Journeys in the Past

I’ve recently read or re-read three books that deal with new aspects of familar subjects: Ancient Egypt, the Discovery of America and Pompeii.

Mary Beard’s Pompeii : the life of a Roman town,  follows a book that I thought was the definitive work on the subject released only in 2005. That book was readable and informative. However, true to form Beard’s managed to make one reassess preconceptions of an overworked topic. She  critically reassesses the casualty rate (many of the bodies were those of people returning after the eruption), the location of bodies (cynically noting how the discovery of corpses seemed to coincide with the arrival of prominent visitors in the eighteenth century), makes one think twice about the alleged bawdiness of the city (not every other house was a brothel) and points out that the life of the place was not fixed: the buildings were a confused melange of several centuries rather than a town whose buildings all date from the same decade.  Her main success is in bringing the place and its people alive and making one think twice before accepting the conclusions drawn by archaeologists.

A similar achievement is performed by my other two authors:

A neglected part of Egyptian history is its period under Roman occupation. I’ve long been captivated by the mummy cases of that era decorated with the portraits of the occupants. Fortunately British  archaeologists have been digging in rubbish pits of an obscure village since the beginning of the twentieth century. Once this was a Greek settlement of importance and while their discoveries have not the glamour of the Valley of the Kings, they provide a useful insight into the thoughts and deeds of the inhabitants. Huge quantities of rubbish in the form of papyrus scraps have been unearthed, cleaned and deciphered and the results reveal a people very similar to ourselves. ‘We are already missing your turds ‘ says one friendly greeting.

Underwhelmed by his sight of Plymouth Rock, Tony Horwitz realised how ignorant he (like many of his fellow Americans) was of the people who had discovered his country. Starting off with Columbus, who never set foot on the mainland, he traces the footsteps of the predecessors of the Pilgrim Fathers. And what a motley crew they were: French Huguenots, Franciscan friars, Vikings and English incompetents. But the most charismatic are the marauding armies of Spanish conquistadors, intent on finding the lost cities of Gold, killing all who opposed them and most doomed for an unpleasant death. Almost half the American mainland was explored before the Pilgrims arrived and the story of these adventurers deserves fuller coverage.

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