Ancient Egypt Ancient Hittite History and Film

Thoughts on Argo, and a Three-Thousand Year Old Peaceful Resoultion

younger memnon

Last night, Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture.  I remember 1980 and the Hostage Crisis very well, and I remember how we worried about the United States bombing Iran in retaliation for taking the hostages. No one wanted to see a violent end in Iran, yet no one knew what would work to bring the hostages to safety.  Even though it is not entirely true to history (it is based on the story , but NOT a reporting of the event), Argo speaks to the desire to solve conflicts peacefully and creatively.  Zero Dark Thirty, also a Best Picture contender, did not share in this vision of peaceful resolution.

About 3,272 years ago, Egyptians and Hittites may have been holding their breath in the same way we did in 1980, and the way we did in 2001, the year which set the situation at hand in  Zero Dark Thirty.  Ramesses II, the pharaoh of Egypt, spent considerable energy moving toward the Hittite Empire (based in today’s Turkey), and the Hittites met the Egyptians in battle at Kadesh, a neutral city near the Hittite borders. For the next twenty years, the Egyptians and Hittites engaged in a sort of Cold War.   Then, around 1254 BCE, the nephew to the Hittite king Hattusili III, a man named Uri Teshub,  attempted to overthrow the king.  He was chased out of the Hittite Empire, and found safety in Egypt.

Hattusili III demanded his return.  Egypt refused.  And the world waited.

Who was the adviser who thought of a different strategy?  Egypt and the Hittite Empire met each other on the battlefield before.  What made this issue different? The Egyptians could use Uri Teshub as a pawn in overtaking the Hittite Empire, and the Hittites could use Uri Teshub as the excuse to invade Egypt. Both sides knew about the movements of nomadic tribes in all directions, and both sides had reason to fear the increasing power of the Assyrians, from what we would call northern Iraq today.

Instead of war, both sides agreed to a treaty,  Both sides pledged peace.  The Hittites promised to aid Egypt in the face of invasions or rebellions, and Egypt promised to aid the Hittites in the face of invasions or rebellions.  Uri Teshub was extradited to the Hittites.  And IF the world was holding its breath — if they were even aware of this tension between superpowers in a world without journalism– they could exhale now.

Ramesses received a silver copy of the treaty, now long lost to history.  Egypt would never face a Hittite invasion, but they would meet Sea Peoples, Libyans, Assyrians, Nubians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and European colonialism.   The Hittites would never face an Egyptian army again, but the Sea Peoples who wrecked havoc on Egypt also aided in toppling the Hittite Empire.  A copy of the treaty rests in the Istanbul today (a city  unknown to the Hittites), and a copy carved on Rameses II’s mortuary complex also survives in the remains of ancient Thebes.

One other copy can be found in New York, at the United Nations.

Someone thought of something daring and untested in the 1980 CE  hostage crisis, and someone thought of something daring and untested –amongst superpowers at least — in 1259 BCE.  Let’s never forget the power of human creativity in the face of war.

Uncategorized US History

Teaching, Collaboration, and the Wild Life of Frederick Townsend Ward

Frederick Towsend Ward

Last week, our Revolutions class discussed the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)  As an instructor, I chose to focus on the rebellion’s beginnings — Hong Xioquan’s vision of a utopian world, his dedication to the  equality of the sexes…not to forget  that he taught his followers that he was Jesus Christ’s long lost brother and that Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions, and dragons were demonic!  There are many angles to work with when discussing this massive rebellion (the body count hovers at around 50 million).  But one of my students pointed out something:  I didn’t discuss Frederick Townsend Ward.

This is true:  in focusing so much on Hong Xioquan, I went right to the end and brought in Charles “Chinese” Gordon, and the demise of the Taiping Rebellion.  But Frederick Townsend Ward, an American from Salem, Massachusetts,  trained the army which won the war.  His  “Ever Victorious Army” was made up of not just the newly trained Chinese local soldiers, but the forgotten of Shanghai: former pirates, mercenaries, drunks, sailors, lost men, and refugees.

Frederick Townsend Ward was their leader in many ways.  He dropped out of school at age 16 after many years of rebellion.  His father named him second mate on a friend’s ship, but he was thrown overboard for his attitude.  His life turned into many adventures, but never was he a follower of authority.  For a period, he worked with William Walker in Mexico helping to train mercenaries to overthrow governments and set up American colonies throughout Latin America (Walker went on to buy the office of President of Nicaragua, but was sentenced to death in Honduras).   Ward went to the Crimean War to serve with the French, but he was dismissed for insubordination.

His last stop was Shanghai, where he accepted a position in the Shanghai Pirate Suppression Bureau.  The Taiping rebels were coming toward Shanghai, and he, with his mercenary army of anyone who could stay sober enough to fire a weapon, fought back.  Ward was injured over a dozen times during the conflicts, and he finally died of a gunshot wound during the Battle of Cixi in 1862.

Frederick Townsend Ward does not deserve to be forgotten, and neither does his successor, “Chinese” Gordon, or the entire Taiping Rebellion.  Most Americans have no frame of reference for the Taiping Rebellion whatsoever, and I would guess that hardly anyone outside of England knows Gordon and what he went on to do in the Sudan.   Our history books, test designers, and curriculum planners choose what should be covered, and how it should be covered.  In a collaborative class, a student has the power to stand up and say, “But what about…” and it may change the course of the class for the better.   We need to listen to our students, respond to what they think shouldn’t be omitted, and create the curriculum as democratically as we can.

Here’s to Frederick Townsend Ward, who is far too interesting and important to be a footnote in history, and here’s to my student who read God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence before joining our class, and felt empowered to demand his inclusion in the study on Taiping.

Ancient Europe Ancient Mesopotamia

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Archaoelogical World!


From ancient Hasanlu, Iran with love — the couple shown above were discovered in this position.    Tepe Hasanlu was occupied from the Neolithic period until around 800 BCE, when it was burned to the ground.   These figures were buried with no grave goods, and just a slab under their heads.  What was their story?

Another interesting find, called the “6,000 year old lovers”, or “the lovers of Valdaro”  comes from Italy.  Here, a girl of about 18 and a boy of about 20 were found hugging.  No signs of forced death are apparent, and archaeologists believe that they may have frozen to death, and were found in this position because they were trying to keep  themselves warm.

Mantua skeltons


Check out more on the Hasanlu  project at!   For more information on the Italian lovers:,8599,2092970,00.html

US History

Emmett Till, Forgotten


Many of my students know the song “Karate Chop” in which Lil Wayne brings out the name of Emmett Till — and laughs — in a reference too vulgar to repeat here.   I’m wondering, however, how many know who Emmett Till was.  Some may identify him as “someone involved in civil rights”, which would be an acceptable test answer.  They may not realize that he was an unwilling civil rights symbol, as he died at age 14 after being attacked by a white group of adults in the summer of 1955.   What did he do?  He may have whistled at a white woman.  Maybe.  He was from Chicago and was visiting Mississippi, and his “northern attitude” may have provided motivation.   The men beat him, gouged out an eye, shot him in the head and threw his body the river.

J.W. Milam, one of those men who was acquitted in court but later confessed to the murder,   was quoted a year later in Look magazine:

“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”

He killed Emmett Till, and ended up dying in the 1980s, perfectly content and with no regrets.

So, as we look at the future of education and focus more on job preparedness and test scores, we miss some of history’s most disturbing and resonating stories.  Emmett Till died decades ago, but there have been many Emmett Tills since his death.  We have learned nothing.  It was a case which shocked the North, but no one remembers today.  It is not a part of the new standardized, test driven curriculum championed by Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.

No one remembers, and when no one remembers, nothing will change.

Note:   J.W. Milam had a ninth grade education, and left rural Mississippi only to fight in World War II.  His critical thinking skills were clearly lacking.  Lil Wayne dropped out of school when he was 14.   Emmett Till would have been a ninth grader at age 14.


When A Pope Quits

celestine V

Today, Pope Benedict XVI made the decision to step down.  For Roman Catholics, this is a shocking surprise.  For historians, it is a moment in which we “watch history happen”  – a very overused phrase, but one which means that we witness an unusual event which will be discussed long after we’re no longer here.

Benedict is not the first Pope to step down.  Perhaps the most famous is Celestine V, a former hermit who was named as Pope against his will, kidnapped, and sent to Rome.  He was 79 at the time.  He served for five months, stepping down in 1294 in order to head back to his cave in Abruzzi.   Sadly, he didn’t make it very far.  The next Pope in line kidnapped him and imprisoned him.  He died in prison, either by disease or he was murdered.

Before Celestine, who would probably prefer to be remembered as Peter Marrone, there was Pope John VIII, who stepped down in 1009 for reasons unknown.   John battled the power of the Ottonian Emperor Henry II over the issues of church and state – the idea of a non-Church controlled Empire was beginning to heat up at the time.

Gregory XII was the last Pope to step down.  In 1415, the Church was faced with two Popes:  one in Rome, and another in Avignon, and then a THIRD Pope was named to reconcile the schism between the two Popes.  The Council of Constance reconciled the schism, naming a NEW Pope, Martin V.

Pope Benedict XVI is not the first Pope to step down, but in nearly 2,000 years, he is Number 4, and perhaps the first to step down for being too tired to continue.   Let’s keep watching this story to see how it unfolds!


History and Film US History

Django Unchained as Education


Django Unchained has received a lot of commentary this year, and deservedly so.   Spike Lee condemned it, historians criticized some of its details, and film critics lauded it.  Can such a movie teach us about American history, and if so, in what ways?

-The obvious:  slavery was brutal.   The violence in the film may be too much for my younger students, but Americans can never dismiss the violence and dehumanization of slavery.   The image shown here of Gordon, a real former slave from the same Mississippi featured in the film, makes a statement in its own right, and it may have been what Quentin Tarantino was thinking about when he visualized the whippings and scars.   Also, female and male slaves experienced the dehumanization quite differently.  Tarantino is famous for all of the blood, but he restrains himself from depicting what most female slaves, especially those as beautiful as Brunhilda,  faced.  Surprisingly, our history books still don’t stress any of this brutality.

-Slavery was also PSYCHOLOGICALLY brutal.  Hence, the vicious character of Stephen, or the diabolical Calvin Candie.   Why, during one whipping scene, were slaves on swings, apparently relaxing on a hot summer’s day?

-The History of Racism is complicated.  Tarantino offers a disturbing soliloquy delivered by Candie on phrenology and servitude, which frames a great deal of the American arguments about race, found both in the South AND North.   The addition of King Schultz provides the German perspective on American slavery and racism.  What were non-Americans writing and discussing at the time when looking at America and slavery?  Why, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did Eliza want to escape to Canada and NOT the North?

– The mistakes:  the Klu Klux Klan came later (but there were earlier groups similar to the Klan) and there is no strong evidence for Mandingo fighting.  Are these mistakes?  Can a filmmaker take liberties with history in the spirit of creativity?

– The History of Film.  Tarantino pulls from the “Spaghetti Western” and “Blaxploitation” genres.   We need not forget that one of the first great commercial successes in Hollywood was the 1915 Birth of a Nation, which, in many ways, is far more disturbing than even the most violent scenes of Django Unchained.

-History inspires creativity.  Django is not from history directly, but he is inspired by history.  What other films, novels, or artworks use history as a base for creative expression?

We can also think of Django many other educational ways, with the “Hero’s Journey” (from Joseph Campbell)  being one which I’d love to explore more, as a sort of Odysseus-Django comparison.  In religious studies and philosophy, the idea of “ultimate concern” (from Paul Tillich) would make an interesting paper, as would using Django’s ethics alongside Aristotle, Plato, and Arjuna’s in the Bhagavada Gita.    While I would not hesitate to show this film in a college classroom, I feel more comfortable leaving it up to homeschooling families to decide if it is appropriate for their children – or perhaps focusing on scenes, when it is released on DVD.

But one of the strongest questions relating to Django Unchained and education came for me at the end of the film, when my daughter asked me, “What would happen next?”.  What WOULD happen next for Django, riding off into the sunset…in Mississippi…just before the Civil War?   Think about it, and be grateful that Quentin Tarantino left it open for us to contemplate creatively.



Welcome, students!  I’ve opened this page to add additional information for our classes.  Keep visiting for new things!

Medieval Renaissnce

Bringing Up the Dead – How Something (or someone) Lost Can Be Found Again

In our Medieval classes, we mentioned the story that Attila the Hun was buried in a three coffins made of gold, silver and iron, and then buried below a river.  One student asked if there is a chance of ever finding this coffin, which, if the story is true, should be somewhere in Hungary (or, just the gold!).

Even without such an elaborate burial, there is always a chance for discovery.  King Richard III, who died in 1485, was recently found in a parking lot!   We’ll learn more about Richard in our upcoming late spring Renaissance class, but you can read about the discovery here!

Richard III