Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Paging Indiana Jones ...

As always, the world's attention has been on the present and the future, but knowledge of the past is important, too.

I know it sounds simple, but I have always believed that you have to know where you've been before you can decide where you're going, and discoveries that can provide valuable insights into the past have been occurring at a positively prodigious rate lately.

The discovery that probably would ring a bell with most Americans is the apparent finding of Christopher Columbus' sunken flagship, the Santa Maria, off the Haitian coast in the Caribbean.

As a child, I recall studying Columbus and the three ships in his fabled voyage across the Atlantic in 1492, but I don't recall hearing anything more about them. I don't think I ever heard what became of those ships.

Apparently, the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day in 1492. Columbus must have known the ship could not be saved because he instructed his crew to strip timbers from it — which were later used in the construction of a fort. Today the Santa Maria's anchor is on display in a museum in Port–au–Prince (I have no idea why the anchor was salvaged).

When I was a child, I imagined all three ships as huge vessels when, in reality, they were very modest in size. The Santa Maria was roughly 58 feet long; the Nina and the Pinta were smaller.

Civil War buffs may be the only ones who recognize the name of the Planter. It was a Confederate steamer that was commandeered by a slave named Robert Smalls 152 years ago today, as a matter of fact.

Around 4 in the morning, while the captain of the Planter was ashore, Smalls piloted it out of the harbor. Once out of view of Confederate eyes, the ship's Confederate flag was lowered and replaced with a white flag.

Smalls turned the ship over to the Union and was chosen to recruit other slaves to fight for the North. He piloted the ship for the Union for the remainder of the war.

The Planter served several roles for the Confederates, including, for a short time, gunboat. When Smalls commandeered the Planter, it was found to have four guns in its cargo.

In addition to Smalls, the ship carried 15 other slaves to their freedom that day.

The Planter sank in a storm more than 10 years after the war ended. Researchers believe they have found its remains off the coast of South Carolina.

There may not be much to study. As I understand it, most of the ship's equipment was salvaged at the time.

But the discovery that promises to dig deeply into the past is one in Egypt. A tomb that has been dated to 1100 B.C. has been found at Saqqara, a burial ground near Memphis.

According to Egypt's antiquities minister, the tomb belongs to a guard of the army archives and royal messenger to foreign countries.

I'm not sure where that would fall on the ancient Egyptian social pyramid — probably the third level, just below priests and nobles but, perhaps, just above traders, artisans, shopkeepers and scribes.

Reportedly, the inscriptions and contents of the tomb are in excellent condition and, apparently, relatively intact. That may be more significant than you realize. The contents of tombs of more high–profile Egyptians have been vandalized and looted repeatedly over the centuries.

If its contents are largely intact, the study of such a tomb may help to fill in some gaps in mankind's knowledge and understanding of the world of 1100 B.C.

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