Connecting the Dots

Connecting the dots….. This blog could have many headers. I settled on “connecting the dots” because there are many interconnected topics I would like to address here. The starting point for all of us is a brief mention of our museum in a recent CNN blog. In a story about the US government returning cultural treasures to Iraq, one can read about one particular item being returned:

Roman denarius featuring the head of Apollo

A roman coin (not the one featured in the article)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Smabs Sputzer

“A Roman coin from A.D. 248-250, when the Romans occupied the region. The coin had been left at the Houston Museum of Natural Science by a man who said he was a contractor in Iraq. The museum’s curator of anthropology alerted federal authorities.”

In late February 2005, a visitor to the museum left a coin. This individual, who said that he had been working as a civilian truck driver in Iraq, had acquired other antiquities as well, including a clay statue. Excavations were going on all over the place, he said. They are indeed, except, in my world these excavations would be called looting. Here are the first two dots I want to connect: the coin, and the Parthians.

The coin was well preserved, with a legible Greek legend. With the help of the American numismatics society’s website it was possible to identify the coin as dating back to the reign of Emperor Philip (244 – 249 AD). Also known as Philippus Arabs, this Emperor lived during a period of major upheavals besetting the Roman Empire. Born in the Roman province of Arabia around 204 AD, he held several important positions before becoming Emperor in 244 AD. He succeeded Gordian III who had suffered an ignominious defeat against the Sassanid Empire. Gordian ended up being killed by his own soldiers. Sassanid artists commemorated the death of Gordian and the subsequent suing for peace by Philip in a large rock carving at Bishapur in modern Iran. After this rather rocky start to his own reign as emperor, in 248 AD Philip presided over the festivities celebrating the 1,000 anniversary of the founding of Rome, a celebration commemorated on many Roman coins. Things turned sour pretty quickly after that however. One year later, he was killed by his own soldiers after a defeat against rebellious forces near Verona.

I can imagine people thinking “A Roman coin in what is now Iraq? Surely that must have gotten there by accident?” Not really. Here are dots number two and three: the Parthians and their successors, the Sassanid Empire.

Statue of Alexander in the
Istanbul Archaeology
Museum

Emerging from the upheaval caused by Alexander the Great and his successors, during the third century BC, the Parthians established themselves as a major political, military and economic force in what is now Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

As Rome slowly grew and started asserting itself in the eastern Mediterranean, clashes occurred between the two empires. These encounters did not always end well for the Romans. In 53 B.C. Crassus and over 40,000 Roman troops were annihilated by the Parthian forces of Orodes II in the battle of Carrhae, a clash that continues to inspire modern historians.

The western border between Rome’s dominions and Parthia gradually stabilized on the banks of the Euphrates, but war was always a threat. Over the next two hundred years, Romans and Parthians would fight many wars. By 232 AD, the Parthians themselves were overtaken by the Sassanid Empire, which brings us back to dot number one: the coin left at the museum. The coin residing ever so briefly at the museum is a silent witness to those final years of Roman involvement in that part of the world. This brings up dot number four: looting and repatriation.

Looting is a scourge that besets archaeologists all over the world. Archaeological sites are being destroyed on a wholesale basis, with materials ending up in private hands, and sometimes in museum collections. International treaties attempt to curb these activities but are not always very successful in doing so. International treaties aimed at stopping this wanton destruction of our past are good, but… there is also a need for people to know why this is necessary. Failure to communicate this need usually makes people think “Sure, it is only the archaeologists who want to be able to dig. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do the same?”

Here is why you cannot or should not be digging randomly looking for “treasure.”

Pottery Shards
Context is important in Archaeology -
Knowing where the pottery comes from is
just as important as having the shards
Creative Commons License photo credit: Todd Huffman

Any object retrieved from the soil has a context. There is a story that can be told based on how the object got there. The coin that was brought in, the pot that was found, all got to the place they were found because someone dropped it, or placed it in a tomb, etc. Archaeologists are trained to retrieve materials and take note of the surroundings in which they found these items. Context makes the story much more complete. It represents the difference between retrieving half a book versus a whole book, half a story versus a complete story. In specific terms, context will help us to decide which of the following headlines makes sense: “A Roman ship landed in Mexico!” Or: “Something cool collected from the crew of a Spanish ship or an early Spanish colonist got traded to the residents of the town of Toluca.”

The coin in question dates to the end game of large-scale Roman involvement in Mesopotamia. I am not sure if a lot of these coins have been found in what is now Iraq. Without an accurate accounting of what is found and where it was found, we will never know. Conceivably, the coin’s context could have told us something about those final years of Roman presence. Perhaps it came from a small military encampment. Perhaps it was found with a lot of other coins – a hoard as it is sometimes known – which would indicate that the owners buried it for safekeeping. We will never know.

Saying no to looting is not the end of the story. Archaeologists have their work cut out for them too. We need to collect the context information, look for patterns to make sense out of it all and then share our findings with the public. The latter is very important. The more people know about what we do, the greater the understanding will be as to why it is a bad thing to acquire looted items or to go out and dig holes yourself. You are not doing history any service, and you might be breaking the law as well.

And so it is that we come full circle, connecting dots from coins to Romans and Parthians and international treaties regarding the protection of cultural property. It is all interconnected. I am sure that colleagues at other museums have had similar experiences. This is proof that working at a museum is so interesting, or “QED” as the ancient Romans would say.

When Fiction Becomes Reality [Steve Berry]

Some of the most compelling works of fiction rely heavily on reality (Jurassic Park, anyone?) New York Times best-selling authors James Rollins and Steve Berry are masters of weaving fact into fiction – and both will be at HMNS on Tuesday, Jan. 19 for An Evening of Thrills: How Science and History Make Great Thrillers.  They’ll each be signing their latest releases after the lecture; tickets are going fast – get yours here.  Last week, Rollins gave us a sneak peak in his own guest blog; this week Berry talks about the upcoming lecture.

Fiction into reality?   That’s a little backwards for me.   What I do is turn reality into fiction.  I like to find something from the past—the Amber Room, the lost Romanov children, Charlemagne, the tomb of Alexander the Great—items or artifacts you may not know much about (but, hopefully, would enjoy exploring), then weave a modern day tale around them.  The kind of stories I’ve always like to read have a mix of secrets, conspiracies, history, action, adventure and international settings.  So it was only natural that I would write that same kind of story.

Every novel for me starts as a treasure hunt.  I’m searching for bits of reality that somehow can be woven together into a coherent plot.

And it’s not easy.

AASSWW

In fact, the challenge is to find the most unrelated stuff as possible, then relate them  through a twist of the facts.  While doing this, I have to always keep in mind that I’m not writing a textbook, it’s a novel, whose primary job is to entertain.  But that doesn’t mean the reader can’t learn some stuff along the way.  I enjoy that aspect, and I’ve come to learn that my readers do too.  I’m careful, though, with my twisting, and I make sure the reader knows where I played with the facts by including a writer’s note at the end of each of my books.

In Houston, on January 19th, Jim Rollins and I will be discussing all of this.   Jim’s books are a little history and lot of science, mine are the other way around.  But we both definitely like to tinker with reality.  For me, every book involves around 200 -300 sources obtained from many trips to bookstores; lots of internet browsing; and at least one visit to a locale important to the book.   I have, for days, sat in a German Cathedral (The Charlemagne Pursuit); roamed an abbey in Portugal (The Alexandria Link);  scoured Paris (The Paris Vendetta); climbed citadels in southern France (The Templar Legacy); boated all over Venice (The Venetian Betrayal); and wandered through the Kremlin (The Romanov Prophecy).

But that’s all part of the job.

So drop by January 19th to the museum at 6:30 and spend an evening with me and Jim Rollins.  Have your questions ready.  See you then.

An Evening of Thrills: How Science and History Make Great Thrillers will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 pm. Both authors will sign copies of their latest works after the lecture; copies will be available for purchase from Murder by the Book. Tickets are available here.

Book List: Conquerors!

With the Genghis Khan exhibition now on display, the book list for March will feature the theme Conquerors: Their Lives and Times. Scholastic Books publishes a series of books, over 50 in all, whose titles all begin with You Wouldn’t Want to Be…  The books, illustrated with colorful cartoons, bring history to life in an engaging, entertaining way.
 
For example…You Wouldn’t Want to Be in Alexander the Great’s Army! by Jacqueline Marley begins with an introduction and a map of Alexander’s route.  You learn that Alexander’s father, Phillip II, united Macedonia and made it strong.  Phillip’s army controlled most of Greece when he died, and his 20-year old son Alexander III decided to embark on the trip that his father had planned.

Alexander The Great
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dime01

As you read you learn interesting tidbits:  At the Siege of Tyre (332 BCE) Alexander had to defeat the Persians; when Alexander’s men tried to scale tall walls, the Persian soldiers poured red-hot sand down on them. Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Soldiers were not paid but were allowed to steal from their victims – and so looters learned to take only light things because they had to carry everything they took; soldiers were also allowed to pick up wives along the way. Alexander’s trip lasted 8 years; and soon after the trip ended, Alexander died at age 32.

This book contains a glossary and an index.  The books in this series are useful introductions to many topics.

The story A Medieval Feastby Aliki is 25 years old, and could have taken place during the time of William the Conqueror.  The pictures are timeless.  The King, Queen, knights, squires and other members of the court – maybe 100 in all – are coming to visit Camdenton Manor, and the lord and lady must prepare for the visit.

The serfs who lived on the lord’s estate helped with the preparations that involved everything from redecorating the Royal Suite to building fences for the horses—in addition to preparing for the feast. 

Sir Aiden and his charming squire
Creative Commons License photo credit: badlogik

The lord went hunting and hawking for meat, and they trapped and fished.  Fruits and vegetables were gathered; bread was made; butter was churned and wine and ale were brewed.  A rare “beast” called a Cockentrice was created by cutting a caponand pig in half and attaching one’s back to the other’s front and vice versa.  A peacock was cooked and then all the feathers were reassembled.  The upcoming feast, fit for a king, would begin at 10:30 a.m. and end at dark.  The next day it would be repeated.

Take time to look carefully at the illustrations!  Aliki’s detailed pictures enable the reader to learn even more about this time period.  The reader sees the serfs at work and play, the kitchen alive with food preparation, people trapping birds and so much more.  (For another look at life in a medieval castle, read You Wouldn’t Want to Live in a Medieval Castle! by Jacqueline Morley.)

medieval women
Creative Commons License photo credit: hans s

Crabtree Publishers publishes an incredible number of nonfiction books which are illustrated, easily read and contain facts about a particular subject.  One of the books in the Medieval World series is Women and Girls in the Middle Ages. This book is divided into topics such as Having Fun, Housekeeping, Educating Girls and Beauty, and you learn interesting facts on each page. 

Did you know:
• That during this time all you had to do to get married was say “I Do”?
• That you needed bread, glue, turpentine and a candle to get rid of fleas?
• That employment opportunities for women improved after the Plague killed one third of Europe’s population?
• That women were told to comb their hair and “make sure that it is not full of feathers or other garbage”?
• That you can make a beauty lotion by mixing asparagus roots, anise, bulbs of white lilies, milk from donkeys and red goats and horse dung?

Books from the Conquerors: Their Lives and Times list will transport you to another time—and, as a bonus, probably make you very glad you are living NOW.

Genghis Khan Invades HMNS – This Friday

Genghis Khan is back – with a vengeance. He’s popped up in a best-selling book, an award-winning movie - and now, a world premiere exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

During his life, Genghis Khan conquered more of the globe than any other man – including popular favorites Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. His fame and repute lasted for centuries: in The Canterbury Tales‘ longest story, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of him –  

This noble king was called Genghis Khan
Who in his time was of so great renown
That there was nowhere in no region
So excellent a lord in all things.
He lacked nothing that belonged to a king
As of the sect of which he was born
He kept his law, to which he was sworn.
And thereto he was hardy, wise and rich
And piteous and just, always liked;
Soothe of his word, benign and honorable,
Of his courage as any center stable;
Young, fresh and strong, in arms desirous
As any bachelor of all his house.
A fair person he was and fortunate,
And kept always so well royal estate
That there was nowhere such another man.
This noble king, this Tartar Genghis Khan.

Compare this admiring portrayal to Genghis Khan in modern (OK, 80′s) pop culture. Or, what we think we all “know” of him - as the cunning barbarian who spread terror across Asia.  


In reality, Genghis Khan was also the brilliant architect of one of history’s most advanced civilizations. Though he was raised in a climate of brutal tribal warfare, he forbade looting and torture. Though unable to read, he gave his people a written language and a sophisticated society, with fair taxation, free trade, stable government, and freedom of religion and the arts.


Now, you can discover the real Genghis in our newest special exhibition, opening Friday – the largest-ever presentation of 13th century treasures related to his life. More than 200 spectacular artifacts will be on display, including the first-ever printing press and paper money, imperial gold, silk robes and sophisticated weaponry of the world’s most visionary ruler and his descendants.

Plus – we’re giving away cool stuff. Check out the exhibition web site for details on how to enter the “Conquer Your Fears” giveaway, and learn more about exhibition-related events. Hope to see you there!