Searching for clues in the whodunnits of history

The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Ancient World
December 21, 2001

First there were seven "wonders" (the Greek word literally means "sights"), famous in the ancient circum-Mediterranean world for their monumentality. The canon was never stable: other "wonders" crept in and by later antiquity at least 16 were included in the list, accommodating more recent monumental constructions. Alluding to this tradition and to our own obsession with canons, The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World : The Great Monuments and How They Were Built , edited by Chris Scarre, appeared in 1999. The tenfold increase was necessitated by our broader acquaintance with the past as archaeology expanded in the 20th century to encompass the globe.

That book's emphasis was still on imposing structures and how archaeology could shed light on their construction. This new book - extensively illustrated and attractively laid out - borrows the newly canonical number 70 and unashamedly trades on the popular perception of archaeology as detective work, solving the mysteries of human existence through new discoveries or the application of new techniques (often scientific). Its 70 short chapters (mostly three to five pages) are the work of 28 authors, including seven by the volume's editor, Brian Fagan, a prolific popular author on world archaeology. Given the book's global scope, it is perhaps surprising to discover that the Old World appears to be more "mysterious" than the New: excluding the four chapters that deal with global phenomena such as the origins of agriculture, 49 deal with the Old World and only 17 with the New, of which 12 relate to the Americas.

Fagan arranges the contributions thematically, if somewhat unequally, into six sections. The first 16 topics are mysteries posed by texts, ranging from biblical and classical stories (the Flood, the Trojan war, Atlantis, the Turin shroud, for example) to those of ancient Britain (King Arthur), the Americas (Maya destruction and Aztec origins) and Australia (the dreamtime). The title of this section, "Myths and legends: hidden truths?", promising rational archaeological "explanations", seems to miss the point that such traditional tales need not have a rational basis. The coverage is, however, more balanced than the title suggests offering a background for the tales rather than attempting to find material evidence for their specific historicity.

Chapters 17 to 30 are titled "Mysteries of the Stone Age" and, in my view, represent the most successful section of the book, charting concisely human history from our origins, through the extinction of the last parallel human species (the Neanderthals), to the origins of agriculture and the spread of the Indo-European languages. The success derives from the fact that these are, for the most part, the "big" questions addressed by archaeological research; they emerge from the study of prehistory rather than from an attempt to find a material basis for narratives preserved in the world of texts.

Slightly ill at ease among these big questions, but welcome for its topicality, is the account of Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old body found in 1991 high in the Tyrolean Alps. Other new (and controversial) discoveries included in this section are the 9,000-year-old Kennewick man, discovered in Washington State in 1996, and Seahenge, a 4,000-year-old monument uncovered on the Norfolk coast in 1998. A surprising omission here is the "mystery" of the origins of metallurgy and the attraction of metals in ancient societies.

The success of the secondsection should not be taken to imply that archaeology has nothing to contribute to complex societies that have their own written histories. These form the focus of the next two sections:

"Ancient civilisations" (chapters 31 to 49) and "Tombs and lost treasures" (chapters 50 to 54).

It is in these sections, perhaps, that the packaging as "mysteries" is most intrusive. Rather than offering an exploration of the contributions archaeological research has made to our understanding of the origins and successes of the complex societies of the old and new worlds, we get a series of detective stories. Ancient Egypt, for example, is reduced to a few questions such as "how did they erect pyramids and obelisks?", "was Tutankh-amun murdered?" and "the puzzle of tomb 55". We are also invited to wonder "why did the Carthaginians/Inca sacrifice children?", "were the Olmecs African?" and "who built Tiwanaku?".

Chapters 55 to 64 on "Ancient and undeciphered scripts" are the work of one contributor and therefore more closely interlinked than other sections. We travel from the origins of writing in Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC to one of the few scripts that remain undeciphered, the rongorongo script of Easter Island (Rapa Nui). The accounts are stimulating and up-to-date and resist the temptation - in a book on "mysteries" - to focus simply on decipherment.

The book ends, appropriately enough, with six chapters on "The fall of civilisations", precipitated, it would seem, by environmental factors in most cases. The Minoans (whose demise already appeared under Atlantis in the first section), Rome, the Moche, the Maya, the Anasazi are all covered before, finally, a review of catastrophic events caused by impacts from space, such as the one depicted on the book's dust jacket.

This book is designed to capture the interest of a non-professional public, although brief bibliographies allow deeper engagement.

The desire to appeal to this audience perhaps explains the prevalence of questions of the type "how did they build Stonehenge?", playing on the popular amazement at the achievements of our ancestors, or the emphasis on explanations that involve readily identifiable environmental factors (volcanoes, earthquakes, climatic change, even meteor impacts), or the frequency of questions about identity based on language and representations ("the Tarim mummies: who were they?").

Packaging the ancient past as a series of 70 mysteries clearly cannot hope to capture the full range of questions or approaches in world archaeology any more than the seven wonders captured the entirety of ancient monumental architecture. Nevertheless, if these well-illustrated and, in most cases, up-to-date cameos give a flavour of archaeological research and encourage readers to delve deeper, they will have served their purpose well.

John Bennet is lecturer in Aegean prehistory, University of Oxford.

The Seventy Great Mysteries of the Ancient World: Unlocking the Secrets of Past Civilisations

Editor - Brian M. Fagan
ISBN - 0 500 51050 4
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.95
Pages - 304

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