Welcome to the Atlas Obscura, a compendium of this age's wonders, curiosities, and esoterica. The Atlas Obscura is a collaborative project with the goal of cataloging all of the singular, eccentric, bizarre, fantastical, and strange out-of-the-way places that get left out of traditional travel guidebooks and are ignored by the average tourist. If you're looking for miniature cities, glass flowers, books bound in human skin, gigantic flaming holes in the ground, phallological museums, bone churches, balancing pagodas, or homes built entirely out of paper, the Atlas Obscura is where you'll find them.
TDG readers will probably enjoy sections such as "Incredible Ruins" (Baalbek, Gobekli Tepe etc), "Relics and Reliquaries" and "Instruments of Science" (HAARP, Tesla Coils etc) - topics can be browsed on the right hand side of the page. Found via the always fascinating Boing Boing.
The UK's 'sacred landscape' community has suffered another loss, on the back of the death last month of John Michell: Pat Delgado, one of the most influential writer/researchers on the topic of crop circles, passed away on the weekend aged 90. Delgado co-authored the bestselling book Circular Evidence with Colin Andrews, and in doing so introduced many people to the mystery of the 'agriglyphs'. He largely retired from the scene after the 'Doug and Dave' revelations in 1991, in which he was the central 'victim' to pronounce that their faked circle was "genuine". He later said (in 1996) that he had come to the conclusion that the complex patterns should be considered "artistic" man-made designs, rather than hoaxes, but that the truly "genuine" circles "are simple single circles and their history probably goes back thousands of years."
More interesting revelations from this week's release by the UK Ministry of Defence of secret documents pertaining to the UFO subject...though in this case, it is crop circles. One of the mysterious themes propagated (pun not intended) in the crop circle mythos is that of 'black helicopters' being present at the scene of newly-formed glyphs. According to the latest MoD documents released, that was simply the military sight-seeing:
The MoD tried to stop military helicopter crews photographing crop circles for fear that this contradicted the official line that they had no interest in the phenomenon.
In 1991, the Centre For Crop Circle Studies wrote to the MoD, saying aircraft had hovered over fields where the patterns had appeared and on at least one occasion taken pictures. This concerned the MoD so much that they wrote to Army and Navy chiefs, asking them to ensure this did not happen again.
But both services refused, saying they would "not be taken seriously" by air crews if they issued such an edict and suggesting the department was being "over-sensitive towards the UFO lobby".
The documents also reveal a dialogue between the MoD and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher regarding the circles, as well as one strange case in which a circle was said to be formed by four 'bright' whirlwinds (interesting note about the "swishing" sound, given my own research...although in this case that's probably a likely sound with a windstorm in fields of crops).
This year has been pretty violent here in Mexico, but most of that violence has been related to fights among the drug cartels to gain new territories. However, this news from Associated Press is different; and sadly it rings a familiar bell…
Last Sunday five state police officers were arrested in San Cristóbal de las Casas - a municipality located in the southern state of Chiapas - in relation with a raid to remove protesters that had trespassed a Mayan archaeological site, in which 6 villagers were killed.
These Indian villagers had occupied the entrance to the Chinkultic ruins, that are close to the border with Guatemala. They had stayed there for nearly a month.
We mentioned earlier this year the new History Channel documentary on the life of legendary ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, narrated by the almost as legendary Wade Davis (trailer here, or you can order the complete documentary on DVD). For more insights into the life of this fascinating man, check out the Smithsonian which is currently hosting an exhibition of his photography, titled "The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Legendary Botanist Richard Evans Schultes":
Richard Evans Schultes, an explorer and botanist, spent much of his career penetrating remote reaches of the Amazon, where shamans taught him the healing properties of plants often unknown to science. In his pursuit of natural pharmacopeia, he imbibed strange brews and snorted potent snuff to personally test the effects, often donning traditional costume and participating in tribal ceremonies. By the time he died in 2001 at age 86, Schultes had documented 300 new species and cataloged the uses of 2,000 medicinal plants, from hallucinogenic vines to sources of the muscle relaxant curare.
Schultes was also a popular Harvard professor, known as the father of ethnobotany for his groundbreaking work examining the relationship between cultures and plants. He inspired a generation of Harvard students to become leaders in botany and rain forest preservation—including Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team and author of the best-selling Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice. "Here was a guy who went off to the unknown and not only lived to tell about it, he came back with all kinds of cool stuff," Plotkin says. Students remember Schultes' nonconformity; he was known to demonstrate the use of a blowgun by shooting at a target across the classroom. He was also an avid photographer, who recorded many remarkable images on his expeditions.
The small amount of photographs offered on the website are brilliant - many look as if they were taken just days ago, you have to remind yourself that the people in them have aged 50 years or more since it was taken. If you get the chance, make sure you go take a look at this exhibition (h/t David Pescovitz at Boing Boing).
The British government and English Heritage have asked for public consultation on some proposals to help conserve Stonehenge. Chief among the possible moves include moving the road which runs alongside the iconic site, and also moving the Stonehenge visitor centre.
Lord Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of English Heritage, said: "Stonehenge is the greatest achievement of prehistoric culture anywhere in Europe. "It is inconceivable that the inadequacies of the site should be allowed to continue any longer. "With political will and financial commitment I believe the Government can achieve a breakthrough this time."
The new urgency to protect Stonehenge seems to have been partly inspired by the Olympic Games, which will be hosted by London in 2012. It is expected that the massive influx of visitors for the Games will mean record numbers of tourists visiting the famous megaliths.
One of my dreams would be to do a tour of the megalithic monuments of the world. The next best thing, though, stuck here in the Daily Grail Dungeon, is to take a video tour in HD. And now, that's possible - at least for the megaliths of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Standing with Stones is a newly released DVD, which takes you through the numerous stone monuments which usually sit in the shadow of Stonehenge's fame:
There are about 1000 stone circles in the British Isles. If you include other megalithic monuments such as stone rows, long barrows, cairns, cists, standing stones and others, the number runs to tens of thousands. Yet most people can only name one.
This DVD is an exploration beyond Stonehenge, a discovery of the wealth that is megalithic Britain. Written and presented by explorer and naturalist Rupert Soskin, this film takes the viewer on a 2 hour prehistoric pilgrimage, visiting more than 100 of the less familiar (but no less extraordinary) sites up and down the country, from Cornwall to the Scottish Isles.
There are two trailers for the DVD on the website, as well as sample videos from a number of the sites (click on the locations in the map at the top). Looks like it has top class production and photography, and the DVD is only £17.99 (shame about that pound sign...damn exchange rate!) - a real find. Not only does it give a great run-down of the circles, but it puts you right there in the landscapes, which to me is half the magic. Thanks Marcus for the heads up.
Some news that may have flown under the radar (Kat posted it in Monday's news briefs), is a new theory about Stonehenge which suggests that the builders may have had relatively advanced knowledge of geometry, and that it may have been a more important factor in design and layout than astronomy:
Stone Age Britons had a sophisticated knowledge of geometry to rival Pythagoras – 2,000 years before the Greek "father of numbers" was born, according to a new study of Stonehenge. Five years of detailed research, carried out by the Oxford University landscape archaeologist Anthony Johnson, claims that Stonehenge was designed and built using advanced geometry.
The discovery has immense implications for understanding the monument – and the people who built it. It also suggests it is more rooted in the study of geometry than early astronomy – as is often speculated. Mr Johnson believes the geometrical knowledge eventually used to plan, pre-fabricate and erect Stonehenge was learnt empirically hundreds of years earlier through the construction of much simpler monuments.
He also argues that this knowledge was regarded as a form of arcane wisdom or magic that conferred a privileged status on the elite who possessed it, as it also featured on gold artefacts found in prehistoric graves.
"For years people have speculated that Stonehenge was built as a complex astronomical observatory. My research suggests that, apart from mid-summer and mid-winter solar alignments, this was not the case," said Mr Johnson. "It strongly suggests that it was the knowledge of geometry and symmetry which was an important component of the Neolithic belief system."
"It shows the builders of Stonehenge had a sophisticated yet empirically derived knowledge of Pythagorean geometry 2000 years before Pythagoras," he said.
Johnson's research is presented in a newly released book, Solving Stonehenge: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma (available now at Amazon UK, and as a preorder for mid-June from Amazon US). Combined with other recent news, such as the theory that Stonehenge was a "Neolithic Lourdes", and we may just be seeing a resurgence of interest in the 'ancient mysteries', and megalithic building in particular.
The BBC reports that excavations are beginning at Stonehenge for the first time in more than four decades, and - interestingly - that the Beeb is actually providing the funding. (Make sure you check out the short video accompanying the article which gives a nice concise history of the construction (and partial destruction) of the monument.) Especially interesting is the suggestion that the new excavation hopes to test the theory that Stonehenge may have been seen as a place of healing:
The two-week dig will try to establish, once and for all, some precise dating for the creation of the monument. It is also targeting the significance of the smaller bluestones that stand inside the giant sarsen pillars. Researchers believe these rocks, brought all the way from Wales, hold the secret to the real purpose of Stonehenge as a place of healing.
The excavation at the 4,500-year-old UK landmark is being funded by the BBC. The work will be filmed for a special Timewatch programme to be broadcast in the autumn.
The researchers leading the project are two of the UK's leading Stonehenge experts - Professor Tim Darvill, of the University of Bournemouth, and Professor Geoff Wainwright, of the Society of Antiquaries. They are convinced that the dominating feature on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire was akin to a "Neolithic Lourdes" - a place where people went on a pilgrimage to get cured.
Some of the evidence supporting this theory comes from the dead, they say. A significant proportion of the newly discovered Neolithic remains show clear signs of skeletal trauma. Some had undergone operations to the skull, or had walked with a limp, or had broken bones.
There are more details about the research and new excavations in a a second story at the BBC website. Looks like a documentary worth keeping an eye out for.
The Guardian Online has an excellent opinion piece titled "The final insult", which asks a very good question - why is Stonehenge not treated by officials as being on a par with other great ancient sites such as the Giza pyramids?
The first view of Stonehenge as you approach from Salisbury is a clutter of what looks like scrap metal. It reminded me of a rural junk yard, but on closer inspection this turns out to be the Stonehenge car park. You can see why English Heritage feels the need to apologise to visitors before they even reach the turnstile; plaques acknowledge the unsatisfactory state of Stonehenge and describe, with beautiful diagrams of an underground museum and visitors' centre, the utopian near-future. None of this is now going to happen.
I was lucky enough to visit Stonehenge at first light on a Spring morning (some ten years ago to the day). The morning mist slowly cleared to reveal stark, grassy terrain and a monument that, quite simply, encapsulated the word "ancient". It was a wonderful space to be in, and I can only hope that more people in future get to experience it - whether at Stonehenge, or other wonderful 'sacred sites' in the United Kingdom.
In the writer's words, "Stonehenge has been talked down by the experts. And now the philistines have an excuse to treat it as if it was nothing special." That truly would be a crime.