Archive for the ‘Elsewhere’ Category


California Welcome Sign

Today is the summer solstice, on which I tend to write about archaeoastronomy. This time I’d like to briefly discuss an area with a rich heritage of Native astronomy that seems to get relatively little discussion: California.

California is known in anthropological circles for the astonishing variety of cultural and sociopolitical groups that traditionally inhabited this climatically favorable, highly productive area. Although these groups were all devastated to varying degrees by the influx of Anglo settlers in the nineteenth century, and some were also heavily affected by earlier Spanish colonization starting in the late eighteenth, most of them are fairly well documented ethnographically due to the extensive “salvage ethnography” pioneered by Alfred Kroeber and his students at Berkeley in the early twentieth century. There is therefore a rich base of data in which to look for evidence of Native astronomical observations, and a paper published in 1979 by Travis Hudson, Georgia Lee, and Ken Hedges does just that, in addition to reporting some early archaeoastronomical observations at California archaeological sites. The paper focuses specifically on solstice observations, which tend to be among the most important astronomical practices in many cultures.

The authors’ review of the literature shows that observation of the solstices was widespread in Native California. The vast majority of groups they investigated had some record of solstice observation, and most of those that did not may just not have had it documented. Only two groups were associated with definite statements that they did not observe any solstices, and even these might be due to mistaken information.

The winter solstice was by far the most commonly observed, with relatively few groups also observing the summer solstice and none observing summer but not winter. This ties in to a widespread pattern of keeping a calendar that often began with the winter solstice. A general geographic pattern held that Southern California groups were more likely to observe both solstices, while Northern California groups tended to only observe the winter one. This is in keeping with broader geographic patterns, with Southwestern groups generally observing both solstices but Northwest Coast groups focusing on the winter. There are many other cultural patterns connecting these two parts of California to these adjacent culture areas as well.

In addition to the ethnographic data, the authors report on several observations of potential solstice observation alignments at archaeological sites, mostly those involving rock art. These again showed a general pattern of most often aligning with the winter rather than the summer solstice. In some cases the rock art associated with these observation points contained apparent solar imagery, and in a few cases the authors even suggest that some of the rock art symbols represent the actual horizon line along which the sun was observed. This is a fascinating suggestion that I have not seen made of any other area, so it may be distinctively Californian if it holds up. They include examples of other rock art of similar form that may also be interpreted this way, although it has not been tested for alignments.

All in all, this is a fascinating introduction to the astronomy of a culture area that doesn’t get as much attention in this respect as others like the Southwest and Plains. While this was an early paper in the development of archaeoastronomy and not all of its conclusions may hold up, it is still an excellent starting point. Happy solstice!



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Welcome Sign at Alaska/Yukon Border

I’ve lived in Alaska for almost seven years now. It’s a really interesting place in a lot of ways, and right now is a fascinating time to be here. People often think of it as being extremely different from the Southwest, but there are actually a lot of similarities, and there are a number of parallels especially between New Mexico and Alaska that make the two feel pretty similar to me.

One major difference, however, is the status of archaeology and understanding of prehistory in Alaska versus the Southwest. Southwestern archaeology has been going on in earnest for over a hundred years and has led to quite detailed understanding of many aspects of the region’s prehistory. The findings of archaeologists, especially at iconic sites like those at Chaco Canyon, have also been well incorporated into the region’s self-understanding and sense of identity. While the mythology of the Southwestern “mystique” has a lot of problems and doesn’t always accurately reflect what is now known about the historical and prehistoric record, there is no denying the importance of archaeology there.

Alaska is a very different story. While the region’s obvious importance to theories about the peopling of the Americas from Asia has led to a long history of archaeological interest, the research that has been conducted over the years has been frustratingly difficult and its results highly fragmented and confusing. Part of this is because of the remote location and poor preservation of archaeological remains in many parts of the state, but those factors don’t come close to explaining all of it. It seems like the prehistory of Alaska is just very complicated and doesn’t easily fit any of the straightforward theories people have come up with for its role in continental or hemispheric events.

That said, part of the issue is the relatively small amount of research done in Alaska to date, and that does indeed reflect in part the region’s remoteness and the difficult conditions for both preservation and research. As a result, the archaeological literature on Alaska is frustratingly thin and largely technical and specialized, with a relative lack of the sorts of introductory, popularized accounts that are a dime a dozen in the Southwest. One good introduction, however, that I have recently come across is Ellen Bielawski’s In Search of Ancient Alaska.


Welcome Sign, Utqiagviq (Barrow), Alaska

This book is definitely a very general introduction, and it doesn’t go into very much detail at all about the various archaeological cultures that have been identified or the theories about how they relate to each other. It is however a good starting point, especially for the absolute beginner. It is primarily organized by culture area, according to the general schema used by modern Alaska Native institutions like the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which is a reasonable approach to organize the archaeological data.

There is also a chapter on the archaeology of the very early inhabitants of the state, which is probably of the most interest to general readers outside Alaska due to its relationship to the peopling of the Americas. What this chapter shows, however, is both how little we actually know about these early inhabitants and how hard it is to relate their remains to either comparably early people elsewhere or to later people anywhere. This is an accurate reflection of the state of knowledge on this, despite how frustrating it seems.

I don’t have much more to say about this book, but I do recommend it as a general introduction to a topic that I find very interesting even though it is so poorly understood. I would really like to be able to write more about Alaskan prehistory the way I write about Southwestern prehistory, and I’ve tried to some extent, but the data currently just isn’t there for the same level of discussion and interpretation.


Russian Orthodox Church, Ninilchik, Alaska

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Petroglyphs above Una Vida

I often peruse used bookstores and particularly look at their sections on archaeology, anthropology, history, Native American studies, and other subjects of interest to me. Some bookstores are better than others in these subjects, and my main local one is pretty good. A while back I saw a book there on the subject of Native American rock art that I had not seen before: Painted Dreams by Thor Conway. I recently got around to reading it, so I thought I’d give a brief review here.

Overall, it’s an odd book. It purports to cover all of North America, and has many pictures of rock art from all over the continent. However, Conway is an archaeologist by training who seems to have spent most of his career in Canada, particularly in northern Ontario but also to some extent in British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces, and he has also spent a lot of time in California. The rock art traditions he focuses on reflect this experience, with by far the most attention given to the Great Lakes region and a fair amount to the Chumash tradition of southern California.

Conway mentions other regions briefly from time to time, but based on his discussion of the Southwestern rock art tradition his understanding of it seems pretty shallow. His discussion of the “Kokopelli” figure, for example, is very superficial and doesn’t engage at all with the complex and contentious scholarly disputes over this figure.


“Supernova” Pictograph

That said, within the narrower regional scope of his expertise, Conway has some interesting things to say about the rock art of the Great Lakes Algonkians, especially the Ojibwe. He talks extensively about his relationship with two Ojibwe shamans, and their words, quoted extensively throughout the book, give shape to his interpretations of the meaning of rock art. Based on this, his interpretations of the meaning and importance of rock art are very heavily focused on its spiritual role, and particularly its relationship to dreaming and the vision quest, both of which are very important among many Algonkian tribes.

So there is some interesting content here, at least for someone without much knowledge of the Great Lakes region (like me). I’m not sure it really hangs together well as a book, though. The organization is not particularly intuitive or cohesive, and while it’s clearly pitched at a popular rather than scholarly level, I’m not sure how useful it would be as a general introduction for someone without any previous knowledge at all. It feels a lot like a vanity project. It’s not actually self-published, but it is published by a small regional press that clearly didn’t put a whole lot of effort into editing the text.

So yeah, not an awful book, but not one I’d particularly recommend either. I don’t regret buying or reading it, and it could well be worthwhile to someone with a particular interest in the rock art of the Great Lakes and its relationship to the spiritual traditions of the tribes in that area.


Pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground, Gila National Forest


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Kodiak 011

Kodiak, Alaska

In 1805, while visiting the Russian settlement on Kodiak Island as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe, the Russian naval commander Yuri Lisianski observed among the local Alutiiq Natives the presence of individuals known as “schoopans” who had male genitalia but were brought up from childhood as girls, performing women’s work and marrying men. This was a highly honored role in Alutiiq society, and an example of the widespread “berdache” or “Two Spirit” tradition of the Americas that I have discussed before. Lisianski noted that the schoopans “even assume the manners and dress of the [female] sex so nearly, that a stranger would naturally take them for what they are not,” and continues in a footnote:

As a proof of how easily this mistake may be made; it once happened, that a toyon [rich man or “chief”] brought one of these unnatural beings to church to be married to him, and the ceremony was nearly finished, when an interpreter, who came in by chance, put a stop to the proceedings, by making known to the priest, that the couple he was joining in wedlock were both males.

This anecdote caught my attention in part because it is strikingly relevant to modern political debates over the rights of trans people, especially the so-called “bathroom bills” that have cropped up in various places over the past few years. Here in Anchorage, we have one of these measures, Proposition 1, on the municipal ballot right now in our first vote-by-mail election. Election Day is on Tuesday, April 3, but ballots have already been mailed and voting is going on right now.

I’m strongly opposed to Prop 1, which is highly discriminatory against the trans community and serves no real public purpose. Beyond its discriminatory nature, the very premise of Prop 1 is fundamentally absurd in ways highlighted by Lisianski’s story that would render it totally unenforceable and perhaps even cause the sorts of “problems” it purports to solve.

Many of the arguments for Prop 1 and similar measures rely on the assumption that gender is not just an “immutable” biological characteristic on a deep level, but one that is impossible to affect even superficially. Prop 1 seems to take it as a given that a trans person using the “wrong” bathroom under the law will be easily identifiable because they will look to any bystander like their “biological” gender.

This is however not true at all. As with the population as a whole, there is a lot of physical variation among trans people, but many look well within the physical norms of their preferred gender and fit in much better in the bathrooms they prefer to use than in those they don’t. That is to say, trans women really are women, in many cases even physically, visually, to strangers who don’t know anything more about them than how they look. And similarly, trans men really are men.

Indeed, if we are judging gender the way most of us do in practice, by how people look rather than by careful inspection of their genitals or birth certificates, Prop 1 would likely lead to, if anything, a massive increase in the number of “men” in women’s restrooms, because trans men who look like and lead their lives as men would be forced by the terms of the law to use women’s restrooms. In other communities that have adopted laws like this trans men have posted pictures to social media showing what this looks like; it looks like a man in a women’s restroom. If seeing that is what people who support Prop 1 are concerned about, voting for it is certainly not going to help.

The greater visibility of trans issues in recent years may make the idea of gender diversity seem new and strange, but there is actually a long history of different concepts of gender in many societies around the world. The berdache or Two Spirit tradition, present in many indigenous societies of the Americas, including some in Alaska, is one of the most striking examples of a socially accepted, often high-status role for individuals who do not conform to a strict gender binary typical of European societies.

I’ve been digging into the ethnographic and ethnohistoric data on berdaches in Alaska Native societies specifically, which don’t seem to have gotten a whole lot of attention in the anthropological research on gender diversity. The data are spotty and difficult to interpret to an even greater degree than for many other societies, but there are a lot of fascinating nuggets in there like Lisianski’s anecdote about the wedding. I’m thinking of doing a research project to synthesize the existing data, maybe in blog posts here but maybe in a more formal venue. It’s a fascinating topic with a lot of relevance to issues today, which makes it of particular interest to me. Stay tuned.

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Trail in Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

The big story in the news these days is of course Hurricane Harvey, which has been battering the Gulf coast and adjacent areas of Texas and Louisiana for days now. While it has so far probably done the most damage in Houston, with record rainfall leading to massive flooding in one of the country’s biggest cities, Harvey first came ashore further south, near the small town of Rockport, Texas just north of Corpus Christi. Rockport was very severely damaged by the wind and rain, of course, and has gotten quite a bit of media attention for that.

Rockport has another claim to fame, however, at least for those of us interested in archaeology and prehistory: it is the namesake of the Rockport Phase, an archaeological complex that existed on the central part of the Texas coast in the late prehistoric period and is generally thought to be directly ancestral to the Karankawa people who occupied the same area at European contact. The Karankawa are among the better-documented of the many cultural groups that occupied the Gulf Coast, partly because of the detailed account of them left by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked in this area in 1528 and spent several years living with the natives here and further west as he made his way back to his Spanish compatriots in Mexico. Archaeological research over the past few decades has both confirmed some aspects of this and other historic accounts and added additional information about the culture history of this area.

The Rockport Phase is characterized by a distinctive type of pottery, gray in color with thin, hard walls and a sandy paste. It can be plain (i.e., undecorated), incised, or, most distinctively, decorated with the black asphaltum found in the Gulf area and associated with its extensive petroleum deposits. The beginning date for the Rockport Phase varies in the literature but is in the range of AD 1000 to 1250; the variation is probably due to the fact that Rockport is clearly continuous with the previous Late Archaic culture of the same area. In general, however, the Late Prehistoric period on the coast is defined by the appearance of the bow and arrow and pottery, both of which seem to have reached the central coast around AD 1000 from the north. (Note that this makes at least the beginning of Rockport roughly contemporary with Chaco Canyon far to the west.) As noted above, Rockport is also clearly continuous with the historic Karankawa, and Rockport pottery has been found on some early historic sites.

While pottery is often associated with agricultural people, agriculture was never practiced on the prehistoric Texas coast or, indeed, most of the interior areas of prehistoric Texas. The Rockport people, like their neighbors in all directions, were hunter-gatherers, and they appear to have had a subsistence system based primarily on the rich aquatic resources of the coastal estuaries but with seasonal movements inland to hunt terrestrial game and gather plant resources including pecans and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.


Warning Sign, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

The stone tool assemblage of the Rockport Phase, at least from around AD 1250 on, was very similar to that of the inland groups in central and southern Texas, all of which were part of the Toyah Horizon distinguished by the use of Perdiz arrow points. This widespread lithic complex is generally thought to be associated with the hunting of bison, which appear to have rapidly spread south from the southern Great Plains into central and southern Texas during the thirteenth century AD, possibly in response to a drying trend beginning a couple centuries earlier that expanded the grasslands favored by bison. Despite Rockport use of this lithic complex and the presence of bison bone in some Rockport sites, however, stable isotope studies of human remains from cemetery sites on the coast that are contemporary with Rockport have not shown evidence that bison was a substantial part of the diet, which seems to have been heavily based on fish and other marine resources. More research may clarify this apparent clash of different types of evidence.

Speaking of those cemeteries, they area also unusual among hunter-gatherers but quite common in prehistoric Texas, in both coastal and interior areas. Cross-culturally, use of cemeteries rather than isolated burials by hunter-gatherers tends to be associated with “packing” into small territories due to high population densities, as well as with “intensification” of production of subsistence resources, especially aquatic ones. Some archaeologists have proposed theories linking intensification, which includes but is not limited to the development of agriculture, to increased population density due to highly productive resources in certain areas, which also leads to packing into smaller territories. Some of these theories further predict that this will mean less use of terrestrial hunting and increased use of aquatic resources where they are available, and plant resources where they are not.

This type of theory has been tested in Texas and found to largely but not completely explain the distribution of cemeteries and other signs of packing and intensification. In the Rockport area, which clearly had a relatively high population density and depended heavily on the aquatic resources of the estuaries, the theory seems to work. It also works for the Rio Grande Delta area to the south, where the populous Brownsville Complex had its own type of pottery as well as various cultural influences from and trade ties to the Huasteca region of northeastern Mexico to the south. It doesn’t really account for the presence of cemeteries and other signs of intensification in the more sparsely populated areas of central and western Texas, however, where hunter-gatherer populations are thought to have been much lower. Clearly more research on this issue is required. Many of these characteristics are associated with “complex” hunter-gatherers such as those of the Northwest Coast, but I doubt any anthropologist would describe even the higher-density groups on the Texas coast as complex in that sense.

It doesn’t get as much attention as some other areas, and it certainly isn’t as flashy as the ruins in the Four Corners region, but the archaeology of Texas is actually quite interesting. The University of Texas has a great website called Texas Beyond History that provides a lot of information in an easily accessible. It wasn’t a major source for this post, but it’s still definitely worth checking out. We’ve been seeing a lot about Texas in the news lately, but there’s much more to it if you dig a little deeper.


Texas Flag and Sundial, Brazos Bend State Park

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Park Map Sign, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Today is the summer solstice, on which I traditionally post about archaeoastronomy, which is a major topic of interest in studying Chaco Canyon. Lately, however, I’ve been very busy and have not been keeping up on recent developments in Chaco studies (not helped by the fact that I don’t currently have access to the academic databases where recent research can be found), so this time I thought I would talk about the archaeoastronomy of a fascinating and unjustly obscure site in a different part of North America, the Pinson Mounds site in western Tennessee.

I visited Pinson a few years back more or less on a whim; I was driving across the country after finishing grad school, taking a meandering route and hitting a variety of archaeological and historical sites as I went. Pinson was not originally on my list of sites to visit, but for some reason that I no longer remember I decided to go there as I made my way through the Mid-South. It was a good decision.


Sauls Mound, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

There are a lot of prehistoric mound sites in the Southeast, and at first glance Pinson doesn’t seem particularly distinctive among them except that one of its mounds, known as Sauls Mound or Mound 9, is unusually large. And indeed, although the site was first documented in 1823 it was not until the 1970s when it became a Tennessee state park that extensive archaeological work was done there and its true nature became apparent. There are various types of mounds at Pinson, but the most prominent, including Sauls, are of the type known as “platform mounds” which are square or rectangular, often with buildings of presumed ritual function at the top, and are generally associated with the Mississippian period of circa AD 900 to 1600. Earlier Woodland period mound sites are more known for burial mounds, which are typically rounded or conical without buildings on top, with the Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio being the most prominent examples.

The platform mounds at Pinson, along with a single house of Mississippian “wall-trench” form excavated back in the 1960s, led most archaeologists to assume that this was a relatively minor Mississippian site until the excavations of the 1970s and the resulting radiocarbon dates showed that it actually dated to the Middle Woodland period in the early centuries AD, contemporaneous with Hopewell. And some of these dates were directly associated with the platform mounds, demonstrating clearly that they too dated to this early period! This led to a major reëvaluation of the Middle Woodland period in the Midsouth, which is in some ways still ongoing. It also led to the reëvaluation of some other platform-mound sites in the same general area which also ended up dating to the Middle Woodland. It remains unclear what the exact nature was of the relationship between these precocious southern platform-mound sites and the contemporaneous Hopewell sites to the north, and the same is true of their relationship to the later Mississippian sites.


Stairs to the top of Sauls Mound, Pison Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

One thing that does appear to be true of these sites, however, as well as of the Hopewell ones, is that they were primarily ritual or ceremonial centers without substantial residential components. They appear to have served dispersed communities of small hamlets, who were likely small-scale farmers growing indigenous plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. This is in contrast to Mississippian mound centers, which are now considered to have been large residential settlements of farmers growing crops of Mesoamerican origins (especially maize). Also unlike the strongly hierarchical Mississippian chiefdoms, Middle Woodland communities are also generally thought to have been relatively egalitarian in structure.

Some of these ideas may seem familiar to those familiar with Chaco. A similarly egalitarian structure has been proposed by some archaeologists to explain Chacoan great-house communities, based on models proposed by earlier generations of archaeologists to explain the Classic Maya polities. These models are now falling out of fashion for Chaco, much as they eventually did for the Maya, based on new research that makes them less tenable. It might seem odd that they have remained so tenacious for the Hopewell and other Middle Woodland societies in the east, but they have, which to me suggests that they really might be on to something here. I know a lot of people find these explanations of Chaco as an empty ceremonial center for a dispersed society of small-scale egalitarian farmers inspiring as a vision of what a society can be; as Chacoan research makes this a less plausible reconstruction they may wish to turn their eyes eastward, and further back in time, for a better example.

Anyway, on to the astronomy. The arrangement of the mounds at Pinson, as at many other Hopewell/Middle Woodland sites, has suggested to archaeologists for a while that there might be astronomical aspects to the site. One extensive, though admittedly speculative, exploration of this idea was published by Charles H. McNutt in a 2005 paper, which I will focus on here. McNutt proposed that Sauls Mound was the central focus of a set of astronomical alignments with other mounds at the site, and he compared the angles of these various inter-mound alignments to rising and setting positions of the sun, moon, and stars.


Sign at Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

The most straightforward of the alignments he found were to solar events, i.e., the solstices and equinoxes. Mound 29 is due east of Sauls Mound within a circular feature known as the Eastern Citadel (which may have its own internal astronomical features), and it appears that this relationship may represent an equinox sunrise marker. Mound 28, northeast of Sauls Mound at a similar distance to Mound 29, has been proposed as a summer solstice sunrise marker (as indicated by a sign posted at the site, even), but McNutt found that it is not really close enough to the solstice alignment for this to be plausible. However, another mound indicated on early maps of the site, but not visible today, does appear at the proper angle on those maps to have been a solstice marker.

McNutt describes other possible alignments, to the lunar standstills as well as various stars, but he is rightly cautious about these and notes that the stellar alignments in particular are dubious because there are so many stars that alignments can easily arise due to chance. He then goes on to look at other contemporaneous mound sites in the same general area to determine if they have similar possible alignments, and finds that they do, although the quality of the data is not great for all of them and these too need to be treated with caution.


Mound 28, Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

Finally, McNutt ties the existence of these celestial alignments back to the presumed reliance of the Middle Woodland people on agriculture, specifically of the crops of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. Farming peoples do rely on accurate calendars, it is true, and this may well have been the impetus for the astronomical observations that appear to be encoded at Pinson and other sites. I would note, however, that the immense effort required to build these mounds, especially for a dispersed and relatively egalitarian society, suggests that something more than utilitarian timekeeping needs led to their construction. But this may ultimately be a matter of perspective and emphasis more than anything else.

I may have more to say about Pinson in the future; it really is a fascinating place, well worth visiting. But for now I just want to draw some attention to it on this solstice day. Happy solstice!


Turtle at Pinson Mounds, Pinson, Tennessee

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Holy Wars Again


Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

I recently finished reading God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman (it’s a long book so it took a while). As I’ve mentioned before, the florescence of Chaco Canyon in what is now the southwestern US was contemporary with the earlier part of the Crusade era in the Middle East, and I try to learn as much as I can about events elsewhere in the world contemporary with Chaco to gain a fuller understanding of the context in which it arose. As part of that ongoing tradition, therefore, this post is a brief review of Tyerman’s book.

It’s a good book, and provides a comprehensive overview of this long-lived and complicated phenomenon in world history. Tyerman starts with the intellectual origins of the ideology of Christian holy war that underlay the crusading effort, which is a very interesting topic given how difficult it is to fit such an ideology into Christianity as expressed in the New Testament. The solution that developed over the course of the early middle ages, on which the popes who launched the early crusades relied, depended heavily on a mix of emphasizing the Old Testament rather than the New and interpreting some of the writings of the church fathers in a highly tendentious manner. As much of an ideological kludge as this may have been, it fit well with the martial spirit of the Germanic warrior aristocracy that consolidated its power over secular affairs in this era, and in this light it is not all that surprising to see the crusades arising from this time and place.

Another interesting factor in crusade ideology that Tyerman draws out is its connection with the efforts of medieval popes to elevate their authority in both spiritual and temporal affairs over the secular rulers, particular the Holy Roman Emperors, of the era, as exemplified in the long-running “investiture controversy” of the eleventh century. Crusading offered an opportunity both for popes to consolidate their position and for secular aristocrats (and, increasingly, kings) to cast their warlike pursuits as holy Christian efforts. Over time, these tendencies led both popes and kings to try to cast their secular wars as crusades, with the accompanying spiritual privileges. As Tyerman notes, these attempts to co-opt the crusade for secular ends never attracted the same level of popular enthusiasm as the more “classic” crusades aimed at liberating the Holy Land from infidels.

I’m not going to try to summarize the long and complex history that Tyerman narrates, but a few notes about his perspective are worth making. This is clearly intended to be a magisterial work that will serve as a standard account for many years to come, and I’m sure it will do so. As befits such an ambition, Tyerman’s general approach is sober and measured, and in many places he seems to be intent on debunking sensationalistic interpretations of the crusades and simplistic narratives, including those that have become very common in recent years as religious conflict in the Middle East has made the crusades seem more relevant than ever to current events. Tyerman has a decidedly dim view of such interpretations. At times this makes him seem surprisingly sympathetic to the crusaders compared to other writers, as with the Fourth Crusade, which has been widely viewed as a debacle that weakened Christendom for centuries through its capture of Constatinople. More ambiguously, his account of the Third Crusade pushes back hard against the romanticization of both Richard I and Saladin, and here as elsewhere he tries to put the characters he describes in the context of the very brutal, warlike environment in which they lived and acted. His account of Louis IX, on the other hand, comes across as a brutal takedown of a remarkably unsuccessful crusader who was able to nevertheless parlay that record into a reputation as an exceptionally pious monarch and eventual saint.

Overall, then, this is a good book, but it’s not a breezy read. In addition to its length and heavy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to have been edited very well, and there are a surprising number of typos and other obvious editing errors. The prose style is also rather leaden and inartful, though admittedly this is a more subjective judgment. These quibbles aside, however, this is a magisterial effort and an excellent introduction to an important though complicated and ambiguous topic.

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