Philip Francis Thomsen, Jonas Binladen, Thomas F. G. Higham, Robert M. Yohe II, Robert Parr, Linda Scott Cummings, & Eske Willerslev (2008). DNA from Pre-Clovis Human Coprolites in Oregon, North America Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1154116

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Britain's Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets (DVD)

A history resource article by  © 2015

For 300 years the Plantagenets murdered, betrayed, and tyrannized an England just emerging from the chaos and violence of the Middle Ages.  This dynasty also produced some of England's most legendary (and often notorious men) from the famous Crusader king Richard the Lionheart to the ruthless Edward the Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, of Braveheart fame to  Henry V whose "band of brothers" extracted a bloody victory at Agincourt.  But it is not these men whose lives are examined in this documentary serie.  It shines its light instead on lesser known members of the clan who, despite military blunders and family treachery brought the British Empire such lasting achievements as a representative parliament and English Common Law.

The series begins, where else, but at the beginning with the reign of the first Plantagenet, Henry II.  Henry II became an heir to the English throne when his father Geoffrey V, the (French) Count of Anjou  and later Duke of Normandy, married the Empress Matilda, the only surviving legitimate child of King Henry I of England.

At the tender age of 18, young Henry marries the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine whose marriage to Louis VII of France had been recently annulled.  Together the couple produced a brood of eight children, including five very ambitious princelings.  Encouraged by first King Louis VII then King Philip II of France who had suffered the loss of Brittany and much of central France south to Toulouse due to Henry's imperial expansion, "Young Henry", Richard (later to become the Lionheart) and Geoffrey, dissatisfied that their father had not shared his power when they came of age, rebelled against him in 1173 with the support of their mother Eleanor. (the basis for the 1968 Oscar winning film "The Lion in Winter" starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn)

A painting from Chinon Castle thought to depict Eleanor of Aquitaine on Crusade.
This documentary appears to attribute much of this strife to Henry II's unwillingness to yield any of his tight-fisted control of his expanding empire to his sons.  I always thought sons were supposed to wait until their father dies before taking their turn at the helm, but apparently not the Plantagenets.

I have a dear friend who is absolutely in awe of Eleanor of Aquitaine. But I can't help but think Eleanor has bathed, at least to some degree, in the reflected glory from the legends of her son Richard the Lionheart.  As this documentary reveals her role in the intrigues surrounding her husband's reign it appears to me she is someone who, having the taste of queenship at a young age, harbors a healthy appetite for power herself.

Like a witch from Macbeth, Eleanor keeps stirring the cauldron, resulting in a second revolt in 1183 in which "Young Henry", the heir apparent, is killed.  Richard, now next in line for the throne, begins to fear his father will make Richard's younger brother (and his father's favorite) John, king, so Richard rebels a third time in 1189, aided by the French King Philip II.  Henry II is finally defeated and, suffering from a bleeding ulcer, retreats to Chinon in Anjou where he dies.

This tale of betrayal and complex political machinations is told with professionally acted cinematic clips and voice overs by award-winning journalist and historian Dan Jones.  Mr Jones appears periodically throughout the program in research libraries or on the grounds of castles or cathedrals. For the most part, talking heads are pretty much avoided, a most welcome approach that makes the viewer feel more immersed in the events.

I found the next episode riveting as well.  The reigns of Richard the Lionheart and his brother King John (of Robin Hood fame) are skipped over and the narrative picks up during the reign of Henry III, King John's son.  We discover this Henry, unlike his grandfather, is totally inept on the battlefield, despite dreams of recovering the family lands in France lost by his father.  Furthermore, the king is now limited in his authority to levy taxes on his barons by the Magna Carta, signed by his father, so when his barons lose confidence in him, he must redirect his energies to something less expensive than making war and turns to building Westminster Abbey.

King John signs the Magna Carta. Image from Cassell's History of England -
Century Edition (1902)
But he chafes under the Magna Carta's restrictions on his kingship and turns to an experienced warrior from France, Simon de Montfort, to pursue Henry's dreams of conquest in 1230.  The documentary mentions that de Montfort had spent his youth "chasing heretics" in France.  Having visited southern France just two years ago, I was aware of the slaughter that occurred in the Albigensian Crusade (to persecute the religious sect now referred to as Cathars) and it was certainly not an activity to be taken quite that lightly.

Simon de Montfort on the Leicester Clock Tower.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
At first I thought this Simon de Montfort was the religious zealot I had encountered in the histories of a number of sites in Languedoc that I had visited.  I spent a beautiful day wandering the streets of the little village of Minerve, the site where Crusaders led by de Montfort burned 140 men, women and children at the stake for heresy.  Of course this atrocity did not hold a candle to the massacre of 20,000 inhabitants of Béziers, another picturesque city  overlooking the river Orb in the Languedoc region that I had the opportunity to visit. I even stood on the grounds of the Cathedral of St.Nazaire where many townsfolk had taken refuge and were subsequently killed when the cathedral was set ablaze and the roof caved in on them.

A panoramic view of the beautiful village of  Béziers, France.  Taken from the ramparts of the Cathedral of St. Nazaire.
Photo by Mary Harrsch 
© 2013
Although the overall commander of Crusader forces at Béziers was officially the papal legate, Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux, de Montfort was named his chosen successor shortly thereafter.

My research revealed Henry III's de Montfort, though, was just a youth at the time. But he apparently accompanied his father on these grisly expeditions and evidently learned a lot from him.

Henry finds Simon charismatic and much more militarily decisive than the king.  By 1236, Simon is so confident in his position at court that he refers to himself as the Sixth Earl of Leicester, although the king has not officially granted him that title.  (His father had earned the title of Fifth Earl of Leicester but it was not a hereditary title.) Simon's ambitions continue to soar when the king allows Simon to marry Henry's sister, Eleanor.  But there's a fly in the ointment.  Henry, perpetually short of funds, does not give Simon the lands he should have received as part of Eleanor's dowry.  Then Simon takes out a big loan naming Henry III as a guarantor without the king's knowledge.  This arrogant miscalculation on Simon's part infuriates Henry who threatens to imprison both de Montfort and the king's own sister in the Tower.  Being fully aware that Henry is deadly serious, de Montfort and Eleanor flee to France.

The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror
in 1078.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Henry eventually recalls de Montfort and asks him to campaign against King Louis IX of France in Poitou, another of Henry's disastrous attempts at recovering lands in France.  But during the battle Henry flees the field and leaves de Montfort fighting a desperate rear guard action.  When De Montfort finally escapes, he confronts Henry, telling Henry he should be locked up like the ineffectual Carolingian king Charles the Simple of Paris (a cowardly character in the History Channel series "Vikings".)

Henry III returning from Poitou from the Historia Anglorum,
British Library, Royal MS 14, C. VII f. 134v
Although Henry is furious, he recognizes de Montfort's considerable administrative talents and seeks to appease him by appointing him viceroy of the troublesome Duchy of Gascony.  Simon, true to his inflexible Crusader upbringing, comes down hard on the barons of Gascony, even cutting down their vineyards - an appalling atrocity to the French.

Meanwhile, Henry has turned over administration in England to the Lusignans, French warlords who had gained a reputation for their ruthlessness in the Holy Lands.  The Lusignans immediately begin grabbing land and property, including the sack of the London palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A chained Guy de Lusignan with Saladin by
Jan Lievens 1625.
Back in France, the Gascons raised so much of a ruckus about de Montfort that Henry places de Montfort, who is now a titled baron recognized as the Sixth Earl of Leicester, on trial, apparently thinking he will finally rid himself of this troublesome fanatic who even wears a hairshirt under his clothes day and night.  But the other English barons come to de Montfort's defense and will not convict him.  Evidently, the barons are fed up with Henry's Lusignans and need the military skills of de Montfort to lead a rebellion against the Lusignans.

Henry responds to the crisis illogically by deciding to accept the Pope's commission to invade Sicily, another foolish dream of military conquest that he cannot afford.  To finance the fiasco, Henry defies the Magna Carta and levies a substantial tax on his barons.  The barons, led by de Montfort, descend on London dressed in full battle armor and demand that the king not only give up his dreams of glory in Sicily but that he agrees to remove the Lusignans and introduce a council of 15 barons that will meet three times a year to conduct the realm's business.  Henry has no choice but to agree to the "Provisions of Oxford", a document on which England's current parliament is based.

But Henry is not a man of his word and within four years' time tries to bring back the Lusignans.  De Montfort raises an army and defeats Henry in the resulting civil war at the Battle of Lewes, despite the encumbrance of a broken leg.  With Henry as prisoner, de Montfort essentially runs the country for the next ten years until Henry's son Edward (the Longshanks) raises a Plantagenet army and confronts de Montfort's forces at the village of Evesham.  There, Prince Edward commissions a 12-knight hit squad to find and slaughter de Montfort on the field of battle - reflecting the ruthlessness he would later employ against the Scots.

Simon de Montfort's grave at Evesham.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Plantagent rule is reestablished and the dynasty and documentary series, continues, skipping the reign of Edward the Longshanks, then examining the reign of his son, Edward II. The last episode focuses on the reign of Richard II, the son of the famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Edward, The Black Prince.  Richard II is considered by some the last of the main Plantagenet line before it split between the House of York and the House of Lancaster.

The Daily Mail compared this series to a real-life version of Game of Thrones and, although we have no dragons or stone men, I would be inclined to agree.  The sheer ruthlessness demonstrated by those who held the throne or lusted after it during this period makes for a riveting series.  Once more Athena in collaboration with RLJ Entertainment has brought out an excellent educational resource for history enthusiasts around the world.

Just as a reminder, RLJ Entertainment also offers an online streaming service named Acorn TV that features a rotating collection of some of Britain's best documentaries and dramas for $4.99 per month.
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Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: Archaeology Hotspot : Egypt by Julian Heath

A history resource article by  © 2015

I just finished the first book in a new series, "Archaeology Hotspot: Egypt" by Julian Heath.  The book's subtitle, "Unearthing the Past for Armchair Archaeologists" describe its target audience and, although the author has an MA in archaeology from the University of Liverpool, the book is relatively free of technical jargon and quite readable.

Heath begins by describing each period of Egypt's past then delves more deeply into archaeological activities within each period.  I was particularly pleased to note that Heath gives attention to the often overlooked pre-dynastic period as well as the more widely studied Old, Middle and New Kingdoms and their associated Intermediate Periods.  I was especially interested in his discussion of the Naqada Period because, not only were many of the traditions of Egypt in their embryonic stage then, but I had the opportunity to photograph Naqada pottery and unusual figurines at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.

Beaker with Nile River Scene Early Naqada II
 3650-3500 BCE pottery predynastic Egypt.
Photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Apparently, there were a number of scholars who at one point believed the prehistoric period was a kind of "Golden Age" free of violence and conflict before the vast accumulation of wealth that was a hallmark of the dynastic periods created envy and greed.  But Heath relegated those speculations to the rubbish heap when he described the findings at the cemetery of Gebel Sahaba near the Nubian border.  In a burial of 59 individuals with almost half of them women and children, researchers found outright evidence of violent death (embedded projectile points and/or cut marks) on the remains of 24.

Female Figurines of bone and ivory Predynastic Naqada I
Egypt 4000-3600 BCE.  Photographed at The British Museum
by Mary Harrsch © 2008.
"...disturbingly, the children seem to have been executed by being shot in the head or neck with stone projectiles," Heath states.

Heath also relates the results of a 2012 CT scan on a naturally mummified body of a young man between 18 and 20 years old from the Naqada II period (about 3400 BCE) recovered at Gebelein by Wallis Budge of the British Museum.

"The scan threw up something of a nasty surprise," Heath writes, "as it uncovered compelling evidence that Gebelein Man had been murdered with his killer catching him unawares.  This evidence took the form of a stab wound in his back, just below his left shoulder blade, that had been made by a copper or flint dagger.  The blow that ended Gebelein Man's life had evidently been delivered with some force, as not only had it shattered one of his ribs, causing bone splinters to become embedded into his muscles, but it also penetrated his left lung."

He also pointed out that Gebelein Man had no apparent defensive wounds.

Heath includes a number of examples like this of very recent research in this book so, despite its brevity, the reader comes away with not only a good foundation in the historical periods of Egypt and significant explorations that have revealed the development of its culture but an excellent overview of current research, including technological advances in satellite imagery, ground penetrating radar and digital analyses.  It even touches on the current political and economic issues surrounding the illegal antiquities trade.

Perhaps among the most valuable inclusions in the book were the concluding passages listing museums with the largest collections of Egyptian antiquities (I didn't realize the Museum of Fine Arts Boston was among them so I have added it to my must see list!) and websites where visitors can not only view images of recovered artifacts but browse maps, plans and satellite imagery of archaeological sites and even journals kept by famous archaeologists.  Heath even suggests ways to get involved with current digs.  There are also extensive footnotes listed by chapter and a lengthy bibliography - a virtual handbook for any Egyptian history enthusiast.

I look forward with anticipation to the next book in this series!

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