Now and then you stumble across history when you least expect it.
Yesterday my friend Nancy and I visited Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Sometimes you visit a museum because there's an exhibit you want to see. Other times you visit a museum because you want to hang out, talk, laugh a little . If you see something wonderful along the way, it's a bonus. Yesterday was the second kind of museum visit. We had a choice between whales and horses. We chose The Horse
It was history nerd paradise. There was an evocative thought at every stop, from the evolution of horses in North America to modern therapeutic riding.
Here are some of the highlights, filtered through my own historical preoccupations:
• One of the recurring themes in the kind of history that I read is hordes of armed horsemen riding out of Central Asia: Scythian, Mongols, Timurids, Turks. Turns out there's a good reason for that. Zooarcheologists* believe that the horse was first domesticated in what is now Kazakhstan.
• Pants, as opposed to say togas, kilts, or monastic robes, were first developed for riding horses. One more piece of civilization brought to you courtesy of Central Asia.
• The Pony Express only lasted eighteen months before the telegraph put it out of business. Evidently it doesn’t take long to become a cultural icon.
The exhibit will be on display at the Field Museum through August 14. If you're in Chicago, or are looking for a reason to visit, trot on over.
*Zooarchaeologists (also known as archaeozoologists depending on your point of view) study animal remains located in archaeological sites. These people do some amazing things. For instance, they use fossilized horse teeth to tell them not only what ancient horses ate, but also what the environment was like in North American 55 million years ago.
The Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) started badly from the British point of view. British troops, supposedly the best trained and best equipped in the world, suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of Boer farmers. (Anyone else hear echoes of another colonial war that pitted farmers against British regulars?)
The only bright spot in the morass of inefficiency and disaster was Colonel Robert Baden-Powell's spirited--and well-publicized--defense of Mafeking, a small town on the border between British and Boer territory. (Yep. The guy who founded the Boy Scouts.)
The siege lasted for 219 days. Undermanned and inadequately armed, Baden-Powell improvised fake defenses, made grenades from tin cans, and organized polo matches and other entertainments to keep the garrison's spirits high. The British public was able to follow "B-P's" defense of Mafeking because the besieged town included journalists from four London papers, who paid African runners to carry their dispatches through the Boer lines.
When news of the garrison's relief reached England, public celebrations were so exuberant that "maffick" became a (sadly underused) verb meaning to celebrate uproariously.
Maffick vt. To celebrate an event uproariously, as the relief of Mafeking was celebrated in London and other British cities.
So, have you mafficked something recently?
I'm assuming you all are readers. Why else would you join me in the odd corners of history a couple of times a week?
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