The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston
In this action-packed adventure story, thriller writer and reporter Douglas Preston joins documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins in searching for a lost city in Central America, first with lidar scans and later with archaeologists. The lidar, in which a small plane flies back and forth over the tree-tops firing laser pulses at the ground, has the team focusing on a few sites in the remote area of Mosquitia, Honduras, looking for the remains of pre-Colombian settlements. For centuries, there have been rumors of a Ciudad Blanca, or White City, although the author says that at least one earlier explorer, Theodore Morde, was panning for gold instead of searching for ruins. The site Elkin’s team travels to by helicopter is deep in the jungle, and they encounter spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and poisonous snakes before they even get to the archaeological site. Torrential rains mildew their clothes in just a few days, and they are wading through rivers and up slippery hillsides. They do find evidence of a large settlement, and hundreds of stone sculptures, possibly left when the city was abandoned. The story of the expedition makes for fascinating reading. The following chapter about the spread of disease in the early 1500s that all but wiped out many areas of Central America and the Caribbean is not such easy reading, but is followed by a contemporary medical mystery. Half of Elkin’s team come down with a hard-to-treat tropical disease, including Preston. Finally, Preston travels back to T1, where the president of Honduras is making an official visit. An incredible story that makes for exciting reading.
Lives in Ruins : Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson
This is an engaging look at the lives of archaeologists, a combination of armchair travel, popular science, and history. I enjoyed reading it very much, especially the author’s travels to visit archaeological sites and interview archaeologists in the Caribbean, Peru, a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean, South Dakota, Fishkill and Fort Drum in New York, and the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. The author audits classes, goes to field school before volunteering at a dig site, attends conferences, and visits museums. Other than the weather and working conditions, it sounds like fun. As a group, archaeologists are highly educated, passionate about their work, and grossly underpaid, if they’re even employed. They eat sandwiches, swat mosquitoes, work under hot sun or in the rain, often with a developer’s bulldozer looming, drive old vehicles, and tell great stories and drink beer at the end of a long day.
The reader learns about the discovery of an unknown Revolutionary War cemetery in New York, and how a civilian archaeologist working for the Department of Defense is helping soldiers learn to protect sites of cultural and historical importance with decks of playing cards. Many sites have been lost to development, while others are waiting for funding, such as the search for explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in the Newport harbor. This is a November Library Reads pick.
A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
If you’ve ever wanted to visit the British Museum but couldn’t afford the airfare, now you don’t have too. Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum brings it to you in his new book.
Here are 100 carefully selected objects that represent the sum total of the progress of Humanity. All the major civilizations of the world are represented here, including Meso America (Olmec, Maya, Aztec) ; South America (Paracas, Moshe, Inca); Europe (Celts, Minoans, Athenians, Romans, Byzantium, Ottoman-Turks); the Tigris-Euphrates river valley(Sumerians, Assyrians, Lydians, Persians); Egypt and Nile delta (Ancient Egyptians); Africa (Kushites, Oba, Kilwa, Ife); Indus Valley (Gupta, Orissan, Mughal); and China (Zhou, Confucian, Han, Tang, and Ming Dynasties, Mongolia, Timurid Empire, Quig Dynasty). All of the objects are either works of art or tools that look like works of art. Some are very well known like the Rosetta Stone, Ming Vases, Beowulf’s Helmet, and The Easter Island Statues. All the world’s great religions are profiled including Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity.
In each of 100 short chapters, MacGregor writes a brief description and history of each object, which keeps the book from getting long and boring. Photographs of the objects are beautifully rendered against mostly black backgrounds. Also included is a brief paragraph from experts in their various fields such as Archaeology, Linguistics, Ancient Literature, etc.
Here is an example of one of the interesting things one could learn from this book. This passage refers to Marco Polo and his first encounter with now world famous Chinese Ceramics:
“One of the Startling things he had seen was Porcelain; indeed, the very word ‘porcelain’ comes to us from Marco Polo’s description of his travels in Qubilai Khan China. The Italian porcellana, little piglet, is a slang word for cowry shells, which do indeed look a little like curled-up piglets. And the only thing that Marco Polo could think of to give his readers an idea of the shell-like sheen of the hard, fine ceramics that he saw in China was a cowry shell, a porcellana. And so we’ve called it ‘little piglets’ porcelain, ever since –this is if we’re not just calling it ‘china’.
A book that is very worth your while.