What Kind of History Buff Are You?


We've been hanging out together at History in the Margins for two years now: come rain, come shine, come crazy deadline schedule. With a few exceptions*, I assume you have a basic interest in history or you wouldn't keep coming back. But just what kind of history buff are you? I'm hoping you'll answer a few questions to give me a clue:

  1. Have you always been interested in history or did high school history classes taught by the football coach put you off history for years?
  2. Do you have a favorite period or theme?  A cluster of them?  Or are you a happy time traveler?
  3. Do you visit historical sites when you travel?  If you do, do you prefer ruins or re-constructions?  Living history demonstrations or scholarly museums?  (I won't ask you to choose your favorite historical site if you don't ask me to choose mine.)
  4. What's the best work of history or historical fiction you've read recently?  (Mankind: The Story of All of Us is not a useful answer.)

Feel free to give me your answers, and anything else you'd like to share,  in the comments section, by e-mail, or by whatever means of communication you prefer.  (Messenger pigeons are probably not a good idea.  They upset the cat.)  In order to sweeten the pot, anyone who answers by the end of May will have a chance to win a copy of one of my favorite history books from the last year.

Thanks for listening.  Stay tuned for more historical bits.

*Hi, Mom.


Image credit: michelangelus / 123RF Stock Photo

Prehistoric Redheads

Like every other redhead I know, I have a mental list of notable gingers from history:  Richard the Lion-Hearted, Christopher Columbus, Elizabeth I, Thomas Jefferson, Lucille Ball…*  It's a natural defense against phrases like "red-headed stepchild" and that popular playground taunt, "I'd rather be dead than red on the head." **

Not speaking for anyone else, my famous red-head list has never included anyone from the ancient world.  I picture the population of the ancient world, from Babylon to Rome, with dark hair.  Red heads didn't seem to march onto the stage of world history until Rome ran into the Germanic and Celtic peoples.

So I was fascinated to read a recent article claiming that red-hair was more ancient and more widely distributed than I knew.  You can read the article here, but the basic argument is that two of the three red-hair genes can be traced to West Asia about 70,000 years ago--contemporary with the earliest humans to live outside of Africa.

Tracing the red hair gene may not be that important to the 98% of the population that aren't carrot-tops  But it is only one of the ways that DNA testing and other modern scientific techniques are re-shaping our knowledge of the prehistoric and ancient world, from the evolution of foodstuffs to the domestication of animals.  The distant past is growing a little less distant all the time.


*  Don't laugh.  Ball may have played a ditz on the screen, but she was a smart, tough lady in real life who made history behind the camera as the first woman to run a major television studio.

** Alas!  This sort of thing isn't limited to children.  An otherwise adult friend of mine told me several times that he thinks red hair is "creepy".  He only stopped after I invoked the popular trope of red-haired temper and threatened to pop him one.

Review: The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

I've written  on this blog before about the first British invasion of Afghanistan, and the disasters that followed.  In fact, I've written about it more than once.  It's a story that never fails to fascinate me, but when I received William Dalyrmple's The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 to review I was afraid I wouldn't have anything new to say.


In White Mughals and The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple introduced readers to the complicated relationships between South Asian rulers and the British East India Company in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He returns to that world in The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42. As in his earlier works, Dalrymple reveals a version of "British India" that is not merely, or even primarily, British.

The story of the First Anglo-Afghan War has been told often and well, most recently by Diane Preston in The Dark Defile.  Previous writers have focused primarily on the tangle of misinformation, paranoia and bad decisions that led to the destruction of the Army of the Indus by Afghan forces. Dalrymple broadens the story. Using not only new sources from British participants, but an array of Russian, Persian and previously unknown Afghani sources, he describes the war from both a British and an Afghani perspective. Readers already familiar with the details will be fascinated in particular by excerpts from the memoir of Shah Shuja; the deposed Afghan ruler whom the British attempted to return to the throne as a shield against Russian expansion appears as more than a shadow puppet for the first time.

Written in an engaging narrative style, The Return of a King is a nuanced account of what one of the expedition's survivors described as "a war begun for no wise purpose." The inevitable analogy with modern events at the end of the book is clumsy by comparison.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.