Sunday, April 13, 2014

Operation Doctor Zhivago

A collection of 130 CIA documents were recently declassified at the request of authors, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, of the soon-to-be-published book, The Zhivago Affair. The released CIA documents are revealing that the United States attempted to use the popular novel Doctor Zhivago as a "weapon" against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

Doctor Zhivago is named after its protagonist, doctor-poet, Yuri Zhivago, and the hardships he faced and horrors he witnessed during the decades spanning the Russian Revolution. The Soviet Union refused to publish Boris Pasternak's novel due to its "independent-minded political stance, unapologetic religious fervor, and indifference to socialist causes." A 1958 memo from Soviet Division chief John Maury says, "Pasternak’s humanistic message – that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state – poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system." To paraphrase: Soviet life = not so much fun. Maury refers to Doctor Zhivago as "the most heretical library work by a Soviet author since Stalin's death."

The Kremlin and Italian Community Party tried to crush the publication but an Italian literary scout living in Moscow sent a copy to a publisher in Milan, who translated the novel and released it in Italian. The United States got wind of the power of the book, and their own Soviet Russia Division began making plans to publish the book in Russian and get it into the hands of Soviet citizens.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Operations Coordinating Board gave the go-ahead for the CIA to exploit Doctor Zhivago while keeping the operation hush-hush. The CIA had the book printed in Russian, but created the fictitious French publishing company, Société d’Edition et d’Impression Mondiale, to take the blame. Sorry France. Thanks for taking one for the team.

Image source:

The 9,000 pocket-sized copies began making their way throughout Europe and were soon smuggled into Russia. The books were among 10 million copies of books and magazines that served as propaganda which were distributed by the CIA to Russia during the Cold War. The book was eventually released and Pasternak went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but was forced to turn the award down. He died just a few years after the novel's release and missed its painfully too-long film adaptation by just a few years.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Offa's (?) Dyke

New evidence suggests that Offa's Dyke,  a man-made ditch along the border of Wales and England, might not belong to Offa after all. Created in the 8th century, the ditch was believed to have been the creation of King Offa, king of Mercia, in an attempt to show how badass he was against neighboring kingdoms. Offa might have been more modest than we all thought, as archaeologists are now saying that this 80-mile long ditch dates 100 years earlier, when Mercia was under the rule of King Penda or King Creoda.

Radiocarbon dating was used on a layer of the structure and studies conclude that there is a 95% probability that the Dyke was built between 430 and 652 A.D. Paul Belford, director of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, says "This is the first time we have accurate scientific dates for Offa's Dyke. It is a tremendously exciting discovery which means we must rethink some of our assumptions about this important monument. It is likely that parts of the dyke system was in place before Offa's time. But it is also likely that he would have consolidated the existing network into what we now call Offa's Dyke."

Image sources: BBC and The Artchive

For nearly 30 years in the eighth century, King Offa was the king of Mercia, a region extending throughout the midlands of England. Experts believed the Dyke was created by Offa as a defensive earthwork for a political statement or power of intent. It is evidence of a "physical manifestation" of the emergence of nation states throughout early Britain, a.k.a a 'pissing contest.' Once 25 feet deep, the Dyke roughly follows the modern border of Wales and England and is nearly 65 feet wide and eight feet high in some places. It is the country's longest linear earthwork and one of the longest in Europe. It's popular ancient history led to the construction of the 177 mile long Offa's Dyke Path, one of Britain's longest National Trails. 

What does the future hold for Offa's Dyke? Or is it now Penda's Dyke? Or Creoda's Dyke? Or best to play it safe and name it Ancient Dyke? Wales/England Dyke? Welshgland Dyke? Belford explains, "Certainly the dyke was built to make a statement about the power of the kingdom of Mercia. It's been known as Offa's Dyke for centuries but some sections may not have been built by Offa. It is now clear that it was not the work of a single ruler but a longer-tern project that begun at an earlier stage in the development of the kingdom. Further work is needed on other parts of this enigmatic monument before we can really say who built it and why. It may be a bit late to change the name now - although it raises some interesting questions."

Friday, April 11, 2014

Medieval Doodoo Unearthed in Denmark

Odense, Denmark: The birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson (who is known for his fairy tales The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Nightingale, and The Emperor's New Clothes), can add one more notable commodity to its repertoire. A bunch of medieval wooden barrels have just been unearthed in Odense, filled with ancient doodies. You guys, it's a bad day to be an archaeologist.

"And yes, they still smell bad," an archaeologist explains. Found on a site undergoing excavation of old brick houses, half-timbered houses, and stables, the 700 year old caca is giving scientists an inside view into what people in Denmark ate in the middle ages. Originally built to store fish and transport goods, the barrels were then converted into latrines. It has already been found that raspberries were abundant in typical diets. Moss, leather, and fabric have been found as well, which served as toilet paper. Under a microscope, researchers found eggs of whipworms, and giant roundworms. Scientists are continuing to analyze the contents of the barrels to get a better understanding of life in medieval Denmark.

There are opportunities for visitors to go on a free tour of the excavation and visit the archaeologist's workshop throughout the week. I would personally stay home on class fieldtrip day.

Image sources: Huffington Post and

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Henry VIII's Seven Wives

Could the Sensational Sextet really be a septet? An anonymous historian published an article in the journal Tudor Matrimonial Studies claiming King Henry VIII, famous for his six wives, really had seven. The historian believes Henry married Anne Mourgan in 1538, after his third marriage to Jane Seymour. Fearful of public opinion, the two wed in secret. Henry had been married three times already. What's one more? And if embarrassed by a fourth wife, why go on to marry 1, 2, 3 more?

Image source: From Old Books and Clker

Allegedly, the marriage fell apart and Anne emigrated to the Low Countries, without a formal dissolution of the marriage. The historian claims that the discovery of this seventh wife was first reported in the 1930s but was never released so as to not ruin this popular rhyme:

King Henry the Eighth,
to six wives he was wedded.
One died, one survived,
two divorced, two beheaded.

I mean, it's not like it still wouldn't rhyme...The "well-known historian" and author of the article told History Extra, "An inner circle of historians has known about the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Mourgan for some 80 years, but believed it would interfere with the famous verse. 'One died, one, survived, two divorced, one emigrated and two beheaded' doesn't exactly flow well, does it? Many felt that making Tudor history any more complex would be disastrous for the popularity of this era and hamper attempts to broaden historical understanding. But I believe the time has come to reveal the truth about Henry's 'third Anne'. The marriage took place at a crucial time: as the king was grieving the loss of Jane Seymour, and before his disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1540. It's time to put on record that Henry had not four, but five failed marriages, and that he eased the pain of losing the only woman to provide him with a son and male heir by hastily wedding another."

The published article includes a letter that was allegedly written by Henry to Anne at the time of their marriage, in which he describes her as "my sweete flowere." Non-anonymous historians have known about this rumor, but with a lack of further evidence, do not care.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Holy Grail Found (Again)

Two historians are claiming the Holy Grail not only exists, but that it has been sitting in the San Isidro basilica in the northwestern Spanish city, León, for almost 1,000 years. 

León University medieval history lecturer, Margarita Torres, and art historian, Jose Manuel Ortega del Rio, began investigating the Grail in 2011 after they found documents at Cairo's University of al-Azhar mentioning the Holy Grail. "The only chalice that could be considered the chalice of Christ is that which made the journey to Cairo and then from Cairo to León - and that is this chalice," Torres said.

The cup is made of agate, gold, and onyx and adorned with precious stones. The cup has a missing fragment which, along with the agate upper part, validates the ancient document's account of the Holy Grail. It is believed that the true Holy Grail is contained within the antique cup called the Chalice of Infanta Doña Urraca. The goblets have been joined together, with one turned up, the other down. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out:

Image source: New York Post

According to the documents, the cup was taken from Jerusalem by Muslims and brought to Cairo. The cup was offered to Fernando I, the powerful Christian King of León from 1037 to 1065 as a peace offering from a Muslim kingdom nearby. The two historians are fuzzy about 400 years worth of the cup's history but they are certain that this is the one.

Image source: Salon

Curators removed the cup from display because crowds were swarming to get a peek. They are currently looking for an exhibition space large enough to accommodate the suckers crowds.