Category Archives: History

5 Surprising Facts About Arrowheads

Clovis

My interest in primitive weapons — essential lore for any sci-fi/fantasy writer — began when I first found arrowheads in the freshly plowed fields on the tobacco farm where I grew up. From my first encounter with them, these amazing artifacts exerted a hypnotic fascination over me. After all, they were survivors from a past unimaginably different from my own world. They were weapons that were essential for survival, and at the same time, beautiful works of art.

Bookish kid that I was, I absorbed every field guide to North American archaeology the High Point Library had. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years:

1. They’re not all “arrowheads.”

Although we tend to associate American Indians with the bow and arrow, they didn’t develop that weapon until about 500 AD. In fact, “arrowheads” or, as archaeologists prefer, “projectile points,” tend to be quite small. And a hickory bow couldn’t generate the potential energy required to kill a bear or cougar — much less a mastodon.

Atlatl

Larger game required a powerful weapon, and the atlatl fits the bill. North Carolina’s Sissipahaws, Catawbas, and Tuscaroras mastered this ingenious and tricky weapon. I’ve made and used atlatls, and believe me, they have a long learning curve — harder to learn, in my opinion, than the sling. They’re easy to throw but require many weeks of practice to learn to aim properly.

Atlatl

Think of it as a custom-made lever for throwing darts. The power of an atlatl must be witnessed to be believed.

Knives

Larger points were generally used as spear points and knives, which were fitted with wooden handles, as I’ve demonstrated below. A flint knife with a good edge makes a very effective means of cutting and skinning. (You can click any image to enlarge it.)

Knife

2. They’re older than you think

The Clovis point, as illustrated in the first photo above, dates to between 10-15,000 years ago. It was introduced into North America with the migration of the Clovis people who continued down into South America.

3. Distinctive styles emerged over time

As the migration of Siberian peoples continued in the Americas, local cultures arose, which produced their own unique weapons. Over time, projectile point styles changed.

When I visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, my favorite display was an arrangement of flawless points sorted by time period. Clovis points came first, followed by styles that resembled those that immediately evolved from the Clovis in North Carolina, which in turn were followed by styles distinctly different from anything I’d ever seen. So once you’ve identified a point’s style, you know its approximate age.

4. There’s purpose in their beauty

Just as the SR-71 sports a design determined by its purpose, so do projectile points. Check out this Guilford rounded base point from my collection:

Guilford

This seemingly delicate creation was meticulously formed using pressure flaking, a slow process of sharpening the edge by pressing it with a pointed instrument, as opposed to striking the point. Its perfect proportions ensure a smooth, accurate flight.

5. Growing reliance on European technology tainted the quality of projectile points

Hatchets and projectile points made from metal, and of course, flintlocks, gradually replaced traditional Indian weapons. Take a look at these Randolph points I found, which date back to the early 1700s:

Randolph

Not quite as elegant as their ancestors, are they?

American Indian weapons have popped up in some of my works, including Gooseberry and Aztec Midnight. There’s a raw, elemental allure to primitive weapons that’s inspired many works of fantasy fiction. Learning about them connects us to a past that deserves to be remembered.

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How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front

Somme

Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The infantry charge was supposed to have been little more than a mopping-up operation. British artillery had pounded its targets for five days, ensuring — at least in the minds of the military staff — that the area would be defenseless. (Robert E. Lee used the same tactic at Gettsyburg, another great and tragic battle which began on July 1. Pickett’s Charge, like the Somme, was similarly conceived as a final stroke at a broken enemy, but instead resulted in horrendous loss of life.) More than 19,000 British soldiers died on the first day. One of the soldiers caught up in that battle was J.R.R. Tolkien:

According to the British historian Martin Gilbert, who interviewed Tolkien decades later about his combat experience, he came under intense enemy fire. He had heard “the fearful cries of men who had been hit,” Gilbert wrote. “Tolkien and his signalers were always vulnerable.”

Tolkien’s creative mind found an outlet. He began writing the first drafts of his mythology about Middle-earth, as he recalled, “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” In 1917, recuperating from trench fever, Tolkien composed a series of tales involving “gnomes,” dwarves and orcs engaged in a great struggle for his imaginary realm. …

In “The Lord of the Rings,” we meet Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Hobbits of the Shire, on a fateful mission to destroy the last Ring of Power and save Middle-earth from enslavement and destruction. The heroism of Tolkien’s characters depends on their capacity to resist evil and their tenacity in the face of defeat. It was this quality that Tolkien witnessed among his comrades on the Western Front.

“I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds,” he explained. The Hobbits were “a reflection of the English soldier,” made small of stature to emphasize “the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch.’ ”

Not only did Tolkien’s battle experience give TLOTR its grim authenticity, it also inspired in him a deep respect and fascination for tales of courage and sacrifice. Despite the terrible ordeal that WWI proved to be, its lessons, filtered and interpreted by a skilled writer, are a treasured part of our heritage. Lest we forget.

The British Library

Isaac NewtonSir Isaac Newton memorial at the British Library.

Wish you could explore the world’s largest library whenever you wanted? Imagine being able to leaf through ancient books, view online exhibitions, and feast your eyes on some of Britain’s most treasured objects. Can you think of a better way to inspire your next story?

You can do just that, and you don’t have to leave home. This resource pretty much tumbled into my lap in the form of an email request from the British Library:

Hello Mike,

My name is Bryn Roberts and I’m contacting you on behalf of the British Library. I noticed recently that you have a mention of Bald’s Leechbook on the following page: https://mctuggle.com/2015/03/31/the-1000-year-old-solution/

This text is now featured as one of our online exhibits, available for all to browse on our website: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/illmanus/harlmanucoll/m/011hrl000000055u00001000.html

The manuscript is unique and sadly can no longer be handled very often due to its partly damaged state, which means it crumbles upon contact. Viewing the document electronically is now the most viable approach for those interested in it, and we have made it available to all via our website.

We would be very grateful if you could include a link to it in your article so your readers can access the original version and discover the text for themselves.

Do you think this might be possible?

Many thanks for your time.

Kind Regards,

Bryn Roberts

How could anyone refuse such an elegant and polite request? I updated my original post on the rediscovery of medical cures from the time of Beowulf. Since that post is nearly a year old (that’s ancient history on the Internet) I thought I’d also link the address in today’s post. Enjoy!

Winter Solstice in Ancient Ireland

Meet Newgrange, an architectural, archaeological, and spiritual wonder of Neolithic Ireland:

Newgrange predates the great pyramids at Giza in Egypt by some 500 years and Stonehenge by about 1,000 years. When it was built, sunrise on the shortest day of the year, what we now call December 21, entered the main chamber precisely at sunrise. Experts say it is not by chance that the sun shines there.

The structure of the passage tomb was buried in earth for many centuries, until archaeologist M.J. O’Kelly began excavating it in 1962. He worked there until 1975. In 1967, he saw for the first time in thousands of years the dawn sunlight striking into the chamber on December 21. The light enters a perfectly placed window and hits deep in the tomb where the human remains were found.

O’Kelly wrote in his notes: “The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and casts a glow of light all over the chamber. I can see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back into the back of the end chamber.”

One thing the ancients had that we have in such short supply was a sense of connectedness, an emotional bond with our fellows and the great yonder. Imagine the thrill the ancient Irish felt when that beam of sunlight shot through the window into the main chamber where the remains of their dead resided. In that moment, the Irish worshipers felt powerfully linked to both the distant sun and long lost ancestors. The Winter Solstice sunrise merged the believer, time, and space.

That’s even more exciting than a Playstation for Christmas …

Apollo 11

Apollo11

Where were you when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon?

I remember that night well. I was in my second week working at my first job as a projectionist at WGHP-TV in High Point, North Carolina. Since we were on network feed all night, all I had to do was load our station ID slides and run a few commercials. In addition to me, there was the director and an engineer. That was the skeleton crew, and we were pretty well psyched all night. Nothing could have torn me away from the video monitor when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander. The three of us stood motionless in that cramped control room full of racks of electronics and stared in total awe.

So — when’s the next bold adventure in space?

Battered remains of medieval knight discovered in UK cathedral

Castle

If you get a kick out of medieval combat — and who doesn’t? — this is cool:

The battered remains of a medieval man uncovered at a famous cathedral hint that he may have been a Norman knight with a proclivity for jousting.

The man may have participated in a form of jousting called tourney, in which men rode atop their horses and attacked one another, in large groups, with blunted weapons.

Archaeologists uncovered the man’s skeleton, along with about 2,500 others — including a person who had leprosy and a woman with a severed hand — buried at Hereford Cathedral in the United Kingdom. The cathedral was built in the 12th century and served as a place of worship and a burial ground in the following centuries, said Andy Boucher, a regional manager at Headland Archaeology, a commercial archaeology company that works with construction companies in the United Kingdom.

Turns out the dude was about 45 when he died. Though it’s impossible to tell for sure, forensics suggest he was recuperating from fractured ribs he may have received in a tourney, which was pretty much the hockey of its age. One gang would go against another with blunt weapons rather than pointy ones. Just because there were no sharp objects doesn’t mean it was a harmless pastime. I can tell you that blunt force trauma really, really hurts.