Mississippi’s Ground Zero Monument

I do not wish to downplay other tragic locations associated with the term, but “Ground Zero” was originally used only for the surface location closest to the detonation point of a nuclear explosion. Mississippi is home to one of those fortunately rare spots.

The Salmon Site (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management, 2018)

Fifty-five years ago (as of today) an atomic bomb was detonated—on 22 October 1964 (and on purpose)—in south Mississippi. It was the first of two nuclear test explosions in the same location, and the only ones east of the Mississippi River. The nuclear test detonations, along with two later gas explosions, were conducted by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense in the Tatum Salt Dome, 21 miles southwest of my home in Hattiesburg, MS.

Surface Ground Zero in a small clearing among the pines at the Salmon Site (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

The two nuclear explosions were part of a larger project called the Vela Uniform Program, which was concerned with developing methods of detecting (and perhaps limits for avoiding detection of) underground nuclear tests in light of potential test ban treaties. The Tatum Salt Dome provided a capped chamber some 1500 feet below low-permeable strata; well-suited for certain parts of the program. A shaft was drilled 2,710 feet into the salt dome, where on 22 October 1964, the 5.3 kiloton yield nuclear device code-named “Salmon” was lowered and detonated, creating a chamber in the salt dome (duh). A second nuke, the 380 ton yield device called “Sterling,” was suspended into this chamber and detonated on 3 December 1966. The two nuclear tests were collectively called “Project Dribble.” Two methane and oxygen explosions in the same chamber, “Diode Tube” on 2 February 2 1969 and “Humid Water” on 19 April 1970,  were part of “Project Miracle Play.”[1]  

Cross-section of the Salmon Site (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management, 2018)

The “Salmon Site,” as the 1,470 acre tract above the Tatum Salt Dome is now known, was sealed, cleaned, and passed from the AEC to the Department of Energy in 1992. The DOE retains the underground rights for the land and continues to monitor it via numerous test wells for radiation.

Plan of the Salmon Site, showing the outline of the subterranean Tatum Salt Dome, test wells, and Surface Ground Zero (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management, Environmental Monitoring Report, Salmon, Mississippi, Site 2017, September 2018)

Surface ownership of the parcel was ceded to the State of Mississippi for use “as a wildlife refuge and working demonstration forest.”[2] Meanwhile, the detonation chamber apparently contains a stratum of highly radioactive material, covered by a recrystallized melt puddle, and fluid, all safely contained by the salt envelope and sealed shafts above.

Surface Ground Zero monument at the Salmon Site, Mississippi; three monitoring wells are visible beyond the monument (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

Today a concrete marker with two plaques marks the Surface Ground Zero of Mississippi, 2,710 feet above the detonation point and resulting radioactive chamber. It is a truly awkward monument. For starters, it is not easily visited, as the vehicle access “roads” are unmarked, gated, and locked. When the monument is finally reached, the main informational bronze plaque faces away from any who approach, as if embarrassed to reveal its story.

Surface Ground Zero at the Salmon Site (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

The SGZ monument seems guarded by six closed and securely locked test wells, each in turn protected by concrete-filled security poles. A rusty electrical panel box stands close by (wasps prevented me from testing the outlets in it) next to the stump of a formerly large tree.

Sealed shaft behind the Ground Zero monument at the Salmon Site, Mississippi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

A ominous sealed shaft beyond the monument and panel is unmarked except for the label added to the lid by the talented welder, “PS 3 – PLUGGED 6-18-79.” All this odd setting is put in context by the smaller—and arguably more important—plaque on the concrete monument, facing any arriving visitor and warning them against excavation of any kind. Good idea.

Plaque on the more prominent side of the Surface Ground Zero monument at the Salmon Site, Mississippi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

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[1] Government project codenames fascinate me . . . other Vela Uniform underground tests were conducted in Nevada and at one site in Alaska with various codenames, including “Long Shot,” “Diamond Dust,” and “Diamond Mine;” with “Sterling” and “Miracle Play,” it sounds like some kind of casino game or lottery—the latter of which Mississippi is starting next month.

[2] U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management, “Fact Sheet: Salmon, Mississippi, Site,” https://www.lm.doe.gov/Salmon/Fact_Sheet_-_Salmon.pdf, Nov, 2018. This and other official documents can be found at https://www.lm.doe.gov/salmon/Documents.aspx.


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A Man Named Doris

Today—12 October 2019 (as I write this)—would be the 100th birthday of a World War II hero whose remembrance has been wildly variable, and for whom a recent memorial also deserves mention.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco, Texas (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

Doris Miller, often referred to as “Dorie,” was born near Waco, Texas, on 12 October 1919; the third of four sons born to sharecroppers Connery and Henrietta Miller. The midwife attending his birth was convinced he would be a girl, thus the child was named Doris. He enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and was eventually assigned to the battleship USS West Virginia. I have not been able to locate any anecdotal information on what it was like to be a man named Doris in the Navy; but . . . it was the case that Doris Miller was the heavyweight boxing champion aboard the West Virginia.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

As an African American seaman in the segregated U.S. armed forces of the day, Miller was placed in a service role and promoted to Mess Attendant, Second Class in the ship’s mess. On 7 December 1941, the USS West Virginia was at anchorage in Pearl Harbor. Miller was collecting laundry when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor commenced and the first of at least five aerial torpedoes struck the ship.

Miller ran to his battle station which he found destroyed and then reported to the central meeting point of the battleship. There he was ordered, because of his physique, to accompany an officer in an attempted evacuation of the ship’s mortally wounded captain from the bridge. Unable to safely remove the Captain, they moved him to a safer position behind the conning tower. Then Miller, though not trained on its use, manned an unattended Browning 50-cal. anti-aircraft gun. He fired until the ammunition was exhausted and he was forced to retire by spreading flames on the sinking ship. Miller later describing his actions:

It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.[1]

Statue of Doris Miller standing “on deck” as he appeared having just received the Navy Cross pinned to his chest; at the Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

While firing the anti-aircraft gun is the most famous part of his actions, Miller afterwards also “was instrumental in hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”[2]

Early lists of those receiving commendations for actions at Pearl Harbor mentioned an unnamed negro. This ignited attention by the press and NAACP. Finally, the Navy confirmed Miller’s identity, and some reports appear to have printed it with a typo, giving rise to the moniker “Dorie Miller.” In any case, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, presented by Admiral Nimitz on 27 May 1942. He became an icon for the African American community, was sent on a war bonds tour, and appeared in a recruiting poster. Having been transferred to the USS Indianapolis immediately after Pearl Harbor, Miller was promoted to Cook, Third Class and assigned to the new escort carrier USS Liscome Bay following the bond tour.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-13)

Those who know WW II naval history may realize from the foregoing that hero’s lives often do not end happily. The Indianapolis became one of the worst and most controversial naval losses of the war, and a story in itself. Miller, however, was transferred off the Indianapolis; but to the Liscome Bay . . . which would become the most deadly aircraft carrier loss in U.S. history. On 24 November 1943 the Liscome Bay was struck by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine which set off a huge munitions explosion. Miller was among the 644 men lost, the great majority of whom went down with the ship. In a cruel irony, Doris’ parents were informed of the loss on 7 December 1943, exactly two years after his heroic actions at Pearl Harbor.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco from above (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-13)

The photos in this post are of the newish Doris Miller Memorial standing adjacent to the Brazos River in Waco. It is a moving monument, incorporating the shape of the battleship on which Miller served. The statue of Doris was unveiled on 7 December, Pearl Harbor Day, in 2017. A new biography of the hero, released on the same day, credits Doris Miller’s actions at Pearl Harbor as a catalyst for abolishing the U.S. Navy’s segregationist policies and, in a chain of events, for helping launch the civil rights movement.[3]

As it happens, “Doris” also designates a deity of the sea in ancient Greece, the name coming from Greek words for “gift” and “pure.” A man named Doris. Indeed.

Statue of Doris Miller at the Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

[1] “Miller, Doris”. Naval History and Heritage Command. 6 June 2017.

[2]Cook Third Class Doris Miller, USN: USS West Virginia‘s Action Report, 11 December 1941; with 3 enclosures mentioning the actions of Dorie Miller”. Naval History and Heritage Command. 29 November 2017.

[3] Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish, Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement (Texas A&M University Press, 2017).


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An August Mausoleum or August?

The first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, died on this day, 19 August, AD 14.[1] Occasioned by the 2005th anniversary of that event, this post is a brief follow-up to “Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü,” featuring a probable Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan (d. AD 117). Since that entry (first in a new occasional series) was posted on the most likely day of Trajan’s death, this one too is timed for the anniversary of the Emperor’s death.

The Mausoleum of Augustus as reconstructed in the Model Plastico di Roma, a 1:250 scale model of Imperial Rome now in the Museum of Roman Civilization, which is . . . closed now, for several years (pic shamelessly appropriated online because Ancient Dan cannot access the actual model)

Like Trajan after him, Caesar Augustus died on his way back to Rome. His ashes were placed in the huge tomb Octavian (his given name) prepared for himself already in 28 BC, before he even obtained the title Augustus by which he is remembered.[2] It was a huge circular Mausoleum built of concrete and tufa reticulate (small blocks of volcanic conglomerate in a diamond pattern, often as a form for the concrete). The outer of six concentric structural walls measured 300 Roman feet (c. 89m) in diameter, and the 40 Roman feet (c. 12m) high. The 2nd and 3rd walls were consequtively higher and bonded with the outer, making 25m thick ring. A single entrance on the south pierced the outer walls, opening to a vaulted corridor around the 4th wall, through which 2 entrances led to another corridor around the 5th wall, with a single entrance to the burial vault (for urns, as the Romans practiced cremation). The ruined state of the building makes the superstructure details unclear and several reconstructions have been imagined, most assuming a finished overall height of 150 Roman feet (40-45m).

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome, currently still closed, as seen from an open portico in the building to the south (the only way to see the entrance); the entrance passes through the 3 outer wall rings, which are linked by buttresses as seen at left; the ruins of this outer ring support the ring of current trees (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

According to Strabo, the Mausoleum was the most impressive of local monuments, “which consists of a mound of earth raised upon a high foundation of white marble, situated near the river, and covered to the top with ever-green shrubs. Upon the summit is a bronze statue of Augustus Cæsar, and beneath the mound are the ashes of himself, his relatives, and friends” (Strabo 5.8.3). One would expect such an impressive monument would be remembered, respected, restored, and revered.

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome in its present state; the best view of the full width of the sides, obtained by shooting from an opposite street corner (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

Sadly, that has not been the case. The Mausoleum was converted into a fortress in the medieval period, destroyed in 1167, and robbed for building stone. The building became an ornate garden in the 16th century, an arena for bullfights in the 18th, a theater and circus arena in the 19th, and a concert hall with 3,500 seats in the early 20th century.[3] Thereafter the site fell into total neglect, became overgrown, and deteriorated even after some attempt at clarifying it with a surrounding plaze by the Fascist government in the late 1930s.

A better view of the outer ring wall of The Mausoleum of Augustus, now stripped of decorative white marble/limestone; the staircases were added by the Fascist government of Mussolini in the late 1930s (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

The original white limestone facing was robbed along with other usable limestone within. Trees dominate the upper surface of the ring defined by the outer walls today, perhaps simulating hinting at the appearance described by Strabo (above). The site has been closed for some time, and restorations were supposed (by one report) to be completed in April of this year. At last check, the Mausoleum is still inaccessible, but Google Earth photos give some hope of progress.

My advice: if you get to choose whether to have a month named for you or have a fantastic monument . . . take the month.


[1] The month August was named in his honor—a non-physical and more enduring “monument.”

[2] Bonus for footnote readers—because I never get to share this one in class anymore: if you ever have to watch Disney’s Cinderella (original animated), as I have with two daughters and then two granddaughters, you might notice that when the new fat mouse is discovered, he gives his name as “Octavius.” But Cinderella says, “we’ll call you ‘Gus’ for short.” How does Octavius become Gus? Octavius = AuGUStus. This almost makes up for the annoying music.

[3] Most details from Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: University Press, 1998), 181-84. BTW, this series is the most helpful and undersold of archaeological guides; the new edition of Rome is here.

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Trump’s Ultima Thule (and some seemingly unrelated Pics of the Day)

Most of my posts result from a combination of visits I have made to odd places, some latent interest sparked by a random input, and bizarre current events. This is one of those posts. The stimuli, respectively, were a recent visit to the Orkney Islands, my 26 July A.Word.A.Day (AWAD) email featuring ultima Thule, and President Trump’s bid to purchase Greenland.

Despite being a great idea (and not a new one); the latter is NOT going to happen, notwithstanding any confident flaunting of “the art of the deal.” Ultima Thule may require a little explanation—at least to get to the real topic of this post . . .

We begin sometime between 320-300 BC when Pytheas, an explorer from the Greek colony of Massalia (modern Marseilles, France), became the first known Greek to sail past the Carthaginian blockade at the Straits of Gibraltar. His apparent goal was the tin mines of Cornwall, but he also circumnavigated Britain and described its triangular shape accurately. In northern Scotland, Pytheas heard from the locals of a mysterious island called Thule (Θούλη).  He reported of Thule that: it was “the most northerly of the Britannic Islands”; “there the circle of the summer tropic is the same as the arctic circle” (Strabo 2.5.8); it lay six days sailing north of Britain (Pliny Natural History 2.186-87); and “there is neither sea nor air, but mixture like sea-lung, in which earth and air are suspended; the sea-lung binds everything together” (Polybius 34.5.3-5).[1] Sea-lung? This got weird. Although the words used are the same as those for jellyfish, Pytheas is using a strange metaphor at minimum.[2] For this and other reasons, many ancient geographers dismissed Pytheas entirely, or accepted his description of Britain and drew the line at Thule.

The 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, showing Thule (labelled “Tile”) NW of the Orkneys and S of Iceland; Greenland (ultima Thule) appears in the upper left inset (Composite from 1949 facsimile; public domain)

Thule’s actual existence was debated for centuries, its possible real identification even still today, and the name Thule eventually came to mean the most northerly occupied place. The name was attached to Greenland when explorer Knud Rasmussen founded a trading post in the far NW corner of the island and named it “Thule.” The United States Air Force cemented the name by building Thule Air Base nearby in the mid-1950s.[3] Meanwhile, the term ultima Thule developed as a literary extension of the geographic idea, meaning “the farthest place” or “a remotely distant goal.” Thus, the title of this post . . . which, admittedly, does not obviously reveal the pictorial topic.

Ring of Brodgar in Stenness, Orkney; a stone circle combined with a henge, the largest stone circle in Scotland and the 3rd largest in the British isles (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

If Thule was a real place, where was it? Some in the past have identified Thule with the Orkney Islands. That is good enough for me to use this weird thread of logic to feature some pics from the center of Mainland, the central island of the Orkneys.

Ring of Brodgar from above; unlike Avebury, there are no stones within the henge (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

I rather liked Orkney. Crowds at important places could be minimized, even at the height of the tourist season. This is partly due to the relatively limited accommodations there. One could find huge clots of tourists, but they came for organized day-trips via ferry from the north tip of Scotland. Stuck on bus-tours, they were predictable and easily avoided. The other great secret is something mentioned by Pytheas: “For it was the case that in these parts the nights were very short, in some places two, in others three hours long, so that the sun rose again a short time after it had set” (Geminus, Introduction to the Phenomena 6.9). Indeed, in Orkney in early July, the sun set around 22:30 (10:30 pm) and rose around 04:00. Tourists seem to arrive about 10:30 and depart around 16:00, leaving lots of time to see stuff in the early morning or late afternoon-evening unencumbered.

Ring of Brodgar with a clearly-related outlying stone in the foreground; you don’t get this pic at 06:00 with a bus tour (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)
Another reason to like Orkney; the locally-brewed dark ale that sports the Ring of Brodgar on the label.

In the heart of Mainland, Orkney lies a fantastic collection of megalithic monuments. The crown jewel is the Ring of Brodgar (built 2500-2000 BC), the largest stone circle (103.6 m/340 ft) in Scotland and the 3rd largest in the British Isles. It is unusual in that the perfect stone circle is combined with a henge, much like Avebury in England. The site is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and very much the signature location in Orkney (see the great example at left, which also nicely incorporates the low sun). During the main hours of the day, the Ring of Brodgar is crawling with bus loads of day-trippers, but I did not see another living human between 05:30-07:00!

The Stones of Stenness; with the monolith Watch Stone adjacent to near end of bridge in back right, and the Ring of Brodgar somewhat visible in distant background with right edge above the standing stone and left above adjacent utility pole, about a mile away (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

The Ring of Brodgar dominates a narrow peninsula separating the lochs of Stenness and Harray. A mile to the south are the Stones of Stenness, four huge megaliths that remain of an earlier stone circle. The site has an eerie magnificence with its giant standing stones (up to 19 ft high) with sheep dozing or eating at their bases. An outlier monolith called the Watch Stone (also 19 ft) dominates the near end of a bridge on the road that leads to the Ring of Brodgar.

The Barnhouse Settlement; with several Neolithic houses, the largest of which is Structure Two at right center; the larger Structure 8 seems to postdate the village and probably has a ritual function (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

Near the Stones of Stenness are the excavated remains of the contemporary Barnhouse Settlement, a Neolithic village of 15 or so houses, including one (Structure Two) that is larger than the others. Past the Watch Stone and across the bridge are continuing significant excavations of more Neolithic structures, called the Ness of Brodgar, that continued after Barnhouse was abandoned. In that later period, Structure Eight, probably for cultic use, was built by the ruins at Barnhouse. It seems to be oriented—as is another standing stone—with the largest chamber tomb in the region, Maeshowe (and another target of many of those bus tours). These interesting sites are all within a linear mile and a half. There are other significant Neolithic sites and other wonders in the Orkneys, but they will have to wait. Like Greenland.

Maeshowe Chambered Tomb (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-14)

One more thing: is there any chance Orkney is the Thule of Pytheas? Almost certainly not. Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law and Roman governor of Britain from 78-84, Julius Agricola, claimed the Roman fleet circumnavigated Britain and, “thus established the fact that Britain was an island. At the same time it discovered and subjugated the Orkney Islands, hitherto unknown. Thule, too, was sighted, but no more; their orders took them no farther” (Tacitus, Agricola 10). This eliminates Orkney as Thule, but brings the Shetland Islands and possibly the Faroe Islands into play. Modern scholarship ignores them and prefers either Iceland or Norway. I should like to travel to all possibilities, but for now this desire is my own ultima Thule.


[1] Astute readers (obviously you, because you are reading the footnotes) may have noticed that I am not quoting Pytheas himself, but rather other classical authors. This is because Pytheas’ writings are lost, save their quotations by others.

[2] “Sea-lung” renders πλεύμονι θαλαττίῳ in Strabo 2.4.1.

[3] My first knowledge of Thule came as a young child when my Dad, a USAF pilot, used “sent to Thule” as a jovial reference to the worst potential disciplinary reassignment during the Cold War.


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Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü (Pic Of The Day, 2019-08-08)

I have always been fascinated by monuments or memorials to the deceased and the psychology behind them, as well as the physical structures themselves. This post is triggered in part by the most recent of the all-too-familiar temporary memorials that appear at scenes of horrific mass shootings in my own country. But not to dwell on that depressing and unfortunately ubiquitous topic, I hereby initiate an occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity.

Actually, a precursor to this theme appeared in my post “The Hazards of Tax Day,” which featured the Temple to the Deified Julius Caesar in Rome. Tonight’s subject is a presumed cenotaph for the Emperor Trajan, erected in the city of his death and at the spot of his probable cremation on or about this date (8 August) in AD 117.[1]

The structure known locally as Şekerhane Köşkü; very likely the platform for a temple of the Deified Emperor Trajan, who died in Selinus in AD 117 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-27).

Trajan excelled in his 19-year reign and was highly regarded in life, death, and by Renaissance and early modern historians. Already having made significant military conquests in Dacia, in AD 114 he set out for campaigns on the eastern frontier. The problem there was agitation by the Parthian Empire (originating in Persia—modern Iran—another connection of this story with contemporary events!). Trajan was incredibly successful in his initial campaign, taking the Parthian capital Ctesiphon and gaining a foothold on the Persian Gulf. But reduced success and troubles elsewhere in the Empire caused him to return towards Rome in 117.

Our main source for Trajan’s last days is Cassius Dio. Already suffering in health, which he attributed to poison, the Emperor suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. In early August he sailed for Rome from Antioch. When Trajan’s health deteriorated the ship put in at the nearest port, Selinus in Cilicia, where he “suddenly expired” (Cassius Dio 68.33). Selinus was subsequently renamed Traianopolis in the Emperor’s honor and memory. Details on the exact disposition of his body are not given, but his “remains” were transported back to Seleucia, the port of Antioch, for viewing by his successor, Hadrian, and then to Rome.

Interior of the Şekerhane Köşkü, likely the platform for a Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan, who died in Selinus in AD 117 and was probably cremated in a structure incorporated in the building’s walls (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-24).

On the outskirts of the Turkish city Gazipaşa are the ruins of Selinus/Traianopolis, and on the landward outskirts of them stands a lonely structure known locally as the Şekerhane Köşkü, which refers to the building’s use as a hunting platform for elites during the Seljuk Period. Early western explorers of the area identified it as having a sepulchral function and likely built as a cenotaph (a tomb structure without the honored person’s actual remains) for Trajan. Trajan was the only personality of his magnitude known to have died there and a memorial to him is a logical outcome although the written sources do not mention such. The roof of the edifice was covered in soil and produced wheat and other crops that were grown around it. This layer was cleared in the early 2000s revealing the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure with a place for a cult statue. These and other details now make it likely that the building was not a cenotaph but rather a platform for a temple to the deified Emperor Trajan.[2]

The Şekerhane Köşkü, with the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure on the recently-cleared roof; the door opening in the front and cut block exterior are modification of the platform during the Seljuk Period, when the building functioned as a hunting platform (aerial image by Tıröd Ğnihcnüh; © AncientDan.com).

Coins issued in Selinus from the late 2nd-mid 3rd centuries featured a temple to Trajan on the reverse. There is no other suitable candidate for this temple in the extant remains apart from the Şekerhane Köşkü. Further, there are striking parallels to coins featuring the Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar (mentioned above) in Rome, which was situated at the spot of Caesar’s cremation. One of the walls of the Şekerhane Köşkü incorporates an earlier square structure, arguably the cremation pit where Trajan’s corpse was burned—an essential step in Apotheosis (elevation to divine status) for both Caesar and Trajan.[3]

Trajan’s Column in his forum at Rome (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-10).

The Emperor’s ashes were eventually transported to Rome where they were placed in a special chamber at the base of Trajan’s Column, a magnificent and still-standing 30 meter (98 ft) high column depicting the Emperor and his troops during the Dacian wars and showing painstaking detail of the Roman army in action. Trajan’s Column anchors one end of the extensive Forum of Trajan, the last of the Imperial Fora in Rome.

In addition to physical monuments, Trajan’s legacy includes other honors. He was universally lauded by contemporary writers and posthumously declared by the Senate optimus princeps, “the best ruler.” He was considered by some Christian theologians to be a “virtuous pagan,” and Dante depicts him in Jupiter’s Heaven in The Divine Comedy. Modern historians have sometimes questioned Trajan’s accomplishments, and his successor Hadrian (who did relinquish Trajan’s gains against Persia) now gets better press.

Next in the series: The Mausoleum of Augustus.


[1] Some sources place Trajan’s death a day earlier or later, on 7 or 9 August; e.g., Chris Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995), lists 7 August as the date of death in the box at the beginning of the entry for Trajan (p. 90), but 9 August in the text (p. 97); therefore, I am taking the middle road in posting this on the evening of 8 August.  

[2] This argument is effectively made by Michael Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 10 (Sept 2016): 56-68 [this is a special issue also titled Ex Terra Scientia: Papers in Honor of David Soren, eds. R.H Wilkinson and P.P. Creasman]. For the nerds that read footnotes: I actually obtained this issue recently for a current research project and was pleased to find this article there. Ironically, Michael Hoff (the author) had graciously received my research colleague and I at his impressive excavation site within an hour of our most recent visit to the Trajan Temple site.

[3] Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” 62-64.

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The Ark: A Refuge . . .

It has been almost 40 days and 40 nights since my last post and it is Father’s Day . . . so, obviously, that calls for a post about Noah’s Ark! But, alas, I have not visited Noah’s Ark—and Ancient Dan, out of principle, does not post about things without direct contact. However, I have recently visited the “Ark Encounter” and (surprise!) have some thoughts about it.

The Noah’s Ark replica at the Ark Encounter theme park (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

For the uninformed: The Ark Encounter is a Christian creationist theme park[1] in northern Kentucky. It is owned and operated by Answers in Genesis (AiG),[2] a young-earth creationist non-profit founded and directed by Ken Ham, a master purveyor of pseudoscience. AiG also operates the Creation Museum nearby. The Ark Encounter was developed by AiG’s for-profit partner, Ark Encounter LLC (whose corporate office is in the Creation Museum),[3] with the benefits of huge and controversial local tax incentives. AiG, like many other “non-profit” Christian institutions, has plugged into the “business model” and is not shy about commercialization. From the moment one enters either attraction ($48 for the Ark, $35 for the Creation Museum), there are endless opportunities to spend more money on overpriced food, trinkets, and propaganda. Among other things, the Ark [Encounter] certainly provides a refuge from taxes.

View of the Ark replica from the bow end, showing the entrance queue (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

How did I end up there? I would never have done so on my own, but three other long-time friend couples planned a trip to the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. So Mrs. Ancient Dan and I joined them—fellowship with good friends, curiosity, and the principle of direct experience before commentary overcoming my reticence to give money to AiG.

Time, space, and decorum preclude any full systematic reaction to the exhibits at the Creation “Museum” and Ark Encounter. Rather, I will offer here a couple of observations on the presentation that struck me as important.

Vertical panorama of the Ark replica mid-line showing all three decks (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-07)

I expected a barrage of pseudoscience-based arguments, but there was not as much of that as I anticipated. Other aspects of the presentation, however, troubled me more. After my visit, I discovered that Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) had a similar reaction.[4] The Science Guy noted, “every single science exhibit is absolutely wrong; not just misleading, but wrong.”[5] But that is not the disturbing part. The presentation made no serious attempt to document its claims apart from woefully out-of-context biblical references. Some might suggest that the curators of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter are incapable of proper argumentation and citation; but I don’t think so (although one exhibit had undecipherable English syntax). Ken Ham is no scientist, but he is a crafty presenter and an able politician. The exhibits do not seek to educate; rather they aim to confirm the views of those already on board with the ark, so to speak. Preaching to the choir works! But it also erodes the choirs’ ability to think critically or for themselves.

The crowds at both facilities were themselves an exhibition of credulity. Their faces and T-shirts proclaimed a desire for confirmation of heartfelt views and a yearning for refuge from that threatening outside world—the world of science. The latter was characterized throughout the displays as the “Evolutionary World View” and tacitly blamed for the ills of human society. The Ark [Encounter] is thus a refuge from the deluge of the modern world; a place where one can be comforted that God is in control despite the chaos outside. Is there anything wrong with that? As a late secular songwriter declared: “It don’t really matter to me . . . you believe what you want to believe.” The insightful words are “what you want to believe.” The main point of the song, however, is in the next line: “you don’t have to live like a refugee.”[6] Still, is there anything wrong with seeking psychological refuge from a scary world?

Panorama of Deck 2 of the Ark replica, with Mrs Ancient Dan and a reconstruction of storage magazines that would be the envy of any “prepper” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

Unfortunately, the Ark also provides a refuge from facts. One example will suffice here. Fundamentalist Christians are (in my opinion, unreasonably) disturbed by the notion of evolution. The Flood story provides a potential avenue to explain away all those pesky and undeniable fossils (which support the “Evolutionary World View”). But if the fossils were all the result of the single Flood event, all the weird lifeforms represented in them must have coexisted with humans at the time of Noah and the Ark. The “biggest” obvious (but certainly not the only) problem, then, would be the dinosaurs. A challenge for the young-earth creationist view is the cynical question, “were there dinosaurs on the Ark?” Ken Ham’s answer to that is: “absolutely.” So the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter go to great lengths to create a narrative in which dinosaurs lounged around with Adam in the Garden of Eden (display in the Creation Museum) and had quarters on the great boat. Indeed, an inordinate percentage of the animal replicas in the Ark Encounter are dinosaur or other paleo- “kinds.”

Strange creatures on the Ark (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-07)

At this point I should note that the craftmanship of the Ark replica is top-notch, the grounds are beautiful, and presentations are slick and high-tech. It is, in a word, impressive. The result is a massive container for a story that provides limited details. To flesh out visitors’ Encounter experience, numerous entertaining displays answer those idle questions that come with a literal understanding of the account. For example, names of Noah’s daughters-in-law are provided along with their specialized contributions (and ethnic features to match their assumed descendants). Living quarters of unexpected luxury are recreated and set the stage for other “poetic license” additions, like the library of written records (in a bizarre imaginary script). Viewers are thus invited into a storyland world not so unlike Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, the Christian fiction genre, or other fantasy theme parks.

Shem (the putative scholar of the group) kicks back with a scroll in his quarters aboard the Ark Encounter (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-07)

What I find troubling is this: with the help of the theme park atmosphere, the visitor is encouraged to accept the presence of dinosaurs on the Ark as naturally as they might expect a huge clothed hi-pitched bipedal rodent interacting with visitors at Disneyworld.

I return to the question: is there anything wrong with all that fantasy? Not in principle; but the ability of the public to evaluate information has always been suspect. In this “Dis-information Age,” flashy presentation, repetition, and volume make discernment more of a chore (see “Russia and the 2016 election”). The real peril of Ken Ham’s efforts are a weakening of critical thinking and an indoctrinated distrust of “science.” This is already a huge problem in America, as the Anti-Vaxxer movement and the current resurgence of Measles highlight.

Ironically, Ken Ham does what the original writer of the Noah’s Ark account in Genesis did: creates a retelling of a well-known and beloved account infused with new details that support a particular theological view. Flood stories were written adapted in Mesopotamian cultures long before the composition of the Torah (even if one assumes the most conservative view of Mosaic authorship). Those accounts feature conflicting actions of multiple gods with humans as simple annoyances. The Genesis author was concerned with eliminating the other deities from the narrative, leaving the one God of Israel in control with a focus on human morality. Ken Ham’s retelling is concerned with eliminating the established fossil record, scientific method, and critical thinking.

Japheth (the musical one in this telling) and his conspicuously white-skinned wife, “Rayneh” (the artistic one) in their quarters aboard the Ark Encounter reconstruction (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-07)

What does any of this have to do with Father’s Day? The Genesis Flood story presents Noah as the father of all mankind through his three sons, Shem, Ham (not Ken!), and Japheth.[7] Unsurprisingly, the Ark Encounter takes up this approach. This is a danger zone because literal views of the Shem, Ham, and Japheth division was used to justify slavery in this country (primarily through interpretations of Gen 9:20-27). Happily, Ken Ham denounces racism in numerous displays—which I wholeheartedly applaud. So the Ark should be a refuge—from bigotry and hatred, because we are all in this boat together.  

Happy Father’s Day!



[1]  I felt a little bad about this characterization until I saw that Wikipedia uses the same phrase; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ark_Encounter (accessed 15 June 2019).

[2] “Ark Encounter Media Resources,” https://arkencounter.com/press/ (accessed 15 June 2019).

[3] “Company Overview of Ark Encounter, LLC,” Bloomberg,  https://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapid=134385996 (accessed 15 June 2019).

[4] I am gratified that Bill Nye also felt the need to see it first hand—and would like to think that our common engineering backgrounds are the reason for our similar approaches.

[5] Erik Ortiz, “’Absolutely Wrong’: Bill Nye the Science Guy Takes on Noah’s Ark Exhibit, NBC News, 16 July 2016; https://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/absolutely-wrong-bill-nye-science-guy-takes-noah-s-ark-n608721.

[6] Tom Petty (and Michael W. Campbell), “Refugee,” 1979.

[7] BONUS FOR PEOPLE THAT READ FOOTNOTES: The earlier Mesopotamian flood epics mentioned above have undeniable parallels to the Genesis account in terms of building details, the releasing of birds, and a post-flood sacrifice. But the Mesopotamian stories do not emphasize the notion of the variously-named boat builders populating the world. This aspect of the tale is found, however, in the less well-known Greek flood myth of Deucalion, where the hero repopulates the world through three sons. A new study of these parallels is found in Guy Darshan, After the Flood: Stories of Origins in the Hebrew Bible and Eastern Mediterranean Literature [Hebrew], Biblical Encyclopedia Library 35 (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2018).

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Lystra: Human Nature on Display (Pic Of The Day, 12 May 2019)

A follow-up to my previous Pic of The (special) Day post is in order. Last week, I held forth on the “Genesis of the Accepting Church” using the Apostle Paul’s first visit to the city Antioch of Pisidia, as narrated by Acts 13. This was occasioned by my use of the passage for a special combined Sunday School session on the 60th anniversary of University Baptist Church’s own Genesis. As it happens, the Narrative Lectionary used by UBC covers Paul’s continued work on the same journey in the cities of Lystra and Derbe, also in the Roman province of Galatia. If you haven’t read the one about Antioch of Pisidia, it might be helpful and can be found here.

The mound, or Hüyük of Lystra, with random students distributed for scale (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Immediately after Antioch of Pisidia, the same sequence of events is reported at Iconium but with far less detail: Paul going to the synagogue, having an opportunity to preach there because of his status, resistance by unbelieving synagogue Jews, and eventual persecution and departure (Acts 14:1-7). From Iconium, they moved on to nearby Lystra. Today Lystra remains a largely un-investigated and non-descript ruin in the Lycaonian plain. The site is dominated by a large hüyük; a mound of ruins built up over centuries or millennia of human occupation (more familiar by the Arabic word tell). The active agricultural fields surrounding the mound are devoid of architectural features, but abound in those indicators of an ancient site: sherds of broken pottery and small stone objects turned up by the plow. It is a prototypical example of an unpreserved and unexcavated ancient site.  

View from the crest of the mound at Lystra with not-so-ancient-Daniel and worked fields below (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-05-21)

At Lystra the biblical narrative focuses on Paul’s healing of a cripple—very possibly at the synagogue where Paul was speaking (Acts 14:8-10)—and the aftermath of that miraculous event. Some of the locals, amazed by what Paul had done, declared him and Barnabas to be “the gods” in human form. Paul, “since he was the chief speaker,” was called Hermes (the messenger of the Olympian Greek gods) and Barnabas—apparently more quietly dignified and stately(?)—was deemed to be Zeus! The priest of Zeus brought out “oxen and garlands” to offer a sacrifice, but Paul and Barnabas declaimed that they were mere men and scarcely managed to avert the sacrifice (Acts 14:11-18). Then, with no indication of time passed after the previous scene, the reader of Acts is told that Jews from Antioch (of Pisidia) and Iconium came and “persuaded the people,” so that “they stoned Paul dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (v. 19). How could the same people declare Paul and Barnabas to be gods worthy of sacrifice and in the next verse stone Paul and leave him for dead? The answer, I sadly conclude, is human nature.

A modern recreation of the stoning of Paul just outside of Lystra; note the stone in flight at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17) [NOTE: no Charlies were injured in the creation of this picture]

We, as most mammals do, have something of a pack mentality which causes us to readily accept a potential leader who demonstrates (or sometimes only claims) an ability to “save” us from whatever we may fear. This desire leads to irrational beliefs and actions. We see as much in this story; but also throughout history, in politics, in sports, and even entertainment. In the Roman world, the practice of worshiping the emperor as divine may strike us as “ignorant,” but it operated on the same psychology. And it worked! —as seen in the impressive temple to Augustus at Antioch of Pisidia (pictured in my previous post) complete with an entablature featuring bulls decorated with garlands, the very items brought out for sacrifice in our story.

Antiochia Pisidia: one of the many bull and garland fragments from the Temple of Augustus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Apparently refusing the role of physical/political savior, failing to provide what the crowds demand, or not being what people first hoped, is a dangerous business. This is the human side of what physically happened to Jesus; and Paul’s experience is an echo. The Lycaonians of Lystra demonstrate, in the extremes of their actions, the foibles of human temperament.

Happily, we don’t have to leave Lystra (or this blog) completely depressed about humanity. Paul returned to the city on the so-called “Second Missionary Journey” (Acts 16:1-3) and found the good side of people and their instincts. In Lystra Paul met a disciple named “Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.” This Timothy was the product of a mixed marriage, which may have been a social burden and certainly created the potential for theological discrimination (Acts 16:3). It might be argued that Timothy’s mother is only mentioned because of her contribution to his mixed heritage, but note that only she is cited as a believer. And, assuming we can take it as authentic (many do not), 2 Timothy 1:5 has Paul remarking to Timothy about his faith: “a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” Timothy clearly received much more than Jewishness from his mother and his grandmother.

Lystra with a bouquet of wildflowers
Lystra in full Spring bloom; the hüyük rising in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

The love and nurture of a mother reveals and passes on the best part of human nature. We see it at Lystra in this story, and I feel it in my own life and in the lives of my children. As Tim[othy] might have said, “God bless[ed] us, every one!”

Happy Mother’s Day!

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