Saturday, June 17, 2006

BOOK: L. Sprague de Camp, "Citadels of Mystery"

L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine C. de Camp: Citadels of Mystery. London: Fontana Books, 1972. (First ed.: Ancient Ruins and Archaeology, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1964.) xii + 292 pp.

I first heard of Sprague de Camp a couple of years ago, when I bought the Dover edition of his Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature. That was a very pleasant book discussing the various manifestations of the Atlantis idea among all kinds of cranks (Donnelly, theosophists, occultists of all descriptions, etc.), as well as in fiction. Sprague de Camp was apparently quite well acquainted with science fiction and fantasy authors from the late 19th century onwards — not surprising really, as he was a SF/fantasy author himself; but he also wrote several nonfiction books, such as Lost Continents and Citadels of Mystery.

As for Citadels of Mystery, I first heard of this book on some on-line commerce site, probably eBay, where the description of the book mentioned that it “[e]xplores the various space invaders created earth or man or Atlantis theories”. This sounded intriguing; although I cannot take this sort of crank theories seriously, they usually make for enjoyable reading, so a book about such theories also sounds promising. A few weeks ago, I found a really cheap copy on eBay and bought it; having now read it, I must say that it was a good and enjoyable read, but I was slightly disappointed in my above-mentioned expectations. These expectations were actually reinforced by the preface, where the authors say: “We will tell of the discovery of these ruins, the controversies over them, the fictional and pseudo-scientific uses to which they have been put, and the progress of archaeology towards solving the enigmas they present” (p. xii). But in fact, the book spends relatively little time on presenting pseudoscientific theories. Most of it is actually good old popular science; the book consists of a number of relatively short chapters, each dealing with a particular site: the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, Troy, Ma'rib (supposed capital of the queen of Saba, in Yemen), Zimbabwe, Tintagel, Angkor, Tikal, Machu Picchu, Nan Matol (in the Pacific Ocean), and the Easter Island. Each chapter includes a short history of the site itself and of the culture that produced it, as well as of the discovery of that site by explorers and archaeologists in the last one or two centuries. Crank theories are mentioned, but the focus is clearly not on them. And there is of course nothing wrong with all of that; it's just that this isn't what I was hoping for when I started reading the book. Apart from this, I don't have any serious complaints about this book; it's informative and very readable; you can see right away that one of the authors is a good storyteller (i.e. Sprague de Camp, being among other things a novelist), and they even inserted many humorous passages to help keep the reader interested.

Incidentally, there seems to be some small amount of cannibalizing going on among these various books by Sprague de Camp; several passages here in Citadels of Mystery were almost exactly the same as certain passages in his Lost Continents: compare CoM p. 6 with LC p. 9–10; Plato's dialogues as “little plays”, CoM p. 3, LC p. 3; the illustration of Atlantis, CoM p. 5, LC p. 11; bishop Landa and the Mayan alphabet, CoM p. 8, LC p. 32; the story of Paul Schliemann (see below), CoM pp. 13–14, LC pp. 45–6; James Churchward, CoM p. 14, LC p. 47; Mme. Blavatsky's life and her theories about the past races of humankind, CoM pp. 228–30, LC pp. 54–6, CoM p. 231, LC pp. 57–61; Hanns Hörbiger and his Cosmic Ice Theory, CoM pp. 216–8, LC pp. 86–8 (but CoM spells his name Hans, not Hanns); relations between languages, CoM p. 18, LC pp. 100–1, CoM p. 19, LC p. 99. I don't really have any objections against this sort of cannibalizing in principle, but I must admit that in this particular case I was rather annoyed as I had been hoping to read something new rather than re-reading the same things I've already heard in the other book.

Now that I mentioned Mme. Blavatsky, one curious thing that I saw in Sprague de Camp's story of her life, both in Lost Contintents (p. 54) and here in Citadels of Mystery (p. 228), is that he mentions that she was the mistress of a “Slovenian singer” at some point. I am of course curious who this singer might have been, and how they happened to meet each other. After all, I doubt that our singers travelled abroad very much at the time, and I don't think she travelled through Slovenia or indeed any other part of the Habsburg empire (where one might conceivably expect to find Slovenian singers). A handful of web sites mention this factoid, but none of them provide any details about the singer, and for all I know they might all have copied it from the same source (some of those hits in Google are actually for web pages containing various writings by de Camp; others might have borrowed their HPB factoids from de Camp, or from the same sources that he had used; he unfortunately doesn't mention where he got the HPB-as-mistress-of-a-Slovenian-singer factoid). Her biography in the Wikipedia doesn't mention any Slovenian singers, only an “Italian opera singer Agardi Metrovich” — perhaps this is the one that de Camp and others have in mind. His surname sounds more Croatian than Slovenian to me, but it certainly doesn't sound Italian at all. Some more googling also turned up a thesis, which says that Metrovich was a “Hungarian opera singer and a member of the radical Italian Carbonari political group”. Another web site, however, says that Metrovich was “the illegitimate son of the Duke of Lucca”.

It's interesting how publishing trends change with time. This is a popular science book, and it's a mass-market paperback — almost an unheard-of combination nowadays, when such books typically only occur in hardcover and trade paperback, while mass-market paperbacks are limited to a few genres such as romance, SF, and fantasy. Nowadays I almost find it hard to imagine that as little as twenty years ago, a paperback edition, even of a book that has some sort of quality and is not merely pulp fiction, would by default be a mass-market paperback, small, convenient, unpretentious, and quite inexpensive, everything that a trade paperback isn't. Don't get me wrong, I like trade paperbacks much better than mass-market ones; they look better, are often better produced, and almost certainly have larger type so they are easier to read; but they are also more expensive and take up much more space on the shelves. Thus when I encounter a mass-market paperback from a few decades ago, I'm often impressed at the amount of content it can squeeze into such a truly tiny amount of space. As for the price, this 1972 mass-market paperback of Citadels of Mystery lists the RRP as £0.45, which, according to the inflation calculator, is equivalent to £3.98 in 2005 currency. Needless to say, nowadays a typical trade paperback of a popular science title like this one costs at least twice that amount.

One minor complaint about this mass-market paperback edition is that it apparently lacks some of the plates; there are only eight plates, while the text of the book refers to plate XX on p. 192. I guess that an earlier edition, e.g. the hardcover one, had more plates. The table of contents is also curious: it lists nine plates, not eight; plates 7–9 in the table of contents correspond to plates 6–8 in the actual plate section, while the latter contains no plate corresponding to plate 6 of the table of contents.

The title seems somewhat unusual given the contents of the book; the dictionaries typically define a citadel as a fortified place, usually in a city; but many of the sites presented in this book don't fit this description — e.g. the pyramids, Stonehenge, Easter Island, etc. According to the colophon, the book was initially published as Ancient Ruins and Archaeology, which I think is a more reasonable title. But the fact remains that the text of the book refers to the sites being discussed as “citadels” a number of times.

The book uses a curious system of representing dates: “+123” for AD 123 and “-123” for 123 BC; and “+IV” for the 4th century AD, “-IV” for the 4th century BC. There's nothing wrong with this in principle, but I don't see the point of introducing a new notation when in fact years and centuries aren't mentioned so often that the usual and more familiar (if slightly wordier) system wouldn't be just as satisfactory.

Another minor complaint I have about this book is that de Camp's political opinions seem to sometimes lean a little bit towards the conservative side of the political spectrum, and he doesn't seem to have been wholly enthusiastic about some of the progressive things that were going on in the 60s and 70s while he was writing this book. See for example p. 95: “If somebody kills people in a peculiarly gruesome way, they say that the killer is really a good fellow at heart who suffers from frustration or insecurity, and in any case it is all the fault of Society.” (P. 95.) I agree with this a hundred percent, though it's obvious from de Camp's tone that he doesn't. And after he describes the harassment that an archaeological expedition suffered at the hands of the despotic and ultra-conservative regime of the Imam of Yemen, de Camp adds: “Back in the bad old days of imperialism, a civilized government whose people were so used would probably have landed the marines and hanged the rascally Imâm from the palace window. But such is not the custom in these progressive times.” (P. 108.) I guess this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I can't resist a lingering suspicion that he doesn't think that gunboat diplomacy is a completely bad idea. For another thing where I disagree with him, see the discussion about Rapa Nui near the end of this post (and in the book on p. 260.)

On p. 13 the book mentions “Dr. Paul Schliemann, grandson of Heinrich Schliemann the archaeologist. In 1912 the younger Schliemann, apparently getting tired of being a little man with a big name, sold the New York American an article entitled How I Discovered Atlantis, the Source of All Civilization.” This article is now available on the wonderful web site. But J. B. Hare, the editor of, mentions that “Paul Schliemann dropped out of sight as quickly as he emerged”, and the article contains several such gross archaeological bloopers that the most likely explanation is that it was really written by some tabloid journalist, without the involvement of any grandson of Heinrich Schliemann. Interestingly, de Camp seems to have misquoted the title of the article — the version begins with ‘How I Found the Lost Atlantis’.

In Tartessos, silver was “so common that the Tartessians' hogs ate from silver troughs” (p. 20).

Apparently, in Spain there exists (or existed) a “Royal Pigeon Shooting Society” (p. 23).

Are you a ruler troubled by budget deficit? Do you think issuing bonds is for sissies? Boy, do we have a solution for you! “Herodotos also reported the stories told him by his guides. They said, for instance, that Khufu had prostituted his own daughter to help to pay for the Great Pyramid” (p. 37).

One usually hears that the Sphinx's nose was demolished by Napoleon's soldiers. However, apparently it was really done centuries earlier by some religious fanatic (p. 38). See this web page for more details.

The Druids occasionally practiced rather grisly religious rituals, which earned them much censure from the Romans. De Camp criticizes the Romans for this: “The Romans, who had done the same sort of thing a few centuries earlier and who were at that time forcing gladiators to kill each other by the thousands in the arena, professed to be shocked by these sacrifices.” (Pp. 48–9.) I don't doubt that there was a strong element of hypocrisy in the Roman attitude, and that in many cases they were just looking for an excuse to suppress the Druids so as to control the population of their Celtic provinces more easily; but at the same time, I can't agree with de Camp's implication that one has no right to be shocked at something merely because one's ancestors practiced the same thing a few centuries earlier. That would make us hypocrites whenever we are shocked by slavery, let alone by concentration camps or the death penalty where the time difference is even smaller.

“Among the ancient Irish in particular, ‘They count it an honorable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them. . .’ ” (P. 49, citing Strabo 4.5.4. Incidentally, though de Camp's quotation ends there, Strabo continues: ‘and openly to have intercourse, not only with the other women, but also with their mothers and sisters; but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it’.) When it comes to bizarre Irish funerary customs, here's another splendid one: “In final homage to the fallen kings whom the ancient Irish sent to their fathers, they were drowned in a vat of mead and their palaces set alight.” (Toussaint-Samat, History of Food p. 36.)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, some people thought the giant stones at Avebury a nuisance to farming, and toppled and destroyed several of them. “Unfortunately, all these people are dead and so cannot be boiled in oil as they deserve.” (P. 64.)

[To be continued in a few days.]


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