C. W. Ceram and Me

One of my favorite books as a child was C. W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology.* I checked it out from the Springfield public library over and over. It was one of the first books I bought with my own money.** I still have it and dip into it on occasion when I want to refresh my memory or just enjoy Ceram’s story-telling one more time.

Ceram gave me some of my earliest heroes: Schliemann, Evans, Champollion and Carter.*** He made deciphering Linear B as enthralling as discovering King Tut’s tomb. As an adult I was thrilled when I saw Mesopotamian artifacts at the Oriental Institute in Chicago and the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. When My Own True Love and I traveled to Turkey for the first time I insisted on visiting the site of Troy, even though my ankle was in a cast and I needed a cane.

Ceram wrote with adults in mind, but his book was the perfect introduction to archaeology for a nerdy child. In his foreword, Ceram says his “aim was to portray the dramatic qualities of archaeology, its human side.” He succeeds. In his hands, archaeology was made up of “all manner of excitement and achievement. Adventure is coupled with bookish toil. Romantic excursions go hand in hand with scholarly self-discipline and moderation.” He took a subject often buried in technical language and found the stories at its heart. Is it any wonder that I was hooked?

Gods, Graves and Scholars has been continuously in print since it was first published in Germany in 1943 and translated into 28 languages.  As a writer of popular history, I could do worse than take Herr Ceram as a role model.****


*What can I say?  I earned my history nerd membership early.

**Let me pause for a brief moment of silence in memory of the indie bookstore of my youth, the Heritage Bookstore in Springfield Mo.  It was a small store in a neighborhood strip mall, but Aladdin’s cave had nothing on it as far as I was concerned.

***This actually began as a blog post about Champollion and the Rosetta Stone.  Then I pulled Ceram off the shelf….

****Except for that stint of writing propaganda for the 3rd Reich under his real name, Kurt Wilhelm Marek.  Sometimes Google gives you unhappy surprises.

Road Trip Through History: Colonial Michilimackinac

Last weekend My Own True Love and I hit the road after far too many months of being tied to desks, tasks, and deadlines.  It was our third anniversary and we wanted Romance, plus a little history, long walks, fabulous food, glorious scenery.  We chose the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

The hotel was indeed grand.*  The scenery was glorious.  The weather was perfect. We walked, and ate, and danced in the hotel ballroom.  We sat on the porch and enjoyed an excellent talk about the hotel by historian Bob Tagatz.**  But the history highlight of the trip was a visit that we had planned as a time filler: Colonial Michilimackinac.

Run by the Michigan state park system, Colonial Michilimackinac is Michigan’s answer to Williamsburg, both archaeological dig and historical reconstruction with plenty of intelligent interpretation.***  The site was home to a fort from 1715, when the French built it as a central depot in the Great Lakes fur trade to 1780, when a nervous British commander dismantled the fort and all its buildings and moved them piece by piece to Mackinac Island to keep them from falling in the hands of North American rebels.

The (on-going) reconstruction shows the fort as it would have appeared in the 1770s, when it was under British control after the French and Indian wars but still had a French population of traders. The costumed interpreters know their stuff.  The exhibits are well designed and informative.  The site provides an excellent view of colonial life away from the cities of the Eastern seaboard and a vivid sense of three cultures–British, French, and Native American–coming together in one place. Unlike most sites dealing with the fur trade, Colonial Michilimackinac tells the story of more than just the voyageurs:  French priests, English merchants, African-American craftsmen, Indian slave women, Irish entrepreneurs and a Jewish merchant from Germany all play a role.

We spent the better part of a day at the site, totally engaged.  What’s more romantic than that?


* Just in case anyone from the Grand Hotel is reading this: the room would have been even better if it had adequate reading light in addition to two comfy chairs.  I’d rather have good light than mints on my pillow any night.

**Gotta love a hotel that employs its own historian.

*** It has been under excavation since 1958, making it the longest on-going historical archaeology program in the United States.

Industrial Espionage

©Trustees of the British Museum

The Chinese produced luxury silk fabrics for several thousand years before they began trading with the west. Scraps of dyed silk gauze found in a neolithic site in Zhejiang Province date from 3600 BCE. Silk fabrics woven in complex patterns were produced in the same region by 2600 BCE. By the time of the Zhou dynasty, which controlled China from the twelfth to the third centuries BCE, silk was an established industry in China.

Wild silk, spun from the short broken fibers found in the cocoons of already-emerged silk moths, was produced throughout Asia. Only the Chinese knew how to domesticate the silk moth, bombyx mori, and turn its long fibers into into thread. They kept close control over the secrets of how to raise the domestic silkworm and create silk from the long fibers in its cocoon. Exporting silkworms, silkworm eggs or mulberry seeds was punishable by death. It was more profitable to export the finished product than the means of production.

The Chinese monopoly on the secrets of silk production and manufacture was eventually broken. According to one story, a Chinese princess, sent to marry a Central Asian king, smuggled out what silk cultivators called the “little treasures” as an unofficial dowry. (In one cringe-inducing version of this story, the princess carried the silkworms in her chignon to escape detection at the border.* It was illegal for a commoner, like a border security agent, to touch the head of a member of the royal family.) A totally different tradition tells of two Nestorian monks who smuggled silkworm eggs out of China in hollow staffs and carried them all the way to Byzantium, traveling in winter so the eggs wouldn’t hatch.

However the “little treasures” traveled, the Chinese monopoly on silk production was over by the sixth century CE, when the Middle Eastern cities of Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo, Tyre, and Sidon became famous for their silks.

* Would you want these in your hair? Makes your scalp crawl doesn’t it?

Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo