The Ark of the Covenant Got Locked in a Warehouse Because the Government Thought Indiana Jones Was Full of Sh*t

Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones, Ark of the Covenant

Everyone loves the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark because it’s the punchline to a joke that you never realized the film set you up for. The government claims that they have “top men” working on the mysteries that lie within the awesome divine relic, only for us to see the ark get shut up in a box and deposited in the recesses of a fully stocked warehouse, where it will likely never be found again. But let’s be honest here—do we really think that was the best possible solution? Given the havoc that the ark brought down upon the Nazis, why did the US government simply pack it away?

Think about this: Indiana Jones makes it back from his mission to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. Said mission was initially given to him by two government stooges from Army Intelligence who approached Jones to find out why ...

Peter Sawyer obituary

Influential scholar of the Vikings who challenged the standard view of them as invaders and destroyers

Peter Sawyer, who has died aged 90, was perhaps the most influential scholar of the Vikings and their activities in the last 70 years. His book The Age of the Vikings (1962) radically challenged the current orthodoxy, presenting the Vikings as “traders not raiders”. Peter did not deny their destructiveness, but he challenged its scale by looking hard at the question of Viking numbers, and at their ships, and by pointing to the destruction carried out by their contemporaries.

The debates opened up by the book have lasted through to the present, and while the position set out by Peter in 1962 has been modified, there has been no going back to the earlier image of destruction. As the runologist Ray Page noted in his review: “The Vikings will never be the same again....

Bruckheimer Make Boom with the “Real” King Arthur (2004)

I’ve said it before, in talking about the brilliance of Firelord, Parke Godwin’s novel of Arthur, that I can trace my choice of professional study, at some deep level, to a love of Arthur and his knights. Sure, Arthur is kind of a nebbish in a lot of the tales—which makes me all the more amazed at what Godwin did with him—but there’s just a lot of great stuff in the vast mythic complex that surrounds him.

King Arthur, as I tell my students, is like a little snowball rolled off the top of a tall, snowy peak. It gathers snow to it as it rolls, getting bigger and bigger until it’s really hard to find any trace of the original little clump of stuff that started it off.

Which is one way of explaining why anyone who tells you they know who the real King Arthur was… is ...

Bill, Ted, and the End of History

In February 1989, audiences saw, for the first time, a young Keanu Reeves lean close to a young Alex Winter and declare, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.”

It was a critical moment, not only in the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but in pop culture. As the movie posters had it, history was about to be rewritten by two guys who couldn’t spell. It was a goofy movie, and most of the critics didn’t get it. Teenagers did, though. For those of us who were young in 1989, Bill and Ted gave us exactly the time travel movie we needed.

Now they might be able to do it again.

A new Bill and Ted movie is in pre-production. There are reasons to be circumspect; people have been talking about a new Bill and Ted movie for years. And the franchise that followed Excellent Adventure...

SFF Archaeology: Excavating the Superhero World of the Wild Card Series

Many superhero tales and urban fantasies take place in metropolitan environments, often sites of old settlements and with convoluted layers of material history. Such is the case in the Wild Card series, which primarily takes place in New York City, beginning in 1946. You might not know it, but in many cities across the United States, busy archaeologists are constantly at work. It’s especially true in the oldest cities, or those with a history of intense occupation, where layers of previous habitation exist beneath modern city streets.

In some parts of the world the archaeology of urban living is more visible, such as in Mesopotamia, where cities’ occupation layers rise up from the ground, one on top of another in archaeological formations called ‘tells.’ Excavations in heavily-developed modern cities, on the other hand, reveal pockets of archaeological evidence intermixed and cut through with more recent human activity. So, what ...

Assassin’s Creed Origins Makes Cleopatra’s Egypt Real

I am not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, so this won’t be your typical video game review.

I don’t think so, anyway. Because I don’t read video game reviews, either.

A couple years ago I bought an Xbox One for the family. I used it for the Blu-Ray player and Pandora. The kids used it for Minecraft.

The idea that I would use it for gaming wasn’t too much on my radar.

Not that I haven’t played games before. I’m not a n00b, kidz. (Please do picture your friend’s dad saying this, preferably whilst throwing ‘signs’, yo.)

It’s just that … well, I’m sorta old. And my own previous video game loves were largely of two varieties. Back in my NES days, I loved Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which in my PC days morphed into an abiding love of Civ-style games (full-add-on Civ4 is ...

1968: the year that changed America

The cliche says that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there. But Hendrik Hertzberg remembers the decade’s most explosive year very well indeed

Where were you in the 1960s? And what were you? A toddler, a grade schooler, a teenager? A young adult? Were you already old enough to form your own memories? Or were you old enough but in the “if you can remember The Sixties you really weren’t there” category?

Of course, if you’re like most people, you were nowhere. You hadn’t been born yet. You didn’t exist. But wherever and whatever you were or weren’t, it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard about The Sixties – quite enough, maybe. Ad nauseam, maybe.

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Gallows Superstitions and the Bodies of the Condemned

While writing my steampunk murder mysteries, I read a lot about dead bodies and hangings. Gallows superstitions—those associated with executions—were rife in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Got a hanged man’s corpse? Don’t know what to do now?

Here are a few ideas from the pages of history:

Use him for science

If you were a medical student, you needed corpses to dissect. Unfortunately for you, folks were fussy about the fate of their fleshly remains. To be dissected was shameful and undignified, and in the pre-antibiotic age of epidemics, stories of prematurely diagnosed death were rife: fear of being “buried alive” and cut up before you’d fully expired was real. Not to mention that on Judgment Day, the dead were supposed to rise from the grave to be changed—if you weren’t buried according to Christian rites, your soul was in serious trouble.

So in 18...

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell – history illuminated by the human body

A rich study of the middle ages in Europe and the Middle East, brings this much maligned period to life

While Abbess Chiara Vengente lay dying in August 1308, she told the nuns of the Umbrian monastery in Montefalco that Christ was in her heart, sustaining her. When she died the nuns were astonished that after five days her body had still not decayed. Recalling her words, one of the sisters took a razor to the heart and sliced it in half: inside lay a very small image of Christ on the cross, with several tiny objects from the Passion, including the nails hammered into Christ’s body, all “wrought from the flesh of Chiara’s heart itself”.

The art historian Jack Hartnell tells this extraordinary story in his wonderfully rich study of the Middle Ages. Lasting from about 300 to 1500, the period has been characterised since the Enlightenment as an ...

The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia review – a kleptocracy in the making

Mark Galeotti’s timely account of the Russian underworld charts its rise from Soviet-era gangsters to Kremlin collaborators under Putin

I once met a former dissident who spent eight miserable years in a Soviet labour camp. While there, he contracted tuberculosis and ended up in an isolation centre, a prison within a prison – a place of danger and squalor even by the standards of the Soviet camps.

Kirill was a Muscovite, intellectual and Jewish, all characteristics likely to attract special treatment from the prison guards and their stooges, who he still called by the prison term “bitches”. His life was saved, however, from the unlikeliest of directions. A vor-v-zakone – a “thief-in-law” Soviet mafia boss – offered him protection in exchange for conversation and games of chess.

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Fintan O’Toole: five books to understand the Irish border

Acts of kindness at the height of the Troubles and a peaceful walk before the Brexit vote – writers explore a frontier under fresh threat

In All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming, his wonderful study of traditions in County Fermanagh, on the northern side of the Irish border, the US anthropologist Henry Glassie evokes in a few sentences the terror of the early 1970s, when the Troubles were at their worst: “People at work on their farms in the soft green Fermanagh countryside have been suddenly, brutally murdered. You never know when the next stranger on the street will be a bitter bastard with a gun. The nights are lonely. The wind howls cold on the streets.”

It is a bleak picture, but it serves in Glassie’s book as a backdrop to the sweetness and energy of the people whose lives and culture he studied. ...

Rose Tremain: ‘I don’t want to write for vengeance. It’s cheap and angry’

A cruel mother, an absent father, a beloved nanny ... the writer on the ‘frozen world’ of her childhood, and why she wishes she had won the Booker prize

“Do you love me? Do you love me?” Rose Tremain’s mother kept asking her daughter at the end of her life. “And I’d say: ‘Yes, of course I do.’ But I never have and I never will because you didn’t show me love when I needed it,” the novelist says now, as if her mother, Jane, were in the room with us.

After more than 40 years of not drawing on her own life in her fiction, Tremain has written a memoir. This slim, elegant – sometimes shocking – study of maternal failure is also a love letter to her nanny, “the kindest person I’ve ever known”, the author’s “saviour” and “angel”. Her childhood, she writes in Rosie: Scenes from ...

SFF and the Enduring Myth of Atlantis

Few of us realise how deep the roots of the classical past actually reach.

The written history of the Greeks doesn’t go back as far as that of say, Egypt. In fact, Herodotos, in the fifth century BC, thought that the Egyptians were the bees’ knees when it came to any number of things, the antiquity of their records among them. But the writings and art of the ancient Greeks—and their cultural emulators, inheritors, and adaptors, the Romans—have exercised an influence over European culture and imagination which is to all practical purposes unparalleled. Before the twentieth century, literature, art and architecture were saturated with classical allusions, and the so-called “classical education” was de rigueur. Even today, whether or not we realise it, we’re surrounded by classical references.

So perhaps it’s no surprise to find that from Robert E. Howard to the Stargate, SGA, and BSG television series, elements from ...

Elizabeth I by Helen Castor review – a study in insecurity

Rages, flirtations, frustrations: this engaging study reveals the virgin queen as a complex, insecure figure

Elizabeth I has bewitched and eluded biographers in equal measure. The daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, her birth in 1533 is inextricably linked with one of the most momentous constitutional changes England witnessed between the Norman conquest and the Brexit vote. She was, as Helen Castor writes in this crisp contribution to Penguin’s miniature Monarchs series, the “living embodiment” of the religious revolution that brought about the break with Rome and made her father head of the Church of England. Both the young princess and the fitful and idiosyncratic process we call the English Reformation were byproducts of Henry’s sexual whims and desperate desire for a male heir. Elizabeth’s childhood, adolescence and early adulthood were lived in the shadow of the recrimination and violence these events unleashed.

Taking on Elizabeth is no ...

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville review – a virtuoso portrait of Velázquez

This fictional account of the artist’s life at the court of Philip IV confirms its daring author’s extraordinary gifts

“Is the novel dead?” comes the plaintive cry every few years, like the sound of Rachel weeping for her children. Sometimes it is novelists asking, interviewed by critics of novels before a paying audience of novel-readers, for the purpose of marketing their own novels, which will be reviewed by fellow novelists, and piled high in establishments dedicated to the sale of novels. The novel is not dead, of course; but if the concerned reader were to examine contemporary literature’s body of work they would find, in Amy Sackville’s virtuoso new book Painter to the King, nothing short of a vital sign.

Sackville’s 2010 debut The Still Point announced, within its fractured opening sentence, a writer assured of her ability to play with language and convention to startling effect. An ...

Top 10 books about horses – Jane Smiley picks her favourites

Childhood classics, colourful racers and memoirs of horse whisperers … the novelist and horse lover gallops through the best riding reads

When I was learning to ride horses, manuals were essentially worked-over cavalry manuals: horses were to obey, and the rider’s job was to know how to give orders. That changed in the 1960s, when trainers who had never been in the cavalry began to pay attention to horse behaviour. For my first middle-grade series, The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch, I wanted to focus on that, so I set it in the mid-60s and introduced trainers with new techniques.

My new book, Riding Lessons, is about Ellen, a girl who loves horses but has to beg to be taught how to ride. She is what was once known as “contrary”: she wants to have her way and knows how to get it (sometimes by subterfuge). I wasn’t her ...

Shakespeare’s Originality by John Kerrigan review – what the Bard pilfered and changed

Shakespeare inhabited a literary culture in which imitation was applauded. This erudite study teases out his alchemical transformations of what he had read or seen

For a long time, the sedulous student who wants to see Shakespeare in the act of creation has been able to go to the extracts contained in the eight fat volumes of Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Here you can find the stories that he pilfered and changed. You can see how he twisted two completely separate tales together to make The Merchant of Venice, for example, or decided to kill Lear and Cordelia at the end of King Lear when in his chronicle source both survived, or made Othello Desdemona’s murderer, when in Cinthio’s original Italian story, it is Iago who does the deed. The volumes give a dizzying sense of the playwright’s narrative dexterity as you see him extracting ...

Civilisations by David Olusoga review – a riposte to European superiority

A subversive response to Kenneth Clark’s series deconstructs the notion of civilisation and charts the effects of greed, hubris and disease

In the summer of 1520, towards the end of his life, the great German artist Albrecht Dürer travelled from his home in Nuremberg to the Low Countries, to meet his new patron, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. At the same time, halfway across the world in the middle of the Americas, the Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés was carrying out his merciless siege of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. By the time it fell, on 13 August 1521, much of the city lay in ruins, and as many as 100,000 of its inhabitants had already died. Many more were massacred as the victors set about plundering whatever they could lay their hands on. When the first shipment of spoils arrived in Brussels, Dürer was one of those who flocked to ...

Thomas Paine by JCD Clark review – a High Tory on the radical hero

The veteran enfant terrible of English historians sets out to rescue the author of Common Sense from ‘from the enormous approbation of posterity’

JCD Clark is the veteran enfant terrible of English historical writing; now in his mid-60s, but still all petted lip, provocation and attention-seeking. A High Tory, Anglo-Catholic Little Englander, he has spent his career assaulting the central categories of the Whig-Liberal and Marxist versions of the English past. Clark identifies several moments of putrefaction in English history, such as EEC membership in 1973 and the Great Reform Act of 1832.

His Tory traditionalism reaches back further even than that of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the so-called “Honourable Member for the 18th Century”; for Clark thinks the rot set in earlier still, during the late 17th century, at the not-so-Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the country unforgivably abandoned the divine right of kings for the curdled compromises of parliamentary ...

The Medieval Origins of Easter Traditions

Have you ever wondered just what a rabbit has to do with the resurrection of Jesus? Or what the word “Easter” really means? And, for that matter, what’s with all the eggs? Could it be, as Jon Stewart once wondered, that it’s because Jesus was allergic to eggs?

Alas, no. But how we got to all this egg and bunny business is nevertheless a cool and rather medieval story.

But before we get to the Middle Ages, there’s some earlier Christian history and theology to unpack to understand Easter’s importance and its resulting traditions. I’ll try to keep this as succinct (and objective) as I can.

Rome and Messiahs

12th Century icon of Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, Crucifixion, and Resurrection

Aside from a fringe of folks who subscribe to the Christ Myth Theory, there’s near universal scholarly consensus that a Palestinian Jew named Jesus preached in the first ...