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I saw a news story this weekend about continuing exploration in Luxor, Egypt in the tomb of Ancient Egypt’s boy-king Tutankhamun. Many people are intrigued by Tut, but what amazes me is that this tomb from seven centuries ago still has passages and hidden chambers that we haven’t discovered. The real quest there currently is to find the last resting place of the lost Queen Nefertiti. Nefertiti, who died in the 14th century B.C. and is thought to be Tutankhamun’s stepmother.
My own explorations have been of the armchair variety, but date back to my childhood. My mom bought me many of the How and Why book series about science.
I wrote one of my ronka poems about them.
The How and Why books of childhood
took me into space and into Earth,
back in time, to lost cities, dinosaurs.
I dug in, flew high, and wondered –
and no question, thankfully, ever fully answered.
One of those books took me into the jungles of South America to find the Maya and Inca lost cities. That introduced me to the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is on the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes.
It was built about 500 years ago, at the height of the Inca Empire. A “lost city” made up of about 200 buildings, including temples, houses, and baths, it was rediscovered by an American archaeologist in 1911.
It is a place that probably is on a lot of bucket lists. There is something about a mysterious civilization and “lost city” that intrigues us. Hundreds of thousands of people visit it every year and it is one of the largest tourist attractions in South America.
Really, the city was never “lost” to the locals, but Hiram Bingham was one of the first outsiders to see it. He was in Peru in search of the lost Incan capital, Vitcos. Locals led him to a ruined city on top of one of the nearby mountains. The explorers were surprised to see families living in the area and farming on some of the lower terraces of Machu Picchu.
The following year his team cleared vegetation and started restoring the buildings. Bingham also took artifacts back to Yale with him. In 2010, the Peruvian government successfully petitioned President Obama for the return of the artifacts.
Machu Picchu has many terraced levels connected by 3,000 steps with a sophisticated irrigation system. Like other ancient structures, the construction is a marvel, even by modern standards. The stone blocks they used to build were shaped using only hard river rocks – no steel or iron chisels – but they fit so tightly together that a knife blade can’t be slipped between them.
The terraces were a way to grow crops and also deal with heavy annual rainfall. Not unlike some modern landscaping, they used layers of stone, covered by smaller stone chips, sand and topsoil that allowed water to drain and avoided mudslides on the slopes.
The location might have also been used for defensive protection from enemies. But it is thought that it might have been built as a resort or estate for Incan nobility. It could have been a religious site. We still aren’t sure, and a little mystery makes it more interesting.
I support the theory that, as with the Maya, at least part of its use was for astronomical observations. At the highest part of the site, the Intihuatana stone was used to mark the equinoxes and other celestial events, and local shamans consider the stone as a gateway to the spirit world.
If I ever get to visit, I will want to touch the stone with my forehead to open a vision to the spirit world., and visit the temple of the Moon, the temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.
The Inca abandoned it at the time of the Spanish conquest when it was only a hundred years old. There is no evidence that Spanish conquerors ever found the city. One theory is that an epidemic of smallpox, carried by the Spanish, wiped out the people.
Because of their occurrence in late October and early November, the Taurid meteor showers have gained the popular name of “Halloween fireballs.”
The Taurids are an annual meteor shower associated with the comet Encke. They are named after their radiant point in the constellation Taurus, where they are seen to come from in the sky. Encke and the Taurids are believed to be remnants of a much larger comet, which has disintegrated over the past 20,000 to 30,000 years, breaking into several pieces.
They are rather slow-moving (from our perspective) and so often make a good show. They usually peak from November 5-12.
According to earthsky.org, they are not known for having a great number of meteors, but “a high percentage of fireballs, or exceptionally bright meteors.”
The South Taurids should produce their greatest number of meteors – and hence their greatest number of fireballs – between midnight and dawn on November 5, 2015. Try watching on the morning of November 4.
Higher rates of Taurid fireballs seem to occur every 7 years and the last big display was in 2008, so 2015 should be a good year for viewing.
You may have seen some video on the news over the past Halloween weekend of some fireballs seen over Poland. The photos at top are from there and you can see the video here.
If you want to check what to look for in the sky on any day, check out earthsky.org/tonight/
As I wrote last weekend, there is a total eclipse of the moon tonight (September 27-28, 2015). Being that it is also the closest of this year’s supermoons, there is more drama to the event. For those of us north of the equator, it is a Harvest Full Moon (the one nearest the autumn equinox). It is many named lunar events!
You might also hear the term “Blood Moon” used because this is the fourth and final eclipse in four straight total eclipses of the moon, spaced at six lunar months (full moons) apart. That is known as a lunar tetrad.
The total lunar eclipse is visible from the most of North America and all of South America after sunset tonight.
Durrington Walls via Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology
While mapping the neighborhood near Stonehenge, researchers have found a row of up to 90 standing stones less than 2 miles from Stonehenge. They are big – some of them nearly 15 feet tall. It is thought to be from the same period as Stonehenge.
This old but new-to-us Neolithic monument dates back about 4,500 years ago.
Durrington Walls is the name given to the largest henge in Britain. A henge is a prehistoric monument consisting of a circle of stone or wooden uprights. Durrington Walls was thought of before as an earthwork enclosure, but now we find that hidden away has been a large stone component beneath the earthworks which, like Stonehenge, was built to align with the solstice.
Stonehenge’s circle is made of sarsen stones that are around 13 feet tall. Sarsen is a silicified sandstone boulder of a kind that occurs on the chalk downs of southern England. Such stones were used in constructing Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments. Researchers haven’t dug out any of the newly-found stones, but expect that they are also sarsen which is found elsewhere in the region.
You would have thought that after 4500 years we would have found everything that was there. In 2010, the same team of researchers uncovered a “shadow Stonehenge” less than 3,000 feet from the famous monument. Last year, they found 17 ritual monuments in the same area.
Imagery for download at http://www.lbiarchpro-imagery.at/stonehenge2015
Project website (including video material) http://lbi-archpro.org/cs/stonehenge/
I have been doing some armchair adventuring that sent me back into my past. As a boy, I read the Classic Illustrated comic book version of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and imagined myself a castaway on some island.
It is an old tale, first published in 1719. At that time (and I suspect still today) many readers and non-readers took the adventures of Robinson Crusoe to be a true story of a real person and an actual adventure. The title for that first edition, in the style of the time, was The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.
I don’t think many people today are reading Robinson Crusoe but they may be familiar with the story or name – even if only because in the theme to Gilligan’s Island they sing “Like Robinson Crusoe, it’s primitive as can be.”
It is structured as an autobiography of Robinson (birth name Kreutznaer) and his time as a castaway for thirty years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad. Before he is rescued, he encounters cannibals, captives, and mutineers. Exciting stuff for a 10-year-old boy to encounter curled up in an armchair while eating some beef jerky for additional castaway effect.
I liked that even in the comic book version, it read like a journal. He builds a shelter and makes clothes and eventually befriends a native islander who he names Friday. Eventually, I saw a movie version of the story, but when I was reading the comic back in 1962, I also saw a cleaned-up, family film version of island survival called In Search Of The Castaways. No one should want to be stuck on some deserted island, but. of course, I did. As an adult, it all came back to me with the Tom Hanks’ film Castaway.
It wasn’t until I was an English major in college that I learned that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was regarded by many to be the first novel in English. I read it for a class and it was a serious reading. James Joyce noted that the true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe: “He is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” The interpretation in that classroom was that Crusoe tried to impose his society on the island via agriculture and his politics of being “king of the island” and by redeeming the savages, especially Friday, with his European ways. (Even though Defoe simultaneously criticizes the Spanish conquest of South America.)
I discovered in writing this that Daniel Defoe wrote over 250 books on economics, history, biography and crime, although we still know him best for the fiction, especially Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Roxana.
As an English major and teacher, I should say that Defoe’s books had a big impact on me, but honestly as a kid at that time the book that had a greater grip on me was The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) which had to have been influences by Defoe. It is another story I first encountered as a Classics Illustrated Comic but that I went on to read after in book form. (That was true of many of those comics for me.)
I recall that the book seemed to have a like of moralizing about the author’s, Johann David Wyss, beliefs about Christian faith, family values, and the virtues of self-reliance. I was more into the fishing, boat-building, guns and general camping-in-the-woods stuff that sounded like a lot of fun. And their treehouse. I loved that. I still dream of having a treehouse one day. And I still love islands.
The story has had many versions in comics, books and on television and in films. Again, I don’t know that kids are reading books like The Swiss Family Robinson these days. the style and vocabulary is tough, even if the general plot is appealing. The Disney film version was the one I saw as a kid and I haven’t seen it since, so I don’t know how dated it might seem to a kid today.
All of this revisiting of my youthful armchair adventuring was inspired by seeing that August 7 is the anniversary of Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki landing in French Polynesia back in 1947. The book Kon-Tiki was one I read was I was a young teen for a school book report. This true adventure is about a journey of 4300 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean by raft.
Thor Heyerdahl suspected that the South Sea Islands had been settled by an ancient race from thousands of miles to the east who traveled by rafts. Those people had been led on their ancient journey by a mythical Incan god named Kon-Tiki who walked the ocean.
He decided to prove his theory by duplicating the legendary voyage and on April 28, 1947, Heyerdahl and five other adventurers sailed from Peru on a balsa log raft. Balsa – like those little airplanes I had been buying and building all throughout my childhood.
They travels for three months on the open sea and hit storms, whales, sharks and everything you would expect. Finally, they sighted land. They had come to the Polynesian island of Puka Puka and took this as proof that early South Americans could have traveled across the Pacific and settled in the Polynesian Islands.
Of course, Heyerdahl and his crew of five had a radio, navigational equipment, watches and other modern conveniences and safety equipment, but the raft itself was made entirely of pre-Columbian materials. The crude craft was balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes with gaps for the water to drain out. It had a bamboo cabin with a roof of banana leaves. The mast was made of planks of mangrove, and it held a square sail. It was a replica of the rafts that native Peruvians were using at the time of the first European contact in the early 1500s. Heyerdahl named it Kon-Tiki.
I read the book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, that was published in 1948, and I saw a documentary film about the journey. It may have been the one Heyerdahl made when the book was released. I searched for it online and there are several film versions of the story including a dramatic movie based on the book.
I came across a few clips from the 1947 Heyerdahl documentary including this one that shows their encounter with the worlds biggest fish, the whaleshark.
I’m sure when I was 15, this would have had an exciting Moby-Dick adventure quality to it, but now I view it and wonder if they were in any danger and if there was any reason to attack the whaleshark other than to get some action footage.
Almost all my adventuring these days is of the armchair variety, and my take on survival and “helping the natives” has certainly gone in a very different direction from the ideas I had as a kid curled up with a blanket in a chair reading.