Skulls and Bones in La Quemada

Do you have a fascination with the dead? Do you find yourself contemplating your own mortality or possess a penchant for the macabre?

If so, you can indulge your morbid cravings at Zona Arqueologica La Quemada, an archaeological site in Zacatecas, central Mexico. On an elevated site outside of the city lies an excavation and display of many human skulls and bones.

La Quemada translates roughly as ‘burned or ‘the burned’, and refers to the burnt human remains which were discovered when the earth was moved during the construction of a hacienda on the site. It is also suspected that the settlement which occupied the site was eventually destroyed by fire.

Historical research indicates that the original inhabitants occupied the site between 350/400 AD to 1150 AD, and the site is regarded as the most important historical settlement in north central Mexico due to its architecture. Archaeological digs have discovered the grand columns from the former plaza, a field for playing a traditional form of football and a series of pyramids dominated by the pyramid Votiva, as well as sites for the worship of deities.

And the skulls?

Numerous historians believe the inhabitants engaged in human sacrifice. The Salon de las Columnas is thought to have been a large structure, of which only the columns remain, and historians theorise that this is where various forms of human sacrifice took place.

A short walk from the Salon de las Columnas leads to the Piramide de los Sacrificios, which clearly translates as the Pyramid of Sacrifices.

Detecting a theme here?

Evidence would suggest that human sacrifices were made on this site to please the deities. It does make one wonder how people were chosen for sacrifice.

Were locals persuaded that being sacrificed was an honour – perhaps in the same way that young men have historically been persuaded that giving their life in battle for their nation is an honour.

Were the sacrificed slaves or captives from other settlements or cities?

Did a caste system operate?

This is a source of conjecture and debate. What is more definite is the preserved remains of these people, which are on clear display to every visitor to La Quemada.

Shot by His Own Camel.

John Ainsworth Horrocks died from a gun wound caused by his camel, and despite other notable deeds during his life, this is how he shall always be remembered.

The pastoralist and explorer hadn’t offended the camel in any particular way, apart from loading it with supplies on the long and arduous trek into the unforgiving landscape of northern South Australia in 1846. It was in fact the first camel to be introduced to Australia and is often cited a proof that Horrocks pioneered the use of animals for the exploration of the country.

Horrocks had long regarded the camel as temperamental and obstinate, as it was said to be constantly biting people and other animals, but he had never considered it murderous or vindictive.

The cantankerous camel joined six horses and twelve goats, as well as Horrocks’ travel companions, on a journey from the pastoralist’s property of Penwortham into the northern expanse of South Australia. The journey began on 29 July, 1846 and would take the party through the Flinders Ranges.

Six men set off on the trek which Horrocks initiated and funded because he simply felt the need for adventure. He had already amassed considerable wealth as a sheep farmer and is credited with establishing the first vineyard in the Clare district near Adelaide, which is now one of Australia’s most famous wine districts.

It was his sense of adventure and independence which led to his pastoral success. Horrocks did not wait in Adelaide for the completion of official land surveys, but followed the advice of explorer Edward John Eyre and, at just 21 years of age, explored land near Hutt River north of Adelaide. Finding it to his liking, he established a village in 1839 and named it Penwortham after the village of his birth in England.

Records indicate that when Horrocks arrived in Adelaide, on his 21st birthday, he bought with him a family servant, a blacksmith, a shepherd, four merino rams, sheepdogs, tools, sufficient clothing for five years…and a church bell.

The farming supplies and the personnel were put to good use, and even though he was only granted title to some of the fertile land that he was farming, he persisted and grew his flock to 9000 sheep.

The same restless spirit had prompted Horrocks to run away from school in Paris in 1833 and rejoin his family in Vienna. Thus, it was not entirely surprising that the young man announced his intention to take the camel and a groups of explorers into the outback, claiming,

‘I want a more stirring life’

The specific purpose of the journey was to search for new agricultural lands near Lake Torrens for the ambitious young Englishman, who was described as being 6 ft 2 ins (189 cm) tall, dark haired with blue eyes and possessed of a ‘rugged constitution’.

Despite Horrock’s rugged constitution and the camel’s inherent ability to survie in the harsh expanse of the Australian desert, the travelling party ran into trouble. The horses had been without water for two days when they reached Depot Creek, an old campsite of Eyre’s, on August 21.

The campsite provided an ideal base and the group remained there while making several exploratory trips into the surrounding region. One of the locations they visited was Lake Dutton, and this is where the camel became more than a nuisance and caused Horrocks’ demise.

On September 1, Horrocks loaded his rifle and took aim at a bird. The kneeling camel moved while Horrocks was attempting to reload his gun and the cock caught. This caused the gun to discharge and the round tore off the middle finger of his right hand and removed a row of teeth. Suffering from his injuries and stuck out in the middle of nowhere, Horrocks was rushed back to Penwortham as quickly as possible. He arrived on September 19 but doctors were unable to save him, and he died on September 23.

Horrocks remains buried at Penwortham and his former home is now an interpretive centre. John Horrocks Cottage is also is the oldest stone building north of Gawler, SA.

What happened to the camel?

While on his death bed, Horrocks ordered it to be shot.

Image: http://www.trove.nla.gov.au, Mads Severinsen

All this for one family?

The Summer Palace in Beijing is a grand conundrum. It is an enormous private residence built for one family, in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.

Various emperors and royal families have occupied the site since construction began on the palace in 1153, and each ruler added their own personal touches to the area. The result is a tourist attraction that is large and interesting enough to occupy an entire day of exploration.

The lake itself, Kunming Lake, occupies 2.2 square kilometres and dominates the palace. These days, of course, it is not reserved solely for the royal family and visitors can enjoy the lake and the grand historical buildings.

Locals gather at the palace for recreation, relaxation, eating, drinking, socialising and challenging each other to games of chance and intellect.

Chasing the sun

A palace named in honour of summer should rightly be bathed in sun, but the severity of the air pollution in modern day Beijing means that the sun is rarely spotted in all its glory. A constant haze hangs over the imperial palace and makes rare appearances to remind locals and visitors that the earth’s life source does in fact exist.

The photo below indicates the first glimpse of the sun in Beijing since the Ming dynasty.

The palace is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world and it certainly invites contemplation and a picnic. It is a dream location for photographers who could spend, days, weeks or months capturing its natural, architectural and historical beauty.

Closer inspection reveals amazingly intricate detail and craftsmanship on every edifice which is painstakingly preserved.

Boating is a great way to experience the lake. Being so vast, the lake takes a long time to circumvent on foot, so numerous waterborne craft are available. Boat tours in elaborate boats with dragon motif are available, and tourists can hire small pedal-powered craft to carry them from shore to shore. Be advised that the lake is quite large, and if the wind picks up it can be hard work to get back to your starting point.

The famous marble boat is not going to set sail anytime soon.

History

A visit to the Summer Palace is a journey through history. Many rulers and their families have taken ownership of the site, including Kublai Khan, and their influence on the palace is documented in the archival displays found throughout the palace.

Winter wonderland

Somewhat ironically, the Summer Palace looks spectacular in winter, when the lake and the buildings are blanketed in snow and locals take to the lake with ice skates.

The Summer Palace, a fine day out in Beijing.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden city in Beijing evokes thoughts of ancient Chinese dynasties and powerful rulers who reigned over vast swathes of East Asia. It conjures up images of an amry of servants and layer upon layer of restricted dwellings which were guarded like few other buildings in history.

Much of the original structure remains to this day and makes for a fascinating walking tour through various eras in China’s history.

The architectural beauty of the buildings is undeniable and is the first impression upon entering the gates. Every building is grand and ornate and the craftsmanship and sheer ambition of their creators is clearly evident. A closer examination and a study of the building methods reveals a mastery of construction which matches their beauty.

Upon closer inspection, the casual visitor can admire the intricacy of the design and decoration in hidden corners, rendered all the more impressive when considering that this intricacy is replicated throughout the enormous city.

Of course, The Forbidden City is more than an architectural masterpiece, it is a window into Chinese history. For this reason, a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour is essential, to save the visitor from simply wandering aimlessly through an endless assemblage of impressively-restored buildings.

The incongruous image of Chairman Mao looms large over the entrance to the city. Incongruous because the city was the masterpiece of ancient emperors and the ruling class of China, the very same people Mao and his communist party revolted in order to overthrow.

The Forbidden City is vast. Visitors are advised to set aside at least half a day to enjoy a complete appreciation of the site, and to allow for the inevitable crowds and the extreme weather which characterises Beijing – sultry, hot summers and freezing cold winters.

Allocating a few hours to the inspection of this historic and architectural wonder enables the visitors to snake their way through a deliberately constructed grid of servants and masters quarters all dedicated to the service, protection and exaltation of the ancient emperors.

Ayutthaya. A City of Ancient Wonders.

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The allure of Ayutthaya is its history.

The ancient city is steeped in tradition and centuries old monuments, whose crumbling facades and cultural significance transport visitors back to a time of distant wonders.

Majestic temples dot the city and can be visited on foot, via tuk tuk, by bike or boat.

Ayutthaya is hot – always. The attendant humidity dictates a visitor’s schedule to early morning or late evening, which is also the best time to avoid the inevitable hordes of tourists. Large groups can destroy the serenity of your visit and find their way into THAT photo, of the Buddha ensconced in the tree at Wat Mahathat.

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Large groups can also prevent you from contemplating the lives of those who inhabited the more popular temples, although they do provide the opportunity for a free History lesson – if you just happen to walk behind the group in earshot of the guide.

Official, guided, multi-lingual tours are available at the entrance to the monuments and are a worthwhile choice for visitors who may otherwise question their passage through a pile of old bricks.

Cruising from Wat to Wat on a bicycle is popular and achievable in Ayutthaya, whose gradient makes it accessible to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Most bikes are in reasonable condition and can be easily hired through most hotels or close to the minivan terminal for those alighting from Bangkok. Just be ready to sweat.

Tuk Tuks are everywhere in Ayutthaya and can even be hired, for a negotiated price, to carry you to one site and wait for you before departing for the next temple on your list. Tuk Tuks alleviate the strain of cycling, but be mindful of this option if you are tall – you may need a Thai massage after a day hunched in the back of a TukTuk.

Afternoon and evening tours afford the visitor the opportunity to meander the river by boat, as the sun sets and the day cools. Tours typically visit three or four designated temples, where visitors are given sufficient time to stroll, contemplate, pray and photograph. Some tours may include a visit to Wat Phutthaisawan, although one wonders why. The stark, glass covered entrance resembles an auto parts shop and the resident guides take the form or underfed, mangy, threatening dogs. Completing the horror film tableau are the rows of menacing, child-like figurines, whose mocking eyes follow the visitor down the path like a frenzied Mona Lisa.

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Perhaps Wat Phutthaisawan serves to offset the next and final temple of the boat cruise, Wat Chaiwatthanram. The setting sun dances off the archaic, peaceful, weathered structures which are surrounded by lush green grass and are begging to star in your Instagram feed.

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Many boat cruises finish near the night food market – just in time for dinner. Try the famous Kuay Tiaw Reua.

Transport from Bangkok:

Minivans ply the route from Bangkok to Ayutthaya every day, leaving from Mo Chit Bus Station. They are reasonably inexpensive, easy to find – the touts will find you – and the journey lasts about 1 hour. The journey follows the highway, which reveals little more than Bangkok’s rapid urban sprawl.

Train: The rickety old train lurches from the charmingly rustic station in Ayutthaya and through scenery far more bucolic than the view from the window of the minivan. Trains leave from Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok.

Boat: Many Bangkok based tour companies provide one day boat tours to and from Ayutthaya.

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Which footballer would you sacrifice?

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Do you have a favourite football team, or a favourite team from any sport for that matter? Do you follow that team passionately and devotedly?

Is there a particular player in that team you really don’t like?

Do you call for the head of a player who you blame for costing your team the game, or the championship?

What if you could literally take the head of that player?

You might consider this practice extreme, barbaric, excessively cruel and impossible. But it happened. Many years ago, admittedly, but it was regular practice.

Sacrificing a player after a football match was apparently common practice among the Mayan people of Honduras. At least, it was according to a friendly guide at Copan Ruins, an ancient Mayan city in western Honduras.

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As we passed through the area which served as the ‘football field’ the guide claimed that a player would be sacrificed after every game of the sport which shared some features of modern day football and was a popular form of entertainment among the Mayan people of that era.

I sought clarification but he was drawn away by a fellow visitor to explain another aspect of the ruins. Thus, I don’t know why, or how, the player was sacrificed. Was it a player on the winning team, the losing team? Either way, it was strong motivation.

The last football game I attended, a Rugby League game in Australia, featured my beloved Cronulla Sharks and the Newcastle Knights. It was actually the first game of the new season and I was full of enthusiasm for my team after some wise recruiting during the off-season. The Sharkies lost, however, due largely to a few disastrous handling errors from one of our players.

I know who I’d be sacrificing.

Images: Rachelle Blake

Step back in time.

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Everything stopped. Everyone fell silent. Candles flickered in the darkness and threw tempered light across the rows of fruit and vegetables lined up in the market stalls.

Thinly clad feet shuffled in the soft light and murmurs surfaced from unseen corners of the vast space. Whispers of an unfamiliar tongue slowly emerged. Soft laughter and truncated sentences.

The voices spoke K’iche’, and rolled off the tongues of local women dressed in the traditional clothing which draws thousands of people to the textile market in the small mountain town of ChiChocastenango in central Guatemala.

From our vantage point on the balcony of the first floor, we witnessed a rare sight. As a blackout plunged the hall into darkness, we gazed down upon a market operating as it would have done for hundreds of years. Local people speaking their indigenous language, to the light of the candles, dressed in traditional clothing and selling produce from the land which has sustained them for generations.

A fortunate experience indeed.

Image: Rachelle Blake