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.
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.
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.”
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.
Surface ownership of the parcel was ceded to the State of Mississippi for use “as a wildlife refuge and working demonstration forest.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks for looking!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
The first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, died on this day, 19 August, AD 14. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
month August was named in his honor—a non-physical and more enduring “monument.”
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.
 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.
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). Sea-lung? This got weird. Although the words used are the same as those for jellyfish, Pytheas is using a strange metaphor at minimum. For this and other reasons, many ancient geographers dismissed Pytheas entirely, or accepted his description of Britain and drew the line at Thule.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified