Google Street View Offers Virtual Trips Around Mexico’s Ancient Monuments

Google Street View, Palenque
We’ve talked a lot about Google Street View here on Gadling. It seems that every month a new attraction is added to this amazing and somewhat sinister application.

The latest is a series of views of the great monuments of Mexico. Google has been cooperating with the National Institute of Anthropology and History to take images of important sites such as Teotihuacan, Palenque and Chichen Itza. They hope to have 80 sites online by the end of the year.

The uber-cool archaeology news website Past Horizons reports that instead of the usual Google Street View van, a tricycle took the 360-degree panoramas. This method has been used at other sensitive sites like Stonehenge. I’ve taken a look at some of them and they’re as crisp and clear as the photos Google took of your house.

The Mexican sites are only some of hundreds of important spots around the world taken as part of the Google World Wonders Project. Hit the link to see more.

[Photo of Templo de la Calavera at Palenque courtesy Tato Grasso]

Native American Burials Looted At Illinois State Historic Site

Native American, Kincaid Mounds
Native American burial mounds at Kincaid Mounds State Historic Site have been illegally excavated and driven over in the worst desecration of a state historic site the state has seen in years.

The Chicago Tribune reports that someone has dug holes into one of the Native American burials. In a separate incident, someone drove a vehicle over one of the mounds. It’s unclear if anything was taken.

The site dates from about 1050 to 1400 AD, during the Mississippian period, a high point in pre-Columbian civilization in the area when large towns created elaborate art and traded across North America. Kincaid was a large town and religious center. The Mississippian people often buried their dead with beads, arrows, pots, and other grave goods. These fetch a good price on the illegal antiquities market and were probably what the vandals were after.

Such crimes come with serious penalties. Disturbing an archaeological sites or human remains on state land carries up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Unsettling of burials on public land can also be a felony punishable by up to three years behind bars and a $25,000 fine.

Painting by Herbert Roe courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

St. Brendan: Did An Irish Monk Come To America Before Columbus?

St. BrendanToday is St. Brendan’s feast day. To the Irish, St. Brendan needs no introduction. For those less fortunate in their birth, let me tell you that he may have been Ireland’s first adventure traveler.

Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.

It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.

They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?

Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.

But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.

%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.

How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.

Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The Kensington Runestone and other Viking mysteries in America

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher asked me what I thought was an easy question.

“Who discovered America?”

“The Indians!” I replied.

My teacher frowned at me and asked, “No, what EUROPEAN discovered America?”

“Oh, Leif Erikson. He was a Viking.”

Obviously annoyed, my teacher told me, “No! COLUMBUS discovered America.”

“But the Vikings came here in the year 1000. Columbus didn’t arrive until 1492.”

“COLUMBUS DISCOVERED AMERICA!!!”

I learned two important lessons that day: (1) self-appointed experts are often wrong, and (2) showing you know more than an authority figure is a good way to get into trouble.

Growing up, I was always fascinated with the possibility that ancient civilizations in the “New” and “Old” Worlds had contact with one another. Ocean currents and trade winds make it fairly easy to cross the Atlantic. Surviving the voyage is another matter. Certainly, boats from one side of the ocean would occasionally get blown off course and end up on the other. Their crews would probably be dead by then and their arrival on a foreign shore would have had little effect on the civilizations that discovered their remains.

But what about ancient explorers? There was no shortage of civilizations with ocean-going capability: the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Chinese, etc. Did they visit America? Did Native Americans visit Asia, Europe, and Africa?Sadly, other than the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, there is no hard proof for Pre-columbian contact. Though, that hasn’t stopped people from looking. A range of researchers, including professional archaeologists, dedicated amateurs and outright quacks, have searched for evidence that other contacts occurred.

The evidence looks a bit thin. There are plenty of supposedly “Old World” artifacts in North and South America. Some are laughably bad fakes. Others are misinterpreted Native American artifacts or even natural objects. One artifact, though, has kept scholars arguing for more than a century.

Kensington Runestone, courtesy George T. FlomThe Kensington Runestone was supposedly discovered in 1898 in Minnesota by Swedish-American farmer Olof Ohman. This rectangular stone slab is covered on two sides by Runic writing, the script of the Vikings. The translation goes:

“Eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen on (this?) acquisition journey from Vinland far to the west. We had a camp by two (shelters?) one day’s journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil. There are 10 men by the inland sea to look after our ships fourteen days journey from this peninsula (or island). Year 1362”

Vinland is the Viking name for the area they explored in North America. Götaland is a region of Sweden. It wouldn’t be strange for Vikings to write “Ave Maria” in 1362 because they had converted to Christianity by then. Most supporters of the stone believe the inscription is proof that Vikings ventured inland from their coastal settlements.

Runic experts say it’s a modern fake, pointing out that the language is simply 19th century Swedish written in an ancient script. For example, the text lacks the case endings and plural forms that were common in the Middle Ages but had died out in modern Swedish. Runic alphabets were widely published in the 19th century and it was later reported that Ohman had one in his possession. Archaeologists also point out that the inscription looks too fresh to be more than 600 years old.

There has been much nit-picking back and forth about specific Runic letters, weathering on stone, styles of 14th century Swedish, etc. The vast majority of linguists and archaeologists believe it’s fake, while the locals in the area where it was found support it enough to have opened the Runestone Museum and Kensington Runestone Park. This being an area with a large Scandinavian-American population, the idea that Vikings settled here has obvious appeal.

Another intriguing find is the Maine penny. Minted in Norway between A.D. 1065 and 1080, this small silver coin was discovered at a prehistoric Native American village in Penobscot Bay, Maine. It’s now housed in the Maine State Museum. Whether the Vikings visited this site is debatable. The penny may have made its way down the coast as a trade item.

There are other purported runestones in the United States. Two of them, the AVM Runestone and the Elbow Lake Runestone, were later admitted to be fakes by their creators. The Heavener Runestone, found in Oklahoma, is often purported to be genuine in alternative publications, but is written in an old style of Runic that was no longer used by the time the Vikings were voyaging west to Greenland and North America. Two smaller stones with fragmentary inscriptions were found in the same area. The Poteau Runestone, also from Oklahoma, is written in a mix of two Runic alphabets and is even less convincing. Yet another Oklahoma find, the Shawnee Runestone, has an inscription that looks too fresh to be medieval.

The Heavener Runestone State Park in Oklahoma has a small museum dedicated to these curious objects.

Shawnee Runestone

Did the Vikings explore the interior of North America? Take a road trip to Minnesota and Oklahoma and decide for yourself, basing your conclusion on facts and evidence rather than personal bias. And don’t let your fifth-grade teacher browbeat you into her way of thinking. Columbus did NOT discover America!

Photo of Kensington Runestone courtesy George T. Flom. Photo of Shawnee Runestone courtesy Heironymous Rowe.

Treasures of Teotihuacan go on display

Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan is the New World’s most impressive city. Founded in the second century BC, it was a center of civilization for 800 years. Its Pyramid of the Sun has a greater volume than even the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt. Teotihuacan is located in modern Mexico just outside Mexico City. In a country filled with amazing ancient ruins, it’s one of the best.

An exhibit at Caixa Forum, one of Madrid’s leading art galleries, highlights the treasures of this civilization. Teotihuacan: Ciudad de los Dioses (Teotihuacan: City of the Gods) brings together some 400 artifacts and works of art to show the rise and fall of the city and its empire. The exhibition is divided into themed sections about the construction of the city, the arts, religion, palace life, and the mysterious destruction of Teotihuacan. Many of the objects displayed are beautiful, such as the inlaid jade masks and fearsome statues of the gods.

If you’re going to Mexico, I highly recommend that you visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site for yourself. I’ve been to a lot of ancient cities all over the world, but Teotihuacan simply blew me away.

Teotihuacan: Ciudad de los Dioses runs from July 27 until November 13.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]