National Geographic History January/February 2021

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United States
National Geographic Society
6 Issues

in this issue

1 min
from the editor

The Trojan War has transfixed me since the third grade, when a librarian handed me Tales of the Greeks and Trojans, a gorgeous book illustrated by sisters Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone. On the cover, Achilles, clad in golden armor, squares off against Hector, who is wearing a shining helmet: The action was intense, and I was hooked. At first, it was just a gripping story of a war fought over the most beautiful woman in the world, but years later when I returned to the Trojan War through The Iliad, the story grew deeper. More than just a beautifully illustrated action sequence, the poem was now a thematic clash between wrath and honor as heroes stared down their fates on the battlefield. I revisited The Iliad in preparation for this month’s…

3 min
indigenous australian past found underwater

Archaeologists have long speculated about human settlement on Australia’s northern continental shelf, a stretch of now submerged land that extends 100 miles from the current coastline. Forty years ago, a search for evidence was unsuccessful, leaving the question open. A new effort, drawing on the expertise of Australian universities and Britain’s University of York, in partnership with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, recently set out to try again. The project centered on the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia. Even knowing that this area abounds with Indigenous rock engravings, doctoral students John McCarthy and Chelsea Wiseman were surprised by what they found in the aquamarine waters of Cape Bruguieres in July 2019. “I was stunned when I saw the tools in a little pothole on the seabed,” said McCarthy. When he surfaced shouting “lots…

8 min
jugurtha, the king who bought rome

Struggling to subdue the people of Spain in 134 B.C., Roman general Scipio Aemilianus realized he needed more troops. He turned to Numidia, a North African ally whose ruler, Micipsa, was glad to provide Numidian soldiers. A loyal ally of Rome in its recent victory over Carthage, Numidia (located in parts of modern Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) had an underlying motive for helping Rome: Micipsa could send his nephew Jugurtha to command Numidia’s forces. Charismatic, clever, and aggressive, Jugurtha represented a threat to Micipsa’s throne and his two sons. Assisting Rome in Spain would conveniently put Jugurtha in harm’s way. Perhaps he would never return. But Jugurtha did return after a decisive Roman victory at Numantia with a glowing letter of recommendation from Scipio. His military and political reputation enhanced, Jugurtha…

2 min
the king’s ivory: benin saltcellar

Carved from an elephant tusk, an intricate ivory saltcellar stands only 10 inches high, but its myriad details make a massive impact. Four European males—two richly attired men and their servants—support a receptacle for salt, which is in turn crowned by a ship. Housed today in Paris, France’s Quai Branly Museum, the saltcellar was fashioned around the 16th century by the highly trained artisans in Africa’s ancient kingdom of Benin (in what is modern Nigeria). According to Kathy Curnow, associate professor of African art history at Cleveland State University, saltcellars like this one were made by a small group of artists (six or seven men) who belonged to a hereditary, male-only guild of ivory carvers. Their highly sought skills were passed down through the generations through demanding apprenticeships: “Growing up watching…

8 min
roller-skating: a skate for all seasons

The series of roller-skating crazes in recent memory make it seem a quintessentially 20th-century phenomenon, but wheeled shoes first rolled out as early as the 1700s. As models changed and improved over the years, skating fads bloomed in Europe and the United States throughout the 19th century. The precursor to roller-skating—ice-skating—is vastly older and can be dated as far back as 1800 B.C. Archaeologists found evidence that people in Scandinavia fashioned ice skates from animal bones, pioneering the oldest human powered means of transport. In-line Adventures One of the first recorded attempts to put wheels on shoes took place in the 1700s. An unnamed Dutchman strapped to his shoes strips of wood with wooden spools on the bottom, known as “skeelers.” They quickly broke. Another famous early attempt to skate on wheels was made…

13 min
jiroft uncovering iran’s lost civilization

In 2001 a flood of archaeological objects began appearing in the antiquities market seemingly out of nowhere. For sale were distinctive pieces of jewelry, weapons, finely crafted ceramics, drinking vessels, and game boards—featuring unusual artistry and magnificent inlays of carnelian and lapis lazuli. These extraordinary pieces featured a complex symbology of animals, both wild and domesticated, depicted fighting among themselves or with human figures, the humans always triumphant. There were beautifully realized bucolic scenes of animals grazing in vast palm groves and architectural reproductions of temples or palaces. Data provided by the internet sites and auction houses selling these mysterious pieces was sparse and, at best, vague. Their origins were often listed as “from Central Asia.” At first, it was assumed that the pieces were the work of expert forgers, but…