Archaeologists Looking At Stonehenge In A New Light

StonehengeStonehenge is the world’s most iconic prehistoric monument. Scientists have argued about its significance for generations, but few have been allowed to excavate there. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson is one of those lucky few, and he’s documented his finds in a new book.

Stonehenge: A New Understanding chronicles a seven-year excavation of Stonehenge and the surrounding countryside.

Pearson and his team took an innovative approach and came up with some innovative interpretations. Instead of looking at Stonehenge as an isolated monument, they studied the landscape and other prehistoric monuments around it. This led them to determine that Stonehenge was part of a ritualistic network of monuments and natural features.

But what was it all for? Pearson believes that despite the astronomical alignments and the regular meetings of people at Stonehenge, it was not a monument to nature or the seasons or fertility as many archaeologists have concluded, but rather a monument to the dead, similar to other enclosed cremations burial grounds in the British Isles. Other constructions nearby were symbols of life and were intimately connected to Stonehenge just as the concepts of life and death are intimately connected with each other.

The main connection is with a site called Durrington Walls, two miles away from Stonehenge. Both had avenues leading to a nearby river. Durrington Walls, however, had a settlement while Stonehenge only had burials. Natural features in the landscape aligned with important astronomical events, making the location of Stonehenge perfect for any monument concerned with the heavens.

Weighing in at 350 dense pages, this is not for the casually interested reader. Luckily Pearson has a clear writing style, avoids getting overly technical, and the book is richly illustrated with maps and photographs that help the reader follow the text. I would suggest this to anyone with a serious interest in archaeology and science.

I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Pearson talk a few years ago to a packed auditorium at Oxford University. Once he was done, Oxford professors gathered around in their self-important way to talk with this leading scientist. Before they could start posturing, a twelve-year-old girl came up to him and chirped, “I want to be an archaeologist!”

Dr. Pearson could have patted her on the head, replied, “That’s nice darling” and gone on to speak with the professors, but he didn’t. Instead he sat her down and spoke with her for a good five minutes about what she needed to do to become an archaeologist and all the fun she could have in that career.

The professors looked ruffled and impatient. The girl left glowing with enthusiasm.

That’s my kind of scientist.

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Travel Clichés: They Go With The Territory

ClichésI’ve recently been dipping into “The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” by Julia Cresswell, which is a good summer read.

Cresswell really put her nose to the grindstone for this weighty tome, leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the real deal about cliches. We’re informed that “wend your way” dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, with “wend” meaning “to go.” It was on its way out as a word when Sir Walter Scott and other nineteenth century romantic authors breathed new life into it.

Other cliches come from the Bible, like “the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth.” Cresswell writes, “the persistence of an expression once it has become fixed is evident in the way that no one is uncomfortable with these phrases, despite the fact that flat-earthers are few and far between.”

Some phrases are of more recent vintage. “The fast lane” can only be traced back to 1966.

Bad travel writing is filled to the brim with cliches. Terms like “unique” or “hidden” or “authentic” or “off the beaten path” are like nails on a blackboard to my ears. Yet none of these chills me to my marrow more than that most wretched of adjectives: “quaint.”

When I became a travel writer ten years ago I swore upon a stack of Bibles never to use “quaint” in an article. I have stuck to that vow like glue, except when a snake-in-the-grass copy editor stabbed me in the back. I had written an article about British thatched roof houses for a certain magazine that shall remain nameless and titled it simply, “Thatched Roof Houses.” The copy editor stole my thunder by adding the subtitle, “The Story Behind The Quaintness.” This led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes travel cliches can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when they perpetuate stereotypes. Here’s some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing about Africa that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. So, fellow travel writers, I beg you on bended knee, when you put pen to paper and are stuck for the right word, don’t fall back on cliches. Avoid them like the plague.

[Photo courtesy shutterbug Jonas Bengtsson]

Classic Travel Writing: Jack Kerouac’s ‘Lonesome Traveler’

Jack KerouacWhile blogs take up most of my travel reading these days, every now and then I like to dip into an old classic. So on a recent flight to Washington DC to attend the Gadling bloggers summit, I read “Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac.

This slim volume contains eight stream-of-consciousness essays in the style you’d expect from one of the leaders of the Beat Generation. For example, the author tells a friend:

“Deni the reason I followed the ship all the way 3,200 miles from Staten Island to goddam Pedro is not only because I wanta get on and be seen going around the world and have myself a ball in Port Swettenham and pick up on gangee in Bombay and find the sleepers and the fluteplayers in filthy Karachi and start revolutions of my own in the Cairo Casbah and make it from Marseilles to the other side, but because of you, because, the things we used to do, where, I have a hell of a good time with you Den, there’s no two ways about. . .I never have any money that I admit, I already owe you sixty for the bus fare, but you must admit I try. . .I’m sorry that I don’t have any money ever, but you know I tried with you, that time. . .well gaddam, wa ahoo, shit, I want to get drunk tonight.”

When you have a monologue like that, you know you’re in Kerouac territory. The posts range from his time hanging out with William S. Burroughs in Tangier to his jobs as a fire watcher and on trains and boats.

Sometimes the best travel writing is that which takes you back to a place you love, in my case old New York City before its seedy heart was cleaned up and dulled. Kerouac takes us on a tour of all the crazy Times Square spots where the Beats used to hang out while a cavalcade of oddballs passes by. Through all this blur of activity Kerouac wonders, “Why does Times Square feel like a big room?”

Wow, yeah! Times Square does feel like a big room, even fifty years later when I hung out there. That broad open space enclosed by four walls of skyscrapers with all the people coming and going has a strange homey, interior feel to it. A good travel writer can put into words what you’ve always felt about a place.

And Kerouac is a damned good travel writer. “Lonesome Traveler” is filled with quotable one-liners about booze, sex, solitude, trusting strangers, nature and just about everything else. The one that perhaps best sums up the Beat mentality is actually by Gregory Corso, who in the New York sequence says, “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is Power.”

Not a bad summary of the attractions of travel.

The Green Book: A Guidebook For The Age Of Segregation

Green Book, segregationIt’s hard to imagine nowadays when the only limitations to travel are money, time and health, but for much of America’s history a large segment of the population had trouble traveling just because of the color of their skin.

During the days of segregation, most hotels were off-limits to African-Americans, as were other facilities like restaurants, movie theaters and campgrounds. Those that did allow blacks to enter had strict rules of segregation. Stopping at the wrong restaurant could lead a black family to being insulted or worse.

Yet a rising black middle class had just as much hunger for travel as anyone else. The problem was: how does one travel safely? One answer was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that listed hotels and restaurants open to black people. While it wasn’t the only such guidebook, it was one of the most popular and long lasting. It was started by Victor H. Green in 1936 as a guide just for New York City, but soon expanded to include the whole country and eventually Bermuda, Mexico and Canada.

I’d never heard of this book until I saw it mentioned on the excellent website I’m Black and I Travel. I downloaded a free PDF of the 1949 edition from the University of Michigan website and found it a fascinating read. The book introduces itself as a resource “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Then come the listings. I took special note of places I used to live. Tucson, Arizona, only had one listing for a restaurant and no lodging mentioned. Columbia, Missouri, had a hotel and a tourist home, which was a private home that rented out spare rooms to travelers. The hotel has since disappeared and the land on which it stood is now taken up by an adult store and theater. The guesthouse is now a private residence. New York City, of course, had plenty of listings. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and the Harlem listings are longer than the listings for many states.

%Gallery-153462%Another city that has a sizable listing is Tulsa, Oklahoma. Only 28 years before, the thriving black neighborhood of Greenwood had been burned to the ground and hundreds of black people killed by a white mob in the worst race riot in American history. By 1949, numerous black-owned businesses had literally sprung from the ashes and got into “The Green Book.”

The advertisements open up a different era too. How long has it been since hotels boasted they had hot water and radios in every room? Only two national companies advertised in this edition: Esso, which was a leader in selling franchises to African-Americans, and Ford Motor Company, which placed an ad for its very cool 1949 convertible. Green also advertised his own reservation bureau, noting that a shortage of beds for black travelers made it essential to plan ahead.

There are also a couple of articles, including one on what to see in Chicago, highlighting its large black neighborhood as well as more general interest sights. Another article talked about Robbins, Illinois, which was of interest to the black reader since it was a prosperous town owned almost entirely by black people. The guidebook notes that with “no prejudice and restrictions” the community was able to boom. The article finishes: “It is worth the trouble to go out and take a look at what an experiment of an exhibition of what Negroes working together can do. Indeed, it would not be a bad idea to pitch in and help.”

One thing that struck me most about this book was the absolute lack of rancor. The problem of segregation is noted, and in a couple of places Green hopes for it to end one day, but there are no angry tirades against the injustice that black people were suffering. If I had been black in 1949, I doubt I would have been so charitable.

“The Green Book” is a sobering reminder of a sad time in U.S. history, and also a reminder that things occasionally get better – not 100% better, but time has seen a major improvement. Green stopped publication after 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is now a rare item and it’s not even clear if a copy exists for every edition. If you think you or your grandparents may have a copy tucked away in the attic, go check. It should be preserved.

Do you have memories of travel in the age of segregation? Tell us about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy University of Michigan]

Book review: inyourpocket guide to Athens

Athens, guide to AthensThis was originally supposed to be a review of the Rough Guide to Greece. I really like the Rough Guides and two weeks before I set off to write my travel series about Greece I ordered a copy from Amazon. The morning of my flight it still hadn’t arrived.

Luckily I knew about the inyourpocket guides. I had never tried these free, downloadable guides to dozens of cities, and now looked like the perfect opportunity.

Their Athens guide is 68 pages. After discarding several ads, the kids section, the gay section, and an entire page on prostitution and strip bars, I was left with a compact little guide that fit easily in my laptop bag.

The guide is narrowly focused. The only sections covering attractions outside Athens are a few pages on Delphi and skiing. For Corinth and Sparta I had to wing it. In fact, I winged much of my Athens itinerary as well because I already knew what I wanted to see during the day and the local Couchsurfing community took care of my nightlife. I was reminded just how little we actually need guidebooks for short stays in countries where we have local contacts.

The inyourpocket guide to Athens has several things going for it–free, compact, and handy for grabbing at the last minute, or even after the last minute since you could always print it out at an Internet cafe. Despite its low page count it has lots of listings, giving a wide variety of options for dining, nightlife, and sightseeing.

There were a few problems, however. The maps were too small and coming out of a black and white printer were all but illegible. Luckily the Athens airport hands out good free maps. I also found a few errors of fact. The Athens War Museum is billed as a leading free attraction but actually costs two euros. The transportation section states that to get from the airport to downtown, you take a train and then change to the metro at Nerantziotissa station. Actually there are direct trains to Syntagma Square (downtown) to and from the airport. These are only announced in Greek, but you can spot them because they have an airplane logo and luggage racks. I was excited to hear that a famous souvlaki restaurant, Kostas, is at Pentelis 5, right next to my hotel, yet when I went there I found this address to be an apartment building and there was no restaurant in sight. Considering the guides are published five times a year and this was the Winter 2011-12 edition, these errors should not have happened.

Despite some flaws, I found the inyourpocket guide to Athens a useful last-minute stopgap and would probably try additional guides in the future. Hey, you can’t beat the price. If anyone has used their other guides I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section.

Oh, and my Rough Guide to Greece arrived the day after I got back. Thanks Amazon!