There may be a wide gap between uncritical belief and hard-line skepticism, but that doesn't mean many writers have chosen to explore this territory. Now science writer Peter James and archaeologist Dr. Nick Thorpe have teamed up again to examine Ancient Mysteries, pledging allegiance to no theory or theorist, free to explore any explanation supported by the evidence. As often happens, they must finally throw up their hands in confusion, but getting there is half the fun.
Did King Arthur really exist? Who was Robin Hood? How did the enormous stone heads of Easter Island find their way to their resting places? Why did the Mayans disappear? These are some of the 37 big questions tackled by James and Thorpe in nearly 700 pages. A few of their selections may seem curious when compared to the puzzles that have gripped us for centuries, but overall their penetrating analyses of legend and archaeological data are fascinating and engagingly written. For those who can tolerate a bit of uncertainty in their reading, Ancient Mysteries will be a profoundly satisfying look into the fuzzy boundaries of our knowledge. --Rob Lightner
James and Thorpe, the authors of Ancient Inventions (1994), now turn their professional eyes (one is a historian; the other, an archaeologist) on the unexplained historical phenomena that provide fodder for all those melodramatic cable shows about "history's mysteries." True believers will be disappointed to discover that the authors are spoilsports who haven't met a mystery they can't debunk. The statues on Easter Island? Built by indigenous people without help from aliens. Ditto the pyramids. Columbus was not helped to America with the Vikings' Vinland map, and Edgar Cayce was pretty much wrong about everything. In the course of their debunking, the authors reserve particular scorn for Graham Hancock (Fingerprints of the Gods) and his ilk. Yet, when it comes to biblical mysteries, such as whether there was a Star of Bethlehem, the debunking duo seem more willing to bend history. (They contend that the star was really Halley's Comet, even though that would place Jesus' birth in 12 B.C.) The world is a less mysterious place after James and Thorpe get through with it, but their well-researched, thoroughly documented conclusions will be hard for even aficionados to dispute. A highly readable survey of a perennially popular topic, made all the more appealing by a wealth of attractive illustrations, including photos, maps, and historical engravings. Ilene Cooper
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