Reads For The Road: The Spy by Paulo Coelho

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

Since the first time I read a book by Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist), I've been hooked — and The Spy does not disappoint. 

The book is based on the life and death of the fascinating Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" MacLeod, also known as Mata Hari.

Escaping a terrible marriage to become one of the most powerful exotic dancers in Paris, Mata Hari became a woman with connections and means. She moved in influential circles and managed to keep herself lavishly clothed, covered in jewels, and living in luxury thanks to the generosity of rich men who were intrigued by her. 

I am a woman who was born at the wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this. I don’t know if the future will remember me, but if it does, may it never see me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.
— from page 15 of "The Spy"

But an independent woman was suspicious in the early 1900s, and in 1917 — at the height of paranoia during World War I, Mata Hari was arrested for espionage. 

This page-turning story gives insight into who she was, the world that she existed in, and the choices she made that ultimately led to her execution. 

The Most Interesting Discoveries Made In 2016 Using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

New technology is completely changing the fields of history and archaeology, as the use of innovations like Ground Penetrating Radar archaeology are resulting in new discoveries all over the world. This tech is even changing the way we look at old discoveries, as new chambers, burials, buildings, and more are being discovered in previously excavated areas. Before I share some of the most fascinating discoveries that have been made recently using GPR, let's start with one very important question. 

What is Ground Penetrating Radar? 

According to Wikipedia, "Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is a geophysical method that uses radar pulses to image the subsurface." So, in layman's terms, a machine (that usually looks a like an oversized lawn mower) sends a pulse into the ground that can detect what is located under the surface. It can help scientists detect rocks, soil, ice, pockets of water, and man-made structures. 
This technology has been used by the military since around the 1970s, and became available commercially in the mid 1980s. GPR has many uses including finding valuable stones, searching for utilities, finding unexploded land mines, and surveying potential archaeological sites. 

Recent Discoveries Made Thanks to GPR

(image source)

The Remains of King Henry I
Archaeologists announced in September 2016 that they may have located the remains of King Henry I (the youngest son of William the Conqueror) beneath a Ministry of Justice parking lot on the site of Reading prison. They came across the remains while using GPR to scan the parking lot, which sits on top of the ruins of Reading Abby — a huge church that King Henry I built during his reign. What's crazy about this potential discovery is that this is not the first king to be discovered under parking lot pavement in the UK. The ruins of King Richard III were found five years ago under a lot in Leicester!  

The Intact Tomb of Jesus Christ
Located in Jerusalem, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre surrounds the Holy Edicule — the shrine that surrounds the cave tomb of Jesus Christ. It is the only church in the world where six denominations of Christianity worship at the same time, which has lead to constant disagreement on how to preserve and renovate the space. Last year however, the church was closed to the public because some areas had fallen into such disrepair that they had become unsafe. Work began in 2016 on restoring the spaces including the tomb of Jesus. Using GPR, archaeologists discovered that the cave tomb, which was believed to have collapsed more than 1000 years ago, is actually fully intact and about six feet in height! Experts will be entering the cave and documenting it meticulously to share in a National Geographic documentary in 2017. 

Terracotta Warriors Mega-Tomb
This huge tomb, located just outside Xian in China, is visited by thousands of people every year who want to catch a glimpse of the famed Terracotta Warriors. According to Nat Geo, scientists using GPR have discovered that the emperor's massive tomb complex is actually larger than they thought — almost 98 square kilometres larger — and may change the way history looks at the emperor and the time period he ruled in. 

Queen Nefertiti's Tomb (or, maybe nothing at all...)
One of the most publicized "potential" discoveries made thanks to GPR in 2016 were the openings, or voids, that were found behind the West and North walls of Tutankhamen's burial chamber in Egypt. This has led to speculation that hidden behind those walls is the lost burial chamber of the famed Queen Nefertiti (considered to be the most beautiful women of the ancient world). 
I stress the word "potential" in this case, because there has been a lot of argument about whether these voids exist at all, let alone if they are the resting place of Nefertiti. Expect to see more research and many more news stories concerning this "potential" find in 2017. 

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Pantheon Facts: What's The Difference Between The Paris Pantheon and The Roman Pantheon?

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

Yes, there are two famous Pantheons that you can visit in Europe — one in Paris and one in Rome — but they were both constructed for very different reasons, and were built hundreds of years apart. 

The Roman Pantheon

One of the city’s most well preserved ancient buildings, the Pantheon in Rome was originally built as a temple to the Olympian gods (Pantheon literally means ‘all gods’) as a place where people who had different beliefs could gather and worship together. It was completed under the patronage of the Emperor Hadrian between 125 and 128 CE and was constructed on the spot of a previous temple, built by Agrippa in 27 BCE, that had burnt down a few years earlier.

After passing through a series of massive marble columns, visitors to the temple enter an enormous circular room (called a rotunda) with walls that are 20 feet (!) thick and a floor covered in huge slabs of colorful marble. The marble extends to the exterior of the room where it is joined by decorative columns and pilasters. 

The original 7 niches, once containing statues of the gods, are still there but now either sit empty or hold Christian relics. In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon as the Christian Church of St Mary and the Martyrs. Though this wiped away the building’s original purpose of being inclusive to ‘all gods’, it ensured it’s survival through the Middle Ages when Pagan temples were being destroyed. 

The interior dome of the Pantheon is a staggering 143 feet in diameter and has patterns cut into it that may have once contained gilded bronze rosettes or stars to mimic the night sky. The central opening, called and oculus, is 29 feet wide and lets the sun and rain fall through it equally. Small holes in the marble floor beneath the opening, placed there by the original engineer, drain any water that falls. 

What most visitors don’t know is that there were once gilded bronze roof tiles inset into the remarkable ceiling. Unfortunately, they were looted and removed by an emperor from the Eastern/Byzantine Empire around 500 AD and in the 17th century Pope Urban VIII had them melted down. He then gave some of the bronze to Bernini who created the baldaccino (canopy), that can be currently seen over the main alter in St Peter’s cathedral, and used the rest to have 80 cannons for Castel Sant’Angelo made. 

The facade of the Paris Pantheon is similar to the Roman one, but it is topped by a huge dome

The Paris Pantheon

Also an impressive building, the Paris Pantheon has a very different history than the one in Rome. Located on the south side of the river near the Luxembourg Gardens, the huge, extravagant 18th-century neoclassical structure that exists now was originally built as a church by Louis XV dedicated to St. Genevieve (her body was buried in a basilica that existed on the site in 512 AD) to give thanks for his recovery from a dire illness.

Though it was built to serve as a church, the construction was completed the year that the French Revolution broke out (1789), and two years later it was converted into a mausoleum. 

It is the resting place of some very famous names — scientists Marie (the first woman to be interred in the Pantheon) and Pierre Curie, Voltaire, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, and Victor Hugo just to name a few. 

The building's facade is clearly modelled after the Roman Pantheon, but the interior looks like a grand Gothic cathedral. Arched ceilings, stunning frescos, and imposing architecture make this spot well-worth the visit. It also hosts, arguably, one of the best views in the city from the exterior of the dome (you can visit it on a tour). 

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Before European Bus Tours: The History of The 16th Century Grand Tour of Europe

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

What is the Grand Tour?

Long before Contiki Tour busses started carting tourists around Europe at breakneck speed — beginning in the late sixteenth century to be exact — young aristocrats from England, Germany, Scandinavia, and America started travelling to Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome as a way to round out their classical educations. This practice came to be known at the Grand Tour of Europe. 

Originally, the goal was to have these individuals be accompanied by a teacher who would walk them through the treasures of antiquity and expose them to the wonders of the classical world. (Most, however, set out hoping to have a grand adventure and return home with a bunch of souvenirs — not much different than many travellers today.) 

There were few museums at the time, and so paintings, sculptures, and other historic treasures were viewed in private collections, in artist's studios, or at the archaeological site where they were being excavated. The route for the Grand Tour would usually begin in London and then the travellers would head to Paris. While some might find themselves in locations like the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, or Turkey, most spent the majority of their time in Italy. Rome, with its huge and well preserved historic sites, was considered to be the ultimate destination. 

The result of the Grand Tour was that a large group of young aristocrats suddenly became more worldly, bringing home ideas about architecture that were applied to country manors, and beautiful antiquities that decorated their homes (and are now in museums). These Grand Tourists also helped to support the working artists in the destination cities, as many bought paintings and sculptures from them to bring home as souvenirs of their grand adventures. 

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Must-See History: Xian's Incredible Terracotta Army

by Lindsay Shapka in ,

In 1974, east of what is now called Xi’an in China, peasants digging a well in their field uncovered one of the largest, and arguably the most important, finds of the 20th century: an underground vault full of thousands of terracotta warriors and horses standing in battle formation.

This subterranean life-size army silently guarded the soul of China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, for over two millennia before it was discovered.

What makes this guy such a big deal, you ask?

In the 36 years of his reign (amongst other things), this Emperor created an efficient government that served as the model for later dynasties, standardised writing (getting around tricky dialect problems), built over 6400km of new roads and canals, and enslaved hundreds of thousands of people to work on massive construction projects, like his tomb.

Archaeologists speculate that he created this vast stone army because he expected his rule to continue in death like it did in his life on Earth. 

he site is divided into three massive ‘pits’ covered by permanent structures to protect them (and the archeologists working in them) from the elements.

The largest pit is the most imposing and contains a staggering 6000 plus warriors and horses standing in rectangular battle array facing east. Three rows of archers (that once held longbows and crossbows) are followed by the main force of soldiers who originally held spears, swords, dagger-axes and other long-shaft weapons. Because the weapons, and chariots that were pulled by the horses, were made of wood, they have long since disintegrated.

The most fascinating thing about the warriors in that no two soldier’s faces are alike, and it is not only their faces that are unique. Expressions, hairstyles, armour and even the tread on the footwear are all completely different.

Almost 10,000 warriors have been unearthed, with more being discovered everyday, and no two are alike… imagine the skill, time and artistry that went into creating these figures that once completed, were buried under layers of earth meant to never be seen by those of us in this world again.

National Geographic recently reported that the history of these warriors may soon change, thanks to some recent discoveries made by archaeologists. Artifacts that show evidence of Greek influence and nearby burials that contain skeletons with European DNA have some theorizing that inspiration for the army may have some from foreign artists and are not an originally Chinese creation. 

New technology has "also revealed the emperor’s tomb complex to be much larger than once believed—almost 38 square miles (some 98 square kilometres)!" (source

There is still clearly still a lot to be discovered about this famous king and his stone army. 

Will Reproducing The Voynich Manuscript Finally Solve The Mystery Of What it Says?

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

Click on this image to watch a National Geographic video about the Voynich Manuscript

Click on this image to watch a National Geographic video about the Voynich Manuscript

Hidden away in locked vault at Yale University's Beinecke Library, the Voynich Manuscript is one of the world's most mysterious books. The 240-page text is written in a language that no one knows, or a secret code that no one can break. Add that to the fact that there are detailed illustrations on almost every page, the book dates from the 15th century, and every kind of expert and non-expert has tried to translate it with zero success, and you can see where the mystery comes from. 

It was named after the man who discovered it in 1912, a bookseller named Wilfrid M. Voynich.  According to the National Geographic video on the subject, he spent the rest of his life after the discovery trying to figuring out what it meant. 

Of course, just because no one has been able to decipher the text and illustrations doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of guesses. Some think it is a botanical or scientific text, as most of the illustrations are of plants. "Described as a magical or scientific text, nearly every page contains botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings of a provincial but lively character, drawn in ink with vibrant washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red." (sourceOthers speculate it is a book or magic and potions, while there is even theories that it is an astrological text. 

So many people have been trying to get access to the original work to study it, that it was finally decided to give a small publishing company in Spain the rights to reproduce it. The company, Siloe, is known for reproducing delicate and historic manuscripts and they are committed to making 898 replicas that will be exact clones of the text — every stain, tear, and hole in the parchment will be reproduced. 

Each copy will be available for €7,000 to €8,000 ($7,800 to $9,000 USD) and will make this intriguing manuscript available to thousands of more people to potentially unlock its secrets. 

Flip through digital pages of the manuscript here.

In The News: Has A Lost Nazi Train Full Of Treasure Been Discovered?

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

(Scroll to the bottom for the latest update) 

During World War II, Hitler was obsessed with tracking down and confiscating treasure in the form or art, relics, jewellery, gold, weapons, etc. He amassed massive secret caches of these items all over Nazi occupied territories, including — according to Polish lore — a train loaded with gold, weapons, and art that vanished into the mountains in Poland at the end of WWII and has never been found! 

In the news this week, it was reported that two men are claiming that they have discovered this mystery train, and for just 10% of its value, they are willing to reveal its location.

But, could it all just be a hoax?

While historians won't confirm that there even is such a train, the local government can't pass up a chance to rediscover something that they have been searching for since the end of the war. The fact that the men reached out through a lawyer is also adding some credibility to the claim, as is the fact that they are only asking for monetary compensation once the train has been salvaged, not before. 

"Local stories say a German train left from the German city of Breslau (today the Polish city of Wroclaw) in April 1945 and headed westward toward Waldenburg (now Walbrzych.) At some point in the 60-kilometre (40-mile) journey it vanished.

During the war, Adolf Hitler had started creating a secret underground system in the area under the Owl Mountains, a project called “Riese,” or “Giant.” The region still belonged to Germany at the time and the project included seven separate tunnel systems. It was probably intended to be a military headquarters, though the project remains shrouded in mystery to this day." 

Vanessa Gera, The Globe and Mail, August 20, 2015

Why should you care? The historical significance of a find like this is HUGE. Akin to the discovery of the Titanic! 

Who are these men? Where is the train? Is there a train at all? If there is a train, what treasures will be found? Well, if all goes according to plan, we will find out soon! 

UPDATE: August 26, 2015. 7:43 pm MST — It is confirmed that a significant find has been discovered in Walbrzych, Poland. The location for the find (the train) places it buried under a field. There has been no confirmation of what is on the train. If it is located in a collapsed tunnel, there is a risk of trapped methane gas or Nazi booby traps. Stay tuned for more!  

UPDATE: August 27, 2015 — This is a copy of the last live update on The Telegraph (a newspaper from the UK) blog from the days events:

"To summarise the day's events:
1. Poland's deputy culture minister says he is "convinced" the train exists.
2. He has warned people not to search for it, because it could be booby trapped or mined.
3. Experts are warning that the gold could be tooth fillings, rather than pristine gold blocks.
4. The identity of the two men claiming the 10 per cent fee remains unclear.
5. The location - or even existence - of the train remains unclear."

UPDATE: August 28, 2015 — According to Piotr Zuchowski, head of conservation at the culture ministry, this is what is known right now: 

1. A deathbed confession revealed the existence of the train. We don't know who made that confession.
2. The train's location was then pinpointed with ground-penetrating radar.
3. The train is along a 4km stretch of track on the Wroclaw-Walbrzych line.
4. The train's contents are not certain. However, it could contain gold, art, jewellery and documents.

UPDATE: August 29, 2015 — There has still been no confirmation about what is on the train, but is has been found by ground penetrating radar. The Telegraph has posted a video of the tunnels that are a part of the complex where the train sits. Check it out here.

UPDATE: August 31, 2015 — There was a fire on the embankment where the train is thought to be located. It has been put out, and authorities are saying that it is not arson. 

Police are carefully monitoring the site, as treasure hunters from all over are coming to try and discover something themselves. People are banned from the wooded area near the site. 

The mayor of Walbrzych (the town where the train is supposedly located) says that he is skeptical over the claims of the train's discovery. This contrasts what the culture minister said just a few days ago. 

UPDATE: September 1, 2015 — And it continues... The latest news is that Russia is now claiming that if the train is found, they should be getting at least a part of what is on it. But, according to Poland, the train belongs to Poland and any items found on it will be returned to the heirs of who the original items belonged to. NOT to Russia. 

The Polish military has been called in to help dig and extract the train (if it is really there), ensuring that it can be done safely. 

UPDATE: September 2, 2015 — There is A LOT of speculation going on. As I mentioned yesterday, the military has been brought in, but they are saying that any serious excavations won't begin until the spring! In the meantime, the area is still being flooded with tourists and treasure hunters. Officials and locals are asking that they just dig it up already, so that the question of what is on the train can be settled and not lead to further speculation over the next 6 months. 

Russia is claiming that their "Amber Room" might be what is on the train, which is why they are so insistent that if any of their property is found that it be returned to them. 

There is a great article here with lots of photos and more information. 

UPDATE: September 7, 2015 — The two men who gave the location for the train, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, were members of The Lower Silesian Study Group — one of the leading historical societies in south-west Poland. The two men gave the location, and secured the 10% finders fee of the value of whatever was found, without telling the Group which has led to their expulsion from the society. 

The Polish army has now concluded an initial inspection of the site, and a report of what they found should be released soon.

UPDATE: September 10, 2015 — The local council has claimed that it has received notification that there is in fact a "railway tunnel with a multi-level complex of underground corridors from the days of World War II" (source)

They will be holding a press conference on Friday to reveal the contents of the tunnels and the train!! 

UPDATE: September 11, 2015 — There wasn't really anything new revealed at the press conference today. It was confirmed that explosive experts would be needed to make sure that the entrance to the trains is safe. There was also a suggestion that there could be three trains within these tunnels, as it was documented that three trains never reached their destination and have never been found. 

There was NO confirmation about what is on the trains. But there was a confirmation that they were armoured. 

According to the CNBC, "Officials for the Walbrzych District Council, speaking at the same press conference, said they had no doubt that something was down in the structures. They stated that they would work as fast as possible to discover, using radar, the layout and inspect inside these structures."

UPDATE: September 28, 2015 — Poland's army has begun inspecting the site using mine detectors and ground-penetrating radar. The goal is to ensure that there are no booby traps or hazardous material. The governor has not yet released what the plan for excavation will be. He is waiting to see if the site is safe first. 

There is still no confirmation on what the train contains, though there is A LOT of speculation! 

UPDATE: December 12, 2015 — According to mining,com, Polish mining experts are in the final stages of analyzing data taken from earth-penetrating equipment from the site where the train is alleged to be located. They expect to release their findings before Christmas. 

Whatever they discover, digging on the site will probably not take place until spring due to the cold, harsh winter conditions. 

UPDATE: May 10, 2016 — Not much news has emerged regarding the Nazi Train situation since a mining academy did a geological survey in December and said that (though it wasn't definitive) they didn't think that the train was on the site.

Despite this, the two men who originally made the claim — Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter — are getting ready to start digging!

According to The Telegraph, the two men have received permission from the Polish State Railways (the owners of the land) to begin their excavation and they, and their team, are ready to begin!

UPDATE: September 15, 2016 — It has been just over a year now since news broke that a Nazi Treasure Train may have been located in Poland but, according to news stories, the dig that was started earlier this summer has turned up no evidence that there is anything located at the proposed discovery site. 

Search operations have been shut down at the site that caused the most excitement, though the men who have been digging are planning on starting a new excavation at a site nearby if they can retain the proper permits.