11.5.10

HISTORY'S MYSTERIES

Brian Haughton. History’s Mysteries: People, Places and Oddities Lost in the Sands of Time. New Page Books, 2010. -- Reviewed by John Rimmer

This book gives straightforward accounts of a variety of historical puzzles, from prehistoric times to the eighteenth century from a conventional historical perspective. Some of these are artefacts or events which are often misinterpreted, in some cases deliberately so for political or religious motives, such as attempts to provide alternative histories for the Asoka Pillar and the Taj Mahal in India, the racial controversies surrounding the Great Zimbabwe ruins, and closer to home the historical and political controversy of the Stone of Scone or Stone of Destiny, part of the British coronation ceremony.

Others are just genuine mysteries where the evidence surrounding them is too complex for us yet to have any clear idea of their historical context. A prime example of this is the Gobekli Tepe site in Turkey. This is a massive ritual site built ten thousand years ago, millennia before any comparable constructions, and before the invention of the wheel, the development of agriculture and writing, which was then deliberately buried two thousand years later.

Some of the topics covered here have been covered by earlier ‘fortean’ writers, such as Rennes-le-Chateau, the Newport Mystery Tower and the Oak Island Money Pit. Haughton gives logical and rational explanations for these, although I doubt his down-to-earth account of Rennes-le-Chateau will satisfy many aficionados!

The author also looks at the origins for some mythical and quasi-mythical topics such as the lost land of Lyonesse, the Tower of Babel, and Merlin, seeking any historical events which may have formed the kernel of these stories, and examines how mythic elements have accrued around genuine historical figures like Nero, Boudicca and the Olmecs. There are several subject covered which were entirely new to me, such as the remarkable central European ‘Golden Hats’.

In summary, a good, sound account of 35 historical mysteries, and if Haughton does not ‘solve’ each one, he makes a good job of de-mystifying most of them. This is a book for the general reader with a broad interest in history rather than the hard-core fortean. The only serious complaint I have is the poor quality of the illustrations, which are only in black and white and in some cases heavily pixillated. A few colour plates would have made it a far more attractive book. In its favour there is an extensive bibliography, largely of on-line references (a webography?).


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