Tuesday 6 December 2011

Read in 2011 - 28: Secrets of Lost Empires

This well-written and illustrated BBC book I found in my local library in the (sadly, very small) non-fiction section of books in English. It is based on a TV series that, I think, aired in the 1990s (but I had never heard about it until I found the book).
I've been interested in (especially ancient) history for almost as long as I can remember. When my sister was about 9, she developped a love for ancient Egypt and everything Egyptian, and for a while, we both read every single book about that long period we could get our hands on at the school's library (it helped that our mum used to work there until her retirement some years ago!).
For one of her birthdays (was it her 10th?), we even travelled to Munich to see an exhibition of items from Tut-Ankh-Amun's tomb, which would have been really really beautiful and impressive, had it not been totally overcrowded, and I panicked, squeezed in between loads of adults, unable to see much, and (feeling) unable to breathe.

This love for ancient history has never left me, and so I simply had to take this book out.

I was not disappointed.
The authors - Michael Barnes, Robin Brightwell, Adriana von Hagen, Mark Lehner and Cynthia Page - are a mix of TV producers, writers specialized in archaelogy, Professors and teachers who draw on a number of other experts in an attempt to re-create past monuments using the tools and methods available at the time of their original construction.
No mean feat, as you can imagine!

The book's chapters are about Stonehenge, the Giza pyramids, the Egyptian obelisks, the Colosseum (I have seen it spelt Coliseum, too, but I prefer Colosseum as it is the same in German and in the BBC book), and the Incas. Now, probably everybody knows that the wheel had not been yet invented when any of these monuments, except for the Colosseum, were erected - and try to imagine putting such enormous amounts of stone together with no machines to help, just human labour and cleverly devised systems of ropes and rollers, wooden sleds and levers. It seems nearly impossible, and yet we know it WAS possible - otherwise none of those stony witnesses from those days would be there for us to see.

Every now and then, one comes across the theories of people who insist that Aliens from outer space have visited our planet and taught our ancestors how to do it, or even did it for them. And although I admit some of these theories have a certain entertaining value, I much prefer sound reasoning based on scientific, historic and practical evidence, as here in this book, at the end of the chapter about the pyramids:

But even this limited experiment made it abundantly clear that the pyramids are very human monuments, created through long experience and tremendous skill, but without any kind of secret sophistication. More than we could capture on film, our trials resulted in many insights and deep admiration for the skill of ancient builders. ... Where we ... failed to match their best results..., it was due to the lack of several lifetimes of practice and not because we were missing some mysterious technology.

Some scenes are described in a way that you'd expect more in a work of fiction - making this book all the more of a good read:

Ali walked up on to the ramp of the partially built sandpit. The 13-metre obelisk was sitting on sled and rollers behind him. He stood at the edge of the pit, a thin, serious man in a flapping, flowing galabiyya, lighthing a cigarette in cupped hands and looking out over the desert. The breeze blew away the pungent Egyptian tobacco smoke. He was putting together an idea.

Towards the end of the book, in the chapter about the Inca, there is some more I want to share here. The crew of film makers and experts usually draw on local people to put their plans into reality, and freeing a huge block of stone that was quarried by the Inca but never made it to the construction site saw the enlisting of a whole nearby village.

Did the people of Ollantaytambo ever doubt their ability to free the Inca block? [They were] surprised by the idea. "No, of course not, ... people like us put it there, so people like us can make it move."

This experiment had ably demonstrated one of the true legacies of the Inca empire: Throughout the Andes, large groups of men and women still assemble to perform the community labour tax which they levy upon themselves, combining work and festivities for the common good. In Inca times, labour for the state was socially based rather than an individual burden.
This and a lot more I learnt from "Secrets of Lost Empires"; I was a bit bored and disappointed with the chapter about the Colosseum, but that may well have been because I read so much about the Romans earlier this year and the chapter largely focused on things I already knew instead of providing me with new and interesting facts and context.
My favourite chapter was the last one, about the Inca.

And now, I think it is time for fiction again.


  1. I also enjoy bringing the past to life. Great review -- I'd read the book.

    If I ever have time to read.

  2. Oh Mark, life is not at all slowing down for you, is it! Hope the house-showing is going well, and you'll soon have prospective buyers lining up on your drive!

  3. One of the highlights of my life was going to Pompeii...history there right before my own eyes.


  4. No, it is NEVER time for fiction! (Not for me anyway!) :-)
    This book sounds like one that I would really enjoy reading. Have you ever been to Avebury?
    Richard says that parts of it are older than Stonehenge.

  5. Librarian - You are an omniverous reader! How usual is it for German speakers to read non fiction books in English?

  6. SP, never been to Pompeii myself but would love to see it. During the years I was part of a Sicilian family, I saw a lot of Roman and Greek remains - that island is brimming with it! But no matter how many I've seen, I can't imagine ever being bored with it.

    Kay, no, it is a bit too far away from Yorkshire for me; when I am in England, I usually do not travel around much unless my relatives take me somewhere, and then that's usually close enough for a comfortable half-day-trip.

    Macy, reading (and writing) is almost like breathing to me. I need it to maintain my mental sanity. The number of people over here who read non fiction books in English can't be very high, or the library would have a wider range on offer :-)

  7. Have you ever read, 'The Source Field Investigations?' There is a lot in that book about shapes in general and pyramids in particular.

  8. Hello Suze, no, can't say I have. Is it dealing with pyramids and other shapes in an... erm... esoterical manner?

  9. I'm ashamed to say that I read very little history. Well I think I should be ashamed. In reality history is not my favourite subject although I used to devour books about the life and times of Nelson.

  10. Why should you be ashamed? There is such a vast range of topics - infinite, really - covered in books that not everybody can read everything, or we would never have time anymore to sleep and eat!