Wednesday, October 23, 2013

America's Stonehenge

Pondering the mysteries of America's Stonehenge
When a nephew in Vermont suggested that I should not miss visiting America's Stonehenge in nearby Salem, N.H., I agreed it was something I needed to see. Once called Mystery Hill, this 4,000-year-old site has stone walls and structures with apparent astronomical alignments serving several possible purposes, such as acting as a calendar, predicting solar and lunar events, and determining planting and harvesting times. No one has solved the mystery of who built this site, which could be the oldest man-made construction in the United States.
Various archaeologists have found an amazing range of prehistoric and historic artifacts. That it had been used later for other purposes was shown by 18th- and 19th-century housewares and iron wrist manacles that had probably been removed from slaves who used this as a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1830s and 1840s.
Need an account? Create one noA movie at the visitor center did little to explain who made these structures. I followed a self-guided tour map, which included information for 32 stopping points. For example, at point No. 18: "The 'V' Hut: This small chamber is named for its shape. The large basin to the left in front of the chamber is the starting point for a network of drains which extend to the east."

 America’s Stonehenge 4½-ton sacrificial rock
There are a variety of man-made chambers, stone steps and walls. What really caught my attention was a 4½-ton sacrificial rock, a table that left little doubt to what is was because of the grooves around the sides that led to a channel to allow blood to flow into a container. The archaeologists working on the project felt this was important enough to build a special viewing platform so visitors could look down on the slab, which had underneath a speaking tube that could carry sounds from the nearby oracle chamber.
How was it possible to work stone without any metal tools, or even to lift them into place with only muscle? Some people think aliens from outer space constructed the site, but I'm sure aliens also would have polished their work.
Visitors are given an astronomical trail map pointing out the complicated alignments of the stones and the information they convey. For example: "When viewed from a large boulder about 20 feet north of the south end of this wall, the Winter Solstice Stone (C) becomes the most southerly position of the 18.61 year cycle of the moon."
Wow. How many years of observation would it take for one to come up with that alignment? Most of the stone alignments are more mundane, such as those that provide dates for the solstices and equinoxes.
One theory is that Jonathan Pattee, the early owner of the land, had built the site, but carbon dating shows that it was built around 2000 B.C. The number of theories about other builders is rather overwhelming, with the following being candidates at one point: Atlantan, Maltese, Norse, Irish and Celtic colonies. Others think it was some American Indian group.
I left the site thinking the builders were more advanced than any other American group of the time in their knowledge of stonework and astronomy. 


Entrance to the underground Oracle Chamber

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President Franklin Pierce


Franklin Pierce: Rethinking an unpopular president

Franklin Pierce, our 14th president (1853-1857), often is listed in history books as one of the worst U.S. presidents.

He is considered to have been a weak president. He was pro-slavery and is blamed for the Kansas-Nebraska problems over the right of states to choose slavery that resulted in the clash known as "Bloody Kansas." Some reports also claim he was an alcoholic.

Need an account? Create one now. But at the Pierce Manse in Concord, N.H., the only museum dedicated to his presidency, a major attempt is made to correct these myths. After my visit, I certainly would move him up the list.

Pierce had an ideal background for a president. He had served in both the House and the Senate and went from private to brigadier general in the Mexican War, where he performed heroically.

Although he was a compromise candidate after 49 ballots at the nominating convention, he won the presidential election by a major margin against Whig candidate Winfield Scott, who had been commander of the U.S. forces during the Mexican War.

Pierce experienced much tragedy in his life; two sons died early, and his beloved son Benny was killed at age 11 in a train accident as Pierce watched. His wife went into a depression but still managed to help him entertain when he was president. Only after she died of tuberculosis in 1863 did he develop problems with alcohol.

What about the visit changed my mind as to where he should stand in the rankings? He made the Gadsden Treaty, which established the contiguous 48 states. His support of Commodore Perry established trade with Japan. He set up the Civil Service Department, which required holders to have the necessary skills for the job. He had surveys made for plans for four railroads across the United States. He reduced the national debt. And, he was interested in the welfare of American Indians.

His strict interpretation of the Constitution got him in trouble with the anti-slavery groups because he believed the Constitution gave the states rights to set their own laws about such things as slavery. The alcoholism charge did not hold during the presidency as his wife would not let him drink, even at parties.

The Pierce Manse, where he and his family lived before he became president, is a large, well-preserved home with period furniture.

Concord has another attraction I also enjoyed: New Hampshire's state capitol. It is the oldest capitol building in which the legislature uses its original chambers. The Senate is one of the smallest, with only 24 members, and the House of Representative the largest with 400 members — one for every 3,000 residents of New Hampshire. Constructed in 1819, it was enlarged twice and still is the smallest capitol building in the country. The most noteworthy feature is the Hall of Flags in the entrance, which includes 103 flags of New Hampshire military units from all of our wars and memorabilia of Alan Shepard's moon walk. It is obvious from their condition that many of the flags had seen battle and perhaps other hardships.

 The Franklin Pierce Manse in Concord, N.H., the only museum dedicated to his presidency

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY

The Museum of Native American History lets visitors take a long look back 

The Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Ark., is a gem in providing a comprehensive history of American Indians as shown by their artifacts. I have visited 45 such sites and museums, and found this museum to be surpassed only by the National Native American Museum in Washington, D.C., which is supported by the U.S. government, in terms of range and depth of materials covered. The Bentonville museum is the vision of one man, David Bogle, whom I interviewed during a visit to his museum.

Bogle, a member of the Cherokee tribe, started his collection as a Boy Scout. Later in life, he started buying other collections when they came on the market. In 2008 he moved the artifacts into a building that had been redesigned to hold them. His wife was happy to get them out of the house to give her some room, Bogle said. When the University of Arkansas Museum closed because of lack of funding, Bogle was given access to its 2 million artifacts in storage, some of which are included in his museum.



Arrow heads 12,000 years old are on displayThe Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Ark., is a gem in providing a comprehensive history of American Indians as shown by their artifacts. I have visited 45 such sites and museums, and found this museum to be surpassed only by the National Native American Museum in Washington, D.C., which is supported by the U.S. government, in terms of range and depth of materials covered. The Bentonville museum is the vision of one man, David Bogle, whom I interviewed during a visit to his museumBogle, a member of the Cherokee tribe, started his collection as a Boy Scout. Later in life, he started buying other collections when they came on the market. In 2008 he moved the artifacts into a building that had been redesigned to hold them. His wife was happy to get them out of the house to give her some room, Bogle said. When the University of Arkansas Museum closed because of lack of funding, Bogle was given access to its 2 million artifacts in storage, some of which are included in his museum.

Need an accBogle said his intention is to educate the public about the complex and long history of American Indians by offering the usual objects people know about from the movies but also introducing them to a more complete history. One way he has done this is with an excellent audio tour that gives a brief description of many items. If you want to know more about a particular piece, you push the pound key. For example, on spear points you get a description about how they were used and how shapes mattered; pushing the pound key you get a description of the two kinds of tools and methods that were used to create them.

Modern Americans have come to expect a new invention or product every month. In this museum, we see how slowly new products came into use as conditions changed and geniuses of the Thomas Edison level came up with new tools and crops to ensure survival. We need to remember that there was no way to preserve information or to share it widely, so their tool kit developed over thousands of years without the advantages of books or metal.

The museum introduces us to the different time periods, each section starting with either a brief informational film or audio recording. We began with the Paleo Period (12,000 to 8,500 B.C.) when Indians hunted mastodons and other giant animals using mainly the spear and the stone knife as weapons. The number of excellent tools of the period is impressive, as is the commentary on their different uses and development.



A great deal of creativity was shown in the instruments to do common tasks

People living during the Archaic Period (8000 to 1000 B.C.) had to develop new ways of living and hunting because of the extinction of the giant herds. The world was warming, and different tools were needed. Some ancient genius developed the atlatl, a spear launcher that added distance, force and accuracy to a man's throwing arm. Stone tools were being invented to process nuts, berries and roots, as were tools to work wood into useable shapes such as boats and ax handles.

In the Woodland Period (1000 BC to 900 A.D.) villages became larger and cultivated crops became necessary for survival. During this time, the Indians invented the hoe by attaching large sharp stones to wooden handles. Burial customs became complex, and the mound culture became more widespread across the continent. Some rebel invented smoking, and fancy pipes cut out of stone became common.

At this point in the museum we moved into a more modern period.

Museum offers glimpse into the lives of Native American tribes

In the first part of this story I’ve focused on the first 12,000 years of Native American history.  In this part the emphasis will be on the two more modern historical periods.

During an interview, museum owner David Bogle, who is a member of the Cherokee tribe, stressed that his goal is to educate the public about the history of American Indians through their artifacts. The complex pottery pieces in the displays for the Mississippian Period (900 A.D. to 1650) were excellent. The great cultures that existed during this time period began to disappear. Nineteen out of every 20 American Indians died, probably because of the introduction of diseases from the Europeans, such as small pox.Need an account? Create one now.

The Historic Period (1650 to 1900) is the one most of us are familiar with. Of the many displays for this era, I especially enjoyed that of the work of Edward Curtis, a photographer who, with the backing of President Teddy Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, spent 30 years involving himself in the American Indian cultures west of the Mississippi before they disappeared. The Crow Indians called him the "One Body Image Taker." He was not supported by the government Indian agents who were trying to wipe out Indian culture, rituals and language.

Curtis used an old-fashioned glass-plate negative camera that produced a very sharp, dark-brownish picture and required the American Indians to pose, producing very striking, personality-filled pictures. No other historian recorded so much of the histories of the various Western tribes. He was impressed with the details of the "myths" that traced the movements of the tribes over many years, so he learned where they had originally lived. He is considered the best source of factual material about the lifestyles and rituals of the Indians west of the Mississippi.




A bison hide with symbols that help the tribe historian remembers what happened each year.

Matt Rowe/ Museum of Native American History

Although the histories of various tribes were largely oral, bison hides emblazoned with symbols portraying major events from past years served as memory devices for the tale-tellers.
I also was fascinated by the large bison hide covered with symbols arranged in a circular pattern called a "winter count," a concept I had not been aware of before despite having visited many other American Indian museums. The histories of the various tribes typically were recounted orally, and the winter count skins were developed as a memory device. Each symbol represents a year, from the first snow of one year to the first snow of the next, and the group decided which event would become the symbol to help the tale-teller remember all the other important events of the year. A book on the winter count helps visitors decipher the symbols, which refer to such things as a smallpox attack, falling stars, the coming of cattle and various battles. Each skin could cover 70 or 80 years of history.

There is much more to explore. Bogle said he was very pleased when he saw the free audio tours drawing the intense concentration of schoolchildren who visited the museum. For anyone interested in American Indian history, this is a gem of a museum.