Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Don't Believe Everything You Read

Because he knew I studied the history of the Old West as well as some American Indian history, a man sitting next to me at lunch asked if I’d heard this: that the Mandan tribe of the Plains was partially descended from Welsh explorers in the 12th century.

“No, I haven’t heard that one,” PAUSE. “And I’m extremely leery of such a story.”

“It’s very interesting and there’s evidence. There’s a book about it.”

He proceeded to lay out a ludicrous tale of blue-eyed, fair-skinned Mandans who owned, according to a 17th or 18th century source, artifacts proving their Welsh heritage. Sadly, these artifacts were stolen when other tribes enslaved the Mandans. . . . and there’s a book about it. The man reiterated this point several times.

None of this is credible. I’m not going to talk about Mandan history, don’t worry. Google “Mandan” and “Welsh” and you’ll find many websites debunking this groundless legend.

No, my point is to wonder why otherwise intelligent people believe ridiculous tales just because they read them in a book. Holocaust denials, blue-eyed Indians, lost tribes of Israel, ancient astronauts, Jesus’ wife. . . .

Anyone with the money to spare can self-publish. That’s the first thing to beware of when you’re eyeing a book title that strains credulity.

The second? Most history or pseudo-history books are not peer-reviewed. No one sits atop the ivory tower and says, “Ah, yes, this speaks truth. Therefore it may be distributed by Amazon the Bountiful.” Nope.

In bookstores, real or virtual, the rule is “buyer beware.” If you want to know whether you can trust the so-called facts you find in a book, you can do the following:

1. Rate the publisher. A university press is tops. They have a rep to protect, and tend to publish well-researched books that get academic praise. Commercial publishers, especially in the post-Frey era, are pretty careful about what their books claim, too. Vanity presses and self-publishers rank lowest, not because they’re bad. Some excellent books are self-published for various reasons. But there’s no oversight, and anyone can publish anything.

2. What are the author’s credentials? A degree backs up their expertise. Sure, a degreed professor can be a kook, but the initials lend gravitas.

3. Best bet: Look for reviews. Who wrote the blurbs on the back cover? Are they experts in the field? Professors? Professional reviewers? Relatives?

Go further, if you’re in doubt. posts book reviews. I’m not talking about the customer reviews, though those can be enlightening. Scroll to the “Editorial Reviews” and read what they have to say. Google the book title or author, and look for published reviews.
If reviews knock the research or cast doubts on the book, you can still read it--but now you're less likely to be fooled.

We've all been fooled. I used to read Eric von Daniken. . . when I was 13. And that's all I'll admit to, here.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Feni Fennid Fo Fum

Before getting to Fennid and The Wisdom of the Outlaw, here is a marvelous article about deep-fried abominations served at county fairs, from yesterday's Los Angeles Times.

Now, WOTO. I wasn't joking when I said I had to go back and reread Chapter 1 after reading Chapter 2. The book is dense with medieval cross-references and comparisons to different versions of the same story. I am disappointed that there was no summing up of the information gleaned about Ireland's early social structure or an outlaw class. Nagy simply got to the end of the last story he wished to discuss ("Finn and the Big Men," all five versions, given in English and Gaelic), and signed off.

I had high expectations; I'd been told that this book was the best at getting at ancient Irish spirituality. If it is, it went right over my mael blonde head.

Anyone care to enlighten me? I did learn a little about an obscure outlaw class, and a character who may have been the basis of Peter Pan (am I joking?) but spirituality--no.

Monday, September 18, 2006

“Bombs Shatter Lebanon’s Roman Legacy.” OK, its’ about the OTHER guys’ legacy, but still not something that reasonable folks want to see destroyed. The article, by Rob Sharp, is turning up all over.
(I won’t speculate on why this, rather than the many deaths associated with that brief war, is what I link to here. . . . except to say that when rockets are lobbed around without regard for human life or archaeological heritage, no side can claim the high ground.)
More pleasant distractions kept me from writing more about Gaulish research this week.
The Los Angeles County Fair, for instance, where avocados have been added to the list of Perfectly Good Foods Bastardized by Deep-Fat Frying. The L.A. County Coroner had a booth at the Fair, and my friend and I bought t-shirts, hats, and other souvenirs. You can get some for a dearly beloved at their store, Skeletons in the Closet.
Then there were Saturday soccer games. . . . I also had to watch the Dodgers blow a perfectly good first place lead. I'm not worried; they are as good at recovering as they are at losing.
More productively, I churned out the first of several articles on California’s Modoc War, which should appear in the November Chronicle of the Old West newspaper, and sent in an article about backups on spec (with all fingers and toes crossed).
Now, back to the Gauls.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Researching the Iron Age cultures of Gaul has kept me busy for nearly three years. I'm creating this blog to share information on the Celtic tribes I've learned about, and to post a few questions.

For example: what kind of beds did they sleep on? Beds don't seem to be among the material remains excavated after millennia, for some reason. Did they throw mats and mattresses on the floor? On benches? Maybe they hung hammocks from the ceiling beams?

If you can answer that, I would love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, here are the two books I'm currently reading:
  1. Wisdom of the Outlaw by Joseph Falaky Nagy, a professor at UCLA. Since this is based on his PhD dissertation of 20+ years ago, the book is difficult reading, but worth the effort. Unless you are already familiar with the Fenian Tradition of Medieval Ireland, you may wonder all through the first chapter what he's talking about. I had to get through the second chapter to figure it out, then go back and reread the first. OK, maybe I'm dense.
    Basically, Nagy is looking at a class of outlaw poets that survived in Ireland's mythology for centuries. Why did they become outlaws, and could they rejoin society? What does this tell us about ancient Ireland?
  2. War, Women, and Druids: Eyewitness Reports and Early Accounts of the Ancient Celts, by Philip Freeman, a Washington University professor. Slim, easy, and a great resource. All the quotes that other authors use are collected under subject headings (like war, women, and druids). Bits of wisdom and exploitative exaggerations by the likes of Diodorus Siculus, Julius Caesar, Strabo, and Polybius--together at last. Is it comprehensive? Dunno--the only way to find that out would be open up all the volumes by Cunliffe, James, Ellis, Green, Chadwick, and Piggott, to cross check for about five years. But Freeman's book sure is handy.