Saturday, March 30, 2013

Towton Skeletons Confirm the Brutality of Medieval Warfare

Five Hundred and fifty one years ago today, the one of the bloodiest battle of the English speaking world occurred in northern England.  The series of wars that occurred in late 15th Century England, known collectively as the "War of the Roses," seems to be forgotten now by all but the most ardent students of British history.  But those conflicts, and particularly the Battle of Towton, devastated the youth of England on a scale not seen again until the First World War.  This is a rather lengthy article but it expresses the horor of combat at Towton much better than my feeble pen can manage
.  It is re-blogged from here:

The Economist, Dec 16th 2010
The battle of Towton - Nasty, brutish and not that short

THE soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enough—somewhere between 36 and 45 when he died—to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out. 

Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.
The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head - picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25's brain, felling him.

His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw (see picture). It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat. 

Thorny tales

Towton is a nondescript village in northern England, between the cities of York and Leeds. Many Britons have never heard of it: school history tends to skip the 400-or-so years between 1066 and the start of the Tudor era. Visitors have to look hard to spot the small roadside cross that marks the site of perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought in England. Yet the clash was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses. And, almost 550 years later, the site is changing our understanding of medieval battle.

In Shakespeare's cycle of eight plays, the story of the Wars of the Roses is told as an epic drama. In reality it was a messy series of civil wars - an on-again, off-again conflict pitting supporters of the ruling Lancastrian monarchy against backers of the house of York. According to Helen Castor, a historian at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the wars arose from the slow breakdown of English government under Henry VI, a man who was prone to bouts of mental illness and “curiously incapable” even when well. As decision-making under Henry drifted, factions formed and enmities deepened. These spiralling conflicts eventually drove Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, to assert his own claim to the throne. York was named Henry's heir, but he was killed in December 1460. His 18-year-old son, Edward, proclaimed himself king just before the battle of Towton. 

That set the stage for a vicious fight. Edward had his father and brother to avenge. After killing him, Lancastrian forces had impaled York's head on a lance and adorned it with a paper crown. Following years of skirmishes others had scores to settle, too. In previous encounters, efforts had been made to spare rank-and-file soldiers. At Towton, orders went out that no quarter be given. This was to be winner-takes-all, a brutal fight to the death.

The result was a crushing victory for the Yorkists and for the young king. Edward IV went on to rule, with a brief interruption, until his death 22 years later - a death that triggered the final stage of the conflict and the rise of a new dynasty under Henry Tudor. The recorded death toll at Towton may well have been inflated to burnish the legend of Edward's ascent to the crown. Yet there can be little doubt it was an unusually large confrontation.

In a letter sent nine days after the battle George Neville, the then chancellor of England, wrote that 28,000 men died that day, a figure in accord with a letter sent by Edward to his mother. England's total population at the time is thought not to have exceeded 3m people. George Goodwin, who has written a book on Towton to coincide with the battle's 550th anniversary in 2011, reckons as many as 75,000 men, perhaps 10% of the country's fighting-age population, took the field that day. 

They had been dragged into conflict in various ways. Lacking a standing army, the royal claimants called on magnates and issued “commissions of array” to officers in the shires to raise men. Great lords on either side had followings known as “affinities”, comprising people on formal retainers as well as those under less rigid obligations. These soldiers would have been among the more experienced and better-equipped fighters that day (foreign mercenaries were there, too). Alongside them were people lower down the social pyramid, who may have been obliged to practise archery at the weekend as part of the village posse but were not as well trained. Among this confusion of soldiers and weaponry, almost certainly on the losing Lancastrian side, was Towton 25. 

The bone collectors

He gets his name from the order in which he was removed from the ground. In the summer of 1996 builders working at Towton Hall, about a mile away from the main battlefield, discovered a mass grave. Archaeologists from the University of Bradford eventually took charge of an excavation of almost 40 individuals, 28 of whom were complete skeletons. (Further bodies have subsequently been recovered from beneath the dining-room at Towton Hall, which must make for conversation, at least.) The skeletons had clearly been the victims of great violence. Many display the same frenzied wounding as Towton 25. “Imagine one of those movie scenes with people closing in on a cornered individual,” says Christopher Knüsel, one of the original team of archaeologists and now at the University of Exeter. “Usually the camera has to pan away because you cannot show some things. Here you see it.” The location of the bodies, and subsequent carbon-dating, linked them conclusively to the battle of Towton.

It is the only mass grave of known medieval battle victims to have been found in England. The only comparable find is that of a mass grave of victims of the Battle of Wisby in Sweden in 1361, which was excavated in the early 20th century. That find was considerably larger—1,185 individuals from four separate pits—and notable, too, for the fact that the dead had been buried in their armour. The Towton men had been stripped before being thrown into the pit. The only personal effect found in the grave was a silver ring still encircling the little finger of Towton 39; it may have been missed because of the sheer quantity of gore.

But Towton has proved more instructive in some ways. The size of the Wisby find and the way in which the bodies there were removed, with the graves broken into grids and excavated one square at a time, made it almost impossible to reassemble skeletons later. At Towton, under the guidance of Tim Sutherland, an archaeologist who has been researching the battlefield ever since, skeletons were carefully recorded in the grave so that they could be put back together again. As described in “Blood Red Roses”, a book on the archaeology of Towton, this has allowed a more complete picture of participants in the fighting to emerge.

Who are you calling short?

The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. It is easier to be precise about younger individuals, thanks to the predictable ways in which teeth develop and bones fuse during a person's adolescence and 20s. The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest, Towton 16, was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men's height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest.

This physical diversity is unsurprising, given the disparate types of men who took the battlefield that day. Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall—just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too. 

Laid out on a laboratory bench in the University of Bradford's archaeology department, the biggest of the soldiers still look burly (though their bones, without any collagen in them, are incredibly light to handle). They seem to have led active lives. Bone grows in response to strenuous muscular activity, particularly if exercise starts in childhood. For instance, the serving arm of a professional tennis player has as much as a third more bone in it than his non-dominant arm. 

Some of the Towton men display the same type of unusual bone density. But it is distributed in a very unmodern way: their upper-arm bones are very well-developed towards the right shoulder and the left elbow. The medieval longbow, which placed huge stress on both the drawing arm and the arm that held the bow steady, may have been responsible. Towton 16 has something known as an avulsion fracture to his left elbow, a condition first clinically identified among young baseball players in America. This injury occurs only in adolescence, when the bones in the arm have not yet fully fused, and may have been caused by attempts to practise with an adult longbow. In 1420s England the teenage Towton 16 was suffering from Little Leaguer's Elbow. 

Ground work

Piecing together what happened on a single day 550 years ago is exceedingly difficult. Even observers would have found it hard to discern a precise order of events in the confusion. Contemporary accounts of the battle may be politically biased or exaggerated. Mr Sutherland says that the idea of medieval soldiers slugging it out for ten hours, as the conventional view of the battle has it, defies credibility; he thinks there was a series of engagements that led to the main battle and that took place over the course of the day.

For a long time it was assumed that archaeology could not help much. That changed with work done in the 1980s at Little Bighorn in Montana, site of George Custer's “last stand” against native American warriors in 1876. A brushfire allowed archaeologists to re-examine the site, using metal detectors to map the location of spent cartridge cases and bullets. By matching them to the weapons used that day, researchers could trace the movements of soldiers over the battlefield. The work suggested that the engagement was over far quicker than Custer's legend implied.

The Towton site is 400 years older, presenting greater challenges. The battlefield was first swept for ferrous materials such as arrowheads. That search proved frustrating. The trouble was not too little material, but too much—bits of agricultural machinery and other things dating from after the battle. Looking for non-ferrous items—things like badges, belt buckles, buttons, pendants and coins that would have been ripped off during the fighting—proved to be much more fruitful. After identifying clusters of these personal effects, which seemed to mark the main lines of battle, researchers went back to looking for ferrous materials and started finding a concentration of arrowheads

Arrows were not the only things flying through the air that day. Some of the first bullets were, too. The Towton battlefield has yielded up the earliest lead-composite shot found in England. Mr Sutherland thinks he may have found a fragment of a handgun, which was small enough to be carried around and probably set down on a trestle table or small carriage to be fired.

The arrows would have been fired as part of the opening exchanges. Accounts of the battle report that the Yorkist archers reached their target, but that the Lancastrians fell short, forcing them to move forward to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. The stress of this kind of fighting was immense: a few of the Towton skeletons had been clenching their teeth together so tightly that bits of them splintered off. This central confrontation would have been responsible for many deaths: Mr Sutherland says he has found a total of five pits on the battlefield that may be mass graves and plans to excavate them next year. But it was unlikely to have been the place where the Towton skeletons died. Their burial location, a mile from the battlefield, is one reason to think so. The way they were killed is the other.
Whereas many of the skeletons found at Wisby in Sweden had lots of wounds to their lower limbs, the Towton group had suffered a disproportionate amount of damage to their heads. Shannon Novak, a forensic archaeologist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University who worked on the skeletons when they were first uncovered, was responsible for working out when and how wounds had been inflicted. 

Injuries that have been sustained well before death are easy to spot because of the way fractured bone smooths as it heals. But before the discovery of the Towton skeletons, less work had been done to distinguish blows sustained at the time of death from those that may have occurred after burial as a result of rodents, earth-moving equipment and so forth. 


By looking at the different ways that bone fractures when it has fluids in it and when it has dried out, Ms Novak found that 27 of the 28 skulls she examined had suffered blows at the time of death. Not just one, either. Both Towton 16 and 25 were struck eight times and Towton 10 six times. Towton 32 suffered no fewer than 13 different blows to the head. 

Artist Graham Turner depicts the carnage at the Battle of Towton.  From:

According to Graeme Rimer of the Royal Armouries, Britain's arms museum, medieval weapons had the capacity to decapitate or amputate at a single stroke. “Given how much damage you can do with one blow, why land another 12?” he asks. There were signs of mutilation, too: marks on the left side of Towton 32's head suggest that his ear had been sliced off. 

The next task was to try to identify the weapons which might have done this damage. Ms Novak took a variety of medieval weapons from the collection of the Royal Armouries and poked them through pieces of acoustic ceiling tile to see what shape they made. Some of the matches were uncanny—the dagger that had to be twisted on the way out, the beak of a war hammer. The puzzling range of blunt, sharp and puncture wounds have their explanation in the lethal versatility of the poleaxe, with its bladed axe, top-spike and hammer (see picture). 

 Put all this together and two questions stand out: what had happened to the men's helmets, and how could their assailants hit them so many times? In the press of battle, after all, you are unlikely to want to spend time and energy landing repeated blows. 

At this distance any theories are likely to remain plausible rather than proven. But the likeliest explanation is that the Towton soldiers (or some of them, at least) were among the Lancastrian soldiers routed from the battlefield. The secret of success in medieval battle was to hold ranks, so that comrades on either side would still be protecting your flanks. That is particularly true given the steep ground shelving away from the plateau where the main battle was fought. “If you move, you lose,” says Mr Sutherland.

On the run from the battle, with Yorkist soldiers in pursuit (some of them doubtless on horseback), the men would have soon overheated. They may have removed their helmets as a result. Overhauled - perhaps in the vicinity of Towton Hall, which some think may then have been a Lancastrian billet—and disorientated, tired and outnumbered, their enemies would have had time to indulge in revenge. Even at this distance the violence is shocking. “It's almost as if they were trying to remove their opponents' identities,” says Mr Knüsel of the attackers' savagery. Thanks to some unsuspecting builders and a team of archaeologists, they did not entirely succeed.

Friday, March 29, 2013

No One Was With Me, Isaiah 63.2-3

For Easter, 2013
Depiction of Christ in Majesty (left), Crucifixion (right) from the Stammheim Missal, used at Hildesheim (Germany) in the 1170s.  If you look on the bottom of right page, you can observe a man treading grapes in a vat.  The banners reference Isaiah 63.2-3: 'Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?  I have trodden the wine press alone and from the peoples no one was with me', a pre-figuration of the solitude of the crucifixion.
Stammheim Missal, Getty Collection, Los Angeles MS 64, f. 85v-86v

A happy Easter to all!  He is risen!

This is reblogged from:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Carnage Was Dreadful

It began with the largest massacre of non-combatants by Native Americans in United States history, and ended with the greatest number of Native Americans killed in one day by the United States military.  The Creek Indian War raged through 1813 and 1814, but is now largely forgotten outside of Alabama.

In early 1813, war broke out between  two factions of the Creek Nation in eastern Mississippi Territory, what would eventually become the State of Alabama.  One faction was made up of mixed and full blood Creeks who had began to adopt a more European way of living, trading and farming.  The other faction, known as the "Red Sticks" wanted a full return to the ways of their forefathers before the coming of the white men.  This disagreement boiled into civil war among the Creeks, with both sides winning and losing skirmishes in lower Alabama.

On August 30, 1813 a large band of Red Sticks attacked a ramshackle stockade post called Fort Mims.  By the end of the day, approximately 500 men, women and children; whites, mixed bloods, full bloods and black slaves, lay dead with the fort reduced to ashes. 
Massacre at Fort Mims

Panic ensued through the white settlements in northern Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.  For the first time, the United States became involved in a Native American civil war.  The Tennessee militia marched into Alabama to subjugate the Red Sticks.  The column under General Andrew Jackson was the most active and successful of the American forces who marched against the Red Sticks.  Several defeats, and inadequate supply lines plagued Jackson and his men.  In the Spring of 1814 he was reinforced with a regiment of United States Regulars and marched again towards the Red Stick strong hold on the Tallapoosa River.   199 years ago today, Jackson and his mixed force of Tennessee Militia, US Regulars, friendly Creek Indians and Cherokee allies attacked the Red Sticks at Horseshoe Bend. 
Andrew Jackson
By the end of the day, as many as 1,000 Red Stick warriors lay dead. 350 Red Stick women and children were handed over to the Cherokee allies as slaves.   Red Stick resistance ceased and the "Creek War" was over.    One of Jackson's biographers described Horseshoe Bend as "slow, laborious slaughter." Jackson, in a letter to a fellow officer reported, "The carnage was dreadful."  In contrast, Jackson's army suffered only 50 killed and 154 wounded. 

The victory at the Horseshoe won promotion of Jackson to Major General of Volunteers in the United States Army.  He later commanded US troops at the Battle of New Orleans in a stunning one-sided defeat of a British invasion force.  Jackson was catapulted to national Fame and was elected President in 1828.  His rise as a national leader had its beginnings at Horseshoe Bend,  Alabama.
The 39th US Infantry scales the palisades.  From a diorama at the  Horseshoe Bend NPS visitor's center.
The sword of Major Lemuel Montgomery, 39th US Infantry. Montgomery was the highest ranking American officer killed at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. He had been an attorney in Nashville before the War of 1812.  The city of Montgomery, Alabama was named for him.  Courtesy Myers Brown, Tennessee State Museum
Twenty Five years after the victory at Horseshoe Bend, President Andrew Jackson would betray those Creek and Cherokee allies who helped him win the Red Stick War, when he evicted them from their homes in Alabama and Georgia and sent them on the Trail of Tears to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.
For more on Horseshoe Bend, I suggest this National Park Service video.  This is shown at the NPS visitor center at the battlefield.  I had the honor to help make this video (that's my cannon you will see in some scenes.)  The film is narrated by Native American Hollywood actor, Wes Studie. 
A three minute video on the battle produced by PBS.

Friday, March 22, 2013

1 Kitty, 2 Empires, 2,000 Years

This story reminds us that globalization is nothing new.  It has occurred since human populations began inhabiting the four corners of the globe.  Re-blogged from: HERE

By: Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic Feb 21 2013
How did a Roman brick from the British Isles get to Washington state's Fort Vancouver?

 At some moment a few years after Jesus Christ died but before the second century began, someone made a brick on the island that would become the cornerstone of Great Britain. The area was controlled by Rome then, and known as Britannia and as the brick lay green, awaiting the kiln, a cat walked across the wet clay and left its footprints before wandering off to do something else. The clay was fired, the prints fixed, and the brick itself presumably became a piece of a building or road.
Two thousand years later, a Sonoma State master's student named Kristin Converse was poking around the holdings of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Washington state. She was writing her thesis on the business and technology of brickmaking in Portlandia (known more formally as the Willamette Valley). A brick caught her eye. It was part of an odd group that was not of local origin. In one corner, there were the footprints of a cat. Where had this cat lived?

Back in 1982, the bricks in question had been examined by an archaeologist named Karl Gurcke who specializes in the identification of bricks. "The only bricks that come near to matching this type in size are the so-called 'Roman' bricks," Gurcke wrote in a report on excavations at Fort Vancouver. This suggested that the "type may indeed be Roman in origin," and that they were "shipped over from England."
Converse tested the presumed Roman bricks, using a process called neutron activation analysis, which allows scientists to determine the elemental components of a material. Bricks made from different clays and at different times show particular chemical signatures, so she could compare bricks from the Fort to bricks from Endland. "They tested very well like Roman bricks from England," Bob Cromwell, an archaeologist at Fort Vancouver told me. "It is still a hypothesis, but the data is all pointing in that direction: the size and the elemental analysis compares very favorably with definitive Roman bricks."

The question became, then, how did a Roman brick from the British Isles get to Fort Vancouver?

The answer: the mercantile empire of the Hudson's Bay Company, a commercial entity substantially older than the United States, having been incorporated in 1670. The Company controlled the entire Pacific Northwest under a local company official known as the Chief Factor. Although after 1818, the region was nominally under the shared control of the U.S. and Britain, the only real western power was the Hudson's Bay Company, and the only real resources it could draw on came from its global network of trading ships and outposts.

Fort Vancouver was the seat of the Company's west coast operations. It was established in the winter of 1824-1825 on the banks of the Columbia River, a few miles north of what would become Portland, Oregon. With the Willamette and the Columbia right there, it was like setting up shop at the intersection of two major highways. But despite the great location and abundant resources of the region, they didn't actually have the equipment or know-how to do a lot of things.
While there were roughly 25 Native American tribes in the region, there were not any brickmakers among them, which meant there weren't any bricks. So, the Hudson's Bay Company, which ran the Fort, had to order them from a world away.

"You can certainly bring over brickmakers to look at the local lays and the Columbia River silts are great for making common brick. But at the time, when they are out there establishing their post, if they want some brick for their chimney, there just isn't any," Gurcke said, when I reached him at his job with the Park Service in Skagway, Alaska. "So they ship them from, in this case, England. We do have some records of them shipping bricks very early from England."
It often took two years for the bricks to reach the Fort, which is one reason that many brickmakers sprung up in later decades. Converse, in fact, found several spots in the Willamette Valley that could have provided bricks to Fort Vancouver in later decades as settlers arriving via the Oregon Trail figured out that the little city was a good market.

But those are hard stories to tell, as Converse discovered, because the early brickyards have long since been built over with houses and TGIFriday's. She can prove that many bricks at Fort Vancouver were made from Willamette Valley clay, but it's hard to say more.
It's almost easier to tell the global story than it is to tell the local one because the strangeness of the material can be pinpointed more easily. For example, the mortars that were used to cement bricks together were made from Hawaiian corals.

"They had a trading station at Oahu, harvesting coral, and shipping it here," Cromwell said. "We have bricks with this coral mortar still adhering to it. They would break up the coral, mix it with sand and water and you'd have an instant mortar."
And none of this is to mention "the Village," which sprung up outside the Fort and housed up to 600 people from all over the world including "English, French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Hawaiian, Iroquois, and people from over 30 different regional Native American groups." They learned to speak Chinook Jargon, a mixture of Chinook, English, and French. Every once in a while, Cromwell told me, people from other European nations would show up, too, or a few Japanese sailors would come by after having been shipwrecked.

So to make a lowly chimney in some house in the employee village near the Fort, you might have Roman bricks, mortared together with Hawaiian coral, and built with the labor of a Portuguese worker or an Iroquois visitor. Globalization! And it was the middle of the 19th century: Mark Twain was still a child.
What's fascinating, too, is that this story can be told with an almost unthinkably mundane object, the common brick, which turns out to be uncommon if you look hard enough.

"At a glance, bricks appear all alike, yet upon examination, they can exhibit a frustrating degree of variation. Unbranded bricks in particular provide an unsatisfying ratio of information gained to curation space occupied, and many excavated bricks went unrecorded, uncollected, and even discarded," Converse notes in her master's thesis, with just a note of despair. "Yet bricks have a story to tell if we can coax it from them, and contain potential information regarding the development of industry, trade networks, construction techniques, resource utilization, and even attitudes and status."
And sometimes, they tell you a story about a mischievous cat whose imprint traveled all the way around the world, then ended up in a museum. Which I learned about because Cara Tramontano tweeted it after words started going around about another cat who left his imprint on a southeastern European scribe's work from March 11, 1445.    (Author's note, that story can be found HERE.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ten Thousand Visitors!

Today, the ten thousandth person paid a visit to Eras Gone!

When I started this blog, I never thought that it would be seen by so many folks.  People from over thirty countries, from every continent except Antarctica, have found Eras Gone.

Thank you for visiting and I hope you will come again!

The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou Now Availible

My first novel, The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou, is now availble at and other on-line book sellers! 
It will also be on the shelves at Books-a-Million stores.  Barnes & Nobles offers it for on-line sales, but we hope to have it on their store shelves soon as well. 
You can order the book here.

The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou is an action packed, yet sometimes touching tale of war, family and forgiveness set during the twilight days of slavery. This is a side of the Old South that is seldom seen. If you love Civil War or Southern history, The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou is a must read!


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Knight's Grave Found Under Car Park

Is this becoming a trend?  Since Richard III's remains were found under a car park in Leicester, maybe it has become fashionable for the nobility to be re-discovered in the same way.  I hope further information will become available about the artifacts found with this burial and how they conclusively dated it to the 13th Century.
The grave of a medieval knight and the foundations of a monastery built by a former king of Scotland have been found under an old city car park.

Archaeologists made the discoveries, with dozens of other artefacts, during the excavation of a building site in Edinburgh's Old Town.
Three buildings of historical significance were previously located in the area, the 18th-century Old High School, the 16th-century Royal High School and the 13th-century Blackfriars Monastery.
The latter was founded in 1230 by King Alexander II of Scotland but destroyed during the Protestant Reformation in 1558 and the exact location of the monastery was unknown before this archaeological dig.
Also unearthed was a slab of sandstone, decorated with carvings of the Calvary cross and an ornate sword which signalled that it was the grave of a knight or other nobleman.
The car park had been demolished to make way for the University of Edinburgh's Edinburgh Centre of Carbon Innovation (ECCI), which will work to create and support a low carbon economy through knowledge and skills. The green building has been designed to be highly efficient and sustainable by incorporating many low carbon measures including a rainwater harvesting tank which will be placed on the site of the former car park.
Astonished by his medieval discoveries was Ross Murray, from Headland Archaeology, who studied at the University of Edinburgh's archaeology department which used to be housed at High School Yards, a few feet from where the knight's grave was found. He said: "We obviously knew the history of the High School Yards site while we were studying here but I never imagined I would be back here to make such an incredible discovery. We used to take breaks between classes just a few feet away in the building's doorway and all that time the grave was lying under the car park."
ECCI director Andy Kerr said: "We always knew that the building retrofit might uncover historical artefacts, given the site's history, but this knight is an extraordinary and exciting find. We want our new building to play a key role in shaping Scotland's future, as these historical buildings on this site did in their time."
The skeleton's bones and teeth are to be further analysed by experts to learn where the person was born, what he ate, where he lived and how he died.

"This find has the potential to be one of the most significant and exciting archaeological discoveries in the city for many years, providing us with yet more clues as to what life was like in medieval Edinburgh," said Richard Lewis, culture convener for the City of Edinburgh Council.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

History That Tugs at the Heart

Not all history is about impersonal tales from the distant past.  Some stories, even those from several generations ago, can have an closeness and intimacy that can stir emotion.

Christmas Card sent home by Carlton Church, his last correspondence before
capture by the Japanese in December 1941.

I started writing about Wake Island almost 15 years ago. First in magazines and later in my blog. I get correspondence off-an-on from family members of men who served at Wake Island or were murdered by the Japanese there in 1943. They used to come by US mail, but they increasingly come by email, especially since I launched my blog last year.  When I did the first article on the massacre of 98 Americans on Wake Island by the Japanese in 1943, I mentioned in the article that I wondered if there were still sons or daughter or brothers or sisters who still remembered and thought about these men.  I have learned that after that after seventy years have passed, there are indeed many family members who still mourn the lost.  I suspect the dead of WWII, from all over the world, still have family who think of them. 

Some, like my new friend Gary Binge, tracked me down and phoned me.  The story of Gary's grandfather, and the helmet he brought home from the War, generated the article you can find linked below, and much of the new correspondence that I have received.

Some letters seek information, that sadly I usually cannot provide.  Some write to give me more information, which is very much appreciated.  Some just write to thank me and let me know that families of the "Murdered 98" have found my articles and appreciate them.  I was surprised by how many loved ones did not know the details of their loved one's death, until they found my articles.  Those are the most precious to me.  Here are parts of emails I've received over the last few months.  I've removed full names and hometowns so I would not violate the privacy of these fine folks.  These letters are humbling and gratifying at the same time.  It makes all the research and writing worthwhile. 


Dear Major Hubbs,

I'm writing to thank you for helping solve a long standing family mystery. My wife is the great-niece of Charles M Villines, one of the Wake 98. For all of her life, the ultimate fate of Charles had been unknown to her family. The family had known that he was on Wake island, and had assumed that he had been taken to China, although no record was ever found of it. Charles had married and had had a child before he went to Wake, but his wife had divorced and he and the rest of my wife's family lost contact with her before the war started. We assume that the notification sent in 1946 to the families went to her, although she may well have not received it, having moved in the interim. We do know that his mother, Zula Villines never received any notification and never knew what had happened to her son.

 Although Charles is listed as being from Salt Lake City, he was an Oklahoma farm boy, born and raised in Pottawatomie County. He had moved to Utah looking for work. Charles had two brothers, James and Tony. They both fought in the Pacific Theater and survived the war. Tony died in an oil-field accident in the 1950s. James is still alive, though in very ill health. James has one daughter (my wife's mother) three granddaughters (including my wife), and five great-grandchildren. For my wife and her sisters that unknown fate of their lost great uncle was a wound that was passed on from generation to generation.

 Today my wife was telling our daughters about her lost uncle and our elder daughter, became curious and started searching the Internet and found your account at I had done an Internet search years ago and found nothing. Knowing what happened to Charles, as horrible as the fate was, has brought a great deal of relief to my wife and her sisters.

 Thank you,

David S.


 (Author's note: This letter from Bonnie C. was especially poignant, and includes a poetic tribute to one of her WWII veteran uncles.)

Dear Friend

 Jack Fenex who was in the mass murder is my uncle. I wept when I read your account that my daughter found. We had many answers, but we had some doubts. My uncle, Elmer Christler was also there, but he became a prisoner of war for four years and came home. My Dad, Walter Christler, wanted to go, but he was turned down because of a bad knee (thank goodness). He served in the Army in the states and left just after I was born.

 I was a baby when the war ended, but the war stories have greatly impacted my life. My uncle Melvin Christler flew "The Hump." My uncle Bill Fenex, walked it. As a child, I remember my mother reading Uncle Jack's letter and crying.

 I know that the stories of sacrifice and service that I grew up with helped me face my trials. It was in my blood.

I was a fussy baby and my Grandpa Fenex rocked me as he listened for war reports. He wasn't sure if Jack had been beheaded because he heard there was a Jack that broke into the kitchen for food as well as the massacre. You simply can't judge.

 My uncle Bill Fenex passed away a short while ago. I wrote this tribute to him:

Good-bye, Uncle Bill

Uncle Bill fought for his country
As an "Honor and duty" with pride.
It scarred his mortal life for sure
In ways that he could never hide.
He held his head so very high
And conquered demons one by one.
May he find the peace he gave to us
With loved ones, the Lord, and blessings won.

 I have sent your article on to many family members and I told them to send them on their families. Again, thank you with all my heart.

 Sincerely, Bonnie C.


Maj Hubbs;

I just came across your article written about the POW Rock on Wake Island, and in it you mention that you travel there from time to time, I have a favor to ask.  If you should travel to Wake Island again, would it be possible to get a small amount of the coral sand from the area around the POW Rock?

Carlton Church's signature is partially obscured by a very fragile chin strap on Glen Binge's helmet.

 Please allow me to explain, though I never knew him, Carlton G (Graves) Church was my Great-Uncle, my Grandfather's brother on my mother's side of the family, and one of the 98 civilians murdered on Wake Island.  Ever since I took a simple picture of the memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific back in the 70's, I have been researching Uncle Carl and Wake Island.

 Just this past Tuesday, while going through old boxes of photos etc, I found a small metal lockbox that belonged to my Great Grandmother (Carl's mother), and in it I found a Christmas Card from Uncle Carl, bearing the return address of Wake Island, and written on the edge of the envelope is "last letter received" is postmarked San Francisco Dec 27, 1941.

 If you are interested, I can send you pictures of the cards, envelope and letter.

Thank you,

Philip M.

Carlton Church's last note home before his capture by the Japanese. 
Carlton was one of the 98 Americans executed by the Japanese in October, 1943.


I want to thank you for the Blog you’ve established for relatives of Wake Island Americans who were attacked in 1941. My grandfather worked for the Morrison-Knudsen Co. as a dredge operator. I’ve read several books about the battle for Wake, but unfortunately, the military authors did not include much about the civilians who also bravely fought and suffered.

 Barbara M.



 Hello Mark.  

 My name is Ron.   Uncle, Redmond James (Jim) Wilper was one of the “forgotten 98” on Wake Island.  I have seen photographs of the Binge helmet and I see that my Uncle Jim signed it because you have listed the names of all who signed.  I would like to see a photo of the signature.  Do you have photos of every single signature?  If so, could you possibly send me a photo of Redmond (Jim) Wilper’s signature?  Perhaps you know how I could get in touch with the Binge family or pass my inquiry on to them.  I appreciate your help and I really enjoyed your blog.  Ron

 (Author's note:  I provided a close up of photo of Jim Wilper's signature as soon as I found this email.  The owner of the helmet, Gary Binge, was more than delighted for me to pass on the photo to Jim's family.  I received this reply)
Redmond (Jim) Wilper's signature on Glen Binge's helmet. 
Jim was barely out of his teens when he was murdered by the Japanese.
Mark: Thank you so much. It came through just great. Jim's little brother Frank, age 88 will greatly appreciate this as will my siblings and our children. It is very thoughtful of you Mark, and you Gary for sending this to us. The saga of Wake Island is still well remembered here in Boise. Best wishes. Ron