A powerful storm hit eastern New York on Wednesday and took out electrical service for much of the area. While some parts of the region are still without power, fortunately my power has been restored. My internet service came back on just before 10 PM last night. As a result, I have been unable to keep up with my usual work this week. However, I could not let the week pass without noting the proclamation that Pres. Trump issued yesterday declaring Oct. 9 to be Leif Erikson Day, in honor of the Norse explorer often credited as the first European to reach the Americas.
A new book by Stanford historian Walter Scheidel claims that the fall of the Roman Empire was ultimately a good thing because, basically, it created capitalism a thousand years later. In Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity, Scheidel argues that Western civilization only emerged because of the absence of an imperial authority. Empires, he says, stifle innovation and prevent economic development. In an interview with Phys.org, Scheidel explained his reasoning:
A couple of weeks ago, I received an embargoed press release announcing a radical new interpretation of the ninth century Mesha Stele, which a team of researchers now claims could represent the first and only independent confirmation of the existence of King Balak outside of the Bible (Numbers 22-24). I honestly don’t care whether Balak existed or not, but I found the reasoning used to make the claim to be somewhat lacking.
Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine
Barry Strauss | 432 pages | Simon & Schuster | ISBN: 978-1451668834 | $28.00
The story of the Roman Empire is well-known, its major personalities still celebrities even today. But the fame of the Empire and its emperors makes it a challenge to say something new about a subject that has spawned books both thoughtful and sensational for two thousand years. Cornell University professor Barry Strauss’s Ten Caesars, which will be published on March 5, doesn’t quite manage to say anything new about the ten men it profiles, but it does have the virtue of telling a familiar story well.
The other day, archaeologist David S. Anderson posted an article on Adventures in Poor Taste discussing the Marvel Comics villain Apocalypse and why he is associated with ancient Egypt. In the piece, Anderson traces back fascination and fear of all things Egyptian to the 1922 opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen and the resulting media frenzy surrounding both the tomb opening and the subsequent allegations that a pharaonic “curse” had felled several of the participants in the excavation. I know Anderson slightly from Twitter, so I hope he will forgive me if I dissent a bit from his analysis.
Yesterday Graham Hancock posted a link to a YouTube video of a lecture he gave at the Earth-Keeper Arklantis Event last fall in Little Rock, Arkansas. The lecture lasted more than two hours and presents mostly material we’ve already heard about his forthcoming book on American prehistory, the peopling of the Americas, and the possibility that a comet impacted North American populations during the Ice Age. But what interested me more was the tone of annoyance and almost anger Hancock seemed to adopt in speaking of a largely imaginary group of academics that he feels have held American history captive for decades
Indian Newspaper Calls Out Nationalists for Using Fake History and Ancient Astronauts to Push Right-Wing Agenda
Note: I will be taking tomorrow off to mark the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. I will return on Friday.
For a variety of reasons, including the predominance of U.S. content in the media landscape, and my own geographic location, I tend to focus on American fringe history claims, followed by those from Britain, Continental Europe, Australia, and the rest of the world in descending order. I fully admit that this is a bias on my part, but one I can’t entirely help since so much of the content outside the Anglo-American media bubble is geo-blocked, geographically restricted, in languages I can’t speak, or otherwise unavailable. Nevertheless, I think it’s valuable to check in around the world from time to time to see how other countries and cultures deal with the same attacks on history that we see here at home.
While I am sure that the fragments of the otherwise unattested writer Abenephius that I translated and wrote about last week are probably not as interesting to you as they are to me, I’ve been puzzling a bit over the question of authenticity. As I wrote last week, the material found in the excerpts recorded by the Renaissance polymath Athanasius Kircher is not terribly original, but at the same time it is not exactly what one would expect Kircher to have made up, either, since a forger would have been more likely to produce something more … exciting? … well, interesting anyway. However, one question that came to my mind is if we know the degree to which the fragments reflect material from a specifically Jewish context. Previous analyses, taking the text at its Arabic face value, have attempted to fit the fragments into an Arab-Islamic context, possibly because many scholars have chosen to assume that Kircher’s identification of the author as “Abenephius the Arab” superseded his original identification of him as an Egyptian Jew named Rabbi Baracahias Nephi.
Between “fake news” and “alternative facts” and gag orders on scientists, it feels a bit like we’re watching the lights go out one by one in the intellectual world. I read through the news coverage of Sunday’s National Geographic Channel documentary Atlantis Rising, and it was astonishing how little anyone cared about the fake experts, ethical problems, and misleading claims. I couldn’t find a single critical review. Have we really become so inured to fakery that there is no outrage left to spare when a respected name like National Geographic openly engages in it? A supine media, beholden to celebrity, plays along, and as long as the fake experts are out-and-out lunatics like on the History Channel, everyone smiles and nods and pretends it’s OK as long as James Cameron gives his multimillion-dollar seal of approval. To be fair, when NatGeo did the same thing back in 2011, the only reason there was critical uproar is because the archaeologists seen in the film at alleged to the media that Richard Freund had hijacked their findings. By contrast, when NBC aired ancient astronaut documentaries in the 1970s, there was outrage in newspapers, magazines, and even academic journals. Today, we simply expect that everything on TV is a lie that the rubes will believe and the sophisticates will ignore.
Although I’m not particularly interested in modern UFOs, I am interested in the crazy-quilt of conspiracy culture that surrounds them. That’s why it was disheartening to see that Micah Hanks published an article yesterday in which he and ufologist Stanton Friedman commiserated about how they are the only true skeptics, while those who do not agree that there is evidence of flying saucers are “debunkers” whose minds are closed. The thrust of the article, however, was a rant about Wikipedia, which Hanks complained is wrong to reject evidence from unreliable sources. He and Friedman suggest that hoaxes and disinformation are worthy of inclusion because they might contain “a grain of truth” which true skeptics like them can discern. This strikes me as essentially arguing that historical fiction like Ivanhoe should be used as source for medieval history because Sir Walter Scott was just so good at doing research.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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