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Relax with Some Summer Reading

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on July 23, 2012 in Archaeology, Book Reviews |
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While conducting a Phase 1 archaeological survey on the hottest day of the year in the Town of Schodack, in New York’s Hudson Valley, my thoughts drifted occasionally away from the heat and insects to books I have enjoyed.

Imagine you are there in the woods on a hot day in July. It’s humid and the temperature is heading toward 98. The cicadas hum their high-pitched hum, the mosquitos buzz around your head. Throughout the morning, the denizens of the forest reveal themselves. The toads hop. The turkeys strut. The woodpeckers drum. The ticks rejoice to have found you. You, on the other hand, rejoice when the slightest breeze stirs.

Lunch-time approaches, but not fast enough. You are overheated. You recall a verse from your youth: “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” You question your sanity. The cicadas howl. If another mosquito flies in your ear, you’re going to…!

But wait– don’t despair. You are due some time off, and you should relax, perhaps somewhere out of the heat with a good book. Last summer I mentioned some works of fiction that people appreciated hearing about. In addition to those historical novels, speculative fiction, and adventure stories, the following non-fiction selections are so good you may want to add one to your Summer 2012 list:

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Vintage Books, 2003). The Devil in the White City is non-fiction, but reads like a novel. This is the intertwined story of the creation of the White City, the name given to Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (the pre-eminent World’s Fair of its day), and the bizarre case of a serial killer who, at the critical moment of constructing the White City, transformed a building near the fair into the large and strangely-built World’s Fair Hotel, designed to facilitate meeting, killing, and disposing of his victims. Larson richly recreates the era, the challenge to architect Daniel Burnham of building the White City, the image of Chicago as “The Second City”, and the chilling crimes of the killer H. H. Holmes. Why recommend this to archaeologists or fans of archaeology? Well, (1) it’s historical; (2) archaeologists like a good story; and, (3) as in any profession, some archaeologists stay up late reading chilling, page-turner crime stories. But if you need a more specific reason, anthropology and archaeology were a huge part of the draw to the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The exhibit installations supervised by the archaeologist Frederick Ward Putnam included the earliest use of life groups– a format that has become a staple of anthropological exhibits (Putnam was an early mentor of Arthur C. Parker, who developed the celebrated early 20th century life groups of the New York State Museum). In using anthropological and archaeological exhibits, the Columbian Exposition’s challenge was the challenge frequently met commercially in exhibiting the humanly exotic: how much will be education and how much will be entertainment? Overall, the Columbian Exposition leaned toward entertainment to boost attendance; Putnam’s education-oriented contribution was the earliest stage in creating Chicago’s Field Museum. This aspect of the story is among several that are part of the build-up, part of the challenge for Burnham, part of the context of the crime story. But for archaeologists and anthropologists, The Devil in the White City is more than just a great read– it is, in small measure, a bit of a pleasurable busman’s holiday. Read it by the water, and pretend the breeze is blowing off of Lake Michigan.

The Long Summer by Brian Fagan (Basic Books, 2004). How can you go wrong with a book titled The Long Summer? Brian Fagan is an archaeologist and writer who has brought many stories of archaeology to a popular audience through a number of great books, including a series on the relationship between climate events, climate change, and cultural change, sometimes drastic cultural change, as in the rise and fall of civilizations. By “the long summer”, Fagan means the fitful end of the Ice Age and the climate history of the Holocene, the long, mostly warm period since the Ice Age. In a time of frequent discussions of global warming, The Long Summer adds perspective to contemplate that a warming climate is, by Fagan’s account, a 17,000 year, long-term trend. Saying this is not to deny the human role in our own era’s accelerated global warming, nor is it to assert that it’s all been long, steady warming since 17,000 years ago (there have been some remarkable warm periods, as well as reversals of greater and lesser extent). Fagan provides clear and cogent discussions of natural causes of climate variation, the significant role of factors such as ocean currents, and the effects of unique, some may say cataclysmic events such as major volcanic eruptions. Punctuating the tale of the long summer, Fagan discusses devastating cold snaps such as the AD 536 event (catastrophic global cooling likely caused by a volcanic eruption), and the better known Little Ice Age (AD 1350-1850), often discussed by archaeologists for its effects on European and North American societies. Fagan reveals the history of climate in flux. It’s important to know, for example, that on the scale of geologic time, such things as too much global warming can cause a quick reversal to unusually cold conditions (and then the glaciers come back down the mountains). In a hot July, this may be a welcome, alternative view of the future (at least temporarily) in a not-too-serious thought-experiment. Archaeologists so often read dry, technical material they ought to have guilty pleasures. If reading something more exciting (and immensely more readable) than the usual work-a-day fare is a guilty pleasure for archaeologists, The Long Summer is an easily justified pleasure.

The Lost City of ZThe Lost City of Z by David Grann (Vintage Departures/Vintage Books, 2009). The Lost City of Z is the story of the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who spent much of the early 20th century exploring and mapping the Amazon basin. The City of Z is the name Fawcett used to refer to a mysterious, undiscovered city he believed to exist in the Amazon basin. He believed Z would be found, as Machu Picchu and the cities of the Maya had been found by earlier generations of explorers; and in the later years of his career, he made its discovery his only truly satisfying objective. Fawcett in a sense was born late: he was a Victorian-vintage explorer in a post-Victorian age when singular adventurers were being replaced by exploration teams, expensive technology, publicity hounds, and professionals such as academics in the emerging fields of anthropology and archaeology. This kind of competition pushed Fawcett to extremes. He is thought by some as a model for the Indiana Jones archetypal character of popular culture. He was strong and determined, and in middle-age he disappeared in the Amazon, looking for the City of Z. The last revelation is not a spoiler; the reader wades into the book knowing this or learning about it early. The book is about the sensation his disappearance caused, the numerous expeditions that went looking for Fawcett (leading to more lost explorers), and the nature of facts about native cultures that may have given rise to the theory of a mysterious, lost, indigenous civilization in the Amazon rain forest (a theory now more resonant but nuanced than in Fawcett’s day). With regard to the basis in fact for such a theory, The Lost City of Z harmonizes well with Charles C. Mann’s 1491, and brings to attention the Amazonian research of modern-day archaeologists such as Michael Heckenberger, and someone who was a friend of many Northeastern U. S. archaeologists (including me), the late Jim Petersen. In his account of the present-day, Grann visits Heckenberger in native Amazonia and brings us closer, perhaps, to where Fawcett went and what he was looking for. Fawcett or his remains were never found (again, not a spoiler), and expeditions (some ill-fated) continue to search for evidence of him periodically. For maximum effect, read The Lost City of Z when you come home from a hot day in the woods.

These suggestions are offered in the spirit of sharing: whatever you read (from your list or mine) relax and enjoy it.

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