When the Past Comes to Life: A Review of Life Magazine’s 'Secrets of the Ancient World'

Life Magazine has recently published the Time. Inc. Special on archaeology titled Secrets of the Ancient World.  The cover tells the newsstand manager to display it until 8/28/15, so it should be around all summer to take to the beach, the camp ground, or your mountain retreat; or to read at home in a chair ‘neath a lamp with a glass of ice water handy, while the crickets sing the night-song of the season.

This publication has an “Introduction” and four sections:  “The Human Puzzle”, “Buried Treasures”, “Holy Mysteries”, and “Ancient Wonders”.  “The Human Puzzle” covers subjects such as The Origins of Writing, Disappearance of the Neanderthals, The Genesis of Language, Kennewick Man, and The Flores Hobbits. There is a distinct slant toward origins in this section.

“Buried Treasures” takes excursions to places imagined or real such as Atlantis, Loulan, the supposed killing field of the Roman Ninth Legion (north of Hadrian’s Wall), and the climate-plagued lands of the Maya and Anasazi. “Buried Treasures” is used quite figuratively here, as the “treasure” actually discussed is definitely not your everyday pirate treasure, but proves that archaeological information is priceless.  The article on the Antikythera Shipwreck is a must read.

“Holy Mysteries” provides a piece on the oracle of Delphi, but otherwise are Judeo-Christian mysteries; and I use the term Judeo-Christian more broadly than some might wish me to, because included here are short articles about the Holy Grail and James the Brother of Jesus that either don’t reflect the conventional archaeology-bible interfaces, or are controversial (or at least debatable) subjects for a variety of other reasons.  Some of the value here is in the stories told about the subjects, such as the task of placing the Garden of Eden on a map.

The pieces on “Ancient Wonders”, including a wide range of interesting archaeological sites, are grouped together most often due to the monumentality of the architecture (Stonehenge, Great Zimbabwe) or some other aspect of greatness, such as the difficulty of reaching and entering Nepal’s Caves of Upper Mustang; or the fact that large, the zoomorphic art of the Nazca Lines is only visible from high up in the sky (something we remain compelled to understand despite some people’s ravings about ancient astronauts).

This special issue of Life (which includes a lot more than I mentioned) is good to give or recommend to the person in your life who isn’t actually an archaeologist, but finds archaeology fascinating; and it is also good for archaeologists who are keeping track of the broad variety of archaeological subjects that are interesting to others (without including dinosaurs).

If I was forced to pick one thing to add to this collection it would be a piece on the Turkish site of Gobekli Tepe, where some 11,600 years ago a hunter-gatherer society created a remarkable, monumental site with immense stone architecture, seemingly ushering in a significant change in humans’ relationship to religion.  This piece would dovetail nicely with the article on the Turkish Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk, which has been included in Secrets of the Ancient World.  Fortunately, Gobekli Tepe has been reported on beautifully by Charles C. Mann in National Geographic, June 2011.  Find it and read it after Secrets of the Ancient World whets your appetite.