1 July 2012


Frank Joseph (ed.). The Lost Worlds of Ancient America. New Page Books, 2012

James A. O’Kon. The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology. New Page Books, 2012.

Since we have been told that Christopher Columbus first discovered the Americas, there has been a body of people working hard to deny it. This seems pretty much like any authoritative statement made – Elvis is not dead; Princess Diana did not perish in an accident; Osama bin Laden did not destroy the World Trade Center – someone is suddenly on hand to gainsay it. So it is with this book, which is a collection of articles originally published in the magazine Ancient American – Archaeology of the Americas Before Columbus.
The main difference is that, over recent years, mainstream archaeologists have come to agree with the position that Columbus was not the first European to find America. Evidence of a base camp at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, is accepted as proof positive that the Vikings discovered and explored some of North America. The extent of their travels within the continent, however, is still being hotly debated today, with putative evidence found then dismissed as being planted or misidentified. Also on the list of possible, albeit highly scrutinised, early transatlantic travel indicators are the discovery of tobacco and coca derivatives in Egyptian mummies and Basque fishermen working off the Canadian coast at least thirty year before Columbus embarked.
There has also been the astonishingly overlooked evidence of major prehistoric earthworks on the North American part of the continent. For reasons that are not at all clear, Stonehenge, Avebury and many sites of similar note are packed into the compact area of the United Kingdom, and they are written about and excavated on what seems like a regular basis which, although I personally applaud research into such places, jars with the lack of anywhere near a similar amount of attention being paid to some rather breath-taking and curious sites in the USA and Canada. It is refreshing to see this discrepancy redressed somewhat within the pages of this work.

So to the book – what are we to expect? The articles are, on average, a few pages in length. They are grouped under four main headings and look at a wide range of evidence, from physical sites, artefacts and buildings to local myths and legends. They are not all dedicated to proving that Western or Asian civilisations came to the Americas but include a fair amount of writing on unusual archaeological sites and some speculative chapters (“Did Pre-Columbian Americans Discover Electricity?”). Unlike some books on this type of subject matter, most of the supposition is within the bounds of what is generally thought of as acceptable. The genesis of civilisations are not laid at the feet of aliens and even the writing concerning Atlantis avoids New Age ruminations and concentrates on Plato’s writings and the archaeological evidence under consideration. The writing is sober, yet yields some intriguing ideas; one of the most thought-provoking being speculation that the ancient Peruvians may have discovered hot-air ballooning.

According to the book, the natives had manufactured balloons about five feet high which were heated by cane smouldering in clay pots and they were used to convey offerings to the gods and was a tradition passed down through the generations. This activity, coupled with legends of a god known as Orichan, who was said to have flown in the air to reconnoitre for approaching troops, apparently inspired an American by the name of Jim Woodman to build a hot-air balloon capable of lifting two men into the air. It was constructed of local materials that would have been available in the past and methods that would have been familiar to the indigenous people. The balloon, known as Condor 1, did fly to over three hundred feet whilst carrying two adults and proved that, if they had been so inclined, that folk of that time and place could have taken to the air. However, the article tales pains to point out that there is no definitive proof that they ever did.

There are also more down-to-earth (sorry) subjects to be found, such as the aforementioned prehistoric earthworks found in the United States and Canada. These, as I observed earlier, do not generally seem to receive the same amount of publicity as similar sites, say, here in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that there are many, many more tumuli, stone circles and megaliths known about here. The writing herewith does comment about the similarity that one of the earthworks, the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio, bears to another in Ontario and, surprisingly, one on the west coast of Scotland.

The subject matter, then, is broad. Such various and arcane matters such as the possibility of the Welsh attempting to colonise parts of America to Roman artefacts found to legends similar to Atlantis attached to a site in the Bolivian Altiplano are all covered. The one major factor is that it makes a sweep across pre-Columbian archaeology in looking at the strange and out-of-place, or at least staunchly debated. It is precisely this breadth of subject matter, the inclusion of hitherto relatively unregarded sites and subjects on the continent of America coupled with the spread of authors which makes this book notable and interesting. -

Who of us hasn’t, at some stage in their lives, wanted to say “Bugger this”, buy a camper van and drive off into the wilds and commune with the stones and ruins of an ancient civilisation? Well, me for a start as I can’t drive, but in my younger days I did load a tent onto a bicycle and explore the wilds of Essex and Kent. I say the wilds – I mean the pubs, although some of the ones I found combined a little of both. That is one of the main ways in which this book fascinates, as the author actually did the camper van thingy and ran away to the Yucatán Peninsula to study the ruins of the mysterious Maya. In some ways it is surprising that this book is available from this particular publisher, as there is very little of what is thought of as New Age thinking in its pages.

The “Lost Secrets” referred to in the title are engineering, architectural and structural technology, which are compared to familiar civilisations in the Old World, especially those quintessential builders, the Romans. James A. O’Kon is an engineer with a deep and abiding fascination with the Maya people, who lived from about 2000 BC until just after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the early 16th century. What gives him a particular insight into their achievements is not only his years of study of them as builders, but also his speciality of investigating and assessing distressed structures. This, according to him, gives him the ability to picture what the construction would have looked like originally and how it would have behaved. What also helps the research along is that the Maya have a sophisticated written language and some of their construction methods are thought to be preserved among their descendants today.

This book is a little like combining a travelogue with a history of the archaeology of the Maya. There is also a look at the language itself, together with a small pinch of the ubiquitous Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure as we read of his canoeing in dugouts up insect-infested jungle to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about these curious folk and their technical wonders. There is no denying that the author is very enthusiastic about his subject and very knowledgeable with it. This, combined with his years of education and experience of engineering and computer 3D modelling specific to the field of forensic engineering, enable the reader to gain insight into a people who were discovered only comparatively recently.

His vision describes the robust and well-surfaced roads thrusting though the rainforest, buildings rising above the treetops so much that they only began to be surpassed for height in the 19th century in Chicago. His reckoning is that, as far as their science was concerned, this put the Maya ahead of any previously-known civilisation by about one thousand years. As would be expected in a book by a respected and qualified engineer, there are numbers, chemical symbols and experimentation to back up the theories. The book also contains quite a few pictures, many of which are in colour, and diagrams exploring what went on with the construction of the edifices. There is also some practical research to see if the author and his co-investigators were correct about their theories. One in particular is the manufacture of Mayan cement. This was produced in kilns that approximated the function of modern blast furnaces, reducing stone so that it could be used as hydraulic cement, i.e. cement that can harden in water. He uses chemical symbols and formulae, figures in table form and, finally, the author and the others even build a scale working model of one of these cement kilns in order to test their theories.

Mr. O’Kon does not seem to be a devotee of saucer-borne or Atlantean help and influence as far as the engineering feats of the Maya are concerned, therefore we do not have to negotiate much in the way of rarefied speculation. There is quite a nuts-and-bolts approach to – erm, their lack of nuts and bolts, and instead more concentration of just how these supposedly primitive aboriginal types in loincloths managed to erect not only pyramids, but to construct highways, advanced irrigation, thriving cities and (if he is correct) the longest suspension bridge in the ancient world, surpassing even those industrious Romans. In here, we get to find out just how he discovered the existence of this record-breaking span as he disagrees with archaeologists as to how advanced scientifically and industrially his beloved Maya were.

All in all, quite an unusual and insightful publication for this field, especially with the minimum of mysticism. The computer models, actual working models and engineering know-how gives it a more literally down-to-earth air than most on this subject, and a few more books like this in a similar vein would be no bad thing. There is a bibliography and an index, both of which are very useful and should be considered the least that a serious non-fiction book should contain. My only complaint is that, due to the tight focus upon architecture and technical information, my thesaurus spontaneously combusted from overuse. -- Trevor Pyne.

1 comment:

purrlgurrl said...

The ignorance and indifference of the average North American towards the existence of extensive Native American earthworks such as those at Cahokia never fails to amaze me.

Perhaps as North Americans, we don't want to acknowledge or come to terms with the extensive and sophisticated civilizations we decimated in building the US and Canada.

Better to let sleeping dogs lie than to admit our Anglo and French ancestors behaved no better than the Spaniards and Portuguese in South America.

Hey, I like having my head buried in sand up to my neck. I don't have to look at anything that makes me uncomfortable or forces me to re-evaluate my prejudices.