Holes In The Ground

Last October, The Englishman and Mr. Free Market had planned a joint visit to the U.S., but only Mr. Free Market made it over The Pond. The Englishman’s excuse for not making it was that he was going to be looking in a hole in the ground. (Mr. FM’s acid comment: “Nothing wrong with looking at holes in the ground, as long as there are dead Socialists at the bottom.”)

Well, this is the hole that The Englishman was talking about:

…and he took me there earlier today, after a liquid lunch [he added unnecessarily]. Here are my pics, taken at ground level:

The trapezoidal outline is the “inner wall” that was probably the outer wall of the barrow — basically, a wooden structure covered with earth and turf, wherein, the newspaper article runs, the dead were buried.

Here are a couple pics of some of the people excavating the site:

Actually, as The Englishman pointed out to me, the “burial ground” thing could be a load of nonsense, for the simple reason that as of today, no human remains have yet been found. The structure could equally have been a communal living area or shelter — but as the digging progresses, there may well be prehistoric bodies discovered further down.

It makes sense that it’s a burial site, by the way; in Neolithic times, dwellings were generally placed closer to rivers or lakes, and this barrow is at least a quarter-mile up from the nearest stream. Also, the dirt mound which surrounded the barrow had the trench on the inside, and not the outside (which would have made it a defensive fortification around the barrow).

I have to say that generally speaking, this kind of stuff holds absolutely no interest for me whatsoever. I like history (i.e. written accounts of events and people) and not prehistory (which has no such accounts). The problem is that I love listening to experts talk about their area of expertise — it can be a glassblower, a gunmaker, a liquor distiller or someone who’s spent forty years studying Shakespeare’s sonnets — and along with The Englishman, who is very knowledgeable about all this prehistory stuff, I also met Jim Leary and Amanda Clarke (see the article) who are heading up both this dig and a nearby one (which we visited too). It’s impossible not to be excited when people like these talk about finds they’ve made which could completely change our understanding of this hitherto-unknown time.

Of course, all this was made still more enthralling for me when we passed this building on the way home — a Saxon church built around the time of Alfred The Great:

It’s long since been converted into a house, and I just hope that the owners appreciate its heritage.

And on the right is The Englishman’s Land Rover Defender (full pic below):

Of course, we’re not allowed to own such exquisite vehicles because of OSHA (no “side-protection”, or some such nanny-state bollocks), but don’t get me started on that tangent.

As with so many days I’ve spent here, it was perfect — and I’m going to do it again, somewhere else.

Oh, and of course, I’ve been remiss in not showing the place from which we started off the day’s activities, The King’s Arms in the village of All Cannings:

This is an historic site for me, because it’s where I was first introduced to Wadworth’s 6X Ale.

Let Africa Sink

As my Let Africa Sink essay from 2002(!) is going to feature in my Monday post, I thought I’d take the opportunity to re-publish it below, pretty much un-edited except for a few typos which somehow survived to the present day.  Read more

Question Of The Day

From Reader MadJack:

I saw this question on Quora and was intrigued.
“What is the biggest mistake a U.S. President has ever made?”
The number one answer was Watergate, but I’m not so sure I agree with that. I’d be interested to know what you and your readers think — most know more about history than I do, and that includes the parts I lived through.

In modern times, I’d have to say it was George H.W. Bush, who broke his “No New Taxes” promise to the electorate. That mistake cost him a second term and (coupled with Ross fucking Perot) put Bill Bastard Clinton into the White House in 1993.

The other huge mistake was Harry Truman’s acceptance of the United Nations onto U.S. soil, but I’m not sure whether he could have done much to stop it even had he wanted to. He could have refused to sign the Charter — as a Republican president of the time might surely have done — but he went along with it partly from his own conviction and partly because it was a cornerstone of the saintly FDR’s legacy.

One more presidential mistake to consider was JFK’s refusal to allow the U.S. Air Force (or any other branch) to support the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. I know people will say that the USSR might have intervened, but any scrutiny of the history of the time will show that the Commies didn’t have the military capacity to project power that far into the Western Hemisphere, and there was no way they would have used a preemptive nuclear strike against the U.S.A. just to protect Cuba. But Kennedy’s reluctance, coupled with his disastrous meeting with Kruschev a few months later, did embolden the Soviets to start installing medium-range missiles in Cuba, which in turn led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Kennedy did redeem himself on that one by standing up to the Soviets, it was a problem largely of his own making. (One wonders how Urkel Obama would have responded to Kruschev’s ploy… no, I don’t wanna think about it.)

By the way, Watergate was a huge blunder for Nixon — the cover-up was, anyway — but I think Gerald Ford’s preemptive pardon of Nixon was an even bigger one, because it put Jimmy Shitforbrains Carter into the White House in 1977.

Readers are encouraged to add their suggestions in Comments. I’m not an expert on pre-20th century U.S. presidents by any standards, so I’d like to hear thoughts on that era especially.

French Friday II: Salted & Unsalted

I have occasionally written quite scathingly about my recent past as a college student, but I have to make one thing quite clear: at a rough guess, I passed through the classes of approximately three dozen professors, and with maybe only a few exceptions, they were all good to excellent. One of the excellent ones was Professor Michael Leggiere PhD. of the U of North Texas Military History Department, who schooled me on Napoleonic Warfare. Dr. Mike is actually a world-renowned expert on this topic, is often called away to give talks and seminars at places like London’s University College, and in fact the last time I spoke with him in person, he was about to tour some of Napoleon’s Polish battlefields with another military historian, Hasso von Bismarck — yeah, that Bismarck family.

Part of Leggiere’s Napoleonic Warfare course was a brief but typically-superb biography of Napoleon himself, and as I’d read only superficially about the Little General before, this was an eye-opener, to say the least. To a history junkie like myself, this meant reading about Napoleon outside the course curriculum, and by happy coincidence, this extra study dovetailed very nicely with a course on French cultural history I was taking concurrently (yes, I picked my classes carefully, why do you ask?).

Napoleon, you see, wasn’t just some military adventurer or conqueror (although he was both those things, par excellence); he also laid the foundation for the modern French state: its system of (Napoleonic) law, its education system, and its administration — most of which remained more or less unchanged until the 1970s. (Just to make everyone feel inadequate: he’d laid out the blueprint for all the above reforms by age 24, while studying at a military academy and being involved as a junior officer in a couple of military campaigns.)

I’ve told you all that so I can tell you this.

One of the quirks of French cuisine is that most often the butter is unsalted, and at a French dinner table you will usually find a tiny cruet of salt with a microscopic spoon inside, so that you can salt your butter (or not) according to taste. To someone like myself, accustomed only to salted butter, this seemed like an affectation, but it wasn’t that at all: it was the result of taxation, and this is one of the things changed forever by Napoleon’s administrative reforms.

One of the best parts of our U.S. Constitution is the “interstate commerce” clause, which forbids states from levying taxes on goods and services passing from one state to another, and through another in transit. This was not the case in pre-Napoleonic France. Goods manufactured in, say, Gascony or Provence would pass through a series of customs posts en route to Paris, and at each point the various localities would levy excise taxes on the goods, driving up the final price at its eventual destination.

Which brings us to salt. French salt, you see, was produced mainly on the Atlantic coastline, and was a major “export” of Brittany to the rest of France. Butter, of course, was produced universally — in and outside Paris and ditto for every major city — but the salt for the butter came almost exclusively from Brittany, and having been taxed  multiple times by the time it reached points east like Paris or Lyons, it was expensive.  So the cuisine and eating habits in those parts developed without the use of salt — or, if salt was requested, at an added cost. It’s why, to this day, many French recipes use unsalted butter as an ingredient. (In contrast, butter for local consumption in western France was [and still is] almost always salted, because salt was dirt cheap there.)

Napoleon’s reforms did away with all that; he saw to it that the douane locale checkpoints and toll booths along the main roads were abolished (causing salt prices in eastern France to plummet and become a mainstay of French cuisine at last). And when the towns and villages protested about the loss of tax revenue, Napoleon made up the shortfall with “federal” funds out of the national treasury.

Of course, the French treasury had in the meantime been emptied out by, amongst other things, the statist welfare policies of the Revolutionary government (stop me if this is starting to sound familiar). Which is why, to raise money, Napoleon invaded wealthy northern Italy and western Germany (as it is now), pillaged their rich cities’ treasuries and garnered revenue from the wealthy aristocracy, who paid bribes to avoid having their palaces sacked and their wealth confiscated.

So yes: Napoleon was a Crool Invader, a Warmonger and Plunderer. Except that in the wake of his cruelty and so on, much of Western Europe ceased to be oppressive feudal monarchies and became instead republican democracies, because while he took their money, he left behind Revolutionary ideals and democratic government.

But I’ll talk about that another time.

In passing, if any one of you has kids or grandkids who are going to study modern European history, tell them to go to U of North Texas just to take classes from Professors Michael Leggiere and Alfred Mierzejewski, and to take every single class they teach, every semester. (Each professor teaches about four or five topics, but never simultaneously, and spreads them out over several semesters.) I missed a couple of their courses simply because I just wasn’t there long enough, and I regret it to this day. I’ll talk about the brilliant Dr. Alfred Mierzejewski in another post, when I talk about Nazi cattle cars.