On today’s date 153 years ago, Christmas Day, Saturday, December 25, 1869, notorious sixteen-year-old outlaw John Wesley Hardin (1853-1895), the son of a Methodist preacher, was playing cards at the town of Towash in Hill County, Texas, & had won many hands when a town tough, Jim Bradley, a big loser, suddenly jerked forth a knife & threatened: “You win another hand & I cut out your liver, Kid.” Hardin was unarmed at the time & politely excused himself. He went to his room & strapped on two six-guns.
☞That night, Hardin stepped into the main street of Towash wearing his two revolvers. Down the street stood Jim Bradley, who also wore a gun & had been looking for Hardin. Hardin walked toward Bradley who cursed him & then fired a shot in Hardin’s direction, the bullet missing its mark. Hardin’s hands flashed…
On a warm August morning in 1880, a coffin containing the body of Christian Herr, borne by eight pallbearers, led a procession of 1,500 mourners to the Old Mennonite Church in Millersville, Pennsylvania. The 68-year-old reverend had been well-liked, and the crowd was filled with relatives, friends, and members of the congregation. But the large group almost certainly contained several “funeral runners,” a type of mourner that often popped up at Pennsylvania German memorials in the 1800s. These attendees weren’t there to pay their respects. They were there for the food.
“Because the Pennsylvania Dutch spent so much money and time on their big funeral dinners, there were fake mourners who showed up just to get free food,” says William Woys Weaver, a culinary historian and the author of As American As Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine. “It was so common that you didn’t even raise an eyebrow.”
Of all the parties to crash, a funeral in the traditionally parsimonious Mennonite community doesn’t seem like an obvious choice. But the funerary feast was a rare opportunity for extravagance among Pennsylvania Germans. Instead of the usual cabbage and dumplings, there was beef, ham, or chicken. Instead of the usual coarse rye bread, there was white or wheat. The fixation on funeral food even made its way into slang: In 1907, a grandmother recounted how “thoughtless youngsters” called funerals weissbrot-frolics, or “white bread frolics.”
But the sweet star of the funeral banquet was raisin pie, a dish so tied to the event that it became a euphemism for death itself. When an ailing member of the community took a turn for the worse, it was not uncommon to hear someone solemnly declare, “There will be raisin pie soon.”
Nancy Schmeichel works in the Landis Valley museum’s tavern, with her finished raisin pie. Sam O’Brien for Gastro Obscura
Raisin pie itself isn’t particularly foreboding. But in 19th-century Pennsylvania German homes, it meant one thing: Death was near. Once it arrived, so too would friends and neighbors, coming to “redd up” the bereaved family’s home for the funeral. This meant cooking, cleaning, and baking raisin pie.
The treat was such a common sight at post-memorial meals, it also became known as funeral pie (or, in Pennsylvania German, leicht-boi).
On a recent Friday afternoon, Nancy Schmeichel had just finished baking her own raisin pie in an open hearth at the Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum, much the same way the site’s founders would have baked a funeral pie centuries earlier. Schmeichel, a historical reenactor who oversees the Lancaster museum’s foodways program, used a recipe that combined a flaky, lard-based crust with a subtly sweet, inky-black filling of raisins, sugar, lemon, egg, and flour.
Once the home and farmstead of the Landises, a Mennonite family with local roots dating back to the early 1700s, the museum is now an educational center devoted to Pennsylvania German heritage. Also known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (an anachronism from when all German speakers were known as “Dutch”), the group consists of German Protestant immigrants who began arriving in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1680s. The community today largely consists of people belonging to the Lutheran and German Reformed denominations, but is well-known in popular culture for its “Plain” Anabapist branches, including the Amish and Mennonites. Schmeichel baked her raisin pie over hot coals in one of the museum’s hearths. Sam O’Brien for Gastro Obscura
The Landis Valley Mennonite Church Cemetery is a mere five-minute walk from the museum’s kitchen. Among the graves rests Nettie May Landis, a 34-year-old artist who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1914. When her father, Henry, broke down from grief, the community rallied to support the bereft family.
“It’s very similar to what we do today,” says Schmeichel. “You’re going to bring something that goes in the microwave or the freezer, and they brought something that could just be left out on the table.”
In the era before refrigeration, the latter point was essential. Cold meats, stewed or dried fruit, cheese, pies, cakes, and bread were all foods that could survive the journey to the funeral from afar or could simply sit out on a table without spoiling. Raisins were particularly well-suited to the task, as the dried fruit was already preserved and available for funerals year-round.
Like the highly-anticipated white bread, raisins would have been considered a luxury in the 1800s. Prior to deseeding technology, producing raisins meant the painstaking process of removing grape seeds (and usually stems) by hand. Given that the memorial banquet would feature multiple raisin pies and each recipe called for about a pound of the precious dried fruit, Schmeichel says making a funeral pie was “an absolute labor of love.”
Lemon-rice pie (left) was a less-common addition to funeral spreads among Reformed Mennonites. Jessie YuChen for Gastro Obscura
Why such elaborate funerary feasts? Breaking bread after the death of a community member is, of course, an ancient tradition that transcends cultural and geographic boundaries. And Pennsylvania German communities were no different: The meal, as well as the communal effort of preparing it, served to heal and unite after a loss. “It was a way to socialize with the community, to bring everybody together under one roof and feed them, and remind them that we’re all one family and we’re all friends,” Weaver says.
The impressive spread was also tied to the social mores of the era. Providing the meal was part of an unspoken rule of hospitality. Since many guests were making the journey from afar, it was only right to host a mega-sized feast.
Weddings, of course, could also mean guests from afar. But wedding guests lists were typically limited to friends and relatives, whereas funerals could be attended by anyone. Funeral attendance would often number in the hundreds—or, in cases of community leaders like Reverend Herr, the thousands—with lines of buggies that stretched for miles down the road. In her 1872 book Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays, Phebe Earle Gibbons observed that “so many partake of the entertainment liberally provided, that I may be excused for calling funerals the great festivals of the Dutch.”
At post-memorial meals, rows of tables inside the family’s wagon-house or barn groaned under the weight of enough food to feed these masses, who often ate in shifts. A grocery list for an 1880 funeral called for eight pounds of beef, one ham, two pounds of cheese, two pounds of coffee, 14 pies, seven cakes, and seven loaves of bread. A 1912 tab went even further, requiring 35 pounds of cheese, 25 pounds of prunes, 15 pounds of dried peaches, 15 pounds of dried apricots, and 11 pounds of honey.
A 19th-century hearse on display at the Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum. Sam O’Brien for Gastro Obscura/Collection of Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
“Your funeral dinner would be the best meal you never had,” says Weaver. “There’s a Pennsylvania Dutch joke about the woman who’s cooking a ham, and the husband says, ‘No, you have to save that for my funeral!’”
Generously feeding these large groups wasn’t just being a good host and Christian. It was also a display of status. “If you died in the Pennsylvania Dutch community and you could pull off a dinner like that, that meant you had the cash. You were somebody important,” Weaver says. Even those who didn’t have the means either went into debt or leaned on contributions from neighbors to achieve a respectable spread. “Families were bankrupting themselves on these funerals,” Weaver adds.
By the end of the century, some were calling for the end of lavish funerary feasts. In an 1899 editorial in the Lancaster New Era, a writer railed against the “tired, old custom,” describing the costly and laborious meal as “not only a good deal of nuisance but also as a tax which should be abolished.” They argued that the custom made more sense in an era when “people went many miles to funerals, and when hotels were less numerous than now.” But with increased lodging options and the rise of the railroad, hosts, they wrote, should no longer be obliged to host funeral guests in a grand way.
Despite the critics, funeral feasts continued, albeit with altered menus. By the mid-1900s, mainstays like funeral pie had begun to fade away, replaced by newer, more novel dishes. Yet Weaver says that the ultimate purpose of a funeral dinner—strengthening community, celebrating a life with a special meal—still exists. “But it’s not expressed in specific recipes,” he explains. The dark and subtly sweet pie is rarely made anymore. Jessie YuChen for Gastro Obscura
Some communities, such as the Old Order Mennonites of Lancaster, Weaverland, and Groffdale, have held to traditional spreads of cheese, cold meats, and stewed fruits. But today, most descendants of Pennsylvania Germans have swapped out raisin pies and stewed chicken for more modern options, such as casserole or pizza. Weaver says that some Amish families have embraced the latter as a new special-occasion meal. “You have to realize that they’re not eating pizza every day,” he says. “So the tradition hasn’t changed. It’s just a different treat, that’s all.”
As raisin pie has disappeared from funerary tables, so too has it faded from Pennsylvania’s cultural consciousness. By the 1910s, younger generations no longer associated it with death. This caused at least one memorable incident in Weaver’s family, when his Quaker grandmother thought she’d bake raisin pie to make a good impression with her in-laws in Lancaster.
“She thought she was doing a great thing by bringing this old lady, who was some kind of great-aunt, a raisin pie,” Weaver says. “But she was horrified, like, ‘You think I’m going to die? Do you know something I don’t know?’”
Ominous associations aside, raisin pie is still a sweet and comforting treat that no one should have to wait for a funeral to enjoy. It can be hard to find in bakeries today, even in Pennsylvania Dutch country (you need to special-order it). So make it yourself using the recipe below. Weaver says it’s nice to enjoy a slice without the traditional accompanying sadness.
“It’s great,” he says. “But I don’t want to have to look at a dead body while I’m eating one.”
Store-bought or homemade pie dough, enough for a 9-inch, double-crust pie
4 cups raisins
4 cups water
1 cup packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
Soak the raisins in the water for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425° F (220° C). Pour the raisins and water into a large saucepan, and bring to a boil. Cook for about five minutes.
In a medium bowl, mix the brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and salt. Add the mixture to the saucepan with the raisins. Cook over medium heat and stir until the mixture has thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat, and stir in the lemon juice, zest, and butter. Set aside to cool.
Line a 9-inch pie pan with one sheet of the prepared pastry, and pour the cooled filling inside.
With a sharp knife, slice the other sheet of pastry into strips, about an inch in width. Carefully lace the strips together into a lattice, and lay atop the pie, pinching the edges of the crust together and discarding any overhang.
Set pie on a cookie sheet, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the crust is golden brown.
After any big night out on the town, it is imperative to grab some grub on the way home. But which are the most frequented establishments to go to late at night in order to quench this craving?
This all depends on where we find ourselves. As great as some late-night hashbrowns and fries could be, few things are better than a nice greasy spoon breakfast, like the one we would find down in the South.
2. Shakin’ All Over
From icy Alaska down to sunny California, one reason for not living on the West Coast of the States could be the very healthy fear of being caught in an earthquake. In reality, no matter where in America you live you run the risk of getting caught in an earthquake.
That being said, there is a dramatic difference between a massive 9.2 magnitude quake and a smaller 4.7 one. Frequency also plays a role, so keep that in mind when picking where to live!
3. With or Without Pulp?
A nice glass of freshly-squeezed OJ is always nice with breakfast. It might be surprising to learn which is the only state increasing its annual orange production.
Even the orange production is bigger in Texas. Out of the three main states that produce oranges each year only Texas has shown an increase in production.
4. Life’s Tough
Depression is a real problem amongst people of all ages and from all walks of life. Let’s have a look at which parts of America are affected the most.
It may be the lack of a winning sports team or maybe it’s the weather, but for some reason, the North-West and the Mid-West seem to have the largest issues with depression.
5. Barking Up The Wrong Tree
It’s not just the diversity of its people that makes America so unique. Whether it’s for building a tree fort or for getting maple syrup there is a tree for everyone.
With over a hundred different species of trees in some parts, the eastern coast of the States sports the most diverse tree population. However, with more than one thousand species of trees scattered across the country there is something for tree enthusiasts everywhere.
6. If A Tree Falls And No One Is Around To Hear It…
To answer the age-old question…yes it still makes a noise. All because no one is around to hear the tree fall that doesn’t mean no one is listening. If Orwell taught us anything, someone is always listening.
Natural loudness is measured in decibels by the noises of the wild. This could be the sound of the wind, the water, the birds, and yes, even the sound of a tree falling in the forest with no one around.
7. Big City Folk
We have just seen that mother nature on the east coast has caused more natural noise pollution than elsewhere in the country. It is now time to see where the majority of all noise pollution in America comes from (not just the natural kind).
It does not come as any surprise that the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas produce a lot of noise, however, they don’t call New York ‘The City That Never Sleeps’ for nothing.
8. Higher Education
Graduating from college is meant to be a celebratory occasion for a new graduate. After all, even though ‘the future is now’ it often starts with crippling debt.
Upon graduating, most graduates owe more in college debts than the average American earns in one year.
9. Moving To The Midwest Then Huh?
It is crazy to think that the average annual salary needed to buy a house in New York City is almost double that of being a homeowner in sunny Tampa Bay. But that’s nothing compared to the prices out west.
For all those who are eventually looking at retiring out west think again. An average annual salary of over $100K is needed in almost every major western city. And don’t even think about the move to San Jose unless the family is bringing in at least a quarter of million dollars annually.
10. Two Creams And One Sugar Please
Over the past few decades, coffee culture is something that has taken the world by storm. For any Canucks heading down the east coast on a road trip, feel free to dunk those donuts but don’t expect to find too many Tim Horton’s around.
Starbucks has not only put itself at almost every major street corner and petrol station across the United States, it has also created its own coffee language. According to the map the majority of Americans do prefer their tall, non-fat, extra hot, no foam, one pump vanilla lattes.
11. Left Out In The Cold
It is a privilege to be able to go home at the end of a long hard day but not everyone is so lucky. This is one of those maps that helps to remind us just how fortunate we all are.
Over 150,000 homeless people live in California and almost 100,000 in New York alone. That is almost a quarter of a million homeless individuals in just two states.
Presidents are constantly attempting to leave their marks and cement their legacies. Some of them are just better at the ‘Art of the Deal’ than others.
Andrew Johnson purchased Alaska for only 7.2 million dollars in the year the first Canada Day was celebrated in 1867, and the Louisiana Purchase cost Thomas Jefferson a whopping 15 million dollars in 1803.
13. That Sure Is Quite The Load
The great American railroad system has been moving supplies across the country for almost two hundred years, but these days it does not deliver the goods quite like it used to.
Out east, the waterways and highways take the majority of the loads down the coast. Out west one can always see a large number of cargo trucks hauling supplies along the national highway. It simply reaches more places these days than the railway does.
14. Mind The Bears
The American landscape is vast and beautiful. No matter where one goes in the country there are spectacular sites to be seen.
Planning an Appalachian trail walk or cross country skiing through the Rockies? Fear not, this map has it all. Just steer clear of Yetis and keep away from those picnic baskets.
15. ‘Isn’t The Speed Limit 55?’
Driving along an empty highway road with music blaring and the wind blowing through our hair can be quite a freeing experience, as long as it is done within the confines of the laws of course.
Most states do have a similar maximum speed limit but it is always better to check first before going on a road trip. Being pulled over by a state trooper is a great way to ruin a vacation.
16. Route 66 Anyone?
Now that we know where the national parks are and how fast we can go, let us have a look how to get to them.
Connecting Americans with each other far and wide, the National Highway Services helps to unite all parts of America, with over 164,000 miles of roads that stretch all across the country.
17. Soy Latte Please
Over the past few decades, we have seen an increase in alternative eating habits and soybeans have been the base of a lot of these products.
Thanks to the American prairies’ production of soybeans for her soy latte, ‘Starbucks Karen’ will have one less thing to complain about.
18. Healthy Eating
Continuing along the lines of healthy eating, a lot of people seem to have grown tired of eating foods covered in pesticides and other chemicals for some reason.
Organic foods could cost an arm and a leg but it sure is nice to know that there’s nothing toxic being sprayed onto our food.
19. Everyone’s Guilty Of Something
We all have that one vice that is just so hard to ignore sometimes. Let’s take a look at which states are the most angelic as well as the most sinful.
If the movie ‘Seven’ taught us anything, it’s that giving in to temptation could get us into a lot of trouble. The bottom corners of the country sure do look like a lot of fun though.
20. Did You Want Fries With That?
We have already seen that McDonald’s is the most popular place for people to go for some late-night drunk food, but we all have our own favorite burger place to go to if given the opportunity.
Here we see that McDonald’s may be everywhere but it is not the only option. Burger King and the Queen of Dairy remain towards the top of the charts and Texans have made Sonic burger their choice.
21. And He’s In For The Touchdown
It is absolutely no surprise that the highest-paid public employees in America are connected to sports. The success of a college or high school sports team is paramount to a town’s happiness and it shows in how much they are willing to pay their coaches.
A high school football coach makes an average of around $45K a year which is not too bad at all, but it’s no wonder the end game is to coach college. The average salary for a college football coach is 2.7 million dollars a year. Talk about scoring.
22. A Different View Point
The map that is used in Alaskan schools has Alaska in the center and North America to the East. This is just a fun one for a bit of a different perspective.
With how secluded it is from the rest of the country it’s no wonder Alaska sees the rest of America as ‘that place down there’.
23. Poached Or Fried?
As long as people are eating breakfast there will be a demand for eggs. More than fifty billion eggs are laid in America each year and Iowa unexpectedly leads the way in production.
Fun uneggspected fact: brown eggs come from hens with red feathers and red ear lobes while white eggs come from hens with white feathers and white ear lobes.
24. Tis The Season
It is Christmas tradition for many families to pack themselves into the family car and head out looking for the perfect tree. Even the desert states have at least a couple of Christmas tree farms
Considering the enormous fines one would get for cutting a tree down off the side of the highway for Christmas, it’s probably for the best to know where the local farm is for the holidays.
25. ‘I’ll Get A Litre O’ Cola’
Some people call them chips and others call them crisps. Some call them cookies while others call them biscuits. But what happens when the chips and biscuits make us thirsty. What do we ask for?
Depending on where we find ourselves on this cross country road trip of ours, the answer may vary. Just don’t walk into a place on either coast and ask for some pop or the locals will be able to spot the tourists.
26. Need A Roommate?
New York and California maybe two of the more desirable places to live in America but that may change once learning the cost of any apartment bigger than a shoebox.
Better start looking for a roommate. With an hourly wage of under $25 an hour don’t even bother looking for a place with more than one room.
27. A Job’s Job
When immigrating to a new country an individual knows that they may need to work a job that they are not too fond of. It is a sacrifice that is made with the ‘American Dream’ in mind.
It is no big surprise to see here that most immigrants start off in a more subservient occupation, as these are the less desired jobs. A job is a job though.
28. Locked And Loaded
It is amazing to see the percentage of Americans who have decided to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
For all those who are against guns, maybe just steer clear of the entire center of the country.
29. ‘Wanna Play A Game?’
Here’s a fun one for the horror buffs out there. From the Texas Chainsaw Masacre’ to ’30 Days of Night’, horror films have taken place in every state right across the country.
It’s time to use that map of the interstate highways to get us the heck away from the midwest. And no summer camps either!
30. Cold War Era
Because of the fears that they would defect, it was very difficult in the times of the Soviet Union for Russians to gain permission to leave their own country. Even when they were able to leave there were limits on where they would be allowed to go once in the other countries.
From the late 50s until the end of the cold war the places in red on this map were actually the places where Soviets were not allowed to go. Kind of takes the fun out of an American vacation doesn’t it.
31. Don’t Forget The Stuffing
About a month before Christmas every year Americans all over the country tell their loved ones about all the things they are thankful for. Without these next farms a lot of people would be a lot less thankful every November.
Turkey farmers right across the middle eastern part of the United States work hard every year to ensure that every little pilgrim out there has the thanksgiving they deserve.
32. Locked Up
Almost every state in the country has at least one federal prison. Whatever happened to those maximum security prisons in the middle of the mountains that we see in the movies?
After seeing how many federal prisons there are in America just imagine if the funding for even a third of those prisons would go into rehabilitation instead of imprisonment.
Sometimes where we come from defines who we are, alternatively, it sometimes defines who we don’t want to be. One either has pride for their own state or they do not.
That pride runs in their veins otherwise they usually have an escape plan. Maybe it’s because of all the noise pollution out East that’s causing the lack of state pride and desire to pack up.
As we know, hundreds of years ago the United States of America was built by the hard work of immigrants from all over the world who were trying to find a better life for themselves and their families.
In the hundred years between 1820 and 1930 more than 6 million germans and 4.5 million Irish made the long journey by boat from Europe to the New World. That makes up almost 10% of the entire population of America in 1930.
35. Where’s That Name From?
Now that we know where the majority of Americans’ ancestry lies let’s have a look at where the individual states’ names originated.
It is no big shock to see that the majority of the States’ names are derived from Native words. What is a little amazing to learn however, is that the number of states with names of English origin is less than a dozen.
36. 3D Map of Population Density
This map is another of those which gives a bit of a different perspective on the country.
Much like the numerous tall buildings that reside there, New York’s population density also towers over that of the other states.
37. Time To Head To The Coast
We are very lucky to be living in such a scientific age. As science and medicine progress, life expectancy has been on the rise.
With all the nice weather and oranges around for vitamins, it is no wonder why California and Florida are sporting two of the higher life expectancies in America.
38. Land Distribution
We’ve now seen where in the States the soybeans are grown and even where the majority of eggs and turkeys come from, but ever wonder how much of America is protected federal wilderness or used to make maple syrup? Well, it’s definitely not as much there should be.
Believe it or not, there is more land dedicated to cow farming and their pastures than any other industry in the United States.
39. Final Resting Places
Some presidents have been put to rest in the Arlington National Cemetary while others have been laid to rest in their own hometowns. Let’s take a brief look at the distribution of the burial plots for the Commander in Chiefs who are no longer with us.
Scattered across eighteen different states in addition to the District of Columbia, the deceased former presidents of the United States may be gone but they are surely not forgotten.
40. Family Matters
We have now seen where all the highways and national parks are across the country and we know how fast we are allowed to drive in each state. We even know where most people go for food after a big night out. Now let’s have a look at whose family road trip will have the most cramped car.
As we can see by this map even the family sizes are bigger in Texas. Families right across the southern part of America will have to jam pack themselves into the family car with not much leg room to spare.
AVENEL, N.J. (AP) — The familiar sights and sounds are still there: the scuffed and faded floor tiles, the relentless beige-on-beige color scheme, the toddlers’ clothes and refrigerators and pretty much everything in between.
There’s even a canned recording that begins, “Attention, Kmart shoppers” — except it’s to remind folks about COVID-19 precautions, not to alert them to a flash sale over in ladies’ lingerie-like days of old.
Many of the shelves are bare, though, at the Kmart in Avenel, New Jersey, picked over by bargain hunters as the store prepares to close its doors for good April 16.
While many shelves are empty, furniture and fixtures are on still on sale at the Kmart in Avenel, N.J., Monday, April 4, 2022. When the Kmart in Avenel closes its doors on April 16, it will leave only three remaining U.S. locations for the former retail powerhouse. It’s a far cry from the chain’s heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s when it had more than 2,000 stores and sold product lines endorsed by Martha Stewart and former “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Once it shutters, the number of Kmarts in the U.S. — once well over 2,000 — will be down to three in the continental U.S. and a handful of stores elsewhere, according to multiple reports, in a retail world now dominated by Walmart, Target and Amazon.
The demise of the store in the middle-class suburb, 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of New York City, is the tale of the death of the discount department store writ small.
You’re always thinking about it because stores are closing all over, but it’s still sad,” said cashier Michelle Yavorsky, who said she has worked at the Avenel store for 2 1/2 years. “I’ll miss the place. A lot of people shopped here.”
People shop the half-empty shelves of the Kmart in Avenel, N.J., Monday, April 4, 2022. When the store closes its doors on April 16, it will leave only three remaining U.S. locations for the former retail powerhouse. It’s a far cry from the chain’s heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s when it had more than 2,000 stores and sold product lines endorsed by Martha Stewart and former “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
In its heyday, Kmart sold product lines endorsed by celebrities Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith, sponsored NASCAR auto races and was mentioned in movies including “Rain Man” and “Beetlejuice.” It was name-dropped in songs by artists from Eminem to the Beastie Boys to Hall & Oates; in 2003, Eminem bought a 29-room, suburban Detroit mansion once owned by former Kmart chairman Chuck Conaway.
The chain cemented a place in American culture with its Blue Light Specials, a flashing blue orb affixed to a pole that would beckon shoppers to a flash sale in progress. Part of its success was due to its early adoption of layaway programs, which allowed customers who lacked credit to reserve items and pay for them in installments.
For a time, Kmart had a little bit of everything: You could shop for your kids’ back-to-school supplies, get your car tuned up and grab a meal without leaving the premises.
Kmart was part of America,” said Michael Lisicky, a Baltimore-based author who has written several books on U.S. retail history. “Everybody went to Kmart, whether you liked it or not. They had everything. You had toys. You had sporting goods. You had candy. You had stationery. It was something for everybody. This was almost as much of a social visit as it was a shopping visit. You could spend hours here. And these just dotted the American landscape over the years.”
Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, brought about by years of falling sales, changes in shopping habits and the looming shadow of Walmart, which coincidentally began its life within months of Kmart’s founding in 1962.
Struggling to compete with Walmart’s low prices and Target’s trendier offerings, Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2002 — becoming the largest U.S. retailer to take that step — and announced it would close more than 250 stores.
People walk into a Kmart in Avenel, N.J., Monday, April 4, 2022. When the New Jersey store closes its doors on April 16, it will leave only three remaining U.S. locations for the former retail powerhouse. It’s a far cry from the chain’s heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s when it had more than 2,000 stores and sold product lines endorsed by Martha Stewart and former “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
A few years later, hedge fund executive Edward Lampert combined Sears and Kmart and pledged to return them to their former greatness, but the recession and the rising dominance of Amazon contributed in derailing those goals. Sears filed for Chapter 11 in 2018 and currently has a handful of stores left in the U.S. where it once had thousands.
Kmarts continue to operate in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton, on New York’s Long Island, and Miami.
It didn’t have to end this way, according to Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University in New York and former CEO of Sears Canada. Trying to compete with Walmart on price was a foolish strategy, he said, and Lampert was criticized for not having a retail background and appearing more interested in stripping off the assets of the two chains for their cash value.
It’s a study in greed, avarice and incompetence,” Cohen said. “Sears should have never gone away; Kmart was in worse shape, but not fatally so. And now they’re both gone. Retailers fall by the wayside sometimes because they’re selling things people don’t want to buy. In the case of Kmart, everything they used to sell, people are buying but they’re buying it from Walmart and Target.”
Mannequins are among the display items and fixtures for sale at the Kmart in Avenel, N.J., Monday, April 4, 2022. When the New Jersey store closes its doors on April 16, it will leave only three remaining U.S. locations for the former retail powerhouse. It’s a far cry from the chain’s heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s when it had more than 2,000 stores and sold product lines endorsed by Martha Stewart and former “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Transformco, which owns Kmart and Sears, did not respond to an email seeking comment and a phone number listed for the company was not taking messages.
Nationwide, some former Kmarts remain vacant while others have been replaced by other big-box stores, fitness centers, self-storage facilities, even churches. One former site in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is now a popular dine-in movie theater.
Employees at the Kmart in Avenel found out last month that the store would close.
Unlike 20 years ago, when news of impending Kmart closures around the country prompted an outpouring of support from loyal shoppers and a Detroit radio station even mounted a campaign to try and save a local store, the closing of the Avenel location was met mostly with an air of resignation.
“It’s maybe a little nostalgic because I’ve lived my whole life in this area, but it’s just another retail store closing,” said Jim Schaber, a resident of nearby Iselin who said his brother worked in the shoe department at Kmart for years. “It’s just another sign of people doing online shopping and not going out to the retail stores.”
The closing packed a little more of an emotional punch for Mike Jerdonek, a truck driver who recalled shopping at Kmart in Brooklyn and Queens in his younger days.
“It’s like history passing right in front of our eyes,” he said as he sat in his car outside the Avenel store. “When I was younger I didn’t have any money, so it was a good place to shop because the prices were cheap. And to see it gone right now, it’s kind of sad.”
High school students in the late 1970s. (Photo by Fred Ross/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The connection between computer technology and education began early on. In fact, when computers first came on the scene, there were many experts that believed that only universities and the military would ever use the modern invention.
Yet by the 1970s, computers had found their way into high schools and dedicated computer science cases were added to the curriculum across the country. Leading this push for computer education at the high school level were two main factors … the Cold War and Steve Jobs. Let’s take a look at high school computer science classes of the 1970s in this collection of colorized photos.
Mainframes and Punch Cards
By the end of the 1970s, computers had come a long way from mainframes and punch cards, as this colorized photo shows. (historyextra.com)
If your high school was affluent enough, students may have had a room-sized IBM mainframe computer for rudimentary computer programming classes. Students wrote their own programs which were transferred onto a stack of punch cards that the students rubber-banded together and turned in to the teacher. The teacher would run the punch cards through the IBM mainframe and assign you a grade based on whether the program worked or not. It was a frustrating and cumbersome ordeal, but these students were the lucky ones. The majority of high schools didn’t have computers for their students to use.
Keeping Up With Our Cold War Rivals
Check out that “Star Wars” poster in the back of this colorized pic from 1978. (aadl.org)
In the heat of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an unofficial war of technology. To keep ahead of our political rivals, the greatest minds in the U.S. worked to advance technology and create new innovations. But some experts feared American students were in danger of falling behind. If we didn’t start to get high schoolers interested in technology, it was feared, the Soviets could pass us up with their technological superiority.
Mammoth tusk mining in the Arctic, and the price of ‘ethical ivory’
Kim Akerman plucks a small, creamy hand-carved figurine from a handmade box resting on his kitchen table.
The little mammoth is made out of the tusk from a real woolly mammoth that died eons ago.
Although carved recently, the piece of ivory with its striking amber eyes has the feel of something ancient.
Kim is an artist, anthropologist and collector, who has been carving since he was a teenager in the 1960s.
Even then he was fascinated with the Ice Age.
One of the first pieces he ever created was a palm-length carving of a woman made out of whale tooth in the style of Venus figurines made by the Ice Age artists in Eurasia.
The ivory mammoth is one of many pieces created out of a large chunk of tusk that travelled through time and space to make it to his kitchen table in suburban Hobart.
Kim acquired the ivory a few decades ago when he was working for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Someone offered to sell the tusk to the museum, but the piece was large and not suited to the collection, so the institution passed on the offer.
But Kim and his colleague could not turn down the opportunity to own ancient ivory, so they pooled their money and purchased it. They cut off a small, more manageable piece for the museum, and kept the rest for their art.
Kim is unsure of the mammoth ivory’s provenance, but suspects the seller may have picked up the tusk on a business trip to Siberia.
While it seems odd for carvings made from the tusk of an ancient Ice Age animal to end up in Hobart, the mystique of mammoths has caused people to mine and trade their remains for millennia.
Mammoth rush as north melts
Most mammoth tusks are mined from frozen ground, or permafrost, in the Arctic.
The best-preserved specimens are found in far northern Yakutia — also known as Sakha — in Siberia.
As the ground melts, the remains of the ancient beasts are easier to prise from their icy graves. This has created a “mammoth rush” over the past decade, explains Zara Bending of the Centre for Environmental Law of Macquarie University.
An estimated 100 tonnes of mammoth tusk are now thought to be exported from Yakutia each year, according to local media.
Some tusks are sold in Russia, but most are exported around the world with major markets in China, Vietnam, and the United States.
The rush was further fuelled by domestic bans on the sale of elephant ivory in the United States and China in 2016 and 2017.
Mammoth ivory is sold to conscious consumers as “ethical ivory”, even adorning former US first lady Michelle Obama.
High risks, big money
Mammoth mining is dangerous, remote, all male and often illegal, explains anthropologist Prokopieva Aleksandra from the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“Currently, mining is mainly carried out by private individuals in the form of groups with mining licenses,” Ms Aleksandra says.
Many of the miners operate illegally, or on edges of illegality, but “the state is increasingly striving to control this process,” she says.
Mining parties will set up camp in mammoth-rich areas on the Arctic coast and rivers and travel in detachments to mine sites.
Locations are closely guarded, and only trusted people are invited to hunt for carcasses.
“[Miners] don’t just take random people,” she says.
Sometimes tusks can be collected by walking along a melt line, and occasionally tusk hunters will use dive equipment to extract mammoths.
Russian law stipulates that only mammoth tusks that have come to the surface, usually via permafrost melting, can be harvested.
In reality, most miners hurry this process along by pumping water through high-pressure hoses to blast away the permafrost, creating vast tunnels.
It’s low tech, but effective.
From the water blasting and melting, Ice Age creatures appear. Skulls and tusks abound, but these miners also unearth more grizzly remains: occasionally mummified animals emerge with flesh, blood, and hair preserved.
But the process also accelerates permafrost loss, pollutes rivers with muck, and tunnel collapse is an ever-present danger.
Once extracted, tusks are moved on and sold to a global market.
Just like gold rushes of old, some miners strike rich, but many invest huge amounts of money and risk their lives only to return home empty-handed.
“This is associated with both high risks and big money,” Ms Aleksandra says.
Can extinct mammoths save living elephants?
Although mammoth ivory is marketed as an ethical alternative to killing elephants for their tusks, not everyone is convinced this works in practice.
There is concern that elephant ivory could be passed off as mammoth, explains Ms Bending.
In 2018, this practice drove Israel to attempt to have mammoth ivory listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a convention limiting the international trade of listed plants and animals.
Israel withdrew its proposal as the CITES committee was not convinced there was enough evidence to confirm the sale of mammoth ivory provided the opportunity for elephant ivory laundering.
The issue is due to be re-examined after further research in November 2022 at CITES CoP 19.
Under Russian law, tusks need to be accredited as genuine mammoth and not elephant.
At the beginning of last year, the government banned the export of tusks more than 3 metres long or weighing over 100 kilograms.
The size regulations were introduced to preserve the tusks’ cultural and scientific value.
But it’s estimated a third of the mammoth tusk trade is illegal, and the new regulations may push even more of the trade into the shadow economy, Ms Bending says.
“You’re potentially making an opportunity for crime to move in, it’s an unknown calculus at this point,” she says.
To get around size limits, tusks may be further cut up or made into beads before export.
Whole mammoth tusks are very easy to tell apart from elephant tusks, but small pieces are hard to distinguish.
Cutting large tusks may muddy the water in the ivory market, making it easier to launder elephant ivory.
Few ways for Indigenous people to earn money
Employment and profit are hard to come by in the far north of Russia, with both Ms Bending and Ms Aleksandra emphasising that mammoth mining brings money to communities who need it.
However, it’s often not the miners who reap the biggest rewards, but middlemen who export the tusks, Ms Bending says.
When trade is illegal, the chance of miners being exploited by middlemen increases.
“Today, the extraction of mammoth tusk is becoming an acute issue, as it affects the spheres of the shadow economy, land relations and the bowels of the Earth,” Ms Aleksandra says.
Miners and the environment may be more protected if mammoth mining were included in Russia’s official list of Indigenous crafts or trades, such as hunting and fishing, she suggests.
“This entitles Indigenous peoples to benefits, compensations, and advantages in matters of land use,” she says.
“If the tusk mining had been included in this list, it might have been easier for Indigenous peoples to start doing this legally and not allowing outsiders to prey [on Indigenous miners].
“As a native of Yakutia, I can say that at the moment, this is at least some opportunity to earn money in the Far North.”
An ancient tradition
The fates of mammoths and humans have been intertwined in Yakutia since before the mammoth went extinct in the region about 10,000 years ago.
For carver Kim, this is part of the intrigue.
“People stood up against them and harvested them and their remains,” he muses.
Stories of the behemoths have survived in the Yakutian oral tradition.
And mammoth artefacts are common in the archaeological record, Ms Aleksandra says.
Evidence of tusks being mined stretches back to the Mesolithic (8000BC-2700BC).
“In the Bronze and Iron Ages, armour, shields, ritual calendars, and combs for combing plant fibres were made from [mammoth] tusks,” she says.
Export of mammoth tusk products increased soon after Yakutia was colonised by Russia in the 17th century.
By the late 19th century, the first mammoth rush was on, and curved tusks filled the warehouses on London docks.
Scientists and miners in an unlikely alliance
Mammoth tusks run the risk of being lost to science when they are exported.
The mining process can also damage archaeological sites, depriving anthropologists like Ms Aleksandra the chance to study Ice Age humans.
However, tusk hunters and scientists have formed an unlikely alliance.
Miners are responsible for most of the significant scientific finds to come out of the Siberian permafrost in recent years, according to Albert Protopopov, whose team at the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) studies the ancient Ice Age animals.
When Professor Protopopov gets word of a significant find from miners, he, or his colleagues, will travel to the site by plane, all-terrain vehicle or — when funds allow — helicopter.
It is then their turn to use water pumps to uncover the find.
“All large finds sooner or later get to us. But often small finds like animal skulls are often sold. This is sad,” he says.
Later this year, miners and scientists will meet at the International Mammoth Forum in Yakutia to discuss how they can better work together.
Resurrection of the mammoth
Despite being extinct for thousands of years, woolly mammoths grip our imagination.
“I think dinosaurs are interesting, but [mammoth remains] are basically flesh, bone, blood and hair, so they connect a bit more,” Kim says.
The very flesh and bone that make mammoths so tangible to Kim may lead to their resurrection via advanced genetic technology.
In 2010, tusk hunters found “Yuka”, a young mammoth that died nearly 30,000 years ago.
Yuka’s cells were so well preserved that researchers in Japan were able to cajole them into the early stages of cell division, Professor Protopopov explains.
While they could not complete the process, he hopes more preserved mammoth mummies like Yuka will be found.
“But [next time] we will be better prepared for cell preservation. We have the experience we need.”
When this happens, researchers will be one step closer to using ancient DNA to resurrect the woolly mammoth.
For now though, when Kim carves mammoth tusk, he reflects on what the animal was like when it was alive.
“You are sort of paying homage to the animal itself, it lives in another form,” he says.
In 1911, the Triangle Waist Company occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in New York City. The building was east of Washington Square Park, on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. The Triangle Waist Company made women’s blouses, which were called “shirtwaists” and employed approximately 500 workers. These workers were mainly females who were young Italian and Jewish immigrants. They worked for nine hours each weekday and seven hours on Saturdays. They were paid between $7 and $12 per week, which was the equivalent of $197 to $337 per week in 2021 dollars. Source: (Wikipedia/color).
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started in a scrap bin under a cutter’s table on the 8th floor. There was of course speculation as to the fire’s origins, with an article in The New York Times suggesting it may have been caused by the engines that ran the sewing machines, and Collier’s published articles related to patterns of arson in the garment industry as products fell out of fashion. The Insurance Monitor noted that insurance for manufacturers of shirtwaists was “fairly saturated with moral hazard” since the garment had recently fallen out of fashion. The owners of the company, Blanck and Harris, had had four earlier suspicious fires at their companies, but they were not suspected of arson in this case.
Working in the factory prior to the fire. Source: (Barbara’s Bookstore/colorized).
The Fire Started In A Scrap Bin
The scrap bin contained cuttings accumulated over two months prior to the fire, and the Fire Marshal later concluded that the fire was likely caused by an unextinguished match or cigarette in that scrap bin. Smoking was banned in the factory, but the cutters sometimes snuck smoke breaks, exhaling cigarette smoke through their lapels. There were hundreds of pounds of scraps in the wooden bin, which was under a wooden table, and hanging fabrics surrounded it, allowing for the fire to quickly spread out of control. Once the fire broke out, a bookkeeper on the 8th floor used a telephone to call employees on the 10th, but there was no way to reach those on the 9th. There were, of course, exits, which included two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways to Greene Street and Washington Place. The workers were unable to use the Greene Street stairs because of the flames, and management kept the door to the Washington Place stairway locked as they wanted to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks, stop theft, and keep union organizers out. The key was held by a foreman who had already escaped using a different route. Some workers were able to escape via the Greene Street stairway, fleeing to the roof. Others packed themselves into the elevators while they were still operational. The fire escape was flimsy and not properly anchored to the building. Workers crowded onto it to flee the flames, and it collapsed with the heat and weight; 20 victims fell to their death on the concrete below.
People crowded to witness the scene. Source: (Library of Congress/colorized).
Some Escaped Using The Elevators
The first fire alarm was sounded by a passerby who saw smoke pouring from the 8th-floor window. Although the fire department arrived quickly, their ladder could only reach the 7th floor. Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillaro, the elevator operators, were able to help many people get to safety as they traveled three times to the 9th floor, but the rails of Mortillaro’s elevator buckled with the heat. Zito was unable to use his elevator after people pried open the doors and tried to slide down the cables or jump into the empty shaft, which warped the car and made it unusable.
People began to jump from the windows to escape the fire; 62 men and women jumped or fell to their deaths. All told, 146 garment workers died, 123 women and 23 men. They ranged in age from 14 to 43.
The fire carts pulled by horses. Source: (Library of Congress/Wikipedia/colorized).
Some Fled To The Roof
When the fire broke out, both owners were at the factory with their children. They were able to flee to safety on the roof and were followed by some of the workers. One of these women, Rose Freedman, was almost 18 on the day of the fire, and she became a lifelong supporter of unions as a result of her experience. The last living survivor, she died at 107, on February 15, 2001.
After the fire. Source: (US Department of Labor/colorized).
Both owners were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter, but they were found not guilty. They were, however, found liable of wrongful death in a civil suit in 1913 and had to pay the plaintiffs $75 for each victim. Incidentally, their insurance company paid Blanck and Harris $60,000 more than their reported losses, which amounted to approximately $400 per victim. Blanck was arrested again in 1913 for locking the factory door during working hours and was fined only $20. After the fire, the New York State Legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission, and New York State became one of the leaders in labor reform. One of the witnesses, Frances Perkins, would start to work towards reform. She would later be appointed United States Secretary of Labor, making her the first female Cabinet member.
In this colorized image from 1938, a mother is walking her baby in a gas-resistant baby buggy (or pram). The pram was designed by FW Mills and was an alternative to the baby gas mask. The lid had a glass panel; there was a gas filter on the top. On the back of the pram, a bulb from a car horn sucked in fresh air and expelled the stale. Thus, the buggy was properly ventilated. The woman herself is also wearing a gas mask.
In World War I, chlorine and mustard gas were used as a form of chemical warfare, resulting in 88,000 dead and 1,200,000 injured. This was only 20 years before the start of World War II, and so it was part of the collective memory. This, coupled with the bombing of Guernica, helped to induce terror in Great Britain.
The Fear Was Real
On April 26, 1937, the Nazi German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombed Guernica in Spain, and although the number of people who died is disputed and the number of casualties were not high, it did create fear in Britain of what could happen if Nazi bombers got through. The widespread fear in Britain was that the Nazis would drop poison gas bombs and the government started to plan for tens of thousands of deaths in London. Liddell Hart, one of the government advisors, told them to plan for 250,000 deaths in the first week of the war. Thus, every British civilian was issued a gas mask, or “general civilian respirator.” In total, they issued more than 35 million of them.
Most Americans over the age of 40 will never forget where they were and what they were doing during the 9/11 attack on our nation. September 11th, 2021, marks the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist act in America, killing 2,977 souls at the New York City, World Trade Center, the U.S Pentagon, and the fatal United Airlines Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The terrorist attacks that reigned down on 9/11 include 2,606 within the World Trade Center and surrounding area, 125 killed at the U.S. Pentagon, 265 killed on the four planes, including terrorists, and 19 hijackers committed murder-suicide with a total of more than 6,000 injured.
The loss of life claimed 344 Firefighters; 71 Law Enforcement Officers within the World Trade Center and surrounding area, including another officer who died when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA; 55 military personnel died at the Pentagon.
Of the 2,977 souls who met their tragic fate that day, 2,605 were U.S. Citizens, and 372 were non-U.S.citizens, involving more than 90 other countries, excluding the 19 perpetrators.
Let’s also not forget that this catastrophe impacted many thousands of innocent Americans who were diagnosed with cancer and chronic lung conditions from exposure to toxins at Ground Zero.
In addition, the by-product of war ensued through these very terroristic acts and claimed the lives of American military soldiers, marines, and contractors through; Operation Iraqi Freedom; Operation New Dawn, which was composed of casualties occurring in the Arabian and middle east Seas; and Operation Enduring Freedom which was the war involved within Afghanistan.
Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, three warships were constructed and emerged from the very materials of the buildings, and civilians attacked on sovereign territory the morning of September 11, 2001. Through the years, the transformation of steel and grit, reformed and reshaped into the three Navy warships, serving as a symbol of the undying fighting American spirit named and dedicated after the locations of the 9/11 attacks.
The USS New York, USS Arlington, and USS Somerset, each ship was created with some of the material from the sites honoring those innocent victims, and first responders killed that tragic day that America will never forget.
The Warship named, The USS New York (LPD21) commemorates the 9/11 attacks through the spirit and motto of “NEVER FORGET,” this ship’s crest includes an image of the twin towers behind a rising phoenix. It honors the victims of the New York World Trade Center. The first ship was built by Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding at the former Avondale shipyard in New Orleans and delivered in 2010 was the first of the LPD17-class ships. It is fortified with 7.5 tons of steel built into the ship’s bow stem, salvaged from Ground Zero, and 684 feet long, costing more than one billion dollars.
“The significance of where the WTC steel is located on the 684-foot-long ship symbolizes the strength and resiliency of the citizens of New York as it sails forward around the world,” said Navy Cmdr. Quentin King, according to ussnewyork.com. “It sends a message of America becoming stronger as a result, coming together as a country and ready to move forward as we make our way through the world.”
The USS Arlington (LPD24) was named in honor of Arlington County, Virginia, where American Flight 77 crashed into the west wall of the Pentagon. It was delivered in 2012 and was built by Huntington Ingalls Industries; the ship contains a “Tribute Room” fortified by a section of I-Beam and remnants of the crash site.
The USS Somerset (LPD25) was named in honor of Somerset County, where the United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field when Americans fought so courageously against hijackers. This ship was constructed with 22 tons of steel in the ship’s bow, taken from one of two mining excavators present at the site at the time of the fatal crash.
Americans are a strong and resilient people; we are redefined by the honor and valor of our many heroes who fought their way out of hell on that fateful day, September 11, 2001, at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and onboard United Airlines Flight 93.
This year as we bow our heads in prayer and celebrate the memory of the reverend souls whose names are forever etched in history, their stories will never be forgotten; they were the backbone of American culture, whether they were first responders, civilians, or military personnel.
God Bless the United States of America and all the families of the fallen tied to 9/11; let us learn from the apocalypse of tyranny and hold those accountable who challenge our sovereign way of life, whether they be foreign or domestic terrorists.
“The planes were hijacked, the buildings fell, and thousands of lives were lost nearly a thousand miles from here. But the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were an attack on the heart of America. And standing here in the heartland of America, we say in one voice…
We will not give in to terrorists; We will not rest until they are found and defeated; We will win this struggle, not for glory, nor wealth, nor power, but for justice, for freedom, and for peace; So help us, God,” – Tom Harkin
Roughly 4,500 years ago, some Mesopotamians living in present-day Syria decided to remodel and repurpose one of their community’s most prominent monuments: a rippled white dome that entombed the dead. For generations residents periodically climbed the monument’s exterior to pour libations and place offerings over graves beneath its surface. But the renovation around 2450 B.C. covered this communal space with earthen terraces, transforming the dome into a six-story ziggurat, or stepped pyramid. And those steps were packed with more than soil: The renovators also deposited assortments of human bones, skins from animals that drew wagons and two-inch-long clay bullets, handy for arming slingshot-like weapons.
These skeletons seem to have been fallen soldiers—wagon drivers and sling-shooters—exhumed and reburied to potentially create the world’s first military memorial, according to a study forthcoming in Antiquity. The Syrian site, known as the White Monument, could offer the best evidence yet that urban rulers wielded enough power to support standing armies by the third millennium B.C., in the Early Bronze Age. Unlike other tombs from the time, which included valuable metal weapons and jewelry, the remodeled White Monument contained partial skeletons of mostly adults and teens, buried with the ammo or animals needed for specific tasks in battle. Like the United States’ Arlington National Cemetery, the monument likely held soldiers, whose remains were retrieved from battlegrounds or other gravesites to be buried with co-combatants.
Such a massive memorial for battle-dead suggests the town had a standing army: “people who identify as soldiers, as opposed to people who go out and fight in the offseason or when someone’s attacking,” says Stephanie Selover, an archaeologist at the University of Washington who studies ancient warfare in nearby Anatolia, but was not involved in the study.
“The possibility of standing armies that are so controlled and centralized you’re even able to make a monument… There’s nothing else like this,” in the Early Bronze Age, she adds.
The monument would have served as a conspicuous reminder that leaders had the means to maintain and memorialize an army—a message that would have been received by locals as well as outside foreigners. “Burying these people in the sort of function that they would have had in a military is really a statement of power at that point, both locally and externally, because this thing was really visible for miles,” says University of Toronto archaeologist Anne Porter, lead author of the Antiquity study.
Prior to this research, scholars have found ample evidence for violence during the Early Bronze Age, including massacre sites and daggers tucked in graves. “Nothing makes this a particularly crunchy or peaceful time,” says Seth Richardson, a historian of the ancient Near East at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the study.
But the idea that professional soldiers existed then mainly comes from inscriptions and artifacts, like the Stele of the Vultures, limestone fragments that once constituted a roughly six-foot-tall carving, made between 2600 and 2350 B.C. Discovered in the late-19th century at the Iraqi site of Tello, the stele depicted battle scenes including ranks of spear-totting soldiers in helmets. It also showed a haphazard assemblage of bodies, thought to be slain enemies, and a carefully piled stack of bodies, interpreted as the victor’s lost soldiers. Artistic works like the Stele of the Vultures “are the propaganda. You always have this mighty king smiting somebody, the little men behind him and then the enemy soldiers with their heads cut off. It’s very formulaic,” explains Selover. But if the researchers are right about the White Monument, it would be the first physical example of memorial mound for a victor’s fallen soldiers, depicted on carvings. A jar packed with about 100 beads was found in the White Monument.
The artifact likely was placed as an offering before the structure was repurposed for soldiers. (Euphrates Salvage Project)
In the 1990s, the White Monument bulged from cotton fields like a dune-colored cone. “It was just this huge pile of dirt,” recalls Porter. But when sunlight struck, the mound twinkled white—thanks to gypsum and marl used as building materials—and earned its moniker.
The gleaming dirt stood several hundred feet from a more sprawling ruin-layered hill, or tell. Porter’s team excavated both spots, and called the White Mountain, “Tell Banat North,” and the more expansive feature, “Tell Banat.” Though in the 20th century, Tells Banat and Banat North looked like two distinct hills, back in the third millennium B.C. they belonged to a single urban center, which spread over 70 acres. Within Tell Banat the archaeologists found the town itself, including buildings, streets, pottery workshops and a stone tomb. The White Monument, or Tell Banat North, was solely a burial monument, which loomed just beyond the city walls.
“Everywhere we put a pick and a trowel revealed something truly remarkable,” recalls Porter. The full area “was a site… that you could spend a lifetime working.”
Though they knew at the time that wouldn’t happen: The ancient settlement, along with more than a dozen other sites, was in the planned flood zone of the Tishreen hydroelectric dam, which was being built in the 1990s. Pressed for time and resources, the team unearthed and documented as much as they could—and moved the finds to a storehouse in Syria—before floodwaters engulfed the ancient sites as well as modern villages in the area. Porter and excavation codirector Thomas McClellan of the Euphrates Salvage Project witnessed the flood. “It was a really traumatic experience, watching the water rise and all these mudbrick villages collapsing,” says Porter.
For the next decade, the team examined skeletal remains and artifacts recovered from the site, until ISIS razed the dig’s storehouse. The militants obliterated ancient bones, pottery and other items, and reportedly dumped the debris into the river. “I don’t think there is anything to retrieve there,” Porter says, based on secondhand accounts of the attack.
Though the site and the finds are gone, the researchers have continued making discoveries from archival data, as all professional digs do. As excavations unfolded, archaeologists compiled meticulous notes, photos and spatial measurements, which documented how each find was positioned, relative to the surrounding sediment and architectural remnants. For this site, experts on skeletal analysis described and measured the human and animal bones recovered, before ISIS destroyed them. The data survived in published reports as well as unpublished notebooks, photographs, sketches and spreadsheets, kept with Porter in Canada.
Sussing patterns and meaning from this data is the behind the scenes work of real archaeology, which the public or beginning students rarely glimpse. Porter and her professional colleagues chipped away at the Tell Banat and Banat North records after the dig wrapped in 1999. Several years ago, she realized the work could provide a unique learning opportunity. “I really wanted to teach a class where students actually did what archaeologists do, rather than seeing the world’s greatest hits or all the pretty stuff,” she says.
In 2018 Porter taught a seminar called “Death on the Euphrates” at the University of Toronto. About ten undergrads set out to answer: Who was buried in the White Monument?
Through the semester, she lectured about Mesopotamian culture, ancient mortuary practices and what was already known about Tell Banat and Banat North. At the same time, the students tried to understand the burials in the White Mountain, based on the notebooks, photos and other documents.
Alexandra Baldwin, a 2019 graduate who took the class, recalls her first day: “I walked in and there were just these enormous folders of all of the data. I had never seen anything like it.”
Porter figured the class would be a valuable learning opportunity. She didn’t expect the group to discover something new about the ancient Near East. The students mapped out the clusters of bones and grave goods in the White Monument and compared the contents of each deposit. Through discussions and comparisons with other sites, it became clear that the human remains were deliberately placed in a manner that changed over time. “There was a meaning behind that,” explains Brittany Enriquez, a student in the class who graduated in 2018. “It wasn’t like there was just stuff all through the dirt.”
The team’s analysis convincingly showed that the White Monument was really a series of tombs, built over several centuries. Like a Russian nesting doll, the ~2,450 B.C. final construction encased a prior monument erected between 2450 and 2,700 B.C., which contained a still older mound. Porter’s excavation reached the smooth, white surface of this third-inner monument, but the flood occurred before the team could dig its contents—and see if even earlier monuments nested within.
Enigmatic rituals took place at the middle monument. Its numerous tombs contained assorted bones from about two to five individuals, along with animal remains and pottery. The Banat morticians covered these modest graves with white gypsum, rammed into horizontal bands, which made the full monument look like a groomed ski hill. Later, the Banat individuals dug through the surface to bury more partial skeletons, possibly of ordinary residents, this time sealed with layers of plaster. They also seem to have left offerings, including beads, alabaster bowls, human shinbones and ritual libations—suggested from soak stains on the plaster.
A rammed gypsum and earth surface covered the burial mound that preceded the possible soldier memorial. (Euphrates Salvage Project)
According to the researchers, the monument’s last renovation around 2450 B.C. marked a drastic change: The communal tomb became a monument for slain soldiers. Within the added steps, the renovators buried at least 29 individuals in discrete patches with rings, figurines and other artifacts. In one corner of the monument most of the burials included skulls and appendages of donkey-like animals, probably interred as hides with heads and hooves still attached. These equids likely pulled battle wagons. In another corner, loads of clay bullets or pellets accompanied the human bones.
Those pellets “are the unsung heroes of the ancient near,” says Selover. Though the artifact has long puzzled scholars, evidence has mounted that, when shot from slings, they hailed down on foes and could be lethal. “It’s a really sophisticated weapon for being a very simple weapon,” she adds.
“The means of violence in deep antiquity didn’t need to be particularly scary by our standards to be effective by theirs,” explains Richardson. Even if some weapons were simple, and the monument only held a few dozen soldiers, it sent a message of might.
Given the scale of the renovations, it’s doubtful they came about in a grassroots fashion. Rather, the White Monument remodel suggests leaders around 2450 B.C. had enough authority within the settlement to take over a long-used community tomb and devote it to their soldiers. And at 72-feet-tall, the monument could be spied from afar, deterring potential invaders and raiders.
Former students Baldwin and Enriquez know that their take is one plausible interpretation of the available evidence, but that other explanations are possible. Still, Baldwin says she’s proud of their work, “sifting through all this material to leave a narrative… something probable that supports looking at the distant past with more depth and with more humanity.”
Earlier this year, the Egyptian Tourism Authority released an incredible 3D virtual tour of the tomb and the detail and artistry is astounding. Below you will find some screen shots from the virtual tour but be sure to explore it for yourself here.
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