Cahokia news

Don’t get too excited by the headline over at Phys.org.  What they really seem to have found is that people continued to live in the Cahokia region even after the big population center “collapsed” or sort of dwindled out.

I call your attention to this article because it highlights what I love about archaeology: the extremes of methodology.  You read this and you’re like cool, new light on an ancient city.  How did they find it out?

To collect the evidence, White and colleagues paddled out into Horseshoe Lake, which is adjacent to Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, and dug up core samples of mud some 10 feet below the lakebed. By measuring concentrations of fecal stanols, they were able to gauge population changes from the Mississippian period through European contact.

These people are paddling out into a lake, dredging up mud, and testing it for human shit.

You know what?  There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.  There’s something so deeply funny and human about thinking that maybe in a thousand years or so some archaeologist will be studying your stool to find out what the hell you were up to.

 


The story of Cahokia

Anyone who traveled up the Mississippi in 1100 A.D. would have seen it looming in the distance: a four-level earthen mound bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza.  Around it like echoes were as many as 120 smaller mounds, some topped by tall wooden palisades, which were in turn ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals; carefully located fields of maize; and hundreds of wooden homes with mud-and-straw plastered floors and high-peaked, deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms.

Located near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, the Indian city of Cahokia was a busy port.  Canoes flitted like hummingbirds across its waterfront: traders bringing copper and mother-of-pearl from faraway places; hunting parties bringing such rare treats as buffalo and elk; emissaries and soldiers in long vessels bristling with weaponry; workers ferrying wood from upstream for the ever hungry cookfires; the ubiquitous fishers with their nets and clubs.  Covering five square miles and housing at least fifteen hundred people, Cahokia was the biggest concentration of people north of the Rio Grande until the 18th century.

That is from the great Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus.  

IMG_5493-1

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  Every American should read it.

Cahokia is very close to St. Louis – it’s about thirty miles away between what’s now East St. Louis and Collinsville, IL.

I wanted to visit, but I didn’t have a car.  I explained the predicament to the Ethiopian taxi driver who picked me up at the airport.  I asked him if he’d pick me up, take me there, wait an hour and take me back.  So the next morning he took me out there.  He and I visited the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center and Museum together.  We watched the award-winning 17 minute movie.  Cahokia Mounds is one of only 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the US, and they do a nice job.

“It was very interesting,” agreed the cab driver.

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The idea that native Americans built cities was and remains a challenging ideas to different views of what life was like here before 1492. It fights with both 19th century views of Indians as primitive savages, and later ideas that they were chilled out wanderers in perfect harmony with nature.

How many people lived at Cahokia?

6,000, say some archaeologists, 40,000 say others.  Charles Mann is really good at sorting through competing views of numbers, and if he says 1500 I’m prepared to believe him.  In the grandest view, the museum’s view, at one time Cahokia looked like this:

and like this:

How did Cahokia emerge?

Cahokia archaeology is wildly controversial.  But it seems like there’s more or less consensus that Cahokia grew up around the year 1000 in a “big bang.” Here’s Mann:

As the millennium approached, the American Bottom had a resident population of several thousand.  Then, without much apparent warning, there was, according to the archaeologist Timothy R. Pauketat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, what has been called a “Big Bang” – a few decades of tumultuous change.

To his way of thinking, the Big Bang occurred after a single ambitious person seized power, perhaps in a coup.  Although his reign may have begun idealistically, Cahokia quickly became an autocracy; in an Ozymandic extension of his ego, the supreme leader set in motion the construction projects.

Don’t worry: there’s lots of arguing already:

[William] Woods [of U. Kansas, who spent 20 years excavating the mounds] disagrees with what he calls the “proto-Stalinist work camp” scenario.  Nobody was forced to erect Monks Mound, he says.  Despite the intermittent displays of coercion, he says, Cahokians put it up “because they wanted to.”

Who knows?  Julian Jaynes might say that these people just started building because the two hemispheres of their brain weren’t yet in alignment so they heard voices like schizophrenics:

 

But that’s a topic for another day.

At the Cahokia gift shop, I picked up a copy of Pauketat’s book:

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It’s terrific, just the right length.  Pauketat says:

Civilizations can rise and fall, to adapt Margaret Mead’s famous quotation, as a result of the actions of a small group of people combined with the inaction of many others. Making sense of these actions and inacations can be a difficult task for archaeologists, who must distinguish between how people lived and how they wanted to be perceived as living.  Cahokia’s big bang is a case study in how people can combine to great historical change.

OK, groovy – but why did this happen around the year 1000?  If I can jump ahead in Pauketat’s story: This combination of the cultural power of immigrants and the economic base of Old Cahokia [don’t worry about that], with its access to large amounts of easy-to-farm river bottom, was a recipe for explosive growth.  That explosion might have been sparked early one morning in 1054.

On that morning, recorded by a Chinese astrologer as July 4, a brilliant new luminary appeared in the sky.  It was a “guest star,” a supernova, a visitor in the constellation Taurus, visible today with a high-powered telescope as the Crab Nebula.  One of only fifty supernovas ever recorded – only three in our own Milky Way galaxy* – this nuclear detonation was the last gasp of a dying star.  The inaudible explosion discharged a billion times more energy than the small star had previously emitted, and that morning a brilliant beacon – four times brighter than Venus – appeared in the daylight adjacent to a crescent moon…

Whatever i might have meant to the native peoples, a New Mexican Mimbres valley potter commemorated the celestial event by painting a pot with a star ad the foot of a crescent-shaped rabbit, a representation of the rabbit many indigenous North Americans believed resided in the moon.  Ancient rock art in Arizona also appears to illustrate the supernova, as do petrogylphs in Missouri, which show the moon and supernova astride rabbit tracks.  And in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a map of the night sky in July 1054 was painted on the sandstone cliffs above a palatial-sized, multi-story Great House called Penasco Blanco, under construction at about the same time in the middle of the eleventh century.  The pictograph shows the exploding star next to a crescent moon and a human hand, the later possibly representing a group of stars still known among Plains Indians today as the Hand constellation.  Also in Chaco Canyon, construction began around this time on a massive new kiva, an underground ceremonial building, now called Casa Rinconada, just south of the largest Great House, Pueblo Bonito.

Pause for a sec.  This is a sexy theory: a supernova creates a new star, and everyone goes into a religious building frenzy.  But let’s take a look at the Penasco Blanco petroglyph.  Here is is, in a photo by Ron Lussier:

Could it be that we’re stretching things a BIT here?  That star/moon pattern appears in other petrogylphs that weren’t from the 1054 period.

Anyway, here’s some things we do know about Cahokia:

They had human sacrifices. 

Pakutet, talking about Cahokia’s “Mound 72”:

Over the next four summers, Fowler’s crew turned up pit after pit and row after row of human skeletons in other parts of the mound.  The lengths and widths of the pits were precisely suited to contain exactly the number of bodies interred within them.  The excavation of the largest pit was supervised by Al Meyer, who noticed the telltale signs of a tomb originally lined with logs (which had since disintegrated) as he dug around the pit’s margins downward to the bottom.  At the bottom were the remains of fifty-three sacrificed women, fifty-two of whom were young (most between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five).  The fifty-third individual was an “elderly” (thirtyish) female, whom Meyer thought of as “the matron,” sparking the notion that she had been the elder wife of some man’s harem.  Since there were no skeletal indications of how the women had died, it is likely that they were poisoned or strangled or that their throats had been slit…

Nearby were:

the bodies of thirty-nine men and women who had, without a doubt, been executed on the spot. In the dispassionate language of a forensic report, Rose describes: […]

Evidence of violence also distinguishes these burials from the other mass graves.  Three individuals had been decapitated prior to being thrown into the pit.  The heads were thrown in before the burials were covered.  Another male appears to have been incompletely decapitated

They played a game called chunkey.  

Man, read about Cahokia and you are gonna hear a lot about chunkey.  It was a game where you rolled a stone, and then tried to hit it with a spear.  It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s all over what little art we have from the Mississippian culture.  Pakutet has a lot more patience than me for the differences in various chunkey stones found at Mississippian sites:

Anthropologists seem to think that this was the same game native Americans were playing seven centuries later when whites first saw them.  Said Swiss painter Rudolf Kurz, who was traveling around:

they bet high; here you may see a savage come and bring all his skins, stake them and lose them, next his pipe, his beads, trinkets and ornaments; at last his blankets and other garments, and even all their arms, and after all that is is not uncommon for them to go home, borrow a gun and shoot themselves; an instance of this happened in 1771 at East Yasoo a short time before my arrival.

Rudolf Kurz

I’m telling you, the guys who get into Cahokia get deep into chunkey:

Emerson took the next step.  He worked with a geologist and an archaeometric specialist to develop, with the aid of the National Science Foundation, a new short-wave, infrared-light-beam method of measuring the mineral composition of rock.  Their device is called a Portable Infrared Mineral Analyzer (PIMA for short) and has the advantage of being able to precisely measure a specimen’s mineralogy without damaging it.  Functioning like a ray gun, the PIMA is powerful enough to determine where the Chunkey Player pipe and two dozen other Cahokia-style objects were made.  Between 2000 and 2003, Emerson and his team published their results: the red stone sculptures were made not from bauxite but from a raw material called flintclay, which could have been obtained only at a single source of stone originating from an outcrop as close as twenty miles west of Cahokia.

I gotta say, chunkey does not seem that fun to me that I can understand why they were shooting themselves over it seven centuries after it was invented but I’ve never tried it.

They had massive feasts.

Based on the sheer density of excavated remains, individual feasts that took place over the course of just a few days would have involved killing, butchering, and carting in as many as thirty-nine hundred deer, the use of up to seventy-nine hundred pots, and enough smoking tobacco to produce more than a million charred tobacco seeds.

I have no idea how much tobacco that is.  A lot?  Worth noting that Charles Mann points out that the tobacco back then was way stronger, possibly even slightly hallucinogenic.

Now as I’m reviewing Pakutet’s book I can’t help but be impressed by how much he likes archaeology.  here he is talking about a site that wasn’t even very important, it was basically twelve huts from poor people who lived miles away from Cahokia Central:

The trash itself was impressive, in both amount and type.

Imagine spending years digging up people’s trash from a thousand years ago so you could make discoveries like “THEY ATE DOGS!” and “THEY ATE MOSTLY CORN”!

At Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center they make a big deal out of “borrow pits,” places where they took the dirt to make the mounds.  Borrow pits? It’s like: “dude, do you mean holes?”

God bless you, archaeologists.  Some of the characters he describes were pretty wild:

[Preston] Holder also joined the armed forces.  He signed up with the navy and was sent to fight the Japanese.  Years later, he would tell stories about his time as a coast watcher on a small island in the Pacific.  The Japanese had established an airbase on one side of the island, he was stationed on the opposite side, and the people of Espiritu Santo, who had practiced head-hunting before the war, were trapped in between.  Holder, intrepid archaeologist that he was, apparently convinced the natives to revive their traditional practice, and they began taking heads again, this time preying on the unsuspecting Japanese troops.  Holder’s unusual ploy demoralized the Japanese, and when American forces finally retook the island in 1945, the Japanese were all too ready to surrender.

They were into a mythological birdman.

That was the only Birdman image I saw at the Interpretive Center, but artist Herb Roe has painted a more fanciful depiction of the Birdman supposedly crucial to the Mississippian culture or “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.”

Now, what don’t we know about Cahokia?

What happened to them?

Nobody knows, seems to have collapsed around 1250.

Did they have any connection to the big cities that sprang up in Mexico?

There’s no evidence of it, really, unless you realllllllly stretch the birdman idea.  Some of the archaeologists got into the idea that the 52 human sacrifices has something to do with the Mayan calendar, but c’mon bros.

I find the idea of a pre-Columbian city in the what’s now United States fascinating, and the tantalizing, inevitably frustrating effort to sort out what was going on in a place that left no record is a cool mystery.  As usual, the history about the history is as good as the history.  Here we have archaeologists spending five years digging in the mud of Illinois to try and figure out why people 1000 years ago dug in the mud of Illinois.

On the other hand, what we’re talking about is some piles of dirt.

Anyway, glad someone’s working on it.

By the way, for more on the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, check out this great essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan.  

 

 


Stagolee Shot Billy

In a St. Louis tavern on Christmas night in 1895 Lee Shelton (a pimp also known as Stack Lee) killed William Lyons in a fight over a hat. There were other murders that night, but this one became the stuff of legend. Songs based on the event soon spread out of whorehouses and ragtime dives across the country. Within 40 years, Stagolee had evolved into a folk hero, a symbol of rebellion for black American males. With commendable scholarship and thoroughness, Brown shows how we got from the murder to the myth.

so says Leopold Froehlich in Playboy, quoted on the book’s back cover. I’ve been curious about this book since I first heard about it, finally pulled the trigger. Just that a book like this exists brings joy.

The murder was around 11th and Morgan in St. Louis, which today looks like this:

Should it be a UNESCO site? Paired perhaps with another St. Louis place of myth and violence, Cahokia?


The Supernova pictograph

Regular readers of this website will know I’ve expressed some reservations about whether the Peñasco Blanco pictograph actually depicts a supernova from the year 1054 AD.  It’s an exciting theory.  For background, here’s what Timothy Pauketat has to say about it in his excellent book on Cahokia:

On that morning, recorded by a Chinese astrologer as July 4, a brilliant new luminary appeared in the sky.  It was a “guest star,” a supernova, a visitor in the constellation Taurus, visible today with a high-powered telescope as the Crab Nebula.  One of only fifty supernovas ever recorded – only three in our own Milky Way galaxy* – this nuclear detonation was the last gasp of a dying star.  The inaudible explosion discharged a billion times more energy than the small star had previously emitted, and that morning a brilliant beacon – four times brighter than Venus – appeared in the daylight adjacent to a crescent moon…

Whatever i might have meant to the native peoples, a New Mexican Mimbres valley potter commemorated the celestial event by painting a pot with a star ad the foot of a crescent-shaped rabbit, a representation of the rabbit many indigenous North Americans believed resided in the moon.  Ancient rock art in Arizona also appears to illustrate the supernova, as do petrogylphs in Missouri, which show the moon and supernova astride rabbit tracks.  And in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a map of the night sky in July 1054 was painted on the sandstone cliffs above a palatial-sized, multi-story Great House called Peñasco Blanco, under construction at about the same time in the middle of the eleventh century.  The pictograph shows the exploding star next to a crescent moon and a human hand, the later possibly representing a group of stars still known among Plains Indians today as the Hand constellation.  Also in Chaco Canyon, construction began around this time on a massive new kiva, an underground ceremonial building, now called Casa Rinconada, just south of the largest Great House, Pueblo Bonito.

There was a “big bang” culturally in North America around 1000 AD, and it is interesting that around that same time, there were two supernovas, bright new stars in the sky.

Recently I had the opportunity to have a look at the so-called Supernova Pictograph in its location in Chaco Canyon, New Mex.  Seeing it myself provoked some thought.

One observation is that there’s a huge amount of rock art in Chaco Canyon.  I consider myself kind of a petroglyph enthusiast, but even for a passionate fan, there’s a lot.  You’ll actually get pretty bored of looking at petroglyphs.  Much of the rock art in the canyon is striking and weird.

Some of it feels pretty crude and amateur, or could be attributed to later visitors.

But the Super-Nova / Peñasco Blanco pictograph really stands out, both in vividness and in the drama of its location.

It’s almost upside down.  Was it painted Sistine Chapel style?

The pictoglyph is on what I guess? could be a very old trail, that leads up from Chaco Wash to a mesa where the Peñasco Blanco “great house” sits.  The Peñasco Blanco site is huge:

It was three stories tall and had 300 rooms.  Construction had begun by the 900s, so before the appearance of the supernovas of the 1000s.

The structure was laid out with some thought to north-south alignment, as most Chaco sites seem to have been.  To me it does suggest something like an astronomical theater:

On the day I was there I was the only person around, which is a spooky feeling.

The site reminded me of Irish monastic sites from the same era:

Certainly whoever was hanging around Peñasco Blanco was interested in the sky.

The park service is not shy about identifying this pictoglyph as depicting a super-nova:

Note the sign, bottom right.  But I’m just not sure the evidence is there.

Krupp’s investigations have ultimately caused him to dismiss all of the connections between Southwest cave paintings and the Crab supernova. “I am certain that star-crescent combos have absolutely nothing to do with the 1054 A.D. event,” he said. While some may indeed be celestial symbols, “their meaning varies with culture and time.”

from a 2014 Scientific American piece, “‘Supernova’ Cave Art Myth Debunked,” by Clara Moskowitz.

On the other hand:

from a 1979 paper, “The 1054 Supernova and Native American Rock Art,” by Brandt, J. C. & Williamson, R. A. in the Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, Vol. 10, p.S1

There’s no way to reliably date a work like this.  Chaco Canyon was occupied or had at least semi-frequent visitors around 1054 AD, and these visitors were absolutely interested in sky events.  The dating of the pictograph is usually attributed to nearby pottery shards.  You can still find ancient pottery lying around all over the place.

obviously reader I left this where I found it.

One thing is clear: if these people had a message they wanted to leave for us from one thousand plus years ago, it is “hand – crescent – star.”

A day before visiting this site I had lunch with a friend of mine who works on shooting lasers at rocks on Mars to determine their chemical makeup.  We’re still OBSESSED with the sky!


Mississippi Mound Trail

On one of the episodes of Theme Time Radio Hour Bob Dylan himself says that the actual highway 61 is boring now, nothing but ads for riverboat casinos.  That may be true south of Vicksburg but north of the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum and the Catfish Row Art Park, I found the road compelling.

Mississippi Fred McDowell was born of course in Rossville, Tennessee.

It was Dave [David L. Cohn] in God Shakes Creation who said, “The Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” He was always welcome at the Peabody; they were glad to see him – he stayed there whenever he was in Memphis – but they never even gave him a cup of coffee, and he thought it was rather amusing that they had so little appreciation of this publicity.

So says Uncle Shelby, of Greenville and Memphis:

Since we’d been to Memphis we steered towards Oxford Miss to visit Faulkner’s house:

On Highway 61 lots of blues type sites, Muddy Waters’ birthplace for instance:

marked by signs for the Mississippi Blues Trail.  But many signs tell you you are also on the Mississippi Mound Trail.

Mounds make a thousand or more years ago by some lost culture, perhaps connected to the people who built Cahokia:

And where in the beginning the predecessors crept with their simple artifacts, and built the mounds and vanished, bequeathing only the mounds in which the succeeding recordable Muskhogean stock would leave the skulls of their warriors and chiefs and babies and slain bears, and the shards of pots, and hammer- and arrow-heads and now and then a heavy silver Spanish spur.

So says Faulkner in his essay Mississippi.  In Sanctuary he says:

The sunny air was filled with competitive radios and phonographs in the doors of drug- and music- stores.  Before these doors a throng stood all day, listening.  The pieces which moved them were ballads simple in melody and theme, of bereavement and retribution and repentance metallically sung, blurred, emphasised by static or needle – disembodied voices blaring from imitation wood cabinets or pebble-grain horn-mouths above the rapt faces, the gnarled slow hands long shaped to the imperious earth, lugubrious, harsh, and sad.

You can only listen to so much of that though; when I pulled over for Dunn Mounds I was listening to Maron interview Jennifer Lawrence.

The Raven map tells the story of the Delta.  Another flooding bottomland is the Nile delta:

where they also kept slaves, and built mounds.

great tour of the Blues Trail sites here on Wiki by Chillin662.


Training Literature Field Unit No. 1

Helytimes began in 2012.  Our idea was

  1. become good at writing for the Internet
  2. a writer should have a website
  3. have a space to collect, digest and share items of interest.

We’ve tried to come up with a mission statement or guiding purpose, but the truth is, this is stuff we had to get out of our head.

The healthiest thing to do was share it.

The best way to put it might be a place to share crazy interesting things we’ve come across.

Since then we’ve published over 1,050 posts.  We’re just now starting to get good at it, in our opinion.

Here are the twenty-one most popular posts:

  1. No On Measure S (by guest Hayes)

The moral here is probably that we should start a local LA news-and-takes site written by other people.

  1. Sundown, Gordon Lightfoot (1974)

  2. Mountaineering Movies on Netflix Instant, Ranked

  3. Fred Trump

  4. Cinderella and Interrogation Technique

  5. The Great Debates 

  6. Karl Ove Knausgaard

  7. Fascinated by: Ray Dalio

  8. How Big Was Mexico City in 1519?

  9. American Historical Figure Who Reminds Me Of Trump

  10. Losing The War by Lee Sandlin 

  11. Conversations With Kennedy

  12. Oil Wells In National Parks

  13. THE WONDER TRAIL 

  14. Gay Hobo Slang

  15. Vertigo Sucks

  16. Jackie Smoking Pregnant

  17. The story of Cahokia

  18. Ireland should take in two million refugees 

  19. Twenty Greatest Australian Artistic Accomplishments of All Time 

  20. The White House Pool 

One lesson here might be to have more local LA journalism written by other people.  Keep meaning to start a whole site for that but I do have a full-time job plus several other projects.

In our opinion the most successful post on Helytimes was

Record Group 80: Series: General Photographic File Of the Department of the Navy, 1943-1958 

although it didn’t crack the top 21, just felt like a time where we added something of value to the Internet and readers responded.

It’s about the work of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, also known as the Training Literature Field Unit No. 1, assembled by the great photographer Edward Steichen.

One thread of Helytimes is attempts to reach into the past and find the sources that give us understanding of the past.

Two personal favorites:

Everything is something.

and

Special Snowflakes

This has been the annual performance review and address to the Helytimes readership:

That photo taken by one of Steichen’s guys, Wayne Miller:


The Generals by Thomas Ricks

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This book is so full of compelling anecdotes, character studies, and surprising, valuable lessons of leadership that I kind of can’t believe I got to it before Malcolm Gladwell or David Brooks or somebody scavenged it for good stories.

Generaling

Consider how hard it would be to get fifteen of your friends to leave for a road trip at the same time.  How much coordination and communication it would take, how likely it was to get fucked up.

Now imagine trying to move 156,000 people across the English Channel, and you have to keep it a surprise, and on the other side there are 50,350 people waiting to try and kill you.

The Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment's bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War. Dominic D'Andrea, commissioned by the National Guard Heritage Foundation

The Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment’s bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War. Dominic D’Andrea, commissioned by the National Guard Heritage Foundation

Even at a lower scale, say a brigade, a brigadier general might oversee say 4,500 people and hundreds of vehicles.  Those people must be clothed, fed, housed, their medical problems attended to.  Then they have to be armed, trained, given ammo.  You have to find the enemy, kill them, evacuate the wounded, stay in communication, and keep a calm head as many people are trying to kill you and the situation is changing rapidly and constantly.

32nd Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Ed Hansen, on floor in front of podium, accepts reports from battalion command sergeants major as the brigade forms at the start of the Feb. 17 send-off ceremony at the Dane County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Madison, Wis. Family members and public officials bade farewell to some 3,200 members of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and augmenting units, Wisconsin Army National Guard, in the ceremony. The unit is bound for pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, followed by a deployment of approximately 10 months for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Larry Sommers.

32nd Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Ed Hansen, on floor in front of podium, accepts reports from battalion command sergeants major as the brigade forms at the start of the Feb. 17 send-off ceremony at the Dane County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Madison, Wis. Family members and public officials bade farewell to some 3,200 members of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and augmenting units, Wisconsin Army National Guard, in the ceremony. The unit is bound for pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, followed by a deployment of approximately 10 months for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Larry Sommers.

Being a general is a challenging job, I guess is my point.

mattis-and-dempsey

U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, talk on board a C-17 while flying to Baghdad, Dec. 15, 2011.  Source.

I saw this post about Gen. Mattis, possible future Secretary of Defense, on Tom Ricks blog:

A SecDef nominee at war?: What I wrote about General Mattis in ‘The Generals’

The story was so compelling that I immediately ordered Mr. Ricks’ book:

img_8948

A fantastic read.  Eye-opening, shocking, opinionated, compelling.

The way that Marc Norman’s book on screenwriting works as a history of Hollywood:

whn

The Generals works as a kind of history of the US since World War II.   I’d list it with 1491: New Revelations On The Americas Before Columbus as a book I think every citizen should read.

The observation that drives The Generals is this: commanding troops in combat is insanely difficult.  Many generals will fail.  Officers who performed well at lower ranks might completely collapse.

During World War II, generals who failed to perform were swiftly relieved of command.  (Often, they were given second chances, and many stepped up).

Since World War II, swift relief of underperforming generals has not been the case.  The results for American military effectiveness have been devastating.  Much of this book describes catastrophe and disaster, as I guess war is even under the best of circumstances and the finest leadership.

Ricks is such a good writer, so engaging and compelling.  He knows to include stuff like this:

eisenhower

Ricks describes the catastrophes that result from bad military leadership.  How about this, in Korea?:

korea

What kind of effect did this leadership have, in Vietnam?:

fulton

He discusses the relationship of presidents and their generals:

deckers-advice

shitheads

Here is LBJ, years later, describing his nightmares:

lbj

Ricks can be blunt:

westmoreland

Hard lessons the Marines had learned:

advice

marines

Symbolically, There’s a Warning Signal Against Them as Marines Move Down the Main Line to Seoul From RG: 127 General Photograph File of the U.S. Marine Corps National Archives Identifier: 5891316 Local Identifier: 127-N-A3206

A hero in the book is O. P. Smith

smith

who led the Marines’ reverse advance at the Chosin Resevoir, when it was so cold men’s toes were falling off from frostbite inside their boots:

marine-corps-hymn

The story of what they accomplished is incredible, worth a book itself.  Here’s Ricks talking about the book and Smith.

A continued challenge for generals is to understand the strategic circumstances they are operating under, and the political limitations that constrain them.

 

031206-F-2828D-373 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld walks with Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez after arriving at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on Dec. 6, 2003. Rumsfeld is in Iraq to meet with members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, senior military leaders and the troops deployed there. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

031206-F-2828D-373
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld walks with Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez after arriving at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on Dec. 6, 2003. Rumsfeld is in Iraq to meet with members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, senior military leaders and the troops deployed there. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force. (Released) source

iraq

Recommend this book.  One of the best works of military history I’ve ever read, and a sobering reflection on leadership, strategy, and the United States.


Treated myself to a couple

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from Bowie’s top 100 books.  Will report!  He was a fan of Jaynes and Chatwin as well.

In my limited experience musicians are always reading a lot!

 


Khipus

 

khipu 3

A khipu from the Museo Radicati in Lima, photo from Harvard’s Khipu Database Project website.

We know that the ancient Inca used systems of rope-based accounting called quipus or khipus.  Beyond that, it seems like many scholars have come close to losing their marbles trying to sort them out.

Were they something like an abacus?  Musical notation?  A binary system like a simple computer code?  How about this, from Wikipedia:

The Khipu Database Project (KDP), begun by Gary Urton, may have already decoded the first word from a quipu—the name of a village, Puruchuco, which Urton believes was represented by a three-number sequence, similar to a ZIP code. If this conjecture is correct, quipus are the only known example of a complex language recorded in a 3-D system.

quipus

Marcia and Robert Ascher, a married couple, he an anthropologist and she a mathematician, collaborated on on ethnomathematic projects, including a good hard look at quipus/khipus and came up with this :

For example, if 4s represents four simple knots, 3L represents a long knot with three turns, E represents a figure-of-eight knot and X represents a space:

  • The number 731 would be represented by 7s, 3s, E.
  • The number 804 would be represented by 8s, X, 4L.
  • The number 107 followed by the number 51 would be represented by 1s, X, 7L, 5s, E.

This reading can be confirmed by a fortunate fact: quipus regularly contain sums in a systematic way. For instance, a cord may contain the sum of the next n cords, and this relationship is repeated throughout the quipu. Sometimes there are sums of sums as well. Such a relationship would be very improbable if the knots were incorrectly read.

Marcia Ascher

Marcia Ascher

Robert Ascher

Robert Ascher, both pictures from their obituaries over on legacy.com

Now comes news in the NY Times, “Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery” by William Neuman, that some quipus have been found in an excavated Incan storehouse in Incahuasi, Peru:

Incahuasi

Incahuasi, from wiki.

Says the Times:

Now the Incahuasi researchers hope that by studying the khipus and comparing them with others in a large database, they may find that the khipus discovered with the peanuts contain a color, knot or other signifier for “peanut.” The same goes for those found with chili peppers, beans and corn.

“We can look at how the chili pepper khipu differs from the peanut khipu and from the corn khipu in terms of their color and other characteristics and we can build up a kind of sign vocabulary of how they were signifying this or that thing in their world,” said Gary Urton, a leading expert on khipus who is studying the new trove with Alejandro Chu, the archaeologist who led the excavation.

“It’s not the great Rosetta Stone but it’s quite an important new body of data to work with,” he said, adding, “It’s tremendously exciting.”

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Prof. Gary Urton, from the website for Harvard’s Khipu Database Project.

Prof. Urton has been working on khipu for almost as long as I’ve been alive.  He started his archaeological career helping out at Cahokia.

The Times article introduces us to Patricia Landa, who cleans and untangles the khipu.  It sounds like she takes a reverse Marie Kondo approach:

“You have a very special relationship with the material,” Ms. Landa, 59, said. “I talk to them. I say, ‘Excuse me for disturbing your rest but you’re helping us to understand your ancestors.’ ”

There is something deeply moving and wonderful and absurd and human about spending years of your life trying to decipher how 15th century people counted beans and corn.  What a worthy challenge to try and sort this out:

khipu

William Neuman for NY Times

To the khipu guys and gals, I say: good luck.

You can read more about khipu/quipu and the Inca/Inka in my book, The Wonder Trail: True Stories From Los Angeles To The End Of The World, coming June 2016.


Summer

Summer

Wait!  You can’t be shut down for summer!  I need my Helytimes!

writes reader Melanie in Nashville.  Aw, thanks!  Don’t worry, there’s tons to read… in the archive!

long room

There have been over 560 posts on Helytimes.  Here are the ten most popular:

1) Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot

Off the charts most popular post, because of people googling supposed inspiration/John Belushi partyfriend Cathy Smith

2) Great Debates

Those’ll keep coming over the summer!  

3) Cinderella and Interrogation Technique

Disney + Nazis will bring ’em in. 

4) The Story Of Cahokia

A personal passion

5) What was up with European witch trials?

Feel like this is my wheelhouse, summarizing dense history of the general reader, but it’s a lot of work to write posts like this. 

6) Ships’ Cats

I mean, for Convoy alone. 

7) Karl Ove Knausgaard

The “it man” of Norwegian literature! 

8) Finis Mitchell

Just a real great story.  

9) Losing The War by Lee Sandlin

This blew my mind, some of the best writing I’ve ever read on WWII. 

10) Coaches, parts 1 and 2.

About Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, and Bill Belichick

Now, here are just some personal favorites:

– Record Group 80: Series: General Photographic File Of the Department of the Navy, 1943-1958

Almonds and Water

Everything is Something

Fitzhugh Lane

O’Donoghue’s Opera

– Marc Isambard Brunel

Here’s stuff related to a current project:

The Conquest Of New Spain by Bernal Diaz

Tenochtitlan

Wade Davis

– Breaking The Maya Code

Here is some backstory on Donald Trump, lately in the news:

You can also browse yourself by category.  Probably the deepest holes are

America Since 1945

The California Condition

Music

– Painting and Art

See you later!