February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

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In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

220px-Plainofjars_1The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

urnOn February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

February 14, 269, Valentine’s Day

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Valentine twice, first as a church elder on July 6, and again as a martyr on the 30th.  That would suit the greeting card companies just fine, but don’t tell them.  Once a year is enough for some of us to remember. 

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Bronze likeness of Barbarian Emperor Claudius II, “The Cruel”

In the third century AD, Roman Emperor Claudius II was having trouble recruiting for his legions. To many he was “Claudius the Cruel” which may have had something to do with his problem, but that’s not how he saw it.

To Emperor Claudius, such reluctance could only mean that Roman men were excessively devoted to their wives and families.  The solution was obvious – ban all engagements and marriages.

Valentinus was a Roman priest at this time, who wanted no part of such a silly decree. Valentinus continued to carry out marriages in secret until it was discovered, when he was dragged before the Prefect to answer for his crimes.

Claudius came to like his prisoner, for whom things could have gone much better, but for one critical mistake. He tried to convert the pagan Emperor to Christianity.

Valentinus was condemned to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded, the sentence carried out on February 14 in the year AD269.

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Valentinus

Legend has it that Valentinus befriended his jailers’ blind daughter, at one point miraculously restoring the girl’s sight. He is said to have penned a farewell note to her shortly before his execution, signing it “From Your Valentine.”

2,000-year-old history is necessarily clouded by legend, and there are different versions of this tale. It’s possible that Valentinus’ story never happened at all.  Little or no evidence exists suggesting romantic celebrations on February 14, until Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1375 “Parliament of Foules,” in which the poet describes the mating habits, of birds:  “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”.

Yet, there is concrete archaeological proof that Valentinus lived.  Pope Gelasius decreed February 14th to be a celebration in honor of his martyrdom, in 496.

The date is also significant of the pagan festival of Lupercalia, carried out from February 13-15 in honor of the goddess Februata Juno. Greek historian Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.120) described the occasion as follows: “Lupercalia, [when] many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

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It wasn’t the every-day guys of Rome who would run about oiled and naked, either.  This was the upper crust of Roman society.  Plutarch writes in chapter 61 of his Life of Julius Caesar, that Consul Mark Antony offered Caesar the diadem with the wreath of laurel during the festival of Lupercalia, and Antony was no spectator.   He was taking part in the “sacred running”.  Think about That, the next time your local drama club puts on a performance of Julius Caesar.

There are, in fact, about a dozen Saint Valentines, the most recently beatified being Saint.Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Dominican friar who served as bishop of Vietnam until his beheading in 1861. There was even a Pope Valentine, who served about 40 days, sometime around  827AD.

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So, take your pick.  With all those Saint Valentines, you can celebrate St. Valentine of Viterbo on November 3, or maybe you’d like to get a head start with St. Valentine of Raetia, on January 7.  Perhaps you’d prefer the only female St. Valentine (Valentina), a virgin martyred in Palestine on July 25, in the year AD308.

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Valentine twice, first on July 6 as an elder of the church, and again as a martyr on the 30th.  That would suit the greeting card companies just fine, but don’t tell them.  Once a year is enough for some of us to remember.

January 30, 1948 Madame, I Think You’re Missing a Monkey

The Confucian maxim may have crossed from China to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, sometime around the 8th century. At the time, the story had nothing to do with monkeys.

The Analects of Confucius is a written record of the sayings of the philosopher and his contemporaries, compiled between 475 and 221BC. In it, a follower named Yen Yüan asked the Master about perfect virtue. Confucius said, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, all under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him”.

220px-Commentaries_of_the_Analects_of_Confucius“I beg to ask the steps of that process”, asked the student.  Confucius replied, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety. Listen not to what is contrary to propriety. Speak not what is contrary to propriety. Make no movement which is contrary to propriety”.

It was an ancient idea, even then. Zarathrusta, also known as Zoroaster, is in some respects the father of the world’s first monotheistic religion. It was sometime around 1200BC when Zoroaster taught his followers on the high Iranian Plateau “Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta”.  “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.

The Confucian maxim may have crossed from China to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, sometime around the 8th century. At the time, the story had nothing to do with monkeys.

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3 Wise Monkeys by Yannick Bouchard

In medieval Japanese, mi-zaru, kika-zaru, and iwa-zaru translate as “don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t speak”, -zaru being an archaic negative verb conjugation and pronounced similarly to “saru”, the word for monkey.

download (8)The visual play on words, then, depicts Iwazaru covering his mouth, Kikazaru covering his ears, and Mizaru covering his eyes.

Though it’s unusual to see him anymore, there is a fourth monkey.  Shizaru is generally depicted with his arms crossed or covering his privates, his name variously translated as “do no evil”, or “know no evil”.

The first known depiction of the “Three Mystic Apes” appears over the doors of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan, carved sometime in the 17th century.

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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a Hindu lawyer, member of the merchant caste from coastal Gujarat, in western India. Today he is known by the honorific “Mahatma”, from Gandhithe Sanskrit “high-souled”, or “venerable”.

Ghandi is recognized as the Father of modern India, who brought Independence to his country through non-violent protest. Mohandas Gandhi lived a life of poverty and simplicity, owning almost no material possessions at the time of his assassination by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Vinayak Godse on January 30, 1948.

Beside the clothes on his back, Gandhi owned a tin cup and a spoon, a pair of sandals, his spectacles and a set of three carved monkeys, reminding him to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 19, 1864, St. Albans Raid

The $1 million the Confederate government sunk into their Canadian office, probably did them more harm than good.  Those resources could have been put to better use.

In the late 18th century, lands granted by the governor of New Hampshire led the colonial province into conflict with the neighboring province of New York.  Conflict escalated over jurisdiction and appeals were made to the King, as the New York Supreme Court invalidated these “New Hampshire grants”.  Infuriated residents including Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” rose up in anger.  Two natives of Westminster Vermont, then part of the New Hampshire land grants, were killed on March 13, 1775, by British Colonial officials.  Today, the event is remembered as the “Westminster Massacre”.

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The New Hampshire Grants region petitioned Congress for entry into the American union as a state independent of New York in 1776″ – H/T, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Hampshire_Grants

The battles at Lexington and Concord broke out a month later, ushering in a Revolution and eclipsing events to the north.  New York consented to admitting the “Republic of Vermont” into the union in 1790, ceding all claims on the New Hampshire land grants in exchange for a payment of $30,000.  Vermont was admitted as the 14th state on March 4, 1791, the first state so admitted following the adoption of the federal Constitution.

Organized in 1785, St. Albans forms the county seat of Franklin County, Vermont.  15 miles from the Canadian border and situated on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, it’s not the kind of place you’d expect, for a Civil War story.

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St. Albans Vermont, 1864

The Confederate States of America maintained government operations in Canada, from the earliest days of the Civil War.  Toronto was a logical relay point for communications with Great Britain, from whom the Confederate government sought unsuccessfully to gain support.

Secondly, Canada provided a safe haven for prisoners of war, escaped from Union camps.

Former member of Congress and prominent Ohio “Peace Democrat” Clement Vallandigham fled the United States to Canada in 1863, proposing to detach the states of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio from the Union, in exchange for sufficient numbers of Confederate troops to enforce the separation.  Vallandigham’s five-state “Northwestern Confederacy” would include Kentucky and Missouri, breaking the Union into three pieces.  Surely that would compel Washington to sue for peace.

ThomasHinesin1884fromHeadleyIn April 1864, President Jefferson Davis dispatched former Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson, ex-Alabama Senator Clement Clay, and veteran Confederate spy Captain Thomas Henry Hines to Toronto, with the mission of raising hell in the North.

This was no small undertaking. A sizeable minority of Peace Democrats calling themselves “Copperheads” were already in vehement opposition to the war.  So much so that General Ambrose Burnside declared in his General Order No. 38, that “The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this” (Ohio) “department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried. . .or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department“.

Hines and fellow Confederates worked closely with Copperhead organizations such as the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Order of the American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty, to foment uprisings in the upper Midwest.

In the late Spring and early Summer of 1864, residents of Maine may have noted an influx of “artists”, sketching the coastline.  No fewer than fifty in number, these nature lovers were in fact Confederate topographers, sent to map the Maine coastline.

Rebels on the great LakesThe Confederate invasion of Maine never materialized, thanks in large measure to counter-espionage efforts by Union agents.

J.Q. Howard, the U.S. Consul in St. John, New Brunswick, informed Governor Samuel Cony in July, of a Confederate party preparing to land on the Maine coast.

The invasion failed to materialize, but three men declaring themselves to be Confederates were captured on Main Street in Calais, preparing to rob a bank.

Disenchanted Rebel Francis Jones confessed to taking part in the Maine plot, revealing information leading to the capture of several Confederate weapons caches in the North, along with operatives in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio.

Captain Hines planned an early June uprising in the Northwest, timed to coincide with a raid planned by General John Hunt Morgan.  Another uprising was planned for August 29, timed with the 1864 Democratic Convention in Chicago.   It seems the conspirators’ actions didn’t quite live up to the heat of their rhetoric, and both operations fizzled.  A lot of these guys were more talk than action, yet Captain Hines continued to send enthusiastic predictions of success, back to his handlers in Richmond.

The Toronto operation tried political methods as well, supporting Democrat James Robinson’s campaign for governor of Illinois.  If elected they believed, Robinson would turn over the state’s militia and arsenal to the Sons of Liberty.  They would never know.  Robinson lost the election.

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Bennett Henderson Young

All this cost money, and lots of it.  In October 1864, the Toronto operation came to St. Albans, to make a withdrawal.

Today, St. Albans is a quiet town of 6,918.  In 1864 the town was quite wealthy, home to manufacturing and repair facilities for railroad locomotives.  Located on a busy rail line, St. Albans was also home to four banks.

Nicholasville, Kentucky native Bennett Henderson Young was a member of the Confederate 8th Kentucky Cavalry, captured during Morgan’s 1863 raid into Ohio.  By January, Young had escaped captivity and fled to Canada. On October 10, Bennett crossed the Canadian border with two others, taking a room at the Tremont House, in St. Albans.  The trio said they had come for a “sporting vacation”.

In the following days, small groups filtered into St. Albans, quietly taking rooms across the town.  There were 21 of them, former POWs and cavalrymen all, hand selected by Young for their daring and resourcefulness.

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On October 19 the group split up.  Announcing themselves to be Confederate soldiers, groups of them simultaneously robbed three of St. Albans’ four banks, while eight or nine held the townspeople at gunpoint, on the village green.  One resident was killed before it was over and another wounded. Young ordered his troops to burn the town, but the bottles of “Greek Fire” they carried for the purpose, failed to ignite.  Only one barn was burned down and the group got away with a total of $208,000, and all the horses they could find. It was the northernmost Confederate action of the Civil War.

StAlbansRaid, memoriaizedThe group was arrested on returning to Canada and held in Montreal.  The Lincoln administration sought extradition, but the Canadian court decided otherwise, ruling that the raiders were under military orders at the time, and neutral Canada could not extradite them to America.  The $88,000 found with the raiders, was returned to Vermont.

The $1 million the Confederate government sunk into their Canadian office, probably did them more harm than good.  Those resources could have been put to better use, but we have the advantage of hindsight.  Neither Captain Hines nor Jefferson Davis could know how their story would turn out.  In the end, they both fell victim to that greatest of human weaknesses, of believing what they wanted to believe.

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September 12, 1940 Lascaux Caves

Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.  Four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzer columns had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people shocked and prostrate in the wake of their surrender, that June.  All those years their government had told them, the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot Line was more than a match for the German military.

France had fallen in six weeks.

On June 18, Charles DeGaulle addressed the French nation from his exile in Great Britain, exhorting his countrymen to fight on.  Resist.  The idea caught on quickly in occupied regions.

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the southern part of “La Métropole” in July, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Resistance against this new government in Vichy was slower to form.  This was, after all a French government, and French attitudes took a decidedly anti-English turn with the July 3 British attack on the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kébir.

Before long, Vichy’s collaborationist policies hardened French attitudes against itself. The French Resistance was born.

Sometime around this period, a tree fell unseen near the French village of Montignac.  On September 12, 1940, 18-year old Marcel Ravidat was walking his black & white mongrel dog “Robot”, in the woods.  Coming upon the downed tree, the pair noticed a deep hole had opened up, where the tree had once stood.  Stories differ as to which of the two went down the hole first, but it soon became clear.  Marcel Ravidat and his dog had discovered something more than a mere hole in the ground.

The boy returned to the site with three buddies, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas.  Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.

History is no single narrative.  It is a thousand times a thousand, each layered and intertwined with the other.  Here, four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

Lascaux 1The Lascaux Caves are located in the Dordogne region, in Southwestern France.  Some 17,000 years ago, Upper Paleolithic artists mixed mineral pigments such as iron oxide (ochre), haematite, and goethite, suspending pigments in animal fat, clay or the calcium-rich groundwater of the caves themselves.  Shading and depth were added with charcoal.

Colors were swabbed or blotted onto surfaces.  There is no evidence of brushwork.  Sometimes, pigments were placed in a hollow tube, and blown onto the wall.  Where the cave rock is softer, images are engraved.

The colour, size, quality and quantity of the images at Lascaux, are astonishing.  Abbé Breuil, a Catholic priest and the first expert to examine its walls, called it the “Sistine chapel of prehistory”.

Lascaux 3The artist or artists who created such images, nearly 2,000 of them occupying some 37 chambers, would have been recognizable as modern humans.  Living as they did some 5,000 years before the Holocene Glacial Retreat, (yes, they had “climate change” back then), these cave-dwellers were pre-agricultural, subsisting on what they could find, or what they could kill.

More than 900 of their images are recognizable as animals. 605 of them have been precisely identified. Hundreds of images depict horses, stags, cattle, lions and bison.  Other subjects appear with less frequency.  There are seven cats, a bird, a bear, a wooly rhinoceros, and one human.

LascauxThe purpose served by these images is unclear.  Perhaps they tell stories of past hunts, or maybe they were used to call up the spirits for a successful hunt.  At least one professor of art and archaeology postulates that the dot and lattice patterns overlying many of these paintings may reflect trance visions, similar to the hallucinations produced by sensory deprivation.

36 animals occupy the “Great Hall of Bulls”, including a single black Auroch specimen measuring 17ft long, the largest such image ever discovered in cave art.  One semi-spherical chamber, the “Apse”, is covered from the floor to its 8’9″ vaulted ceiling with overlapping, entangled drawings and engravings, demonstrating that these people erected scaffolding to create such work.lascaux4b

The Lascaux caves were used by the French Resistance for weapons storage during the war, and opened to the public in 1948.  That would prove to be a mistake.

The underground environment had been stable for all those thousands of years.  Now the light, the air circulation, and the exhalations of thousands of visitors a day, were irreparably changing the cave environment.  By the 1950s, colors had noticeably begun to change and fade.  Crystals and lichens began to grow on the walls, black and white molds grew quickly throughout the cave complex.

The cave was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings restored and a monitoring system installed.  Molds, lichens and crystallized minerals bedevil the ancient cave art to this day.  Only a handful of scientific experts are now permitted access to the site, and that’s only for a few days per month.  Some of the most eminent preservation specialists on the planet continue to wrestle with the problem.

The prehistory buff can find a lot to like in the Vézère region of France.  The valley has 147 prehistoric sites, 15 of them listed as Unesco World Heritage sites.

“Lascaux II” opened in 1983, an exact replica of the Hall of the Bulls and the “Painted Gallery” areas at the original, educating and informing the public without further harm to the archetype.

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Inside the museum that houses Lascaux 4 (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images)

The 800 square meter mobile “Lascaux 3” began a world tour in 2012, scheduled to continue through 2020.  Most recently, the exhibit departed the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka, Japan, on September 3.  The €57 million ($68 million), multi-media Lascaux IV opened last December, 8,500 square meters of high-tech exhibit space where each visitor is free to explore four exhibition rooms, equipped with an electronic compagnon de visite, a tablet-like device which looks like it’s been flaked and formed out of slate, Fred Flintstone style.

Kindly permit me a personal note, on which to end.  Years ago, the Long family convened our annual “Blue Gray Ramble” at the Petersburg battlefield, in Virginia.  There’s a cut running parallel to the lines there, almost a ravine, not far from the crater.  The thing has got to be 12 feet deep, narrowing downward to a hard, dry stream bed.

Working our way down the bottom of the cut, we encountered an archaeologist’s dream of fossils:  Gastropods, scallop shells, copepods, shark’s teeth.  The denizens of a long forgotten sea, cast in stone and exposed to the light of a Civil War battlefield.

We were there that weekend to discover history, and that is what we did, albeit from a new and unexpected perspective.

September 9, 490BC Marathon

‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided: half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

200 years before the classical age of Greece, King Darius I, third King of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.   Several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled in 499BC, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea.

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Achaemenid Empire

This “Ionian Revolt” lasted until 493BC.  Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius.  Herodotus records that, every night before dinner, Darius required one of his servants three times, to say to him “Master, remember the Athenians“.

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Darius I

The Persian “King of Kings” sent emissaries to the Greek city states, demanding gifts of earth and water, signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them.  Sparta didn’t bother with a trial.  They threw Darius’ ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they said. “There is your water”.

Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire.

2507 years ago, Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea.   A force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ own brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica, fetching up in a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

An army of 9,000-10,000 hoplites (armored infantry) marched out of Athens under the leadership of ten Athenian Strategoi (Generals), to face the 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry of the Persians.  The Athenian force was soon joined by a full muster of 1,000 Plataean hoplites, while Athens’ swiftest runner Pheidippides was dispatched to Lacedaemon, for help.Pheidippides

The festival of Carneia was underway at this time, a sacrosanct religious occasion during which the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) army would not fight, under any circumstance.   Sparta would be unavailable until the next full moon, on September 9.  With 136 miles to Marathon, Spartan reinforcement was unlikely to arrive for the next week or more.

The Athenian force arrived at the Plain of Marathon around September 7, blocking the Persian route into the interior.

Facing a force more than twice as large their own, Greek Generals split 5 to 5 whether to risk battle.

Greco Persian

A “Polemarch” is an Athenian civil dignitary, with full voting rights in military matters.  General Miltiades, who enjoyed a degree of deference due to his experience fighting Persians, went to the Polemarch Callimachus, for the deciding vote.

The stakes are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance.

With Athens behind them now defenseless, its every warrior here on the plain of Marathon, Miltiades spoke.  ‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided.  Half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

With less than a mile between them, the two armies had faced one another for five days and five nights.  On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line.  “At them!”

Marathon ChargeWeighed down with 70lbs per man of bronze and leather armor, the Greek line likely marched out to 200 yards, the effective range of Persian archers.  Greek heavy infantry closed the last 200 meters at a dead run, the first time a Greek army had fought that way.

Persian shafts flew by the thousands, yet the heavy armor and wooden shields of the hoplite formation, held.  Bristling with arrows yet seemingly unhurt, the Greek phalanx smashed into the Persian adversary, like an NFL front line into an ‘Antifa” demonstration.

Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire, describes the impact.  “The enemy directly in their path … realized to their horror that [the Athenians], far from providing the easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had first imagined, were not going to be halted … The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of fighting in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze … in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crash of metal into flesh and bone; then the rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows or slings. The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering … could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze“.

Darius’ force was routed, driven across the beach and onto waiting boats.  6,400 Persians lay dead in the sand, an unknown number were chased into coastal swamps, and drowned.  Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.

Marathon Battle

In the popular telling of this story, Pheidippides ran the 25 miles to Athens and announced the victory with the single word “Nenikēkamen!” (We’ve won!”), and dropped dead.

That version first appeared in the writings of Plutarch, some 500 years later.  It made for a good story for the first Olympic promoters, too, back in 1896, but that’s not the way it happened.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, described by no less a figure than Cicero as the “Father of History”, tells us that Pheidippides was already spent.  No wonder.  The man had run 140 miles from Athens to Lacedaemon, to ask for Spartan assistance.

Despite the exhaustion of battle and the weight of all that armor, the Athenian host marched the 25 miles back home, arriving in time to head off the Persian fleet.  The Spartans arrived at Marathon the following day, having covered 136 miles in three days.

Though a great victory for the Greeks, Darius’ loss at Marathon barely put a dent in the vast resources of the Achaemenid Empire.  The Persian King, would return.

September 8, 480BC (est.) Thermopylae

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill on which the Greeks made their final stand. “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

In 490BC, Persian King Darius I sent an amphibious expedition into the Aegean, only to be defeated by a far smaller force of Athenians at the Bay of Marathon.

As Achaemenid Emperor, leader of the most powerful state of his time, King Darius I was sovereign over 21 million square miles and more.  He had more to deal with than a handful of malcontents in the Peloponnese.  At the moment, Darius had an Egyptian revolt to put down, but the “King of Kings'” would be back.  He had a score to settle with the Greeks.   King Darius died before he was through, so it was that the Persian King Xerxes would return to finish what his father had begun, ten years earlier.

In 480BC, news of a massive Persian army on the move reached Lacedaemonia, principal region of the Spartan state.  De facto military leaders of the Greek alliance, the Spartans were then celebrating the religious festival of Carneia.  Spartan law forbade military activity at this time, the same reason they had shown up late at Marathon, ten years earlier.   Spartan leaders went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for advice.

The-Oracle-of-Delphi-Apollo-Talks-2
The Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi was a seer, usually selected from among epileptics, as the Greeks believed seizures were evidence that the person was in touch with the Gods. A careful ritual was observed, before the Priestess would speak.  First she would bathe in the Castalian Spring, before drinking from another stream. A priest would then pour ice water over a goat, to determine the presence of Apollo. The goat’s shivering was understood to indicate that the God was present, and that he had invested his powers in the Oracle. If the signs were fortuitous, the Oracle would then inhale the gas emitted from a chasm near the temple.  With volcanic gasses rising from the ground beneath her, the “Pythia” would then mount to the Tripod.  Only then would she speak.

Priestess of Delphi
Oracle at the Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

“Hear your fate”, she said. “O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces.  Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons, or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles. For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him, strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus, and will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.”

For King Leonidas of Sparta, the meaning was clear.  He himself would have to die, to fulfill the Oracle’s prophesy.

Leonidas gathered up a small blocking force of 300 Spartan Peers, all of them “Sires”. This was understood to be a suicide mission. Leonidas wanted only those warriors who would leave behind, a son.

Several Greek city states were technically at war with one another in 480BC, but that was dropped, as preparations were made for a two-pronged defense. An allied Greek navy would meet the Persian triremes at the straits of Artemisium, while an army of Hoplites, Greek heavy infantry, would meet the Persian army at the narrow pass known as the “Hot Gates”.  Thermopylae.

Thermopylae topoThe 300 marched out at the head of an allied army of 7,000, to meet a Persian army which modern estimates put at 100,000 to 150,000. A native of Trachis told the Spartan General Dienekes, that Persian archers were so numerous their arrows would block out the sun. “Good”, replied Dienekes. “Then we shall fight in the shade”.

When the overwhelming Persian army demanded the Spartans lay down their arms, Leonidas’ response was short and sweet.  “Molon Labe”, he said.  Come and get them.

The two armies collided, on or about the 8th of September, 480BC.  Thermopylae, a mountain pass delineated by the Phocian Wall on one side and the Aegean Sea on the other, measured the width of two carts abreast. Great piles of Persian dead choked the pass by the end of the 9th, but nothing that Xerxes could throw at the Greek heavy infantry could break their phalanx.

A traitor to his people then rose among the local population, Ephialtes of Trachis, who led the Persians through a narrow path to come around behind the Greek line.

ThermopylaeKnowing he was betrayed and would soon be surrounded, Leonidas sent most of the allied soldiers away.  They would be needed for the battle yet to come.

On day three, King Leonidas was left with his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespian allies, and an unreliable contingent of 400 Thebans.  True to form, the Theban band defected en masse to the Persian side, at the earliest opportunity.  Still, the hordes of Xerxes were unable to break through the Greek line, even on two fronts.  They backed off and rained down arrows from a distance, until no Greek was left standing.

Artemisium devolved into a meaningless stalemate, yet the Greek alliance had demonstrated itself more than capable of standing up to the mightiest empire of its time.   Athens, lacking the manpower to fight simultaneously on land and sea, abandoned their city to be burnt to the ground.  The regrouped Greek Navy crushed the Persians at Salamis.  The last Persian invader was driven off the Greek mainland the following August, following the Greek victory at Plataea.

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill on which the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955.

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

battlefield-of-thermopylae