Archive for the ‘worldwide travel and exploration’ Category

The Riches Of The European Bronze Age

December 3rd, 2014 No comments

Dea MadreAnother reminder this year of the riches of the European Bronze Age which we still underestimate so much – this time in the form of an artefact allegedly looted from Sardinia and now up for sale in New York, magnificent in its stark simplicity.

Adam Nicolson’s superb study of Homer and the Bronze Age, The Mighty Dead, and my own travels through Bronze Age Britain in The Green Road into the Trees have whetted my appetite for more.  And a chance to go to Athens recently and see some of Schliemann’s findings from Mycenae, like the so-called Mask of Agememnon, in the flesh – or rather metal – only confirmed that.

A chance to see something closer to home is at the British Museum: The Mold Gold Cape, discovered in Wales and the most spectacular of British Bronze Age findings, which should have crowds diverting from the Egyptian rooms, but few know about.

One of the Last Few Polymaths

June 24th, 2014 No comments

p01l974wReading Michael Wood’s excellent A South Indian Journey (first published as The Smile of Murugan) and as ever by Michael’s work, impressed. He really is one of the last few polymaths, equally at ease writing about South American conquistadors or Anglo-Saxon chronicles. And filming them as well – ‘The Story of India’ for the BBC a few years ago was a tremendous achievement; and now he’s taking on China for a 2-year film project! Respect…

At The Captain’s Table

March 30th, 2014 No comments

Kindle_let us depart.inddAt The Captain’s Table:  Life on a Luxury Liner, Hugh Thomson (Kindle Singles £1.99).  Round the world the soft way. For less than the price of a cappuccino grande, a frothy confection of a travel book with double shots of autobiography and world analysis thrown in.   download it here.

I  enjoyed writing this  –  light-hearted, it involves all the classic elements of comedy: life on the high seas, some rampant snobbery and even a marriage at the end.  And I got to see a lot of intriguing places.

For those who haven’t come across Kindle Singles before, it’s an interesting Amazon initiative.  Kindle have commissioned established figures like Stephen King, Jon Krakauer and Amy Tan to write shorter, novella-length books and put them in a special branded part of the store, so readers know they’re getting something that’s met a quality control threshold – unlike the self-published parts of Kindle.  A development which may get traditional publishers very worried…

FROM THE BLURB:  “Hugh Thomson had always wanted to travel right around the planet.  He just never had the money. Until he realised he could do it on the world’s most expensive luxury cruise.

Mischievous and entertaining, this is the first book to be written about a new phenomenon – the strange and unreported world of small luxury cruise ships, so exclusive that if you need to ask how much they cost, you probably can’t afford them.

So don’t act like the Cruise Queen Bee who, when she received her invitation to the Captain’s table, wrote back giving her apologies and explaining, ‘I cannot accept your invitation as, on principle, I never eat with the staff.’  Buy the book and take your place as Hugh serves up tales that are clear-sighted about the rich and observant of the new world opening up on our horizons, powered by a supercharged 32,000 ton luxury liner, a microcosm of 21st-century life, with its superb engineering that almost, but not quite, overcomes all the indignities the natural world can throw at it.

The Vikings got to Ukraine first

March 5th, 2014 No comments



vikingsFunny how things come together.  I’ve just been to a preview of the British Museum’s new blockbuster show on the Vikings, which opens later this week just as the world is focussed on Ukraine.  A side-bar to the exhibition, which naturally focusses on the Viking invasions of Britain – is the less well-known Viking progress east, when ‘the Rus’ travelled down to Novgorod and Kiev in their longships and founded what became Russia.


The Viking leader Rurik and his dynasty established their base in Kiev from about 862 on – the same time as ‘the great army’ landed in East Anglia, martyred King Edmund and put Alfred the Great’s kingdom to the sword.

The difference is that in Russia the Vikings won.  Kiev is as a consequence as central to Russian identity and history as Winchester or Canterbury to England.  Hardly surprising they should take a proprietorial interest in what happens there; or that the descendants of the Vikings should value the navy at Sevastopol enough to protect their Crimean base.

The Vikings themselves travelled on past Kiev and down through the Russian river system to reach Constantinople.  Now that must have been a clash of civilisations.  Islamic commentators of the time were impressed by the Vikings’ fighting spirit, but less by their personal habits, reporting that they did not wash after urinating, or after sex, or indeed much at all.

New discoveries in Cambodia

June 20th, 2013 No comments

New discoveries in Cambodia by an Australian team from the University of Sydney are another confirmation that lidar will be a game changer for the discipline, just as radio carbon dating was in the 1950s.

Long term readers of this blog will know of my continuing interest in lidar (light detection and ranging) in archaeology (see past post).

The ability to fly over dense forest and build up a 3D picture of what may have once lain beneath is quite phenomenal.  Unfortunately it´s also expensive, as the going international rate for a helicopter is around $1000 an hour – rather more than it costs for a few volunteers to scrape away at the dirt on a traditional dig. The Australian team covered some 370 sq kms in Cambodia so the bill must have been eye-watering – but worthwhile.


They uncovered ´the ruins of five other previously unrecorded temples and evidence of ancient canals, dykes and roads´, which they confirmed on the ground after lidar had indicated their presence;  all this was in the area of Phnom Kulen, an antecedent of the neighbouring Angkor Wat temple complex in north-western Cambodia. A collateral benefit is that it will provide conservation and tourism work for the dirt-poor locals who were unaware of the temple complexes nearby.

One important point is that while lidar may make completely fresh discoveries, it can also help shade in existing ones – that while, say, all the churches of a medieval town might have survived, now we can trace in all the other buildings and roads to give a more complete picture of the settlement.

Watch this space for more, as they say….

More detail – and a video – on the discoveries in Cambodia

Paul Fussell: An Anniversary Tribute

May 23rd, 2013 No comments

Lt. Paul Fussell in Paris, France, May 1945

I was in Philadelphia recently and thought of Paul Fussell, who lived there before his death this time last year and whom I knew:  one of the finest writers about 20th-century war, both because he wrote about the subject as a cultural critic more than military historian and because having fought in WW2 both in Europe and the Pacific, he knew what he was talking about.  The Great War And Modern Memory is his most famous book – but I have only just read one of his very last books, The Boys’ Crusade.  Subtitled ‘American GIs In Europe: Chaos And Fear In World War II’, it highlights some familiar Fussell themes:  how many American soldiers were teenagers, how little about war they knew before they went, and how many cock-ups there were.

Like all of his books – and like his conversation – it is candid and clear-sighted, just like the Augustan prose he so admired (he was a professor of 18th-century English Literature).   Unlike most books on WW2, it is also elegantly short.

But if his other achievements were not enough, he also helped in the revival of interest in travel writing, for which I am more directly grateful to him.  His book, Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars, championed travel writers of the 1930s like Robert Byron who had largely been forgotten at the time.

I was once with him when a BBC executive (I was trying to get the BBC to make a programme about and with Paul) asked him if he had ever met any Germans.  Fussell gave him a stare:  ‘Any Germans I met during the war, I killed.’  The executive blanched.

Read more…


March 11th, 2013 No comments

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of panspermia: the theory that Fred Hoyle and others put forward almost 30 years ago that – very broadly put – life was distributed across the universe by meteorites.

It’s often been ridiculed by other astronomers and physicists – let alone biologists – for being simplistic, but that surely is part of the charm: we should look for an elegant simplicity in our scientific solutions.

So the news that scientists, including a former colleague of Fred Hoyle’s, have identified biological matter in the heart of a meteorite that recently landed in Sri Lanka, in December, should have attracted much greater attention than it has.

This judicious and weighted article in the August M.I.T Technology Review puts the case.

My more frivolous case for panspermia is below:are 

The first Big Bang:

panspermia flood

through space, lactating

fireworks against the black;

meteorites cross-pollinate


between planets,

extremophile bacteria

clinging to the rocks

like a rodeo:



The Earth got lucky –

we were fertilised.

But what I want

to ask the Universe

is this:


‘How was it for you?’

An outrageous plan to build a new airport for Cusco on the beautiful highlands above Chincheros

February 4th, 2013 4 comments

Interesting piece in this week’s Economist which confirms what I was suggesting in a From Our Own Correspondent report for the BBC last year, that Peru is booming away at a phenomenal rate of between 7% and 9% this year, figures that those of us experiencing double or treble dip recessions can only dream of.

The boom has been helped by strong minerals, cautious banks (you have to be a cautious bank if you’re operating in Latin America!) and an emerging middle class.  It’s seen the dollar fall against the local currency, the Peruvian sol, by some 25% over five years – not such good news if you’re planning to travel there, although compensated for by rapidly improving infrastructure:  over the last decade, the number of roads in Peru has doubled, an extraordinary statistic for this huge country that is five times the size of the UK.

But with wealth comes responsibility – and in particular, responsibility for the environment, not something that has always been Peru’s strong suit (remember the riots about introducing gas pipelines to the Amazon, when local indigenous tribes confronted the army and police).

Now there is an outrageous plan to build a new airport on the beautiful highlands above Chincheros, some thousand feet above Cusco, which is the city that it would serve.

The old airport in Cusco is deemed to have run its purpose – mainly because it can’t take international flights, and also because developers are eyeing up what has become a valuable inner-city resource for housing, having started off as a few fields on the outskirts of town when I first went there in the early 1980s.

There are some doubt as to whether a new airport would really do much better for international flights – and no doubt at all that it would be a huge eyesore on one of the most beautiful areas close to Cusco and one which many tourists see as they travel over towards Machu Picchu.

My old mate Nick Asheshov has written astutely about this in his column for the Peruvian magazine Caretas.

The idea has been ticking over for years and no one really thought the authorities would quite bring themselves to do it. Tragically, it now sounds as it is a done deal, as large amounts of money have been handed out to the local communities already as recompense.

The view over the Chincheros plain to Mount Verónica, past lakes and fields of growing quinoa, is one I have always cherished and I for one will be very sad if it now becomes a sprawl of not only the airport but all the ancillary hotels and mess that an airport inevitably brings.

Machu Picchu in the clouds

September 21st, 2012 No comments

There is a good interesting roundup of current theories about Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Times in which the author, Rick Vecchio, sensibly doesn’t commit himself too far in any particular direction…

…Unlike many of the guides at Machu Picchu who are still perfectly capable of telling you that this was where the Inca emperor hid his Virgins Of The Sun and that stone over there was where they sacrificed the black llamas.


For my own brief introduction to the interpretation of the ruins, take a look at the short film I did for CNN last year:  See Hugh’s cut-out-and-keep 5 minute guide to Machu Picchu for CNN.

Then you’ll understand why I prefer to use this picture of my own in which Machu Picchu is covered by cloud, rather than the usual sunlit panorama.  It’s a place we still don’t fully understand although we have recently gained some useful pointers.

2012 – End of the Maya Long Count

August 20th, 2012 No comments

Catastrophe theorists have been having a field day – or rather year.  2012 is when the Maya long count ends.

As catastrophe theorists have loved to point out, 2012 marks the end of the old Maya long count, the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle;  but before we get too depressed,  Mayanists have been quick to add that just because one count ends, it doesn’t mean the Maya believed another couldn’t begin.

As ever, nothing is ever quite as you think it is with the Maya.

Thirty-five years ago, I visited my first Maya site, at Palenque.  From the top of the Palacio temple, a staircase led down inside it to the burial chamber of a ruler.  The ‘secret staircase’ – it is difficult to use any other less melodramatic term – had only been discovered in 1949.  An archaeologist noticed there were holes which had been filled with stone plugs in one of the floor slabs;  the temple wall also extended below ground level, suggesting some lower chamber.

When they lifted the slab, they found a stairway filled so densely with rubble that it took three years to get to the bottom.

Going down the corbelled staircase on my own felt like something out of John Buchan.  At that time, visitors were asked to bring their own torches, as there were only low-voltage lights running from an intermittent generator.

For the archaeologists who first saw the funeral vault at the bottom, it must have been the revelation of a lifetime:  the room was still preserved as they had found it, with the king’s funeral tomb dominating the chamber.

The size of the crypt was impressive:  it was at least twenty feet high.  After the descent down a narrow staircase, this was like finding a cavern after pot-holing.

In the years since my visit, much has changed in our understanding of the Maya – from new archaeological discoveries, but above all because we can now finally read the glyphs on the temple stelae.  Read more…