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After the Battle

The defeat of a Scottish army at the 1650 Battle of Dunbar was just the beginning of an epic ordeal for the survivors


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dunbar Cromwell Painting


On September 3, 1650, between Doon Hill and the London Road in Dunbar, Scotland, the English Parliamentary army led by Oliver Cromwell battled the Scottish Covenanting army. By this time, the series of conflicts known as the English Civil Wars had raged, off and on, for eight years. At the outset, Cromwell and the Scots had been on the same side, opposed to the royalists who backed King Charles I. The king had been beheaded the previous year, and now the Scots were supporting the royal claim of his son, Charles II.


The Scots are thought to have had as much as a two-to-one advantage in men, and held a superior position on the hill. However, many of the Scots were novices who had been recruited over the summer to replace more experienced soldiers purged from the army for their dissenting political views. When the Scots set out to attack at first light, Cromwell’s forces pounced and made quick work of them. The Battle of Dunbar was over in an hour, with the Scots suffering the overwhelming majority of casualties.


“I imagine it was quite chaotic. Cromwell’s men were trained professionals, and the Scots weren’t in good condition when they went into that battle,” says Chris Gerrard, an archaeologist at the University of Durham. “They had been at war for many years, and the clans were tired of giving up their best to the army. It was just men against boys.”


In the aftermath, several thousand sick and wounded Scottish soldiers were allowed to go home, but some 4,000 others deemed a potential threat were taken prisoner and marched south into England toward Durham, 100 or so miles away. These captives, many still teenagers and away from home for the first time in their lives, were in for a series of horrific travails. Already malnourished, they would suffer extreme privation and languish in unsanitary confines. Those who survived would be dispersed throughout the British Isles and as far afield as North America, where some would go on to lead improbably prosperous lives, with countless descendants living in the United States today. Although generally aware of their Scottish ancestry, many of these descendants knew little of what their seventeenth-century forebears had gone through—until an archaeological excavation produced new evidence of the harrowing events of more than 350 years ago.


As they made their way south toward Durham, the Scottish prisoners were in the charge of Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Cromwell’s governor at Newcastle. He explained what became of them in a letter to the English Council of State for Irish and Scottish Affairs dated October 31, 1650. The captives hadn’t been given a morsel to eat, and 30 miles into the march a number collapsed, claiming they could not go on. Parliamentary troops shot several dozen protesters, and the rest, resigned, continued on their way. Penned into a walled garden for the night farther along, the famished captives dug up raw cabbages and wolfed them down, muddy roots and all, so that they “poysoned their Bodies,” Hesilrige wrote. Based on his account, it seems that around one in four of the captives died on the march to Durham from starvation, exhaustion, execution, or an intestinal condition that he termed “the Flux.”


There is evidence that the Scots thought men would fight in a more “kingly” fashion if they were hungry, Gerrard says, so they probably hadn’t eaten much even before the battle. “They then were marching for six or seven days, and that is quite a time to go without food if you are walking a hundred miles.”

The Blackener’s Cave

Viking Age outlaws, taboo, and ritual in Iceland’s lava fields


Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Surtshellir Iceland Lava Tube


The Hallmundarhraun lava field—basalt dark, with great swells and a froth of white moss—looks like a stormy sea whipped into a frenzy and frozen in place. It begins under the Langjökull glacier in mountains to the east and winds some 30 miles to Hraunfoss—literally, “Lava Falls”—where a crystalline river of meltwater pours directly from its wide, stony face. It’s very Icelandic: fire and ice, water and stone. When the lava flowed at the end of the ninth century, shortly after the Vikings arrived on the island, it was probably the first volcanic activity of its kind that northern Europeans had ever witnessed. Those early residents of western Iceland may have heard eruptions, seen a fiery glow on the horizon, and tracked its spread across the landscape, a spread that ultimately consumed around 90 square miles.


Hallmundarhraun, just a few hours’ drive from Reykjavík, is riven with lava tubes which form when fresh molten rock flows through an existing field of cooled lava. Over time, the ceilings of some of these tunnels partially collapse to form caves. There are some 500 across Iceland, and around 200 hold evidence of human occupation. One of these caves is Surtshellir, part of a lava tube complex that is Iceland’s longest, at more than two miles. It is named for Surtr, the elemental fire giant of Norse mythology, the “scorcher” or “blackener,” ruler of Muspelheim, who will kill all gods and life at the end of time. Inside is one of the more enigmatic archaeological sites on the island.


Until one is almost directly on top of Surtshellir’s entrance, an amphitheater-shaped depression, the arrested turbulence and uniform darkness of Hallmundarhraun conceals it. But the cave is no minor feature. It is giant-scaled, a leviathan’s burrow up to 40 feet in diameter, littered with massive, angular blocks of basalt calved from the ceiling. Around 100 yards into the cave, that ceiling opens to the sky, the result of a collapse centuries ago. Just before reaching this skylight, one encounters, partially buried under boulders from the ceiling, a titanic man-made wall, 15 feet tall and spanning the cave, made up of blocks, each weighing up to four tons. Just past the skylight, two small galleries branch off, one to the left and one to the right. These side caves, Vígishellir (“Fortress Cave”) on the left and Beinahellir (“Bones Cave”) on the right, are the remnants of an older, smaller lava tube bisected by Surtshellir. After one scrambles up a rockfall into Vígishellir, the darkness descends like a shroud. Light is swallowed and incidental sound amplified. Breath hangs in the still, cold, humid air.


A few yards into Vígishellir is a second man-made structure: an anomalous arrangement of stones, piled a few feet high to form an oval enclosure, 22 by 11 feet. Archaeologists believe it could be the oldest standing Viking structure in the world. Next to it is a pile of animal bones, methodically hacked into tiny pieces. Archaeological sites generally have telltale patterns that show scientists how they were used: domestic activity, craft production, ritual. Surtshellir eludes such clarities. The things it contains—and, more importantly, doesn’t contain—fit some patterns and resist others, and show just how difficult it can be to divine behavior, intent, and even emotion from bits of stone and bone.

The Wall at the End of the Empire

The long and varied history of life along Hadrian’s Wall


Monday, April 10, 2017

Hadrians Wall Sunset


When the emperor Hadrian visited the province of Britannia in A.D. 122, he was in full command of the entire Roman Empire, which stretched some 2,500 miles east from northern Great Britain to modern-day Iraq, and 1,500 miles south to the Sahara Desert. He had become emperor five years earlier, after a controversial postmortem adoption by his predecessor and guardian Trajan, and he ruled until his death in 138, at the age of 62, likely of a heart attack. In just over 20 years, he became, according to an anonymous ancient source, the “most versatile” of the Roman emperors. He was a battle-tested solider who fought with Trajan in Dacia, a skilled politician who masterminded the consolidation of the empire’s territory, a faithful patron and lover of the arts, and a tireless traveler who visited nearly half the empire during his reign.


Hadrian is perhaps best known, however, as one of Rome’s most prodigious builders. In this he followed in the emperor Augustus’ footsteps as a ruler who grasped architecture’s inherent ability to express ideology and power. For most of Hadrian’s reign, the empire was at relative peace—the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” was at its height. Thus he didn’t achieve the notable military victories of some of his predecessors. Instead, he turned to art and architecture as a way of legitimizing his rule, demonstrating Roman dominion, solidifying his legacy, and leaving his enduring stamp on the landscape of the empire.


In Rome itself, the emperor sponsored numerous building projects, both to enrich the lives of its citizens and tie himself to the city’s past. At the site of the Pantheon, the spectacular domed temple in the heart of Rome that Hadrian is credited with completing, he linked his own rule to one of Rome’s most revered men, the first-century B.C. consul Marcus Agrippa—a great builder in his own right. Hadrian chose to retain the facade of Agrippa’s much earlier temple on the front of the Pantheon, while at the same time providing a new venue for the worship of all the gods. Hadrian also designed what is thought to have been the largest temple in ancient Rome, an enormous edifice honoring the goddess Venus Felix, a “bringer of good fortune,” and Roma Aeterna, or “Eternal Rome,” a double dedication whose symbolism, like the immense temple itself, was impossible to miss. Outside Rome, Hadrian displayed his personal love of all things Greek, and he combined it with the clear message that Rome was now in charge. In Athens, for example, he restored the Greek Olympieion, or Temple of Olympian Zeus, and erected a new gold-and-ivory statue to the god, but also placed four statues of himself in front of the main shrine and a large Roman-style arch at the entrance to the temenos, or sanctuary.


Hadrians Wall MapIn the provinces, as in Rome, architecture served symbolic as well as utilitarian purposes. Hadrian sponsored the renovation of ancient cities such as Smyrna, now Izmir in modern Turkey, founded entirely new ones such as Antinoopolis in Egypt, and commissioned the construction of public architecture—theaters, temples, arches, municipal buildings, and countless statues and inscriptions—everywhere he went. These sites often exhibit a mix of local and imported styles and tastes, and brought what Duke University historian Mary Boatwright calls a “‘Roman’ visual vocabulary” to much of the empire, uniting the vast territory in a way that proclamations and policy often could not. But there was one place where the emperor thought something entirely different was required.






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